Cooks Corner

Top 10 best recipes of 2014

Broccoli soup with avocado
Broccoli soup with avocado

As 2015 approaches, we thought it would be fun to revisit a year’s worth of Cook’s Corner favorites. These are all recipes that have made it into my “make-it-again” file — when you test hundreds of new dishes over 12 months you get pretty discriminating about what makes the cut. For this list, I favored dishes that either were easy to make but delicious and inspired, or ones that introduced me to new flavors.

More holiday recipes

See 11 more of our favorite recipes of the year at


Pumpkin Flan with Chocolate Crust

1 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup half-and-half

1/2 cup or 4 ounces cream cheese

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

5 large eggs

1 cup pumpkin puree

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon or canela

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Pinch kosher or coarse sea salt

1 1/2 cups coarsely crushed chocolate graham crackers

In a medium saucepan, heat sugar over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until fully dissolved and caramel colored. Quickly pour caramel into the bottoms of 10 individual ramekins, swirling around to coat the bottom of each one. In a food processor or blender combine half-and-half, cream cheese, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, pumpkin puree, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt; purée until smooth. Pour mixture into prepared ramekins, filling to 1/4-inch below the rim. Top each ramekin with 2 generous tablespoons of crushed crackers. Place flans in a large baking dish or roasting pan; fill pan with hot water halfway up the height of the ramekins.

Cover the pan lightly with aluminum foil. Carefully place into the oven and bake for 50 minutes; flans should look completely set. Remove from the oven, remove the aluminum foil and remove each ramekin from the water bath. Let the flans cool completely before covering with plastic wrap and placing in the refrigerator. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving. When ready to eat, run a small knife around the edge of each flan all the way to the bottom. Invert dessert plate over ramekin, flip over and shake slightly to release. Leave the ramekin on top of the flan for a minute or so, so all the caramel sauce can run over the flan.

Per serving: 390 calories, 13.3 g fat (6.8 g saturated, 4.2 g monounsaturated), 121 mg cholesterol, 0 g protein, 6.4 g carbohydrates, 1.2 g fiber, 203 mg sodium.

Source: Chef Pati Jinich.

Side dish

Zucchini, Lemon Thyme and Onion Parathas (Flatbreads)

Making your own flatbreads is much easier than it sounds, and this flavorful Indian paratha is a grand way to use zucchini.

1 large green zucchini

2 tablespoons fresh lemon thyme leaves (see note)

2 3/4 cups atta (Indian whole wheat flour; see note)

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for pan-frying

1 teaspoon salt

1 red onion, very finely chopped

Cut the top off the zucchini and cut into wedges. Place in a food processor with the lemon thyme and purée until smooth. Place 2 cups of the flour in a mixing bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the salt; mix well. Add in the chopped onion and mix well (the dough will be lumpy and dry). Gradually work in the puréed zucchini until you have a smooth dough. You might need to add a little water to get it to bind, but you want a dough that is a little dry. Let the dough rest, covered, for about 2 hours.

Work in the additional flour to make the dough pliable. It should be springy but not sticky. Break off 15 small, lime-size balls and roll into circles about 6 inches in diameter on a floured surface. As you begin rolling out the first circle, place a skillet over medium-high heat. Place one of the dough circles on the heated skillet and cook for a couple of minutes on each side; the bread should dry out and get evenly coated with little brown spots. Brush on a little oil, spreading evenly with a teaspoon. Turn the bread over and allow to puff up a little. Spread a little oil on the other side and turn over and crisp on that side. Cook till a little crisp on both sides and then remove and place on a plate. Continue cooking all the dough circles in this manner. The dough, as well as the cooked flatbreads, freezes extremely well.

Note: Atta is a coarse, high-gluten durum wheat flour of India, and can be found in ethnic markets. If you can’t find atta, you can substitute an equal blend of white and whole-wheat flour, preferably stone-ground. I found lemon thyme potted at my garden center, but you can substitute whatever fresh thyme you can find and add a teaspoon or so of lemon zest to the zucchini purée.

Per serving: 96 calories, 2.4 g fat (0.4 g saturated, 1.4 g monounsaturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 2.6 g fiber, 157 mg sodium.

Source: “Spices & Seasons” by Rinku Bhattacharya ($35, Hippocrene).


Arugula Chimichurri

This recipe originally was paired with grilled salmon in the column, but I’ve since found that while it is perfect for dressing any simple fish, its best use is giving a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket a new lease on flavor. I especially love adding it to a chicken sandwich made from the leftovers the next day.

1 bunch (about 2 cups) fresh cilantro, including stems, coarsely chopped

2 cups fresh arugula, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, packed

3 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 small garlic clove, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Purée the chimichurri ingredients, cilantro through black pepper, in a food processor or blender until smooth. May be prepared up to one week in advance, stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator with some olive oil poured over the top. May also be frozen up to 2 months.

