Buc-ee’s … a Texas treasure

On our way home from San Antonio to Houston we stopped at Buc-ee’s in Luling. It’s one of their flagship stores. They call Buc-ee’s a convenience store. Heck, they call it lots of things, but a convenience store doesn’t immediately come to my mind. It’s more like one of those special hometown places that has a lot of everything … gas, ice, snacks, Buc-ee’s t-shirts and other memorabilia, fishing and camping gear … probably even school supplies … but I could be wrong about that last one.

They are famous for their Beaver Nuggets which are caramel and butter-glazed corn puffs. I grabbed a large bag along with some BBQ glazed jerky.

“Ricky and I munched out on a bag when we drove out to California about a year back. The stuff is awesome,” my husband stated.

Honestly, I felt like a bee in the middle of a very busy hive walking through the place. The place was buzzing with people and goodies. There is a bakery counter with tasty-looking treats like pecan pie Kolaches, blueberry scones and an assortment of cookies. I loved the sign that read “Glad to heat your Kolache or pastry upon request.” Heck, they had me at Kolache.

There was a counter with a couple young ladies making all kinds of BBQ sandwiches. Hubby got the pulled pork and I ordered a turkey for the road. Wish we had the time to drive into Luling proper for some of their righteous BBQ but it was not to be.

Did you know Buc-ee’s is famous for the “Cleanest Restrooms in America?” I can attest to that one. First time I entered the restroom “Ode to Joy” starting playing in my head. There were tons of stalls with red and green lights signifying an “opening.” No more quick peeks under the door for a vacancy. And my stall had a pile of toilet paper rolls and hand sanitizer. Their billboard is really true … the “#1 reason to visit Buc-ee’s is #1 and #2.” A little cornball Texas humor … but it totally works.

Of course with billboard signs from Houston to Luling like “Ice, beer, jerky: The 3 Food Groups” and “If It Harms Beavers, We’re Against It,” we were destined for a pit stop. Besides, we have a son still stationed in the Middle East and Buc-ee’s was the perfect place to fill up his next care package with goodies. I even threw in some official Buc-ee’s napkins. A mom can’t be too sure with those sequestration cutbacks if the government is going to cut back on our airmen’s napkins. Just saying.

Rollin’ … rollin’ … on San Antonio’s River Walk

It’s been several years since, like Credence Clearwater Revival used to sing, we went “rollin’ down the river.” Or should I say River Walk. Last weekend I noticed several pleasant surprises. Oh, the infamous Casa Rio restaurant is still there with their reasonable priced plates of all things Tex-Mex and margaritas. I like mine on the rocks … no salt if you please.

The lush landscaping and fountains have expanded way beyond the downtown River Walk. And the Alamo is still located across the street from the Hyatt and historic Menger Hotels. No way anyone would be messing with my Alamo.

What I noticed this time was a new river taxi, with flowing checkered flags, that wasn’t there the last time we visited. The River Walk hasn’t gotten rid of their entertaining river barge tours. They cost between eight and two bucks per person depending on your age and last 35 minutes. Highly recommend this little tour if you are a newbie to the river. It’s a slow, lazy ride down and around the populated downtown part of the River Walk with lots of funny and historical commentary from the boat captain. Don’t miss the gargoyles on the insurance building.

The river taxi shuttle service (prices vary depending on your need and how far you want to go) will take you down the same parts of the river as the river barge tour, but also north to the museum district (lots of funky art hangin’ from the bridges in this area) and beyond, to the old Pearl Brewery area. And no, Pearl Beer is no longer brewed. But the historic area is being lovingly repurposed. There is a culinary institute (check out their bakery … we did), some shopping (linger at “The Twig Book Shop”), a few restaurants and venues for specials events like corporate meetings, weddings and receptions (the “Stable” was hosting a wedding reception while we were there). It is a few years away from being a real destination but certainly worth the trip up the river for a long peek.

And if that doesn’t convince you to check out the Pearl Brewery area, when you take the river taxi, your barge will have to pass through the only lock and dam in the whole state of Texas. It’s pretty cool if you don’t have the Panama Canal on your bucket list. Just saying.

I also noticed how much more accessible the River Walk was to strollers and wheelchairs. It hasn’t been that many years since we took a family vacation to San Antonio with our special needs daughter in tow. It was pretty much a disaster getting Mimi around on the River Walk. Not so today. Back then there was one elevator down to the River Walk but you couldn’t go far. This time I noticed two elevators and lots of ramping in areas that used to have steps.

