My word, I cooked up a storm in 2013. Usually when I go through the process of choosing my best dishes of the year, the list pretty much writes itself. This year I struggled to put this in any kind of order; and when you see the dishes on my “Honorable Mentions” list you’re going to wonder, as do I, why many of them didn’t make the Top 10. Well, truth be told, these kinds of lists are arbitrary and sometimes you just have to follow your gut (and Lord knows my gut is a lot larger this year because of all this food.) Still, I feel good about my rankings here because these ten dishes really do represent my biggest cooking break-throughs of the year; they almost all caught me off-guard, sweeping me off my feet in ways that I didn’t see coming. So here they are, the Top 10 Dishes That I Cooked in 2013.
[Click the headings to go to the recipes.]
Into a pot go some vegetables, the cajun trifecta (celery, green peppers, onion) which you sauté in oil; add some eggplant, a variety of pepper (black, white, cayenne), garlic, tomato paste, soy sauce, rice and vegetable broth. On goes the lid and 17 minutes later you have a vegetarian dinner that’s the total opposite of most vegetarian dinners: instead of wholesome and virtuous, this one is positively wicked—the pepper will zap you, you’ll break into a sweat, and you’ll fight over the crusty bits at the bottom. It’s a recipe by Manresa’s David Kinch and it’s a total revelation; the best thing that I cooked this year.
At some point, I’d given up all hope that I might find good, hot, authentic bagels here in Los Angeles. I’d resorted to Bagel Bombs from the Momofuku Cookbook, which were excellent, but not the real thing. Then this year I took some initiative, bought all of the ingredients that I needed, and made the damned things myself. And you know what? That sensation of taking homemade bagels out of your oven, letting them cool and then spreading them with cream cheese and topping them with smoked salmon is one of the best sensations a bagel-lover can experience in a city that’s not New York (or, I suppose, Montreal). My prayers have been answered; I just had to answer them myself.
Darren Aronofsky recently directed a movie about Noah’s Ark, but I did him one better: I cooked Noah’s Ark. Well, at least three of the animals in it: pork, beef and lamb. All three of them (in the form of pork ribs, short ribs and lamb shoulder) make their way into this ragu which cooks for five–count ’em–five hours during which the meat falls apart and infuses the tomato sauce with so much meaty flavor, it should be illegal. Seriously one of the most amazing things I’ve ever cooked.
That’s a ballsy claim for a dish, but this really was the most perfect fish I’ve ever cooked (Craig went as far as to say it was the best fish he’s ever had, but I think he was just having a moment). The secret was buying really high-quality fish and cooking it in a very hot pan, skin-side down, just enough to sear the outside and to get the inside fully cooked. I wasn’t much of a fish cook before, but now when I make fish, this is how I do it.
The best food has a story and this risotto comes with its own novella-length tale involving a trip to the Santa Monica Farmer’s market, a rain storm, almost slicing my finger off while cutting the squash in half, and then serving it up for one of my podcast dinners to two distinguished guests. But that’s what made it so memorable; well that and how good it tasted. At first I was nervous because the fried-squash tasted a little chalky, but then it softens with all the liquid in the risotto, and enriched with butter and lots of cheese, this had my guests almost orgasming at the table (which made for a very erotic episode). It’s a very seasonal recipe and that season has passed, but next autumn, be sure to put this on your list.
Another bold claim, but nonetheless true. These brownies which come to us from dessert deity Alice Medrich are both the best I’ve ever had and the best I’ve ever made. The secret is “blooming” the cocoa powder with the butter in a double boiler, a strange step that both enriches the chocolate flavor and also creates a texture that is both cakey and fudgey, a combination that’s hard to achieve but makes for the very best brownies. I’ll never make another brownie recipe again.
This is another one of those recipes where a mysterious alchemy happens in the pot. In this case, a gathering of jewel-like like ingredients–preserved lemon, kalamata olives–combine with a stash of spices (ginger, saffron, cinnamon) and herbs (parsley, cilantro) to yield a tremendously flavorful dinner. It’s practical enough for a weeknight but special enough for company. If you don’t make couscous to sop up the incredible sauce, I’m personally coming to your house to berate you.
As anyone who reads my blog knows, I make a lot (and I mean a LOT) of pasta. I love it. I made it last night. I’m not lying. So when a pasta recipe comes along that feels totally new and unexpected, my pasta-loving soul does a happy cartwheel. This recipe made a big impression this year; it was the first dinner I made for friends at our new apartment and people couldn’t get enough. Also, it has a welcome combination of healthy ingredients (chickpeas, spinach) with a little of the not-so-healthy (bacon) so you don’t feel like a total glutton for eating it. Plus, leftovers taste good right out of the fridge.
Learning a new recipe is one thing, but learning a new technique can change the way you cook. Before I learned Marion Cunningham’s method for frying potatoes in the morning, I’d mostly roast them or attempt to fry them but without much success. Here it all just makes good sense. You get your cast iron skillet, you pour in a layer of Canola or vegetable oil, heat it up until it’s super hot then add a bunch of cubed potatoes and let the frying begin. Once you understand the technique, you can juj up the potatoes any which way; most recently, I used sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. This’ll change the way you make weekend breakfast forever.
This one isn’t so much a recipe as it is a still life I created after a trip to the Atwater Village Farmer’s Market in September. I’m mighty proud of it, though, because it was all about cooking those ingredients simply and presenting them in the most beautiful way possible. It’s also the first time an original recipe of mine has made it on to one of my own “Best of the Year” lists, so I’ll give myself a big pat on the back because I think it belongs here. Hope you agree.
Honorable Mentions: Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookies, Lebanese Chickpea Stew, Roasted Butternut Squash & Tahini, Last Word in Nutmeg Muffins, Chicken and Hummus on the Same Plate with Pita, Socca (An Italian Beef, Cabbage and Potato Casserole), Chicken Caesar Fit For The Gods, Linguine with Clams, Spicy Pork Stew with Hominy and Collard Greens, Baked Ziti, Homemade Potato Chips, Al Di La’s Chocolate and Pear Cake, Gina DePalma’s Ricotta Cheesecake.