The end of the year is a time for reflection. Nostalgia. Thoughtful musings about life, progress, achievements, goals, regrets. Vague notions of self-improvement and self-denial. Bittersweet pangs and spirited hopes. Tears. Smiles. Thinking through your emotions, considering your true self.
But, luckily, this is a food blog. This is the sort of place where I post a photo of some meat or a cake and say 'omg yum, best thing ever to go in my mouth', occasionally interspersed with hilarious anecdotes about my teenage self or mildly homicidal rants about slow people. This is not a place for the kind of sentimental rubbish we might normally associate with the year drawing to a close. PHEW, right?
Instead, I thought I would commemorate the end of 2013 with a brief recollection of my favourite food-related moments, and some nice pictures. Can't say fairer than that, I hope.
1. Almond croissants and waffles during my birthday skiing trip. The beginning of January saw me spending a week skiing in Tignes, France, which happily coincided with my twenty-fourth birthday. This meant that I had two reasons to stuff my face with gooey, oven-warm almond croissants and crisp waffles smothered in chocolate sauce at the top of mountains: not only did I need the calories (it was bloody freezing in Tignes this winter, and I skied 24 miles to celebrate my 24 years one day), but it was also my birthday. I had my cake and ate it too, and I also ate a load of waffles and cheese and bread and burgers too. It was excellent.
2.Visiting the Wakefield Rhubarb Festival. Don't laugh. It was genuinely a really fun day, and my first food festival as an adopted Northener. Yes, obviously I'm a fan of rhubarb, but even I didn't realise you could put it into vodka and Wensleydale and end up with something tasty. (This also inspired me to make my first batch of rhubarb vodka, which was one of the prettiest kitchen experiences of my life - click the link and go look at the photos).
3. Cracking the perfect recipe for Vietnamese pho (chicken noodle soup), and therefore being able to both satisfy my deepest cravings for this ultimate comfort food and indulge my nostalgia for Vietnam (2012's big trip) in one fell swoop (oops sorry I promised not to mention nostalgia. Pretend I didn't say it). It genuinely tastes exactly the same. I nearly did a small dance for joy.
4. Finally finding (and picking) wild garlic in snowy Yorkshire. I've read about the virtues of the stuff but have never come across any. During a wintry walk in Bolton Abbey in April, the waft of garlic coming from the myriad green tufts through the trees was unmistakeable. I collected a huge bunch and carried it home in my pocket only to find loads growing just outside our house. I'd forever scented my favourite winter coat with the aroma of garlic completely unnecessarily. Oh well. I made a lot of wild garlic pesto. You win some, you lose some.
5. Visiting Iceland and exploring its cuisine. Highlights: beautiful fish and chips, incredible Icelandic 'tapas', sea buckthorn sorbet, skyr (Icelandic cream cheese), delicious dark guillemot meat, and make-your-own waffles with blueberry jam at our hotel breakfast buffet. Lowlights: fermented shark. Like eating urine with your nose in a can of bleach. Not recommended.
6. Barbecuing a whole salmon for a group of friends in the summer. There was something rather spectacular about this majestic fish sitting there smouldering atop hot coals, even if the beast did have to be sliced in half to fit on the barbecue. I also enjoyed the 'behind the scenes' moment wherein my friend Lucy valiantly wrapped the huge, slippery fish in a towel and rubbed it vigorously to dry out its skin in preparation for a spice rub. No stranger sight has my kitchen ever seen. (I enjoyed less the moment when I went down to the kitchen next morning and my nose reminded me that I'd just left said towel on the floor to deal with the next day). There were a lot of lovely al fresco dining occasions in my little garden this summer; few things in the world are better than a balmy English summer evening with friends, wine, and food in the fresh air, and I have to say I'm a little nostalgic for those good times. (ARGH, nostalgia again! Forgive me...)
7. Excellent London meals at Koya, Soho (delicious slippery udon noodles in broth with pollack), Mien Tay, Shoreditch (my favourite Vietnamese; they do an incredible crispy fried sea bass with shredded mango - see below), Cay Tre, Soho (another lovely Vietnamese in Soho, who do an amazing 'spring bowl' of rice noodles with various bits of seafood), Condesa (new tapas bar in Covent Garden with delicious Mexican food and an even more delicious owner), and Dishoom, Covent Garden (the black dhal and paneer tikka are stupidly delicious).
