Thursday, November 26, 2015

Give Thanks

Thank you, dear readers, for following The Cook's Tour through our culinary travels.

Here's hoping you have a happy day filled with good food, friends, and family.


Eat well, stay warm, be happy!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

RECIPEinaFLASH: Black-and-White Banana Loaf

I know, I know - it's Thanksgiving week and this should be a pumpkin recipe. But there are a million pumpkin recipes floating around this month and I thought you might like a small diversion. I love pumpkin, but maybe you are one of those people who don't. Or maybe you're just pumpkin'd-out, what with a pumpkin recipe everywhere you look. 

With that in mind, I bring you an absolutely delicious banana loaf. Not just any banana loaf. This is a Dorie Greenspan (read my interview with Dorie from earlier this year) recipe so you know it is going to be luscious. It's from her "Baking From My Home to Yours" book, and with bananas, chocolate, and rum in the mix, really, how could you go wrong? I made this a couple of weeks ago when we were having friends over for dinner. It's wonderful on its own with a shower of confectioners' sugar, but to dress it up a bit, I added some freshly whipped cream on the side. Fabulous!

We are off to Vermont for a cozy New England Thanksgiving at The Inn at Weathersfield.
Inn at Weathersfield, November 2014
Make no mistake, I'll be having the pumpkin pie for dessert! :-) 

Here's hoping you have a happy holiday!

Black-and-White Banana Loaf
Dorie Greenspan

1-1/3 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
1-1/2 ripe bananas, peeled
squirt of fresh lemon juice
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 TB dark rum
3 oz bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 stick plus 2 TB (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temp
2/3 C (packed) light brown sugar
1/3 C sugar
4 large eggs
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 C whole milk

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325 degrees F. Butter an 8-1/2x4-1/2x2-1/2" loaf pan, dust the inside with flour and tap out the excess. Place the pan on an insulated baking sheet or on two regular baking sheets stacked one on top of the other.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

In a small bowl, mash the bananas with the lemon juice and zest, then stir in the rum.

Melt the chocolate and 2 TB of the butter together in a microwave oven or in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the remaining stick (8 TB) of butter at medium speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugars and beat for another 2-3 minutes, until light and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in the vanilla. The batter will look curdled, and it will continue to look curdled as you add ingredients. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add half the flour mixture, mixing only until it is just incorporated. With the mixer running, pour in the milk, and when it is blended, add the remaining dry ingredients. Scrape down the bowl and mix in the mashed bananas. The batter will look even lumpier.

Pour a little less than half the batter into the bowl with the melted chocolate and stir to blend. Drop alternating spoonfuls of both batters into the prepared pan, then, using a table knife, swirl the batters together, taking care not to overdo it.

Bake for 1 hour and 20-30 minutes, or until a knife inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. Check after 30 minutes and if the cake starts to brown too much, cover it loosely with a foil tent. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and let it rest for about 15 minutes before unfolding, then cool the cake to room temp right side up on the rack.

Storing: wrapped in plastic wrap, the cake will keep for 4-5 days at room temp; wrapped airtight, it will keep for up to 2 months in the freezer.

Print recipe

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Travelogue: Adriatic Coast, August/September 2015

Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Opatija, Motovun, Ljubljana, Lake Bled. These are just some of the beautiful places we visited as part of a two week trip to the Adriatic. Dubrovnik may be most familiar to those of you who are Game of Thrones fans, as much of the smash HBO series is filmed there. And although I have yet to watch the series, I could definitely see how this would be the perfect backdrop, with its' ancient walled city and vast access to the sea.

With ethnicities as diverse as Bosnian, Italian, Croatian, and Slovenian, the region is rich in culture and food, which on any trip I take has to be front and center. Luckily, I had many, many wonderful food and cultural experiences during our trip. Here now, a few:

Anywhere we went, in all the cities we visited, everybody was eating ice cream! At all times of the day and night. This region is obsessed with ice cream and so I had to find the best! In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, Vincek is touted as the best there is. It's on a busy main street very close to a huge square that locals use as a favorite meeting point. After our walking tour of Zagreb's "old city," which you reach by either trudging up very steep hills, or taking a little cable car up to the top, my next stop was Vincek's. It did not disappoint! Lusciously creamy with in-your-face flavor (I want my ice cream to taste like whatever flavor it's supposed to be; I don't want to have to guess -- hmmm, subtle nuances of roasted pistachio… no thanks), it rivaled some of the best gelato I've had in Italy.
Luscious Pistachio and Coconut Ice Cream

