Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gluten-free Quinoa Apple Snack Cake


Happy Saturday!

I have been testing gluten-free baking recipes like mad lately in preparation for a class I’ll be giving in September (more on that exciting news another time). The latest in my testing lineup is this delicious little number. 

While I’m pretty familiar with using almond flour (or almond meal) in GF baking, I wanted to expand my GF flour repertoire and this recipe, which uses quinoa flour, sounded perfect.

Besides the quinoa flour, it uses all-purpose gluten-free flour, but it’s the quinoa flour that gives it an interesting nutty flavor. And even though there is one cup of brown sugar, the cake is definitely not sweet. The apples provide moisture, and the chopped walnuts give it a nice crunch.


Another ingredient I had not used before is xantham gum, which helps with the body and texture of GF items. If you use all-purpose “cup for cup” GF flour, it already has xantham gum in it, so you don’t need to add it. I prefer to add individual ingredients myself rather than an “all in one” type flour. 

While the cake was really good on it’s own (with a simple dusting of confectioners' sugar), I felt like it was missing something, so the next day I whipped up a small batch of cream cheese frosting (thank you, Martha Stewart, for this not overly sweet version). Bingo - now I really liked this cake! It all just worked - grated apples, walnuts, dried cranberries, cinnamon, nutmeg - you get the idea. Perfect for an after school snack or afternoon tea. 



Do you do a lot of GF baking? Tell us about your successes (and challenges) with this type of baking. Let’s help each other create really fabulous GF desserts. Leave a comment below.

Here’s hoping you have a wonderful weekend!

Print apple cake recipe here.



Monday, March 20, 2017

Baked Quinoa with Roasted Butternut Squash and Gruyere


Happy Spring! It’s here at last and I, for one, am thrilled! Even though the winter here in NJ wasn’t as bad as it could have been, I absolutely detest the cold, gray days. So I say, onto brighter, warmer, sunnier days!

And now that we've rounded the bend from winter, you may want to start thinking about options for the upcoming Easter holiday, or Spring dinner parties, and I've got a great suggestion for you. The recipe, as it stands, doesn’t work for Passover due to the breadcrumbs, but you could substitute matzoh meal and it would probably succeed nicely.

We eat a lot of quinoa in my home, and although we usually jazz it up by making it with chicken stock (rather than water) and adding in diced veggies and fragrant herbs, it’s still not all that exciting. But last week I found a recipe on food52 that piqued my interest: Baked Quinoa with Roasted Butternut Squash and Gruyere. Sounds good, no? Indeed!

The recipe calls for fresh breadcrumbs and I urge you to follow the recipe rather than using store bought crumbs. It really does make a difference and it’s so easy to make your own. You can either use a leftover baguette, or buy a couple of rolls. Simply pulse the bread (torn into pieces) in the food processor, and voila, fresh breadcrumbs! Any crumbs you may have left over can be frozen for a future use. It really couldn’t be easier and the result is worth it. 

Besides being delicious, this bake with a golden crunchy topping is versatile. It can stand alone as a hearty non-meat main course, or it can shine as a lovely side dish to say, a crisp roast chicken or oven-baked pork chops. It’s good for a crowd - it bakes in a large 9x13 baking dish - but it also keeps well several days in the refrigerator. 

Here’s wishing you a lovely Spring! 



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day: Nutella Brownies!


Nutella Brownies


Need a last-minute dessert for your Valentine's Day lunch or dinner? I think these Nutella Brownies from my February 2014 post are the answer! 

Wishing you all a delicious Valentine's Day!

http://www.cookstour.net/2014/02/nutella-brownies.html

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eating in Sarasota

Venice Beach


Greetings, dear readers!

Hope your January is treating you well. For me, I get through the winter with mentally focusing on how many days to Spring (as of today, 48!). But since that didn’t work so well for me this year, we escaped to Florida for a few days! 

Our base of operations for the week was Sarasota on the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. My previous trips to Florida’s west coast were for work so truthfully I never saw much besides airports and whatever hotel I was sequestered in. But this time, we saw a lot of this gorgeous coast, and had a lot of great food (which is really why I travel). 
Dinner night one was at Shore. A trendy spot smack in the middle of St Armand’s Circle on Longboat Key. Shore has a beautiful open air dining area overlooking the street, dotted with candles and heaters (for chilly evenings). I loved the soft glow created by the dimmed lights but I saw many guests pulling out their phones and powering up the flashlight to read the menu. I continue to be amazed at how many restaurants plan the dining environment without taking into account actually being able to read a menu in the near-dark! 

