This story is my Times Union column from December 2022. It goes along with How to Build a Better Cheese Tray, Pineapple Cranberry Vodka, and Smoked Salmon Carbonara. You can also see it on the TU website here.
One of the really nice things about the end of the year is looking back on it. I like to ponder it, mull it over, pick it apart. I eat up end-of-year lists: the best of books, of albums and movies, best recipes, for sure, and I’ve even read the year in review for sports news, though I don’t particularly care about any sports.
Looking back on my own year, I’ve been thinking about the best things. And I don’t mean the really big events, like graduations and travels and that sort of thing. I mean the little moments, the small, feel-good times. It’s this kind of stuff that makes the hard times bearable (and there were hard times, there will always be hard times). My favorite kind of look-back is about the good stuff, the things that happen regularly and that we might have taken for granted. So here goes: my round up of small, memorable moments of 2022.
First, I’m going all the way back to last winter, and the best thing about it was the time spent outside. I am sure there was sideways sleet against gray skies and I definitely grumbled as I scraped ice off my car, but in my mind, last winter was full of bluebird days, twinkly and bright, with tree limbs heavy under the weight of freshly fallen snow. Paul and I like to put cross-country skis in the car and drive to the mountains and silently swoosh on trails. We eat cheese and nuts after we ski, and drink warm tea from a thermos. Those days were the best of winter.
Later in the year, there was a weekend when Elliot came home from college and for one and a half days, he filled the house. There was the sound of his guitar and piles of his shoes by the front door. He slept late and ate bagels. In the afternoon, we drank tea and played cards. Having him around was like wearing an old sweater: it was comfortable and cozy and I never wanted to take it off.
In the middle of summer, when the sun was hot and the leaves were ripe and green, Zoe took Paul and I to a place she knows, a stream that winds through big trees. We waded and walked and the dogs tore through the water, splashing on our legs. Though I knew the afternoon would end, I wished it wouldn’t; I believe the time we have with our children when they are away from their phones are the very best of times. I knew I would miss the quiet we found together.
There is a lot of food included in my best-of list. There were stone crabs we gorged on in Florida, oysters in Cape Cod. I could list the few fancy restaurants we ate in this year, but what is going on the best-of list are the humble meals, eaten with friends, or even, eaten alone.
You might think this sounds crazy but on my best-of list is a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It had been so long since I had a proper PB&J, too long. A few weeks ago, I spread the peanut butter and then the jelly on squishy whole wheat bread and ate it, standing at the kitchen sink, alone. Few things satisfy like a PB&J; it filled me up, sure, but also reminded me of a time when someone made my sandwiches and the world felt like a smaller place.
Another of the best things I ate this year was a carbonara dish, prepared in a local restaurant. The beauty of good carbonara is in its simplicity. It’s made with pasta, and it should be long noodles (the slurpy kind), a bit of Italian meat, eggs and cheese. Add some black pepper and that’s it. When it’s prepared correctly, it’s dreamy and rich, salty and with a few bites of toothsome cured meat. The night we ate that pasta, we sat in the dark restaurant, warm light from candles, drained bottle of wine still on the table, and we lingered. Our bellies were full and the hour was late. Maybe we were sleepy and just a little bit drunk from the wine but we felt like we couldn’t have eaten any better, no matter where we were in the world.
I wanted to recreate the feeling we had that night so I set about making a carbonara. It takes some quick movement, having everything ready to go before you start, and a small amount of patience (kind of like a lesson in life itself, eh?). I substituted smoked salmon in my recipe, because I like change and the challenge of a twist. The traditional meat is guanciale, an Italian cured meat made from pig’s cheek. The smoked salmon is robust in flavor, has plenty of saltiness, and the smoky flavor works well alongside the creamy pasta. While the pasta is cooking, you can fry sage leaves and mix together the eggs and cheese. Use tongs to remove the pasta from the cooking water, placing it directly into the pan. Keep the pasta cooking water close and use it, a little at a time, to create a creamy sauce.
There’s another sweet moment, this one on our anniversary. Paul and I had no plans and chose to mark the date by staying home and doing nothing, which is sometimes the best way to celebrate. He built a fire and I made us a cheese platter for dinner. A cheese platter is a you-really-don’t-have-any-dinner kind of dinner. But with a few key ingredients and tips for laying it all out, a fancy cheese platter, worthy of anniversary celebrations, is easy to do. I lay out some of my tips for you to take and make as your own.
My last quiet moment was inspired by a boozy drink, given to me years ago. It was a small glass, filled with frosty cold vodka that had been soaked in pineapple. It was the right combination of sweet and bite, and I decided that jars of that would make a cheery holiday gift. My son Luca was home for four and a half short and sweet days over Thanksgiving this year. We did a lot during those days: dinners with family, a mini road trip and lots of games and talking. There was one night when he helped me make jars of pineapple vodka, and we stood at the counter, packing in fruit, topping it with booze, closing the lids. It was one of the soft and still times this year that I hold dear. We did it together, not saying much. I reveled in having him close, when every other day of the year, he is thousands of miles away. We made pineapple vodka together, and the next morning, he was gone, on a plane to the west coast.
Looking at my best-of list for 2022, there’s clearly a theme. I mix up family, nature, food and sometimes, a sip or two of booze. It’s a recipe for peace, for love and for time well spent with the people I love.