In the coming weeks, families across Texas will gather to puzzle over index-card recipes, stir sticky pots, peer into ovens, and maybe mop up a spill or two. These annual gatherings with family and friends are perhaps the greatest tradition of the holidays—a chance to celebrate the season, reflect on the year past, and look forward to the year ahead. Love fuels this flurry of activity, and our shared heritage of home-cooked comfort provides a rallying point that everyone can embrace: the holiday meal.
With the holidays approaching, we decided to explore a variety of seasonal comfort food by visiting with cooks from across the state. As you might expect in a state as diverse as Texas, the results are a rich mixture of tastes and traditions. Oh, and we asked for recipes too, like Tío Rod’s fiery salsa (roasted on the banks of the Rio Grande) and Elaine Erwin’s buttermilk pie (a Crockett favorite year-round).
We hope you find inspiration in these Texas traditions and embrace the season as a chance to celebrate your own. Happy holidays!
Chuckwagon Man: Celebrating with Tom Perini
First and foremost, Buffalo Gap restaurateur Tom Perini is a beef man. He comes from a long line of ranchers, and his Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap has been serving traditional cowboy cuisine since 1983. But he and his wife, Lisa, enjoy serving other favorite meats (along with traditional West Texas tamales) as appetizers to the main event at holiday time.
Tom often cuts a rack of lamb into chops, flavors them with Perini Ranch Steak Rub, and then cooks them over a mesquite fire. To grill 1 1/2-inch chops, he advises heating the grill enough that you can hold your hand close to the grate just about two seconds, then grill for three minutes per side for medium-rare to medium. “You need some color inside or they’ll be too dry,” he promises, adding that jalapeño jelly is the preferred condiment. Alternatively, Tom prepares St. Louis-style pork ribs as the holiday dinner starter. That same steak rub goes onto the ribs, along with extra freshly ground black pepper. Prepping the pit or smoker to about 250 to 275 degrees, he puts the rack on the grill bone-side down for two-and-a-half hours, then flips it for another 15 minutes, “just for good color.” The best way to see if they’re done? “Use tongs to pick up the rack in the middle; the rack should bend. If not, they’re not done yet.”
“We’ll have turkey and ham, too, and share the big feast with lots of friends from around here who join us. This way there are lots of leftovers to share with everyone.” —Tom Perini
Gatherings with the Perinis often include a wide network of friends, family, and colleagues, so Tom and Lisa prepare for a crowd. “We’ll have turkey and ham, too, and share the big feast with lots of friends from around here who join us. This way, there are lots of leftovers to share with everyone,” Tom says. “And we always have tamales, made by a local family. It’s a great Christmas tradition that we enjoy with Champagne, always on Christmas morning.” —June Naylor
Meat You There: Grilling with Lou Lambert
Fire fan Lou Lambert honed his chops at Reata in Fort Worth before wowing Texans with his sophisticated take on barbecue at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue in Austin. While his fame may have come in the city, his heritage is traced to West Texas, where his ancestors established cattle ranches soon after the Republic of Texas was founded. Family members still run those ranches, and the many cousins still gather every holiday season at the family’s grand Victorian home in Fort Davis or on a ranch between Marfa and Fort Davis.
“We’ll have 20 or so together at the holidays,” Lou says. “Between meals, we’ll hike, watch football, and shoot skeet.” Tables groaning under the weight of the giant potluck feature everything from turkey and oyster dressing to giant casseroles of potato gratin, green beans, carrots, and braised onions, along with Lou’s Caesar salad and lots of pies. The centerpiece, however, is usually beef tenderloin, crusted in black pepper, fresh thyme, and coarse salt, and served with a creamy horseradish sauce and pickled jalapeños. A foolproof crowd-pleaser, it cooks quickly and is guaranteed to steal the show. —June Naylor
An Original!: Enchiladas with Irma
Within minutes of stepping into Irma’s Original, the James Beard Foundation award-winning restaurant located in the shadows of Houston’s Minute Maid Park, you’ll feel like you’ve entered someone’s home. Part of it has to do with the big mural of Irma Galvan above the bar, which depicts the spunky owner smiling down at the main dining room like a mother looking fondly at her children. But more than that, it is her special brand of hospitality.
