The Best Recipes of 2012

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Happy New Year’s Eve! This part sneaks up so quickly after Christmas. I hope you treated yourself to a great last breakfast of 2012, and exciting NYE plans await you. Don’t forget to chill the champagne. Do you have any good luck traditions for tonight? Sometimes we’d eat 12 grapes at midnight. Some years my mom stocks up on fireworks.

For now, here are the blog’s best recipes of the year. Thanks so much for following along in this first year of a little saffron. It’s been so much fun, and we can’t wait to keep improving and cooking in 2013.

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Black Pepper Tofu

This one goes back to the beginning of this blog, and it’s just as good every time we’ve made it since.

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Carnitas Tacos + Homemade Tortillas

This was the star of a dinner party we hosted this year in our new home, and it’s still a recipe I love. The carnitas are tender, crispy, and flavorful. And tortillas, we learned, are fun and easy to make at home. We’ve made them several times, and even Lila loves rolling and pressing the dough.

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Potato Salad with Herbs and Bacon Vinaigrette

I stand firmly on the side for vinegar-based potato salads. This one is bright and tangy from vinegar and plenty of fresh herbs. The chunks of red potatoes are tender and do a great job of absorbing the bacon vinaigrette.

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Maple and Ale Pork Shoulder

The 18-hour pork! So tender when it’s done, and it’s actually pretty simple. The oven does most of the work. My dad and sister have made this nearly a dozen times.

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Vanilla Old Fashioned

Such a great spin on a classic cocktail, especially for anyone who loves bourbon.

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Goat Cheese, Roasted Grape, and Walnut Bruschette

This recipe worked hard over the holidays. My dad loved it, and we made it several times at my parent’s house. It’s a simple, unexpected combination of flavors, and so good.

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Butternut Squash Soup with Apple Cider and Vanilla

This was maybe the most surprising soup of the year. The curious addition of vanilla works with the apple cider to make a bright and flavorful soup.

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Chicken Dijon

More. I always want more of this.

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Savory Onion Pie (with a scone crust!)

I love this pie and its biscuity crust.

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Olive Oil Granola with Coconut and Cherries

I figured out how to get big granola clusters. Yes! And this granola is killer.

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Chocolate Cake

Two ingredients (the sour cream and coffee) seriously amp up this chocolate cake. You won’t forget it.

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Peach and Sour Cream Pancakes

From now on, sour cream should be in pancakes everywhere.

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Spanish Chicken with Lemon Olives and Onions

One more for good luck! This crispy chicken spiced with smoked paprika was the most popular post of the year.

A Christmas Cookbook Collection

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When I was younger, my madrina would ask my sister and I what we wanted her Santa to bring us. I always liked that idea, that she had her own Santa on call. This year, the Santas of our friends and family brought us cookbooks. Lots of cookbooks.

Ina Garten’s “How Easy is That?” already sits in our bookcase, and now we have her latest, “Foolproof.” It’s a truly beautiful cookbook with the typical cozy and delicious recipes you expect from her. There’s always an element of luxury with her recipes, and the seafood sections features plenty of lobster. Lobster potato salad? Can’t wait.

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Q + A with Food Critic Laura Reiley

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Did you enjoy your last dinner party? Did you linger over dessert and laugh at inappropriate jokes with friends? I hope so. The New York Times thinks it may be your last one for a while, according to a recent article declaring dinner parties are endangered. They’re on the way out and replaced by more casual get-togethers at restaurants. Pretty much dead.

This was not good news to us. We’re just warming up our hosting skills and can’t wait for more. We’ll do our part by hosting more dinner parties around here. But in another effort to save this endangered ritual, I called an expert. I spoke with Laura Reiley, food critic at the Tampa Bay Times and lifelong dinner party advocate. She recently followed the dead dinner party article with her own take.

She’s noticed through her line of work that people are more sophisticated diners than they are cooks, and time for home cooking continues to decrease. People go out to eat and share a meal, but she says it’s not the same thing as eating together in a home. She hopes that this fate for the dinner party is not true.

A dinner party goes from 7 to 1 in the morning. It’s all the time on the couch after dinner. Often I think that’s where stuff really gets said.

