10 gems from the year's trove

We don't keep too many lists here in the Food section, but there's one that takes shape as the new year approaches, a natural expression of all the work that goes on in our Test Kitchen. It's our annual Best Dishes List.

It's nothing terribly official; we're not as formal as movie critics tracking their picks for best picture. As the Times Test Kitchen sets each finished recipe on the counter, as forks come out and lips are smacked, a name might get jotted down, a mental note made.

The Food section publishes more than 500 recipes a year, and the variety is tremendous. A recipe may come from the kitchen of the L.A. restaurant-of-the-moment or from a grandmother's memory. It may require ingredients from one of the Southland's many ethnic markets, or it may be based on what's already on hand. It may take some work, or it may be wonderfully simple.

But in every case, the recipes on this year's list are simply wonderful. Some are from chefs, such as the macaroni and cheese and the Indian chicken curry. A few come from our staff, like Russ Parson's preserves. A book or two lent a few more.

And then there's the big, beefy burger -- our Test Kitchen's concoction, the answer to a mystery involving some chopped steak, a sauce and a tight-lipped chef.

So here you have it: our favorites for the past year. We would happily make them again. And we hope you will too, as well as the recipes ahead in this new year. Think of them as another crop of potential best recipes.


Strawberry preserves

Home preserving has an image about as hip and sexy as a gingham apron, Times staff writer Russ Parsons wrote June 12. But with some good berries and a recipe such as this, you can have an outstanding addition for your morning toast in the time it takes to prepare a pasta dinner. We couldn't believe something this delicious was so simple -- and yet different; the jam is spoonable. The recipe works best with weights; use equal amounts of fruit and sugar. We've listed approximate volume measures if you don't have a scale (2 pints of strawberries weigh about 2 pounds.)

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 8 hours standing

Servings: 5 (8-ounce) jars

2 pounds washed and hulled

strawberries, cut into bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)

2 pounds sugar (about 4 cups)

Juice of 1 lemon

1. Combine the strawberries and sugar in a large pot and heat slowly until the juices are clear, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, then cover loosely and let stand overnight.

2. The next day, get everything ready for canning: Bring a large pot of water to boil and sterilize 5 sets of jars and lids, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the jars and lids in the hot water until you're ready to use them.

3. Heat 2 cups of the strawberries and juice in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When the strawberries start to simmer, cook, stirring often, until the preserves test done, 3 to 5 minutes. (It's done when you lift your spatula and the mixture no longer flows from the side at one point, the way liquids do, but begins to come off in multiple points or sheets.) Ladle the jam into the sterilized jars, filling to within one-fourth inch of the rim. Cover with the lid and fasten the ring tight. Set aside and repeat with the remaining strawberries and juice.

4. To complete the seal, bring the large pot of water back to a boil, place the covered jars in a pasta insert and place them in the pot. Make sure the boiling water covers the jars. Cook 5 minutes. Remove the jars from the pan and set aside to cool. After 30 minutes, check the lids to make sure they've sealed tightly. Gently press down on the center of the lid; if it does not spring back, you have a tight seal. Repeat the canning process with any jars that have not sealed tightly.

Each tablespoon: 41 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.35 gram fiber.


Our office burger

When we wrote about glamour burgers on Aug. 21 -- the pricey burgers showing up on menus -- a bar called Father's Office in Santa Monica wouldn't share its recipe. Lots of folks, including a national magazine, had raved about it. That led staff writer Charles Perry and our Test Kitchen to create our version, which we thought tasted every bit as good. When you make these, you'll need to cook more bacon than you actually use to have enough drippings. Dry-aged beef is available at specialty markets.

Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Servings: 4

Caramelized onions

4 slices applewood-smoked bacon

2 onions, sliced (about 4 cups)

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon ketchup

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

2-3 drops liquid smoke

1/4teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the bacon until crisp, 5 to 6 minutes, then remove to paper towels to drain. Crumble 1 slice and set aside; reserve the rest of the bacon for another use. Measure 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat into a medium heavy skillet.

2. Add the onions to the skillet and sprinkle with the sugar. Cook until the onions are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Halfway through, stir in the crumbled bacon. At the end of the 20 minutes, stir in the balsamic vinegar, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, salt and pepper. Cook for 2 more minutes. Set aside.


1 1/2pounds strip steak (preferably dry-aged), ground

1/2 pound rib-eye steak (preferably dry-aged), ground

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 ounce blue cheese

4 ounces Gruyere cheese

4 French demi-baguettes, halved and toasted

1 cup baby arugula

1. Combine the strip and rib-eye steaks and mix in the salt. Shape the meat into 4 (7-inch) oval patties, about three-fourths-inch thick.

2. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Fry the burgers, 2 at a time, for 3 minutes, then flip. Top each burger with one-fourth of the blue and Gruyere cheeses. Cook the burgers 3 more minutes for medium.

3. Remove and keep warm; melt the remaining butter in the skillet and repeat with the remaining 2 patties and cheeses.

4. To assemble, place the burgers on the baguettes and top with the onions and arugula, dividing evenly.

Each burger: 991 calories; 2,100 mg. sodium; 184 mg. cholesterol; 46 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 74 grams carbohydrates; 63 grams protein; 6.00 grams fiber.


Bread and butter pickles

That same story about glamour burgers, which ran Aug. 21, yielded us this terrific -- and easy -- pickle recipe. They top the $16 Viceroy burger from Whist in Santa Monica.

Total time: 35 minutes, plus 24 hours standing

Servings: 2 quart jars

2 pounds pickling cucumbers

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper,

seeded and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon coarse salt

5 black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes

1/2 head garlic

(peeled and crushed)

1/2 quart apple cider vinegar

2 cups sugar

1. Slice the cucumbers lengthwise one-fourth-inch thick; use a mandoline, if you have one. Combine the cucumbers with the onion and red pepper in a non-aluminum bowl and coat lightly with the salt. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.

2. Drain the cucumber mixture in a colander and let sit 15 minutes. Check to see if a cucumber tastes too salty; if so, rinse with cold water. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and sterilize 2 (1-quart) jars and lids about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the jars and lids in the hot water until you're ready to use them.

3. Combine the peppercorns, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, garlic, cider vinegar and sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Divide the drained cucumber mixture between the sterilized jars and cover with the hot pickling liquid, filling to within one-fourth inch of the rim. Cover with the lids and fasten the rings tight. The pickles are now ready, but they will only get better over time; store in the refrigerator.

Each tablespoon: 4 calories; 33 mg. sodium; 0 mg. cholesterol; 0 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 grams protein; 0.04 gram fiber.


De Pomaine's country tart

For those brief few weeks when sweet cherries are in season, nothing is more luscious, wrote staff writer Emily Green on May 29. And perhaps there is no more luscious use for cherries than in this tart, made with a yeast crust.

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 8


1 ( 1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/3 cup warm water

2 cups flour, plus more for rolling

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces

2 egg yolks

1. Stir the yeast and the sugar into the warm water. Let sit until bubbly, about 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, combine the 2 cups of flour and the salt in a food processor; cut in the butter until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the yeast mixture and the yolks. Process just until the mixture forms a ball. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Knead the dough until supple and an indention with a finger springs back, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the dough with flour. Let rest for 10 minutes. Roll out the dough to fit a 9-inch pie plate. Transfer the dough to the plate and flute the edges.


2 1/2 pounds cherries

About 1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on sweetness of cherries), plus more for sprinkling

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Pit the cherries, reserving the juice. Place half of the cherries in the shell and sprinkle them with half of the sugar and add the cherry juice. Add the rest of the cherries and top with the remaining sugar.

3. Bake the pie until the cherries darken, the juice is bubbling and the crust is browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve hot. The juices will run from the pie and hot cherries will "burst" when you serve it. Sprinkle more sugar to taste on top.

Each serving: 431 calories; 158 mg. sodium; 159 mg. cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 2.83 grams fiber.


Chicken braised with figs, honey and vinegar

This recipe from "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by Judy Rodgers (W.W. Norton, $35) ran with a Sept. 25 story by Emily Green about her passion for making vinegar. Green noted what Rodgers had to say about vinegar in this dish: It "adds a bright but unstable note of acidity, which will fade with boiling, so simmer for only a minute or less."

Total time: 1 hour, plus 12 hours chilling

Servings: 4

4 chicken legs (about 1/2 pound each)


About 2 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil

1 onion (about 1/2 pound), root end trimmed flat, peeled and cut into 8 wedges

About 1/2 cup dry white wine

About 2 tablespoons dry white vermouth

About 1/2 cup chicken stock

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme

A few black peppercorns, barely cracked in a mortar

About 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

About 1 tablespoon honey

About 8-10 ripe fresh figs

1. Trim the excess fat from the chicken, season evenly all over with salt (we used a scant three-fourth teaspoon per pound of chicken). Cover loosely and refrigerate. This is best if refrigerated 12 to 24 hours.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

3. Pat the chicken legs dry; this will make them less likely to stick. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat, then add the chicken legs, skin side down. The oil should sizzle, not pop explosively, when you add the chicken. Adjusting the heat as necessary, cook until the skin is evenly golden, about 8 minutes. Turn the legs over and color only slightly on the other side, about 4 minutes. Pour off the fat.

