Dallas -- Do the words "Texas" and "cuisine" in the same sentence make you giggle? Swallow that amusement. These days Texas chefs, drawing on two centuries of dramatic history, are turning out molasses-glazed duck breast along with chicken-fried steak, shrimp tamales along with trail beans, and ancho chili chocolate mousse along with fried rice and coleslaw.
Make no mistake: Some Texans still like their steak charred and their poultry deep-fried. But, under the leadership of such star chefs as Stephen Pyles and Dean Fearing, they are learning how German immigration, Southern (French and African) foods and techniques, and the proximity of Mexico can be stirred up into a cuisine that represents regional cooking at its best.
"There are 25 different ethnic influences, but only three major ones and a couple of minor ones that make Texas cuisine what it is," Mr. Pyles told a group of food professionals attending the Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association annual convention, held last week in Dallas.
Mr. Pyles cited ranch, or cowboy-style cuisine as the primary influence, as German and Central European immigrants in the mid-1800s brought traditions of sausage making and meat preservation to the Texas Hill Country. Other influences: Southern cooking, as settlers moved West from Arkansas and Louisiana, and Sonoran, or Northern Mexican cooking, which brought such ingredients as avocados and chilies.
Whatever their origins, Texans have always preferred what chef Jim Mills calls "big, bold flavors." Mr. Mills, executive chef at the Crescent Court Hotel, trained under Mr. Fearing at the noted Mansion on Turtle Creek. (Although best-known around the world for the quality of its food, the Mansion is also known in Dallas as home base for the cast of the television series "Dallas.")
Mr. Mills' signature dishes include a Southwest Caesar salad with smoked chicken and ancho chili croutons, pheasant consomme with grilled mushroom won-tons, and barbecued shrimp on sweet corn spoon bread with buttermilk brown butter.
Anne Greer McCann, a cookbook author who specializes in foods of the Southwest, notes "chilies are everywhere." There's a chili mystique in the region, where, she says, chilies are believed to cure colds and toothaches, relieve bronchial irritation from smoke and recharge the metabolism.
Among the more surprising uses of chilies was in desserts. The signature of chef Michael Thomson, of Michael's in Fort Worth, is ancho chilies, which appear throughout his menu -- in a contemporary ranch dressing (which also includes Old Bay seasoning), in ancho chicken casserole, and in pumpkinseed crusted gulf snapper with tropical fruit pico relish. Rehydrated and pureed ancho chilies (ancho is the dried version of the poblano pepper) also infuse an ethereal chocolate mousse, served in cinnamon snap baskets.
Mr. Thomson calls his flavors "contemporary ranch," but, he says, "It's more than a cuisine, it's a lifestyle."
Fans of "Dallas" might be surprised to learn that the lifestyle depicted in its contemporary program, "Falcon Crest," could as easily have been set in Texas as in California.
There are 26 wineries in Texas today, exactly the number there before Prohibition, and some of them are producing prize-winning wines, including sparkling wines. Wines from Cap Rock and Pheasant Creek, of Lubbock, Texas, and Fall Creek of Bryan and Ste. Genevieve of Fort Stockton are fast approaching the quality of California varietals, at least according to Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Rick Perry. He points out that when the root louse phylloxera devastated European vineyards in the 1880s, it was Texas rootstock that got them growing again.
The Texas Department of Agriculture recently asked restaurants throughout the state to devote at least a portion of their menu to Texas foods, a program referred to as "Totally Texas."
Among restaurateurs taking up the challenge is Mr. Pyles, who closed his four-star Routh St. Cafe in January and plans to open, early next year, Star Canyon, devoted completely to contemporary Texas cuisine.
Mr. Perry also notes that Texans hate to be second to anybody in anything. Although he has to give the nod to California in grapes and other agricultural products, he claims for Texas the honor of being the country's leading producer of ostrich meat. Ostrich is a lean red meat just being championed by chefs, but, at $20 to $30 a pound, "it'll be a while before you see an ostrich burger at McDonald's," he says.
Here's a recipe from chef Michael Thomson, a tall, striking man with a ponytail and cowboy boots, whose restaurant has rusted iron accents, M-branded concrete floors, and touches of leather, cowhide and burlap in its decor.
Contemporary ranch dressing
Makes about 4 cups
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups mayonnaise
1 package (2 ounces) ranch dressing mix, such as Hidden Valley brand
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder (see notes)
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients with a wire whisk until well-blended. Store any unused portion tightly sealed in refrigerator.
Notes: Mr. Thomson suggests serving the dressing over a mixture of field greens or favorite lettuces and sliced mushrooms, garnished with a mixture of coarsely ground pumpkin seeds, pecans, sunflower seeds and pistachio nuts.
Ancho chili powder is ground ancho chilies, and is different from the "chili powder" found at most spice counters. Look for it at specialty food stores. Another source is Pendery's of Fort Worth, which carries a wide variety of Texas, Southwest and other herbs, spices and seasoning products. For a free catalog, call (800) 533-1870.