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Cookbook Review: Dean Fearing's Texas Food Bible

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What does it mean to call a book a "bible"? Beyond the actual, literal Bible, the title implies a comprehensive reference, a one-stop shop. Think Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, which is in its 8th edition since it was first published in 1988. Beranbaum's book gives readers the ability not just to bake her cakes but also to create cakes of their own, using her recipes as a platform. In other words, you can use it to bake pretty much any cake you want. Amazon shows 1,083 cookbooks that have the word "bible" in the title: The Juicing Bible, The Wine Bible, The Cornbread Bible, The Barbecue Bible.


This Spring, Dallas chef Dean Fearing — one of the chefs who famously helped popularize "Southwestern Cuisine" in the 80s — released The Texas Food Bible. Putting aside the fact that I take issue with any book claiming to be an authority on Texan cuisine that doesn't include a section on cocktails (like, uh, margaritas), Fearing's book seems to take a respectable stab at covering the basics: chile, barbecue, tacos, enchiladas. When you start cooking the dishes, though, and you're up to your elbows in mise en place and barbecue sauce, it becomes clear that these are actually intricate (if scaled down) restaurant recipes. A more accurate title may have been The Dean Fearing Food Bible.

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Inside Fearing's Pantry

In the introduction to The Texas Food Bible, Fearing explains the title of the book:

Over the years so many people have asked me about Texas ingredients, "Tex-Mex" cooking, and how I incorporate all the various "ethnic" styles to make recipes my own that I began to create my own Texas food bible as a resource for my cooks. It is something we constantly use.

This seems to describe the first chunk of the book, a collection of "pantry" items like sauces and pickles, and also a brief rundown of some basic concepts like cooking dried beans, roasting and peeling chiles, and making stocks. Fearing told Eater Dallas he was actually opposed to this section at first:

Judy Choate, who was my editor for the book, we had a big discussion, almost slash fight, over why we would start the book with a section on sauces, salsas, vinegars, that kind of thing. I was like you know, is that really where it needs to be? And she said yes. She said we need to start the book with sauces and salsas so that people can see what they want to do before they get into the book, to know that there's all this information on all these different sauces.
Unfortunately, you have no army of prep cooks.

These recipes are the building blocks of everything else in the book. They're Fearing's mise en place, what he would have on the line at his restaurant. Unfortunately for you, though, you have no army of prep cooks to ready them before you start cooking.

There's nothing wrong with a cookbook full of restaurant recipes. Restaurant cookbooks are useful for so many reasons: they're souvenirs, they're inspiration for other chefs, they're insight into kitchen processes you'd otherwise only be able to guess at. But Fearing's book claims to be "the ultimate cookbook for Texas food lovers, home cooks looking to spice up their meals, and anyone who can't say no to a taco." Seeing as all three descriptors apply to me, I dove in.

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Modern Texas Cuisine, Traditional Texas Cuisine

Fearing told Eater Dallas he considers the book to have two types of recipes:

There's a whole bunch of great recipes in there that are very traditional and that have been around with me forever. Then there's of course the modern recipes from the restaurant entwined in the book, because I think that's an important part of showing modern Texas cuisine along with the more traditional Texas cuisine.

It's pretty obvious which recipes fall into the restaurant dish category. For example, South Texan Nilgai Antelope with Cactus Pear Glaze, Chile-Braised Rabbit Enchiladas, Jicama-Carrot Salad, and Two Chile Sauces. That's one entree. Here is another one: Texas Surf-and-Turf: Chicken-Fried Lobster and Barbecue Spiced Beef Tenderloin on "Loaded" Whipped Potatoes and Spinach Enchilada with Smoked Tomato Gravy. Not being a masochist, I skipped those.

Most of these seem like things East Texas grandmas could make blindfolded.

Instead, I picked what I thought were more home cook-friendly recipes: a smoked pork shoulder (the most obviously labor intensive of the dishes) to be served on Parker House rolls with a peach jalapeno sauce, creamy corn succotash, a field pea salad, and some chicken enchiladas (a gussied-up version of the famed King Ranch Casserole). With the exception of maybe the pork shoulder — based on a competition recipe from one of Fearing's employees — most of these seem like things East Texas grandmas could make blindfolded.

All of the dishes — with one minor exception, Parker House Rolls that baked into tiny doughy rocks — all turned out as advertised, and tasty, too. The Pork Should Butt with Apple Cider Injection (page 182) was juicy and lightly smoked and we sat eating it with our fingers far longer than advisable. It went great with the Jalapeno-Peach Chutney (page 45). Sweet Corn Cream Succotash (page 196) was a great upgrade on a classic, and the East Texas Field Pea Salad with Barbecued Thousand Island Dressing and Heirloom Tomatoes (page 102) was delicious and happened to be a great showcase for the produce in season in Texas right now. Eric's Ranch Chicken Enchilada Casserole with Roasted Green Chile Sauce (page 135) were some of the better enchiladas I've ever made, and I've made a ton of enchiladas.

But do not be fooled: these recipes are the children of Fearing's restaurants. Every dish is tweaked and upgraded, everything has capital-T Technique behind it. The book is littered with references to "four-star flavor" and flourishes that "fancy this recipe up." This is, as I've written previously, tablecloth barbecue. Fancy nacho cuisine.

