By Bridget Weiss
Photography by Jenna Noel
Thirteen years old and flying solo for only the second time, I looked out the window as the plane accelerated down the tarmac of the old Mueller airport. The resident jackrabbits, seemingly unfazed by the roar of the engines, foraged through desiccated yellow grass in search of edible shoots. Circling over Austin before heading east to visit my grandparents, all there was to see for miles were drab, dry fields—the crispy remains of winter in Central Texas.
A grapefruit half in a small glass bowl with a serrated silver spoon awaited me in the mornings at the beach house. Grandmother rarely missed an Atlantic sunrise, and had already walked the beach, fed the gulls and was out working in the yard by the time I stumbled downstairs. When the sun shone, I attempted to catch a trophy tan. But mostly, the nor’easters blew and I shivered on the seawall, drinking coffee from a prewar thermos.
Flying home a week later, the stunning change was visible from the air. The quince and other fruit trees had popped open and the roadsides turned an unruly shade of green. Austin had become quickly, defiantly lush in March, even in the absence of rain.
Memories aside, this year’s lack of water has been unusually hard on Central Texas. The winter grasses never brightened our sensibilities, and gardeners followed a mandated watering schedule well beyond our normal drought season.
But, bless Austin’s heart, she will prevail. The fruit trees are blooming despite it, and pushing out young leaves. This causes me to feel gleeful, even a little manic, which in turn causes me to cook. Take off that woolen hat, invite some friends over and prick up your ears like a jackrabbit because green food is afoot.
Fill your grandmother’s vases with daffodils and flowering fruit branches. Sprinkle cherry blossoms on the table around votive candles, and throw another few handfuls along a path from the front door to the kitchen. Offer guests a cocktail of three parts sparkling water, two parts grapefruit juice and one part rum or tequila. Garnish with a floating flower petal simply because you can.
Make a puree from two cups of drained black beans, a few cloves of garlic, ½ cup of fresh cilantro, two tablespoons of cream and sea salt to taste. Spread onto baguette rounds and dot lightly with chèvre. Broil until the cheese begins to melt. Minced jalapeño garnish optional.
Sopa Muy Verde
Buy a large bag of mustard, kale, chard or spinach from the farmers market. Toss a bunch of cilantro, arugula or parsley, and four leeks into your bag as well. Slice the leeks into rounds and rinse thoroughly. Rinse and roughly chop the greens and herbs, keeping them separate. Sauté the leeks in olive oil with a few bay leaves and some minced garlic until the rounds begin to soften. Add a teaspoon each of brown sugar and sea salt, and cook for a few more minutes. Throw in the abundant greens, and cover with stock. Simmer for 30 minutes. Stir in the herbs and the juice of one lemon. Garnish with dry Parmesan shavings. Hint: For aficionados of planning ahead, sopa verde is exceptional the second day.
Feel like getting fresh? Roberto San Miguel (Austin Farmers’ Market) has plump, line-caught grouper to inform your leanings. Marinate fillets briefly in lemon juice and fresh oregano or thyme. Cook fish quickly in a hot skillet or over a hardwood fire until crisp on both sides. Serve on a small bed of arugula, which wilts beautifully under the hot fish. Garnish with lemon slices, capers and tiny sprigs of fresh herbs. Broiled new potato or sweet potato rounds will only enhance the love.
Make your favorite chocolate cake with a few modifications. Reduce the sugar by one-fourth, and add a teaspoon of cinnamon and an extra teaspoon of vanilla. Serve with a dollop of crema agria, the lovely Mexican version of crème fraîche found at the Fiesta Mart supermarkets or East Side groceries.