The best of 2004

Times Staff Writer

This year the Food section published 380 recipes. How do we remember them all, much less decide on 10 best?

It’s a perennial dilemma. Take Russ Parsons’ spiny lobster story (Oct. 20). It offered three lobster recipes that each received an equal number of votes. The recipes were so consistently good that they canceled each other out, and no lobster crawled across the finish line. Is this fair?

Of course not. But we bit the bullet, took all considerations into account and decided on a list that reflects the cooking that most wowed us this year. As usual, it highlights the Southland’s culinary diversity and our long love affair with fresh produce.


A number of recipes came very close, and we would have loved to include them all. Regina Schrambling’s portabello-arugula sandwich, for example. Donna Deane’s plum upside-down cake or her grapefruit curd tartlets. Sarah’s Mallomars, concocted by one of our kitchen interns, Sarah Carter, were hugely popular. Russ Parsons’ tart of garlicky greens and black olives or his honeydew ice with blackberries and white Port. Susan LaTempa’s parsnip flan. Carolynn Carreno’s duck ragu.

Then there were the chef recipes that bowled us over but didn’t make it onto the list. Eric Klein’s choucroute. Oven-braised short ribs from Villa Creek in Paso Robles. Bollito misto from the Mendocino Inn. From Govind Armstrong at Table 8, kurobuta pork chops with white bean puree, ham hock jus and salsa verde. Hazelnut brown butter cake from Lucques. Fudgy brownies from Recchiuti in San Francisco. Butternut shrimp bisque from Brigtsen’s in New Orleans.

And, of course, anything with spiny lobster.

Fortunately, you can find all of them in The Times’ archives at


Spring vegetable ragout

Time: 40 minutes, plus shelling and hulling time

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Regina Schrambling’s spring entertaining menu included several outstanding side dishes to be served with lamb. This ragout is such a knockout, it’s likely to upstage the entree. If the peas are not very young, blanch them.


2 bunches baby carrots, trimmed and halved

lengthwise if thick

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter

3 baby leeks or scallions, white part only, trimmed and thinly sliced

3 cups shelled, hulled fava beans (about 4 1/2 pounds


4 cups freshly shelled spring peas (about 2 pounds


4 cups very thin asparagus tips


1 cup vegetable demi-glace or very rich chicken stock

Leaves of 1 bunch chervil

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil and blanch the carrots for 1 to 2 minutes, until just tender. Drain and set aside.

2. Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the leeks or scallions and cook 2 to 3 minutes, then add the carrots, favas, peas, asparagus tips, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add the demi-glace or stock. Lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer until the vegetables are just tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the chervil and serve.

Each of 10 servings: 134 calories;

7 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber;

5 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 13 mg. cholesterol; 103 mg. sodium.


Crispy-skinned wild salmon with braised spring peas and mushrooms

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: In May, for an article on wild salmon, Russ Parsons gave us this fabulous dish, which includes a technique for crisping fish skin learned from Thomas Keller.

2 pounds center-cut wild salmon fillet, in one piece


2 slices bacon

1/2 pound cremini mushrooms

3 shallots, minced

6 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup whipping cream

1 pound shelled English peas (fresh or frozen)


1 tablespoon butter

1. Place the salmon skin side up on a cutting board. Run the back of a knife over the skin, using a squeegee motion. As moisture emerges from the skin, wipe the skin and the knife dry with a paper towel. Repeat until no more moisture is visible.

2. Turn the salmon over and feel along the surface of the flesh with your fingertips just above and below the midline. If you feel pin bones, pluck them out with tweezers or needle-nose pliers. Slice the fillet in half lengthwise and then into fourths crosswise to make 8 fillets. Season the meat side with salt and set aside, skin side up, until ready to cook.

3. Slice the bacon into thin crosswise strips. Cook them in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until they are slightly crisp and the fat is rendered, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve, leaving the fat in the pan.

4. While the bacon is cooking, trim the bottoms of the mushroom stems and cut the mushrooms into lengthwise quarters. Cook the mushrooms in the rendered bacon fat until they color slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the shallots and cook until they soften but do not color, 2 to 3 minutes.

