Tuesday, November 5, 2019

A Gelato a Day!

Where to start? So much to let you know about, I just don’t know where to begin! But gelato seems like a good place. In Italy, the gelato is so good, we sometimes had it twice a day!There is no such thing as too much gelato, is there?

Gelato cart in Manarolo
In September, we traveled to northern Italy, where I’ve never been before. As part of the pre-trip, we spent four days in the Cinque Terre, Italy’s five beautiful hill towns perched (some rather precariously) on the sides of mountains. But for the massive crowds that poured out of the trains every hour (and this was the off-season), these towns are just gorgeous. Set along the water, they are famous for their fresh seafood, delicately fried. Lead by our trusty guide, Giuseppe, we traversed these towns via train, boat, and 4x4 jeeps. In Monterosso, we found a gelato shop so good, we stopped there every night. But as good as it was, it did not compare with the gelato from a vendor dispensing her wares from an adorable little cart in the town of Manarola, where I had the most delectable pistachio gelato. It is the standard by which now all pistachio gelato is compared!
Milan's Duomo at night

On to Milano! The city was still buzzing from Fashion Week which just ended the day before we arrived. Many fashionistas were spotted near the high-end Galleria Vittorio Emanuele shopping mall, hunting their prey at Prada, Gucci, Armani, Vuitton, etc. The highlight, though, for us was visiting Milan’s beautiful Duomo (cathedral), where work began in 1386. It is the largest gothic building in Italy. With only one full day in the city, we were unable to visit the famed La Scala opera house, but we did manage to find Milano’s best gelato at Cioccolat Italiani, where the line snaked down the block. We persevered.

The main part of our trip took us on an almost three week journey (with our new guide, Alice) through the region’s beautiful vineyards, apple orchards, and olive groves. Along the way, we learned how to make feather-light gnocchi at Trattoria del Gallo a charming restaurant in Rovato; we visited the small village of Teglio where a dedicated group of volunteers is keeping alive the tradition of growing and harvesting buckwheat with age-old techniques, and then making pasta from the ground flour. They combine the pasta with cabbage, onions, potatoes, butter (LOTS of butter), and a local cheese to make a hearty dish called pizzoccheri (pitz-sock-kari) - it’s absolutely delicious!

The city of Verona, made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, was next on our itinerary. Verona was a bit too touristy for me, but a visit to the Juliet Club made even the cynics in our group melt just a bit. Juliet’s “secretaries” have been reading and responding to letters from the lovelorn since the 1930s (they handle over 50,000 letters per year). 

The magnificent Dolomites!
There’s no way I can condense three weeks down to a single blog post, but I must tell you about my favorite town: Bressanone/Brixen. Positioned near the Italian/Austrian border, for hundreds of years locals in these towns have spoken both Italian and German, and all signage is in both languages. This town had it all: lovely architecture, wonderful butchers and bakeries on every corner, charming restaurants/cafes, terrific wine shops (more on that later), and within a couple of hours drive to the breathtaking Dolomites. The Dolomites are a spectacular mountain range in northeastern Italy, and on a crystal-clear, picture-perfect, bright and sunny day, we spent a few hours hiking with a terrific guide. Every few minutes, as I stopped to admire the view, all I could say was, “omg - this is incredible!” Our guide has lived in that area his whole life, and speaks the local language known as Ladino (the Ladin people have lived in these mountains since the Bronze Age). Take a look at the photo above of these gorgeous mountains.

Ricotta Dumplings with Plums
Spaghetti con Olives, Pesto, and Burrata
A perfect day, topped off with a real find back in town. Not really hungry for dinner, but needing a nosh, we stopped in to a small enoteca for a glass of wine and a cheese/salumi plate. The wine and snack were superb - the owner obviously knew his stuff. As we chatted, he mentioned that on certain nights, they offered a limited dinner menu. And as luck would have it, on our last night in Bressanone, he had one table left, which we immediately reserved. With the unassuming name of “Vinus, Peter’s Wein Bistro,” you might not expect much in the way of food, but as we later found out, this man was more than just a guy who owned a wine shop, he was formerly the owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Germany. Jackpot! We arrived the next night to enjoy an outstanding meal. Peter’s wife is the chef and she put out a delicious dinner. I sopped up every morsel of the fresh spaghetti with perfectly-ripe olives, pesto, and burrata. Peter paired wines for everyone’s dinner, along with a lovely dessert wine to go with the sweet ricotta dumplings with fresh plums (another “omg” moment). Peter’s Wine Shop is the kind of place I could go to every week (who am I kidding, probably 2-3 times a week!) Must. Go. Back.
Buckwheat Cake in Teglio

