Ask anyone north of the Texas-Oklahoma border about cowboy cooking and you’ll get an earful about Dutch-oven biscuits, cast-iron seared ribeyes and soupy, slow-cooked beans. It’s no secret that the cuisine has fallen on kitschy times since chefs like Grady Spears swaggered onto the scene in the ’90s peddling apple pan dowdy and cream gravy dreams. Cowboy cooking isn’t food that even the most enthusiastic eaters seek out in restaurants, but rather the stuff folks expect to encounter at a dude ranch or when the kids beg Uncle Doc, up from Lubbock, to make his famous chili.
That’s a crying shame since Texas chef Louis Lambert’s first book, “Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook“ (Ten Speed Press, 2011), deserves a spot on kitchen shelves, whether you live in town or out on the farm. Many will wrongly dismiss it as more chuck-wagon cookery, but to get the full value of this self-described memoir, you’ve got to forget the label and consider the cook.
Raised in Odessa, the dusty West Texas bastion of high school football, Lambert comes from seven generations of cattle ranchers (i.e., the dust on his spurs is real). In his younger years, he left it all in the rear-view mirror to study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and to hone his chops at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco before returning to God’s country. Maybe because of that, these days Lambert isn’t as concerned with the size of his belt buckle as with the smoky char on his legendary achiote-seared chickpeas.
Of the 125 or so recipes in the cookbook, most are decidedly on the heavy side, what Lambert calls, “big, burly foods with deep flavors and rich textures.” Be warned: The first recipe in the salads chapter lists 3 pounds of flat-cut beef brisket at the top of its ingredient list. Not to be overlooked are the more refined dishes, many made famous at the chef’s Austin and Fort Worth restaurants, which include a steakhouse, a coffeeshop, a burger joint and an upscale barbecue mecca. Revelations like fennel salsa verde, romesco-crusted snapper, grilled asparagus with broken tomato vinaigrette, chile-and coffee-rubbed beef and buttermilk-honey ice cream are accessible to home cooks and worth every effort.
“Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook” also tackles the treasured techniques of that rare star chef who actually still cooks in his restaurants. Its pages are stacked with glossaries for soup stock and roux, sidebars on yeast and sausage casings, how-tos on roasting chiles and properly mashing potatoes (there really is a right and a wrong way), and even includes a three-part lesson on “the science of baking,” which addresses the best varieties of flour, butter and sugar for home cooks to have on hand.
For each protein – fish, poultry, brisket, lamb and game among them – Lambert has written a guide with notes on discerning the best cuts, and the ideal way to prepare each once you get them home. Don’t expect Harold McGee-type insights, but it’s nice to be so easily forgiven if you don’t know your hominy from a hole in the ground. In the land of coffee-table kitchen tomes by Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz, that inclusive, teaching voice is refreshing.
“Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook” is informed by Lambert’s work outside of restaurants, too, including his co-founding of the nonprofit Foodways Texas, which aims to “preserve, promote, and celebrate” the state’s diverse food cultures. Worth noting also are the wildly successful collaborations with his sister, the Austin hotelier and taste-maker Liz Lambert. The latest evidence can be tasted at Ocho, a new hipster-friendly cocktail lounge within San Antonio’s Hotel Havana, where ethereal, chile-spiced potato chips and huitlacoche quesadillas grace plates, and Lambert’s juicy-sweet pulled pork, similar to a recipe in his cookbook, is tucked into the pressed Cubans.
Lambert doesn’t go at it alone, getting help from June Naylor, a food and travel writer (she also co-authored Grady Spears’ “Texas Cowboy Kitchen” and “Cooking the Cowboy Way”). Photographer Ralph Lauer worked on the book, though you’ll have to push past the requisite photos of prairie grass rolling on for miles, and Lambert posed next to his double-cab pickup to get to the food shots. Do your best not to lick page 172, with its crisp-edged fried egg crowning a stack of deep, dark chili con carne enchiladas, or page 220, where the gingered pear fried hand pie shares real estate with melting ice cream and a snowfall of powdered sugar.
The range of recipes is varied, hitting on upmarket zingers like broiled oysters with spinach, bacon and Pernod, and down-home belt-busters like three-cheese macaroni with country ham, and chicken pot pie with tart apples and country sausage. Lambert considers beurre blanc, three kinds of barbecue sauce, fruited grain mustard and ancho mole among his sauce arsenal, which means the occasional recipe does seem out of place. Though it’s not to say that they aren’t done well, Lambert isn’t the go-to guy for shrimp rigatoni puttanesca or curried chicken and potato stew, but they still grace the pages. Some readers may wish that he had stayed on a more loyal course.
If, after baskets of his Governor’s Mansion potato rolls; plates of grilled, bacon-wrapped quail; and bowls of green chile grits, you still crave those cowboy beans, biscuits and ribeyes, well, “Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook” has those, too. But Lambert’s steaks are medium-rare, crusted with maple sugar and mustard, and can easily be made on your backyard grill. No campfire necessary.
Photos from top:
Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook. Credit: Liz Pearson
Brunch Butter milk biscuits, New Mexico Pork and Green Chile Stew, Parmesan Potato Gratin. Credit: Ralph Lauer