Tag Archives: Texas


Who doesn’t like CFS (chicken-fried steak)? Our older daughter, Carol, for one.  That is a surprise since she has roots in East Texas and Shreveport (There are credible claims that Shreveport is actually just an extension of East Texas)

She loves steak, but she believes that all that bread stuff just spoils a good piece of meat. I certainly agree with her point of view when some fancy pants restaurant does a chicken-fried rib eye or tenderloin. In that setting, I just want the real thing.

Chicken-fried steak, on the other hand, is a food of the people: a piece of round steak usually tough as a boot unless it is cooked for hours can be turned into a fork-tender delicacy through systematic pounding, breading, and frying. It becomes a distant relative of the more elegant Wiener schnitzel and veal alla Milanese.

Then there are the required accompanying mashed potatoes. They serve as the base for pouring on the cream gravy. In many a roadside diner they come from a box or are  lumpy, having sat for hours in a steam table. Really good mashed potatoes raise the  stakes (No pun intended) to something bordering on ethereal.

Finally, there is the cream gravy. No self-respecting CFS appears on the table without a good lacing of cream gravy. Unfortunately, many versions of cream gravy resemble, in both taste and consistency, library paste. In fact, you could probably use it as such when  it gels on the plate in a white, immobile blob. But again, there are few things as tasty as a well-made gravy studded with bits of crispy crust and a rich flavor from the fond of the cast iron frying pan.

My mother – who had never been to Texas until I was an adult – made a great CFS. She had her own little secrets. She pounded the floured raw meat with a saucer. She used crushed saltine crackers for the breading. And after browning the meat in a hot skillet with plenty of oil, she simmered the steaks for a half-hour or longer until the meat was tender. Then she raised the heat to get a crisp, brown exterior. I’ve never mastered those final steps, so this version relies on thin steak to be tender.

For mashed potatoes, I have used Sarah’s recipe as printed in the San Francisco Chronicle. For the gravy, I have used the decades-old recipe from our family cookbook.

Steamed broccoli with btter makes a good vegetable accompaniment.


Chicken Fried Steak


  • 1 pound round steak, thinly sliced (cubed beef should NOT be considered an acceptable substitute)
  • salt and pepper
  • all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 large egg (I wound up using a double yolked jumbo)
  • 1 sleeve saltine crackers
  • peanut oil for frying


  1. Trim any fat and silver skin from the steak and, if necessary, cut into serving-sized pieces. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Dredge the pieces of steak on both sides with flour. Using the edge of a small plate or saucer, pound each steak in one direction and then at 90°. Turn over, and repeat the pounding process.
  3. Combine the buttermilk and egg in a pie plate, mixing vigorously to make sure the egg is completely incorporated. Individually, dip each floured steak in the mixture and then transfer to a second pie plate filled with crushed cracker crumbs.
  4. Coat both sides of each steak generously with the cracker crumbs, making sure that the meat is completely covered. Transfer to a drying rack.
  5. When you are ready to cook the steaks, heat the largest cast iron skillet that you have over a medium-high flame. Add about 1 inche of peanut oil (canola is also good) and heat until the oil is shimmering but not smoking. If you have a thermometer, heat to 350°F.
  6. Add enough steaks to fill the pan. Fry for a few minutes on one side until browned, about 5-10 minutes. Then turn and fry on the other side. If you are cooking in batches, transfer to a warming plate in a 170°F oven until all of the meat is cooked. You will also need to keep warm while you make gravy.
  7. Make gravy according to the following directions. Then serve immediately while still warm with mashed potatoes and cream gravy.

Mashed Potatoes


  • 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes (about 5-6 medium potatoes), peeled and quartered
  • salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 sticks (½ pound) unsalted butter, softened
  • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with heavily salted water. Bring to the boil. Then reduce to a brisk simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are pierced easily with a kitchen fork. Overcooked is better than undercooked. Drain.
  2. Transfer to a potato ricer in batches. Rice the potatoes into a medium saucepan. Over low heat, stir the potatoes with a wooden spoon until excess water is boiled out, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Combine the milk and cream in a small pan and heat until they are just at a simmer.
  4. Add the butter to the potatoes and stir until completely incorporated. Stir in the milk/cream mixture slowly while stirring until the desired consistency is reached. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately. If you are serving with chicken-fried steak, you will want to make a well in the middle of each serving to hold some of the gravy.

