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.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Recipe-In-A-Flash: Italian Prune Plum Nut Bread

It seems like the wonderful, seasonal, Italian prune plums have arrived earlier than usual, and I just had to buy some. Can't pass up the first of the season!

I wanted to make something different than my usual, so after scouring the many recipes on-line, I decided on this one from Diana's Desserts. One, because it sounded good, and two, because I had everything in-house.

 It does not specify a type of nut in the recipe; I used walnuts, which were perfect. I'm sure you could use toasted, chopped almonds, or pecans. 

The recipe makes two loaves, although I cut it in half as I only had enough yogurt and plums for one loaf. 

Buy some prune plums and make this cake. Delicious with your morning or afternoon coffee, or dress it up with a bit of whipped cream (or vanilla ice cream) and serve it after dinner. 

Sometimes early is good!

Print recipe.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shanghai 46 - Fairfield, NJ

Steamed Juicy Buns
We paid a visit to Shanghai 46 in Fairfield recently. Owned by Kevin Lin, who also owns Cheng Du 23 in Wayne, he is passionate about the food of this region.

We feasted on a non-stop presentation of beautifully crafted dishes, starting with the famous (and one of my favorites) Steamed Juicy Buns (pork or crab), the delicate Shanghai Shepherd Purse Wonton Soup, and the perfectly crispy-outside/moist-inside Shanghai Marinated Duck. And these were just the appetizers!

Kevin treated us to many courses during the evening. My favorites included the aptly named, Lion’s Head Meatballs. Fist-sized, these delicious pork and tofu meatballs with oyster sauce were so tender and flavorful. I also loved the Pickled Mustard Greens with Pork; the delicate Shanghai Udon Noodles; Roasted Garlic Chicken; and Moo Shu Pancake with Beef. Yes, there was alot of food!
Pickled Mustard Greens with Pork

New Jersey diners have many Asian restaurants to choose from and I think most people are more familiar with Cantonese or Szechuan styles. I asked Kevin what makes Shanghai cuisine different from cooking in other parts of China. He told me that it’s much lighter, and with subtle spices. Not overwhelming or heavy. A good example of this was a truly unique dish that I’ve never seen anywhere else: Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk. This dish consisted of thinly sliced pumpkin coated with egg yolk and lightly fried. Crispy, delicious, and addictive!
Pumpkin with Salted Egg Yolk

Shanghai 46 also serves some of the dishes that may be more familiar to many patrons of area restaurants, such as General Tso’s Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken, along with a few “Asian fusion” dishes. We sampled the Beef with Thai Basil from this part of the menu and it was very good. But what you really want here is the authentic Shanghai cuisine. This is where Kevin and his team excel.

14 US Highway 46 East
Open 11:30am – 10:00pm
Closed Tuesday
Dim Sum served Saturday and Sunday

Note: The Cook's Tour was invited to visit Shanghai 46 and our writer received a complimentary meal.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Gluten-free Chocolate Almond Shortbread Cookies

Hello, Friday! Nice to see you (and just when I thought you'd never get here!). 

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had another wonderful gluten-free recipe coming your way. Well, here it is! The original recipe, from the friendly folks at King Arthur Flour, has been tweaked slightly to ramp up the coffee/chocolate quotient to our liking. If you're not so much of a coffee lover, just follow the original directions.

Besides being gluten-free (they are made with almond flour), instead of regular powdered sugar, I use Whey-Low powdered sugar. Same great taste, no sugar. 

And what gives these cookies that extra coffee-coffee-ness? I swapped out the vanilla extract for Dave's Original Coffee Syrup. Whoa! If you are coffee fanatics, as we are, check out Dave's. Not just for this terrific, concentrated syrup (that is, btw, divine drizzled over vanilla ice cream), but for his coffee beans. We get a delivery about every two weeks from their shop in Rhode Island. 

