Thursday, December 31, 2009

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

Last January, my friend Nancy had a bunch of women over for dinner, wine and games, and she gifted each of us with a Christmas cactus she'd grown from a cutting.  Nancy is the gardener in our group who fields the questions about propagation.  We're lucky to have her as a resource and a friend.

The plant didn't look like much, a few short green fronds.  I don't buy houseplants any more.  They don't last long in our home.  I forget them or overwater them or the cats eat them.  When I got this one home, I put it in a sheltered kitchen window.  The cats didn't eat it.  I tried to remember to water it a couple of times a month.  Turns out that's all it wants.


The coffee cup became part of the window scenery and I didn't pay attention as the green fronds grew into a small fountain.  Then two days before Christmas a spray of lovely pink buds caught my eye.  The flowers opened on Christmas day, a glowing reminder of friendship.

Here's hoping that next year we all have more bloom in our lives.  Have a good New Year, friends.

For my gardening friends, the Christmas Cactus is a smallish (6-18 inches, depending on cultivar) tropical succulent that makes an undemanding houseplant for a filtered-sun location.  Widely available in nurseries or ask a friend to break off a couple of sections at joints, allow them to callus over and then plant in good potting soil.  

Next year, you can be Santa Nancy.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big John Mills


Big John Mills made a surprise appearance at Gruene Hall December 23rd, bigger than life and more fun than Christmas.  We took our friends Bob and Alison, visiting from Washington for the holiday.  They had a hankering for some Texas tunes and there ain't nobody more Texan than Big John.  

Picture from Big John's website.  Click the link above for more about the man and his music.

We hummed this chorus all the way home.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It Could Always Suck Worse

When Denny lets go of frustration, he says, "It could always suck worse."  In our first year together I didn't get it.  How is knowing that something could be worse supposed to make a bad thing better?

Thirteen years ago, the month before Denny and I married, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I was lucky on both counts,  to marry Denny and catch the cancer early, although finding out I had cancer didn't feel lucky.

The cancer was invasive and fast-growing and the doctors prescribed radiation and chemotherapy after the operation.  I'm fine now, been cancer-free since treatment.  But that first year, I lived with pain and anguish and I searched for ways to cope while my body and emotions broke from the regimen.

The first day of radiation, I stood in line to check in.  I didn't know where to go or what to do or how it would feel when it was my turn.  And in the back of my mind was the fear that no matter what I did it wouldn't be enough and the cancer wouldn't disappear and I'd die.

Later I'd learn we're all dying, sick people and healthy people alike.  Just some people are dying faster than others and wake up with that knowledge every morning. While the rest wake up believing they have years and wondering what they'll eat for breakfast.

I shifted from one foot to the other, watching the receptionist, trying to keep my stomach from spitting back my morning toast.  I didn't want to be there and I didn't want to wait in line.  It was bad enough that I'd have to lay near-naked in a cold room on a metal table with my pitiful breast exposed to  death rays from a looming machine.  I had to wait for the privilege?  What was holding up the blankety-blank line?  I craned my head to see around the man in front of me, a tall blond guy with an athletic build.

As each patient left the line we shuffled forward a few steps.  It probably didn't take long but in my memory it was forever.  Finally the guy in front of me made it to the counter.  The woman checked the registry and gave him a piece of paper.   He thanked her and stepped away.

I looked up as he turned.  A white plastic triangle covered the cavity in his face where his nose should have been.

My mind flashed. "Thank god I had breast cancer."

Copyright 2009-2011 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Tiara Sisters




We're never too old for sparkle, the more outrageous the better.  Life is short, we've gotta laugh while we can.

This year, Denny and I will be in the Hill Country with friends over Christmas, so my sisters came here Sunday for a night, on the theory that Christmas is any day we're together.  We wore our tiaras.  What, you don't have one? Go straight to Ebay, you can buy any kind of tiara you want.  Perfect attire for great wine and great food in front of the fire, and love and stories and laughter and tears.  Sisters are the best people in the world.


