Thursday, December 17, 2009

Visions of Fall


Autumn in felted slipper shuffles on,
Muted yet fiery ...
... in the garden
Maples are garish, and surprising leaves
Make sudden fires with sudden crests of flame
Where the sun hits them

-- Vita Sackville-West, 1892-1962

The above excerpt of poetry by Vita Sackville-West is practically the only positive quotation I could find about autumn. I was quite surprised, because I love fall, and it is positively a reason for joy here in Texas, where it is not unheard of to have 100 days of 100+ temperatures in the summer. (Believe me, I've lived through it!)

Most of the classic writers, however, have lived in old England, New England and other places where winters are bleak and summers are actually pleasant. Most of the classic poets write rhapsodies about temperate summer days and describe autumn as a melancholy time of decline and getting older.

But I say fall is getting a bad rap! Although spring is definitely my favorite season, fall is right there behind it. If you don't live up north, summer is a period of dreadful heat, and we here in Dallas are always thrilled and relieved when we feel that first touch of cool air in the autumn. So there need to be more poems about the wonders of fall!

After the long, hot days of summer, autumn is a breath of fresh air.

I love the way the days cool down and you feel that frosty nip in the air for the first time in the fall. I love the old back-to-school fashions of thick tights and red plaid skirts. I love how the leaves decorate the yard with gorgeous colors of brown, red, yellow and orange. I don't even want to rake them up because they look so pretty. I wish my camera could better capture the way the sun shines through the leaves and dapples the grass with golden rays of light.

We were lucky this year to enjoy a lovely, prolonged season of beautiful autumn weather, perfect for playing outside and going birding. In fact, we saw many birds we haven't noticed in years past: yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, dark-eyed juncos. We think many of them were stopping by this year to enjoy our beautiful fall weather instead of just flying through on their fall migrations. Sometimes it just goes straight from summer heat to winter cold here in Texas, but we had a real autumn this year, and it was wonderful.

Then we woke up Dec. 2, and it was snowing!

The snow didn't last very long, and it didn't stick around. In fact, it melted in a couple of hours. But it was so pretty while it lasted. Thanks to a very early and very cold storm front, we were treated to a little bit of white.

Even our green chairs got a dusting of snow.

The kids were disappointed that school wasn't canceled.

But here in Texas, you just never know what the weather will bring you. In fact, there's a saying here that if you don't like the current weather, just wait 10 minutes and it will be something else. It's actually fairly common to have temperature swings of 30 to 40 degrees in one day, or even 15 degrees in a matter of minutes if an arctic front comes our way!

I found my "Autumn" quote in the above book "Forest's Robe" by Penhaligon and edited by Sheila Pickles. Penhaligon made several such gorgeous gatherings of poetry and prose in themes such as love, the four seasons, Christmas, weddings, etc. They include beautiful color artwork inside and are even scented with lovely perfumes from Penhaligon's line! After 17 years, my copy still smells pretty!

Unfortunately, winter is just around the corner, and we have already had a string of below-freezing nights that have killed my lush, green summer plants. But yesterday I noticed a little narcissus already blooming in my flowerbed! Poor, confused little baby daffodil.

It's not even officially winter yet, but I guess spring -- my favorite season -- is coming soon!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Giving Thanks

Did you have a nice Thanksgiving? We did. Here is a photo of my plate piled with food. It looked so pretty before I dug into it.

This year we stayed home and hosted my husband's parents. They helped make some of the food, and it all turned out really yummy. We had all the traditional fare: roasted turkey with giblet gravy, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, stuffing with more gravy, rolls with butter, and black olives.

And of course we had to end with homemade pumpkin pies! They are the best. I make them with my granny's pie crust recipe and Libby's pumpkin recipe for the filling.

The weather here on Thanksgiving was beautiful, as it usually is on Thanksgiving in Texas. It was mild and just perfect for playing outside. Another Texas Thanksgiving tradition is watching the Dallas Cowboys play on TV. I am not into football and don't mind working in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

In fact, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It only takes one day of work, the food is great, and then you have delicious leftovers for several days! Cooking a turkey is a lot of effort, so it's not something we do every day. But once a year, it's fun to pull out all the stops and make a grand, old-fashioned meal. (OK, I know the pilgrims didn't really have canned french-fried potatoes and cream of mushroom soup to make their casseroles, but the thought is there.)

And one more thing about Thanksgiving: It reminds us all to remember the people we hold most dear ... our loved ones and our friends.

So thanks to all of you for reading my blog, and don't forget to say "thank you" to all those who are kind to us every day ... your child's teachers, your mail carrier, the school crossing guard, your relatives, your neighbors, your Scout leaders, your friends and all those others who make life a wonderful gift.

