These Unique Cookbooks Are Perfect Houston Holiday Gifts

stack of cookbooks

The Houston area sprawls across 10,062 square miles of coastal plains (an area slightly smaller than Massachusetts), a sprawling territory of seemingly endless streets, glass towers, parking lots, strip centers, cul-de-sac-laced developments and rows of garden apartments. It is home to almost 7 million people of diverse backgrounds, all with stories to tell. Sometimes, those stories are told through the food they cook and eat. Several cookbooks collect and share some of those stories, told through the diverse dishes we find on the tables of the Bayou City. For avid home cooks or those simply interested in Houston food culture, these make wonderful holiday gifts that will be treasured in kitchens and on bookshelves for years to come.

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Cook Like a Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World by Chris Shepherd and Kailyn Golan.

In the introduction to his cookbook, James Beard Award-winning Houston chef Chris Shepherd (UB Preserve, Georgia James, One Fifth, Hay Merchant), gives some good advice on how to approach these diverse stories:

“I admit, my first instinct was to be proud of myself for ‘discovering’ these spots [independent restaurants primarily serving the food of immigrants] … But I realized that there’s a distinction between ‘discovering’ and learning. Reality check: I wasn’t ‘discovering’ anything because these communities and restaurants had been thriving long before I ever showed up.”

Shepherd’s self-awareness, humility and recognition of himself as a student rather than a discoverer sets this cookbook apart from others. Divided into six chapters that focus on an ingredient or groups of ingredients — fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices and corn — Shepherd interprets dishes that he has learned from Houston restaurateurs, chefs and cooks who are serving food from around the world. Though many of dishes show the influence of South Asian and Indian cuisines, there are dishes inspired by Louisiana, Mexico, the Middle East, and beyond.

More importantly, Shepherd shares the stories of the real heroes behind the dishes. In the brief descriptions before the recipes and in a handful of longer features, we learn about people such as Jacklyn Pham and and her father Long who own Saigon Pagolac, Lawrence and Noi Allen who own and operate Asia Market, Heesuck Ko at Kong Ju Rice Bakery, and the Patel family from London Sizzler.

These words and recipes, along with beautiful photos by Julie Soefer, are a thoughtful introduction to Houston’s — and by extension the nation’s — diversity that  encourages us to explore your own neighborhoods and learn from the people who live there. Recipes such as Oxtail Bò Kho not only turn out to be easy for flawless execution but lend themselves to ingredient substitution. (No oxtail? Try hunks of pork loin for a lean riff on thịt kho.) While Shepherd is known for big food and a big personality, those looking for healthy dishes won’t find fault with Chile-Braised Chicken with charred cabbage and marinated jalapeños or the simple purity of the Bibb Lettuce Salad with grapefruit, carrots and fish sauce vinaigrette.

 “Don’t Count the Tortillas”: The Art of Texas Mexican Cooking by Adán Medrano. In his second cookbook, Adán Medrano — a filmmaker, author and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who grew up in San Antonio and now lives in Houston — tells the stories of Texas Mexican foodways. In his first book, “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes,” Medrano explored the food cooked in Mexican-American homes across Texas, a deep-rooted cuisine that is different from Tex-Mex, which evolved from restaurants that were often geared more toward Anglos. In “Don’t Count The Tortillas,” Medrano beautifully weaves delicious recipes, delightful family stories (the title is based on a phrase his mother used), informative discussions with restaurateurs such as the owners of Houston’s Doña MaríaJuan and Anna Hernandez — and his academic examinations of the pre-European, indigenous roots of Texas Mexican cooking.

In the introduction he writes that Texas Mexican food is “a unique cuisine with a history that archaeologists trace back to the first Native Americans of Texas and Northeastern Mexico: Karankawa, Tonkawa, Coahuilteca, Chichimeca, Caddo, and hundreds other culturally rich communities.” It is a regional cuisine that spans from Monterrey to Houston. Many recipes feature indigenous ingredients such as venison, bison, rabbit, turkey, nopales and quelite. However, the book is just not an important historical record but a living testament to an ever-evolving cuisine designed for the modern kitchen —though you may want to invest in a molcajete (a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock), so you can hand make some of the book’s tasty salsas.

Get this book before Thanksgiving, so that you can turn leftover turkey into Medrano’s tostadas de tinga de guajolote (chipotle turkey tostadas). Then you’ll want to make the tacos de picadillo as a pre-holiday shopping pick-me-up and Serrano-stuffed quail on the big day, when everyone will be unwrapping their gifts of words and food.

