Hurray! It’s time for everyone’s favorite series: the Best Recipes of 2014!

Every night is recipe-testing night here at Cookbook Central.  Yet over the course of the year, only a few dishes turn out to be so unforgettable, so ravishing, so droolworthy that they make it into the regular rotation.  This year, there were 11!  Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks, and we’ll celebrate and sample each one together.

The book:  A Mouthful of Stars, by Kim Sunée (Andrews McMeel, $27.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Crab & pork Spanish tortilla

Why I tried itI have a sort of weakness for what you might call “trayf combos” – especially shellfish and pork.  Also, I have a daughter who has a reluctance toward crab, but a profound, overriding enthusiasm for pork.  I figured that I’d likely end up with something I could feed the whole family, so long as I could refrain from eating the whole thing myself.

Why I loved it:  Haunted by the memory of many liquid, eggy disasters, I had the usual momentary panic when I went to flip the tortilla.  But – miracle! – it held together as firmly as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!  I realized later that the bean thread noodles acted as a stabilizer, creating a webbed substrate in which all those fine and flavorful elements could hang suspended.  And the flavors – the crab, the pork, the ginger and garlic and condiments, all mingled together – were like something you’d find in your very favorite dumpling at your very favorite dim sum place.

Estimated preparation time:  45 minutes, if you don’t muck about.
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Photo credit: Leela Cyd

Crab and Pork Spanish Tortilla

Sunée recommends a sturdy non-stick skillet – it helps with the flipping.  If you’re scared of flipping, you can use a cast-iron pan and run it right under the broiler to cook the top.

Makes 1 (10-inch) tortilla, serving 4 as a light meal.

3 ounces bean thread or glass noodles

6 large eggs
1 to 2 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, grated or minced
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
8 ounces fresh lump crabmeat, picked through for any shells or cartilage
1 tablespoon olive oil or canola oil
8 ounces ground pork
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
Fresh cilantro, mint, or Thai basil, for garnish
Julienned carrots, for garnish
Bean sprouts, for garnish

For serving: fish sauce, soy sauce, hot chili sauce, or black vinegar with sliced ginger or shallots

1. Place the noodles in a large bowl and pour boiling water over to cover. Let soak for about 10 minutes, until the noodles are soft and plump. Rinse under cold water if still hot and drain thoroughly.

2. Combine the eggs, cream, garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Add the crabmeat and stir. Add the drained noodles to the egg-crabmeat mixture.

3. Heat 1 teaspoon of the oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Drain off any excess fat and let cool slightly; add the pork to the egg-noodle mixture.

4. Return the pan to medium-high heat and add another 1 teaspoon oil and the butter. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the egg-noodle mixture to the pan and cook on medium heat, tilting the pan and using a spatula all around the edges of the tortilla, pressing the egg mixture toward the center so that the liquid runs to the edge of the pan; repeat several times and cook until most of the liquid starts to set, about 5 minutes. Set the pan evenly on the heat and let cook until the bottom begins to turn a nice golden brown and the tortilla starts to firm up, another minute or two. Keep checking the bottom so it doesn’t get too brown. When the eggs are still slightly loose and just a little runny, slide the tortilla onto a plate. Cover with another plate and, holding both plates tightly, invert them so that the golden cooked side is facing up. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil to the pan and slide the tortilla back into the pan. Quickly use the spatula to tuck the edges under and round out the sides. Let cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, shaking the pan. You don’t want to overcook the tortilla; it will continue to cook once it’s off the heat. (If you are not feeling fearless, instead of flipping the tortilla, heat the broiler to high and place the tortilla under the broiler to cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Make sure your skillet is ovenproof if you do this.)

5. Transfer the tortilla to a large plate or platter and let sit for at least 10 minutes to firm up. Garnish with the herbs and vegetables. Serve warm or at room temperature with fish sauce, soy sauce, hot chili sauce, or black vinegar with sliced ginger or shallots.

From A Mouthful of Stars: A Constellation of Favorite Recipes from My World Travels by Kim Sunée/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Forget about Black Friday – you know the gift-giving season is truly underway when the NPR Book Concierge comes out, guiding you to all the best books the year has had to offer.  It’s available both through your browser and as an app, and it is a Monumental Undertaking – over 250 titles picked by NPR staff and critics.  Once the list comes out each year, I use it as a starting point to find reading matter for an entire year – in waiting rooms, on summer vacation, for my bedside table – until the next one comes out.  And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

This year I picked, I think, 9 of the 17 food and cookbook selections.  And some of the other 8 – like Apples and Baking Chez Moi – were titles I would have picked too if my colleagues had not gotten to them first!  But all’s fair in love, war, and reading.

Check out the food and cookbook selections on the NPR Book Concierge.

Anyway, all this is just the tip of the iceberg for cookbook coverage this month.

  • Starting this week, I’ll be running the Best Recipes of 2014! series again (check out the Best Recipes of 2013 here)
  • I’ll be talking up the 2014 Concierge selections on (swoon!) Morning Edition next week; and
  • I will be releasing my own independent Best of 2014 cookbook roundup at NPR the week after that.

Stay tuned!

Are you getting your pie in gear for Thanksgiving?  I am!  Last week, I ordered 10 pounds of rendered leaf lard.  Next week comes the traditional trip to Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield for pie apples.   Following that, the traditional internet searches for better, nicer-looking crimps and troubleshooting pastry problems.

This week’s story looks at some recent cookbooks and some easyish, slightly non-traditional pies – an apple hand pie and a super-boozy whiskey crumble pie, and a couple of others- just in case you’re sick of your double-crust, or in case it’s giving you fits.

