Saturday, February 6, 2016

Gingerbread Pound Cake

During these long, dark, cold winter days you need a little warmth and comfort to get you through to spring. At least I do. And for me, comfort food equals cake. Not just any cake. I need a coffee cake-type cake. It needs to evoke memories of years ago when my Mom would bake her cream cheese pound cake, or sour cream coffee cake, and friends would come over for "coffee and." It didn't involve any fancy cooking or pretense. It was just coffee, cake, good friends, and conversation. Does anybody besides me remember this quaint, old-fashioned custom? God, I miss it. Nobody drops by, nor do we invite anybody, for "coffee and." We're all too busy living our busy lives.

So last week post-blizzard, and feeling like my cat desperately trying to stay warm (cute, isn't he?), I rummaged around in my files for just the right cake. I could have made the cream cheese pound cake, or any one of a dozen of my Mom's recipes, but I wanted something new. And I found it in the Brown Eyed Baker's Gingerbread Pound Cake. It had all the right stuff - cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, sour cream, molasses, and brown sugar. And it had that great pound cake texture I was looking for. 

It did not disappoint. The house smelled wonderful and the taste was perfect, just gingerbread-y enough, not overpowering. 

Do yourself a favor. Make this cake, then invite some people you really like for "coffee and." I will be doing just that!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Talkin' 'bout Mexico

Happy New Year! I hope 2016 is treating you well so far.

We spent a few glorious days in Mexico over the Christmas holiday. Not Cancun. Not Acapulco. Definitely not Tijuana. And sort of not Cabo. I say "sort of" because technically we did go to Cabo. SJD airport in/out. The rest of those warm, relaxing 6 nights, 7 days, were spent near the small town of Todos Santos, at a resort known as Rancho PescaderoAbout an hour north of Cabo, lies this small, intimate, totally unpretentious retreat, where you feel like you've stumbled into a secret club, and somehow they've let you stay! 

With only 28 rooms (most of which look directly onto the Pacific), it reminded me of that old Club Med commercial that proclaimed it was the "antidote to civilization." I've never been to a Club Med resort, and I'm sure they are very nice, but THIS is the antidote. With no TVs anywhere on the property, no fitness center (the great outdoors is their gym), no blaring music at the pool(s), you are gently lulled into relaxation. It's definitely not for everybody. But it was for us.
We quickly got into the "Rancho rhythm." About 7:30 each morning, a basket appears at your door with the day's weather forecast, coffee, fresh fruit, and a pastry or two. We spent the next hour or so on our lower terrace, drinking coffee and watching the migrating gray whales spout and breach out on the water. We'd slowly get dressed and meander down to the lobby cafe, where Mayel would whip up cappuccinos or Mexican hot chocolate. We'd order from the small, but well-crafted menu (roasted bananas with granola, honey, and cottage cheese for me, traditional huevos rancheros for the Mr). Then maybe a walk down the beach to watch the surfers, play with some roaming pooches, and chat with the locals. 

Soon enough, the pool is calling us. The resort is set way back from the beach, thus protecting you from the sometimes strong winds. The view from your lounger (when you glance up from your book) is of palm trees, blazing sun, and bright blue sky. All that morning activity is bound to work up an appetite, and luckily the Ranch has you covered. What's your pleasure? Traditional guacamole with house made chips? Fabulous. Tacos with fresh local shrimp? Terrific. Maybe you're a bit hung over from the night before? Have one of Jose's magic green juices with fresh basil, mint, parsley, and garden greens. Try the gazpacho - it's deluxe. And when you hear the bar bell, order one of Sergio's cocktails - it will set you right up. All the drinks at the Ranch are made with fresh fruit and herbs. They even have their own aged tequila. Yep. 

Almost at the end of our week, we got into the lovely habit of having afternoon margaritas and chips on our terrace, watching the sunset, before getting ready for dinner. A person could get used to this.

Ah, but what about dinner? I thought you'd never ask. How about an open air dining room and kitchen, run by two veteran Sonoma chefs? Jeff and Susan Mall oversee Rancho's food program, working to honor the history and tradition of authentic Mexican cooking. I spent some time talking with them one afternoon discussing how they got here, their backgrounds, and their vision for dining at Rancho Pescadero.
Jeff and Susan Mall
Jeff Mall grew up in central California in a farming family but quickly discovered farming was not for him. He studied hospitality at the University of California San Francisco and then went onto the CIA. After working for different chefs in the Bay area, he opened the Healdsburg location of the famed Oakville Grocery. While there, he met a couple who were interested in opening a restaurant, and at the age of 29, Jeff opened his first restaurant, Zin.

Meanwhile, Susan Mall, growing up in San Diego, was taught by her dad how to cook pancakes at the age of four!  Fast forward several years, and while studying business at USC, she picked up a copy of Jacque Pepin's "La Technique," and the rest, as they say, is history. She discovered she loved cooking and baking and left the dry business world behind to study at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. 

Jeff and Susan's paths crossed when Susan interviewed for the Executive Chef position at Oakville Grocery. She and Jeff started dating six weeks before Jeff's restaurant opened. 

