A toast to our favorite things

For starters, an economical and tasty lunch and a spice with pizzazz

Globe Staff / December 31, 2008

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Like many other people passionate about food, we glom onto certain things and pull them out of the pantry week after week. Our friends are probably sick of hearing about these items and certainly they're tired of eating them. But we aren't. The rotation changes each year, pushing something like Hungarian paprika farther back on the spice rack in favor of pimenton de la Vera (smoky Spanish paprika). Speaking of Spain, it began exporting its highly prized jamon iberico this year, which became a favorite thing. Restaurant critic Devra First, film critic Wesley Morris, Web guru Michael Saunders, and Food editor Sheryl Julian all weighed in with their lists. They include pizza strewn with tandoori chicken, Poppa B's soul food, the new spot Drink, a president who eats vegetables, Sofra's tiny aromatic doughnuts, and more.

P.F. Chang's

Contrary to what you think, P.F. Chang's China Bistro is not the Applebee's of Chinese food. It's the Bertucci's of Chinese food: solid, inexpensive, generically faithful renditions of the real thing. From the people who brought you Chinese food comes . . . Velvet glove service is not the company's strong suit, particularly at the Copley location, which is often mobbed and where the downstairs bar is criminally understaffed. And the signature sauce-mixing routine is wasteful shtick. But the kitchen never fails to match the expectations of a starving man who's run out of more imaginative options. For P.F. Chang locations, go to

Vietnamese market bag

Made from an old grain sack, this laminated market bag, with long straps, will hold your groceries in style. The bottom is 6-inches wide, a pocket large enough so things won’t get crushed, and tall enough (12-inches) so the bunches of leafy greens you promised yourself you would eat starting in January won’t fall out of the top. If you’ve decided to treat taking your own bags to the supermarket as a competitive sport, you’ll edge out all others with this in tow. About $29 at

Sigg bottle

This 100-year-old Swiss brand has done a great job of marketing its wares in this country. You might think $18 (and up) is a lot to pay for a reusable water bottle, but consider this: you’re doing your bit to help save the planet and Sigg is donating 1 percent of their proceeds to environmental causes. As for the many Sigg knock-offs, the water you sip from them tastes like gun metal. Available at,

A president who embraces vegetables
Ronald Reagan proposed classifying ketchup as a vegetable. George H.W. Bush inveighed against broccoli. What a relief to have a president who reportedly likes not only broccoli but spinach, worries about the price of arugula, and says he will work to encourage local and organic agriculture. Not since Thomas Jefferson - who ate mostly vegetables and often accompanied his French chef to the markets - have we had a leader who gave a fig about produce. Some have argued against Barack Obama's nomination of Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture (he's supported ethanol and genetically modified food), and the president-elect dislikes beets. But overall Obama displays a sensible pro-veggie policy. Vegetables are good and good for you, and I for one am ready for a leader who doesn't trash-talk them.

Shiki’s lunch sets

We may be watching our pennies, but it doesn’t mean we can’t eat well. Lunch at Shiki, a Japanese restaurant in Coolidge Corner, is a case in point. The meal might include some combination of salad, soup, chawanmushi (a seafood-laden custard), tempura, sashimi, and other small bites. These lunch sets are $12-$18, an astounding amount of beautiful food for the price. 9 Babcock St., Brookline, 617-738-0200;

The Macallan Cask Strength
My winter survival strategy involves a roaring fire, the dog curled at my feet, and three fingers of The Macallan Cask Strength swirling in a glass. It vaulted up the list of my favorite scotches this year. It's a surprisingly well-balanced whisky despite being bottled at a formidable, tongue-numbing 58 percent alcohol (most scotch is 40 percent). The deep amber color foretells concentrated fruit and spice notes amid a wash of heat like a jet exhaust. Fine-tune the taste with a generous splash of water. About $60. Available at most well-stocked liquor stores. MICHAEL SAUNDERS

Merken chili spice
This Chilean blend of dried and smoked red chilis, toasted coriander seeds, cumin, and salt is like a rescue paramedic shocking the blandness out of food. It adds a subtle, smoky heat that tastes great on almost everything. This was probably the biggest surprise addition to the pantry this year, and will probably always have a place at our table. About $6 for a 50-gram bottle. Available at Whole Foods markets, Williams-Sonoma stores,, and

Jamon iberico de bellota

The prized Spanish ham, from acorn-fed, black-hoofed Iberian pigs, became available in the US for the first time this year. It was worth the wait. The dark red slices taste like prosciutto in Technicolor — meaty, nuanced, nearly fruity. Retailing for around $100 a pound, it may not be for everyday consumption. But it does make a worthy splurge. Spanish grocery Las Ventas is your best bet for a local source. 700 Harrison Ave., Boston, 617-266-0905;