    Yukon gold potatoes

    Yukon gold potatoes

Cream Gravy


  • ¾ cup milk
  • ¼ cup cream
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • pan drippings from fried steak
  • ¼ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
  • salt and pepper


  1. In a jar with tight lid (a pint Mason jar works well) combine the milk, cream, chicken stock, and flour. Cover and shake until the ingredients are well mixed. Set aside.
  2. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil from the pan used to fry the steak. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping loose any brown bits.
  3. Over medium heat, stir in the milk mixture, shaking it first to make sure it is well mixed.
  4. Stirring constantly, incorporate any loosened brown bits and bring the mixture to a low boil, continuing to cook until the gravy is thickened. If too thick, dilute with a little bit of milk. If too thin, stir in a bit of Wondra flour, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Be sure to make a well in the middle of the heap of mashed potatoes on each plate to get some extra gravy; Put some gravy on top of the steak, too, if you want to feel real down-home.

    A traditional down home plate

    A traditional down home plate



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We have gone to Colorado to visit my sister-in-law who is recovering from a hospital stay. Since she grew up in Texas, we thought some easy-to-eat Texas comfort food would welcome her back home.

If you have ever lived in Texas, you have probably eaten King Ranch Chicken. If you have never lived in Texas, it’s likely you have not even heard of the dish. King Ranch Chicken is served at Texas weddings, funerals, conferences, and of course women’s luncheons. It has even been suggested that the Texas State Legislature should designate KRC as the official State Casserole. A major function of the legislature seems to be to recognize the official state bird, fish, tree, etc. Some wags would  suggest that that is the most important thing they do.

In spite of all this fame, it is unknown how KRC got its name. One thing seems certain: it was not invented on the legendary King Ranch in Far South Texas. That assertion has been steadfastly denied by the wife of one of the past owners. A more likely explanation seems to me to be that it was invented and named by a home cook in the 1940s or 1950s during the heyday of The Joy of Cooking and Betty Crocker when a can of condensed soup was the key to elegance. Perhaps the inventor developed the recipe for her local Junior League cookbook. Versions of the recipe are certainly legion in all sorts of community cookbooks.

The first time I remember eating KRC was at a noon conference for students at a West Texas university many years ago. I don’t recall the topic of the conference, but I do remember that not a speck of the KRC remained. I also remember that it was tasty, gooey, and a little bit spicy.

There are probably as many recipes for KRC as there are Texas home cooks, but there are six key components: chicken of course, corn tortillas (though recent recipes substitute Doritos – a heresy as far as I’m concerned), cheese (some recipes swear by Velveeta), canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cream of chicken soup, and Ro*Tel. If you absolutely can’t stand the thought of canned soup, you can substitute your own homemade béchamel, but then your KRC would not be completely authentic.

Ro*Tel is another Texas invention. It was created during the 1930s in a small town near the Texas-Mexico border and not far from the King Ranch. It is a secret mix of tomatoes, green chiles, and spices. It is a key ingredient of queso dip and for years was only available in Texas. The tiny company was eventually sold to Con Agra, so now Ro*Tel should be available in every grocery store.

This version of the recipe includes two other ingredients that are not always in the recipe, but in my opinion they are both essential to Tex-Mex cooking: Mexican oregano and ground cumin. If you are not accustomed to their flavors you may find them objectionable. In that case, leave then out. Mexican oregano is different from Mediterranean oregano, and the best comes as leaves, stems, and flowers that you crush between the palms of your hands,

Some folks think KRC is too mushy. If you worry about that, cut back on the liquid. One of the beauties of KRC is that you can make the recipe your own. Then you will enjoy widespread fame throughout your neighborhood.


