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.
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.
I'm at Birds On a Wire today in a series about remembering one of the life-changers of the 1960's. Click over and check it out.
If you haven't been to Birds On a Wire before, take a look. Paula Hartman Cohen puts out cogent looks at issues and life--where we've been and where we're going.
Recent series have included health care legislation, the falling of the Berlin Wall and a look back at the day JFK died. And Paula has the life experience to winnow through the stack to the good stuff, after a life as a reporter, writer, wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, photographer, singer, knitter and blogger.
We don't eat lamb shanks often because they carry a fair amount of fat. But my theory is that a splurge every now and then won't kill us. And I pour the fat off of the juices, and cut it off of the meat, and we don't eat a lot at once. Lamb shanks are just a deep, changing-seasons flavor comfort. Easy too.
Four shanks makes four to eight meals, depending on appetite and recipe. Sometimes I serve them whole, one per diner (for hearty appetites). Other times I take the meat off of the bones and incorporate with the (skimmed) sauce, rice and roasted vegetables into a casserole.
Here are the basics for Autumn Lamb Shanks:
Preheat the oven to 325degrees.
Sprinkle the shanks with kosher salt and coarse-ground pepper. Heat a little oil in an oven-going dutch oven and brown the shanks on all sides. Remove shanks from pan.
Saute a large chopped onion and two chopped carrots. (If I'd had celery the day I cooked these, I'd have in put a couple of celery stalks too). When the vegetables are soft, add 3 cloves of minced garlic. Stir. I like a sprinkle of red pepper flakes for zing, but you can leave them out if you're not fond of heat.
Add 1 1/2 cups of red wine, 1 cup of water and 1 tablespoon of tomato paste. The small amount of tomato paste adds depth without a pronounced tomato flavor.
Stir to scrape up the bits from the bottom of the pan, then put in herbs and return the shanks to the pan. I used a bay leaf, a sprig of fresh rosemary, a sprig of Mexican tarragon, and several sprigs of fresh thyme. Tie the herbs together with string if you don't want to fish stems out piecemeal at the end.
We're lucky to live in a zone warm enough for growing herbs so we mostly use herbs from the garden, but dried herbs are good too. Don't worry if you don't have Mexican tarragon, the dish will still be great.
Return shanks to pan, cover and put in the oven for an hour, then turn the shanks over, cover again and cook another half-hour.
Remove shanks from pan. Let the liquid cool and pour off the fat that gathers on the top. I have one of those pourer thingies with a spout from the bottom. It does a pretty good job of separating juice and fat. However you manage to take the fat out, taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper if needed.
I like to serve these braised lamb shanks with a bed of brown rice to soak up the juices and a crisp salad for balance. We drank our new favorite budget wine with it, Avalon California Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007, which has cherry-berry forward fruit, a hint of chocolate and a bit of spice. Other varietal options are shiraz, malbec and zinfandel.
Build a fire in the fireplace, set a place for your sweetie and savor a cool-season dinner.
A lot of people bring their dogs. My favorite is the guy with one black and one white dog. He drinks coffee and throws tennis balls, the dogs race around and plunge into the lake and race back to shake on him.
The city encourages dog owners to pick up after their pooches. There are more than 100 mutt mitt dispensers along the trails and periodic garbage cans for disposing of the filled mitts.
Even so, an estimated 1,327 pounds of dog waste ends up in the lake every day- nearly a half million pounds per year. And the average-sized dog dropping contains 3 billion fecal coliform bacteria.
The first I've ever made, in honor of Mom & Dad's visit this week and to surprise my husband, which it did since he'd given up after thirteen apple-pie-less years.
Mom made her signature oil-stir crust. It was good, not like the one I made in 1972, after which I discarded the idea of making pie crust. Her secret is two extra tablespoons of oil. She rolled it out with a wine bottle from the cooler. I gave my heavy marble rolling pin away in our last move, thinking I didn't need to move something that hadn't been used in a decade. And three years later, I was proven right. We've got lots of wine bottles. Now that I know the crust secret and I have a cooler full of rolling pins, I might consider making an apple pie again someday. Actually, I've been thinking it would be fun to try the recipe from Cooks Magazine which includes vodka. Novel idea to put it in the crust, not the cook.
I made the filling from wonderful organic Honeycrisp apples, using the Perfect Apple Pie recipe in my 1967 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook.
While the pie baked, Dad and Denny went to the store for Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream. Denny is certain vanilla ice cream is a necessary component to an apple pie experience. The trip was required after last month's Uh Oh incident.
Food from scratch. Love and family. Some things never go out of style.
My husband, Denny Coates, has devoted much of his life to understanding why and how we think and act. It's the reason I married him. I knew his mind would always fascinate me.
And, full disclosure, I thought he was cute.
Recently he started a blog called Building Personal Strength. His posts aren't long but they take my mind beyond my daily life. I read it in the mornings for the same reason I drink coffee; it makes me feel good and gets me going.
I'm sharing him with you today so you can feel good too.
Denny and I made our annual foray to Wurstfest in New Braunfels last weekend. Officially, it's a sausage festival. In action, it's a celebration of all things German, most particularly beer and polka, with sausage on the side.
