On a recent Thursday evening, dozens gathered at the Fort Worth Library’s Southwest Regional branch to hear three leaders of a homegrown, quintessentially Texan, culinary movement talk about why this old-school style of preparing food still resonates today, a decade after it hit the national scene.
All three grew up on West Texas ranches, and this — not the whims of the fickle food culture — formed their individual cooking styles. Above all, they are cowboys, and cooking with fire comes as naturally to them as saddling a horse.
Cowboy cuisine is not barbecue. It is not smoked meats. Simple, straightforward and with crackling wood over a fire, it is the slow-paced, “black-and-white movie” of cooking, the opposite of today’s super fast, 30-minute meals. All three men — Lou Lambert and Mike Micallef of Fort Worth and Tom Perini of Buffalo Gap — are instrumental in putting this kind of cooking on the larger culinary map.
Twice a year, at the 21-acre “nomadic hotel and campground” in Marfa, Texas, known as El Cosmico, Fort Worth and Austin-based chef Lou Lambert presides over his “Big City Camp Cooking” classes. His aim is to teach others how to cook like a cowboy over long weekends of margaritas, grilled steaks, biscuit cobblers, sourdough pancakes for breakfast and bottomless cups of inky black coffee to wash it all down.
There’s no All-Clad or Le Creuset here. Cast-iron Dutch ovens with wire handles and tiny feet sit directly in the flames. The food is served on blue enamel plates and cups with the kind of utensils used for an outdoor dinner party, if that dinner party means camping outdoors.
The idea started four years ago as a way to attract guests when the hotel/campground wasn’t busy and has become a destination of its own. People come from as far away as Brooklyn to learn how to take cooking back to its more humble, cowboy-inspired roots. Without advertising or a social media push, the classes sell out in a matter of weeks.
“There’s something about that Western cowboy-cooking nostalgia that everyone wants to embrace,” says Lambert, from his home in Fort Worth on the Trinity River. “The Dutch oven, the heat — it’s not something you can get from just reading a cookbook. People want to connect with Americana.”
At first, Lambert says, his classes were filled with mostly men or older women who entertained. Recently, the demographic changed. “Last year, it was younger, hipper, more urban students — 20-somethings saying, ‘We need to step back some. We need to slow down.’ I think that instead of picking up the phone and calling Favor (Delivery) and your meal arrives, they’re trying to connect to what cooking really is.”
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America and raised on a West Texas ranch, Lambert built a career creating dishes that speak to his Texas roots. The chef’s restaurants include Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue in Austin, Dutch’s Hamburgers, Jo’s Coffee, June’s All Day and Jeffrey’s in Austin. He’s also written the cookbook, “Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook: Recipes from Lambert’s Texas Kitchens” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Inspired by the overwhelming response to his El Cosmico classes, he’s now at work on a new book that’s all about cowboy cuisine for the home chef. It’s a style of cooking he believes is as timeless as his well-worn pair of handmade boots from Heritage Boot in Austin.
“I think people have always done the ‘escape to the backyard’ barbecue thing,” Lambert says. “You look at the old ‘I Love Lucy’ when they left the city and built a backyard barbecue. Remember that? It’s always been part of the American psyche.”
Tom Perini, owner of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap (population 468), who cooked on several occasions for President George W. Bush, received a James Beard Award and wrote a cookbook, “Texas Cowboy Cooking” (Comanche Moon, 2000), agrees that the link between nostalgia and cowboy cooking is part of its universal, timeless appeal. “Cowboy cooking fits what people today are looking for — a return to a simpler time.”
While Lambert’s spin on cowboy cookery includes techniques he learned while in cooking school, Perini’s take is more rustic — like the food served on chuck wagons. Like Lambert, Perini grew up on a ranch and worked in the family cattle business until he started cooking on a real chuck wagon for the cowboys managing the cattle. “I was raising cattle. We’d take a wagon out at lunchtime and I’d do food that was very simple: brisket, beans and potatoes,” says Perini. “Then other ranches asked me to start cooking for them. There’s something about chuck wagons that was very appealing to me. Part of it was the romance of this kind of cooking.”
Chuck wagons were invented in 1866 by Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, who came up with the idea of putting a box on the back of a wagon to prepare meals for cowboys driving cattle from Texas to Mexico. Unlike the Yeti coolers of today, there was no refrigeration, so food was limited to what wouldn’t easily spoil: salt pork, pinto beans, sourdough starter and flour for biscuits. “Chuck” was slang for food, thus the name. Chuck wagons eventually gave way to cook houses on ranches. Similar to a mess hall, these permanent structures were a place where working cowboys would gather at mealtime.
The years he spent cooking for the chuck wagon is where Perini draws inspiration for his restaurant. Located 14 miles southwest of Abilene, diners must book a reservation several weeks in advance. “We still do simple food — food you can recognize. We still cook on fire. With steak, I use certified Angus and we put a dry rub on the meat before we cook over a mesquite flame.”
Perini, who developed the menu with his wife, Lisa, opened the restaurant in 1983 and little has changed since then. It’s something his customers appreciate. “I think people can relate to it. I think simple food can be very nice. It doesn’t have to have little servings and dribbles. I created a dish 35 to 40 years ago with hominy, cheddar cheese, green chiles and onions and it’s still one of our most popular dishes,” he says.
Perini keeps the menu as local as possible and tries to stick with ingredients sourced in Texas and cooked as close to chuck wagon-style cowboy cooking as possible. “We do not do a baked potato. We do not do a French fry. We do green beans, seasoned the old-fashioned way with bacon grease, onion, and salt and pepper. It’s not fancy.”