Once you’re seated, one of the servers—Irma herself, likely, or one of her kids—will greet you warmly, ask you if you’d like something to drink, then proceed to treat you as if you’re a guest at their home.
You will never get a menu. Because at Irma’s, there are no menus. Irma says it’s because most people can’t make up their minds about what they want. “If someone comes and says, ‘Well, I can’t make up my mind between the mole and the enchiladas,’ we’ll give her a half order of mole and an enchilada,” Irma explains. “We’ve been here 29 years, and that’s the way it is.”
Patrons can choose from items like spinach enchiladas, mole, chiles rellenos, carne guisada, enchiladas (chicken, beef, cheese, and Mexican enchiladas), chicken and beef fajitas, fish tacos, red snapper, and rib-eye steaks. During the holidays, however, Irma says emphatically, “Tamales are No. 1.”
Tamales are a Mexican holiday tradition, though she offers them throughout the year. Production increases five-fold right after Thanksgiving, when the restaurant makes between 50 and 75 dozen every week. Irma’s specialty is the puerco (roasted pork) tamale, but she also offers pollo verde made with chicken and green tomatillo sauce, as well as a vegetarian tamale stuffed with zucchini, carrots, and black beans.
Another treat for vegetarian diners is her spinach enchiladas, a house favorite. “It’s green, so it’s perfect for Christmas,” she says. —Mai Pham
Paradise Found: Breaking bread at Eve’s Garden
The banter among the family trio that co-owns Eve’s Garden Bed & Breakfast, an eclectic, seven-room retreat in the tiny Big Bend community of Marathon, reflects a hard-to-resist conviviality. Easygoing but always at work, Kate Thayer, her son Noble Baker (pictured), and Noble’s wife, Alaine Berg, run Eve’s Garden with special attention to their guests’ experiences, especially delicious meals.
They also bake together, a joint enterprise that is as much about providing breakfast for guests as it is their shared enthusiasm for the art of creating good food. The ambrosial Noble Bread, an Eve’s Garden favorite served with breakfast year-round, gets a special treatment for the holidays, transformed by fresh rosemary and tart cranberries into a savory Christmas delicacy. “We serve this holiday bread alongside warm, baked seasonal fruit and an egg frittata filled with home-grown greens,” Alaine says. “We also set the table with plates of French herbed olive oil for dipping, fresh butter, fun cheeses, jellies, avocado, and garden tomatoes—plus Champagne.”
Kate says that the mood at Eve’s Garden is festive all year, but especially during the holidays, when they often have visitors from throughout the United States and as far away as India, Germany, and France. “We serve breakfast at 9, but we invite people to come in at 8 to get to know each other,” she says. “We set up our tables so that it’s easy to talk to strangers, and we serve family-style. I’ve had people still at the table at 11, immersed in conversation.” —E. Dan Klepper
From the Valley to the Hills: Jack Gilmore’s holiday hash
Growing up among the citrus orchards, towering avocado trees, and fertile farmland in and around Brownsville, chef Jack Gilmore—owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Austin and Round Rock—has been connected to South Texas since he was old enough to climb the mango tree in his backyard. Today, the region’s bounty and robust flavors influence his comfort-driven menus with dishes like bacon-wrapped Texas quail and slow-roasted barbacoa.
Many of his favorite childhood food memories involve vegetables. For instance, he remembers his Hispanic aunt, “Tía Maria,” sizzling skillets of onions and a mix of calabacita, zucchini, and crookneck squashes.
The seductive aroma of vegetables browning in the pan led to his love of hash, a crispy, savory side dish of diced potatoes and various other vegetables and aromatics. Around the holidays, the chef pairs potatoes with butternut squash. “Butternut squash has the earthy characteristic of potatoes and the sweetness and color of pumpkins,” he says, “so it’s perfect for the season.” The recipe is also endlessly versatile. “Hash is basically a canvas for any of your favorite ingredients,” he says. “You can add chopped bacon, ham, shredded meat, or peppers,” he says. The dish is particularly great for holidays because it can be prepped in advance. Once the diced vegetables are roasted, they can be refrigerated for a couple of days and then finished in a cast-iron skillet with olive oil, butter, or bacon fat.
