Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen


Chicken Fried Steak with Cream Gravy 0

Posted on August 18, 2015 by Sahar

Few foods scream “TEXAS” louder than Chicken Fried Steak. Along with Chili (The Official State Dish of Texas), few things cause more arguments amongst friends and rivals over whose is the best.

By the way, Chicken Fried Steak is the Official State Dish of Oklahoma. Go figure.

The origins of Chicken Fried Steak are a little murky, but conventional wisdom generally believes German immigrants to Texas in the early- to mid- 19th Century invented Chicken Fried Steak as a way to not only enjoy something similar to the Viennese/German dish Wienerschnitzel (traditionally a breaded and fried veal cutlet), but also to make tough cuts of beef palatable. (As we know, bovine back then weren’t the chemically enhanced behemoths we know and eat today; they were just as hardscrabble as the land and the people living on it.)

Another story is that it was accidentally invented by a short order cook in Lamesa, Texas, in 1911. When a waitress turned in an order for “chicken, fried steak”, the cook, Jimmy Don Perkins, misread it. He dipped the steak in the fried chicken batter, and a legend was born.

One of my favorite food writers, Robb Walsh, describes 3 different types of Chicken Fried Steak in his book, Texas Eats:  1) The Southern/East Texas version is dipped in egg and then flour, similar to the way Southern fried chicken is prepared; 2) Central Texas’s version is made with bread crumbs rather than flour, much like Weinerschnitzel; 3) A West Texas version that is made without dipping the meat in egg; this is related to what cowboys called pan-fried steak.

Robb Walsh also talks about the three most common ways people mess up a Chicken Fried Steak: 1) Over- or Under-seasoning  – “If you use a salty seasoned flour for the batter, the steaks end up too salty. Underseasoning is just as bad. Even the batter on a perfectly cooked steak can taste pasty if it isn’t seasoned”; 2) Too much tenderizing – The ratio of batter to meat is crucial, and it’s determined by the thickness of the meat. If you pound the meat too flat, the steak is all batter and the steak is overcooked by the time the crust is done [this also leads to the meat shrinking in the crust].” ; and, 3) Overheating the oil – To cook a Chicken Fried Steak so the crust is golden and the meat is cooked trough, it is critical to keep the temperature of the oil at around 350F.

 

My recipe is much like the Southern/East Texas Version. It’s what I grew up eating and the one that most people know.

 

A few notes:

1.  The best cut of meat for a chicken fried steak is going to be round steak. It’s a flavorful, lean, and relatively cheap cut of beef. You can buy it in the grocery already tenderized (where it may also be called “cube steak”). If you buy it un-tenderized, you’ll need to do it yourself with a tenderizing mallet. It looks like a square hammer with spikes on each end of the mallet’s head. You very likely have one in the recesses of your knife drawer.

2.  It’s best to have everything at room temperature before you start. This way, everything cooks at the same speed and there will be less chance of the meat being cooked improperly.

3.  You don’t want to have too much breading on your steak. If you have too much breading, it’ll take too long for it to cook all the way through and the steak will overcook and shrink.

4.  Correct fat temperature is important when frying. If the oil is too cool, the breading will soak up the oil and you end up with a greasy steak. If it’s too hot, the coating will burn before the meat is cooked. The fat but come to a full sizzle when you put the steaks in.  Proper frying temperatures help seal the coating and keep as much of the oil out as possible while still cooking everything evenly.

5.  This goes for overcrowding the skillet, too. Don’t do it. The oil temperature will drop too much and the steaks won’t cook properly.

6.  Purists will be appalled, but if you like, you can substitute chicken (Chicken Fried Chicken) or pork (Chicken Fried Pork) in place of the beef.

7.  Speaking of appalled purists, I genreally do my frying in an electric skillet. It’s much easier for me to control the temperature of the oil. Purists, however, will insist on using a cast iron skillet. It’s up to you.

8.  You have to have gravy. Period. There are no exceptions to this rule.

 

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The Ingredients

Peanut Oil, Vegetable Oil, Shortening, or Lard for frying

2 c. all-purpose flour

1 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tbsp. garlic powder

2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. cayenne pepper, or to taste

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Clockwise from top left: salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

2 large eggs

6 ea. 6 – 8 oz. tenderized round steaks

 

1.  Mix together the flour and spices in a large, shallow bowl or on a large plate.  Set aside.

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The spices waiting to be mixed into the flour.

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Done. Be sure to mix as thoroughly as possible; especially if your spices (esp. the cayenne) are a little lumpy.

Beat together the buttermilk and eggs in a large bowl.  Set aside.

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Eggs and buttermilk batter. Be sure that you beat the eggs thoroughly so the whites are completely broken down and incorporated.

2.  Take each steak and dip it first in the flour and lightly coat.  Be sure to shake off any excess.

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The first dip. This will help the batter adhere to the steak.

Next, dip the steak in the batter and coat completely. Take the steak out of the batter and allow the extra liquid to dip off.

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Make sure the steak is completely submerged in the batter.

Dip the steak back into the flour and evenly coat all over.  You want to be sure there aren’t any wet spots.

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Nicely coated.

Shake off any excess flour.  Lay the steaks out in a single layer on a rack. (This will help allow air circulation around the steaks and help keep them fairly dry.)

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The steaks on a rack. If there are any wet spots, be sure to sprinkle a little flour on them.

3.  Have a 1″ depth of fat in a large skillet. Heat the fat to 375F, or until flour sprinkled in the oil immediately sizzles (but doesn’t burn) or a drop of water will make the oil pop (be careful of oil spatter).

4.  Once the oil has heated to the correct temperature, take the steaks, no more than 2 at a time, for 5 – 7 minutes total, turning once.  The temperature will immediately drop once you put in the steaks, so be sure to adjust the temperature as necessary to keep the fat at 350F.  (This is the optimal temperature to cook the steaks without making the batter soggy or overcooking the batter before the meat is done.)

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Don’t overcrowd the pan. The temperature of the oil will drop too far and will result in a soggy, greasy steak.

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After flipping. You only want to flip once to maintain the crust.

Take the finished steaks out of the oil and either place back on the rack to drain (my preferred method) or place on paper towels to drain.

After each batch is done, raise the heat back up to 375F before adding the next batch. Again, after adding the steaks to the fat, be sure to keep the temperature at 350F.

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Well, hello.

After the steaks are done, carefully drain off all but 1/4 c. of the drippings and saving any cracklings that may be in the skillet and make the gravy.

 

A note on the gravy: A good gravy can enhance your Chicken Fried Steak and a bad gravy can ruin it. You want a thick, creamy texture (but not pasty), a deep flavor (there are few things worse than a lumpy, bland, pasty gravy), and just the right amount of seasoning (over-salting is a common mistake).

Making good gravy is something that takes patience and practice. If you make this recipe for the first time and are a little unsure, just serve it on the side. You’ll do better next time.

 

Cream Gravy

1/4 c. pan dripping (if you have some nice cracklings too, great)

1/4 c. flour

2 c. whole milk, room temperature or warm

1 tbsp. black pepper

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

 

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The drained skillet. I left some of the browned flour in with the fat. Just be sure that anything you leave in the skillet isn’t burnt.

1.  Heat the pan drippings over medium heat (about 350F if you’re using an electric skillet).  Add the flour and make a roux.  You’re looking for something between a blonde- and peanut butter- colored roux.

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Adding the flour.

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Making the roux. You don’t want the roux too dark because the darker the flour, the less thickening strength it will have.

2.  Whisk in the milk and cook the gravy until it smooths out and thickens. Whisk in the salt and pepper.  Taste for seasoning.  If you want a thinner gravy, add a bit more milk.

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Whisking in the milk. Be sure to whisk constantly at this point so the roux and milk are completely incorporated.

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A nice, smooth, not-too-thick not-too-thin cream gravy.

3.  Serve over (or next to) the Chicken Fried Steak and whatever else is on the plate.

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The classic serving suggestion: Chicken Fried Steak, Mashed Potatoes, Greens (in this case, Kale).

 

Now I’m hungry.

 

 

 

Eating Locally Project 2015: June & July 0

Posted on August 12, 2015 by Sahar

Apologies to you all for not writing this up sooner. With all the family visits, travel, and, yes, a summer sore throat & cold, I’ve been a little neglectful in getting anything written and posted.

I only shopped at 3 places this time around – Boggy Creek FarmSpringdale Farm, and at the farmers market in Quepos, Costa Rica. As I stated in May, I volunteer at Boggy Creek, so I shopped there twice and only had time to go once to Springdale. Because we were out of town so much, it simply wasn’t feasible to go more often to the farms or even make it out to any of the markets in Austin.

 

June 18 – Boggy Creek

Volunteer Day. I was experimenting with travel time from my house to the farm. I gave myself almost an hour that morning and arrived at the farm 20 minutes early. I decided to use the time semi-wisely and take a few photos of the soon-to-be cut flowers

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Next time I go, I really need to ask what flowers they’re growing.

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Ditto.

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Rows of Zinnias

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Zinnia ready for its close-up

As I recall, it was an overcast and humid day. There hadn’t been rain for several days at this point, so the ground was beginning to harden. And, it was weed-pulling day. The weeds are almost a lost cause on the farm, but everyone does their best to keep them in check. Most of them are fairly easy to pull; but the Bermuda Grass – ugh. After the weed pulling, composting was next on the list. I know the compost they use at Boggy Creek is excellent quality because it’s steaming as you fill the bucket.

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After weeding and composting. Bermuda Grass – ugh. Trust me – this is so much better than any before picture would’ve suggested.

At the end of the day, I dragged myself into the farm stand to collect my “pay”. I wanted to be somewhat judicious since I knew Steve & I were going out of town again that weekend (it was his birthday), and I didn’t want to take the chance of anything going bad before I had a chance to use it.

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Heirloom tomatoes.

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Purple Bells.

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The first butternut squash of the season. I was excited; it’s my favorite.

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String beans are kicking in.

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The red tomatoes are Indigo Rose. The yellow ones are Sungolds.

After my shopping, I decided to stretch my legs a little and walk around the farm. I discovered if I didn’t do this – basically cool down after a workout – my legs became very painful on the drive home.

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Figs! I missed the crop she picked that day.

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Cinnatree flowers.

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Tractor study.

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Carol Ann’s tea roses.

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The okra is doing well.

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Okra flower.

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There they are. Baby Okra.

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Another flowering tree that I don’t know the name of. I really need to stick asking about these in the old brain box.

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Tatsumas. They’ll be ready in the fall. If the birds don’t get to them first.

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My purchases: Dandelion Greens, Butternut Squash, Indigo Rose Tomatoes

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Eggs. I gave these to my fitness trainer.

 

Saturday, June 27 – Boggy Creek

I missed my volunteer day at Boggy Creek that week (at this point, I can’t remember why), so I contented myself with heading out on Saturday instead; this way, I could also head to Springdale afterwards.

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Cut flowers for sale

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Basil and Dandelion Greens

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Curly Mustard Greens. My current favorite.

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Some of the Pursulane I helped to plant back in May. It has this wonderful sharp flavor to it. The leaves are almost like biting into a succulent.

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‘Tis the season for tomatoes.

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New potatoes. Always welcome.

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The ladies waiting until the people have all left so they can have run of the farm.

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Whatever produce Carol Ann feels isn’t good enough to sell, she feeds it to the chickens. They’re a happy bunch. That day, it was butternut squash.

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Keeping up with the weeds is a never-ending battle. There are squash plants holding their own in there, though.

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Taking a look at some of the rows I helped clean up.

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Okra still going strong.

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More of Carol Ann’s flowers

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Waiting for the pecan season to begin. I don’t know that the farm sells them, but it’d be great if they did.

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Caged pepper plants.

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Cinnabar

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My Boggy Creek Purchases, Part 1: Hamburger Patties.

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My Boggy Creek Purchases, Part 2: Basil, Curly Mustard, Figs, Dandelion Greens, Indigo Red Tomatoes, Sungold Tomatoes

After a quick chat with Carol Ann, Larry (Butler, Carol Ann’s husband and farm co-owner), and the lead volunteer, Dana, I headed to Springdale. They open an hour later than Boggy Creek, so I arrived a few minutes early. So, I took my time walking to the farm stand and took a few flower pictures.

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I really need to buy a Flowers of Central Texas guide.

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More posies.

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I think this is a type of Marigold.

Springdale’s farm stand is smaller than Boggy Creek’s, but where Boggy’s is neat, pretty, and utilitarian, Springdale really put on a colorful and artful show. I love to walk in there and see what Paula, Glen, and their staff have done that week. It’s always lovely.

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Case in point, the tomato table. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

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The pepper table. I think they had 6 – 8 varieties that day.

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The herb table.

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Dill flowers. I didn’t buy any because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them other than pickling. I’ll find something.

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Beautiful chicken eggs.

And, of course, after shopping, I wandered a bit.

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The ladies and gentlemen of the farm.

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Ahh… more flowers.

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Along the fence line.

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The ducks would have nothing to do with me.

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Ghost Peppers.

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I think this was an Anaheim.

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Some beautiful fungus growing out of one of the tree stumps.

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More tree stump fungus.

At this point, I decided to not go to any other markets since, yes, Steve & I were once again leaving for parts far away soon. I wanted to get what I bought eaten before we left.

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My Springdale purchases, Part 1: Thyme, Garlic Chives, Jalapeños, Mint

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May Springdale purchases, Part 2: Chicken Eggs (f), Duck Eggs (b)

Bonus: My mom was in town for a Contemporary Handweavers of Texas conference (she’s on the board), so I went to visit her. I gave her a goodie bag of the chicken eggs, figs, and about half of the tomatoes. I’m not sure if the figs made it back to Ft. Worth.

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Saturday’s Dinner: Baked Shrimp and Salad made with baby spinach, curly mustard, dandelion greens, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta, and extra virgin olive oil.

 

Saturday, July 11 – Farmers Market, Quepos, Costa Rica

I’ve already talked at length about this market in my previous post, La Pura Vida in Costa Rica, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

In short, the market is open late Friday (usually 4 – 9pm) and early Saturday (8am – noon).  The best time to go is early Saturday; the vendors are all set up and the crowds really haven’t gotten too big yet. The market is set up on the sea wall (Quepos is on the Central Pacific Coast) and the breezes coming off the ocean are a blessing and a break from the constant humidity.

The market isn’t large, but it is plentiful. Fruit, vegetables, seafood, prepared foods, handicrafts, and more than one general merchandise table were all in residence.

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One of the handicraft tables.

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Coconuts and (what I think are) Mamones Chinos – a type of lime with a hard shell and soft fruit. It’s related to the lychee.

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Potatoes and tomatoes are native to Central and South America. Carrots came along in the 18th or 19th Century.

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A cute, if formulaic, souvenir table.

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Pineapples, of course

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I think these were Fuji Apples.

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Beautiful produce.

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Mandarin Limes

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I was excited to see these – Otaheiti Apples. Steve & I first had them in Jamaica.

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We bought some beautiful Yellowfin Tuna from this vendor.

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Mangoes.

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And here is your general merchandise table.

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I believe these were the fruit of the Peach Palm. In the background are lychees; a lot of vendors were selling them.

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Bananas

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A stand backing up to the Pacific.

Steve found a gentleman selling fresh tamales and bought he & I some for breakfast. (Mom, who was with us and had already eaten, declined.) They were the most unusual tamales I’d ever eaten.

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Our view while we ate breakfast.

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These tamales had the usual masa base, bit they had a very soft texture along with rice and chunks of vegetables and pork. They were delicious.

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The still wrapped tamales.

After breakfast, while Steve decided to walk around town a bit, Mom & I walked our purchases back to the house. On the way, though, I ducked inside a carnecería and bought some epic chicharrones.

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Now, THAT’S a chicharron.

We bought potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, mangoes, pineapple, yellowfin tuna, prawns, Oteheiti apples, onions, and chayote squash.

Since it was our last evening in Costa Rica, we decided to make it a party. I made a large, simple dinner with what we bought at the market and whatever was left in the refrigerator.

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It took awhile to make dinner. The best parts – everyone enjoyed it and I didn’t have to clean up.

 

Thursday, July 30

Back at Boggy Creek after a 3-week hiatus.

We were tasked that morning with cleaning up 2 of the rows in the front field so they could be amended (Carol Ann’s organic secret recipe to add some nutrients back into the soil) and composted. I set about taking down the gherkin (small cucumbers) vines on my assigned row. It was great; the vines rolled up like a carpet.

After the rows were cleaned and we took our break, we laid a rather thick layer of compost on them. The farm is getting the fields ready for fall planting, so cleaning, amending, and composting at this point is essential for the new growth to be as healthy as possible.

The rows we cleaned, amended, and compsoted.

The rows we cleaned, amended, and composted.

We got lucky that day. There is a nice line of large pecan and oak trees lining the side we were on and it effectively shaded us pretty much all morning.

After our shift was over, we headed to the stand to collect our “pay”. Since it’s late summer, and we didn’t get the stand until after Noon, there wasn’t too much left to choose from.

But, it’s hard to complain about that when you’re getting the produce for free.

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A few squash but a lot of long beans and cucumbers.

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These are beautiful. I honestly had no idea they could be purple.

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More curly mustard. I’d better enjoy it while I can.

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Arugula.

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Okra. So good.

I picked up some curly mustard, long beans, okra, and arugula. (I forgot to take a picture when I got home.)

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More of Carol Ann’s flowers.

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More summer squash. Carol Ann told us basically, as long as you want to plant it before the first frost, it’ll grow.

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the ladies in the shade.

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Buddy, the farm dog, spent a good deal of the day digging a very deep hole a couple of rows away from where we were working. He kept on long after we’d finished. I have no idea what he was looking for or if he even caught anything. But, it was entertaining to watch. We were all rooting for him.

So much for June and July. On to August.

 

 

 

 

 

La Pura Vida in Costa Rica 0

Posted on August 04, 2015 by Sahar

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Just like Jamaica last year, Steve & I this year traveled to a place we never thought we’d go: Costa Rica. We honestly never had a desire to visit Central America;  it simply had no appeal for either of us. However, when Dad proposed this trip as a way for the whole family (Mom, Dad, three daughters, three sons-in-law, two grandsons) together to go someplace new and celebrate Older Nephew‘s graduation, what were we to say?

Sure, Dad. We’re in.

So, tickets were bought last September, a house was rented for a week, and activities studied and contemplated by one and all. And, since Dad and my younger sister, Danyah (mother of the nephews/grandsons) had already visited Costa Rica, the rest of us relied on them for advice and travel tips. They also unsuccessfully tried convince everyone to go zip lining.

 

For those of you who don’t know too much about Costa Rica, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer:  Costa Rica is in the southern part of Central America between Nicaragua and Panama. Because it’s less than 700 miles due north from the Equator, the climate is tropical year-round (basically, it has two seasons – wet and dry). It’s  sandwiched between the Caribbean on the eastern shore, the Pacific on the western shore, and a whole lot of tropical rain and humid forests with a few arid areas in between. The daylight and nighttime hours are split almost evenly (the sun would rise at about 6am and set about 5:30-6pm).  More than one-third of the country has been placed under some sort of environmental protection, making it one of the most bio-diverse nations on Earth. In fact, in 2012, it had the highest environmental ranking of all the Americas.

The economy of Costa Rica has hit a rough patch over the last 3 – 4 years, but it is still one of the strongest in the Central American region. Its main economic sources are tourism (especially eco-tourism), electronics (mostly cash registers and calculators), and agriculture (bananas, coffee, sugar, rice, ornamental plants, potatoes, etc.).

Costa Rica was believed to be first inhabited about 10,000 years BCE by peoples from the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, and was still sparsely populated by its indigenous people (namely the Bribri and Maleku) before coming under Spanish rule in the 1560’s. It remained an outer colony of the Spanish Empire until independence as part of the First Mexican Empire (1821-23), followed by membership in the United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840; several more attempts were made to continue the union until 1885), from which it formally declared sovereignty in 1847. Following a brief but bloody civil war in 1948, it permanently abolished its army in 1949, becoming one of the few world nations with no standing army.

Even after Costa Rica gained its independence from Spain and declared full sovereignty in 1847, years of invasion, American colonialism – both political and economic, yellow fever, dictatorship, and civil wars, it finally becomes a democratic nation in 1949 when then-president Josè Figueres Ferrer (father of Costa Rica’s “unarmed” democracy) declared a new constitution that granted full citizenship and voting rights to women and minorities.  He also created the foundation for the country’s modern welfare state. Indigenous peoples were finally granted rights of ownership in 1977, and the right to vote in 1994. However, the indigenous populations, like many in all of the Americas, still have their issues with the federal government taking over historically treatied lands and ignoring articles of protection.

In 1986, president Óscar Arias Sánchez, fully asserted Costa Rican independence by forcing out the Nicaraguan Contras the United States basically foisted upon his predecessor, Luís Alberto Monge, by again raising the banner of sovereignty and neutrality, and essentially drove them out of Costa Rica. Sánchez won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for uniting Central America and helping end the Nicaraguan War.

As it stands now, Costa Rica (literal translation: “Rich Coast”) is a green peaceful paradise with amazing wildlife, delicious food, wonderful people, and, as the Ticos like to say, “la pura vida”.

 

Day 1 – Monday, July 6

Travel Day.

Steve & I drove to my parents on Sunday to be in full readiness for our 6am Monday flight. We had to leave the house by 4am so we could be at DFW Airport and at check-in by 4:30. As part of my over-anxiousness with anything having to do with air travel, I went ahead and checked Steve & I in online the day before. Dad parked in remote parking and so we hiked to the shuttle station for a ride to the terminal. We met up there with Sister Danyah’s crew. I couldn’t even see the airport from the parking lot. That’s when I decided I really do prefer smaller airports. That’s when I also realized I’d overpacked. Again.

