2011 Resolutions of Culinary Variety, with a Look Back at 2010

Last year I was inspired by the guys over at The Bitten Word to think about what my cooking-related priorities might be for 2010. It was a fun exercise last year and it set my culinary year off on the right foot, so I’m doing it again this year.

I called my 2010 priorities resolutions, and I’m using that terminology again here because it’s seasonally appropriate. However, because resolutions seem to be made to be broken, I really am thinking of them as guideposts for how I want to make myself a better cook – and by extension blogger – in 2011.

But first, I’m going to take a quick look back at last year as a reminder of my accomplishments and as an input into this year’s (continuing) priorities.

2010 – It Was a Pretty Good Year

Last year I had 8 resolutions that I had varying success with. If I were using the standard business green, yellow, red status markers, I’d have few in each category.

Green: Done and Done!

I made a good showing in three of my resolutions this year and each changed my perspective on food and cooking for the better:

  • Learn to bake bread. I joined a virtual baking group and learned to make bread the easy way using the techniques in Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. While I didn’t bake my way through the entire book as many in my group did, I made a free form loaf and epi baguette, as well as my own sandwich bread, hamburger buns, and an apple-stuffed loaf.
  • Learn to make authentic jambalaya and paella. For a Mardi Gras host a murder party I threw, I made the jambalaya recipe from John Besh’s My New Orleans. It was surprisingly easy and had a tremendous depth of flavor. I also got to meet Chef Besh this year and only made a small fool of myself when he walked up to me and said “Hi, I’m John Besh”. This year I’m hoping to visit his newly opened Luke restaurant in San Antonio. Continuing with the rice and meat theme, I also learned to make paella at a paella party with some of my local food bloggers. We made a traditional seafood paella as well as two different meat paellas. I think what I loved most about making each of these dishes was the family-style nature of both. It’s fun to cook dishes like this for a big crowd and there’s nothing I love more than having a well-fed group at my dining room table.
  • Spend more of my grocery dollars locally. I made a concerted effort this year to shop at farmers markets and was successful thanks in large part to the support of Kristi Willis from Austin Farm to Table. There are so many markets around town that it’s just as easy to get to a market as it is to get to the grocery store. With some smart shopping, local purchases fit into my typical weekly grocery budget, and I know I’ve done the right thing by supporting local producers. I also moved beyond farmers markets to support local artisans and specialty markets. I buy almost all of my cheese from the ever-popular Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, preserves from Confituras, sausages and specialty butcher shop products from Dai Due, charcuterie from the Kocureks and Salt & Time, and olive oil from Con’ Olio (just to name a few). While it sometimes means an extra trip to visit a local artisan or shop, these are the very small businesses that form the foundation of the community I love so much and I want to help keep them successful.

Yellow: Could Have Been Better

I made good headway on a couple of my priorities but wish I’d done more:

  • Cook and eat more vegetables. While I didn’t join a CSA or grow my own vegetables, I did take baby steps towards growing my own food by starting a small herb garden (thanks entirely to help from my friend Carla at Austin Urban Gardens). I’m more comfortable now with the idea that I can grow at least some of my own food, so that’s a big step in the right direction.
  • Eat more meals at home. I made significant strides in having healthy breakfasts at home this year by making and freezing big batches of muffins. From blueberry muffins in the spring to pumpkin muffins in the fall, having a quick breakfast option I can munch on during my commute really helped me reduce the calories and money I used to waste at fast food restaurants. I still enjoy breakfast tacos on Friday, but they are a treat instead of the norm. I didn’t do as good of a job on making my lunch at home and we ate dinner out more than I liked.

Red: Opportunities for 2011

Not surprisingly, some of the items on my list simply didn’t happen. Rather than seeing them as failures for 2010, I’m looking at them as opportunities for 2011:

  • Learn to make gnocchi from scratch. It’s not for a lack of opportunities that I missed on this priority in 2010. I wrote about gnocchi classes in my area multiple times last year and I just didn’t quite get to one.
  • Make wild boar ragù. Last year I acquired two key elements of the ragu: The boar and a huge Le Creuset pot. The boar is still in my freezer and the pot is well seasoned, so all I have to do in early 2011 is make the ragu.
  • Make my own stocks. I know, I know, it’s just silly that I don’t do this. It’s not that I don’t know how – and it’s not that I haven’t made stock before; I just don’t do it on a regular enough basis. I blame the great organic stocks available at my local Central Market. If I’m honest with myself, this may be a dirty foodie secret that I continue to keep until I have a bit more time on my hand. If purchased organic stock is one of my big kitchen cheats, I think I can probably live with that.

