New Mexican cuisine is a thing. It evokes thoughts of Hatch green chiles and blue corn. California cooking is on the healthy side, with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. The Midwest is known for its meat and potatoes, the Gulf Coast its seafood.
But when I saw the new cookbook entitled Texas Hill Country Cuisine: Flavors from the Cabernet Grill, I was initially confused. I've lived in the Hill Country, and there never seemed to be a definable sort of cuisine there, except maybe barbecue, as Lockhart, Luling and Driftwood (home of The Salt Lick) all fall more or less within the boundaries of the Hill Country.
The introduction to the cookbook addressed my quandary immediately.
"What are the hallmarks of Texas Hill Country cuisine?" author and chef at the Cabernet Grill, Ross Burtwell, asks. "It is food created by people who understand the importance of combining area-specific, locally grown and produced ingredients--seasonally sourced--and matching it with Texas-grown grapes and locally produced wines. Texas Hill Country cuisine is the ultimate dining synergy for food and wine lovers."
Burtwell, who's been at the Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg since 2001, notes that Hill Country cuisine is influenced by Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, southern cooking and soul food, Cajun and Creole food, barbecue, and farm-to-table sensibilities. Having spent a great deal of time eating and cooking in that beautiful part of Texas, I think I can agree with that long but inclusive definition.
And having spent a great deal of time in Fredericksburg, but never having eaten at the Cabernet Grill, I can say with certainty that this cookbook makes me want to make a road trip out to that neck of the woods for a meal from Burtwell and some fresh Fredericksburg peaches.
Recipes or food porn: Both. The photos in the cookbook, taken by Jennifer Whiney, are bold, colorful and illustrative. There isn't a photo to go with every recipe, but several recipes feature photos to go along with each step in more difficult cooking maneuvers.
There are also dozens of photos of the Hill Country itself, from images of dairy goats frolicking in a field to the main drag in Fredericksburg lit up at night. I could actually do with more photos and fewer sidebars with texts and fonts that look like handwriting. If you can look past the multitude of things going on design-wise on each page, the recipes are straightforward and the photos really contribute to a sense of the area.
Ease of use: Burtwell and contributing author Julia Celeste Rosenfeld make ample notes along with recipes that are helpful and informative, if a bit much for the eyes to take in. Few of the recipes have more than a dozen steps, and the instructions are clear and easy to follow.
The sections are divided into "Appetizers," "Soups," "Salads," "Entrées," "Desserts" and "Extras," with side notes and additional information scattered throughout. Every time you open the book to a recipe, you're likely to find another little tidbit of information about, say, a cut of meat or the history of a hoe cake. If you're looking for a specific bit of information, you might have to do some searching, but there is a recipe index in the back.
The story continues on the next page.
Difficulty of finding ingredients: Because the cookbook is focused on the Hill Country and using as many local ingredients as possible, people who live in that area (and are cooking seasonally) should have no trouble finding items like Ruby Red Texas grapefruit. Some items that may be more difficult to acquire are the specific cheeses mentioned in the recipes, like Veldhuizen Texas Gold Cheddar, but the ingredient listings note that similar cheeses can be substituted.
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Production value: The book is lovely to look at, with glossy pages, full-color photos and a clear attention to design (even though it is a bit overworked). It comes with a book jacket and a hard cover, and it retails for $34.95, which seems to be about average for a hard-back cookbook based on a restaurant. I'm most impressed by the quality of the photos included with the recipes.
Recipes I want to try: One of the first things I'm going to try is warm Texas goat cheese with roasted garlic and herbs. I know I can get fresh, local cheese from Blue Heron Farms, and the recipe dresses it up simply with sundried tomatoes, herbs, kalamata olives and garlic, before baking the whole thing in the oven and serving with toast. It's a great simple party dish. I'm also eager to try the Fredericksburg honey-lavender-peach crisp as soon as peach season is once again upon us.
Verdict: As someone who regularly pines for the Hill Country, I'm happy to have this book in my possession, partially for the recipes and partially for the landscape and cityscape photos that remind me of the area. This would make a great gift for people who know and love the Cabernet Grill or people who, like me, miss that beautiful country out west.
You can buy the book at the Cabernet Grill in Fredericksburg or online at the restaurant website.