Home Made Marinara Sauce

Marinara

Since getting the new refrigerator, revamping the larder cupboard, getting the vacuum sealer and experimenting with canning, bottling and picking – we’ve been stocking up even more intensely. Well – now that we have the space, or the re-vamped space, and the technology – why not? Indeed, thanks to a fortunately-timed stop at the marked-down shelf at the local HEB a couple of weeks ago, I can report that our requirements for exotic vinegars, balsamic and otherwise, have been fulfilled for the foreseeable future. And one of our projects over last weekend was to clear out the deep-freezer in the garage. Yes, indeed – it is possible to lose track of what is on the rearmost shelves; we found a package of frozen chicken with a best if by date of 2008 on it, as well as some other stuff that was so old we didn’t even recognize it at all. Hence – our current insistence on labeling and dating items before consigning them to frozen storage.

This weekend I had a new project – that of making an enormous batch of marinara sauce. The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, has a very simple and serviceable one on her website, but I went for broke and doubled it, with an eye towards adding different things when the basic sauce is eventually used. We do have a liking for meatballs in marinara over spaghetti, a dipping sauce with calzones, as a basis for eggplant parmagiana, and sometimes in desperation, for pizza. If I make it, we will use it, one way or another.

Slosh a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of a fairly large pot, and gently sauté six or seven cloves of slivered garlic and two medium—sized chopped onions. When the onions are limp and the garlic aromatic, deglaze the pan with one cup of chicken or beef broth, and simmer until the liquid reduces by half.

Pour in a whole number-10 sized can of crushed tomatoes. A number-10 sized can will contain about three quarts of tomatoes; this is why I used the big pot to cook this up in. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoon of dried thyme and a pinch of sugar.

I left this to simmer over low heat for nearly an hour. Toward the end of that time I added half a bunch or ½ cup chopped fresh parsley and about a quarter of a cup of chopped fresh basil.

I had a number of pasta sauce jars given to me by a neighbor who thought they were the sort which could be re-used in home canning – they can’t, of course, but they were a good size, and the batch of sauce filled up four of them. I put the lids on very loosely, so that the sauce would have space to expand as it froze and not break the jars. They do sell special containers for freezer condiments, or I could have parceled it out in vacuum-seal bags, but the recycled pasta sauce jars are what I had on hand, and they didn’t need labels.

When it comes to using the sauce, it can be used plain, or punched up with the addition of half a cup of sliced mushrooms, or chopped olives, pureed roasted red pepper, or some browned Italian sausage to every two cups of sauce. And that was

Kitchen Pantry Shelf Redo

A Spot of Home Reorganization

By Celia Hayes

The kitchen pantry in my house is a misnomer. It a small kitchen closet, 25 ¼ inches wide by 27 ½ deep, extending all the way up to the ceiling-level. The builders installed shelves roughly fifteen inches apart. When I first moved in, I attached a pair of narrow wire shelf units to the inside of the door, seven shelves, each one just deep enough to hold a single can, small box or bottle. Later, I put in three wire shelves above the existing shelves. These needed a step-ladder to access. I put the little-used items on them … and then pretty much dropped doing anything more, except for when it was necessary to go spelunking to the back of the deep shelves looking for a box of lasagna noodles. A couple of years ago, my daughter put various appliances that we didn’t keep on the countertop, and a collection of French porcelain cooking dishes into the pantry, and put the foodstuffs into the little butcher-block topped kitchen island. Not much better; we still had crammed and disorganized shelves. We had often discussed the means of making the pantry more usable, but hesitated because of the hassle.

We reached Peak Exasperation this week; when the chore of doing something overcomes the continued hassle of existing with it. I told my daughter to get some boxes from the garage, and empty out of the lower shelves, then get a hammer and knock out the shelves and their supports. Done and done – and then off to Lowe’s for certain necessary materials, including a patching kit to repair dings in the wall, and a sample pot of paint to cover over the places where the shelves had come away. My daughter originally didn’t want to take the trouble. She wanted it done all in a day – but I wanted to go a thorough job, and knew that it would look awful if we didn’t.