After Steve & I checked our bags – and paying the additional $25 per – we headed to security leaving Mom & Dad with Danyah’s (Husband Heath, Older Son/Grandson/Nephew, and Younger Son/Grandson/Nephew) family to do their check-in. (Sister Haneen and Husband Mark were flying from Newark to meet up with us in Miami.)

We all kind of gathered again near the gate and then spread out to forage for caffeine and a breakfast-type snack. One of the few caffeine sellers open was Starbucks (ugh), so Steve got us each a beverage. Coffee for him, hot chocolate for me.

Finally, we all boarded. I distinctly felt like I was being herded onto a cattle truck. Only with a little extra leg room that I paid for and a cubby for my camera equipment. Not long after we had settled in, I heard from Danyah a couple of rows up that Haneen & Mark were delayed out of Newark at least 2 hours due to mechanical issues with their plane. Dad tried to contact them, but, no answer. Family theories started to make their way around. Dad basically said there was nothing anyone could do about it and he’d try to get in touch with them when we arrived in Miami.

After getting a lecture from the flight attendant about sitting in the exit row (Yes. I can open the exit door. Trust me, I’ll be the first one out.), I, for grins, took a look at the in-flight menu.

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

Really, American? After all the other upcharges?

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Ditto. Ugh.

 

After this, the Dramamine took over and I essentially fell asleep until we landed in Miami.

Mom & Dad rushed off the plane to try to contact Haneen & Mark to check on their progress. The rest of us finally made our way off and headed to the next terminal and gate. (I have to say, Miami Airport is one of the most disorganized and confusing I’ve ever been through, and I’ve been through a lot of airports.)

When Mom & Dad finally caught up with us, they said they hadn’t been able to reach Haneen & Mark. Dad theorized that they likely caught a flight from Newark to Charlotte and then were going to meet us in San José.  We all went with that; it sounded plausible.

After everyone had boarded, it was plain to see that it wasn’t a full flight. Once we were at cruising altitude, I moved over across to the aisle seat so I would feel like I had some breathing and spreading room (I was assigned the middle seat both flights). Bliss. Between dozing, reading, and talking to my sister, the flight was tolerable.

Finally, we landed in San José. Because our flight was early, we had to wait on the tarmac for 20 minutes before the plane was assigned a gate; I always figured this was planned somewhat in advance.

While we were waiting, the family grapevine passed the message that Haneen & Mark were only about 30 minutes behind us. They’d managed to re-book and be on their way sooner than we thought. Whew.

Then, there was passport control.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

My first glimpse of Costa Rica.

Passport Control. Always fun.

Passport Control. Always fun.

After queueing for 30 minutes, we discover that the flight attendant had given us the wrong forms to fill out. Or, rather, she had switched them – the family form and the immigration form. Hooray.

After the re-filling of the forms in the correct way and number and getting the passports stamped, we all met up at baggage claim where the bags were all neatly arranged and waiting for us. But, before we could leave the baggage area, one more security check. Just our luck, we were stuck behind a family who didn’t seem to know what they were doing; it was like they couldn’t figure out how to put their bags on the conveyor belt. Even Dad, the family model of patience, was about to lose it. Then, the other line cleared out and we took our opportunity. The entire Arafat clan got through while the other family was still plodding along.

Mom volunteered to wait in the security area for Haneen & Mark, but we persuaded her to go out with us; there was only one way out, so we decided they would figure out where to go.

Dad found our driver, Estilio, and enlisted him and everyone except he & Mom to take the luggage to the van that was going to take us on the 3-hour drive to Quepos.

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My second glimpse of Costa Rica from the top of the parking garage.

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Our transportation for the day. The best part – it was air conditioned.

My first impression of Costa Rica was green. So very green. The humidity hit me next. Then, the rain (we were there during the rainy season). However, despite being at the airport, the air still felt fresh and clean. Perhaps that was simply my brain fooling itself after being in airports and planes for the past 12 hours.

While we waited for the other two (Dad received continual updates on their progress), Danyah & I wandered a little.

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Pay phones!

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There were warnings everywhere to only use the red airport cabs. I guess there’ve been issues.

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Our first food in Costa Rica. These were damn good. Danyah bought another bag.

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Waiting. The photo is dark, but that’s from (2nd from l-r): Steve, Heath, Dad, Danyah

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Juan Santamaría International Airport, San José, Costa Rica

Finally, after more than an hour of waiting, Haneen & Mark walk through the doors. And the rejoicing begins. However, Mark’s luggage had gone missing and he arrived with only his guitar in hand. The airline assured them that his bags would be delivered via courier the next day at the house in Quepos.

Ah… The joys of travel.

Mom & Dad finally rounded up the crew and we headed up to the van and Estilio. Dad asked him to stop somewhere for all of us to get something to eat since none of us had really eaten anything substantial since… a while ago.  When Estilio asked him what we’d like, Dad said Costa Rican. Hell, we may as well plunge in.

Estilio took us to a restaurant in San José that was probably the best meal we had the entire trip – La Casona del Maíz (The House of Corn).

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our first real food in Costa Rica. Estilio chose well.

Our view from the table.

Our view from the table.

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Another view from our table.

La Casona was a large, open-air restaurant with plenty of room to spread out. It seemed like it was built to blend into the landscape it adjoined. The rain had cooled the air, and while it was humid, the cooler temperature made it tolerable. The air circulation was certainly welcome.

I noticed this beaur=tifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

I noticed this beautifully painted oxcart and thought it was unique to the restaurant. Turns out, painted oxcarts (carretas) are a traditional art form in Costa Rica with each region having its own design.

Not long after we sat down, our server took our drink order (her in broken English, most of us in broken Spanish) and then she brought a couple of jars of some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever eaten. I ate a lot of the cauliflower out of the jar at my end of the table. It was just the right balance of tart and spicy. I’d like to think that they make these in-house.

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Yum.

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Birra Imperial. The National Beer of Costa Rica. Not a bad lager.

Not long after we ordered our food, it started coming to the table.

Wow. Was it good. Better than good – amazing.

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Guacamole with in-house made tostadas. Simple and delicious.

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Fried plantains with Montenegro Cheese. The sauce was a kind of mayonnaise. Honestly, I could’ve eaten a plate of these for dinner and been happy.

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My meal: Tablita de Chicharron. Essentially translates to Small Board of Pork. It was honestly some of the best pork I’ve ever had – seasoned well and fried with a great balance of chewy and tender. I only wish there were more tortillas. The salsa was fresh and the black beans had a wonderful sweet-smoky flavor. Bonus: more plantains.

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Steve’s meal: I thought I wrote it down, but, I didn’t. If I remember correctly, he had something similar to mine except his was chicken (pollo) instead of pork and it included a cheese quesadilla.

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Danyah’s meal: Arroz con Pollo. A dish you will find everywhere in Latin America from Mexico down to the tip of Chile.

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Haneen’s meal: Essentially the vegetarian plate. Her plate included fried egg, a soup of yucca & corn, avocado, cheese, plantains, salsa, black beans, rice, and tortillas. It’s a beautiful plate.

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The family enjoying our first Costa Rican meal. Clockwise: my plate, Younger Nephew, Dad, Mark, Haneen, Danyah, Mom, Older Nephew, Steve, Heath

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Complimentary rice pudding. Oh. My. God. Wow.

We came to the collective decision that if all the food in Costa Rica was as good as this, we were in for a great time.

While everyone was taking turns using the restroom, the rest of us stretched and wandered around the restaurant and simply took in the scenery.

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A coconut palm.

Soon, we were all back in the van to Quepos.  It’s only about 60km (about 38 miles) from San José if you go as the crow flies; but, because the only straight road is the Pan-American Highway, it’s really about 160km (about 100 miles) and takes about 2 – 3 hours to drive to Quepos. Most of the roads in Costa Rica, despite its excellent infrastructure, are small, winding, 2-lane affairs where you’re at the mercy of whatever is in the road and whomever is in front of you. I do have to give credit to the scooter and motorcycle drivers – they were a daring bunch of souls.

As everyone was conversing, dozing, or looking out the windows, we all began to notice that it was already getting dark, despite the fact it was only about 5pm. Certainly not something any of us expected. I can only speak for myself, but I suddenly felt very tired.

A view from the van.

A view from the van.

As we passed over a bridge, we noticed a large number of people looking over into the water.  Estilio pulled over and told us that it was the Río Tarcoles and there were about 30 American Crocodiles living under the bridge. Who were we to say no to this.

After carefully walking either on the edge of the road or on the bridge walkway, there they were. In all their glory. And, because the weather was beginning to cool a little and it was getting dark, they were becoming more active.

We all noticed this big guy.  At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed up.

We all noticed this big guy. At first, we thought he had his mouth open. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he lost the top part of his snout either in a fight or, probably more likely, a hunter. He seems to have done well despite the injury. It looked old and well healed.

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Río Tarcoles

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Some of these are tree branches, other, crocodiles. You decide which is which.

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Mom, Haneen, and I crossed the road and noticed this one. It wasn’t moving at all. We just assumed it was dead. Then, it moved. I think it found some prey. Not sure if it caught anything or not.

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Río Tarcoles. I tried to catch a picture of some Scarlet Macaws flying overhead. I, sadly, wasn’t successful.

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Misty Mountain Hop

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Brahmas seem to the be the cattle of choice in Costa Rica. I admired the rancher who set up shop next to a river full of crocodiles.

After this little stop, we climbed back into the van and finished our journey to Quepos. It was fairly uneventful but it felt very long. I think everyone wanted just to get to the house.  However, before we made it to the house, we had one more stop to make. We were meeting our property manager and local contact, Ana.  Dad paid her for the week of our stay, got some paperwork, and we asked her a few basic questions about what we were to expect.

There was a full stocked kitchen equipment-wise, but we had to buy food. There was a laundry room and we could use their detergent. The maids come every day. There was air conditioning in the bedrooms. She and Estilio suggested that we go to the supermercado Maxi Palí to stock up on what we needed.

A very nice produce stand

A very nice produce stand

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Fruit, Vegetables, Monkeys

We didn’t see Ana again after that stop, but we talked to her quite frequently on the phone for the rest of the trip.

When we finally made it into Quepos, it was completely dark and only about 6:30. It felt so much later. Estilio pulled into the Maxi Palí parking lot and we all piled out. I have to say, trying to keep up with 10 people in a grocery store is like herding cats.

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We were frequent customers of various Maxi Palís and the regular Palís during our visit.

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Sugary drinks seem to be popular. Thanks, America.

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Mark is in there somewhere looking for some sweet duds to wear until his luggage arrives.

We stocked up on vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, peanut butter, Nutella, Fresca, water, coffee, tea, sugar, lentils, eggs, tortillas, butter, juice, milk, the Costa Rican equivalent of Cheetos Puffs, a couple of shirts for Mark, and various OTC drugs.  The guys also grabbed what they thought was a pound of bacon. (When I went to cook it a few days later, I noticed it was a kilo [2.2 lbs.].)

Finally, we made it to the house. Estilio had a little trouble finding it in the dark. The place we stayed was a gated community with no outside lighting. So, if one was unfamiliar with the roads, it was easy to get lost. Plus, to compound things, the hills felt like they were at a 45-degree angle. After a couple of aborted attempts, Estilio finally found the house – Happy Jacana.

I can’t remember who got the door unlocked, but I know I was one of the first in and managed to find the light switch in the pitch dark. Upon first glance, the house looked lovely, if a little stuffy, climate-wise. But, whatever; we just wanted to get the van unloaded, stake out our rooms, get the groceries put away, and go to bed.

There were two bedrooms in the main house while the rest of them were either separate or on a different level.  Mom & Dad and Steve & I took the bedrooms in the main house; because, you know, we could. So, while Steve took our bags upstairs, Mom tasked me with putting away the groceries. Then, she took her & Dad’s bags up to their room while Dad helped everyone else find their rooms. It wasn’t easy in an unfamiliar house in the dark. I think it took close to an hour for everyone to find and pick their rooms and get settled in.

As for putting away the groceries, I put everything I could in the refrigerator when I noticed the various ant trails in the house.

Well, I figured, we’re in the tropics; not much we can do about the ants. Besides, the house geckos seemed to be enjoying their feast.

I think we were all in bed by 8:30-ish. Collective exhaustion had taken over.

But, just when we thought the fun was over, a transformer blew somewhere nearby and the electricity went out in the neighborhood about 9pm. I could hear Dad stumbling downstairs to call Ana. Whatever she managed to do, it worked. The electricity was back on by 11pm. Thank goodness. I was about to give up and go sleep by the pool. To hell with the bugs and whatever animals might wander by.

 

(A couple of notes here: a) We decided early on in the planning of this trip that everyone would do their own thing; we couldn’t and/or wouldn’t all be joined at the collective hip. I’m basically writing about what I, and those who were with me for various excursions, did during the trip; b) Also, because I can’t possibly write about what everyone ate every time we were together, I’m writing about my meals and, again, those who were with me or sitting near me in the restaurants or at the house.)

 

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 7

A little about Quepos: It is basically considered the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park (7km – about 4-1/2 mi.) and is known for the abundance of sport fishing in the area.  The town itself has a population of less than 30,000.  The town is in the Central Pacific Region on the Pacific Coast and is the administrative center of the Puntarenas Province.

Quepos is a fairly small town that has managed, for the most part, to keep a decent balance between the needs of the local citizens and tourists.  The town is laid out, grid-like, and, while there are no street signs, is still easy to get around if you simply pay attention to the landmarks.  It’s not the most picturesque place, but, the locals are friendly, the food and nightlife are great, and it was within walking distance from our house.

Quepos

Quepos

There was one main road that ran in front of the gates of our enclave – go right, Quepos; left, the road to Manuel Antonio. Most of the higher-priced restaurants, hotels, and general tourist stuff was on this road. For the most part, we opted to stay and do business in Quepos.

 

I was fully awake by 5:30am. I went downstairs figuring that I might be the first one or just my mom. Nope. Mom, Danyah, and Haneen were all downstairs already. I think we all silently decided to enjoy quiet conversation for as long as we could because, when the menfolk decided to stir, quiet would be over for the day.

After my breakfast of green tea and peanut butter on toast, I went back upstairs to grab my camera and get my first real photos of the landscape around our rented house.

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First photo from the balcony. The tree in the foreground with the red flowers is called the African Tulip Tree.

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I don’t know what the names of these trees and bushes are, but later in the day, the monkeys sure had fun in them.

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Ditto.

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Looking through the canopy at Quepos.

At this point, it was about 7:30 – 8am and just about everyone else was up and moving. Breakfast was (as it was most days) a fend-for-yourself affair. I was pretty obsessive about making sure the kitchen stayed as clean as possible because of the ants. Once everyone started throwing out their trash, the ants tended to congregate around the trash can. I was content to let them have at it if it kept them out of the rest of the kitchen.

After breakfast, Younger Nephew and I decided to have a look around in front.

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The front of the house we rented – Happy Jacana. Jacanas are water birds that has a widespread population throughout Costa Rica’s wet regions.

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Around the side of the house at street level. That’s Quepos through the trees.

I’m no botanist, but I know what I like, plant-wise. And just like in Jamaica, I remembered my love and enjoyment of tropical plants in Costa Rica.

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A type of Croton. It is a bushy shrub that can grow up to 3 meters (about 9 ft.) tall.

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Ixora. We saw these in Jamaica as well. They grow throughout tropical regions.

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Another type of Croton. This one is a narrow-leafed variety.

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This is the “fruit” from the Monkey Comb tree.

After I took the picture of the Monkey Comb fruit, I saw my first Iguana in the wild. I was so excited, I wanted to get my wide angle lens. I wasn’t paying attention and walked right on into the wrong house. Luckily, they were nice about it after I apologized profusely. I told them there was an Iguana on their roof and I was just going to grab a piece of camera equipment so I could get a better shot. They came out with one of their children and had a look. It was then that I took my opportunity to get the shot and sneak off.

Younger Nephew was just standing there. Smiling. Punk.

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Said Iguana that caused me to walk into the wrong house. It looks like the Spiny-Tailed variety.

When I went back to the correct house, I went to the back balcony again and chatted some more with Mom and whoever else was out there. Then, Mom saw it. A huge Iguana in the trees perfectly in our line of sight. She went to get her binoculars so we could all get a better look.

It was a large male Green Iguana out for a little morning sun and to, I presume, survey his kingdom.

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There he is in a Yellow Elder tree.

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The orange coloring on his face and body indicated that he was a breeding male.

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He was fascinating to watch. I’m not sure how long he was in the tree, but it was easily hours. Older Green Iguanas tend to be arboreal; the younger are terrestrial.

 

It was time to get ready. Danyah, Dad, Heath, Older Nephew, Younger Nephew, and I were all heading to the beach at Manuel Antonio. Our original plan was to go to the beach in the park; however, when we arrived, the line for tickets was crazy long. Plus, we had no idea that we would have to pay $15 a head to get in just to go the beach. So, we asked our driver to turn around and take us back the public beach next door. It was lovely and free.

So, with a promise to pick us up at 11:30, the driver dropped us off.

Playa Espadilla (also known as Manuel Antonio Beach #2) is a large beach with a mix of dark gray and yellow sand. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike. There were vendors walking around hocking everything from pottery to coconut water still in the nut. The beach wasn’t too crowded and the rain held off, so it made for a pleasant morning.

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First real glimpse of the Pacific.

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The other side of the rocks is the beach in Manuel Antonio park.

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When we arrived, the tide was going out. The beach seemed to get wider as the morning drew on.

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You could rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella for $10 for as long as you needed them. We did just that. Everyone, except the boys, took turns watching our stuff.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t something I do often. I had to remember to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t swallow a bunch of salt water every time a wave hit.

Also, my attempts at body surfing were unsuccessful.

The boys

The menfolk in the Pacific: Younger Nephew, Heath, Older Nephew, Dad

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Danyah getting ready for her open water swim. The orange thing is her inflatable buoy so people could see her.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

Dad taking over watch duties for me after his swim. He looks like a contented man.

As always, I wandered a bit. I was done swimming for the time being. Plus, I was starting to feel a little sick from the sea water I swallowed.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

Beach rocks. With a few shells and coral thrown in for good measure.

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio

The barrier between the Playa Espadilla and Manuel Antonio and part of the humid forest that makes up this region of the country.

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I believe most of the rocks and rock formations around the beaches are volcanic.

Not long after this, Heath came out of the water to rest – the boys refused to came out of the water until we basically forced them to right before the taxi arrived. Dad, Danyah, and I took a walk around the beach.

So there was this happy warning.

So there was this happy warning. Basically, it said that area was a crocodile habitat and the water had fecal contamination. FYI – this was at the back edge of Manuel Antonio Park and across an inlet.

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Some of the large volcanic rock formations on the beach.

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The inlet stream flowing into the ocean.

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Looking out onto the Pacific

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Looking towards Playa Espadilla

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One of the inlet streams coming out of the park. I had no idea whether or not I was standing in contaminated water. Nothing happened, so I guess not.

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Dad and Danyah

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Teeny tiny Hermit Crabs were everywhere.

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Looking down the beach towards the park

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Another little Hermit Crab. It’s in the center of the photo.

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Dad said this was a Sea Urchin. I wasn’t so sure. As a precaution, I didn’t pick it up.

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One final beach photo at the rocks.

While the others were packing up our belongings, I ventured back into the ocean to get the Nephews. They weren’t too thrilled about having to actually get back on dry land. We probably could’ve left them there and it would’ve taken them hours to notice.

So, back to the house to clean the beach sand off of weird places on one’s body and rinse out the swimsuits.

For our first full day in Costa Rica, it was decided that we’d go into Quepos for lunch. I don’t think we really had a plan; just find a place that looked good. We came upon a restaurant called Restaurante el Jardin del Mar (essentially “Restaurant Garden of the Sea). The food there was good and there was a lot of it. The restaurant wasn’t large, but it was open-air, and great for people-watching.

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Day 2 restaurant of choice. Like a lot of restaurants in Quepos (and, I suspect, in most cities), it was open for breakfast (desayunos), lunch (almuerzo), and dinner (cena)

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I hadn’t had one of these in years.

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Jugo de mango. Mango juice. More of a smoothie, really. It was really good.

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My lunch. Mariscada de la Casa. Basically, “Seafood Plate of the House”. It was huge. Steve ordered the same thing. We easily could’ve split one plate. There was snapper, squid, crab, shrimp, mussels, and one other fish I couldn’t identify. Other than the squid being a little overcooked, it was really delicious. The nephews had to help me finish it, though.

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Danyah’s lunch: Pescado en Salsa Limón (Fish with Lemon Sauce). By the way, French Fries are very popular.

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Younger Nephew’s lunch: Seafood Paella. I tried some of the rice; it was really  good.

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The family: clockwise from my plate: Steve’s hand, Younger Nephew, Heath, Mark, Haneen, Dad, Mom (hidden), Older Nephew, Danyah

After lunch, there was the usual debate when you’re with a large group as to what everyone was going to do next. While this was happening, Steve and Haneen went onto a nearby book and record store. About 10 minutes later, they came back and told Mom and I about a tour at a spice plantation on Wednesday. I must have given Steve a look of pure joy, because he said “I can tell by the look on your face, you’re in”. Haneen went back to the store and booked Mom, Dad, Steve, herself, and me on the tour.

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Quepos

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Quepos. Not the most picturesque or touristy town, but it’s what we wanted.

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Fruit on display in a carneceria.

After this, I, Mom, Heath, and I can’t remember who else, decided to take the taxi back to the house while everyone else stayed in town for a little longer.

Later in the afternoon, this happened. A small show was put on for us by the local family of Red Back Squirrel Monkeys. We were told that there was a good chance we would see some monkeys during our stay. The best thing to do was just watch them and stay out of their way. Don’t engage or feed them. They bite.

