Wild asparagus and spring produce at a Paris market
As 2012 comes to a close, I am already starting to look ahead to 2013 and make my culinary resolutions for the new year. But before I do that, I want to look back on the year that was: what special dishes I ate, what new foods I tried, and what unfamiliar techniques I mastered.
The culinary highlight of the year was without a doubt the week-long trip I took to Paris with my husband to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Although the focus of the trip was not food — my husband had never visited the City of Light before so the real focus of the trip was introducing him to this city that I love — it is nearly impossible to go to Paris and not eat well. As is often the case in Paris, sometimes the simplest things are the most revelatory. My husband didn’t need
a three-star restaurant meal to blow his mind; the pastries at nearby patisserie Gerard Mulot were quite sufficient. One of our favorite parts of the week were our semi-regular breakfasts at a local cafe called appropriately enough Le Favorite. For 7 Euros each, we got fresh-squeezed orange juice, unctuous chocolat chaud, a choice of a croissant or tartine and the chance to feel like true Parisians.
That being said, we did have some special meals in Paris. The stand-out was dinner at Septime, one of examples of the bistronomic movement: classically trained young chefs opening reasonably priced and casual bistros to serve inventive, seasonal and local cuisine. The deceptively simple dessert at Septime, meringues, fraises de bois and fromage blanc ice cream, was among the best things I ate this year.
Some of the special dishes I ate in Paris inspired me to try and recreate versions of them once I got back home, specifically savory crumbles and cold pea soup. We also visited some delightful food emporiums in Paris, including la Grande Epicerie de Paris, which is a temple to French cuisine with an enormous grocery section, a bakery and multiple prepared food options, and its polar opposite, the Epicerie Breizh Café, a tiny shop specializing in products just from the province of Brittany. That’s where I found the much-coveted Bordier butter that I brought back to the States over my husband’s objections.
Back home, I made an effort to cook with a lot of new foods this year. Among the new foods that I experimented with several became favorites that made it into my regular rotation, including lentils — both green and red — pearl barley and farro, a chewy, nutty-tasting ancient strain of wheat that is great in salads and side dishes. I also experimented with new fruits and vegetables, including romanesco, quince, figs, and black currants. I really made an effort to cook more vegetarian meals this year, mostly for health reasons, but also for environmental reasons. When cooking vegetarian, it
is helpful to include nutritious grains and legumes, as well as different vegetables so as not to get bored.
One of my goals for this year: making caramels.
After bringing home that smoked salt Bordier butter from Paris, I got really excited about fancy butter this year. One of my regular Oak Park farmers’ market purchases was fresh “summer butter” from one of the vendors. It only appears in summer when the cows are grazing on the abundant grass; it really has a distinctive taste that is so much more complex than Land o’Lakes. I even got sucked into buying butter made from goat’s milk this year. That butter definitely has a gamey taste but I thought it was cool.
I put some of these fancy butters to use in one of my new projects for the year: making caramels. I followed this recipe from ex-pat food blogger extraordinaire David Lebowitz and made several successful batches of homemade salted butter caramels for holiday gifts. If you are going to try your own hand at making caramels, invest in a candy thermometer and try to find cream without any stabilizers. I found such cream from Kalona Dairy at my local Whole Foods.
I put up some delicious canned goods this year. Some of my favorites involved interesting combinations of fruits. I made a peach-fig jam that looked as lovely as it tasted. I also made a combined stone fruit jam from the new Food in Jars cookbook that tasted like the essence of summer. One of the big canning projects I tackled was dealing with the 20 lbs. of sour cherries that one of my canning students brought me from Door County Wisconsin. Part of the way I dealt with it was by giving half the cherries to Chef Druck, but I also made a lot of cherry cobbler, cherry pie filling and sour cherry syrup. Drink syrups were one of my pet projects this year. In addition to the sour cherry syrup, I also made black currant cordial, rose petal syrup and strawberry-basil syrup. For someone who drinks as much seltzer as I do, drink syrups offer a welcome addition. But of course, they are great fun to use in cocktails as well.
How fancy does this mixed-berry Pavlova look? Yeah, I made it.
Drink syrups are one of the most popular offering at the Chicago Food Swap. And I could hardly let a list of my 2012 culinary highlights go by without mentioning the Swap. Although we did meet once in 2011, 2012 was really the year of the Chicago Food Swap. This was the year we went from a dozen participants, mostly friends of ours, to a email list of over 100 people and a Facebook page with over 200 fans. Vanessa and I were constantly amazed and inspired by the creativity and the expertise of the amateur cooks and gardeners who came to the Chicago Food Swap’s events this year. Seeing the swappers’ pride and excitement in sharing their homemade or homegrown goodies and in discovering someone else’s delicious treats was definitely one of the highlights of my year. The Chicago Food Swap is probably my favorite project right now.
My favorite new way of cooking this year? Definitely slow-cooking. I realize that I am late to the slow-cooker party, but better late than never. I didn’t even start using my new Ninja Slow Cooker until late in 2012, but it quickly became indispensable. As we head into the heart of the Chicago winter, I expect to be making a lot of stews, soups and braises in my Ninja in 2013.
