It seems I have a lot to learn when it comes to the fine art of pit-mastering.
Last evening, I attempted to make Dr Pepper Barbecued Chicken, a recipe from John de Mers' forthcoming book Follow the Smoke: 14,783 Miles of Great Texas Barbecue (Bright Sky Press). Dr Pepper enjoys a long tradition in Texas, having been invented around 1885 at Castle's Old Corner Drug Store in Waco. Over the years, the drink has been advertised as an aphrodisiac—It makes old men young, and restores vim, vigor, and vitality—and as a stimulant; "Tonic, Brain Food, and Exhilarant!"
Whenever I have a rare burst of Saturday morning energy (and a craving for homemade soup or a special salad or stir-fry), I head over to Sunset Valley Farmers Market, just outside of Austin in Sunset Valley. Summer happens to be an especially favorite time for me to go, despite temps hovering close to 90 degrees by 11-ish, when I usually arrive there. Despite not getting there at the opening hour of 9 a.m., I can still find excellent selection. You see, I love making gazpacho, and there's no place or time of year better to find homegrown, organic tomatoes—the key ingredient—than the farmers' markets. I can also find fresh homegrown cucumber, onion, garlic and jalapenos, the supporting ingredients there. Plus, once you've cooked with garden-fresh garlic, store-bought never quite measures up.
I recently enjoyed a fabulous weekend eat-athon in historic downtown Marble Falls—from tasty tapas and vino (and fun people-watching in a window seat) at The Falls Bistro & Wine Cellar, to the Shrimp and Grits at Patton's on Main, to the lip-smackin' (four-napkin) Big Chief Burger on a kaiser roll at the R Bar & Grill. (The grill is great for lunch and dinner, but it's also a fine alternative for an inexpensive breakfast if the lines are long at the town's justly popular Blue Bonnet Cafe.) Between meals, I indulged in browsing the galleries and shops along downtown's six-block stretch, including the toy and kitchen boutiques at Old Oak Square, and the home furnishings at Canyon Trails and Attitudes With Style. In nearby Buchanan Dam, I made my usual stop at Sam's Dam Ranch—at the intersection of FM 1431 and Texas 29—for plants, pottery, and the painted metal pigs and roosters from Mexico that have begun to take over my kitchen.
I've been giving my trusty Weber kettle grill a workout lately, and this past Sunday, I tried my hand at making the perfect sirloin steak, seared and slightly salty on the outside, pink in the middle, and tender and toothsome at the same time. While I prepared the grill, I remembered our June 1997 story on Tom Perini's restaurant in Buffalo Gap, a popular place called the Perini Ranch Steakhouse, which has won kudos for its meat as well as its pecan-studded (and whiskey-laced) bread pudding. I remembered that we had published Tom's recipe for his foolproof steak rub, and I searched for "Perini" on our Website. His steak rub recipe came right up.
4th of July fireworks displays never cease to give me a rush of excitement and ooh-and-ahh wonder. Despite the crowds and heat, I viewed this year's spectacle from the Ann Richards/Congress Avenue bridge in Austin over Auditorium Shores. I fully expected the usual teeming crush of humanity, and was not disappointed.
I remember last June—one of the rainiest Junes on record—when my basil plants grew out of control and those crazy orb-weaver spiders were spinning their erratic webs between plants and fence posts with abandon. If last year was The Year of the Spiders, I'm calling 2008 The Year of the Web Worms. Seems as though every pecan tree in my neighborhood is sporting at least a dozen cottony web worm nests; and if you look closely at what's going on inside, it's simultaneously fascinating and disgusting. After all, there's a writhing community inside those sticky, cottony webs'each pale yellow larva waiting to grow into a hungry, hairy caterpillar, and then, finally, a full-grown adult moth (Order Lepidotera—just like a butterfly, it turns out' but from the less-glamorous Family Arctiidae, if you want to get specific.)Those web worms might be gross to me, but they're succulent sausages of larval deliciousness to wasps'something I learned from Howard Garrett and Malcolm Beck's captivating (if you're into this sort of thing) Texas Bug Book: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, published by UT Press in 1999. (I consult this book often. What can I say? I collected beetles as a child, and people don't really change.)So you want to get rid of your web worms? Put down the Raid and embrace those wasps building honeycombed homes beneath your eaves. Turns out that if you can somehow manage to rip open one of the webs'with a stick or a rake, for example'the wasps attack the worms. I tried this last weekend, and watched'enthralled and horrified'as the worms met a violent, yet strangely poetic end. Who needs summer action movies? Much drama unfolds on the other side of your screen door.
Sunday morning. 8 am. The topic is "Food as Art." And the venue is the self-service "gallery" in the Whole Foods flagship Austin store between 5th and 6th at Lamar. Warning: the exhibit is only good for about 20 minutes, so you have to be quick.
Until last Saturday, I had forgotten how long it's been since I had a really GREAT glass of iced tea. And that glass of tea sent me into a reverie about the pursuit of perfection in small things. Who served this transcendent chilled concoction? Trio restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel-Austin.
For the sheer joy of blissful relaxation, I award the Peace Prize to Port Aransas. As much as the town has grown in recent years, there's still plenty of nothing to do. Our annual family trips (often during the uncrowded month of October) consist of delightfully dull Gulfside activities: beachcombing at sunrise, fishing near the ferry landing, devouring palm-sized fried shrimp (The Wharf gets my vote for the Island's best), and watching my kid dig at ocean's edge in the biggest sandbox ever. We always make a point to stop at the Art Center for the Island's gallery (how are we going to squeeze that painting and the boogie boards in the back of the car?). And we somehow never tire of browsing those surf shops fronted by giant shark heads.
Well, it's officially summer in Austin. The calendar begs to differ, I know, but I have my own criteria. One, I've already been attacked by chiggers as I lounged in my front yard, watching a lizard sun himself on the enormous arms of the agave I've dubbed Big Momma. Also, I just enjoyed the season's first michelada, a frosty mix of beer, lime juice, Worcester sauce, and Tabasco, a thirst-quenching libation I discovered several years ago at El Chile on Manor Road, Austin's burgeoning eastside restaurant row. And finally, last night, I took the season's first dip in Austin's Barton Springs pool as the descending sun sent glittery shimmers across the water's surface. In a quintessentially weird and wonderful moment, I witnessed both a group baptism and a topless woman bounding down the hill as people tried not to stare. I adore Barton Springs in winter (when I bring a big robe and a thermos of hot tea), but I especially adore it in summer, when I could spend all day swimming and lolling about on a broad blanket on the hillside, partially shaded by pecan trees, entertained by chattering squirrels, and watching the comings and goings of a broad sample of humanity. There are hand-holding high-schoolers in skimpy bikinis and floppy summer hats; sinewy, gray-haired men with broad shoulders and tiny Speedos; children with doughy knees in ruffled suits and heart-shaped sunglasses; Mystic-tanned college kids dangling from plastic floats on the deep end, squeezing the last bit of sunshine from their days. And on that note, I'm going to the pool.