Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Food: Recipes, cookbook reviews, food notes, and restaurant reviews. Unless otherwise noted, I have personally tried each recipe that gets its own page, but not necessarily recipes listed as part of a cookbook review.

2020 in Food

Jerry Stratton, February 3, 2021

Miami Cubano

A Cubano from Enriqueta’s in Miami is a great way to start the year.

I decided to break off the cookbooks from my Year in Books post because there were a lot of cookbooks this year—and a lot of food that isn’t book related.

When the year started, it was going to be a year of glorious travel—and glorious food. In early February I had a craving for a really good Cubano. So I texted a friend, used some airline points, and we went to Miami and Key West. The Cubano came from Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop. We also hit a lot of bakeries; this chocolate-filled pastry came from Rosetta Bakery.

It snowed in Texas while I was in the water at Miami Beach. So that worked out well.

Then, in March, I went to Raleigh for a business meeting and stayed on to try some new restaurants and visit some used bookstores; that’s when things started getting weird. The evening I arrived, walking back to the hotel after a very nice meal, I noticed a sign at a CVS:

SOLD OUT OF CLOROX WIPES HAND SANITIZER ALCOHOL MASKS LYSOL

It was like the slow descent into an end of the world movie, such as Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth.

The very nice meal I was walking back from was Bida Manda where I’d had crispy pork belly soup and stuffed Anaheim peppers. I had a lot of very good food in Raleigh, but that first meal was a standout.

Chocolate pastry

A chocolate pastry from Rosetta Bakery in Miami is not a bad start to the year.

Crispy Pork Belly

Crispy pork belly soup at Bida Manda in Raleigh. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful trip.

Salmon and Basil

Raw salmon marinated in lemon juice and basil; and pan-fried salmon skin on the side. The French definitely know how to live.

I was supposed to be traveling in September to Italy and France. Since I couldn’t, I pulled down a French-language cookbook, Ma Cuisine du Soleil that I bought years ago at San Diego’s Adams Avenue Book Fair1—in the last century, in fact. When prepping for the recipe, I just went through the list of ingredients and steps and made a rough mental translation. Salmon, basil, lemon juice, olive oil, fried in pan. So I had everything I needed, but I was surprised, when it came to actually making it, that nowhere did it say how to cook the salmon. A closer examination: the salmon does not get cooked. It’s basically a ceviche, with lemon, basil, and oil on the salmon.

The frying was for the salmon skin, of which Roger Vergé exhorts us:

Do not throw away the skin of the salmon. Cut it into strips the width of your little finger. Season with salt, pan-dry without any fat, pepper generously and serve as an aperitif, or on the side, with the salmon cutlets.

Unsurprisingly, salmon ceviche with fried salmon skin on the side was phenomenally good.

The basil was also an experiment: it came from my own garden, a garden that currently consists of one basil plant. If it survives the winter I’ll plant more. I may plant more even if it doesn’t, as it thrives otherwise and provides a near-unlimited amount of basil.

To make up for the lack of travel, and the lack of bookstores, I went on my semi-annual I-35 Book Drive in August. I found a very strange church cookbook at Book Cellar in Temple. I’ve been saying that what caught my attention was that it was by the St. Mary’s Altar Society of whatever church did it, but… that cover… I may be altering the truth to save face.

I-35 Book Drive 2020

I mostly scored some great old science fiction on my drive up and down I-35. But that very… suggestive… cover hides a great church cookbook from Westfield, New Jersey.

Best in Cooking in Westfield sample page

I can vouch for both Dark Secrets and Honey Nut Cookies. I expect the rest are great as well. But be careful with the cookies: first time I made it, I forgot to add the egg.

Thanksgiving 2020 Cookbooks

My Thanksgiving drive passed several antique stores where I picked up not only some nice Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, but also dishes to eat the food from.

I ended the I-35 Book Drive with some great buttermilk pie at Sacsee’s in Waco.

Then, in White Cloud, Michigan in November, I ran across a great deal on a bag of Better Homes and Gardens books at the White Cloud Trade Center.

