Clam dip and the coonhound

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

As I whipped up some clam dip this afternoon, for a special gathering, I was reminded of Babe, the Black and Tan Coonhound that befriended us this past Christmas.

It was cold and rainy, when we pulled up to the Water Valley Inn the night of December 26. Perched on a hill overlooking miles of rolling farmland, the 1920s-era farmhouse is our home-away-from-home, when we visit our daughter and her family, whose Owl Creek Winery and vineyards are just down the road.

As our son, Charlie, stepped out of the car, he was greeted by a wagging, wriggling, seal-soft hound that cried and whimpered as if he was her long lost master. Since she was wearing a collar, we hoped we might coax her into the house so that we could read her tag. But when we opened the door, she trotted right in, then stood looking at us with her tail wagging, as if to say, “Welcome home.”

Her tag told us that her name was Babe. While we waited for her owner to return our call, Babe wandered into the kitchen, where I found her standing politely but deliberately in front of a cabinet. She wasn’t exactly pointing, because her lovely, long tail was arched upward and her front end was erect, but I knew that she knew that there was food in the cabinet. (more…)

Cowboy cuisine still on the map with Grady Spears

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

“I feel like I’ve been put through a blender!” 27-year-old Grady Spears told Texas Monthly in 1996, shortly after his Reata restaurant opened in Fort Worth and the already famous master of cowboy cuisine dished up exotic fare such as quail tostados and cabrito (kid goat) tacos to as many as 600 patrons a night.

Today, at 40, Spears has escaped the whirlwind and is right where he wants to be, with a modest restaurant and a devoted following, not far from his home in Fort Worth.

“I’ve just taken a step back,” says Spears, who opened Grady’s on Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth last March. “I like this small, intimate dining room and I like the one-on-one focus with the staff and with the customers.”

Grady’s is not far from the site of a long since shuttered eatery where Spears bussed tables at 18, while trying to break into business as a cattle buyer.

“My idea was that I didn’t need college,” explains Spears, who worked for a Fort Worth cattle broker while he was in high school. “I’d be a cattle buyer for the rest of my life like all the guys I looked up to.”

High ideals and limited funds didn’t bode well for Spears and cattle buying, but he never lost his love for the Western lifestyle. After a year spent in Houston managing a vegetarian restaurant for family friends, he landed in the Big Bend area of West Texas, where he would soon bring national acclaim to the Gage Hotel in Marathon, population 500.

“I had incredible resources from the farmers and ranchers, people who cared more about their product than any sales people in the world,” says Spears, rationalizing his success as a tenderfoot in the competitive food industry. “The cowboys came in and cooked meats for me; an old chuck wagon cook made all the breads for me every night; cowboys’ wives came in and waited on tables.

“Even today, if you eat a chicken fried steak here, it comes locally raised and locally butchered.”

By the time Spears opened the Reata in Fort Worth, he had received rave reviews from food and travel critics nationwide. “Like cabrito, just about everything on Reata’s menu sounds like something an old cowhand might cook up if he’d been lucky enough to possess Spear’s creative streak and network of purveyors,” wrote National Geographic Traveler.

“Luck” is a word the affable Spears often uses when discussing his career – that and loyalty, as it applies to staff, some of whom have been with him for nearly 20 years. He has also published eight lavishly illustrated cookbooks, the latest to be released in August 2009. “They’re all tied to the cowboy,” notes Spears. “I’ve gone from one end of the beef industry to the other, from production to consumption.”

“I really fell into something and was very lucky,” he adds. “I had a lot of people around me that were the real deals. I just got tagged the real deal and I couldn’t believe it. It’s kind of like having a horse. I found some people that believed in me and let me have full rein and run with it at an early age.”

Fruit salad to the rescue

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Tainted tomatoes, unhygienic jalapenos, and suspicious cilantro. What’s a salad lover to do while CDC sleuths search for the source of recent salmonella outbreaks?

Eat fruit salad.

Nothing goes better with a mixed plate of melon balls, peaches, plums, grapes, and whatever other fruit you care to add than the poppy seed dressing Sally Lowry introduced me to 10 years ago. Lowry’s parents, the late Burt and Eleanor Dedmon, owned the cutting stallions San Jo Lena (being groomed for his portrait), Playboys Remedy and Smokes Peppy San, as well as an impressive broodmare band, and I was at Valley Oak Ranch in East Texas to photograph horses in preparation for a dispersal.

Following the photo shoot, Sally invited me to lunch at a local restaurant. I can’t remember if we had fruit salad, but we talked about a shared love for cooking and she promised to send me a recipe for the “best poppy seed dressing in the world.” She was right. Nothing off a grocery self can match it.