We dined at Shore on a Thursday evening and the place was hopping (it is the season in Florida), but that did not damper the enthusiasm or level of service from the wait staff. 
Martinis at Shore

Crab Cake - Shore
We began with a Tito’s Cosmo (for me) and a Tito’s martini with bleu cheese-stuffed olives (for my husband) - both done very well. From there, we enjoyed the Maryland lump crab cake with a jicama slaw and Old Bay aioli. 

I chose the Key West shrimp and scallops with lemon risotto, local greens, and tomato confit, which was a delicious combination. The shrimp and scallops were cooked perfectly but the risotto was slightly gummy. My husband, unfortunately, chose the St Louis “Jenga” Ribs with Mongolian glaze, chopped Chinese salad, and crushed peanuts. He is constantly searching for good ribs, but once you’ve had ribs in BBQ capitals like Austin, North Carolina, and Memphis, most restaurants can’t live up to that, and sadly these did not. They were overcooked. Enough said. 

Shore’s atmosphere struck me to be more about people watching than food. And that’s perfectly OK.

Sarasota hosts a terrific farmer’s market every Saturday and we spent some time enjoying the warm morning air checking out the vendors. Everything from fresh seafood to baked goods to gorgeous produce, were available. If I lived in Sarasota, I’d be there every week.

If you know anything about me, you know that breakfast is my favorite meal so I was anxious to visit some of the breakfast restaurants in the area. They ran the gamut from “eh” to “very good.” I won’t bore you with the “eh” options because I’m not in the business of bashing restaurants, so here are the two best venues we found:
Pancakes - Sun Garden Cafe

Sun Garden Cafe in Siesta Key - this cafe is located in a pretty little beach town and they have a nice outdoor courtyard. We loved the fluffy pancakes and very good sausage gravy. 
Perfect Biscuit - Buttermilk
Biscuit Egg Bake - Buttermilk

Buttermilk in Sarasota - for me, Buttermilk was the standout. They specialize in biscuits and man, were they good. I had the delectable egg bake biscuit with Benton’s perfect bacon - I was making yummy noises all the while! My hubby loved the biscuit with sausage gravy (so flavorful with nice chunks of sausage). 
Pastries at Buttermilk

While ordering, of course I had to peruse the baked goods case, which looked fabulous. I made a mental note to come back to try one of the pastries. And the day before we left Sarasota, I did. It was hard to choose only one item, but I restrained myself (fearing even more pounds to lose when I came home!) and picked the fabulous brown sugar-cinnamon coffee cake. OMG. This cake had a terrific light crumb and a crunchy buttery topping that was almost candy-like. Another place that would be on my weekly visit list if I lived here. 

Coffee Cake - Buttermilk
The next night we had dinner with friends at the somewhat touristy, but still good, long-time Sarasota venue — Columbia. Founded in 1905, and according to their web site, the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is now managed by the fifth generation of the founding family. Columbia features authentic Cuban cuisine at several locations around Florida. We ate at the Longboat Key site and it’s a good thing we had a reservation because this place was mobbed! It’s a huge restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalks full of customers enjoying signature mojitos and daiquiris (yours truly enjoyed the Tango Mango Daiquiri). 

Sea Foam Margarita - Fins
We ventured a bit outside the Sarasota area to meet friends for lunch on different occasions. One day, we soaked up the warmth in Venice Beach at Fins - a waterfront restaurant with a million dollar view. Loved the sea foam Margarita!

Another day while in the North Port area, we had a fabulous lunch at Nan’s Thai Noodle. The pork with Thai spicy noodles was killer! It’s in a nondescript strip mall and the restaurant has no atmosphere at all, but the food was outstanding.

Back to “serious” dining: all the top restaurant lists mention Indigenous. Owned by Chef Steve Phelps, he opened this restaurant in a beautifully restored home in 2011. The atmosphere is warm and comfortable, like having dinner in a friend's home. It’s a rather rambling house (again, with almost no lighting), and we were seated in the wine bar dining room, where our server also happened to be the bartender. Even though the bar and the other tables in this room were full, we never felt neglected. He answered questions about the menu and the evening’s specials, and guided us to a great wine choice. 
Cheese Crackers - Indigenous

Our waiter brought us a small basket with delicious cheese crackers as we pondered the menu (these reminded me of traditional Southern cheese straws). We both chose one of the soups for the first course and switched halfway through so we could try each of them. My favorite was the thick and creamy wild mushroom bisque with truffled rye croutons. Not far behind though, was the gazpacho with crunchy chickpeas, basil yogurt, and garam masala. This was so refreshing on a warm evening.
Pork Belly - Indigenous

For the main course, after much debate, my husband settled on the pork belly with white cheddar drop biscuit, tomato jam, Everglades hollandaise, and pickles. Tender, juicy, flavorful - probably the best pork belly we’ve had.
Thai Lamb Meatballs - Indigenous

My choice was the Thai lamb meatballs. Practically shouting with the bright flavors of lemongrass and ginger, subtly painted with garlic yogurt, and surrounded by marinated cucumbers, carrots, shallots, and basil, these were absolutely delicious. We enjoyed the dinner with a wonderful Italian red that complemented both dishes perfectly.

