Friday, June 16, 2017

A Taco Affair - Little Falls, NJ

Ahi Tuna and Fried Avocado 

The quiet Main Street of this historic Passaic County town is about to see a lot more action. In the last few months, three new restaurants have opened on one block - two with an Italian accent and one with a decidedly more international flair. 

A Taco Affair opened June 1st and has been going gangbusters since. Jessica Phillips, chef/owner, is pleasantly surprised. Not that she wasn’t confident that customers wouldn’t love her food, but she was thrilled by the enthusiastic reception her little restaurant has received. On opening day, her hardworking staff of just four cranked out 1,000 tacos!

I recently sat down with Jessica for a wide-ranging interview:

The Cook’s Tour: What does “A Taco Affair” mean?

Jessica Phillips: “It’s a play on words, something fun and easy to remember. Lets people know this is not your traditional taco place.”
Jessica Philliips

 Your bio on the web site says you graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2006 and then moved to Boston. Where did you work in Boston?

“I worked for Restaurant Associates, doing corporate food service,  including Harvard Medical and Google. That kind of environment really prepared me for this because you do everything, from cooking to managing to customer service.”
Po Boy

 Where does your interest in food come from?

“My parents. My mom was an amazing cook and we also went out to eat a lot. I really wanted to be part of that.”

Did you always want to be a chef?

“Yes, always. I think cooking is the coolest thing ever. I worked at a pool snack bar as a teenager and loved it. The manager encouraged me to go to culinary school.”
Why tacos?

“It’s an easier step for my budget and growth. I love the Spanish culture. I worked with a lot of people with a Spanish background and they really taught me about the cuisine, the culture.” 

Who are your biggest food influencers?

“People I met or worked with - moms, cooks, etc. I love learning about other food cultures.”

How did you choose Little Falls as the site for your first solo venture?

“I was the sous chef at The Grove in Cedar Grove for five years. One day I saw an ad for a store for rent - it was actually the store next door. I met with the owners, I loved the space, and I took the leap! We started renovating in November.”

What is your favorite item on your menu?

“The tiki masala. I love Indian food. At The Grove we did Indian cuisine and I really love the spices, the techniques.”
From top: Bahn Mi, Fried Chicken, Brisket

What are your favorite foods to cook with?

“Spicy peppers, herbs, I love citrus in everything. It really brightens things up.”

Why is there no guacamole on the menu?

[laughs] “A lot of people have asked that! In the near future we are going to start doing Guac Wednesdays with guacamole bowls and your choice of chips, toppings, shrimp, chorizo.”

What is your ultimate vision for A Taco Affair?

“Maybe a couple of locations? Open a fine dining spot eventually.”

Finally, what would you like our readers to know about A Taco Affair?

 “That we love what we’re doing, we want to provide awesome quality, we want people to smile and be happy. Come in, get to know the staff, me, the community.”


A few days before our interview I ducked in to sample some of A Taco Affair’s offerings. Late one afternoon, in-between lunch and dinner, the place was hopping. Some of the delicious and creative tacos I tried were the “Po Boy,” Jessica’s take on the New Orleans classic. It was stuffed with spicy Cajun popcorn shrimp, tomato, green cabbage, and Old Bay mustard aioli. Another winner was the “Smoked Brisket.” Jessica smokes the brisket in-house and adds coleslaw and crispy red onions (this was my favorite). The “Bahn Mi” was a riff on the Vietnamese sandwich of marinated pork, pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, and Sriracha aioli - this had a nice spice at the back-end. There are a number of fun side dishes, too, such as Mexican Street Corn, Beef Brisket Pinto Beans, and Carolina Green Rice. But one that I had never seen anywhere else was the Buttermilk Fried Avocado with Chipotle Aioli. The crunchy coating enveloping the creamy avocado with the spicy aioli was a big hit.

I didn’t get to try the Tiki Masala taco, that one intrigues me most! I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

81 Main Street
Little Falls, NJ
973-812-8226
Open Monday-Saturday, 11am - 9pm
Closed Sunday

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

California Road Trip, Part 2: Mendocino/San Francisco


Picking up from Part 1, we left Healdsburg under still gray, rainy skies, but as we drove north toward Mendocino, the weather started to break. At each bend in the road, as I ooh’d and aah’d at the gorgeous rocky coastline, the sun started to peek out. I felt optimistic that maybe we could put our rain slickers away!

