Dean Fearing, chef at Fearing’s in Dallas, tells F&W about his grandmother's famous cheese ball, his favorite cookbook and the right way to heat a tortilla.
What’s the one dish you’re most known for?
Our tortilla stuffing. It’s something I came up with years ago, a south-of-the-border take on cornbread stuffing, in which we use fried tortillas along with a traditional cornbread, and instead of chicken stock we add tortilla soup. Then we add fresh jalapeños, a little bit of cumin, along with sage and thyme. Instead of baking it in a pan, we shape it into balls that we brush with a little olive oil to give them a nice crust. Part of my whole philosophy of food is that on every plate something has to be crunchy.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Oscar of the Waldorf’s Cook Book, by Oscar Tschirky. Somebody gave me this book when I was first starting as an apprentice. Tschirky was the maître d’ of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel restaurant in New York, and he came out with this cookbook in 1896. It’s as thick as an encyclopedia. We all think that everything’s new, but a lot of it was being done in New York in 1896. You talk about truffle sauce or hollandaise or even crab cakes and corn chowder, it’s all in there. The unbelievable part is there’s not one amount given, like 1 cup or 2 tablespoons—he explains how to make every recipe verbally. Yet his recipes are so thorough. The book is so complete, it covers everything from killing wild game to canning and pickling and how to poach, sauté or fry a fillet of sole. I’ve used this book through my whole career.
What’s a technique everyone should know?
The best way to heat a tortilla. If you want the perfect tortilla—corn or flour—take a stack of five out of the bag and heat them, uncovered, for 15 to 20 seconds, depending on how powerful your microwave is. We do that at home, because my boys love migas in the morning when I’m cooking them breakfast. Some people say to hit the tortillas with a little water, but forget it. I think it’s because they steam so quickly, but microwaving works better than heating them on top of the stove at times. The stove can dry them out if you’re not careful. Out of the microwave they’re more pliable, perfect for migas, tacos or for getting a tight roll for enchiladas.
Can you share a great entertaining tip?
I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, and had two grandmothers who lived just blocks from us. They were both unbelievable country cooks. My grandmother on my dad’s side, Granny Fearing, would always make a cheese ball of cheddar cheese, cream cheese and blue cheese with Tabasco, Worcestershire, some salt and chives or green onions, all blended together and covered with chopped pecans. She’d let it come to room temperature so the cheese was soft, put a butter knife in there and set it on a platter, and surround it with overlapping layers of Triscuits and Ritz Crackers. For me, that was like decoration deluxe. Talk about food preparation, and display. Boy, we would just dig into that. And I think they’re still good. You can make them ahead of time, and when people come over, for late-night party drinks or the cocktail hour or afternoons, you can just bring it out of the refrigerator and design your own cracker display. There are many cooler crackers you can use these days, but to me nothing beats that taste on a Triscuit. If I have that, I’m back on Newman Street in her house in Ashland, Kentucky, and it’s 1961.