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Because of its size, the gastronomy of Texas is analogous to a country, namely, a myriad of culinary influences that vary from region to region. Western Texans are best known for their love of beef and barbequing. “Tex-Mex” cooking, most prominent in the south, is an Americanization of Mexican influences. Many of the “classic” Mexican favorites, such as enchiladas and tacos, are American inventions with a Mexican twist. Northern Texas is more akin to the southern US. Farming, chicken, pork and homegrown vegetables dominate. Central Texas reflects the food of the early German immigrants to that area. Sausage making, meat smoking, and wiener schnitzel highlight their contributions. Finally, the gulf region has a New Orleans style. Gumbos, shrimp, crawfish, and general Creole and Cajun influences are evident.
Obviously, these lines of demarcation are not etched in stone. They are merely general culinary trends existing within certain sections. Moreover, Texas is a melting pot within a melting pot. The influx of Asian immigrants and the concomitant injection of their culinary persuasions is just one example.
In its early days, Texas food, or should I say “grub,” was a functional outgrowth of the cattle ranches and cattle drives that Texas was so famous for. Work on vast cattle ranches made it impractical for cowboys to return to the homestead every night. Moving the cattle from these ranches to rail stations hundreds of miles away necessitated long journeys away from home. For efficient sustenance, the chuck wagon was created. Basically, it was a supply wagon/kitchen on wheels. Meals often consisted of one-pot stews of meat, beans and sometimes tomatoes. And that delivers us to Texas’ signature dish: Chili con carne, or a ‘bowl of red’ as Texans would say. Traditional Texas chili has no beans. If you want to add them, just throw in a can near the end of the cooking time.
• One pound ground beef
• One tablespoon olive oil
• One tablespoon chile oil
• One large onion, chopped
• 4 fresh hot peppers, finely chopped
• 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
• One 15 oz can Hunts tomato sauce
• One tablespoon chili powder
• Half teaspoon cayenne powder
• A few dashes of hot pepper sauce
• One teaspoon cumin
• Half teaspoon achiote powder*
• Half teaspoon coriander
• Half teaspoon of paprika
• Quarter teaspoon oregano
• Quarter teaspoon black pepper
• Half teaspoon salt
In a large pot, sauté the ground beef until browned and then remove with a slotted spoon. Drain the fat if you wish. Add the oils and then sauté the onion and peppers until soft. Add the garlic and sauté one minute. Add all of the remaining ingredients and the meat. Bring to a boil and simmer for one hour, stirring frequently. Add more salt if necessary.
This recipe will produce a notably hot chili. But there are plenty of points where you can modify the heat level. You can substitute a bell or poblano pepper for the fresh hot peppers, substitute olive oil for the chile oil, and adjust or eliminate the hot sauce and/or cayenne pepper. I wouldn’t forgo the chili powder though, since this is chili con carne after all.
By the way, there is a difference between chile (with an “e”) powder and chili (with an “i”) powder. Chile (with an “e”) powder is solely ground chile peppers. Chili (with an “i”) powder is a mixture of chile powder and other spices such as cumin, coriander, garlic, etc. Chili powder can always be found in the spice section of any supermarket.
*Achiote are the seeds of the annatto tree and the two names are often used interchangeably. Achiote can be found in the Goya section of your supermarket. Simply grind the seeds in a spice grinder.
Texas’ premier comfort food, chicken fried steak, has no chicken in it. It is called such because the steak is breaded and pan-fried much like fried chicken. A descendent of the German dish wiener schnitzel, it is traditionally made with round steak. Top round is the most tender.
• Vegetable oil, as needed
• Two 8 oz., half-inch thick, round steaks
• Flour as needed, seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper
• 2 beaten eggs
• 1 cup milk
Heat a large heavy skillet and add at least a quarter inch of oil. The oil should be about 350 degrees.
Pound the steaks with a mallet until they are half as thick. Dredge each steak in the flour, then the egg, and then back in the flour. Press the steaks into the flour to ensure complete coverage and then shake off any excess.
Place them in the oil and pan-fry each side until golden brown.
Remove them from the skillet and make the gravy. Pour out all but two tablespoons of the oil. Add two tablespoons of flour and cook the roux over medium heat, frequently whisking until it becomes golden brown in color. Slowly pour in the milk, constantly whisking and cook until desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the steaks.
Happy trails cowboy!
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