Was this the best cooking year of my life? (Oh no, there I go saying “best” again.) But, looking back on the past 365 days, I feel like I really came into my own this year in the kitchen. Gone are all the old insecurities that fueled this blog in the first place. Now, I basically know what I’m doing when I step behind the stove. Even if I’m making something that I’ve never made before, I can imagine all of the steps in my head, plot a course that works for me, and get things done with enough time to clean up before the guests arrive. And when it came to seemingly insurmountable tasks (for example: making five hundred latkes for a Hanukkah party, two hundred more than last time), I just took things one latke at a time and managed to get it all done, shedding only onion-induced tears. So in a year of tremendous cooking, the following ten dishes must also be pretty tremendous. I hope you’ll agree.
1. Marion Burros’s Plum Torte.
It’s the most requested recipe in the history of The New York Times (you can find it here) and, yet, I’d never attempted it until this year. Once I did, I became hooked, making it over and over again for dinner parties this summer, adding my own personal touch by using a variety of multi-colored plums instead of the monochromatic purple ones we all know. The process is oddly soothing and surprising; you make what feels like a glorified pancake batter. You pour it into a greased springform pan and then pile in many, many halved plums, way more than you think can possibly fit into such a situation. Then you sprinkle with sugar, lemon juice, and cinnamon, bake it in a hot oven, and it comes out looking and smelling gorgeous. Serve with some freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, and you have my most winning recipe of 2017.
2. Seafood Stews For One, For Two, and For A Crowd
When Craig left to go shoot his new movie in New York, I treated myself to a solo seafood dinner that I loved so much, I vowed to make it for him when he got back. It was less about a particular recipe than it was the grandiosity of the experience: lots of shrimp and clams and mussels cooked with garlic and chiles and white wine, served with arugula on top, a ramekin of blender-made aioli, some French bread, and a crisp glass of white wine. I don’t know if it’s possibly to have an orgy with just yourself, but this dinner felt like one.
Then, when Craig returned, I recreated this exact same meal, just doubling everything.
Once again, it was a hit. So much so that when he went back to New York to edit the movie, I invited some friends over and multiplied everything by four, making the Big Pot of Seafood I blogged about a few weeks ago.
(Sorry these pictures are so blurry, is this is a sign that I need to get a new camera in 2018? Or maybe just a new iPhone, Santa?)
3. Frito Pie
Who’d a thunk that cutting open a bag of Fritos with a pair of scissors at a dinner party and then piling in a bunch of spicy chili, onions, limes, cheese, and cilantro could be so much fun? But in terms of elevating a famously humble dish to a level of pizazz that absolutely commands you’re attention, Nancy Silverton’s recipe (which is actually an adaptation of Dean Fearing’s recipe) is pretty much unbeatable.
Nancy suggests smaller bags of Fritos, but I think the medium-sized bags work fine, as long as you dump out a bunch of the Fritos into a communal bowl first (it’s part of the fun).
4. Dario’s Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Pine Nuts
Once again, a recipe adapted by Nancy Silverton. (If you keep seeing the name “Nancy Silverton” on this blog and have no idea who I’m talking about, get onto Netflix and watch the Chef’s Table about her. She’s pretty much one of the most brilliant chefs alive, as far as I’m concerned.) This one comes from the famous butcher, Dario Cecchini, and it’s a cake that has many steps and many ingredients: raisins soaked in Vin Santo, toasted Sicilian pine nuts, whole oranges cut into pieces. (You can find the recipe here on Food52.)
There’s half a cup of olive oil, tufts of whole rosemary leaves, and by the time it goes into the oven, you have no idea what this thing is going to taste like. Well, spoiler alert: it tastes pretty amazing.
And it looks pretty impressive too. It’s a great winter dessert.
5. Lamb Shanks with French Cris’s Mashed Potatoes
We went away with our friends Harry and Cris last February to Oceanside, California, and after a day of exploring the beaches, etc., the idea was put forward that Cris and I should cook dinner together. Cris, you have to understand, is French and has cooking in his blood (see here). I’m a neurotic Jewish guy from Florida who barely knew how to boil water when I graduated college. Which made this collaboration dinner slightly nerve-racking for me.
But when we got to the grocery store to figure out what we were going to make, things just kind of fell into place. I found lamb shanks at the butcher counter and Cris said he could make his famous French mashed potatoes to go with them. I found a recipe online (don’t remember which one) but basically just browned the shanks in lots of olive oil, added mirepoix, a bottle of red wine, and let them cook away for a few hours. Cris’s potatoes were boiled with lots of herbs and then mashed with lots of love and possibly butter.
The best moment came, though, when I removed the shanks from the liquid and thought I was done. French Cris cried “non!” and proceeded to put the liquid on high heat, letting it boil down to a thick sauce that was absolutely wonderful poured on top of everything. Très magnifique.