For cocktail geeks, this new basement bar from Barbara Lynch is one of the best places in town to imbibe. With an A-team of bartenders, no cocktail list, and a panoply of obscure spirits and herbs, Drink may provide you with the best-ever version of your go-to order, or something invented for you on the spot. Bartenders offer interesting tidbits of cocktail history and lessons on liqueurs as they craft your beverage. 348 Congress St., Boston, 617-695-1806;

Aritsugu knives
On a trip to Japan, I visited Aritsugu, a family business in Kyoto that's been making knives for more than 400 years. Even the inexpensive one I picked up there shows why Aritsugu is so well respected. It's super-sharp and incredibly light, and it makes chopping fun. The Aritsugu knives sold online seem to be top of the line with prices to match, but you can find similar Japanese-style knives for reasonable sums at

Tandoori chicken pizza
No, this definitely is not the banal version from a well-known mall pizza kitchen. My wife and I first had this in a small cafe in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, and she hounded the chef for his recipe, then replaced the mild sauce with a Parsi tomato-based curry called a "patia." Unless you're coming for dinner, you'll need to make your own.

Victory V-Twelve ale
A real winner from Pennsylvania microbrewer Victory Brewing Co., a Belgian-style ale that's big and bold, yet eminently drinkable. I first had this several years ago at the Extreme Beer Fest in Boston, and fell in love. Spotty availibility made this a rare treat. Over the past year, local distribution to Boston stores has improved, so you're more likely to find this gem. About $12. Available at fine beer purveyors.

Jancis Robinson
I hadn't really paid attention to Jancis Robinson until my boyfriend began terrorizing me with her this year. The Financial Times gave itself a makeover that included a vampy three-quarter-length photo of its high priestess of wine criticism (Jancis, are those pants leather?) Like most Robinson-lovers, my man appreciates her knowledge and authority. Unlike them, he at least finds her flamboyant snobbery ridiculous. Nonetheless I had to find a way to repay her for the flights and road trips I've spent listening to her reviews read aloud. So when this year's Robinson-accursed Beaujolais Nouveaux were announced, I raised a couple of vengeful glasses to her. I really hope she felt it.

Poppa B's
This is a miserable town for soul food - authentic, "so-and-so put her foot in these greens" soul food. There are several passable excuses that people stand by. But Poppa B's, on Blue Hill Ave., with its excellent staff and hardworking chefs, is the only one whose yams made me want to slap somebody's momma, the only one that served liver-and-onions almost better than my own momma's, the only one worth the two unreliable buses I've had to ride to get there. When a piece of heaven's in Dorchester, you have to pay the fare. Poppa B's, 1100 Blue Hill Ave., Dorchester, 617-825-0700,

Persian doughnuts
At the new Sofra Bakery and Cafe, the food is Turkish, Lebanese, and Greek. Owned by Oleana's Ana Sortun with Oleana pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick and business partner Gary Griffin, Sofra is a tiny jewel box that serves unusual food, all beautiful and well prepared. Among the confections are crisp Persian doughnuts, round little balls ($2.50 each) flavored with rose petals and coated in spices and granular sugar. Sweets don't get better than this. Sofra Bakery and Cafe, 1 Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161,

Kimball Farms pistachio ice cream

This was one of the few indulgences to kick this year’s calorie counting to the curb. Why is this worth skipping a meal for? This pistachio is a lovely version of a classic that’s dense with nuts in a rich vanilla base, but doesn’t have the cloying, medicinal flavor and scary green color of most commercial brands. Available in summer and early fall at Kimball Farms locations in Westford, Carlisle and Jaffrey, N.H.

Mr. Christie's Maple Leaf cookies

2008 was the year I hate to break up with every store-bought cookie I loved. They were all made with scary high fructose corn syrup instead of, or in addition to, sugar. Then in Toronto last September I found Mr. Christie’s Maple Leaf cookies and down the street from my house I found Madame Gougousse’s Coconut Cookies from Costa Rica — both tasty, HFCS-free, and sold in cool packaging. ‘‘Gougousse’’ is a slightly inane name (‘‘Madame Tasty Taste?’’), but maybe she could leave Monsieur Gougousse and marry Mr. Christie. They’d have the cutest snacks together. Coconut Cookies available at Casa Cuong, 629 Tremont St., Boston and many Caribbean grocers.

Chaka Khan

At Poppa B’s and in about four other restaurants I’ve been to this year, there was Chaka Khan on the soundtrack. ‘‘Sweet Thing’’ should play wherever three-tiered apple pies are served. ‘‘I Feel for You’’ should be on whenever the wait is out the door. ‘‘This Is My Night’’ ought to follow having no wait at all. ‘‘Tell Me Something Good’’ needs to accompany the recitation of all specials. ‘‘Though the Fire’’ should — well, let’s hope there’s never any need for that song, musically or culinarily. Still, to the restaurants still playing Gypsy Kings — still: Chaka Khan is every woman and, in 2009, may she be everywhere.

P.F. Chang's