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It’s not the best photo, but here’s one on the roof.

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In the palm leaves.

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Mom & baby hanging out.

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The monkeys scattered after this bird started flying overhead. So, my best guess is it was a Double-toothed Kite because they tend to stalk monkey groups.

I didn’t do much the rest of the day. I swam a little in the pool, read, rested, and was generally quiet. Dinner was a fend-for-yourself event. In fact, I’m not even sure I ate dinner.

 

Day 3 – Wednesday, 7/8

Mom, Dad, Haneen, Steve, and I were outside waiting before 9am for the bus to take us to our tour to Villa Vanilla. And, we waited. at about 9:15-ish, Haneen went back inside to call the tour operator to see what was up. Turned out there was a small strike among taxi drivers that day because the government reneged on a promised salary hike. But, once our bus picked up some of the other tour attendees and made it through the traffic, they’d be by to pick us up.

Well, fine.

So, in the meantime, we entertained ourselves.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A spiny-tailed iguana that happened to be passing by.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

A Flycatcher. We watched it in action.

Bird of Paradise

Parrot’s Flower

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn't phase them at all.

There were quite a few iguanas coming out to sun themselves. The workmen nearby didn’t phase them at all.

Amarillo Peanut. I didn't pull it up, but there was very likely a legume in the ground. The plant has become more popular as a ground cover because of the flowers.

Amarillo Peanut. It’s become popular as a ground cover because of the flowers and the way the plant spreads.

Lobster Claw

Lobster Claw

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I came across these, but I couldn’t find the name of the flower. They are lovely, though.

The parents. Aren't they cute?

The parents. Aren’t they cute?

Finally, the bus arrived and we were on our way. There were about a dozen more people joining us on the tour.

The trip to Villa Vanilla took about 45 minutes.  It’s only about 16km/10 miles way from Quepos, but once you’re outside of the main town and on the way to Naranjito, the roads become a little less vehicle-friendly.

My first glimpse of Vailla Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

My first glimpse of Villa Vanilla. It was humid. Damn humid.

We arrived at the plantation and were greeted by our guide for the day, Giselle. She was wonderful. The first thing she did was take us to a small building on the property to show us how the process the cinnamon, vanilla beans, and, unexpectedly, cocoa beans and turmeric.

The cinnamon trees they grow are ones that produce Ceylon cinnamon (the kind we know more here in the US is Cassia). Ceylon cinnamon is finer in texture and sweeter than cassia cinnamon. (Giselle kept calling it “true cinnamon”.) Both are from the second layer of tree bark, but the cassia is much more dense and hard. (Here in the US, you can find Ceylon cinnamon at Mexican/Latin markets. It’s labeled “canela”.)

Cinnamon trees grow in the tropics and it takes 8 years before a tree is ready to be harvested. The outer bark is scraped off and the inner (second) layer of bark (the cinnamon) is then carefully shaved off, dried, and stored.  The remaining wood is used for firewood and/or made into charcoal that they use at the plantation.

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The gentleman (I forgot to write down his name) scraping off the outer bark of the tree. The branches underneath are white as he scrapes off the bark. However, they quickly oxidize to the gold color you see. The outer bark is composted.

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Our wonderful guide, Giselle. Her son, Roy, joined us later as we began trekking the plantation.

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Shaving off the second layer of bark – the cinnamon.

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The box of shaved cinnamon just before it’s spread out for drying.

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Mom with her piece of cinnamon. Everyone got a small piece  to eat. It was amazing to try cinnamon fresh off the tree.

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The wood ready for the fire. Everything on the farm is re-used or recycled in some manner.

After the cinnamon lecture was over, Giselle opened up the ovens for us so we could see what they were currently drying: cinnamon, cayenne peppers, and turmeric.

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The drying ovens.

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Turmeric.

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Cayenne peppers.

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The back tray is cinnamon.

The next thing she talked about was cacao. They don’t grow enough on the farm for it to be commercially viable for them except as ground cocoa. Which is too bad, because we each got a small sample of how good their chocolate can be.

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Some candies made in-house. The ingredients were cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar. The texture was slightly grainy but that didn’t take away from the flavor. It’s really too bad they don’t grow enough to sell these commercially.

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Giselle showing us what the raw beans look like. We had a chance to try raw beans later in the tour.

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The dried beans. When they are crushed, they become nibs.

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The old way of crushing cocoa beans.

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Dried beans on display.

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These beans were in the middle of the 2-week drying cycle.

After the cocoa, Giselle started talking to us about vanilla beans. We quickly learned why they are so expensive.

The vanilla vine takes 2 years to become mature enough to grow the flowers needed for pollination. Because the flowers are only open for a few hours (3-4) one time, hand-pollinating is necessary to make sure that there will be a crop. This is done by running a small, thin stick through the pollen and then fertilizing another flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, it takes 6 months for it to come to full maturity.  The immature pods are dark green; the pods are picked when there is dark yellow coloration at the tip of the pod and it begins to split slightly. At this point, the harvest is continual to be sure that the pods are picked before they over-ripen.

Once the pods are picked, the drying process takes 2 months and then the pods are aged for 1 year before they are packaged and sold.

Giselle said that the pods will last for 60 (yes – 6.0.) years if they are kept in a sealed glass jar in a dark, cook place.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

One of the ladies grading and sorting the vanilla beans.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

Piles of vanilla beans. It smelled so good in that room.

When we were done with the ripe beans, Giselle, now joined by her son, Roy, began the tour of the grounds.

Another variety of Croton

Another variety of Croton

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A little diety surrounded by flora.

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More flora: red ginger, croton, palm, ficus

Giselle showed us a cocao tree growing in the front of the property. She explained that the pods aren’t ripe until they have turned yellow.

A very tiny cocao pod.

A very tiny cocao pod.

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Some of the larger pods. These were still months away from being ripe enough to harvest.

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Bougainvillea

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Looking through the canopy

Thsi may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

This may be Quetzalcoatl for all I know.

We began our journey through the rest of the plantation. It was dense with vegetation and wildlife. And, it was absolutely fascinating and beautiful.

Butterfly's Nest

Butterfly Weed

Banana

Banana

A type of Heliconia

A type of Heliconia

Giselle stopped at the composting shed to show us what they use around the plantation. It is the usual mix of dead vegetation, some shredded wood, and sheep manure.

Giselle in the composting shed

Giselle in the composting shed

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines.

A wider view of the plantation by the shed. Those are cinnamon trees, allspice (pimento) trees, and vanilla vines with a few palm trees in for good measure.

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Torch Ginger

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Rattle Ginger. Roy told us that the hummingbirds like it because of the water that gathers in the folds. He also told us that in India the water is harvested to make perfume. We used it to wash our hands and faces. The water smelled great.

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Red Dracaena

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Vanilla vines with the immature pods.

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More vanilla pods.

I did wonder what an immature one would be like. The thought did briefly cross my mind to pick and pocket one. Then, I thought the better of it.

Fairy Queen

Fairy Queen

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Red Dracaena, Palms, Croton

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Rattle Ginger

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

A turmeric root Haneen came across.

It was at this point that I realized I had stopped listening to Giselle and became absorbed in taking photos. I honestly felt a little guilty.

But, Roy was there to help.  Plus, I think he had a little crush on my sister.

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Roy with a ripe cocoa pod. He was very sweet.

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Coconut palm

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Yes.

Here was a surprise. Allspice (Pimento) trees. Allspice is grown all over the Caribbean. We didn’t see any berries on the trees, but Giselle pulled a couple of leaves off the tree. They smelled like allspice, too. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

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Allspice (Pimento) tree.

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The leaf that smells like the spice.

Next, we stopped by a pepper vine. I always thought peppercorns grew on bushes. She pulled off a bunch so each person could try a peppercorn.

I find them to be far more spicy fresh than they are dried. I couldn’t finish mine.

Peppercorns are green when they are harvested. After harvesting, the peppercorns are boiled briefly to clean them. The heat ruptures the outer membrane and this causes the peppercorns to turn black as they dry.  White pepper comes from the outer husk being rubbed off.  Green peppercorns retain their color with the addition of sulphur dioxide during the drying process. Green peppercorns can also be pickled. Pink peppercorns are actually members of the cashew family and generally aren’t considered to be real peppercorns. (Black pepper is part of the Piperaceae family.)

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Peppercorns on the vine.

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Giselle holding the bunch she sacrificed for our amusement.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn't finish it.

The inside of the peppercorn. As much as I enjoy spicy, I honestly couldn’t finish it.

Dancing Lady orchid

Dancing Lady orchid

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they're orange, they're fully ripe. The only ones I've ever seen are green.

Starfruit in the tree. Giselle said when they’re orange, they’re fully ripe. The only ones I’ve ever seen are green.

More croton.

More croton.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

Looking through the canopy. The rain held off.

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Vanilla pods.

At the end of the tour, we were directed to a roofed, open-air seating area for a tasting. I don’t know if any of us knew about it so it was a wonderful surprise. All of the food either came from the farm or the nearby village.

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The fully ripe starfruit. I’ve never seen it this color in Texas. When I’ve seen it in the stores, it’s always been green or green/yellow.

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The ripe starfruit isn’t overly sweet. It still has a slight tartness to it and a juiciness that makes it really refreshing.

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Our view.

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More. It was certainly relaxing. I almost didn’t want to leave.

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Haneen, Dad, Mom

Next up came the biggest surprise of the tasting. Cinnamon Tea.

It was literally the cinnamon from the plantation steeped in water for 12 hours. We all thought it had sugar in it. Nope. No sugar. Giselle insisted that the type of cinnamon used makes all the difference.

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Cinnamon Tea

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Steve enjoying his tea.

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Taking it all in.

I will say right here that I am highly allergic to cinnamon. However, I really had to try this. While I didn’t have the reaction I was expecting, I did feel a little like I was on an alcohol buzz. It was a strange feeling.

Next up, Giselle broke open a ripe cacao pod for everyone to try. it’s really hard to believe that these raw white beans would’ve eventually became really good chocolate.

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The pod. The look of it was a little startling.

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To me, the white part of the bean tasted like a cross between mango and passionfruit. It had the texture of a mango, too. I could’ve honestly eaten a whole pod on my own.

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The bean after I ate off the white part.

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Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be purple inside. It tasted like a raw bean. Which, I guess it was.

Next on the menu was a wonderful vanilla bean ice cream with a spicy chocolate cookie. Again, most, if not all, the ingredients were from the plantation.

Yum.

Yum.

Then, there was vanilla bean cheesecake with a bit of unsweetened chocolate sauce on top. It was a lighter texture than I’m accustomed to; in other words, it wasn’t New York cheesecake.

More yum.

More yum.

Giselle finished off the tasting with some unsweetened hot chocolate (we had our choice between regular and spicy cocoa [they put a bit of cayenne pepper in their spicy mix]) and a cocoa nib cookie. I think the cookie was everyone’s favorite.

Giselle making the hot chocolate.

Giselle making the hot chocolate. She made it with the cocoa and water – much like the ancient way of making hot chocolate like the Aztecs and Olmecs.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone's cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

Hot chocolate. Once we all had a sip, Roy came around and added a couple of drops of vanilla extract to everyone’s cups. It made a huge difference in the taste; more than one would realize.

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Quite possibly one of the best cookies I’ve ever eaten. The cocoa nibs had a wonderful understated flavor and the cookie wasn’t overly sweet.

Once the tasting was over, we all went (of course) to the gift shop where almost everyone stocked up on spices. I bought cinnamon sticks, cocoa, turmeric, cocoa nibs, cayenne peppers, and vanilla beans. I’m mot sure what Haneen or Mom bought, but I know Mom outbought me.

Unfortunately, Villa Vanilla doesn’t have mail order. They only sell from the plantation or in a few towns nearby. They also supply some of the local restaurants.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it would be feasible for them to set up at the farmers market in Quepos. Or, if they even want to.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

Henry. The Owner. A bunch of us watched him remove a snake from the eaves of his house. I had a short chat with him; nice man.

On the drive back, Mom & I decided that this was the best part of the trip. No matter what else we did, nothing would top this.

We were the first to be dropped off when the bus arrived back in Quepos. It was still fairly early in the day, so Haneen decided to do a little cooking so everyone could have some lunch. She made some egg salad, tuna salad with apples (I was surprised at ow good it was), and my favorite, a tabouli variation, but with lentils instead of cracked wheat. There really wasn’t anything left after all 10 of us landed on the food.

I come from a family of good eaters.

Haneen's creation: Lentil Tabouli

Haneen’s creation: Lentil Tabouli

The running joke all week was how many bags of cheesy poofs we went through during the week. My count was 6.

After lunch, I cleaned up and rested for a while. That’s really all I had the energy to do in the middle of the day when the humidity was over 90%.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

Older Nephew in the pool. He was in there for about 5 hours straight.

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The other Costa Rican beer. Not bad.

Later in the afternoon, I walked into town with Dad and Danyah. She needed to get some aloe for the boys’ sunburns and we needed more groceries (we were out of cheesy poofs).

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Dad and Danyah.

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The photo doesn’t do justice as to just how steep this hill was.

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Bamboo.

Whenever we would walk into town, there was this one particular house we would always pass.  We finally nicknamed it The Chicken Lady’s House. She had no less than 20 roosters, chickens, and pullets running around at any one time. She became our landmark going and coming.

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At the Chicken Lady’s house.

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Try as I might, I couldn’t find the name of this church. It’s just the Catholic Church in Quepos.

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A bit of public art.

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Another street scene between rain showers.

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Local kids playing fútbol on the pitch.

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Mmm… I want one.

After a successful shopping trip, we headed back to the house and passed the night uneventfully.

 

Day 4 – Thursday, 7/9

Another activity day. Some were heading out for zip lining, some ATV-ing, some of us (me, Mom, Steve) were headed to do a walking tour in Manuel Antonio National Park.

A walking tour is generally in my wheelhouse.

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The view from my & Steve’s bedroom.

We were picked up by our absolutely fabulous guide, Pablo, and, after picking up a Dutch couple from their hotel, we were on our way to the park.

Manuel Antonio National Park  was founded in 1972 so the region’s biodiversity could be protected from developers who were already decimating the surrounding areas. The local people convinced the central government to set aside and protect the land so it could be protected and so everyone could enjoy its beauty. It’s names after the conquistador who was buried near the park.

It is Costa Rica’s smallest park (1700 acres), but boasts almost 300 species of animals. Because of the size of the park, only 600 visitors during the week and 800 visitors on the weekends are allowed in the park at any one time.  The popularity of the park belies its size; it’s basically the Yellowstone of Costa Rica.

Our first stop was at a tree near the park’s entrance. Pablo (who’s been doing tours of the park for 20 years) immediately spotted a frog in the tree. It took a while for the rest of us to see it.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and anjoying the water splashing on him.

The Gladiator Tree Frog. He was happy in the shade and enjoying the water splashing on him.

After this first stop, we made it into the park. Almost immediately, Pablo set up his small telescope and pointed another creature out to us.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the fame; the males are smaller and duller in color.

The Golden Orb Weaver. This is the female; the males are smaller and duller in color.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant.

In Latin, this is called a Heliconia Imbricata. Pablo called it a Rattlesnake Plant. He said the hummingbirds loved it because it holds water in its folds; the snakes love it because of the hummingbirds. Plus, it looks like a rattlesnake’s rattle.

The park was crowded with both tourists and locals either on tours, walking on their own, or just heading to the beach. All the guides pointed out sights to each other (they’re a fairly close group) so no one – guides or visitors – would miss anything.

(Some of the photos I took were through the viewfinder of Pablo’s telescope; hence, the odd framing. They still look cool, though.)

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

This looks like a Helmeted Iguana

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

Greater Fishing Bats literally hanging out.

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I think this is an immature Giant Grasshopper. The mature ones lose the striations and are green with large red wings.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the ingenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

Peach Palms. The whole tree, including the fruit, has been used and eaten by the indigenous peoples of Costa Rica for centuries.

And then, we saw them… Sloths. Two- and Three-Toes sloths are both common in the park. They are both arboreal, leaf-eaters, and are mainly nocturnal (although they can be active during the day).  However, the Three-Toes Sloth cannot support its own body weight, so it only comes down to the ground once a week to defecate in a small hole it digs with its stubby tail; it is also a good swimmer. The Two-Toed Sloth can support its weight and is known to crawl on the ground.

We were also told by Pablo, they don’t make the best moms. The baby clings to their fur, but, if it falls off, the mother generally isn’t willing to climb down from the safety of the tree to retrieve it.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best - hanging out.

Our first glimpse of a Three-Toed Sloth doing what they do best – hanging out.

We would see more sloths, but first, other flora and fauna.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

A female Yellow-Headed Gecko.

The Great Pablo

The Great Pablo

Peach Palms

Peach Palms

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Hibiscus

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A sleeping Red-Eyed Tree Frog

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Halloween Crab. Pablo called them the most important animal in the forest. They basically do all the composting.

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Mom spotted this one in the leaves – Helmeted Iguana.

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I’ve no idea what this is. It’s very likely a bud. The contrast to the green is striking.

I'm really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

I’m really proud of myself for getting this photo. Long-Billed Hermit Hummingbird

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More green.

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A closer look at the Peach Palm

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

As we got closer to the beach, we started to see more Mangrove Trees.

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Vines on the Mangrove

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Fruit from the Peach Palm. There are quite a few animals in the forest that eat the fruit.

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Just a nice little stream.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don't know what type of fungi this is, but itwas fascinating to look at; I've never seen this type before.

I happened to see this off the side of the trail. I don’t know what type of fungi this is, but it was fascinating to look at; I’ve never seen this type before.

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Mangrove trunk

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More fungi.

Another Mom discovery - the Owl Butterfly.

Another Mom discovery – the Owl Butterfly.

We finally made it to the beach. After traipsing through the humidity of the forest, the open air was welcome.

We stayed for about 30 minutes and rehydrated, rested, and took a few (more) photos.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Racoon. They aren't afraid of people.

The no-so-nocturnal Crab Eating Raccoon. They aren’t afraid of people.

We watched the raccoons search around for food in the usual places you would think (i.e. trashcans), but they weren’t shy about digging around in peoples’ belongings. And you thought only monkeys did that.

The world over, racoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

The world over, raccoons enjoy a good barrel of garbage.

Then, we looked up; along just about everyone else on the beach.

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

Mother Three-Toed Sloth with baby

She was just hanging out in the tree right above the beach. If she hadn’t’ve started moving, no one would’ve noticed her. As slow as people say sloths are, she moved around quite quickly and deftly. Also, the baby did its job and held on.

Mother & baby on their way.

Mother & baby on their way.

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Bye.

Steve & I walked around a little on the beach. But, it was very high tide at the time we were there, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on if you didn’t want to get wet. Pablo told us that the reason the tide was so high so late in the morning was because they were expecting a tropical storm later in the evening. If it happened, it didn’t make it to Quepos.

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

The beach at Manuel Antonio. Also known as beach #1

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Tree on the beach.

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Coconut and the beach. A natural combination.

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More beach. Very high tide.

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Looking out into the Pacific.

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Walking down to the less crowded end of the beach.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree.

The dreaded Manzanillo Tree. The fruit is poisonous, the sap causes blisters (you can see the sap – it’s the white stuff on the upper branch), and the smoke from burning the wood causes respiratory problems.

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Mom told us when she was growing up in Florida, she remembered people falling asleep under Manzanillo Trees and waking up with blisters from the sap.

After this, we started the walk back to the bus. As fun as the tour was, we were ready to go.

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I think this is what is popularly called Lengua de Gallina – Hen’s Tongue. It’s part of the orchid family. This looks like new growth.

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I can’t identify what all these plants are. I just know I really liked the way it looked.

More wood fungi.

More wood fungi.

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One last look at the beach. Fallen Mangroves and Palm trees.

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Last glimpse of the raccoons. Go forth and forage, you crazy kids.

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Termite nest. These are everywhere. Kinda creepy looking.

A Stream Anole lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

A Stream Anole Lizard. Pablo called it a Jesus Lizard. Not sure why.

We finally made our way out of the park. I noticed that the main gates were closed and we had to go through a sort of turnstile to the right (think the NYC subway). I figured the quota must’ve been reached and, if they were letting people in, it was on a one-on-one basis.

I decided to grab some coconut water for me, Mom, and Steve. I found a vendor who guaranteed his was cold, so, I bought some. Right in the shell. the price was right, too. 300₡ (Costa Rica Colones – about $.75)

Better than water at helping one’s thirst. Tasted better, too.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

The gentleman prepping our coconut water.

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Oh. Yeah.

On the drive back to Quepos, we asked Pablo what his favorite place is to eat in town, he suggested a soda (small mom & pop local restaurants) called Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. Mom, Steve, and I were all hungry, and Pablo hadn’t steered us wrong all day, so we took his suggestion.

It was the second best meal we had in Costa Rica.

This place was great. And cheap.

This place was great. And cheap. As locals places usually are.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

This was some damn good fried chicken.

Our proprietor. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

Our proprietor. He was curmudgeonly in a charming sort of way. I think his wife was doing all the cooking.

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My and Mom’s lunch: Arroz con Pollo. Quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure if it’s just a Costa Rican thing, but the chicken was shredded and the rice was fried with all the ingredients.

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Steve’s lunch: Arroz con Gambas. I had a bite; it was great, too.

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Watching the bus trying to turn into traffic. It was a show.

After lunch, we caught a cab back to the house and spent the afternoon talking about each others’ excursions. Finally, I cleaned up, had a nap, and was ready to stay in and just be quiet.

Mark had noticed a restaurant on the road towards Manuel Antonio – Emilio’s Cafe. He said it looked good, they had live music, and wanted to give it a try.