Also in Zagreb, we had a drink (or three) at the beautiful Hotel Esplanade. Full of gorgeous art deco touches, the hotel, which was built in 1925, was part of the fabulous storied chain of Orient Express hotels. We lingered one warm evening on their terrace, sipping lovely cocktails and nibbling on tasty bar snacks. 
The Bar at Hotel Esplanade

Another highlight of our itinerary was the wonderful day trip we took to Istria. Technically part of Croatia, Istria has a definite Italian vibe to it. You could easily mistake it for Tuscany. Our travels took us to the delightful hill town of Motovun, which I immediately fell in love with. Walking the cobblestone streets within the original 14th century walls, we wandered in and out of little shops selling tender prosciutto, fragrant cheeses, and the magnificent truffles for which this area is known. During the fall, our guide told us, there are some 12,000 truffle dogs working the forest with their masters, hunting the elusive and prized truffles. Must.Get.Back.Here.


 From here, we drove farther up into the hills for a lunch straight out of Food and Wine Magazine. Set among the vineyards at an agritourism farm, the farmer's wife served, what I believe, was the best meal of the trip. 

At a table laden with carafes of red and white local wine and homemade bread, we feasted on light-as-air gnocchi with braised chicken, fresh pasta ribbons tossed with cream, Parmesan, and heady black truffles, and for dessert, luscious panna cotta with stewed plums. After this incredible meal, we roamed their orchards and plucked fresh, sweet figs that we ate as sort of a digestivo. Does it get any better than this? I think not! This is what you travel for (or at least I do). To discover and enjoy the local foods and meet the people who make them. 

Gnocchi with Braised Chicken

Panna Cotta with Plums
Pasta with Truffles

Fresh Figs
Further on down the road, we visited Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzgovinia. This region was devastated during the war in the early 90s, and you can still see evidence of the destruction in many places. From the shells of bombed-out buildings to the depressed economy, it was clear that this country has miles to go before recovering (if ever). Due to the 70% tax structure, and lack of good jobs, most people don't work, choosing the "gray market" to a regular job. And those lucky enough to get a job, work many long hours just to make ends meet. We had dinner in the home of a lovely family, where the husband and wife work seven days a week in a supermarket. The husband's mother lives with them, helping out with the couple's two children. 

One of the highlights of dinner (and throughout the region) was the strong Turkish coffee served with delicious baklava. I loved the ritual of the coffee service. Served on a small tray, with a sweet, a couple of sugar cubes, and a glass of water, order a coffee and you can sit at one of the many cafes for hours people watching, talking politics, catching up with friends. People don't order coffee to go in these countries - no one is walking around with a paper cup of coffee!

Turkish Coffee in Sarajevo
The last stop of our trip was Slovenia. This, my friends, is the truly undiscovered jewel of Europe. A beautiful country, with a charming capital city (Ljubljana) that reminded me of Amsterdam with its many canals lined with cafes and stores. 

We took a day trip to the fairytale-like Lake Bled, set high in the Julian Alps. One of the main features of Lake Bled, is the stunning 17th century church set on an island in the middle of the lake, and an 800 year-old castle perched on a cliff. This setting was made all the more dramatic due to the rain and fog on the day we visited. 

The only way to get to the island is via row boat. Interestingly, the boats (called "pletnas") are manned by strong, young men from 23 families who have run the Lake Bled row boat business for many years. It's a proud tradition carried from generation to generation.
Darko, our boat rower
Later that day, a group of us found a wonderful wine bar in Ljubljuana, where we sampled the local Slovenian wine, and feasted on delicate prosciutto and delicious cheeses. Not a bad way to spend a rainy day!

There were so many wonderful experiences on this trip (too many to detail in a quick read). Croatia, Istria, and Slovenia are truly beautiful, and pretty much undiscovered. And the history of Bosnia-Herzgovinia is complicated, intriguing, and still evolving. This was not the trip we had originally planned to take, but it turned out to be the right trip. If you're thinking about a trip to this region, go.

All pictures copyright The Cook's Tour 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meet me at South & Pine in Morristown!