Lengths of wire shelving and the clips and brackets to attach them didn’t cost that much. Eight sets of narrow two-shelf units to go along the sides were a little pricy, but the small dimensions of the pantry meant that nothing standard would fit, being either too large or two small. I had them cut seven 25-inch lengths, and we loaded it all in the car and went home. It took a few hours to patch and paint the walls, which interested the cats very much. When the paint was dry, I went to work with a pencil and a carpenter’s level. My daughter had wanted to do adjustable shelves on tracks attached to the back wall, but I vetoed that as being just too expensive. Besides, I had no clear idea of where the studs were in the walls and no interest in searching. I measured the various containers and appliances that we would store on the shelves and tailored the spacing to suit; two shelves 12 inches apart, two at 10 inches, and the rest at 9. I drew a level line across the back wall and out the sides to exactly 12 inches, and went to work with a power drill set with a ¼ inch bit. This took the rest of the day, drilling the holes, and pounding in the clips to support the shelves.

The next day, we made a trip to the Container Store for … well, containers, especially four plastic tubs with airtight tops to store bulk staples in. Those I intended to go on the lower shelves. I had an eye on a short rack to hold mops and brooms, and another wire rack to hold upright boxes and rolls of tinfoil, wax paper and rolls of vacuum-seal bags. That last we had to go back to Lowe’s for. Instead of four narrow shelves on each side, I put five on one side, two on the other, with the mop holder and the roll rack underneath them.

Wonder of wonders, we can now close the pantry door. And it all looks … very much more organized. No need to hunt for lasagna noodles, or anything else now – it’s all right there.

Tomato Ketchup Chronicles

Tomato Ketchup Chronicles

by Celia Hayes

I was inspired by an old blog and Facebook friend, Katie Barry, to have a go at making home-made ketchup this weekend. I had often intended to try it before, as this condiment is one that we (as Katie points out in her own housekeeping blog) all have in our condiment collection. I was put off some of the recipes for it in my own collection of canning books, because they called for simply awesome quantities of fresh tomatoes, and unless and until my garden starts producing tomatoes by the ton … well, I like fresh home-grown tomatoes too much to condiment them. But Katie’s recipe started with canned diced tomatoes, and I thought … oh, that is doable. One six-pound can of diced tomatoes from Sam’s Club, and I am in business. I took a recipe from one of the canning books, since I do want to can the resulting ketchup for later use … and I would also like to duplicate the splendid spicy Whataburger ketchup, too. Excellent stuff that is, but home-made might be even better. On consulting the listing of contents on the label of Whataburger Spicy Ketchup it seems that the secret ingredient is red jalapeno pepper puree … and red jalapenos were not available in my local HEB … although I may have my own from the garden in a month or so, by allowing the jalapeno pepper plants to ripen all the way. But I had it in mind to make ketchup this very weekend, and I thought that adding a smidgeon of smoked chipotle peppers in adobo sauce would certainly amp up this batch to an exciding degree of spicyness.

So – amend the recipe in Sunset Home Canning for spicy ketchup, by using canned diced instead and pureed the entire six-pound can of diced tomatoes with a whole onion and one peeled and seeded red bell pepper … which had been peeled, sealed in Foodsaver bag and frozen.

Simmer and reduce the resulting puree over medium heat for about an hour or until reduced by half. Tie into a piece of clean cheesecloth 1 ½ teaspoon each of mustard seeds, black peppercorns and dry basil, 1 teaspoon whole allspice, one dried cayenne chili pepper, a large dried bay leaf and a 2-3 inch length of cinnamon stick. Add the spice bag to the reduced tomato puree with ¾ cup packed brown sugar and ½-2 teasp. Paprika. Continue to simmer, lowering heat gradually and stirring frequently as it reduces to approximately 1 quart. In the last fifteen minutes, I stirred in ½ cup cider vinegar, which had been pureed with 1 3-oz can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Salt to taste – and we agreed that it did have a rather pleasant chipotle smokiness. If it had been just for myself, I would have put in another 3-oz. can. It came out to three pints and a bit – the recipe said it would yield two pints. Likely I could have reduced it a bit more, but it did seem quite thick enough already. Katie’s recipe called for powdered herbs and spices, rather than the whole version steeped in a cheesecloth bag. I’ll experiment with this in the next batch, and see if it makes a difference in flavor.