But that’s the River Walk … it’s a great place to relax, eat a little Tex-Mex, drink a margarita, and watch the lazy river roll on by.

These biscuits are not for wimps

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA “Can I make a request for dinner? Would you make those cheese and pepper biscuits tomorrow? We can have breakfast for dinner,” Rick said.

My husband of 40 years was born and raised in Texas and loves biscuits of all persuasions.

We have this Texas cookbook with a great recipe for Cheddar and Black Pepper Biscuits. I’d have to say it’s the black pepper that gives them a lot of character and a little bit of sass. Check the recipe tab of this blog to find out how to make your own!

The biscuits were paired with the most wonderful whole sour cherry preserves on the planet. The label says they were imported from Serbia. Actually we purchased the preserves from a specialty store just because the jar was so darn beautiful. Turned out what is in the inside of the jar is just as awesome. Close your eyes and picture pitted sweet cherries swimming around in a pool of the richest, darkest cherry juices. I know … made me tear up also.

Now all you need are a couple of eggs over easy and some orange juice in a wine glass. How about a toast … to love, life and family!

A love story at Trader Joe’s

Why has it taken me so long to be formally introduced to Trader Joe’s? I know … what galaxy am I from … right?

Before last week I only knew some basic tidbits about Trader Joe’s. First, it is a grocery-related type of establishment started way out west in California. Second, they are apparently famous for selling Two Buck Chuck … a “cheap” wine beverage. That’s it! I knew nothin’ else about the place. Hey, I live in the Houston area. We’ve only just recently gotten a couple of Trader Joe’s locations. It made huge news here in Texas.

The fun part about writing a blog is sometimes you gotta go on a field trip when an idea creeps into your head. With camera in tow, I drove the 20+ miles to the Houston location on South Shepherd to figure out for myself just what was so special about Trader Joe’s. Oh, and get something for dinner. I’m always struggling with what to make for dinner.

So Trader Joe’s opened a store in an old building that used to be a bookstore … that used to be a movie theater. The theater was called the Alabama Theater. Hubby and I saw “Love Story” in that building when it came out on one of our first dates. I still recall the tears in Rick’s eyes. We were waiting in a long line to go in. And no … the tears had nothin’ to do with the storyline. The dude was knowingly going to watch a chick flick.

Thankfully, Trader Joe’s kept lots of the architectural elements of the old theater building. I liked that. The bright red grocery carts were also a nice touch. I was a little confused about the Fearless Flyer. I think it’s a list of specials but I could be wrong. I put one in my cart to read later but it disappeared. I think the check-out lady swiped it. Recycling must be one of their agendas.

I wandered around and around the aisles for about an hour picking up a few items here and there. My daughter told me I would do that. My friend, Beth, told me the mac and cheese with four cheeses on the frozen food aisle was awesome! Got it! Oh, and don’t forget about the cheesecake in the bright blue box, also frozen food.

I took a picture of the famous Two Buck Chuck. Totally expected it to be packaged in a plastic bottle. Wasn’t I surprised to learn Chuck is actually Charles Shaw Winery? And the glass bottle and label is actually quite nice looking. Oh, and it cost $2.99 and comes in lots of “flavors.” Wasn’t brave enough to get a bottle. Next time.

Just so you know … I’ve never had an In-N-Out Burger either. I know … I might as well be from Pluto … and it isn’t even a planet anymore!

Brisket, ribs and sausage … oh my!

We are serious about our barbecue at the Frantz house. It’s definitely a Texas thang handed down through the ages. The photos are from last year’s family BBQ tour. Luling City Market is rated one of the top five in the state. I sincerely concur with Texas Monthly magazine’s assessment.

My husband … now he has some mean skills on the grill. My favorite is his brisket. Me … I am in charge of the sides. I make a downright righteous potato salad. Still working on my cole slaw.

It’s one of the things our son is missing at the moment. Ricky is in the Air Force and getting close to halfway through a six-month deployment in the Middle East. I’m not allowed to tell where exactly. Yep, but I’m keeping track of the days till his return on the chalkboard Santa got me for Christmas this year. Only 114 more days … but who is counting?

Thanks to modern technology, we FaceTime chat with Ricky every Sunday morning around the breakfast table, slurping juice and crunching breakfast cereal, before heading to church. This past week he had a request.

“Mom, I need some more barbecue sauce. I donated my last two bottles to our squadron’s New Year’s feast,” Ricky said.

When Ricky got there before Thanksgiving he mentioned the food was terrible.