I did a lot of learning in 2020. I learned new techniques from old cookbooks, and old techniques from new cookbooks. A friend of mine gave me Dominique Ansel’s Secret Recipes for my birthday in 2020. It’s exactly the right kind of gift: something I would never buy for myself but quickly discovered as essential. The Chocolate Pecan Cookies are amazingly rich, without any flour at all. And his Cotton-Soft Cheesecake not only opened up new techniques in cheesecake—such as ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese—but inspired me to get out my old propane kitchen torch and start using it again this year. I’ve used it not just on Ansel’s cheesecake but also on vanilla pudding, rice pudding, and an orange gelatin dessert from the Better Homes and Gardens Salad Book, a 1969 book I picked up at Relics Antique Mall in Mount Vernon Missouri in late spring.

Chocolate pecan cookies

Dominique Ansel’s chocolate pecan cookies are very moist, and very, very, chocolaty.

Cotton-soft cheesecake

Ansel’s great little cheesecakes also gave me a reason to pull out the kitchen torch.

Beery Peanut Brittle

Chile-beer peanut brittle from The Deplorable Gourmet. The Lindt chili bar chocolate coating was my idea.

I also started delving more deeply into The Deplorable Gourmet with that amazing Beery Peanut Brittle made not just with Lone Star Beer but with red chili pepper flakes. That is as far from deplorable as food can get.

Old cookbooks also provided opportunities for learning. I learned a lot about salads from the aforementioned Better Homes and Gardens Salad Book this year. I now have many more salad dressings I enjoy besides the classic lemon juice and olive oil.

Even better than that, however, I finally managed to make great key lime pie from the Southern Living Dessert Cook Book. My first attempt ended up with green lime gelatin chunks throughout a white meringue filling. My second attempt, in which I learned that chill does not mean chill to solid, was the best key lime pie I’ve ever had.

Southern Key Lime Pie

I’m not showing you my first attempt at Key lime pie, but the second time was definitely the charm. From the Southern Living Desserts book.

Perfect fried chicken

Perfect fried chicken really was perfect. And the carrots Lyonnaise weren’t bad either. From the Better Homes and Gardens Meat book and Vegetable book.

Cranberry squares

These cranberry squares have changed my opinion on gelatin desserts completely. It’s a better-than-cheesecake cheesecake. (The crumb crust is crisp pecan slices from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookies and Candies book.)

And from my Thanksgiving haul of Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks, I tried a recipe called “Perfect Fried Chicken” from their Meat cookbook. It was. It goes against everything I thought I knew about frying chicken: instead of frying quickly, it fries slowly, over almost an hour. It was crunchy, tender, and flavorful, everything fried chicken should be. The Carrots Lyonnaise that accompany it in the photo are from the Better Homes Vegetable book. Reading through most cookbooks I find it easy to forget that vegetables are great without lots of spices and arcane ingredients. Just onions and carrots—or onions and potatoes—are themselves a great flavor combination.

I found the Joys of Jell-O in the basement of the Hidden Treasures antique store in Fremont, Michigan. The cranberry squares in that photo changed completely how I view cheesecake and gelatin. This is exactly like the cheesecake I used to love as a kid. Fluffy, creamy, fruity, with a great crumbly crust. I now suspect that the cheesecake I used to like wasn’t cheesecake, but gelatin cake.

Not all great things are old, however. In New Braunfels in 2019 I picked up three Food & Wine annuals. From 2008, I discovered that I absolutely love cauliflower… when it’s pureed with butter. Hot Buttered Cauliflower Purée is an amazing dish. I also don’t have enough uses for cucumber. Taiwanese Sesame Cucumbers, from their 2011 annual is a simple dish that rectifies that problem.

Cauliflower purée

Hot, buttered, puréed. Makes even cauliflower a hit.

Sesame cucumbers

The simplest of salads: cucumber, sesame, green onion, oil, and vinegar.

Maple Mousse Pie

Maple, cranberries, and fluffy meringue. Hard to go wrong with this pie.

The 2011 annual also includes the amazing Frozen Maple-Mousse Pie with Candied Cranberries. A bit more work went into that one, but I love cranberries, I love maple, and this is a great combination of sweet and tart.

Most of my great food this year came from my own kitchen. I hope to continue that in 2021 while adding some great food elsewhere.

In response to The Year in Food: Almost as important as the Year in Books is the Year in Food. Both feed the soul as well as the body.

  1. San Diego’s Adams Avenue Book Fair eventually moved to Hillcrest with a new name and a smaller footprint, and then died completely.