In past yearly reviews, I’ve come up with an introspective paragraph or two to give what would be a random list some cohesion, if not purpose. This year, I have nothing to say except “Girl…You don’t even wanna know.” Some fantastic, some fantastically awful, and all of it happening at the same time like Clara torn into a million pieces to save the Doctor. Let’s get on with the list. I’ll be dividing it into home cooking and restaurants.

Top 5 Home Cooked Meals of 2013
5) Curried Butternut Soup: I found this recipe in Cooking Light and it actually inspired me to come out of my kitchen funk. I had the day to myself and took it to clean, grocery shop, and make something reasonably healthy for dinner. Despite the fact that I can usually eat only so much squash, it was strangely addictive. The addition of red thai curry paste overrode the usual squash sweetness with enough lemongrass zing and umami deliciousness that I ate multiple bowls. It’s also deceptively filling. The Gentleman Scholar came over after work a day or two later and declared it his favorite recipe. Prepare this soup alone while swilling rose and cranking Sinead O’Connor. Share with friends when you’re done being a crazy person for the day.

4) Chicken Dopiaza: This was a kitchen contribution made by the Gentleman Scholar and I promise to record the recipe the next time he makes it. His Indian riffs on chickpeas and chicken are better than most restaurants and, for that, I have to thank his mom for teaching him a basic recipe that can be tinkered around with to make different dishes. I also have to thank her because mastering the basic recipe gave him the confidence to branch out and try making other things like Chicken Dopiaza. “Dopiaza,” translated as “two onions” from Persian, refers to the technique of frying the onions twice; once with the spices, then a second time when you stir them in at the end. This gives the dish an incredible depth of flavor, especially since the sauce part is done in the same pan that fried the onions, thus taking up all the little crisped bits. The chicken is also marinated for something like 12 hours, which makes it very tender. The Gentleman Scholar was so moved by his own cooking the first time he made it that he broke out into a spontaneous ramble about the history of ancient India. I’ve learned more from him than I ever did during my Ph.D.

3) Kheer: Yeah, it’s rice pudding with a fancy foreign name. How hard is rice pudding? Quite hard, says I, since most rice pudding, aside from that made by my mom or Shawn, is wretched. I had another moment of inspiration toward the end of February or March and found a decent recipe for kheer. I didn’t expect much from the recipe since it was from the internet, but it was apparently good enough that the Gentleman Scholar needed a break after a few bites, lest he be reduced to homesick tears at the kitchen table. As a final tip, don’t skip the rice soaking step. It makes all the difference.

2) Mujadara with yogurt and cucumber: Recipes for this Egyptian lentil dish vary. Most are too dry. Others don’t have enough caramelized onions. Then there are others with spice profiles so soft that you might as well just eat plain rice and beans. After a great deal of research, I finally found this one. I tweaked it a bit by stirring in a little butter with the onion and doubling the spices. I also made a side dish of yogurt, cucumbers (seeded and sliced), pressed garlic (raw), salt, and pepper. It ended up being one of those meals where you intend on having leftovers, but you can’t refrain from consuming it like a barbarian.

1) Christmas Dinner: My parents were our first official guests here in Oregon. They arrived in time for Christmas and, as I’m wont to do, I went a little crazy with dinner. Spent a small fortune on leg of lamb since it’s technically out of season (Oregonians do not play when it comes to the seasonal/sustainable thing. This is not dilettante country, kids. Leave your Lululemon yoga pants at PDX.) and I wasn’t here in the summer to sign up for CSA with any of the farmers. Thankfully, the one I finally scored was incredibly tender and had that barnyard funk that reminds me of lamb in Europe. To honor that, I dressed it up with a stuffing of olives, pine nuts, anchovies, and lemon, then gave it a rosemary crown. Then there was the seafood. I truly thought the young woman mispoke when she claimed x amount of dollars for what would cost two to three times as much in the Midwest. I even asked, “That’s for 20 live oysters and 2 dozen shrimp right?” I took them home, then realized I had NO IDEA what to do. The folks at the fish market were like “Just put the oysters on ice.” So I did. Then around midnight I realized that ice is fresh water and oysters are salt water creatures. They were probably dying as the ice melted. This resulted in numerous trips to the fridge to check on the them – draining their water, knocking the open ones on the counter to make sure they were still alive, researching the salt count in sea water with the hopes that I could make them more comfortable. I don’t even worry about my cat the same way. When the big day came, only one oyster died before dinner and no one got sick. However, I did end up jamming the oyster knife into the ball of my hand due to slight inebriation and the fact that oysters are fucking strong. We had to get out the hammer.

Top 5 Restaurant Meals

5) Le Petit Paris: This was a New Year’s Eve date, thus making it technically in 2012. I’ll count it for 2013 though due to the nature of the holiday. Le Petit Paris is located in the lobby of a posh high rise on Chicago’s north side. You’ll never see it from the street as the entrance is to the right of the security desk and hidden by a large potted plant. The first time we walked in at 8:30 p.m. – they close at 10:00 – the owner told us that they were closed. When I mentioned the stated closing time, he responded “It is not possible tonight.” I had a good laugh on the way out since “It is not possible” is the Parisian catch all phrase for when someone doesn’t want to do something. We made reservations a few months later for NYE. As Chicago goes, it was blisteringly cold out. As Chicago also goes, the cab driver’s credit card machine was suddenly “not working” (after taking us all the way there). It wasn’t looking good, but we just made it. Once inside the womblike enclave, we had cognacs at the bar while waiting for the table. Around me were the artifacts – human and material – of another era. Behind me, a lady of no less than 80 years elegant inquired about the kinds of rye they served. The waiters were all in their 60s and, one in particular, had the most prominent Gallic nose I’ve ever seen. The bartender was probably 50. I enjoyed the people watching, but started to worry. The clientele had probably been dining there every NYE since Mayor Daley I. That usually means that the manager is counting on aging taste buds to overlook a decline in quality. Thankfully, it ended up being fantastic. The Gentleman Scholar started with escargot en croute, main dish was steak aux poivre. I had pistachio encrusted lamb chops. Dessert consisted of Floating Islands and chocolate mousse. And don’t forget copious amounts of red wine, which the owner helped us pick and didn’t bat an eye when I answered his question about our price range. Essentially, Le Petit Paris has kept pace in Chicago. It’s solid, old school French food. Go there when you’re feeling Dean Martin fancy.

