Seasons by the Sea: Wellness to Woo Woo in Texas

A plant-based cooking class demonstrated how to make zoodles with quinoa, hempseed meatballs, and tomato sauce. Laura Donnelly

Who goes to Texas and doesn’t seek out tacos and barbecue? I do, we did. The purpose of the trip was to spend a few days in Austin, then a few days out in the Hill Country for wellness and woo woo. (I put everything from crystals to cairns in the woo woo category, along with using a horse as a painting canvas, astrology, numerology, Tarot card reading, spirit animal searching, dreamcatcher assembling, and more horse whispering. “Now see if you can lift the horse’s leg to clean his hoof. Does he trust you?”) This being Texas, there were also hatchet throwing and fly-fishing classes, rattlesnakes, copperheads, and tarantulas. 

It’s not that we didn’t want tacos and barbecue, but there was a food and wine festival taking place that weekend and it sucked all the tortillas and brisket out of our immediate vicinity.

Here’s a helpful travel hint: No matter how much time you spend online searching for a hotel that you think will suit your needs, you will probably be wrong. I booked our hotel based on the following criteria: Must have pool, must be near the “bat bridge,” and convenient for walking. All of this was true but if I’d asked in advance what kind of clientele it attracted and what temperature the pool was, we probably would have stayed elsewhere. The clientele was 20-somethings, hell-bent on hearty partying, dressed for Coachella and SXSW combined, bobbing around in the 90-degree pool. The bat bridge, however, did not disappoint. 

In 1980, the Congress Avenue Bridge underwent a renovation. Mexican free-tailed bats discovered it to be a perfect bat cave, and the bridge now has the biggest urban bat population in North America. It is around 750,000 in early spring, and doubles when the mostly female colony gives birth to one pup each. Every evening after sunset, the bats fly east in search of bugs galore. Thousands of people wait on the bridge, the shoreline, riverboats, kayaks, and paddleboards to watch the spooky, dark, undulating wave of bats and their pups. I am obsessed with bats, so I enjoyed this phenomenon very much and thought how delightful it would be to convince some of those bats that Lazy Point in Amagansett could be a tasty place for them to visit.

Another helpful travel tip is: If a restaurant’s chef looks like he, too, is in his 20s, has already published a book, and has competed on any cooking show, chances are the menu will be beyond clever, quirky, and original, and will veer from the peculiar to “get that off my plate!” We’re talking coleslaw with tongue, crabmeat where it doesn’t belong, many brodos, whippings, and smoke. I’m not naming the hotel or the restaurant or the woo woo wellness place we went to because there were issues everywhere and we discussed them directly with the management. No need to call them out here.

On our second day in the city, my best friend from college showed us “Texas without the tacos,” a mostly Asian neighborhood where we explored bookstores, giant markets, and had excellent ramen with flash-fried Brussels sprouts at Ramen Tatsu-Ya. 

Then it was off to the Balcones Canyonlands, where the hikes were vigorous, the food “free,” and the staff Texas friendly.

My only goals were to swim a lot, hike every morning to learn about the local flora and fauna, and take all of the cooking classes offered. I counted the Spirit of Mezcal as a cooking class because we made guacamole. One traveling companion focused on the challenging activities like the obstacle course, archery, and kayaking. The other turned inward with indoor woo woo and pampering stuff. 

One cooking class was called Let’s Get Saucy, and I feared it might be too simple, but we made a delicious roasted tomatillo sauce and I learned a lot. I usually make it with all raw ingredients, it comes out aggressively tangy, sharp, and hot. This sauce was cordialized and paired well with a Gruner Veltliner. Our teacher/sommelier, Edward, said, “Our bodies are the most priceless vessels we will ever own.” Pass the chips, please.

The best cooking class was called Flower to Root Cooking, taught by the executive chef of the place, Benjamin. We began with the aromatics, onions, and lots of garlic, slowly sautéed in avocado oil in two separate pans. Into one went some cherry tomatoes to make a sauce. The other batch was deglazed with red wine. Fresh thyme (in place of oregano this time), basil, and parsley were added to both. Then we made “meatballs” with cooked quinoa and hempseed. The chef explained that when blended in a food processor or blender, the quinoa releases starch and the hempseeds release fat, making the two of them a mighty fine binder, eliminating the need for egg or breadcrumbs. To this we added the onion-garlic-red-wine-herb mixture, then formed meatballs and sautéed them slowly in more avocado oil. 

The chef had already prepared noodles (shredded zucchini), which he holds in cold water before cooking. Just before serving, he drains them, and sears them in a super-hot pan with avocado oil for 30 seconds. He also recommended spaghetti squash to go with the meatballs as another pasta alternative.

On our final night we partook in a special dinner prepared in front of us in the open kitchen/dining room. It began with watermelon compressed into cubes and seasoned with soy and sesame, mimicking tuna poke. Following that were oyster mushrooms coated in a black rice tempura batter, served on top of an aioli of black garlic, yellow miso, and kimchi. That was the coolest dish ever and I can’t wait to attempt it at home. There was an onion/bone broth soup inside the shell of a butternut squash, spring lamb with fingerling potatoes and chimichurri, and dainty chocolate mousse and cookies for dessert. 

I don’t cook professionally anymore and sometimes the view of a restaurant kitchen gives me flashbacks of hot, greasy tiredness, burns, cuts, and curse words, deliveries gone awry, power outages that destroy all the ice creams and sorbets that took days to make, and a paycheck so puny you wonder why you love it all so much.

Meeting an accomplished chef like Benjamin, who has the gravitas of decades of experience, combined with the desire to translate that into healthier cooking habits, was a revelation. It was an honor to get a kitchen tour where I happily noted the cleanliness and neatness, labeling and dating of all items, eggs and vegetables from the farm, a composting area, and the camaraderie of the young cooks.

The hikes and hatchets were cool, but this was my woo woo.