Monday, April 16, 2007

In the kitchen with Robb Walsh

I have been a longtime reader of Robb Walsh. Starting when I lived in Austin in the early ’90s and he was the food critic at the Austin Chronicle, I’ve followed his byline as he moved to my former stomping grounds (where I was a young intern), the Houston Press. In the meantime, he’s come out with several books that all occupy prime real estate on my bookshelves. So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I found a certain Robb Walsh had left a comment on my blog.

I was convinced it was a joke, a reader playing a prank. Nevertheless, I emailed Robb and it was indeed he who had stopped by my site. I was shocked: one of my favorite writers is reading me? Needless to say, I was honored. So we began emailing each other occasionally, which lead me to take the bold (and perhaps somewhat rude) step of inviting myself into his home to watch him cook. I had noticed he had a new book coming out and its release date nicely dovetailed with my trip to Houston. So I asked him if we could meet to chat about the book and perhaps let me take photos of him preparing a dish from it. Unbelievably, he said yes.

And that’s how I found myself a couple of weeks ago in the home of Robb, his lovely wife, adorable baby and playful dog. And with my only restriction being I couldn’t photograph his face (he is a restaurant reviewer, after all), I spent a few hours watching him prepare a recipe from his excellent new book, The Texas Cowboy Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos.

Now I reckon you could call the preceding words something of a disclosure: I have now met Robb Walsh, eaten his cooking and will now say nice things about his cookbook. You can take that as you wish. That said, having read The Texas Cowboy Cookbook cover to cover in one sitting, I can do nothing but strongly recommend this great addition to my cooking library. And I thank Robb for providing (once again) the perfect gift for my fellow Texans, homesick and not homesick alike.

If you’ve read his Tex-Mex Cookbook or Legends of Texas Barbecue, you will already be familiar with Robb’s extensive research into his topic at hand. The Texas Cowboy Cookbook is no different. Divided into sections that either showcase a region or an ethnic group, he provides an illuminating story about those particular cowboys, what their lives were like and, of course, what they ate. He also discusses current chuck-wagon culture, cowgirls and the rise of the Texas cowboy myth.

His books are also always beautifully illustrated with fascinating historical photos. Robb does all the photo research himself and he shoots what doesn’t come from the archives. I enjoy food photos as much as anyone, but what makes this cookbook stand out are the faces. These are people shots—cowboys, cowgirls and Texans taken in context as they cooked and ate food on the range.

The recipes run the gamut from how to create a starter for sourdough biscuits to how to pickle a watermelon rind. These are all Texan classics and while you may be familiar with some, what makes his presentation unique are the great stories that accompany each one.

So when I found myself in Robb’s kitchen recently, he had decided to cook Conejo Colorado (rabbit stewed in red chile sauce). He explained that this dish is served by the vaqueros, the cowboys who work along the Texas-Mexico border in far West Texas. Robb spent time in that part of the state while researching the book, talking to the cowboys and eating what they ate. And he has the honesty to say that perhaps not all cowboy cooking is tasty—with gristly stews and burnt biscuits not unheard of. But fortunately, this dish is a true gem.

While I was hoping he had bought a whole rabbit that I would get to watch him skin and butcher, he had instead grabbed meat already filleted. No matter, that is, of course, the essence of these recipes: how to prepare rough-hewn food originally served outdoors on the range in the comforts of a home kitchen.

He sautéed the rabbit and prepared a chile sauce, then poured the chile sauce over the fillets and let them stew for a couple of hours. (It was during this time he took me on an informative tour of Houston’s Asian Town.) When the rabbit was ready, he went outside and picked some greens from his yard (to which his wife joked that while extremely local, she wasn’t sure how healthy it was to eat greens that had been exposed to car-exhaust fumes), and made a salad out of them with a simple vinaigrette and juicy Texas Ruby Red grapefruit. He also served porky black-eyed peas and fresh, fluffy flour tortillas.

