Chuck wagon cook and cowboy Kent Rollins prepares a Western holiday feast.
It’s 7 a.m., and the prairie is awake. The tallgrass yawns as the wind moves through its blades. Cicadas buzz their high-pitched song. An overweight beagle named Bonehead rests in the warm sunshine. There’s brush and mesquite as far as the eye can see. In that otherwise empty expanse, Kent Rollins is tending to the fire fueling his prized camp stove, Bertha.
The 385-pound, custom-made workhorse sits under the wagon fly at Webb Ranch near Hollis, Oklahoma. Whenever Rollins, a genuine cowboy and chuck wagon cook, opens the firebox door to manipulate the burning wood or remove ash, flames lap out and arch backward, licking the stove’s surface. All around there is life and movement, and at the center of it all is Kent Rollins.
Dressed in denim, boots, a cowboy hat, and a brown apron emblazoned with the words “Can’t Get Full on Fancy,” the cook scoots between Bertha and his 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon to grab seasonings or a favorite ladle, slice jalapeños, or mix a few things in a bowl. But most of the action is taking place in two Dutch ovens a foot or two out from under the canopy. When Rollins lifts the pots’ lids, I sneak a look at pillowy rolls and Cornish game hens striped with bacon.
This is the country Rollins and his wife, Shannon Keller Rollins, call home, and the camp we’re in is the camp where the Rollinses host their twice-annual Dutch oven cooking school. “It’s the only place I ever wanted to live,” Kent says with a smile that turns his bushy mustache slightly upward and signals he’s about to crack wise. “I’m not much for city life. As a matter of fact, I’ll go 300 miles out of my way to miss Dallas or Fort Worth. If I have to go through, I prefer to do so at night. I like it better in the dark.”
He might not care much for the big city, but Kent and Shannon do have to pass through on their frequent travels for television appearances, working trail rides, and cowboy camps. Appearing on a Food Network program or CBS segment is a world apart from being in camp, where Kent might wake up in his tepee at 2 or 3 a.m. to cook up hearty, familiar — and not-so-familiar — fare like the dishes he’s currently fixing. The cowboy has a knack for making you feel like a welcome friend and leaving you hankering for whatever is on the menu in any setting — be it Oklahoma or a trail camp surrounded by thousands of heads of cattle. Kent Rollins is not the average chuck wagon cook.
This morning’s feast is a sprawling holiday meal that includes one of Kent’s personal favorites: cowboy sushi. The cold, thin slices of steak draped over crisp, cool cucumber with a zesty sauce ready for dipping counters the rising temperatures when the wind can’t. Topped with slivers of avocado and sliced into sections, the dish is easy to handle. It’s too easy to handle, making it difficult not to keep eating it. The chorus of the prairie seems to encourage the picking at food.
If the thought of gathering the relatives ’round the dinner table after open-fire cooking in the outdoors seems like too much for a family cook to tackle, there’s nothing to worry about: While Rollins’ recipes were designed for his campfire cuisine, here they’re adapted for C&I readers’ home kitchens for the purpose of creating a Western holiday spread like no other.
Most of the recipes, including the one for cowboy sushi, are available in Rollins’ A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales From the Trail (Rux Martin Books, 2015). The cookbook treats you to a chuck wagon’s worth of delectable food and entertaining insights and ruminations about the cowboy life. It’s a witty and compelling read full of spirited dishes that will have your guests reaching for seconds.
Pass the Mama’s Meatballs, and happy holidays, y’all!
(Makes 3 rolls or 18 – 22 pieces)
3 5- to 8-ounce sirloin steaks or thin-cut milanesa
1/3 cup cream cheese, softened
1 – 2 jalapeños, cut into thin 2-inch-long spears
1/3 medium-size cucumber, cut into thin 2-inch-long spears
2 green onions, chopped
1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, and thinly sliced
Lemon juice (optional)
Cowboy Sushi Sauce (recipe follows)
Unless you are using the milanesa, wrap the sirloin steaks with plastic wrap and flatten with a meat hammer until about 1/4 inch thick, or as thin as possible and cut into approximately three 6-by-11-inch rectangles.
Remove the plastic and rub both sides of each piece with several drops of lime juice. Repeat with a few shakes of the meat tenderizer, salt, and pepper. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Preheat the grill to low. Remove the meat from the icebox and let warm to room temperature before grilling. Grill the meat over low heat for 2 – 3 minutes per side, until rare to medium-rare. You can also pan-fry the steaks by searing them on both sides over high heat in a cast-iron skillet. Just be sure to keep the meat on the rare to medium-rare side because it will be easier to handle and more tender. Cool to room temperature.
Spread a thin layer of the cream cheese evenly over one side of each steak. Place about a 1½-inch-wide row of jalapeño and cucumber spears closer to long sides of the steaks, using your judgment about how much to include. Sprinkle the green onions on top. Drizzle about 1 tablespoon of the sushi sauce on top of the vegetables. Starting with the long side with the vegetables, tightly roll up the steak. Cover and place in the icebox for 10 minutes. Cut the rolls into ¾-inch-thick pieces. Top the rolls with the avocado slices. You can squeeze a little lemon juice over the avocado to keep it from browning. Drizzle with the sushi sauce or use for dipping and serve.
(Tip: The trick to this dish is having a thin cut of meat. Oftentimes, I can find thin-cut milanesa, which is beef top round cut and pounded extra thin; it works great here. You can also have your butcher cut an extra-thin piece of top round or sirloin so you don’t have to pound your own meat.)
Cowboy Sushi Sauce
(Makes about ¾ cup)
¼ cup, plus 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1¼ tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1¼ teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon lime juice
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients until smooth. Serve with the sushi rolls.
