Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top Eats of 2008

Spaniards have a delightful New Year's custom of eating twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight.

I, however, have a top ten countdown of great eats in 2008:

#10) Grafton, IL: For some bizarre reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take my parents on a PuttPutt Pub Crawl in Grafton, IL. It wasn't. They were great sports about it though, earning them a few bonus points and I'm sure the opportunity to tell shocking stories in their retirement community. My favorite stop was the Rotten Apple, with sixteen* kinds of hard cider and great pin-up art on the walls. I felt like I was in a Hobbit pub. We finished off the evening at the Fin Inn, feeling like we'd stepped back into a 1960s chrome postcard.

#9) Cherokee Street: I tend to go on food kicks, and this fall I kept finding myself on Cherokee Street. In the space of less than a month I ate from two bakeries, three separate restaurants, several carryouts, and once just standing in the street. I've developed a craving for agua de fresa (literally, strawberry water; impossible to translate and impossibly amazing) like you would not believe. On weekends only, Diana's Bakery sells fresh tamales out of a cooler; get there in the morning for the greens. Once, as I waited to pay, I heard this rhythmic chunk-chunk for about three minutes, regular as a steam thresher. Curious, I poked my head around the corner to investigate, only to find a guy in a white apron and an egg in each hand, cracking them into a five-gallon plastic bucket, chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk, chunk-chunk.

8) Guido's Remodel: Guido's has been my go-to restaurant for at least the last six years. I eat there when I want to eat alone, when I want a romantic date, when I don't feel like cooking, when I want to unwind, when I have friends from out of town. It's programmed into my speed dial so that I can have an order of calamari waiting on the bar when I arrive. I love them so much they catered our wedding. For some reason, they aren't even on the foodie radar screen; trendier, fusion spots like Modesto tend to get the press. A google search turns up barely a restaurant review. I'm telling you, Guido's is by far the most authentic Spanish restaurant in the city. Mama and Papa are from Spain, the son is in the kitchen, and the food is authentic Spanish comfort foods: croquettes, peppers stuffed with cod, white anchovies, tortillas espanola, jamon serano on garlic-smeared bread. This year, they did two major remodels, adding a patio and completely re-doing the kitchen and bathrooms. The atmosphere is catching up to the food, and I don't think Guido's will stay off the radar for much longer.

7) Cherry Bounce: This July I made cherry bounce for the first time, using a pint jar and Fair Shares cherries. I stuck it in the cupboard and opened it on Thanksgiving. I could hear the panic rising in LB's voice as he sipped and slowly realized I'd not used cheap alcohol for the steeping. No worries, it was just rye, but the better liquor made a world of difference.

6) Marzipan Strawberries: If you go anywhere based on this list, stop by Seha Cafe asap for some marzipan strawberries. The restaurant has been in a fragile state for the last year, and I can't promise it will be there for long, which is a shame because all of the food is amazing. At Christmas, Nada sells homemade, European-style Christmas cookies and tops each one-pound box with two marzipan strawberries. These aren't the molded dry ones in little paper cups you find at Marshall's. Nada grinds the almonds herself, the whole bit made from scratch. I cannot save them. I cannot share them.

5) Crock Pot: This year, I really became a crock pot cooker, to the point of owning three. What sold me was Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker by Beth Hensperger. The title says it all.

4) Hot Boiled Peanuts: This year hot boiled peanuts showed up at Soulard Market every Saturday. You either like hot boiled peanuts or you do not. If not, all the more for me. If I could make it there every week, I would. Throw your shells on the ground and let the salt water drip from your chin and elbows.

3) Sabayon: It's a wonder I didn't drop from a heart attack this summer, I consumed so much sabayon. Egg yolks, sugar, champagne, and whatever fruit is in season. There could not be a more perfect dessert.

2) Shaved Duck: I ate at the Shaved Duck three times in three weeks with three different men. No scandal. One owed me a favor, one was LB for our anniversary, and one was the visiting husband of a college friend. My visits crossed the seasonal menu change, and I probably sampled about twelve different dishes. Only one was a minor misfire, the tomato plato: sort of a bland grilled cheese and chopped tomato dish. Sit down at a table and the wait staff will bring a basket of two house-made breads (duck fat scones and corn muffins one night, who knows what the next) with two house-made savory jams. The duck fat french fries (yes, you heard that right) will slay you. The confit and the duck breast salad will leave you smacking your lips for days. They cure their own bacon, then wrap a scallop around it, instead of the traditional other-way-round. The brie and squash lasagna has that wonderfully musky flavor that reveals they leave the rind on. It's one of the few places I've been that serves roasted marrow bones, albeit with a demitasse spoon instead of a traditional marrow spoon. That's quibbling though. Stay on the appetizer menu and you can eat yourself silly. Anyone owing me favors for the foreseeable future should know that this is where you'll be paying your debt.

1) Fair Shares: Number one, of course. This year I split a share in a combined-CSA with Carrie of Forks and Needles. I've always cooked. It's always been a huge part of who I am. Making something out of nothing is a game to me. I am at my happiest watching people eat something I've made. Fair Shares has taken me to a whole new level. Every two weeks LB would come home with two bags of local, in-season groceries. For poor folks, we ate like kings. I can't wait to do it again next year.
*What's the grammar rule for numbers? Well, it varies, but generally there are four important rules:
  • If you can say it in one to two words (six million, forty-seven, three), spell the number out.
  • If you can't (487, 1,984) use the numeral.
  • Don't mix spelled-out numbers and numerals in a sentence.
  • Avoid beginning a sentence with a numeral.
That's it. If you're a grammar geek like me, you'll go back to the post to see if I made any errors.

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