Top 10 Foods of 2010
December is the month where all “year-end” lists for everything in the world come out. Why not for food blogs and food? I appreciate any excuse to talk about and celebrate food. These are my top 10 food experiences of 2010, be they home-cooking, restaurant visits, or recipes from my food-blogging competition. Enough chatter, the list:
1. Chocolate Cake
This cake came from a recipe from David Lebovitz’ book The Sweet Life in Paris and it absolutely ruined me for all other chocolate cakes, ever. It is essentially the same chocolate cake that every moderately fancy restaurant has on their menu – you know, the kind that’s warm, moist, and has a deep chocolate richness – except that it’s easier than you think – I made it in a tiny French kitchen in Provence with an oven barely large enough for a casserole pan. If I can make something this delicious there, anyone can make this anywhere. The only modification I made to the recipe was to substitute approx. 50g of dark chocolate for Nutella since the bar of chocolate we had was slightly too small. I’d like to think, though, that the hazelnut flavour added another layer of richness to the cake, and may be something I continue to do in the future.
2. Homemade Paneer
This was a revelation for me. I had bought paneer at BJ Supermarket once or twice, and experimented with some recipes, but never really considered paneer to be anything other than a one-off ingredient – it was hard to find, and required a special shopping trip to acquire. A few things changed that, and making the paneer myself from whole milk was integral. Not only was it a fun experience to make my own cheese, it made paneer accessible anytime I wanted it (provided I had about 3 hours of time to press fresh cheese) and this lead to using paneer in new ways, including pan-frying, marinating and charcoal grilling cubes of it. Previously, I had only simmered raw cubes of the cheese in curry (which is fine) but adding crisp fried or char-grilled edges to paneer cubes is so incredibly awesome and satisfying I can’t really describe it. Moving on, then.
3. Khao Soi
I had this noodle dish in Chiang Mai years ago and had no idea what it was called when, 3 years later, I suddenly developed a strong craving for it. I occasionally would run a few Google searches for recipes but without a proper name, I was stumped. I eventually went back and dug up my old Lonely Planet guidebook and looked up the stall I went to and came across some translations of the noodle dish that was so popular in the Northern Thai city (and apparently nowhere else). Several recipes and attempts later, I recovered a food experience I figured would have to remain a distant memory until I retire in Thailand. It’s such a great dish – like many Thai foods, a balance of sweet, salty, sour, and pungent – and so many people have never heard of it. It’s a crime, seriously.
4. Irish Cream
Early in the year, I came across this recipe from Dixie Caviar for homemade Irish Cream. I followed the recipe, using Jameson Whiskey, and what it produced was one of the best drinks I can remember. It turns out there’s a pile of “homemade Bailey’s” recipes on the internet, and this one in particular produces a fairly low-alcohol liqueur that is essentially pre-mixed (meaning you can drink it straight from the bottle and it’s pretty smooth – as opposed to having to mix it in milk or something before drinking). It’s very creamy, rich and is a great holiday refreshment. I’ve also tried a version of this recipe using spiced rum (because a lot of cream rum gets consumed at my apartment) and it was fantastic as well.
5. Restoran Malaysia
I don’t know if I can say that this restaurant is a “great” Malaysian restaurant (it’s damn good though), but considering there are almost no Malaysian restaurants in Toronto, period, I will take what I can get. That’s a poor introduction, so let me add that when I get a deep craving for Malaysian food, this restaurant hits the spot perfectly. In particular, their roti canai and curry is awesome and hits my taste buds in all the right places. Fried chicken, coconut rice, hokkien noodles with oyster sauce and cuttlefish, deep-fried banana, teh tarik. All so good (I may have to return soon). On a trip with my girlfriend’s parents, they also made ais kacang by request, which was great. Nothing beats that roti and curry though. I could eat an entire meal of it.
6. Pumpkin Pie
Oh, pumpkin pie, how I love thee. My mom emailed me her recipe years ago (clipped from some magazine, I think) and I’ve been using it ever since; the paper it was printed on becoming stained and wrinkled from years of use. This time I prepared the pumpkin puree from scratch, using a sugar pie pumpkin, and while I can’t say homemade puree is all that different from the canned stuff, there was a certain satisfaction I got from doing it myself. Also, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds. I love those. The pie uses cream, and extra spices (which I ground from whole myself, for more pure flavour) and is basically 3-4 times tastier than any store-bought pumpkin pie. I love pumpkin pie, and this recipe is my favourite.
7. Cheese Fondue
For Anuja’s birthday, she got a full spread of cheese fondue. A rich mix of Gruyère and Swiss, if I remember correctly. I had done a few chocolate fondues before, but this was my first cheese fondue, and I am a convert. It was stringy, hot and every bite full of nuttiness thanks to the melted Gruyère. Into it, we dipped red apples, bread, and spicy cured sausage. So much cheese. So much cheeeeeeeeese. Drool.
I had never really tried these things until fairly recently, when my friend Alicia brought a box of them to one of our movie club meetings. She got them from a bakery near their new apartment. As it so happened, I was paying those two a visit to borrow their copy of Super Mario Bros. Wii for a weekend at home (Anuja being sick at the time) and decided to visit Courense Bakery for a surprise cannoli offering to my sickly video game partner. They had none, but, weirdly, offered to make me some fresh to order. Cannoli are so great, but cannoli still warm from the fryer are amazing. Big thanks to the staff at Courense Bakery and friends for making an otherwise dreary weekend at home perfectly enjoyable.
9. BBQ Pork
You know those restaurants in Chinatown that have the giant duck carcasses hanging in the windows? I have had friends and family alternate between being disgusted, scared and mildly curious about preservation techniques when confronted with a massive window full of barbequed animals hanging by their necks. Personally, I had never entered one of the places – that is, until last week when we were stuck near Chinatown until 10 pm doing some office grunt work. Afterward, I insisted on late-night Chinese food and we picked King’s Noodle since it was still packed with customers past 10. I had just been reading about the elaborate techniques Chinese cooks use to prepare their BBQ creations and wanted to try the results for the first time. I was not disappointed – the duck had a few too many bones for my liking, but the pork was fantastic. I have no idea if this was “good” BBQ or not, but it’s opened a new door for me. The flavouring of the meat was addictive (star anise is in there, I think) and I’m starting to think Chinese cooking might become an area I need to explore a lot more.
10. French Melons
Not those kind of melons, people. Well, those kind are also very nice (from what I could tell – I didn’t really do a thorough investigation, and I definitely didn’t eat any), but I am talking about the ripe, in-season sweet melons my family and I ate in Provence several times. This was another eye-opening experience for me since I have never really liked melon at all – it’s watery, bland and unremarkable. These French melons proved me wrong; they proved that our local melons are pitiful and weak – their insides were strong-tasting (relative to melons in Toronto, maybe 3-4 times as tasty) and powerfully sweet. They made a great accompaniment to the red wines from the region, and their sweetness held up to the wine very well. That should tell you something about the depth of flavour right there. It was a powerful reminder that produce needs to be properly farmed, fresh, in-season and harvested locally to be at its best. Anything less than that is a compromise, plain and simple.
Honourable Mentions: Pain au Chocolat in Paris, real Italian pesto, my first macarons, crispy salmon rolls at Suki, calamari in Italy, and the idea of Tempura Cheesecake, which I haven’t tried but the concept alone is worth mentioning
So that’s my list. What’s on your list?