Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hook 'Em Horns Curried Carrot Soup

October is Soup Month at our house. Football is in full swing by now and I appreciate the ease of having soup made ahead for weekend football watching.  I can reheat the soup slowly, keeping a close eye on the game, and have my meal ready to roll at halftime.

I also like having soup on hand for Halloween.  I am chief doorbell answerer and candy hander outer, so I want something easy for dinner that night plus something I can reheat if the traffic on the front porch keeps me away from my meal for very long at a time.

I have two or three reliably delicious soup recipes already in my repertoire but I wanted to branch out this year.

I had most of a bunch of organic carrots already on hand, and being a lifetime UT Longhorn fan figured I couldn't go wrong with a basic orange color scheme.  Enter this simple recipe I found on the Food Network site for  Curried Carrot Soup.

I liked the looks of this for all sorts of reasons besides the potential for a gorgeously Hook'Em Horns orange hue.  The prep looked easy and there weren't 426 ingredients to wrangle.  Turns out it was every bit as flavorful as it was colorful, so let's get down to work and make some soup together.  I'm going to walk you through the recipe as written, but read ahead to get some seasoning notes, deal?

Peel and thinly slice 8 medium carrots, 4 medium celery stalks, and rough chop a medium onion.

In a large pot put 3 tablespoons of olive oil adding in 2 teaspoons of curry powder. Stir over medium heat for one or two minutes until the mixture is fragrant.

Add the sliced vegetables to the oil and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes.  Be prepared to spend most of the last 7 of those minutes fighting the impulse to get a spoon and eat everything in the pan at that point, the mix of vegetables and spices smells that good.

Stir in 5 cups of chicken broth and let that come to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and let it cook about 10-12 minutes until the vegetables are very tender.

If you don't trust the timing or your eyes, the tenderness is easy to determine by putting a couple of the thickest carrot slices you can find on a plate and seeing if they are easy to cut with a fork.  Or you could use a spoon against the side of the pot.  I was curious about what seemed to me the teensy amount of curry called for in this recipe so I wanted an early taste.

Once your veggies are tender remove the pot from the heat and let it stand 10 or so minutes.  Then you'll want to remove the oil from the top of the soup by laying a paper towel on top to blot it off.  Carefully discard the oily towel.  No, I didn't take a photo of the oily paper towel.  You're welcome.
Please be careful blending hot stuff - you know the drill and if you don't refer to your owner's manual before trying this the first time.  You want to enjoy eating all of this soup, not end up wearing it.
Working in 2 cup batches transfer the soup to a blender and puree.

Once the soup is pureed, return it to a pan over medium heat and reheat through.  Season with a tablespoon of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

Folks, here is where I parted company with the recipe in a big way.  I felt this soup was headed in a good direction but to me to it still needed a big seasoning boost. I'd already started out with one more teaspoon of curry powder than was called for.  My soup so far still tasted too carroty I thought.  Not enough depth of flavor for me though I realized a hiatus overnight in the refrigerator might fix some of that.  I decided to add more curry powder along with some cayenne pepper after  getting the lemon juice, salt and white pepper added in to taste.  By the time I finished sprinkling and stirring and tasting and sprinkling again, I'd added in another tablespoon of curry powder and about 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.

Next time I make this, and oh yes, there will definitely be a next time, I plan on starting out with two tablespoons of curry powder in the oil.  I will try a half and half blend of hot Madras curry and regular and see if it still needs a boost from cayenne at the end.  I could certainly see playing with other toasted spice mixtures just to see a few of the different places this soup can go.  To me that is in great part the beauty of a simple soup base like this one.  You can absolutely customize the seasoning to suit your needs.

But what you really need is some curried carrot soup for starters.

This soup has great mouth feel.  It is super creamy tasting without an ounce of dairy fat other than the topping I chose for my first bowl.  I will take this batch all sorts of different directions with garnishes to keep from getting bored. I also predict this soup is going to provide fun color play served as an entree while watching UT football later this month.  Yeah, that's right - I am one of those people who would absolutely take my color cues for a meal to coordinate with my home team uniforms.  And yeah, I'm not blind - carrots may not result in burnt orange soup - but they come close enough.

Today I used a chipotle crema topping on the bowl I had for lunch.  Before I licked the bowl clean I tried the soup with a bit of smoked cheddar flavor popcorn on top just for fun. It was awesome.  I plan on crumbling bacon and a little grated sharp cheese on top to get the Hub to enthusiastically try some later this week for dinner.  If I decide I want to dress it up, say for a Thanksgiving appetizer, brown butter sautéed sage leaves would be an elegant finishing touch.

Organic onions, celery and carrots are available in practically every grocery store these days.  Hie thee to your favorite, buy yourself some and in about 40 minutes you can have your own batch of delicious Curried Carrot Soup.  Healthy, delicious, easy.  Hook 'Em horns orange.  Looks like all winners from here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Little boxes in the Hill Country

Wow, I took my eyes off the calendar for just a minute or two and suddenly, WHAM!  It is October, one third of the way into the month already, and I am sitting here with windows opened wide to welcome cool morning air, listening to the strains of music drifting over from ACL Music Fest.

