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Cooking with Presidents: A small-town Texas chef’s rise and journey to the next chapter

It’s tough to find a more place-based culture than Texas. Evidence of that can be found in the comradery akin to family when you meet another Texan in a different state or especially abroad. Simply put, a fellow Texan can make you feel home.

It’s no surprise that when President George Bush and his family left for the Oval Office, his family kept Matthew Wendel close. As Mrs. Laura Bush states in the forward of Matthew’s recent cookbook: “Offering guests wholesome, delicious, and comforting food is a key ingredient of our Texas hospitality, and it’s our way of saying ‘Welcome, we’re glad you’re here’.” I could not agree more!

It seems that with Chef “Matty”, the Bush family valued a Texan in their kitchen not exclusively for friendship, but to help them share our culture with the world through food. What an amazing partnership and service.

That brings us to Matthew’s next chapter. You see, drill down that Texas place-based culture to our universities and allegiances bubble up in conversation like the springs under the headwaters of the San Marcos River. We have enough analogies and full circle moments to fill all the pages of this magazine. So, let’s condense. Matthew Wendel is a Texas State Alumni. The stars aligned for him to join Texicureans and the Texas State Alumni Association at the home of Kelly and Beth Damphousse, President and First Lady of Texas State University, respectively. (Eat ‘Em Up Cats!”)

Matty’s Fried Chicken

I had the honor of being in the kitchen with Beth and Matthew as we prepared “Matty’s Fried Chicken” from his beautiful cookbook Recipes from the President’s Ranch – Food People Like to Eat The last phrase in the title was coined by Laura Bush’s mother after enjoying many of his meals while visiting.

Let’s set the scene in San Marcos. When I arrived at the Damphousse home, Beth and Matthew were busy prepping a Texas sized feast. I jumped right in the mix. There was salsa, guacamole, salad, biscuits, brownies, cookies, and the star of the show – Matty’s Fried Chicken. THAT is the recipe Matthew has graciously agreed to share with Texicureans.

He took my one bane of cooking and turned it into an easy methodology with scrumptious results.  How did the fried chicken turn out?  AMAZING!  The flavor penetrates completely through each piece.

Matthew’s full cookbook is published through the White House Historical Association and can be purchased at  https://shop.whitehousehistory.org/products/recipes-from-the-presidents-ranch or on your next visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Visit https://www.bushcenter.org/ to plan your trip. Matthew’s book is a curated catalogue you will return to again and again.  Hint: “Matty’s Chocolate Chip Cookies” are probably the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever put in my mouth!

Matthew Wendel’s Story

“I am a Texan, born and bred.” Sound familiar? It’s how Matthew starts his book. Southeast of Houston lies the small Texas town of Danbury, where Matthew grew up.

Warm and humble, Matthew exudes his love of cooking.  He’s not a trained chef, but he has a strong heart for good food.  Like so many of us, he was influenced by his mother as he snagged alone time with her in the kitchen in a home of nine children.  Matthew dedicates his cookbook to his mom by saying, “Your gentle ways taught me that food can feed the body and nourish the soul”.  He is certainly passing that heritage to all of us!

He began cooking for the Bush’s in Austin while they were occupying the Governor’s Mansion.  When they moved to the White House, they asked him to join them, and he was there every step of the eight years.  This included cooking at Camp David and the Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch.  “Over the years Matthew, or ‘Matty’ as we call him, became part of our extended family”, says Laura Bush in the forward of his book.

Food is Family. Family is Culture. Culture is History.  Matthew Wendel took food from Danbury to Texas State, to the Governor’s Mansion, to the White House and now to the world. His story is a wonderful example of how Texas transcends place.

