As we spend more time at home and make less frequent trips to the grocery store, we’ve had to get creative in the kitchen. Google is working overtime as we search for ways to use the food we have on hand. Enter disparate keywords like “chicken, prunes, olives” and you’ll get several versions of the 1980s recipe Chicken Marbella. 

By now a lot of people are tired of the work, the dishes, the ingredient substitutions, and the weird one-off dishes we’ll never make again. Yet for many others, including me, cooking is still a pleasant diversion and a driving force.

Seeking comfort in times of certainty, I find myself longing for the familiar flavors of San Antonio and Texas. My shelf of 60 or so cookbooks gives me plenty of food for thought. So I’ve begun to dig into the books with local ties and focus on my community of area authors and chefs.

The Los Barrios Family Cookbook makes me smile and feel warm and fuzzy inside. Diana Barrios Treviño and her family are standard-bearers for kindness and generosity. The foreword by Emeril Lagasse highlights the way they make strangers feel like family. As you’d expect, there are plenty of standard Tex-Mex recipes here, from Enchilada Gravy Sauce to Sour Cream Nachos, but there are also surprises that give an insight into the matriarch’s passion for feeding guests. Chicken a la Viola, for example, is still served at each of the four family restaurants, but began as a “special dinner” at home. At its core it’s a chicken stew; on the plate it’s pure comfort.

The chicken pieces are steamed in their own juices, not browned in oil, to start the dish, and ground cumin and dried Mexican oregano add to the flavor and aroma. I use a hand-cranked Italian food mill to smooth out the blanched tomatoes for the sauce. That tool removes the skins and seeds, further adding to the sweetness of the dish. It’s a great dinner party recipe that doesn’t require any last-minute fuss. Viola was right.

Food writer and chef Chris Waters Dunn worked with legendary local restaurateur Cappy Lawton to produce Enchiladas: Aztec to Tex-Mex, a veritable encyclopedia of techniques, ingredients, history and cultural insights into enchiladas. As a lover of culinary anthropology, I urge every San Antonian to read the introduction for a deep dive into the topic of the ubiquitous combination of corn masa rolled, folded, filled (or not), and sauced (or not). Barring that, dive directly into the pages of fundamentals such as dry roasting for salsas, making red or green tortillas, smoothing refried beans, or poaching chicken for enchiladas. If you have time, make the Mole Rojo. You’ll come to value the work that goes into this rich sauce, and have an opportunity to modify it to your taste. All of the ingredients are available at most H-E-B stores, but I recommend a trip to La Michoacana instead. 

One of the ingredients that’s important to source is Mexican canela. It’s not as hard, strong or peppery as Ceylon cinnamon and grinds easily. Another is Mexican oregano. The flavor of Mexican oregano is milder, fruitier and more floral, so it holds its own in the sauce, but doesn’t overpower the other players. The recipe calls for 40 grams or less of Mexican chocolate. I suggest you err on the “or less” side for a more chile-forward sauce. And make the full recipe: It freezes well and you’ll be so happy you have it when the mood for mole strikes. It’s absolutely perfect on Thanksgiving turkey leftovers.

Culinary Institute of America chef-instructor Hinnerk von Bargen has had the good fortune to travel the world, blending his work and his passion for food into the comprehensive international Street Food cookbook published in conjunction with the Culinary Institute of America. He defines street food by category – Bowl Foods, Foods on a Stick, Bread/Stuffed Foods/Sandwiches, Finger Foods, Sweets and Beverages – and gives us insights into the regional differences for each. The recipes are organized by the main ingredient, such as fish or vegetables or meat, so you can mold what you have on hand to countless international dishes. Don’t overlook the side dish recipes. I’m currently obsessed with the Spicy Thai Cucumber Salad, even though I haven’t made the Fried Fish Cakes it goes with. Yet.

Adrian Davila, the third-generation pitmaster who runs Davila’s BBQ in Seguin with his father Edward, takes us beyond brisket and sides into the mind of a modern South Texas smokehound. Cowboy Barbecue celebrates his Mexico-by-way-of-Spain heritage, linking Old World and New World into new wave Mexicue. He calls it the Vaquero mash-up and details the origins and techniques in introductory chapters. Then he gets into the meat (and seafood, veggies and breads) of the matter. Right off the bat, make a batch of the Signature BBQ Rub which is now on H-E-B shelves, and use it liberally on almost anything you grill. If you’re a backyard barbecue cook, take the time to perfect the restaurant’s famous mesquite-smoked lamb ribs for an out-of-the-ordinary treat.

Those of us looking for authenticity in the kitchen will be thrilled with the aromas and tenderness of Adrian’s mother’s Calabacita con Pollo and his grandmother’s potatoes in a rich tomatoey sauce. The real star dishes are those that allow smoke into their hearts. Try the Glazed Barbecued Salmon, first marinated in bourbon. And if you’re a fan of tiny yet mighty street tacos, the Tacos Campechanos, a mixture of grilled marinated beef, Spanish chorizo and grilled onions, will become a regular part of your repertoire.  

I leave the grilling to friends, so I’m often asked to bring a side or two to parties. Grandma’s Papas add a nice touch of rich flavor and colorful contrast to the communal table. They’re simple fried-then-braised sliced potatoes in a garlicky tomato broth fortified with bouillon. I’ve never had a complaint and, sadly, I’ve never come home with leftovers.

Other local/regional cookbooks to explore:

  • Texas on the Table by Terry Thompson-Anderson with stunning photography by Sandy Wilson. The book largely focuses on the recipes of Hill Country personalities, and includes Aaron Franklin’s Espresso Barbecue Sauce and Jack Gilmore’s Shrimp and Cheesy Grits. 
  • Cooking with Les Dames d’Escoffier was co-edited by San Antonio culinary maven Pat Mozersky. The recipes are collected from 200 top female chefs including Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich, Dorie Greenspan, Alice Waters, MFK Fisher, Susan Feniger to name a few. The local chapter of Les Dames continues to support scholarships for women aspiring to a career in culinary and nutrition fields. It’s a tome worthy of any cook’s time.
  • The recipes in the CIA Cookbook are not fussy and complicated. In fact, they reflect the Culinary Institute of America’s focus on highlighting the ingredients. It’s one you’ll find yourself returning to for consistent muffins, risottos, soups and salads.

Julia Celeste Rosenfeld has been writing about food in San Antonio since 1979. Among other writing jobs, she spent 14 years as the restaurant reviewer for San Antonio Magazine and served as the local Zagat...