#52Plates — My 2017 Challenge
I’ve always loved cooking. I find the process cathartic (chopping veggies = zen); it creates a sense of immediate gratification, a feeling especially important after a long day; and it creates joy in sharing the result with family and friends.
But at the start of the year, I felt that I was stuck in a rut. I was cooking the same meals over and over again. All too often, I gravitated towards the same recipes, which mostly consisted of Italian food. I needed a change. I wanted to expand our family’s menu and I wanted to learn more about the culinary styles of different cultures. And so I created a challenge: one new dish each week.
#52Plates was an adventure.
Before #52Plates, I cooked mostly Italian and Mexican food. This year, I branched out big time: Middle Eastern, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Burmese, and Eritrean. I was able to see how so many different styles of food are actually related to each other, and how each styles has its own unique base of spices and techniques. Through cooking, I was able to travel around the world while staying in my own kitchen.
My favorite dish — which will be on constant rotation at Chez fo Steer — was Eggplant Parmesan. Yes, it’s in my go-to Italian menu, but prior to #52plates, the eggplant parmesan that I cooked came out oily and mushy. Ick! Few things are worse to eat than slimy eggplant. During #52Plates, I learned a new method: make the eggplant paper thin by microwaving slices first before frying. Then, cover with sauce and cheese, throw it in the oven, and then…Yummmm!
Vegetarian Ramen Soup #52Plates started with a bang. The vegetarian ramen soup was delicious and multi-layered. It was well worth the cleaning involved with using nearly every pot, pan, and dish in the kitchen…as well with the trips to the five markets for ingredients.
Chile Rellenos y Chilaquiles These two dishes were made from a master class in Mexican cooking, taught by my sister’s neighbor, a trained chef from Mexico. It was a full day of tomatoes, peppers, and cheese.
Seafood Paella — Cooking paella was another highlight due to the experience of making it, not just the end result. My friend Josh and I tag teamed on this during our annual mancation trip with the dudes. The result was amazing. This dish included shrimp, mussels, lobster, and more.
Channa Masala, Saag Paneer, and Cauliflower Korma — OMG…Indian Food! Before #52Plates, my Indian cooking consisted of boiling a premade packet from Trader Joes. This was the first time I tried making Indian food and IT.WAS.DELICIOUS and so fun to make. Favorite part of this was making fresh paneer. Like all of the dishes, I was shocked by how approachable Indian food is to cook, and how much better it is when it’s fresh and homemade.
Sourdough Bread — Another big thing for me this year was learning how to bake bread. I was really intimidated by this, mostly because I didn’t understand the chemistry involved with yeast, flour, and water. I tried experimenting with sourdough starter, which helped with the flavor. But the real clincher for me was when I learned that baking it in a dutch oven is the trick for a perfect loaf as it keeps the bread surrounded with moisture as it’s baking.
Ciopinno — I simply love this quintessential San Francisco dish. It was inspired by a team offsite to Sotto Mare, a restaurant in North Beach. I learned that the word, Ciopinno, is a phonetic translation of sailors ‘chipping in’ their daily catch into a pot that can be shared by everyone. That might be urban myth, but I like to believe it.
Khow Suey & Tea Leaf Salad — For the finale, I made Burmese food inspired by Burma Love. This plate was beautiful and delicious, showcasing the mixture of Indian and Thai spices that are the result of Myanmar’s geographic location.
My Brush With Fame — Without question, my favorite chef is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, one of the people behind Serious Eats and the author of The Food Lab. After my second dish (the Vegan Ramen Soup), I tagged him in a Tweet with the photo of the soup. A few hours later, he Tweeted back. W000T!!! That gave me the kick in the pants to keep going.
