Cowgirl Chef

Texas Cooking with a French Accent


By Ellise Pierce

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Moving to Paris was the best bad decision that Texan Ellise Pierce ever made. Wooed to the city by a Frenchman, she soon found herself with just 100 euros in her bank account. So she launched a last-ditch effort to stay in the City of Light: She started her own catering business and began teaching other American expats how to re-create flavors from home. Using French ingredients and techniques from both sides of the Atlantic, she did more than found a culinary company — she created a unique style of cooking that’s part Texas, part French, and all Cowgirl. Recipes include:
  • Cornbread Madeleines
  • Jalapeno Pimento Cheese Tartines
  • Cauliflower Galettes with Chipotle Creme Fraiche
  • Green Chile-Goat Cheese Smashed Potatoes
  • Peanut Butter-Chocolate Soufflees









After a year in Paris, I was ready to call it quits.

I had completely given up. Given up on the relationship I had moved halfway across the world for. Given up on learning the language. Given up on myself.

My freelance writing career was all but over. Magazines that I’d written for had merged with others, stopped using outside contributors, or simply gone under. The future of journalism looked bleak, and mine looked worse. I had less than 100 euros in my bank account, and my credit card was maxed out. I needed to do something … and quick.

I wanted to move back to Texas, but couldn’t afford the plane ticket.

Home was horse country, a college town called Denton, about a half-hour north of Dallas and Fort Worth, where I learned to ride bareback, fearlessly and at full gallop, after school.

Back then, Denton was still a small town, with its old-fashioned square and turn-of-the-century courthouse. It had one high school, two movie theaters (plus a drive-in on the north side of town), a hamburger joint called Johnny’s, a Sonic, and Luby’s cafeteria, where we’d sometimes go for chicken-fried steak.

I always felt like Denton lived in the shadow of the two bigger, more interesting cities to the south: Dallas, with its flashy glass buildings and air of sophistication, and Fort Worth, with its deep western roots and frontier confidence. I wanted to be like both of those places. I wanted to get out of Denton. I wanted something more.

Early on, I learned that I could explore a world beyond my own through food. Traveling to go out to eat was something that my family did on a fairly regular basis—Dallas for Greek or Italian, Fort Worth for Chinese or Tex-Mex—and closer to home, in elementary school, when other kids were playing kickball, I’d hop on my bike to go to Dairy Queen for a Buster Bar, or to Leroy’s Drive-In Grocery for a chopped beef barbecue sandwich. It was my early recognition of eating as adventure.

I saw cooking as its own adventure, too. By junior high, when I was baking batches of chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, or making my own fudge, I’d lose myself in the process of it all, captivated by the magic that happens along the way when this becomes that with a little heat from the stove or the oven.

When I wasn’t cooking, my mom was. I’d sit on a stool and watch while she spun her beaters around a big Tupperware bowl in clockwise and counterclockwise motion, thumping them against the sides. We usually had homemade cakes for dessert after dinner, and the table was always set the same as it would be if we were having company: the forks, knives, and spoons, lined up and in their proper places. Bread always had a basket, and its own plate. Food was passed from the left to the right. It didn’t matter whether we were having Beef Stroganoff or black-eyed peas and cornbread, it was always like this. I never knew any other way.

Dinnertime was an event, and the food, no matter how simple, was always the star.

By the time I was twelve, I had a subscription to Gourmet.


In the spring of 2005, through the same friends who had introduced us 10 years before, Xavier (the Frenchman known hereafter as “X”) and I finally hit it off. We drove to a friend’s wedding in Muskogee, Oklahoma, singing to the Isley Brothers in the car with the windows rolled down. We drank Champagne and giggled and laughed all weekend. We danced all night.

When he left to go back to Paris, I thought he was the one.

For the next two years, we flew back and forth to see each other every couple of months, for a week or two at a time. Each visit unfolded like the pages of a clichéd romance novel, with gifts of French chocolates and lingering dinners over wine in tiny French bistros, followed by walks along the Seine, and a stop on the Pont des Arts (a.k.a. “the Lovers Bridge”) for a kiss. Then came the goodbyes, a blur of jetlag and heartache, the time apart, the missed phone calls. The seven-hour time difference was difficult, the stretches of time between visits unbearable.

