Years ago, my favorite New Year’s Day activity was climbing to the top of Granite Mountain, a short drive outside Prescott, AZ, where I lived for four years. It wasn’t a particularly challenging climb except for, oh, the last 1,500 feet or so.
It seemed that the first day of each new year in Prescott was always cold, clear and bright; perfect for sitting on top of a mountain, nearly 8,000 feet in the air, reflecting on the year gone by. What did I learn? What did I need to haul with me into the new year for more work?
In my past 20 years in San Antonio, I have missed climbing that mountain. But, metaphorically, there are still mountains to climb and always will be.
This year, though, I’m going to take a break from deep thoughts, such as they are. Instead, it would be more fun to remember some of the year’s small, but welcome, discoveries of a foodie nature.
- Because I had a little more time on my hands this year I finally began growing vegetables instead of just herbs and xeriscape gardens. My favorite finding: A patio grape tomato plant is hardy and prolific. I still can’t seem to grow the big tomatoes, but what a pleasure it was to use the delicious, tiny ones in salads and stir fries.
- Also, in my determination to not commit one of my in-law’s mistakes and plant too much okra, I only planted two plants. That wasn’t enough. Next year, I’ll try a half dozen.
- In September, I came across a packet of mesclun seeds that were a year or two old. What a lovely mix of mache and oak leaf lettuce, lola rossa, arugula and more. I planted the seeds and, old or not, they came up. They seem to be impervious to frost. I’m serving the little greens now in salads and on appetizer plates.
- Year after year, when I wanted to use fresh thyme I’d snip a few stems from the bush and bring them inside. Then, I’d rinse them off and painstakingly pluck the leaves off the branches to use in soups and stews. One day, when I didn’t have much time, or patience, I just tossed the twigs of thyme (after washing them) into the broth I wanted to season. What happened? The tiny leaves simply fell off the branches after simmering for a short while. It was much simpler pulling the stripped branches out of the broth than plucking off those leaves. (OK, this is what I meant by “small” things.)
- I really learned how to poach an egg, simply because I had to teach someone to do it. Unfortunately, the eggs we poached during our cooking lesson weren’t the greatest. My student was forgiving but I went back to the task a few weeks later and did it right — acidulated water (I used white wine vinegar because that was all I had on hand) in a skillet rather than a saucepan — is what did the trick. Why did I never learn this before? Because I don’t like poached eggs, and almost never make them. There is a long and not-too-interesting story why, which we’ll not go into today.
- I’ve been making meatloaf since I was 9 years old at my mom’s instructions. I don’t make it often but, as we all know, sometimes only meatloaf will do.Recently I made meatloaf and it turned out to be the best I’d ever made. Here is the only thing I did differently: I added a cup of milk to the mixture of beef and veal, remembering this from a recipe I’d seen online a few weeks earlier. What made it the best was the texture: It wasn’t loose and crumbly, it was moist but had a firm density to it that made it especially good for slicing when cold, for meatloaf sandwiches. (With mayonnaise and mustard on sourdough bread, of course.)
I know I’ve learned more “little” things this year, but I didn’t write them all down. I do have faith they’ll hop out of the general memory bank at the time I need them. No, it’s not mountain climbing, but amassing foodie wisdom, however trivial it may seem, has its own great rewards.