Thank you.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cool Weather Cooking

Brrr! It has been so cold, wet and wintry around here that it has me wanting to pull on a sweater and some long socks and put a big pot of soup on the stove. The Dallas area has gotten into a seemingly endless rain cycle, and it's made for a much cooler-than-usual October.

So with the coming of fall and cooler weather, we've been craving cool-weather comfort food.

In the past few weeks, I've made clam chowder, beef chili, split-pea soup and cream of broccoli soup, all homemade and all delicious. Soup from a can just isn't the same, and homemade soup is too easy not to try. On a cold fall day, nothing beats simmering some soup on the stove all afternoon and serving it with some fresh, hot bread.

Last night I made some yummy corn chowder from Posie Gets Cozy. I love this recipe. It's sweet, simple and delicious. Alicia's blog always has gorgeous photos on it and lots of good recipes.

To go with the corn chowder I made one of my other favorite recipes -- Albers Cornbread.

Albers is a West Coast brand of cornmeal that I can't find out here in Texas, but you can use any brand of cornmeal you like. This recipe is from the side of the box.

Now everyone knows there are many different types of cornbreads, with both family and regional differences. Most people prefer either really sweet cornbread or not-very-sweet-at-all cornbread. I like mine in between, and I really like this recipe because the cornbread is just right: thick and moist, with just the right touch of sweetness. We've made this quick and easy recipe in my family for years.


Albers Cornbread

1 C yellow cornmeal
1 C flour
1/4 C sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t. salt
1/3 C oil
1 egg
1 C milk

Combine dry ingredients. Then add wet ingredients. Pour in greased 8" square pan. Bake 25 mins. at 400 degrees. If doubling recipe, put in 13" x 9" x 2" pan. Test with toothpick in center. It should be slightly brown on top.


When we went to Indiana this summer, we visited the Stockdale Mill in tiny, rural Roann. The old, water-powered grain mill was built in 1857 and ground flour for Union troops in the Civil War. It operated for many decades before finally falling into disrepair in recent years. Recently it was refurbished, and now it is open for tours.

We took our kids on the tour and found it really interesting. One of their favorite parts of the tour was getting to operate an old corn grinder that takes dried kernels and grinds them into a coarse cornmeal.

I bought a bag of this cornmeal ground at the mill and have been using it in my cornbread recipe for the past two months.

The stoneground cornmeal is a little coarser and flakier than factory-processed cornmeal, so the result is slightly different. But you know what? Our cornbread is even better than before!

The stoneground cornmeal is not only healthier for you because it has the nutritious germ still in it, but it also makes for a fluffier bread. I store this cornmeal in my freezer to keep it fresh. You might be able to find a brand of stoneground cornmeal at your grocery store. It's worth a try!

Why don't you bake some bread today?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Adventures in Cake Decorating

As the mother of three growing kids, I've made a lot of "mom" cakes. You know, the ones with sprinkles covering the spots where the kids poked their fingers in the frosting, the ones with mismatched birthday candles and the ones with plastic dinosaurs drowning in red frosting lava (oh, you never made one like that?).

One of the pleasurable duties of a mom is the chance to make a new cake each year to mark the fact that your child (and you) have again made it to the next birthday. (Sometimes you wonder how you did it!)

As each new year rolls around, I find it gets boring making the same old cakes. So I've started branching out and trying new ideas in keeping with our birthday party themes. I find store-bought cakes are often expensive and taste awful, so I prefer to make my own. While saving money, I get to express some creativity and make a yummier cake too.

One year my son had a creepy-crawly party and got a big Bundt-pan snake cake.

Another year I tried making the Mach 5 racecar from the old "Speed Racer" cartoons, using a real plastic windshield. (I know it's not perfect, but my son loved it.)

I made some memorable cakes, but I never knew how to decorate like a pro.

For years I've wanted to learn how to make the elaborate designs of sugar art on those fancy, professional cakes. I love watching "Ace of Cakes" and those cake-decorating contests on the Food Network. So this summer I started taking some cake-decorating courses at my local Hobby Lobby store. The classes are fun, and our instructor is encouraging even when our cakes end up looking more like mistakes than masterpieces. The point is to enjoy yourself and not worry too much about how they turn out. After all, she says, you can always eat your mistakes! And anyone who critiques too loudly doesn't get a piece of cake.

So after two courses, I've learned how to make icing stars, rainbows, roses, daffodils, leaves, daisies, violets, pansies and chrysanthemums. My best cake so far is this one with all the icing flowers and a bluebird on the side. It has a basketweave design around the outside, and you know what? It was made from scratch and quite tasty.

