Traveling the back roads of Texas, hunting for distinctive and delicious things to eat in remote corners of the state, exists as time lovingly spent by more than a few of us. Some, like food and travel writer Robb Walsh, even have the good fortune of getting paid to do it.
Walsh shows so eloquently in his new book, Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, $25), that the job requires more than an appreciation for good food. To do justice to the edibles, the investigator does some digging to find out what makes dishes important to the place in which they are found. Are they part of the culture? Do they help you understand the history of the people working in the kitchen, and the people who taught them to cook?
Finding the story behind the food and the place where the discovery is made provides extraordinary thrills for roving food writers who happen to be history junkies, too.
I first noticed Walsh's culinary travel essays more than 20 years ago in the Austin Chronicle and in airline magazines. Then, when Walsh began writing as the dining critic for the Houston Press in 2000, he deepened his study of the foodways of Texas, writing riveting series about the barbecued crabs found only around Port Arthur and Beaumont and the Tex-Mex food that define particular sections of South Texas. The work led him not only to pen James Beard-nominated cookbooks but also to honor Texas' food history in more important ways, as he helped found the nonprofit Foodways Texas two years ago.
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In Texas Eats, Walsh bites off chunks of the state to show readers what it tastes like and how its flavors came to reflect the region's personality. In the Lone Star Seafood section, you explore Galveston Bay and discover the oyster culture that rivals those in other parts of the country in surprising ways.
In the East Texas section, Walsh shows you the window through which you see the South. His Vintage Tex-Mex section explains the far-flung variety of food we find as we travel from Houston to El Paso.
Here's a sampling of Walsh's tasting journey. Lone Star seafood
Walsh began delving deeply into the realm of Galveston Bay oysters shortly after his 2009 book, Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover's World Tour (Counterpoint, $25).
"I thought I'd already gotten the oysters covered, then I ran across a 3,000-word essay about the Texas reefs, the oysters in the bayou, and this was a big surprise," Walsh says. "Learning that there was an elaborate sophisticated oyster culture on the Texas coast in the 1800s, the idea that these reefs were once famous, really -- it was like a bolt of lightning for me."
It turns out, the Texas Gulf Coast teems with oyster appellations. Today, Walsh supports a burgeoning effort in the industry to bring back the sale of Texas oysters by their place names, such as it's Pepper Grove or Elm Grove oysters from Galveston Bay.
Turning his attention to Texas crabs, Walsh takes you to specific places near Beaumont, where barbecued crabs are best described as the barbecued shrimp of New Orleans crossed with fried Cajun seafood.
Sartin's, which opened its first waterfront cafe near Port Arthur at Sabine Pass in 1972, made the delicacy famous in that part of the world. Several locations have come and gone, and you can find this spicy, crunchy delight in barlike settings in the area today.
East Texas Southern
Walsh concedes that the section of Texas that we collectively know the least about is that of East Texas. To dismiss those Piney Woods as a place with a lot of fried catfish and the occasional good shade-tree barbecue shack is to turn a blind eye to a part of the past we think we don't like.
"The whole area has been written out of modern Texas history because it's a reminder of the Confederacy and slavery. But it's a link to the Old South."
For Walsh, the best discoveries lie in the people who make sorghum syrup, jelly and jam.
"When I went to the cane syrup festival in Henderson, it was like going back in time. When I understood that they use cane syrup instead of sugar in everything, that was a revelation. And when you start baking and cooking with that instead of sugar -- oh my God, is it good."
The Spanish founded their missions in the 1700s in South Texas, a region that includes the South Plains where Spaniards also grazed their cattle, sheep and goats. Today, it's the most Hispanic region of the state. It's also where you will find the most authentic, old-school plates of comfort food.
Chili con carne originated in San Antonio, and for many purists, that's the gravy that belongs atop cheese enchiladas. Walsh did his homework thoroughly, learning that Fort Worth sportswriting legend Dan Jenkins prefers this kind of enchiladas. Walsh, who co-owns a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston called El Real, tends to agree with Jenkins. He says to use yellow corn tortillas because the white ones are not sturdy enough.
"And yes, you do use Velveeta cheese in real Tex-Mex cooking," Walsh says.
Country and western
Covering West Texas, Walsh takes a long look at the revered chicken-fried steak. He even cites the late Star-Telegram travel editor and iconic Texas lore writer Jerry Flemmons, who was a famous lover of chicken-fried steak.
"No single food better defines the Texas character; it has, in fact, become a kind of nutritive metaphor for the romanticized, prairie-hardened personality of Texas," Flemmons wrote.
Walsh discovered upon visiting with staffs at small-town cafes in West Texas, however, that sometimes the chicken-fried steak on the menu comes from a freezer box, but that a pan-fried steak is a tenderized steak that has been hand-breaded with seasoned flour, dunked in buttermilk and hand-breaded again before frying. The latter, he learned, was significantly better.
Finally, he found that if you can find a cook who not only hand-breads the steak twice but will also add beaten egg to the buttermilk batter, you have found the best -- the Southern-fried version of chicken-fried steak.