Hash is a snap to assemble, but the chef insists size matters. Whether you opt for a large or small dice, you’ll get the best results if you “cut everything the same size,” he says. Vegetable lovers will welcome the addition to the usual starch fest of mashed potatoes and cornbread dressing. “Hash is the perfect accompaniment to any roasted meat,” Jack adds, “and it’s delicious drizzled with maple syrup or honey.” Major bonus: Leftovers are even better the next day, topped with poached eggs. —Paula Disbrowe
Buttermilk Bliss: Stockman’s Steakhouse in Crockett
For the past quarter century, Elaine Erwin has been the chef and manager of Stockman’s Steakhouse in Crockett, and she knows the value of tradition and consistency when it comes to holiday meals. After all, sinking your teeth into your family’s heritage fills the heart as much as the stomach. Housed in the old Houston County Auction Barn, the steakhouse these days serves up steaks, baked potatoes and other sides, and sweet potato and silky buttermilk pies throughout the year—usually with a glass of sweet tea. But she has a special fondness for buttermilk.
“The only thing I add to the basic recipe is a little nutmeg,” says Elaine, who announced in November 2017 that she planned to close Stockman’s and retire at the end of that month.
She says that while the holidays are a great time to share culture and traditions, she tries to create a sense of community year-round, and she doesn’t shy away from sharing her recipes for togetherness. “I give these to anyone who asks. I don’t mind.” —Dana Goolsby
Ponche Navideño: Melissa Guerra’s traditional Christmas punch
For many people, the holidays are an especially stressful time. But for Melissa Guerra, whose eponymous website, melissaguerra.com, is an online kitchen marketplace and blog dedicated to the cuisine of South Texas, the season can also be a time to slow down and enjoy the company of the people we love.
“During the holidays, people get off their phones, unplug, and we just sit around,” Melissa says. While guests chat late into the night at her family’s cattle ranch 35 miles north of Edinburg, they’re usually sipping from a hot mug of ponche navideño, or Christmas punch.
“At the base of the punch is jamaica, which is the dried hibiscus flower,” explains Melissa, who also wrote the James Beard Award-nominated cookbook Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert: Norteño Cooking of South Texas. “Then, it has all these different fruits and dried ingredients that are a great illustration of ranch and South Texas culture.”
Although Melissa, an eighth-generation border Texan, didn’t start drinking ponche navideño herself until she was married, the tradition dates back hundreds of years. “Since we don’t have a ton of rain here, even our treats are dried,” she says. “These would have been special ingredients that you could have purchased at the local mercado, and they would have lasted for a while.”
The holidays at Melissa’s ranch are filled with family and friends. They typically enjoy a large midday meal and then a light supper of a few tamales and a hot cup of ponche.
“The biggest tradition for us, I guess, is just people,” Melissa reflects. —Daniel Tyx
Tamale time!: With Larry Delgado, it’s a wrap
Making tamales over the holidays has always been a family affair for Larry Delgado, the chef and owner of SALT: New American Table and House Wine & Bistro in McAllen. Growing up with nine sets of uncles and aunts on his dad’s side, plus 10 on his mom’s (and a veritable brigade of first cousins), making tamales was also an industrial-scale operation.
On a Sunday in December, the men and boys gathered at his paternal grandparents’ house in a rural colonia northwest of Edinburg to butcher a pig his uncles had fattened up throughout the year. “We did everything traditionally,” Larry recalls. “We’d shave, carve, cut chicharrones, stir the pot, light the fire, shovel coals—whatever needed to be done; everyone lent a hand.”
The following week, once all the meat had been slow-cooked, the women and girls convened in his late grandmother Leonor’s kitchen for a tamalada party. When Christmas Eve arrived, it was finally time to cook the tamales. “We’d eat tamales all night long, go to midnight Mass, come back, eat some more tamales, and then head home for a good night’s sleep,” Larry remembers.