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The Tyranny of Sub-Recipes

So what does that mean? In short, beware of sub-recipes. Take the field pea salad, for example. The photo shows a simple preparation of field peas tossed in a dressing, topped with basil and chopped tomatoes. Simple, right?

field-pea-salad-2.jpgIt took me hours to make. Before simmering the hull peas and sauteeing the bacon-loaded mirepoix, I investigated this Barbecued Thousand Island Dressing, of which the master salad recipe calls for half cup. The recipe for the dressing, in another chapter, makes two cups. That recipe calls for another sub-recipe: a quarter cup of Fearing's Texas-Style Barbecue Sauce, which requires some time in the oven, plus they want you to blend it and strain it before use. The barbecue sauce alone took over an hour to make. And now I have a ton of it.

In fact, by the time I was done testing recipes I had plastic containers full of barbecue sauce, Barbecued Thousand Island Dressing, the rub for the pork shoulder, and the succotash's corn cream left over. Some of these overages are excusable: A master recipe calls for a half cup of a dressing from another chapter, the dressing recipe says it makes two cups, you make a quarter of the recipe. Easy enough.

The barbecue sauce alone took over an hour to make. And now I have a ton of it.

Other times, though, the overage is intrinsic to a recipe. The Sweet Corn Cream Succotash (page 196) calls for you to cook down two cups of corn kernels with shallots, garlic, ground coriander, and a cup and a half of cream, and then blend it all together. It makes about three cups of corn cream. The next step of the recipe only calls for one cup of this mixture. This is an overage that could have easily been avoided.

Similarly, the filling for the enchiladas called for one cup onions (measured raw), two pounds of shredded chicken, a half pound shredded cheese, two cups of sour cream, a half cup of salsa (made from a sub-recipe, of course), a half cup roasted chiles, and a tablespoon of chile powder. He then has you roll up this massive quantity of filling in a mere six corn tortillas. I made half of the filling mixture and filled 14.

In other cases, quantities are comically small. I can't tell you how many recipes call for a tablespoon of minced onions. The field pea salad, no lie, calls for a quarter cup finely diced celery root. What are you supposed to do with the rest of it? Celery root are expensive, they're a pain in the ass to peel, and the exposed flesh browns if it's not cooked. All that for a quarter cup? I cheated: I used plain old celery, for the flavor.

The reason I'm pointing out these weird quantity inconsistencies (from recipes that otherwise work beautifully) is that the more I cooked out of The Texas Food Bible, the clearer it became that these are all restaurant recipes. Every single recipe here would be no sweat if you had Dean Fearing's line in front of you, chopped onions and barbecue sauce (that spent some time on a massive sheet tray in a massive convection oven) and specially-blended chile powder.

It makes me wonder if anyone prepared these in a home kitchen. To repeat myself: I do not have an issue with restaurant recipes in cookbooks. I do, however, think there is more to translating restaurant recipes for home cooks than a simple mathematical scaling, which is what seems to have happened here.

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Conclusion

Again, almost everything I cooked from this book turned out beautifully. The recipes in The Texas Food Bible will work if you follow them closely, and they will taste great (except for the Parker House Rolls). I am not sure they were quite good enough to warrant they time they took to prepare, but they were pretty damn good. If the issue were just the scaling problems, or just the Inception-style sub-recipes, this book may have gotten another star.

Is there a four year old in America who doesn't know what a quesadilla is?

But beyond the issues with the recipes, the book has flaws. The photography and layout is as dated as Fearing's constant intro-to-Tex-Mex sidebars that assume readers don't understand the concept of a tamale or a quesadilla. ("Quesadillas as Texas cooks make them are almost always made with a filling sandwiched between two large flour tortillas. The filling may still be as simple as some type of 'runny' cheese, but it may also be an elaborate mix of meat, vegetables, and herbs, always with some added heat.") Is there a four year old in America who doesn't know what a quesadilla is?

That said, it is not without charms. Again from Fearing's introduction: "While it's educational, I hope that The Texas Food Bible will also serve as a daily reference in every cook's kitchen." While I highly doubt anyone will be preparing the entrees from the cookbook regularly, I do think that the pantry section is worth the price of the book, and could be useful as the reference Fearing wants it to be. There are good tips here: the basics on how to cook dried beans, for example, and salad dressings and salsas that are a step up from standard. This section, and the fact that the recipes taste good, earn the The Texas Food Bible its one star.

The Texas Food Bible by Dean Fearing

Grand Central Life & Style

STAR RATING: One star

SKILL LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate, depending on your patience. None of it is that hard, it's just time consuming.

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Texans, North Texans, Tex-pats (as some might call them), people who liked the show Dallas, anyone who wants to fancy-up their nacho game, people who leave small plates restaurants hungry, enchilada enthusiasts.

WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Busy people, anyone on a diet, those interested in the whys and whens of Texas food history (see Robb Walsh for that), people who hate fakey Texas patois and/or Dad jokes.

MORE RECIPES TO TRY: Honestly I am exhausted just thinking about it.

BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's.

[Photos: Paula Forbes / Eater]

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