Story By Lee Hurley
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Texan parents, Katherine’s dad, a Presbyterian minister, was an assistant chaplain at LSU who loved the outdoors and great food and her mom was a teacher who loved to cook. She was raised in Oklahoma City, where she grew up appreciating the value of great food from her dad’s garden prepared in innovative ways from her mom’s library of cookbooks by Helen Corbitt, Julia Child, and James Beard as an experience to be savored. On the day she arrived for a job interview in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, she met Alabamian John Cobbs, whom she eventually married. After a decade out west, they ended up in Birmingham, Alabama where they raised three daughters and have loved living to this very day.
Katherine is a writer, editor, and culinary professional with over 20 years of experience. She has collaborated with country music star Martina McBride on two cookbooks (Around the Table and Martina’s Kitchen Mix), produced books for multiple James Beard Award–winning chefs, and worked with Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Rick Bragg on My Southern Journey. She has also worked with Today contributor Elizabeth Heiskell on the bestselling What Can I Bring? cookbook and The Southern Living Party Cookbook among many more projects. Her most recent book Tequila & Tacos is the subject of this Q and A. Currently, she is working as an executive producer on a documentary series with a food focus.
How did the idea for this book come about? I pitched an idea for a series of books that highlighted food and drink pairings to one of my former colleagues who was heading up a new imprint at Simon & Schuster. It started with Tequila & Tacos, which they loved, but then they asked me to come up with 8 to 10 different concepts. Because the first book was planned for a pre-holiday release, they chose Cookies & Cocktails to be the first in the series with Tequila & Tacos originally slated for an April release. Then the pandemic hit and it was delayed it until now.
What’s the best taco you’ve ever made and how does it compare with the best taco you’ve ever had? There are so many innovative recipes in the book. Every single recipe is delicious, but one really blew me away in terms of technique and result. The Al Pastor Taco recipe from Criollo Latin Kitchen & Bar in Flagstaff, Arizona improvises the Mexican trompo, or that vertical spit that meat is traditionally stacked onto and then sliced off of for al pastor tacos, by instead layering marinated slices of pork in an overlapping fashion in a loaf pan. As the meat cooks in the oven, the fat renders and the meat compresses. When it’s done, you slice it like meatloaf to get those similar ribbons of savory meat. It gets garnished with roasted pineapple, diced white onion, and cilantro leaves. It’s an epiphany in method and in mouth. Truly delicious and so so simple in that way the best recipes often are.
What’s the one thing (spice, ingredient, tool) you can’t live without? I would say that I cannot live without fresh herbs. I have a kitchen window box full of them in seasonal rotation and I grow them in the garden too. I buy seeds of more obscure herbs and incorporate them in my cooking daily—shiso, borage, burnet, chervil, sorrel, winter savory, etc., in addition to the usual players. The tool that I cannot live without (besides my chef’s knife) is my microplane grater. Sure I use it for Parmesan and hard cheeses, but also to grate citrus zest, fresh garlic cloves, and gingerroot, whole spices like nutmeg and cinnamon sticks, as well as chocolate. (I’ve also grated a finger or two!)
What four ingredients are necessary in your kitchen/bar? An array of citrus, tequila, mezcal, sparkling water.
You mention in your book dedication that your husband is a curator of Mexican hot sauces. What kinds of hot sauces are in the Cobbs household? He likes anything that makes him sweat, which is truly a difficult thing. Right now I count 23 bottles on the lazy Susan on our table. He likes ghost pepper sauces, but his go-to everyday hot sauce is the Extra Hot Valentina.
Where do you draw your creative inspiration from? Gosh, everywhere! I find it from the cooks I admire, my family, the ingredients that I come across, what’s ready for harvest in my garden, or from the media that I consume.
If you went to a well-stocked liquor store in Birmingham or Fairhope, what type of agave spirits would you buy? I’m really into mezcal these days. I like the smokier the better (though a snooty bartender told me recently that my palate would develop past that). I truly believe that you should explore what you love, and I am loving the reasonably priced Creyente and Montelobos. I make a smoky Ranch Water with mezcal, lime juice, a splash of Giffard Pamplemousse for a touch of citrusy sweetness, and Ttopo Chico. It’s a drink that is both summery, and with its wisps of smokiness, perfect for winter.
