Sunday, May 31, 2009

Texas Spotted Whiptail Lizard (Cnemidophorus gularis)

We thought we were building rock walls to keep the dirt from sliding downhill...we didn't know we were building homes for the locals. This little guy sleeps safely tucked away in a crevice. In return, he balances the insect population. I like balance.

For more on the Texas Spotted Whiptail Lizard, click the highlight to go to the University of Texas Herps of Texas website.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Comfort Cellars

Most folks don't think of wine when they think of the Texas Hill Country. It's known more for hills, rivers and eccentric occupants. But there are 24+ wineries in the region, with a range of styles and prices. A few produce fine wines, Sister Creek and Becker come to mind, and most make at least one sweet white or an off-dry red that will stand up to a spicy BBQ, the national food of Texas.

But Comfort Cellars is the only one that makes Jalapeno Wine.

The idea of a wine made from hot peppers was an automatic draw for us. My mother says that my first word was 'idiosyncrasy'. She says it was my father's doing. I don't know if that's actually true but I do know that the unique pulls me like a magnet.

Comfort Cellars is a one-superwoman vineyard and winery in Comfort, Texas. And winemaker Cathie Wheeler is happy to pour visitors a tot of her fermented jalapeno juice. Against expectations, it's a lovely ripe-gold colored wine. With a pungent nose. Most folks take only a tiny sip. The stuff is hot...and good. There's a bit of underlying fruitiness after you get through the burn.

Then Cathie adds a cup of clamato juice to your glass. With a slice of cucumber and a stick of celery, it's a Hill Country Hottie. Ooohbaby that's good. Cathie says a lot of folks use jalapeno wine in cooking--adding it to marinades and sauces. Most Texans believe that a little heat improves almost anything.

Cathie also makes an Orange Chardonnay wine (a combo of Chardonnay and fermented naval orange juice) and other exotic wines, sweet wines and a Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Outside of the Jalapeno Wine, I thought the Chenin Blanc would pair well with food--dry and crisp with a note of pear. I wasn't taken with the rest of the line. But there is enough diversity that most folks find something they like. As my grandmother used to say, "Everyone to their own taste, said the old lady who kissed the cow."

The tasting room is on SR 27 (AKA Front Street). There is parking by the tasting room but if you go a little way up the road, there's a sign to the Historic District. Turn there and then park on High Street. When you're ready for a break from historic buildings and antiques, you're just a short walk under the trees to the tasting room's back door.

And you'll know you're in the Texas Hill Country.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It's A Matter of Opinion

I am acquainted with Texans who hold the following as truths, possibly based on personal experience. I don't say yes or no, myself. But it's interesting, living in a place where ideas are not always strictly constructed.

If a raccoon has been digging up your garden and you put out a humane trap to capture it, planning to take the raccoon to another neighborhood to raid those people's gardens instead, you'll want to carry a blanket when you go out in the morning to check the trap. That way, if the raccoon turns out to be a skunk, the blanket will be the one sleeping outside next week.

It might have been a while since you thought about this one...but that night you had all those margaritas and then woke up the next morning to a crumpled fender on your car? It was the Giant Armadillo--he did it while you were in the bar and you just didn't see it when you came back in the dark. That's the only story you'll ever tell anyway.

It really is bigger in the Texas Hill Country, and deeper too.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Winner Was Home Town Beef and Bean

We hosted a chili cookoff here on Saturday night--twenty five neighbors & friends, mostly gardeners. It was a hoot.

Everyone brought edibles & drinkables--7 species of chili, 4 kinds of cornbread, a great pineapple cole slaw. Desserts. I love sweets but seldom indulge because they migrate to my waist. Made an exception (for which I'll need to walk MILES this week) for the three kinds of brownies, lemon cake, apple pie and cookies, and the 3 recipes of home-made vanilla ice cream made on the back porch during the event.

There was a fair amount of good-natured rivalry, more for the bragging rights than the prize, a nice, cobalt-blue garden pot. I almost got a different prize to give out, probably it would have been a perfect trophy for this neighborhood title, and I thought it was something that would be happily passed on to next year's winner--a foot-tall gold-flecked frog sitting in a yoga pose, its face split by a goofy grin. But I was pretty sure that the guys wouldn't participate next year if they thought that's what they'd get.

