Nolan Ryan cooks up a book of beef and barbecue recipes

05/06/2014 12:00 AM

05/02/2014 12:06 PM

Baseball lovers might find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

There are times when people meet the great Nolan Ryan, the all-time king of no-hitters and strikeouts, and they make a big fuss about him — but not because they remember his exploits on the pitching mound.

They know him first, foremost and sometimes only because he’s the name and face on the Nolan Ryan Beef products that they buy in the grocery store.

“It really does happen,” Ryan says. “Some of the younger people I meet seem to have no idea I played ball.”

In their defense, it has been two decades since Ryan ended his celebrated 27-year playing career in 1993.

“From a marketing standpoint, it’s good,” Ryan says of his evolving claim to fame. “The branding aspect of our product is what we’re wanting people to focus on.

“Take Jimmy Dean, for instance. I would venture a bet that very few people remember he was a country-Western singer. Most people seem to believe he just sold sausage.

“I don’t think you can say the same thing about Paul Newman, though. People might enjoy his salad dressing, but I think he’ll always be more famous as an actor.”

Now the Hall of Fame athlete, former Texas Rangers CEO and beef industry giant can add a new accomplishment to a long list of achievements: He’s a cookbook author.

The Nolan Ryan Beef & Barbecue Cookbook (Little, Brown and Co., $25) comes out Tuesday.

Ryan worked with Cristobal Vazquez, executive chef for the Texas Rangers, and took inspiration from his mother’s kitchen to come up with more than 70 recipes, including burgers and steaks, salads, side dishes and desserts.

Of all the things that Ryan has aspired to achieve in his life, putting out a barbecue book was never on the wish list until recently.

“It was the farthest thing from my mind,” he admits. “The way it came about is that, after we started the beef company, people would contact us with questions. They would buy our product and then email us wanting to know things about preparing it.

“So we started putting recipes on our website, just to help them have a good eating experience, because a lot of people aren’t sure about grilling and the preparation of meat and what you can do in terms of being creative with it.

“Then one thing led to another. Eventually we floated the idea of a cookbook and I think there were six publishing companies, maybe eight, that contacted us with interest.”

Nearly three years later, it’s a reality. Ryan also uses the book to tell the story of how and why he got into cattle ranching in the early 1970s and how that led to his becoming a major beef provider.

His basic herd is Beefmaster cattle, a three-way cross of Brahman, Hereford and Shorthorn that is able to thrive in the oft-brutal Texas heat.

“I have so many people come up to me to tell me that they love our product,” Ryan says. “I take a lot of pride in the fact that we give a money-back guarantee, but the number of complaints we get from bad eating experiences is very small.”

The book stresses the idea that a meal doesn’t have to be painstakingly elaborate to be good.

“Who has time to go the supermarket and spend half the day searching for ingredients you never heard of?” Ryan says. “We keep the recipes simple, but we give them as much flavor as we possibly can.”

Ryan knows a lot about providing quality all-natural beef products, but he’s the first admit that he’s no chef. That’s why he relied heavily on Vazquez, and sometimes his wife, Ruth, when it came to developing the recipes that appear in the book.

“The Rangers are very fortunate to have Chef Cris,” Ryan says. “I have a lot of respect for him. His contributions were very important. I like the Southwest flair and the Mexican influence that he brings. I think it gives us more flavors, especially with some of the side dishes.”

One of the more whimsical recipes in the book is the Tex-Mex taco dog, which looks like a taco and a hotdog had a baby and yields a surprising mix of flavors.

Ruth Ryan, Nolan’s wife of more than 45 years, contributed her special-occasion carrot cake recipe, which is a longtime family favorite.

Some of Ryan’s other favorites are the Cobb salad with sirloin and Sunday pot roast.

“The thing that’s great about the sirloin Cobb salad is it’s simple to fix, it’s very wholesome, you can have it for lunch or dinner and it’s got a lot of flavor,” Ryan says. “It’s just a good all-around recipe.

“The other one, the pot roast, with pan gravy made from the drippings, has been a favorite of mine going all the way back to my childhood.

“That was always a special meal for us as a family. And I still really like it to this day. If I come home and Ruth has that pot roast for dinner, I would say it doesn’t get any better than this.”

After devoting more than two years to the project, Ryan is proud of the results and eager for people to give the recipes a try.

“It was a joint effort by a lot of people and everybody from Chef Cris to the food stylist to the photographer did a great job,” he says. “I see this book as a tool to educate people and to give them options when it comes to preparing a great meal on the grill or in the kitchen.

“Even people like me, who don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, can take this cookbook and be pretty proud of what they produce out of it. I feel really good about that.”

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