#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.

FAVORITE DISH

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!

RECIPE HIGHLIGHTS

Veggie Ramen Soup

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.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

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).

FAILURES

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?

Moving Forward

#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

Italian: 19%

Mexican: 12%

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 9: Cauliflower Grilled Cheese with Pasta

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 40: Coconut Red Lentil Curry with Saag Paneer and Rice.

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.

Like what you read? Give Dave Steer a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.