8. Visiting the Balloon Tree, a pick-your-own farm in York, where I spent a blissful couple of summer hours loading punnets with raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries: the best I've ever tasted and totally worth the 30k round trip on my rickety little bike to get them (even if I did have to keep stopping in the road and risking my life to save a stray gooseberry that had boldly bounced out of its punnet).
9. Summer travels to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Yes, I know I owe you a long post about this one, but I've just been too busy and/or lazy to get round to it. I could write an entire post on my favourite food moments from those countries, so I won't go into too much detail now. It'll happen at some point. Instead I give you a picture of probably my favourite meal of the trip: lunch in a rural village in Cianjur, West Java, where I feasted on red bean curry, tempeh, steamed rice, fried potatoes, and jackfruit curry, the latter being one of the most incredible sweet/spicy/aromatic creations I've ever tasted and one of my absolute favourite food memories. I also had a fabulous time in Penang, probably the food capital of south east Asia, roaming the street food stalls, culminating in an epic feast that occurred quite by chance one evening when I befriended a lone Australian traveller and we ended up ordering nearly everything from every stall in the hawker centre and devouring them all, so relieved to finally have someone to share food with so we could satisfy our greedy curiosity.
10. Winning a trip to the Loire Valley, France, by designing this French-Vietnamese fusion menu to accompany a couple of wines from the Loire. I'm heading there in a couple of weeks, for my birthday, so watch this space!
11. Finally convincing my mother to let us have a goose for Christmas. My chosen method for said convincing? Writing a blog post in which I ranted about her refusal to let us have goose for Christmas. Who knew my blog was so effective? I will soon be writing posts ranting about the fact that I am not a millionaire. The bird was incredible. The skin was crispy and the meat succulent, the gravy the best I've ever had in my life, and the fat made the most fabulous roast potatoes, with crusts so crisp they shattered audibly in the mouth. I also discovered quite how much fat geese carry around on their portly frames: enough to fill your largest Le Creuset saucepan. It's quite astonishing.
12. This epic burger, made by my good friend Bekah. Beef, pickled pink onions, avocado, tomato and bacon. The best burger I've ever had, and one of the best meals I've ever had, full stop.
13. Appearing in Food, Glorious Food on itv. Anyone who knows me might be surprised to hear this, because I've made no secret of the fact that it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. However, it taught me a lot (lesson number one: never go on TV again) and was definitely an eye-opening experience for many reasons. I did enjoy myself, at times, too - having my rhubarb cheesecake validated by people in the know was pretty exciting, as was hanging out with my doppelgänger Carol Vorderman. Less fun was the moment when I received my copy of the show's cookbook, only to discover my name spelled wrongly in huge letters.
14. Growing my own tomatoes. The satisfaction of thinking 'oh, I need tomatoes for this recipe' and having to go no further than the bottom of the greenhouse to obtain them is quite something. Plus, everything I touch normally dies, so this was a nice confidence boost.
15. Chocolate afternoon tea at York Cocoa House. This will, without a doubt, leave you in a mild sugar coma, unable to finish your piece of Christmas cake six hours later (I speak from experience). However, if you are bold enough to try it in spite of this, you will be rewarded with a feast of savoury chocolate creations, such as chocolate pesto crostini with wensleydale, Yorkshire rarebit with chocolate stout, and chicken mole wraps. You can then move on to huge scones peppered with chunks of dark chocolate and gooey glace cherries (smothered in jam and cream, of course), before taking a deep breath and forcing yourself to eat large pieces of rocky road (or pecan and amaretti brownie, in my case, as I don't like rocky road) and delicate cubes of white chocolate and lemon torte (save this till last, as its sharp lemony creaminess is practically the only thing you can stomach after everything else that's just gone into your mouth). It's decadent, novel, and ridiculously indulgently delicious.