4. If your skillet is ovenproof, arrange the onion wedges in the spaces between the chicken legs; otherwise, transfer the chicken to a shallow flameproof braising dish that will easily hold the chicken and onions in a single layer and add the onions. Add the wine, the vermouth and enough stock to come to a depth of about a half inch. Bring to a simmer and add the bay leaf, thyme and cracked black peppercorns.

5. Place, uncovered, in the oven, and cook until the meat is tender but not quite falling off the bone, about 40 minutes. The exposed skin will have turned golden and crisp; the liquid ought to have reduced by about half. Remove from the oven and set on a slight tilt so the fat will collect at one side of the pan.

6. Combine the vinegar and honey and warm slightly. This takes 10 seconds in the microwave. The vinegar should dominate but without making you squint. Trim the stems off the figs and cut them in half.

7. Skim as much fat as possible from the braising liquid, then set the pan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and swirl as you reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency, about 10 minutes. Distribute the figs evenly around the pan, add about 2 tablespoons of the vinegar-honey syrup and swirl the pan to diffuse the bubbling, amber syrup without smashing the tender fruit. The sauce will be glossy. Taste -- it should be rich and vibrantly sour-sweet. Add more of the syrup, to taste. The vinegar will fade with boiling, so simmer for only a minute or less.

8. Serve each chicken leg with two wedges of sweet, soft onion and four or five fig halves, bathed in a few spoonfuls of the sauce.

Each serving: 358 calories; 173 mg sodium; 90 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 3.87 grams fiber.


Chicken Mangalorean

In seeking the city's best Indian curry dishes, staff writer Barbara Hansen called this one "devastatingly addictive." It's from Surya restaurant on West 3rd Street, and she wrote about it on Sept. 18. Black mustard seeds and curry leaves can be found at Indian markets.

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

Servings: 6

2 cloves garlic

1 (1 1/2-inch) piece ginger root

2 1/2 teaspoons oil, divided

2 onions, cut in fine dice

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 (4-inch) cinnamon stick, broken in half

6 cardamom pods

10 whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut in 2-inch pieces

1/2 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

4-5 small dried red chiles

About 15-20 fresh curry leaves

1. Combine the garlic and ginger with about 1 tablespoon of water in a small food processor and process to a paste. Set aside.

2. Heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onions, tomatoes, garlic and ginger paste, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt. Cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the chicken and stir. Cook 15 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally, then cover and cook 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and water. Cover and cook 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of oil in a skillet over high heat until very hot. Add the mustard seeds (be careful, they'll pop out of the skillet), chiles and curry leaves. The oil should be hot enough so the curry leaves crackle and turn black right away; the chiles should also turn black. Cook no more than 3 minutes. Pour this mixture into the chicken. Simmer 5 minutes longer.

Each serving: 320 calories; 692 mg. sodium; 99 mg. cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 1.72 grams fiber.


Artichoke stew with pecorino Romano

At the peak of artichoke season, Russ Parsons gave us a dish that defied cooking vegetables as bland afterthoughts -- he braised the artichokes instead. The result: a delicious vegetable stew, published May 8. To clean artichokes, pull off tough outer leaves to reach pale inner leaves. Cut off the top one-third of the tips. Peel dark skin from base and stems with a paring knife. Cut artichokes into lengthwise quarters and drop into a bowl of water with the juice of half a lemon. If using large artichokes, follow the same steps, but after trimming tops, scoop out hairy chokes. Slice the hearts into half-inch pieces.

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 6

1 1/2 pounds small boiling potatoes, cut into small bite-size pieces

2 pounds medium artichokes, cleaned and cut up, about 4 artichokes

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, cut into small bite-size pieces

2 teaspoons minced fresh mint

2 tablespoons chopped green olives

1 ounce pecorino Romano cheese

1. Steam the potatoes over rapidly boiling water in a tightly covered pan just until tender, 15 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.

2. Combine the artichokes, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the water, salt, garlic, red pepper flakes, thyme and rosemary in a large skillet. Cover tightly and place over high heat. Cook until the artichokes are just tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid and continue cooking over high heat until all the liquid has evaporated and the artichokes begin to make a sizzling sound from frying in the oil. Stir frequently to keep the artichokes from sticking. Add the potatoes and reduce the heat to low.

3. In a separate skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. When hot, add the mushrooms and cook, tossing frequently, until they have given up their liquid and are browning, 3 to 5 minutes.