Finding Inspiration — I used a variety of sources to come up with my list of dishes. My go-to books were The Food Lab (and Serious Eats website); Salt Heat Fat Acid; and Marcela Hasan’s Italian Cooking. The shows, Cooked and Anthony Bourdain, were also helpful sources of inspiration. I started going to the famous and bustling Alemany Farmers Market, where I’d talk to the farmers about the produce I didn’t recognize. The best input, though, was talking to family and friends about what they like to cook (and what they’d want to eat).
Yes, I had a few failures along the way. I made pickles and kimchi that came out practically inedible. The first time I tried fresh pasta resulted in sticky goo. My initial try at bread failed to rise. I made an Indian plate that was too spicy to eat. All that said, even the failures were OK because…Growth Mindset, right?
#52Plates was a great challenge for the year. Cooking and exploring new dishes is now a core part of my life. I’m eager to retry many of the dishes that I made this year. I also want to dive a bit deeper into the cuisines that I just began to try, and better understand the cultural history behind these cuisines. I’ll be moving on to a non-cooking challenge in 2018, so perhaps I’ll be less obsessive about a plate a week. Happy Eating and Happy New Year!
=== THE FINAL TALLY ===
# of Plates: 52
Mediterranean (Greek and Israeli): 12%
Vegetarian (seafood OK): 85%
=== THE MENU ===
Plate 1: Fresh pasta with basil tomato sauce and ginger meatballs
Plate 2: Vegan ramen soup
Plate 3: Sourdough grilled cheese with fries and tomato soup
Plate 4: Lasagne
Plate 5: Thai beef noodles
Plate 6: Stuffed shells
Plate 7: Salmon with beets and quinoa
Plate 8: Channa Masala, Saag Paneer, and Cauliflower Korma
Plate 10: The OMG-I-Finally-Did-It Sourdough Bread.
Plate 11: Gnocci with tomato and gorgonzola sauces. Roasted beets and salad.
Plate 12: Tamales
Plate 13: Pre-Passover. Fish & caper hash, Hummus, Eggplant, and Israeli salad.
Plate 14: Polenta cakes
Plate 15: Seitan Gyros with a mint/dill tzaziki and fries
Plate 16: Jackfruit and sriracha “pulled pork” sammiches w picked red onion & sunchokes
Plate 17: Enchiladas with fresh sauce
Plate 18: Herb and bread crusted Fish Tacos with fresh salsa
Plate 20: Zucchini Tots.
Plate 21: Pad Thai
Plate 22: Eggplant Parmesan
Plate 24: Saurkraut
Plate 25: Macarons
Plate 26: Red Lentil Dal, Kadhai Paneer, Rati
Plate 27: Baked cod with tartar sauce and pilaf
Plate 28: Grilled lamb with vegetables and Israeli salad
Plate 29: Eggplant meatballs
Plate 30: Stuffed grape leaves with pan fried salmon and herb crusted potatoes
Plate 31: Baked mac and cheese with hatch pepper italian sausage
Plate 32: Eggs Benedict
Plate 33: Cioppino
Plate 34: Corn and tomatillo soup with baked Cod
Plate 35: Dill pickles
Plate 36: Challah with apples and honey
Plate 37: Okra and pepper stew with lemon rice salad
Plate 38: Tofu spring rolls
Plate 39: Seafood paella
Plate 41: Fresh ravioli with ricotta and spinach
Plate 42: Spaghetti squash with marinara sauce
Plate 43: Fondue
Plate 44: Wild mushroom polenta with sauteed garlic broccolini
Plate 45: Ramen with pork and a whole lot of other stuff
Plate 46: Kabocha squash with lobster and linguine
Plate 47: Chilaquiles rojo y verde con pollo y vegetables
Plate 48: Eritrean night. Kik Alicha, Atakil Wat, and Gomen
Plate 49: Israeli feast. Falafel, Hummus, Israeli Salad. Happy Hanukkah!
Plate 50: Baked pork chops, potatoes, and applesauce
Plate 51: Chile rellenos
Plate 52: Burmese. Khow Suey and Tea Leaf Salad.