Time for Part 2 of my end-of-year, best-of-2016, share-all-the-things lists! This part is more specific-experience focused but hopefully still includes things that you can seek out and take part in or try out yourself (some more easily than others, to be fair).
Here are the five best foods I ate this year that I did not make myself.
Sugar Snap Pea Salad at Branch Line - This wonderful salad from this wonderful new restaurant just outside of Boston clearly involves some kind of dark magic because try as I might, I cannot make it at home. Despite having ostensibly simple ingredients (peas, mint, almonds, ricotta), it never tastes the same!
Shades of Hungry Mother at Tavern Road - I didn't take any decent photos of it, but we went to a pop-up dinner this summer by Barry Maiden, who was the chef at my very favorite Cambridge restaurant, Hungry Mother, which closed last year. One of the dishes was "duck liver mousse, morels, skillet scallions, cornbread crouton," which does not sound like something I'd enjoy but it was incredible and as anyone who ever went to Hungry Mother knows, Barry's cornbread is a gift to humankind.
Classic Burger at Salvation Burger - I know a lot of people didn't really care for April Bloomfield's new casual burger place, but she knows how to make a seriously good burger. I went here alone on a night when I was in New York for a conference and got a perfect little seat in the window and just really enjoyed it.
Afternoon Tea at the Dean Street Townhouse - As you may recall from my post about London and Paris, we had a very excellent (and relatively affordable) tea service our last afternoon in London. There were sandwiches and cakes and Earl Grey but the best part was the scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam that were basically my Platonic ideal of baked good. Still hoping to make afternoon tea an American institution in the coming year. #teatime2017
Risotto in Paris - I spent a lot (like, a LOT) of time researching where we should eat during our trip to Paris, including lunch as soon as we got in on the train. I ended up picking this little, fairly nondescript bistro near our hotel based on some review or criteria I honestly cannot even remember now, but luckily, it was GREAT, and I had a really fantastic risotto that made me so, so happy. It had a fairly odd assortment of foods on top of it: mushrooms, shaved aged Parmesan, candied nuts, and dressed greens? But the combination was amazing, and I'm going to try to recreate it at home soon.
These are things that played a big role in making my life a little bit better this year.
Grain Bowls - Ew, so trendy, I know. But grain salads and composed grain bowls are popular for a reason: Not only are they delicious, but they're also a great, simple way to eat healthy, balanced food. My experience of this trend is also linked to getting in the habit of Sunday cooking, where you make a bunch of big-batch recipes on the weekend to give yourself something to work with during the week. On Sunday I'll usually make a big batch of a base grain (quinoa, farro, brown rice), several types of roasted vegetables, a batch of mini meatballs (lamb, beef, or turkey) or chicken thighs, and a sauce of some kind (often spiced yogurt) and then use those as components for grain bowls, salads, and other meals in the following days. Boston has also recently gained an outpost of the New York-based restaurant Dig Inn, which is all about grain bowls, and I recommend both visiting there and also checking out their seasonal menus for ideas about what to make and how to combine components for grain bowls at home.
Subscription Services and Recurring Donations - These are two similar things that in my mind both correspond to the idea of using your money to directly support people and organizations that make your life better. Sometimes, as in the case of the Book of the Month Club, this is more commercial; I pay a yearly fee and get a new hardcover book every month. This makes my life better by making it easier for me to stay up-to-date on new books, but it also helps encourage a kind of reading culture that I think is incredibly important, and I love the style and substance with which they're doing it. Other times, it's less tangible, as with the (mostly podcast) creators I support on Patreon or other monthly donation platforms, including Radiotopia, The Worst Bestsellers, Rosie and Jessica, and Reasonably Sound, among others. These people are making content that brings me a lot of joy, so I'm helping them do so. Then of course there are the more purely philanthropic monthly donations to charities that are doing what they can to save the world, as discussed in my post-election entry on this blog.
Newsletters - I wrote a little about email newsletters in last year's roundup but this genre of writing has only become more and more vital and exciting since then (and I've subscribed to like 15 new ones), so it deserves another mention. Some of the most beautiful writing I read this year was in newsletters, especially in Helena Fitzgerald's Grief Bacon tinyletter, which I can't recommend highly enough. I've even just subscribed to the new perfume-themed tinyletter she's writing with Rachel Syme, The Dry Down, even though I really don't care about perfume. Here's an end-of-the-year passage from another worthy newsletter, Liz Galvao's Weird Personal Emails, that I liked recently:
ASMR Videos - DON'T LAUGH. I first heard about ASMR when the Reasonably Sound podcast did an episode about it back in 2014 but I didn't actually try it out myself until this year. While I don't think I actually "have" ASMR, these is something really, really soothing about these videos and I'll take soothing wherever I can get it these days. I haven't done that much exploring, but so far my favorite channels are this one (she was featured in the Reasonably Sound episode, so she was my way in), and this one (she has a lovely English accent that I could listen to pretty much forever). There has also been some very interesting writing in places like BuzzFeed and The Atlantic this year about what ASMR means as a cultural phenomenon and I, oh-so-predictably, find that fascinating as well. If you're curious (I know you are), here is a video I like that also works well in a New Year context.
Snail Mail - This isn't exactly a new fave; I've been a fan since pen-pal time in 2nd grade. But I feel like I fell out of the habit of sending good quality mail in the last few years, and I've been trying to get back into it. The new development is sending mail not only to people I know and love (although definitely doing a lot of that), but also to Internet Friendz. I recently wanted to clean out the huge pile of cookbooks I'd accumulated at work that I was not using and had no plans to use. Sure, I could have just dropped them at Goodwill, but instead I put a call out on Twitter to see if anyone wanted some random cookbook mail, and after a kind retweet from Twitter Sleepover Queen Margaret H. Willison, I had enough willing volunteers to get rid of almost 20 books. I sent them all by media mail, so it only cost about $2 per book, and that was definitely worth the joy it gave me to 1) get rid of all those books and 2) send fun and unexpected mail to some nice people. Hopefully I can find more ways to keep that going in the future. Being connected by text and email and Twitter is all nice and good, but there's no replacement for a well-curated package of thoughtful mail (especially if it also includes chocolate).
If there are things, either edible or not, that made your life better in 2016, I would love to hear about them. And if you'd like to be pen pals and get in on some of this sweet snail mail action in 2017, definitely let me know. And that's all for 2016!