Finally I ran out of frequent-flier miles. We both decided that one of us had to move … or we needed to break up.

X had a full-time job. I was a freelance writer. I could work from anywhere, I figured. Why not from Paris?

So I rented out my house, packed up my cowboy boots and Cuisinarts big and small, and called the movers.

February is the coldest month of the year in Paris. At least it was when I arrived in 2007.

But if it was bitter outside, it was warm in our new apartment. X and I picked out paint for the walls, and bought rugs and furniture to make things cozy. We settled in.

Sort of. Feeling at home in a foreign country has a lot less to do with unpacking books and cookware, and a lot more to do with speaking the language; and on that front, I was failing miserably. My French was a mishmash of words that I remembered from college and high school, which was useless because I couldn’t string them together in a way that made any sense. At the local boulangerie I’d be harshly corrected by the old woman behind the counter—she pretended she didn’t understand and made me repeat myself two, sometimes, three times. It was humiliating. I stopped buying bread there.

As much as I struggled with the language, and knew that I needed to spend more time studying French, I felt even more pressure to find work. Months went by without any income, something that had never happened to me before.

I soon grew tired of the cold and the rain, of not being understood. I was homesick for my friends, my family, and the big sunny skies of Texas. X didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy. We were together in Paris. Wasn’t that what I wanted? Wasn’t that enough?

Actually, no. Turns out, we didn’t know each other at all. I was lost with him and without him.

So I retreated to the only world I knew: the kitchen. In the midst of chaos and the unknown, the kitchen was safe, predictable. Among the teaspoons and cups and well-sharpened knives, I found order. Things made sense. It felt like home.

I couldn’t order a loaf of bread in perfect French, but I could bake one. So I started exploring and discovering. I learned that French flour isn’t anything like what we have back home—it’s milled and mixed to standards I still have trouble getting my head around. The butter has a higher fat content. The crème fraîche a richer, heavier version of sour cream. It took awhile, and many disasters, to understand the differences between American and French ingredients, but I’d been in the kitchen all my life. I knew that if I kept trying, I could make my recipes work.

It took some improvising. When I ran out of salsa and flour tortillas, Tex-Mex staples that I’d bring back to Paris from home, I started making my own. I didn’t have a comal, so X bought me a cast-iron crêpière to use instead. I went to the weekly markets and found sweet potatoes, or black-eyed peas, and yellow squash, ingredients that were familiar.

The more I cooked, the less homesick I felt.

But after a while, there was only so much that a batch of cookies could do to lift my spirits.

I needed work. But I didn’t know what I could do in France. Then I met a couple of American women who’d invited me to be part of their small expat support group, which got together every few weeks to help one another brainstorm about new careers. Turns out, my predicament wasn’t that unusual. Most of us move here with a dream, sometimes just the dream of living in Paris. Then the money runs out. Reality sets in. So it wasn’t just me: we were all trying to figure out how to make a buck. Or a euro. Anything.

I thought about teaching yoga, like I’d done in Dallas a few years earlier, and it seemed to everyone like a good enough idea … until I took guacamole, salsa, and some chicken empanadas to a meeting. “Yoga!” one of the women said, waving her empanada in the air. “Why aren’t you cooking? Catering to other homesick expats?”

Cooking? In the culinary capital of the world? Sure, I’d always thrown dinner parties, but I was a writer. It was one of the more farfetched things I’d heard … but I was out of ideas.

So I spent the next two months building a website, and by September of that year, Cowgirl Tacos, a Tex-Mex catering company, was born. I gave myself a month to see if it would work, just one month, and if it didn’t, then I was going to borrow the money to move back to Texas.

A funny thing happened after my website went live. I met a woman who worked with the State Department—she asked if I’d ever thought about offering cooking classes, because, she said, if I did, she’d get a group together to take them.

