There's more to Texas cuisine than barbecue, Tex-Mex and chili. Much more, and Stephan Pyles is doing his best to see that unenlightened Americans know about it.
You could not have a much better teacher than Mr. Pyles. Voted outstanding American chef, Southwestern region, in 1991 by the James Beard Foundation, this soft-spoken Texan loves to talk about the range and complexity of his native state's cookery.
There are, he notes, at least 25 different national and ethnic groups among the settlers of this largest of the lower 48 states. In addition, five of America's seven geographic regions can be found within its boundaries, yielding a diversity of foodstuffs that has further shaped cooking in the Lone Star State. It all adds up, says Mr. Pyles, to a cuisine that cannot be pigeonholed into a few simple descriptive terms such as Tex-Mex or barbecue. He explains it all in "The New Texas Cuisine" (Doubleday, $30), an engaging 428-page volume written in a low-key, conversational style.
And what is "new Texas" cuisine? According to Mr. Pyles, it's a healthier version of the old. Sauces are thinner and flavors are cleaner. Fruits add zip to a new range of salsas and fresh herbs play a major role in cooking.
Food wasn't always foremost in Mr. Pyles' mind. A music major at East Texas State University, he envisioned a different career. But a three-week graduation trip to France that stretched to three months turned his life around.
"I was watching a pastry maker," he recalls, "and suddenly realized that the creativity that goes into composing can be an integral part of food preparation, as well. After the basic dough is mixed, the layering and decoration of the finished product can turn it into a work of art."
Once back in Texas, Mr. Pyles had his work cut out for him. He spent his days waiting tables and his nights teaching himself to cook, poring over classic French cookbooks.
A stint as chef's assistant at the Great Chefs of France Cooking School at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley had a major influence on his cooking style. When Mr. Pyles opened his own restaurant, the award-winning Routh Street Cafe, in Dallas, in 1983, the food he served was "French with a Texas twist," using local ingredients and Southwest seasonings.
Over the years, Mr. Pyles says, his cooking has grown. "It's not as subtle, or as French. Today my food is more complex, more colorful."
You might say, it's more Texas.
Make this relish, says Mr. Pyles, when melons are in peak season. Substitute Crenshaw, musk or casaba if they are riper. Serve with grilled fish, chicken or meat.
Makes about 2 cups
1 small mango, peeled and pitted
1 serrano chili, seeded and deribbed
juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoons red bell pepper, cut into 1/8 -inch dice
1/2 cup cantaloupe, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
1/2 cup honeydew, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
2 tablespoons cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4 -inch dice
1/2 cup jicama, peeled and cut into 1/4 -inch dice
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
In food processor or blender, puree mango with serrano chili and lime juice. Place diced vegetables and fruit in a mixing bowl, add puree and thoroughly combine. Mix in cilantro, salt and pepper, and adjust seasonings to taste. Gently fold in sour cream and serve immediately.