On to the cookies! Oh, did I mention these only have about 40 calories/cookie?! You're welcome! :-)

Gluten-free Chocolate Almond Flour Shortbread Cookies (adapted from original recipe)

1 C almond flour (minus 2 TB) - I used Bob's Red Mill Almond Flour
3 TB softened butter
3 TB powdered sugar
1/8 t salt
1/8 t espresso powder
2 TB unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 t Dave's Coffee Syrup 
Flaked sea salt (for sprinkling)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. LIne a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl until a cohesive dough forms.
3. Let dough chill in refrigerator for about 20 minutes.
4. Scoop 1" balls of dough onto the prepared baking sheet; a teaspoon cookie scoop works well here. Arrange the balls of dough about 1-1/2" to 2" apart.
5. Use a fork to flatten each cookie to about 1/4" thick, making a crosshatch design.
6. Sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt on top of each cookie
7. Bake the cookies for 10 minutes, until they start to turn light
8. Transfer to rack to cool.

Yield about 15 cookies. This recipe is easily doubled, and they keep very well in an airtight container. Sometimes I add about 1/2 C toasted, chopped hazelnuts to the recipe, which adds a very nice dimension to these babies.

Print here.

Have a fabulous weekend!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Bake and Release"

Photo credit: Bon Appetit

You may be familiar with the fishing phrase “catch and release.” I subscribe to a slightly different version: “bake and release.” This delightful phrase comes from one of my baking idols, Dorie Greenspan, who I was lucky enough to do an exclusive interview with a few months ago. Much to the chagrin (or delight depending on your perspective) of my family, friends, and colleagues, I give away most of what I bake. Part of the pleasure of baking is seeing the happiness on people’s faces after eating a delicious cookie, crisp biscotti, or slice of luscious coffee cake. Baking is sharing and that’s what I’m going to do with you today. I want you to make this fabulous cake, share it with others, and watch the smiles spread across their faces (and yours!). 

Carrot-Walnut Loaf Cake (Bon Appetit, May 2015) 
Makes one 9x5” loaf. If you only have an 8 x 4 ” pan, simply hold back about 1- 34 cups batter for later – it makes a mean waffle! 

1 cup vegetable oil, plus more 
1  cup plus 1 tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more 
1  tsp baking powder 
1  tsp ground cinnamon 
1 tsp kosher salt 
1 cup golden raisins 
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped 
3 large eggs 
1 cup granulated sugar 
2 tsp vanilla extract 
8 oz carrots, coarsely grated (about 2 cups) 
2 tsp light brown sugar 


Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly oil and flour a 9x5” loaf pan. Whisk baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and 1 cup flour in a small bowl. Toss raisins, walnuts, and remaining 1 tbsp flour in another bowl. 

Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat eggs and granulated sugar in medium bowl until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. With mixer running, gradually drizzle in 1 cup oil, then add vanilla. 

Fold in dry ingredients, raisin mixture, and carrots; scrape batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar. 

Bake cake until a tester inserted into center comes out clean, 65-75 minutes. Let cool slightly in pan, then turn out onto wire rack to cool completely. 

Do ahead: bake up to 2 days ahead. Store wrapped at room temperature. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cowan's Public - Nutley, NJ

Today’s “gastro pub” is yesterday’s “gourmet.” The definition of gourmet is “a connoisseur of fine food and drink.” Throughout the 60s and 70s, when a restaurant was touted as having “gourmet” food, patrons knew it was going to be an exquisite experience. Then every Tom, Dick, & Harry food purveyor started using it to describe their offerings; little by little the term got watered down, and today it really means nothing (I laugh to myself every time I see “gourmet” splashed across a menu or an ad). The same line of thinking could be applied to gastro pub. Let’s review.
I spent a leisurely afternoon at Cowan’s a couple of Saturdays ago, soaking up the cool retro vibe, chatting with the two brothers who own the place, and enjoying the delicious food. This is not your typical “bar food,” my friends. There are no mozzarella sticks or onion rings on this menu. This is bar food kicked up a notch or two (or three). Exhibit A: what bar do you know that serves perfectly cooked Pan-Seared Brussels with a Champagne Mustard Vinaigrette and Shallots?
Exhibit B: Chipotle Deviled Eggs (lusciously creamy with slight heat at the back). And a kickin’ Burger with Bacon-Onion Jam, Sharp White Cheddar, house made pickle, and Sriracha Ketchup on a Balthazar brioche roll! I rest my case.