Sure. Why not?

But first, we had to contend with a couple of things.

To begin with, Older Nephew had a rather nasty sunburn that had kept him up the night before and had been made worse during the day. He said he’d worn sunscreen, but didn’t reapply. As Danyah put aloe on his back, it was decided that he was to stay at the house while we went out. He didn’t object.

Second – Some Capuchin Monkeys decided to give us a visit.

Well. Hello.

Well. Hello.

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Capuchins live in groups of up to 30. They are omnivorous and have been known to use tools like apes (i.e. chimpanzees) do. They forage in both the trees and on the ground.

This was about the time we decided we'd better go into the house.

This was about the time we decided we’d better go into the house.

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They then took over the patio.

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Enjoying the pool facilities.

I don’t know how long they stayed.

As we were leaving, Steve told Older Nephew that he expected three of the monkeys trained when he got back: a butler, an accordion player, and a cymbal player. Older Nephew just gave him with a “yeah. right.” look.

When we arrived at Emilio’s, we discovered there was Flamenco that night. Cool.

Emilio's. Very good. But touristy.

Emilio’s. Very good. But touristy.

It’s a nice space overlooking the ocean with a studied rustic charm.

Our view from the restaurant.

Our view from the restaurant.

The menu was billed as “Mediterranean”, but it was most definitely a fusion of Mediterranean and Costa Rican.

I wasn’t really all that hungry, so I opted for basically an appetizer for dinner. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a Passionfruit Mojito, though.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

My Passionfruit Mojito. Meh.

I was a little disappointed. The only passionfruit I could discern was the seeds. I drank it, though.

We decided to go all out on dinner; appetizers (entradas), salads (ensaladas), main courses (platos fuerte), and desserts (postres).

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Felafel salad. Not bad, although the felafel fell apart very easily.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

Ceviche. This was excellent and arguably the best part of dinner.

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Fried Calamari. Very good; the breading was a little on the heavy side, though.

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Dad’s dinner: Fish Fillet with Tahineh Sauce. I had a bite; it was better than I expected. Dad seemed to enjoy it.

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My dinner; Broiled Octopus with Boiled Potatoes. This was an appetizer and it filled me up. I thoroughly enjoyed this.  The potatoes had a really good flavor and were cooked just to the right amount of doneness; the same could be said for the Octopus.

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Heath’s dinner; Bass with Ginger-Curry Sauce. He seemed to enjoy it.

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Steve’s dinner: Tuna Three Ways. I can’t recall the three ways the tuna was done. But, looking at the photo, at least one looks like a glaze of some sort. He said it was really good but there was too much. I’m not even sure he finished.

Younger Nephew, out resident Potato Connoisseur, helped out those who couldn’t finish their potatoes. I think he ordered the same thing I did and it wasn’t quite enough for him; he’s a growing 15-year old after all.

Then, dessert. Apparently, Emilio’s is known for its desserts and is quite proud of that fact. The waiter will take you to the display case where you pick your dessert like you’d pick a lobster in a tank. Then, they bring it to you in a floursh 15 minutes later.

I had Coconut Flan (that I failed to photograph). It was good, but nothing memorable. While the coconut flavor was definitely pronounced, the texture was a bit grainy; like it had been cooked just a little too long.

Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I had was really good.

Heath’s dessert: Key Lime Pie. Not Costa Rican, but the bite I tried was really good.

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This was Haneen’s dessert: Ginger Cheesecake. I didn’t try any, but she said it was excellent.

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Our digestive: a rather marginal Limoncello.

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Clockwise from left: Mom, Mark, Heath, me, Dad, Steve, Haneen, Younger Nephew, Danyah

 

After dessert was finished, the Flamenco started. Now, I love Flamenco guitar and dancing. I find it, well, sensual. This group didn’t disappoint. They were fun to watch, and were all terrific performers. I have no idea whether they were local or a touring group. As far as I know, Flamenco isn’t native to Costa Rica. However, I’m sure with the Spanish colonization, it was introduced to the region at some point.

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From l-r: Ximena Araya, José Fernández, Álvaro Madrigal, Allan Naranjo

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Yup. Sexy.

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She was great. I also liked the fact she was dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Unfortunately, we had asked our cab to pick us up at the restaurant at 7:30. We didn’t know about the Flamenco (it started at 7) and there was no way to contact the driver. So, a few of us decided to go ahead and go back to the house (me included – I was exhausted and starting to not feel well). We had to ask the driver to come pick up the rest of our group at 8:30. He didn’t look at all pleased by this; I think he just wanted to go home.

I asked later if he got a really big tip. Mom assured me he did.

Steve was disappointed that Older Nephew hadn’t used his time wisely and trained a monkey butler.

 

Day 5 – Friday 7/10

Overall, it was a pretty quiet day for me. I did make breakfast for most of the crew because we still hadn’t touched the bacon. So, I scrambled the rest of the eggs, fried up most of the bacon (there was no way I was going to stand over the stove and cook one kilo of bacon), put out some cheese, made some toast, and heated up some tortillas. Everyone who ate breakfast seemed happy. I finally managed to get a few strips of bacon and a couple of tortillas.

Then, I went all housewife and did my & Steve’s laundry. Ana had managed to get the maids to leave the laundry room key so we could use the facilities. It was like a dungeon down there. And, since my Spanish isn’t great, I had to use process of elimination as to which container held the laundry detergent. I finally got lucky. Then, there were the machines; their settings were in Spanish, too. (Well, of course they would be.) I must’ve done all right because I didn’t ruin any of our clothes.

About mid-morning, I walked down to Quepos with Dad. He wanted to check out the marina take a look around town.

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We passed this little guy enjoying the hibiscus flowers.

We decided to walk down to the sea wall and towards the marina. The weekly farmers market takes place on the wall, and I wanted to be sure I knew where it was.

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I’m guessing this is some sort of branding. Can’t seem to get away from Texas.

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Quepos

The next few photos are some of the bench art by the wall. I think there were about a dozen in all.

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When we got to the wall, the breeze was a blessing. It was a hot, humid day with almost no breeze in the canopy.

The Sanjuan

Sanjuan

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Looking towards the Pacific and marina at the sea wall.

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The Fisherman

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Walking down the sea wall.

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I don’t know whether these guys were joy riding or fishermen coming in or going out.

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I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to represent – my guess is a vegetable seller – but he just looked so sad with those weepy eyes.

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Coconut Palm

We finally made it down to the marina. The marina was opened in 2010 as a way to rebuild the old pier built by the United Fruit Company and as a way to bring in new business and jobs to the town. It has some upper-end restaurants and shopping on the grounds, but the real viewing was all of the fishing boats and yachts the 1% keep at the slips.

I felt like I was spending money just standing there. The marina did look a little incongruous given the surroundings.

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The marina.

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Some of the larger boats.

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A couple of the 1%-er boats.

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Morning Glory.

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Firecrackers

After exploring the marina, Dad and I decided to get some lunch. We went back to Soda y Pollo Frito Junior. I couldn’t resist.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could've eaten this everyday from this same soda.

Arroz y Pollo. I probably could’ve eaten this everyday from the same soda.

After lunch, I did a little gift/souvenir shopping while Dad talked to the tour operator next door about something. After this, we headed back to the house and settled in for the afternoon.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

The afternoon rain on the pool.

That night, Steve & I decided to have a date night. We simply wanted to have a little time alone. Pablo told us of a place he liked called La Cantina on the Manuel Antonio road. He said they had great barbecue, especially their ribs.

Since it was on the Manuel Antonio road, I was skeptical of how good the food could really be. The restaurants on the road are generally catering to tourists rather than locals and the food can be rather dumbed down.

The first thing I noticed when our taxi dropped us off was the cold case carousel of entrees by the front entrance – for me, never a good sign. The second thing was the very heavy look to the place. As with all of the restaurants we’d been in so far, this one was open-air, but the very heavy wood furniture and fixtures still made the place seem somewhat claustrophobic.

La Cantina.

La Cantina.

To mitigate this feeling, I went all ’70’s and ordered a Piña Colada. I felt it matched the decor.

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My Piña Colada. Despite appearances (I had to keep stirring it), it was quite good.

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Steve’s drink: Peachy Mango.

After the waiter took our order (we didn’t get any barbecue), we saw Squirrel Monkeys frolicking in the trees. They were a big favorite for all of the tourists in the restaurant. Any locals and the staff were unimpressed. I guess they see this every day.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

Out of all the photos I took of the monkeys, this was the only one that came out.

After the monkey show, dinner arrived.

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My dinner: Cazuela de Mariscos al Curry (Curry Seafood Stew). This was good, but nothing memorable. I seem to recall enjoying the curry sauce with the rice more than the seafood itself.

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Steve’s dinner: Pargo Crujiente (Crispy Red Snapper). He really enjoyed his meal. I told him to be sure to get any meat in the head. As you can see, this was a large fish; he managed to finish it.

After dinner, we decided to go downstairs and see some music and get some dessert. The combo was a trio of local guys who sang old standards and Spanish cover versions of American pop songs. They weren’t great, but one had to give them an “E” for effort.

The trio. They really tried.

The trio. They really tried.

The staff seemed to be either overwhelmed or disorganized – it was hard to tell. The restaurant wasn’t that busy since it was still relatively early. Since our cab was picking us up at 8:30, and they seemed to be dragging their feet on getting Steve’s dessert and coffee, I had to do one of the things I know servers hate – ask them to speed it up because we had to leave. (I didn’t say exactly that, but you get my meaning.)

I decided against dessert; Steve had tres Leches Cake and coffee.

I decided against dessert; Steve had Tres Leches Cake and coffee.

Steve finished, we paid, and we went to meet our taxi.

The meat counter.

The meat counter. The cooked meat next to the raw – ugh. I know it goes back on the grill, but, ugh. I’m sure it happens in restaurants more than I know.

The kitchen.

The kitchen.

When we got back to the house, everyone else was there having a pizza party. I guess they enjoyed it because there was only one slice of cheese pizza left.

As I was falling asleep, I could hear the Howler Monkeys.

 

Day 6 – Saturday, 7/11

Honestly, this was the day I’d been looking forward to all week: Farmers Fair (Ferias del Agricultor). The ferias is set up on Friday night and is up and running full blast by Saturday morning. We went early to beat the heat and crowds.

When I mentioned this to Mom before we left on the trip, I asked her if she wanted to go. Her affirmative response was immediate. Steve decided to tag along, too.

It was another humid morning – as one would expect from the tropics – but once we were down at the sea wall, the breezes really helped to mitigate the oppressiveness.

It was a wonderful market. There were vendors who sold shoes and underwear, some who sold souvenirs, but most sold fresh produce.

For the more wide-angle shots, I didn’t really find it necessary to ask the vendors if I could take photos. I’m sure they either didn’t notice or they’re used to it.  However, if I was going to buy from and photograph a stand specifically, I would ask the vendor, “¿Peudo tomar su photo?” – May I take your photo? They were all very nice about it and said “sí”. It’s just a courtesy thing.

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Souvenir stand. I should’ve waited to buy the gifts.

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Looked like some really cute, if formulaic, stuff.

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Tomatoes and potatoes are indigenous to Central America. Carrots come along probably in the 18th or 19th century.

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Coconuts and what looked like Mamones Chinos (limes that have a hard shell and soft fruit. They are related to the lychee)

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More vendor stands

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At all of the stands, the produce was so beautiful.

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These look like Fuji Apples, but I can’t be 100% sure.

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Pineapples. Of course.

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Mangoes

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We bought a beautiful piece of tuna and some shrimp.

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I was excited to find Otaheiti Apples.

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Mandarin Limes.

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Another beautiful stand

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Bananas

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I think these are the fruit of the Peach Palm. I was also surprised by the number of vendors selling lychees.

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Shoes and undies

Steve went looking for breakfast for he & I while Mom & I were shopping. He came across a gentlemen selling tamales. Tamales for breakfast? Yes, please.

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There were 2 tamales per package. They were huge. And still very hot from the steamer.

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I’d never had tamales like this before. They certainly had the usual masa base, but these also contained rice plus chunks of vegetables and pork. They were also very soft, unlike Mexican-style tamales.

Those tamales were damn delicious. And, I couldn’t finish the second one. I tried to get Mom to try some, but she said she’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry.

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Our view while we ate breakfast.

We left shortly after this. It was time to get moving and the tweakers nearby were starting to concern us a little.

Steve decided to stay in town and look around while Mom and I took our purchases back to the house. On the way, I ducked into a carnecería and bought a half kilo of chicharron. They were still warm from the fryer.

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The maids pointed out this little guy to us when we got home. I have no idea how he didn’t just slide down off the glass. He was there most of the day just sleeping and sunning.

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My bag of goodness.

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Now, People, THAT is a chicharron.

I spent most of the afternoon finishing my & Steve’s laundry, reading, packing, and just generally being quiet. I was then distracted by a line of Army Ants moving up one of the walls towards a window carrying a piece of chicharron. I regret now not getting a picture.

Then, Mom called me outside and showed me this.

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Toucan Sam

I was lucky I got the photo I did. He flew off almost as soon as I snapped the shutter.

About 4pm, I got started on dinner. We bought potatoes, chayote, tomatoes, avocados, Mandarin limes, pineapple, mangoes, onions, Otaheiti Apples, tuna, and prawns. Along with all of these things, I decided to clean out the fridge as much as possible since we were leaving the next morning and had to either throw away anything left or simply leave it behind.

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Scallions, onion, chayote, potatoes

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Tomato-Avocado Salad

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Some beautiful large prawns.

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Mangos & pineapple; otaheiti & green apples; tomato-avocado salad; sliced tomatoes

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A lovely loin of tuna. I’m not sure what variety. Most likely, it was yellowfin.

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Cooking the potatoes. These took so long to cook, I was despairing about 90 minutes later.

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The chayote, on the other hand, cooked up rather quickly and was better than I remembered. Even one of my brothers-in-law, who hates squash, tried it.

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Cutting down the loin. The knives I used were pretty dull, so the cuts weren’t as even as I like. I just pan-seared the tuna until it was a medium-well. I figured that was the best way to go since not everyone likes rare or medium-rare tuna.

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Mandarin Limes. These are great. They have a slightly sweeter taste than Persian Limes (what we usually see).

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Dinner finished – finally. I made a sort-of Buerre Blanc with what was left of the butter, onions, and limes. I also sliced the rest of the cheese and put it out. The boys kept nibbling at everything before I finished cooking.

Everyone seemed to enjoy dinner. I was happy because there were almost no leftovers and I didn’t have to do dishes.

Then, came dessert. Heath had gone to a bakery in Quepos earlier in the day and picked up a lovely chocolate cake (it had the texture of a Tres Leches) for Older Nephew.

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Older Nephew with his congratulations cake.

Not long after I, and most everyone else went to bed, I received this photo via text from Steve:

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Yikes.

It turned out he and the boys were sitting around talking and Older Nephew noticed this on the couch. Steve tried to dispatch it, but he only succeeded in making it scurry back under the couch. Steve speculated that it had a nest either under or in the cushion; or, since we had the doors and windows open almost all the time, it could’ve crawled in who knows when.

They took all the cushions off the couch (except for the seat) and placed signs in English and Spanish basically saying “Don’t sit here. Scorpion in the cushion.” If that thing was living in the cushions, we were all really lucky it didn’t come out and sting anyone. Scorpion stings aren’t really too harmful to anyone who’s healthy, but they feel like a red-hot needle poking into you.

 

Day 7 – Sunday, 7/12

Not too much to tell about Sunday. It was travel back home day for us.

I went over to Haneen & Mark’s balcony outside their room and took a few final photos.

 

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo of a Flycatcher.

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Looking into the canopy.

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One final photo.

Estilio arrived just before 9 to pick us up to take us to the airport. Our flight was at 2pm, and with the drive and check-in, we needed all the time we could reasonably get.

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The American check-in line. Sigh.

Because Mom & Dad have some sort of priority status on American, they were able to check themselves and Danyah’s crew (Dad had booked all their tickets) in the first class ticketing line. The rest of us had to schlub through the economy class line.

Just as we were about to be at the head of the line, however, a customer service rep took us out of the line and checked us in at one of the kiosks. Problem solved.

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Paying the exit tax.

That’s all. Just two more flights, complete chaos at immigration in Miami, and a flight delay, we all finally made it back home.

 

I’ll definitely go back. Costa Rica was so much more fun and beautiful than I imagined. Those coupled with the great food and lovely people, plus hanging with my family for a week, made it a wonderful and memorable trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bend with The Nephew 4

Posted on June 30, 2015 by Sahar

To begin with, the Big Bend Region of Texas and New York City are two places I’ll use just about any excuse whatsoever to visit. In both places, I’ll think “I want to live here”,  “How can I convince Husband Steve to agree to move here”, and “Damn. The food is great”.  Then, I come home, get off the vacation high, and come to the realization that both of these places are escapes for me; if I lived there, I would look to escape them as well.

Of the two, of course, the escape to Big Bend is much more easily attained. For you first-timers, to go from Austin to Alpine (our first & third nights’ destination) is a roughly 400-mile jaunt via US290 to IH10 to US67 to TX118.  To get to Terlingua/Study Butte (our second night’s stay), an 83-mile drive, just take TX118 south. Well, you can take TX118 as a direct route to Terlingua/Study Butte, but we took the long way through Marathon and drove through, and explored, Big Bend National Park.

Or, as I heard someone say once, “Drive 6 hours west, turn left and drive another hour and a half south”.

By the way, for the uninitiated, Marathon is pronounced “Marath’n” and Study “Stoody”. You don’t want to sound like a rube or anything like that.

 

The reason Husband Steve & I decided on this trip was to have, quite possibly, the last summer with our Older Nephew.  He graduated from high school this year and is starting college in the fall.  Husband & I were trying to decide on a graduation gift and landed on a trip to Big Bend. When we told Nephew, he seemed as pleased as his 17-year-old self would let him get. In fact, he almost smiled.

Nephew has been to the Big Bend region before  – Marfa and Ft. Davis. He’s been to the lights, stayed at El Paisano, and explored the fort. He’s just not been to the park. Well, now, here was his chance. Honestly, I think the promised trip to Mexico sealed the deal.

 

Day 1 – Thursday, June 11.

The trip started off rather inauspiciously.

I asked Nephew when I picked him up at the airport on Wednesday if he remembered his passport so he could go to Mexico. He said he remembered the extra paperwork his mother (my sister) gave him – a letter stating Steve & I were in charge of him and her passport information – but failed to bring his passport. His quote was “Everything I told myself to remember, I forgot” (this included a book of Big Bend trails and a map I loaned him). One unplanned phone call to his no doubt exasperated mom secured an overnight delivery of Nephew’s passport.

The passport arrived before 10am on Thursday. Victory.

However, as things go with Steve & I, even though we planned on being on the road by 10, it didn’t happen until 11. We basically needed the extra time to load the SUV I rented.

The behemoth we rented. It was like driving a bus.

The behemoth we rented. It was like driving a bus.

With a quick stop in Fredericksburg for gas, restrooms, and snacks, we were really, finally, on our way.

Nephew

Nephew. For someone, like his aunt, who loathes having his picture taken, we got quite a few photos. Though not always willingly on his part.

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You tend to forget about those promises you made to yourself when you travel.

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Nice to see the Llano River with water.

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Husband Steve. Who did all of the driving out to Alpine. Whatta guy.

As we drove along IH10, I saw the opening where I could finally feel like I could breathe a little:

Whew.

Whew.

Starting to see mountains

Starting to see mountains

Fluffy clouds with a little sun

Fluffy clouds with a little sun.

 

Rain to the south.

Rain to the south.

Clear to the north

Clear to the north

I think I saw this when we stopped for gas near Ft. Stockton. Nephew really started to get excited - in his own way - at this point.

I think I saw this when we stopped for gas near Ft. Stockton. I’m not sure if this was for the state or national park. No matter; Nephew really started to get excited – in his own way – at this point.

We did run into some rain going into Alpine. It seems as if the rain has taken up permanent residence in Texas this year.

We finally made it to Alpine. It was a joyous time. And not only because we’d been driving for 7 hours.

We stayed for nights one and three at the Antelope Lodge. We’ve stayed at this old motor court before and rather enjoyed its rustic, slightly quirky charm. Plus, it’s cheap.

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The blooming prickly pear at Antelope Lodge.

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The blooms on whatever tree this is smelled heavenly. Remember, I’d been stuck in a car with two men for almost 7 hours. It was most certainly welcome.

Our home for nights #1 & #3: Antelope Lodge, rooms 11 & 12.

Our home for nights #1 & #3: Antelope Lodge, rooms 11 & 12. I was digging the way they had a 2×4 holding up the crossbeam.

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Prickly Pear fruit – meh. Prickly Pear flowers – always beautiful.

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Antelope’s courtyard.

 

Before we left Austin, Steve made reservations at Reata in Alpine for our one “fancy” meal while we were in this part of the country. For whatever strange reason I made up in my head, I’ve avoided eating there whenever we’ve been in Alpine. I have this thing against steak houses, I guess.

Even after this meal, I still have a thing against steakhouses. Just not this steakhouse. Or, rather, a Texas Cowboy Cuisine establishment.

I guess I was skeptical about the food overall. I tend to avoid “buzz” restaurants, and this one still has a bit of a legend buzz around it even after having been open for 20 years. I don’t consider myself overly picky or a “foodie”, but I just always had a mental block.

I suppose ANY restaurant being open for 20 years deserves some buzz. I mean, the restaurant business is a cruel one.

I was happy to be proven wrong. Our food was plentiful – as one would expect – but was also very enjoyable.  The decor was a simple, pared-down, but slightly upscale rustic. (I happened to notice bottles of Silver Creek wine in the alcove above us. I couldn’t quite see what vintage they were; but considering the cheapest bottle is $70 retail, this place is no hole-in-the-wall.) Our server, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, was a young man studying at Sul Ross. He was a wonderful server. Attentive without hovering. That counts for a lot.

