The Best Things I Ate in 2011

Best Pizza in North America: the pizza at Pizzeria Mozza in L.A.

Even after eating a very good pie this month at the legendary Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (now open all day!), I still think the pizza at Mozza, reportedly created by baker Nancy Silverton in the Chris Bianco tradition, is the best, thanks to its puffy, crunchy yet chewy crust, and the delightful array of artisanal toppings on offer. I look forward to trying the Newport Beach branch of Pizzeria Mozza next month.

Best New Dish Discovery Adapted for Cooking at Home : Hawaiian Shrimp Tacos

Delicious shrimp tacos made in the style of Island Taco in Waimea, Kauai – with red cabbage, mango chutney and avocado, have definitely moved into the regular rotation chez moi, even if I do like them more than my husband and sons do.

Best Toronto Restaurant/Bakery Dessert Discovery: European-style donuts

The sfingi at Enoteca Sociale are a glorious full-on indulgence gilded with lemon curd and caramel.

The mini beignets at Thobors are just as good (and a little lighter) when hand-filled with the fruit preserve of your choice. They’re inexpensive (80 cents!) too.

Thobor's mini beignet

Best New York Restaurant Comfort Food: a ramen lunch set with fried chicken over rice at Ippudo.

A deeply satisfying meal no matter what the season, weather or lineup that must be endured to get to it.

Best Recipe for a Reimagined Traditional Meal That I Devised All By Myself: Simpler, zingier Thanksgiving dinner

A good helping of less is more.

Best New-to-me Take on A Foodstuff I Thought I Knew: Israeli hummus at Fattoush in Haifa.

Fattoush Hummus Baladia with Tahini

This hummus is decadent, gorgeous and continents apart in execution from any hummus I’ve made or eaten in North America. I’m still working on reproducing a comparable version of it in my own kitchen.

Best Store-Bought Food Discovery: Rick Stein’s Savoury Oat Biscuits

These oatcakes are wonders of nutty, oaty goodness and make a great lunch with a few slices of good cheese, a spoonful of spicy, fruity jelly, and a crisp apple sliced into wedges.

Best New Toronto Burger: The 6 oz. County Burger at County General

Like the new restaurant where it’s found, the County burger is small, cute, hipsterish, and full-flavoured without being garlicky or heartburn-inducing. The fries are excellent too. Beat the crowds and go on a weekday for an early lunch.

Here’s to another year of good eating in 2012!

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Mahtab Narsimhan Answers the Hungry Novelist Questionnaire

Mahtab Narsimhan is the award-winning author of four novels for young people: her first, The Third Eye, won the Silver Birch award, and her latest, The Tiffin, was named a Book of the Year by Quill & Quire magazine.

Website:
www.mahtabnarsimhan.com

Blog:
http://mahtabnarsimhan.blogspot.com/

Twitter handle:
@MahtabNarsimhan

What’s going on in your writing life right now?

Doing a lot of promotion for my latest book, The Tiffin, published by Dancing Cat Books in August 2011. Also working on a futuristic YA novel which is an extrapolation of our current condition with overdependence on technology, dwindling energy resources and bizarre weather patterns. Simply described, it’s Matrix meets the Amazing Race.

What’s your writing routine?

I’m normally up early in the morning (5.30 am-ish) and write for about two hours from 6am to 8am. When writing a new draft, I give myself a daily quota of about 1500 words a day. I didn’t start out with this number but gradually worked my way up to it. This really helps in providing me with the discipline to write every day and by the end of the week I have added a substantial word count to my manuscript. If I’m revising, I still give myself a quota of a certain number of pages I have to complete in a day.

What do you usually eat for breakfast?

Whole-grain toast with cream cheese and lemon/mint tea.

What good books have you read recently?

Sanctus by Simon Toyne. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, Divergent by Veronica Roth.
Just finished Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. It was fantastic!

What did you eat for dinner last night?

Jamie Oliver’s Mediterranean Chicken Breast with Sundried Tomatoes, Feta Cheese and Parsley with a Green Salad with Ginger Dressing, pictured here:

Writing rules you live by:

When writing a new draft, have to write 1500 words a day. When not working on a draft, have to do some writing related activity such as research, thinking of new ideas, or catching up on my reading. Love that last rule the most. It’s so much easier to read someone else’s work.

Foodstuffs you’re fiending these days:

Smoked Gouda, Castello’s Mild Blue cheese with Jacob’s cream crackers, Pickerel rubbed with Indian spices and served with Quinoa. And as always,chocolate.