Monday, December 21, 2009

A Light Hill Country Holiday

Towns across the Hill Country celebrate the season with lights.  People wander downtown, eating, drinking, taking pictures and laughing.  Small town happiness.

I'm sharing two of my favorite towns, Gruene and New Braunfels, only a few miles apart, and close enough to Austin and San Antonio for an evening outing from either city.

The Gruene idea of Christmas shopping...a cool evening, a bottle of wine and music drifting down the street.









Gruene Hall, the source of the songs.








In the center of the circle at the center of downtown New Braunfels, the bandstand glows.




The courthouse shines.

And the tree twinkles...
In a Hill Country Holiday.

Copyright 2009-2011 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.
 

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cranberry Gingerbread Oatmeal

I'd eat gingerbread for breakfast every day, if I wasn't afraid of weighing 300 pounds.


Instead, I do an easy cranberry gingerbread jazz on oatmeal.  The oatmeal absorbs the flavors of gingerbread, the cranberries soften into juicy morsels, and the warmth comforts on a cold day.  Life is good.

Start with steel-cut oats. Measure out according to package directions and put in a medium sauce pan.  I use 1/2 cup steel cut oats for 2 servings.

Add to the pan, more or less to taste, stir to mix:
1 heaping tsp. brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger (I love Penzey's ginger for the zing)
big pinch nutmeg
big pinch kosher salt
couple grinds black pepper (balances the sweet flavors)





Add:  small handful, approx.1/4 cup, dried cranberries
Add water per package directions.  I use 1 3/4 cups.


Stir to mix, bring to simmer and reduce heat, cover and cook 10 minutes.  Remove cover and stir, scraping the bottom to make sure nothing sticks.  Re-cover and cook another 5 minutes.  Uncover and stir.

If cereal hasn't absorbed all the water, leave the lid off and stir occasionally until absorbed.  I like this part, it reminds me of volcano lava, how the boils come in widening circles with little explosions of steam.  Puts some excitement in my morning.  I suppose I could just drink coffee but entertainment is a morning bonus.

Serve with milk or cream.




Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bella Vista Cellars

After we went to Sister Creek Vineyards , I said I'd post a Texas winery visit every month.  That was the end of August.  Oops.  With as many wineries as bless the Texas Hill Country, there's no excuse for my lapse.  Guess I'll have to do a lot of drinking to catch up.
 
Bella Vista Cellars sits on an arid hillside outside of Wimberley, a quaint little town not far from Austin.  Less than a hundred years ago, the hills outside of Wimberley were considered land fit for nothing but goats, a rancher's way of saying good for nothing.

Now the hills are home to much more.  Farms and grapevines and B&B's and the first olive orchard in Texas to harvest a commercial crop.  Before we visited, we didn't know that Bella Vista Ranch, home of Bella Vista Cellars, is most widely known as the home of First Texas Olive Oil Company.

Jack Dougherty, Buena Vista's charistmatic founder, believes in the model of small Mediterranean family farms.  He grows cattle and olives and grapes.  Limes for his personal margaritas.  Small production agriculture, lots of hand-holding.  We took the one-hour olive tour and did the olive oil tasting.  Fascinating, and a later post.
The winery tasting room shares space with olive oil tasting in a building behind Jack's home.  He poured four current releases for us.  The wines were all made with Hill Country grapes, some purchased, some from Bella Vista Ranch.  The wines are available at the ranch or from Bella Vista's online store.

2007 Lyte Whyte, a Chenin Blanc with a small percentage Muscat Canelli.  Grassy nose but citrusy in the mouth, crisp and refreshing.  $12.95.

2007 Texas Sunset,  A blend of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc.  The winery describes it as a light, semi-sweet red with fruity flavors.  Perhaps the bottle from which we tasted had been open too long.  My notes say, "old tasting, simple". $10.95.

