Sunday, September 4, 2011

- Published in the New York Times: Peach cobbler

Oh frabjous day … my Peach Cobbler recipe made it into Reader Photos and Recipes: Essential Summer Dishes in the New York Times!           

Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve made it into the Times, having written a Letter to the Editor that made it into the print edition during the 2008 presidential campaign (see the second letter on the page, which obviously didn't convince anyone). But getting published in the NYT, even if it's only on the website, feels every bit as good the second time around.

I probably would have missed the online call for recipes, avid print reader that I am, had it not been for the critter that chose to deposit some scat on our Thursday morning paper as it sat in the driveway. So it was that I found myself reading the online NYT during breakfast, clicking various “Most Emailed” links which eventually led to the summer recipes retrospective.

Cobbling together an entry (sorry, I couldn’t resist) with a poem and a recipe from an earlier blog post, along with a picture of the beach in North Carolina had to be done in half an hour, lest I be late for work. To which I went without giving much more thought to the matter … until I returned home to discover an email request for a peach cobbler picture to go along with my submission.

Woo hoo! I made the cut! And I figured taking a picture would be a piece of cake: just make a cobbler in the morning, send off a picture and wait for magic to happen. Published in the NYT … again!

Except. Have you ever found perfectly ripe peaches in the store? Ever?

I ended up at the HEB on Friday morning surreptitiously squeezing peaches. The produce manager’s eyes narrowed, prompting me to offer an explanation, “I need to make a cobbler, the perfect cobbler, today, this morning, for the New York Times. I can’t wait for the peaches to ripen. Could there possibly be some over-ripe rejects in back?” Eyes softening, the gentle man said he’d see what he could do. Alas, there were no perfect peaches to be had.

So I bought 2 dozen  peaches that barely yielded to thumb pressure, hoping to cull the 3 or 4 cups needed for the recipe. Slicing into one peach after another, I muttered under my breath, “What was I thinking?” But it all worked out. Don and I took some pre-baking pictures,

the cobbler went into the oven, baked to a perfect turn, and then I impatiently waited for it to firm up enough to cut. Finally, the requisite picture was taken and sent off.

The few hours that passed between emailing the picture and seeing it online were spent shopping for seafood stew ingredients in a vain attempt to keep from clicking the Dining website link like a demented pigeon in a Skinner box. Until finally, they appeared:  my poem, my recipe, my picture.  Oh joy!

Except. The poem didn’t quite fit. And got cut (too suggestive apparently). Later.

Oh well … the recipe and the picture are still there. As for the poem, it’s been here on the blog all along, and here it will stay.

Sunrise on the Outer Banks, courtesy of Keith Cline, Labor Day 2011
For Peaches

On a Carolina highway,
air rippling with early summer heat,
my thumb
seeks the reassurance
of soft flesh
ripened to perfection.

Rose and gold and palest jade
rim the edge of heaven,
nexus of sand and sea and sky;
the sunrise a recapitulation
of summer sun imprinted
on fragrant orbs.

Silver blade in hand
I cleave flesh
into wedges drenched with juice,
sweetened with sugar,
freckled with cinnamon.

Then open the oven
to air rippling with heat
that will meld
flour & butter
sugar & cream
into a cobbled bed;
a perfect end

for peaches.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

- Seafood stew

The stew didn't turn out very well, but I love this picture (taken outside in the early evening light)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

- Bringing home the bacon

Island Home

I walk through shadows,
the morning sun tangled
in orchard-high branches
of live oak and Ashe juniper,
belying the heat yet to come

Deer fly before me,
hooves clattering
across the roadway
then thudding into shadows
as birds trace scalloped arcs
from tree to wire

I imagine an outer bank,
a sheltered beach
flung into the sky,
water streaming
down flanks of stone,
the sun baking silt and shell
a million years and more

This then is home,
where driftwood lies
in dry-creek beds scoured clean
by gulf-born torrents,
lithic remnants
of the forsaken shore,
a thousand feet closer to heaven

There is a sense of place and belonging here in the Texas hill country that surprises me, as much as I love the beach. Likewise, it is passing strange that there isn’t a time when I go for a walk that I don’t think of Shelter Island, even though we now live 1000’ above sea level. I’m endlessly fascinated by the grasses, wildflowers, trees, shrubs, rocks, and critters along the roads and nature paths that thread through our neighborhood. And as the sun presses down, I could close my eyes and be once again on the Outer Banks.

Soon after we arrived (hard to believe it’s been two years), I discovered author Susan Wittig Albert. Reading her lyrical memoir Together, Alone marked the beginning of my education about the naming of things in this place we now call home. So last night, as we worked up an appetite by walking our dinner guests around the property, I proudly pointed out lace cactus and rock beds, cleared meadows and DIY bird baths, while rattling off a lengthy list of the critters that share the land with us.