Glendeven Llamas
We booked a room at the Glendeven Inn, a charming property about a mile from Mendocino proper. The inn sits on prime coastal real estate and from the breakfast room you can gaze past the adorable resident llamas to the beautiful Pacific. 

The Glendeven offers a “shared table” dinner service on Thursdays and Saturdays for 6-12 guests, but since we already had reservations at another establishment, we had to pass. Unfortunately, a very disappointing experience at a recommended restaurant had us wishing we’d stayed at The Glendeven for dinner.

The view from the Glendeven breakfast room
The rooms at the inn are lovely. I think ours was one of the smaller rooms but it was fine. We especially enjoyed the convenience factor as our room was in the same building as the sunny breakfast room, and while they will gladly deliver breakfast to your room, we chose not to take advantage of this. Instead, we spent the time reading the paper, drinking coffee, chatting with other guests, and watching the aforementioned llamas (llamas don’t do much, but they are cute). 
Orange Bundt Cake

Egg Florentine
Breakfasts at the inn were delicious. One morning of our stay we were treated to a tart Apple Cranberry Crisp, followed by a hearty Egg Florentine (with eggs courtesy of the Glendeven chickens) with Garden Greens, and a slice of luscious Whole-orange Bundt Cake.

The inn hosts a nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres hour in their Wine Bar[n] before you head out for the evening. It’s just one more nicety provided by The Glendeven. Highly recommend staying here when in the area.

After breakfast, we drove to the Point Cabrillo light station. This historic state park dates to 1909 and is surrounded by 270 acres of gorgeous undeveloped land. We were hoping to catch sight of the gray whales as they migrated back to Alaska, but no luck.

While in Mendocino, we had dinner both nights at local, well-regarded spots. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend either Cafe Beaujolais or The Ledford House. Let’s just say they are past their prime and resting on their laurels. Although The Ledford House has a gorgeous waterfront perch and killer sunset views.

Sunset from The Ledford House
Before we knew it, it was time to drive south. But with the weather still holding, I was in no hurry to leave this gorgeous landscape. About an hour from Mendocino is another beautiful landmark, the Point Arena Lighthouse. Again, no whale sightings, but there is a visitor’s center detailing its’ fascinating history. We climbed the stairs to the top of the lighthouse and listened as a guide told the story of the original structure, which was built in 1870. In April, 1906, the tower was destroyed by an earthquake (the lighthouse is very close to the San Andreas Fault), and many surrounding buildings were also destroyed (including the Keeper’s house). It took approximately 18 months for a newly-constructed lighthouse to be completed. If you’re a lighthouse and/or history buff, this stop should be on your itinerary.

Pt Arena Lighthouse
Our stay in San Francisco was short, only two nights, but it included wonderful time with family, a visit to the Japanese Gardens and Tea House at Golden Gate Park, and a fabulous dinner at Burma Love.
Japanese Gardens

Gorgeous blooms at the Japanese Gardens
In all my previous visits to San Francisco, somehow I never got around to visiting the Japanese Gardens. The gardens encompass five acres of beautifully manicured plants, trees, and flowers, all in the style of traditional Japanese gardens. You can wind your way through flowering Japanese maples, sturdy bamboo, and of course, cherry trees (although these had already bloomed). The grounds also feature a five-story pagoda erected in 1915, elaborately carved wooden gates and bridges, koi ponds, and a large bronze Buddha.

Tea House Cookies
The highlight for me was, of course, having tea at the Tea House. Although not the best day to sit outside (the Sonoma County rain followed us south), we enjoyed a selection of tea house cookies (Fortune cookies, sesame cookies, almond cookies, and chocolate Pocky sticks) along with warm and fragrant Jasmine tea. Legend has it that fortune cookies were introduced to the United States by Mr Makoto Hagiwara, the landscape architect who worked on the original design for these gardens.

Later that day, we had dinner at Burma Love, a restaurant in the Mission district that features cuisine from Myanmar. This was a totally new food group for me so I was excited to try it. Our table shared many delicious dishes, but the winner for us was the Tea Leaf Salad. Bursting with BIG flavor (as the menu says, “it’s a party in your mouth”), it is composed of fermented tea leaf tossed with a mixture of nuts, beans, garlic, and shredded lettuce. Crunchy, spicy, fun - it was so good that at the end of the meal, we ordered it again! And the minute we got back to NJ, I started searching for it here (the closest Burmese restaurant is in Queens - not exactly around the corner). A definite stop on the SF itinerary next time!

