Texas on the Table

by Terry Thompson Anderson • Photography by Sandy Wilson

Texas is a big state. It covers more than 276,000 square miles, in 10 distinct climatic regions, 14 diverse soil regions, and 11 wildly divergent ecological regions. And in each, you’ll find an eclectic group of people who love their particular patch with a passion, whether it’s in the lush farmland of the Brazos Valley, the salty towns along the Gulf Coast, the rock-strewn Hill Country, the vast, arid lands of the High Plains, or sun-baked South Texas.

It’s a very exciting time to be cooking in Texas. This book offers up a collection of new and classic Texas recipes and tells the stories of the people—the farmers, ranchers, shrimpers, cheesemakers, winemakers, and chefs—who inspired so many of them and who are changing the taste of Texas food. It’s all about terroir, a French term that originally applied to wine but has become more broadly used to describe “a taste of place.” It refers to the scientific factors—climate, soil, and so on—that affect the way living things grow and thrive but also the cultural conditions that determine the unique flavor of the final product. Simply put, one of the things I discovered in writing this book is that the Texas terroir produces a taste like that of nowhere else.

People in every state have begun to embrace the idea that locally grown food tastes better. The agriculturally inclined men and women of Texas have responded in kind (though in some cases they were there all along). In the Hill Country where dairy cows and goats range on green pastures, artisan cheesemakers collect milk from their herds to make a variety of exceptional cheeses. In and around the little town of Medina, a vital apple industry has grown up based on fruit from dwarf trees. 

In South Texas, a thriving olive industry has taken root, with new orchards and tasty new varieties of olives being planted every year. 

On the coast, oystermen have begun selling their catch by appellation, charging premium prices for oysters from the best reefs. This practice is allowing them to earn a decent living.

Humanely harvested game from Broken Arrow Ranch is sought by chefs from around the country, and local lamb, bison, rabbit, quail, and duck are now as likely as beef to be on the menu at the state’s best restaurants. 

One of the most exciting agricultural industries in Texas today is the wine business. There are almost 300 wineries, in all corners of the state. While the modern Texas wine industry is young compared with those of Europe and California, it’s catching up fast. Viticulturalists and winemakers are experimenting with grapes from around the world, especially those native to the Mediterranean. Texas actually encompasses such a large area—equivalent to several of the wine-producing regions of the Mediterranean—that winemakers have the flexibility to produce a wide variety of wines and wine styles, from Spain’s Tempranillo to Germany’s Riesling. Grapes that originated in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Sardinia are flourishing in the Texas heat and growing in abundant supply. For most winemakers, these are the grapes of the Texas wine industry’s future.

Sandy and I traveled thousands of miles while researching this book. Some of the people you’ll meet in these pages were old friends; others were strangers who welcomed us into their lives and work. They taught us how grasses and grains differ, and when a grape is ripe for harvest, or how to separate the curds from the whey.

Many of the places we visited are family-run, even multigenerational, farms or food businesses. Many were started by retirees or refugees from the corporate world, finally doing what they really want to do. It shows. These folks don’t sell anything they don’t put on their own tables. They don’t take shortcuts. They treat their animals well. Many of their businesses are certified organic, an expensive and bureaucratic process. The hard part was trying to fit in as many as we could—there are many more. We hope you’ll find them as inspiring as we did. What I learned in writing this book proves the time-honored adage that what grows together, goes together.

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 Vaudeville

The Texas Hill Country has experienced an influx of talented young chefs who have been lured to the scenic area by both the rising bar of culinary awareness and, well, the scenery. Jordan Muraglia, a Denver, Colorado, native, is one of those chefs. His family acquired a ranch outside Fredericksburg, and Jordan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in close proximity to such a plethora of all-natural agricultural products. So he and his partner, Richard Boprae, moved to Fredericksburg and opened their own home accessory/design center/bistro on the town’s bustling Main Street. They named it Vaudeville, and it was an instant success. 

This dish has great eye appeal, with a fusion of flavors and textures, cooked and uncooked, hot and cold. Jordan says the dish is a testament to his version of the Hill Country experience. The dish is component driven, pulling from his own garden and utilizing local game. The various parts of the dish can also be well matched in many other applications. The wild boar rillettes are perfect to set out with some grilled bread and pickled cherries for a casual appetizer or on a charcuterie board. They can also be fried with sweet potatoes in a Sunday-morning hash and topped with a poached egg. The gazpacho sorbet is amazing on a lump crabmeat salad or shaken with vodka for a gazpacho martini that is sure to satisfy your Bloody Mary habit. The crispy heirloom tomato really goes with just about anything and can even substitute  for a hamburger patty for a vegetarian sandwich. Or it can replace a plain tomato slice on the hamburger. Great components make great dishes.

Broken Arrow Ranch 

Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram was founded in 1983 by Mike Hughes and his wife, Elizabeth. The Hugheses traveled frequently and noticed that venison and other wild game meats were prominent on European restaurant menus but not so in Texas. Mike also knew that large numbers of exotic species had been imported to Texas ranches for hunting purposes and that these animals had proliferated to the point that they were overgrazing Hill Country ranchlands. It was not a sustainable situation for either the animals or the land. 

Being a driven man, Hughes began a campaign to create a legal venison industry in Texas and the United States. There were no laws allowing such a business to exist, nor were there laws preventing it. He met with Texas legislators to see about classifying exotic (nonnative) animals as livestock, which meant they could be bought, sold, and inspected for meat. He worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens to clarify hunting laws as they pertained to exotic animals…. In the end, Hughes built the first mobile processing unit, then applied for a grant of inspection. The unit met all of the requirements, and nothing said it couldn’t be on wheels, so the Texas Department of Agriculture gave it the stamp of approval. The processing unit was driven to the ranch, and Hughes began harvesting exotic deer and wild boar. 

Broken Arrow is the only supplier of “wild” venison in the nation. The company employs professional hunters who harvest free-range game, using techniques that reduce stress in the animals, resulting in a better-quality meat, from more than 100 Texas ranches, which comprise about a million acres. The game grazes on native vegetation, giving the meat the complex natural flavors not found in strictly farm-raised animals. In addition to venison, Broken Arrow supplies wild boar and black antelope (nilgai) to chefs all over the country. 

Editor's note: Broken Arrow Ranch, now owned by the Hugheses’ son, Chris, produces meats that are purchased by small-town cafés and Michelin-starred restaurants. In addition, the company maintains a large retail trade through its website, brokenarrowranch.com

 

 

Introduction and recipes from “Texas on the Table: People, Places, and Recipes Celebrating the Flavors of the Lone Star State” by Terry Thompson-Anderson with photographs by Sandy Wilson (© 2014 by Terry Thompson-Anderson and Sandy Wilson. All rights reserved). Published by the University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com.