How a cooking class outside Blanco made me a believer in Texas-grown ingredients.
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Whenever I brag that the Hill Country, with its gaggle of wineries, cheese whizzes, and tenacious farmers, is considered the Texas equivalent of Napa Valley (only without the snoots), I get plenty of pop-eyed looks from nonbelievers. Well, go, ye doubters, to the rollicking landscape outside Blanco and there do seek out Onion Creek Kitchens at Juniper Hills Farm, where chef and proprietress Travis “Sibby” Barrett will preach the culinary miracles of locally begotten ingredients.
Although Barrett has been conducting cooking classes at the farm for almost three years, I could never manage to squeeze into one of her perpetually sold-out tutorials until recently. And while I would have been perfectly happy with any of the dinner-party-type classes or a flour-up-to-my-elbows pie-baking workshop, I was always most intrigued by her Hill Country excursion weekends, when Barrett and her students spend the day trekking to area farm stands and specialty shops for local ingredients that they then transform into a Saturday night feast. The Wednesday night class I finally took was a crash-course version wherein Barrett had done advanced foraging so that the assembled students could concentrate solely on fashioning a revelatory dinner from the raw stuff.
By the time my six other classmates and I had gathered in the farm’s kitchen, an expansive space splashed with candy-colored tiles and stainless steel and outfitted with enough knives, cutting boards, vibrant pottery, and small appliances to stock a cook’s shop, Barrett had indeed already amassed a tableful of ingredients worthy of a foodie-porn photo shoot: purple hull peas, tomatoes and potatoes, lettuces, peaches plucked from the tree that afternoon, cubes of feta cheese marinated in olive oil and rosemary, a loaf of whole-grain bread, and more. But before the evening of improv began, our class was in for a surprise—a trip to the Arnosky Family Farm’s Texas Specialty Cut Flowers, just two miles down the road. After ten minutes max in the vegetable patch, we had harvested a boxload of green beans, yellow and acorn squash, basil, Swiss chard, and dill. Behold, skeptics!
Back in the kitchen, surrounded by our vast pickings—which, in case you carnivores are beginning to worry, were supplemented with nonforaged lamb chops—we began brainstorming, our creativity marinating nicely in a little Viognier from the Mandola Estate Winery, in nearby Driftwood. Soon, without a written recipe in sight, the tempura veggies were sizzling, the peaches were blanched and peeled for a fruit crisp, the bread was grilled and the tomatoes chopped for bruschetta, peach marmalade vinaigrette was whisked, peas and beans married, and the potatoes and squash cubed and roasting. While we sliced and diced, Barrett, who came to commercial cooking more than two decades ago (when she opened a bakery, Dallas Affaires Cake Company, that has since become the city’s premier purveyor of special-occasion cakes—think edible sculptures), dispensed pearls of wisdom, like how the older an egg is, the easier it is to peel when hard-boiled and how you want to dissolve a salad dressing’s ingredients in the acid base (vinegar or citrus juice) before whisking in the oil. But her most inspirational advice had to do more with the joys of organization than actual cookery. A self-professed neat freak—the regimental demeanor of her refrigerator and pantry bear witness to this claim—Barrett so persuasively proclaimed the time-saving and fun-enhancing benefits of making a pantry list, categorizing dry goods and condiments, pre-mixing oft-used spice combos, and labeling everything in the freezer that, the very next day, I cleaned my fridge, freezer, pantry, and clothes closet.
Fortunately, Barrett’s compulsion doesn’t preclude an otherwise easygoing and genuinely hospitable nature, evidenced not only during the class and over dinner but even more concretely in the farm’s trio of stylish rental cabins—one a two-story duplex, one with an outdoor shower, the last with a Tuscany-evoking sunrise view, and all colorful interpretations of Texas Hill Country vernacular. Set among stone walkways fringed with Mexican feather grass and lavender, the cabins look out over a manicured lawn to a boccie court and a field of frisking goats. Best of all, the accommodations—a true blessing after an evening of sanctioned gluttony—are a short stroll from the farm’s newest addition: a vanishing-edge swimming pool ringed with lounge chairs, the perfect vantage point from which to digest your newfound beliefs.
ONION CREEK Kitchens AT JUNIPER HILLS FARM
On Ranch Road 165, north of Blanco (specific directions supplied upon registration). Classes from $65; accommodations from $120. 830-833-0910, juniperhillsfarm.com.
WHILE YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
Praise the larder by stocking it with the area’s agri-chic offerings. Inside the big, very blue barn at Texas Specialty Cut Flowers/Arnosky Family Farm, you can score not only bouquets and bedding plants but also veggies, herbs, and local cheeses (at the corner of Ranch Roads 165 and 2325, eight miles east of Blanco. Saturday 9 to 5, 830-833-5428, texascolor.com). The Deutsch Apple bakes addictive pies, cobblers, and muffins using locally grown apples, pecans, and peaches (602 Chandler, at the corner of Ranch Roads 165 and 163, east of the Blanco square. Closed Sunday, 866-329-2253, homemadepies.com). At Wimberley’s Bella Vista Ranch, one of the state’s few olive farms, you can taste and buy oil, wine, and jams (along with condiments from—gasp—Napa Valley), tour the orchard, and attend a hands-on olive oil pressing in the fall (3101 Mt. Sharp Road, Wimberley. Thursday through Sunday, 512-847-6514, bvranch.com).