Food Issue Extra Helpings: My Dinners with Jon Dee Graham

Cooking tips from one True Believer to another

Yours truly chopping onions for the perfect burger.
Yours truly chopping onions for the perfect burger. (by Gretchen Harries Graham)

While we don’t eat chicken very often, the co-chef around the house, my dad Jon Dee Graham, has been whipping up “Reckless Chicken” since I can remember. It’s an Italian pasta recipe he got from drummer Jay Nazz of Reckless Kelly, thus duly renamed in our kitchen.

When my dad came to Austin to attend UT at 17, he worked as a cook at the old Pecan Street Cafe, where he learned some tricks to blend in with the ones he’d gleaned from his grandmother while growing in Quemado. A lot of people grow up with moms in the kitchen, but at my house, the kitchen is male dominated. My dad’s taught me much, so I’ve been taking over a lot of the cooking.

I got serious about cooking in my quest for the perfect hamburger. I was excited when Hopdoddy opened on Congress near our house, but who wants to wait in line for two hours? I will go on record saying that one of the most delicious burgers in town is the Big Ass Burger at the Roaring Fork. My recipe matches up quite well; I serve on buttermilk buns with hand shredded Irish farmhouse cheese. My best tip for hamburgers is to wear swim goggles while cutting onions.

Cooking is an overall feel good experience. The more I cook, the less I have any desire to eat out. When you think about it, eating out is kind of gross. People you don’t know are cooking food of unknown origin. You don’t know where it came from, nor can you know if the animals were treated well. Your vegetables and your meat should be grown with care.

Last year, I delved into making blueberry pies. In fact, I made several blueberry pies for the Continental Club’s Dianne Scott last week on the occasion of her birthday. She said she didn’t even need ice cream because the way that I make it, the crust is crisp on the sides but like pudding in the middle. I originally learned to make peach pie when I was 6, under the tutelage of bassist George Reiff, a onetime pastry chef.

My go-to standard has become pot roast. While I’ll keep my secrets secret, I don’t mind sharing that the most important ingredient for the perfect pot roast is using a clay pot. Never cook a pot roast without one. I do recommend, however, always checking the oven before you turn it on. The last times I made pot roast, I forgot that we put a plastic cake holder in the oven to protect the cake from our counter-serving Golden Retriever. It melted red wax everywhere causing a massive, dangerous mess.

Recently, I mastered spaghetti and meatballs, which sounds easy but isn’t. Both my patrons – my parents – say it’s the best meatball they’ve ever eaten. My mother says it tops the meatballs of Kansas City’s world famous Garozzo’s, made to mafia standards as the joke goes. My mother won’t eat pork, the one thing recipes say gives a good meatball its texture. I’ve worked around that with the right amount of breadcrumbs.

One day at Whole Foods, I talked my dad into buying me a sushi roller and I now I’ve added sushi to my repertoire. I don’t like fish that much, so I tend to stick with veggie and umeboshi rolls. A well-rolled roll isn’t that easy.

Last week, I conquered Japanese steamed beef buns, which we’re unlikely to eat out. It’s tricky, because you have to make your own dough and then you have to steam them just right. I made them for my bandmate Marlon Sexton, with a side of special soy sauce. I admit that I left Marlon hungry because when I went to let him in, our dog ate eight of them, leaving Marlon and I with only two each.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with ice cream that doesn’t require an ice cream maker. Turns out we own one, but I didn’t know that. Takes a lot muscle doing all that whipping. The key ingredient is fresh fruit, preferably strawberries. That’s what my dad says: “Fresh ingredients is one of the secrets.” The other one is to enjoy to cooking. My mom cooks well but she doesn’t like to do it. My dad and I take turns making dinner; I take over the kitchen fully now when he tours.

My next triumph will be bread. I’m pretty good, but there’s a balance between sweet, salt, and bitter that I’ve yet to master, although I make good biscuits. My dad and I have an informal competition going for best biscuit. He’s winning, but I’m close. The secret ingredient for the perfect biscuit is Marionberry jam, which my dad brought home from Oregon for my mom's birthday because she loves it.

My parents anniversary is Valentine’s Day, so I’m planning a surprise lunch – the menu, that is, not the meal. You know the secret ingredient too: L-o-v-e. Awww!

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Jon Dee Graham, True Believers, Marlon Sexton, George Reiff, Dianne Scott, Hopdoddy, Roaring Fork, Whole Foods, Food Issue, Pecan Street Cafe, Garozzo’s

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