5. Return the bacon strips to the pan. Add the thyme and white wine and cook until the wine has reduced to a thin glaze, about 5 minutes. Add the cream and peas and cook just until the peas soften; this will take 5 to 10 minutes for fresh peas, depending on their starchiness, and about 5 minutes for frozen. Remove from heat.

6. Heat another large nonstick skillet over high heat and add just enough oil to film the bottom of the pan, about 1 to 2 tablespoons. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle, place the salmon fillets in the pan skin side down and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until you see the cooked color come about one-third of the way up the side of the fillet, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and turn the salmon over to finish cooking off the heat while you prepare the plates.

7. Briefly return the peas and mushrooms to high heat and stir in the butter. Season to taste with salt. Divide the mixture among 8 shallow pasta bowls and place a piece of salmon skin side up in the center of each. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 265 calories;

28 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber;

11 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 71 mg. cholesterol; 139 mg. sodium.


Artichokes with prosciutto and cream

Total time: 35 minutes

Servings: 4 as a side dish; 2 as a main dish

Note: Russ Parsons has shared many artichoke recipes with Times readers, but his article on braising artichokes managed to cover new ground -- and impress bowl over the whole staff.

1 3/4 pounds medium or

2 1/4 pounds baby artichokes

2 tablespoons butter

3 slices prosciutto, cut into slivers

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

1. Trim the artichokes. If using medium ones, quarter them lengthwise. Place them in a bowl of acidulated water (water with a little vinegar or lemon or lime juice).

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the prosciutto and shallots and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain the artichokes and add them to the pan. Add the thyme and water. Cover the skillet and cook until the artichokes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Shake the pan from time to time to stir the contents, adding a little more water If necessary.

3. When the artichokes are easily pierced with a knife, remove the lid and raise the heat to high. Cook until the moisture evaporates and the artichokes sizzle, about 5 minutes.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for a minute. Add the cream and return the pan to the burner over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the cream has thickened enough to lightly coat the artichokes, about 3 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary (depending on the saltiness of the prosciutto). Season with pepper and serve warm.

Each of 4 servings: 208 calories;

5 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 63 mg. cholesterol; 220 mg. sodium.


Spinach and Parmesan tart

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Emily Green’s ode to the egg in March included this recipe from Jeremy Lee, chef of the Blueprint Cafe in London. Because the eggs, cream and cheese are the central ingredients, use only the best: European-style butter, fresh eggs from a farmers market, unprocessed raw cream and freshly grated aged Parmesan.

2 cups flour, plus more for dusting

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks)

butter, cut into cubes

1 large egg

9 egg yolks, divided

1 small egg, lightly beaten,

to glaze pastry

1 tablespoon cold water,

if needed

6 ounces (or 1 bag) washed and trimmed spinach

1 pint (2 cups) whipping cream or raw cream

2 ounces ( 3/4 cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated

2 to 3 scrapes of nutmeg on

a fine grater

Pinch sea salt

2 light passes with the pepper grinder

1. To make the pastry, sift the flour (if using unsalted butter, add a good pinch of salt to the flour and mix it in well). Add the butter cubes and rub the mixture with your hands until it reaches a crumbly texture.

2. Stir in the large egg and 1 egg yolk. When the mixture is well combined, begin to knead. If the dough is too dry, add 1 scant tablespoon cold water. Once the pastry forms a supple ball, knead a few minutes so it’s well mixed. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest in a cool spot on the counter for at least 20 minutes for the glutens in the flour to relax. If you leave it to rest in the refrigerator, be sure to remove it at least an hour before you plan to roll it out.

3. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Roll out the dough and fit it into a 10 1/2 -by-1-inch tart pan.

4. Place a layer of baking beads in the tart shell and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the beads and brush the shell with the beaten egg. Return the shell to the oven and bake for 15 minutes.

5. While the tart shell bakes, blanch the spinach, then drain it and press it between two plates to extract the water. Snip the cooked spinach with scissors into small pieces.

6. In a large mixing bowl, combine the spinach, the remaining 8 egg yolks, the cream and the Parmesan. Season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper. (If you’re unsure about the seasoning, cook a dab of the mixture in a frying pan. Do not overseason because too much nutmeg and pepper can create a soapy aftertaste.)

