Monday, December 26, 2011

Best Bites of 2011- Cooking Edition

After an epic three days of Christmas cooking I am finally coming up for air.  Between the seafood chowders, chocolate pecan pies and standing rib roasts I’ve had time to reflect on some of the best cooking I’ve done this year.  Whether over an open fire in the bush or in a borrowed kitchen in Manhattan, whether putting a $40 clay pot to work or working with every odd bit of a homegrown pig, it has been a good year for cooking.

Here are some highlights in no particular order.

Chicken Thighs with Meyer Lemon, Fennel, and Olives:  Where does one start when throwing a dinner party for your spry grandfather and his nonagenarian friends?  I started with my grandfather’s Meyer lemon tree, heavy with fruit in early April.  I thought I had an appetite.  The old folks took down a whole Dungeness crab appetizer then licked clean their plates of chicken thighs roasted with the lemons, fennel, and olives.

Etosha Paella
Etosha Paella:  Boyfriend John gets all the credit for suggesting the heavy cast iron Dutch oven rental along with the standard mess kit for our Namibian car camping adventure.  We put that pan to use right away with a dish we called Etosha Paella- curried lamb sausage cooked with rice, red peppers, onion, olive oil, and lots of garlic over an open fire under a blanket of stars in Etosha National Park, the Serengeti of Namibia.  

Clay Pot Beef for Tacos: At one of the first appearances of the clay pot, cubes of beef simmered away in peppers, onions, garlic, and chilies for hours until the beef could be pulled apart into shreds.  We filled tortillas with the mixture and topped with salsa.  This was just the beginning of clay pot love.

Eggplant and Roasted Garlic Soup
Eggplant Soup: I love my mother’s garden.  One of the only bad things about moving away from California is that I no longer will be able to partake of her summer bounty.  But I got one last shot the last time I was in Hemet with eggplants she had just harvested.  Eggplants roasted side by side in the oven with heads of garlic.  When the garlic cloves were golden and sweet and the eggplants fully collapsed, all went into a pot with chopped onion, thyme, oregano, and chicken stock.  Blended to a puree it was the sort of simple garden dish I could have eaten all summer long. 

Soft Shell Crabs with Lemon Chive Vinaigrette and Arugula: Staying with friends in Manhattan while we looked for a place to live, one night John and I cooked for them as a way of saying thanks.  I expected our hostess, a proficient cook herself, to be a tough critic.  Little did I know that soft shells crabs are a family favorite, one that they never really eat at home.  We were beyond grateful to have a soft landing and friendly welcome in a new city, and we whipped up a mid summer meal worthy of that gratitude.

Fregula with Clams and Chorizo:  There are two amazing things about our new apartment in New York. 1. The open kitchen.  2. Its proximity to Chelsea Market.  I put both of these features to good use one night while John was out of town.  My girlfriends sat at the counter watching me cook up a dish of Sardinian fregula from the Italian store in Chelsea market with clams from The Lobster Place and vegetables from Manhattan Fruits. 

Cambodian Beef Curry
Cambodian Beef Curry:  Diminutive in size but huge in flavor, the spices John brought me back from a trip to Cambodia turned out to be one of my favorite 30th birthday gifts.  Black peppercorns, white peppercorns, and sinus clearing red chili powder blended with lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and coconut milk for a fragrant, and very spicy, Cambodian Beef Curry. 

Rabbit Ragu: What can you make with a $7 domestic rabbit from Western Beef in New York City?  A lot it turns out.  In our case, at least 6 meals of delicious ragu spooned, tossed, and slathered on many kinds of pasta.

Pernil Style Pork Shoulder
Sir Hamsalot: It is possible that no one pig has brought so much delicious joy to so manypeople.  This year I had the pleasure of enjoying one of his shoulders classically roasted by my friend’s father and I did the other shoulder Pernil style a few months later.  We had ribs slathered in hoisin sauce and thick smoky bacon.  I’ll be using the rendered fat as cooking lard for months to come.

Sonoma Bouillabaisse: Before the pies, roasts, and stockings filled with candy, it was nice to get the holidays off to a flavorful, somewhat healthy start. I made the broth for my west coast bouillabaisse from Dungeness crab shells, then built flavor into the stew with lots of fennel, white wine, and a pinch of saffron.  A couple of waxy potatoes for heft, then every kind of good looking fish I could find- crab legs, clams, shrimp, and escolar.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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