Our visit to northern Italy was delightful. It was the perfect combination of spectacular sights, “real” farm-to-table meals (in real farmhouses!), wonderful farmers and craftspeople, amazing cheese, breads, desserts, and plenty of “omg” moments! 


PS: coming soon, a photo essay of our trip, complete with all the glorious food and scenery that I couldn't fit here!

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Italian Art of Aperitivo and a Recipe!

We are getting ready to visit northern Italy and it got me thinking about that lovely afternoon time in Italy called “aperitivo.”

Aperitivo means a beverage (usually alcoholic) consumed prior to a meal, used to stimulate the appetite. Italians have perfected the art of the aperitivo. In Italy (and other European countries) people traditionally eat dinner very late (compared to the US), generally sometime between 8 and 10pm, and they need a little something to hold them over between lunch and dinner. But it’s more than that - it’s the concept of gathering at the end of the day for a drink, a snack and connecting with friends in a social setting. In Italy, it's a way of life - slow down, visit, eat, drink, breathe. 

So between 4 and 7pm, Italians will get together in cafes for an Aperol spritz, a glass of wine, Prosecco, or a birra. The cafes offer complementary snacks, ranging anywhere from dishes of briny olives, hearty cheeses, crunchy crostini, salted almonds, or crisp potato chips, to full-blown buffets with pasta, seafood, roasted vegetables, and small desserts. The idea is not to make this your dinner, but while in Florence many years ago, we found a cafe offering such a huge spread that we couldn’t eat dinner that night! 
Chickpeas ready for roasting.
The other day I decided I needed a bit of that magical aperitivo hour in my own home. I happened upon this recipe from Minimalist Baker for crunchy chickpeas and found them to be the perfect pre-dinner snack - light, crunchy, salty, in addition to easy and quick to prepare (they are also great thrown in salads or soups). I poured a glass of a lovely red from Portugal, set out the chickpeas, and relaxed for a few minutes before starting dinner. 


Sunday, August 4, 2019

First Impressions - Life in Puerto Rico

Beautiful flowers on my morning walk
Well, we’ve been in Puerto Rico almost a month and I thought I’d jot down a few first impressions of life on a tropical island.

A friend from the States recently suggested that I should write a new blog titled, “My New Life in a Banana Republic.” I’m pretty sure she was referring to the recent government upheaval surrounding former Governor Ricardo Rossello, and the ensuing musical chairs of “who wants to be the next Governor?” Answer: almost nobody. But as this is primarily a travel/food/baking publication so I will skip my personal feelings about the political climate here.

What we have found in the last few weeks is that fresh produce here is in scant supply, and what is available is not great. When I quizzed a local business owner about where we could find “good” fresh fruits and vegetables, she said most of the locally grown produce is shipped to the US. What is not sold to US vendors, comes back to the island but (A) it is not the best of the best, and (B) it is now subject to the 1920 Jones Act (here’s a short, concise read of this ridiculously antiquated law) and so it is exorbitantly high-priced. She suggested we seek out small town squares where local farmers come to sell their wares. So that will be our next mission!

One bright note in the fresh fruit category is the multitude of roadside fruit trucks — we have gotten terrific pineapples and perfectly-ripe papaya at pretty good prices by stopping at these trucks. 

There is a small grocery chain called “La Hacienda,” with stores primarily in upscale San Juan neighborhoods. We visited two of these stores last week and were impressed with the availability and quality of produce and meat here. The prices were similar to Whole Foods in the states. 