Houston Cooks: Recipes from the City’s Favorite Restaurants and Chefs by Francine Spiering. In her first cookbook, Francine Spiering, editor of Edible Houston, shares stories and recipes from 40 of Houston’s top chefs. From Himalaya’s Kaiser Lashkari to Mala Sichuan’s Cori Xiong, Felix Flores and Jessica DeSham of Cherry Block and Fadi Dimassi of Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill, the chefs represent a cross section of the Bayou City’s diverse dining scene.

Each chef provided two recipes that Spiering tested and refined for the home cook. The final versions are presented along side a short profile of each chef and sumptuous photos by Chris Brown. I’m excited to try making Justin Yu’s (Theodore Rex) Smoked Gulf Fish Spread, Carrot Roti with Cilantro Chutney from Pondicheri’s Anita Jaisinghani and ravioli with Swiss chard and ricotta from Giacomo’s Lynette Hawkins, which is one of my all tie favorite dishes in Houston. And that is just three of the 80 dishes featured in this cookbook.

In a unique collaboration that helped fund the project, each restaurant owner pre-purchased several copies of the book at wholesale prices to sell at their establishments. So, help make their investment worthwhile by picking up a copy when you see it. (The printed cookbook proposition is a tricky business these days.) In addition, a portion of the proceeds from each copy sold is donated to Second Servings of Houston, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste and hunger by picking up unserved  and unsold perishable food from “hotels, sports venues, and food retail outlets” and delivers it to area soup kitchens and shelters.

Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin. Since Houston’s earliest days, African Americans have been instrumental in the development of the city’s diverse cuisines — including the enslaved Africans who were forced to be the city’s first farmers and cowboys, restaurateurs who opened vibrant ice cream parlors and barbecue joints (some of the city’s first) of Freedman’s Town in the early 1900s, and today’s respected chefs who grace the city with refined Gulf Coast cuisine, including Mark Holley, Antoine Ware and Dawn Burrell. This has been the pattern, not just in Houston, but the nation as a whole. However, these stories, like those of the Texas Mexicans highlighted in Medrano’s books, have often been erased from the history of our foodways.

In 2016, Toni Tipton-Martin, who helped co-found both Foodways Texas and the Southern Foodways Alliance, brought the expunged history of many important African-American chefs and authors to light in “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.” In that James Beard-award winning book, she documented two hundred years of African-American cookbooks, most of which were unknown in the annals of American food. Tipton-Martin, who has family in Houston, featured the work of Lucille Bishop Smith, great-grandmother of Chris Williams, chef and owner of Houston’s Lucille’s. (It is, of course, named for his great-grandmother.)

Smith was not only a chef and author but also an entrepreneur who “developed and sold the first packaged hot roll mix.” Williams along with his great grandmother are also featured in Tipton-Martin’s new book, “Jubilee.” In this gorgeous, full-color cookbook, she collects over 100 recipes from her collection of nearly 400 rare African-American cookbooks. Translating the recipes for the contemporary kitchen, she explores the history of a rich cuisine that spans from humble soul food to intricate, high-end dishes. One of those dishes is a lush recipe for Lowcountry Shrimp and Grits that is inspired by Williams.

“Jubilee” is a book that will be both enrich your understanding of African-American cuisine and enhance your table during the holidays.

Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World by Bettina Elias Siegel. We often don’t think about how much school cafeterias contribute to our culinary landscape. But the Houston Independent School District serves at least 10 percent of all the meals eaten in Houston.

In 2010, concerned parent Bettina Elias Siegel, a Houston-based writer and Harvard-trained lawyer who practiced “intellectual property, advertising, and food law” for a decade, became interested in school food reform. As she studied the issues, she launched The Lunch Tray blog, which focused on what we feed our children at school. In her book “Kid Food,” she widens her focus to guide us through the challenges of feeding kids healthy meals while being barraged by a slew of colorful advertisements for junk food. This is an important read that Alice Waters calls, “An irrefutable case for changing the broken food system that feeds our children.”

Lot by Bryan Washington. In his short story collection “Lot”, Bryan Washington, who has written several wonderful essays on food in Houston, weaves narratives whose titles for anyone but Houstonians would be like cryptic codes for a traffic-based escape room: Lockwood; Alief; 610 North, 610 West; Shepherd; South Congress; Fannin; Waugh; Elgin; Navigation—a poetry of exit ramps, feeder roads, destination, and departures. “Lot’ is a literary map of a city that is the most diverse in the country, but that same diversity is sometimes used as a flashy tool to deflect from deep-rooted issues.

