Review by Jim Carter
In The Big Texas Steakhouse Cookbook, authors Helen Thompson and Janice Shay share recipes from some of the top steak houses in Texas. The “Big Book” uses beautiful color photography by Robert Peacock to illustrate many of the recipes. And it is, well, big, big in a coffee table like way. True to its name, every entree recipe in the book is based on beef. There are recipes and cooking suggestions for virtually every cut of beef. Many have roots that go back to the early days of Texas – the cattle drive traditions, its Spanish heritage and the early German immigrant culture. When I visited Texas in the sixties, it seemed traditional, simply prepared beef was the foundation of most restaurant meals. Now, especially in Texas’ larger cities, there is a lot more variety in restaurant offerings, and some of the recipes pick up on this trend.
Having grown up on the East Coast, I had never enjoyed the comforting flavors of a chicken fried steak until an Army training classmate, Lt. Odom of Corsicana, Texas, invited me in the early 1970’s to go for one at a truck stop. Evidently he had scouted out the only place near Fort Gordon, Georgia serving chicken fried steak. Following service I have spent most of my life in Texas, where I remain a resident. Did that steak have something to do with my life choices?
The Big Texas Steakhouse Cookbook features four recipes for chicken fried steak, thus testifying to the book’s authenticity. The recipes for chicken fried steak are simple and unpretentious, as is the book. German immigrants brought their recipes for Weiner Schnitzel with them, and these evolved into today’s chicken fried steak. They all feature steak, a crunchy crust, and a version of cream gravy. The Germans, also, brought their recipes and techniques for sausage-making, and the “Big Book” offers a recipe for making sausage, as well as sources to buy sausage.
The cattle drive traditions of Texas are well illustrated by many of the steak recipes. Take a good cut of beef, season and grill – maybe top with butter. For example, the entire recipe for Cattlemen’s Steakhouse of Fort Worth Steaks takes up five lines in the big book.
Because of my fondness for chimichurri, I decided to try the Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House Seared Tenderloin with Chimichurri and Toasted Goat Cheese. The first time I enjoyed chimichurri was on a dove hunting trip to Argentina many years ago. I was so fond of it; I asked our driver how it was made. We stopped by a grocery store on the way back to the airport to pick up dry herbs so that I could make chimichurri back in the States. I later learned that almost every Argentine family has its own recipe.
Even though the recipe was illustrative of the new directions in Texas cuisine – local beef, Argentine sauce, and French cheese – it was fairly simple. First I made the chimichurri sauce, so that the herbs could blend with each other and the oil and vinegar. Searing locks in moisture and flavors. The Chevre cheese used to top the steaks in the broiler adds an interesting flavor dimension. My wife Melinda, daughter Lauren, and I enjoyed the steaks. The recipe was declared a winner. The steak was moist and tender, and the steak flavors came through with the other ingredients.
Another of the “Big Book’s” recipes originating in the cattle drive tradition is that for Riscky’s Steakhouse brick chili. The name, brick chili, goes back to dried beef and chili peppers pounded into bricks for use in making chili along the cattle drive trails. Today’s brick chili recipes attempt to recreate the flavors of brick chili without the drying and pounding. While there are a great number of chili recipes available today, especially with the advent of chili competitions, brick chili is about as simple as it can be. I made a batch from Riscky’s recipe. It was very good but seemed to lack distinction. Perhaps this was due to the commercial chili powder I used, which shall remain unnamed. Chili powder makes all the difference, and the authors apparently did not pry from the chief what brand or type chili powder he uses. Chili powders that emulated the cattle drive flavors came into being in the late 1800’s. Some of the oldest powders such as Gebhardt Eagle Brand, Pendery’s, and Mexene are still available online and in a few stores. Or why not experiment with making ones own chili powder?
Also, the chili recipe illustrates an issue too frequently found in books that are collections of restaurant recipes. The chefs who created or use the recipes must scale down what they do everyday from memory. Too often collections use different systems of measurement for different recipes. The chili recipe uses ounces rather than tablespoons, etc. that are more often used in domestic recipes. It is also inconsistent with the measurements used in the rest of the book. It would have been useful for the editors to make these conversions for readers. Another issue that sometimes surfaces with restaurant recipes often prepared from memory is that ingredients are left out of the table of ingredients. There is no salt in the table of ingredients for the chili; however, during the preparation discussion, there is a line about when to add the salt. Again it would have been simple for the editors to observe the preparation and cooking process to ensure that the recipes are accurate.
Illustrative of Texas’ Spanish heritage, the final recipe I tried was the Roasted Tomato and Jalapeno Soup with Lime Crème Fraiche from Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine of Fort Worth. It was appealing to the eye; when I brought the Big Book home, I showed it to Melinda. It fell open to a picture of this soup, and she said, “I want that”. It was easy to make and incredibly tasty. One might wish to start at the low end of the recommended range of jalapeno peppers and work up to more, if desired. This recipe came from the “Starters, Sides, Sauces & Rubs” section of the Big Book. There are many other very interesting recipes in this section that I wish to try; how about Perini Ranch Steakhouse’s Jessica’s Favorite Green Chile Hominy and Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine’s Blue Cheese and Blue Corn Grits. Just be careful that the recipes you choose are scaled to your family’s appetite. For example the Wife of Kit Carson soup recipe, which is version of chicken tortilla soup, would make around four gallons.
So, if you love beef, I highly recommend this cookbook.