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!)
Sunrise






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!


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Tomato-braised Rotisserie Chicken

Wow! This recipe is a revelation! Take a store-bought rotisserie chicken (preferably one from Costco because they are the bomb!), sauté up some bacon, throw in thinly sliced shallots, add white wine, garlic, chopped rosemary, a few other easy ingredients, top with curly kale, and voila, you've got an incredible dinner. We've made this twice now and it is fabulous! Thank you, @bonappetit! 



https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/tomato-braised-rotisserie-chicken

Monday, January 21, 2019

Portugal!

Alma

Well, this is a bit, er, very late, but I’m just now getting around to telling you about our Thanksgiving trip to Portugal. 

Portugal has been on my “must visit” list for quite some time. During the ten days we were there, we enjoyed a wide array of the many culinary delights Portugal has to offer. From "hole-in-the-wall" joints to Michelin starred venues. None of them disappointed. 

Somehow in all my pre-trip research I missed the fact that November is the start of Portugal's rainy season. I knew it wouldn't be beach weather, but I didn't expect almost every day to be gray, damp, and chilly. Not exactly the best sightseeing weather, but nevertheless, we did manage to get in our fair share of Portugal's beautiful castles, churches, museums, and coastline.
Pasteis de Belem

One of our first stops was to the originator of the famous pastel de nata, otherwise known as a custard tart. A big, bustling cafe, Pasteis de Belem has been in business since 1837. And while they produce all kinds of wonderful pastries, I was there for one thing and one thing only: the pastel de nata, or in my case, pasteis de nata (plural). Our guide lead us through the winding maze of rooms to a small table where we ordered espresso and pasteis. You can, of course, wait in line at the counter and get your goodies to go, but I wanted the full-on cafe experience. Minutes later, the waiter conferred to us the magnificent tarts. They come out slightly warm, and then you sprinkle a combination of powdered sugar and cinnamon over the top. The light, flaky pastry is like sugary air that just crumbles in your mouth. Right behind those flakes, comes the sweet custard, and in two bites the whole thing is gone! One is definitely not enough. They are exquisite. 

I have no idea how many pasteis are produced every day (all hand made) but when we visited there wasn't an empty table and the to-go line was out the door. You can find other bakeries throughout Lisbon making these famous tarts (and I tried many of them), but Pasteis de Belem is, hands down, the best. 
Vineyard snacks
Early in the trip, our guide set up a visit to a small vintner in Torres Vedras, called Quinta da Folgorosa. We spent a couple of very enjoyable hours with Jose Melicias, the managing director, as he took us through the lovely vinho bianco and rosso they produce. Making it even more enjoyable was the wonderful sheep’s milk cheese and Portuguese salami accompanying the tasting. We were so taken with the wines that we purchased a few bottles, not thinking about the logistics of getting them home. Luckily, our guide hooked us up with fabulous plastic sleeves made especially for air transport. 
You’ve no doubt seen the incredible tile work that Portugal is famous for. When you are on the ground there, you can’t miss it - it’s everywhere! On sidewalks, on walls, at roadside shops (there’s even a tile museum in Lisbon). And the intricacy of some of this art is amazing.

The photo below is of a different kind of art. The artist (who was profiled on 60 Minutes a few months ago) chisels his portraits out of concrete! The results were breathtaking. 
Portugal has a wealth of churches, castles, monasteries, forts, etc., and we saw many. One of the highlights was the Knights Templar Castle in Tomar. Built in 1160, it was the headquarters of the Knights Templar Order for 700 years. The history of the Knights Templar is fascinating (you can read about it here).
Knights Templar Castle
Now, back to food. We celebrated our wedding anniversary while on this trip, so after much research, I made a reservation at Alma, the two Michelin starred restaurant in Lisbon. Run by chef-owner, Henrique Sa Pessoa, the fine dining venue is stark yet warm. The service is impeccable. The food is exquisite. From the bread service to the amuse bouche, to the highly creative entrees, and desserts, Alma is an oasis of tasteful cuisine. 
Bread service at Alma
Lisbon is not short on Michelin starred restaurants. The other big name in town is Jose Avillez. Whereas Pessoa has one restaurant, Avillez has many. And they run the gamut from a high end temple to gastronomy (Belcanto), to the casual drop-in taberna (Bairro do Avillez).

