My 2012 Culinary Highlights

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By Emily Paster

As 2012 comes to a close, I am already starting to look ahead to 2013 and make my culinary resolutions for the new year. But before I do that, I want to look back on the year that was: what special dishes I ate, what new foods I tried, and what unfamiliar techniques I mastered.

The culinary highlight of the year was without a doubt the week-long trip I took to Paris with my husband to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Although the focus of the trip was not food — my husband had never visited the City of Light before so the real focus of the trip was introducing him to this city that I love — it is nearly impossible to go to Paris and not eat well. As is often the case in Paris, sometimes the simplest things are the most revelatory. My husband didn't need a three-star restaurant meal to blow his mind; the pastries at nearby patisserie Gerard Mulot were quite sufficient. One of our favorite parts of the week were our semi-regular breakfasts at a local cafe called appropriately enough Le Favorite. For 7 Euros each, we got fresh-squeezed orange juice, unctuous chocolat chaud, a choice of a croissant or tartine and the chance to feel like true Parisians.

That being said, we did have some special meals in Paris. The stand-out was dinner at Septime, one of examples of the bistronomic movement: classically trained young chefs opening reasonably priced and casual bistros to serve inventive, seasonal and local cuisine. The deceptively simple dessert at Septime, meringues, fraises de bois and fromage blanc ice cream, was among the best things I ate this year.

Some of the special dishes I ate in Paris inspired me to try and recreate versions of them once I got back home, specifically savory crumbles and cold pea soup. We also visited some delightful food emporiums in Paris, including la Grande Epicerie de Paris, which is a temple to French cuisine with an enormous grocery section, a bakery and multiple prepared food options, and its polar opposite, the Epicerie Breizh Café, a tiny shop specializing in products just from the province of Brittany. That's where I found the much-coveted Bordier butter that I brought back to the States over my husband's objections.

Back home, I made an effort to cook with a lot of new foods this year. Among the new foods that I experimented with several became favorites that made it into my regular rotation, including lentils — both green and red — pearl barley and farro, a chewy, nutty-tasting ancient strain of wheat that is great in salads and side dishes. I also experimented with new fruits and vegetables, including romanesco, quince, figs, and black currants. I really made an effort to cook more vegetarian meals this year, mostly for health reasons, but also for environmental reasons. When cooking vegetarian, it is helpful to include nutritious grains and legumes, as well as different vegetables so as not to get bored.

After bringing home that smoked salt Bordier butter from Paris, I got really excited about fancy butter this year. One of my regular Oak Park farmers' market purchases was fresh "summer butter" from one of the vendors. It only appears in summer when the cows are grazing on the abundant grass; it really has a distinctive taste that is so much more complex than Land o'Lakes. I even got sucked into buying butter made from goat's milk this year. That butter definitely has a gamey taste but I thought it was cool.

I put some of these fancy butters to use in one of my new projects for the year: making caramels. I followed this recipe from ex-pat food blogger extraordinaire David Lebowitz and made several successful batches of homemade salted butter caramels for holiday gifts. If you are going to try your own hand at making caramels, invest in a candy thermometer and try to find cream without any stabilizers. I found such cream from Kalona Dairy at Whole Foods.

I put up some delicious canned goods this year. Some of my favorites involved interesting combinations of fruits. I made a peach-fig jam that looked as lovely as it tasted. I also made a combined stone fruit jam from the new Food in Jars cookbook that tasted like the essence of summer. One of the big canning projects I tackled was dealing with the 20 lbs. of sour cherries that one of my canning students brought me from Door County Wisconsin. Part of the way I dealt with it was by giving half the cherries to my neighbor Chef Druck, but I also made a lot of cherry cobbler, cherry pie filling and sour cherry syrup. Drink syrups were one of my pet projects this year. In addition to the sour cherry syrup, I also made black currant cordial, rose petal syrup and strawberry-basil syrup. For someone who drinks as much seltzer as I do, drink syrups offer a welcome addition. But of course, they are great fun to use in cocktails as well.

Drink syrups are one of the most popular offering at the Chicago Food Swap. And I could hardly let a list of my 2012 culinary highlights go by without mentioning the Swap. Although we did meet once in 2011, 2012 was really the year of the Chicago Food Swap. This was the year we went from a dozen participants, mostly friends of ours, to a email list of over 100 people and a Facebook page with over 200 fans. Vanessa and I were constantly amazed and inspired by the creativity and the expertise of the amateur cooks and gardeners who came to the Chicago Food Swap's events this year. Seeing the swappers' pride and excitement in sharing their homemade or homegrown goodies and in discovering someone else's delicious treats was definitely one of the highlights of my year. The Chicago Food Swap is probably my favorite project right now.

My favorite new way of cooking this year? Definitely slow-cooking. I realize that I am late to the slow-cooker party, but better late than never. I didn't even start using my new Ninja Slow Cooker until late in 2012, but it quickly became indispensable. As we head into the heart of the Chicago winter, I expect to be making a lot of stews, soups and braises in my Ninja in 2013.

Let's end this culinary recap with dessert, shall we? I made a lot of sweet endings to meals this year. My family's favorite was probably these homemade ice cream sandwiches, which I made again for my brother and his family on Christmas Day. I was partial to the five-spice pumpkin apple cake that I made for the Artizone Flavor of Fall cooking contest — although it didn't win. But I think the dessert that I was proudest of this year was a mixed-berry Pavlova that I made for company. It was so beautiful that I almost couldn't bear to cut into it — but then once I did, I was glad I had because it was absolutely delicious.

Paris, vegetarian meals, drink syrups, swapping food, caramels, slow-cooking — those were my culinary highlights of the past year. What were yours?

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