Surprisingly, I’d never had rabbit before—this was my first taste. And oh what a taste it was! Rabbit has the smooth, moist texture of dark-meat chicken but the flavor is pleasingly gamey. But while the rabbit was toothsome, the real winner for me was the chile sauce; so smoky and spicy I could eat it by itself with a spoon. Wrapping a flour tortilla around the sauced rabbit was the best way to eat this dish, making probably one of the finest tacos I’ve ever had.

I found Robb and his wife delightful dining companions, with the two of them such a wellspring of knowledge that I could have sat and listened to their tales all night. Some of the things we talked about were how he founded and his continued involvement with the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, Diana Kennedy, the book he’s working on now and other food-related topics. And he mused on how he started his career in advertising, but found the call of food writing too powerful to ignore. He reminded me of my uncle, who knows so much and can relay it in such an entertaining way that it’s impossible to not walk away from a conversation with him not feeling smarter. It’s this quality he brings to his writing. As one of my readers has noted, his cookbooks should be required reading in Texas history courses. And since so much of a culture is defined by what we eat, his books are an excellent resource in understanding why Texas is such a uniquely wonderful place.

In his latest, the picture he paints of cowboy cooking is so inviting, don’t be surprised if you start planning a trip to one of the chuck-wagon festivals held around the state or start trying to land a spot on the trail ride that leads up to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. I know I am. But even if those trips don’t pan out, I’m grateful that I now have the knowledge on how best to cook a cow’s head or how to whip up a batch of Son-Of-A-Bitch—a classic cowboy stew made up of tongue, guts, brains and assorted other offal from a suckling calf. Not to mention, next time I attempt to create a sourdough starter from scratch, I know now to give it a name as is the cowboy custom.

So even though a couple of generations have passed in my family since my great-grandfather was the chairman of the Collin County (TX) Cattlemen’s Association, reading this book helped me reconnect with why Texans eat so many of the things we do, such as sourdough biscuits, buttermilk pie, peach cobbler, pickled jalapenos and chili (and why so many of us who may have never stepped foot on a ranch still insist on wearing cowboy boots). A delicious and informative history lesson indeed!

A big hearty thanks to Robb for his hospitality, good company and excellent cookbooks! Please, keep them coming!

Conejo Colorado (rabbit stewed in red chile sauce) provided with permission from The Texas Cowboy Cookbook by Robb Walsh
Ingredients:
1 rabbit (about 2 pounds)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon ground dried thyme
1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic gloves, minced
2 cups Red Chile Sauce (recipe to follow)

Method:
Rinse the rabbit and cut into 6 pieces (2 legs, 2 breasts, 2 loin pieces).
Season the pieces with salt and pepper.
Combine the flour, oregano and thyme in a shallow dish.
Dredge the rabbit pieces in the flour mixture.
Heat the lard in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
Brown he rabbit pieces for 5 minutes, or until nicely colored on all sides.
Add the onion. Cook for 3 minutes then add the garlic. Cook for another 3 minutes or until the onion is soft, stirring often.
Add 2 tablespoons of the remaining seasoned flour and stir continuously for 3 minutes or until the flour is cooked.
Add the Red Chile Sauce and stir well.
Simmer over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for an hour or until the rabbit falls from the bone. (Alternatively, you can transfer the rabbit to a slow cooker or put the pot in a slow oven.)
Serves 4 and is fabulous with fresh, flour tortillas.

Red Chile Sauce provided with permission from The Texas Cowboy Cookbook by Robb Walsh
Ingredients:
3 cups chicken stock or broth
1/2 onion diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
10 assorted dried chiles, seeded (such as New Mexican dried chiles or anchos)

Method:
Bring all of the ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat.
Decrease the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the chiles are soft.
Put the chile mixture and cooking liquid into the container of a blender. Blend on low, increasing to high speed until pureed.
Makes 4 cups and will keep in the refrigerator for a week.

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37 comments:

Jerry said...

