Recipes From Houston Chefs: Mexican Soup, Flavorful Fish and Hearty Risotto

Carrabba risotto with beef filet

With all of the cooking hacks and recipes floating around the Web, we thought: wouldn’t it be great to have some to share from chefs right here in Houston?

So, we asked local food stars for dishes that would be easy for readers could try for themselves at home. Besides a quick, tasty meal as an end result, this is also an opportunity to hone unfamiliar cooking skills. If you love the dish, go to the restaurant to see what else the chef has to offer. For those with cookbooks, some of these recipes might make you decide you need a copy!

This week, we have a classic yet interesting Tex-Mex soup from Sylvia Caesares of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, grilled fish with tons of flavor from Ryan Pera of Coltivare and hearty Risotto with Beef Filet from Johnny Carrabba of the original Carrabba’s.

Try these, then come back next week for three new recipes from other Houston chefs!

Sylvia’s Sopa de Fideo (or “vermicelli soup”)
Sylvia Casares, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen

sopa de fideo at Sylvia's
Sylvia’s sopa de fideo is as easy as it is flavorful. Photo courtesy of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen

Think all pasta dishes are Italian? Think again. Sopa de Fideo (which simply means “noodle soup” is a very popular Mexican dish that adds short, easy-to-eat pieces of vermicelli to savory broth made with tomato sauce. Casares says, “Made with thin pasta, fideo is a weekday staple in Texas border towns. This recipe brings back some of the most wonderful memories of my mom’s cooking. We loved it for lunch or dinner and she always prepared it with chicken pieces so it was wonderfully filling.” Toasting the pasta first lends extra dimension to the flavor. Casares also like to add charro beans to hers (but that’s completely optional).

This, and many other recipes, are in Casares’ book, The Enchilada Queen Cookbook: Enchiladas, Fajitas, Tamales, and More Classic Recipes from Texas-Mexico Border Kitchens. The beautifully designed tome is a handsome addition to any bookshelf.

The Speed Move: Blend or grind the “Tex Mex Trinity” ingredients first so the garlicky paste is ready to go when it’s time to add it. If you don’t usually keep batches homemade chicken stock in the freezer (you should—it’s cheapest to make from chicken on sale and vegetable scraps), at least always keep cartons of a good pre-made in the pantry. (Editor’s note: I use Kitchen Basics brand.) Bottom line: this soup is a snap to put together!

Sylvia’s Sopa de Fideo

Makes 6 servings
1 (5-ounce) box vermicelli pasta
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup chopped white onion
1 cup coarsely chopped tomato
4½ cups chicken stock
½ cup chopped green bell pepper
½ cup tomato sauce
2 teaspoons Tex-Mex Holy Trinity (see below)
½ teaspoon salt
1½ to 2 cups shredded cooked chicken (optional)

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the vermicelli and cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown. Place the browned pasta in a large saucepan or stockpot.

Using the same skillet over medium heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is transparent. Set aside off the heat.

In a blender jar or using a mini-chopper, process the chopped tomato with ½ cup water for about 30 seconds, until smooth.

To the large saucepan or stockpot with the browned pasta, add the broth, onion, processed tomatoes, bell pepper, tomato sauce, Holy Trinity, and salt.

Over high heat, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside off the heat, uncovered so the pasta does not overcook, for 5 minutes. Stir in the chicken before serving, if desired.

The Tex-Mex Holy Trinity
Makes about 4 teaspoons

3 garlic cloves, peeled
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1¼ teaspoons whole black pepper
Instructions: Combine garlic, cumin, peppercorns, and 1 tablespoon water in a molcajete, mortar and pestle, or spice or coffee grinder. Process until the garlic is a smooth paste and the spices are finely ground.

Ryan Pera
Chef Ryan Pera in the kitchen of Coltivare. Photo by Julie Soefer

Grilled Halibut with Olive Vinaigrette
Chef Ryan Pera, Coltivare

Who doesn’t need to shake up their grilled fish routine? This goes beyond the typical lemon and butter treatment. Instead of just lemon juice, the entire rind is used. Fresh herbs add tons of flavor and swapping in olive oil for butter makes it a heart-healthy dish.

