america eats, chicken fried steak, cookbook, country gravy, o-rama, southern cooking, summer-o-rama, texas eats

Book-O-Rama: Summer Reading

This month’s ‘O-Rama,’ a second collaboration with Rabelais Books in Biddeford, takes us into the realm of summer reading. Out of a long list of titles offered by Rabelais, I chose one that was pretty far outside of my own cookbook collection: “Texas Eats” by Robb Walsh. The grill has been in use since March, so I thought this would offer up a slew of recipes I could try out. But, upon first glance, I realized that this book was so much more than that.

Author Walsh sets the bar pretty high, and completely eliminates the assumption that this is just a book of cowboy cookin’, in the introduction when he offers his collection of recipes as an extension to the Depression Era, “America Eats” work. The Federal Writers Project hired writers–many soon to be famous or not so–to spread out across America to record the history and stories behind our food traditions. Sadly, WWII ended the project and the books were never finished. They do, however, live on in the book, “The Food of a Younger Land,” which I recommend to anyone who loves a great historical food novel.

But, let’s talk Texas.

Walsh represents the diverse food culture of Texas and this book ventures far beyond BBQ and deep fried fair treats (which you can thank Texas for things like Deep Fried Butter). He breaks the book up first geographically and then by popular cuisine.

He starts in East Texas and the Gulf with delicious seafood recipes and traipses across the state and ends with a nod to the diverse contributions from Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cultures to the Texas food scene. He contributes even more space to the influence of Czech and German immigrants of Central Texas. Every chapter is dotted with anecdotes and first hand stories about the dishes, some by the people who created them.

With over 200 recipes, it was a bit daunting to choose just one to highlight, but in the end I chose one that, to me, was the most ‘Southern’: Chicken Fried Steak (CFS).

According to the author, CFS, is a bit of a throwback dish and one that has fallen out of favor in cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas.  So, he took it upon himself to venture out into the country to try several different recipes, all in hopes of finding the ‘perfect’ one.  He also gets into the debate of the best cut of meat to use (he says eye-of-round is the best for the home cook). I followed his advice and went with an eye-of-round cube steak (already tenderized) from Whole Foods.  But, whatever cut you choose, don’t be afraid to ask the butcher to run it through the tenderizer to get the perfect thickness for frying.

And, because no CFS is complete without a Country Gravy, I used the authors recipe for Black Pepper Gravy to top off the steak and a side of mashed potatoes.

Southern Style Country Fried Steak
(serves 2)  
(scaled down from book)

Peanut Oil, for frying
2 tenderized eye-of-round steaks (about 1#)
2 cups seasoned flour (see below)
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Black Pepper Gravy (see below)

Pour the oil to a depth of 1″ in a deep cast iron skillet and heat to 370.

While the oil is heating, put the flour in a large, shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Dredge each steak into the flour, shaking off excess; dip it into the buttermilk mixture; allowing the excess to drip off; then dredge again in the flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside.

Slide 1 or 2 steaks into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. The temperature of the oil will fall the moment the meat is added, so you will need to adjust the heat. As the steaks cook, try to keep the oil at around 350. If it gets too hot, the steaks will burn before they are cooked through. If it is not hot enough, the batter will be soggy. Cook the steaks for 3-5 minutes, until the batter is crisp and brown and the meat is cooked through. Using a wire skimmer, transfer steaks to paper towels to drain and keep in a warm oven until all the steaks are cooked.

Serve the steaks with the gravy.

Seasoned Flour

2 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder

In a bowl, stir together all of the ingredients, mixing well. You will have more seasoned flour than you need for most recipes. Set aside the balance for making gravy, or store in tightly capped jar in cupboard for another time. Discard any flour in which you have dipped raw meat.

Black Pepper Gravy
(scaled down from book)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons AP flour
1 1/4 cups of milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk the flour into the butter and continue to whisk for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is ivory-colored and smooth. Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly, then continue to stir until free of lumps. Add the salt and pepper and simmer, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the gravy has thickened and reduced. Serve hot.