Culinary school? Check. Work with a celebrity chef? Check. Own your own restaurant and have the time of your life? Double check!
I first met Leia Gaccione, chef/owner of Morristown’s South & Pine, a few years ago when we were both judges at the Fairway Firefighter’s Food Face-Off. At the time, Leia was Chef de Cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan. Gaccione worked with Flay for eight years, from Bar Americain to Mesa (both NYC and Las Vegas), and finally, to the opening of his latest NYC venture, Gato in March 2014.
A culinary career is not what she had in mind after graduating high school. But, as is the case for most of us, life had other plans for Gaccione. She had planned to study psychology at Montclair State University, but while working at Raymond’s in Montclair, she was offered a three-day trial with Flay. And the rest, as they say, is history!
I asked Gaccione to describe the most important thing she took away from working with Flay. She said it was learning how to manage people, and how to be a better leader and motivator.
She spent six months in Las Vegas opening Mesa Grill, doing 800 dinners a night, living at Caesar’s Palace, and existing on ramen soup and grilled cheese. While it was fun for a while, the grind took its toll. She came back to New York to open Gato in 2014, and during that time a friend approached her with some interest in investing in a restaurant. Gaccione said no, but after working 100 straight, intense, high-pressure days, she spoke to the same investor again. And that brings us to the intersection of South and Pine.
South&Pine_20605653051_f7a9da9ffe_zThe atmosphere in the restaurant is friendly and unpretentious (very “come to my house for dinner”). Gaccione and her staff truly make you feel welcome. The first time I visited (unannounced), we arrived a little early, and our table wasn’t ready, as the restaurant was slammed with the first dinner seating. The hostess came back two or three times to let us know she hadn’t forgotten about us, and to offer us something to drink while we waited. Once we were seated, we had a prime view of the open kitchen. (Leia’s takeaways from working at Bobby’s restaurants obviously stuck with her.) The kitchen staff was humming like clockwork, great music was playing, and fabulous food was being delivered to the guests.
We were grazing that night to get a feel for the kitchen’s capabilities, so we ordered a few appetizers and a dessert. First up: the moist and delicious spicy lamb meatballs with Greek yogurt and cucumber. Looking for something to cool you down during the last hot days of the summer? Try the light and full of flavor green gazpacho with delicate poached shrimp, avocado, and olive oil. Outstanding! Another winner: creamy Burrata with fried green tomatoes and cherry pepper vinaigrette.
Lamb Meatballs
Readers who follow me know that I am all about dessert. So when our waitperson offered up a blueberry hand pie, I had to have it. Hand pies are today’s version of turnovers, and meant to be eaten by, well, by hand. The one at South and Pine was dreamed up by Clarissa Martino, Gaccione’s classmate at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in NYC. Chock full of fresh, sweet blueberries, and served with a light lemon ricotta sauce, this is the ultimate summer dessert.
When I went back to interview Gaccione for this article, true to her “come to my house” service mantra, she asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?” Who am I to refuse an offer like that? Let the eating begin!
Avocado toast
Gaccione wanted us to try some things we didn’t have on our first visit so she asked her sous to first bring avocado toast. Yes, a lot of chefs have hopped on the avocado toast bandwagon, but this one is ramped up to a new degree of deliciousness. First of all, it’s on really, really good earthy-grainy bread from Hudson Bread, toasted, and smeared with mashed avocado that has been infused with scallions, lime juice, and crunchy, crispy Neuski’s bacon!
Grilled flatbread with gruyère, duck confit, peaches, and arugula
While we were oohing and aahing about the toasts, a beautiful plate of grilled flatbread with gruyère, duck confit, peaches, and arugula, was slid in front of us. People, this was to die for. Run, don’t walk, to South and Pine to try this amazing dish.
And just when I thought I couldn’t eat another thing, out camecrispy squash blossoms with ricotta, broccolini, basil, and arugula pesto. This dish screamed fresh from the farm. The combined flavors were mesmerizing.
I asked Leia to tell me her thoughts about running her own restaurant, now a few months in. She said she loves it; she loves doing it all. From learning about the business side (permits, credit cards, etc.), to crafting the menu, to sitting down with her staff every day for “family” meal, she is, indeed, having the time of her life. She can’t believe this is “real life.” Every move she made during her career was because she just happened to be in the right place, at the right time. She’s certainly in the right place now, at South & Pine. And you should be, too.
Oh, and just as if I were visiting her home, on my way out, Gaccione handed me a little container. What was in it? A blueberry hand pie to go!
Blueberry hand pie, South & Pine
Blueberry hand pie
90 South Street
Lunch: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m.  to 4:00 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Recipe-In-A-Flash: Italian Prune Plum Nut Bread

It seems like the wonderful, seasonal, Italian prune plums have arrived earlier than usual, and I just had to buy some. Can't pass up the first of the season!

I wanted to make something different than my usual, so after scouring the many recipes on-line, I decided on this one from Diana's Desserts. One, because it sounded good, and two, because I had everything in-house.