I poured it all into three sterilized pint jars and processed in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. The extra bit went into a plastic freezer container – waste not, want not. It came out a very nice red color, and a bit grainer than the commercial version – but well-worth the effort and the Number 10-can.

Sauerkraut

Good Stuff Preserved – Sauerkraut

by Celia Hayes

I swear, I had never really eaten sauerkraut in any form when I was growing up. Why Mom never had a go at making it herself is a bit of a mystery, since the basic ingredients are cheap and plentiful, the process pretty simple and the results quite tasty. Likely this was because our own ethnic background is English and Scots-Irish, and it’s just not one of those things. Cabbage being a sturdy green vegetable and well-adapted to the frozen northern hemispheres, it’s a mainstay in peasant cooking from Germany, through Eastern Europe and Russia – and even into Korea, where they make a high-octane variety spiced with garlic and hot red peppers known as kimchi. But the ordinary sauerkraut is the simplest to make at home; basically, it’s thinly-sliced fresh cabbage and Ball pickling salt.

At some point a couple of years ago, we were buying a brand of pickles or marinated artichoke hearts at Sam’s Club which came packaged in massive glass jars, which hold 6-quarts to two gallons. I saved out two of them to store bulk foods in, although they had to go through the dishwasher several times to entirely remove the smell of pickle brine. They’re perfect for fermenting the shredded cabbage in the first step.

Trim of the outer leaves of four heads of cabbage, quarter the heads and cut out the solid core, then either thinly sliver the quarters, or cut into eights and run through a food processor fitted out with a slicing blade, or a mandolin – or even an old-fashioned sauerkraut slicer. It was customary back when to make massive quantities of kraut at a time – a friend of mine in Fredericksburg recently an old-fashioned 5-gallon crock which would ferment enough to feed a small army. I have a huge metal mixing bowl made for restaurant use, so the shreds of cabbage from four heads fill it rather nicely, but you may have to process it one or two heads at a time. Mix the shreds of cabbage with ¾ cup of pickling salt, kneading it gently, as the salt dissolves and the cabbage begins to give up liquid. Let sit for a few minutes and then pack it tightly into the jars until just to within an inch of the top. One of the cabbages I used this week was rather large – so the cabbage shreds filled both big jars and then a quart canning jar. One of the big jars also had two teaspoons of caraway seed added, for extra flavor.

There should be enough brine from the salted cabbage to cover – if not, mix 1 ½ Tablespoons of salt in hot water, allow to cool, and top the jars with the additional brine. The cabbage has to be below the level of the brine. Another recipe I saw for this recommended cutting a cabbage leaf to size, and using it as a topper, to keep the cabbage shreds underneath – or just use a smaller jar filled with weights to keep the cabbage submerged. Cover the tops of the jars with cheesecloth held on with a rubber band, and let sit and ferment in a sheltered cupboard for 3-6 weeks, removing the scum which forms every day or so. When it’s ready, either refrigerate it and eat fresh, or empty the sauerkraut into a big pan and bring to a gentle simmer – not a boil. Pack it into clean hot canning jars, leaving about half an inch of head-space, seal and process in boiling water; 15 minutes for pint jars, 20 for quarts. We have finally finished off the sauerkraut that I did last summer – so time to pickle again!

Jams and Preserves A Specialty Shop in Fredericksburg

A Little Local Home Grown Company

by Celia Hayes

So, I came to San Antonio for my final tour of Air Force duty in 1995 – but I think it took a little while for me to discover Fredericksburg, and the lovely, tasty specialty food products put out by Fischer and Wieser, of Fredericksburg in the Hill Country. It is in my mind that for the first couple of years, Fredericksburg was the only place that you could buy them anyway. Certainly all the little gourmet food outlets along Main Street had a good selection of Fischer & Wieser jams and preserves. There was an annex to Das Peach Haus in a teeny former residence near to the Nimitz Museum, which is where we usually bought those items which took our fancy.