I can completely relate to the feeling of being honored when one of your favorite authors reads your work. Not too long ago I was writing short stories for an online magazine (I still write articles for it on most issues) and was told that one of my idols in Sci-Fi had agreed to stop by and read the 'zine.

Honored, yeah. And terrified, since he was reading tales I've published in the public, not in a personal forum like a blog.

I never found out if he actually read any of my stuff, or what he thought, but just the idea is nice to hold close when I find the words hard to come by.

And that rabbit looks A-M-A-Z-I-N-G

BTW, I tagged you for a "thinking blogger award" even though I know that meme's aren't really your thing. I thought you deserved it.

http://www.cookingbytheseatofmypants.com/2007/04/12/thinking-blogger-award/#more-241

matt said...

I want you to know that I must return after I've settled down so that I can leave intelligent comments that will make sense.

Right now I'm just so excited and happy and in awe that I could SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Lydia said...

What a wonderful experience! Isn't it lovely when someone you admire from afar turns out to be someone you admire from close-up, too? The recipes look delicious, and of course I'll be ordering that cookbook.....

Yvo said...

Wow, that is so awesome that you not only got to meet him, you got to hang out with him and then eat a meal prepared by him! I am in awe/envy of you. I suppose it would be much worse if I had someone I liked as much as you like Mr. Walsh... thankfully I do not. Heh. But that is so cool of him, that automatically wins him points in my book. Plus I love the way you described his book. It sounds like a real winner.

Linda said...

what a fabulous post. your photos rock. i cant almost taste it! you are like my own personal tour guide to tex-mex... a world completely unknown to me... well until now.

Aoife said...

Ooh, what's buttermilk pie? I've never even heard of it!

pom d'api said...

Hi ! it's a very good food, il love that

Homesick Texan said...

Jerry--Thanks for the tag! And yes, the rabbit was indeed amazing!

Matt--Thanks! It was a blast and a total thrill, trust me!

Lydia--It is lovely, and the recipes are very delicious, too.

Yvo--Yep, he's very, very cool!

Linda--Thanks! And you could make the recipe vegetarian by using veggie stock in the chile sauce, and pour it over squash or tofu or beans.

Aiofe--It's a pie made with buttermilk, eggs, sugar and lemon juice. It was made by people who didn't have access to fruit. Very custardy and delicious!

Pom d'Api--Thank you!

sparta said...

This is about as timely for us as can be. My 10 y/o is going through a cowboy cooking jag and just fixed his first full meal for us: beans, bacon & frybread. It was great. I'm going to get him this cookbook. It will be his **first**. Thanks for the post!

Mercedes said...

What a great story and an interesting recipe. So nice your chutzpah paid off. I've never cooked rabbit, but my boyfriend loves all sorts of gamey/meaty things, and I know he'd love this.

Frank said...

You obviously got a sneak preview copy- I had to wait until last Tuesday for it to be released, as I had already pre-ordered! I'm half through it, and it is another excellent RW book.

wheresmymind said...

I can honestly say that this is the only blog where I get great terminology like "reckon" :) GREAT experience!!

Olivia said...

Mmm, I wish I had read that cookbook in Texas History. It might have encouraged me to try Tex-Mex a few years early - and now I love it and no longer live there - oh the irony.

Freya and Paul said...

Wow! What a wonderful, amazing treat for you and just after your return from Texas! Thanks for sharing it with us!

Melissa said...

What a great story! I'm so glad you charmed your way into a date with Robb and then shared all the juicy details. And what a meal he made - quite an advertisement for his new book!

Brin said...

So, okay. I'm not one of those easily persuaded I-must-rush-out-and-get-this-cookbook kinda Texas gals. Especially when it's likely to be comprised of recipes I'm somewhat familiar with. But you've sold me on this one. I can't wait to try a few of those recipes!

Thanks for sharing your experience with the expert with us!

Brin
www.messythrillinglife.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

When you so smoothly name-dropped that Mr. Walsh had escorted you to the Asian market on your trip home I wondered if y'all were old buddies. That he found you here is tres cool. But the luck of the timing that allowed you to meet him and share your love of food is very exciting!