I think we will be buying most of our food in Costco…

People have asked me how the restaurants are here. Just like anywhere else, they have ranged from very good to mediocre. Last night, we visited a Mexican restaurant focusing on cuisine from the Sonoran region. Everything we tried was very good; from the excellent margarita (a steal at five bucks!), to the al pastor and carnitas tacos, to the specialty quesadilla called “Carmelo.” The service was personal and efficient (chef/owner, Isaac, came over to make sure everything was to our liking), the restaurant was clean and neat, and the meal delicious. When we go back, I need to ask Isaac about the restaurant name (Goongi’s), which I totally don’t get, but there must be something behind it. They’ve been open only five months so I’m hoping they succeed.

Closer to our residence is Don Pepe, a family-run restaurant in what would be considered a strip mall back in NJ. Here, it’s clustered next to a sushi restaurant, a run-of-the-mill Mexican place, and a souvenir store. Don Pepe focuses on traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and does it very well. And, they have a killer wine list, something not found at most local restaurants on this part of the island (I have yet to find a BYO restaurant here).

Speaking of wine, liquor/wine shops as I know them do not seem to exist here. Every supermarket here sells beer, wine, etc., and the corner “bodega” has a selection of alcohol, but a wine shop along the lines of Total Wine or Bottle King are not to be found. However, during a short road trip to Guaynabo to check out a vet for our cat, we came across The House. Lo and behold, a real wine store with a wide selection from great vintners. In addition, they offer a nice variety of cheese, salami, crackers, etc. 

What we’ve found in the short time we’ve been here, is that like anywhere, you’ve got to find your “go-to” purveyors, be it butchers, wine shops, hair salons, etc. We’ve also found that, so far, our life here is not all that different from our life in NJ - sure, the government here is going through major changes and it’s a little unsettling. But the same can be said for the US government. All you can do is “keep calm and carry on,” eat well, and drink good wine. And that’s our plan. 

Hasta la próxima vez! (Until next time!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A New View

Buenos Dias! 

You may have noticed I have been off-line for awhile. That's because, starting back in January, my husband & I began planning a major move. After many years of searching for a relocation site (read: no snow and almost year-round warm temps), we have moved to Puerto Rico! You read that correctly: Puerto Rico. I will be the first to admit that never in a million years would I have expected to move to PR. In all the research I did for another place to live outside New Jersey and the northeast, PR never came up. My husband, B, dutifully (but not always happily) tagged along as I investigated North Carolina, California, Florida, Texas, even Portugal, but none clicked with us. There were parts of each place that we really liked, but not enough to move there.

Then this past January, Mr B suggested we take a break from the "polar vortex" enveloping New Jersey and visit the "enchanted" island. The last time I was in Puerto Rico was probably 40 years ago & I don't think I saw much more than San Juan on that trip. Well, no one has to twist my arm to get out of the cold for a few days so off we went.

We rented an apartment in the little beach town of Luquillo (known as the "Sun Capital" of Puerto Rico), and while the apartment was nothing luxurious, it had one big thing going for it - it was directly across the street from the beach.
The view from our Luquillo rental.
Every morning and night, the sound of the ocean wafted into our living room and bedroom. After a couple of days spent detoxing from the northeast cold and stress and basking in the warmth, we connected with a realtor "just to look around." 

The first property he showed us had a dynamite up-close ocean view but the condo was very small with a galley kitchen smaller than I've seen on a sailboat. So that was out. The building also appeared somewhat rundown and definitely not what we were looking for.

Quickly, our realtor picked up on our wants and needs, and found properties that more closely matched our criteria. The next day he showed us two condos in Rio Grande (about 35 minutes from San Juan, on Puerto Rico's eastern shore). One condo hit a home run -- set on the top floor in one of the buildings that are part of the residences at the Wyndham Grande Resort, we fell in love almost immediately. The sellers had made some architectural modifications that set this condo apart from the others on the market, including adding a loft, and raising the roof to install cathedral ceilings. But the big selling point for us was the huge balcony with expansive views of the ocean (see top photo).

After seeing this condo, we were pretty sure nothing else would compare. So, after some deep soul searching and robust discussions about moving to a tropical island, we decided to give it a go! We sold our home in NJ and made the BIG move just a couple of weeks ago. A plus on this apartment was that the sellers were including all the furniture (and luckily we loved their taste), which meant we didn't have to move our NJ furnishings, just our personal items, clothes, cookware, bakeware, etc. We shipped all of our "stuff" via the USPS; not as complicated as hiring an overseas mover for furniture, but still a logistical and packing nightmare. I won't bore you with the minutiae of the move, the bottom line is that we are here and so is all of our stuff!