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I included the highway marker just to prove I was there.

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Nephew’s & Steve’s choice: Chile Relleno with Crab-Stuffed Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos.

I’m guessing it was good, because they both finished their plates. I believe the Chile Relleno one of Reata’s signature dishes.

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My dinner: Chicken Fried Steak.

My dinner was excellent. There wasn’t more breading than meat, the gravy wasn’t pasty, everything was well seasoned, and the green beans weren’t overcooked.

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These Jalapeño-Cheese Grits.  That’s a dinner plate, by the way.

So… When I see grits on a dinner menu, I’m generally compelled to try them. The grits were really good. Plenty of cheese and spice. The one drawback – too salty. If the kitchen backed down a little on the salt, these would’ve been excellent. There was a lot so the guys helped me eat them.

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Part of the studied upscale rustic charm. A saddle in front of a window facing onto a mural of cattle on the range.

Would I go back? Sure. It’s definitely on the list.

Alpine at night.

A little of Alpine at night.

 

We did a quick walk around Alpine just to work off some of dinner. Nephew told us he’d been through Alpine before but ever really got to see the town. Because it was already dark when we left the restaurant, he didn’t see too much, but we did walk up and down Holland and some of the side streets before deciding to call it a night. We wanted to get an early start on Friday.

Day one at the Park. And the trip into Mexico.

 

Day 2 – June 12, Friday

The day started early. 6am. Steve wanted to be on the road to the park by 7. We somehow managed to accomplish this.

While he was getting ready and loading the behemoth again, I went to get Nephew. I opened the door and saw him doing push-ups on the patio. I had to give him credit for already being far more active than I care to be that time of the morning.

And, so, off we went.

 

Good Morning, Alpine.

Good Morning, Alpine.

Steve & I remembered a coffee shop we rather liked the last time we stayed in Marathon.  Since it was only about 30 miles, we decided to hold off on breakfast until then.

Marathon (or Nancy’s) Coffee Shop is right there on US90 in Marathon as you’re on your way to the park.

Again, as I’ve discovered for Big Bend, the food is plentiful, very good, and reasonable. The strong coffee is a plus.

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Good Morning, Marathon.

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Nephew’s Breakfast: Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit. This ain’t McDonald’s.

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Husband’s Breakfast: Migas. His personal favorite.

I forgot to take a picture of my breakfast because I was so focused on getting the guys’ breakfasts before they started eating. I had Pancakes with Bacon. I needed the carb and protein loading.

After a (perhaps too) leisurely breakfast and a discussion of what we were going to do that day, we finally hit the road to the park.

One of these visits I’m going to get a picture of those turkey buzzards sunning themselves.

After about an hour and a half, we finally made it to the second stop of the day, Panther Junction. Since the Persimmon Gap checkpoint was closed, we had to buy our permit there. It’s also a convenient excuse to get out of the car, stretch, and buy stuff.  I like it, too, because it is actually very well landscaped, and the restrooms are reasonably clean.

Panther Junction

Panther Junction

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Panther Junction.

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Panther Junction.

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Panther Junction

After we finished at Panther Junction, we headed back on the main park road towards Boquillas Canyon.

Boquillas Canyon is rated a “moderate” trail. It’s not very long, but it is steep. And, on a hot day for a barely in-shape middle-aged woman like me, it was, shall we say, more on the moderate-to-difficult scale. I definitely had my moments. I used my breathlessness and knees as excuses to constantly stop and take photographs while Steve & Nephew trotted way ahead of me.

Boquillas

Boquillas

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About halfway up the trail and looking into Mexico.

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At the top for breath stop #2 and looking into the canyon.

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Turning around to see the Rio Grande and the US side.

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Steve & Nephew on the trail to the canyon. They grew impatient with me and wandered on. Can’t say I blamed them, really.

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Grinding holes of the indigenous people. Seeds, roots, and likely bone were ground in these holes as an ancient mortar-and-pestle.

Slightly differernt view of Boquillas Canyon.

Slightly different view of Boquillas Canyon. A little more green.

Still slowly going down the trail.

Still slowly going down the trail.

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You have to really work hard to take a bad photo here.

Once one leaves the trail and gets down to the canyon and the River, the shade is such a welcome relief and reward for hiking the trail at mid-morning.

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Steve and Nephew contemplating their next moves.

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Nephew’s next move? Crossing the river. It was a subversive thing for him.

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I was oddly proud.

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In my wanderings while the guys were doing their own thing, I managed to capture this dragonfly. It’s almost like it wanted me to take its picture.

We ended up staying in the canyon, by my estimation, for well over an hour. Nephew, Steve, and I all had our different reasons. Mine? It was out of the sun. If you’ve ever been to Big Bend, or even just in a higher elevation, you know the sun can be brutal. Especially in a west Texas summer.  Any shade is welcome. Plus, it was just so peaceful, even after another family arrived.

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A place like this makes you realize how artificial borders are. US on the left, Mexico on the right, the Rio Grande as the barrier between two countries.

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I wonder how many hundreds, or even thousands, of years it’s taken these silt layers to build up. Just a little more time and pressure, it’d all be shale.

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Looking back at the trail we knew we’d eventually have to climb again.

Here was their reason for staying in the canyon: rock throwing contest.

The menfolk throwing rocks into the river

The menfolk throwing rocks into the river trying to hit pieces of driftwood

This fascinated me. Not sure why.

This fascinated me. Not sure why.

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Looking up

With no small amount of resignation, we decided it was time to go.

With no small amount of resignation, we decided it was time to go.

Now, for the highlight of Friday’s part of the trip – going to Boquillas del Carmen.

I can still remember when there was a time where one could go freely between Texas and Mexico without worrying about needing a passport. Your driver’s license would do fine when you wanted to cross back. I myself did this numerous times – mostly for the super cheap Margaritas, booze, and tchotchkes. Plus, it was fun to go down with a bunch of friends for a road trip.

However, as we are all painfully aware, this all changed after 2001.  Now, to simply cross the river and travel essentially one mile into Mexico, you must to have a passport. The days of cheap anything are gone, too.

Steve & I went across the river about 2 months after the crossing opened in 2013. Then, the recovery had just started and it was still almost ghost-town like. We had heard that there had been some great progress in Boquillas del Carmen since then, so we were anxious to see what had happened.

Now, Nephew’s major in college is going to be Spanish. He’s already pretty fluent so we pressed him into service as our interpreter.  I don’t think he really enjoyed it – especially when we called him out for claiming that he really didn’t know any. We told him it would be a good thing if at least one of us (my Spanish is mediocre at best, Steve’s is pretty much non-existent) could speak to the locals in their native tongue rather than make them try to understand us.

It’s called cultural respect.

Boquillas Crossing

Boquillas Crossing

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Welcoming one and all to Boquillas. Providing you have the right documents.

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Heading to the River.

The Rio Grande. Rio Grande del Norte. Rio Bravo.

The Rio Grande. Rio Grande del Norte.

The river wasn’t as high as it was in 2013. I was fine with that. I remember the last time, the river was so high and fast, I honestly thought we’d capsize.

The method and means of crossing was the same as before. A canoe came over to take us across while Victor the Singing Man serenaded us.

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Our captain. I didn’t get his name. This was his job. Rowing Gringos back and forth across the river all day. Be sure to tip your captain.

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Looking down the river from the canoe.

We told Nephew that there are 4 ways of getting to town – walking, truck, horse, donkey. He said he wanted a horse because he had an image to maintain.

O… K…

Well. Guess what. No horses that day. Just donkeys. Or, in keeping with the spirit of things – burros.  Since it’s hard for me to climb on a horse, I was fine with a burro since that was what I was going to request anyway.

After paying Victor for the river crossing and tipping him for his singing (be sure to bring lots of small bills), Jesus was assigned to us as our guide for our visit. Sweet man.

So, after helping the gringa & gringos up on the burros, we were off.

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The back of my burro’s head. I didn’t get its name. It followed directions well, though.

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Steve.

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Nephew. Looking happy despite having his image blown.

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Steve on his noble steed. Like the horse he rode the last time, it didn’t like following directions.

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The road to Boquillas.

At the hitching post

At the hitching post

Once we got into town, we had to go through the ritual of the Mexican passport office (which was crowded) and then sought out lunch. We decided on Jose Falcon’s. When Steve & I went to Boquillas in 2013, we ate lunch at Boquillas Restaurant.

If I had to compare between the two, I’d’ve chosen to go back to Boquillas Restaurant. This isn’t to say that the food Jose Falcon’s wasn’t good (and, yes; I know the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex), it just felt very touristy and a little dumbed-down to me. But, with a touristy town, I guess that’s to be expected. They even have a souvenir shop attached. I didn’t patronize it.

So, after settling in and buying a Jesus a Coca (he didn’t want anything to eat), we ordered lunch.

Jose Falcon's.

Jose Falcon’s.

Steve's drink of choice - the Michelada

Steve’s drink of choice – the Michelada

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I was grateful to get this.

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Nephew and his Coca.

The chips & salsa course

The chips & salsa course. I found the salsa a little bland, but the pickled jalapenos and guacamole were outstanding. Steve ate most of the guacamole in about 5 minutes.

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Mine & Steve’s lunch: Red Cheese Enchiladas. They were very good, but nothing unforgettable.

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Nephew’s lunch: Quesadilla. He actually did get more than one on the plate. I was slow with the camera.

After a lazy lunch, Jesus took us on a tour of the town. There were definitely more buildings than the last time. The town has also been electrified since March of this year. It was an international effort that is beginning to take the town out of the past and bring it into the present. Hopefully, there will be more improvements that will make the Boquillas’ residents lives better and not just give tourists another place to exploit.

As we walked around, we noticed electrical wiring, satellite dishes, more construction (including a new primary school), and a generally more optimistic atmosphere. Of course, the tourist-based economy is back in full swing. Steve bought me a small bag with a cut-out burro design from Jesus’ grandfather and I bought a little bead Ocotillo from a little boy who came up to us. The children are, admittedly, almost impossible to resist.

The main street in Boquillas

Boquillas main street. A few more buildings.

The legendary Park Bar. They painted it again. Last time I was here, it was blue.

The legendary Park Bar. They painted it again. Last time I was here, it was blue. Since we had Nephew, we didn’t go in. Next time.

Admittedly, I'm into what is now called "ruin porn". There's generally a dignity in these old buildings. I'm sure that they'll be repaired and repurposed at some point.

Admittedly, I’m into what is now called “ruin porn”. There’s generally a dignity in these old buildings. I’m sure that they’ll be repaired and repurposed at some point. Plus, I like taking pictures of doorways.

This one has at least been repainted.

This one has at least been repainted.

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I know this is a tough existence, but imagine waking up to that view every day. Perhaps I’m being a entitled romantic.

The church has been rebuilt. Something the town is very proud of, and rightly so.

The church has been rebuilt. Something the town is very proud of, and rightly so.

Steve left some money in the collection box.

Steve left some money in the collection box.

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I’m not very religious, but I believe sacred spaces are just that, sacred.

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I can’t really describe this, except that I love it. Another abandoned building that will either be repurposed or recycled.

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More homes. I didn’t get any photos, but some of the homes had bright blue satellite dishes. Creeping technology.

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The solar panels Boquillas is so rightly proud of. My first thought was, why can’t the US do this on a larger scale?

After taking care of our exit paperwork back at the passport office, it was time for us to cross back to America.

We’ll be back and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Boquillas.

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So, yeah. Steve snuck this one of me & Nephew. So, now I can really prove I was there. I also had one hell of a sunburn at this point.

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On the way back to the river.

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Nephew basically asking “why are you taking my picture? Again.” Me: “I’m trying to make memories, Dude.”

Steve with Jesus back at the corral.

Steve with Jesus back at the corral.

We landed back in Big Bend, went through passport control (a strange experience in and of itself), and decided to head to the Basin.

I think this is a Century Plant. I've never seen one quite so high.

Harvard Agave. I’ve never seen one quite so high. At least not one that was alive.

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There’s that 50% chance of rain we read about.

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West Texas version of Jack’s Beanstalk.

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One of the things I love the most about Big Bend. The emptiness and occasional isolation. The beauty is a plus, too.

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Heading to the Basin

Because we were gluttons for punishment that day, we thought we’d try the Basin Loop Trail. It’s less than 2 miles round trip and not too difficult. At least, it wouldn’t be if you hadn’t had all your strength sapped by the afternoon sun.

Starting the Basin Trail

Starting the Basin Loop Trail

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Casa Grande

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Looking into the Basin.

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Once again, the men left me to my own devices.

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I like to get a bit of sun rays or even a slight glare in the photographs. Makes things more dramatic.

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Scenery like this makes me forget the tired, the bugs, and the sunburn.

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It was so green. For Big Bend.

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The Window. The first time I came to the park, a ranger told me this was one of the most popular spots. Every time I see it, it still strikes me with a certain amount of awe.

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Indulge me. I was playing with a camera app on my phone and filtered the photograph.

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Ditto.

It was about this time that we all three decided to turn back. We could hear thunder, the sun was beginning to get low, and we were being eaten alive by bugs. At least I was. Steve & Nephew seemed immune to them. Plus, we were really tired, filthy, and hungry.

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Plants growing out of seemingly solid rock always amaze me. It’s the simple things, ya know?

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Casa Grande and the incoming rain.

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Nolina.

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Ward Mountain.

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it seemed like there were literal forests of Sotol all over the park this time.

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Goldeneyes.

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Sotol at the Window.

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Looking towards Casa Grande through a seeming forest of Sotol.

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With the wide-angle lens.

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I think this is Toll Mountain.

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One last photograph of the Basin.

I could swear as we walked past one patch of rocks and underbrush, I distinctly heard a rattle. I may have been mistaken as to the source of the rattle, but I thought it best to move on. As I got further away, it stopped. If it was a rattlesnake, it did its job well.

For night #2, we decided to stay in Terlingua/Study Butte. The logic was this – after driving for 7 hours, we didn’t want to go any further than Alpine the first night. For the second night, we didn’t want to drive back to Alpine after spending all day at the southern end of the park.

So, Chisos Mining Company Motel it was.

After unpacking, resting a little, and scraping off the day, we headed to the Terlingua Trading Company for a little shopping (t-shirts, always t-shirts) and to the Starlight Theater for dinner.

When we got to the theater for dinner, we were told it would be an unknown amount of time before they had a table ready for us. So, while Steve & Nephew waited, I wandered.

Every time I see the Ghost Town there’s a little less of it, it seems. Weather, age, and, no doubt, human intervention keep the town in constant flux. Perhaps if I had on proper footwear and wasn’t so afraid of critters or cactus as it was getting slowly darker, I would’ve delved deeper into the brush and found more evidence of the dwellings. As it was, I stayed on the outskirts for the most part.

I don't know if the rusted machinery or impliments were simply left after the mine closed or have been artfully placed by the locals, but they are interesting artifacts to Terlingua's past.

I don’t know if the rusted machinery or implements were simply left after the mine closed or have been artfully placed by the locals, but they are interesting artifacts to Terlingua’s past.

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Poking around the Ghost Town.

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Ocotillo and a what I think is a cultivator.

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Ghost Town. Looks like what would’ve been one of the larger homes.

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Looking down into the brush I didn’t dare wander into in sandals.

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I have to honestly say, I’ve never seen the Big Bend region so green.

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Another doorway picture.

I ran out of the brush positive I saw a tarantula. (Although, now, I think it was just a figment of my imagination.)

I spied Steve and Nephew still waiting for the table, so I took a few more photos of the rusted equipment.

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I’m guessing this is a grader of some sort.

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Gears.

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Thos Ocotillo just looked like a huge spider coming out of this mass of Candelilla.

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Candelilla.

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A Ford V8 that’s been sitting outside the theater for as long as I can remember.

I decided I’d better join the men. Just as I looked up, Steve was waving for me to come in. Perfect timing.

I like the Starlight Theater. It has a nice atmosphere, cold beer, and good food. Nothing spectacular, just solid, good food. Perfect after a day of tromping around the park. Sometimes, of you’re lucky, there will even be a show going on.

A slightly more artsy view of the Starlight Theater's facade.

A slightly more artsy view of the Starlight Theater’s facade.

Nephew, even though he’s a growing 17-year-old, put Steve and me to shame with his restraint when it came to eating. During the entire trip, he ate (mostly) reasonably and knew when to stop. Me and Steve? Let’s just say we like to eat. The two of us are just barely in shape (we do gym it), middle-aged, and sometimes let our appetites get the better of us. My own rationalization of the eating thing is that I’m a professional and I really need to do all the research I can. Steve goes along for support.

Very gentlemanly of him.

My Dinner: Chicken Fried Wild Boar with beer-based gravy.

My Dinner: Chicken Fried Wild Boar with beer-based gravy.

I’ve had this dish before. It’s very good. Not too much breading in comparison to the meat, excellent mashed potatoes, and the vegetables weren’t overcooked.  If memory serves, the last time I had this, it was closer to a cream gravy on top. This time, the gravy was a beer base using a beer from Big Bend Brewery. I’m not sure which one it was and I forgot to ask. But, it was just a little too much. I don’t know if this is the recipe or the cook got a little too liberal with the beer, but it was almost too strong a taste. And I like beer. I ate all of my meal because I was really hungry, but I had to mitigate the beer flavor with the potatoes and bread a lot more than I would’ve liked.

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Nephew’s very reasonable dinner choice: Turkey Club.

I managed to catch this before Nephew drowned his fried in ketchup. He asked for no mayonnaise, so I think he was brought a dry sandwich. It may have had some mustard, but I don’t remember. He said, except for the dryness, it was very good.

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Steve’s dinner: Filet Mignon with salad (not pictured)

Personally, I have no use for Filet Mignon. There’s a reason it’s usually wrapped in bacon. Because it doesn’t have any flavor. It’s expensive because there’s only 2 tenderloins on any given animal. But, Steve was happy, so who am I to judge. He said it was cooked just the way he liked it and he ate everything on the plate.

Just as we were tucking into dinner, the entertainment started. We literally had a front row seat.  The singer was someone who works in the kitchen at the theater who I guess they let sing for a little extra cash. He was pretty good at improvising and came up with a verse talking about Nephew’s awesome hat and the fact that he was a gentleman and took it off when he was inside.  Steve tipped him. The singer, I mean.

The rest of the trip, Nephew referred to his hat as “My Awesome Hat”.

Our entertinament for the evening.

Our entertainment for the evening.

After dinner, I asked Steve to stop at the Cemetery so we could take a look. I like to poke around cemeteries (just for historical curiosity, mind you) and Nephew had never been there, so we stopped.

There’s just something about being in a cemetery at night that helps take on a different feel and significance.

This particular cemetery is a little more haunting to me than most because of the sheer number of unknowns and young ones that are buried here. Some of the newer graves, though, helped to mitigate the feeling, though. They simply looked like some real parties going on.

Terlingua Sunset over the Cemetery

Terlingua Sunset over the Cemetery

One of the unknowns

One of the unknowns. At least to most.

One of the younger ones.

One of the younger ones. At least we know her name.

Par-Tay!

Par-Tay!

Some solid construction and loving tributes here.

Some solid construction and loving tributes here.

More graves of no doubt the mine workers.

More graves of no doubt the mine workers.

Silhouettes

Silhouettes

Leaving some coins in the alcove.

Leaving some coins in the alcove.

Once it became too dark to see well, we headed back to the hotel.

Nephew was a couple of buildings away from us. I wasn’t too happy about that. After some eye-rolling as I lectured him about locking up, etc., we dropped him off and said good night. And be ready to go at 7am.

Them to our room.

For what it is, The Chisos Mining Co. Hotel is pretty good. The rooms are pretty bare-bone, but if all you’re using them for is sleeping and showering, they’ll do.

Just to let you know.

Just to let you know.

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Our accommodations

After we unpacked, Steve & I sat on the porch for a while and just talked, watched the lightning in the park, and looked up at the stars. A good way to end the day.

And, off to sleep.

 

Day 3 – Saturday, June 13

Another early morning. Steve wanted to get an earlier start than we had on Friday. At least we didn’t have as far to go to get to the park. While he packed up, I went to fetch Nephew. There he was, doing his push-ups. I was barely awake and suddenly felt old.

We saw a place the night before called Big Bend Resort & Adventures Cafe and so decided to go there for breakfast.

It was certainly what I expected. Nothing fancy, just basic breakfast. Not that I’m complaining. It was really good.

Again, Nephew put Steve & me to shame with his restraint.

Nephew's breakfast: the humble Breakfast Sandwich.

Nephew’s breakfast: the humble Breakfast Sandwich.

Nephew opted for the simple. And, he finished in 3 minutes.

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My breakfast: Biscuits & Gravy.

I honestly had no idea it would be so much. It was delicious, though. The gravy was just the right consistency, not at all greasy or pasty, and had just the right amount of salt. I should’ve asked for crispier hash browns, though. I did end up giving Nephew some of my bacon.

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Steve’s Breakfast: The Basic Breakfast

Compared to me, Steve had a child’s plate. He was happy. He even had some of my breakfast.

After looking over the map and showing Nephew where we were going, we headed back to the park. Our goal: Santa Elena Canyon.

Steve and I have tried twice before to go. Both times, flash floods stopped us. After the storms we saw the night before, we wondered if we’d miss out again. We listened to the in-park radio feed and didn’t hear anything about the canyon being closed, so we forged ahead.

But not before making Steve stop so I could take more photographs. I’m lucky he’s a patient man. Usually.

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Ocotillo at sunrise

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The green dot is a reflection of the sun off the lens.

