'The Texas Chef' whips up Southwestern favorites

Steve Castlebury has earned a reputation around Dallas as a great cook and genial host. He prides himself on the way he prepares regional Southwestern dishes such as jalapeno corn bread, crisp fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and strawberry shortcake.

But he insists he is just one of thousands of Texas cooks who are dusting off old family cookbooks and whipping up longtime favorites ''that taste just like Mama made them.'' Even when he conducted cooking classes at one of the elegant Neiman-Marcus stores, he emphasized Texas country-style cooking, reminding his audiences of the charms of buttermilk biscuits, pork and turnip stew, squash pancakes, and Willie Mae Skinner's sweet potato cake.

Some of his homey recipes may even have found their way to British kitchens, since his cookbook, ''Beat Until Stiff,'' was sold at Harrods in London as part of an American Western promotion that also included cowboy boots and hats and Mexican food ingredients.

He discovered several years ago, when asked to make a peach cobbler to serve 150 people at a ''For Men Only Cooking Class,'' that he not only had a gift for talking about food, but a flair for showmanship when it came to cooking in public. He has just made a pilot film for cable television in which he's billed as ''The Texas Chef.'' If accepted, he and his Texas cooking will be turning up in a lot of homes around the state.

Steve began his cooking career by tackling what many consider to be the most difficult of recipes to perfect, angel food cake. When he left his home in Vernon, Texas (where his family were rancher-farmers), to go away to college, he thought he wouldn't be able to exist without angel food cake. He asked his mother to teach him how to make it. Part of her instructions had been to take a dozen egg whites and ''beat until stiff.''

Those three words, engraved on his memory, years later gave him the title for his cookbook, which he had published several years ago and has just updated in a second edition. Friends who had long delighted in his cooking implored him to assemble his best recipes in a book. Winning first prize for an original recipe in a competition sponsored by the Dallas News jolted him into the decision to do so.

''I settled down at the dining room table with a dogeared old bunch of recipes that dated back 40 years,'' he explained. ''Some were yellowed with age and crumbling away, but I hired a good typist and began to sort and select. Sometimes I got lost in nostalgia, because the recipes recalled so many persons and places to me. The cookbook took an entire summer to prepare.''

''My standard of selection was to choose only recipes that I liked the most, '' he continued. ''We aren't accustomed much to lobster, aren't inclined toward sweetbreads, and never ate much lamb around here, so there is a shortage of recipes for those items. But the book does represent the range of national influences, including Mexican, French, German, and English, that have left their mark on Texas cooking.''

His cookbook, subtitled ''Tasty Tidbits from Texan Tables,'' is available by mail for $13.25, postpaid, from Steve Castlebury, 390 Decorative Center, Dallas, Texas 75207.

For over 20 years, Steve has not only been gourmet cook and cookbook author, but has owned the Castlebury-Held showroom in the Dallas Decorative Center. He has also been the designer of the Castlebury Handprints collection of custom fabrics and wall coverings. Here, too, his themes and motifs are often Texan, including cattle brands, Texas bluebonnets, cactuses and field flowers, and designs taken from Navajo blankets.

His five favorite recipes in the book include Mexican Mess, which is great for a party; high-rise chocolate souffle; and Mrs. McCartney's tuna loaf (''still the best tuna loaf I've ever tasted''). His sister's molded cheese salad must be included in the five, he says, because although he isn't long on molded salads, members of his family insist on this one at every holiday dinner. The fifth would be Colleen's orange squares, which ''nobody much knows about but are delightful.''

Steve offers a few hints for successful entertaining. One is to ''be prepared for anything,'' which may be the reason his kitchen is full of every kind of cooking gadget, every size and shape of saucepan, bowl, and skillet, racks of knives, jars of wooden spoons, cooking scales, and hanging bouquets of garlic and peppers.

A second is to find a simple entertaining formula that works for you and then not to be afraid to stick to it. Branch out and change the formula only when you feel comfortable about doing so.

Third, plan. This removes most of the stumbling blocks to efficient entertaining.

In preparing food for a big stand-up party or reception or open house, he says, ''Don't clutter the table with too many good things to eat. This is a habit which I consider to be Victorian.'' He states that his most successful menu for one such enormous party consisted of but two items. The first was a 72 -pound roast beef, sliced very thin and served with biscuits, and three kinds of sauces: hot mustard sauce, horseradish, and homemade mayonnaise. At the other end of the table he placed a mammoth Jarlsberg cheese and baskets of unleavened Indian bread.

His suggestion about guest lists: ''I try always to include a few interesting new acquaintances that I would like to know better, and mix these with the tried-and-true friends that I always enjoy.''

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