It’s hard to break some habits.
When I was a kid, my idea of shopping nirvana consisted of visits to book stores and record stores. All these years later, I haven’t changed much, though wine shops and groceries of all varieties have made their way onto the list.
One of my recent obsessions has been in building a collection of Texas cookbooks. In the past year or so, I’ve gathered more than 125 volumes of everything from chefs’ collections to books produced by various community groups, such as the Junior League, symphony societies and arts guilds. A few are filled with family treasures, but many offer a look at the culinary riches produced in the Lone Star state.
A recent visit to a Half Price Books not on my usual path resulted in my picking up nine new volumes, including more than a few found in the clearance rack and marked down to $3 or less. The variety was wonderful. Some offered nothing but recipes, others offered stories and a few some history lessons; all of them create a savory picture of the vast treasures to be found in kitchens from as far afield as Odessa, Rockport, Dallas, Houston and beyond.
Let’s start on the coast. If the world of Gulf Coast Crab Cakes, Mexican-Style Crab Meat Salad, Texas Coast Clear Gazpacho with Chili Garlic Croutons and Jicama Salad sounds as good to you as it does to me, then seek out your own copy of “Texas Maritime Museum: Marithyme Treasures, The Cuisine of the Texas Coast.” It was a 2003 Tabasco Community Cookbook Award winner, and for good reason. The recipes in this collection, whether they feature seafood, beef, chicken or vegetables, are mouthwatering treats. Some, such as Lobster Spinach Pancakes, are for the gourmands among us while even the most beginning cook make the Basil Walnut Garlic Soup.
“South of the Fork” was the 1987 offering from the Junior League of Dallas, which was printed at a time of culinary change in that city. As the flap on the book states, “While those of us who were used to plain cookin’ discovered that sole was not soul or ratatouille just a fancy dance step, these pioneer chefs learned to speak in several ‘tongues,’ from Southern to Spanish, Texan to Tex-Mex, Anglo to Italian, to name a few.” So, yes, there are recipes for Phyllo Triangles with Sausage-Mushroom Filling and Venison Game Tournedos, but there are also down-home treasures, including Sausage Black-Eyed Peas and Cold Avocado and Green Chile Soup.
Courtenay Beinhorn’s “Beinhorn’s Mesquite Cookery” from 1986 is a valentine to the wood that grows wildly across West and South Texas. Mesquite lovers know its charms with brisket made right, but how about using the woods on Cabrito with Cumin and Pequin Chiles? Or Venison Steak with Ancho Cream? The writer even uses mesquite with seafood in dishes that sound as wonderful as Oysters with Shallot and Cilantro Butter and Lobster with Tomato and Red Pepper Sauce.
“The Wild Wild West” comes from the Junior League of Odessa with plenty of hearty dishes, from Chicken and Avocado Casserole to Pancho Pie, which you can make in a cast-iron skillet over a campfire. The Texas-style chili calls for a Texas beer, of course, and there are three variations on pecan pie to be sampled: traditional, one with a Ritz cracker crust and the last a crustless version with crushed graham crackers folded into mix.
The 1989 “Texas Hill County Wine & Food Festival: A Cookbook” shows the haute cuisine of the period from chefs, winery owners and writers, many of whom still carry weight on the state’s culinary scene, including Stephan Pyles, Ron Bechtol, Anne Lindsay Greer, Susan Auler, Patsy Swendson, Bill Varney and Paula Lambert. There are recipes from California wineries and chefs as well; of interest is noting that the executive chef of Chateau Souverain at the time was Gary Danko, who offers several recipes including Chicken Breast in Mustard Pistachio Sauce.
Marilyn Romweber’s “Under the Mushroom” is a self-published collection of recipes from the Dallas restaurant known as The Little Mushroom and the only spiral-bound book in the lot. It was first printed in 1977, a time in which you could find dishes like Burgundy Beet Molded Salad or canned pineapple chunks with Velveeta in a Hot Pineapple Salad on a menu. They may not seem like the most appetizing creations today, but the book is also filled with easy-to-make creations that include Baked Pork Chops with Apple Brandy, Sour Cream Shrimp Enchiladas, Quick Carrots with Wine, Pumpkin Rum Cake and an Orange Gin Fizz with ice cream, orange and lemon juices, and of course, gin all in a blender.
“Dining in-Houston” from Rona Abbott and Ann Criswell is a 1978 collection of recipes from Houston’s top restaurants, including Brennan’s, D’Amico’s, Maxim’s and Tony’s. Ninfa’s Frozen Margaritas, with no added sugar or sickly sweet-and-sour mix, is a keeper, as is the Guacamole Salad recipe. Fresh Spinach and Squash Soup with Orange from Ouisie’s Table was earmarked by the book’s previous owner, making it as good a place as any to start.
The members and employee partners of Barton Creek Country Club near Austin put together the recipes in “Beyond Bar-B-Que,” which features stories of each of the contributors. It’s an oddly designed collection that features recipes in no certain order. So, you can find Mum’s Irish Christmas Pudding on facing pages with Muy Caliente Grits Soufflé Casserole, or Coach Hannon’s Smoked Turkey and Coconut Cream Pie. And, yes, there are several barbecue recipes included for good measure.
It helps to pay close attention to any book you may be buying. Ibbie Ledford’s “Hill County Cookin’ and Memoirs” was included among the Texas cookbooks and the name makes it seem like a great fit. Plus, it’s filled with stories as well recipes for the likes of Debby’s Nacho Main Dish Salad with Catalina dressing, Flapjacks and Hot Blackberry Jam, Mountain Dew Cake and a mix of black-eyed peas and okra. Sadly, the Hill County of the title is in Tennessee, not Texas. I’ll still be using it, though I doubt I’ll be making Squirrel Stew with Potato Dumplings anytime soon.
When all was said and done, my treasures cost less than $30. I’m ready to go shopping again.