Looking at the company website, it appears that was about the time that Case Fischer developed the Roasted Raspberry Chipotle sauce, which in movie parlance, was a tiny little local biasness’s First Big Break. Roasted Raspberry Chipotle is magnificent, by the way, but at first it must have seemed to be one of the weirdest concoctions ever proposed. Smoked Mexican chipotle peppers … and runny raspberry jam? Together? Hoooo-kay… But it put Fischer & Wieser – and chipotle peppers on the map. (For my money, the best thing on grilled shrimp is the ginger-habanero sauce, though. After driving past Das Peach Haus every time we came in to Fredericksburg by the road from Comfort – we finally stopped and went inside, and realized that – oh, my, it is bigger than it looks! There are little patches of landscaped garden all around, shaded by a grove of pine trees. And there are resident cats, too – always a good indication of quality, no matter if the product is books, garden stuff … or gourmet foods.

But the peach orchard which was the genesis of the company has been around since the Wieser family bought the property in the 1920s, and their son Mark opened a roadside fruit stand in 1969. There are a lot of seasonal roadside fruit stands on the main roads leading to Fredericksburg, and the Peach Haus was just one of them. The family sold fresh peaches, of course, and home-made peach preserves. Mark Wieser also taught school – and one of his students often helped out at peach harvesting time. Case Fischer was so keen on the possibilities of a specialty-food, development, marketing and entrepreneurship, that he went off to college and studied all that … and when he came home to Fredericksburg, he teamed up with his old teacher, and set about innovating, creating and producing quality foods; sauces for meats and pastas, mustards, jams and preserves, pie filling, salad dressing and dips.

And instead of just keeping it a local thing, Fischer & Wieser went national. Within a couple of years, I didn’t have to make the long drive up to Fredericksburg for some Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce – it and other products were on the shelves at the local HEB – even my own local, which usually is a little light on the gourmet goods. Even better – they are available in military commissaries and on Amazon.com. Not bad for a tiny local enterprise which started as a roadside fruit stand. Yes, indeedy – they did build that business.

But look out for the Ghost Pepper BBQ sauce … more than a quarter of a teaspoon can be lethal. I think it’s made for people who think straight Tabasco is just too darned bland.

Making Homemade Broth

Lentil and Brown Rice Compost Broth

This was one of these things that I read so long ago that I don’t remember when, or who, save that it was an interview with a rather clever and creative chef being interviewed, and just about that time I had despaired of finding any broth – canned or as a bouillon cube – at the commissary or local supermarket which wasn’t expensive, unbearably salty, or both. Now HEB, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s all offer a nice variety of flavored and low sodium broths and I have used them for some splendid soups, especially when nothing sits very well on on a fractious stomach except chicken broth with a smidgeon of rice or fideos in it … but nothing beats home-made broth made the way that I did, following the advice of the very clever and penny-pinching chef.

What he advised was to keep a special container in the freezer, and whenever you had vegetable scraps, cut ends or clean peelings, or even whole veggies past their best-by date, to throw them into the container. Onion ends, mushroom stems, ends of celery – in fact, everything but broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower scraps could be used. Omit anything spoiled, rotten or moldy, of course. If you are not a vegan, then bones and trimmings from various meats – chicken necks and ham-bones and the like – can be added as well. When the container is completely full, empty the frozen scraps into a large stockpot, and add a handful of fresh parsley (or any other fresh herbs you have available – thyme would be fantastic), and some whole peppercorns, and fill with bottled or tap-water up almost to the top of the pot. Cover the stockpot, set it on the stove over low heat, and just let it simmer for a good few days, until all the vegetables are cooked to softness and the broth itself is a rich deep brown.

