Can you feel that magic in the air? We’re now deep into that special season when everyone – no matter their race, colour, creed – can join together, share a cup of cheer, and freak the fuck out about holiday gifts.
Admit it. December’s more B-A-N-A-N-A-S than Gwen Stefani. From office potlucks to seizure-inducing decorations to new “traditions” involving the stuff of nightmares, it’s easy for year’s end to take its toll.
We’re so busy baking three gross of shortbread or scrambling to grab gifts for people we hate, sometimes we forget the real point of this season – best-of lists.
For a pop culture and trivia dork such as myself, the waning weeks before New Year’s are a treasure trove of listicles covering the best of the best. The Top 50 Albums of 2015. The 10 Most Likely Contenders for Oscar Gold. The 15 Most Read Articles. Throw a number and superlative in your headline and I’ll spend hours sifting through your article, whining that you placed my favourite album of the year much too low. It’s just what I do.
At the crossroads of these lists and seasonal gift-giving lies an uncomfortable truth, one I’ve fought with my entire life. Oprah Winfrey is a genius.
Sure, she’s rich. She’s successful. She’s an inspiration to people the world over. She’s also an annoyance to any young male who lived with his mother through the ‘90s. (I mean, the bunco doctors alone!)
Still, she’s clearly onto something. Who else but Oprah could name-drop Faulkner and send As I Lay Dying to the top of the best-seller’s lists? No other media professional garners the same loyalty from fans. Not Justin Bieber. Not Jerry Garcia. No one. (OK, maybe these guys.)
I hate to say it, but my mother was right – you can’t mess with O.
Well, if you can’t beat it – steal it. With that in mind, friends, welcome to a new feature here on Cook Somethin’. Read on to enjoy the first annual Devon’s Favourite Things Raddest Shaz of 2015!
1. Hungarian Cuisine
If there’s only one thing I could keep from this year (U.S. visa and residence aside), it’s my discovery of the incredible cooking from Magyarország. Paprika reigns supreme in Hungarian cuisine (and it needs a heavy hand), but the backing notes of caraway, onion, lard, sour cream, and pickled stuff lend it a zesty, murky mystery unlike anything else. (Plus, like all great food cultures, honkies don’t mind a little pork.) Hungarian food is like German food’s hotter, dirtier cousin. Goulash (the real stuff), chicken paprikash, gyulai kolbász – along with sauerkraut and spaetzle – keep me coming back and there’s still a whole heritage to explore. I’m sold.
2. Against the Grain Brewery’s Kamen Knuddeln Kentucky Common
It’s the single best beer I drank in 2015. Against the Grain’s Kentucky common is unlike anything else I’ve had – dark, sour, and funky; malty, but balanced; and its most outstanding characteristic: a rich aroma of buttered popcorn. Drinking a Kamen Knuddeln is like pulling sips of bourbon from a re-filled Pepsi bottle in the movie theatre bathroom, but in the best possible way. Other great stuff? Holy Mountain’s Tart Saison, Four Winds’ Juxtapose Wild IPA, and Parallel 49’s Schadenfreude.
3. Fieldstone Organics Black Beluga Lentils
Any black lentils will do, but Fieldstone’s are easiest to find in Western Canada. As I’ve mentioned, lentils have become my favourite food in great thanks to these guys. They hold their shape much better than your sad Safeway green lentils and they look like pebbles (or, in the hopes of many disappointed buyers, beluga caviar). Use them in Indian or other Asian preparations (I usually cook them with coconut milk and garam masala, myself). If you find them, buy three bags – they’re hard to come by and they last forever in your cupboard.
4. How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Of all my cookbooks, Bittman is best. How to Cook Everything is the book I first check when I want to make, well, anything. It jams an encyclopedic knowledge of food into the two inches between its covers, shedding light on everything from apple pie to poached monkfish with artichokes to different kinds of salt. Best of all, it relies on technique and variation to instruct – one roast chicken recipe and a dozen tweaks to its flavour profile. In a food culture more concerned with taking Snapchats than learning even basic skills, Bittman’s book is a refreshingly unpretentious guide to cooking. If you want to make better food at home, getting this book is step two.
5. Lily’s Stevia-Sweetened Chocolate Bars
What a miracle! I haven’t much of a sweet tooth, but sometimes I go all Phife Dawg and just need a bit o’ sugar. I follow a pretty restrictive diet most of the time, but these chocolate bars are sweetened with stevia so they’re fair game. Not only that, they’re as good as any other top-shelf candy bar in the checkout aisle (especially the almond). These things are an FSM-send.
6. Cuban Sandwich at Nue
Nue is my favourite restaurant on Earth. It feels like a place built for me alone – a few garishly decorated long tables full of drinks and piled high with plates of international street food. Grilled octopus from Portugal. Trinidadian goat curry. Tijuana tostilocos. Balut. Everything on point, no matter its origin. The weirdest part? Their best dish – bar none – is a humble Cuban sandwich. Piled high with smoky ham and roasted pork, the right amount of gooey cheese, and the lightly crisp grilled bread, this thing makes every other sandwich I had in 2015 taste like trash. Go here now. Order two.
8. Loredan Gasparini Venegazzu Capo di Stato 2008
A rainy night. A dark alley in Venice. A sagelike wine steward pours me a glass of some curious red and I sip slowly but eagerly from the top of an upturned barrel. I’m in love. I drink a lot of red wine and most of it barely warrants notice. This stuff is totally different. The story goes, Capo di Stato was the first non-French wine Charles de Gaulle allowed into Élysée Palace (or something to that effect). Well, me and Chucky have something in common (if I can ever find it again).
9. KitchenAid Architect 5-Speed Blender
Blenders are stupid. Well, that’s what I thought anyway. Shelling out the cost of plane tickets for an appliance whose major selling point was its ability to turn an iPhone to dust? I’ll pass. I had an immersion blender. I also had a spoon and an arm. Why would I need one?
But, my new apartment came loaded with one of these KitchenAid models and I had to eat my words. I use it every day. Unlike my trusty boomstick, it actually turns hemp hearts and spinach into a frothy shake in the morning. Soups and purees, free of anything but smoothness. You don’t need a Vitamix, but get yourself a real blender and make your life so much easier.
10. Broccoli couscous
Broccoli couscous is the most radical new technique I discovered this year (thanks, old episode of Top Chef!) First, it’s not couscous. Rather, it’s a transformation of that cabbage cultivar into a dish resembling the North African staple (but faster and less carb-centric). Not only that, it’s got nutty and herbaceous notes missing from regular couscous. I’ll go into more detail in the coming year, but it’s proof that a healthier substitute can actually be more delicious than the original.
That’s all she wrote! Let these wonders guide your cooking and shopping these final couple of weeks. If you’re like me, you’ll be happy.
In the spirit of the season, I’d like to make a special point to thank each of you for reading this thing. I started Cook Somethin’ on a whim one Sunday afternoon back in May and I’m seriously amazed at all the support and love you’ve thrown out. This newsletter has given me some freeform space to work my writing muscles. It’s gotten me to think a little more critically about the food I shove in my face. And it’s brought me back in touch with friends I haven’t spoken to in years. I’m truly honoured and I appreciate deeply your attention.
If you’re liking it, please do me a favour and share this thing on Facebook.
Here’s to all a very merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, super Solstice, krazy Kwanzaa, tip-top Tet, and a solemn, dignified Ramadan. Now let’s get drunk and play Uno!
PS. I’ve pulled together a Spotify playlist of the best songs I first heard in 2015. It’s an odd hodgepodge of stuff – old, new, rock, rap, jazz, and so on. If you’re interested, give it a spin!