Looking Ahead to 2011

My experiences from last year taught me a couple of things:

  • I need to do quarterly check-ins on my resolutions so I keep them firmly in mind and in the case of specific dishes I want to make, work them into my cooking schedule. I’ve already added tasks to my electronic to-do list to be sure this happens.
  • Remember that priorities change and that’s okay. As long as I’m cooking good, healthy food that’s what really matters.

With those things in mind, I’ve organized my resolutions into groups the represent the big three priorities in my culinary world, which should help me keep the big picture in mind as I move through the year:

Expand My Culinary Horizons and Capabilities

Tackling a particular dish or technique is really all about expanding my skills and growing as a cook. I have three dishes on my list for 2011:

  • Gnocchi: I still really want to learn this technique because there are so many interesting things to be done with this traditional dish.
  • Wild boar ragu: I’m also carrying this resolution over from 2010 because I have the pot and the pig; now it’s time to make the sauce.
  • Duck confit: While it’s very easy to buy pre-made duck confit from reputable sources both locally and nationally, I really want to know how to make it myself. Maybe it’s because I have an unnatural love of duck fat. Who knows, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Also in 2011 I am intent on learning the basics of canning and preserving. When I was growing up my family had a huge garden and my grandmother put away endless jars of fruits and vegetables to enjoy long after their seasons were past. I can almost taste her spiced peaches, bread and butter pickles, and jalapeno salsa as I write this. While I don’t envision that I’ll ever preserve in the volume that she did, I feel like this is something I need to know how to do and it will help keep me connected to the traditions of my family kitchen that continue to inspire me today.

Make Healthy Food Choices

When I think back to how I ate when I was younger and how I fed my family in the first few years after my daughter was born, I am in awe of how far we’ve come. We’ve almost entirely cut fast food from our lives, processed foods are few and far between, and when we eat out, we make choices based on quality ingredients and trustworthy sources. Still, making healthy food choices, particularly in today’s world, is decidedly a journey and not a destination. To that end, I’m carrying over two of my goals from last year into this year:

  • Cook and eat more vegetables. As a family we don’t follow the “fill ½ of the plate with vegetables” guideline like we should. To help us with this in 2011 I’m going to make two vegetable options every evening and look for ways to make it easier to incorporate vegetables into other meals. I may still join a CSA because I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to grow a substantial amount of veggies, but I’m committed to growing some of our own as well.
  • Eat more meals at home. People sometimes ask me how I do it all (family, work, blog, and running), and I often reply that I don’t always do it all well and sometimes I just plain don’t get it all done. Often dinner during the week is the first sacrifice I make when I’m tired, need to play mom the taxi driver, or want to get a blog post put together. This year I’m going to focus heavily on how to make weeknight dinners easy without undoing the good progress we’ve made as a family on eating fresh, whole foods. I’m hoping to use my freezer and crockpot more, and I may even try the Once a Month Cooking approach for particularly busy months. I’ll also be participating in Menu Plan Monday to help keep the focus on eating at home with support from my wonderful readers. Finally, I’m going to co-op my family more and get their help in the kitchen. My daughter already had a growing repertoire of dishes she can make and my husband will be learning to cook from Recipes Every Man Should Know.

Support the Austin Food Community

Much like keeping the focus on healthy eating is a journey, so is keeping my local focus. Happily, the two are inexorably linked and focus on one will help support the other. I will continue to expand my rolodex (as it were) of interesting local food producers and artisans, and of course I’ll share them over on Austin Food Lovers’ Companion for my local readers and visitors alike. Regardless of where you live, I hope you’ll join me in making supporting your local food community a priority. When our local food systems are strong, our local ecosystems and families are strong. It’s a win-win proposition for everyone involved.

How Was Your 2010? What’s In Store for 2011?

Thank you for taking this stroll with me down memory lane and looking forward to 2011. In return, I’d love to know more about your successes and challenges in 2010 as well as what your priorities are for 2011. Please share them in the comments.

Happy New Year!

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