7. Remove the tart shell from the oven. Pour the filling into the shell. Place the tart on the middle oven rack. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees and cook for 25 minutes.

8. Raise the heat to 350 degrees and cook for 5 more minutes. Be sure not to cook to firmness; the tart should have a slight jiggle when you remove it. Serve with an Orvieto or Vouvray and a salad.

Each of 10 servings: 454 calories;

10 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber;

37 grams fat; 21 grams saturated fat; 329 mg. cholesterol; 170 mg. sodium.


Cider-braised pork with fennel

Total time: 3 1/2 hours

Servings: 8

Note: Test kitchen director Donna Deane’s roast pork simmered in hard cider with fennel is fork- tender, rich and sophisticated. It’s from a January article on braising.

5- to 5 1/2 -pound boneless pork shoulder butt, tied

4 cloves garlic, cut into slivers

Salt to taste

Cracked black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons olive oil,


3 leeks, tops removed, cut in half and sliced (about 2 cups sliced)

1 cup diced carrots

2 cups hard cider

2 cups chicken broth

1 bay leaf

2 fennel bulbs, about 1 pound each

2 tablespoons fennel fronds, chopped

2 teaspoons fennel seeds, toasted and cracked

1 tablespoon fleur de sel

1. Make small slits evenly over the surface of the pork and insert a sliver of garlic into each. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the roast; rub in.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large enameled iron pan. Add the pork and brown well over medium-high heat, turning to brown all sides, about 15 minutes total. Remove the pork from the pan and keep it warm.

3. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan and saute the leeks and carrots until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Pour the hard cider over the vegetables and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a high simmer and cook until the cider is reduced to 1 cup.

4. Return the pork to the pan. Pour the chicken broth over, stir to combine and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat; add the bay leaf. Cover and transfer to a 325-degree oven. Cook until the pork is meltingly tender, about 3 hours.

5. While the pork is braising, trim the tops from the fennel bulbs and trim the stem ends. Chop about 2 tablespoons fennel fronds for garnish; set aside. Cut the fennel lengthwise into half-inch slices. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet. Add the fennel slices in batches and brown on both sides. Remove from the skillet; cover and set aside.

6. Add the browned fennel slices to the pork during the last half-hour of cooking.

7. Remove the pot from the oven and carefully lift the fennel slices onto a serving platter. Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let it rest while reducing the sauce.

8. Skim fat from the sauce. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook until reduced to 1 cup. Strain.

9. To serve, slice the meat and arrange it on a platter with the fennel. Spoon sauce over both. Sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds. Combine the toasted fennel seed and fleur de sel and, if desired, sprinkle a pinch over the serving dish. Pass the seed-salt combination with the braised pork.

Each serving (before sprinkling with salt and seeds): 682 calories;

57 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber;

40 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 191 mg. cholesterol; 431 mg. sodium.


Shrimp albondigas with guajillo-chipotle sauce

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: An article by Susan LaTempa about Mexican expatriate and caterer Gina Pacheco included this recipe for an appetizer of unusually light shrimp “meatballs.” For the fresh masa, you may substitute dough made by mixing one-half cup corn tortilla mix with one-fourth cup warm water.


4 dried guajillo chiles, cleaned, seeded, deveined

2 dried chipotle chiles, cleaned, seeded, deveined

3 medium tomatoes, left whole (about 1 pound)

1 small to medium onion

4 cloves garlic

1 1/2 cups fish stock

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Toast the chiles in a dry skillet until fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Roast the tomatoes, onion and garlic in a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes.

2. Bring one-half cup water to boil in a saucepan, add the toasted chiles and simmer for 5 minutes. In a blender, mix the chiles with their cooking water, the roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic and the fish stock. Strain.

3. Cook the sauce over low heat for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer over low heat while you prepare the albondigas.

Shrimp albondigas

1 1/2 pounds uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup fresh corn masa dough

2 eggs, slightly beaten

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro


Freshly ground black pepper

1. In a food processor, mix the shrimp, onion, garlic, corn masa dough and eggs until well blended. Add three-fourths cup cilantro, salt and pepper and pulse briefly.