Poppy Seed Dressing
   1 1/2 cups sugar
   2 teaspoons dry mustard
   2 teaspoons salt
   1/3 cup vinegar
   3 tablespoons grated or pureed onion
   2 cups vegetable oil (not olive oil)
   3 tablespoons poppy seeds

Mix sugar, mustard, salt and vinegar. Stir in onion puree. Slowly add oil and beat until thick (this works great in a food processor, but can be done with a mixer). Add poppy seeds and beat another minute or two. Store in the refrigerator.

The way to a judge’s heart

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

Judging National Cutting Horse Association events at Will Rogers Equestrian Center in Fort Worth requires a lot of stamina. The cutting starts at 8:30 a.m. and often lasts until 8:00 p.m. or later. Since rules require that judges be sequestered from contestants, they are stabled at a local hotel and eat together as a group for five consecutive days or more.

Like a lot of us, one of the highlights of a judge’s day is mealtime. Since Nancy Clayton (pictured) has been catering their midday meals, the judges can always count on a daily “down home” meal, served between the third and fourth sets of cattle.

Clayton, a non-pro competitor whose Paint mare JR Colord Prom won the 2000 NCHA Open Super Stakes with Chubby Turner, gets up at 3:00 a.m., seven days a week, for the three week duration of each show, to cook a family-style feast for 18. By 11:00 a.m, this indefatigable, culinary cutter, who also works as a custom decorator, is ready to pack hot containers of comfort food into insulated carriers for the 40-minute trip from her Weatherford home to Will Rogers Coliseum.

Although her menus vary, the first day’s fare is always the same and helps everyone forget about the long haul ahead of them. Fortified with chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, fresh green salad, biscuits, and banana pudding, all cooked from scratch, who cares how long it takes to settle the cattle?

 It’s hard to pick a favorite among Clayton’s recipes, but her Secret Secret Buttermilk Pie seldom lasts longer than the time it takes to begin the fourth bunch of cattle. Here’s the recipe:

Nancy’s Secret Secret Buttermilk Pie

1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 stick of butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons flour
1 single piecrust

Mix ingredients together and pour into crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Heritage of unusual recipes

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

In the early 1990s, I was invited on a three-day roundup at Helen Groves’ Silverbrook Ranch in Baird, TX. It was September and the weather was fine. We rode all day, ate meals prepared over a campfire, and slept in tepees near the chuck wagon.

My birthday fell on the last day of the roundup and I considered the whole experience a wonderful gift, although no one there knew about my birthday. At least I thought they didn’t.

That night I was feted with a cake and the next morning, insisting that I couldn’t go home without a present, Helen gave me a copy of a cookbook published by the Hidalgo, Texas County Historical Society. The Heritage Cookbook features a roundup of wild and regional foods with recipes for such delicacies as cattail stew, mesquite bean jelly, and baked rattlesnake.

Hidalgo County, located in the lower Rio Grande Valley, has a rich history dating back to the the 16th century and the age of Spanish exploration. In the 19th century, it became a ranching center within the larger region that includes Kenedy and King counties.

Helen Groves is the great-granddaughter of Richard King, the founder of King Ranch, hence her interest in the region and the cookbook. Helen has also written a splendid memoir about her parents Robert and Helen Kleberg and her experiences growing up on the legendary King Ranch. Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranchis not only a fascinating read, but a feast for the eyes with more than 200 never-before-released photographs.

The Heritage Cookbook is out of print, but according to Lynn Beeching, with the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, the seat of Hidalgo County, there is a new cookbook that includes many of the old recipes, along with historical photos and a history of the region. The 286-page Mesquite Country Cookbook, Tastes and Traditions from the Tip of Texas, won the annual national Tabasco Community Cookbook Award and is available through the Hidalgo County Museum at 956-383-6911.

Gorditas de Queso, an unusual cookie recipe from the Heritage Cookbook, is one that I can recommend:

1 large carton small curd cottage cheese
1 cup corn oil
1 cup margarine
4 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup dark Karo syrup
1 cup chopped nut
4 cups masa harina
2 1/2 cups flour
6 tsp. baking powder
1 cup sugar
1 3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup honey
1 cup grated white cheese

Cream first ingredients thoroughly. Add the rest and mix well, adding cheese last. When everything is well mixed, drop on greased cookie sheet using a rounded spoon and bake at 350 degrees for 8 to 12 minutes or until done.

Belinda’s Surprise

Monday, November 27th, 2006

Lyn Jank, who died in 1991, had been a screen writer turning out spaghetti westerns in Italy, before she spent Labor Day at Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico in 1975. A native Texan, Jank fell in love with Quarter Horse racing that day and became good friends with Ralph Shebester, the breeder and owner of Bugs Alive In 75, who won the celebrated All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs that Labor Day.

As a writer, Jank made her subjects come alive. An article that she wrote about Three Bars for Speedhorse magazine was just a prelude to a book that she had planned with the working title “Brave Dust.” It would have rivaled Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit.”