We talked about her hosting experiences (including her first!) and some tips and advice for hosting your own dinner party. Plus, we’ve got one of Laura’s go-to dinner party recipes at the end of the interview. Enjoy!

Q: Do you have themes for your dinner parties? How do you decide on a menu?

Absolutely. It just helps me get organized. And for me and everyone these days, you’ve got at least one whose a vegetarian or currently not eating whatever, so you have to consider all those things. So I choose a cuisine. I have a lot of people avoiding gluten, so Indian is good. Lentil dal and chana masala. You can freeze them and make them ahead. At the last minute you can make tikka masala or naan. I did one that was Singaporean cuisine because it’s one people don’t know as well.

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For every kind of party I do a cocktail of the night, and it’ll tie into whatever the theme is. If it’s a South Asian theme, some kind of ginger cocktail or lychee. Usually I do one big pitcher. You can do it ahead of time so as soon as people start arriving they can pour some. Once the first pitcher’s gone, people are usually on their own. They can make their own or move on to regular mixed drinks. If it’s a summer party, I make a big agua fresca whether it’s watermelon or blood orange. People can add booze if they want.

I pretty much always have a theme. A few years back I was on a kick. I’d read that book, that Bill Buford book on Italian cooking, and I was just completely obsessed with Mario Batali’s recipes. So I did a really rustic Italian dinner. I did beef cheeks, though halfway through people asked what it was and they were like ‘eww.’ So you kind of have to ease in the more timid eaters.

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Tartine Bread, a love/hate relationship

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It was my idea. Let’s make that bread.

We spent barely a day in San Francisco before and after a wedding in Sonoma, but we made time to visit Tartine. Twice. And then once more again just before heading to the airport. It’s Mark Bittman’s favorite bakery in the country, and Chad Robertson’s bread was well worth the trip. The crust is thick and impressive with its ridges and myriad shades of brown. The crumb was delicious. His brownies, scones, and sandwiches with salty ham were wonderful.

Back home in Tampa, I checked out Robertson’s book from the library. Noelle, who owns the book and wanted to attempt the bread for some time, agreed to make the bread with me. She wrote about her Tartine bread experience here. She has more experience with bread than we do, and it shows. Look at her lovely little loaf! Look at her toast! Still, as she says, going into this project together was comforting:

It’s a nice feeling, knowing that even though you live over 2,500 miles apart, you’re in this mess of flour and water together. Thanks for that, Ileana.

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We started our starter. We fed it every day for at least a month or so. Our little monster ate fresh flour every day and bubbling up as the yeast ate the sugars. At first, the smell was rather foul. Like a pungent and stinky cheese, and not exactly something I wanted to keep out in my living room for any friends to admire. Danny, I pleaded, stop showing this thing to people and assaulting their nostrils. But soon it started to mature, and its aroma softened into something delicate and sweet.

The “recipe” for his country bread goes on for two dozen or so pages, and so this bread project quickly became spearheaded by Danny. Maybe it’s his biology major and science background that gave him the patience for the precision and labor this required. He read through it repeatedly and took notes. I was supportive. At first.

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Our first loaf was beautiful. Danny pulled it from the Dutch oven, and we were so proud. It was golden and smelled great. We knocked on the bottom, and it sounded as hollow as someone knocking on the front door. Just as it should.

We sliced into the bread and quickly realized something had gone wrong. The bread didn’t rise enough. The crumb was a bit gummy. It wasn’t at all the bread we had tried at Tartine.

The second loaf was not much of an improvement. Where was the so-called oven spring? We’d slashed a square shape into the center of the loaf and expected it to puff up to a thrilling height. But it never did.

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Determination moved us Danny into mad scientist territory. He started other starters. We had up to five at some point as he waited for the best one to win. Some were fed more. At least one had the help of sugar. I wanted out. I’d given up. There were jars everywhere and every morning flour dusted the dining table. Let’s please try another recipe for bread, I pleaded, and revisit this some other time.

Nope. More starters. Those led to more gummy loaves and increasing feelings of defeat. He perused online forums from other Tartine fans who attempted the bread, and he posted about his experience. Could anyone help? What had gone wrong so many times? I needed to get Danny out of this abusive cycle. Finally, one day, he announced the next loaf would be his last attempt.