Our last dinner in Sarasota took us to Veronica Fish and Oyster - a very cool place in the Southside Village section of town. Their tagline is “a modern oyster bar with a nod to classic supper clubs of past.” From the warm greeting when you enter, to the attentive service from our wait person, it was a delightful evening. Of course, great drinks and delicious food must figure into that equation for a restaurant to be somewhere I would return to, and they did. 

Since we were in a  supper club of sorts, I thought I’d take a step back in time and try their whiskey sour. I’ve never been a whiskey drinker, but this one made with Templeton rye and citrus and served over ice, could make me a convert. This was a perfect sipping cocktail. 

Potato rolls - Veronica's
Dinner was a home run all the way through, beginning with the warm house made potato rolls served with sea salt butter. Think about the standard-issue potato rolls you might buy at the supermarket and ramp up their fluffy texture and yeasty flavor by about 100%. Slather on the perfectly spreadable sea salt butter. Then try not to eat all of them before your dinner comes. Good luck with that!

Fried Shrimp - Veronica's
Well, I didn’t eat ALL the potato rolls so I had room for my dinner, which was fabulous. Starting with the Szechuan fried shrimp with snow pea slaw and pickled pineapple. Light, crisp shrimp with a delightfully refreshing slaw and just-enough-tart pineapple to bring all the flavors together. A winner!

Gumbo - Veronica's
Given my (some would say) overeating of the aforementioned rolls, I opted for a smaller entree. The Chef’s Momma’s Chicken Gumbo with Andouille Sausage and Jasmine Rice had caught my eye weeks earlier when I was deep into restaurant planning. This rich, spicy soup brought me right back to traditional gumbos from the New Orleans area that I love.

Even though the desserts proffered sounded wonderful, and you know I am all about dessert, there was no way I could manage it. Next time!

This is owned by the Shore Diner team, but for my money and time, Veronica’s would be my choice between the two. 

All in all, a delicious, sunny week on Florida’s Gulf Coast! If you’ve been to the Sarasota area lately and want to share your restaurant finds, please leave a comment below. Until next time: eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Siesta Beach



Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bella Sicilia: Parte Sesta (part six) - Ristorante Duomo, Ragusa

Chocolates at Duomo
Happy New Year, dear readers, I hope you had a wonderful holiday season!

Well, here we are at the end of my Sicily travelogue. Writing this for you has helped me relive how beautiful this trip was. I saved something special for my last Sicily post: the extraordinary lunch we had at Ristorante Duomo in the charming hill town of Ragusa. I hope you enjoyed this virtual journey as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Helmed by Ciccio Sultana (chef/owner), Duomo is everything you might expect at a Michelin starred restaurant: exquisite food, gracious service, beautiful surroundings (a food stall in Singapore earned a Michelin star in 2016 so remember fabulous food can be found anywhere).

Terry and Chef Ciccio
As you may know, when I travel I spend a great deal of time researching food and restaurants at my destination, and Sicily was no different. To me this is not drudge work, I love reading about the foods and restaurants at our upcoming destinations. A search turned up many good possibilities in the area, including four Michelin starred locales in the 2017 guide. After deciding on Duomo, I asked our tour leader to make a lunch reservation for us, and that morning during a walking tour of the city, we happened to pass by the restaurant. To my delight, Chef Ciccio was outside making a phone call and he kindly took a picture with me. I’m sure it was no big deal to him, but it made my day!

