Category Archives: Chuck Wagon Cooking

Leftover Fajitas

Pondering what to have the grandkids help me cook for supper, I leaned on the refrigerator door, staring in at the contents like Silas Marner in one of his cataleptic trances. Finally seeing leftover Jamaica jerked chicken and leftover lamb shanks it hit me. Fajitas! I could get out some flour tortillas, some beans, some rice, fry up some green peppers and onions, add cheese and we’d have a meal fit for a… Charro!

This involved helping the kids learn how to use “leftovers“ and still make a fun and healthy meal. They learned to pull the chicken and lamb apart, then fry up the peppers and onions. This involved using sharp instruments, and heat!

Then they learned the finer points of boiling ranch style beans with ham hocks, and mixing onions, chopped peppers, peas and carrots in to the fried rice with a touch of saffron and turmeric to make it yellow.

The key to making all this edible for kids from four to twelve years of age was given to me by my son, their father, who said:

“Put enough salt and cheese on it and they will eat anything.”

Carne Guisada

On a trip to south, and I do mean South, Texas once upon a time, me and my partner C.H. stopped into a café which was actually a made-over filling station, not far from the Mexican border. There I had carne guisada for the first time. I was hooked immediately! There are as many ways to cook this northern Mexican dish as there are cooks and cast-iron pots, but I guarantee it’s a hit on a cold winter day to feed a gang of cowboys, or even a Philadelphia lawyer.

Like all good recipes, “first take an onion“. Chop it into small bits and sauté it in oil in your Dutch oven until the onion is slightly yellow and translucent; then take it out. While that’s happening, cube a piece of meat into half inch chunks. Chuck roast works well, or round steak. It can be beef, pork or venison (or antelope or elk) any meat will do. We even use young goat or cabrito.  Roll the cubed meat in flour, then put it in the oil and brown it on all sides. Put the onions back in and add water to cover. Add a dash of garlic salt, cumin (comino) and chili powder, as well as oregano and thyme (tomillo) in smaller amounts. Allow it to simmer until the meat is tender and the gravy thickens. Serve it with warm flour tortillas, and coffee. It works for breakfast, dinner, or supper, and it’ll warm your gizzard on a cold day!

Salt’n the Beans

Mexican strawberries! That’s one of many pseudonyms for pinto beans. They are one of the staples of the chuckwagon cook’s menu. Many stories and poems have been concerned with the “lowly free-holy.” It has been said by Stella Hughes, the famous Arizona chuck wagon cook, that “More railroads were built, more cattle drives made, more round ups held, more expeditions carried out successfully, and more honest-to-gawd hard work done by bean eaters than any other kind.”

As a food the bean is one of the finest sources of soluble fiber, you know, the stuff that takes the cholesterol out of your bloodstream and makes your heart healthy! They are inexpensive, keep forever, (nearly) are easy to carry, easy to cook, and are also a fine source of protein, good carbs, and low in fat.

In a cow camp there was always a pot of pintos soaking, another simmering, and one serving. The seasoning is usually a piece of fat back, sow belly, salt pork, ham hock, or bacon. If beans are salted, it’s at the very last just before serving, because salt makes them tough if it’s added too early.  We often add onions, chilies, chili powder, oregano, or comino. But often the less you do to them the more their good bean flavor comes through.

Once at a cow camp there was no cook, so the cowboys had to take turns cooking. Whoever complained about the food was designated as the next cook. Well, it seems there was this pot of beans simmering on the fire. The designated “pot-slinger” tasted of them and thought they needed more salt, so he added a dose. In a little while another “puncher” rode in from the herd work a little early, and was asked to taste  the beans. He did, and thought they needed more salt. After a while several hands were in camp, including one who knew the “belly-cheater” never used enough salt, not knowing that one of his comrades had already added salt. So he dumped in a pretty good fist full. Finally the meal was served, and the last cowboy to come in tasted his plate of beans. When he loudly proclaimed

“My gawd, them beanies is SALTY!”

everybody looked up and then looked at each other, knowing that he was about to become the next cook. He saw the looks and quickly added

“and that’s just the way I like them!“

Remember you heard it here first.

Elements of Scalloped Potatoes 

We needed something to go with a roast The other day, when all the grandkids were here. I racked (Wracked?) my brain (I know that shouldn’t be too hard should it, as little as it is) to come up with something that young pizza and mac & cheese people might eat. Well, turns out I hit a homerun, much to my surprise. I don’t even know what to call this, but it has elements of salloped potatoes, one of my mom’s old favorites.

In a big cast-iron skillet fry up several pieces of bacon, until crisp and golden, then take the bacon out and set it on paper towels. Now chop a potato into slices like silver dollars and fry these rounds in the bacon grease. Salt and pepper the taters, then chop an onion and add it after the taters are starting to get tender. Finally throw in a cup full of green beans (what we used to call “snaps”). Stir this around until it’s well cooked and the beans are tender, I use a pretty hot fire. Then put the bacon back in all crunched up, and when the potatoes are browned and have sort of almost crunchy edges, serve it in a bowl. We had only enough leftovers for my lunch the next day. See, it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good food!