1/4 cup unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
21/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk the flour into the butter and continue to whisk for about 5 minutes or until the mixture is ivory-colored and smooth.
2. Slowly add all the milk while stirring constantly, then continue to stir until free of lumps. Add the salt and pepper and simmer, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the gravy has thickened and reduced. Serve hot.
Nutritional analysis per 1/4-cup serving: 73 calories, 5 grams fat, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 340 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 59 percent of calories from fat.
Fresh field peas
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
3 cups shelled fresh peas
2 cups water
4 or 5 baby okra pods
1 fresh chile
Salt and pepper
1. In a large skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until it begins to brown. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the broth, stir, and remove from the heat.
2. Pick over the peas, rinse them, and place them in a large saucepan. Add the water, okra, chile and the broth mixture, bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook for about 15 minutes, until the peas are tender. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 110 calories, 2 grams fat, 14 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 52 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 18 percent of calories from fat.
Enchiladas Dan Jenkins
1/2 cup lard
24 yellow corn tortillas
1 pound Velveeta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 large white onions, minced
6 cups chili con carne sauce (see below)
1 pound cheddar cheese, shredded
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a small skillet, heat the lard over medium-high heat for 3 minutes, until it shimmers. Using tongs, place a tortilla in the hot fat. (If the tortilla does not bubble immediately, the lard is not hot enough.) Heat the tortilla for 30 seconds, until soft and lightly brown. Using the tongs, transfer the tortilla to paper towels to cool before handling. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
2. Have the cheeses, onions, tortillas and sauce handy for assembly. Place a tortilla flat on a work surface. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the Velveeta cheese in a line down the center of the tortilla and top the cheese with about 1 tablespoon of the onion. Roll up the tortilla, enclosing the cheese and onion, and place seam side down in two 9-by-12-inch baking dishes. Continue filling and rolling the tortillas until the baking dish is full, then repeat with the remaining tortillas and cheese, filling in the next baking dish. Pour an equal amount of the sauce into each dish, spreading it evenly over the enchiladas. Sprinkle the sauced enchiladas with the cheddar cheese, dividing it evenly.
3. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the cheese on top begins to bubble. Remove from the oven, top with the remaining onion, and serve immediately.
Variation: Top with a fried egg.
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 8: 1,134 calories, 79 grams fat, 54 grams carbohydrates, 57 grams protein, 228 milligrams cholesterol, 2,203 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.
Southern-style chicken-fried steak
Peanut oil, for frying
2 cups seasoned flour (recipe follows)
1 cup buttermilk, evaporated milk or milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
12 tenderized eye-of-round steaks (about 3 pounds total)
Black pepper gravy (recipe follows), for serving
1. Pour the oil to a depth of 1 inch into a deep cast-iron skillet and heat to 370 degrees.
2. While the oil is heating, put the flour in a large, shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Dredge each steak in the flour, shaking off the excess; dip it into the buttermilk mixture, allowing the excess to drip off; and then dredge again in the flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside.
3. Slide 2 or 3 steaks into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. The temperature of the oil will fall the moment the meat is added, so you will need to adjust the heat. As the steaks cook, try to keep the oil at around 350 degrees. If it gets too hot, the steaks will burn before they are cooked through. If it is not hot enough, the batter will be soggy. Cook the steaks for 3 to 5 minutes, until the batter is crisp and brown and the meat is cooked through. Using a wire skimmer, transfer the steaks to paper towels to drain and keep in a warm oven until all of the batches are done. Serve the steaks with the gravy. Plan on 2 steaks per serving; children and dainty eaters will probably want only 1 steak.
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 668 calories, 34 grams fat, 35 grams carbohydrates, 51 grams protein, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 524 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
21/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1. In a bowl, stir together all of the ingredients, mixing well. You will have more seasoned flour than you need for most recipes. Set aside the balance for making gravy, or store in a tightly capped jar in a cupboard for another time. Discard any flour in which you have dipped raw meat.
Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 52 calories, trace fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, no cholesterol, 274 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 4 percent of calories from fat.
Chile con carne sauce
1 teaspoon lard or vegetable oil
2 pounds ground chuck
1 cup chopped white onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup hot water
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Several dashes of red hot-pepper sauce
All-purpose flour, for thickening
1. Heat the lard in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat, onion and garlic and saute, breaking up the meat with the side of a wooden spoon or spatula, for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, hot water, chili powder, oregano, cumin and pepper sauce, stirring well and bring to a boil.
2. Decrease the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, until the meat is tender. As the sauce cooks, skim off any fat that forms on the surface and add water if needed to maintain a good consistency.
3. In a cup or small bowl, dissolve the flour in a little warm water to form a thin paste. Add this slurry to the sauce and stir consistently until smooth and thickened. Season with salt to taste. Use immediately.
Nutritional analysis per 1/2-cup serving: 219 calories, 16 grams fat, 4 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 183 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 67 percent of calories from fat.