You may be wondering what were the criteria I had in mind for a relocation from NJ, and how that lead us to Puerto Rico. My main requirements were no winter weather, and a desire to live somewhere other than NJ. After living my entire life to date in the Garden State, I really wanted to experience living somewhere else. Don't get me wrong, New Jersey is great. It pretty much has it all: proximity to NYC, beaches, mountains, beautiful suburbs, incredible produce, wonderful weather from late April to late October, fabulous restaurants, good employment opportunities. Of course, all of those things contribute to some of the not-so-good things. On the down side, New Jersey's property taxes are one of the highest in the nation (and going up every year), car insurance is the highest in the US, infrastructure is in need of serious repair, traffic is horrendous, it is one of the most populous states (11th based on the 2010 US census), and it's cold in the winter (not to mention possible snowy, ice-y conditions, and the occasional nor-easter). 

Puerto Rico, being a US territory (you'd be surprised how many people think Puerto Rico is a foreign country...) utilizes all of the same banking/monetary and healthcare options (US healthcare insurance, Medicare, Veterans Administration, etc) as the mainland. The average high winter temperatures run between 80-85 degrees (summer temps obviously run a bit higher), and thanks to our condo being on the top floor, we have an almost constant refreshing ocean breeze. 

People have said to me, "but what about the hurricanes?" To which I reply, "what about the hurricanes in Florida, Texas, North Carolina?" It's true that the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, but most of the island's power grid, telecommunications, etc., are fully operational (and have been for quite some time). Of course, there are some areas still without power but they are way out in the very rural regions. 

In the last few days, people have asked me about the protests going on in San Juan. The citizens are protesting the corruption, misogny, unethical behavior of Governor Ricardo Rossello, and several of his cabinet members have resigned. He is refusing to resign but has decided not to run for re-election in 2020. This is not enough of a concession for the people of Puerto Rico and they have vowed to stay in the streets until he resigns. My personal opinion is that he will have to resign in order to bring order to the streets (the protests, for the most part, have been very peaceful and non-violent so far) and bring tourists back to the city. Puerto Rico was on the rebound economically and I'd hate to see that momentum falter. A million people were expected in the streets of Old San Juan yesterday and many businesses did not open. 

Besides our usual reporting on baking, cooking, and travel (we'll be visiting northern Italy this September), going forward, The Cook's Tour will bring a new focus on the diverse cuisines of Puerto Rico. This coming weekend we will visit a local farmer's market to gauge how the local agriculture is rebounding. We haven't ventured too far yet from the Rio Grande area, but the island is only 35 miles north to south and 100 miles wide from west to east (it's comparable in size to the state of Connecticut), so I'm sure we'll be exploring very soon! I'm particularly eager to try some of the famous roadside BBQ mentioned in this NYT article from earlier this year, and the food scene in San Juan is hopping, with many well-known and world class chefs who have set up shop there. 

Mas por venir pronto!(More to come soon!)

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An Open Letter to Would-be Restaurant Owners

Dear Future Restaurant Owners:

So you want to open a restaurant. Great! Good for you! I am all for new business ventures, especially in the food industry. But, please, please don’t open (not even a soft opening) until you’ve got all the nuts and bolts (or in this case, forks and knives) firmly in place.

Now I know that the industry term “soft opening” means a restaurant is open but still working out the kinks. I get that. What I don’t get is how you, as the owner of a new restaurant, open without really training your staff. Or, how you as that owner, are dressed like you’re working at a construction site (even if your restaurant is extremely casual). You are the “face” of your restaurant; your appearance sends a message.

Case in point: I went to a new restaurant in our area this week. They don’t have a web site yet (mistake #1), but the person who answered the phone was very friendly and helpful when I asked about hours, menu, etc. She told me they had a limited menu right now and would have a web site soon. OK, fair enough. I decided to give a try.

