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.