For the next four weeks, Melinda, Julie, Debbie, and Valorie sat around my kitchen table every Wednesday night, and drank margaritas while I taught them the differences between jalapeños and habañeros, and explained the importance of corn in Mexican cuisine. We rolled out flour tortillas, pressed corn tortillas, and made enchiladas. We made guacamole and salsa, too. But more than that, over those few weeks, friendships were hatched that remain today, even though Melinda’s now in Beijing, Julie’s in Angola, and Valorie has moved on to Madrid.

After the fourth class, and we’d all hugged and they walked out my door, I was so happy, feeling like those classes were the most rewarding thing that I’d ever done, and the most fun, ever—but I was also terribly sad, because now it was over.

Which of course, it wasn’t. It was only the beginning.

When I announced a new series of classes that next week, they filled up in a day.

So I started writing a blog, and called it Cowgirl Chef, to promote the cooking classes and catering business, which was providing new and steady income, something that freelance hadn’t done in years. Suddenly I was too busy to leave Paris.

And I was happy for the first time in years. I had a focus. I had friends. I was doing something that I loved, and was actually making money sharing a passion I’d had all my life.

I started seeing Paris differently, with a new curiosity. I’d go to the grocery store and to the markets and notice all sorts of things that I hadn’t seen before. I once counted thirty-nine (!) different types of sponges at the Casino. I’d wander down the cereal aisle and see if I could find one box without chocolate (nearly impossible). I tried new recipes — French, not American. I bought a madeleine pan. I ate yogurt, plain, with a swirl of honey, just like X did. I made crêpes.

I found inspiration all around me. In the restaurants that X and I would go to. In the weekly markets. In French cooking magazines. My life was opening up.

I kept teaching classes and catering and soon, besides my own Cowgirl Chef blog, I was writing a Cowgirl Chef column for publications back in the States. I was developing dozens of recipes each month. I began making videos, too.

I also began to cook differently. Whereas I’d started cooking recipes from home to ease my homesickness, I soon found that I was ready to try something new. Something French. I bought pans in all shapes and sizes, and made tarts both savory and sweet. I bought a fire gun to perfect the crème brûlée. When my baby Cuisinart broke, I bought a new one, a French one. I stopped thinking about moving home altogether. There was too much to experience, to taste, and to make, right here.

One week, I’d experiment with vinaigrettes; another, I’d work on meringues, or puff pastry, or soufflés. I bought vegetables I’d never seen in my life—the pre-Roman, celery-looking, artichoke-tasting cardons (cardoons) and cooked them up in a tart, with a recipe that I made up on the spot. I became hooked on the tiny French pumpkin, potimarron, and made soups, tarts, and ice cream with it. I fell in love with the knobby pink topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes), which I roasted and tossed with cauliflower or puréed into soups. I cooked with a new sense of adventure, and with the confidence that if it didn’t work out, I’d just do it again. I became fearless once more. . . this time in my French kitchen.

I was cooking all the time. And I was having the time of my life.

But when someone suggested I write a cookbook, I thought, Seriously? Me?

Then it hit me that besides cooking for people and teaching them what I knew about food, I’d been writing and testing new recipes, which was what I loved most. When I wasn’t in the kitchen, I was thinking about food, talking about food, or reading about food. Maybe, just maybe, I could do it.

My inner chef had finally caught up with my outer cowgirl. My Le Creusetcrammed kitchen was on par with my boots-filled closet. Cowgirl Chef, I realized, is who I’d always been. I just had to move to Paris to find her.




Even though I love to cook, I don’t love spending an entire day in the kitchen any more than anyone else does. So I’ve outfitted myself with a few tools to help me do what I need to do faster and more efficiently. These are the tools that help me get the job done each day.


I’ve had the same heavy-duty white KitchenAid stand mixer for almost twenty-five years. It’s made hundreds of batches of cookies and cakes, whipped more egg whites for soufflés and mousses than I can count, kneaded bread, and even ground meat. If you have only one appliance in your kitchen, let this be it.