And that’s it: after a couple of days, take it off the heat, let cool, and pour the broth off. I like to run it through a fine mesh strainer, and package it in 2-cup to quart quantities for the freezer out in the garage. Nothing makes a better base for soup – and one of my very favorites to use broth for is a lentil and brown rice soup, from Nava Atlas’s Vegetariana.

Combine in a large pot:
1/2 Cup dried lentils, washed and picked over
1/3-1/2 Cup brown rice
2 TBSp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 TBSp soy sauce
2 Bay leaves
3 Cups water or vegetable broth
Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat for 7 to 10 minutes. Then add:
2 additional cups water or broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
Handful of finely chopped celery leaves
1 14-oz can chopped tomatoes with liquid, or Ro-Tel tomatoes with chili peppers.1/2 Cup tomato sauce or tomato juice
1/4 cup dry red wine or sherry
1 Teasp dried basil
1 Teasp paprika
1/2 Teasp dried marjoram
1/2 Teasp dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and simmer for half an hour or so, until lentils and rice are done. You can take the onus of being vegetarian off it by adding about half a pound of kielbasa or other smoked sausage sliced into rounds, towards the end of the cooking time, and serving it with a little grated cheddar cheese on top. I made it once with imported green lentils from France, and people almost swooned.

Alamo Drafthouse

The Drafthouse and the Hobbit

by Celia Hayes

You know, there are some ideas which are so logical, simple in concept and satisfactory in execution that you wonder why it hasn’t been done decades ago. I speak of the Alamo Drafthouse, and the whole notion of going to a movie, and having dinner and drinks in the theatre while watching the movie. Yes, you’ve always been able to get candy, drinks, popcorn and nachos and dip, and take them into the theater with you. Back in the day when we were overseas and the movie show time at the AAFES theater was the exact same time that the NCO and O-Clubs served dinner, we would openly carry bags of hamburgers and fries into the theater with us. And there may still exist a movie house in Landstuhl, Germany – the Kino which showed first-run American movies on two or three screens and had a luxurious full bar in the lobby. You could have a couple of drinks beforehand, and carry them into the theater, where there were little tables and a tiny desk-light attached to the back of the seat in front of you – it was all very logical, and very, very civilized. The nearest thing to it in the States back then was a community dinner theater, where indifferent food and indifferent acting combined for your evening’s pleasure.

But it took to the late 1990s for the dinner-drinks-anna-movie concept to spring into being – in Austin, no less – and actually have drinks and a full dinner – appetizers, main course, desert and all – served inside the theater during the movie. What a concept! We were actually rather blown away by the efficiency of it all; waiters coming in and taking our orders before the movie, delivering the food relatively noiselessly, and coming around to settle up the bill in the last half hour. And since the movie involved was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit – Part One of Three and Oh My Aching Tushie! – some very sustenance was required for the almost three hour running time. The substance provided the other night at the Alamo Drafthouse at Blanco and 410 was pretty darned good, at that – freshly prepared and reasonably priced. You could spend a heck of a lot more at a restaurant, a bar and then at the theater on an evening out and have a worse evening out. The only criticism that I would make about the Drafthouse is that of course, you are eating in the dark … and that the seats are not quite as luxuriously comfortable as at the Palladium IMAX. But the no-talking, texting, unescorted teens and children under six more than makes up for that; Blondie and I cannot count the times that we have been to a movie and had the experience comprehensively wrecked by inconsiderate people of every age being loud.

About The Hobbit itself? Well, aside from the aching tushie at about an hour and 45 minutes – it was all visually gorgeous, but I do think the director could have held himself to a two-part Hobbit and not repeated quite so many tropes from Lord of the Rings, but that’s just me.