Now, I don’t really have a point of reference for CFS outside of a menu of an IHOP or Denny’s, but based on this recipe, I’ll be damned sure to make this again. The coating was better than most fried chicken ones I’ve had and the gravy was thick and peppery and would make a great base for some sausage and biscuits. While the food of Texas may not be on your radar, a book like Robb Walsh’s may just put it there.

anne burrell book, cook like a rock star, cookbook, food network cookbooks, o-rama, rabelais books portland

Holiday-O-Rama: Read It

By now, I have no doubt you’ve scoured over the ‘Best Cookbooks of 2011’ lists from places like The New York Times, Huffington Post, Serious Eats and Bon Appetit. The latter was compiled by Don and Samantha Lindgren of Rabelais Books in Portland, who made this months installment of the ‘O-Rama Project’ possible. Through a genius coordination on the part of A. (who I have decided will be referred to as Professor A. from now on) and the endless generosity of Rabelais, the participants were given the ok to root around in a few boxes of advanced copies of cookbooks the store had received. For a former library tech who now works with food, this was a little bit of heaven. But, I have to admit, I almost didn’t participate and it was at the prodding of Professor A. and Kate that made me decide to get my shit together. But, the title I actually chose, may surprise the hell out of you.

Did you gasp or sneer? C’mon be honest, because when I told a few people what I chose, I didn’t know if they were disgusted or questioning my general sanity. I make absolutely no bones about picking out the paisley colored cookbook from Anne Burrell and Suzanne Lenzer. In fact, I’ll do it one better by admitting that I actually like Anne Burrell, especially once I realized that, though she may also have spiky blonde hair, she’s at least twice as knowledgeable as the other spiky haired person on the Food Network. And, she’s actually a chef and not some vapid eyed droid that is seemingly there to model low cut v-neck sweaters.

Chef Burrell’s resume is a pretty long and respected one, she is probably most recognized for her stint as Mario Batali’s protege and sous chef from Iron Chef America. She’s been on a slew of other shows, and was the most recent cast-off from “The Next Iron Chef.” While, lesser known than Rachael or Sandra, I’m guessing that she could easily cook circles around the others from the FN sisterhood, all while wearing her knee length skirt, no less.

Her book has the usual suspects: favorite tools and pantry staples, as well as a guide to her lingo (fond=”Crud”; “BTB”=bring to a boil) and a lovely forward by Mr. Batali. When you get to the heart of it her recipes are mostly, and understandably, Italian influenced and pretty decent. Without a doubt, they are definitely geared towards those looking to graduate from easier cookbooks, but aren’t quite ready to put out a Thomas Keller level dish. There’s a whole chapter on homemade pasta, one of her specialties and one which I would have enjoyed if I had a pasta maker, but the recipes can easily be made and adjusted to use dried. Her ‘Piccolini’–or, as she calls them “My little nibbles”–recipes are some of the most interesting, especially the one for the Mortadella Mousse.

The recipes that I did make–one for braised short ribs, mac and cheese with bacon and ‘cheeeeeesy’ polenta (her added vowels, not mine)–were good, but no different than ones I had made previously. Solidifying, again, that this is not a book for someone who knows their way around kitchen.

Her teaching background definitely comes through from the beginning of the book. She stresses the importance of simply reading the recipe all the way through and the value of having your mise en place organized before one bit of food is cooked. She tries to condition the reader to think like a professional chef before they make any attempts to cook like one (or, in this case, a ‘rock star’) and organization is key in that. Her voice is a bit flighty and light, but enthusiastic, much like how she comes across on screen. But, I do have to say, I have never seen a cookbook with so many exclamation points in my life and I’m still not sure if I found it annoying or campy. Oh and every recipe ends with some weird one line like the one for the Mortadella Mousse: “It’s a bologna cloud!” I wonder if she’s easily distracted by shiny things.

So, this isn’t for the Joel Robuchon set. In fact, the person you probably want to buy this for hasn’t a clue as to who Joel Robuchon is. Let’s be honest, “Cook Like a Rock Star” is not going to make any of the Top 10 lists this year, but if you have a friend or family member that wants to build up their skills, learn a few interesting recipes and doesn’t mind the color pink, then this might just be the gift for them.