King Ranch Chicken


  • 1 whole chicken
  • 18 day-old corn tortillas
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 6 crimini mushrooms, torn into pieces
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 10.5 ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
  • 1 can Ro*Tel
  • 4 ounces canned chopped green chiles
  • 1 cup chicken stock (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt and pepper
  •  4 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated
  • sour cream
  • green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)
  • red bell pepper, seeded and sliced into rounds (optional)


  1. In a large pot, cover the chicken with salted water and bring to the boil. Cook at a low boil for 45 minutes or until the chicken is completely cooked. Cool until it is easy to handle. Then remove the skin, bones, fat, and any gristle. Cut the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces or shred with two forks. Set aside.
  2. Toast the tortillas for 15-20 seconds on both sides in a dry, hot skillet. Cut the heated tortillas in half and set aside.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and stir for a few minutes until translucent. Then stir in the mushroom pieces and continue to cook until the mushrooms are heated through and well-cooked. Stir in the mushroom soup, chicken soup,, Ro*Tel, green chiles, optional chicken stock, oregano, and cumin. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside for assembly of the casserole.
  4. Prepare a 9″ x 13″ x 4″ glass baking dish by spraying the inside with baking spray. Ladle a scant half cup of the soup mixture into the baking dish and spread across the bottom of the dish. Arrange 12 tortilla halves to completely cover the bottom of the dish.
  5. Arrange about half of the cut-up chicken to cover the tortillas. Then top with a little less than half of the soup mixture. Top with about one-third of the grated cheeses.
  6. Arrange another layer of tortilla halves, topped with the remaining chicken and more soup mixture, reserving about 3/4 cup for the top, and half the remaining cheeses. Dot with teaspoonfuls of sour cream.
  7. Arrange a final layer of tortilla halves. Top with the remaining soup mixture and cheeses.
  8. Decorate if desired with the optional bell pepper rings.
  9. Bake for one hour in the middle of an oven preheated to 350ºF, until the top is well-browned and bubbling. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, and serve immediately.


Filed under Food, Photography, Recipes


The first real blast of winter is due to hit us in the next few days, so we have definitely moved into winter, and the holiday season is fast upon us. (Here if you count Halloween.) One of the best things of the season is that it is time for the fresh crop of nuts of all kinds. For me, they are really a sign of the season. When I was a child, my mother would always set out a big bowl of English walnuts, hazel nuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, and pecans. My father could shell and eat a bowl by himself. Later on, there were other good memories associated with nuts, especially pecans.

I remember a trip through southern Louisiana when Reggie and I, along with a couple of friends set out on a quest to find the best pecans and pork cracklings. Both are recognized as two of the great pillars of Cajun cuisine. We went from plantation to plantation, along with more than one country store. I confess, we also had more than one or two Abita or Jax beers. (Unfortunately, Jax beer no longer exists, and the brewery has become a trendy tourist shopping center in the French Quarter.)

Another memory is of my father-in-law sitting on the porch of his East Texas country house shelling pecans with his special nutcracker that got the nuts out whole. He would spend hours doing that, not saying anything and just looking out at the sunset. He definitely preferred that to going inside and getting caught up in what he considered a trivial conversation.

We, too, always spent hours shelling pecans that we bought at a seasonal market down the street. They sold the nuts already cracked, so you had to shell them immediately before they spoiled in the shell. Of course, pre-cracking came with a premium. In those days, that added a dime to the cost, bringing the nuts to the price of 89 cents a pound. Today, shelled pecans have become a luxury, costing anywhere from $12 to $20 a pound. Even so, they remain a treat that I look forward to every year.

Our daughter, Carol, and her son are going to visit us this next week, so I will have some pecans ready for them. Then I will take the leftovers to our Thanksgiving celebration with the rest of the family. Here are three very simple recipes for pecan halves that I have gathered over the years. Every one is delicious in its own way.


Salted, Butter-Roasted Pecans

This is the simplest recipe, using only pecans, butter, and salt. The recipe comes from my mother. You can dress it up in lots of different ways. I have substituted kosher and Maldon sea salts for regular salt, but you could use garlic salt, onion salt, cumin, chili powder, or whatever powdered flavoring you can think of.


  • 4 cups raw pecan halves
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • salt to taste


  1. Preheat oven to 250° F.
  2. Arrange the pecans in a baking pan and top with the butter, unmelted and cut into eight pieces. Place on the middle rack of the oven.
  3. Roast for 20 minutes, stirring frequently to distribute the butter as it melts and to check for burning.
  4. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle with salt or other seasonings to taste. Cool.
  5. Transfer to a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Karen’s Orange Pecans


Many years ago I received a Christmas gift of pecans from my secretary. They were so good, that I asked her for the recipe, and she obliged. The pecans are sweet and almost a candy, but many folks enjoy them as a snack with cocktails.


