Give the Gift of Good Taste With Cookbooks From Houston Writers

By Ellie Sharp with Phaedra Cook

Houstonians have near-limitless opportunities for dining out but that it doesn’t mean they don’t like to spend time in their own kitchens, too. These cookbooks (and a few other food-focused tomes) from local chefs and writers share bring professional tastes, skills and perspectives to the home hearth. These books include recipes for soups, Tex-Mex, cocktails, Indian fare and much more. When considered as a group, it’s a delightful showcase of Houston’s amazing culinary diversity. These books make great gifts for anyone who wants a more personal connection to some of the city’s best chefs — and lovely additions to your own bookshelf.

The Chili Cookbook by Robb Walsh: Robb Walsh is a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, a former Houston Press restaurant critic and author of 12 culinary books who currently resides in Ireland. He is also a partner in the Montrose restaurant El Real Tex-Mex. His latest work is The Chili Cookbook, which goes beyond the borders of the Lone Star State and examines how one of America’s favorite dishes varies from state to state. Readers will find an assortment of techniques and flavors. “I hope people who read Thett Chili Cookbook are intrigued with the way chili is served in other cultures and decide to give some other versions a try,” says Walsh. “Once you taste the Greek dish called Makaronia Me Kima, you will never think about the combination of chili and spaghetti the same way again.” He adds that Texas chili remains his first love and encourages Houstonians to try the El Real Chili con Carne at the restaurant and then follow the book’s recipe to make it at home. “El Real’s Frito Pie is my favorite way to eat chili,” he says. Purchase the book (or one of Walsh’s many other cookbooks) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target and from the publisher’s website.

Sylvia Casares’ The Enchilada Queen Cookbook includes more than 80 recipes and Sylvia’s signature “Texas Two Step” tortilla preparation process. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Casares

The Enchilada Queen Cookbook by Sylvia Casares: Invite one of Houston’s iconic chefs into your home with this collection of Mexican and Tex-Mex recipes. Learn the secret of “Sylvia’s Texas Two-Step” tortilla preparation technique and master 14 different regional sauces. The book includes more than 80 recipes for appetizers, sides, breakfasts and desserts plus a list of resources for specialty ingredients like Mexican spices and dried chiles. The recipes are inspired by family favorites and dishes from border towns along the Rio Grande. Purchase it at the three restaurant locations or on Amazon.

The Split Red Daal Lentil is a family favorite and available in Entice with Spice by Shubhra Ramineni. Photo reprinted with the express permission of Tuttle Publishing, a member of the Periplus Publishing Group

Entice with Spice by Shubhra Ramineni: Indian cooking has a tendency to intimidate home chefs thanks to complicated recipes, difficult to find ingredients or even the incorrect assumption that all Indian food is mouth-scorchingly spicy (it’s not). In her cookbooks, Shubhra simplifies the terms and techniques with easy to follow recipes plus helpful explanations of essential tools and ingredients, most of which are available at the average American grocery store. Her recipes are kid and family friendly, too, with her husband and three young children devouring go-to dishes like Split Red Lentil Stew (daal), one-pot Vegetable Pilaf (subzee ka pulao), Dad’s Baked Salmon, and Indian Scrambled Breakfast Eggs (anda bhurji). “My recipes use easy to find ingredients, and I have written my books so that you can feel I am there with you in the kitchen,” says Shubhra. “I hope to remove the intimidation of cooking Indian food so you can bring these yummy exotic flavors into your kitchen and home more often.” Shubhra is also the author of Healthy Indian Vegetarian Cooking and a frequent instructor at Central Market’s Cooking School in Houston. Purchase the book on Amazon and from Barnes & Noble.

Find the recipe for Seafood Gravy at Ritual in the Heights in Houston Soups & Sips by Erin Hicks. Photo courtesy of Erin Hicks

Houston Soups & Sips by Erin Hicks with Jodie Eisenhardt: Local author, interior designer and realtor Erin Hicks has written five, themed cookbooks in which she collects recipes from restaurants throughout Houston. The special part is how she brings the flavors and techniques of some of Houston’s best-loved chefs into the kitchens of everyday cooks. That’s especially meaningful once those chefs have departed or the restaurants have closed. Prior titles include Houston Small Plates & Sips, Houston Classic Seafood, Houston Classic Mexican Recipes and Houston Classic Desserts. Houston Soups & Sips is the latest book and was published in 2017. It contains hearty options like Ronnie Killen’s Turkey Chili, Lentil soup from The Original Carrabba’s and Wild Mushroom from Cafe Annie plus dishes from now-closed restaurants like Tom Ka Gai at Foreign Correspondents. Purchase Houston Soups & Sips or another in the series at the author’s website, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Purchase a gift set that includes a copy of Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico, a nine-ounce tablet of housemade Mexican chocolate, a molinillo for frothing Mexican hot chocolate and two Hugo’s mugs for $60 plus tax and shipping. Photo courtesy of Hugo’s

Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico by Hugo Ortega with Ruben Ortega and Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe by Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega: Culinary power couple Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega have served Houstonians for decades at four different restaurants. They have cookbooks representing the recipes of the two oldest, Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe. In the former, Ortega combines family heritage, travel and personal reflections about the street food of his native Mexico. He includes a recipe for Guisado de cazuela de chicharron (Softened Pork Skins Stew), which is a comfort food for him and his brother Ruben, plus sweet and savory dishes including salsas, tortas (sandwiches), seafood, tacos, ceviches and dulces (desserts). The Backstreet cookbook includes recipes for more than 120 beloved seasonal favorites along with personal stories. Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico is available online or at Hugo’s restaurant. Purchase the book alone for $34.95 or as part of a gift set that includes the cookbook, a nine-ounce tablet of housemade Mexican chocolate, a molinillo for frothing Mexican hot chocolate and two Hugo’s mugs for $60. Backstreet Kitchen is available online or at the restaurant for $34.95. Purchase both books together for $65; priority shipping is $15 plus tax (U.S. only).

An Invitation to Entertain: Recipes for Gracious Parties: After more than 25 years of running Silverstone Events in Houston, owner Elizabeth Stone knows a thing or two about throwing a successful party. The book covers menus, drinks, serving style and even decor ideas for everything from casual events, like pizza parties and Tex-Mex buffets, to the most demanding occasions such as wedding brunches and Christmas dinners. The book has an interesting structure. Part I encompasses the lists of event types and menus while Part II is where all the recipes can be found. This makes total sense, because dishes like White Cheddar and Chive Biscuits and Caramelized Duck Breast Salad are the types of offerings that are right at home for more than one occasion. In addition, there are great little tips, like how to care for real silverware and the best way to fuel and light a fireplace. Purchase An Invitation to Entertain online at Barnes & Noble or on the Bright Sky Press website— Phaedra Cook

History lessons merge with cocktail recipes in this unique collection of Southern cocktails from Julep bar owner Alba Huerta and co-author Marah Stets. Photo courtesy of Alba Huerta

Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned by Alba Huerta and Marah Stets: From Julep owner and bartender Alba Huerta comes this anthology of Southern libations that includes 65 recipes for classic drinks and modern interpretations. The book mixes instruction with history by sharing stories and photos to enhance the enjoyment of each iconic drink. As such, it’s a great gift for the academic who moonlights as a bartender (or vice versa!). For budding mixologists, Huerta recommends the mint julep. [“It is] a great way to start building cocktails with techniques that have proven themselves to be timeless,” she explains. She says the Creole Crusta is a local fan favorite in Houston whereas the Cherry Bounce Sour is a great way to expand skills because of the production of the cherry bounce component. “The book is a great way to gain perspective on the intent behind cocktails,” she adds. “The stories and thought processes expressed in the book behind each drink help mold the way a mixologist looks at the art of drink making.” Purchase it at Julep, Amazon or stores nationwide.

Lost Restaurants of Houston: Restaurants open; restaurants close, often leaving behind little more than good memories and perhaps a handful of recipes. Lost Restaurants of Houston by Paul and Christiane Galvani is a deep dive into the Ghosts of Restaurants Past and goes all the way back to when the very first ones appeared in the Bayou City. It’s more history book than cookbook, so when the recipes appear they are indeed pleasant surprises. These include Jalal Antone’s famous chow-chow recipe. Maxim’s Red Snapper Excelsior and Vargo’s cheese spread. The book structure is a bit odd as it spends six chapters on Houston restaurant history before getting around to introducing the authors and their connections to the industry. No matter; anyone who cares about Houston restaurant history is going to likely be deeply grateful for the countless hours of research the Galvanis did to create this reference. Purchase at the Arcadia Publishing website or on Amazon— Phaedra Cook

Paulie's cookbook pasta
Paul Petronella’s cookbook shares the Italian comfort dishes of Paulie’s restaurant in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Photo by Debora Smail.

