Tonawanda News

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October 17, 2011

Getting a little help curing homesickness in the kitchen

I’m not entirely sure how it took me so long to stumble across Lisa Fain’s Homesick Texan blog. It’s been up and running since 2005, but only just recently came into my consciousness as word of a book starting making its way around the cooking blogosphere.

Lisa Fain, a 7th-generation Texan says that shortly after moving to New York City, she found herself craving a little something from back home ... something she couldn’t necessarily get on the busy streets of the big apple: the food she grew up on.  And in Texas, that means at least three things: barbecue, Mexican and Southern cooking.

Being a transplant myself, I’ve found myself in the same predicament, the evidence of which you might have read in this column (think pimento cheese and Texas sheet cake). When you live so far from where you grew up, it can often be difficult to replicate the meals, particularly the comfort food you’re familiar with.

Just as Buffalonions would find it nearly impossible to get a good chicken wing outside of Western New York, for Texans, a good taco joint is few and far between in these parts.

So Fain took matters into her own hands and started re-creating a little bit of the Lone Star state in her kitchen.

Her blog includes everything from authentic recipes passed down in her family for generations, to re-creating meals from her favorite restaurants back home, to giving advice on where to get hard-to-find ingredients like chile peppers and Ro-tel tomatoes, a pantry staple in every Texas home. Basically, this blog was written for me. Actually ... I’m kicking myself for not being talented enough in the kitchen to get there first.

The success of her blog — The Times of London named it as one of the world’s 50 best food blogs — has lead to the recent publication of her recipes in book form, “The Homesick Texan Cookbook.”

The book contains dozens of recipes and tips for making corn and flour tortillas from scratch, pickled jalapeno peppers, breakfast sausage, seven-pepper chili and even kolaches, a Czech pastry found in the town of West.

My only complaint with the book — and it’s no fault of Fain’s — is that some ingredients just can’t easily be found in Western New York. I was unable to find two of the seven peppers used in her (no beans or tomatoes!) chili recipe at my go-to spice store, Penzey’s, for instance. (If anyone has a lead on some pasilla or costeña pepper, give me a shout.)

Cookbook in hand, I decided to test out a Southern classic, something I’ve never tackled before: chicken fried steak with cream gravy. I’ve written before about my discomfort cooking meats — I’m always nervous of bacteria and tend towards over cooking.

Chicken fried steak comes with its own unique set of techniques: First you have to tenderize the meat and once you coat it with the flour and egg mixture, it’s fried, not grilled.

On tenderizing: My goodness, my hands have never been so numb. Yes, invest in a good tenderizing mallet, and even with that I had a hard time beating the top-round steak into the appropriate thickness. Mine turned out thicker than Fain’s because at some point I just gave up. Chunks of raw meat were flying all over the place and I was convinced my neighbors would be pounding on the walls at any second.

I followed the cooking times to a T and resisted the temptation to cut into the meat to test for doneness in the middle of cooking. I would have to trust Fain on this one, and I was pleasantly surprised at my success (as was my roommate). Fain suggests adding a bit of cayenne to the flour mixture you’ll coat the meat in and it provides for a nice little kick.

I’m also happy to report I nailed the cream gravy on my first try. Everyone’s right: You just gotta keep stirring and eliminate those clumps. Boy, was it worth the extra effort to eat that chicken fried steak with cream gravy from scratch.

Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I love the book and plan on recreating just about every recipe in my kitchen. I didn’t grow up with a ton of homecooking like Fain did, so perhaps this is the start of a new tradition.

Now, if only I can get the smell of frying oil out of my house. ...

Find Lisa Fain’s blog at www.homesicktexan.blogspot.

com or her book now in stores.

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