New Year’s Eats 

A look back at culinary highlights from ’06, and a peek into the future.

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Another year older and deeper in debt'but boy, was it fun getting here! 2006 was a particularly bountiful year for explorations of the culinary sort, and 2007 looks very promising as well. Of course, for someone who gets paid to eat and to think about food, every new year is one to look forward too and each one past is full of delicious memories. So here is a glance backward and a peek into the future as we bid farewell to 2006 and embrace 2007.

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Thousands and thousands of books about food get written and published every year. Cookbooks, chef bios, food fiction, culinary essays, gastronomic trivia, confessionals'a seemingly bottomless buffet of prose about eating. A handful of those books each year are even worth opening. Here is one real keeper.

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I buy a ton of cookbooks and get many more sent to me by publishers. The best of the lot from 2006 is a collection of recipes and essays you’ve likely never heard of. It’s called Cooking the Catch: A Spirited Collection of Recipes Based on the Catch of the Day by Dave “Pops” Masch, who not only wrote this fetching book but also illustrated it. Never mind the clumsy title; this one is a gem. Masch isn’t a celebrity chef; he doesn’t have a TV show or a trendy chain of restaurants. He’s a Detroit-born, Harvard-educated oceanographer, biologist, cook, instructor and Renaissance gent who lives on Cape Cod. In his words, “I saw the ocean in 1955 and have not yet recovered from it.”

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Cooking the Catch isn’t your run-of-the-mill fish and seafood cookbook, in part because the meandering essays that accompany the recipes are as enticing as the dishes themselves. Masch is a great writer and his book is more in the tradition of, say, Jim Harrison or John Thorne than Emeril or Mario. It’s also very funny. Segmented into the four fishing seasons'peepers, tautog and bluefish in the spring; sand eels and silversides in autumn'this book is as much a journal of a man who spends his life on and in the water as it is a cookbook, notwithstanding that it is, in fact, a damned excellent cookbook. From Masch’s goosefish marinara and gin-flamed striped bass to tantalizing recipes for periwinkles in tomato sauce and a killer oyster stuffing, Cooking the Catch truly is a great catch. It’s the only seafood cookery book you’ll ever need, but it’s a bit tricky to find. Visit OnTheWater.com to order it.

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The best non-cookbook foodie lit this year was Bill Buford’s Heat, in which the author signs up to be a low-level, unpaid prep worker at Batali’s popular Babbo restaurant in New York City. Buford’s book, more than any other I can think of, really captures what it’s like to work in a hot, noisy, chaotic professional restaurant kitchen or what it’s like to dice 36 carrots only to have them rejected by a demanding chef because they weren’t cubed perfectly. Along similar lines, a good companion to Heat was 2006’s The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen, wherein Michael Ruhlman dissects the American phenomenon that is the celebrity chef. Focusing on heavy-hitter chef celebs like Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Masa Takayama and Anthony Bourdain, Ruhlman’s book sheds light not as much on the glamour of being a well-known TV chef but on the grunt work, backbreaking labor and tedious nature a real restaurant chef’s existence. The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen puts the reader smack dab in the middle of an uncomfortable professional kitchen; you’ll swear you can actually feel the scorching heat of 26,000 BTU commercial kitchen range on your neck.

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But enough about reading about food. What about the food itself? If I had to pick my favorite Utah restaurant for the past year, it wouldn’t be something I’d need to ponder long. Takashi stands out as Utah’s finest restaurant'and, in my opinion, one of the best restaurants in the country. Takashi Gibo’s namesake eatery not only tickles my palate with top-notch sushi and sashimi but also with outstanding innovative dishes like the incredible monkfish pâté (ankimo), blackened cod or tender seared skirt steak with tempura-fried Portobellos and ponzu sauce. And the atmosphere at Takashi is as vibrant as I’ve ever found as well. Who needs Nobu? We’ve got our own world-class Japanese chef in Takashi.

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What’s in store for 2007? Well, there will be new restaurants to review, including the South Jordan Grill, Oyster Bar and Fish Market'the new Gastronomy Inc. project scheduled to open soon. Perhaps Tony Bourdain will convert to the LDS faith, move to Zion and open an inspired French brasserie in Taylorsville. It’s my expectation that Rachael Ray will become so ubiquitous in ’07 that she will implode and actually become gravy for her 30-minute meatloaf. Look also for organically produced foods and those locally procured to take up more space on high-end restaurant menus'chefs are cooking closer to the source than ever. Designer water will be big in 2007, and so will the nuevo Latino cooking trend. Also look for updated, “healthy” soul food to make a splash in the coming year. I’m hoping that Moochie’s will begin selling franchises in 2007, creating Moochie’s outposts selling its bodacious Philly cheesesteaks and meatball sandwiches in places like Layton, Sandy and Heber. And although I’ve been predicting it for about a decade now, I believe this is the year that Mexican wines will finally get the attention they deserve.

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So here’s to a happy and healthy 2007, hoping that we all eat not more, but better.

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