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I think this is Rattlesnake Mountain

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I really don’t want to see what crawls out of this.

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Good Morning, Big Bend.

After turning onto Old Maverick Road to Santa Elena Canyon, we had another 30 miles of dodging road runners, rabbits, and jack rabbits as they headed back into the grass and brush.

When we arrived, it was already crowded (for Big Bend). In fact, the only times I’ve seen so many people in the park in one place was either at Panther Junction or the Basin.

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Facing Mexico at Santa Elena Canyon.

Paw prints in the sand.

Paw prints in the sand.

As walked towards the canyon, a gentleman told me that if I wanted to go into the canyon, I’d have to get my feet wet. I knew I’d have to, I just didn’t know how much.

My first glimpse of the canyon.

My first glimpse of the canyon.

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In the water. Steve is just ahead, Nephew is nowhere to be seen.

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I always find it amazing to think about how many millions of years it took the water to cut this canyon out.

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Just before stepping onto dry land.

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Indulgence filtering.

On shore.

On shore.

Now, for the climb. At least part of it has stairs.

The climb begins

The climb begins

After staying with me through the first set of photos, Steve decided to try to catch up to Nephew and leave me to my pokey self.

Climbing...

Climbing…

Turning back and realizing I've gone further than I thought.

Turning back and realizing I haven’t gone as far as I thought.

Yup.

Yup.

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Over the hump.

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I caught up with the men. Nephew was once again throwing rocks into the river.

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They scootched on ahead to an outcropping and found a better rock-throwing vantage point. No. There wasn’t anyone in the river.

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Looking at Mexico.

Looking back into the park

Looking back into the park

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There he is.

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Fossils. Reminding us that this whole area used to be under water.

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Candelilla on the trail.

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Ocotillo in the canyon.

Steve and I came across a group who looked familiar. It turned out it was the same family who shared Boquillas Canyon with us the day before. We had a lovely chat. We asked if they had gone to Boquillas, but they said no one had brought their passports so that was out. We told them what to expect when they do get a chance to go. I can’t recall what else they were doing on the trip. Lovely people.

We eventually made it to the end of the trail. It basically ends at the edge of the river as you head back down into the canyon.

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Nephew resting in the shade at the end of the trail.

There were several other people resting at the end of the trail.  We all heard echoes coming from further down the canyon. We were wondering how they got down there and came to the conclusion they either walked down the river hugging the cliff face or rowed down in canoes or kayaks.

Me being me, I decided to take a dip into the water and see how far I could go. Not very without it getting very slippery and the mud trying to suck the boots off my feet. I got back on shore just long enough to grab my camera and very carefully wade back in.

Steve dipped a toe in but elected to stay on shore. I think he was waiting to see if I’d fall in. Nephew waded into the water with me briefly.

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At the end of the trail.

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The American cliff face.

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Looking at Mexico.

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Looking back down the canyon.

Nephew started back almost as soon as we stepped back on shore and completely ignoring me when I told him to stay where I could see him. Steve stayed with me while I reorganized and we walked back together.

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Starting back.

As we walked and chatted, Steve & I decided this was our favorite trail so far. Third time was really the charm.

In the meantime, we lost Nephew. We called for him; no answer. I kept thinking that if anything happened to him that my sister would kill me. Steve calmly told me that he was fine, there was only one trail so he couldn’t get lost; basically, there was only one way for him to go. Instinctively, I knew he was right. Emotionally, I was concerned. I mean, if he’d fallen off the cliff, we definitely would’ve heard something.

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Heading back. This is also about the time I realized we lost Nephew.

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Lovely view. Still looking for Nephew.

We came across two men coming the opposite direction. We asked if they’d seen a teenager in a lime green shirt. They said yes; they’d passed him on the trail. I was relived but still aggravated. At least I knew he hadn’t fallen into the river off the cliff. Aggravated that he was so far ahead.

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So, we get to what is essentially the highest point on the trail and look down. We see Nephew crossing the river.

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Again, this brings to mind the artificiality of borders.

We finally get to the beginning of the trail again and dip back into the water and join Nephew on his next Mexico excursion. I will say here that walking around in the water felt really great.

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Nephew in Mexico. Again.

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In the middle of the river

Nephew wanted me to help him with an experiment. He pulled out the plastic cover for his Awesome Hat and put it on. Then, he wanted me to walk up a little ways on the mini-rapids, place the hat, brim up, in the water and see of the cover would do its job. I did; it flipped over. The experiment was partially successful. The covered part of Awesome Hat stayed dry; when it flipped over, it, of course, got wet.

I was just glad he caught the damn thing. He would’ve been upset if he lost Awesome Hat.

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Where the experiment was performed.

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Husband Steve. Fearless Explorer.

We finished at Santa Elena. I was glad we did because a large party of bros were about to paddle down the canyon.

Steve & I had toyed with the idea of taking Nephew to Burro Mesa. However, by the time we were done at Santa Elena combined with Friday, we were whipped and Steve was feeling a little overheated. We decided to just slowly make our way out of the park, stop occasionally to take photographs, and head back to Alpine for our final night.

Since I was the one doing the driving, I got to stop the behemoth any time I wanted.

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I had to get my Ocotillo fix.

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I’m not sure why, but I love Ocotillo. Especially when they’ve bloomed out. We were a little late for the blooms, sadly.

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Spiny Fruited Prickly Pear.

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Strawberry Pitaya

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Trap Mountain

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Looking over the desert

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Mule Ear Peaks via telephoto lens

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Mule Ear Peaks via standard lens.

Driving down Ross Maxwell Scenic Road, we came across Sam Nail Ranch. We’d never seen it before, so we stopped. It was a short, flat, easy trail with a lot more to see than any of us anticipated.

I’ve never seen so much prickly pear in one place. Ever.

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This is just inside the entrance to the trail.

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Sam Nail owned this ranch from 1909-1946. Since then, it’s been taken back over by nature. In a really huge way.

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I wish I’d seen this when it was in bloom.

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Walking the trail.

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The Chisos in the distance.

One of these days, a really good wind is going to blow this over.

One of these days, a really good wind is going to blow this over.

I was honestly fascinated at the type of person who would try to ranch in a place known for frequent droughts, isolation, and rough terrain. One would have to be a tough, hearty soul.

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Walking down the trail towards the back of the ranch, it suddenly became almost forest-like. I don’t know if some of these trees are native to Big Bend, but they seem to have done well.

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I read somewhere this windmill still pumps water. I didn’t check.

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More quite possibly non-native trees mixed in with the Mesquite.

I'm not sure if this was the old ranch house or a barn. Looking at the foundation, such as it was, it was very small.

I’m not sure if this was the old ranch house or a barn. Looking at the foundation, such as it was, it was very small.

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Final look around the ranch as we went on our way.

And, after this final stop, I starting driving back to Alpine.

Goodbye, Big Bend. Until next time.

Goodbye, Big Bend. Until next time.

Going back up the road to Marathon, as anyone who’s driven 385 knows, there’s a Boarder Patrol Inspection Station about 30 miles in. I know he was joking, but Nephew said we should just speed on through, flash our high beams, or just act suspiciously so we can see what happens.

I had two thoughts on this: 1. None of those suggestions were going to fly; 2. Pretty interesting talk from someone who wants to go into law enforcement.

After the inspection, we discussed lunch options. Nephew said he wasn’t hungry, but Steve & I wanted something. Nothing big, just something. Since, seemingly, the only restaurant in town that was open was at the Gage (and we weren’t going there), we stopped at the French Grocer.

The French Grocer. A good, solid general store.

The French Grocer. A good, solid general store.

Steve & I weren’t that hungry. We were in the mood for more of a snack and drinks. We split a Turkey & Cheese Sandwich (made on premises) and chips. Nephew, for someone claiming he wasn’t hungry, ate about half the bag of chips himself.

They were very generous with the iceberg.

They were very generous with the iceberg.

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There always seem to be birds nesting in the eaves.

We again came through some rain on our way back to Alpine. Very heavy rain. As I was driving through it, I thought, wow, I’ve always wanted to see a storm in Big Bend; I’m an idiot.

We checked back into the Antelope Lodge for our final night in the same rooms we had on night one. We had just managed to unpack the behemoth and get into our rooms before the rain followed us into Alpine. This time, hail was included. Plus, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees within 15 minutes.

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Here it comes

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Hail. At this point, Steve made me close the door.

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I stepped out anyway and took another look.

While we were waiting for things to clear up, Steve heard from our friend Stewart Ramser. Stewart is the tourism director for Alpine as well as publisher of Texas Music magazine, among other things. He was in town getting ready for the Big Bend Music Festival in July and who knows what else. Stewart’s a busy man.

We had planned to meet Stewart at the Alpine Cowboys baseball game Saturday night, but the rain cancelled those plans. So, it was decided we would have dinner at one of Stewart’s favorite places in town – La Casita. A locals joint.

We were all disappointed about the game, but dinner sounded promising.

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La Casita

We met Stewart at the restaurant. He had posters in hand that he wanted to post on the wall. After ordering dinner, he tried with scotch tape. They all stayed up for about 5 minutes. I think he finally managed to hang the posters after borrowing some pins from the restaurant management.

Dinner was excellent, by the way. As it usually is when you find a place off the beaten path.  In my experience, locals places are, as a rule, better than anything where tourists generally congregate.

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Nephew’s Dinner: Beef Enchiladas

The beef enchiladas had ground beef. I don’t know why I was surprised. It’s certainly less expensive and easy to prepare. I’m also guessing Nephew enjoyed it; he finished his plate.

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Stewart and I ordered the same thing: Chicken Enchiladas with double rice

I really liked these. The chicken was well seasoned and the verde sauce was different from anything else I’d had before.  It was almost creamy as opposed to salsa-like. It was also a milder flavor than I’m used to; not so tart or spicy.

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Steve’s dinner: Deluxe Campechanas

Steve was all set to order the beef enchiladas until he saw this dish float by. The guacamole intrigued him. To me, it looked basically like a huge plate of glorified nachos.  I tried a couple of bites; it was very good. But, it was one of those meals you eat where it never seems like you make any sort of headway. He didn’t finish it. But he did give it the old college try.

After parting company with Stewart (it was great to see him), it was still relatively early. Since the ball game was out, the three of us took a drive to Marfa.

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Looking down the main street at the Presidio County courthouse. The belfry would’ve been a cool place to go if the courthouse had been open.

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The Chinati Foundation grounds. I like the landscaping, but minimalist art simply bores me.

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Steve wanted a photo of this. Pointless. Simply pointless.

We wandered around the center of town for a while and wondering what the hell happened to the radio station, book store and the covered space by the railroad tracks. Eventually, we made it down to Planet Marfa to listen to some music and have a beer (or, a Coke in Nephew’s case).

Planet Marfa is a nice, tree-lined partially open-air space where you can just hang out and listen to some music. They have a fairly neat teepee set up with a sitting area sunk down into the floor (you have to take some stairs to go down). They have an “upstairs” up one of the trees and tables to sit around. They also have a fairly limited bar food menu.

At Planet Marfa

At Planet Marfa.  We left not long after they put the lamps on the table. The petroleum smell gave me a headache.

Marfa Sunset

Marfa Sunset

Steve, Nephew, and I chatted for a while about our plans for Sunday and just hung out. After the rain came through, it cooled everything down and cleared the air, so it was a very pleasant night.  We didn’t stay out late, though. We were all tired and knew we had a long day ahead of travel back to Austin.

So, back to Alpine and bed.

 

Day 4 – June 14, Sunday

 

None of us were in any hurry to get up and moving. But, we finally managed to conjure ourselves up, shower, and pack the behemoth. Then, I knocked on Nephew’s door. No answer. Again. No answer. After the third knock, I heard a snarky “I heard you the first time.” I answered with an equally snarky “Then you need to say something”.  Turned out he was up several hours before and fell back to sleep. So, I was apparently waking him up again.

We headed to Magoo’s Place for Breakfast. Steve & I ate there last year with my parents when they met us in Alpine. Honestly, I thought the restaurant had been open for decades. It’s been open 9 years. It’s certainly popular with locals and, I’m sure, tourists alike.

The Huevos Rancheros are some of the best I’ve ever had. Beans, excellent; eggs, cooked perfectly. Ranchero Sauce, just the right amount of spice. One drawback – they never seem to give you enough tortillas.

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Steve & Nephew’s Breakfast: Huevos Rancheros with scrambled eggs

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My breakfast: Huevos Rancheros with sunny-side up eggs. And, yes. I know what this looks like.

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Magoos!

After leaving Alpine, we drove the long way home via Del Rio. We had a crazy idea that we’d cross into Cuidad Acuña for a couple of hours.

But first, a quick stop in Langtry to get out of the car and go see the Judge Roy Bean Visitors Center.  Steve & I had been here before, but we wanted to take Nephew; Roy Bean being a “lawman” and all.

For a place so remote, the visitors center is really nice.  The buildings have been lovingly restored and maintained and the story of Roy Bean, while no doubt sanitized for your protection, has been preserved via electronic diorama.  There is also an amazing cactus garden, if you are so inclined to visit. I had seen enough cactus, so I opted out this trip.

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Sunflowers outside Sanderson

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The original Jersey Lilly Saloon.

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It certainly doesn’t look like saloons in the movies.

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Indulgence filtering. Making it look old-timey.

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The old billiard room.

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One of the table legs.

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The Jersey Lilly. Bean would hold trials of the front porch.

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Looking through Judge Bean’s House.

A long view of the Langtry Opera House. Roy Bean's home.

A long view of the Langtry Opera House. Roy Bean’s home.

After we finished at the visitors center, we decided to take Nephew to the over look above the Pecos River. Steve & I stumbled on to it last year and were floored by the sheer size.

Nephew seemed impressed.

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The river is 900 miles long and has been described as being up to 100 feet wide in some places. Crossing was a dicey prospect at best. This bridge wasn’t completed until the 1950’s.

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Nephew taking it all in.

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Looking over the Trans-Pecos.

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The river wasn’t as high as I’d thought it would be. We could definitely see vegetation.

After saving a couple of centipedes from the asphalt and the possibility of being run over by the behemoth, we drove to Del Rio. Our plan was to cross into Cuidad Acuña, walk around, have lunch, shop, cross back, and drive home.

Now, I remember when there was a place to park on the American side and walk across the bridge into Acuña, just like in Laredo. However, that is no longer an option. If you don’t want to take your car, you have to park at a taxi service and they will take you across. Otherwise, you’ll have to take your car over. Since we had a rental, we couldn’t take it over even if we wanted to; we didn’t. Steve didn’t want to use a taxi service, either. So, the trip to Acuña was off.

At least there was a convenient sign stating “Final Turnaround. This is your last chance before you are in Mexico.” Or, something like that.

So, we turned around. Steve stopped at a gas station and, while he was filling up, I scouted Yelp for restaurants. We ended up at El Patio Mexican Buffet.

I haven’t been to a buffet restaurant in years. It was fun. The food was average, but it was fun.  I honestly can’t remember what Steve or I ate. Nephew, on the other hand, made himself a huge taco-burrito hybrid with beans, meat, rice, queso, and a lot of sour cream.

Nephew contemplating his buffet options.

Nephew contemplating his buffet options.

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There was definitely variety

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I liked the fact they had Menudo on the buffet line. I didn’t try any.

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Salsa and Queso Bar.

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I really should’ve eaten a salad.

As I was paying, I asked the lady behind the counter about the mystery pedestrian bridge to Acuña. She told me what I already knew, there was no longer a pedestrian bridge. I was hoping she’d give me a different answer.

So, the three of us decided it was simply time to drive back to Austin. After driving through more rain, San Antonio, and the clogged arteries of the Austin freeway system, we made it home around 6:30pm. My sister was waiting for us when we arrived. She was taking Nephew to his college orientation early the next morning, so she decided to come the night before.

 

It was a great trip. I’ll miss those summers with Nephew.

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Luckily, we have Younger Nephew for 3 more years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berry-Mint Lemonade 0

Posted on June 22, 2015 by Sahar

I love a good glass of lemonade.  Real lemonade. Not the powdered stuff.

And, with summer lasting about 8 months in Texas, it’s almost a necessary staple, along with water, iced tea, and beer, to power through the heat.

The basic lemonade recipe consists of three things: lemon juice, water, sugar.  The flavor all depends on how you personally prefer it – sweet or tart.  Personally, I like it more on the tart side.

Of course, since it is such a basic recipe, it leaves lots of room for interpretation and experimentation.  You can add just about any herb or spice that goes well with lemon – mint, basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, ginger, pepper – for example; or, even add other fruits or juices to the mix – the list on that is pretty much endless.

My personal favorite is probably one of the more obvious ones – mint and berries. I think it’s because during the summer, when berries are truly in season, I like to find as many ways possible as I can to use them.  And, mint is a natural affinity flavor for lemons and berries.  It’s a win-win.

So, here is my recipe for Berry-Mint Lemonade.

A few notes:

1.  Yes. I have used lemon juice from the green plastic bottle. I know fresh squeezed is better, but I don’t always have a bottle of the fresh-squeezed juice around.  If you really want fresh squeezed and don’t have any or can’t find it, you can either squeeze it yourself (a pricy and time consuming prospect), or just go for the green bottle. It’s fine and most people won’t know the difference. I will say the one distinct added plus to the green bottle lemon juice is that the flavor is consistent.  Fresh lemons can vary in tartness and yield.

2.  You can use all of one berry in this if you like.  I just always happen to have a large container of cut berries in my fridge during the summer as Husband Steve’s & my go-to fruit.  Bear in mind, however, that the color and overall flavors will definitely change.  As it is with anything completely natural, there are always going to be differences in flavor – either more sweet or tart.

3.  You can use either white or raw sugar in this.  I prefer the raw because it’s a little less sweet than the white.

4.  If you don’t like or don’t have mint, you can use another herb in this.  Most herbs & spices that go with lemon work well with berries, too. You may want to experiment on the amount you want to use. Some are definitely stronger than others (i.e. rosemary, ginger, oregano), so you want to be sure what you’re using won’t overpower the other flavors.

 

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

1 c. sugar (either raw or white)

1 c. water

1/4 c. lightly packed mint leaves

2 heaping cups mixed berries

1 1/4 c. lemon juice

3 c. water

 

1.  In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar over high heat.  Stir frequently to make sure the sugar is dissolved.

The simple syrup.  Since I made this with raw sugar, it is obviously going to be darker than with white sugar.  A simple syrup made with white sugar will be clear.

The simple syrup. Since I made this with raw sugar, it is obviously going to be darker than with white sugar. A simple syrup made with white sugar will be completely clear.

Bring the syrup just to a boil, take the saucepan off the heat, and add the mint leaves.  Allow the mint to steep in the syrup until it has cooled, about 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours.

Adding the mint.

Adding the mint to steep.

2.  Meanwhile, puree the berries.  With a food processor running, drop the berries either through the feed tube. (Adding the berries in while the machine is running guarantees that all of the berries will be pureed.  You won’t be left with any large pieces.)

Adding the berries to the food processor.  I like to wear gloves to keep the berries from staining my hands.

Adding the berries to the food processor. I like to wear gloves to keep the berries from staining my hands.

 

Let the berries process until they are pureed.

The pureeing the berries.

The pureeing the berries.

Place a small strainer over a large measuring cup (at least a 4-cup), large bowl, or a pitcher.  Pour half of the pureed berries through the strainer and, with a rubber spatula, work as much of the liquid out of the pulp through the strainer as possible, leaving behind the seeds and pulp. Be sure to scrape the outside bottom and sides of the strainer. Dump the leftover seeds and pulp into a small bowl and repeat with the other half.

On the left, a strainer; the right, a colander. They do a lot of the same things, but a strainer is used for finer work (i.e. sifting, straining purees, etc.). Don't confuse the two.

On the left, a strainer; the right, a colander. They do a lot of the same things, but a strainer is used for finer work (i.e. sifting, straining purees, etc.). Don’t confuse the two.

Pressing the pureed berries though the strainer.

Pressing the pureed berries though the strainer.

If you like, take the remaining seeds and pulp, put them back into the blender or food processor and puree again.  You’ll be surprised how much more liquid you can get out of them. (If you are fine with a more “country style” lemonade, you can skip this step and simply pour the pureed fruit into the pitcher without straining.)

The final leftovers after two sessions in the food processor and straining. You want to get as much of the juice as possible out of the berries.  I generally just put this in the compost.

The final leftovers after two sessions in the food processor and straining. You want to get as much of the juice as possible out of the berries. I generally just put this in the compost.

3.  Once the syrup is cooled, pour the syrup through the strainer so it can catch the mint.

Straining the syrup.

Straining the syrup.

I like to leave the strainer on so I can pour the lemon juice and water over the mint as well. This way, you can get as much flavor out of the mint as possible. Mix thoroughly.

Lemon juice.

Lemon juice.

Water.

Water.

4.  Place the lemonade in the refrigerator and let chill.  Mix it again before checking for flavor.

Lemonade.

Lemonade.  This also makes a great mixer, by the way.

 

Enjoy!

 

Eating Locally Project 2015: May 0

Posted on June 09, 2015 by Sahar

In case you haven’t heard, May was wet in Texas.  Very wet.  Here in Austin, we had a combined rainfall of almost 18 inches – about 14 inches more than normal.

After almost 5 years of drought, we’re all, no doubt, grateful for the rain. However, if you’ve seen the news, some places south and west of Austin got the brunt of what can happen when too much rain falls in too short a time.

Around here, it’s pretty much feast or famine rain-wise.

I know the local farmers are happy for the rain. Up to a point, anyway.  Some crops, like potatoes, have rotted and the crop yields are lower than they normally would be.  Tomatoes are taking longer than usual to ripen.  In short, the farmers are ready for a respite and for the fields to dry a bit.

