Texas Living

Stephan Pyles’ Modern Texas Christmas Table

By Nancy Nichols 12.2.14

Over the last 30 years, Stephan Pyles has emerged as one of the premier chefs in the U.S. Pyles and fellow chefs Dean Fearing, Ann Greer-McCann, Robert Del Grande, and Avner Samuel attracted international attention to Dallas in the mid-’80s with their rebellious, innovative Southwestern Cuisine.

They used fancy French techniques but concentrated on cooking with local and regional ingredients to create new taste sensations utilizing wild game, pheasant, venison, and quail that roamed much closer to their kitchens. They spiced the proteins with a wide variety of peppers and native herbs. Today, thanks to the Gang of Five, the flavors of the Southwest are permanently ensconced in our national palate. The next time you spot a Southwest Salad on the menu at McDonald’s, you will have a greater appreciation of its heritage.

Long before Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan, picked up a frying pan as a professional chef, he toiled alongside his parents at their Phillips 66 Truck Stop Caf√© in Big Spring, Texas. The small town about 300 miles west of Dallas between Midland and Abilene is where Pyles grew up. His maternal grandparents and parents farmed just outside of town. His aunt ran a dairy farm. “My mother was a great Southern cook,” Pyles says. “We grew vegetables, and she’d cook okra, squash, and black-eyed peas, and she’d set out pickled vegetables at every meal. She baked all the cakes and pies at the family restaurant.”

For decades, the Christmas dinner at the Pyles’ house was centered on a traditional turkey, specifically one from Butterball¬Æ. “God bless her. My mother would always try to make it moist by rubbing it with butter,” Pyles says. “But by the time you cook the leg meat, the breast is overcooked.”

At an early age, Pyles made what now could be considered his first contribution to modern Texas holiday cuisine. He told his mother her honey-fried chicken was better than her turkey. From that moment forward, Christmas at the Pyles’ home was celebrated with a feast of fried chicken, spiral-cut ham, pea salad, canned cranberry relish, potato salad, candied sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, cornbread stuffing, and tamales.

Usually the tamales were steamed and served as a side dish, but before the fried chicken replaced the turkey, his mother would stuff them inside the bird. Tamales were common in Big Spring. “When our family went out to eat, we went to barbecue joints and Mexican food restaurants,” Pyles said. “Even the steak places in town had them on their menus.”

Pyles’ uncle was a hunter, and he always brought venison sausage. Once the table was set with china and the platters were placed, the family passed around fresh, hot buttermilk biscuits. The recipe for the biscuits was passed to the Pyles family by Mable Stanley, the mother of one of Pyles’ best friends. Pyles loved his mother’s biscuits; she was, after all, the family baker, but Mable had a secret buried in her four-ingredient recipe. She used self-rising flour to create her lighter-than-air biscuits.

These family celebrations steeped in Texas food have been a source of inspiration for Pyles. Most of the 30 restaurants he has created feature dishes from his Texas roots. Routh Street Cafe, Baby Routh, Star Canyon, and his eponymous restaurant Stephan Pyles all have menu items with heavy Texas accents. However, it is Stampede 66, the modern Texas cuisine restaurant he opened in Dallas in 2013, that is his love letter to Texas. The name is a homage to Big Spring. “Stampede” honors the town dance hall and “66” comes from his parents’ Big Spring Phillips 66 Truck Stop Cafe Ⓒ.

The menu consists of familiar Texas dishes reinterpreted with a contemporary twist. You’ll find his mother’s honey-fried chicken, Mable’s buttermilk biscuits, house-made bread and butter pickles, and a corn pudding tamale beside a hanger steak.

We asked Pyles for some tips and suggestions on how to add some of the Texas spirit to your traditional Christmas dinner or holiday celebration. You can find most of the recipes in The New Texas Cuisine by Stephan Pyles. Luckily you don’t have to be a world-class chef to follow his lead.

Cranberry Sauce

Instead of using a can of jiggly cranberry sauce and trying to smooth out the ridges left by the can, buy fresh cranberries and make a simple relish with Texas pecans and jalapeños. Pyles created a warm cranberry-orange compote for Baby Routh. It pairs with game and poultry and takes about 10 minutes to make. If you want something spicier, add some barbecue sauce to your current cranberry sauce recipe.


Put down that box of premixed cornbread stuffing and create a memorable dressing made from cornmeal from ground sweet blue corn. Add some oysters to get a taste of the bounties of the Texas gulf or mix in chorizo, onions, carrots, garlic, thyme, sage, and chopped cilantro to create a Tex-Mex twist.


No more Yankee-inspired Parker House rolls; craft a bread basket with bragging rights. Pyles suggests Mable’s buttermilk biscuits or perhaps a Mexican cornbread. His simple recipe uses fresh corn kernels, jalapeño slices, poblano peppers, buttermilk, and sharp cheddar cheese.


If you don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen, high-quality sweet and savory tamales are easy to source locally. For intrepid cooks, try your hand at recreating Pyles’ wild mushroom- goat cheese tamales (see sidebar). As long as you are going to the trouble of making your own, make extra and store them in your freezer. These little morsels go with just about any protein and are excellent with leftovers.

Chef Stephan Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan, talks about how his family celebrated Christmas and how to add Texas accents to your holiday menu | Texas Heritage For Living


Pyles grew up eating okra, squash, collard and turnip greens, and black-eyed peas harvested from the family’s garden. When planning your holiday menu, consider substituting a simple presentation of one of these Texas specials for the standard green bean casserole or twice baked potatoes. If you must have potatoes, think about whipping up sweet potatoes laced with molasses and butter and spiced with cayenne powder. Need a little red and green on the table? Pyles presents a salad of wilted greens (turnip, collard, or mustard) mixed with fresh cranberries, bacon, green apples, and toasted pecans. It’s as easy to prepare as it is pretty.

Butterball Turkey

Think long and hard before you choose your main protein. Chances are you just prepared a turkey for Thanksgiving, so open your mind to some new ideas. Pyles suggests grilling quail. Marinate the tiny birds in a mixture of molasses, garlic, and thyme and grill for two or three minutes on each side. Place them on a plate and serve with a horseradish-turnip puree and a tomatillo-jalapeño chutney. That should have your relatives talking for a long time. If you must have turkey, purchase a fresh one or resource a wild turkey. Just know a wild turkey has less fat and tends to be dry, which means you’re going to have to rub it with a lot of butter or cook it in a deep fryer.

If this is a problem, do what Pyles did in his youth: substitute honey-fried chicken. Your guests will certainly be surprised and you won’t have to spend an hour on hold waiting for the next available representative on the Butterball Turkey Talk-line.

Learn how to roll a tamale from Stephan Pyles!


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