Saturday, May 7, 2016

Food 52 "Bestest" Banana Bread

Happy Weekend, Cooks Tour readers! Hope all is well in your part of the world. Here in New Jersey, we have been in a malaise of continuous cold and rain and gray for about two weeks. But the local weather people tell me that we are about to turn the corner - sun and warmer temps on the way tomorrow!

In honor of a good day to stay in and bake something warm and cozy, I chose something from the terrific Baking book from the wonderful writers and bloggers over at Food 52. 

I’ve baked (and written about) banana breads before here and here. And I was a little late in purchasing this book but I finally got around to it and spent a recent lazy afternoon paging through one great recipe after another. So today when I realized that two bananas were past their prime, I immediately went to this book for a recipe. I threw in a handful of toasted, chopped walnuts to add some crunch (good move!), and slathered some butter on it this morning to enjoy with my coffee. I think cream cheese would also be a delicious option! And maybe a sprinkle of cinnamon and sea salt...just sayin'

Are you looking for an easy (I mean, really, this could not be any easier) and delicious banana bread recipe? This is for you, my friends. 

Happy #SaturdayBaking!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Jersey Shore Cookbook

Long about this time every year, I start to get this familiar restlessness. It never fails – late March/early April is when it strikes. It’s this feeling that I need to hop in the car, get on the Parkway, and head down the shore. It’s the draw of the ocean. It’s the feel of the boardwalk against my shoes. It’s the salt air. It’s the FOOD! But we’ve had a weird spring here in the Garden State, near 70 degrees in February and 30 degrees in April. The weather was not cooperating with my annual ritual.

Thank heavens for Deb Smith’s new book, The Jersey Shore Cookbook. Maybe I couldn’t physically get to the shore, but I could get there virtually! As I sat in my north Jersey living room, each page brought me another exit closer to our beloved Jersey Shore. This book is literally a road trip down the GSP (Garden State Parkway for you out-of-staters). Starting in Keyport and ending in Cape May Point, I transported myself to a day at the beach and all the good things that go with it.

Talking with the chefs and the farmers, the bakers and the fishermen, the restaurant owners and the dock masters, Deb has captured the essence of Jersey Shore cooking. From breakfasts to desserts and every course in between, the book is packed with delicious recipes direct from the people who live and breathe the shore every day.
Being a baker, I was particularly drawn to the page highlighting Mueller’s Bakery in Bay Head. Sad to say, I have never been to Mueller’s but its crumb cake is legendary. Since it usually sells out early in the day, I will probably never get it unless I overnight in Bay Head (hmmm, there’s a thought…). They are also famous for their blueberry scones, the recipe they shared with Deb.

Having a container of beautiful blueberries on hand, I whipped up a batch. Seeing that the recipe called for bread flour, I was concerned the scones might be heavy. But fear not, these are light as air. Calling for two cups of fruit, there was almost not enough batter to encase all of them. These are no wallflower scones, people; they are BIG! I have secretly named them “My Big Fat Blueberry Scones.” Don’t tell the people at Mueller’s!

Deb has weaved a lovely tribute to the Jersey Shore in this book. If you spend any time down the shore, you’re going to want this book. If you love to cook, you’ll want this book. If you grew up in New Jersey and have since relocated, get this book – it will instantly bring you back to those wonderful summer days where the only decisions you had to make were what bathing suit should I wear today, and what restaurant should we go to tonight.

I think spring has finally arrived in New Jersey. Today might be the perfect day for that road trip. I’m feeling hungry.

Deborah Smith

Published by Quirk Books

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Buttermilk Raisin Cake (aka "Danger Cake!")

Buttermilk Raisin Cake
This cake should really be called “Danger Cake.” One tiny piece & you are hooked! This is the definition of everything I love about baking: the ingredients, the process, and of course, ultimately the taste. Oh boy, this is trouble with a capital T (but in a deliciously good way).

From fellow blogger and Jersey girl, Kate over at Framed Cooks, the cake would be perfect for weekend brunch (think Easter, coming up soon). The recipe makes a nice large cake (in a 9x13 pan), it’s chock full of “the good stuff” (raisins, walnuts, cinnamon – my idea of cooking’s trinity), and your house will smell fabulous! I made it yesterday, sampled a tiny square last night while watching episode 11, season four, of House of Cards (deviously better than ever, if that’s even possible!), and could not stop thinking about that cake all night! The moist, buttermilk-based cake kept calling to me. I managed to resist the siren’s song but woke up with a singular thought (must tell my readers about this!). So here is the link to the recipe on Kate’s site. If you’re a coffee cake nut like me, you will love it!

Barb’s Irish Soda Bread

No March post would be complete with my favorite Irish Soda Bread recipe. This recipe comes from someone I worked with years ago and of all the ISB recipes I’ve sampled, this is still my favorite. It’s not traditional because there are no caraway seeds, and the top is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, but it’s incredibly delicious. If you’ve got some buttermilk left over from the aforementioned “Danger Cake,” this is the perfect use for it! I love this bread for breakfast or in the evening with a cup of tea.

Happy St Patrick’s Day! Remember, “luck is believing you’re lucky.” Tennessee Williams said that.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Aquila Pizza al Forno, Little Falls

You might say that Jerry Arcieri, the owner of Aquila in Little Falls, has an obsession with pizza. After 25 years in the photo industry, commuting in and out of NYC every day, Jerry fulfilled his dream of opening a pizzeria. But Jerry didn’t just wake up one day and say “I’m gonna make pizzas!”