Paulie’s: Classic Italian Cooking in the Heart of Houston’s Montrose District: Paul Petronella hails from a branch of the family tree that includes Houston restaurant families the Carrabbas, Mandolas, D’Amicos and Laurenzos. So, it’s not a stretch to say cooking Italian food is in his blood. Just in time for the 20th anniversary of his Montrose neighborhood restaurant Paulie’s, Petronella created a cookbook celebrating family recipes, customer favorites and his own favorite classic Italian dishes. The gems shared with readers include Paulie’s chicken salad (originally served at Butera’s), tortellini in brodo, eggplant Parmigiana and roasted pears drizzled in chocolate — all captured by Debora Smail, one of Houston’s most skilled food photographers. Some unexpected bonuses include the exacting espresso drink procedure developed in conjunction with Greenway Coffee and a limoncello recipe. Petronella’s popular bucatini all’amatriciana isn’t in the book but fortunately, that’s now available online. The Paulie’s cookbook is available for purchase at the restaurant and online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. (We also recently spied a few copies at Blacksmith.) — Phaedra Cook

Make a Carrabba family favorite, the Tagliarini Picchi Pacchiu, from the cookbook With Gratitude, Johnny Carrabba. Photo by Debora Smail

With Gratitude, Johnny Carrabba: At just under 300 pages, Houston culinary royalty Johnny Carrabba presents a generous compendium of Italian dishes served at his namesake restaurants. It also includes recipes from Grace’s, his tribute restaurant that reflects his grandmother’s diverse cooking. Renowned Houston photographer Debra Smail brings the text to life with luxurious visuals making the cookbook as much a coffee table conversation piece as it is a useful kitchen reference. Essential iconic recipes to make include Mamma Mandola’s Sicilian Chicken Soup, Marinara and Pomodoro Sauce, Involtini di Pollo and Grace’s Bread Pudding. Purchase it online at or in Houston at the two Original Carrabba’s restaurant locations (1399 S Voss and 3115 Kirby), Grace’s, Mia’s Table in Houston and the new Mia’s Table location in Shenandoah.

Other Gems to Hunt Down

Finally, here are a few Houston books that are out of print but are worth hunting down at after-market retailers. — Phaedra Cook

  • Brennan’s of Houston In Your Kitchen: Before Carl Walker was general manager of Brennan’s of Houston, he was the executive chef. His cookbook is a window into how the restaurant’s Tex-Creole dishes have evolved and there’s a whole section on the Jazz Brunch recipes.
  • The Kitchen Table: Brennan’s of Houston: After Walker left the kitchen for the general manager spot, he encouraged his successor, executive chef Randy Evans, to write his own cookbook showcasing the coveted Kitchen Table dining experience at Brennan’s of Houston. Some highlights include Crawfish Maque Choux with Jalapeño Corn Pound Cake and southern-inflected desserts like Brennan’s Peanut Butter Cup and personal-sized Peach Upside-Down Cakes. Other Brennan’s books are listed on the restaurant website.
  • Cordúa: Foods of the Americas from the Legendary Texas Restaurant Family: When Michael Cordúa started his former restaurants Churrascos, many Houstonians weren’t familiar with the food of his native country Nicaragua. So, he called the fare “Latin” and drew inspiration from many countries that fell under that banner. This cookbook by him, his son, executive chef David Cordúa and multiple-time cookbook author John Demers, includes not only classic dishes like Carnitas Pibíl and ceviche but also perfect party bites like the essential Churrascos plantain chips with three different sauces and savory caviar “twinkies.”
  • Energy Cuisine: Demers also helped Le Mistral’s executive chef-owner David Denis and Finish chef Jani Lehtinen bring their cookbook to life. The two chefs met and realized they had much in common, including serving diners in two different “energy corridors” many miles apart; hence the name of the book. The diverse assortment of luxurious, crowd-pleasing recipes includes Lobster & Spinach Risotto, Dry-Aged Cowboy Steak with Pomme Mousseline and classic chocolate truffles. According to the Le Mistral website, copies are still available at the restaurant.
  • Tony’s: The Cookbook:  Way back in 1986, author George Fuermann captured some of the recipes that made legendary restaurateur Tony Vallone famous. To this day, his Sicilian dishes still entice celebrities and politicians to his glamorous fine dining establishment. While you’re waiting on your copy to arrive, try your hand at this essential recipe, Tony’s Spicy Marinara Sauce.

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  • April 23, 2021 at 7:46 pmVicki Barton

    Heard there is a cookbook from Kaphans but cannot find