Matty's Fried Chicken

Matthew Wendel, adapted from a recipe by Velva Wendel
Used by permission from "Recipes from the President's Ranch - Food People like to Eat"
Course Main Course
Cuisine American

Ingredients
  

  • 1 Young whole chicken, cut up* (I prefer chicken under 4 pounds)
  • 2 tsp seasoned salt
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp ginger powder
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1 gallon storage bag
  • vegetable oil, enough for frying

Instructions
 

  • In a small bowl, combine spices.
  • With paper towels, dry chicken pieces very well.
  • Lay out chicken pieces on a sheet pan.
  • Season both sides of each piece with the combined spices.
  • Add remaining spices to flour and pour into paper or plastic storage bag.
  • In a heavy skillet or Dutch oven, heat oil to 325 degrees.  Oil should not be more than halfway up the side of the skillet.
  • Add legs and thighs to bag and shake well so that the chicken pieces are well coated with flour.
  • Shake off excess flour and put in legs and thighs in hot oil.  Turn chicken pieces as they brown.  Dark meat should take about 13 minutes.  Remove pieces to drain on paper towels
  • Repeat until all the chicken is cooked.  White meat should take 8 to 10 minutes.  

Video

Notes

*I cut up the chicken just as my mother taught me, complete with the wishbone.  If you don’t want to tackle learning how to cut up a chicken, ask your butcher to do it for you.  
Keyword fried chicken, chicken, fried, spiced

Texicureans’ Trails: Date Night

It’s a great evening out to celebrate your relationship whether you are on a first date or have been married for 50+ years.  Here’s the Thursday night recommendation only a few minutes’ drive that gives the feel of a true get away.

The reason for Thursday is the iconic Cabernet Grill – so popular that reservations are harder to obtain on the weekends, but a tad easier on a Thursday evening. Toasting the tagline: “The largest selection of Texas wines makes for an unparalleled dining experience” has given it recognition as a top restaurant by Texas Monthly, Trip Advisor, Wine Enthusiast and USA Today.

The dishes are chef prepared from the freshest ingredients, and we were delightfully satisfied with our selections. The ambience with soft lights is a perfect place for an intimate rendezvous. I always love when the chef welcome to you with a surprise aperitif – ours was delightful with a melon theme and crumbles of Texas pecans.  Steaks, fowl, pork, and seafood populate the diverse menu, and, of course, your waiter can help pair the perfect wine.

We handily began our evening with a glass of wine at Augusta Vin which is across the highway.  Since the tasting room closes at six, we coordinated our dining time to follow conveniently close.  Whether you are seeking a quiet evening out with your significant other, or just would like a special evening out with friends, Augusta Vin and Cabernet grill make a great paring!

Migas – El Paso Style

Charles Salsman, who spent his childhood years in El Paso, shares this simple Saturday morning brunch recipe. Typically using items found in the fridge, this is a super recipe to turn left-overs into a spectacular presentation. And did I mention that it is super yummy?

El Paso Migas

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 8 minutes
Course Breakfast
Servings 4

Ingredients
  

  • 8 eggs, beaten
  • 2 corn tortillas, torn into bite-sized pieces (or equivalent in corn chips)
  • 4 pieces cooked bacon, chopped
  • 8 TBSP chopped onion
  • 8 TBSP chopped tomato, seeded
  • 3-4 seeded and chopped jalapeño or serrano peppers
  • ½ cup grated cheese (Cheddar, Monterey Jack or any melting Mexican cheese)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Oil, bacon fat, and/or butter for cooking

Instructions
 

  • Start by putting the fat in a frying pan over medium heat until hot
  • Add the chopped corn tortilla and fry until it gets crispy edges
  • Add the chopped tomatoes, onion, peppers and approximately 4 slices of the bacon, cooking until vegetables begin to wilt slightly.
  • Add the eggs (salt and pepper) and cook for about 2 minutes - stirring the mixture.
  • Add the cheese and continue cooking until the eggs are cooked to your liking.
  • Spoon onto a platter and top with extra bacon.
  • Serve with a side of citrus fruit and sliced avocado.

Notes

  • Options:
  • -Use leftover Pico de Gallo instead of the vegetables (just use the amount to your taste)
  • -Use leftover cheese (slightly hard or starting to dry)
  • -Use leftover pork, beef fajitas, steak, or dried beef (machacado)
  • -Add cilantro or other fresh spices to taste
  • -Garnish the top with fresh avocado or put some leftover guacamole on the side
  • -Serve with extra bacon and/or Frijoles Refritos
  • -Serve with fresh corn or flour tortillas
  • -If I use oil or bacon fat, I like to add a piece of butter before the cooking is done. I think it adds to the taste!

