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A Grande Thanksgiving

Houston chef Robert Del Grande proves Thanksgiving isn't about Puritan propriety. Just steam some tamales, roast a Tex-Mex turkey and let the margaritas flow.

This Thanksgiving, chef Robert Del Grande wants you to dig into dinner with your hands. Pick up a shrimp coated with garlic butter sizzling in its shell and let the juice dribble down your fingers. Scoop succulent Gulf crab salad and chunky guacamole onto a tortilla chip. Unwrap the warm corn husk from a fragrant pork tamale and spoon some ancho sauce on top.

"Go for a primal experience," Del Grande suggests. Nobody will miss the sweet potatoes. Or go for an element of surprise, and serve the sweet potatoes with smoky poblanos and tangy crème fraîche. "I've never been attracted to traditional foods," says Del Grande, a brilliant chef who in the early Eighties helped pioneer Southwestern cuisine at the outstanding Cafe Annie in Houston. "I just want whatever I make to be good, with a taste of the region." At Thanksgiving, that means celebrating Southwestern flavors rather than recreating a more stereotypical New England menu.

There was a time--before his nine-year-old daughter Tessa was born--that all Del Grande wanted from Thanksgiving was the chance to go to a movie. "My wife, Mimi, and I worked all week at the restaurant," he recalls. "Thanksgiving was one of our only days off. I didn't cook; I was too tired." Thanksgiving is still a day off, but now the couple entertains, and the guest list is always growing. "Mimi doesn't think you should have just a few people over for Thanksgiving, so she invites everybody, sometimes as many as 40," Del Grande says. "Of course," he adds with a smile, "this also gives you a way to dilute the relatives a little bit."

Actually, the relatives are why Del Grande found himself in the restaurant business in the first place. In 1981, he followed then-girlfriend Mimi to Houston from California, the ink still wet on his Ph.D. in biochemistry. An avid amateur cook, he traded his lab coat for an apron and got a job in the kitchen of Cafe Annie, a French bistro owned by Mimi's sister and brother-in-law, Candace and Lonnie Schiller. Within a year, he was executive chef, and he had completely warmed up to the sweet, spicy, peppery flavors of Texas. Del Grande has won worldwide acclaim for his cuisine, including the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest in 1992. Today, in addition to Cafe Annie, he co-owns a Mexican-style restaurant called Taco Milagro and a growing regional chain, Cafe Express, that serves sophisticated fast food.

Del Grande says only half jokingly that in achieving fame as a restaurateur with a brigade of line cooks, cases of ingredients and multiple ovens, he almost forgot how to cook at home. "I was terrified the first time we invited people over," he recalls. "Now I cook at home a lot, so I have a pretty good idea of what can be done without a kitchen staff of 12."

For Thanksgiving, he prepares all the elements of the meal ahead of time and serves much of it family style. Hours before the ritual carving of the turkey he puts out an ample supply of appetizers for guests who are just dropping by to socialize. Del Grande's Mexican-style shrimp in their shells are messy, he says, "but they get everyone going. Right from the start, people understand that it's not a formal affair." He grins slyly. "They create a food frenzy every time, and they're the simplest thing on the menu."

Their simplicity provides a foil for dishes that have more complex layers of flavor, such as his Texas corn bread dressing with country sausage. And his creamed sweet corn and thin French green beans dressed only with olive oil and sea salt are a great counterpoint to his succulent mole-inspired turkey, which he roasts with cocoa, cinnamon and chile powder and serves with a side dish of ancho chiles and onions in cream. "Most poultry seasonings stay on the skin," Del Grande says, "but as you cut through this bird, the seasonings spread to the meat. It has an amazing flavor through and through."

Del Grande finishes his generous meal with Texas deep-dish pecan pie in a buttery crust, intense Mexican-spiced chocolate pots de crème and coffee. "If you think ahead, as I sometimes neglect to do," he says, "you can grind the coffee and fill the pot with water beforehand, so the only last-minute effort is turning the switch on."

Text by Molly Glentzer, a freelance writer who lives in Texas. In previous issues, she has covered Texas Hill Country and Houston's Vietnamese dining scene.

For more great Thanksgiving recipes, menus and pairings, go to our Thanksgiving section.

Published November 1999
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