1) The Roasted Tomatillo Salsa Verde at ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food I really wasn't expecting to find my ideal green sauce at ZuZu. This salsa isn't just good; it is archetypal. It is the very essence of what salsa verde is meant to be: mild yet robust in flavor, complex, earthy, and unforgettable. I am thunderstruck that it has not (yet) won the Salsa Verde category in the annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival.
2) I am astounded at the difference in quality between whole-leaf tea and mass-produced supermarket tea bags Iced tea is my beverage of choice; I probably drink a gallon a day. Seriously. Discovering Tea Embassy (900 Rio Grande) and switching from grade Z tea-dust-in-a-bag to the fresh, sparkling, clear flavor of whole-leaf tea has made me a proselytizing convert.
3) I have been deeply surprised (and humbled) that a lifelong vegetable gardener like myself, who gardens in Central Texas (where few of the "temperate zone" rules apply) could actually be taught a thing or two by a damned Yankee gardener. The Way We Garden Now, by Katherine Whiteside, has become my No. 1 gardening book; I have bought more copies of it to give to friends than any other book this year.
4) I was very surprised to discover that when whole grains are sprouted prior to being baked into bread, they are transformed from (primarily) carbohydrate into 80-90% easily assimilated protein. I knew sprouted-grain bread is health-foody and "better for you"; I didn't realize that it changed its composition entirely! The sprouting process considerably enhances the food value of all grains, and if the sprouted-grain waffles and pizzas at DaVine Foods (1412 W. Oltorf) are any indication, sprouted grains are more satisfying and flavorful, too.
5) Absolutely the best surprise in the cookbook department: The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis. Her insights concerning seasonal cooking and the local foodways of her childhood (now a hundred years distant) are so timely today that this has become the workhorse of my cookbook shelf. I am amazed I ever lived without it!
6) It was a shock to find out that, during times that Austin was innocent of any such establishment, Georgetown was enjoying authentic Italian pizza at Paisanos Pizza & Pasta – for more than a decade! "Old-country" Italian couple Rosa and Giuseppe Bebe are the genuine article: hardworking, elderly immigrants who would never dream of deviating a jot from traditional ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pizzas they make: From the buffalo mozzarella to the handmade meatballs, these pies are heaven on earth.
7) I was astonished to discover that restaurants can use compostable potato-starch "plasticware" and biodegradable takeout containers, as salad cafe Leaf does; it turns out we don't have to cover the earth with Styrofoam! C'mon, everybody: If we make a big enough fuss, maybe every other restaurant in town will follow suit. It has also been a surprise, and a pleasant one, that Leaf (419 W. Second) has managed to succeed, despite the fact that it is in the middle of a construction maelstrom.
8) I was surprised to find famous local brewmaster Brian Peters quietly plying his craft at Uncle Billy's Brew & Que (1530 Barton Springs Rd.). As a founding brewer at the Bitter End and Live Oak Brewery, Peters has long had a nearly cult following, and with good reason: His beers and ales are stellar and show a dizzying versatility. A longtime champion of Old World brewing methods, Peters is putting Austin back on the brewing map.
9) This sounds like a dig, but it really isn't: I was surprised that the sandwich counter at Whole Foods Downtown is such a good deal! The sandwiches cost around $6, and they are fantastic. Premium cold cuts, European cheeses, a panorama of fresh ingredients, and speedy service; plus, sandwiches can be toasted on a hot press for no extra charge. Until I tried one, I just didn't get it; now I know why the sandwich counter always has the longest line.
10) Following up on the simple, self-generated press release about her book, Your Healing Diet, I was very surprised to learn that Deirdre Earls had, in a short period of time, already burgeoned to national prominence. What was intended to be a mention turned into a feature article, and I have no doubt that we'll be seeing Earls all over the TV in 2008.
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