These days, his Tía Lala makes tamales year-round, and the December tamalada tradition continues in smaller form at the home of Larry’s mother, Noelia. Now they use olive oil instead of lard, and don’t stick to pork. “We throw in beans, jalapeños, chicken, and whatever else we are feeling,” Larry says.
That spirit of innovation carries over at SALT, where he adds a different original tamale to the menu each holiday season. One year, it was a tamale stuffed with huitlacoche, a corn fungus that’s a popular Mexican delicacy. Another, it was a tamale with mole sauce wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks.
No matter if it’s the classic version or one of his signature concoctions, Larry says it just wouldn’t be Christmas without tamales. “I enjoy the history and nostalgia of it. Come Christmas, there’s never any shortage of tamales.” —Daniel Tyx
Holidays in the Kitchen: Southern-style with Ross Coleman
Growing up on the northwest side of Houston, Ross Coleman says his mama always took care of the holiday meals. “We would usually have a nice gathering and would eat traditional things like turkey, ham, mac n’ cheese, chitlins, and sweet potato pie,” he recalls.
An athlete who excelled at sports like football, basketball, and track, he didn’t really take an interest in the kitchen until one day in 2001, when he saw Bobby Flay throwing it down against Chef Masaharu Morimoto in one of the original Japanese episodes of Iron Chef. “It blew my mind,” Ross says. “I called the Art Institute of Houston the next day and enrolled. I was 18.”
These days, when it comes to preparing holiday meals, Ross, who owns Kitchen 713 in Houston with chef/co-owner James Haywood, is the one in charge of the family meals. And in the same way that his restaurant serves globally inspired Southern cuisine, he tends to change things up when cooking at home. For Christmas, that means bringing a little culinary flair to his smoked turkey with a Cajun-style brown gravy flavored with crab meat, crawfish, and shrimp. Lamb chops, likewise, don’t just get grilled. Ross marinates the whole rack in salt and pepper, onion and garlic powders, mustard, and hot sauce; cold smokes the entire rack; then finishes it over an open fire on the grill.
At New Year’s, “that’s when we break out the chitlins,” he says, “‘’cause it’s pork, and it’s supposed to be for good luck.”
Ross often combines several of the Southern “good luck” ingredients in one pot, served like a stew—ham hocks, collards, mustard greens, and black-eyed peas. “That way, he says, “You get all your traditional things that you need to eat for New Year’s in one bowl.” —Mai Pham
Hot Hot Hot!: A holiday border fiesta
In cities and towns throughout much of Texas, the holiday table isn’t complete without a family recipe for salsa, which enlivens everything from turkey to tamales. And in the Big Bend badlands near Presidio, few families gather with as much gusto as the Trevizos, who have roots here going back generations.
Normally, the Trevizo ranch-style menu focuses on rice, beans, salad, homemade flour tortillas, frosted sheet cake, and asado de puerco—an aromatic stew made with cubes of pork simmered in a red chile sauce over an open flame. Still, it’s the special family salsa, a pungent, tongues-aflame mixture fine-tuned by Rodrigo Trevizo (brother to seven Trevizos, uncle to dozens more), that always gets the fiesta started.
Rodrigo (aka Tío Rod) lives on the family homestead between dry Cibolo Creek and the Rio Grande. “We all worked, even as little kids,” recalls Trevizo, who retired from his job as superintendent of Big Bend Ranch State Park in 2013. “We hand-dug a water well 86 feet deep, raised livestock, and lived like pioneers. I chopped firewood and drew water every morning for cooking, bathing, and watering the cows and horses. My mom cooked on a wood-burning stove and taught me how to cook anything on that stovetop, including chiles, beans, picadillo, tamales, and tortillas.”
These days, Trevizo likes certain things to remain the same. “I may have high-speed Wi-Fi and a blender,” he says, “but I still go old-school when roasting chiles; just a cast-iron skillet, a little oil, and a wood-burning flame.”
Trevizo takes advantage of the year-round growing season in Presidio, which allows for plenty of homegrown chiles for his salsa even in December. He prefers a variety of the cowhorn pepper, a curved, lumpy member of the cayenne family, because the tangy bite isn’t overpowered by the chile’s heat. He adds a few jalapeño or serrano peppers to round out the flavors.