4. Add the mushrooms to the potatoes and artichokes and stir in the mint and the olives. Season to taste with additional salt. Remove the thyme and rosemary sprigs. Divide the stew evenly among 6 pasta plates or shallow bowls and garnish with the cheese by using a vegetable peeler to shave off thin strips over each bowl. Serve immediately

Each serving: 184 calories; 433 mg. sodium; 4 mg. cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 7.44 grams fiber


Slow-rising pumpkin-thyme dinner rolls

Nothing produced by the best traditional bakery can compare to what comes out of a home oven, Regina Schrambling wrote Nov. 20, just in time for Thanksgiving. We couldn't agree more when it comes to these easy rolls, which -- best of all -- need no kneading.

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 2 hours standing and 8 hours chilling

Servings: 18 dinner rolls

2 ( 1/4-ounce) envelopes active dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 cup canned pumpkin puree

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons coarse salt

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 cups flour, plus up to 1 cup more

Olive oil, for greasing bowl

2 tablespoons melted butter

1. Sprinkle the yeast over the water in a large mixing bowl and stir to dissolve. Using a wooden spoon, beat in the eggs, pumpkin, soft butter, sugar, salt, thyme and cayenne. Add 3 cups of flour and beat until smooth, gradually adding more flour as needed to make a soft, sticky but still manageable dough. Make sure the dough is well mixed. Oil a larger bowl and scrape the dough into it, turning to oil all sides. Cover with a dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch the dough down, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

2. Grease 2 (8-inch) cake pans with melted butter. Punch the dough down again and shape into round dinner rolls, arranging them in pans with about half an inch between each (if the dough is too sticky to handle easily, lightly butter or oil your hands). Cover the rolls with a dish towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in bulk, 30 minutes.

3. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the rolls until browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Each roll: 188 calories; 317 mg sodium; 40 mg. cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.59 grams fiber.


Chocolate sparkle cookies

Is it possible to fall in love with a cookie? Staff writer Jennifer Lowe did when she visited the Senses Bakery in Vancouver, Canada. The bakery shared the recipe with us in our Dec. 4. section. The trick to these soft, truffle-like cookies is in the beating -- beat the eggs and sugar until ribbons form, meaning that when the beaters are lifted, the batter falls back onto itself in ribbons. This could take up to 10 minutes of beating. You can grind raw almonds in a food processor or blender. These are best with chocolate that is 70% cocoa.

Total time: 1 hour, plus 8 hours chilling

Servings: About 36 cookies

1/2 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

3 tablespoons butter, room temperature

2 eggs

1/3 cup sugar, plus more for rolling

3/4 cup ground almonds

Powdered sugar, for garnish

1. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler set over, but not touching, simmering water. Remove from the heat. Cut the butter into a few pieces and mix into the chocolate until melted.

2. Beat the eggs with an electric mixer, gradually adding the sugar until ribbons form, 5 to 10 minutes. Fold in the chocolate-butter mixture. Gently add the ground almonds. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

3. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

4. Use a cookie scoop to form the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in granulated sugar, place on the baking sheet about 2 inches apart and immediately place in the oven.

5. Bake until the center of the cookies is no longer wet, 9 to 12 minutes. When slightly cool, lightly dust the cookies with powdered sugar.

Each serving: 64 calories; 15 mg. sodium; 14 mg. cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.62 gram fiber


The House macaroni and cheese

The House restaurant on Melrose Avenue goes through 30 pounds of cheese a week. That's because this dish is one of its most popular sellers. Cheesy, yes, but we loved it -- and chefs love macaroni and cheese, as Charles Perry told us in a June 5 story about its popularity. Panko are Japanese bread crumbs. Redwood Hills makes a good goat's milk Cheddar. If you can't find it, you can substitute 2 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar and 1/4 cup soft goat cheese.

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 6

2 3/4 cups milk

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon allspice

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 3/4 cups grated extra-sharp raw goat's milk Cheddar

1 1/4 cups shredded Fontina

2 cups grated Gruyere

1/2 pound large pasta shells

1 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs or panko

1. Heat the broiler or oven to 350 degrees. Heat the milk to just below boiling; set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. When it starts to bubble, whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute to make a roux. Slowly pour the heated milk into the roux, whisking constantly over medium-low heat, and cook until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, about 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add the salt, pepper, allspice, nutmeg and cayenne. Stir in the grated Cheddar, Fontina and Gruyere over low heat until the cheeses melt, 1 to 2 minutes.

4. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling salted water slightly less than you normally would, 10 minutes. Stir the pasta into the sauce and divide evenly among 6 buttered ramekins.

5. Divide the bread crumbs evenly among the ramekins and scatter over top. Brown the bread crumbs under the broiler 1 to 2 minutes or in the oven, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Each serving: 686 calories; 1,203 mg. sodium; 160 mg. cholesterol; 49 grams fat; 30 grams saturated fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 37 grams protein; 0.99 gram fiber

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