2006 Syrah,  Aged in oak.  Lovely.  Grapey nose with underlying toast and vanilla.  Nice berry flavor and earthy undertones.  My favorite of the tasting.  $19.95.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon,  Cherry nose.  In the mouth, balanced fruit and acidity but a little thin on the mouth-feel.  Lingering dark-fruit finish with soft tannins. $26.96.

Visitors may taste Thursday-Saturday 10:00am - 5:00pm, Sunday 12:00pm - 4:00pm.

Bella Vista is worth a visit.  Try the wines, learn about olives, pet the winery cats.  Take home some life in a bottle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Texas Clay Festival in Gruene

Seventeen years ago, Dee and Terry Buck of Buck Pottery in Gruene, started a festival to showcase the best clay artists in Central Texas, most of them friends.  All these years later, they're still sharing art via Texas Clay Festival in Gruene, just outside of New Braunfels.  Free admission and you can take home a teapot or sculpture, whatever inspires you.


My pocketbook isn't big but I can spring for everyday art.  This year I bought a porcelain tea cup and coffee cup with figures that flow through the clay inside out.  Somehow the figures are blue inside and gray out.  Every time I drink from it I think about how no one really sees another person's color below the inner rim.

I hope you enjoy the following highlights.  Maybe next year we'll see each other at the Texas Clay Festival.


October in Texas is skeleton season, an homage to Dia de los Muertes, Day of the Dead celebrations, October 31-November 2 each year.  From outside of the culture, the celebration may appear macabre, but the tradition roots from remembrance.









I loved the elemental happiness of these plates and bowls.  Anything you put on these dishes would taste good.
















Art of all kinds...








Raku, fired to 1800F degrees. Random iridescent color swirling and blending like a sunset ocean.

A few years ago, Denny bought a pot for me from this artist, just because.  Now I see love too in the swirls. 











Susy Siegele, the artist who made my coffee cup, with one of her triptych panels depicting life's spiraling journey.  Everything is there.  The flow and connection and pain and celebration, and how we came from the earth and return to it.
 
My kind of church.


















Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hanging By a Thread

Denny and I walk for exercise.  Most days I leave the front door thinking more about what I'm leaving behind than what I'm going toward.

We live in a sparsely populated community.  A house here, a house there, acres of oak and juniper forested hills.  We like our neighbors and we like the space.

Often we see wildlife as we walk.  Deer usually, fox, maybe.  I watch the woods.  Maybe I'll catch a glimpse of the bobcat that surprised my neighbors.


One sunny windy day earlier this year we walked down the drive and turned out toward the sunset.  On the other side of our street the land slides down to a dry creekbed.  The trees on those acres step crooked to the bottom.



I was looking at the trees, not really thinking, just resting my eyes in the green, seeing patterns like you do when you watch expanding circles dapple a lagoon, but a tiny hanging flutter caught my eyes to an empty space.

My feet followed my eyes until I stood beneath the space.  A near-invisible spider web stretched above me from one tree to the other.  Hanging upside-down from the lowest strand was a blue-gray gnatcatcher, snared, still.



He struggled as I walked under, a weak quiver.
                                      
I shouted and Denny ran to stand beside me, both of us looking up.  The bird was fifteen or twenty feet above the ground, too far from a limb for a climb.

Gnatcatchers are among the smallest birds, not brightly colored or conspicuous or rare or sought-after.  But in that place at that time, the little bird hanging above us was life and death.


We debated about how to free it.  Then Denny motioned me back.  He picked up a stick and heaved it in an arc, aiming above the tiny form.  We held our breaths and willed the web to break.  Three times.  Until the gnatcatcher swooped free and disappeared into the trees.


Today in the Texas Hill Country, life won.



Thanks to Reinhard G. for his gnatcatcher Flikr photo. Click his name to see more of his beautiful images.

Copyright 2009-2013 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.