Dinner included an old stand-by ("Williamsburg Trellis Style" in the Salad Days post) with a new twist: our own bacon, inspired by a recent meal of pork belly and duck at Meg and Paul’s. Of course, I didn’t exactly follow a recipe, but I have one now.

Bacon My Way

1 pound fresh pork belly
1 fresh turkey breast (hey, if you’re going to fire up a smoker, you might as well make it worthwhile)
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup kosher salt
4 cups water
12 cups cold water and ice

Heat 4 cups of water in a 6-quart pot and stir in brown sugar and salt until dissolved. Add ice and cold water until you have one gallon of cool brine.

Place the pork belly into a plastic container (cut the pork belly to fit, if necessary) and cover with brine. Place a 2-gallon plastic bag in a large stock pot, add the turkey breast, and cover with the remaining brine. Put lids on both containers and refrigerate overnight. 

One hour before smoking, remove the meats from the brine, dry with paper towels, and place under a fan to dry before smoking. Smoke the pork belly for one hour. Continue to smoke the turkey breast until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 (another hour or two, depending on your smoker and the outdoor temperature). After the meats cool a bit, wrap them securely in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. Even so, prepare to have your refrigerator smell like a smoke house for as long as it takes to eat the results of your labors. 

What? You say you don’t have a smoker? Well, you should … the cost is reasonable and the results are well worth the investment. Go for it!

BTW, pan frying the brined and smoked pork belly bacon was disappointing.  But slicing it into thin strips and microwaving it on paper towels reduced it to perfect crisps of goodness that were well-worth the effort.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

- For Peaches redux

When I started the blog almost two years ago, I posted a piece written during the 2007 Eastern Virginia Writing Project.  For Peaches was the last poem I wrote until last week, when an Facebook "missing you" from Susan at the EVWP inspired a spate of poetic musing. So be forewarned ... there may be more to come.

A view of the new rock garden on a blazing hot Texas summer day


Heat beats down 
from a cloudless blue sky;
it will not rain today.

Four inches in forty weeks;
the drought
The rain,
two lusty squalls
too little.
The floodplain,
laid bare by
in the face of the sun.
A deer,
not two months gone,
already reduced
to gleaming white.

Even so,
the hill country trees
set their seed in
rusty brown knots of flesh
like so many cobbles of chert
strewn across the Rumple-Comfort soil.

And as I draw beads
of sun-distilled nectar
from each precious drupe,
my knife’s progress is halted,
again and again,
by the stone at each heart:
creation’s prayer
for rain.

Deconstructed Peach Pie

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup lard + 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4+ Tbs. ice water

Process the flour, lard, and salt until it resembles corn meal.  Put in a bowl and stir in water with your fingertips, adding just enough to gather the dough into a soft ball.  Roll out thin, slice into strips 1/2 inch wide by 3 to 4 inches long.  Sprinkle lightly with sugar and place on a baking sheet.  Bake at 375 until lightly browned ... 10 to 12 minutes.

  • 1/2 cup Mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • Sugar
  • Vanilla
  • Peaches
  • Cinnamon sugar

Whip Mascarpone and cream, adding sugar and vanilla to taste. 
Slice peaches and dust with cinnamon sugar.
Set out peaches, pie crust strips, and Mascarpone cream to be combined at the table.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

- Windy with a chance of fire: Hill Country living

Right after we moved to Cascade Trail last September the rain gauge recorded a 6" gully-washer. Flooding is a reality, so even though most creek beds are dry most of the time, signs at every low water crossing warn drivers against trying to get through when it's pouring rain. The Sink Creek crossing just down the road from our place is at least 10 feet below the road grade, but the flood marker is 5 feet above that. The public service tag line around here is "Turn around, don't drown" with good reason.

Unfortunately, it hasn't rained much since that first torrential downpour and Texas is getting way too much ink in the national press about the wildfires that have already consumed over one million acres in the western part of the state. It got a little too close to home last week when an Austin fire destroyed eight homes and a fire in Wimberley damaged three more. As I related the latest news to my dad, he commented that I probably shouldn't seek work at the Chamber of Commerce. "Not good for business" was his take on my story-telling.

Well, I'm actually kinda proud of the challenges we've encountered around here. Spoiler alert: if you intend to visit us at some point, you might want to stop reading before going any further. Still, for those of you who know me, you've gotta figure if I can handle this stuff, anyone can.