A scene or piece you’ve written that features food:

I love descriptions of food and so all my books (The Tara Trilogy and The Tiffin) have descriptions and scenes featuring food, but used to depict different scenarios. In my latest novel, The Tiffin, I’ve used food to introduce the lecherous cook, Badri. The setting is the kitchen where large pots of goat curry, boiled rice and sambar are boiling away, and Bardri lurks in that cloud of steam waiting for the protagonist.

Favorite restaurants:

Crazy Sushi
Fin Izakaya Super Japanese Tapas
Oliver & Bonacini. Great variations on the usual fare.
Bamiyon Kabob Best Afghani food I’ve ever eaten

Three formative books from your youth:

1) Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
2) The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
3) Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein.
4) The Faraway Tree Series by Enid Blyton (Sorry, had to add this last one: loved it!)

Three formative books from your adulthood:

1) Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
2) A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.
3) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Dishes/recipes in regular rotation in your cooking repertoire:

Mutton Biryani, Jamie Oliver’s Roast chicken, Pork chops, and my ultimate favourite, chicken curry:

I also love fish and experiment with making it in every possible way, baked, fried, grilled and in a curry.

Random bits of writing advice

• Believe in the process of writing
• Trust yourself when starting something new. It will work out in the end.
• Set a small but achievable target on a daily basis. It will help you stick to it and you feel so much better when you have accomplished something every day.
• Learn to love revisions because as we all know, writing is basically rewriting!
• Have fun. If writing seems like a chore, find something else to do.

What do you do when not writing, eating or reading?

I love to walk but that’s also because I normally have my iPOD with a few audio books loaded onto them. So really, I’m never far from books, except when I’m sleeping!

What’s your idea of comfort food and comfort reading?

Comfort food is a spicy chicken curry topped with fresh cilantro and a dash of lime juice served with cumin/onion rice and yoghurt.

Comfort reading: the Harry Potter series. Fantasy is my favourite genre of all (as you can probably tell from my reading list.). This series, especially the first four books, never fail to lift my spirits. I can read them at any time. In fact I probably would if there weren’t so many other great books that I had to catch up on.

Great Stuff: Old School English Food, New School English Musical

The food: traditional English food, updated

The story:

While in England recently, I struggled to find simple, satisfying food experiences until, that is, I thought to go back to the basics.

For instance, I could eat a good savoury oat biscuit (my preferred brand at the moment being Rick Stein’s) with a chunk of mature cheddar and some spicy, fruity jelly (like Nuala’s Fiery Irish Gold from the Wychwood Barns Saturday market), all day long. Such a delicious combination.

Also classically English are pies, tarts and (French!) soufflés made with eggs and bitter greens. So when I flipped open an English food magazine and came across a recipe for a watercress and Gruyère soufflé from chef/author/TV personality Valentine Warner, I ripped it out and tried it at home, British measurements notwithstanding (my food scale came in handy). I used arugula AND watercress, to give it extra zing; did not make a paper collar as instructed; and managed to fold in the egg whites, though folding is not my strong suit.

The nicely puffed result was creamy comfort food that paired well with roasted root vegetables for a light supper.

Finally, while in Stratford-on-Avon, I encountered a new-to-me kind of crisp sugar cookie called a Shrewsbury Biscuit, made from a centuries-old recipe. After reading that dried fruit (i.e. raisins or currants) are sometimes added to the very simple cookie dough, I added dried blueberries and chopped roasted almonds in mine, to give them a fruit and nut feel that goes quite well with, yes, a cup of tea.

Blueberry Almond Shrewsbury Biscuits

Here’s the recipe:

Shrewsbury Biscuits (adapted from AllBritishFood.com)

MAKES ABOUT 24

100 g (4 oz) butter
150 g (5 oz) caster sugar
2 egg yolks
225 g (8 oz) plain flour
finely grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 c. dried blueberries
1/2 c. chopped roasted almonds

1. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat in well. Stir in the flour and lemon rind and mix to a fairly firm dough. Mix in blueberries and chopped almonds until evenly distributed.

2. Knead lightly on a lightly floured surface and roll out until about 0.5 cm (1/4 inch) thick. Cut out 6.5 cm (2 1/2 inch) rounds with a fluted cutter, and put on greased baking sheets.

3. Bake at 180°C (350°F) mark 4 for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned and firm to the touch. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Store in an airtight container.

A little food styling humour

Also nutty, sweet and altogether wonderful was the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The Musical that I saw in London’s West End in November. The show is inventively staged, beautifully performed, features some lovely music and wonderful dancing, and is not at all meant only for children. I can’t wait for someone (I’m talking to you, Mirvish Productions) to bring it across the Atlantic to wow audiences here.