Butter-and-Bacon-Baked Cornish Game Hens
(Makes 4 – 6 servings)
2½ cups chicken broth
1 (10¾-ounce) can cream of chicken soup concentrate
4 Cornish game hens
Olive oil for coating
¼ cup seasoned salt
¼ cup lemon pepper
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon dried sage
2½ sticks butter
8 slices thick-cut or peppered bacon
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, whisk together the chicken broth and soup concentrate until smooth. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish or deep 12-inch Dutch oven. Set aside.
Coat each hen generously with the olive oil. In a small bowl, combine the seasoned salt, lemon pepper, garlic salt, and sage. Rub the seasonings over the hens, reserving about 4 teaspoons. Place ¼ stick of butter in each hen’s cavity. Cut the remaining sticks of butter into small chunks and place in the casserole dish.
Lay the hens in the dish or Dutch oven, breast sides up. Cross 2 slices of bacon on each hen. Sprinkle the remaining 4 teaspoons of seasoning over the tops. Cover with tin foil or the Dutch oven lid and bake for 1 hour, or until the internal temperature is about 165 degrees and the hens are cooked through. Be sure to baste them at least twice with the broth while cooking. About 5 minutes before the hens have finished cooking, remove the foil and let brown. Baste once more before serving.
Mama’s Onion Meatballs in Creamy Mushroom Gravy
(Makes 5 – 6 servings)
8 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cups diced assorted sweet mini or orange or yellow bell peppers
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 pounds ground beef
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil for cooking, if needed
Mushroom Gravy (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 11-by-13-inch casserole dish.
In a large cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until browned, but not crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel. Set aside. Add the peppers and onion to the bacon grease and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease in the pan, and cool slightly.
In a medium-size bowl, crumble the beef. Using your hands, mix in bacon, onion mixture, garlic, and smoked paprika. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Shape the beef mixture into about 24 golf ball-size balls. Place the balls in the skillet with the bacon grease and brown the outsides over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil to the skillet, if needed.
Pour half the mushroom gravy into the casserole dish. Place the meatballs in the dish and pour more gravy over the meatballs. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve hot with the remaining gravy.
(Makes about 4 cups)
2 (10½-ounce) cans cream of mushroom soup concentrate
1 soup can warm water
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the ingredients until combined. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until warmed through and smooth.
Mashed Brown Sugar Sweet Potatoes
(Makes 5 – 6 servings)
3 or 4 sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups light brown sugar
2 sticks butter, melted
½ cup half-and-half
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup corn bread mix
1½ cups chopped pecans
¼ cup warm water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-by-11-inch casserole dish.
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan or pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Boil the potatoes about 25 minutes, or until they are fork-tender. Remove the potatoes from the heat and drain. Mash until smooth. Beat in 1 cup of the brown sugar, 1 stick of the butter, the half-and-half, and the eggs. Mix well. Scrape the potato mixture into the casserole dish and spread evenly.
In a medium bowl, stir together the remaining 1 cup brown sugar, the flour, corn bread mix, and pecans. Stir in the remaining butter and the warm water. Mix well. Spread the brown sugar mixture evenly over the potatoes.
Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a light crust forms. Serve hot.
(Makes 20 – 24 rolls)
½ stick butter, cut into tablespoons, plus more for buttering
¾ cup milk
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup warm water
2 (¼-ounce) packages rapid-rise yeast
1 large egg
3½ – 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus a little more if needed
Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or a 12-inch cast-iron skillet.
In a small saucepan, warm the butter, milk, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat until warmed through and butter has melted. Remove from the heat and cool to lukewarm.
In a large bowl, whisk together the warm water and yeast until the yeast dissolves. Whisk in the egg, then the milk mixture. With a hand mixer, beat in 2 cups of the flour until smooth. Stir in the remaining 1 – 2 cups flour until it forms a soft dough. Be sure the dough isn’t too sticky. Cover the dough and let sit in a warm place for 45 minutes, or until it has risen slightly. Knead the dough slightly and knead in more flour if it is too sticky.
Flour your hands and pinch off the dough into golf ball-size pieces. Place the balls close together on the baking pan or skillet. Cover the rolls with a buttered piece of wax paper and place over a pot of boiling water (which will help them rise faster). Let rise for about 30 minutes, or until nearly doubled in size. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until a light golden brown.
Serve with more butter or your favorite jam.
Spiced Wine Cake
(Makes 1 Bundt cake; 12 – 16 servings)
1 (15¼-ounce) box yellow cake mix
1 (3.4-ounce) package vanilla pudding mix
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup dry white wine or apple juice
5 large eggs
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Powdered sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle. Butter and flour a Bundt pan.
In a large bowl, beat the cake mix, pudding mix, flour, oil, and wine or apple juice together until blended. Slowly beat in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in the cinnamon. Pour the batter into the Bundt pan. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely before running a knife along the edge and turning it out onto a towel or plate. Generously sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve at room temperature.
(Makes about 10 cups)
¾ cup coffee grounds
Fill a 3-quart graniteware coffee pot with water to the bottom of the spout. Place the pot over high heat and allow the water to warm. When the water has warmed, pour in the coffee grounds. Let the water come to a good roiling boil. Reduce the heat to medium and let boil for 2 – 3 minutes. Be careful the water doesn’t boil over. Remove the pot from the heat and let sit for 1 – 2 minutes. Pour ½ – ¾ cup cold water down the spout to settle the grounds. Serve hot.
(Tip: You can also use a saucepan if you don’t have a graniteware coffee pot. Feel free to adjust the coffee grounds measurement and length of boiling to suit your taste. We estimate about ¼ cup of coffee grounds to 1 quart of water.)
Recipes reprinted and adapted with permission from A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales From the Trail by Kent Rollins with Shannon Keller Rollins (Rux Martin Books, 2015). kentrollins.com