By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
Coming home after a three-week vacation at her West Texas ranch, Liz Lambert decides to take another day off. This isn’t her usual style. You don’t make an unmistakable imprint on Austin real-estate development by staying home with your honey and letting Bunkhouse Management manage itself. But summer 2011 has contained one 105-degree day too many.
“We’re going to huddle in the house,” Liz says. “It’ll be like a snow day.”
“We’re calling it a snug-in,” says her partner, the singer-songwriter Amy Cook. “We’re going to watch movies and have candles at the ready in case there’s a blackout. We’re making sure there’s plenty of food in the larder. We already got our box from Farmhouse Delivery and I bought good bread, salami, cheeses….”
The last items came from Whole Foods Market, where Liz has been known to stop mid-aisle to call her brother Lou, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and owner of Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue in Austin and Lambert’s Steaks, Seafood and Whiskey in Fort Worth. “It’s Dial-A-Chef!” she says. “I’ll say ‘Hey, how much chicken do I need?’ or ‘Help, the roux isn’t thickening!’”
In a gumbo-raised family, this qualifies as a true emergency. “You have to go far enough down the road that the roux gets brown, and it takes a good 45 minutes,” Liz says. “Even then, you could burn it and have to throw the whole thing out. Lou taught me how to hold a knife, make an emulsion for vinaigrette, how to chop an onion. More than I’ll ever know.”
Big Ranch, Big City, Lou’s just-published cookbook, contains some of that advice and more. “I read the whole thing last night,” Liz says. “These are the foods we grew up with! Louis says my mother’s repertoire was six casseroles and two restaurants, but I say it’s amazing she managed to keep food on the table, because I had three brothers who played football and there were people in the kitchen all the time.” Sometimes these guests had the kitchen all to themselves, she recalls, because the Lamberts had gotten tired and gone to bed.
“We always had beef, of course,” she says. “I grew up in Odessa, and my parents were in ranching. We’d get taken out of school for roundups. There was a cook wagon with a guy named Lalo, bird hunting and deer hunting, and that’s where my dad stepped in to cook. He was from Port Arthur, so he made gumbo. Good gumbo.”
He passed this skill on to Lou and perhaps, to Liz, who may or may not be ready for an ultimate gumbo family smackdown. Not that she feels competitive, but she’s known to gravitate toward “big risks, crazy risks.” “You have to take them,” she says. In life, sure—but in food?
“You know what? The other day I made an insane gumbo.” A pause ensues. “But I will never surpass their gumbo. Now, I do cook a lot of pinto beans. Really good pinto beans. That’s Violamore’s recipe. We grew up with her—she was more than a housekeeper. And her fried chicken! It was insane. And her silver-dollar pancakes! She was a great cook.”
A lot of excellent food has been served to Liz Lambert, some of it in the hip, even rarefied, hotels and restaurants she developed herself. Yet there’s nothing highfalutin about her enthusiasm for a good meal, or the style she brings to her patently un-snooty kitchen—a red-checked, pearl-snap shirt, blatantly slept-in hairdo, big smile, too-small 1920s kitchen with original pine floors.
Liz bought her then-decrepit house for a dollar from a Hill Country church and had it moved to its current lot in Travis Heights, where she had it stripped to the bone, salvaged the plank flooring and concocted a homier version of the Hotel San Jose look—a spare landscape, concrete countertops, sculptural antlers on white walls. Liz calls herself a neat freak, and not much is out of place. But the repurposed frontier atmosphere doesn’t take itself too seriously. A photograph on the wall next to the magnetic knife strip shows Allen Ginsberg, naked from the waist up, eating Grape-Nuts in someone else’s kitchen, maybe his own.
“I’m the daily cook around here,” Liz says. “It relaxes me. You know what I do? A really good, easy-to-cook chicken. You make a mirepoix, you put in stock—you could use water, but this is so much richer. From there you can make anything—posole with red chili paste, tortilla lime soup with onions, sliced avocado. With Victoria beer. I’ve been loving that lately.”
In the face of an Austin summer, who wouldn’t? Outside the kitchen’s artificial cool is the brutal weather that inspired Liz and Amy’s snug-in. It turns out to be another brilliant idea. With a bowl of hot soup and the air conditioner blasting, you could almost imagine snow.
LIZ LAMBERT'S SNUG-IN SOUP
2 T. olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely diced
3 carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
1 whole chicken, skinned
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 t. oregano
2 t. kosher salt
1 t. freshly ground pepper
4 c. chicken stock
Heat a heavy soup pot on medium-high. Add the oil, then add the onion, carrot and celery and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, salt and pepper, and then add the chicken stock to the pot to cover the chicken. Bring to a boil and cover, then turn off the heat and leave on the stove for 30 to 45 minutes.
When the chicken is easily pulled off the bone, take it out of the pot and set aside to cool. When cool enough to handle, bone the chicken and shred the meat into bite-size pieces. Add the meat back to the soup.
This is a basic chicken soup. You can transform the basic chicken soup into any of the variations below. But when making any of them, don’t add the chicken back to the pot until you are almost ready to serve, for just enough time to bring the chicken to the temperature of the soup. If you boil the chicken too long it will become tough.
Chicken Noodle: add your favorite cooked pasta.
Chicken Vegetable: add squash, potatoes, green beans,
tomatoes—whatever is in the farm basket.
Chicken Posole: add chili puree (see recipe below) and
canned white hominy.
LIZ LAMBERT'S CHILI PUREE
2 ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded
and coarsely chopped
1 tomato, coarsely chopped
½ small yellow onion, coarsely
2 cloves garlic
Pinch of salt
1 t. ground cumin
1 T. cider vinegar
1 c. chicken stock
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook at a low simmer for 2 minutes, then cover, turn off heat and allow chilies to steep for 15 minutes. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth.