Chapter oneHill Country Garden Party
Hill Country folks will seize upon the smallest of excuses to throw a party. Take Wurstfest, a ten-day salute to sausage held every October in the Hill Country town of New Braunfels. It starts when the town's dignitaries stand on stage and simultaneously bite on a long strand of linked sausage.
Or the annual weekend party hosted at the Johnson City ranch of Texas tycoon Red McCombs, who built a fortune investing in oil, automobiles, and airwaves. It starts with a barbecue and ends with a lively auction of Texas longhorns, an impressive-looking but unpractical breed that has become a status symbol for wealthy weekend ranchers.
Then there's Camey Stewart, who lives on a gorgeous spread just outside of Fredericksburg. Her annual Bluebonnet Bash to celebrate the splendid blossoming of the state flower every spring has grown into what must be one of the area's biggest potlucks. She sets up an outdoor table that stretches as far as the eye can see. Camey provides the meat, and guests–almost 200 showed up last year–bring a side dish and a chair.
For many in the Hill Country, parties are an inevitable part of the landscape, much like the swelling hills, breathtaking vistas, and stands of old oaks that define the area. Perhaps our hearty appetite for entertaining grows out of the isolation of spread-out country living, where the closest neighbor often is far from shouting distance away. Maybe it's just that we are a hospitable lot–thriving on connections, a fine story well told, and good food shared. Whatever it is, my Hill Country compatriots party often, and I'm always impressed with the sense of fun and creativity that they bring to the table.
Bobby Watson, who sells commercial kitchen equipment for a living, built his ranch home outside of Fredericksburg with parties in mind. "We wanted a great big kitchen with a bedroom attached," he says. Bobby and his wife, Linda, stage an annual Fourth of July celebration that starts July 3 with a well-stocked bar and a passel of friends to help decorate a float for the annual Fredericksburg Independence Day Parade. The party continues the next day when thirty-five or so of their closest friends squeeze onto the brightly festooned float and parade through the center of town, Bloody Marys and beers in hand. Then it's back to the Watson house for a down-home lunch with barbecue, pork and beans, coleslaw, and potato salad. It doesn't end there. After a nap and a swim, they head out to the fairgrounds for the fireworks display, grills, folding tables and chairs, tablecloths, and candles in tow. There, they enjoy an all-American cookout, with hot dogs, hamburgers, peach cobbler, and chocolate cake.
Local ranchers aren't the only ones drawn into the Hill Country partying spirit. Art teacher Paige Conn, who lives near the center of Fredericksburg, joined a monthly supper club with twelve friends, and the results have been hilarious. Themes have ranged from Barbie and Ken, with Paige and husband, Blaine, showing up as Mermaid Barbie and Captain Ken; Survivor, with outdoor games in the couple's backyard; and a Pure Polyester Party, where guests came in vintage 1970s clothing. "We dress up, we have drinks and appetizers, and the evening takes its course," says Paige. The couples take turns hosting, and the hosts are in charge of the food.
The Hill Country's mild year-round temperatures mean that outdoor parties aren't just for spring and summer. Even in the middle of December, evenings can be warm enough for alfresco entertaining.
Navajo Grill chef-owner Josh Raymer recalls the two-wheeled progressive dinners he organized as a young bachelor. They started with bicycle barhopping and continued as he and his friends pedaled from one house to the next, feasting on a single course at each stop. Unlike much of the surrounding Hill Country, Fredericksburg's flat terrain and relatively small size make it ideal for bicycle entertaining.
Mary and Marshall Cunningham host casual dinner parties just about every week at their Wild Rock Ranch, and they head out to friends' homes for dinner almost as often.
"This is one of the friendliest areas I've ever seen," says Mary, who grew up in Louisiana and moved to Texas with her family seven years ago. In the Hill Country, regular entertaining begets even more.
"At every party you get to meet new people, and then you want them to meet some people that you already know, and it goes round and round," she says. The parties are always casual, with guests likely to show up in jeans and boots, and everyone pitching in with cooking and cleanup. The food is simple at the Cunninghams', often grilled game and something from the garden. Mary asks what her friends have growing and tells them to bring whatever they have. Food is served buffet style and leftovers go straight to the animals (they have a menagerie that includes pigs and donkeys), so there's not a lot of cleanup.
About four times a year, the Cunninghams throw big parties, with live music–they always hire local bands–and dancing on a stage glittering with lights hung from cedar poles. For parties big or small, Mary doesn't bother with a lot of extra decorating when she entertains.
"In the spring we have the wildflowers, in summertime flowers are everywhere and we have a million stars in the sky. When the whole sky is lit up there's not a lot of need for decorating." Mini Okra Pancakes
After handing guests a drink, I often like to offer them a special morsel of food to perk up their taste buds and to make everyone feel at home. My friend and Austin farmer extraordinaire Carol Anne Sayle shared this recipe, and it warmed my southern gal's heart. (For skeptics, these little pancakes do not suffer from the slime factor some associate with okra.)
I served these at my annual garden party for chefs and friends, and people couldn't get enough. The trick is to serve them hot off the griddle, so make sure you have someone to fry them in a skillet, and someone else to pass them around while they're still hot. For this kind of job, I often enlist a shy guest or two. It keeps them busy, and frees them from the stress of having to make small talk. I've found that people will eat as many of these as they can get, but one or two per person is plenty and when they're gone, they're gone. (The recipe doubles easily if you're serving a crowd, though.)
I have added a little touch of my own to Carol Anne's recipe. My garden was producing way more jalapeños than I could manage, so I decided to pickle them. I tossed a few chopped, pickled chiles into Carol Anne' s pancakes and loved the result. You can leave them out if you like.Serves 8 as an appetizer; about twenty-four 2-inch pancakes
3/4 cup cornmeal (preferably stone-ground)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk, plus more if needed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 cups fresh okra, stemmed and sliced into 1/4-inch pieces, or 1 (8-ounce) package frozen sliced okra, thawed
1/4 cup drained, chopped pickled jalapeño chiles (page 254, or use a store-bought version)
2 small onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and black pepper together in a bowl, along with the cayenne pepper if desired. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, the 1 cup buttermilk, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and the mustard. Sprinkle the chopped okra evenly with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add the okra, pickled jalapeños, onions, and garlic to the egg mixture and stir until combined. Add the cornmeal mixture and stir lightly until just combined. The dough should resemble a thin pancake batter. If it seems too thick, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of buttermilk.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to a large skillet set over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, drop in 2 heaping tablespoons batter per pancake, leaving room between pancakes so they don't touch. Cook the pancakes, flipping once, until golden brown on both sides and cooked through, about 11/2 minutes per side. Serve immediately.
Excerpted from Pastry Queen Parties by Rebecca Rather. Copyright © 2009 by Rebecca Rather. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.