Per tablespoon: 46 calories, 5 g fat, (0.7 g saturated, 3.6 g monounsaturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 0.2 g protein, 0.6 g carbohydrates, 0.1 g fiber, 92 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero from a recipe by Verlasso Salmon.


Cheesecake Brownie Bar Cookies

We brought out this recipe in response to a reader’s request for one similar to the Starbuck’s cheesecake brownie.

1 box of chocolate cake mix

3 eggs, divided

1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter, melted

1 cup chopped nuts, optional

1 cup chocolate chips

4 cups (1 pound) confectioners sugar

1 (8-ounce) bar of cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat oven to 350 degrees (325 for dark or nonstick pan). Stir the cake mix briefly with 1 egg and the butter, until just blended. Press into a 9-by-13-inch pan lightly coated with vegetable spray. Sprinkle the nuts and chocolate chips on top and lightly press into first layer. Beat together the confectioners sugar, eggs and cream cheese. Beat in the vanilla. Spoon over top, spreading mixture evenly to edges. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees, or until top is puffed and as browned as you like. Cool and cut into bars. Makes 24 servings.

Per serving: 268 calories, 13.2 g fat, (6.4 g saturated, 4.1 g monounsaturated), 44 mg cholesterol, 2.9 g protein, 37.6 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 255 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero.


Spicy Mango-Seville Orange Vinaigrette

Besides perking up a salad, try this kicked-up vinaigrette on poached seafood or chicken. At Victor’s Café it was served on a black bean salad. When Seville oranges are hard to come by, I’ve settled for sour oranges, or for a mix of 2 parts orange juice to 1 part lemon or lime juice.

1 cup mango pulp

1/4 cup sugar

4 garlic cloves

1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded

4 tablespoons vinegar

1/3 cup Seville orange juice

1/4 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper

Salt to taste

Purée mango in food processor until very smooth, then strain well. Discard strings or solid material left in strainer. Put strained mango purée in a small saucepan, then add sugar; mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook, stirring, until mixture thickens and coats the back of the spoon.

Remove from heat, cool to room temperature and put in food processor with garlic, Scotch bonnet pepper, vinegar and orange juice. Blend well. Pour into a small bowl and mix with the remaining ingredients. Add salt to taste. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Per serving: 16 calories, 0 g fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 g protein, 3.9 g carbohydrates, 0 g fiber, 1 mg sodium.

Source: Recipe by Maricel Presilla for Victor’s Café, adapted by Linda Cicero.


Easy Nutella Pie

This pie takes little time but makes an irresistible dessert that you can even make a week in advance, so it is perfect for dinner parties, special occasions and blissful indulgences.

1 1/2 cups finely ground chocolate cookie crumbs

5 to 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 cups Nutella

11/2 cups mascarpone cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts (for topping)

Crumble the cookies (Kave makes homemade for this but I settled for store-bought) into the work bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground, or whack with a rolling pin until finely crushed. Pour the butter into the crumbs and mix (hands are best for this) until the butter is fully incorporated and the texture is that of wet (the amount of butter you’ll need depends upon the moistness of the cookies). Firmly press the crumbs against the sides of a 9-inch pie pan, then against the bottom of the pan. Chill for at least 15 minutes. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake crust 10 minutes, then cool completely.

Make the filling: In a large bowl, using a hand mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer using the whisk attachment, beat together the Nutella, mascarpone and salt until light and fluffy. Spread the filling into the pie shell, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. Top with the chopped nuts. Makes 8 servings. May be refrigerated for up to 1 week, covered in plastic wrap.

Per serving: 812 calories, 59.8 g fat, (23.4 g saturated, 10 g monounsaturated), 74 mg cholesterol, 12 g protein, 58.3 g carbohydrates, 2.4 g fiber, 202 mg sodium.

Source: “1st Prize Pies” by Allison Kave (Stewart, Taboori & Chang, $29.95).


Best Strawberry Cake Ever

With fresh strawberry season approaching you’ll want to have this recipe on hand, which you’ll never guess starts with a cake mix. We brought it back in response to a reader request – it first appeared in Cook’s Corner in 1983. The gelatin not only gives a boost to the strawberry flavor but makes the cake perfectly pink!

1 box white cake mix

1 (4-serving size) strawberry-flavored gelatin

1/2 cup water

4 eggs

1/2 cup fresh or frozen strawberries, halved

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup fresh or frozen strawberries, halved

1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch pan, three 8- or 9-inch round pans or one Bundt pan. Beat cake mix, dry gelatin mix, oil and water with an electric mixer until combined. Beat in eggs one at a time. Continue to beat for 2 minutes. Beat in strawberries. Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake 20 to 25 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for sheet cake, 50 minutes to 1 hour for Bundt cake, or until cake springs back when pressed in center. Cool on wire racks.