 It does not specify a type of nut in the recipe; I used walnuts, which were perfect. I'm sure you could use toasted, chopped almonds, or pecans. 

The recipe makes two loaves, although I cut it in half as I only had enough yogurt and plums for one loaf. 

Buy some prune plums and make this cake. Delicious with your morning or afternoon coffee, or dress it up with a bit of whipped cream (or vanilla ice cream) and serve it after dinner. 

Sometimes early is good!

Print recipe.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shanghai 46 - Fairfield, NJ

Steamed Juicy Buns
We paid a visit to Shanghai 46 in Fairfield recently. Owned by Kevin Lin, who also owns Cheng Du 23 in Wayne, he is passionate about the food of this region.

We feasted on a non-stop presentation of beautifully crafted dishes, starting with the famous (and one of my favorites) Steamed Juicy Buns (pork or crab), the delicate Shanghai Shepherd Purse Wonton Soup, and the perfectly crispy-outside/moist-inside Shanghai Marinated Duck. And these were just the appetizers!

Kevin treated us to many courses during the evening. My favorites included the aptly named, Lion’s Head Meatballs. Fist-sized, these delicious pork and tofu meatballs with oyster sauce were so tender and flavorful. I also loved the Pickled Mustard Greens with Pork; the delicate Shanghai Udon Noodles; Roasted Garlic Chicken; and Moo Shu Pancake with Beef. Yes, there was alot of food!
Pickled Mustard Greens with Pork

New Jersey diners have many Asian restaurants to choose from and I think most people are more familiar with Cantonese or Szechuan styles. I asked Kevin what makes Shanghai cuisine different from cooking in other parts of China. He told me that it’s much lighter, and with subtle spices. Not overwhelming or heavy. A good example of this was a truly unique dish that I’ve never seen anywhere else: Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk. This dish consisted of thinly sliced pumpkin coated with egg yolk and lightly fried. Crispy, delicious, and addictive!
Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk

Shanghai 46 also serves some of the dishes that may be more familiar to many patrons of area restaurants, such as General Tso’s Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken, along with a few “Asian fusion” dishes. We sampled the Beef with Thai Basil from this part of the menu and it was very good. But what you really want here is the authentic Shanghai cuisine. This is where Kevin and his team excel.

14 US Highway 46 East
Open 11:30am – 10:00pm
Closed Tuesday
Dim Sum served Saturday and Sunday

Note: The Cook's Tour was invited to visit Shanghai 46 and our writer received a complimentary meal.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Gluten-free Chocolate Almond Shortbread Cookies

Hello, Friday! Nice to see you (and just when I thought you'd never get here!). 

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had another wonderful gluten-free recipe coming your way. Well, here it is! The original recipe, from the friendly folks at King Arthur Flour, has been tweaked slightly to ramp up the coffee/chocolate quotient to our liking. If you're not so much of a coffee lover, just follow the original directions.

Besides being gluten-free (they are made with almond flour), instead of regular powdered sugar, I use Whey-Low powdered sugar. Same great taste, no sugar. 

And what gives these cookies that extra coffee-coffee-ness? I swapped out the vanilla extract for Dave's Original Coffee Syrup. Whoa! If you are coffee fanatics, as we are, check out Dave's. Not just for this terrific, concentrated syrup (that is, btw, divine drizzled over vanilla ice cream), but for his coffee beans. We get a delivery about every two weeks from their shop in Rhode Island. 

On to the cookies! Oh, did I mention these only have about 40 calories/cookie?! You're welcome! :-)

Gluten-free Chocolate Almond Flour Shortbread Cookies (adapted from original recipe)

1 C almond flour (minus 2 TB) - I used Bob's Red Mill Almond Flour
3 TB softened butter
3 TB powdered sugar
1/8 t salt
1/8 t espresso powder
2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 t Dave's Coffee Syrup 
Flaked sea salt (for sprinkling)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. LIne a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl until a cohesive dough forms.
3. Let dough chill in refrigerator for about 20 minutes.
4. Scoop 1" balls of dough onto the prepared baking sheet; a teaspoon cookie scoop works well here. Arrange the balls of dough about 1-1/2" to 2" apart.
5. Use a fork to flatten each cookie to about 1/4" thick, making a crosshatch design.
6. Sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt on top of each cookie
7. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, until they start to turn light
8. Transfer to rack to cool.

Yield about 15 cookies. This recipe is easily doubled, and they keep very well in an airtight container. Sometimes I add about 1/2 C toasted, chopped hazelnuts to the recipe, which adds a very nice dimension to these babies.

Print here.

Have a fabulous weekend!