I can't wait to check out his cookbook. I will probably take your word on the rabbit, but the sauce sounds devine.

I love how you always include vital info like how long things will last in the fridge.

It's a beautiful day in Houston! Wish you were here!

Texann

bea at La tartine gourmande said...

oh so so nice. I love love rabbit (is it bad? ;-)) and this stew would be such a treat for dinner now! The best comfy food!

Vanessa said...

Wow Lisa, this is a great post. fabulous photos and writing and a succulent recipe too. I hope I can get a rabbit and give this a try.

Homesick Texan said...

Sparta--This would be perfect for your son! How cool he's going through a cowboy cooking phase!

Mercedes--Rabbit is delicious and very accessible. It's gamey but not too much.

Frank--Isn't it terrific? I read it one sitting!

Wheresmymind--I reckon it was a great experience!

Olivia--Oh the irony indeed! But it's never too late to discover Tex-Mex's charms!

Freya and Paul--You're welcome! It was a treat!

Melissa--I'm still shocked at my courage, I'm usually pretty shy about meeting people. But it turned out to be a wonderful experience!

Brin-You're welcome! It's the stories that make this book rise above the rest.

Texann--Good things come from blogging indeed!
I wish I were in Houston as well, spring still hasn't sprung in NYC yet.

Bea--Nothing wrong with loving rabbit--I love it now too!

Vanessa--I hope you enjoy it!

s'kat said...

That really is an awesome experience to fall into! Thanks for sharing it (and the recipe) with the rest of us.

Jerry Allison said...

I've tried lamb. Slightly scared to start eating rabbit. How do you get over eating something that can stare at you while you eat it like crab? Or something cute and fluffy?

Susan said...

And a hearty thank you for sharing your memorable experience with us!

gilly said...

Oh my gosh Lisa - an experience of a lifetime... I loved reading this - I'm so pleased for you!

Jay Francis said...

Very nice article on your visit with Robb. I've had the pleasure of knowing him for a few years now, since he moved to Houston actually. One of the high points of my life was being able to contribute on The Tex-Mex Cookbook with some recipe testing and some shopping for vintage stuff via Ebay.

We took a road trip together that took us through Austin, San Antonio and ended up at the annual Nacho Festival in Piedras Negras.

Eating Tex-Mex all along the way of course. What a great experience that was.

When I re-read Tex-Mex now, each page brings back memories of our testing recipes, kicking around ideas, brainstorming, searching for "holy grails" i.e. insights into food origins, etc. that others hadn't discovered. There was this one Saturday morning, my wife recounts where, around 10:30 a.m., we had been trying out various enchilada recipes. We brought out four full plates for her to sample and she just looked at us, rolling her eyes and said, "This has GOT to stop. The next book better be salads."

I have a friend here in Houston, Sylvia Casares, whom I have nicknamed "The Queen of Houston Tex-Mex". Her restaurant is Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen and I hope you'll be able to check out her place the next time you're home (try the El Paso stacked enchiladas). Anyway, Sylvia came up with the idea to create National Enchilada Week. The week leading up to Cinco de Mayo. Wouldn't it be great if this caught on?

Best regards,

Jay

Olivia said...

I passed one of the few restaurants I've seen in London that offer what they call Tex-Mex. The "Texas Embassy" in central London is popular with expats, and my Japanese friend liked it, but I have definitely had better. Living in TX certainly raises the Tex Mex standards...

The one I passed the other day was small, but looked worth a try because it was in a funky neighbourhood.

ann said...

what an amazing story Lisa, and how lucky for you! I wish Claudia Roden would read my blog and invite me into her home to watch her cook. That would be amazing.

Did you know that Coney Island got it's name from the dutch word for rabbits? You can really see the etymology in this post... Glad you liked the rabbit too, they're cute and tasty!

aTxVegn said...

As a longtime Austinite, I enjoyed reading this post very much. I'm not a meat eater and I don't know how I found my way here, but again, this was a great story and I'm sure a thrill for you!