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 medium orange, zested and juiced
  • 4 cups raw pecan halves


  1. Combine the sugar, orange zest, and orange juice in a heavy sauce pan that is big enough to hold the pecans comfortably.
  2. Bring to the boil over a medium flame. Then stir in the pecan halves.
  3. Continue to boil and stir until the pecans are completely coated, and the syrup is completely absorbed.
  4. Remove from the heat and continue to stir until the pecans are separated and sugary.
  5. Spread on wax paper to cool.
  6. Transfer to a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Jean’s Texas Barbecue Pecans

Mis en place for Jean's Texas barbeque pecans

Mis en place for Jean’s Texas barbecue pecans

This recipe comes from a good friend who grew up in Texas and spent much of her adult life there. These are smoky and salty, so it is nearly impossible to eat only one when you have a drink in hand. My philosophy is why worry.


  • ½ cup liquid smoke
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups raw pecan halves


  1. In a mixing bowl, combine the liquid smoke, water and salt. Stir until the salt is completely dissolved.
  2. Stir in the pecans with a slotted spoon. Let stand for 1 hours, stirring several times to make sure the pecans are completely coated with the liquid smoke mixture.
  3. Transfer the pecans to a baking pan, using the slotted spoon to make sure the liquid is well-drained.
  4. Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 300° F for 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Bake a few more minutes if the nuts have not dried out, but watch carefully to avoid burning.
  5. Remove from the oven. Cool.
  6. Transfer to a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.
From left, salted butter-roasted pecans, Karen's orange pecans, Jean's Texas barbeque pecans

From left, salted butter-roasted
pecans, Karen’s orange pecans, Jean’s Texas barbecue pecans


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This last week we drove down to El Paso, Texas, for the New Mexico Native Plant Society annual meeting. Yes, El Paso is in Texas, although there are many who wish it were in New Mexico: many of the residents of the city as well as many Texas politicians. El Paso is in the same time zone as New Mexico, an hour out of sync with almost all of Texas, and the population is decidedly different from those of Dallas and Houston. On top of that, it’s over five hundred miles from El Paso to Houston and San Antonio, and only thirty miles to the New Mexico border and a little over two hundred miles to Albuquerque. But the main reasons that El Paso is part of the New Mexico Native Plant Society is that the ecology (read desert) of El Paso is similar to much of New Mexico; both are on the edges of the Chihuahuan Desert and so the plants are very similar, unlike the live oaks and Spanish moss of East Texas.

We lived in El Paso for a number of years, so the meeting was an opportunity for us to renew old friendships, visit our old neighborhood, and enjoy some of the good regional food of the Border.

Susan went to meetings while I drove around old haunts and took naps, but both of us took time out to eat at two of our old-time favorites, the Little Diner in Canutillo, Texas, and the H & H Car Wash & Coffee Shop in downtown El Paso. We ate at a trendy new restaurant in the refurbished warehouse district. We didn’t much like it, so it will go nameless. But we also enjoyed drinks and snacks in the Liquids Bar in our hotel, a wonderfully revnovated derelict of a hotel that had sat vacant for many years after having a moment of glory in the distant past when Elvis Presley performed there.

Here are a few images of native plants from New Mexico that you might enjoy.

The Little Diner is a local institution. It is extremely hard to find in a residential area of the little town of Canutillo. It sits right next to a coin laundry, so you can do your washing while you are having lunch. Unfortunately, the original owner has died, and her daughter now runs the place. Some of our El Paso friends reported that it had gone down hill, but we had a great experience. The specialty of the house is gorditas, fat little masa pillows deep-fried, slit open, and stuffed with seasoned beef, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. You add the salsa to your liking. They are so unlike the pale copies sold at Taco Bell that you wonder how they share the name. They come three to a plate with beans and a salad, so even a big man should not go away hungry. To my knowledge, gorditas are fairly localized to this part of the border. I have never seen them on Tex-Mex menus in the rest of Texas, and they are not a part of the cuisine around Santa Fe.

