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)
Ingredients for the red chile sauce:
- 5 New Mexican or ancho chiles, seeded
- 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
- 1/4 onion diced
- 2 garlic cloves
Ingredients for the rabbit:
- 1 (2-pound) rabbit
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 cup lard or vegetable oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 garlic gloves minced
- Red chile sauce
- To make the red chile sauce, place the chiles in a skillet and heat on high for 1 minute, turning once. Turn off the heat, fill the skillet with water, and let them soak until rehydrated, about 30 minutes. Drain the chiles and rinse well, then place in a blender with the chicken broth, onion, and garlic. Blend until smooth. Taste and add salt, if needed.
- To make the rabbit, first rinse it then 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.)