Click here to read today’s apple pie story in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version (the links won’t work, but at least you can read the story!). 

Just in time for what I call Fatstember and Carbuary – my two favorite baking months – the unapologetic and seductive new baking book from Dorie Greenspan.  It’s French home baking, and a sight easier than the high-flying pastries you may think of when you consider French desserts.  While there is one suitably neurotic macaron recipe, nearly everything in here is doable with the confectionery skills of a mortal.

This also marks my first collaboration ever with the Washington Post‘s terrific food section.  I hope there will be more to come.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Baking Chez Moi’ in the Washington Post. 

Period poster from the heyday of absinthe.

Since I don’t have a cookbook review to post this week (I’m furiously testing for roundup season), here’s the audio commentary that ran this past Friday.

It’s all about that powerful and evocative spirit, absinthe –  known to bohemians of every age as “the green fairy”.  Just the idea of it was enough to make me fantasize, in my 20’s,  about being an artiste in fin-de-siècle Paris.

For better or worse, I was and remained a fairly well-brought-up Asian-American girl with a good education and all her shots.  Still, it was fun to dream.

The delightful poster was hunted down by NEPR’s ace producer Jill Kaufman.  I’m not quite sure why the station’s post is titled “Absinthe makes the heart grow ponder“. But it’s certainly making me do just that.

Hear my radio commentary on absinthe here.

The wind was so strong last night I dreamed a tree fell in our driveway, and the woodstove’s been going for a week.  October has us in its teeth, and it’s strange to think back to the green, tropical flavors – coconut, banana, heaps of herbs and ginger – I tested this past summer.

The week we ate from Caribbean Potluck was a satisfying one.  The thing that most surprised me was the authors’ liberal way with thyme, which I’d never thought of as particularly island-y.

Yet I came away from the book feeling like I’d missed a learning opportunity.  When it comes to ethnically or regionally organized cookbooks, I’m always looking for something that will teach me something fundamental I can apply elsewhere in my food (the way Simple Thai Food, from last week, did).  If not, I’ll take a book with two or three swooners for recipes.  This, though, is nothing more nor less than a collection of pretty good work – fun in July, forgotten by October.

What is foremost in my mind this fall, though, is the annual CiderDays festival here in western Massachusetts.  More varieties of apples and hard cider than you’ve ever tasted, as the orchard fling wide their gates for an end-of-season celebration.  All the deets here in my Globe post and here at their website.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Caribbean Potluck’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Caribbean Potluck’ review

I always thought the problem was me.

I love Thai food.  I have ever since my college roommate Christina (who had lived in Thailand as a teen) and I used to splurge on lunches at the Thai restaurant across the street from our dorm.  But every time I got a Thai cookbook – and all of them were colorful, inspiring productions you could almost taste – I just couldn’t get through them.

I could get the lemongrass and galangal and the kaffir lime leaf.  But there was always something: gaeng hang lae powder, green tamarind pods, dried salted radishes, one particular kind of fish.  I wanted to do it right! and so the best became the enemy of the good, and I never made those recipes.

Every so often I would get an “easy” Thai book.  But it would turn out to be all soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger and garlic – pretty much like an “easy” Chinese book.  Where was the easy Thai book that actually tasted Thai?

So here at last it is.  It’s not *totally* easy.  But it’s not dump-a-Maesri-curry-paste-in-some-coconut-milk either.   The writing’s entertaining, the recipes work, and the flavors will knock your socks off.  What more could you ask? (other than slightly larger print, as usual.)

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Simple Thai Food’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Simple Thai Food’ review

Spice books – I almost never review them, because they tend not to teach me what I really want to learn.  I’m interested in Grand Unified Theories of spice – in botanical relationships and historically documented foodways.  More often, the message of spice books is more “This is how I use spices” or “Everyone should use more spices!”

But this book, which hails from Seattle’s World Spice Merchants at Pike Place, is smartly organized and thoroughly informative.  And I finally got the full benefit of the magnetic spice organization system I put in last year!  It took 22 tins to make ras el hanout, and it was worth it just to find out how (relatively) easy it was compared to the furtive, frantic searches in dark cabinets of years past.

spice tins

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘World Spice at Home’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘World Spice at Home’ review

At the beginning of the gardening season, when everything was green and hopeful, I wondered: which of you will fail me this year?  Because no matter how good things look in May, there’s always something that disappoints you by September.  This year it was peas (netting crash), tomatoes (blight) and potatoes (blight again).

Everything else did OK – especially, for once, the cucumbers.  The vine borers laid off this year, taking just one squash plant as their token tax.  My cukes are still bearing after a couple months, and maybe they’ll continue right up till frost.  I’m not much for hardcore canning, so thank God for fridge pickles.

Fridge pickles are easy, thankfully, and even a harvest-time slob like me can pack a few away without much thought.

Click here to read today’s fridge pickle story in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

A Susie Middleton cookbook is always an occasion for celebration.  As she demonstrated in Fast, Fresh & Green and The Fresh & Green Table, the former cooking magazine editor turned small farm owner has a feel for finely tuned, robustly flavored food using the freshest ingredients.

I tested this book at the beginning of the growing season, when few crops besides arugula and radishes were ready.  Now, at the end of the season, there have been the usual garden heartaches (fingerlings and tomatoes lost to blight, poor output from the new strawberries) but a few proud stands of greens and beans remain.  No matter how hard-won and scant your own end-of summer kitchen garden may look, you’ll find a fitting way to enjoy the last of it in these pages.

Click here to read today’s review of  ‘Fresh from the Farm’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Fresh from the Farm’ review

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