All of the entries were good. Good enough that you'd dream about them on a cold night. So it was very hard to vote for only three and the contest was close. My favorite was Rick's Road Kill Chili but it didn't win. Denny's favorite was Wild Boar Chili, which was second by only a vote. Third was Chili Bean Soup, an old chuck wagon recipe. My white chicken chili didn't even place in the top three...a number of people explained to me that in Texas, the descriptors 'white' and 'chicken' are never associated with chili.

We talked and laughed so much that I was a little hoarse the next morning, and still tired. A good tired. We didn't know anyone when we moved here three years ago. The Texas Hill Country is so much more a home to us now. More than a house or a garden, relationships are what bring a place home.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Refrigerator Inspiration

Last night, like a lot of nights, I didn't exactly have a plan for dinner. What I had was ingredients in the refrigerator. Some were leftovers--not really enough to just heat and eat again, but not mini enough to throw away. So it was a Refrigerator Inspiration night.

Here's what we had in the leftover department:
~ 1/4 lb. grilled salmon (stored in a bit of yummy lime/garlic vinaigrette)
a handful of grilled onions,
a couple of servings of steamed green beans,
~ 1 1/2 cups of mashed potatoes (low-fat)
more leftover lime/garlic vinaigrette

What we added to complete the meal:

1 red bell pepper, chopped
6 ounces of crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 ripe tomato, sliced
salt and pepper.
3/4 cup fat-free half & half (adds substance without fat)
1 Tblsp flour
1 tblsp red pepper olive oil**
Last, a generous handful of fresh dill from the front butterfly garden, pictured above**


I keep a small jar of olive oil in the pantry to which I've added a healthy dose of red pepper flakes. The flakes mellow out & the oil picks up a tang--not enough to really heat up a dish but it adds a nice spike.
OK, the dill isn't a basic unless you grow it. But I planted a single little dill plant last year for the black swallowtails (dill, along with parsley, fennel, and carrot, is a host for black swallowtail caterpillars). The dill got overgrown by other plants and I forgot about it. Protected from the blistering summer sun, it prospered and reseeded--prolifically, as you see. Now I'm thinning it out. This dill is almost sweet with a minty, slight cinnamony flavor. It makes everything better, which is good since we have so much of it...

Here's what we did:

Put the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and sauteed the mushrooms and red bell pepper. Next we sprinkled with flour, salt and pepper and stirred to cook until the flour was slightly browned. Added the FF half & half and stirred to mix, then added the lime/garlic viniagrette, maybe 3 tbsp, from the leftover salmon. Cooked on medium heat for a couple of minutes and added the grilled onions. In a couple of minutes it had thickened to sauce consistency so we added the salmon (took the skin off and flaked it first) and snipped dill and turned the heat down to low. Stirred gently to mix, then took off of the heat and covered while we heated the mashed potatoes. And sliced the tomato, added it to the green beans, sprinkled lightly with salt and pepper and drizzled with vinaigrette.

Dinner was on the table about 20 minutes after we started and, oh man, it was good. Grilled Salmon and Onions, Sauteed Mushrooms and Red Bell Pepper in a Dill Cream Sauce over Mashed Potatoes. Side salad of Green Beans and Tomatoes drizzled with a little more Lime/Garlic Vinaigrette. Low-fat, lots of vegetables, healthy.

A little glass of Estancia Chardonnay went well with the food and didn't break the bank. The wine offered pears, citrusy fruit, grassy notes and an underlying toast to complement the flavors in the main dish.

My husband and my budget thanked me. And no restaurant in town served our meal last night--we couldn't have gotten those tastes anywhere else. Refrigerator Inspiration strikes again.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why We Have Cats

When I was single I used to tell people I had cats for two reasons--sanity and security.

The sanity part was because if you have a cat, then you aren't talking to yourself. The men in white jackets don't take you away for talking to the cat.

The security part related to bumps in the night. Oh, it's only the cat.

But since Ernest came to live with us, there's another reason--

--to laugh.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


We've been unsettled lately. Denny has done an unusual amount of traveling in the last few months. Not a bad thing, just an adjustment. The last trip was to Virginia and he went birding while he was there. He got to see a scarlet tanager. We're fond of their cousins, the summer tanagers that bring their fledglings to our bird baths in summer, but the scarlet tanagers don't get this far west so it was a treat to see one. The business trip worked out well too.