In a series of interconnected stories, Washington reveals the life and hardships of a family of East End restaurant owners who struggle with slow business, gentrification, and more importantly, everyday life in a city of wealth and inequality. Food, one of the most prominent expressions of Houston’s diversity, wafts through the narratives as touchstones: phở, menudo, mole and plantains.

Washington tells tales from the city’s internal borders where cultures rub shoulders and our city’s inequalities are on full display. These are stories any Houstonian who wants to better understand the city should read and that anyone, Houstonian or not, should read to understand our diverse lives. Lot describes the poetry of humanity found beyond the off ramps: the poetry of lives lived on the surface streets behind the strip malls.

Texas Seafood: A Cookbook and Comprehensive Guide by PJ and Benchalak Srimart Stoops. On a Saturday morning, several years ago, I waited in a warehouse parking lot as line of curious Houstonians snaked into Jim Gossen’s Louisiana Foods. Once inside, I found PJ Stoops expounding on the wonders of Gulf bycatch — the  lesser-known fish that are swept up as commercial fisheries target more popular species. Since that first meeting, I’ve had many conversations with Stoops about seafood and Gulf fisheries.

Now, he and his wife and business partner, Thai-born, Benchalak Srimart “Apple” Stoops have turned that extensive knowledge into a comprehensive volume that guides the reader through hundreds of lesser-known edible species found in the Gulf waters along the Texas Coast. Like Medrano, the Stoops trace the history back to the area’s indigenous peoples, primarily the Karankawa who ate oysters, rangias (a species of fresh water clam that was once abundant in this area), sharks, tunas and other inshore fish species.

After a thoughtful introduction, the Stoops wade into the descriptions of the individual species, which take up a little over half the book. Each includes common names, habitats, tips on eating and more. The second half of the book is divided into one section dedicated to the mechanics of buying, processing and storing seafood, and another featuring recipes. The recipes, some provided by local chefs such as Atlas Diner’s Richard Knight (who is also featured in “Houston Cooks”) and Chris Shepherd (whose own book is at the beginning of this article), span the globe from the dishes Apple learned in Thailand to those guided by PJ’s training in classical French cooking. This encyclopedic hardcover is a must have for anyone interesting in the food and fish of Texas.

Tex-Mex Cookbook: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border by Ford Fry and Jessica Dupuy: Chef and James Beard Award semifinalist restaurateur Ford Fry, who owns Superica, La Lucha and State of Grace, grew up in Houston before moving to Atlanta in 2007. Like many families in the Bayou City, his dined out on queso, fajitas and enchiladas at legendary Tex-Mex establishments such as the now-closed Felix Mexican Restaurant (the most popular location is currently home to Uchi) and Armandos. He’s now written co-authored a cookbook with Jessica Dupuy that’s simply titled, “Tex-Mex.”

After acknowledging Tex-Mex’s “deep roots in Mexico” and the “many [Mexican] cooks, servers, dishwashers, and table bussers who sustained Texas’s small-town diners, cantinas and big-city restaurants over the years,” Fry details how to cook classics such Cheese Enchiladas Con Chili Gravy and Migas. For more on this whimsically designed cookbook, read Phaedra Cook’s full review.

Past Classics

To learn about more Houston cookbooks published over the last few years — such as The Enchilada Queen Cookbook by Sylvia Casares, Hugo’s Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico, by Hugo and Rueben Ortega, Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned by Alba Huerta and Marah Stets and Paulie’s: Classic Italian Cooking in the Heart of Houston’s Montrose District by Paul Petronella  — check out last year’s cookbook roundup by Ellie Sharp.

Houston is a sprawling magnitude, a gumbo of cultures and cuisines. It’s home to hundreds of years of rich history punctuated by waves of immigration that makes its over 10,000 restaurants as interesting as its population, which, by some metrics, is the most diverse in the United States. This collection of food-related books helps us explore that diversity, while filling our bellies with delicious food. I can’t think of a better type of gift to give this holiday season. When you purchase, rather than running straight to Amazon, consider supporting a local bookseller with your dollars, such as Brazos Bookstore, Blue Willow Bookshop or Bering’s.

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