Owned by Tom and Dean Maroulakos, they both have experience working in the bar/restaurant industry in New York City, and Dean has a design background. They set their sights on an area fixture – the Nutley Pub. The bar, which had gone through a few owners and incarnations since it was opened in 1934, had fallen into serious disrepair. Anybody else would have been overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to turn this post-prohibition bar into something that today’s savvy customer would want to spend time in. But Tom & Dean took it on, and doing most of the renovation themselves, have transformed it into a modern day bar/restaurant but with a nod to its heritage. No detail has been overlooked. From the curved art deco bar to the restored tin ceiling, to the authentic artifacts that are sprinkled about, these two know what they’re doing.
The proprietors have installed experienced bartenders who are passionate about their job. They want to educate their customers but in a fun way. In addition to a rotating selection of craft beers and ciders, they have some great signature cocktails (I had a terrific Mojito the day I visited), and a nice wine selection. Next time, I’ve got my sights set on their Strawberry Airmail cocktail, made with Real McCoy rum, muddled strawberry, lime juice, honey syrup, and topped with Prosecco.

On the food front, the kitchen is headed by Justin Caldwell (formerly of Upstairs in Montclair). Justin has developed a terrific menu of small plates made for sharing (such as the Brussels Sprouts and Deviled Eggs mentioned above). They will begin to introduce some larger entrée plates this month.
On a subsequent visit, I tried the Summer Salad - watercress, marinated tomato, quinoa, roasted chickpeas, charred corn, and grilled haloumi cheese, with a sherry vinaigrette. I added some nicely charred shrimp to round it out and with a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc, it was the perfect late spring dinner.
While Cowan’s Public is keeping the brothers plenty busy, this dynamic duo already has another project in the works. They are in the process of developing a farmhouse-type restaurant in Clifton. They will be renovating an 8,000 square foot former restaurant and outfitting it with a post and beam bar, outside garden, and seating for 150 people. They are targeting early 2016 for the opening. While Cowan’s is set up more as a bar/restaurant, the focus for Clifton will be food heavy. Sounds good to me.
My bottom line: don’t go to Cowan’s Public if you’re looking for one of those faux gastro pubs. But if you’re looking for inventive, well-cooked food, dynamite cocktails, and a cool place to relax, managed by the personable Maroulakos brothers, discover Cowan’s – the “un-gastro” pub.
229 Centre Street
Nutley, NJ
Open Monday – Friday, 4pm – 2am
Saturday, Sunday: 12pm – 2am

Sunday brunch: 12 – 4pm

Saturday, June 27, 2015

RECIPEinaFLASH: Gluten-free Blueberry Muffins

From a terrific Wall Street Journal article on the myths and truths of olive oil (May 16-17 edition); these muffins are delish! Packed with #Jerseyfresh blueberries, the recipe uses almond flour, plain yogurt, and extra-virgin olive oil. You can throw them together very quickly (I made them this morning in about 20 minutes - of course, you have to remember to take the eggs out the night before) so you can have warm muffins with your Saturday or Sunday coffee.

The hubby is following a strict no-carb lifestyle so I've been searching for alternatives to regular white flour to satisfy his cravings and my need to bake! Using a recipe calorie counter, one muffin has only 116 calories (bonus!).

This recipe, and one other that I will post shortly, totally meet these criteria! Happy weekend, people!