Texas Neighorly Christmas Goodies

Christmas Goodies Neighborhood Style

by Celia Hayes

 

I know, I am trying as hard as I can to get into the Christmas mood – an uphill fight, since I have been sidelined most days by the Cold From Hell. This is the cold that I developed after Thanksgiving, which sends me coughing persistently as if I am about to hack up a large piece of lung. It saps about three-quarters of my energy, and an equal portion of my interest in life, the universe and everything … including Christmas. The good thing is that I got just about all of my Christmas shopping done, thanks to the internet and a nicely-timed and generous payment for some work accomplished … so, on to gifts intended for two good friends. At the estate auction in Fredericksburg this summer, one of our winning bids was for an envelope of pen and ink prints of various local scenes. Nothing especially valuable, I don’t think, but nicely matted (thank you, Hobby Lobby) and framed (thank you, Thrift Town) they will make something personal and attractive … and what the heck, something new to look at on the walls is always appreciated.

Which means that the final gift-giving obligation is to those of our neighbors whom we hold in especial esteem; we went through the standard Christmas cookie selection, and then the small-brick-of-fruitcake several cycles ago. We experimented last year with flavored oil and vinegar, including in the basket one little roundel of home-made cheese and a baguette of home-baked bread, which mostly worked out well, so this year – edible goodies again.

I took a firm stand with my daughter, though – no expensive containers for the goodies; this time, we are using a plain small paper shopping bag, and instead of tissue paper, some gingham-check patterned paper napkins. These we found at the Dollar Tree a couple of months ago – and since I was already thinking ahead, we bought them at once. And my mother’s Christmas basket of Spanish goodies came generously padded in a large round basket with simply heaps of crinkled paper excelsior, which is still perfectly good and useable, and we’re supposed to recycle anyway and have you seen how much it would cost to buy new crinkled paper excelsior, even at the Dollar Tree? And I don’t want to go to a store anyway – I’m sick, people!

So – into the bags will go a selection of the pickles, relishes and jams that we made over this summer, from seasonal fruits and vegetables; the pickled okra came out absolutely amazing, and so did the mixed garden vegetable pickles – what they call in Italy giardiniera. Strawberries – holy moly, did we have strawberries. I’ve lost track of how many; strawberry jam, strawberry preserves. I made the most luscious pickled pineapple spears, over the summer; flavored with cinnamon, allspice, ginger and other spices; as my daughter said admiringly, “They taste like Christmas in your mouth.” We have figs to offer, too – thanks to the bounteously producing fig trees in the neighborhood, we have on hand whole preserved figs, fig jam and fig preserves… I think the difference mainly between jam and preserves is that the latter is rather lumpier – but anyway, our neighbors will benefit from the bounty, too.

And that will be (cough) our Christmas (cough-cough) gift to our neighbors. (Cough-cough-COUGH!) Hopefully that, and not the Cold From Hell.

Merry Christmas!

Authentic Foods from Spain

More Flavors of Spain

by Celia Hayes

My mother just sent us a basket of gourmet foods from Spain as a Christmas present for us again, since last year’s basket from La Tienda was such a big hit. We loved living in Spain, loved the food, adored grazing from the little plates – the tapas – invitingly set out at bars, loved the fact that a ‘bar’ in Spain was usually not just a seamy joint serving spirituous liquors to an assortment of skeevey low-lives. A bar in Spain was much more likely to be a kind of café, coffee shop and neighborhood club-house, the place housing the pay phones, ATMs, video game machines, and clean bathrooms … and oh, yes – serving snacks and alcoholic drinks of every possible description. It also mildly freaked out many Americans upon discovering that many gas stations on the highway – or autopista – also had very well-stocked bars. Make of that what you will.

Mom’s Christmas basket again revived memories of some wonderful food, although it did not, for instance, include any jamon Serrano – that dried, cured ham which was available practically anywhere, and was a component of so many dishes. It was a rare rustic restaurant which didn’t have a couple of whole curing jamons hanging from the ceiling beams, and a rare bar that didn’t have one on hand for making the little tapas snacks from, with half the flesh shaved away in tissue-paper thin slices. The Spanish equivalent of Costco or Sam’s Club had them for sale in a special section … which it must be admitted, always smelt faintly of cheesy gym socks.
But there was one dish made with jamon Serrano which I loved, and only had once, in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate having followed the old pilgrim road from the Rioja to Asturias – and that was a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon. I went looking for recipes for it, and found one which calls for one lemon cut in half, 1 and ¾ pounds tiny baby artichokes – the ones barely the size of a small egg, before the chokes inside have gotten coarse and inedible, ¼ cup of olive oil, 3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley, 8 thin slices of jamon, also chopped, and salt and pepper.