For instance, we see creatures in abundance, both great and small. Recent sightings of feral hogs by neighbors were confirmed with our own eyes as we passed a dead hog on Ranch Road 12 this weekend. We're pretty sure we spotted a coyote one morning, although I've been disappointed at not hearing their storied yips and howls more than once. And even though they're even uglier than the turkeys (which are pretty ugly in their own right), we actually appreciate the turkey buzzards, which do a fair job of cleaning up the roadsides after car versus deer collisions.

Less desirable are the creatures small. We saw more than a few scorpions when we first moved in, including this one in the master bathroom (and Meliss wondered why I hadn't taken any baths). Our neighbors recommended an outfit called Hired Killers to discourage future visits from multi-legged critters.  Even so, we keep an eye on the floor when we get up in the morning. We've also learned that they grow 'em big in Texas when it comes to centipedes. I have no pictures to show, which may be just as well.

We've got our share of cold-blooded critters in these here parts, too. Until recently, I had only seen snake skins in the yard, but as we walked past the low water crossing last Friday, Don spotted a live one. Now he says the snake was only about 5 feet long, but I'm here to tell you it took up the better part of half the road, which I'm pretty sure is wider than 10 feet. Later that same day, I was on the floodplain behind the house when I heard a chattering kind of sound. I'm not going to say it was a rattling kind of sound, but I did choose to walk rapidly in the opposite direction rather than investigate further. I must say, I prefer the little green anoles to their slithery relations.

The good news is we have an abundance of butterflies, birds, and wildflowers. In fact, one of the prettiest flowers is growing in a neighborhood field that burned last fall. Like a phoenix, the Prairie Nymph rose through the ashen clumps of grass, proving the resiliency of nature in the face of fire and flood alike. Even so, I'll continue to take it seriously when the weather forecast is windy with a chance of fire, and count our blessings (which are many) in the meantime.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

- Birthday Season: The celebration never ends

Heather recently introduced me to the concept of the birthday season which, as I understand it, begins with the first of several celebrations and ends with the last. In the Ackert family, where all birthdays are celebrated during the annual trip to the Outer Banks, that could make for some very long birthday seasons.
In any case, Meliss and I headed to Williamsburg in early March to be a part of Logan's 7th birthday season. While there, we made the acquaintance of Wyatt, who is the newest member of the Laroche/Marshall clan (and shares a November 30th birthday with his soon-to-be godmother, Meghan). I also made a trip to Carino's seafood market for the express purpose of spiriting three pounds of jumbo lump crabmeat back to Texas. Thus I was well prepared for the beginning of Paul's 30th birthday season the following week.

Meghan planned a phenomenal party complete with a mobile wood-fired pizza trailer. Invited guests were asked to bring a challenge for Paul, in lieu of a gift. What better challenge, I thought, than a quickfire?

To make it a fair challenge, I filled two identical brown paper bags with butter, cream, Outer Banks seafood seasoning, parsley, chives, celery leaves, and last, but far from least, two carefully thawed containers of Carino's jumbo lump crabmeat. As any good chef would, I also brought my own knife, along with a whisk and a saucepan. The challenge was this: create one dozen crabmeat hors d'oeuvres in gougeres (savory gruyere-laced cream puffs). The time limit: 10 minutes.

Twelve hungry party-goers watched as the gas stove was fired up and the whisks started to fly. Herbs fell under the knife. One guest googled foodie theme music (I'm not sure if it was Top Chef or Iron Chef), while another called out the time remaining. Paul reached for truffle oil as his key ingredient, while I opted for vin santo and dijon mustard. Plates were called for, gougeres split and filled as the final seconds were counted down. And the winner was ... the guests, who got to eat succulent Virginia crabmeat deep in the heart of Texas.


1/2 cup water
1/2 stick of butter
3/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp salt
3 eggs
1/2-3/4 cup shredded Gruyere

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Bring water and butter to a boil in a saucepan. When butter is melted, add flour and salt and mix in flour with a wooden spoon. Beat in eggs one at a time (the dough will "break" each time and then come together again). Stir in cheese. Scoop tablespoon-size mounds of dough onto a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. If not serving right away, puffs can be reheated.

That was then, this is now: Paul's birthday season continues tomorrow night at the new Austin City Limits studio/theatre, where Williamsburg-born musician Bruce Hornsby is playing an Earth Day concert. It will come to an end two months hence when we gather everyone together at the Outer Banks to celebrate all the birthdays in the year past and look forward to those in the year ahead ... with any luck we'll also be comfortably numb.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

- Making little ones out of big ones: Whacking rocks

We cut a lot of scrub brush last fall ... mostly Texas persimmonAshe juniper (the locals call it cedar), Possumhaw and Yaupon (which look much the same, except that one is deciduous and the other is evergreen). My best estimate is that we lined about 200' of the driveway with branches piled 4-5 feet high and 6-8 feet deep, much like the pile looming behind this 4' tall tom turkey. You can do the math, but it added up to an awful lot of brush. Fortunately, we found someone willing to bring in a mega-chipper, leaving behind three piles of shredded wood that took up considerably less real estate.