What with it feeling like all the world converging upon nearby Zilker Park for a kinder gentler version of Fest this year, it made perfect sense to the Hub and I to pile into the car and head the other direction this weekend.

On the advice of Kathleen Scott of Hill Country Mysteries, we set our sights for Blanco generally, and the Redbud Cafe specifically.

It was a lovely day, a reasonable hour long drive, and the cafe certainly did not disappoint.  In fact, there were only two letdowns for the day, one small and one slightly larger.

A tree grows in Blanco..
The small disappointment for the day was that by the time we wandered in after lunch the highly recommended Deutsch Apple bakery had sold out of nearly every portable potable.  I'd been warned this could happen which made it a little easier to be philosophical at the sight of shelves quite emptied of apple cakes and muffins. I still made do handsomely, bringing home a jar of Texas made apple butter and some of their delicious cookies.

The Deutsch Apple Bakery
The Big Nasty?   I'll get around to that in just a moment.  First the fun stuff....

We'd decided not to check out the Real Ale brewery this go round, saving that as incentive for a return trip on a Friday afternoon when their tasting room is open.

Instead we headed straight for the Square to check out the Redbud Cafe Market and Pub.  It was everything it was promised to be and more.....
I appreciated the many thoughtful design touches evident throughout the Cafe.  Here, a reflected portrait.
Wandering in, my eye was first captured by a series of large wall displays featuring stenciled rainfall records for Blanco broken down by month and year.
After dutifully checking to see what the accumulations were for the months/years the Hub and I were born,  I turned my attention towards how we'd get our lunch.

Here's the general drill.  You walk in, adjust your eyes, try to ignore the siren song of the pottery and gift shop beckoning through an open door to your right, and wander over to a bakery style counter filled with goodies.

You wrench your eyes up off the bakery items displayed and check out the menu for the day.  A friendly face at the counter will answer whatever questions you have, take the order for your lunch, and then if you are so inclined, guide you around the corner of the counter to your left where the Real Ale beers on tap are located.  The routine repeats, you ask any questions you have, get a sample taste as needed and then hopefully order the perfect cold brew to imbibe while you wait for your food.

We consoled ourselves for bypassing the brewery itself by each choosing a glass of a different one of the four types of Real Ale sold on tap at the Cafe.   The Hub thoroughly enjoyed their Oktoberfest with the Reuben sandwich he ordered that arrived nestled between slices of the most gorgeous marble rye bread I've ever seen.  I blissed out sipping a glass of Full Moon Pale Rye Ale in between bites of the amazing seasonal Pear and Bleu Cheese salad.
There we sat, settled in at one of several dozen oilcloth covered tables, munching and sipping to our heart's content while we soaked in our well appointed surroundings and people watched through windows looking out onto Blanco's town square.

I gotta admit up front I never expected to see so many gray haired pony tailed men in one place, especially not any place so far out into the Texas Hill Country.  It would appear from superficial inspection that bikers and old hippies have all but colonized the area.  I found that heartening for some reason I couldn't quite put my finger on.  
Old Blanco Courthouse - now their Visitor Center.
In retrospect, the crunchier than expected nature of Blanco was probably just what I needed to buffer me from the Large Letdown that came as part of our ride back home.
The Blanco River
Said letdown being the nasty shock that unfolded before our weary eyes as we took a series of exploratory turns onto smaller and smaller roads on the way back into Austin.  Every twist and turn of the selected county and/or ranch roads we explored made it painfully clear the blight of suburbia has spread in malignant rings far far outwards from Austin.  Developments jammed with houses have become about as ubiquitous (and to my eye as unattractive) as oak wilt.

I've watched the exploding census counts for our area and I guess I knew in my head those developments had to be out there somewhere, but passing through one huge subdivision after another gave made me a little heartsick as I realized how much territory has already been converted from more open spaces.  

Yeah, I know, I am beginning to sound super duper geezery here and maybe now you're wondering how long it can be before I start nattering on about how great it was when sliced bread was 40 cents a loaf or moaning about my childhood trials walking barefoot to school through the snow, uphill both ways.  I promise I get it.  Growth inevitably happens and it isn't always awful.   

I'll even admit to you the Hub and I both kept having our eyes and imaginations captured by For Sale signs offering acreage all along the road between here and there.   We pretend it wouldn't be any different for us to move out to the country.  That the house we might build or renovate would be greener and lovelier.  That our wanting to live away from the hubbub is an impulse totally removed from whatever brought all those other folks into their houses crammed into the hills surrounding Austin.

Maybe what we want is something different, maybe it isn't.  Nevertheless, knowing there are a bunch of folks out around Blanco letting their freak flags fly?  It is just about the perfect antidote to offset the impact of all those little boxes marching up and down the hills outside of town.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,

And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,

And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Words and music by Malvina Reynolds; copyright 1962 Schroder Music Company, renewed 1990. Malvina and her husband were on their way from where they lived in Berkeley, through San Francisco and down the peninsula to La Honda where she was to sing at a meeting of the Friends’ Committee on Legislation.  As she drove through Daly City, she said “Bud, take the wheel. I feel a song coming on.”