Let’s end this culinary recap with dessert, shall we? I made a lot of sweet endings to meals this year. My family’s favorite was probably these homemade ice cream sandwiches, which I made again for my brother and his family on Christmas Day. I was partial to the five-spice pumpkin apple cake that I made for the Artizone Flavor of Fall cooking contest — although it didn’t win. But I think the dessert that I was proudest of this year was a mixed-berry Pavlova that I made for company. It was so beautiful that I almost couldn’t bear to cut into it — but then once I did, I was glad I had because it was absolutely delicious.
Paris, vegetarian meals, drink syrups, swapping food, caramels, slow-cooking — those were my culinary highlights of the past year. What were yours?
When stewed, oxtail literally falls of the bone and the gelatin in the bones creates a luxurious texture.
As a cook, I seek novelty. I am a sucker for a new dish, a new technique, a new ingredient. When I walk through a farmers’ market or a nice grocery store and my eye falls on an unfamiliar vegetable or a strange condiment, I immediately get excited: “What’s that? Goat butter?
I have to have it.” It is only once I bring something home that I set about figuring out how to use it. That’s what the Internet if for, right? (The goat butter, by the way, I used to make Sea Salt Caramels for holiday gifts. I’m not sure you can taste a difference but
it’s just cool to say I made goat butter caramels.)
One Saturday morning this past summer, I was shopping at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market when I noticed that one of the meat vendors, Heartland Meats, had oxtail for sale. My fingers started to tingle: “Oxtail? What’s that? I have to have it.” I had certainly heard of people cooking with oxtail and even seen it on the menu of those kind of restaurants that bill themselves as “snout to tail” places. (I guess cows don’t have snouts, but you know what I mean.) But I had never tried to make oxtail myself so it was inevitable that I would be drawn to the possibility of a new challenge. I immediately plunked down my money. Luckily, oxtail, while hard to find, remains a fairly inexpensive cut of meat so I didn’t have to plunk down that much money.
Oxtail is a cut of meat from the tail of a castrated steer. It is usually sold skinned and cut into cross-sections. When you see it in the store, it looks round with a bone in the center. It is traditional in many different cuisines from Europe to Africa to east Asia, although the Jamaican version of Oxtail Stew served with rice or butter beans may be the most well-known. What makes oxtail special is the gelatin in the meat and bones. When cooked slowly, this gelatin dissolves into the dish, creating a rich mouth-feel. It’s also probably very good for your nails.
The oxtail sat in my freezer until recently. Oxtail is plainly the type of meat that calls for long, slow cooking. In other words, a stew or a braise. Stews and braises are winter cooking: hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare that can feel too heavy in summer or fall but is perfect on a dark, cold December night. When the temperatures started dropping in Chicago a few weeks ago, I pulled the oxtail out of the freezer, knowing that its moment had come.
I chose to season my oxtail stew much as I would a French-inspired beef stew, with red wine and herbes de Provence. But you would not be wrong to pair it with West Indian or Asian spices. The key is the long, slow cooking, which brings out the best in this humble cut of meat. I used my Ninja slow-cooker for convenience, but please don’t think that you can’t cook oxtail without a slow cooker. It would work just fine stewed for several hours in a Dutch oven on the stove top. Because I put potatoes in my oxtail stew, I didn’t serve it over pasta or rice. But a version without potatoes in it would be delicious over polenta, rice — especially if you went with Asian or Caribbean spices — egg noodles or even mashed potatoes. I just hope I can find more oxtail in the grocery stores because I want to cook this cut of meat and play with different flavorings all winter long.
French-style Oxtail Stew
1 lb. oxtail
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup flour
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 shallots, peeled and trimmed
3 ribs celery, diced
1 bunch carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
8 small waxy potatoes, like Yukon Gold or Red Bliss, cut into chunks
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes with juice
1 cup red wine
2 tsp. herbs de Provence
2-3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Flat-leaf parsley, chopped (optional)
Place flour on a clean plate and season well with salt and pepper. Dredge oxtail pieces in flour until coated on all sides. Shake off excess flour. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or, if using slow-cooker, set stovetop setting to high and heat oil. Place oxtail in heated pot or slow cooker and brown meat on all sides. Remove oxtail and set aside. Add onion, celery and garlic to the same pot and toss to coat with oil. Scrape up any brown bits on bottom of pot. Saute aromatics until tender but not browned, adjusting heat if necessary. Season well with salt and pepper and herbs de Provence. Saute a few additional minutes. Return meat to pan adding any juices that have accumulated. Add carrots, shallots and potatoes, tossing to combine. Add red wine. Crush tomatoes slightly and add them to the pot with the juice. Add bay leaves and bring mixture to a boil. If using slow cooker, turn slow cooker setting to low, cover and cook for 6-8 hours. If using Dutch oven, turn heat on stove to low and cover. Cook stirring occasionally for 2-3 hours. When done, the meat should be fork tender and literally fall away from the bones. Remove the bones and bay leaves and garnish with chopped parsley before serving. If stew is too liquid, remove cover and increase heat. Cook for 15-30 minutes until the sauce is thickened. If stew is too thick, add a little more wine or broth. Taste and adjusting seasoning before serving.
