My year — and yours — of cooking Quick & Dirty

Crunch time — this year, we couldn't get enough garlic bread or onion rings

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 30, 2022 2:00PM (EST)

Quick & Dirty (Photo illustration by Salon/Mary Elizabeth Williams/Getty Images)
Quick & Dirty (Photo illustration by Salon/Mary Elizabeth Williams/Getty Images)

I think the best dishes are the kind that come with a story. The kind that make you feel loved and cared for. Preferably ones that also involve an awful lot of butter. It makes sense, then, that so many of the most popular recipes I published this year came via personal recollections and lively conversations with Salon guests. It wasn't just that food itself was so enticing. It was the reassuring tenderness of their origins. 

When I talked to novelist Patricia Cornwell last winter about her latest thriller, "Autopsy," she revealed how Kay Scarpetta's famed garlic bread is based on her partner Staci's version of "the best thing you've ever tasted." And though Cornwell can't get Staci to spill what her addictive secret ingredient is, my own garlic bread deep diving led me to discover a memorable take on the classic from none other than Guy Fieri. A garlic bread that holds absolutely nothing back, butter-wise, and then gets a surprise lift from a shake of hot sauce, this was the dish that neither Salon readers nor my family could get enough of this year. I don't know if mine is as good as Staci's, but I do know I have since forgotten all other garlic breads I've ever known. 

That garlic bread also affirmed for me this year Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" maxim that "In the world of chefs, butter is in everything." In this, our third pandemic year, the coziest, most unctuous dishes still reigned supreme. So I made a crunchy miso butter gnocchi and a rich, scampi-inspired pasta with wine sauce, both of which heeded Bourdain's observation that "What this all adds up to is that you could be putting away almost a stick of butter with every meal." Even the dishes I made that had more restrained butter content, like an old-school ribeye, beefy sheet pan "stroganachos" or Andy Baraghani's cheesy, lemony pasta, still clocked in with a high comfort food factor. 

And after a decadent, buttery main course, what else could follow but more butter? Following a winter trip to visit friends in Paris, I came home obsessed with salted butter caramel sauce, and spent the rest of the year making it and spooning it on pretty much everything. I made hot chocolate with a touch of brown butter, and it was so good I almost regretted the arrival of spring. Finally, inevitably, I made homemade butter itself.

This year, Salon readers and I also developed a deep affection for Valerie Bertinelli's Sicilian love cake. "I want to have fun in the kitchen," Bertinelli said during her Salon Talks conversation about her memoir "Enough Already." "I want to create, I want to use it as a way of expressing myself. That means making it a little bit easier, too, so it can connect with a lot of other people." And it doesn't get much easier than a box cake mix, ricotta and some chocolate pudding mix, transformed into an incredibly moist, best-of-all worlds dessert. Bertinelli told us that she keeps her recipes approachable because "Sometimes people get intimidated by food, intimidated by cooking." A crowd-pleasing cake that anybody who can stir can make was destined to be a winner. 

Other easy but oh-so-rich sweets proved similarly popular, like Ruby Tandoh's absurdly delicious no-bake Nutella barsMilk Bar inspired "snaps" made with peanut butter, chocolate and potato chips, and a retro chocolate mousse with a "holy moly" boozy kick. Do we like things that aren't chocolate here? Sure. But not as much as things that are.

If butter was the megastar of the year, the surprise scene-stealer turned out to be pancake mix. Blended with cooked beets for the prettiest, pinkest pancake breakfast ever or better yet, fluffed up and fried for restaurant-worthy onion rings, the humble pantry staple showed it really had the range. I am still getting excited emails about those onion rings. (Our Ashlie D. Stevens added to the pancake mix discourse with a genius cake recipe.) 

"Cook for yourself. No one else is going to judge you."

Cooking in 2023 meant something different for every single person who walked into their kitchen this year. Cooking is a conversation, one that's always evolving. For me, this was the first year in decades that I could really take to heart Nigella Lawson's advice to "Cook for yourself. No one else is going to judge you. Your shoulders will lower, you'll learn what you like and what you don't like away from that feeling of judgment."

Shortly after my younger daughter went off to college, I took off for a month of academic work in the Netherlands. After years of feeding my family, feeding guests, I suddenly had an uninterrupted block of time to feed only myself. With no one else's tastes or distastes or allergies to consider, I discovered new rhythms and flavors. I adapted to my surroundings, making spicy-sweet Indonesian noodles and toast topped with chocolate sprinkles like a local might. I made garlicky Turkish eggs and runny eggs smothered in crispy mushrooms, because I really love eggs. And while I also savored the long-missed experiences of traveling and dining out, I somehow always preferred the quiet, peaceful hum of cooking in my little European Airbnbs. Nigella was right. I think I'm a better cook now when I cook for others, because I'm more at ease than ever with my own style.

I never cooked at all until I fell in love, got married and had children. I have always liked my own cooking, but I also thought of primarily as something I did for other people. So this was the year I learned that the feeling of caring that cooking provides can be a gift that you give to yourself. That however many plates you set out on the table, you're never really alone. You're there together with all the people who provided the ingredients and guided your hands in bringing them together. And they're all whispering in your ear, "Maybe just a little more butter."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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