Eating Austin: ‘The Austin Cookbook’ teaches about city’s food culture

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, March 6, 2018 Austin360 Eats
“The Austin Cookbook” is a new book from Austin food writer Paula Forbes. Contributed by Robert Strickland

Paula Forbes reviews cookbooks for a living, but she didn’t hesitate when approached to write one of her own.

She had moved from Austin to New York and wasn’t exactly happy living away from the warm sunshine and breakfast tacos of her adopted hometown. Then a publisher expressed interest in a book about Austin food today.

“It seemed like a sign from the universe that I was supposed to move back to Austin and really dig in deep to the food scene here,” says the Wisconsin native and author of the forthcoming “The Austin Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (Abrams, $29.95). “I saw it as an opportunity to refall in love with it.”

But with such a strong narrative around barbecue and Tex-Mex, how would she tell a story about Austin food that honored the new chapters without trivializing the past?

“Austin has grown a lot over the last decade, and that has brought in a lot of new influences,” she says. “But the most interesting thing in Austin is where these things combine and intersect,” such as the vegetarian chili from Texas Chili Queens that, though completely meat-free, still upholds the Texas tradition of not using beans.

Instead of playing favorites in the book, which comes out March 20, she shares the spotlight, showcasing dishes from both Austin breakfast powerhouses Kerbey Lane and Magnolia, for instance, while also including an everything bagel kolache from Mañana, inside the chic South Congress Hotel.

In another example, rather than insisting that there’s only one way to make a breakfast taco, Forbes wrote an essay about how tacos are meant to express the individual preferences of the maker and lists more than two dozen possible ingredients that you might use to make yours.

Some of the recipes, including verde enchilada sauce, queso and brisket, are from her own stash, but more than 60 restaurants are featured in the book, from beloved haunts like Matt’s El Rancho and the Broken Spoke to the new generation of eateries that attract just as much attention, including Uchi and Uchiko, Mongers and Contigo.

Forbes has reviewed enough restaurant cookbooks to know that most of them are intimidating, to say the least. She specifically asked for dishes that she knew home cooks would have success replicating at home.

Barbecue, however, is another story. “It’s the most complicated thing in the book,” she says. It’s also the first chapter. She shares recipes for smoked turkey from La Barbecue, ribs from Stiles Switch and pork shoulder from Kerlin.

From there, she hits tacos and Tex-Mex, featuring recipes for Tacodeli’s carne asada, Tamale House East’s carne molida tacos and cochinita pibil from Curra’s, with a tour through the Texas standards of chicken-fried steak, pimiento cheese and Parkside’s macaroni and cheese. The “new Austin classics” include dishes that diners seek out at some of the city’s newer and noteworthy dining establishments, from the beet fries at East Side King to the duck confit at Justine’s.

Forbes talked with dozens of restaurant owners to glean their cooking tips, insights and stories to put today’s hype in context with the city’s history.

For example, after revealing the secret to the fried bacon at Joe’s Bakery — dip the strips of bacon in flour and refrigerate overnight, then fry in a hot pan as usual — third-generation restaurateur Regina Estrada explained why she’s still so committed to running the family’s East Austin eatery:

“I have some people come in, they will put on $5 worth of music — that’s about 20 songs — and they will sit there the whole time and just listen to the music. They say, ‘I remember when I used to come here with my dad.’ It takes them back to an Austin that’s disappearing. We’re serving generations of a family at a table. You know what I mean?”

One thing you won’t find in this cookbook is an Instant Pot recipe. “At some point, I’m going to have to review an Instant Pot cookbook, so I guess I’ll have to get one, but I like cooking slowly,” Forbes says. “I like having something simmering on my stove all day.”

Photos by Dallas-based Robert Strickland accompany nearly every dish, and Forbes doesn’t skimp on the salsa or margarita recipes or recommendations for further reading.

“This city is so many things to so many different people, and I wanted everyone to have a sample of what they think of as their Austin,” she says.

Chile con Carne Enchiladas

Cheese enchiladas doused in chile con carne sauce are the epitome of classic Tex-Mex. This version is made with Maudie’s classic chili sauce — meaning it’s pretty much just meat and chili powder. Corn tortillas are wrapped around a gooey, yellow cheese filling, and then smothered with chili sauce, chopped onions and cilantro. This right here is proper Texas comfort food.

Restaurants don’t make enchiladas quite the same way you would at home: They make them one serving at a time, directly on the plate, which is then run under a broilerlike heating element called a salamander (hence servers constantly warning you about hot plates). At home, it’s easier to do them in family-size batches in a baking dish in the oven, and cook them just long enough that everything gets piping hot. Serve these with rice and beans.

— Paula Forbes

1 recipe Chile con Carne Sauce, warm

1/4 cup vegetable oil

12 corn tortillas

3 cups shredded mild cheddar, colby or American cheese

Chopped onions (optional)

Chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Ladle about 1 cup of the sauce into a greased 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium high heat and add a tortilla; cook until just soft, 5 seconds on each side. Remove the tortilla to a plate and place a row of shredded cheese about the thickness of your thumb down the center of the tortilla. Roll the tortilla and place it in the baking dish. Repeat this process until all the tortillas are used and the baking dish holds a row of tightly rolled tortillas. Ladle the rest of the sauce over the top, and sprinkle with any remaining cheese.

Bake until bubbling and hot, about 10 minutes, and serve, topped with chopped onions and cilantro, if desired. Serves 6.

Chile con Carne Sauce

This recipe from Maudie’s is about as old-school as it gets. This recipe is just ground beef, spices and water, more or less, but that’s all you really need.

8 ounces ground beef

2 tablespoons dark chili powder

2 teaspoons paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons granulated garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Put the beef in a pot, add 1 cup water and stir until thoroughly combined. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer over medium-low heat. Break up the chunks of ground beef with the back of a spoon and simmer until just cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, cumin, black pepper and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. Add 2 cups water to the pot and return to a boil. Add the spices, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch with 1 cup cold water and slowly pour the mixture into the chili, stirring. Simmer for 4 more minutes, and the sauce is ready for enchiladas or whatever you see fit to serve it over. Makes enough for 12 enchiladas.

— From “The Austin Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (Abrams, $29.95) by Paula Forbes

Okra With Walnuts

Contigo is a restaurant you would only find in Austin. The restaurant is almost entirely outdoors, a patio of long tables and picnic benches, trussed with strings of lights. Chef Andrew Wiseheart and his team prepare dressed-up bar food with a Texas accent, including rabbit and dumplings, crispy fried green beans and one of the city’s finest burgers.

This, though, might just be my favorite thing on the menu. Okra and walnuts are a brilliant pairing, as the seeds of the okra mimic the texture of the walnuts, but you could also use green beans for a similar effect. Jalapeño and vinegar give it welcome sass. Okra haters, try this one. You might surprise yourselves.

— Paula Forbes

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound okra, sliced 1/2-inch thick on a bias

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 cup thinly sliced shallot

1 jalapeño, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 cup toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

1/2 cup Sun Gold, Juliet or cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1/2 cup sherry vinegar

4 tablespoons cold butter

Black pepper and salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a large saute pan or cast-iron skillet until nearly smoking. Add the okra and 1/2 teaspoon salt and saute until it begins to brown, about 1 minute.

Add the shallot and jalapeño and saute until the shallot softens, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Add the walnuts, tomatoes and vinegar; cook until almost all the vinegar has evaporated.

Remove from the heat, add the butter and toss until it is melted and the vegetables are glazed. Season with black pepper and salt, to taste. Serve immediately.

— From “The Austin Cookbook: Recipes and Stories From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (Abrams, $29.95) by Paula Forbes