He pulled it from the oven, and let it rest for a bit. The crust looked good. He took a knife and sliced it for the big reveal.

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It was the same poor bread we’d seen before. We were done.

A month later, this was still a sore subject. I showed him a recipe from Chad for panzanella or toast or something, which I thought we could make with any other bread.

Too soon, he said.

But as you’d expect, I’m not getting off that easy. Soon his parents will be here for the holidays, and Danny already made plans to try it again with his dad. Let’s hope it works out. It’d make a great Christmas present.

French White Bean and Ham Stew

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Today’s post comes to you from Danny, my soup hero.

There’s something incredibly attractive about a guy who can and does cook for you, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking so. Danny reintroduced me to duck when he made us a dinner of ducketta, which was succulent and more delicious than I imagined duck meat could be. We got to know each other better over a night of rolling pizza dough together. There was a rack of lamb crusted with crushed pistachios and served next to a minty yogurt sauce that I later wanted with every meal. He made a grilled shrimp orzo salad that sustained us through a brutal summer. He’s taken me to lovely dinners out in Tampa, Portland, Iowa, and San Francisco.

And then, there were the soups. Though it may seem unlikely, the soups became my favorites. As he says, they’re modest. Nothing too fancy. Soup is not something made to impress, it is simply a homemade meal to feed, comfort, and nourish you, and to let you know that you are loved.

Early on, there was a shrimp bisque. He deftly peeled the shrimp and used the skins to make his own stock for a rich soup. We ate this when our first dining room was still bare and we only had patio chairs to sit on. And whenever we have that soup again, it takes me back to those sweet early days of living together.

There was a cream of celery soup with matching bread that was all his idea. A recent butternut squash soup that I didn’t have time to make for the blog, so he cooked it for me.

We celebrated two years together this November, and this is the latest soup. A stew, really. We had ratatouille for dinner on Sunday night as this white bean and ham stew simmered until nearly midnight. He stayed up stirring and tasting as it bubbled away, and I drank the last of my wine and fell asleep on the couch after a long day. The house was warm and cozy from the heat of the stove, and so was I.

The next day, when he was gone and I worked from home, I heated up the stew. Everything was tender, and the bits of smoked ham permeated the broth, adding flavor to the creamy potatoes and beans. The day was unexpectedly gloomy and grey, but I was warm.

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We only had a little more than two pounds of ham hock for this soup, but it was still delicious. This is a stew, and there’s definitely room for improvisation. As for the wine, Food & Wine suggests serving this stew with a juicy Beaujolais, but we also liked it with a Côtes-du-Rhône red. 

4 meaty smoked ham hocks (about 3 1/2 pounds)
1/2 pound dried cannellini or borlotti beans (1 1/4 cups), picked over and rinsed
3 quarts water
2 medium red-skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large leek, white and pale green parts only, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large celery rib, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 large parsnip, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound Savoy cabbage, cut into 2-inch chunks
salt
pepper
eight 1/4-inch-thick slices of good bread
2 cups or so of shredded Gruyère, Swiss Emmentaler or French Comté cheese

Fill a Dutch oven with the smoked ham hocks, beans, and water before bringing it to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Add the potatoes, leek, celery, carrot, parsnip, cabbage, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour.

Fish out the ham hocks and transfer them to a plate. Simmer the stew, uncovered this time, over moderate heat until it thickens and the beans and vegetables are very tender, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the skin and the bones from the ham hocks, and cut the meat into bite-size pieces. Stir the meat back into the stew as it simmers. Season the stew with pepper.

Turn on the broiler. Ladle the stew into 8 heatproof bowls and place the bowls on a large baking sheet. Cover each bowl with a slice of toast and some cheese. Broil the bowls of stew about 4 inches from the heat until the cheese is lightly browned and bubbling, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately. Store any leftover soup in the fridge for up to 3 days, and add a little stock or water if necessary to thin it out when reheating and before topping with bread and cheese. After it’s been in the fridge, the fat will rise to the top and the stew will seem too thick, but it will be fine once reheated.

Serves 8. Recipe from Food & Wine.