“Typically I’ll use all the green chiles and save the reds to dry. But around the holidays, I blend the red with the green. You get a weird salsa color, but before everything goes into the blender, it looks a lot like Christmas!” —E. Dan Klepper
Passing a Good Time: Family-style with Chef Todd Duplechan
Chef Todd Duplechan recently introduced the 1940s fried-chicken brand J.T. Youngblood’sChef Todd Dupelchan and family at Lenoir (Photo by Will van Overbeek)
to Austin, and helped popularize the idea of community tables at Lenoir, his French prix-fixe eatery in the capitol city. He hails from a big Cajun family, so entertaining is part of his DNA; but he grew up in Dallas, so he first experienced the cuisine’s robust and spicy flavors at family gatherings in Lafayette during the holidays. “My family was spread out,” Todd says, “so we’d typically spend a couple hours at one person’s house, where we would eat, and then along the way to another cousin’s, we’d stop for boudin and cracklin’s.”
As any self-respecting Cajun knows, the best incarnations of the traditional pork and rice sausages known as boudin are sold in convenience stores, meat markets, and gas stations. “We’d usually eat them while standing in the parking lot,” he says, “Or if we were lucky, sitting on the hood of the car.”
Naturally, he began building a tolerance for cayenne early on. “My dad would order whatever he wanted, and then I’d get some of his,” Todd says with a laugh. “I remember having to take breaks between bites because the sausage was so spicy.”
These days, the Cajun sausage surfaces at Lenoir in a variety of ways. Sometimes the chef prepares it with rabbit and liver. “Not everyone uses liver,” he says, “but I think it’s an essential ingredient.” When the weather cools, you’re likely to find crispy “boudin balls” served with chutney or another spicy fruit sauce on the menu at the outdoor wine garden. “At the restaurant, we try to find the connection between Southern and Cajun flavors and other hot temperature zones like Southeast Asia, Southern Indian, and North Africa. For a long time, I’ve been doing a kind of mash-up of boudin and a fermented Thai sausage that’s really delicious.”
At home with his wife, pastry chef Jessica Maher, and their children, Todd is likely to prepare the sausage in a more traditional fashion. “Christmas through New Year’s is when I crave and make boudin the most,” he says. “For me, it harkens to cold weather; eating hot, spicy boudin is nourishing to body and soul.” Whether it’s smoked links or bite-sized balls, the chef says it needs nothing more than saltine crackers and cold beer (although he says it’s also really, really good with riesling or Champagne!). And yet, he knows a proper pilgrimage is inevitable. “Eventually, we’ll take to take our boys to Louisiana so they can eat boudin on the tailgate of my truck.” —Paula Disbrowe
Holiday Memories and Handwritten Recipes: The Cace Kitchen in Longview
In 1949, with the opening of Johnny Cace’s Seafood & Steak House in Longview, Johnny Cace helped introduce Creole cuisine to East Texas. Though Johnny passed in 2012 and the restaurant closed a few years later, the Cace legacy lives on thanks to the determination of two Cace women who know their way around the kitchen.
These days, Johnny’s daughter-in-law Cathy Cace and her daughter, Chelsea, offer items their customers have loved and cherished for decades at The Cace Kitchen, a grab-and-go-style catering business and storefront in Longview.
“We use the same recipes. We even use the same big ol’ pots we cooked in at the restaurant,” Cathy says. “We try to incorporate as much of our heritage as possible in The Cace Kitchen.”
The Caces will celebrate the one-year-anniversary of The Cace Kitchen this December, an appropriate time to recall fond memories of past celebrations. “On Thanksgiving Day,” Chelsea says, “we would have lunch, then go down to the restaurant with my grandfather, mom, dad, sister and some employees to decorate for Christmas. “We would order pizza, put Christmas trees up in every dining room, and I would roller-skate through the kitchen.”
“I learned how to make Johnny Cace’s traditional bread pudding with rum sauce on top when we opened The Cace Kitchen,” Chelsea says. “It is delicious and reminds me of so many good times together.” —Dana Goolsby