“They boil all the meat. I don’t know why. The barbecue sauce will help mask some of the blandness,” said our son.

It’s why I mailed our son several more bottles of KC Masterpiece BBQ Sauce this week. I’m his official barbecue sauce supplier. Thought it was interesting when the postal clerk asked me if the box contained any perfume or liquids.

“Does barbecue sauce count as a liquid?” I glared, narrowing my eyeballs in his direction.

I knew the answer and wondered what he was going to do about it. After about thirty seconds he just shrugged his shoulders and stamped the package with postage. Guess BBQ sauce might be on the official liquid exemption list … or maybe he knew better not to mess with an airmen’s momma.

Now if I can just figure out how to mail Ricky one of his dad’s briskets …

Lesson learned … and how about some soup?

Think I went to the grocery store five times this week. I should rent a room.

So yesterday my list included ingredients for a Tex-Mex Chicken Soup. It is bone chilling cold outside and soup just sounded good to me while flipping through a couple of cookbooks. I’ll share that recipe with you later.

At the top of my list, besides a can of green chilies and chicken stock, was an extra-jumbo bag of rawhide chips for Lulu. Our English Springer Spaniel loves to chew … a lot … and she was down to her last rawhide strip! To say Lulu is a rawhide junkie is putting it mildly. We have her down to two a day.

When the clerk rang me up and it was over $90, I thought … what just happened here? Of course I purchased bunches of other food items so I just stuck the receipt in my checkbook to subtract later and left the store. It is what it is … right? I shoulda listened to my gut. Isn’t that what Oprah used to say before she started her own network?

Two days later I glanced closely at the receipt and discovered … what the heck … I’d been charged twice for Lulu’s chews. That’s two times $10.97, plus tax. Geez Louise! There is a lesson to be learned here … and we already know what that is! Customer Service is not just for purchasing your car tags or paying your utility bill I can tell you that.

But back to what’s for dinner. I’ve got this great soup cookbook that has … no kidding … 900 soup recipes. It says it right on the cover. Actually, that could be stretching it a tad. There is a whole chapter on chili, which to me, seems in a class all by itself. Always thought of chili as more like a stew than a soup. Heck, we can debate that one if you want. So let’s cook some soup!

Serves 4+

1 rotisserie chicken (2 cups of boneless chicken shredded)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups chicken stock
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cups thawed frozen whole-kernel corn
1-14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 small can green chilies, drained
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
Liberal dashes of salt and pepper
Crumbled tortilla chips and some shredded cheese for sprinkling on top

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan, or soup pot, over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots and sauté for 10 minutes. Add cilantro, chicken stock, crushed tomatoes, green chilies, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, cover for 20 minutes. Add corn and chicken and heat through. Sprinkle with tortilla chips and shredded cheese on top in bowls.

Adapted from Reader’s Digest “The Ultimate Soup Cookbook

Nothin’ quite like my sister’s …

Potato RollsMy little sister, Gretchen, is an exceptional cook. She has one standout recipe that is a Frantz family favorite. In fact, it adorns our table most all of the major holidays … Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Groundhog’s Dog … you get the picture.

Yep, I seem to recall a time or two when the family was in menu development mode it was the item we built the whole meal around. Gretchen’s shining gem of a recipe is … official drum roll please … potato rolls. Bet you thought I was going to say something like rack of lamb or that beef dish only Julia Child can pronounce.

The legend goes that many years ago Gretchen took a mediocre recipe and substituted real butter for shortening or some other oily substance. Then she turned right around and, kinda like Tinkerbell with her Disney magic wand, made another change. The sugar component vanished and in was poured fragrant sticky honey. It’s hard to decide what makes these rolls sing the loudest … the butter … or the honey. We took a poll at our house once and the honey won. Those bees really know what they are doin’.

Don’t take my word for it. I won $25 in a recipe contest held by our local newspaper many years ago with the potato rolls. Our oldest was two or three at the time. I gave the winnings to my sister. Katie and I got our picture in the newspaper. I made sure our daughter was perched on the kitchen counter covered in flour when the reporter was scheduled to come by. Nothing says “major cute” than a two-year-old dusted with a little Gold Medal flour.

Gretchen gave me permission to share the recipe but I have to warn you they take some effort. Check the recipe tab of this blog. There is yeast, some kneading, and rising twice involved. You will not be disappointed.

Blackened and most memorable

I stopped by our local Hallmark Shop last week for a couple of sheets of fancy-looking Thanksgiving-themed paper. Actually, it’s the sort of pretty paper used to print party invites on. I use them to handwrite our holiday menus. Our daughter, Katie, has the artistic flair in the family, so she has handwriting duty.