I’ve got both a large and a small food processor, and I use them both all the time. The small one’s great for making pestos, mayonnaises, and vinaigrettes. And it’ll chop a big batch of garlic into a nice small mince that you can keep in a jar with some olive oil in the fridge for a few days; I do this when I’ve got a week’s worth of cooking ahead of me and want to save time (you can do the same thing with onions and shallots). The large food processor is my go-to helper for pie and tart crusts; shredded cabbage and carrots, and small batches of bread doughs, like corn and flour tortillas.

I use my heavy-duty blender every single day. Mine’s made of sturdy thick glass, not plastic. It’s great for post-yoga smoothies, perfectly creamy soups, salsas and sauces, and puréed chiles and super-concentrated moles.

A hand (or immersion) blender is great for blending things that don’t need to be too finely puréed, like some soups, and salsas, potatoes, and other veggies.


Invest in a good kitchen timer, and use it. It’ll prevent overcooked cakes and cookies, and keep your kitchen running smoothly.

Buy two oven thermostats, and put them in different parts of your oven so you’ll know where the hottest spots are. That way, as you bake, you can make adjustments, and turn your cookies around so one side isn’t twice as brown as the other.

A candy thermometer will help you make perfect caramels—and fried chicken, too. You can’t make either without one of these.

To be on the safe side, I always use a meat thermometer for chicken, and other meats that need to be cooked to a certain temperature, such as pork.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but a kitchen scale will keep your measurements exact. That’s what we use in France (as does most of the rest of the world) and it’s a lot easier than cups once you get the hang of it.

The next time you’re wandering down the school-supplies aisle, pick up a wooden ruler, just like the one that you used to have in your yellow school box. My mom told me about this: It’s a great tool for measuring the depth and width of pans, etc. I keep my kitchen ruler in a drawer next to the stove, and use it all the time.


Everyone needs a zester, not just for lemons, limes, and oranges, but for finely grating hard cheeses, too. It’s an inexpensive and indispensable tool you’ll use constantly.

I have a drawerful of knives, but I only really use three—my 7- inch santoku, a paring knife and a small serrated knife. I also have a long serrated knife, for cutting bread.

I rely on kitchen scissors for tons of things—to cut slices of pizza, flat tarts and croustades, and to snip herbs from my garden.

Chicken shears are crazy-looking, super-sharp snippers, but they’re exactly what you need to cut up your own chickens. You’ll save tons of money by doing it this way.

I found a serrated vegetable peeler in Paris and it changed my life. Made for tomatoes, it’ll peel anything with tricky, hard-to-remove skin, from peaches to butternut squash.


I have lots of wooden spoons, tongs (which do double-duty as lemon and lime squeezers), silicone brushes, heatproof spatulas and whisks of all sizes. When I want a strong shot of garlic, I use my garlic press—it’s a heck of a lot easier than peeling cloves.


I make a lot of vinaigrettes, pestos, flavored oils, and salsas, because they’re fast and easy. The key is having lots of fresh herbs on hand, whether you’re growing your own (the best and most cost-efficient way) or buying them at the market. I can’t say enough about fresh herbs or the difference using them will make in your cooking. They can liven up the dullest of things —even those mashed potatoes in the fridge from yesterday.

I use oils and vinegars, together and on their own, to flavor everything from salads, fruits, and veggies, to all sorts of meats and fish. As a general rule, I use olive oil and grapeseed oil interchangeably for my vinaigrettes, but also use nut oils. Walnut, hazelnut, and pistachio oils are some of my favorites; they’re a bit pricey, but you don’t need a lot to make a big impact. I’ve always got sherry vinegar, Champagne vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and apple cider vinegar on hand, too.

And let’s not overlook sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sea salt because it tastes brighter and cleaner than table salt, and has a higher mineral content. Never white pepper. Please.






We have lots of different flours in France, but in this book, whenever flour is mentioned, unless otherwise noted, I’m referring to all-purpose flour. All eggs should be large, all milk whole. Butter’s unsalted. When I refer to cream, I mean whipping cream. If I’m talking about crème fraîche or sour cream, I’ll be sure to spell it out clearly. I use powdered sugar, and call it that, because I think confectioners’ sugar sounds silly. (Have you ever said I need a box of confectioners’ sugar? Have you ever put that on your grocery list? Of course you haven’t.) Unless you live in France, in which case it’s sucre glace, or icing sugar, which is what it’s also called in the U.K.


