Friday, January 22, 2010

Ray's Braise: Best Meals of 2009

[Please give a warm welcome to new biweekly columnist Ray Goldfield! Ray, in his column Ray's Braise, will take us on a culinary tour of the tri-state area and treat us to some of his favorite recipes. Enjoy! -Max]

Photo Courtesy Jason Perlow

In many ways, 2009 was the year everything changed for me in the world of food. I grew up in a home where food wasn't a huge part of day-to-day life. My father loved eating out, and he wasn't picky. My mother was certainly a good cook, but her tastes geared more towards salads and vegetarian dishes. In addition, growing up with dairy allergies, my diet was somewhat limited. It was very easy, as an adult, to fall into a routine of eating canned food and meat and potatoes without putting much effort into the food that I ate. Variety mostly came from eating out, and while I did certainly consider myself a food lover, I never had much interest in broadening my horizons. This started changing in 2002, when I won a contest in the Newark Star-Ledger to ride along on the Munchmobile, a yearly review trip that criss-crosses New Jersey visiting eateries of every kind. I was exposed to so many unique places and cuisines on these weekly trips that I came away with a much better understanding of my likes and dislikes. But it wasn't until years later, inspired by my friends (including those posting at this blog), that I really took the initiative in cooking for myself and bringing the things I love to eat when I'm out to my daily life and my kitchen table.

I'm still very much a rookie cook, learning my likes and dislikes and what methods work best for me. I'll always be a meat-and-potatoes guy, but that doesn't mean meat and potatoes can't be made a lot more interesting. 2009 was a year full of experimental recipes, delicious discoveries, and great meals both out and in. These are the six dining experiences that I'll remember most, and that sum up 2009 for me.

6. Ichi Umi:

Everyone has that one big restaurant splurge that they save for special occasions. For me, it's Ichi Umi, a Japanese buffet that just opened outside Menlo Park Mall. Unlike most buffets, where dishes languish under heat lamps, Ichi Umi celebrates fresh food, a hallmark of Japanese cuisine. When you first approach the buffet, you're greeted by dozens of kinds of sushi, salads, and fresh seafood at the cold buffet. Between the hand-made soba noodles, the snow crab, the Ikura shooters, and the Unagi, it's easy to make a meal out of just this. But then you'd miss out on the hot offerings, including a Yakitori grill, traditional Japanese Oden, tempura, teriyaki short ribs, and the highlight of the meal - at least eight preparations of fresh fish nightly, from sake-glazed salmon, to fried yelloweye, to chili-glazed sea bass. I'm usually a pretty jaded guy when it comes to buffets, having lost interest in most of them when I started transitioning to a more varied diet. But this is the one I make an exception for. Japanese food aside from sushi often gets short shrift, and this place was a revelation for me in all the cuisine has to offer.

5. Thanksgiving:

I had my first try cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 2008, when my mother was visiting a friend and my girlfriend was coming over, but I kept it very simple that year. A turkey, some sides, and a dessert, all straight from the recipe cards. 2009 was the year I took over the meal in full, with more than one guest coming. Cooking for company is an altogether different experience than cooking for yourself. There's an added pressure, and these Thanksgiving dinners were the first time I experienced it. But with the added confidence of 2008 under my belt, I felt bold enough to experiment with this year's dishes. A teriyaki glaze for the turkey, homemade mushroom stuffing, mashed potatoes made with chicken broth instead of milk, and pecan and peach pies made from scratch. The only concession to convenience? Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Mostly because in my opinion, some things should be sacrosanct. Jellied cranberry sauce has been part of my Thanksgivings since I was a boy, and that's not changing now!

4. Wegman's Wokery Buffet:

One of the greatest parts of eating out is finding good food in incredibly unlikely places. And it doesn't get more unlikely than a supermarket buffet. The traditional "hot food" buffet at grocery stores is known for such unappealing offerings as dried-out fried chicken, overcooked sausage and peppers, and gloppy mac 'n' cheese. But Wegman's, a supermarket with a huge selection of specialty ingredients brings something different to their Wokery, a selection of Chinese, Indian, and Thai dishes. Most of their offerings are fairly standard, but there's a few items that set it apart. Intensely flavored Masala Shrimp, clad in a fiery, crispy batter. Freshly fried samosas, in vegetarian, chicken, and lamb varieties based on the day, rival those served at some Indian restaurants. But the standout by far is the fried lemon-pepper fish. Each piece is a thick filet of fresh fish (they wouldn't tell me which fish is used) marinated in what tastes like pure lemon, and breaded with a crisp, peppy coating that manages to be surprisingly greaseless. As with all buffets, getting the food as it comes out is best, but this is probably the best-tasting fish I've had eating out all year.

3. Chili:

There's no recipe more versatile than chili. It can be tailored to any diet or type of appetite. There can be vegetarian versions, meat-heavy versions, mild versions, fiery versions, and everything in between. So naturally, it was one of the first dishes I experimented with when I began cooking. It can take a few tries to get chili right. My first try I was far too timid with the spices, and wound up with a fairly tasty bean-and-meat stew. The next time, I allowed myself to have a slightly heavier hand with the chili powder, and was rewarded. My personal chili recipe involves three kinds of beans (kidney, black, and chick peas), two kinds of meat (ground turkey and ground lamb, with the lamb formed into miniature meatballs), tomato sauce, chili powder, onion powder, crushed parsley, and a hint of curry powder and cinnamon. It adds up to a spicy if not fiery mix that I consider the perfect meal for a cold night.

2. Ben's Kosher Delicatessen:

Eating at Ben's (38th st. between 7th and 8th Av. in New York) is like taking a walk back in time. I don't keep strictly Kosher, although Kosher food always has appealed to me primarily because I never have to worry about dairy at a meat restaurant. Most Kosher restaurants today are either Middle Eastern or modern New American-style. Not Ben's. This restaurant is a celebration of old-style European Jewish cooking. There's a lot to recommend here, such as the pastrami burger and the chicken-in-a-pot. But if you want a taste of Ben's at its best, look no further than their Ronnie's Mixed Platter, a sample of all their old-school delicacies. Stuffed cabbage, potted meatballs, derma, egg barley with mushrooms, a potato pancake, and a special dish selected by the chef. When I was there, it was a chicken fricassee in gravy. Undoubtedly a calorie bomb of epic proportions, but it's a celebration of classic food that you can't find anywhere else. And a massive amount of food for only $18!

1. Chicken Noodle Kugel:

I've always enjoyed kugel, particularly the traditional potato kugel which is often served at Passover. But the appeal of noodle kugel always eluded me - primarily because it's always made rather sweet, often with cinnamon and raisins. The sweet/savory combination can work, particularly in spicing meats, but the noodle kugels I've tried are usually too intense. I'm a pretty big pasta fan, so I wasn't ready to give up on the dish. And so was born my first grand cooking experiment of 2009. Using a traditional noodle kugel recipe, I removed the water, sugar, raisins, and cinnamon. In their place, I used chicken broth as the base, spiced it with salt, pepper, onion powder, turmeric, a hint of cumin, and a little cinnamon (which provided an interesting flavor contrast to the more savory spices) and added diced chicken breast to the mix. I baked it according to the recipe, and what came out was one of the most enjoyable dishes I've ever made - a rich, chicken-y pie that made for a very satisfying meal. With winter here again, it's on my list to make again, only this time I'll be adding some shredded dark meat chicken as well, for a contrast to the breast. This was the first recipe where I let my imagination go wild a bit, and I was very happy with the result. I feel like this dish was the moment I gained a lot of confidence as a cook.

These were the meals that made up my 2009. Here's hoping 2010 will be as delicious!

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