Denny came back with some bites from the birding trip, spider bites, he thought. I looked at them. Hard, red, itchy bumps. A few days later the spider bites were at the center of wide-red-angry-circular rashes.

A loved one suggested he see a doctor as soon as possible. She said the rash had characteristics of erythema migrans, a rash which sometimes occurs with Lyme Disease infection. When I heard that, a fist lodged against my diaphragm. We know more than we ever wanted about the debilitating effects of advanced Lyme disease. A family member has it. She's getting help and improving, but the last six months have been excrutiating.

Denny and I are fortunate that our family doctor is conversant with Lyme. She prescribed antibiotics. Denny will also see an infectious disease specialist this week. It took about a week to get everything in order but Denny is getting the most effective treatment.

All good but I was still unsettled. It felt like my brain was in deep shadow. My pulse was elevated, I wasn't sleeping well, I was tired all the time. I couldn't concentrate--didn't write more than a page the whole week. All of the time, no matter what I was doing, a loop was endless routine of the danger and risk to my sweet husband.

When Denny realized that I hadn't been able to get out of living the crisis, he sat me down and gently, sweetly told me I had an unbalanced view and it was hurting me.

I tried telling that to my brain but the loop didn't quit. So I took a black marker and made two signs, one to post above my desk and one for the bedroom mirror, places I see often. The signs say, "Denny has the highest probability of getting well." I repeat the sentence to myself every time I see it and any time I feel the loop starting up.

The fist is gone now and I'm sleeping peacefully. Because it's true, Denny has the highest probability of getting well.

Sometimes the operative truth is not the downside but the upside...and we just need to see it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Moving On

Creation is an odd thing. Sometimes you start with an idea, sometimes you just start. In the book I'm writing, I needed a transition from an uncomfortable confrontation in Chapter 15 to the main event in Chapter 16. The lead character was angry and I wondered how she'd work herself out of it in the short time she had before the next event. I was a little anxious...I don't care for transitions myself. I like to be in or out. This is what happened after she slammed out of the parking lot:

She reached over and turned the radio on. I'm really in the mood for some good blues. Something loud about life going wrong--for somebody else. So my problems aren't that bad...

Music blasted from the radio, swirling and bouncing around the cab, ricocheting into her ears, electrical impulses rocketing into her brain, dancing down her spine and rolling like ocean waves to her fingertips. The twenty-minute ride passed in no time, driven by the blues.

We both felt better by the time she got out of the truck.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Shrimp Reward

It always feels odd when Denny is away on business. It's not that I mind being by myself...I have more to think about and do than I ever find time for. And our home is a welcoming space, enlivened with cats, birds and books.

The thing is, after 13 years together, it feels odd to be without him. The small daily chats of life go unspoken. The morning hugs ungiven. We talk on the phone each night but don't always remember what we'd wanted to share at ten or noon or six.

If I know he'll be gone, I hoard a few novelties to spice the time. For the last trip, I got the new Cooking Light 5ingredient 15minute Cookbook (I swear that's how the title is written on the cover). A new taste adventure, just right for time alone. And fresh gulf shrimp were in the market the day after they came out of the water... I had a fine evening with Chili-Lime Shrimp and smokin' rice. Try it for yourself (as adapted from the Cooking Light 5ingredient 15minute Cookbook):

1 tsp canola oil

1/2 cup chopped green onions, divided
1 lb peeled & deveined large shrimp
1 1/2 tsp chili powder (I used my favorite--Nambe' chili powder, a med-hot single-pepper New Mexico powder, but try it with your own favorite single-chili powder)
2 tblsp fresh lime juice (about 1 lime)
1 1/2 tblsp butter
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Heat a large nonstick skillet over med-high heat and add oil. Add most of the onions (saving just enough for garnish) and cook a minute to soften. Add shrimp and chili powder to pan; cook 4 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add juice, butter, and salt to pan; stir until butter melts. Sprinkle with remaining onions. Serve over rice.

Serves 2-4 people, depending on hunger and politeness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Four Generations

We had a fun Mother's Day. All of our generations were here, as you can see from the hands of the great-grandmother (my mother), grandmother (my sister), mother (my niece) and baby (most extraordinary child in the world).