Upon arrival, the hostess showed us to a table and gave us menus (food and beer). When our server came over, I said “I know this is a tap house so you have lots of beers, but do you have any wine?” Hmmmm, this seemed to stump her. Off she went to ask. I could see her speak to someone who was apparently a manager and I could hear his answer, “of course we have wine, go get the wine list at the bar.” Mistake #2. This should have been covered in training 101. As an aside, the server blamed the hostess for not giving us a wine list.

The wine list is small, but I’m still OK because I know their focus is beer. I ordered a Dr Frank semi-dry Riesling (NY Finger Lakes), and my husband orders Tito’s on the rocks. Our drinks arrive; the wine glass has lip smudges around the rim...I send it back.

Next, we have a couple of questions about the menu, which she had absolutely no answers for and had to keep running back to ask the manager (she said it was her first day; see Mistake #2 above for not fully training her BEFORE she hits the floor). I order the crab cake, and my husband, skeptical about the offerings, goes with the New England clam chowder. Twenty-five minutes later, my crab cake is delivered, lukewarm. Ten minutes later, still no soup. Now, I’m pretty sure they are not making the chowder from scratch at 6:30pm, so all they have to do is warm it up & ladle it out. We flag down the server who goes to check on it, and a few minutes later, it is delivered. 

We both stare at the soup. It is greenish-brown in color. I have never seen New England clam chowder in that color palate. My husband gives it a taste & pushes it away. He asks me to taste it. It is horrendous. Tastes nothing like chowder of ANY kind. In fact, I’m not sure what it tastes like, other than awful. In hindsight it tasted like a roux (a mixture of fat and flour used in making sauces); a bad, metallic-tasting roux. In addition, it had soup-skin floating on top, which indicates the soup had been sitting out for quite awhile. We  tell our server about the soup. She is apologetic, takes it away, and speaks to a gentleman I think is an owner. 
What NE clam chowder SHOULD look like!
(Credit: Serious Eats)
A few minutes later, he comes to the table. He is dressed like a construction worker (which is ok, if you are actually a construction worker and going to work at a construction site). He says “you don’t like the soup?” Notice there was no greeting? I say “no, it’s inedible.” He says “I had it today, it was fine.” I said, “it had skin on it.” The owner says “you coulda just let it sit there.” What does that even mean?? Then he walks away. OMG. (Big) Mistake #3. I felt like channeling Gordon Ramsey on Kitchen Nightmares: “TAKE THIS SOUP BACK INTO THE KITCHEN & HAVE THE CHEF TASTE IT!”

We pay the bill (the soup was taken off), leave a good tip for the waitress (the lack of training and kitchen failures are not her fault), and exit stage right. 

So, let’s review: Mistake #1, no web site. It’s not 1991 (the year the WWW went live). There is no reason why any restaurant cannot have a web site up and running prior to opening. It gives the public a sense of what to expect (hours, menu, pricing, BYO or full bar, handicap accessible, owner/chef bios, etc). Even if you don’t have a full site at launch, put something out there. 

Mistake #2, staff training. I know, you’re crazy busy trying to get everything done for your new venture. But trust me, if you don’t get this right, your new baby is going to fail, and it won’t be pretty. Today everyone is a restaurant critic, and people have no second thoughts about posting a bad review on Yelp, Open Table, Google, etc. A few bad reviews can tank your restaurant. For me, the service is right up there with the food. They are equal parts of the equation. And good service starts with you, restaurant owner. You may think you know how to train servers, but if you’re a newby to the restaurant biz, or have only run a small “mom & pop” establishment, you better get some help in this department (there are companies that can handle this for you so you can focus on the million other details of opening a restaurant). FOH (front of house) training is not as simple as it sounds. I eat out alot, and it never fails to amaze me how poorly wait staff have been trained. Even if the food is stellar, poor service will definitely influence whether I return to a restaurant again.

Which brings me to Mistake #3, customer interactions. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that we won’t be returning to this restaurant, based mostly on how “Mr Owner/Construction Worker” handled my complaint. If he had said “I’m so sorry to hear the soup didn’t meet your expectations. What else can I get you?” Or, “we’ve just opened, I appreciate your feedback on the soup; let me get you something else,” I may have given it another try in a few weeks. But he obviously was not interested in customer satisfaction and ensuring that I return. 