I know lots of cookbooks are nitpicky about this, and will often tell you if you should use a small onion or a medium carrot, or whatever. I don’t do much size prescribing for a couple of reasons: One, my large onion might be your medium; and two, it often really doesn’t matter that much, so I try not to micromanage when it’s not necessary. On the other hand, when it does matter, when size does count, I’ll let you know.


The more you cook, the more you rely on your eyes and nose, and the less you depend on the clock. I’ve got two thermostats in my oven to let me know when the temperature is going up or down, but my oven’s a bit crazy, and as much as I try to manage things, in the end, I trust what I see, smell, and touch, to tell me when something’s ready. Same goes for the stovetop. I’ve made suggestions about temperature and flame and cook times, and I’ve given visual cues about doneness whenever possible. Interpret my recipes using your own good judgment and simply adjust as you go. That’s the Cowgirl way.


I’ve become the queen of the swap-out. If I don’t have cheddar, I’ll use Comté; if I’m fresh out of crème fraîche, I’ll use yogurt. I didn’t used to be so thrifty and flexible, but in Paris, when the stores are closed, they’re closed, and a girl’s gotta eat. But resourcefulness is a great thing to cultivate even if you’ve got a 24-hour grocery store down the street—it makes good sense not to waste, and it makes cooking even more fun when you know the rules can be bent a little (and in some cases, a whole lot). I’ve guided you to possible substitutions (“Swap It”), suggested ideas for leftovers (“Double-Duty”), and given you little tips that’ll help you do the job better and more efficiently (“Cowgirl Tip”).



Trying to satiate one’s hunger for home is the life of an expat. It is a life of constant longing—for the place you left, and when you return, for the place you left home for, that you thought you’d never love as your own. It’s like some sort of cosmic joke. The homesickness is only lessened by the growing attachment to the new place. Then the very idea of home becomes amorphous, ever changing. Sometimes it almost feels like I’m cheating, loving both France and Texas.

I love them both for their food, for the passion that both places have for their cuisines. There is nothing quite like eating enchiladas verdes in San Antonio or bouillabaisse in Marseille. And whichever side of the Atlantic I happen to be on, I feel like I’m in a semi-constant state of withdrawal. When I’m in France, I miss the jalapeños, the serranos, and the New Mexican Hatch chiles. When I’m in Texas, I crave the French fleur de sel butter, the chocolate, the cheese.

Every time I’d sit down to work on this collection of recipes, I’d think about the kitchen explorations that have allowed me to bring my two beloved culinary cultures together. When you come into the kitchen to cook with me, I hope you’ll discover the happiness of that fusion.

And that you’ll come back often.

I’ve thought a lot about the kind of cookbooks I like to buy and the kind I actually use. I wanted to write something that was both practical and creative; filled with recipes that were multipurpose, could be sized up or down, or made into something else with a twist here or a trick there. And I wanted to include suggestions on what to do with a dish, how to serve it, what to pair it with, and, as much as possible, how to make it look good on the plate.

The stories I wrote alongside the recipes are meant to entertain, but first and foremost, I hope these recipes resonate. I hope they will inspire you to make them, enjoy them, and share them with your friends and family.

And, finally, I hope I’ve succeeded in writing a cookbook you’ll dog-ear and accidentally spill your coffee on—when you’re having fun cooking, that just happens. That’s what cooking’s all about.

What are you waiting for? So go put your boots on, and get cookin’!



On Sale
May 15, 2012
Page Count
304 pages
Running Press

Ellise Pierce

About the Author

Ellise Pierce chronicles her expat adventures in recipes and stories on her blog,, and in her Cowgirl Chef column, which runs in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and is distributed to more than 300 newspapers. She has written for Newsweek, People, and Texas Monthly. Ellise lives in Paris and makes frequent trips back home to Dallas to see family and friends . . . and to stock up on jalapeñ

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