We also have some walkways that can be tricky to navigate, to say the least. This is the path leading from the fire pit to the dry creek bed at the back of the property. It's pretty typical, with limestone ready to trip you up the moment you stop watching your step.

So I started spreading the shredded wood chips over one of the pathways, which was a pretty good idea ... except  there were some pretty high-profile stones with sharp ridges on top. Even with a thick bed of mulch, they seemed likely to trip up unsuspecting hikers. That realization inspired a trip to the shed to retrieve my old geology pick, purchased in 1975 when I was an undergrad at William and Mary.

Wielded with a steady hand (and a good pair of safety glasses), it made short work of the limestone in the middle of the path. I may have failed at flint knapping, but I definitely succeeded at rock busting.

Sadly, the old gray pick, she ain't what she used to be. After a couple of days, the shank started to work its way out of the handle, making it less than safe for continued path remodeling. I suppose I could get a new handle made, but I'm thinking a new sledge hammer may be a better call.

Until then, I'm heading to the kitchen to whip up a batch of Snickerdoodles. Which is a total non sequitur, but that's pretty much how life is these days ... better than fine.

  • 1/2 cup Land O'Lakes butter with canola oil
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs. Stir in flour, cream of tartar and baking soda. Roll small balls in cinnamon sugar and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 8 minutes at 400 degrees. Note: I find these do better if you don't use convection.

Friday, March 4, 2011

- DIY flint knapping continued

Antler and flint 
Well, I tried flint knapping, which is the process of shaping rock into arrowheads with a series of sharp blows. I've since concluded that the art of making arrowheads isn't my gift ... not without a lot of practice anyway. But I do have a great story about how I got the antler I needed.

I was coming home from work one day and saw a yearling deer chewing on something that looked for all the world like a bone. So I stopped the van in the middle of the driveway, got out, and chased after the deer ... which promptly ran away (smart deer), but not before dropping what was in its mouth. The bone turned out to be a small antler. Why the deer was chewing on it is beyond me, but I picked it up and put it on the front porch, where it sat until my ill-fated go at making something out of flint.

Fortunately, Don has had a little more success in the DIY department lately. He added a second bird bath to the front garden bed and created a tripod from cedar limbs to hold a bird feeder. The birds don't seem particularly interested, but I'm impressed.

The birds will come around eventually, I'm sure. It's just that they seem to have other things on their minds right now. For instance, our local turkey harem has been joined by a strutting tom who fluffs up his feathers every few steps to impress the ladies. Quite a show ...

Friday, February 25, 2011

- Loving the Hill Country

Meliss helping out at Xmas
Don's winter project
We've been so incredibly busy since moving to Cascade Trail ... cutting down brush, trimming trees, hauling rock, and just generally soaking up the reality of our new digs. So I'm not sure I can promise to get back to the blog and stay with it, but I'm sure gonna try.

This morning's inspiration came with sunlight flooding through the trees and the promise of an 80 degree day. Glowing like an alien spaceship just arrived from Planet X was a grapefruit-sized ball moss hanging in one of the live oaks, soaking up the rays and sending out new growth. I have to thank Susan Rudat, a Wimberley artist, for raising my awareness of ball moss with her pen-and-ink rendition of this Spanish moss cousin back when we were pretty clueless about our new environs.

Ball moss ... looking like something Dr. Suess would think up

But we're getting a little bit more savvy, now that we're well into our second year as come-here Texans. Don rightly pronounced the first day of spring a couple of weeks ago while we were at the new Austin City Limits theatre listening to Cody Canada and the Departed with Meg and Paul (after they treated us to a wonderful dinner at La Condesa). Since then, the grass has been greening, the ground has been sprouting, and the tree buds have been swelling right along with the ball moss.

Figuring the birds were sure to show up soon, we went bird bath shopping last weekend and found a 14" pottery bowl (actually a drip catcher for a large pottery urn) that we put on the ground in the garden. Later that day I spotted a neat piece of cedar driftwood in the dry creek bed behind the house and hauled it back. Don put one and one together and we ended up with a pretty cool bird bath for a total expenditure of $20.

So, now I'm off to try some flint knapping with a piece of antler I stole from a deer last fall. But that's another story ...