And everyone in our family unit was healthy enough to enjoy the day, something we don't take for granted. Denny got up at 6:00am on Sunday morning..and isn't that real love? He had to build a fire in the smoker so he could serve the World's Best BBQ in honor of these Strong Texas Women.

Lots of love and laughter, a true celebration.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sweet Harry

Some years back, Denny wrote a great blog. It's history now but he wrote some columns that bear repeating...including this (abridged) post about our now-19-year-old cat, Sweet Harry:

Kathleen has a special place in her heart for Harry. He was a skinny adolescent street cat when he showed up at her back door in Coconut Grove and she offered him food. It took 30 days of free hand-outs for Harry to allow her to pet him.

I first met Harry when I was being administered The Cat Test. Kathleen would not have married a man who didn't get along with her cats. I was visiting Kathleen when Harry pushed his way into the kitty door. She said, "That's Harry. He doesn't like men." I clucked and patted the couch and he quickly jumped up next to me. I started petting him. "Oh," said Kathleen. "He likes his head rubbed, but don't touch his tummy. He hates that." I reached under his tail and put my hand between his two hind legs. He flipped over, stretched and arched his back as I slowly stroked his neck and chest. Kathleen looked at us dubiously. "He doesn't like his tummy rubbed," she said again. I passed the test.

As I rubbed his belly, he exhaled a soft, audible groan of pleasure. With so much on the line, my intuition was really turned up, and I noticed something else. "His name is Hye-e-erry. It's how he wants me to say his name. You should say it that way, too." Kathleen laughed, but to this day, when I address Harry, I say "Hye-e-erry," and he responds. I think Kathleen eventually decided I was right about this, because she calls him Hye-e-erry now, too.

Another thing about Harry. He's the only cat I've ever seen who has a wordless meow. I'll walk in on him, we'll make eye contact and I'll say, "Hi, Hye-e-erry." When he opens his mouth in reply, no sound comes out, just air. It's so cool.

Harry used to be a street fighter. When we lived in Miami Beach, he would go out every night and prowl the neighborhood. I suspected he felt it was his job to challenge every cat he saw on his night patrols. He would often come back all scratched up, and we would doctor him with peroxide. Once he came back with a notch in one ear.

Sometimes we'd have to take him to the vet to make sure he didn't have an infection. Harry hates going to the vet. His street cat instincts make him independent and aggressive and he absolutely hates having cold metal objects thrust up his butt. The vet finally gave us The Talk. "He's either going to have to run faster or be a better fighter, or you'll have to make him an indoor cat. You can't keep giving him antibiotics every week." So Harry has been an indoor cat ever since. We helped him make the transition by hanging a bird feeder next to the back window and scattering birdseed on the porch. The birds came, and Harry loved it. We called it "Kitty TV." Eventually the birdseed attracted 20 squirrels from the park, so we quit. By then, Harry was used to being indoors.

Most cats enjoy playing with little sewn "mousie" toys. Harry doesn't have a mousie. He has a Moosie. We got this small stuffed moose toy at Staples. It was attached as a promotion to a jumbo package of Scotch tape. We gave it to Harry and he fell in love with it. In the morning, after his breakfast, he'll bring his Moosie into the bedroom and cry for play. He also loves to remove the green jacket. We don't know how he does it, but putting the jacket back on has become a daily chore.

Harry earned the right to be called Sweet Harry thirteen years ago when Kathleen was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She had constant pain in her right arm as the nerves healed from surgery. Harry would lie next to her on the bed, and she would lay her arm on top of him. They would sleep together like that, and Kathleen claimed his body heat had a healing effect.

Harry is with us for the long haul. Everyone in our little family has taken heart.

He's more fragile now but, on good days, still carries a stuffed toy around the house, howling his hunting prowess. I hope we're as good when we're 100.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

We don't get a choice in who our parents are. But good or bad, we track back to them. We measure who we are now and how far we've come in terms of who we were as their children.

I'm fortunate. My parents did the very best they could to give us a good home and to grow us up into responsible, independent people. They started early. Mom tried to teach me to tie my shoes before I could walk...and I love her for all those years of instruction and example.