So I'm learning more each time, and I'm already looking forward to my next class.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Birds, Bugs and Blooms

At the end of August, my husband and I went birding at the new Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas. We had heard of this new center and its environmentally sound building techniques and thought it would be a neat place to see some new birds.

The center, which celebrated its first anniversary Oct. 10, features an innovative nature center, a delightful gift shop and several trails that wind through towering wildflowers and small ponds. The building itself is LEED-certified and is the first such "green" building to be constructed by the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department. The site was formerly an illegal dump and has been reclaimed by the city of Dallas to become a showpiece of environment-friendly design. It is only eight minutes south of downtown Dallas and is open six days a week.

Adjoining the property is the Trinity River, bordered with tall, native trees. All in all, it sounded like a good place to see some wildlife.

Unfortunately, we didn't see that many new birds. The highlight of our trip was seeing a large flock of wood storks flying away over the parking lot as we drove up. We got there early and hoped to get in some good bird watching before the day got warm and the birds went into hiding. Unluckily for us, the center's employees flushed the storks right before we got there. We had never seen these rare birds before, but I guess seeing them on the fly is better than not seeing them at all.

We did see some other interesting wildlife, however. The beautiful pink wildflower, above, stopped me in my tracks. Commonly called Indian Blanket or Firewheel, Gaillardia pulchella is brilliant in Texas starting in April and is also the official state wildflower of neighboring Oklahoma.

We did see a small flock of egrets right before they got spooked and flew into some trees.

I also saw some magnificent yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia). These large, colorful spiders may seem frightful, but they are actually harmless and weave huge webs with amazing zigzag streaks down the middle. These spiders are sometimes seen in the countryside of north Texas but are rarely seen closer to town.

We saw a lot of yellow wildflowers along the paths.

And we saw a cute little blue Anisoptera dragonfly alighting on the boardwalk.

One of my children has been fascinated with bugs and other creepy-crawlies since he was a toddler, and he now is quite an expert on insects and spiders (so much so that his teachers call on him to identify and remove bugs from the classroom when needed). Thanks to him, I have become much less squeamish and ignorant about insects. In fact, now I help him spot interesting new insects on our walks, and then later we research what types they were. My favorite bug web site is You can upload your insect photos for identification, and experts will tell you what you saw.

Before we left the Audubon Center, we spied evidence of raccoons in the mud along the edge of a pond. Their little handprints are so cute.

If you'd like to visit the Audubon Center, bird sightings there vary according to time of day and time of year. You can see which birds have been spotted at the center by looking at the center's eBird link. I highly recommend logging onto eBird to log the birds you see whenever and wherever you go bird watching. The eBird web site is a great way to help scientists study bird populations throughout the United States. Even if you are an amateur birder, your information is welcomed and appreciated!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mysterious Mushrooms

Early yesterday morning my husband and I went birding at the Elm Fork Nature Preserve in Carrollton, Texas. It is a city-owned preserve with wetlands and a pond, and it hosts a wide variety of plants and animals. A small center on the site hosts nature walks and classes for children and scout groups, and a nice mulch trail enscribes a circle through the park. In the past we have seen several types of snakes along the trail.

Unfortunately for us this weekend, the birding was rather lousy, and we couldn't get good looks at any birds. So instead of looking up, I started looking down.

And what do you think I found? Mushrooms!

The Dallas area is just drying out from a week of very cool, wet weather, which was generally welcomed because we were in a drought. A surprise result of this damp weather seems to be an explosion in the local mushroom population. I had already noticed this to some extent in our suburban yards, but that was nothing compared with what I saw Sunday at the nature preserve.

I was excited to see many different varieties of mushrooms almost everywhere I looked. I am not a mycologist, nor am I a mushroom hunter. I don't know the names of most of the mushrooms, nor which ones are safe to eat, so I just look at them and don't touch. Some can be quite poisonous.

Actually, I love to take nature photos, and I think mushrooms are often quite picturesque. Something about them is cute and whimsical, not to mention downright magical in the way they sprout suddenly and then die seemingly overnight. Much folklore has grown to surround mushrooms, from tales of fairies' dancing among them to stories about their use as toadstools. One of my favorite sayings is that mushrooms look like umbrellas because of the wet places they grow!

This one, in fact, does look like a little gnome umbrella.

This round white one looks like a supermarket button mushroom.

These large brownish-yellow ones weren't that attractive, but they were among the largest mushrooms I saw.

I love these three grouped together on a tree like a little family.

Oops! Don't touch that! I think it's poison ivy, which is rampant in north Texas.

This little yellow mushroom was bent over but rather cute.