Gorditas at the Little Diner

Gorditas at the Little Diner

H & H Car Wash is legendary. It was awarded the 2001 James Beard Award for American Classics. Not bad for a hole-in-the wall with a counter and about 10 stools along with two booths. Never mind that you can get your car washed and filled with gas and also get your shoes polished while you wait your turn for jumping on one of those stools. The day we visited, there were heavy rains, decidedly unusual for El Paso (It’s in the desert, remember?) So the car wash didn’t have much business, and as a result the coffee shop was also not crowded. Being able to speak Spanish helps when you order. Actually, many of the staff speak English, but here you are on their turf, and they don’t cut a lot of slack unless it is clear that you need HELP.

I ordered what I always order, huevos rancheros. Their version is unique, and I favor my own version, but it is still delicious and, anyway, that’s the reason I came to eat. Susan got the eggs and sausage. Since it was Saturday morning, we could have also gotten a bowl of menudo that was heating in a big pot on the back of the flat-top. We both passed, but that’s another story.

The night we ate at the bar, we ordered queso fundido (“melted cheese”). The first time we ever had that dish was nearly thirty years ago in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. It was so good with freshly made corn tortillas that it has been a favorite of ours ever since. The bar’s version came with crostini, cutting across cultures, but it was delicious. I will give you a recipe in a subsequent post.

Queso fundido at Liquids

Queso fundido at Liquids

All in all, we had a great visit, and enjoyed some food that we can’t get locally.



Filed under Food, Photography, Restaurants, Travel


It is high season for citrus crops. During our recent visit to the San Francisco area, we saw many citrus trees planted in front yards as ornamentals that were drooped to the ground with big crops of oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines. Driving through the Central Valley we saw miles of citrus groves with ripening fruit. In spite of cold weather, I believe that most of the farmers were able to avoid serious frost damage. In our local grocery store, the bins are full of oranges and tangerines, and the prices are good. No better time for a fresh citrus salad.

Of course, there are other places beside California with big crops of citrus fruits, so there is no point in restricting your sources. Florida and Arizona are producers in this country while Spain, Israel, and other Mediterranean countries also have famous crops.

Ruby red grapefruit from Texas are sweet and juicy.  Pomelos can substitute for grapefruits, and there may be other choices you might wish to try.

Avocados don’t count as citrus, but they just seem to be a perfect match for fresh oranges and grapefruit, so consider including them in your salad.

Poppy seed dressing, a sweet vinaigrette, seems to have been invented by the well-known Texas cook and cookbook writer, Helen Corbitt. She was wooed away from academic nutrition science and Cornell University to take charge of a series of fancy dining establishments in Texas, ending at the Neiman-Marcus dining rooms in Texas. In the 1950’s, her food was famous throughout Texas, and nearly every housewife had a copy of her cookbook reserved for parties and special events. It was the era of Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens, so Corbitt’s recipes provided something unique and decidedly “Texas”.

Perhaps Helen Corbitt’s most famous recipe was for poppy seed dressing. For many years, especially in Texas, it was extremely popular. Like so many foods of the ’50s, though, it fell out of favor. That’s too bad because it is the perfect foil for fruits salads, especially of the citrus variety. As with so many foods out of favor, it is hard to find a current recipe, so here is one adapted from the original in the 1957 classic, “Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin, Cambridge, MA, p.47).



Poppy Seed Dressing (about 1½ cups)


  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1½ teaspoons white onion pulp
  • 1 cup salad oil (your choice: vegetable, canola, walnut, other but NOT olive oil)
  • 1½ tablespoons poppy seeds


  • Place the sugar, mustard, salt, and vinegar in the jar of a blender
  • Prepare the onion pulp by grating a white onion with a micro-plane. Add to the other ingredients
  • Cover the blender jar, turn on the blender, and pour in the oil slowly to blend
  • Blend in the poppy seeds, transfer to a storage container, and refrigerate until ready for use

Citrus Salad (serves two)


  • 1 grapefruit
  • 2 large navel oranges
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • spring mix salad greens
  • poppy seed dressing


  • With a very sharp knife, remove the skin and any white membrane from the grapefruit and oranges
  • Cut between the sections of the citrus to make membrane-free pieces of fruit
  • Halve and slice the avocado
  • Arrange the grapefruit, orange, and avocado slices on a mound of salad greens
  • Dress with the poppy seed dressing and serve immediately

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