Have you ever had oxtail? Would you eat it or is it a little too weird?
So, remember last December when I started a project to throw a different party for each month of the year? I called it “Twelve Months of Parties for 2012.” (I found out
later that an out-of-town friend of my husband’s who is a faithful reader — thank you! — called it “Twelve Parties I Know I’m Not Invited To.” I hope no one else found it to be that way.) Well, as we are now halfway through the last month of 2012, it is time to check back and see how I did. I cannot tell a lie: I didn’t quite manage twelve parties, but I did manage to do nine of them. And I think I achieved my overarching goal, which was to force myself to entertain more and to entertain in new ways.
Here is the plan I set out for myself:
January — Family dinner party (casual)
February — Superbowl party
March — Adult dinner party (elegant)
April — Passover Seder
May — Mother’s Day Tea
June — Brunch
July — Summer cookout
August — Cocktail party
September — Kid birthday party
October — Game night
November — Girls Night In
December — Cookie Exchange
Here’s what actually happened:
January — Family dinner party (casual)
February — Oscar party
March — Adult dinner party (elegant)
April — Passover Seder
May — Didn’t happen
June — Brunch
July — Summer cookout
August — Didn’t happen
September — Kid birthday party
October — Didn’t Happen
November — Hosted Book Club but didn’t blog about it
December — Cocktail Party
Many of these parties or meals I will host again in 2013. I can’t exactly get out of hosting a Passover Seder or a kid birthday party. And I’m sure that I will have friends over for brunch, for a summer cookout, and for a family dinner because I love to do those things. Of all the parties that I threw in 2012, the one that was the most atypical for me was the Oscar Party, and that was also one of the most fun. The Oscars are just way better with cocktails and friends to discuss the fashion with. I can see Emily’s Oscar Party becoming an annual event.
What did I learn in hosting these nine parties? First, it is important when entertaining not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (That is one of my husband’s favorite expressions.) What I mean is: it’s better to throw a party where you buy all the food from Trader Joe’s and let people mingle in your unfurnished living room than it is not to throw a party at all because you feel uncomfortable about those things. No one expects your house to be perfect; no one cares if the food is homemade or not. All that your guests care about is that you opened your home to them. If you are happy to see them and make some effort to feed them, they will appreciate it and they will have a good time. I need to remember this as much as anyone because, well, I am perfectionist.
The holiday cocktail party that we threw for our neighbors was this past weekend, and although it was a fat ton of work, it was a lovely evening and I was very happy with how all my party food turned out. I will be sharing the recipes with you over the next few days. I hope that they will help you with your holiday entertaining!
Did you entertain a lot in 2012? What was your most successful party?
A Party Planner gift box is a gift you can feel especially good about giving at this time of year.
A few weeks ago, I talked about how much I love to receive gift baskets of food at this time of year, especially when the food is delicious fruit, cheese and meat from Hickory Farms. As we get closer and closer to the holidays, the sheer number of gifts that we have to buy for all the people in our lives, near and far, can seem overwhelming. When that moment of panic happens, do yourself a favor and think about sending a box from Hickory Farms. You can order all your gifts at one time from the convenience of your home.
For more than 60 years Hickory Farms has been providing holiday shoppers with options that not only present beautifully, but also taste delicious. Hickory Farms offers a variety of specialty foods and holiday food gifts that are perfect for any budget — many gifts are under $50 — and for everyone on your list this year. Whether your recipient likes sweet treats or savory, Hickory Farms has a huge variety of options, many of which will ship for free. If it were me, I would pick the Turkey Hickory Sampler with two kinds of cheese, turkey Summer Sausage — remember, no pork in my house! — crackers and cranberry mustard. How perfect would that be when guests stop by? I also love baskets that combines fruit and cheese — perfect for family snacking.
You can also feel good about giving gifts from Hickory Farms because they give back to the community through a partnership with Share Our Strength, one of the leading anti-hunger organizations in America. Every time someone purchases one of Hickory Farms’ Party Planner gift box — which is full of sausage, cheese, nuts, and delicious spreads — Hickory Farms will contribute $5 to Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” Campaign. Hickory Farms’ passion for fighting childhood hunger has generated more than $1.8M in contributions to Share Our Strength since 2008. The company is looking to raise an additional $700,000 this coming holiday season. So consider sending this festive basket to someone in your life and you will really give two gifts at once. Hickory Farms also offers eight gift baskets that ship free to military addresses for those soldiers who are spending the holidays far buy cialis from home.
My family loved our Fruit and Cheese Fest gift box from Hickory Farms and it kept us snacking for days. I know that those hard-to-shop-for folks on your list would also appreciate receiving a gift of delicious food from Hickory Farms, especially if they know that their gift helped someone else as well. Happy shopping!
Full disclosure time: Compensation and products for review were provided by Hickory Farms via MomTrends. I received a free sample of the product for the purpose of
this review and to facilitate a giveaway. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and are not indicative of the opinions of Hickory Farms.