Every year we audition a couple of new recipes for the holidays along with our favorite tried-and-true dishes. The menu this year kinda looked like this: hickory-smoked turkey with horseradish applesauce, mixed greens and goat cheese with bacon-wrapped figs, homemade orange liquored cranberry sauce, citrus-glazed carrots, sourdough dressing with sausage and dates, sweet potato rolls with honey butter, mashed potatoes and gravy … and for dessert pumpkin cheesecake tart and thick-as-mud chocolate pie. It all tasted as good as it reads … except for … well …

This year I’ve decided to make some notes on the back of the menu like who attended the Frantz family festivities and a couple of memories of the day. Yep, memories like the sourdough dressing with sage-inspired sausage and dates (the recipe called for figs) was the best stuffing ever. And where have bacon-wrapped figs been all my life? Oh, and the delicious pumpkin cheesecake tart from her new Smitten Kitchen cookbook our daughter crafted from scratch that almost wasn’t. Katie didn’t like the thinness of the pumpkin part of the recipe and almost threw the whole thing in the trash. Thanks to our new son-in-law the tart was saved.

Did I mention there was a very important football game on while the finishing touches were being put on the Turkey Day meal? It was the Texans vs. the Lions. We had survived one tense overtime just the week before. Would we survive another? The citrus-glazed carrots were on the grill when the game went into overtime. And you know how long “overtime” sometimes takes in a football game? Let’s just say it was way more than the four to six minutes needed for adding grill marks to carrots.

One of the reasons we make up holiday menu cards is somewhere between the blessing and going through the buffet line, I run a reality check to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. One year a batch of rolls got left in the oven for a week because I just forgot them.

“Where are the carrots?” I remarked in alarm.

Two sets of eyeballs opened wide, my husband and son-in-law, as they realized they were still on the grill. Let’s just call the citrus-glazed carrots this year’s most blackened and memorable dish. Funniest thing you’ve ever seen! It further lightened the Thanksgiving mood as family stories would soon make it around the table.

In a few days I’ll make my way back to our local Hallmark shop. I need some of that pretty paper for makin’ Christmas menu memories.

Not enough time in California Wine Country

My husband and I recently returned from our first visit to wine country. Our reason for heading to the Sonoma area actually had nothing to do with wine. But we managed to squeak in a couple of days just the same. Before our visit, I bought a book about everything you ever wanted to know about the area and then got thoroughly confused. I asked everyone I knew for recommendations and decided there were just too many choices for the two short days we would be hangin’ there. What follows is where we wound up!

North of Santa Rosa is a quaint little town called Healdsburg. It has a lovely town plaza surrounded by wine tasting shops, boutiques, nice restaurants, two dynamite bakeries, a memorable art gallery and even a tiny quilt shop called Fabrications. We lingered the longest in the Oakville Grocery, bookstore and kitchen shop!

We didn’t have a huge amount of advance notice when we booked the trip, so I was a tad concerned about finding nice accommodations. The B&B we chose was actually our third choice, as two other options were full. The Haydon Street Inn (www.haydon.com) was built in 1912 and restored with the perfect mixture of old and modern. It far exceeded our expectations. The Victorian mansion is a five-block stroll from all the action in the town square of Healdsburg. Our hosts were John, a former executive chef from Churchill Downs in Kentucky, and Keran. Can this guy cook!!! We stayed in the huge Cottage Suite. Separate from the main house, it has a claw-footed tub and modern shower and lots of lovely touches.

Every morning John cooked up an amazing three-course gourmet breakfast for guests in the main house. The cold raspberry soup, grilled grapefruit and ham/cheese omelet were my favorite. In the evening there is a reception with local wine and snacks. Did I mention that John built a pizza oven in the backyard? I know … I had to do a double-take when I saw it. You should see him hand toss that pizza dough. My favorite pizza was the pesto topped with cheese and artichokes. Are you drooling yet?

We soon learned restaurants require reservations and Keran made them all for us. We loved Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar (small plate fare to share … loved the lobster rolls), Ravenous (teeny tiny place with amazing food/great desserts) and Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar (www.zinrestaurant.com) touts farm fresh at your table. Oh, and we also ate lunch at The Girl & the Fig (www.thegirlandthefig.com) in Sonoma after hitting a winery tour in the morning. Loved it!

Come back next week. I’ll be writing about the winery tour/tasting we took!