For rancher and restaurateur Mike Micallef, who opened his flagship Reata in Alpine, Texas, in 1995, then a second Reata in Fort Worth, and is slated to open 203 Café in Fort Worth this fall, cowboy cooking is synonymous with West Texas cooking. That means mesquite wood, slow-cooked brisket, and steaks on the grill. He, too, has a cookbook: “Reata: Legendary Texas Cooking” (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony, 2009). Like Perini and Lambert, Micallef agrees cowboy cooking is not barbecue and smoked meats. If it doesn’t harken back to trail drives, herding cattle, and chuck wagons, it doesn’t qualify.
“We’ve been doing this for 20 years. So yes, it’s got staying power,” he says. “People want things that are local. Texas cuisine and cowboy cuisine are both homegrown. It’s not French. It’s not fancy. It’s cowboy.”
Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer who splits her time between Santa Fe, North Texas and Paris, and who takes her cast-iron skillet, given to her by her mom, everywhere she goes.
GREEN CHILE HOMINY FROM PERINI RANCH STEAKHOUSE
Serves 10 to 12
• 10 slices bacon, fried crisp and chopped (reserve drippings)
• 1 cup chopped white onion
• 1 cup chopped green chile
• 1 tablespoon of pickled jalapeño juice
• 4 (15-ounce) cans white hominy, drained but reserve the liquid
• 1/2 pound cheddar cheese, grated
1. Put 3 tablespoons of the bacon grease and the onions in a large skillet, and cook over medium-low heat until transparent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add three-fourths of cooked, chopped bacon, and green chile to the skillet (reserve the last fourth for garnish).
2. Add jalapeño juice and 1/2 cup hominy liquid to the mixture. Increase heat to medium and cook until it reaches a low boil.
3. Add hominy and cheese, and turn off the heat. Let the cheese melt. Top with bacon and green chile, and serve.
—Perini Ranch Steakhouse, 3002 FM 89, Buffalo Gap, 325-572-3339, www.periniranch.com/steakhouse
LOU LAMBERT’S APPLE BLACKBERRY CAKE COBBLER
Serves 20-24 (cooked in a 14-inch, 10-quart Dutch oven)
• 4 golden delicious apples, peeled, cored, 1/2-inch dice
• 4 jazz apples, peeled, cored, 1/2-inch dice
• 4 ounces butter, melted
• 1/4 cup granulated sugar
• 1/4 cup brown sugar
• 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 20 ounces fresh blackberries
• 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
• 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 1/4 cup whole milk
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 4 ounces butter, melted
• 2 teaspoons vanilla
• 3 large eggs
• 2 cups granulated sugar
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2/3 cups brown sugar
• 8 ounces unsalted butter, cubed
• 1 1/3 cups old-fashioned oats
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
1. For the fruit, combine the apples with the melted butter in a mixing bowl and set aside. Next, combine the sugars, flour, cinnamon, and salt. Pour two-thirds of the sugar mixture into the apples and stir to combine, reserving the remaining one-third for the berries. Pour the seasoned apples into your Dutch oven and bake covered for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, uncover, and let cool while making the batter.
2. For the batter, combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, combine all the wet ingredients and mix to combine. Add the wet to the dry and stir until batter is smooth, about 2 minutes.
3. For the crumb, combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and work the butter into the dry ingredients until the crumb holds together when you squeeze together in your hand.
4. To build the cobbler, evenly pour the batter over the par-cooked apples. Toss the blackberries with the remaining one-third sugar/flour mixture. Spread the berries over the apples. Next, evenly top the berries with the crumb mixture. Cover the Dutch oven, and take to the fire, cooking at a moderate heat for about 45 minutes until dough is set and crumb is golden.
Note: To cook in the oven, preheat to 350°F, and make cobbler in a 17-inch cast-iron skillet. Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until crumb topping is brown and crisp.
Allow the cobbler to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.
—El Cosmico, 802 S. Highland Avenue, Marfa, 432-729-1950, www.elcosmico.com/stay/happenings/camp-cooking
REATA’S RODEO RIBEYE WITH JALAPEÑO CILANTRO BUTTER
• 6 (14- to 18-ounce) beef ribeye steaks, well-trimmed
• 2 tablespoons Reata Grill Spice (below)
• 1 onion
• 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
• 12 tablespoons Jalapeño Cilantro Butter (below)
1. Lightly dust each side of the ribeyes with Reata Grill Spice.
2. Heat grill to high.
3. Slice onion in half and put a fork in the rounded end.
4. Run the flat side of the onion over the hot grate to lightly oil and season the grill.
5. Place seasoned ribeyes on grill.
6. To make distinct grill hash marks, turn the ribeye at a 90-degree angle after about 2 minutes keeping the steak on the same flat side. After 2 to 3 more minutes, flip the steak to the other side.
(The time estimates here are for a medium rare steak — exactly how we like it!)
7. Regularly baste the ribeye with melted butter to keep the steak moist, cooking both sides to your desired temperature. Serve topped with about 2 tablespoons of Jalapeño Cilantro Butter.
JALAPENO CILANTRO BUTTER
Makes about 16 tablespoons
• 1 pound unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
• 1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and minced
• 1 fresh shallot, peeled and minced
• 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
• 1 tablespoon kosher salt
• 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Simply chill blended butter in refrigerator for about 30 minutes and then roll it into a medium-sized log on wax paper. Tightly wrap log in wax paper, twist the ends and freeze. When you ready to use, remove from freezer and slice off rounds as needed.
REATA GRILL SPICE
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
• 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• 4 tablespoons ground thyme
• 3 tablespoons garlic
• 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
• 1/4 cup ground cumin
• 1/2 cup ground paprika
Mix all together and store in an airtight container.
—Reata Fort Worth, 310 Houston St., Fort Worth, 817-336-1009, www.reata.net