Favorite Culinary Finds: 2016

I have mentioned this before, but one of my favorite things about cooking is that there is always some unexplored corner of the culinary universe.  And lucky for us, we have access to so many things because of the internet.  Every few months or so, I like to buy a few new ingredients or tools and see how I can incorporate them into my cooking.  If you’ve read my previous entries, you know I love flavors from all over the world, but they must please a large family and on a budget.  There are a lot of what I’d consider “luxury” items on here.  The beauty of most of them is that you only use a small amount.  For example, fleur de sel should never be used, and would really be a waste, if used in baking.  It’s only for finishing a dish.  So while $10 for a canister of plain salt would be crazy, $10 worth of fleur de sel should last me a year or more.  The same goes for the rest of these ingredients.  

As for unique products, like the bamboo steamer, I think even though it seems very specific, you’ll find it very useful.  I haven’t explored it fully yet.  But I know it can be used for things like hard cooked eggs, as well as the obvious choice (and my favorite) –fish.  

It’s funny because even as I look back and think, “Wow, are there more ingredients, techniques, and gadgets?”  Yes, I know there are.  I remember how cocky I was at 27 when I first roasted radishes (as if I were the first person to do this).  Or when I first figured out how to make soup.  Or how to poach an egg.  There is always more out there.  This is just what I’ve explored this year.

I really have accepted that food is my passion and my hobby (along with reality TV, though to a lesser extent).  So now that I’ve embraced it, cooking has become a lot more fun.  I don’t mean that I didn’t like it before.  But now, I am a stay-at-home mom and housewife.  Cooking is something I must do.  So why not really enjoy it?  And if my 8-year-old can pronounce (and love) bucatini, and my 1-year-old likes grilled artichokes…great!

I know I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback yet, but I’d love to hear about any ingredients, gadgets, or techniques that have wowed you recently.

  1. Fleur de sel :  This is a French finishing salt that can add a nice twist to a sweet dessert.  I first heard of it from Ina (who else?) when she made these.


2.  Bamboo steamer:  I first heard of these from Gwyneth Paltrow in her book “It’s All Good.”  She recommends cooking fish in it, so that’s what I did.  You can find my favorite steamed salmon here.  I’ve also used it to make baby food and for the broccoli component of this casserole.  One thing I’d like to do and haven’t yet is make hard cooked eggs in it or Chinese steamed buns.


3.  Thai seasoning:  I first heard of this when I received a week’s worth of free meals from Hello Fresh (more on that here).  I had never thought that there could be a spice blend for Thai stir fries, just like there’s an Italian seasoning blend or a fajita seasoning blend that Americans are surely familiar with.  So after I made the Hello Fresh meal, I went to Amazon, and of course I found it.  It’s a blend of sesame seeds, chile pepper, coriander, onion, red pepper, shrimp extract (who knew?), garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, and lemon oil.  So it’s not really the ingredients, but the interesting combination that makes it so unique.


4.  Culinary lavender:  Lavender was one of the first things I tried this year.  I first used it to make these cookies.  Then I made cupcakes.  Then I ventured out and used it to season chicken!  Finally I began adding it to my homemade body scrub.  It’s about $10-15 for a big bag, and as much as I’ve utilized it, I still have a ton left after first getting it in January.


5.  Bucatini:  I ordered five boxes of bucatini after seeing this recipe.  I decided to make it for my girls’ wine night because I wasn’t so sure that my kids would accept this as a dinner.  So we loved it at wine night, and Jon loved it at home (of course I made some for him, too).  Since I had 5 boxes, I later made this…possibly the coziest, messiest pasta dish I’ve ever had.  But also one of the best.


6.  Cooking pasta in red wine:  Who knew?  This is officially my favorite way to eat pasta.  Bucatini cooked in red wine.  My recipe is a hybrid of this one and this one.


7.  How to prepare fresh artichokes:  I have not posted a recipe for these yet because I haven’t had time to master it.  Cleaning and cooking an artichoke is a lot of work, but the result, to me, is worth it once in awhile.  There is something about preparing a really labor-intensive dish that makes you appreciate it more.  Anyone who has eaten a whole artichoke knows there aren’t a lot of edible parts, but it’s kind of like digging for jewels.  The garlic oil on this recipe is delicious.  And since this post is all about new techniques, in 2017 I plan to master aioli.  I saw a Provencal woman make it on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and apparently you must do it all by hand.  I can’t think of a better thing to accompany this with.  And possibly serve it with some crusty bread and a simply prepared protein like grilled fish or chicken.  With the work of the aioli and the artichokes, you’d want the rest to be simple.  I’m planning to write all about this in the spring when fresh artichokes are in season.


8.  Calabrian chili paste:  I heard about this first from Giada de Laurentiis (not personally, obviously, but on her show).  I have started adding it to a lot of meat and pasta dishes like linguine all’Amatriciana, the pasta I cooked in red wine, and some spicy pork chops that I have written up but keep pushing back the post date so I can do seasonal posts.  It should be up this winter.


9.  How to perfectly cook rice every time:  I also got this recipe from Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook, “It’s All Good.”  I had truly been looking for a foolproof method for brown rice because I use it in so many things!  I tried it in a slow cooker and do not recommend it.  I also used to use par-cooked (Minute) brown rice, but it’s so much cheaper to get plain old brown rice.  Yes, it does take 45 minutes to cook, but it’s not hands-on time.  Check out the method here.img_3213

10.  Using Voss glass water bottles for infusions:  These are just great because they’re reusable.  I use a 1 liter Voss bottle to make cucumber water.  There’s no sense in posting a recipe for that, although I did once post a recipe for Spa Water.  You can use any fruit or herbs for infusions.  My favorite is plain cucumber.  For a one liter bottle, all you need is half of an English cucumber cut into spears, then seeded.  Chop the spears into chunks, put in the bottle, and fill with water.  Let it sit in the fridge for at least 1 hour.  It will keep in the fridge for about 2 days.


So those are my favorite discoveries of 2016, and I’m looking forward to tackling many more in 2017!


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