Much as I love to cook, I’ve always been pretty lazy about it. Since college, I’ve known how to make 10-15 meals. I’ve rarely ventured outside my recipe box. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, right?
But last year was about fixing things that I may not have realized were broken. It was about eliminating all excuses not to be happy. It was about taking writing workshops and meditation classes and spontaneous road-trips; joining a gym and starting a new job and volunteering to cuddle with kittens at the Anti-Cruelty Society; attending philosophy lectures and off Broadway musicals and indie film festivals and outdoor concerts. And it was about cooking.
I set a goal to finally open up all those untouched cookbooks on my bookshelf and make 50 new recipes. And, almost to my own amazement, I did it. I remembered how happy cooking makes me. I made 50 new recipes last year. And I’ve chosen my top 10 favorites to share with you here.
1) Cajun Chicken Tenders with Apricot Mustard. I made these on Super Bowl Sunday for an apartment filled with Bears fans infinitely more interested in food than watching the Broncos play the Seahawks. I modified this recipe from a great little cookbook called 125 Best Chicken Recipes.
- 3 lbs chicken breasts, cut into strips
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp dry mustard
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice or lemon juice
- 1 cup apricot jam
- 3 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- In a small bowl, combine garlic, mustard, paprika, coriander, cumin, thyme, black pepper, cayenne, salt, and lime juice. Brush over chicken strips and arrange on oiled baking sheets.
- Bake, uncovered, in oven preheated to 300 degees for 20-30 minutes or until brown and crisp, turning once.
- Apricot Mustard: meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, puree jam with mustard. Heat in a small saucepan, stirring often, for about 1 minute or until the jam melts. Let cool.
2) Crock-Pot Minestrone Soup. While working from home on one of many Polar Vortex snow days last year, I found this recipe online for a knock-off Olive Garden recipe. If you’re a fan of their signature soup, this is a dead ringer. Here’s a link to the recipe on the fabulous website Cooking Classy.
3) Salted Caramel Cake. I made this recipe on a midwinter afternoon when several friends were stopping by at different times for various reasons and I rationalized that it would be rude not to have on hand the most decadent cake in existence to offer them. I ended up eating most of it myself. I regret nothing. The website where I found the recipe is filled with similarly incredible sweets. Here’s a link to The Baker Chick.
4) Chipotle-Cilantro Tilapia and Pineapple Salad. Although I don’t adhere to Lent diet restrictions, it seemed appropriate to make this fish meal on a Friday in March. The recipe for the tilapia can be found by following this link to Epicurious, which provided me with endless yummy recipe options through-out this adventure. The recommended pineapple salad didn’t look especially appealing to me, so I improvised a variation by combining chunks of pineapple with a cut-up tomato and then mixing with red onion, garlic powder, salt, pepper, a dash of white vinegar, and a sprinkle of basil.
5) Pan-Broiled Steaks with Marsala and Chili Pepper. Like me, my dad is a sucker for both Italian food and a classic steak dinner, so it wasn’t hard to settle on this recipe for Father’s Day. It comes from a cookbook that I would recommend to any home chef, the perennial favorite, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I served the steaks with a recipe for Green Beans with Lemon and Garlic.
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 4 boneless steaks, brought to room temperature before cooking
- Salt and pepper (or substitute your favorite steak rub)
- 1/2 cup dry Marsala wine
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 Tablespoon tomato paste, diluted with 2 Tablespoons water
- Chopped hot red chili peppers to taste
- 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
- (I also added about a teaspoon of sugar to neutralize the acidity)
- Sprinkle steaks with salt and pepper
- Choose a skillet that will accommodate all the steaks in a single layer. Add olive oil. Turn the heat on high and when the oil is hot enough that a slight haze forms over it, slip in the steaks. Cook them to taste, approximately 3 minutes on one side and 2 on the other. When done, turn off the heat and transfer the steaks to a warm platter.
- Turn the heat on medium high and add the Marsala and red wine. Let the wines bubble for about half a minute, while scraping the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any cooking residues stuck to the bottom or sides of the pan.
- Add the garlic, cook just long enough to stir 2 or 3 times. Add the fennel seeds, stir for a few seconds, then add the diluted tomato paste and chopped chili pepper. Turn the heat down and cook, stirring frequently, for a minute or so, until a dense, syrupy sauce is formed. (Ass the sugar, if desired.)
- Return the steaks to the pan for no longer than it takes to turn them 2 or 3 times in the sauce. Transfer to a warm platter, top with the chopped parsley, and serve at once.
