What inspires your cooking? For me, inspiration comes from a number of sources, from the more expected places like memorable restaurant meals and classic recipes that can use an update, to the more unusual, like a chapter in a novel where a character makes lentil stew. This year's best salads, soups, starters and sides drew from a mix of inspirations, chasing the seasons as a way to showcase fresh and interesting ingredients.
Salads: Simple, Seasonal and Restaurant-Inspired
Proving the old adage that simple is best, my favorite salad this year was a Celery and Peanut Salad inspired by the age-old snack of celery with peanut butter. The recipe was a hit with readers (especially my mother) and even got in a mention in the (now sadly discontinued) New York Times Diner's Journal. Another simple but delicious salad: Sliced Fresh Tomato Salad, dressed lightly with olive oil, lemon and lemon basil.
Several classic restaurant salads became quick favorites this year. Early in the year, I discovered the Canlis Salad made zesty lemon dressing and copious fresh mint contrasting with the rich, and the Nostrana Salad with bitter radicchio; both also feature buttery herb croutons. In March, a project to update a series of classic dishes yielded three great salad recipes: A Cobb Salad with fresher ingredients, a healthier take on Wilted Spinach and Bacon Salad and a Smoky Waldorf Salad.
In the winter, kale, still the most popular of the hearty greens, is great for salads. I gave it the crispy treatment in this Crispy Kale and Roasted Chickpea Salad. For hummus lovers, I deconstructed (or rather "reconstructed") popular ways of serving the dip into a salad, Reconstructed Hummus Salad. Once summer comes, we're all about the tomato panzanella, and I loved this Roasted Tomato Panzanella adapted from a recipe by Little Ferraro Kitchen.
Soups: Hearty Beans, Legumes and Chili
The most incredible soup I had this year, in fact one of the best things I ate period this year, was Smoky Pinto Bean, Red Wine and Bacon Soup, a recipe from New York Times writer Melissa Clark. I'm looking forward to making it again this winter.
Beans or legumes showed up in several other great soups. Sadly, the food world lost Italian cook Marcella Hazan this year, who will be remembered for her wonderfully flavorful recipes, like Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta and Bean) Soup. This Basic Black Bean Soup was inspired by the classic Silver Palate recipe. And the novel Life Among Giants was the inspiration for this Lentil Stew. Parsnip-Carrot Soup with Tahini and Roasted Chickpeas adapted from a Smitten Kitchen recipe. Cold Chickpea-Tahini Soup from a Mark Bittman recipe.
I also turned out a whole week of chili recipes, including our favorite BBQ Turkey-Bean Chili Stew and this Thai-inspired Chili. Earlier in the year, I made this Moroccan(ish) Spring Stew, which is sort of like an African riff on my turkey chili.
Trend-watchers may enjoy my Chicken Miso Ramen inspired by the current ramen craze. And of course there's kale: Sausage, Kale and White Bean Soup. Warm or cold, Sweet Corn and Carrot Soup is great for late summer. But when it is cold, Smoky Butternut Squash and Apple Soup hits the spot.
Appetizers: Elegant Crostini and Party Favorites
Caramelized Celery Crostini was my favorite appetizer this year. After caramelizing so many onions, I decided to try a similar technique with celery, which seemed perfect for a summer crostini. Later, I offered another crostini for Thanksgiving, Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Crostini with Crispy Shallots.
Dips are a great way to feed a crowd. A mix of pickled and fresh jalapeños and roasted pistachios added extra fire and crunch respectively to Spicy Pistachio Guacamole, inspired by the dip we enjoyed a Chef Alex Suptak's Empellon Cocina. And if you love hummus, this Smoky Smooth Hummus, is a must.
Buffalo chicken wings reimagined as mini-burgers was the inspiration for Buffalo Chicken Sliders, which are great for sporting events.
Sides: Perfect Rice, Seasonal Produce and Thanksgiving
The side dish that most enchanted me this year was Bon Appetit's recipe for Perfect White Rice, which will allow me to say "goodbye" to soggy white rice for good.
Side dishes are a great way to highlight seasonal produce. In the spring, I enjoyed these simple and refreshing dishes of Fava Beans with Shallots, Mint and Pecorino and Smokey-Sweet Braised Dandelion Greens. Come summer, Sauteed Summer Squash and Sugar Snap Pea Medley made great use of two farmers market summer staples. For the fall, I transformed applesauce from baby-food puree into something more fitting for grown-ups, Applesauce with Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Maple and Walnuts. I also enjoyed this Stuffed Acorn Squash.
Thanksgiving is the year's best occasion for side dishes, like Cheesy Scallion-Corn Biscuits with Homemade Compound Butter, this Bon Appétit recipe for Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Bourbon-Maple Glaze and Smoked Almonds and my Fresh Take on Green Bean Casserole.
Lastly, a vegetarian Middle Eastern dinner was the occasion to make both Baba Ghanoush and Quinoa Tabbouleh. Delicious classic sides.