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All good things must come to an end…
But such a sweet end!  Our Best Recipes of 2014 series concludes with an unassuming-looking, crumbly, unadorned cake of a modest chestnut hue.  Don’t be fooled by appearances.

The book:  Bitter, by Jennifer McLagan (10 Speed Press, $29.99)

The recipe:  Walnut cake

Why I tried itIt was just one of those synesthetic moments you get with cookbooks: I saw the word “bitter” (referring, in this case, to the walnuts). I saw the word “orange”.  I saw the faintly blue gleam of the steel dessert plates in the photograph, which I found devastatingly chic.  In my mouth, I tasted butter.  Out came the Post-Its!

Why I loved it:  Oranges and walnuts! a match made in heaven.  That plus a faintly chewy, profoundly buttery crumb. It was like the darker and more glamorous cousin of a financier.   Eat it forkful by dense and tender forkful with completely unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche.  Sip a little coffee, and wish – not for the the first time – that you had a nice big 4-chambered stomach, like a cow’s, instead of the one you’ve got.

Estimated preparation time: About 1 1/2 hours: A leisurely 40 minutes to toast and grind the nuts, prepare the yolk/butter mix, prepare the whites, and fold them together.  Another 50 minutes for the baking.

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Walnut Cake

5 1⁄2 ounces walnut halves
2 slices white bread
2⁄3 cup / 5¼ ounces unsalted butter, diced
2⁄3 cup / 4 1⁄2 ounces sugar
4 eggs, separated
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
A pinch of fine sea salt
1 Seville or regular orange
A pinch of cream of tartar
Cocoa powder

1.  Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Butter a 9-inch / 23-cm springform cake pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.

2.  Spread the walnuts and bread slices on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 10 minutes or until the bread is dry and the nuts are lightly toasted. Let cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 325°F / 160°C.

3.  Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Set 3 tablespoons of the sugar aside and add the remaining sugar to the butter. Cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Meanwhile, place the walnuts and toasted bread in a food processor and pulse until finely ground.

4.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar, beating well after each addition. Stir in the ground walnut and bread mixture, then add the cardamom and salt. Finely grate the zest from the orange and add to the mixture; set the orange aside for another use.

5.  In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy; add the cream of tartar, and continue to whisk until white. Add the reserved 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking until the whites are glossy and resemble whipped cream. Add a large spoonful of the egg whites to the walnut batter and stir to lighten. Tip the batter onto the egg whites and fold lightly until mixed.

6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 50 minutes or until dark golden and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out dry.  Let the cake cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and unmold onto a cooling rack. Let cool completely, then dust with cocoa powder.

Reprinted from Bitter by Jennifer McLagan. Copyright (c) 2014. Published by 10 Speed Press

Don’t tell your family about this dish, or you’ll have to make enough for 4, which means two batches, which means having to clean out the wok in between.

The book:  Simple Thai Food, by Leela Punyaratabandhu (10 Speed Press, $24.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Rice noodles “drunkard’s style” with chicken

Why I tried it: I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a Thai noodle dish I didn’t like.  Over many years and many tweaks, I’ve gotten to be pretty happy with my pad thai.  But I was still on the hunt for a wide-rice-noodle dish I could make at home that would satisfy me as much as the ones I had out.  This was simply the next station on that quest.

Why I loved it:  The sauce!  This. Is. The. Sauce.  You know how you go to a noodle place, and your soul is basically enslaved to that place forever because you don’t think you can reproduce the sauce at home? Well, this was the Sauce of Freedom for me.  It’s just thin soy + dark sweet soy [kecap manis] + oyster sauce + fish sauce, it turns out.  But combined with the garlic and Thai basil, the onion wedges and with maybe an assist from the tomato, it’s got that upfront caramel, the anisey top notes, and the forever-umami finish that had me plonking down $7.95 a pop for I don’t know how many years.  Free at last!

Estimated preparation time: 40-45 minutes max if you’re using fresh noodles, a little more if you have to boil some dried noodles  (but not much, because you’re efficient and you ALWAYS chop stuff when your water’s busy getting to a boil).

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Rice Noodles “Drunkard’s Style” with Chicken

Two things you should know: 1) if for whatever reason, you can’t quite mash the aromatics into a paste and you’ve got little bits of garlic flying around asking to get burnt, then lessen both time and temperature in that first frying step. 2) Read the author’s extensive endnote on boiling wide rice noodles, in case you’ve been soaking them in warm water your whole life and you don’t believe you should do it any different now.

SERVES 2

2 fresh bird’s eye chiles, or fewer or more
1 large shallot, about 1 ounce
1 pound fresh wide rice noodles, or 8 ounces dried wide rice noodles, prepared according to instructions below*
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 yellow or white onion, cut into 1-inch-wide wedges
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 tablespoons sweet dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons packed grated palm sugar, or 1 teaspoon packed light or brown sugar
1 fresh large red or green Thai long chile, cut lengthwise on the diagonal into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 Roma tomato, quartered lengthwise, then quarters halved crosswise
1 cup loosely packed fresh holy basil leaves

In a mortar or a mini chopper, combine the bird’s eye chiles, garlic, and shallot and grind to a fine paste. Set aside.

If the noodles are in sheet form, rather than pre-cut, cut them lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips and separate the layers into singles. Cut the chicken against the grain and on the diagonal into thin, bite-sized strips.

Heat the oil in a wok or a 14-inch skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the prepared paste and stir until fragrant and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Turn up the heat to high, add the onion wedges and let them brown on the underside, undisturbed, for 2 minutes. Flip them and brown the second side for 2 minutes. Add the chicken and fish sauce and stir until the chicken is cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Heat the oil in a wok or a 14-inch skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the prepared paste and stir until fragrant and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Turn up the heat to high, add the onion wedges and let them brown on the underside, undisturbed, for 2 minutes. Flip them and brown the second side for 2 minutes. Add the chicken and fish sauce and stir until the chicken is cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the noodles, oyster sauce, thin soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar, long chile, and tomato and stir to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles soften and the sauce is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, add the basil, and stir just until wilted. Serve immediately.

*EVERYTHING YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RICE NOODLES, ACCORDING TO LEELA PUNYARATABANDHU
They often come in several oil-lubricated layers of thin sheets, stacked together, packed in a disposable tray, and covered with plastic wrap. You can find them in the refrigerated section of most well-stocked Asian grocery stores. To prepare them for cooking, you need to cut the whole stack into strips about 1 inch wide and then carefully separate the layers into thin, wide ribbons. Sometimes the noodles come precut and require only that you separate them gently so as not to break them.Purchase fresh rice noodles in small batches and use them right away, as they lose their suppleness and flexibility quickly on refrigeration. They must never be frozen. If you are ever stuck with old, doughy, hard fresh rice noodles, cut them into strips and separate them into strands as instructed above, then blanch them for no more than 10 seconds in boiling water before cooking.
If you cannot find fresh rice noodles, buy the widest dried rice sticks (9 millimeters/about 1 wide) you can find. It is important to remember that you cannot simply soak these wide dried rice noodles until pliable in the same way you prepare thinner dried rice sticks for pad thai . You need to boil them in a large amount of water, as you would dried Italian pasta, and then drain them, rinse off any excess starch, drain them again, and use them like fresh rice noodles. Once cooked, dried wide rice noodles double in volume. Therefore, if a recipe calls for 1 pound of fresh wide rice noodles, you need 8 ounces of dried wide rice noodles to yield 1 pound of cooked noodles, which can be used the same way as fresh wide rice noodles.

Reprinted from Simple Thai Food by Leela Punyaratabandhu. (10 Speed Press, 2014).

The book:  The Banh Mi Handbook, by Andrea Nguyen (10 Speed Press, $16.99) – which, if you’ve been following my roundup coverage, you know is a total winner.

The recipe:  Viet home-style doner kebab.

Why I tried it:  I never used to know what people were talking about when they said “doner kebab,” but eventually I realized it was the same thing as the shawarma I ate from sidewalk carts back home in New York, and the gyro sandwich I ate for lunch every single day across the street from the darkroom where I worked in Boston.  From that point on, all 3 terms induced the same Pavlovian response in me.  So when one of my favorite authors interpreted one of my favorite foods through the palate of one of my favorite national cuisines, there was no question – I had to try it

Why I loved it:  This slab of protein has all the things I love about meatloaf, all the things I love about pork, and all the things I love about gyros/shawarma/whatever you call it.  It’s got a glistening soy-painted crust.  It’s easy, because you just throw it together in the Cuisinart.  You can eat it in a banh mi or on anything else, or all by itself.  The absolute worst thing about it is having to wait for hours till it’s cold enough to slice and eat, so when it comes out from the oven you’d better have another favorite food out on standby, ready to distract you and your greedy little fingers.

Estimated preparation time: About 1 hour, plus cooling time (if you can stand to wait that long)

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Viet Home-Style Doner Kebab

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup (3 oz / 90 g) coarsely chopped yellow onion
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne
¾ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
generous 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour, rice flour (brown or white), or almond meal flour
1 large egg
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
1¼ pounds (565 g) ground pork, about 85 percent lean
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce mixed with ½ teaspoon water

1.  Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 425°F (220°C / gas mark 7). Line a baking sheet with foil and set aside.

2. Place the garlic, onion, pepper, cayenne, salt, cumin, cornstarch, flour, egg, and oil in the bowl of a food processor and whirl to create a finely textured, soupy mix- ture. Scrape down the sides, then add the pork, dropping it in as large chunks. Restart the processor to combine, letting it run for about 5 seconds after the meat begins gathering around the blade. Aim to mix things as if you were making a meatloaf. Visible bits of pork are good!

3. Use a spatula to scrape and mix in seasonings clinging to the processor walls. Transfer the meat to the prepared baking sheet and shape it into a slab, about 11⁄4 inches (3 cm) thick, 5 inches (12.5 cm) wide, and 8 inches (20 cm) long. For a lovely brown crust, use your fingers to paint the top and sides with the diluted soy mixture.

4. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is redwood tree brown and small sizzling bubbles appear. The meat will puff and maybe bend upward slightly. Cool completely before thinly slicing, or better yet, cool, wrap, and chill overnight or for as long as 3 days.

5. Cut the meat cold, then warm in a microwave oven or in a skillet over medium heat. Don’t fret if the meat slices break, just slide it all into your sandwich.
From The Banh Mi Handbook, by Andrea Nguyen. (10 Speed Press, 2014)

The book:  Fresh from the Farm, by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, $28.00 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Roasted Parmesan-crusted cod with baby potatoes

Why I tried it: love cod – the silky, dense, smooth, thick, moist flakes and subtle scent of the sea.  But since it’s become endangered, cod has been a rare treat for me.  When I do get it, I want a recipe that’s worth it.  And if I’m substituting halibut, I want a recipe that’s worth it.

There are two things I love about Susie Middleton recipes: 1) They always work.  And 2) They have flavor in places other recipes don’t even have places.  They’re like that stylish person you glimpse at a party who has actually taken the trouble to wear a hair accessory, and probably a scarf too, in a color that complements her shoes.  Truly amazing, people like that.  But I digress.  The point is, I thought this recipe would be worth it.

Why I loved it:  Here are some details you and I might not have thought of: whizzing an English muffin in the blender for easy, tender bread crumbs.  Gluing the crumbs to the fish with mayo that’s been doctored with mustard for more flavor.  Roasting the veg not just with oil, but balsamic and honey!  When it’s done, a dizzy flavor spins up out of the pan, like you’ve just walked across your herb garden, crushing the thyme underfoot.

Estimated preparation time:Just over 1 hour: 20 minutes of prep, 25 minutes of inital roasting while you do a litle more prep, 20 minutes of final roasting.

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Roasted Parmesan-Crusted Cod with Baby Potatoes, Bell Peppers, Onions & Thyme
Serves 4

8 ounces small fingerling or baby red potatoes(smallest size you can find), cut in half lengthwise
1⁄2 medium bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 small or medium onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
10 to 12 pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
Kosher salt
Big pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
6 ounces firm-ripe cherry tomatoes (about 20) cut in half
3⁄4 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from 1 English muffin, blitzed in a food processor; a little extra is fine)
1⁄4 cup coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1⁄2 pounds cod (or other firm white fish fillet like striped bass or halibut), cut into a few pieces to fit more easily into the pan

Heat the oven to 425°F. Combine the potatoes, peppers, onions, olives, 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon thyme, the balsamic vinegar, honey, 3⁄4 teaspoon salt, and crushed red pepper in a mixing bowl and toss well. Spread in one layer in a 9- x 13-inch baking pan. Roast for 25 minutes. Reserve the bowl that the veggies were in and add the cherry tomatoes, 1 teaspoon oil, 1⁄2 teaspoon thyme, and a pinch of salt. Toss well.

In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmigiano, the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil, the remaining 1⁄2 tea-spoon thyme, and a big pinch of salt. In another small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and mustard. Lay the fish on a plastic cutting board and season with salt. Spread the mayo-mustard mixture over the top of the fish and along the sides.  Add the cherry tomatoes to the pan of roasted vegetables and stir to combine.

Push the veggies to the edges of the pan to make room for the fish. Nestle the fish amongst the veggies; then pat the breadcrumb mixture over the fish pieces. Return the pan to the oven and roast for 20 to 22 minutes, until the potatoes are tender and the crust on the fish is golden. Cut the fish into serving pieces with a metal spatula and arrange on four plates. Spoon the veggies, along with the pan juices, around the fish. Serve right away.

Reprinted from Fresh from the Farm by Susie Middleton. Copyright (c) 2014 by Taunton Press.

The book:  Caribbean Potluck, by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau (Kyle Books, $24.95 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Red, Green, and Gold Salad with Toasted Almonds

Why I tried it: I don’t test a ton of many-ingredient salads – unless the ingredients list allows me to claim it’s a “dinner salad”.  If it’s a one-pot meal, I can justify spending most of my 1.5 hours of prep time on a salad.  Here the chickpeas were the clincher – “Protein!” I exclaimed, and promptly excused myself from rummaging in the freezer for some meat to defrost.

Why I loved it:  This one’s for everyone who eats with their eyes.  It’s a riot of color and flavor – bright and tropical in the summer, when I made it, and festive on the holiday table.  Thanks to the smooth avocado, slithery mangoes, velvety beets, crisp almonds, and crunchy onions, every bite has some kind of interesting texture effect.  You’ll probably still be experimenting and trying to decide whether you like velvety/crisp or slithery/crunchy better by the time you get to the bottom of your bowl.

Estimated preparation time: If you’ve already pickled the beets and you’re not too fussy about chopping vegetables into matchsticks, you can do this in under 45 minutes.  Otherwise, give yourself an hour and a quarter.

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Photo: Ellen Silverman

Red, Green and Gold Salad with Toasted Almonds

The only real issue you may run into making this salad at this time of year is sourcing fresh mangoes.  Don’t sweat it – you can use frozen mangoes for the vinaigrette (or just buy a mango dressing if you can’t deal with that).  You can leave out the fresh mangoes, or sub in another ripe, sweet fruit that’s more available, like pears.  It won’t be the same, but it will still be great.
Serves 6

For the Pickled Beets
1⁄2 cup fresh lime juice
1⁄4 cup distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 small boiled beets, peeled and sliced
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

For the Mango Vinaigrette (makes about 1 cup)
1⁄2 cup mango puree, preferably fresh
1⁄3 cup distilled white wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and ground white pepper

For the Salad:
8 ounces mixed greens
1 medium mango, sliced
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas
1⁄4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1⁄2 cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1⁄2 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
1 medium ripe avocado, sliced
4 ounces feta, crumbled (about 1 cup)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

1. To make the marinade for the beets, in a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, vinegar, sugar, oil, garlic and mustard until blended. Season with salt and pepper. In a medium bowl, combine the beets and onion, pour the dressing over the beet mixture and season again with salt and pepper. Stir in the cilantro and let sit for at least 30 minutes or refrigerate for up to 1 week.

2 To make the mango vinaigrette, in a small bowl, whisk together the mango puree, vinegar, garlic and mustard. Gradually add the oil, whisking steadily until the vinaigrette thickens. Season with salt and white pepper.

3. To assemble the salad, place the greens in a large salad bowl. Add the mango, chickpeas, red onion, cucumber, bell pepper and avocado. Add half the feta and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with a liberal amount of mango vinaigrette and toss. Top with the beets, toasted almonds and the rest of the feta and serve immediately.

Caribbean Potluck by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau is published by Kyle Books, priced $24.95. Photography by Ellen Silverman.

This year’s most VIRTUOUS Best Recipe.

The book:  Recipes from my French Grandmother, by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen (Lorenz Books, $18.99)

The recipe:  Provençal vegetable soup with basil pistou

Why I tried it: This is a “little of this, little of that” soup I tested in August, and I had lots of odd leftover vegetables and basil from the garden.  Even though it was still pretty warm out and I am usually only a soup-eater in cold weather, it seemed like a good way to use what I had on hand.  Also, I was Setting an Example for the children by trying to prove you can make something nice out of practically nothing.

Why I loved it:  I had a lot of faith in my vegetables coming together and behaving themselves, with a little careful chopping and sweating, but I  didn’t expect them to sing.  That was before I even dolloped on the pistou.  The pistou added a nimbus of spicy basil fragrance you could drown in, and it’s the reason I had seconds – and thirds – and even, to be honest, a tiny bit of fourths too.

Estimated preparation time: Put on some music and give yourself a good hour for chopping (this can happen while the beans are cooking), followed by an hour of simmering.  The good news is, this makes a lot, you can store it/freeze it, and it gets better every day.

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Provençal Vegetable SoupProvençal Vegetable Soup with Pistou
Serves 6–8
There’s no need to be overly literal about the ingredients list. If you don’t have fava or navy beans, it’s OK to use other small beans – flageolets would be nice. (Bigger beans will need longer.) You could use even canned beans in a pinch, though the flavor isn’t as fine. You could use different vegetables. But do take the trouble to chop small dice – it makes a difference.  You can skip the pistou if you’re vegan, but otherwise definitely don’t.

1 1⁄2 cups fresh fava beans, shelled, or 3⁄4 cup dried haricot (navy) beans, soaked overnight
1⁄2 tsp dried herbes de Provence
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 small or 1 large leek, finely sliced
1 celery stick, finely sliced
2 carrots, finely diced
2 small potatoes, finely diced
4oz green beans
5 cups water
1 cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
2 small zucchini, finely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
Handful of spinach leaves, cut into thin ribbons
Sprigs of fresh basil, to garnish

For the pistou
1 or 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup (packed) basil leaves
4 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. To make the pistou, put the garlic, basil and Parmesan cheese in a food processor and process until smooth, scraping down the sides once. With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube. Or, alternatively, pound the garlic, basil and cheese in a mortar and pestle and stir in the oil.

2. To make the soup, if using dried haricot beans, place them in a pan and cover with water. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes and drain. Place the par-boiled beans, or fresh beans if using, in a pan with the herbes de Provence and one of the garlic cloves. Add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer over a medium-low heat until tender, about 10 minutes for fresh beans and about 1 hour for dried beans. Set aside in the cooking liquid.

3. Heat the oil in a large pan or flameproof casserole. Add the onion and leeks, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion just softens.

4. Add the celery, carrots and the other garlic clove and cook, covered, for 10 minutes, stirring.

5. Add the potatoes, green beans and water, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, skimming any foam that rises to the surface, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 10 minutes

6. Add the zucchini, tomatoes and peas together with the reserved beans and their cooking liquid and simmer for 25–30 minutes, or until all the vegetables are tender. Add the spinach and simmer for 5 minutes. Season the soup and swirl a spoonful of pistou into each bowl. Garnish with basil and serve

If you deep-fry just ONE THING this year….

The book:  Fried & True, by Lee Brian Schrager and Adeena Sussman (Clarkson Potter, $22.50 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Keralan fried chicken – recipe actually by Atlanta chef Asha Gomez

Why I tried it: I can’t even begin to describe to you the mixed pleasure and pain of recipe-testing a fried-chicken book in the middle of summer.  I saw the picture of the chicken atop the waffles, and then I read the bold, unstinting ingredients list (one bunch of mint! one bunch of cilantro!), and I thought “Maybe this will make it all worthwhile…”

Why I loved it:  The waffles may have sold me on trying this recipe, but they weren’t the clincher when I made it. No, the clincher was two-part: 1) Boneless pieces!  It was a pain boning all that chicken, but it was totally worth it.  The marinade penetrated from both sides, and the chicken cooked up fast & juicy, and you could eat it with a knife and fork.  2) Cilantro-mint flavor + crisp skin crust +  spicy maple syrup!  This is what a chef would call a nice move, and what I would call a close-your-eyes-and-thank-your-god-you’re-alive-to-taste-this moment.

Which is why, having eaten more fried chicken that any sane person would want to over the summer, I made it again for my birthday at the end of August, and made my friends eat it with me.  I skipped the waffles, thereby leaving more room for chicken.

Estimated preparation time: 24 hour marinade, followed by about 1 hour prep & fry.  Add a half hour if you’re boning the chicken yourself, and you’re pretty fast at it.  (And add more time yet if you’re making your own waffles to go with it.)

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Photo: Evan Sung

Keralan Fried Chicken and Spicy Maple Syrup (plus Insert Your Favorite Waffle Here)

This recipe originally included these cardamom waffles – a great idea, but I found the waffle recipe a little lackluster for the effort. You could use your own favorite waffle, or a frozen Eggo, or no waffle at all. But even if you do without the waffle, don’t skip the spicy maple syrup, because it’s incredible on that chicken skin.  Oh – be sure to use skin-on boneless.  The skin is important, and so is the lack of bone.

Serves 8
For the spicy maple syrup:
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds, coarsely ground
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups maple syrup

For the chicken:
2 cups buttermilk
10 garlic cloves
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
6 whole serrano (or 3 large jalapeño) peppers, seeded if desired
Bunch of fresh cilantro
Bunch of fresh mint
2 tablespoons kosher salt
8 boneless, skin-on chicken thighs (about 3 pounds)
Vegetable oil, for frying
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 stems fresh curry leaves
2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

1) Marinate the chicken: In a blender, purée the buttermilk, garlic, ginger, peppers, cilantro, mint, and salt until smooth. Place the chicken in a large glass dish or bowl, pour the buttermilk purée over the chicken, toss to coat, and marinate for 24 hours.

2) Make the syrup: Toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and red pepper flakes in a dry, hot medium skillet until fragrant and the seeds begin to pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk the toasted spices into the maple syrup and let the syrup infuse at room temperature for 24 hours.

3) Fry the chicken: Fill a large (12-inch) cast-iron skillet with 1⁄3 inch oil and gently heat to 300°F. Set a wire rack on top of a rimmed baking sheet and set aside. While the oil is heating, remove the chicken from the buttermilk purée, gently shake off excess, and dredge each piece in flour. Place the chicken in the skillet, skin side down; the oil should come halfway up the pan. Cook the chicken until it turns golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes per side. Drain the chicken on the rack and drizzle with the melted coconut oil. While the chicken is draining, crisp the curry leaves by frying in the oil until crisp, 10 to 15 seconds.

4) Serve the chicken on top of the waffles and drizzle with the spiced syrup. Garnish with the fried curry leaves.

Reprinted from Fried & True by Lee Schrager with Adeena Sussman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Lee Schrager. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, LLC.

Welcome, NPR listeners, chowhounds and recipe hunters, and newcomers to my blog! Whether you’re here because you’ve just heard the NPR cookbooks segment on your local public radio affiliate or because you heard there’s a “Best Recipes of 2014″ countdown going on, you’ve come to the right place.

Just want the list?  OK!  NPR’s Top 11 Cookbooks of 2014 (in no particular order)

Of course, the cookbooks that made the roundup are just a small selection of the many wonderful titles published in 2014.  

What follows is my shortlist of titles equally notable in one way or another:

Best Actually Pretty Easy, Actually Thai Book Ever
Simple Thai Food, by Leela Punyaratabandhu

Generous Compendium From A Much-Missed Culinary Ambassador for Spain
1000 Spanish Recipes, by Penelope Casas

For Those Who Wonder What It’s Like Cooking in a Restaurant, Complete with No Handholding Whatsoever
Prune, by Gabrielle Hamilton

This Year’s “You Know You’re a New Yorker When…” Shibboleth
Eating Delancey, by Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps

This Year’s Convert-a-Carnivore Choice
Vegan Without Borders, by Robin Robertson

For Those Who Hate Wasting Food More Than Anything Else In the Whole World
The Kitchen Ecosystem, by Eugenia Bone

For Ambitious DIY-er’s Who Know No Fear
Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, by Cathy Barrow

For DIY-ers Who Are Fine With Just the One Food Group, Thanks
Fermented Vegetables, by Kirsten K. Shockey & Christopher Shockey

For Very Ambitious Pasta Lovers
Flour & Water, by Thomas McNaughton

For Pasta Lovers Who Just Want Something New In Their Pasta In 45 Minutes Flat
The Best Pasta Sauces, by Micol Negrin

For Bakers Who Own a Scale, and Are Proud Of It
The Baking Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Find a good place to hide the leftovers NOW.

The book:  Cooking Light Global Kitchen: The World’s Most Delicious Food Made Easy, by David Joachim (Oxmoor House, $29.95 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Chocolate baklava

Why I tried it: To be honest, I think it was just because I already had the phyllo in the freezer, as well as a wide selection of nuts.  It’s possible I also wanted an excuse to buy some Nutella, which for me falls firmly in the want-to rather than the have-to shopping-list category.

Why I loved it:  I like baklava, but I’ve never been an addict.  This recipe changed everything.  The baklava looked perfectly OK when it went into the oven.  But when it came out: Oh. My. God.  Those crumbly layers of glistening phyllo.  That subtle crunch.  The chocolate.  The butter!!
I made this recipe twice.  The first time, I hid the leftovers so I could have them for “lunch dessert” (which is a very special time of the day for me).  I tried to eat each piece only with my incisors, so it would last as long as humanly possible.
The second time, we had company.  There were, I think, 10 people.  There weren’t any leftovers, but I did manage to sneak 4 “servings” before it was gone.

Estimated preparation time: According to the book, “Hands-On Time: 25 min. Total Time: 1 hr. 21 min.”  This is true if you already toasted the nuts and remembered to thaw the phyllo last night.

Another great recipe from this bookIndonesian vegetable salad with peanut sauce (“Shortcut gado-gado”)
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Chocolate Baklava

Serves 24 (serving size: “1 piece.” HA!)

3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup water
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1 cup hazelnut-chocolate spread (such as Nutella)
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup blanched toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
Cooking spray
24 (14 x 9–inch) sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1/2 cup butter, melted

1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat; stir until honey dissolves. Increase heat to medium; cook, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 230° (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat; keep warm. Discard cinnamon stick.

2. Preheat oven to 350°.

3. Place hazelnut-chocolate spread in a microwave-safe bowl; microwave on high 30 seconds or until melted. Combine hazelnuts and next 5 ingredients (through salt).

Lightly coat a 13 x 9–inch glass or ceramic baking dish with cooking spray. Working with 1 phyllo sheet at a time (cover remaining dough to prevent drying), place 1 phyllo sheet lengthwise in bottom of prepared pan, allowing ends of sheet to extend over edges of dish; lightly brush with butter. Repeat procedure with 5 phyllo sheets and butter. Drizzle about 1/3 cup melted hazelnut-chocolate spread over phyllo.

Sprinkle evenly with one-third of nut mixture (about 1/2 cup). Repeat procedure twice with phyllo, butter, hazelnut-chocolate spread, and nut mixture. Top last layer of nut mixture with remaining 6 sheets phyllo, each lightly brushed with butter. Press gently into pan.

4. Make 3 lengthwise cuts and 5 crosswise cuts to form 24 portions using a sharp knife. Bake at 350° for 35 minutes or until phyllo is golden. Remove from oven. Drizzle honey mixture over baklava. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cover; store at room temperature.

From Cooking Light Global Kitchen by David Joachim (Oxmoor House)

“What on earth is poudre de Colombo!?”

The book:  World Spice at Home by Amanda Bevill and Julie Kramis Hearne (Sasquatch Books, $24.95 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Skillet prawns* with “poudre de Colombo”
*but go ahead and use big shrimp, because what’s the difference?!

Why I tried itThis was one of those serendipitous finds that turned up during recipe-testing.  I loved exploring the different spice mixes in this book, which allowed me to make full use of my Devastatingly Awesome Spice System.  But this night I was in a bit of a hurry and between the relatively quick spice mix (only 8 ingredients!) and the quick-cooking shrimp, I figured I could close the deal in 45 minutes max.

Why I loved it:  I doubt Columbus himself ever tasted it, but poudre de Colombo is a jewel of a seasoning from the French West Indies (proving that good things can come from disastrous colonial events).  It’s a warm, dusty mild curry; its hardest-to-get component is fenugreek, and its most unexpected one is raw rice.  Once the seasoning hits the warm butter, it’s magic – a huge, woodsy-spice-chest aroma blossoms into the air.  And then – between their own natural pigment and the turmeric – the shrimp turn a fiery coral, and you end up using them as daubs to scrape up any spice residue left in the corners of the pan.

Estimated preparation time:  45 minutes; but if your shrimp are already de-veined and shelled and you’ve made up the spice mix or bought it in advance, you could do it in 30 minutes flat.

Another great recipe from this book: Amanda’s cumin-crusted cornbread: here are the ingredients, but you’ll have to buy the book for the recipe!

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Skillet Prawns (Shrimp!) with Poudre de Colombo
Serves 4
If you can get true prawns, great! If not, use biggish shrimp (say, at least 21/25’s).  If you can only get small-to-medium shrimp, work as quickly as you can at the end so they don’t overcook.

For the vegetables:
2 tablespoons butter
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, halved, and cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into 1⁄2-inch slices
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon Pernod, or 1⁄2 teaspoon fennel seed, smashed

For the shrimp/prawns:
2 teaspoons ground poudre de Colombo (see below for recipe)
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound medium prawns (about 18-24), peeled and deveined, tails intact
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

To prepare the vegetables, in a 12-inch stainless steel skillet, melt the butter. Add the fennel and onion and cook for 4 minutes, flip, and cook for 4 minutes more. Add the chicken broth and Pernod; cover and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the onion is soft.

Uncover and cook until all of the liquid has evaporated and the fennel and onion begin to brown. Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm.

Meanwhile, to prepare the prawns, in a small bowl, mix together the poudre de Colombo, paprika, lemon zest, thyme, sugar, and salt. In a 10- to 12-inch skillet, melt the butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the spice mixture and the prawns and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; flip over and cook for 2 minutes more.

Rewarm the fennel mixture over medium-low heat. Spoon one-quarter of the mixture onto each plate and top with 4 to 5 prawns. Sprinkle over the lemon juice, garnish with the parsley, and serve.

POUDRE DE COLOMBO
Can’t be bothered with grinding your own spices? Here’s where to buy poudre de Colombo.  Making your own poudre de Colombo? Good on you!  Here’s the recipe.

1 whole clove
Scant ½ teaspoon cumin seed
¼ teaspoon coriander seed
Scant ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
Scant ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seed
⅛ teaspoon black mustard seed
Scant ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
Scant ½ teaspoon uncooked rice

1. In a dry pan over medium heat, toast the clove, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, fenugreek, and mustard seed, shaking the pan, for 3 minutes or until fragrant. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle the turmeric over the warm spices.

2. In the same skillet, toast the rice for 2 minutes, shaking the pan. Add it to the other spices while hot (the heat from the spices and rice lightly toasts the turmeric). In a spice grinder, grind the mixture to a powder.

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