Fill a large pan with cold water, and squeeze the lemons into it, adding the squeezed lemon halves. Trim the inedible stalk and tough outer leaves from each artichoke, and cut each in half, putting them into the lemon-water immediately; this will prevent them from turning brown. When finished processing the artichokes, put the pan on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the artichokes are tender. Drain, discarding water and lemon halves. Pat the artichokes dry. Heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the artichokes in a single layer. Arrange the artichokes cut-side-down and fry for 5 minutes. Turn them over and fry the other side for two minutes, then add the jamon Serrano and fry for another four minutes, until the jamon is crispy. Place in a serving dish and top with the parsley and ground pepper. Oh, if it were only the season now for baby artichokes, and if Mom’s gift basked had only included jamon Serrano – I would definitely fix this for our Christmas Eve tapas supper!

Texas King Cotton

When Cotton Was King

by Celia Hayes

Amazingly enough, cotton once was king in this part of Texas, even though one thinks more of cattle ranches rather than large-scale cotton production. By the mid 1700s, the Spanish missions established at the headwaters of the San Antonio River produced several thousand pounds of cotton fiber annually, which was spun and woven into cloth for local consumption. The climate was just right to grow cotton, all through the Rio Grande Valley and other more or less temperate regions. Once the threat of Indian raids diminished after the Civil War, and railways opened up access to distant markets, cotton agriculture thrived all across Texas – mostly on a share-cropped basis, where a landowner contracted with an otherwise landless tenant laborer to cultivate and harvest in exchange for a share of the resulting crop.

And cotton grew well – very well indeed, although actual physical relics of it having done so around San Antonio are sparse and most usually in ruins. Before the Civil War it was almost axiomatic that intensive cultivation of cotton speedily exhausted the most fertile soil – but that wasn’t what killed the cotton fields around San Antonio. The not-quite-unexpected disaster came with the arrival of the boll weevil plague – an insect pest which slowly began moving north from Mexico late in the 19th century and hit the American cotton-growing belt in the 1920s. The boll weevil and the stock market crash of 1920 sent local cotton producers into a tail-spin … and by the time efficient pesticides were applied to cotton fields after WWII, many growers and those who made a living from processing the cotton harvest had moved on to other crops – or other means of making a living.

Since the 1920s, suburbia has reached into the vicinity of formerly San Antonio and New Braunfels agricultural lands, but there are some still-existing or repurposed remains. The most noticeable are the ruins of industrial cotton ‘gins’ – ‘gin’ being a shortening of ‘engine’ – that mechanical device developed to efficiently and economically separate the cotton fibers from the seeds. There are three that I know of, although there are probably many more. The most famous that I know is the building in Gruene which now houses the Gristmill Restaurant. Indeed, Gruene was a whole little town built upon the cotton industry. When it all went to nothing in the 1920s, Gruene became stuck in a lovely and preservative kind of stasis, just as it was built in the late 19th and early 20th century. Now it is a destination on the north margin of New Braunfels – and well worth the visit.

The second old cotton gin is out in the fields on the southern fringe of New Braunfels – a little town now a crossroads of secondary roads. It used to be called Comal … and there, in a grove of pecan trees are the yellow-brick ruins and tall chimney stack, along with a brief row of stores which were the center of lively rural life at the same time as Gruene. And in the gentle valley of the Sister Creek there is a third building – a frame one, this time – which also housed a cotton gin, and now serves as the showroom for Sister Creek Winery.

There is still cotton in Texas fields, though; a couple of years ago, I took some pictures of cotton growing near Winters, just south of Abilene – and last year, we spotted huge trailer-truck sized cotton bales just outside Lockhart, at the edge of the parking lot at the Kreuz Market. Cotton – perhaps not king any longer, but still a haunting presence.