B is for chicken-fried steak

'Texas Highways' is a treasury of classic recipes, the trick is finding them

Texas restaurants and home cooks serve a lot of shrimp. One of the first dishes I had when I visited San Antonio 16 years ago, was Maggie's Restaurant's barbequed shrimp, each little shellfish stuffed with a sliver of jalapeño, wrapped in bacon, slathered in smoky sauce, and grilled. Of course I moved here. La Fonda on Main dishes up shrimp with a Mexican black-olive-and-caper-laden Veracruzana sauce. Farmers in Imperial, Texas are raising organic shrimp using a remnant of the Permian Sea that once covered our fair state `see "Saltwater gold," October 14-20, 2004`, and it just so happened I had a 5-pound box from the Permian Sea Shrimp Store in my freezer when Cooking with Texas Highways, a culinary survey produced by the popular state-sponsored travel magazine, arrived in the mail.

But I was distressed upon checking the index to find only one (not particularly Texan) entry for shrimp: Shrimp and Broccoli with Pine Nuts. As I discovered shortly, there are a few identifiable shrimp recipes under Fish and Seafood, but given that "Prickly Pear" was a main heading, "Shrimp" might at least have a cross-reference. You've got to find the many other recipes featuring shrimp - including Paella Valenciana and well-known Texas chef Jay McCarthy's Cactus Shrimp with Cactus-Lime-Butter Sauce - by leafing through the book. Inattention to details such as this make Cooking with Texas Highways a fun supplement rather than a must-have guide that can stand on its own two-steppin' feet.

Another shrimp-bearing recipe, Gerling Family Cajun Gumbo, encouragingly starts with a roux, the oil and flour amalgamation that provides the signature rich base for gumbo, etoufee, and many other Cajun dishes. But the book seems to suggest that you can whip up one in 20 or so minutes; in my experience it takes an hour of constant attention and stirring to get that caramel brown ambrosia. "Immediately remove any bits of blackened flour; they give the roux a bitter flavor," suggests Texas Highways, but better advice would be to throw out the batch and start over. Another good idea is to steam the seafood separately and add it to the gumbo at the last minute, as some of the finer Galveston restaurants do; the seafood is never tough or dry no matter how long your gumbo has been atop the stove.

Cooking with Texas Highways

Edited by Nola McKey
University of Texas Press
$24.95, 272 pages
ISBN: 0292706294
The frequent aside - feel free to use a commercial roux - is probably more in touch with modern Texas cooks, anyhow, but I wish they'd recommend a brand. The editors are similarly cavalier about the prickly pear tuna fruits required for McCarthy's recipe: "Look for them in stores from midsummer to late fall." If there's a cookbook I would expect to guide me to the best farmers' markets (or sources for mail-order, almost-homemade roux), this would be it. After all, Texas Highways has covered most of the state on foot or wheel.

Nonetheless, there is enough culinary anthropology here to make you feel like a participant in a storied and important vein of American cooking. The tale of Ro-Tel Tomatoes & Green Chilies proceeds the recipe for Famous Ro-Tel Cheese Dip, and the once-secret recipe for Austin dance hall The Broken Spoke's famous Chicken-Fried Steak is recounted here - indexed under B, so if you're looking up "Chicken-Fried Steak," you're SOL.

By Elaine Wolff

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