Corned Beef and Cabbage!

St. Patrick’s day makes me yearn for Corned Beef!

I learned this recipe from my parents’ 40+year dinner club.Every March dinner club this dish celebrated the luck ‘o the Irish.

The very nature of it says “let’s gather & share a cold mug”. So, don some green, turn on an Irish jig, and dance in your kitchen!

This recipe is in honor of my sweet Dad who plays an Irish vinyl every St. Patrick’s Day and asked me to post it!

Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage

Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Course Main Course
Servings 6

Ingredients
  

  • pounds corned beef brisket with spice packet
  • 10 small whole red potatoes (or 6-7 large) — quartered
  • 1 large head cabbage, cut into small wedges
  • 8 carrots, peeled and sliced into 3-inch pieces (if organic, don't peel)
  • 1 tbsp coriander
  • 2 tbsp peppercorns
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 tsp fennel
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 cup butter

Instructions
 

  • Toast spices in a hot cast-iron skillet for 2 - 3 minutes.
  • Pour into a spice mill or a Ninja blender and pulse a few times. Place 1 tsp of mix back in skillet.
  • Place brisket with spices that came with it and spices from blender in a large pot and cover with about 1” - 2” of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours.
  • Add potatoes and carrots and cook until vegetables are almost tender. Add cabbage and cook for 15 minutes. Remove meat and let rest for 15 minutes. (If your pot is not big enough, you can remove meat before boiling veggies)
  • Slice meat across grain and place in a serving dish with sides. Spoon the vegetables around the meat.
  • Melt 1/2 Cup butter in skillet with spices. Pour over veggies. Garnish with a “little green” parsley

Notes

I have prepared this a day ahead for a St Patrick’s Day dinner party and it reheats nicely.

Emmène moi à Paris (Take me to Paris!)

Vietnamese Phở

The exotic soup that will feel right at home in your kitchen: Pho. Hear me out on this one. The broth is one of those “all day”, one lazy Saturday endeavors that pays in big flavor. And, it’s really an enjoyable dish to serve your family or to share a cozy evening with friends. Both born and raised in Viet Nam, Lindsey and Victor Price give us a lesson in this delectable soup. They also share their adjustments to Texas culture and give a glimpse into their past life in Viet Nam. AND, they are just a fun couple! Welcome to Lindsey and Victor’s kitchen!

Vietnamese Phở

Servings 6

Ingredients
  

Aromatics

  • 2 large onions, halved
  • 5 oz ginger, sliced down the center

Spices

  • 10 star anise
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 3 cloves
  • 1.5 tbsp coriander seeds

Beef Bones

  • 3 lb beef brisket
  • 2 lb meaty beef bones
  • 2 lb marrow bones (cut to reveal marrow)
  • 15 cups water

Seasoning

  • 2 tbsp white sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce

Per Bowl

  • 1.5 oz medium flat rice noodles
  • 1 oz beef tenderloin, raw, thinly-sliced
  • 3 to 5 brisket slices (used for broth)

Toppings

  • 1 handful bean sprouts
  • 5 sprigs Thai basil
  • lime wedges
  • finely-sliced hot chili
  • Hoison sauce
  • Sriracha

Instructions
 

Aromatics

  • Heat a heavy based skillet over high heat (no oil) until smoking
  • Place onion and ginger in pan cut side down,, Cook for a few minutes until it’s charred, then turn. Remove and set aside
  • Toast Spices lightly in a dry skillet over medium high heat for 3 minutes

Remove Impurities

  • Rinse bones and brisket then cover with water in large stock pot.
  • Boil for 5 minutes, then drain.
  • Rinse each bone and brisket under tap water.

Broth

  • Wipe pot clean, bring 4 quarts water to boil.
  • Add bones and brisket, onion, ginger, spices
  • Add onion, ginger, Spices, sugar and salt - water should just barely cover everything.
  • Cover with lid, simmer 3 hours up to 8 hours
  • Remove brisket (should be fall-apart tender), cool then refrigerate for later.
  • Simmer remaining soup uncovered for 40 minutes
  • Strain broth into another pot, discard bones and spices. Should be about 10 cups.
  • Add fish sauce, adjust salt and sugar if needed. Broth should be beefy, fragrant with spices, savory and barely sweet.