Denny goes to Wurstfest mostly for his annual five-kinds-of-sausage-on-a-stick splurge, washed down with real German beer. Fresh draft, not bottled.
And he goes because I ask him to go with me.
I like Wurstfest because everyone lets loose. People in New Braunfels have a strong German heritage which dictates taking responsibility seriously. Lawns are neat, church is well-attended and bills are paid. Societal norms reign.
But at Wurstfest, the natives wear costumes and drink and dance, a year's-worth of passion compressed to two weeks. Norms are skewed. And it's an every age event. The best boot-scooters are Grandma and Grandpa who polka like they were born doing it. Which they might have been, if they come from here.
The organizers bring top-tier polka acts to town. Das Grosse Zelt (The Big Tent) holds a couple thousand people packed on picnic benches and standing around the perimeter. Every single one gets into the polka groove.
My favorite act the last couple of years has been Alex Meixner, a devil on the accordion. Some of my friends will find the idea of hot accordion music odd but Meixner's energy radiates. He twirls, he dances, he swings the accordian and his fingers fly. When he comes on, the bench rows begin to sway, shoulder to shoulder, back and forth, the man with the flashing bat-hat, the woman with the viking horns, everyone together.
Tonight and tomorrow are the last nights of Wurstfest 2009 but you can click the video below and pretend. So get a beer from the fridge and settle in for the ride.
People like agaves in home landscapes because they add structure and drama. And because they'll grow in poor, well-drained alkaline soil, in full blistering sun.
Agaves are evergreen succulents that thrive in low-rainfall areas. The leaves end in spines and most have toothed-edges to combat thirsty animals.
Everyone knows century plants, evergreen beauties that reputedly live 100 years, then send soaring flower stalks into the sky and die. Actually, the plants bloom as early as ten years but the spike is wonderful and subsequent demise true. This bloom and death habit carries across the family, with the length of life varying according to the species.
Agaves grow in many shapes and sizes, ranging from Central America through the American Southwest. Some even thrive in sandy coastal soil in the Southeast. Cold hardiness varies, some are hardy to the low teens.
In Texas, where making a good Margarita is a necessary social skill, folks think of Tequila when they think of agaves, although no one I know has tried to grow Agave tequilana,which is grown by the thousands in the Jalisco area of Mexico.
I hate to say I've forgotten the name of the variety pictured at the top (a forgetting not as bad as locking myself and the baby out of the truck on Monday), but it will grow ten feet tall and wide in time. If the bucks don't wreck it with their antlers each fall. Next year we'll remember to get the fencing up in time...
We're still seeing Black Swallowtails in the garden. They'll fly until we freeze.
Today I counted six Black Swallowtail caterpillars enjoying my pot of cilantro. I hope they're quick about eating and turn safely into chrysalises before winter. We'll see them again in spring when they emerge to complete the cycle.
A few weeks back we took a weekend trip to celebrate our anniversary in the western Hill Country, a place where unspoiled valleys fold into ridges that roll to the sky. Cruising through that beauty makes the tension drain from your shoulders, particularly if you take FM 337 west from Medina, hang a left on RR 187 at Vanderpool (population 20, more or less), and pull up at Hick's Bakery and Restaurant in Utopia.
Most days are good in Utopia. The Sabinal River runs alongside town, the land is greening after recent rains and the town's 400 residents have a church, two feed stores, a high school, a general store, two cafes, a French antiques store, a local history museum, a library, a bank, and a gas station (the only one for over 30 miles).
The library is built of Hill Country limestone and landscaped with native plants. Looks like the town loves its books.
And a coffee shop with free wi-fi.
Not too much, not too little. Simply Utopia.
Hick's Bakery and Restaurant occupies a sweet green cottage on the main drag. When we pulled up, there were lots of vehicles, a good sign in a small town. There is a notice on the door, No Credit Cards, which is how I know there's a bank with an ATM in Utopia.
When we pulled up the second time, a big white pickup truck, high off the ground for passing over rocks and ruts, pulled up next to us. Two men got out. The driver was tall and lanky with a mane of gold-brown hair and an unmistakable voice. His jeans were tucked into fine working-ranch knee boots. He looked like he belonged in the place, not just Hicks, but Utopia and the hills. His friend looked like he might have been from a big city.
I dug my elbow into Denny's ribs. "He looks just like that guy in the movie 'Sideways', the character that got into all the trouble. Sounds like him too." We followed them in and sat at a table in the back room, just them and us. When we got out our bird books and the list of what we might see the next day at Lost Maples State Park and started talking about Bushtits and Yellow-throated Vireos, the two men relaxed into conversation.
Your average cowboy doesn't talk about his agent or Robert Deniro or the movie industry job market. Turns out Tom Church has a ranch above Vanderpool. Someone said he comes in occasionally, is nice, like a normal person. Mr. Church gets respect from the locals. He raises cattle, a profession akin to a calling in Texas.
Denny was taken with the experience. He loved the movie, it was fun to see someone who played a big part in it. And the food was good too.
You never know what you'll find when go off the beaten path in the Texas Hill Country. Particularly in a place called Utopia.