The thing I love most, though, is her optimism. She seems to have an endless supply. She's many other things as well--loving, vibrant, intelligent, socially accomplished, curious...but the optimism, that trait of always looking for the promise rather than the default, is what gave her the strength to manage 15+ moves during my father's military career, raise three children, make a difference in her community, and believe almost 30 years ago that she could beat stage two breast cancer.

Now, at 83, she's still the rock in our family. Still joyful. Still planting the future.

I'm honored to honor her.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Zexmenia Daisy (Wedelia texana)

Lagniappe day--this is the 8th day of a week-long wildflower series.

Zexmenia Daisy is a double bonus:

1) A tough perennial that's beautiful in bloom, then feeds the goldfinches when the blooms have turned to seed,


2) The best potential Scrabble word in the world.

You can send me a portion of your game winnings in appreciation.

For more information on Zexmenia daisy--like where it grows & what it likes, click the link above and be transported to the Lady Bird Wildflower Zexmenia page.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella)

Butterflies seek her, deer don't.

She can cover a field in a riot of color. And in years the rain gods are kind, will flaunt new blooms into November.

When her time has passed, bristly seed heads plant next year's birth.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Southern Dewberry (Rubus trivialis)

In February or March, small five-petaled white flowers twinkle like stars along spiny dewberry vines. Among those appreciating the blooms are juniper hairstreak butterflies. Juniper hairstreaks are early fliers, emerging some years in February.

It's true that most folks think of dewberry as a nuisance, not a wildflower. Left to its own devices, southern dewberry brambles thickly at woodland's edge, snagging the unwary walker.

But it holds the ground down. And later in spring, cardinals, tanagers, raccoons and foxes appreciate the berries.

There is room in our woods for a plant that feeds so many.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium sp.sagittiferum and 'Suwannee')

Blue-eyed grass looks like a small clumping grass but it's actually a native iris. This sweet little species blooms its head off for several months in spring, usually March-May in our part of the country.

We're lucky to have two species on our property. The Texas native sp. sagittiferum grows out of the caliche paths. Its blue-green fronds are more sparse than those of the bright-green Suwannee, a Florida native I've planted close to the house.

No matter which variety, it's a tough little customer-- drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, cheerful through 100-degree days and evergreen through winter's freezing nights. The Suwannee I had in Florida survived two hurricanes in three weeks.

You've got to love a plant that lives through blue tarp time.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)

They're not the most drought-tolerant or the most deer resistant...but they are the most exuberant. The golden yellow sings and ruffled petals dance in the mildest breeze.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Green Milkweed Vine (Matelea reticulata)

Not what first comes to mind when I think of wildflowers... but the exquisite five-petaled green flowers have a pearly center that glows like love.

I'm not the only one in love, either. The vine is a host plant for monarch and queen butterflies. The appealing heart-shaped leaves drop around late November, after most of the butterflies have passed. And begin to unfurl again in March, in time for a queen caterpillar banquet.

Its a quiet treasure on dry, partly shaded hillsides in this corner of the Texas Hill Country. One that even the deer don't eat. And thats makes it almost a miracle.

Want to know more? Click the link above for a profile from the Lady Bird Wildflower Center.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Winecup -- Callirhoe involucrata (Malvaceae)

This is the first of a week of wildflowers here on Hill Country Mysteries. Every day for the next week I'll be posting posies. Each post will include a link to the Lady Bird Wildflower page for the plant in case you'd like more information.

The Hill Country is well known for wonderful wildflowers. This year our early bloomers were scarce because of the drought so there were few bluebonnets or Indian paintbrush. But we've had three rains in the last six weeks, which have given rise to later blooms and I want you to enjoy them with us.

Winecup is one of my favorites but isn't plentiful in our area, probably due to deer with a side of drought.

I planted a couple of tubers last fall out back by the dry creekbed, away from the deer path. And I sprayed them with Bobbex, an organic product that deters most nibblers. As a side-note, I have no vested interest in Bobbex. I just like the way it works--particularly the rabbit formulation, which is three times stronger than the deer product.

Even so, I didn't really expect the tiny plants to make it in the drought...but the hardy little perennials held on and now there are a sprinkling of glowing flowers.  And I feel a lift of hope every time I walk down that path.