Last fall, when we published our first “Specialty of the House,” we knew home cooking was back in favor. But far from a fad, the no-frills traditions of the American kitchen have turned out to be a standard for the future. For those of us who have moved miles from home, honest and unassuming cuisine is a flashback to the wonder years. In our search for simplicity in life, a straightforward recipe that calls for neither exotic ingredients nor excruciating technique makes cooking a pleasure again. And in this health- conscious age––when nutritionists hurl the same wrath on triglycerides that Cotton Mather hurled on the seven deadlies––a little Brown Betty or strawberry shortcake provides that small percentage of sinfulness so necessary to a happy life.
In the latest search for our gallery of home cooks and their favorite dishes, we found that the virtues of Mom-style are being upheld across the state. But Texas, with its wealth of cultures and cuisines, is home to more than meatloaf and chicken à la king. We found a United Nations of cooking on our turf––from Tex-Mex chicken with a Cajun twist to a recipe for Creole oysters that arrived by way of Mobile, Alabama. There is authentic (really authentic) Italian pizza, and baked shrimp with a Mediterranean pedigree. These are recipes––some of them written down for the first time––that get passed from generation to generation, that are family traditions and keepsakes.
Christina Patoski and Johnny Reno’s Saganaki Tourkolimano
This may be Fort Worth’s most multimedia household. Christina Patoski is a journalist who also works in film and video production and who is currently preparing a book of her color photography. Her husband, John Reno, the saxophonist and guiding light of the nationally popular group Johnny Reno, is also breaking into an acting career. As might be expected, Patoski and Reno don’t always get dinner at home. And in the worlds of music and video, the fare is not always cordon bleu. “When I’m touring with the band, we have a rule,” says Reno. “Never eat on an empty stomach, because then you’ll eat anything.”
A first-generation American, Patoski credits her Greek mother with this thoroughly Mediterranean—and novel—combination of shrimp and feta cheese; it’s an on-the-money main course that begs to be served over pasta. “I had this dish on Tourkolimano Bay,” Patoski says. “After hearing me describe it, several years later my mom, who is really a great cook, came up with the recipe.” Even in the high-tech world of mass communications, Mom-style rules the kitchen.
Saganaki Tourkolimano Recipe
Chip Oswalt’s Ceviche
Chip Oswalt, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at Seton Medical Center in Austin, has made a name for himself as the head of the heart-transplant team at Seton’s Central Texas Heart Institute, the first such program in the state’s capital. At home, when the doctor is in, he’s usually in the kitchen. “Chip and I both enjoy getting in the kitchen,” says Karen Oswalt. “We cook together at least a couple of nights a week.” When their daughters—Sara, 12, and Claire, 10—join in, the scullery can really start to bustle. But no one forgets who wields the scalpel or the Ginsu knife. “It’s real important to stress how easy this ceviche is,” Chip says, “especially if you don’t mind chopping.”
Easy it may be, but the Oswalts’ interpretation of the classic marinated fish took time to develop. “We had ceviche back in Mexico after we were first married,” Chip recalls, “and we liked it so much that over the years we tried to figure out our own way of doing it. We went from a simple pico de gallo to making this recipe.” The crucial element, he says, is the freshness of the ingredients, whether in the jalapeños and tomatoes Chip grows in his garden or in the just-caught fish the Oswalts bring in on their own hooks. “I like the idea of eating fish that you’ve caught,” says Chip. “I’ve used just about anything—bass, speckled trout.” And this ceviche gets the low-fat, low-cholesterol seal of approval. “I didn’t make this recipe just because it’s heart-healthy,” the good doctor says, “but it’s sure worth mentioning.”
Judith Zaffirini’s Praline Pecans
Judging from the crunchy sweetness of her praline pecans, one could guess state senator Judith Zaffirini conducts the affairs of the kitchen with the same drive she applies to affairs of state. A Laredo Democrat and the first Mexican American woman to be elected a senator in Texas, Zaffirini is known in the political arena for her dedication to family issues. She has been married 25 years to her childhood sweetheart, attorney Carlos Zaffirini, and the arrival of Carlos Junior, now seven, sparked his mother’s interest in cooking. With baking as her favorite pastime, Zaffirini has made a name for herself among the next generation of voters—her son’s classmates, who have honored her as Best Cooker in the World. Among her peers Zaffirini is known for her praline pecans—the candy-coated nut halves are both more appealing and less cloying than the glopped-together variety. Zaffirini often stocks the senators’ lounge with them. “Always arrange them with the round side up,” she says, with the rectitude becoming of a senator. Should our elected representatives ever decide to name an official state candy, Judith Zaffirini’s praline pecans could well win on a voice vote.