But, now, the summer high-pressure system is beginning to move to its usual summer home, so we should be in a dry spell for a while.

Just as a side note, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m now volunteering at Boggy Creek Farm.  I help out once a week in the fields.  I’ve done this because I want to learn first-hand about growing my own food organically. I can read books about it all day long, but there’s nothing like hands-on experience.  Reason #2 – I need the exercise.

 

Wednesday, May 5:

My first stop, as per my usual, was Boggy Creek Farm.  I like to get there early so I can get to the salad mixes and baby greens before they’re all gone.

Baby Lamb's Quarter.  It has a slight peppery flavor to it.

Baby Lamb’s Quarter. To me, it tastes like a cross between spinach and arugula. When it’s young like this, raw is the best way to eat it.  If it’s grown to full maturity, the leaves are better cooked.

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Dandelion Greens. I think they’re my new favorite.

As always, I've got to have some arugula.

As always, I’ve got to have some arugula.

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Parsnips. I didn’t buy any, but I’m thinking of the possibilities later this summer.

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New Potatoes. Because of all the rain, Carol Ann & Larry weren’t sure what kind of crop they would have since, sadly, so many rotted in the fields. The potatoes they are bringing in are constantly under fans to help them to stay dry.

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Just so you know, carrot tops are delicious in salads.

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Baby Beets. I’m guessing these were pulled early to keep them from drowning in the field.

After talking with Carol Ann about volunteering, I did a quick wander around the farm.

I have no idea what this flower is. But I'm starting to see it everywhere.

I have no idea what this flower is. But I’m starting to see it everywhere.

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A better view of said unknown flower.

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CORN!!!

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Ladybug on corn.

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Shallots drying.

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The view from the back of the farmstand. It relaxes me.

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I can’t wait until the figs are ready. Carol Ann’s trees are thick with them.

A pecan tree that didn't survive the storms in early spring.

A pecan tree that didn’t survive the storms in early spring.

Playing with the camera filter app. This photo just begged to be antiqued

Playing with the camera filter app. This photo just begged to be antiqued.

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Wednesday night’s dinner. This ended up being essentially a small pork rib roast. It was amazing.

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My other Boggy Creek Purchases: New Potatoes, Beets, Dandelion Greens, Arugula, Baby Lambs Quarters

 

Stop #2: Springdale Farm

By the time I finally made my way to Springdale, the farmstand was pretty picked over. Good for Paula & Glenn. Bad for me.

I still managed to pick up a few things, though.

The tomatoes and roses at Springdale.

The tomatoes and roses at Springdale.

I really need to learn my flowers.

I really need to learn my flowers.

I got there kind of late, so there weren't too many tomatoes left.

I got there a little late, so there weren’t too many tomatoes left.

Not my favorite vegetable, but I bought some artichokes anyway. I thought, what the hell.

Not my favorite vegetable, but I bought some artichokes anyway. I thought, what the hell.

More beets. I didn't buy any; I just like the way they were all laid out.

More beets. I didn’t buy any; I just like the way they were all laid out.

After my shopping, I took advantage of the continuing break in the rain to walk around the farm. Like Boggy Creek, it’s such a lovely space to go and just get away from the concrete for a few minutes.

Springdale's chickens. Happily scratching away .

Springdale’s chickens. Happily scratching away.

It's like she actually wanted me to take her picture.

It’s like she actually wanted me to take her picture.

The ducks were having none of me.

The ducks were having none of me.

The Ghost Peppers are in the ground.

The Ghost Peppers are in the ground.

Sage.

Sage.

Juliet tomatoes.

Juliet tomatoes.

The Prudens Purple tomatoes ripening.

The Prudens Purple tomatoes ripening.

Looking over the tops of the tomato field.

Looking over the tops of the tomato field.

I'm guessing this caterpillar was up to no good, but it sure was cute.

I’m guessing this caterpillar was up to no good, but it sure was cute.

The farm house.

The farm house.

Larkspur

Larkspur

I want to say this is a sunflower...

I want to say this is a sunflower…

Looking forward from the back of the farm.

Looking forward from the back of the farm.

Springdale purchases: Tomatoes, Parsley, Artichokes.

Springdale purchases: Tomatoes, Parsley, Artichokes.

 

Saturday, May 9:

Back to Boggy Creek first thing. I wanted to get there early so I could finally get my hands on one specific item: Squash Blossoms.  I learned if one arrives much after the first 30 minutes, one is out of luck.

I was successful. Joy.

The reason I came here first thing - squash blossoms.

The reason I came here first thing – squash blossoms.

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The glorious salad table.

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The summer squash is making its first appearance.

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Luckily, despite the weather and the loss of a lot of the potato crop, they were still coming in.

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Dewberries. Awesome.

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Curly mustard greens. After the dandelion greens, these are another new favorite.

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The kale is still hanging in.

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Kohlrabi. I’d like to figure out what else to do with it before I buy more.

My Boggy Creek Purchases: squash blossoms, new potatoes, Maria's Mix, curly mustard greens, cucumbers, dewberries

My Boggy Creek Purchases: squash blossoms, new potatoes, Maria’s Mix, curly mustard greens, cucumbers, dewberries

Whole chicken from Taylor Farm

Whole chicken from Taylor Farm

I didn’t really hang around that day since I’d been at the farm just a few days before. Plus, it looked like more rain was coming.

 

Next, I decided to try a new (to me) farmers market, Barton Creek.  It’s located in the parking lot at Barton Creek Mall in south Austin. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

I will say, I like it.  Very much. It’s a much less formal vibe than the downtown market. In addition to the usual farm stands, they have artist booths selling clothing, jewelry, and other accessories, as well as a gentleman who’ll sharpen your knives while you shop.

They have a market on Sundays, too, that I still need to check out. Maybe I could even drag Husband Steve along.

As soon as I walked in, a lovely gentleman, David,  walked right up to me and asked if I wanted to try his blackberries.  He said he’d picked them the day before and still had some of the small thorns in his hands (he did).

I have to honestly say, those were some of the best blackberries I ever tasted. Just sweet enough and very juicy.  I think I ended up buying 5 baskets.

Some of the best blackberries I've ever eaten. Picked just the day before.

Some of the best blackberries I’ve ever eaten. Picked just the day before.

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And here is the gentleman who picked them. The irresistible and effervescent David.

One of the stands I stopped at was Engel Farms.  They are a third generation, family-run farm based in Fredericksburg, Texas.

When I got to the stand, they had already sold out of a few things. However, I did to buy a couple of strawberry baskets.

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Beautiful strawberries from Engel Farms.

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The peaches were lovely, too. However, I decided to pass on them this time around.

A quick pass by Baguette et Chocolat for some chocolate croissants (pain au chocolat) and sourdough for Husband Steve & I. I’ve been to their storefront many times for their breads, sandwiches, pastries, and their “Special Hot Chocolate”. If you ever get a chance, go. Depending on where you’re coming from, it can be a trek. But, the reward is worth it.

I took my mom there for breakfast one morning when she came down for a visit.  It is now “our place” for breakfast.

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c’est bon.

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Quite honestly, some of the absolute best European-style bread I’ve ever eaten. Just the right amount of texture in both the crust and the crumb. You can just taste the sourdough without it being overwhelming.

A long view of the market. It was much more populated than this suggests.

A long view of the market. It was much more populated than this suggests.

In my quest to shop for seafood (hopefully) more responsibly, I like to seek out smaller seafood vendors who (again, hopefully) harvest seafood in a safe, responsible, and sustainable way.

I stopped by a small stand called  The Shrimp Connection.  According to their Facebook page, they sell chemical-free, wild-caught Texas Gulf Shrimp.

I bought 2 pounds of the large. It was fat, fresh, great-looking shrimp.

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Price board from The Shrimp Connection.

Winfield Farms made it into the grocery bag this time around. It’s a small, family-run farm in Bastrop County which is wonderful in and of itself. For me? They had sprouts.

Finally, I find sprouts.

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Artichokes at Winfield Farms. I didn’t buy any, but they are a great photographic opportunity.

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Beautiful scallions.

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Sage. Always excellent to have on hand.

My final stop was at Johnson’s Backyard Garden. I didn’t really see too much that moved me there this time around, but I did buy a few items.

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Green tomatoes. No, I didn’t ultimately end up frying them.

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Lovely grapefruit. These eventually went in to salad.

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Red onions.

Finally, after another walk-through, I decided I was ready to go.  But first, lunch.

Heidi Garbo started the food truck (and, later, her restaurant) in 2013.  she grew up in Key West Florida, by way of Connecticut, where her father and uncle were in the seafood business. After she moved to Austin with her husband, she missed the lobster rolls back home. Hence, Garbo’s.

Garbo’s food truck has a much smaller menu than the restaurant and is just as good.  However, the price may shock some people. But, that should be somewhat mitigated by the fact that Garbo’s doesn’t scrimp on the lobster.

 

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Basically, Garbo’s entire menu at the market.

Another view of the market. Well, the other row, anyway.

While waiting for lunch, another view of the market. Well, the other row, anyway.

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So, yeah, this was lunch. Pricy. But really, really good. They certainly don’t skimp on the lobster, as you can see.

Back home. And on to the purchases. I did pretty well, I thought.

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Chocolate Croissants from Baguette et Chocolat

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Sourdough Bread from Baguette et Chocolat; Blackberries from David; Sage and Alfalfa Sprouts from Winfield Farms; Mint, Green Tomatoes, and Grapefruit from Johnson’s Backyard Garden; Strawberries from Engel Farms

Dinner that night:

Artichoke Hearts and Squash Blossoms fried in an egg white batter

Artichoke Hearts and Squash Blossoms fried in an egg white batter

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The artichokes and squash blossoms with the sourdough bread, a selection of cheeses, salami, extra virgin olive oil, local honey, and 50 year old balsamic.

 

Thursday, May 21

My first day of volunteering at Boggy Creek Farm. Not sure what to say other than it was hard and rewarding work. I can say that it was overcast, a little drizzly, and cool. So, at least that helped make the weed pulling a little easier.

My first day, I met Dana (the lead volunteer), Siri (who’s been volunteering for about 8 months), and Sarah (who started the week before I did), along with Finnegan and Aden, two of the full-time employees of the farm.  I also formally met Tina, who works part-time at the stand.

The volunteers were tasked with pulling up the romaine lettuce stalks that had flowered out along with the weeds that seemed to be growing before our eyes.  Since the ground has had so much rain, the weeds and romaine were fairly easy to pull up. The Johnson Grass, however – ugh. The best part of all this is the chickens got to feast out on the romaine stalks. We all took turns tossing them into the coop and watching the chickens do their chicken thing.

After the pulling, we moved on to composting. While Dana and Siri spread the compost (made up of old vegetation, leaves, and chicken droppings), Sarah and I cut it into the soil with hoes and smoothed it out. I’ll tell you, that’s a great upper body workout.

After the break, we finished composting and then moved on to planting Purslane. Carol Ann had grown it from seed in her greenhouse and now it was ready to put in the ground.

I honestly can’t wait until it’s ready for harvesting. I’ve never eaten purslane before, at least not knowingly, so I’m excited to try it.

It was a tough on me, being out of shape and middle-aged. But, I’m going to keep going.

The planted purslane.

The planted purslane.

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A sunflower on a cloudy day

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Again, I really need to educate myself on flowers.

As part of our “pay” for volunteering, we get $30 worth of free produce. Fair offer, I would say. Done judiciously, $30 can go a long way at the stand.

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Luckily, the potato crop wasn’t totally wiped out. But, the fans were still running.

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Some beautiful “flying saucer” and pattypan squash. I’ve always called them sunburst, myself.

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I’m going out on a limb and saying this is a variety of hibiscus.

During the course of my day at the farm, I happened to notice an old hen in the tool shed not really moving much, even for a roosting hen.  I saw her later in the same spot and she didn’t look well at all.  In fact, she looked like she’d shuffled off her mortal coil. I mentioned this to Carol Ann.  She said that she had quite a few old hens and this one was probably just sleeping. But, she’d check it out.

Later, after I’d finished my shopping, Carol Ann walked up to me and basically said I was right. The old hen was no more. So, I helped her bury the hen. Well, Carol Ann buried the hen. I just talked. As Carol Ann put the old hen into her hole and was ready to cover her with dirt, Carol Ann simply said, “Thank you for your service.”

Kinda says it all.

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Carol Ann burying the old hen. “She stopped laying years ago. But, she gave good poop”.

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My after work shopping: Tenderized steak from Dear Run Longhorns; Whole chicken from Taylor Farms

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My vegetable shopping: Maria’s Zesty Mix; Kennebunk Potatoes; Summer Squash

 

Thursday, May 28:

Back at Boggy Creek and volunteering. It was another day of weeding the rows. This time, it was the peppers and tomatoes. By the end of the day, my knees were rebelling.

I didn’t take too many photos that day after I was finished. I had a class to teach that evening and I simply wanted to go home, clean up, eat, and rest before I had to leave again.

Weeding to tomato plants

Weeding to tomato plants

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Honestly, I hated pulling weeds as a kid. Now, I find a strange sort of satisfaction in it.

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My Pay for the day: cucumbers, dandelion greens, carrots, Maria’s Zesty Mix, and eggs. I paid for the squash blossoms because I bought the entire day’s haul for my cooking class that evening.

 

Saturday, May 30:

I  headed to Springdale Farm on the first non-rainy day in what seemed recent memory. I thought I had arrived pretty early and before the crowds. But, as per usual with me, I was mistaken. It was like as soon as the skies cleared up, people decided to relieve their cabin fever and rejoin society.

Spingdale's tomato plants are about my height now. I feel short.

Springdale’s tomato plants are about my height now. I feel short.

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Rose on the fence.

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Beets, carrots, and celery

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Tomatoes!

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White and red potatoes.

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Duck eggs. I was so excited that I finally managed to buy some. I’ve never (knowingly) had a duck egg, so I’m anxious to try them.

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Leeks.

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A cacophony of tomatoes. The photo really doesn’t do the table justice.

After braving the crowd, I headed out to the relative peace of the farm.

Off to visit the chickens.

Off to visit the chickens.

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Some ducklings in the warm room.

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The social hour.

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I think these are a type of marigold.

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Again, the ducks will have nothing to do with me.

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Color.

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King of the hill.

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A Pruden’s Purple tomato on the vine.

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Looking down to tomato rows. I felt very short.

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Dill flowers.

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Eden East getting ready for the evening.

My purchases from Springdale: blackberries, baby Romas (or Juliettes), and leeks.

My purchases from Springdale: blackberries, baby Romas (or Juliettes), and leeks.

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My duck eggs. So happy.

 

After finishing up at Springdale, I headed once again to Barton Creek.  The sun was out and people were smiling.

I stopped at a stand I’d not noticed before, Two Happy Children Farm.  They had lettuces, squash peppers, and, best of all, corn. I bought 4 ears.

One thing hit me the wrong way as I was standing there. The lady running the stand was Asian and (I think) related to the young boy who was also manning the stand. A couple nearby was asking the lady some questions, which she was cheerfully answering. Then, the man piped up and said, “Was that corn grown by an American?”. I was personally disgusted by the question. The lady simply said with a smile, “And American and an Asian”.

I paid for my corn and walked away.

This was a new stand for me: Two Happy Children Farm.

This was a new stand for me: Two Happy Children Farm.

I wandered over to Engel Farms a few stands down. I had bought produce from them the last time I was at the market and really enjoyed the produce I bought.

This time, not so much. The fruit was beautiful, but that was all.  It may have been the rain, but who knows.

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The peaches. They were rock-hard when I bought them. Once they ripened, they had no flavor.

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The strawberries were packed so the pretty ones were on top, bad on the bottom. I was really disappointed. I think I composted away 2/3 of what I bought.

After this, I decided it was time to buy some protein and starch to round out my day.

I stopped at a vendor I’ve bought from before, K & S Seafood. I had bought some Black Drum from them back in March at Mueller Farmers Market. Through no fault of their own, I didn’t like it.

However, the lobster tails and salmon I bought were both delicious.

The price board for K & S Seafood.

The price board for K & S Seafood.

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Finally. Blue skies.

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It’s not the prettiest of pictures, but you can at least see where the chickens come from. Smith and Smith Farms

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And, now, for the starch.

After my stop at Baguette et Chocolat, I decided it was time to go home. I was shopping on an empty stomach. And we all know what kind of trouble one can get into doing that.

I think I showed remarkable restraint under the circumstances, though.

My purchases #1: Baguette et Chocolat - chocolate croissants, 6-grain sourdough.

My purchases: Baguette et Chocolat – chocolate croissants, 6-grain sourdough.

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Engel Farms: strawberries and peaches

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2 Happy Children Farm: Corn.

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K & S Seafood: King Salmon Filets, Lobster Tails

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Smith and Smith Farms: whole chicken

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That evening’s dinner: Pan seared scallops and lobster tail with mixed green salad and tomatoes and fried corn with bacon.

 

Another month down. 7 more to go.

This has been fun so far.

 

 

 

Arlene’s Chicken Salad 0

Posted on May 19, 2015 by Sahar

My late, great, Great Aunt Arlene Becker Peoples (“Auntie”) was a force of nature. She was born in Georgetown, Texas on July 11, 1930.  She grew up in Kyle, married a man who founded his own meat packing company, raised two girls (my cousins Phyllis & Stacy), divorced, and then proceeded to live life by her own set of rules. She flirted with the men, traveled extensively (Bali was her favorite), played Bridge, gave a helping hand to anyone who asked for it, and made Backgammon a contact sport.  I really looked up to her in many ways.

She was a huge part of my life growing up.  And, when I moved to Austin, she took me under her wing and made sure I was properly fed and clothed (she was a free laundromat).  We also had epic Yahtzee battles that would go on for hours.  I still use the microwave she gave Husband Steve & I as a housewarming gift.

She passed away December 24, 1999.  Too soon.  Way too soon.  I still miss her every day. I could never thank her enough for all she did for me.

Above all, to me, she was a great home cook.  Nothing too fancy, but wonderful, honest cooking.  It wasn’t unusual for us to share a ham steak with German potato salad or buttered cabbage. And, of course, she always had Blue Bell Vanilla Bean in the freezer.

She did have three specialties that always stood out:  Angel Biscuits (basically, a cross between a biscuit and a roll), Seafood Crepes, and Chicken Salad.  She would always fix Angel Biscuits for special occasions and breakfasts when my family would visit when my sisters & I were kids.  Her crepes were amazing.  So amazing in fact that they became all anyone wanted her to bring to the bridge club luncheons.  Needless to say, she got tired of them.  My favorite was her Chicken Salad.

I’ve always called this dish Arlene’s Chicken Salad.  It’s in the great tradition of Southern chicken salads in that it contains dressing, a sweet component, and a lot of chicken.  Unlike most traditional Southern recipes, however, she never added eggs.  She felt, as my mom does, and I do, there is egg salad, tuna salad, and chicken salad; they are all meant to be separate entities standing on their own never to mix.  In other words, as great as eggs are, they don’t need to go in chicken salad.

Also, I’ve always loved her secret ingredient – Cool Whip®.  I never knew if she came up with it on her own or learned it from someone or somewhere.  But, it really doesn’t matter. It’s pretty awesome.

I have deviated from her original recipe in one major way – I use dark meat.  In a true Southern chicken salad, you never use dark meat.  Always poached chicken breast meat only.  It’s more refined, I guess.

She was also very precise in how she chopped her pecans.  She would cut it into 1/3rd’s lengthwise along the grooves, then tun it and cut it into 1/3rd’s again, making exactly 9 pieces. I asked her once why she did it that way.  I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I’m sure it was something about appearances.  It was all very German Efficient of her.  While I am half German, I don’t have the efficiency or the patience genes, I guess.

Auntie would cut these into precisely 9 pieces. I don't.

Auntie would cut these into precisely 9 pieces. I don’t.

 

This dish, of course, comes together pretty fast.  Just pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store, cut up a few ingredients, mix, and voila!, dinner.  And, you didn’t even need to turn on the stove.

A few notes:

1.  I’ve never had this with anything other than red grapes.  You can substitute another fruit such as apples, pears, or dried fruit if you like.  Experiment.

2.  If you don’t toast the pecans, it’s fine.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.  If you do, place the pecans on a baking sheet and place in a 350F oven for 5 – 7 minutes. Then, take the baking sheet out of the oven, spread the pecans out on a cool surface and allow them to cool before you chop them and add to the salad.

3.  Speaking of #2 – pecans.  Only pecans.

4.  If you don’t have or don’t want to use Cool Whip®, you can use all mayonnaise.  It just won’t be the same. DO NOT use Miracle Whip®. Gross.

 

Oh, and by the way.  Auntie would never use low-fat or fat-free versions of anything.  Her mantra in the kitchen was always “I don’t cook skinny”.

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

 

1 whole cooked chicken, skinned, boned, and meat chopped

-or-

3-4 cooked whole boneless skinless chicken breasts, chopped

2 c. seedless red grapes, cut into 1/4’s

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2 stalks celery, finely diced

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1 c. toasted pecans, chopped

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1 c. mayonnaise, more if needed

1 c. Cool Whip ®, more if needed

Salt & Pepper to taste

 

Salad greens, optional

 

1.  In a large bowl, toss together the chicken, grapes, celery, and pecans until well mixed.

Stuff in a bowl ready to mix.

Stuff in a bowl ready to mix.

2.  Stir in the mayonnaise and Cool Whip ®.  Mix well.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add more mayonnaise and/or Cool Whip® if needed.

3.  If you are using salad greens, place them on a serving plate and spread out slightly. Then, place a serving of the chicken on top.  Serve with bread or crackers.

In memory of Auntie.

In memory of Auntie.

 

Enjoy!