It was a wonderful trip to California filled with great food, gorgeous seascapes, and visits with family and friends. The next day we left gray, rainy California and returned to…gray, rainy New Jersey but I’m hopeful that sunny, warmer days are just ahead!








Saturday, May 27, 2017

Northern California Road Trip

Fried Egg Sandwich, The Fremont Diner
Back in April, we spent a week in the Sonoma/San Francisco area, marveling at the incredibly beautiful rocky coastline, enjoying the culinary offerings of the area, and relaxing at a lovely inn in Mendocino. Come along as I recount our tour!

We began by driving north from San Francisco airport, the GPS set on Healdsburg. Most of this drive is spent on Hwy 101, really not much to see here other than car dealerships, strip malls, etc. After leaving the cold and gray New Jersey winter behind us, I was really looking forward to the famous California sunshine…unfortunately, the weather gods were not smiling on us. It rained (I’m talking torrential downpours) the entire four days we spent in the Healdsburg area. We made the best of it and soldiered on.

Healdsburg boasts one of the prettiest town squares in California. Ringed by restaurants, coffee shops, wine tasting rooms, and boutique-y type shops, we easily forgot about our damp clothes. One morning, after eating a nondescript breakfast at the restaurant adjacent to the hotel, we roamed around looking for good coffee. Luckily, we found Flying Goat Coffee right off the main square. After a wonderful cappuccino for me and a pour over for Mr B, we meandered a couple of blocks to Shed. Picture a Williams-Sonoma store coupled with a cool restaurant/food shop and you’ve got Shed. This place was right up our alley. You can buy everything from hand-thrown pasta bowls, cookbooks, grains, sweets, oils and vinegars, to house made pickles, artisan cheeses, breads, and cured meats. 
Hazelnut Babka - Shed

We ambled around ogling the kitchenware, chatting with one of the friendly staff about some of the unique spices in the store, and then, of course, I had to try one of the luscious looking breakfast pastries. The mini-chocolate hazelnut babka caught my eye. I devoured it. Moist, flaky layers of buttered pastry intertwined with rich chocolate and chopped nuts, it was sublime.


The next day, on the suggestion of a chef friend we drove to Fulton for the food/wine pairing lunch at the Kendall-Jackson Winery. Admittedly, K-J would not have been on my list of wineries to visit due to its huge commercial output, but it came highly recommended. The K-J tasting room is beautiful (I’m sure the estate is too, but as I mentioned, it was raining), with a large circular tasting bar in the center and comfy chairs around the perimeter. 

First Course - K-J Estate
The first course was Estate Beets, Citrus Vinaigrette, Honey and Orange Roasted Almonds, with Nicosia Valley Foggy Morning Cheese, and Chrysanthemum. This was paired with a 2014 Grand Reserve Mendocino County Sauvignon Blanc

Our second course was a delicious Dungeness Crab Cake with a Carrot Radish Slaw, Meyer Lemon, and Carrot Ginger Dressing (paired with a crisp 2014 Santa Barbara County Jackson Estate Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay). 

Course three was a delicate Crispy Maitake Mushroom, Red Wine Tempura, Sweet Soy, Dashi, and Estate Radish, paired with a 2013 Outland Ridge Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley.

The highlight for me was the Red Wine Braised Beef Short Ribs with Estate Grown Swiss Chard, Mole, and Currants. This was served with a luscious 2013 Trace Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. The chef told us this wine is aged 20 months in 100 year old French oak.

Dessert - K-J Estate
Dessert rounded out our lunch with a 2015 Monterey County Late Harvest Riesling served alongside a Beet Mousse with Yogurt Cream, Honey Mustard Sable Breton, Pickled Mustards, with Orange-beet Sauce, and Lime Meringue. If you’re thinking honey mustard is a bit weird for dessert, you’d be right. Absolutely beautiful presentation, but this was my least favorite course. 