6. Smoked Trout Sandwiches
Sometimes a certain sandwich just becomes a part of your life. Such is the case with this smoked trout tartine that I started making when Craig began joining me for my Sunday walk to the Atwater Village Farmer’s market. One day, he spied smoked trout at a fish stand. We bought that, I bought some seeded rye bread, some heirloom tomatoes, and, most intriguing of all, this thick French kefir yogurt that’s so rich and luscious, it basically feels like cream cheese. The sequence goes like this: I toast the bread, spread on the kefir, top with tomatoes that I drizzle with good olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then on goes the smoked trout.
It seemed like a pretty unbeatable experience until the day we discovered the most amazing focaccia at a place right near the front of the market, I forget the name of it, but it’s truly incredible focaccia. I also bought some wild arugula there and my smoked trout tartine became a smoked trout sandwich.
The focaccia is positively dripping with olive oil and the whole thing is like the west coast sister to the traditional New York Sunday morning bagel and lox. Paired with an iced coffee from Proof Bakery and a Sunday New York Times, it’s pretty much the ultimate California Sunday morning sandwich experience.
7. Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies
You know that Portlandia sketch where they talk about pickling everything? Well that’s how it feels these days with putting tahini in desserts. “You can put it in brownies! You can put it in cheesecake!” So the idea of adding it to chocolate chip cookies kind of made me shrug my shoulders. “Yeah, yeah, how innovative. Puhlease.” (My shoulders are pretty grouchy.) But then I made Ottolenghi’s recipe, and the friends that I made it for absolutely swooned.
(That’s them reacting to chicken, but their reaction to these cookies was twice as big.)
The tahini added this richness that’s hard to describe; I guess the closest thing would be stirring peanut butter into your chocolate chip cookie batter, but with a smokier quality.
A few months later, I followed Ottolenghi’s recipe for Brownies with Tahini and Halvah, and that was also pretty wild. Color me convinced.
8. Green Polenta
It’s pretty ugly (and I batch-edited these pictures, so there was no individual tweaking) and yet, when I made this green polenta for Harry and Cris, they went nuts for it. So much so, that a few weeks later, Cris made this for an important dinner and called me for advice on how to make it. When a Frenchman is impressed by your cooking, you know you’ve done something right.
The recipe comes from April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Greens. (Here it is on Food Republic.) You basically make a super garlicky kale puree with olive oil, then cook polenta the normal way with water and salt, and then you stir in that puree with more olive oil, Parmesan, and mascarpone. It’s pretty transcendent. I topped it with some spatchcocked chicken and a salsa verde, but frankly, on a cold winter’s night? You could just make a big bowl of this polenta and top it with an egg and be very happy.
9. Chicken Parmesan / Kerala Fried Chicken
When my friends Louis and Jared were coming over for dinner, there was some discussion about what I might make. At some point, Chicken Parmesan was put forward and everyone seemed pretty excited about that. And sure enough, it was a pretty excellent thing to make for a dinner party: you flatten boneless, skinless chicken breasts, coat them in flour, egg wash, and then lots of bread crumbs (I used panko), fry them in lots of oil, then layer them in a pan with tomato sauce and lots of cheese.
I didn’t really follow one particular recipe, just kind of combined ideas from a bunch of them. The most important thing, though, is to season all of the elements: the flour, the egg wash, and the bread crumbs. Also, it’s good to have a good, clean setup when you make this or it could get messy. (I almost ran out of space.) And keep one hand clean as you dredge, in case you don’t know that trick. There’s your dredging hand, and your non-dredging hand.
And speaking of dredging and frying (nice transition!), earlier this year, I made Asha Gomez’s Kerala Fried Chicken from My Two Souths.
It looks complex, but really you just marinate a cut-up chicken in a blended mixture of buttermilk, herbs, and serrano peppers overnight. The next day, you dry off the chicken, coat it in flour (remember: one dredging hand!), and fry in Canola oil. At the end, you drop in two stems of curry leaves which I get at the Indian supermarket near our apartment. For a minimal amount of work, it’s yields pretty explosive results. Everyone loved it.
10. Tres Leches Cake with Strawberries
Earlier this year, I hosted a taco dinner for twelve people. It was a bit overwhelming–it’s the largest group of people I’ve ever cooked for at a dinner party, not counting Thanksgiving–even though it was basically a taco bar where I made two types of fillings (pork from a Rick Bayless recipe, and one with squash and mushrooms, also a Rick Bayless recipe). There was black bean soup for an appetizer, which was nicely received, but it wasn’t until dessert that people really lit up. This tres leches cake from Food and Wine was so beloved and ballyhooed, I ended up making it again on Frito Pie night.
It’s kind of a cinch to make: you make a very simple batter that you pour into a 9 X 13 inch pan. You bake that, let it cool, and then the fun part comes when you poke holes everywhere and pour in a steeped mixture of the three milks (cream, evaporated, condensed) infused with lots of cinnamon and vanilla. The best part is, you actually need to make it a day ahead, so you can get your dessert done 24 hours before you need it, and as it sits in the refrigerator, it gets better and better and better.