16. Numerous trips to Evil Eye, loud, painfully trendy and insalubrious bar in the centre of York that also happens, very surprisingly, to produce some pretty great south east Asian food. Highlights for me have been the Thai drunken rice, the Thai chicken with cashew nuts, the nasi lemak and the nasi campur. I'm attempting to have tried everything on their menu by the end of 2014; I'm about a third of the way through now.
17. I started getting paid for my food writing. This is good for obvious reasons (flights to Asia yesss), but also for my ego. It's nice knowing that someone thinks my rambling about cooking is worth paying for.
And here are some of my favourite recipes of 2013; things I've finally perfected that have given me a great sense of satisfaction; discoveries that were so startlingly delicious I can't wait to make them again; firm favourites that have become part of my weekly repertoire. What unites them all is my desire for you to make and try them yourself, because each of them is something a little bit special, for whatever reason.
Pear, gooseberry and almond breakfast oat crumble. Probably my favourite lazy Sunday breakfast, like eating a decadent dessert but made healthy. Bloody love gooseberries.
Quince, vanilla and apple compote. The answer to my prayers (when said prayers involve the plea 'Dear food gods, please provide me with inspiration for dealing with the millions of kilos of apples my tree is producing throughout the summer and autumn').
Asian pomelo noodle salad with lemongrass prawns and peanuts. My first real experimentation with south east Asian food, inspired by travels in Vietnam. It worked. It was fabulous. It was a huge confidence boost for my cooking. I now make it all the time. Zesty, refreshing, healthy, but addictively moreish.
Meyer lemon shortbread tart. I've been desperate to try Meyer lemons for years, having seen their virtues extolled on myriad American food blogs. I finally got my hands on some (thanks Tesco, you may have one positive attribute), and made this ridiculous tart. It has a shortbread crust, with a sweet and tangy lemon curd filling. I made it three times. You just can't beat a good lemon tart, and this is the best I've ever had. It's beautiful to make, too.
Chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple. I found this in my Vietnamese/Cambodian cookbook, and made it to use up a sad looking pineapple in the fridge. It has quickly become my 'most-cooked' dish of 2013; I can't get enough of the combination of sticky, sweet pineapple, salty soy and crunchy peanuts, especially when tossed with rice noodles and shredded Thai basil. An absolute riot of flavours and one you must try.
Salted caramel and pecan brownies. Make these for people you want to fall in love with you. I did actually specifically test this recently, and it worked.
Raspberry, white chocolate and pistachio blondies. See above. I haven't tested these yet, though; I'll get on that soon.
Pulled pork, Cuban style. The ultimate crowd pleaser. Pig, marinated in citrus, spice and rum, then slow cooked until you can shred those porky, meaty, tangy morsels with forks and pile them into tortillas with guacamole, rice and beans, and tomato salsa. Your friends will LOVE you.
Baked amaretti, ginger and lime papaya with toasted coconut gelato. Who'd have thought you could cook a papaya? Stuff it with crumbled amaretti, slivered pistachios, sultanas, lime zest and juice, a little yoghurt and some ginger in syrup, and serve with this cleansing ice cream, and you have the most fabulous tropical dessert ever to materialise in the world.
Bali banana pancakes. Recreating dishes you've loved on your travels is one of the best feelings in the world, especially when they taste nearly identical (see also Vietnamese pho, above).
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble. Similar to the above, but recreating a restaurant dish instead: one I enjoyed immensely on the menu at Dishoom, Covent Garden, and recreated almost exactly in my own kitchen first time round.
Tagliatelle with tuna meatballs and cherry tomato sauce. Not the most beautiful entry on this blog, but one of the tastiest quick pasta dinners you will ever try in your life. Meatballs made with tuna have replaced every other type of meatball in my esteem; you simply have to try them.
Sushi bowl with salmon sashimi, avocado, lime and edamame beans. All the things you love about sushi and Japanese food, thrown artfully into a bowl with no rolling and no faff.
Steak, avocado, griddled pineapple and blue cheese salad. Read the title, you know it's going to be insane.
I hope you all had a wonderful end of 2013, and that 2014 is even better and contains even nicer food. Happy New Year!