The lunch menu at Duomo is prix fixe, and quite the bargain 
 I think. For 59 Euros, you get five courses (with a couple of extra surprises), and three glasses of wine/champagne. The full menu is below. From beginning to end, this lunch was outstanding, and must go on my “top five” list* of memorable meals.
bread basket

Duomo Lunch:

smoked swordfish
  • Smoked swordfish with cantaloupe melon salad and pistachio sauce, with an olive stuffed pistachio marzipan and mock pit
  • spaghettone
  • Homemade spaghettone with moresca sauce “taratata” with tuna bottarga and carrot cream
  • truffle ice cream
  • Sicilian scorzone truffle ice cream
  • amberjack
  • Amberjack with Hyblean caper blossom powder, “Fiore” black olives stuffed with Pizzuta d’Avola almond, green beans, smoked sauce
  • cannolo
    espresso
  • Cannolo stuffed with Ragusa ricotta on lukewarm San Cono prickly pear soup served with Pizzuta d’Avola almond sorbet
  • Housemade chocolates

As I mentioned in Parte Due, one of my reasons for wanting to go to Sicily was to seek out any ancestral ties on my mother’s side. In corresponding with our trip leader, Alessio, before the trip, I told him that I was looking for connections to my mother’s family who had emigrated to the US from Palermo in the early 1900s. I told him the family name was Librizzi and perhaps he could help me research it when we got to Sicily. A short time later, Alessio responded that his wife’s maiden name is Li Brizzi, and he would be happy to introduce us. I nearly cried when I read that! What are the chances that our tour guide’s wife would have the same last name (albeit with a slightly different spelling) as my mother’s family? Pretty slim, I think. 

On our last evening in Palermo, Alessio invited the entire group to join him, his beautiful wife Cristina, and their two adorable boys for dinner.  I didn’t get to spend much time talking with Cristina, and most likely we are not related, but when Alessio said “no matter, we are “cugini" (cousins) and you will always have family here in Sicily,” I felt like the connection that I have always felt to this beautiful island was more real now than ever before. 

Ciao, bella Sicilia, fino al mio ritorno! (until I return).


* My “top five” (in no particular order):

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA
Vetri, Philadelphia, PA
Duomo, Ragusa, Sicily
Steireck, Vienna, Austria
The Lost Kitchen, Freedom, ME

Upcoming in early 2017: lunch at NYC's Bouley and the food scene in Sarasota, Florida! 

Stay warm, eat well, be happy!




Thursday, December 29, 2016

New Year's Day Hoppin' John

Happy (almost) New Year!

Hope you've had a wonderful holiday so far! 

If you've followed the Tour for the last few years, you know that Hoppin' John is our traditional meal on New Year's Day. According to legend, eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day helps to ensure good luck in the coming year (the peas represent coins). I love that idea, but the main reason we make it is that it's delicious! This is a wonderfully hearty stew/soup, jam-packed with spicy andouille sausage (if you cannot find andouille, you could also use a really good kielbasa), smoked ham, and chopped onions, celery, and garlic (the low country trinity). Serve over rice and top with chopped scallions, a splash of Tabasco and cider vinegar. Add thick slices of crusty bread for sopping up the luscious broth, a green salad, and you're all set. If you like collard greens, you could make that as a side dish (collards represent paper money in the legend).

Wishing you all good things for the New Year!

Black-Eyed Peas with Andouille Sausage and Rice
adapted from "Hot Links and Country Flavors" by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly

2 C dried black-eyed peas or 4 C fresh or frozen
1-1/2 LBs andouille sausage or other good quality smoked sausage
1/4 LB chunk of country or smoked ham
6 C chicken stock or water
1 TB bacon grease or olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 TB minced garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1-1/2 t dried
2 bay leaves
1 or 2 dried chili peppers or 1 t red pepper flakes
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t pickling spice
salt to taste
4 C cooked rice
chopped green onions, Tabasco sauce, and cider vinegar for serving

1. If using dried peas, rinse and soak overnight in water to cover by 3 inches. Drain, and place in a 6-8 qt pot with a 1/2 LB piece of the andouille, the ham, and the stock. Heat to boiling, then reduce to a simmer. (If using fresh or frozen peas, boil the stock first, then add peas, the 1/2 LB piece of andouille, and the ham. Return to a boil, then reduce to a simmer).

2. Heat the bacon grease or oil in a heavy skillet, add the onion and celery and cook until soft. Add to the peas with the garlic and remaining seasonings. Simmer dried peas for 2 to 2-1/2 hours; fresh or frozen for about 30-45 minutes. In both cases, the peas should be tender and the liquid should begin to thicken.

3. Slice remaining sausage into 1/2 inch rounds. Fry briefly in a nonstick skillet and add to the peas. Remove the whole piece of sausage and the ham and chop roughly; return to the pot. Cook for another 15 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs, bay leaves, and pepper pods.

4. To serve, ladle pea mixture over rice and sprinkle with green onions, Tabasco, and vinegar to taste.

Yield: 6-8 servings.