2. Lightly oil your hands and form small (three-fourths-inch) meatballs with the shrimp mixture.

3. Drop the meatballs into the sauce and cook at low heat without stirring until the meatballs are firm, about 5 minutes. If the sauce thickens too much, add more stock.

4. To serve, place three albondigas with sauce in each ramekin or small bowl and sprinkle with cilantro.

Each serving: 158 calories; 18 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 175 mg. cholesterol; 672 mg. sodium.


Yum takrai (lemon grass with dried shrimp and cashews)

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 4 appetizer servings

Note: Barbara Hansen tasted this dish at A-Roy Thai restaurant in Singapore and obtained the recipe for her April article about lemon grass. You may substitute one-third cup unsweetened toasted coconut (available in Asian markets) for the fresh coconut.

Meat from about 1/4 of a fresh coconut

1/3 cup lime juice

3 tablespoons nam pla (Thai fish sauce)

3 tablespoons sugar

8 to 10 stalks lemon grass

3 shallots

2 green onions

1/4 cup oil

1/2 cup raw cashews

3 tablespoons dried shrimp

2 Thai chiles, cut into small pieces

Romaine lettuce

1. Crack the coconut and cut away pieces of the meat, then use a vegetable peeler to make thin (1-inch) strips until you have about one-third cup of thin strips. Toast the coconut strips on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes until golden. Remove, cool and set aside.

2. Combine the lime juice, fish sauce and sugar and let stand while preparing the salad. Taste and add more sugar, if desired.

3. Cut off the root end of the lemon grass stalks and discard. Use 6 inches of the lower part for the salad. Discard the rest, or save for another use. Remove the coarse outer layers of each stalk. With a very sharp knife, slice the lemon grass stalks crosswise as fine as possible. There should be about 1 1/2 cups sliced lemon grass.

4. Peel the shallots; quarter them lengthwise, then slice thinly. Trim the root end of the green onions and cut off part of the green end, leaving 1 inch of the green part. Cut the onions in half lengthwise, then slice thinly.

5. Heat the oil in a small skillet. Fry the cashews until golden, about 50 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Fry the dried shrimp until crisp, about 1 1/2 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

6. In a bowl, combine the cashews, shrimp, lemon grass, shallots and green onions. Just before serving, add the small pieces of Thai chile to the lime juice-fish sauce dressing, pour over the salad and toss well.

7. Place a large romaine leaf on a serving plate. Spoon the salad onto the leaf. Sprinkle on the coconut strips. Prepare a plate of tender romaine leaves (or the top halves of romaine leaves, center ribs removed).To eat, use your hands to shape a piece of lettuce into a little cup, spoon salad into the lettuce, wrap and eat.

Each serving: 334 calories; 6 grams protein; 30 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 1,063 mg. sodium.


Double-lemon cake

Total time: 90 minutes

Servings: 12 or more

Note: Desserts were a very competitive recipe category this year -- in fact, some Food section staffers advocated a 10-best list made up entirely of desserts. This hands-down favorite from Regina Schrambling is a dream for lemon lovers.

3 cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 2/3 cups sugar, divided

4 eggs, at room temperature

1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Grated zest of 5 large lemons, divided

1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 10-inch tube pan. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl and stir to blend. Set aside.

2. Cream the butter with an electric mixer. Add 1 cup of the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.

3. Beat in one-fourth cup lemon juice and the zest of 3 lemons. Stir in the flour mixture and sour cream alternately, mixing with a rubber spatula until completely blended. Scrape into the prepared pan.

4. Bake 60 to 70 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a serving plate.

5. Combine the remaining lemon juice and the remaining two-thirds cup sugar in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the remaining lemon zest.

6. Prick the warm cake all over with a skewer. Spoon and brush the glaze over the top and all sides of the cake. Cool completely before slicing.

Each of 12 servings: 439 calories; 6 grams protein; 57 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 21 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 121 mg. cholesterol; 296 mg. sodium.