To make frosting, beat butter and sugar for 5 minutes, until light and fluffy and no sugar granules remain. Beat in strawberries, salt and nuts. Makes 12 servings.

Per serving: 536 calories, 23 g fat, (7.3 g saturated, 7.1 g monounsaturated), 82 mg cholesterol, 4.8 g protein, 79 g carbohydrates, 0.6 g fiber, 464 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero.


Guilt-Free Creamy Cold Broccoli Soup

This raw broccoli cold soup is so creamy you’ll swear it is made with heavy cream, but the secret to the texture is half an avocado. Best of all, preparation takes just a couple of minutes.

1 head fresh broccoli

4 to 6 green onions

1/2 an avocado

Juice of 1 lemon

1 clove of garlic, or to taste

1 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Reserve some of the broccoli florets and some of the tops of the green onions for garnish. Place the rest in a food processor or blender along with the avocado, lemon, garlic and water. Puree (in batches if you don’t have a large bowl). Chill for several hours. Season to taste with the salt and pepper and divide into 4 bowls. Drizzle the olive oil on top and garnish with the reserved finely chopped broccoli florets and chopped green onions. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 146 calories, 11 g fat, (1.7 g saturated, 7 g monounsaturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 3.7 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 4.9 g fiber, 32 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero from a recipe by Chefworks.


Caldo Verde (Portuguese Kale Soup)

This is perfect for New Year’s Day, when beans are lucky. Kale may be the much lauded superfood of the past couple of years, but this recipe predates the trendiness and is a traditional soup in both Portugal and Brazil.

1 pound kale greens

1/4 cup olive oil

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, or to taste

1/2 pound linguica sausage or chorizo

3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed

Salt and pepper to taste

2 quarts chicken stock

2 (15-ounce) cans beans (cannellini, kidney, navy, garbanzo or a combination), optional

Garnishes: Vinegar, mint or cilantro leaves

Remove the thick stems from the kale after washing it thoroughly. Shred the leaves thinly and set aside. (You should have about 8 to 9 cups). Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté briefly, until just fragrant. Slice the sausage into 3/4-inch coins and add to the pot along with the potatoes and salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the onions are golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the kale, then the chicken stock. Add beans if desired. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook for at least 30 minutes before tasting for seasoning and serving. If a thicker soup is desired, mash half the potatoes and return to the pot and stir. For “modern” version, substitute baby kale leaves for the shredded kale and do not add to the pot until just before serving. To serve, pass the vinegar to sprinkle on top. It is traditional to place mint and/or cilantro leaves in the individual bowls before pouring in the soup. Makes 8 servings without the beans, 12 if added.

Per serving: 333 calories, 18.4 g fat, (4.7 g saturated, 10 g monounsaturated), 27 mg cholesterol, 14 g protein, 29 g carbohydrate, 3.4 g fiber, 617 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero for Cook’s Corner from recipes by readers, Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray.

Main dish

The Imam Fainted (Turkish Stuffed Eggplant)

The legend is that the imam swooned with delight when first savoring this dish. The dish uses a lot of oil, but if you cut back you are not making an authentic version. Some recipes add cumin and ginger or other spices, and some have a topping of plain yogurt, but this is how they make it at Oliva restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin.

4 small (individual size) eggplants

1/2 cup olive or canola oil

2 medium tomatoes, divided

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped green pepper

1/2 tablespoon fresh minced garlic

Salt and black pepper to taste

Peel alternating strips of skin lengthwise from each eggplant to give a striped effect; this also helps the eggplant absorb flavors. Leave whole. Sprinkle with salt and let stand in colander about 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water, then dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and brown the eggplants on all sides until nicely colored. Cut an opening slit in each eggplant and scoop out most of the seeds, being careful not to make the opening so big that the eggplants fall apart. Set eggplants in a Dutch oven or other covered pot. Set aside.

Make the filling: Cut 4 slices from one of the tomatoes, crush the remainder and reserve. Dice the second tomato. In the same skillet used for browning the eggplant, sauté the diced tomato with the pine nuts, onion, green pepper and garlic over medium heat until all the liquid from the vegetables has evaporated. Stir constantly toward the end. Fill the eggplants equally with the filling using a teaspoon. Place the sliced tomato on top of each eggplant. Mix the reserved crushed tomato with 1 cup hot water and pour around the sides of the eggplants. Cover the pot and cook on medium low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with rice. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 457 calories, 6.5 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 40.5 g fat (3 g saturated fat, 21.6 g mono), 0 mg cholesterol, 12 g fiber, 12 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted by Linda Cicero for Cook’s Corner from a recipe by Oliva Italian & Mediterranean Cuisine.