Simple All-Purpose Marinara Sauce 0

Posted on May 12, 2015 by Sahar

When I was younger – much younger – I was an avid Nancy Drew Mysteries reader.  I think I had 20 or so of the books.  My goal at the time was to read through all of them (I think there were 55 at the time).  I never made that goal, but I did get one thing so much cooler – The Nancy Drew Cookbook.

One of my first and most treasured cookbooks.

One of my first and most treasured cookbooks.

It’s one of three cookbooks I received from my mom that I absolutely treasure.  The other two are The Little House Cookbook (based on recipes from the Little House books) and Mom’s first cookbook, Wendy’s Kitchen Debut. I may give away or sell my other cookbooks, but I’ll be buried with these.

There was a recipe in Nancy Drew that I really wanted to try. In Chapter 6 –  Album of International Recipes – I came across a recipe called “Italian Salsa di Pomodoro”.  Not knowing what the Italian meant, I read the recipe anyway and figured out it was spaghetti sauce. It was so different from the sauce that Mom made (hers is a wonderful amalgamation of sauce and lots of vegetables; sometimes, she would make meatballs, too). This was just a simple unadorned sauce.

The first time I made it, I think I burned the onions.  I still finished the sauce and the family gamely ate it.  I’ve since gotten better.

This book was also responsible for the infamous “A Keene Soup”, or, as my family called it, Peanut Butter Soup.  It was not a success. In fact, it was really gross. They’ve never let me live it down. I don’t blame them.

However, the “Old Attic Stuffed Tomato” and “Flag Cake Symbol” from Chapter 5 – “Nancy Tells Her Holiday Secrets” were pretty successful. I liked the stuffing so much that I was nibbling on it while I was making the recipe. That’s when Mom had to point out to me that eating raw sausage wasn’t a good idea.

Back to the sauce: as I progressed as a cook, I set aside this little book, but I always remembered the base of this recipe – onion, tomato, olive oil, salt, pepper, sugar – and decided to make my own sauce recipe that would be simple, quick, and versatile.  I think this sauce is it.  I’ve used it as a base for Red Clam Sauce, added Italian Sausage, added shrimp, made Chicken Parmesan, Lasagna, as a pizza sauce, etc. The list is extensive.

 

A few notes:

1.  If you can’t find or don’t want to use fresh basil, you can use any other fresh herb you prefer.  Just be judicious with the amount. For example, if you use too much oregano, your sauce will taste like soap.  Always begin with less than you think you need.  You can always add, but you can’t take out.

2.  You can also use dried herbs in this recipe.  Begin with 1 teaspoon and add it when you add the red pepper flakes to the onion & garlic.

3.  You can add any protein to this sauce.  Just add it when you add the fresh basil at the end.  If it’s something like sausage, be sure to cook it before adding to the sauce.  If it’s fish or shellfish, you can add it raw, but just make sure it’s cut into small enough pieces that the heat of the sauce will cook it through.

4.  This recipe makes a lot of sauce.  It freezes well and can be frozen for 3-4 months.

 

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

From top left:

From top left: red pepper flakes, kosher salt, ground black pepper, sugar, garlic cloves

 

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 small onion, minced

4 cl. garlic, minced

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1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 6-oz. can tomato paste

1 15-oz. can tomato sauce

1 28-oz. can whole or chopped tomatoes, with their juice

Salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

Sugar to taste

Water or vegetable broth, as needed

1 bunch fresh basil, torn into small pieces or cut into julienne

1 lb. pasta of your choice, cooked according to the package directions

 

1.  Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onion begins to soften, about 3 – 5 minutes.  Stir frequently.

Sauteeing the onion and garlic

Sautéing the onion and garlic

2.  Add the red pepper flakes (and dried herbs, if using) and saute for another 1 – 2 minutes.

Adding the pepper flakes

Adding the pepper flakes

Lower heat to medium and add the tomato paste and cook, stirring frequently, until the paste begins to take on a burnt-orange color. (If the paste begins to stick to the bottom or becomes too brown, add a little water or broth.)

The tomato paste turns burnt orange as you cook it because you're cooking the sugars in to tomato.

The tomato paste turns burnt orange as you cook it because you’re cooking the sugars in the tomato.  It adds a little sweetness to the sauce and helps smooth out some of the heavy flavor of the paste.

3.  Add the tomato sauce, tomatoes (with their juice), 1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper, and sugar.  If the sauce is very thick, add some water or broth to thin it a bit. (Be careful, there will be some spatter as the sauce begins to bubble.)

Adding everything else.

Adding everything else.

Lower the heat to medium-low, partially cover, and cook for 30 minutes.  Stir frequently.

Cooking the sauce.

Cooking the sauce. I know I said partially cover. So, do as I say, not as I do.

4.  Meanwhile, make the pasta.  Cook until al dente, drain, and set aside.

5.  After the first 30 minutes, take the sauce off the heat. If you like, mash down any whole tomatoes left with a potato masher and taste for seasoning.

After 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes.

I like to use whole tomatoes in my sauce, so I'll take the potato masher when the sauce has cooked and break them down.

I like to use whole tomatoes in my sauce, so I’ll take the potato masher when the sauce has cooked and break them down.

Stir in the basil and let it simply infuse into the sauce for at least 15 minutes.  If you are adding any protein, add it when you stir in the basil.  Taste for seasoning again.

The basil stirred in and infusing.  Now is also the time you would add any additional protein.  The residual heat from the sauce will cook most small shellfish and heat through any already cooked meat.

The basil stirred in and infusing. Now is also the time you would add any additional protein. The residual heat from the sauce will cook most small shellfish and heat through any already cooked meat.

In general, you can serve this with any cheese you prefer (unless you’re making this into a seafood sauce; in that case, cheese is verboten), but I usually just use Parmesan.

Without Parmesan. In this example, I added meatballs to the sauce at Husband Steve's request.

Without Parmesan. In this example, I added meatballs to the sauce at Husband Steve’s request.

Dressed with Parmesan.

Dressed with Parmesan.

 

Buon Appetito!

 

Addendum: A quick julienne primer

In this recipe, you can most certainly simply tear the basil leaves and add them to the sauce.  However, I like to cut them into a julienne.  Basically cutting the basil into very thin strips.

You can use this technique for many different herbs and vegetables.

First, stack some basil leaves together

First: Stack some basil leaves together

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Second: Roll the basil into a tight roll.

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Third: With a very sharp knife, cut the roll lengthwise into very this strips.

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Forth: Separate the strips by basically working the roll apart with your fingers.

Now, it’s ready to add to your recipe.

 

 

My Eating Locally Project 2015: April 0

Posted on May 05, 2015 by Sahar
Eggs at Springdale Farm

Eggs at Springdale Farm

 

April was another kinda weird month for me.  Revolving door visitors (whom I thoroughly enjoyed) and the ‘flu both played major roles in last month’s shopping.  I still managed three shopping trips, had some lovely conversations, learned some things, and began to truly enjoy the start of the spring and summer produce seasons.

 

Wednesday, April 15: Springdale Farm & Boggy Creek Farm

As most of us do, I try to do things to distract myself from Tax Day.  I mean, my taxes were filed a month prior, but it’s still the visceral reaction to the day that gives me shudders. At least internally.

My first stop that day was Springdale Farm.  I felt like I’d hit the jackpot with the fava beans for sale.  I’m guessing I bought 3 pounds. There was lots of fennel for sale, too. But, since fennel is part of my torture meal, I skipped it.

Fennel seed? Fine. A few Fennel fronds? Excellent with shellfish.

Fennel Bulb? Licorice. Yuk.

Seemingly the most prolific of spring vegetables, fennel.

Seemingly the most prolific of spring vegetables, fennel.

My purchases at Springdale this time around were: carrots, garlic chives, green garlic, escarole, and fava beans.

Carrots

Carrots, Cabbage, Spring Onions, Beets

oranges and grapefruit

oranges and grapefruit

Springdale Farm

Springdale Farm

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My purchases: Carrots, Garlic Chives, Green Garlic, Escarole, Fava Beans

My purchases: Carrots, Garlic Chives, Green Garlic, Escarole, Fava Beans

I didn’t really wander around the farm as I usually do. The gate to the chicken coops and the fields were closed, so I didn’t want to be presumptuous and just walk in. But, I did have a lovely conversation with Glenn Foore about the role of fava beans in Middle Eastern cuisine.

 

Boggy Creek Farm was my next stop.  In fact, the two farms are less than a mile apart from each other. Very convenient.

Larkspur and Poppies. Boggy Creek.

Larkspur and Poppies. Boggy Creek.

Bee in a poppy.

Bee in a poppy.

I was talking with Carol Ann about the strawberries.  She said that if she got any more rain, her plants would die out. (I think a day or two after we talked, it happened.)  Her husband, Larry Butler, has a second farm about 80 miles outside of town, she said, where the soil is sandier.  Because strawberries like sandier soil, any future strawberries would come from his farm instead of the one in town.

Makes sense.

I just got the last of the strawberries for the day.

I just got the last of the strawberries for the day.

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Yup. More fennel.

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So excited about the dandelion greens.

Arugula and Curly Mustard Greens. Peppery, bitter delights.

Arugula and Curly Mustard Greens. Peppery, bitter delights.

After I made my purchases (eggs, strawberries, dandelion greens, arugula, curly mustard greens, pork chops), as is my wont, I wandered around the farm for a few minutes.

Chickens on the loose again.

Chickens on the loose again.

I have no idea what these flowers are, but I'm starting to see them everywhere.

I have no idea what these flowers are, but I’m starting to see them everywhere.

Call me weird, but I like a little sun glare in my photos from time to time.

Call me weird, but I like a little sun glare in my photos from time to time.

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Pink roses

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Down the primrose path

My purchases: eggs, strawberries, dandelion greens, arugula, curly mustard greens

My purchases: eggs, strawberries, dandelion greens, arugula, curly mustard greens

My purchases, part 2: pork chops. These were sliced thin, so they fried up really well in the skillet. They were unctuous.

My purchases, part 2: pork chops. These were sliced thin, so they fried up quite well in the skillet. They were unctuous.

Wednesday Night's Dinner: Salad with curly mustard greens and pine nuts; pork chops.

Wednesday Night’s Dinner: Salad with curly mustard greens, escarole, dandelion greens, and arugula with pine nuts; pork chops. Simple, but delicious.

 

Friday, April 24:  Boggy Creek Farm

This was the day that I learned what breeds of chickens laid what color of eggs.

I was having a lengthy conversation with Carol Ann Sayle about the farm, getting advice on the best way to start a garden (clean the area, cover with soil & compost, let sit for a couple of months, then begin planting in the fall), talking flowers, and, finally, the chickens.

With all the rain we’ve had here in Austin (few are complaining about this), she lets the chickens run loose so that they can scratch and roost in drier areas.  By doing this, the coop can dry out and be cleaned. When the chickens are out, they’re extremely entertaining to watch do their chicken thing in their chicken way.

When I showed her the eggs I bought, she explained to me that different breeds laid different colored eggs.  Well, the shells, anyway.  It makes sense. I honestly thought the color of the shell always depended on the diet.

So, here are the breeds:

Leghorn: white eggs

Leghorn: white eggs

Ameraucana: Green

Ameraucana: green eggs

Black Australorp: Brown

Black Australorp: brown eggs

A rainbow of eggs.

A rainbow of eggs.

I've called you all here...

I’ve called you all here…

soon... tomatoes. Many, many tomatoes.

soon… Tomatoes. Many, many tomatoes.

Butter lettuce in the field

Butter lettuce in the field

During my shopping, I saw that the artichokes are starting to come out in profusion, too.  It’s not a vegetable that I use much because of the time it takes to prep them, but, I figure if I go all Italian and give them a good fry-up, they just might be worth the trouble.

Quite possibly the last of one of my favorite salad mixes for the season - Maria's Brassica.

Quite possibly the last of one of my favorite salad mixes for the season – Maria’s Brassica.

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Beautiful purple artichokes and dill.

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Frisee and a full head of radicchio. All you usually see of radicchio in the stores is the red core.

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A few winter greens still hanging in there.

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Beautiful oyster mushrooms from Cedar Creek Farms.

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Glorious cut flowers from the farm.

The path out

The path out

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Carol Ann’s tea roses. The smell exactly like roses should smell.

My purchases: radicchio, frisee, oyster mushrooms, brassica salad, eggs

My purchases: radicchio, frisee, oyster mushrooms, brassica salad, eggs

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My purchases, part 2: tenderized round steak. I see Chicken Fried Steak in the near future. Very near future.

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Friday night dinner: New York Strip, Mixed Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette, sauteed Oyster Mushrooms.

 

Saturday, April 25: SFC Farmers Market Downtown

Once again, I found myself downtown. This time, I decided that because of all of the construction, I was going to make this my last time at this market for now.  Too bad, really.  I enjoy this market.

But, it will be good for me to check out other markets, too.  Silver linings and all.

However, once I finally arrived, I was quite happy with what I saw.  The spring and early summer produce is coming into its own for the year. Plus, breakfast.

Glimpse of the Downtown Farmers Market

Glimpse of the Downtown Farmers Market

I came across a stand I’ve never noticed before: Animal Farm Organic Market Garden.

They had the most lovely cut flowers and something I’ve never tried before: kohlrabi.  I bought 2 bunches along with a large bag of arugula.

Cut flowers at Animal Farm Organic Market Garden

Cut flowers at Animal Farm Organic Market Garden

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More cut flowers. I wish I knew their names.

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Not a huge stand, but what he had was great.

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Something I’ve never used before: Kohlrabi. I bought 2 bunches. The outer rind is tough, so you have to peel them. And, the leaves are edible.

I read up on how to prepare kohlrabi and saw that most of the preparations use it raw.  So, I just grated it with some carrots, tossed them both some thinly sliced red onion and a lemon vinaigrette, let everything sit for about an hour and came up with slaw. Delicious.

 

My next stop was at one of my favorites: Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

I only bought 3 things this time: elephant garlic, mint, and romaine.  They still have quite a bit of winter produce, but I just couldn’t.  As much as I love my beets and kale, I’m done until the fall.

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Last of the purple cauliflower.

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Elephant garlic.

Generally, with elephant garlic, it’s best to roast the cloves.  It generally has a milder flavor than other types of garlic; so, while you can use it raw, you’ll have to use more to get the same flavor in the dish.  I like to take the peeled cloves and slowly poach/roast them over low heat on the stove in a combination of grapeseed and olive oils.  This way, not only are the cloves roasted, you also get garlic-flavored oil.

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Mint, cilantro, two types of parsley, and red leaf lettuce.

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Artichokes. I opted out this week.

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Spring onions.

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The beets are still hanging in there.

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Garlic. Maybe next time.

The next stand to catch my eye was B5 Farms.

For me, here were the first heirloom tomatoes of the summer. They had three varieties available: Valencia, Cherokee Purple, and German Johnson. I love heirlooms because they all have their own very distinct flavor, are in general drier (fewer seeds), and while they are a bit pricier, they have more yield than the usual grocery store tomato. They’re not perfectly round, blemish-free specimens, but, heirloom tomatoes have their own knobbly beauty.

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Valencia Tomatoes.

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German Johnson Tomatoes.

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Purple Cherokee Tomatoes.

B5 had a few peppers, too. I didn’t buy any because I didn’t have a need for them, but they looked bright and fresh. It looked like they had a variety of bell, jalapeno, and poblano peppers.

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Peppers at B5 Farms.

After buying the produce, I headed to Tamale Addiction to buy breakfast for Husband Steve & I. Their tamales are very good and hefty.  Two will set you up for quite a while.

Breakfast: Chicken Mole and Pork al Pastor tamales

Breakfast: Chicken Mole and Pork al Pastor tamales

From JBG: elephant garlic, mint, romaine

From JBG: elephant garlic, mint, romaine

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From B5 Farms: Heirloom Tomatoes

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From Animal Farm Organic: kohlrabi and arugula

 

So… On to May. I hope to be visiting some new places and seeing some new vendors.

 

Now, for a quick recipe:

“Tossed” Caprese Salad

As we all know, traditional Caprese Salad is a layered salad of sliced of tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil leaves drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.  Occasionally, a little salt may be sprinkled over the top.

I like to use heirlooms for this salad because they are at their best here. It’s a simple salad that’s perfect for summer.

Now, my version is more of a tossed salad. So, purists beware.

 

1 1/2  – 2 lbs. tomatoes (heirloom, if you can), cut into roughly 1″ pieces

1 – 1 1/2 lbs. fresh mozzarella (I used perla size in this example), cut into roughly 1″ pieces depending on the size you buy

1 small bunch basil, torn or cut into julienne (thin strips)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil, as needed

Flaked Sea Salt (i.e. Maldon), to taste

 

Basically, toss the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil together.  Add as much olive oil as you like (I just eyeball it).  Add a little of the salt, mix the salad, and taste.  A lot of mozzarellas available have salt already, so you want to be judicious when adding it.

I like to serve this with some crusty bread.

"Tossed" Caprese Salad.

“Tossed” Caprese Salad.

 

See you in May!

 

 

 

 

 

Black Beans (Frijoles Negros) 0

Posted on April 15, 2015 by Sahar

Years ago, as I was rifling through my pantry trying to figure out what to make for dinner because I didn’t feel like going to the grocery store, I came across 2 cans of black beans and a jar of pickled jalapeños (that I figured I needed do something else with besides make nachos).  Of course, these are pantry staples every Texan should have.

Hmm… I thought. What can I do with these?  After looking through my fridge and finding some cilantro, I stumbled upon it.  “Tart these beans up, Sahar”, I said to myself.

A no brainer, really.

At the time I came up with this recipe, Husband Steve was a vegetarian. And, honestly, me being a dedicated omnivore, there were times I struggled with figuring out what to feed him other than the same old dozen or so meals.  Thankfully, he liked this new concoction so much it became a semi-regular in the rotation.  I liked it because I was working a full-time job at the time and this was a quick & easy meal to make for dinner.  Cheap, too.  And, let’s not forget the most important part here – delicious.

I’m not even going to call this anything remotely like authentic Mexican cuisine.  I mean, I honestly don’t know of any interior Mexican recipe that uses pickled jalapeños.  However, I like to think I’ve at least kept to the flavor profile somewhat and honored the spirit, if not the authenticity.

 

A few notes:

1.  I really designed this recipe around black beans.  However, if you don’t like or can’t find them, pinto will do in a pinch.

2.  If you don’t have a jar of pickled jalapeños, you can use fresh. Use one, and, depending on the heat level you want, remove the seeds or not.  Also, in place of the jalapeño brine, use lime juice.

3.  I generally serve this dish with brown rice. It just seems to work.  However, white rice or even your favorite Spanish or Mexican rice recipe will be fine, too.

4.  Occasionally, I’ll dice up a tomato (after I remove the seeds) and add it to the beans when I add the second half of the cilantro.  I’ll let the tomatoes sit in the beans just long enough to warm through before serving.

5.  When I serve the beans with cheese, I’ll use Jack cheese or Queso Fresco as a general rule.  The rule being that I usually have one or both of those in my fridge pretty much all the time.  Honestly, they just seem to work.  However, if you decide to go the pinto bean route, cheddar will work, too.

6.  To make this dish vegan, use vegetable broth and omit the cheese.

7. If you’re feeling decadent and carnivorous, a small piece or two of salt pork or bacon cooking with the beans wouldn’t be a bad thing. Just watch the amount of additional salt you put into the beans.

 

 

 

The Ingredients

The Ingredients

2 cans black beans (frijoles negros), drained

2 tbsp. oil

1/2 c. onion, fine dice

4 cloves garlic, minced

From top going clockwise: garlic, Mexican oregano, pickled jalapeño, cumin, black pepper, salt, jalapeño brine

From top going clockwise: garlic, Mexican oregano, pickled jalapeño, cumin, black pepper, salt, jalapeño brine

1 tbsp. pickled jalapeño, chopped

2 tsp. jalapeño brine

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

3/4 tsp. ground cumin

3/4 tsp. dried Mexican Oregano

1 bunch cilantro, chopped and divided

IMG_3104

1/2 c. vegetable or chicken broth, or water; more as needed

Rice, cheese, lime wedges, and tortillas or cornbread

 

 

1.  Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the oil and let heat up.

2.  Sauté the garlic and onion until the onion is soft, about 2 – 3 minutes.

Sauteeing the onion and garlic. It's important to allow the saucepan to become hot before adding the oil. This helps even a non-stick saucepan or skillet to become more non-stick. Plus, this helps to cook the food more evenly and efficiently.

Sautéing the onion and garlic. It’s important to allow the saucepan to heat up before adding the oil. This helps the surface to become more non-stick than it otherwise would be (especially in a non-teflon pan or saucepan).  Plus, this helps to cook the food more evenly and efficiently.

Add the jalapeños and sauté for another minute.

Adding the jalapeños.

Adding the jalapeños.

3.  Add the salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano and sauté another minute or just until the spices begin to have a fragrance. Be sure not to let them burn.

Adding the spices.

Adding the spices.

4.  Add the beans, jalapeño brine, half of the cilantro, and the broth or water.

Adding the beans, half of the cilantro, and the jalapeno brine.

Adding the beans, half of the cilantro, and the jalapeño brine.

 

Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the saucepan, and let the beans simmer for 30 minutes.  Stir occasionally.  Be sure to taste for seasoning.  Add more broth or water if the beans become too dry.

After 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes.

5.  When the beans are soft and the broth has thickened, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the remaining cilantro and taste for seasoning.

Adding the other half of the cilantro. If you're using tomato, add it now.

Adding the other half of the cilantro. If you’re using tomato, add it now.

6.  Serve the beans with rice, cheese, a lime wedge, and cornbread or tortillas on the side.

Without cheese.

Without cheese.

With cheese.

With cheese.

¡Buen Apetito!



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