6) Lemon Chicken with Honey and Saffron. If I had to choose a favorite cookbook from this past year, The New Spanish Table would win hands down. I tried several recipes from its pages and each turned out perfectly. That’s why, when my Grandma’s birthday rolled around, I knew I was safe making this brand new recipe for her dinner celebration. My confidence was justified. The dish was entirely celebration-worthy.
- 8 chicken breasts, cut in halves and trimmed of fat
- Coarse salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 6 teaspoon light honey, such as orange flower
- 1 large pinch saffron, pulverized in a mortar and steeped in 1 tablespoon very hot water
- 1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds
- Place the chicken in a glass baking dish. Rub the chicken all over with the salt, cumin, ginger and coriander. Let stand for 15 minutes.
- Place the lemon juice, 5 teaspoons of the honey and the saffron in a small bowl and whisk to mix. Pour the mixture over the chicken. Prick the chicken all over with the tines of a fork, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 6 hours, turning several times. Let the chicken come to room temperature before cooking.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Transfer the chicken to a bowl, then scatter the onions in the baking dish. Place the chicken on top of the onion and brush it with the remaining honey and the olive oil. Bake the chicken for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking until the chicken is cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes longer. Stir in the sesame seeds, return the breast halves to the dish and bake 5 minutes longer.
7) Banana Cookies. A surprisingly easy treat to whip up, I served these cookies for a late summer movie night and they disappeared before the credits rolled. The recipe can be found at the mouth-watering website, Chef in Training.
8) Chicken with Herb Roasted Tomatoes and Pan Sauce. Around the time I was beginning to pull out my scarves and sweaters last fall, this recipe caught my eye. It is one of the easiest and yet most flavorful dishes I have ever made – and perfect for a chilly October evening. Here’s a link to the recipe.
9) Penne Alla Vodka. One of my all-time favorite dishes to order, I knew penne alla vodka was a must-make from the very beginning of my self-imposed challenge. When I finally got around to it in November, I chose this fantastic basic recipe I found online and added mushrooms. I’ll definitely be remaking this in the future with chicken or perhaps sausage.
10) Catalan Braised Pork Loin with Dried Fruit. By December, The New Spanish Table had established itself as my go-to special occasion cookbook and so it was a no-brainer selecting this recipe from the book to mark my final, 50th new recipe of the year and also Christmas Eve. It’s my new holiday standby – delicious and impressive-looking with minimal effort required.
- 2-3 pound boneless pork loin (or boneless pork shoulder roast, if you prefer)
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium-size garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press
- 2-3 Tablespoons light olive oil
- 1 medium-size onion, chopped
- 1 fat carrot, diced
- 1 cup peeled pearl onions, thawed if frozen
- 1/4 cup kirsch or brandy
- 2 cups full-bodied dry red wine with a lively acidity
- 1 cup beef stock
- 3/4 cup pitted dried sour cherries
- 1/2 cup dried apricots, halved or quartered if large
- 1 large bay leaf
- 1 small piece of cinnamon stick
- 2 fresh rosemary sprigs
- Preheat oven to 325
- Rub pork generously with salt, pepper, and garlic
- Heat 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a 5-6 quart flameproof casserole or Dutch oven over high heat until almost smoking. Add the pork and cook til richly browned on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Add the remaining oil while the pork browns, if the casserole looks too dry. Transfer the pork to a bowl. Add the chopped onion, carrot, and pearl onions to the casserole and brown well, 6-7 minutes. Add the kirsch and cook over high heat until it is reduced to about 1 Tablespoon, about 1 minute. Add the wine, beef stock, cherries, apricots, bay lea, cinnamon stick, and rosemary sprigs and bring to boil, scraping the bottom of the casserole to dislodge the brown bits. Season the sauce with salt to taste.
- Return the pork to the casserole. Cover the casserole tightly and transfer it to the oven. Bake the pork, turning it once or twice, until it is very tender and an instant-read meat thermometer registers 150 degrees, about 45 minutes.
- Transfer the pork to a plate and cover it with aluminum foil to keep warm. Remove and discard the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and rosemary sprigs. Transfer the casserole to the stove top and cook the sauce over high heat until it is slightly syrupy, 3-5 minutes.
- Cut the pork into slices and arrange on a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the pork and serve.
If you’re looking for other recommendation, here’s a handful of supplemental cookbooks I came to love last year for reasonably easy, consistently tasty recipes:
- America’s Ethnic Cuisines
- Delicious Soups
- Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain
- Eat Caribbean
- The Best of New Orleans
- The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
- One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors
- The Around the World Cookbook
- Fix It and Forget It, 1400 Best Slow Cooker Recipes