While working full-time as a photo editor, he attended the Institute of Culinary Education on Sundays and two nights each week. He earned a culinary certificate and then did an externship at Amano Pizza in Ridgewood (one of a handful of pizzerias in the US certified by the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli in Naples). And while his stint at Amano gave him valuable insights learning from a master pizzaiolo, he really needed daily hands-on practice. So Jerry did what any pizza-obsessed person might do, he built his own wood-burning pizza oven in his backyard in Bergen County. He developed his own dough formulation and then to perfect his craft, he held “pizza parties” every weekend for a few lucky friends and neighbors.

In 2013, he started thinking about opening a pizzeria, and scouted several possible locations in the north Jersey area. In addition, he made “pilgrimages” to several of the most well regarded pizzerias in the tri-state area (among them, Santillo’s in Elizabeth, Frank Pepe in New Haven, and Jim Lahey’s Co in NYC).

Jerry had visited Bivio in Little Falls, one of the area’s premier pizzerias several times and had admired the owner’s dedication to the time-honored craft of authentic Neapolitan pizza. In April 2015, he and Bivio’s owner (Tomasso Colao) reached an agreement for the sale of Bivio and after a few starts and stops Jerry took ownership in November.
Bivio was a much-lauded pizzeria in north Jersey (yours truly had the privilege of writing the first article about Bivio when they opened in 2011) so taking over such a venerated establishment took some “coraggio” on Jerry’s part.

But Jerry was a man with a mission, and with his wife Sofia’s support, Jerry launched Aquila in early December. I spent some time recently chatting with him about the challenges and surprises of running a restaurant.

The oven that was built in place for Bivio by a Neapolitan master oven builder, has taken a bit of time for Jerry to learn how to “tame” the 800-degree monster. He also needed to tweak his dough recipe from his original backyard recipe, using only the famous Caputo 00 flour, rather than a mixture of regular flour and 00 flour.

Thankfully, he was able to retain a lot of the Bivio team, so staff management has not been the challenge it could have been.  And he’s lucky that the staff is excited about contributing ideas to Aquila’s menu. Whether it is thinking about flavors and combinations for the pizzas, or suggestions for a new appetizer, they are enthusiastic about their work at Aquila.

Jerry knows a good thing when he sees it, so he kept the core of the Bivio menu, but is slowly adding to the appetizer and salad offerings. Right now, the cheesecake on the dessert menu is made by one of the staff, but they will probably expand desserts in the future when the timing is right.

During a visit to Aquila the first week they opened, I sampled the Margherita pizza (a staple on any Neapolitan pizza list). The flavorful basil scattered across the crisp crust, topped with San Marzano tomatoes and house made mozzarella made a simple but delicious dinner.

And while Aquila’s regular pizza menu is small (5-6 items), Jerry offers 1-2 specials each week. I asked him how he comes up with ideas for the specials. He said he starts with a base of white or red, then builds from there, always having a vegetarian and meat option. As I write this, the current specials are a Swiss chard, roasted garlic, Gruyere and ricotta cheese pie (white/ vegetarian); and San Marzano tomatoes, sausage, roasted fennel, mozzarella and Parmigiano cheeses (red/meat). You probably couldn’t go wrong with either.
You may be wondering about the restaurant name (I was). Many years ago, the building where Aquila is housed was home to the Eagle Hotel.  In Italian, Aquila translates to “eagle.” Jerry named his pizzeria after the hotel, which I think is fitting because it sounds like Aquila will be flying high for the next few years.

7A Paterson Avenue
Little Falls
Open Wednesday-Saturday, 5-10pm


Monday, February 15, 2016

Double Chocolate Mocha Biscotti (gluten-free)

I made these cookies over the weekend to take to a friend we were visiting for dinner. I was looking for something quick, tasty, and made with almond flour (for my husband). I found these on Elana's Pantry. They fulfilled all the above requirements, plus delicious and super easy. These little biscotti are sturdy with a nice texture, heft and crunch - these are no delicate wallflower cookies. They will definitely stand up to dunking!

Quick ingredient note: I didn't have cacao powder so I used cocoa powder. I also didn't have arrowroot powder, but cornstarch can be substituted. I used regular coffee (freshly ground, of course!), and sea salt from Slovenia (brought back from our 2015 trip) but I'm sure any good quality sea salt can be used.

Unfortunately, dinner was rescheduled but the cookies were already made so we'll just have to suck it up and eat them ourselves! ;-)

Double Chocolate Mocha Biscotti (print version)
Serves: 14 biscotti
  1. In a food processor, combine almond flour, cacao powder, arrowroot powder, ground coffee, salt and baking soda
  2. Pulse until ingredients are well combined
  3. Pulse in honey until the dough forms a ball
  4. Remove dough from food processor and work in dark chocolate with your hands
  5. Form dough into 2 logs on a parchment paper lined baking sheet
  6. Bake at 325° for 25 minutes, then remove from oven and cool for 1 hour
  7. Cut the logs into ½ inch slices on the diagonal with a very sharp knife
  8. Spread slices out on a baking sheet and bake at 300° for 12-15 minutes
  9. Remove from oven and allow to cool, set, and become crispy

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