When I look through my recipes from this past year, along with the ones created by my colleagues, what I see above all else is a focus on simplicity. At its heart, the food we’ve shared with you speaks to fundamentally good cooking that isn’t overwrought or needlessly complicated. Sure, we shared some cool tricks and techniques along the way, but, more than that, we made dishes I just want to dive my face into over and over and over again. In the end, I think that’s the real measure of good food.
I’ve dreamed about these tacos ever since I ate them a couple years ago in Puebla, Mexico. They were created by Middle Eastern immigrants nearly a century ago, and have their roots in shawarma. You start with thinly sliced pork shoulder, marinating it in a fragrant mixture of cumin, dried oregano, and lime juice. In Puebla, they slide it onto a spit and roast it slowly, just like they do for the meat in al pastor tacos (in fact, al pastor tacos are a descendant of tacos árabes), but in this at-home version, we use a technique Kenji originally developed for his al pastor recipe—we pack the meat into a loaf pan and roast it in the oven. Then it’s chilled, thinly sliced, and fried up in a skillet to recreate that fresh-from-the-spit flavor. The coolest part, though, is also the easiest: Tacos árabes are served on a tender, pita-type bread, not traditional tortillas. Just get some good pita, heat it up, and you’re ready to go, and it’s likely to be way better than most of the store-bought corn tortillas options out there.
Spaghetti Alle Vongole
Spaghetti with clam sauce may be the sexiest of all pasta dishes, the noodles slick with fresh olive oil and a hint of butter, soaked in the briny juices of pristine clams. Well, sexy except for all those damn shells most recipes have you scatter among the strands of pasta. My version cuts way down on the clamshells by having you pluck most of the clam meat out right after they open, which you can then chop up and add back to the sauce. A few shells go back in for presentation (you have to make it clear that there’s no canned clam in there, right?), but that’s it. Now there’s nothing between you and fat, twirly forkfuls of sea-soaked noodles.
Thai Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango (Khao Niao Mamuang)
When Ataúlfo mangoes hit the markets near my apartment, this addictive Thai dessert immediately goes on my dinner menu, and I’m not even a dessert person. Glutinous Thai rice is steamed until sticky and tender, then tossed in coconut cream sauce. The rice slowly absorbs the sauce until there’s no trace of it left except for its intense tropical flavor. And…that’s it. Slice the mangoes, which are sweeter and less fibrous than the more common Tommy Atkins variety, spoon the rice on plates, and drizzle some more coconut cream sauce on top, along with a few toasted sesame seeds. So simple, and so, so good.
Gyudon (Beef and Rice Bowl)
I’ve been eating Japanese food my whole life, but it wasn’t until a recent trip to Japan that I started cooking it much more frequently at home. I’m still very much a student of Japanese cooking, which is why I love this recipe for gyudon—thinly sliced beef and onions simmered in soy, sake, and dashi—from Kenji. It’s the ultimate in quick and easy Japanese home cooking, a perfect entry point for anyone who wants to get more comfortable with the techniques behind the cuisine. And it’s guaranteed to be absolutely delicious.
Omurice (Japanese Omelette-Topped Fried Rice)
Speaking of Japanese food, on my trip earlier this year to Japan, I got to eat a regional variation on the classic omurice, a pile of fried rice topped with a softly cooked omelette. The version I had was in Ehime prefecture, where they made the rice slightly spicy and topped the omelette with okonomiyaki sauce. My version captures those flavors, while simplifying the omelette-making process—no need to master a French omelette here, a simple egg pancake totally does the trick.
“I don’t really like pie,” my colleague, the pastry genius Stella Parks, a.k.a. Bravetart, told me shortly after she arrived in the test kitchen to do some cooking. She then proceeded to bake up the honest-to-God best pies I’ve ever eaten in my life, one after another, as if there were absolutely nothing to it. How does a person make something so good when that person doesn’t even like it? I don’t think I’ll ever understand it, but I can live with that as long as her pies continue to exist in this world and I can eat them. Choosing a favorite is nearly impossible, but if I had to name just one, it’d be her classic cherry pie, a work of sweet and fruity Americana art, the filling amped up with cherry, perfectly set, the crust so buttery, so flaky, so unimpeachably crisp on the bottom…even after three days! Great mysteries exist in this world, and this one is among the most delicious.
Super Thick, Super Fruity Whipped Cream
As far as I’m concerned, whipped cream is a food group unto itself. And until recently I thought I knew about as much as there is to know about whipped cream—namely that it’s cream and it’s whipped. Then Stella put her cream in a food processor and what came out was still whipped, but denser, almost like a mousse, making it ten times more luxurious. On top of that, she blended in freeze-dried raspberries, turning it an intense pink hue with an equally pronounced sweet-tart berry flavor. You could, I suppose, spoon it onto something, but in all honesty, this is a dessert all by itself.
Kenji did the world a huge favor when he published his Cuban roast pork shoulder recipe. He did the world an even bigger favor when he took that pork shoulder, shredded the meat, and layered it on a loaf with Swiss cheese, ham, mustard, and pickles. The result is the classic Cuban sandwich, which I’d be willing to argue is the greatest hot-pressed sandwich ever created. Think that’s a bold claim? Make your own at home and tell me if I’m right.
If there’s one thing about my job that makes me a little sad, it’s the knowledge that any time we publish a seafood or fish recipe, it’s almost never going to get a lot of traffic (we can see visitors in real time, so the interest or lack thereof is immediately apparent). This has been equally true at other food publications where I’ve worked, confirming that most people just don’t want to cook seafood at home. That’s a real shame. And of all the seafood dishes most people aren’t cooking at home, braised squid has got to be the least frequently made. And that, I tell you, is a double damned shame, because the dish is foolproof and stunningly delicious, studded with olives, coated in tomato, and lightly spiced from harissa. Because it’s (relatively quickly) long-cooked, there’s no real way to mess up the texture of the squid, it’ll always come out tender. C’mon folks, what’s a recipe developer have to do to get some seafood love around here?
I remember the first time I ate a true lasagne alla bolognese. Those thin layers of fresh pasta, hiding thin pockets of intensely rich and meaty ragù bolognese and creamy bechamel sauce. It overrode every conception I had up until that point of what lasagna was and could be, and I never looked back. I mean, if you serve me a classic Italian-American lasagna, I’ll still eat it, and I’ll probably like it, but I’ll still be wishing it was this one instead. It has my heart forever.