Steve McHugh’s San Antonio Flair

How Texas chef Steve McHugh connects with the flavors of his adopted hometown.

By: Chef Steve McHugh

I am in awe of San Antonio—its flavors, its spirit, and its history. It’s my adopted city, not my actual hometown, and maybe that’s why I’ve immersed myself in learning its local foodways with the zeal of a convert. Having grown up on a farm, food sources have always been a natural interest for me; San Antonio and the outer region is a treasure trove.

Research into the indigenous foods of central Texas has led me all the way back to native practices, some of which, in turn, have informed the ongoing evolution of my menu at Cured. OK—some more than others. Cactus paddles? Absolutely. Snakes? Not so much. True, before the Spanish introduced pork to the local diet some 300 years ago, snakes were a key source of protein for the native population. I can’t see that taking off again today, not even in the adventurous San Antonio food scene. But here’s a forgotten go-to Native American protein I am helping revive: mesquite beans.

Mesquite is largely known as the wood you use to smoke anything on the pit, and to other Texans it is just considered a nuisance now, with its beans consequently a waste-crop. Now that I can have dried mesquite beans hammer-milled up near Austin, Texas, at Barton Springs Mill instead of having to import them via eBay from South America, I’m using the slightly sweet, gluten-free flour in dishes all over my menu. Baked goods made with mesquite flour barely need additional sweetening, making it a desired product in our kitchen. It’s effectively an all-in-one sugar, flour, and spice.

Photo courtesy of Josh Huskin

Another of my favorite native ingredients is a three-fer: the Three Sisters, as indigenous Americans called it, is an agricultural wonder combo of corn (maize), beans, and squash. Planted together, the three plants create a symbiotic growing environment, with the cornstalk providing a climbing structure for the beans, the beans giving nitrogen to the soil, and the broad leaves of the squash acting as ground cover to maintain moisture and discourage weeds. It’s only natural that what grows together goes together. Served as a single dish, the Three Sisters are not just flavorful, but super high in nutrition, as the combination of a legume and a grain produces a complete protein.

At Cured, where we pickle just about everything under the sun, it was a natural step to turn the Three Sisters into chow chow, a classic Southern vegetable relish. This can be made whenever, kept refrigerated, and used as needed—although at the restaurant, it never lasts long. I like to elevate the flavor with fresh herbs and onion sprouts for a savory herbal note. Pair it with a nice grilled fish and you’ve got a great Sunday dinner.

My preference would be a golden tilefish, grilled very simply ‘on the half-shell,’ the way you would a redfish, with salt, pepper, and some good Texas olive oil. If you’re not familiar with this fish, it’s generally considered bycatch around here, meaning that it’s caught by Gulf fishermen when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper.

I’m always happy to use tilefish, not only because it is economical and sustainable—about 95 percent of the fish we serve is bycatch or Smart Catch—but because this particular fish is meaty and satisfying, with an amazing flavor. The acidity of the chowchow is the perfect complement for the flaky, fatty protein, and the charred notes from the grilling add a delicate complexity to this simple, authentically local dish.

Grilled Tilefish and Chow Chow
If tilefish is not available, grouper, red snapper, or redfish make great substitutes.
Yields: 6 servings
  • Olive oil, for brushing and greasing grill
  • 6 (6-ounce) tilefish fillets, skin-on and scales removed
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3 cups Three Sisters Chow Chow (recipe follows)
  • Garnish: fresh purple basil
Three Sisters Chow Chow
  • 1⅓ cups fresh corn kernels (about ½ pound)
  • ¾ cup to 1 cup zucchini, medium diced (about ½ pound)
  • ½ cup medium diced yellow onion
  • ½ cup cooked climbing beans (such as purple hull peas or black-eyed peas)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1½ teaspoons dill seeds
  1. Preheat grill to medium-high heat (350° to 400°). (Make sure you are working on clean grill grates. If not, your fish will stick and tear apart when you try to turn it.) Using a wadded clean rag held with long tongs, carefully rub oil over hot grates of grill about 1 minute before fish go on.
  2. Brush fish with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place fish diagonally across grill, skin side down; cook for about 3 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, gently grab one corner of fish, and begin to pull up. If it looks like skin is sticking, lay fish back down, and cook until fish easily releases from grill without sticking, about 1 minute more.
  3. Turn fish over to flesh side, and cook 3 minutes more. Insert a metal skewer lengthwise through fish to make sure it is completely cooked. If you find a bit of resistance toward middle, let fish cook longer. If fish is getting a bit too much color, move to a cooler part of grill to finish.
  4. Remove fish from grill. Serve topped with Three Sisters Chow Chow, and garnish with basil, if desired.
Three Sisters Chow Chow
  1. In a large heatproof bowl, combine corn, zucchini, onion, and beans.
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup water, vinegar, sugar, garlic, bay leaf, jalapeño, salt, coriander seeds, and dill seeds. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat; pour water mixture over corn mixture. Place a piece of plastic wrap on surface of pickling liquid to keep vegetables submerged. Let cool at room temperature for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for 3 days before using.