I think these odd little ones are a type of Bird's Nest fungus. Some look as if they have tiny eggs inside their little brown cups. There were round patches of this fungus dotting the mulch footpath almost everywhere.

These mushrooms had lovely flared edges.

This one looks like a little Art Deco lamp.

Isn't this cozy pair just adorable?

This delicate white one looks like a sea urchin skeleton.

This shiny yellow one reminds me of the big banana slugs in the Pacific Northwest.

This one was luminously white.

I like the spots on this one.

These two look like little flowers.

I even saw this rather ugly but well-camouflaged slug tracking his way through some Bird's Nest fungus. He looks just like some kind of slimy animal dropping.

One severe handicap I faced when taking my fungus photos Sunday was the swarms of mosquitoes that were resting thickly on the shady forest floor. Unfortunately for me, damp weather brings out the skeeters as surely as the mushrooms. Every time I bent down close enough to smell the earthy scent of the mushrooms and try to focus my camera on one, the mosquitoes flew up and started buzzing around my face and landing on my nose.

The hazards of nature photography!

Oh, look ... a swamp! No wonder there were so many mosquitoes!

Next time, we're bringing the industrial-strength bug spray.

For more information about mushrooms, try visiting The Fungus Among Us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leapin' Lizards!

Here in Texas we have our share of nocturnal critters, but I think the nicest ones by far are these darling little geckos.

The baby gecko shown here is one I caught in a cup and took a picture of before I let him go outside. I think we must have had a new batch of babies a few weeks ago, because we kept finding little ones in corners and closets in the house.

These cute little lizards are common house geckos (Hemidactylus), which originated in tropical Asia but have now spread throughout the Southern United States and other parts of the world. The ones we get in north Texas are pale, practically transparent, with black-and-white striped tails. We didn't have these when I was growing up in California, but they live there now, too.

House geckos are small and fast, with sticky feet that help them walk up walls and across ceilings. In fact, the only known surface to which geckos cannot cling is Teflon! House geckos love to hang out both inside and outside of homes, especially near porch lights, where they can catch the insects they love to eat. Their nocturnal nature means they hide in little cracks during the day and come out to hunt at night with their keen eyes.

Because geckos eat roaches and other nasty insects, they are usually welcomed inside the home. In Hawaii, geckos are seen as good luck and are a big part of the local folklore.

Our house geckos in Texas are cute as can be, but unfortunately they don't like to be held. In fact, like many lizards, they often drop their tails when frightened so the predator (or little boy) becomes distracted by the still-wiggling tail and the rest of the gecko runs away. (I know this from experience.)

Here in Dallas, our geckos scurry by night around the front and back porches and sometimes hide by day in our mailbox.

As far as I'm concerned, they can stay and eat as many nasty bugs as they like.

Good evening, geckos!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Garden Discoveries

For the past week, we in north Texas have been having quite a bit of rain. It is rather unusual, and the days of rain have left the ground moist and the air humid.

As an unexpected gift, the rain has brought out many kinds of mushrooms. Driving around town yesterday, the kids and I saw many front yards where large, white, saucer-shaped mushrooms had sprouted up overnight as if by magic, leaving big fairy rings in the green grass.

In our yard alone, I saw at least three different types of mushrooms today. I was most enchanted to see these tiny yellow mushrooms peeking out of the drainage hole of a plastic pot. Aren't they the cutest little things? I don't know what they are, but when I looked on the other side, there were more poking out another hole!

I also saw a beautiful red hibiscus blooming. They do quite well here in the muggy Texas summers and add bright spots of color amid the green. Their petals look like a pinwheel.

I spied a little mourning dove that for days has been living under the bushes outside our dining room. It is small and unable to fly, so I think it must still be a juvenile.

I tossed him some birdseed and hope he will soon grow strong enough to fly away safely.

From little mushrooms to little birds, our garden is full of happy surprises.

I can't wait to see what pops up next!

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Hidden Jewel

Gardening is a fun hobby. You never know what surprises you'll see, especially here in Texas.

More than a year ago, my husband planted some clematis seeds out front, expecting them to take off and cover our house with prolific, showy blooms. The garden books say they are "easy to grow" and even "somewhat aggressive."

But things don't always go according to plan.

Our little seeds did almost nothing for a long time, then finally started growing into shy little vines. I wasn't even sure if they were clematis because it had been so long since the seeds were sown.

But guess what! A few days ago I happened to look down and there, in the flowerbed, on a foot-long vine, was a beautiful, perfect, purple flower! I don't know what variety of clematis ours is, but it proved it is "The Little Vine That Could."

I love taking pictures of my flowers, and it's a good thing I do, because this bloom didn't stick around. Maybe next year we'll get more than one flower. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

Gardeners are eternal optimists!