While running Zin, they became good friends with one of their customers who was opening a resort in Mexico and was looking for a chef. That resort was Rancho Pescadero. Jeff and Susan spent the next few years consulting for the Ranch, flying down two-three times a year, to lead culinary weekends or plant the gardens that supply the ranch with much of the produce used onsite. Eventually, the resort's owner persuaded them to become the full-time chefs and oversee the entire culinary program. So after 15 years of owning Zin, they sold the business and headed south to begin a new chapter of their lives.

I asked them about some of the challenges they've encountered in the year they've been here full time. They talked about re-learning to be employees, responsible for just the kitchens, rather than every aspect of owning a business. 

Blending in socially with the staff, and learning the local customs, was another challenge. Here, the staff greets each other every day with a warm hug and sincerely ask "how are you?" Can you imagine trying to hug your co-workers in the US every day? They'd be going straight to HR! 

Sourcing of food was a huge hurdle. While only an hour from Cabo, the resort is definitely off the beaten path. Getting a supply chain going took months. 

Any chef will tell you about the challenges of taking over a kitchen. But what I found so interesting about Susan and Jeff was their passion for honoring the history and tradition of this part of Mexico. They want to bring back old culinary traditions that have been forgotten. They are planning to grow their own corn to be used for tortillas. Jeff is planning to experiment with bean to bar Mexican chocolate. For Christmas Eve dinner, they made tamales, which are traditional in Mexico for this holiday (they were outstanding, by the way). 
All the bread for the hotel is made by the kitchen staff. For the delicious wood-fired pizzas offered at dinner, they use the sourdough starter Jeff and Susan brought from California (developed from Nancy Silverton's method). They even make their own bagels!

Sitting each night at the restaurant's kitchen counter, I watched Jeff, Susan, and their team, create delicious dishes, using the local bounty of sea and land. My first night's appetizer of Shrimp Cocktail, done in the classic Mexican style using chilled, poached local shrimp with cucumber, avocado, and Saltines, was wonderful. My entree that night was local organic grilled Chicken Breast with Red Peanut Mole, grilled corn salad, and chipotle eggplant. If you know anything about me, it's that I never order chicken breast. I've been burned too many times when served dry, bland chicken. Not this time. The chicken was marinated and grilled at the kitchen's hardwood grill. It was bursting with flavor, and the spiciness of the mole accented by the corn and eggplant was fabulous.

Another night, we devoured the Tacos de Pescado "Al Pastor." These were sublime marinated, roasted fish tacos, in handmade tortillas with grilled pineapple relish, shredded cabbage, and a lime creme. Outstanding! 
Fish Tacos

A dish that was so good we had it for dinner two nights in a row was the fresh fish of the day "a la Plancha." Yellow Tail with almond and orange mole sauce, Rancho swiss chard, and Mexican rice. 
Yellow Tail

Besides wonderful cocktails, the resort has a terrific wine list (featuring some very nice Mexican wines). A benefit of staying on property, is that if for some reason, you only drink half the bottle, the waiter will put your room number on the bottle and store it for you for the next night.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Sure, on the beautiful Baja with picture-perfect sunsets, year-round great weather, and friendly people, almost any resort/hotel could make it. But the folks at Rancho Pescadero are doing something different, something special. Creating delicious and innovative food; offering gracious, warm service; and attention to detail at every turn. They've got it going on at Rancho Pescadero. And we'll be back next year.

All photos property of The Cook's Tour 2016

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Baked Goodness!

Holiday Greetings!

Even though it doesn't feel like December in New Jersey (it will approach 67 degrees on Christmas Day here!), and even though we are heading South to spend Christmas in the hot Mexican sun, I still had to bake! It's like a sickness (but in a good way).

For a special birthday dinner this weekend, I made Maida Heatter's fabulous Budapest Coffee Cake. This cake contains everything that a good coffee cake should: raisins, cinnamon, walnuts, brown sugar, cocoa, and sour cream to help keep it moist. Layering the batter alternately with the filling, assures delicious mouthfuls of streusel with every bite. And it makes a big bundt, so there'll be plenty to give your guests little "to go" packages (and enough for you to snack on the next day). 

Truth be told, I had forgotten about this gem of a cake. During "I Love Cheesecake's" peak, we made this all the time as part of our offerings. I found it again while doing a search for sour cream coffee cakes on Food52. When I saw it, I knew I just had to make it, especially because it's a favorite of the birthday girl. If you're into coffee cake, make this beauty.

This morning, when for some dang reason, I couldn't sleep past 4am (!), I started rooting around for something to bake (what's that saying about idle hands?). Leafing through my Evernote recipe collection, I found a little cookie saved recently that sounded wonderful. And I also happened to have everything in the pantry (very important at 4 in the morning).

So straight from my early morning kitchen, I give you Cinnamon and Rye Shortbread. These were also a Food52 find (BTW: if you aren't a Food52 reader, you really should check it out). I had purchased a bag of King Arthur rye flour awhile ago and was hankering to make good use of it (other than a bread type item). 

Folks, these shortbread are fabulous! Sweet, salty, buttery, adorable little bites of deliciousness. They go together easily and quickly and would be a really nice addition to any holiday cookie plate.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and all good things for the New Year!

Eat well, stay warm, be happy!

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.