Cook's Tour note: we always make this the day before serving to let the flavors meld.


Eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Bella Sicilia: Parte Quinta (part five)

Market Produce


Still so much to tell you about from our glorious trip to Sicily! 

We journeyed to the beautiful town of Modica where we raced through the tiny, winding streets in vintage Fiats (courtesy of the local Fiat club). What a blast that was! My first words at the end of the ride were “let’s go again!” 
After our ride, we visited Antica Dolceria Rizza, a chocolate shop where they still make chocolate the “old fashioned” way, as the Aztecs did. This chocolate has a slightly gritty texture and is not very sweet. Of course, we brought some home with us.

Ortigia
Many people have asked me “what was your favorite part of the trip?” It is very hard to answer that because this was truly an epic journey. But if I had to play favorites, one would be the day we spent in Ortigia, home to an array of architectural wonders, such as the Temple of Apollo and the fountain of Arethusa. Ortigia, is a lovely island situated next to Syracuse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Syracuse is 2,700 years old and the birthplace of mathematician Archimedes. 
Spaghetti and Clams
Grilled Squid

But let’s focus on what’s really important here: the food! We meandered through Ortigia’s bustling outdoor food market ogling the gorgeous produce, cheese, and seafood. Based on a recommendation from the local guide, we had lunch at a simple seafood restaurant called L’Isoletta, smack in the middle of the market. This is where I had probably the best spaghetti and clams ever! No small claim in my book. We began with gorgeous squid, simply grilled with olive oil, lemon, and fresh herbs. Followed by a delicious fennel, mushroom, arugula salad, and then on to the main event. With fresh spaghetti and chock full of sweet clams, this dish was the essence of the Sicilian sea. House wine, crusty bread to sop up the juice, and my meal was complete.
Teatro Greco

The view from Taormina
If you go to Sicily, you must visit Taormina. Although the main city streets with high-end shops can be crowded, this picturesque hillside village with sweeping sea views, is home to an ancient Greek amphitheater (teatro Greco) that will instantly transport you back thousands of years. Built by the Greeks in the third century BC and then rebuilt and enlarged by the Romans, the theatre is still used today for classical, rock, and operatic productions. Taormina has a thriving arts community and hosts an annual international film festival (headed recently by Richard Gere). On a really clear day, you can see Mt Etna, the still bubbling and very active volcano. 
Mt Etna Landscape
Speaking of Mt Etna (“mountain that burns”), we traversed the switchbacks up the famous mountain to spend some time with the sweet donkeys who will take you for an up close view of the black lava. Guided by the father and son team of Etna Donkey Trekking, Santino and Salvo, have lived on the mountain all of their lives, and will never leave. The people who live here love “the Etna.” No matter that some towns have been completely wiped away by her eruptions, they rebuild. They have a bond with this mountain, forged by hundreds of years of learning her ways.
Salvo and Santino
This was an extraordinary day. To stand on an active volcano and see the lava it spews, and hear Salvo talk about the sustainable tourist model they are building, was another trip highlight. Donkeys have been used here for hundreds of years, first as the only real means of transporting people and goods up and down the mountain. Now, they carefully guide visitors along the paths to witness the ancient forests and geological marvel that is Mt Etna. In addition, they are used as therapy animals due to their docile nature.

Etna is the tallest volcano in the Mediterranean, 11 thousand feet above sea level. The last eruption took place in May, 2016 (just a few months before we visited!). Our guide made us feel (slightly) better about visiting a volcano that had just erupted by telling us that Etna is not that dangerous because it erupts so often. Then Santino slipped in the fact that two days ago there was a “big explosion” of one of the four major craters! Somehow, not feeling better…

Santino is the sixth generation of his family to live here (and he says he will never leave). His grandfather’s will specifically delineated that the property can never be sold to anyone outside the family. 
"mela"
Polpette and sausage

Archimedes Lever
After our donkey ride, Santino welcomed us to his home where his lovely wife had prepared a sumptuous lunch of chickpea soup, tender polpette (veal meatballs), grilled sausage, and “mela,” a kind of apple marmalade. Of course, this was accompanied by homemade wine produced from their 50 acres of vineyards. The building on their property, where they host groups, was built in 1860 to bring grapes for crushing. “Back in the day,” it took ten men to stomp the grapes, using something called an “Archimedes lever.” This huge lever, made out of oak and taking up almost the entire room, ceased being used in the 80s, but it still works and Santino gave us a demonstration.

In the next post, last, but certainly not least, our fabulous lunch at the two Michelin star restaurant, Il Duomo, in Ragusa!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday!

Ciao!