4) Queen’s Chopsticks: I’ve already blogged a review of Queen’s Chopsticks, so won’t go into more detail except to state that it gives any Chicago Chinatown restaurant a run for its money. If only they did dim sum on the weekends. Ooo la la.

3) American Dream Pizza: I love me some pizza. I especially love thin crust pizza, which is another reason why I would have never been considered a “real” Chicagoan if I had stayed. What I really really love is crust so thin it shatters then gives way to a nice soft bready underside when you bite into it. American Dream has mastered this and added a swish of garlic butter to it. Oof. Choose from a plenitude of fresh toppings, different sauces, and even different kinds of crust (Gluten free available Sunday through Wednesday). Wash it down with one of 10 local beers on tap. This is the stuff dreams are made of, indeed. My current fave is house crust mini with pesto sauce, smoked salmon, broccoli, and mozzarella. Do note that if you get a pizza larger than the mini, the crust is still thin, but the edges are hand-rolled and brushed with more garlic butter. The puffy parts are still fantastic.

2) Bistro Bourdeaux: Located in Evanston, IL, Bistro Bourdeaux was a surprise for me. It looked cozy inside whenever I walked by on the way home from work. The menu was pretty straightforward French cuisine. Something about the whole Evanston location didn’t sit right with me though. Don’t get me wrong. Evanston has good food, but it tends to cater to its…suburban population. I guess I’m just suspicious about French restaurants in the States after gulping down so much over-salted French onion soup and greasy escargot. Anyhoo. I decided to treat the Gentleman Scholar to dinner one Friday payday since I had been able to save a little money, what with not having to pay November rent and utilities. I had the trout. He had lamb. We shared escargot and oysters in the half shell. Dessert was some dark chocolate raspberry sexy cake. The food is definitely more modern than Le Petit Paris. The chefs showcase fresh, seasonal vegetables and quality cuts of meat with their plating techniques and a light hand with sauce. If I were given a choice of the two, I would choose Bistro Bourdeaux. It’s really too bad we didn’t discover it until two weeks before we left. I’d totally hit up their oysters in the half shell and half priced wine happy hour on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

1) Sabri Nihari: I’d like you, Dear Reader, to get up from where you’re seated. Now clap your hands and sing the words “Sabri Nihari” to the tune of “Hava Nagila.” Jump around, do a little jig. Do this until you’re worked up into a frenzy and disturb the neighbors. This is what happened every time either one of us mentioned going to Sabri Nihari. Their curries are great, but what really drew us there was the siren call of their tandoor meats. Sweet baby Jeebus – things I had no idea existed above and beyond chicken tandoori, which, by the way, is actually good there. Not the dry, tasteless, red colored shit you get at the lunch buffets. (Looking at you, Mt. Everest in Evanston.) Order the mixed grill, one naan per person as it’s the size of that unread $90 book you bought for an art history seminar, maybe a biryani to snack on later. Oy vey. If for some reason I do set foot in the dark land of Chicago again, I’m going back and will consume all the tandoor meat and garlic naan in sight like a Mongolian warrior back from battle. It’s the only thing I miss about that city.

Honorable Mention

1) Trattoria Demi: This is a lovely little Evanston joint doing solid, reasonably authentic Italian food with a decent wine list. I’d love to go there some warm night and have dinner on the terrace. I do hope though that they’ve worked out the kinks in their service. It was spotty enough that it detracted from what would have been a great meal.

2) Royal Sweets: Currently listed as a candy store and bakery in Google search, Royal Sweets is more than that. You can get all manner of perfectly balanced chaats – sweet tamarind, spicy cilantro chutney, fresh onions and cilantro, soft potatoes, crispy fried snacks….mmmm. They also prepare an excellent chana bhattura (chickpeas with what is essentially a savory elephant ear) and sarson da saag. I sort of fell for the Gentleman Scholar there in 2012 over a cup of masala chai and galub jamun after gorging on the aforementioned chaat and chana bhattura. Some strange alchemical mix of hot tea, winter dusk, neon signs coming on, and listening to him order sweets in Hindi came over me. Since it isn’t technically 2013, it gets honorable mention.

3) Mousse at Francesca’s : Yes, just the mousse. Francesca’s was a lovely dinner, but the mousse – a veritable black hole of chocolate – was mind boggling. Our waiter that night was also a stand-up guy. I drank too much wine to remember his name, but it was clear that he was passionate about good food.

So that’s that. A little of 2012, mostly 2013. From Chicago, IL to Corvallis, OR. Oh and I lost 5 pounds since arriving here. The weight of my angst? Probably not, but I’m looking forward to hitting up Bikram Corvallis and losing the rest of Chicago.

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