Friday, December 11, 2009

Hill Country Autumn

I know winter weather has swept much of the country.  We've had a couple of early freezes here in the Texas Hill Country.  But we're still on the cusp of fall and I want to share it.


American coots have flown in to flock lakes that never freeze.
Cypress and sycamore leaves color the path along Lady Bird Lake in Austin.
And everyone stocks up for winter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Encouragement

Sometimes the last days of the year are the hardest.  Dark, cold, and ghosted by past resolutions.  For me, the biggest hang-fire is to get my book finished and published.  I've been slow to tackle the revisions, fear of failure probably.  I need to find an agent too and the idea of sending my book-baby out to strangers is daunting. 

One of Denny's partners, Meredith Bell, writes about encouragement, and she recently posted a video with a good strategy for generating the confidence to move forward.  That's going to help me get my book out of my computer and onto store shelves.

Good things should be passed on, so I'm sharing the video as a gift for you too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

We were robin-flocked for a few days last week, just in advance of a (rare) deep freeze Friday.  The birds swarmed the American Beautyberry bushes I planted outside our bedroom windows a few years ago.

Robins are only seen in our part of the Texas Hill Country during migration, which made the sighting more of  a treat.  I'm pretty sure they left some berries for our winter Hermit Thrush and the Mockingbird and Eastern Phoebe too.

The birds are a big reason we planted the bushes, in addition to lush spring-fall foliage and appealing sprays of purple berries from late summer into winter.

American Beautyberry thrives in dappled-shade areas and in part-sun (morning).  The bushes average 3-5 feet tall and wide, up to 9 feet in optimal conditions, and are ecumenical regarding soil composition--from sand through clay.  The Lady Bird Wildflower website says beautyberry prefers moist woods and fertile soil.  The bushes probably grow better in those conditions but ours are doing well in rocky clay in a part-sun dry site.  If planted in sunny areas, the bushes require more water and I'll admit to having watered via soaker hose during our epic drought, but the plants are not water hogs.  Beautyberry is native across the southeastern US from Virginia south and west into Texas and Oklahoma (zones 6a-10b).

The leaves fall in winter but stems decked in purple berries provide color.  When the winter birds have eaten the berries, I usually prune the stalks back 12-18" from the ground, to promote bushy growth next season.

Deer will eat American Beautyberry foliage if the plants are easily accessible.  I get around this by planting away from the areas deer frequent in my yard and by inter-planting with Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), which is unpalatable to deer.  The two plant species are compatible and grow together to form lovely islands of green punctuated by purple berries and red Turk's Cap's flowers.

As a side benefit, we enjoy winter birdwatching in warm comfort with Ernest.  Although I'm pretty sure his interest is culinary.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Unexpected Learning


I walked into the garage a couple of days before we left for New York and found a pool of pinky-red fluid flowing out from under the car. Sunday, the day mechanics watch football and drink beer and do NOT go into work or answer the phone to tell you what the fluid is, what to do about it and if you can drive a hemorrhaging car in to be fixed.

Did you know if you enter "pinky-red fluid leak" into Yahoo Answers, the name of the fluid will be waiting for you?  It's steering column fluid or transmission fluid or antifreeze, depending on the shade and color and how it smells and how it feels when you rub it between your thumb and finger.  And you can't/shouldn't drive the car if you've lost most/all of any of those fluids.

Of course, if you thought it was antifreeze and you had put a bowl under the leak to catch any remaining fluid, and the next morning you poured that fluid and a goodly slug of filtered water into the white plastic container on the right side of your engine, you might think you could make it to the dealership.

You would be wrong.

Then if the car overheated before you got past the community mailboxes but the engine temperature needle dropped while you fumbled with the hood latch and peered at the engine, and you thought maybe you could make it to the dealership with a couple of stops, you'd be wrong.


And if, when you figured out it might take forever to go the 15 miles to the dealership in half-mile increments followed by engine-cooling periods, you finally called a tow truck, you'd realize it would have been less stressful to wait beside your neighborhood mailboxes, or even in your own house, than on the side of the road in the dark.  Although it will probably not be dark by the time the tow truck arrives at your roadside location.