Fig and almond tart

Total time: 1 hour, 50 minutes plus overnight refrigeration

Servings: 10 to 12

Note: This recipe from chef Alain Giraud, part of a July article by Leslie Brenner describing a Bastille Day picnic, was one of the Food section staff’s top two recipes for the year. The dough is delicate and somewhat difficult to handle, but well worth the effort. It’s easiest to roll it out between industrial-sized sheets of plastic wrap (available at Smart & Final). The quality of the butter is important: Giraud recommends Plugra, available at Trader Joe’s. If the figs aren’t very ripe and sweet, sprinkle them with brown sugar.

Sugar dough

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted

butter, softened

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons blanched almond meal

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

3 1/2 cups cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1. Cream the butter in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment at medium speed. Add the sugar and scrape down the sides. Add the eggs and beat on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute.

2. Add the almond meal and vanilla extract. Beat at low speed; add the flour and baking powder and continue to mix at low speed just until well combined. Do not overwork.

3. Place the dough on a large piece of plastic wrap and form into a rectangle 2 inches thick. Seal in plastic wrap, then cover with foil. Refrigerate overnight.


1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour

1 cup blanched almond meal

1. Cream the butter in an electric mixer using the paddle attachment at medium speed. Add the sugar and eggs, and beat about 1 minute.

2. In a small bowl, combine the flour and almond meal; add to the butter, egg and sugar mixture while mixing at low speed. Mix until well combined, about 1 minute. Set aside or refrigerate.


Sugar dough


16 to 20 Black Mission or other fresh figs

2 tablespoons apricot jam

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

1. Lightly butter a (12-inch) tart mold (1-inch deep) with a removable bottom. Place the sugar dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper. Working quickly because it will be soft, roll the dough gently to a three-eighths-inch thickness. The circle will be about 15 inches round. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to firm up the dough.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap or parchment from the top of dough. Turn the dough over and place it in the tart mold. Gently remove the second piece of plastic wrap. Press into the sides and bottom and remove excess dough from the rim. With a fork, prick the dough. Place a double sheet of plastic wrap in the shell and add dried beans or baking weights. Bake 15 minutes.

3. Remove the beans and plastic wrap and bake the shell until golden brown, an additional 20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Spoon the frangipane into the shell and spread evenly. Bake until the frangipane is set, about 15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes.

4. Increase the oven heat to 400 degrees. Remove the fig stems and quarter the figs vertically. Starting on the outer edge of the tart, place the fig quarters with the pointed ends facing out and the skin sides down. Continue to form concentric circles with the fig quarters. For the smaller circles in the center, point the ends up to look like a flower. Bake for 15 minutes, then cool for 15 minutes.

5. Heat the jam and a teaspoon of water in a small saucepan until the mixture is spreadable. With a pastry brush, delicately brush all the figs with the glaze.

6. Before serving, remove the tart from the pan and sprinkle the sliced almonds over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Each serving: 683 calories; 10 grams protein; 88 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 116 mg. cholesterol; 84 mg. sodium.



Total time: 30 minutes, plus at least 3 weeks infusing time

Servings: about 74 (makes 9 1/4 cups limoncello)

Note: This easy-to-make liqueur was the centerpiece of Charles Perry’s September article on Sicily’s signature liqueur. We were so impressed by its fresh explosive flavor that it came in as one of the top two recipes. You can substitute the peel of 15 limes for the lemon peel. Taste the liqueur for the degree of sweetness you want as you add the syrup. This is based on the recipe given on by forum host Katie Loeb.

12 lemons

2 (750-ml) bottles 100-proof vodka, divided

2 cups water

2 cups sugar

1. Remove the yellow part of the lemon peel with a sharp peeler or fine grater, carefully avoiding the bitter white pith. If any pith remains on the back of a strip of peel, scrape it off.

2. Put the yellow peels in a jar or bottle, add 1 bottle vodka and seal tightly. Steep until the peels lose their color, at least 2 weeks.

3. Put the water and sugar in a saucepan and boil until the liquid turns clear. Let the syrup cool.

4. Strain the vodka from the peels and mix it with the remaining bottle of vodka and the syrup. Put the liqueur in bottles, seal tightly and let the components marry for at least 1 week before using. For drinking straight, store in the freezer.

Each 1-ounce serving: 77 calories; 0 protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 0 sodium.