This restaurant lost a customer, and that’s a shame, because with some careful planning, thorough training and attention to detail, he could have had repeat business; and not just from me, but from all the friends I would have told about his new restaurant.

Note: pictures in this post were not taken at said restaurant.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Spring (recipe) Cleaning!

Happy Spring!

My attractive post-surgery footwear!
First, I must apologize for being off the radar for awhile. I had foot surgery in mid-February so my ability to do ANYTHING in the kitchen has been impacted by the requirement to always be on crutches or a knee roller. Kind of hard to bake or cook while navigating on those contraptions. Everything takes a lot longer & twice as many moves. I have a newfound respect for people with permanent disabilities. 

"Squirrel" Recipe Storage
Second, it is finally Spring, and with that comes the traditional "Spring cleaning." But given my aforementioned surgery, I am definitely not doing the typical cleaning (moving furniture, window washing, etc). No, my version involves something I can do while sitting with my injured foot elevated...going thru the hundreds (maybe thousands) of clipped recipes I've been storing in a mish-mash of folders for years. 

Now, you might be thinking "clipped" recipes? Don't you just download them and save to your Evernote file (or some other digital system)? Well, yes. Yes, I do. Now. But WAY before that was an option, people actually cut recipes out of newspapers and magazines and stashed them in some kind of file (like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter). You know, in hopes of making these recipes some day...

What was I thinking?! Was I really ever going to make "Chilled Veal Roast with Herbes de Provence and Fennel Salad?" Or "Breast of Duck with Cantaloupe?" Hmmmm, I think not, but for some reason, I saved those recipes.
Recycled Bag #1
Slogging thru my recipe piles!

After spending hours the other day going thru the file, I ended up with two huge bags of recycled recipes, and two much smaller file folders of recipes I just could not bear to part with. Even though I took photos of some of them to add to Evernotes, I decided to keep the paper version, too. Some are very old family recipes written by relatives long gone and I want to keep the recipe in their original handwriting. Some are from the late, great Gourmet magazine (circa 1998) and I'm not sure if all of their recipes have been digitally converted.

I've been meaning to tackle my recipe overload for a long time, and my surgery recovery was the perfect excuse. How do you store your recipes? Do you follow the "squirrel" method, or are you strictly a digital saver? Let us know. In the meantime, I'll be right here trying to decide if I should save this recipe from Food & Wine. It sounds so good. I'm sure I'll make it. Some day.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Great Olive Oil Dilemma

Olives on the vine in Sicily
While in Sicily a few years ago, we visited an olive farm where, of course, we sampled the wares (directly from the giant stainless steel vats). The oil had the luscious flavor and delicious scent of just-harvested olives that you would expect from tasting at the source.
Our prized tin from Sicily
We bought a BIG tin at the ridiculously low price of 10 Euros and carted it home. We used it sparingly, knowing that when the tin was empty, we could not replace it. After awhile, the tin ran dry and our search began for a new "house" olive oil.

We hopped around from brand to brand (Lucini, California Olive Ranch, Kirkland, to name a few) and while they were all good, nothing really made us jump up and down with joy. Which brings me to today's post:

Are you as confused as I am over what constitutes a really good olive oil?

You may have heard about the "bombshell" olive oil study done by UC Davis in 2010. The study concluded that 69% of imported olive oils labeled extra virgin, were in fact, not extra virgin. WOW! Understandably, this sent shockwaves through the food industry, olive oil producers, and the public. The report, funded in part by California olive producers, raised all kinds of questions and since then many olive oil groups have upped the standards for producing and marketing olive oil. But as an average home cook who uses alot of olive oil, I still have doubts if what I'm buying is the real deal. In addition, I am overwhelmed by the gazillions of brands out there. And unless I am at a store or olive ranch where I can taste a drop or two of the production, I am buying blindly (and most likely, so are you). 

I still don't have an answer to my ongoing quest for an above-average everyday EVOO, but I did find this article from Serious Eats very interesting. If you have a favorite olive oil, please share. Eventually, this long winter will pass and it will be tomato season and I need to have my olive oil dilemma resolved by then.
Jersey tomatoes, fresh mozz, Georgia peaches, with basil and EVOO!