Praline Pecans Recipe
Jay Monday and Terry Ybanez’s Pollo Picante
When San Antonians Jay Monday and Terry Ybanez get together, things invariably heat up. Capitalizing on their good ol’ boy-senorita mix, they indulge in conjunto cooking of a sort, making up new dishes as they go along. Most of their concoctions, Monday admits, end up with a decidedly Mexican accent, suggesting who is boss in the couple’s King William kitchen. “I’m always starting some bland down-home thing like a rabbit stew,” he says, “and the next thing I know it’s swimming in chiles and almost hot enough to cook itself.” Outside the kitchen, Monday is a building contractor who swears he can still find work in downturned Texas. Ybanez is a bilingual kindergarten teacher and an artist: Her painting El Milagrito was chosen as the poster for the “Blue Star IV” art exhibit this year. Both Monday and Ybanez are worn out by suppertime, so they lean toward quick and easy concoctions, including pollo picante, their mutual favorite. “It takes only thirty minutes,” says Ybanez, “and though it’s obviously best when you make the picante sauce from scratch, you can also cheat and use bottled Pace sauce instead.” Monday adds, “In the interest of full disclosure, though, you should call the shortcut version Pacemaker Chicken.” This spicy dish is sure to get your heart rate up.
Pollo Picante Recipe
Andrea Guidi di Bagno’s Pizza
“I used to eat pizza in Italy, and I couldn’t find any here that I liked,” says Andrea Guidi di Bagno, remembering how—as has been true for so many artists—dissatisfaction led to creation. “One day I just had to have a good Italian pizza. I went into my kitchen, and by a fluke I got it right.” Di Bagno, an art conservator for Houston’s Menil Collection, has reclaimed a culinary masterpiece from its fast-food ignominy. An American raised in Rome, Paris, and Geneva, Di Bagno returned to this country several years ago with her husband, Alex, an Italian executive. With their two daughters, Alessandra and Arabella, the transatlantic family settled into a nice routine—except for one crucial element. But with this authentic dish, which boasts the lightest, thinnest of crusts imaginable, everything was made right. And Di Bagno’s palette of toppings—tomatoes, Monterey Jack and mozzarella cheeses, fresh basil, and anchovies—is a startling, refreshing change from the usual thick-crusted pepperoni-with-extra-cheese. In the words of the culinary artist herself, “Keep the pizzas simple. And don’t mix too many flavors together.” With the family now preparing to move for Alex’s new job in Tuscany, Di Bagno says she will miss Texas. Fortunately, we won’t have to miss her pizzas.
Maryln Schwartz’s Creole Oysters
According to unnamed sources, Dallas Morning News columnist Maryln Schwartz has been leading a double life. The public knows her as a regular observer of Dallas behind the scenes, whether the scene is sports, politics, or even Van Cliburn’s recent tour of the Soviet Union. But in private, Schwartz can cook up a fine mess of Southern food. A native of the Alabama Gulf Coast, Schwartz remembers her childhood there as a solid grounding in the gustatory arts. “Mobile has a cooking tradition as rich as that of New Orleans,” she says. “I remember going to the beach with my family. We’d eat at these houseboat restaurants that had the most wonderful Creole food.” Schwartz hasn’t let the memories fade. This recipe, a piquant gratin of baked oysters, could take anyone back to halcyon Mobile. It’s also the perfect recipe for anyone with a schedule as hectic as a reporter’s. “It’s a great dish for company because it can be put together very quickly,” Schwartz says. “With my job, I can think I’ll be home at four o’clock to start dinner, but it’ll be seven o’clock by the time I walk in the door.” After sampling her Creole fare, we doubt that anyone is going to get too riled if dinner is just a wee bit late.
Creole Oysters Recipe
Melissa Miller and Bill Kennedy’s Curried Broccoli Soup
When we first contacted Melissa Miller and Bill Kennedy about appearing here with their favorite dish, they said, “Fine, we’ll call Domino’s.” Not that the Austin couple don’t cook. In fact, they’re quite accomplished at it, as their creamy, smoky curried broccoli soup proves. But when you’re an internationally known painter as she is and an editorial and commercial photographer and university professor as he is, sometimes it’s just easier to dial for dinner. But Miller and Kennedy, who recently married, believe that even when their schedules conflict, it’s still important to cook a good, well-rounded meal, especially for the sake of Bill’s two daughters, Nell and Greer, “Cooking to satisfy yourself and your kids is a good survival skill,” Bill says. Although Miller is learning to be a stepmother, she is not having to learn how to cook. Miller — whose haunting paintings of animals in mysterious settings have appeared in the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennale, and her own one-woman show at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth — once earned her keep with cooking rather than art. “I’ve had that soup recipe for years. I discovered it when I was traveling around the States in 1974. I would stay with friends and cook in exchange for room and board. So wherever I went, I could offer them broccoli soup and apple pie.”
Curried Broccoli Soup Recipe
Rob Mosbacher, Jr.’s Spaghetti and Meatballs
Washington has its Bush and Mosbacher seniors, but Texas claims the junior versions. The sons of the president and his Secretary of Commerce are active in business and politics here. Rob Junior, an attorney and the president of Mosbacher Energy, is a rising GOP star (for one, he served as finance chairman for the Texas Republican party). He has also taken a turn or two in front of the range. “I find it’s very relaxing to prepare a meal from start to finish,” Mosbacher says. “I enjoy relatively simple recipes, so you don’t have to be a graduate of a fine cooking school to make them.” Regarding this particular recipe, a down-to-earth version of the perennial covered-dish candidate, Rob trumpets its platform with the populist flair of a future campaigner: “Spaghetti and meatballs is something people in this country love.” This dish, which was created by the mother of a family employee, is certainly a favorite with all of the Mosbachers. “You’ll find it’s one of the better sauces,” says Mosbacher. “And the meatballs are excellent—these aren’t golf balls.”
Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe