Top Bites of 2005

2005 has been a landmark culinary year for me. I ate incredible food in Barcelona, Paris, Norway and Seattle. I had my first-ever Michelin-starred meal, acquired more than 30 new cookbooks, and discovered the wonders of Smash! and olive jam. I taught myself how to wield a camera over a plate of food without dropping it in. I cooked with more focus and confidence than ever before, pushing myself to stray beyond my comfort zone and attempt things that leave even professionals trembling. I revealed far more skeletons in my culinary closet than I probably should have. I even managed to secure myself a pretty nifty vacation in a warm and sunny place. But without a doubt the most significant and meaningful event – not just in my culinary life but in my life in general – was starting this website in March. It has been an adventure that has brought me more friends, expansion of horizons and wonderful experiences than I would have ever dreamed possible.

So to both new readers and to those who have been here since the beginning, thank you for all your wonderful feedback, support and encouragement, and to wrap up this amazing year of food, here’s a list of my picks for the top ten dishes to appear on these pages in 2005. Enjoy, Happy New Year, and see you with plenty more delicious food in 2006!

235974743_93e634253e.jpg Moroccan-Spiced Poussins with Saffron, Honey and Tomato Jam
Posted on May 9 
This dish qualifies as one of the most delicious main courses I have ever eaten, let alone made myself. It was an adaptation of a recipe in Diana Henry’s Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, and combines the succulence of crisply-roasted poultry with the perfumes of rose, cinnamon and saffron, the sweetness of honey and the richness of almonds. Exotic and addictive.

235975235_484a05e1d0.jpg Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
Posted on May 11
This cake made an appearance at the same dinner as the poussins above, and was inspired by a recipe to be found in the very same cookbook. As I admitted in the post, I’m not normally a big cake fan, but this particular recipe blew me away: moist, citrusy, nutty and floral. It’s incredible – give it a try.

235979770_76cab6a6a0.jpg Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad
Posted on June 9
I just realized with some embarrassment that this is yet another recipe from the same cookbook as the previous two! Well, never mind – give these a try anyway (or else just go out already and buy the book for yourself). What I love so much about these sweet potatoes is that besides being absolutely delicious, they’re perfect ‘everyday’ food – quick, easy and healthy. We have literally been eating them non-stop since this post was published.

235982111_94bf123107.jpg Chocolate Gelato No. 2
Posted on July 6
Out of all the recipes I’ve posted, this has gotten perhaps the best response, with the highest number of people contacting me to say they’d tried it and loved it. It’s a fantastically deep, dark ice cream with a velvety texture and comforting smoothness. It’s also easy to make without an ice-cream maker, and stays creamy and scoopable in the freezer. Since chocolates and cocoa do vary, I would recommend that you take the guidelines for sugar loosely – taste the mixture before you freeze it and if it seems a little too bitter for you, add another spoonful or two. And of course use the best chocolate and cocoa you can find – it makes a BIG difference.

235984054_0ad20fa97c.jpg Prawns with Lemon, Chili, Garlic & Feta
Posted on July 26
Shrimpy, cheesy, garlicky goodness – the name says it all. If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll be in heaven. Kind of a bizarre story about how I acquired the recipe, too.

235984992_3ccdf7f01c.jpgCherry-Almond Gratin
Posted on August 4
I always used to think of myself as being more on the chocolate side of the fence when it comes to dessert, but a few amazing fruit and nut creations I made this year have me rethinking my preferences. I made this gratin when I went home to Seattle with perfectly ripe, local Ranier cherries. Their succulence and tartness in combination with the sweet marzipan-like topping, burnished golden from the oven, was a revelation – I would take this over most forms of chocolate anyday.

241595599_87957aa70f.jpg Chicken Braised with Figs, Honey and Vinegar
Posted on September 12
This dish from Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook is like poetry in flavors – everything is perfectly balanced with a simple, restrained elegance. One of my favorite things to do when figs are in season.

235958737_313d4d2f70.jpgPerfect Hot Chocolate
Posted on October 18
The name says it all – rich, chocolaty comfort in a cup to combat winter chills. This recipe has also just appeared in the Dec 29th edition of the Christian Science Monitor!


235958562_563b8870b3.jpgApple, Hazelnut and Vanilla Crisp
Posted on November 6
The backbone of this recipe has been passed down in my family now for generations, getting better with each subsequent one. Whether dressed up with hazelnuts and vanilla, like here, or left plain and simple, there are very few things I would prefer to eat on a blustery fall night.

235957937_4390f482ea.jpgScourtins (French Olive Cookies)
Posted on November 27
These olive cookies are as delicious as they are different. Although I made them as part of a virtual Christmas cookie swap, I think they’d be equally at home nibbled outside on a warm summer evening with a glass of wine. Sweet, salty and meltingly buttery, they’re one of my favorite recipe ‘finds’ of the year.



An Unexpected Gift

Jamaican Breakfast Soup – A taste of things to come? 


My dear friends, ’tis the season for giving. Our Menu for Hope hosted chez Pim has broken the $12,000 $13,000 $14,000 mark, and with another last push before Friday night we just may reach our $15,000 target, an amount of money that will no doubt impact many, many earthquake survivors’ lives. If I could give you one more little nudge to head over there and donate another five dollars – and perhaps select one of the many fabulous prizes that have recently been added to the pot – we’ll be one step closer to our goal. [Update: We have now raised over $17,000!!!]

It’s also the season for receiving, and the winds of good fortune have been busy in blogland, first bringing Shauna the cookset of her dreams, and now, as it turns out, smiling on me. To explain my own good news, I’ll start by introducing you to my favorite British magazine: Food and Travel. It’ll have to be a verbal introduction, since the magazine’s website is currently undergoing renovation (update: it’s finally up and running!). I can’t comment favorably on their technological competence, but I can tell you how wonderful the magazine is. I ran across it the first time at Heathrow Airport while waiting for a connection, and all it took was one flip-through to fall in love. It combines my two great loves in a sleek and stylish monthly that can best be described as a cross between Condé Nast and Saveur. Sample content from the October issue, a particularly important issue for reasons which will become clear in a moment, include an article on the history of tea in India, the people and food of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, gourmet getaways in Switzerland, Spanish country cooking, and lots of other tidbits on great places to jet off to for a weekend or what to do with the produce currently in the market. And did I mention the photography? Food and Travel certainly excels in its location photography, but what constantly has my jaw dropping is the food photography. I’d go so far as to say that they possess the best food photography of any magazine I have ever bought, anywhere. Hopefully they’ll have their website up and running soon so you can test out my claim, but for now you’ll have to take my word for it. The only unfortunate thing about Food and Travel (besides their internet problems), is that the magazine can be difficult to find, at least in this part of the UK. It may be more widely available around London (where it is published), but after only being able to find it at airports (including ones on mainland Europe), I took out a subscription.

Anyhow, like many magazines, Food and Travel often sponsors competitions, sometimes for a physical prize like a crate of champagne, and sometimes for a travel prize like a long weekend in Prague. These competitions are usually more like prize-draws than contests of knowledge or ability, as the entry requirement will be nothing more difficult than answering a simple question or two. I suppose these easy competitions are a way of tempting people into buying the magazine, or at least that’s what I’ve always assumed as I breeze right over the them on my way to the meatier articles. When the October issue arrived, however, I noticed right away that something was different. The competition this month wasn’t based on dumb luck; it was based on writing ability. Specifically, entrants were asked to write a short piece about Caribbean food – what makes it unique, for example – and submit this to the magazine by the end of the month. The promised prize was more than tempting enough to get my pen scribbling: a two-week, all-expenses-paid gourmet tour of Jamaica, and upon returning, the chance to write an article about it for publication in Food and Travel. Not one to waste an opportunity for what might be the career break of a lifetime, I sat down to write, and re-write, and scrunch it up and write it all again. In mid-October I submitted my piece, and crossed my fingers. By the beginning of December the deadline for winner notification had come and gone, and despite feeling slightly deflated (though naturally I hadn’t let my hopes get too high), I just assumed someone else had won and got on with things.

But, well, it seems their website is not the only thing this magazine is a little behind schedule on. Last Friday morning, just as I was on my way out the door to work, I was surprised by the phone. I was even more surprised to have the editor-in-chief of Food and Travel on the other end. "I have some good news for you," she began, "can you guess where you’re going?" I believe she must have thought she lost me – it took me a me a full thirty seconds to reattach the connection between brain and mouth, such was my dumbstruck disbelief. "We loved your piece," she told me, "and we look forward to reading about your adventures for the magazine." I honestly don’t remember much of what I said to her, and when she asked me what I did I babbled on about too many things, including this website but stupidly neglecting to tell her the name. I did make sure to let her know my husband and I would also love to submit photographs along with the article about Jamaica, to which she heartily agreed. I also remember hanging up the phone in a state of shock and then giving in to the irresistible urge to jump up and down for a full five minutes. It was a good day.

So there are still a million and one details to be worked out with the Jamaica Tourist Board (the competition’s other sponsor), but sometime before the end of June we’ll be jetting off to the Caribbean. Supposedly we’ll be visiting Blue Mountain coffee plantations, touring rum distilleries, attending cooking classes, meeting local chefs and shopping at markets all over the country. Between now and then I have a lot to learn about Jamaican food – not to mention I have to start building up my tolerance to those fiery scotch bonnet chilies that show up in everything, so I’m told. I got myself started (and in a nice tropical mood) over the weekend by preparing a recipe I used to make quite regularly, a kind of smoothie in a bowl I adapted years ago from a recipe in Sheila Lukins’ All Around the World Cookbook. Although I can’t remember whether its origins really lie in Jamaica (the book is in storage, unfortunately), something about the combination of the banana and coconut, the lime juice and cinnamon evokes some kind of sun-drenched exoticness. You don’t even have to add the rum extract, but it does help to complete the illusion. And though it may not seem like it, it’s a perfect Christmas recipe – light and healthy enough to combat the excesses of the night before, and tasty and unusual enough to serve as part of a larger brunch spread to visiting overnighters.

And as this will be my last post before Christmas, I’d like to take the chance to wish each and every one of you a wonderful holiday. Whether you have snow or sunshine, mulled wine by the fire or cold beers by the barbie, I hope you have plenty of good food and drink, a chance to relax and unwind, and lots of laughter shared with good friends and family. And of course, I hope you get everything on your list, and more! 

Jamaican Breakfast Soup

Serves: 2 as part of a bru
nch (easily multiplied)

2 ripe bananas, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
1/3 cup coconut milk
1/2 small lime
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
about 2 tablespoons honey, or to taste (amount depends on whether your yogurt is pre-sweetened)
a few drops rum extract (optional)
1/4 cup dried (desiccated) or fresh grated coconut 

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Spread the coconut in a baking dish and toast in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, or until evenly golden brown. Set aside to cool. Combine one of the bananas with all the other ingredients except the toasted coconut in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust the sweetness with more honey or the tartness with more lime juice. Stir in the slices of the second banana, ladle into shallow bowls and top with plenty of toasted coconut.


Top Nog

Homemade Eggnog 


If a taste for traditional Christmas foods were a gene, I was surely born with a defective one. You could populate a small planet with the number of fruitcakes that have made me gag, and if there were an award for gastronomic martyrdom it would surely go to me for all the sawdust-flavored Christmas cookies I’ve swallowed. I’ve politely licked my lips after eating mealy German lebkuchen and not-so-politely spit out my first ever taste of a British mince pie. I unhappily soldiered through a whole bowlful of dried fruit compote one Christmas in Spain, and I felt my stomach seize up after one leaden bite of steamed Christmas pudding in Ireland. After contemplating the idea that maybe I do suffer from some kind of rare genetic deficiency that prevents me from enjoying these seasonal delights, I decided instead it may just be a blessing in disguise – after all, if I simply avoided all the calorie-traps of the season, I would have that much less dietary damage control to contend with come January. This might have actually worked, were there not one deliciously creamy exception to the rule.

In a word: eggnog. I love it. I also wait all year for it. I usually start thinking about eggnog in early spring, when the memories of last year’s indulgence are a distant memory and the next season’s batch lies an interminable wait away. By late summer I’ll have started suffering tremors and sweating at the thought of it, and by autumn I’ll be calculating exactly how many days, hours and minutes remain until I can legitimately take my first sip. In the U.S. this date is decided for me since eggnog doesn’t hit the shelves until a few weeks before Christmas. In eggnog-less Britain, however, I’m working from a blank slate: if I can make it, I can drink it, no matter what time of year, and it’s only a vague sense of seasonal impropriety that has kept me from declaring it a year-round libation.

The exact nature of eggnog sometimes confuses non-Americans. Unlike brownies and chocolate chip cookies, this particular North American culinary heavyweight hasn’t gained popularity across many international frontiers. Several sources tell me that its origins actually lie in England, where a drink called posset was popular in the nineteenth century among those who could afford dairy, eggs and brandy. Nowadays I’m told it goes by the name ‘egg flip’ in the British Isles, and takes the form of a hasty concoction of booze, eggs and sugar – but let’s be honest, I’ve never been standing around at an office Christmas party and had anyone offer me a cup of egg flip to ease the pain. If it exists, it must be rare.

I also encountered something mildly reminiscent of eggnog in Germany and Holland – Eierlikör, or Advocaat, an intensely sweet liquor flavored with egg yolks and cream that makes frequent appearances in tiny glasses and the interiors of cheap chocolate assortments. I’m told by Germans that nowadays it’s associated with conservative traditions and grandparents’ liquor cabinets, neither of which contribute much to its dwindling popularity. In any case, it certainly can’t hold a candle to real eggnog, with its silken, custardy texture, fragrant bouquet of spices and creamy sweetness that slides down your throat like crushed velvet. Eggnog stands up to the punchy fire of strong liquor, but is comforting and flavorful enough to also be quietly sipped on its own. And until you’ve made your own eggnog, you don’t know just how heavenly it can be.

This eggnog, a recipe I’ve been tweaking for years, is extraordinary. But you don’t have to take my word for it. The first Christmas I spent in Scotland I whipped up a big batch to quell my holiday homesickness and passed it around to a number of skeptical friends. Everyone liked it, but one friend in particular, who comes from India and had no experience whatsoever with nogs, possets or flips, fell head over heels at his first taste. He was so smitten, in fact, that he requested a gallon of it for his next birthday. The only problem was that his birthday is in July. “I’m sorry but eggnog is a Christmas drink – I can’t make in July!” I told him regretfully. He was utterly devastated. “But why not?”

Yes, why not? Most Christmas sweets I’m happy to refuse to allow on my table at other times because really, once a year is already more than enough. But to restrict the consumption of things we really love based on the date alone – well, perhaps that’s just silly. Life’s short enough on enjoyment already.

So yes, my friend now happily gets his eggnog in July, and I get what I secretly wanted all along – another legitimate excuse to drink it.


Yield: just under 2 quarts/liters (recipe can easily be doubled) 

4 cups (1 lt) whole milk
1 1/3 cup (270g) sugar

1 vanilla bean
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks
generous 1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream, cold

freshly-ground nutmeg, for sprinkling
booze of your choice: rum, brandy, bourbon… (optional)

Heat the milk and sugar in a saucepan with a lid. Split open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk; cut the pod into four or five pieces and add it too along with the mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Bring everything just to a boil, remove from the heat and let steep, covered, for at least 30 minutes.

Return the pan to the heat and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. In a bowl whisk the egg yolks until frothy. Temper the yolks by adding about 1/2 cup of the hot milk to them, stir well and then add them into the pan with the rest of the milk, stirring quickly until incorporated. Continue to heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon, being careful not to let it boil. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the heavy cream—this will bring the temperature down and prevent it from curdling as it sits. Transfer to a covered container and chill several hours until cold. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, discarding the vanilla and cinnamon. Serve cold, sprinkling each serving with more nutmeg before drinking (this is de rigueur). Drink as is, stir in some of your favorite booze (I like dark rum), or use to whiten (and sweeten) your morning coffee. Eggnog will keep up to a week in the refrigerator.