Assemble

  • Prepare rice noodles per packet, just prior to serving
  • Place noodles, raw beef, and brisket in bowl.
  • Ladle hot broth over all - beef will cook to med rare
  • Serve with Toppings on the side

Notes

  • Brisket adds way more flavor into broth than any bones and other beef like chuck. Left over broth freezes well for months.
  • Marrow bones can be subbed with more meaty beef bones but soup may lack richness.
  • Partially freeze (about 30 minutes) beef before slicing thinly. Many Asian markets also will thinly slice for you.

Daddy’s Chili and Nanny’s Cornbread with Lou Ann in Hunt, TX

The Texicureans team had an exciting day in the kitchen with Lou Ann Smith and her family. We explored some of her favorite family recipes, including her dad’s chili and her nanny’s cornbread, and talked Texas traditions in her beautiful kitchen in the family home in the Texas Hill Country near Hunt, Texas.

Lou Ann and her husband are avid gardeners and raise chickens and goats on their rural acreage, and the family’s love of food has inspired the next generation likewise.

Click the YouTube window below to watch the video and scroll down for both the chili and cornbread recipes!

Lou Ann's Daddy's Chili

Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine American
Servings 6

Ingredients
  

  • 2 lbs. lean chuck roast, cut into chili-size pieces (ask your butcher to do it so you can select the chuck roast)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 5/8 cup chili powder
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 small can tomato paste
  • 2.5 cups water

Instructions
 

  • In a large pot, brown the chili meat. When no longer pink, add onion and continue cooking until slightly browned. 
  • Stir in the cumin, pepper, salt and chili powder. Cook until spices are fragrant. 
  • Add the garlic, tomato paste and water and cover. 
  • Simmer for 25-30 minutes or until meat is tender.

Notes

This is really best the next day.

Lou Ann's Nanny's Cornbread

Lou Ann Smith's Nanny's Recipe, adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 1941 edition
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 18 minutes
Course Side Dish
Cuisine American
Servings 8

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp sugar (optional, depending on your taste)
  • 2 well-beaten eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup melted butter (original recipe used shortening)

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • Put cast iron skillet into oven to heat for about 15 minutes before beginning the recipe.
  • Stir dry ingredients together in large bowl. 
  • Separately, combine eggs, milk and melted butter or shortening. Add to dry mixture and stir just until moistened.
  • Remove skillet from oven and pour cornbread batter into skillet. Return to oven and bake for 18 - 20 minutes or until golden brown and beginning to pull away from the sides of the skillet.

She loves zebra and hot pink!

Patio and backyard showers in Texas provide the ambiance and necessary room to seat more guests.  Decorating with a few simple items can transform an outdoor setting and create an atmosphere of fun and a special memory for the honoree and attendees.

I love to find out what the bride/groom or mom/dad- to -be love in terms of color and lifestyle and incorporate it into the theme. In this case – Ashley – the Bride to Be -comes from a family of animal lovers and hence her love of a zebra print.  She is a “pink” girl as well.

To tie all the different kinds of tables together, I selected one color of tablecloth.  These can be ordered online and used for future events, or rented from a party rental store.  Between my cohosts and myself, we had enough white tablecloths.  Hobby Lobby carries a zebra print fabric.  We cut 4 runners from 3 yards of fabric.  (9 feet runners)

To bring in the pink, I bought bunches of pink silk flowers.  We cut these to place on the table. Cuttings from a shrub in the backyard provided a natural complement to the silk flowers.

Handy lanterns placed in the middle of the table serve as the centerpiece and give height and candle glow ambience.  Gold chargers give it some glitz and folded green cloth napkins complete the outdoorsy natural feel.

I like to Welcome guests with a signature drink in a decorated glass, giving a “wow” experience. 

We chose a lighter pink flower and hot-glued it to inexpensive glasses.  A mimosa bar with 4 flavors of juices to mix with champagne or sparkling water jump-starts the party!

The smile on Ashley’s face tells it all!

Make it easy!  This party included 4 of my “9 Hacks to Easy Outdoor Entertaining”