The Junior League of Houston was once a group of affluent ladies who lunch who came together at the Tea Room to plan out their charitable contributions. Today the Junior League of Houston is comprised of a much more diverse crowd; they are working women from all walks of life, bound by a genuine philanthropic spirit. They've been going strong since 1925, placing volunteers at nonprofits all over town, but my favorite of their colossal contributions is the iconic Junior League cookbooks.
Every decade or so, the Junior League solicits, relentlessly tests, and compiles recipes from thousands of members, all to create cookbooks that are as usable as they are beautiful. All proceeds go to local charities, most notably Texas Children's Hospital. The four they've published are indispensible in my home, lovingly layered with drip-drops of batters and sauces; I turn to the older ones for the classic, never-fail recipes I need, or I try a few advanced dishes from the newer set. The best part? The four Houston cookbooks are an easy way to track our city's culinary trends and lineage.
- The original Houston Junior League Cook Book, a mustard-yellow hardcover published in 1968, features scores of my all-time favorite recipes. My mom cooked from it throughout my childhood, and now I cook from it today -- thanks to the hand-me-down copy from my grandmother, lovingly filled with notes made in her pencil-perfect writing. The Italian Meatballs and Spaghetti is still my favorite version of the classic, but this one also boasts incredible recipes for hot chicken salad, Southern pecan pie, Forget-Me Cookies, and awesome casseroles aplenty. Yes, you'll find a few cans of condensed soup, but you'll also find the kind of recipes that take you back to your youth.
- The Star of Texas Cookbook, published in 1983, parallels our city's commitment to both our own heritage and our global community. Recipes in this one generally fall into one of two categories: They reflect the gamey meats and seasonal produce from our area, or they've got an international flair. It has fewer canned ingredients and dried herbs, and more fresh vegetables and non-traditional meats. Favorites include the Pumpkin Soup, Salad Nicholi, Chicken-Artichoke Casserole, Snapper Vera Cruz, Wild Game Gumbo, Paella Salad, Best Ever Pralines, and Lucy's Italian Cream Cake.
- Stop and Smell the Rosemary, published in 1996, is a departure from the two earlier versions. The recipes are a little more involved, yet all concentrate on the ritualistic aspects of eating. Why Rosemary? Because it's the herb of remembrance. Lots of ingredients, lots of flavors and fancier names -- all to go with Houston's booming economy. Family favorites from this book include Pesto, Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Torta, Tortilla Soup, Greek Salad with Hearts of Palm and Avocado, Spicy Yogurt Chicken, Whipping Cream Biscuits, and scores of delicious appetizers.
- Peace Meals is the most recent of the cookbooks, published in 2008. Recipes include simpler ingredient lists, but more advanced techniques than in previous versions; clearly we've moved away from the casseroles and one-pot meals so popular in previous decades. This one features outstanding fish dishes and mains. My favorite in the book is the recipe for Italian Wedding Soup, but you might like the Farmers Market Lasagna, Herb Crusted Rib Roast with Cherry Port Sauce, or Grilled Tuscan shrimp with Lemon Orzo.
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Interested? You can purchase Junior League of Houston cookbooks from all the major retailers -- like Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble -- but your money will have the most charitable impact if you purchase directly through the Junior League itself. The mustard-yellow original book, of course, is no longer in print. Snap that puppy up if you happen to see it at a used book store (or perhaps at the home of a friend) -- it is a local gastronomic gem.