Your book explains the different kinds of tequila, which was extremely helpful. Do you have a favorite type? I mostly drink blanco, or plata, but incorporate reposado into cocktails too (even my beloved spin on Ranch Water), but I’ve not bought into the añejo craze yet. Before I really got into agave spirits, I was a bourbon girl. I still love to sip good bourbon. Sipping an aged tequila is reminiscent of bourbon because of the flavor imparted by the barrel in which it was aged, but when I taste it, I just wish I had a good bourbon instead. It’s really all about exposure. I’ve no doubt the more I give añejo a chance, the more I’ll love it.
If you had to leave tomorrow to spend a week in Mexico with your husband where would you go? Oaxaca without a doubt. We had plans to go this fall before the pandemic hit. Fingers crossed for next year!
What new projects are in the works for you? I just turned in the manuscript for my third book: Pantry Cocktails, due out next spring. It’s a book that would have been perfect for quarantine. It’s really all about using the ingredients you have on hand to recreate classic cocktails, improvise the flavor of a pricey liqueur or mixer you might not have, or just gain confidence about playing with unexpected flavors in mixology in the same way you might tinker with ingredients in your cooking.
Bubba Kush Tacos (MAKES 6 TACOS)
This double-walled taco is an attention-getter and taste bud–teaser. Condado glues a soft flour and hard corn shell together with their house- made refried beans cooked with bacon and jalapeño, but you can gussy up canned refried beans to use in a similar way. The pulled pork in this taco gets a drizzle of Condado’s proprietary jackfruit barbecue sauce—a recipe that they prefer to keep close to the poncho, so to speak. Substitute your favorite spicy barbecue sauce instead.
6 (8-inch) flour tortillas 6 hard corn taco shells 1½ cups refried beans 1/3 cup fresh guacamole 1/3 cup sour cream
1½ cups pulled pork
3 tablespoons spicy barbecue sauce
Jicama Slaw (recipe follows)
6 tablespoons chopped white onion
6 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Pineapple Salsa (recipe follows)
¾ cup shredded Middlefield smoked cheddar cheese
- Make Condado’s taco shell by spreading ¼ cup refried beans in the center of each tortilla. Alongside the refried beans, still near the center of the shell, spread 1 tablespoon guacamole and 1 tablespoon sour cream to create a mound of edible “spackle” for the double-walled taco shell. Set the base of the corn shell in the center of the flour shell on the mound of ingredients and bring up the sides of the flour tortilla so that it adheres to the bean-guac-cream mixture and the corn shell.
- Fill the corn shell with the pulled pork and barbecue sauce. Top with some Jicama Slaw, 1 tablespoon each of onion and cilantro, some Pineapple Salsa, and sprinkle with the smoked cheddar cheese.
Combine ⅔ cup shredded cabbage, ⅔ cup shredded carrot, and ⅔ cup shredded peeled jicama. Add ⅓ cup thinly sliced red onion and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro to taste. Fold in 2 tablespoons salt-roasted pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds). Shake 3 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon minced jalapeño, and salt and pepper to taste in a small jar to emulsify; pour over the slaw to dress. Makes about 2 cups (enough for 6 tacos).
Combine ½ cup each diced fresh pineapple, diced green bell pepper, diced red bell pepper, diced red onion, and seeded and diced Roma tomatoes. Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, and salt and pepper to suit your taste. Makes 2¼ cups.
The El Diablo Margarita
Tequila often gets a bad rap, whether it’s a country singer crooning that “you and tequila make me crazy” or the fact that many imbibers believe various spirits have markedly different effects on their demeanor. Many label tequila as the worst of the boozy beverage bunch. Perhaps that wicked reputation is how the American-born “Mexican El Diablo” cocktail got its name. It is thought to have first appeared in print in the classic Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink of 1946. The original recipe called for blanco tequila, but over the years bartenders have mixed up El Diablos using aged tequilas for the complexity they provide. A good reposado or añejo can stand up to the bold bite of ginger beer. Or go bolder with a mezcal-laced Smoky Devil.
2 ounces blanco or reposado tequila
½ ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce crème de cassis 3 ounces ginger beer Lime wheel
Skewer of fresh currants or blackberries
Combine the tequila, lime juice, and crème de cassis in an ice-filled shaker tin. Strain over fresh ice in a highball glass. Top with ginger beer and stir with a bar spoon. Serve with a lime wheel and skewer of fruit.
Smoky Devil: Substitute 2 ounces of a smoky mezcal like Creyente or Fidencio for the tequila.