L said...

As a ex-pat Texan in Seoul, South Korea, I just wanted to say thanks. Even though I can only dream about most of these dishes, the dream alone is helping me finish my year here. I will be in Austin by this August. The first thing I plan on having is cheese enchiladas with chili sauce, refried beans, spanish rice, and a melon aguas fresca. Thanks again! Laura

Homesick Texan said...

S'Kat--You're welcome!

Jerry--Don't be scared, it's delicious!

susan--You're welcome!

Gilly--It was indeed a very cool experience!

Jay--Wow! I love that book and how cool you're were along for the ride! And thanks for the heads up on National Enchilada Week. I'll definitely be celebrating it here!

Olivia--I've seen the Texas Embassy but have never eaten there. Like you, I figured I could do better. But small joints in funky neighborhoods are always worth a try. If it's good, let us know!

Ann--I had no idea Coney Isand was named after rabbits. You can definitely see the etymology. As for Claudia, you should send her an email. I've found that most food writers are very friendly and receptive. Perhaps, before you know it, you'll be booking a flight to London to cook some Middle Eastern food with her!

ATxVegn--You're welcome! The sauce can be made vegan and would be delish over vegetables or tofu.

L--I hear you! When you've been away from home, you can at least find solace in planning that first meal you eat upon your return!

chappy said...

your photos are always inspiring. I gotta step my game up on tacotown.org!
thanks.

-Chappy

Anonymous said...

I love your site!!I've lived in Austin, Texas for 40 years. Certainly, Tex-Mex has it's variations..and yes, the little dives are the best!! Even in our own family, there seems to be some kind kind of argument on how our grandmothers before us really prepared our family recipes. Dying to try some of your recipes....everything looks so yummmmmmy :)
Thank you,
Dianna Davila Darlington

Ashley West said...

Just discovered your blog! I have happily relocated back to San Antonio after living in Ohio for a few years. Always fun to cook for my midwest friends and watch there faces light up with recipes from my childhood! My grandfather was the County Agriculture Agent for Collin County, TX for years! I am sure he would have known your great grandfather!

Tom said...

I love your blog. This is the first recipe I have tried. i used wild cottontail for this dish, and had a couple of questions. I found that it was hard to eat, I guess I should say my wife did. I picked up saucy pieces and ate them off the bone. Delicious. Very messy but delicious. I was wondering about maybe boiling the rabbits first, making stock, shredding the meat, and then letting it simmer in the red sauce for an hour. I simmered mine for 1.5 hours tonight, and it was tender but not falling off the bone. I also used rabbit stock instead of chicken. I found that after an hour it was really thick, so I loosened it up with some beer. All in all it was great, just some thoughts. What do ya think?

Lisa (Homesick Texan) said...

Tom--That sounds like a great idea.

casinada said...

Congrats! What a honor to have a traditional Texas vaquero meal served by the master of Tex-Mex! I think red chili sauce runs in my veins - can't wait to try this recipe. I use to raise rabbits and have had the luck to find local sources - off and on. I love cooking wih domestic rabbit, but it sounds like Robb cooked a wild rabbit for you as you mentioned dark meat and gameyness. All the domestic ones I've had are all white meat. I'm hoping it will work just as well with the domestic variety - can't wait to try!

ShirleyTx said...

Do you have any idea how hard it is for a Houston girl to find a recipe for fajitas, or tacos al cabon, or Ninfa's Green Sauce? How about Ninfa's Red Salsa. I've been in Marble Falls for eight years now and I MISS NINFA'S. I've been back to Houston once and I don't get into Austin but about once or twice per year (I'm getting elderly and live on SS, so only go in to see the Doctor. That leaves out supper/dinner. If I eat before heading home I get sleepy and that is a hard drive with the sun in your eyes all the way home. I wish I lived about fifteen miles outside Austin instead of 50 miles. Good luck to you. I have enjoyed your blog all day long today.

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