However, a post-dessert course, “Canneles de Bordeaux,” was spectacular, both in presentation and taste. Canneles are small French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla. They have a soft custard center and are covered with a thick caramelized coating. I had heard of these but never tried them. This must be a common practice in the area, though, because we also received them at Dry Creek Kitchen. If you’d like to read about the history of this little confection, see this comprehensive overview from Paula Wolfert.
Canneles - K-J Estate

We were seated in the main tasting room and it can be very noisy if there are big groups doing tastings (as there were the day we visited), so I would suggest trying for a table upstairs where it appeared to be much quieter. The wine/food paired lunch is $55.00/person, and I think it was well worth it. They were generous on the pours and the food quality and presentation was very good.

After lunch, we visited chocolate makers, Jeff and Susan Mall of Volo Chocolate, at their workshop. We met Jeff and Susan a couple of years ago when they were the executive chefs at the dreamy Rancho Pescadero in Baja California. While living in Mexico, they fell hard for the traditional foods and ingredients of the area. Now they’ve returned to their California home and have embarked on a wonderful adventure of crafting authentic chocolate from Mexican cacao beans. They are turning out incredible chocolate bars with inventive flavors such as Dark Milk Chocolate with Brown Butter and Roasted Almonds, Dark Chocolate with Candied Orange Peel, Creamy Dark Mocha (made with Flying Goat Coffee, cream, and cinnamon), or Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel Crunch (I can hear the collective sighs).

Cacao beans
The day we visited, they were in the midst of turning out dozens of adorable and delicious bunnies for Easter. It was a real treat to have Jeff and Susan take us through their process (from bean to bar). If you have a serious chocolate addiction, check out Volo Chocolate, handmade in Sonoma County. You won’t be disappointed.

We are big fans of breakfast (you know, the most important meal of the day). However, if you wanted something more substantial than, say coffee and a muffin, there were not a lot of viable options in Healdsburg.  But an internet search revealed a promising-looking diner in the town of Sonoma. Now remember, we live in New Jersey, the land of diners, so I was curious. And since we had no particular place to go that morning, we figured we’d take a ride to the Fremont Diner and check it out. 

Well, after a forty-five minute drive in the (still) pouring rain, we arrived at a roadside ramshackle tin-like structure. Since it was a Friday, there was no wait and we sat right down. A pleasant server came right over to greet us and about two minutes later, we had a Thermos on our table filled  with great coffee from Four Barrel. 
French Toast - The Fremont Diner

Deciding on our breakfast took a bit longer because the menu looked fabulous! How about Buttermilk Biscuits with Ginger Rhubarb Jam? Or Brioche French Toast served with House made Vanilla Syrup? This was my selection on our “first” visit… the bread was super custardy and light. 

My husband raved about the Smoked Brisket Hash with Collard Greens and Sunny Egg. The brisket was tender and bursting with smoky flavor.

Or the Fried Egg Sandwich with House-smoked Ham, Spicy Mayo on Model Struan Wheat? This was my choice on our “second” visit to The Fremont Diner and it was out of this world! Yes, we went two days in a row! On our last day in the area, we were presented again with the age-old question “where are we going to eat breakfast?” and with the delicious memory of the wonderful experience we had just the day before still fresh in our minds, we hopped back in the car and drove there again! 

Words to live by at The Fremont Diner
Biscuit - The Fremont Diner
However, this time it was a Saturday and a bit later in the day, so we were met with a 30 minute wait. But the wait was worth it. My husband had his other favorite, Biscuits and Sausage Gravy. These biscuits could make a Southern grandma jealous.

What I loved about The Fremont Diner, was the fact that, like a traditional diner, you could get anything from Nashville Style Chicken (spicy, fried chicken with your choice of white bread and collards or waffle, “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight”), to their Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula and potatoes with remoulade and bacon), at any time of day. This place has got it goin’ on and I would kill for a place like this close to home!

And now for something completely different. 

On our last evening in the Sonoma area, we had dinner at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.  Part of the complex right on Healdsburg Avenue that also houses Palmer’s Hotel Healdsburg, this restaurant is like an elegant oasis. Refined, yet comfortable and unpretentious. 

While perusing the menu, we enjoyed a non-rushed cocktail, all the while taking in the lovely surroundings. A large, beautiful flower arrangement dominates the dining room. Next to it, a sommelier’s table. There is a small bar with about 6 seats. Soft, warm candlelight glows on every table. The chairs are plush. Jazz plays in the background — just loud enough to hear but not so overbearing that you can’t have a conversation with your dining companions. I love it here. 

In fact, the atmosphere was so nice that I didn't want to disrupt it by taking a bunch of pictures so there are just two.