The first time I met Lyn, she had invited me and my husband to dinner at her home. The meal was delicious and I asked her for the recipe. I am used to jotting down recipes on file cards and scrap paper. But Lyn’s recipe was a narrative, as delicious to read as to eat. It’s the only recipe I’ve ever received in paragraph form. Belinda, in honor of whom the recipe was named, was a race horse.

Belinda’s Surprise

  • 1 pound bulk hot sausage
  • 1 large white or yellow onion
  • 1 green pepper
  • 2 cans stewed tomatoes (20 ounces)
  • 1 package shell pasta
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • (Optional: 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 cup sour cream)

The sauce can be prepared in advance and kept for several days in the refrigerator. You can also freeze it.

Peel and mash garlic cloves. Finely chop onion and pepper. Slowly saute with vegetable oil in skillet until onions are transparent. Do not allow them to brown. Easy does it – about 15 minutes.

While onions, pepper and garlic are cooking, crumble sausage and slowly brown. Drain off all grease. Use fork, potato masher or anything else that is handy to break up any lumps in the sausage. Set aside.

Use a paper towel to wipe out the skillet in which you cooked sausage. Use a blender or potato masher to crush tomatoes. Pour them, with juice, into the skillet, add sugar and, if you like, chili powder. Bring to a simmer, stirring once or twice. Add onion, pepper, garlic mixture.

Stir and bring to a simmer. Add sausage, stir, bring to a simmer and stir again.
20-25 minutes after you put the tomatoes in the skillet, your sauce will be done. If you want the option of sour cream, add it five minutes before the sauce is done.

Stir well. At this point you can set the sauce aside until the pasta is done.
Add salt to about three quarts of water and bring to a rapid boil. Add pasta. If you are absent-minded, use a timer. The worst sin in the world is to overcook pasta. If directions on the pasta package say 12 minutes, set your timer for 10, take a taste and go the whole 12 minutes, but only if necessary.

Drain. Return pasta to same pot. Add your sauce (naturally, you’ll have thawed it and heated it if you had in the freezer). Stir well and serve immediately.

Daddy’s Ranch Spread

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Every summer during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I would make a trip to San Jose Cattle Company, in Pleasanton, TX, to photograph racehorse yearlings bound for the Ruidoso Super Select Sale. At the time, San Jose Cattle Company was owned by Perry Bass of Fort Worth and managed by Art Shahan, who had worked for Bass’ uncle, the famous wildcatter and oil magnate Sid Richardson.

Shahan built an impressive program for Bass based originally on daughters of Jet Deck, Go Man Go, and Easy Jet. Under Shahan’s direction, San Jose Cattle Company became part of the original Dash For Cash syndicate and produced such notable runners as two-time AQHA running champion Dashing Phoebe, as well as major stakes winners Meganette, Sayin Goodbye, Baby Hold On, Ms Secret Cash, Racin Image, Wrangle Alot and Ima Dasher Myself.

As a former field inspector for the Santa Gertrudis Association, who traveled from coast-to-coast and to 17 foreign countries, Shahan had an unerring eye for conformation and an innate skill for breeding outstanding performers. Dashing Phoebe and Meganette, who each earned over $600,000, were as beautiful to behold as they were talented.

In addition to racehorses, San Jose also owned some top ranked cutting horses, including 1978 NCHA world champion Doc’s Play Mate. But it was Miss Silver Pistol, bred by Shahan out of his favorite roping mare, Pistol Lady 2 Be, who would have a lasting impact on the cutting world. As a competitor under Shahan’s son, Wes (pictured), Miss Silver Pistol won the 1985 NCHA Non-Pro Futurity and earned over $500,000 in open and non-pro competition; as a broodmare she has produced earners of more than $350,000, including leading sire Playgun.

When Miss Silver Pistol was just a two-year-old and Wes Shahan was a senior in high school, Frances Shahan, Wes’ mother, gave me a cookbook produced by the Atascosa County Black Hill 4-H Club of which Wes was president. Frances was a great cook and I enjoyed some wonderful meals at the Shahan table, which had a large turntable on top that could be rotated for easy access to the mouth-watering dishes prepared by Frances.

Kuntry Fixins, my treasured Black Hill 4-H Club cookbook, is sprinkled liberally with Frances’ recipes, but one of my favorites, under the category “Appetizers, Pickles, Relishes,” was contributed by Wes and named in honor of his father.

Daddy’s Ranch Spread

  • 2 cans ripe olives, chopped
  • 2 cans green chilies, chopped
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 4 green onions, including tops, chopped
  • 1 T. salad oil
  • 2 T. wine vinegar
  • 1/2 t. garlic salt
  • 1/8 t. pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 fresh green chili pepper (optional)

Mix ingredients, adding tomatoes last. Chill in tightly covered container. Serve with Ritz crackers or Doritos, or over meat.