By a stroke of calendar and geographic luck, friends whom we had met on a trip to Alaska in 2016, who live in Idaho, were going to be in Lisbon at the same time (what are the odds of that?). We met them for dinner at another of the Avillez restaurant empire, Cantinho do Avillez, in the charming Chiado neighborhood. With a large and varied menu, there was plenty to choose from. Other than the fact that the restaurant is a bit dark and very loud, we enjoyed our dinner immensely.
Exploding Olive

One night as Mr B and I were wandering the streets of Chiado, not quite sure what to do for dinner, we happened upon Bairro do Avillez, Chef Avillez’ casual market/taberna. Without a reservation, I wasn’t sure we’d get in, but without further ado, we were ushered right away to a table. Our meal started with one of Avillez’ signature items, “exploding olives.” I really don’t know how to explain exploding olives to you, except that through the magic of modern culinary arts, they take olive puree, alter its’ chemical structure, form it back into what looks like an olive, and when you put it in your mouth, it bursts. Fabulous! 
Prego
One of Portugal’s best known snacks is the “prego,” a steak sandwich. I had read about it in countless travel/food articles and was eager to try it. Served very rare on good Portuguese bread, the Taberna version is coated with mustard butter, and roasted garlic puree. Needless to say (but I will), it was excellent. Perfectly crisp and salted French fries accompanied it, along with a bottle of a wonderful Douro Valley red.


It’s hard to cram 10 days worth of wonderful food and wine into one readable post so I’ll stop here for now. Next time, we venture to the lovely towns of Sintra, Obidos, Setubal, and Cascais.


Pena Palace in Sintra

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Recipe-in-a-Flash: Dijon-Maple Chicken Sheet Pan Dinner

I have made this terrific dinner three times now for two reasons: one, because it is SO good and SO easy; and two, because I wanted to be sure it was blog-worthy. Oh, it is.

The recipe calls for a mix of drumsticks and bone-in chicken thighs, but you can of course, customize it if you are not a fan of say, drumsticks, etc. 

From the Pure Wow food editors, this one-tray meal comes together very quickly. The full recipe is below, but read on for just how simple it is: 
Prepped and ready to go (and pretty, too)!
Start with a mixture of soy sauce, Dijon, and maple syrup, and brush over chicken pieces (which you’ve seasoned with S and P and arranged on a parchment or foil-lined sheet pan). Toss cubed butternut squash, trimmed and halved Brussels sprouts in a bowl with olive oil, S and P, and fresh thyme. Spread the veggies in a single layer around the chicken, and bake for about 40 minutes. Add another 5 minutes after you brush more maple syrup and mustard on the chicken, and voila, dinner!

PS: I've installed a new "print" widget at the bottom of the post - please let me know if it works for you. Thanks!
Just out of the oven, beautifully crisped and caramelized.


Dijon-Maple Chicken with Brussels sprouts and Butternut Squash

Ingredients:

Olive oil spray (I used regular non-stick spray)
2 TB reduced-sodium soy sauce (I used regular soy sauce)
4 TB Dijon mustard - divided
3 TB pure maple syrup - divided
4 large bone-in chicken thighs (6-1/2 oz each), skin removed and fat trimmed
4 skinless chicken drumsticks (3-1/2 oz each)
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
12 oz Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
12 oz butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4” cubes (I used organic, pre-cubed squash from Costco)
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1-1/2 TB olive oil

Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 425F. Line an 18x13” large rimmed sheet pan with foil or parchment paper. Spray with olive oil.
  2. In a small bowl, combine soy sauce, 3 TB of the mustard and 2 TB of the maple syrup.
  3. Season chicken all over with S and P, then arrange on prepared pan.
  4. In a large bowl, combine Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, thyme, and olive oil. Season with S and P. Arrange vegetables on prepared baking sheet in a single layer around the chicken. Pour the Dijon-maple sauce over the chicken, turning to coat completely, and pour any remaining sauce over the vegetables.
  5. Bake until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are tender about 40 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together the remaining 1 TB each mustard and maple syrup.
  6. Brush the mustard-maple mixture over the chicken. Bake 5 minutes more until browned. Serve right away.