But you'll bless the TWO large go-cups of coffee, book and camera that came with you.  Better to be awake and armed with words and pictures in case of attack. 

And, in the end, you'll have learned about pinky-red fluid, how to unlatch the car hood and where the radiator cap is--which is where you should have poured the pinky-red fluid and water instead of in the antifreeze overflow container, but which probably wouldn't have made any difference because of the radiator's Niagara Falls issue.

And you'll know Bob, the Assistant Service Manager at the dealership.  You'll know him so well that when, the first morning the car is in your garage again instead of the airport parking lot it occupied after the Niagara repair, it drips pinky-red fluid on the floor (drips this time, not gushes) and you call him, he knows you by the sound of your voice and he's got a loaner car ready.  And he replaces the radiator he installed ten days before, no questions, no charges.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taking Him by the Horns

The other day I heard crying from the back yard, behind the thicket that hides the fence that divides us from the ranch beyond. 

I walked through the thicket, ducking juniper limbs, until I came out on the other side and there the kid was, all by himself and crying, stuck by his horns in the fence.

He let me pet his nose but every time I inched my hand back to grab his horns, he kicked and thrashed.  So I did the best thing to free him.

I went in and got Denny.  He's got the guts and strength to grab a set of thrashing horns and in one fluid move, tilt and push until the head slides back through the wire square, with no one, man nor goat, getting hurt. Another reason I love my husband.

And the unexpected in our life in the Texas Hill Country.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tradition

We just got back from Thanksgiving in New York with Denny's son and daughter-in-law and her family.









Susan prepared the feast that has become their Thanksgiving tradition. 


The best sushi I've ever eaten.  











I didn't miss turkey and dressing.  In fact, I'm thinking of starting a new tradition of trying a new Thanksgiving tradition every year.  Unless Sean and Jessica and Susan and Keith invite us back next year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pumpkin Tureen Soup


It was a misty morning with a bit of a chill.  By mid-morning I was thinking soup for lunch.  Don't say it, I don't want to know what it says about me that I was thinking lunch a couple of hours after breakfast.



And I had a pretty Red Kuri squash in the garage refrigerator. We discovered Red Kuri this fall and  I'm in love with the nutty-sweet flavor.  Perfect for an adaptation of Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook Pumpkin Tureen soup.  My starting point was a recipe page faxed from my friend Todd on Oct. 29, 1990.  I like it that all these years later, we're still friends; and a mental picture of him popped up when I pulled the page out of my binder. And yes, I like having remembered who the fax came from even without a name on the page.  Given all the things I don't remember...



The cool thing about this soup, besides that it tastes good, is the soup cooks inside the pumpkin.  Bet kids will go for soup from a pumpkin.

The recipe makes a substantial soup serving 4-8, depending on  appetite and whether it's a first course or main course.

Here's what I did:


Ingredients:
1    ~4 lb. Red Kuri squash
1    tblsp butter  I'm going to omit this next time, not sure it really adds anything
1/4 cup finely minced onion
2    slices whole wheat bread, crusts removed, cubed
2 tsp horseradish
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp curry powder (I use Penzey's Maharajah)
dash red pepper flakes
Goodly pinches of salt, nutmeg and fresh-ground pepper
2 cups low-fat milk The milk didn't separate and the soup had a great flavor. I'm going to try chicken stock next time, see how that tastes.
1/2 cup (packed) grated Swiss cheese

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the top off the squash and remove seeds and stringy bits.
Rub inside walls with softened butter. 
Place everything else into the shell and stir to mix.
Put foil over the opening and replace top of squash.
Bake 1 1/2  -  2 hours until tender.  Test for doneness by gently sticking a fork into one of the sides. If you're smarter than I am, you'll stick the tines in the inside wall so that juice doesn't sizzle down to the pan.
Before serving, carefully scoop inner sides and bottom of the squash to mix into soup.