What did we eat? The smooth and fragrant Sweet Pea Soup with Goat Cheese Tortellini for Mr B, and the nutty Risotto with Parmesan Trio (parmesan broth, parmesan foam, and parmesan snow) for me. The perfect start. 

Scallops - Dry Creek Kitchen

Pork Tenderloin - Dry Creek Kitchen

I luxuriated in the Carmelized Scallops and Spring Succotash with house-cured Pancetta, while Mr B got lost in the tender Niman Ranch Bacon Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Yukon Gold Potato Veloute, Swiss Chard, and Fennel.

Dry Creek Kitchen also has it goin’ on,  just in a different way.

New Friends in Mendocino
That’s all for the first leg of our California trip. Next time: up the coast to Mendocino and back down to San Francisco.

Wishing you a lovely weekend!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Lessons from "Baking Fails"

A few weeks ago, I came upon a recipe for a cookie that caught my eye. It’s called “torcetti,” a type of old-school Italian sugar cookie. It’s a bit unusual as it is made with yeast, which most cookies do not have. Besides yeast, the recipe called for European-style butter which I had never used so this intrigued me. I gathered up the ingredients and went to work.

But first a little history. According to the website, Turin Epicurian Capital, these cookies date back to around 1700. An article supposes that during around that time, while waiting for bread to bake in community ovens, some of the bakers took leftover dough, shaped it into a type of breadstick, coated them with sugar or honey, formed them into little “twists,” and baked them. Voila - torcetti! 

There are a zillion recipes for torcetti out there. I used one from Food52, one of my trusted sites, and I liked the fact that it recommended an overnight rise.
Torcetti from Food52

Off I went to work! Followed the recipe to the letter - used a thermometer to test the water temperature to dissolve the yeast; placed the dough in the oven for the first rise; creamed the softened butter and added it to the dough. You get the idea…

My first pangs of fear that this was turning into a “baking fail,” was trying to incorporate the butter into the dough. It took forever and a lot more flour than called for to get a non-sticky, manageable dough. Finally, it came together! Since I was utilizing the overnight rise, I covered the dough with plastic wrap and placed the bowl in the fridge.  

The next morning, giddy with anticipation, I pulled the dough from its’ chilly slumber, and stared at the bowl in disbelief. It had not risen at all. At all. My first thought was, “well, that was a big waste of expensive European butter, four cups of flour, wah, wah, wah.” 

But I really didn’t want to toss the whole thing out, so I preheated the oven to 250 degrees, turned it off, shoved the covered bowl in, and waited. I figured I had nothing to lose at this point. In about an hour, the dough had magically doubled in size. I was thrilled! Maybe this wasn’t going to be a wasted effort after all. 

after the oven-rise
Again, I went back to the directions: rolled out the dough to the stated dimensions, cut the strips, rolled in sugar, and baked them. 
ready for the oven
Twelve minutes later, I had the saddest looking cookies on my baking trays. But, I thought, even if they don’t look great, if they taste good, I’ll be happy. Let me cut right to the chase here and not keep you in suspense (although I'm sure you've guessed the outcome): they were terrible! Heavy, dense, tasteless. I was so disappointed!I threw them all out.
finished cookies

So what did I learn from this? I rediscovered how much I LOVE working with yeast dough! The last yeasty-type recipe I made (a few years ago) was the fabulous brioche from Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Boston. The smell as I worked the dough was intoxicating. And kneading it put me in an almost zen-like state. There is  definitely something to be said for how baking can be relaxing and reduce stress

I’m not sure why my torcetti did not come out as they should (I don't think it was the recipe); perhaps the yeast was old (even though the expiration date was months away), maybe I overworked the dough? Who knows? Will I attempt them again? Definitely. 
sad cookies

I know a lot of people may not feel that baking is relaxing, but if you focus on the physical activity of rolling or kneading the dough, enjoy the smell of the yeast or the spices in your recipe, you’ll most likely forget about what else is going on in other parts of your life - the daily stresses - at least for awhile. Making these torcetti reminded me of the pleasures of baking. 


Have you had a baking fail that you’ve learned from? Leave a comment below.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gluten-free Quinoa Apple Snack Cake


Happy Saturday!

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

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

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


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

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



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

Here’s hoping you have a wonderful weekend!

Print apple cake recipe here.