The Speed Moves: If it’s not already, ask for the fish to be filleted with bones removed. It’s a huge time saver (and the sellers are way more skilled at cleaning fish than most of us). Also, pre-pitted olives make it a snap; just slice them. The herbs don’t even have to be chopped. Pera recommends simply tearing them. It’s fast and you’ll get tons of flavor along with an attractive, rustic appearance.

Can’t find halibut? Substitute any mild white fish that is firm enough to hold up to grilling.

Grilled Halibut with Olive Vinaigrette
Serves 4

4 seven-ounce Halibut filets
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 Tbsp olive oil
¾ cup mixed variety olives, pit removed, sliced
Zest of 1 lemon, in strips
8 leaves basil
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
10 leaves flat leaf parsley
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a bowl mix ¼ cup olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and halibut and let marinate at least 30 minutes before grilling. In another bowl add olives, lemon zest, all herbs (torn, not chopped to achieve a better flavor and rustic presentation) and the remaining olive oil. Season with salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste, mix all ingredients together and set aside. Grill the Halibut over a hot grill and cook for about 3 minutes a side or until done. Spoon the vinaigrette over the fish for presentation.

Carrabba risotto with beef filet
Risotto with beef filet, a dish that Johnny Carrabba makes at home for his kids. Photo by Debora Smail

Risotto With Beef Filet
Johnny Carrabba, Carrabba’s

This recipe was provided to us from the book With Gratitude, Johnny Carrabba. The beautiful, 288-page book includes stories of growing up in one of Houston’s first restaurant families and includes beautiful photographs from the very talented Debora Smail.

This family-pleasing dish is not from the restaurant. It’s one that Carrabba serves at his own home. He writes, “This is a dish that I just made up in my mind at home one day and my kids loved it. They even text me from school (when they’re not supposed to) and ask me if I can make it for dinner. That’s a great feeling when your kids request something in the middle of the day—and it’s always a pleasure to make it for them. Keep in mind that making a good risotto requires some preparation time. So, take a moment, maybe have a glass of wine and enjoy the process.”

The Speed Move: This recipe will take about an hour from start to finish. You cannot rush the risotto, which will take up to 25 minutes to cool. Good risotto requires patience—and the right kind of rice. Do not substitute other rice for the Arborio. The short grained rice works for risotto because it yields enough starch for that traditional, creamy texture. The speed move here is good mise en place. Make sure to have all of your ingredients measured, chopped and ready to go. Make the grill baste ahead of time. (See link below.)

Also, when the risotto is halfway done, you can start searing the steaks if you’re doing it on a stovetop rather than on a grill. That said, they’re going to be much better coming grilled over charcoal or wood. You can’t manage risotto cooking inside and steaks grilling outside at the same time, which is why this recipe calls for making the risotto first and filets second.

Risotto With Beef Filet
Serves 4 to 6


½ yellow onion, chopped
5 tablespoons butter, divided use
2 cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry Marsala wine (Lombardo extra dry recommended)
½ teaspoon black pepper
6 cups beef stock
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ cup grated Romano cheese

In a large pot, sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in the rice, making sure it is well-coated. Add the Marsala wine, pepper, and 2 cups of the beef stock. Stir and simmer on medium-high for about 5 minutes. Once some of the liquid has been absorbed, add 2 more cups of the stock. Continue this process one more time, until all the stock has been used. Continue to stir and simmer until the rice has thickened, the liquid is nearly all absorbed and the risotto has a creamy texture; about 20-25 minutes total. Fold in the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, parsley, and cheese. Keep warm and set aside.

3 beef tenderloin filets (8 ounces each)
Kosher salt for seasoning
Black pepper for seasoning
Mr. Cs Grill Baste (visit link for recipe)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh Italian parsley

Generously season all sides of the steak with salt and pepper. Prepare and heat the grill to medium high. Brush an ample amount of grill baste on all sides of the steaks. Sear steaks on the grill for about 4 minutes. Turn the steaks 90 degrees and sear another 4 minutes. Turn the steaks over and generously brush more baste on top. This should result in a medium-rare steak. Adjust the timing of the steaks to cook them to your personal temperature preference.

Cube the steak into bite-sized pieces, fold them and the juices into the risotto and serve immediately.

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