Since we ate the squash for lunch, we didn't drink wine with it.  Not that I'm against wine at lunch, I just don't write as well after.  But I'm betting a Reisling or Gewrutztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc would make a good match.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Friday, November 27, 2009

Changing Seasons

Most folks look to the leaves for the passage from summer to fall.  I look to the birds.


The last group of hummingbirds flew out the first week of November.  I left a feeder up a few weeks longer, just in case, but after a mass sugar drunk of bees, from which two didn't recover and the rest had what must have a been a helluva hangover, because it took them all day to climb out of the feeder ports and fly away, we brought the feeders in for the winter.  I was reluctant but the bees were gorging to harmful excess and I don't want to contribute to their demise.

Otherwise, I'd leave a feeder up for late hummingbirds.  Last year a Rufous hummingbird spent a few weeks with us in December.  Rufous hummers don't live in the Texas Hill Country and theoretically don't migrate through.  But we've had a stray every fall-winter since we moved here.  We react as if we're new parents--notices to the neighbors and all that.  I put on extra coffee in case anyone wants to come down and watch the flying-orange show.   
     Rufous hummingbird photo courtesy of Gary Woodburn's Flikr photo-stream


As one species departs, others arrive.  A winter flock of  Chipping sparrows has started trickling in.  There are about about fifty now and more will arrive.  By mid-winter, we'll see a hundred 'regulars' and I'll hum as I throw out seed in the mornings. An ubiquity of sparrows.

Until we moved to the Hill Country, we knew one species of sparrow by sight.  All others were LBJs, Little Brown Jobs.  Now we know nine, because they're our neighbors, living markers of time and season.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Metamorph



Artist:  Dory McNair


We create ourselves of the whirlwind and dance our lives in the vortex.


I'm grateful to my friend Dory McNair for creating art that echoes the universe, and for sharing it with me.

 



Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Laurel Tree

Folks usually come to Utopia, Texas for the rivers and the parks and the wildlife.  To fill their lungs from the big sky and remember who they were before city-life wore them down.

Then a few years ago Chef Laurel Waters, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, opened The Laurel Tree, and Utopia became a foodie destination too.  Now, a stone entrance off of FM 187 in the western Hill Country welcomes travelers to culinary magic.

Housed in a limestone building inspired by Provence, The Laurel Tree opens to diners on Saturday for lunch and dinner.  Ms.Waters will cater your wedding or birthday party at The Laurel Tree on other days but restaurant dining  is Saturday only.



Out back is the tree for which Laurel named the restaurant, a multicentury live oak which shades an outdoor dining area. 

See the chandeliers hanging from the branches?

 


The restaurant features seasonal cuisine made with fresh herbs and vegetables from the adjoining "potager".

The meals are served Prix Fixe and there is only one seating.  It was lovely to know our table by the candlelit fireplace was ours for the evening.  I wanted to savor each course.  There was a lot to enjoy--an amuse bouche, appetizer, soup, salad, choice of main course and a dessert.

Guests bring their own wine or other alcoholic beverage, if desired.

I won't make you drool with the entire menu the night we were there, but the main course we chose was Roasted quail with a sweet 1015 onion glaze, stuffed with sausage, cranberries and leeks.  I can't resist trying things I'm not likely to make. It was served with pesto scalloped potatoes, baby carrots, squash and broccolini.

And garnished with rosemary in bloom.  

We brought a bottle of Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2003, because the bottle was calling me from our wine cooler.  Ripe cherry and blackberry with a bit of mocha, buttressed by tobacco, black pepper and toast.  Would have been hard to find a better wine match that night.
Denny said he thought it was the best meal he'd ever eaten.

It was the best anniversary celebration too, but then, I think every anniversary is the best one.

Copyright 2009-2013 Kathleen Scott, for Hill Country Mysteries. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.