Sunday, July 3, 2016

Witness to Nature: Alaska!

Last month we took off on a major “trains, planes…” vacation: a visit to our 49th state: Alaska! Visiting Alaska has been on my husband’s vacation wish list for as long as I can remember. But until now, other destinations took precedence. Well, this was the year! 

A word of warning: this is a looooonnnnng post. Alaska is a big, beautiful state with a lot of ground to cover, and we saw only a fraction of it. So get a cup of coffee, maybe a cookie, and settle in. Come with me as I revisit our incredible Alaskan adventure. Thank you. :-)

We began in Juneau and to get the ball rolling right away, we took a flight-seeing plane over Taku Glacier (Juneau’s largest glacier) and Mendenhall Glacier, landing in the water at the Taku River Lodge (built in 1923). 
Mendenhall Glacier
Taku River Lodge

Oh, before I forget: we were there during Alaska's incredible 12-18 hours of daylight season! It's really something to almost NEVER see darkness. We went to bed when it was daylight and when we woke up it was daylight. Wonderful but weird.

The view of the glacier from the air was breathtaking. After a smooth landing in the water, the feasting began with wild King salmon grilled over alder wood. Our timing was spot-on as King salmon season was just beginning and you can bet we got our fill! At home whenever we have salmon, we always buy wild, but the salmon we enjoyed in Alaska was incomparable.

Another spectacular sight in Juneau was the ride up1800 feet via the Mt Roberts Tram with fabulous views of Juneau and Gastineau Channel. We took a short hike at the mountain top and visited Lady Baltimore, a bald eagle rescued several years ago and who now lives at the Juneau Raptor Center. Quite a sight to see a bald eagle up close! There were more bald eagle sightings to come but none like this.
The view from Mt  Roberts and Lady Baltimore

Next, we set out on a small ship cruise for 7 days, focusing on spectacular Glacier Bay National Park (GBNP), which comprises 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, forests, and waterways. We spent a week aboard the Safari Explorer (part of Un-Cruise Adventures) sailing the magnificent bays and rivers of southeast Alaska. During nature hikes, kayak and skiff outings, throughout Icy Strait, Endicott Arm, and Fords Terror (to name a few) we were lucky to see eagles, humpbacks, orcas, otters, bears, mountain goats, Dall porpoise, puffins, sea lions, and harbor seals. To see these magnificent creatures in the wild was just amazing! 

Seeing the wildlife up close was incredible, but the majesty and beauty of the glaciers was breathtaking (you use that word a lot in Alaska). Many people had told us that the landscape is stunning (and it is), but you really cannot appreciate it until you see it for yourself. Pictures, no matter how good, do not capture it. To give you some idea of the size of these glaciers, the face of the Margerie Glacier in GBNP is a mile wide. And Dawes Glacier is 250 feet tall from the water level (and probably another 200 feet below the surface)! Further, you begin to understand why the native Alaskans (the Tlingit) revere this land. I found an overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility there, especially at Lamplugh Glacier, which the Tlingit believe has special spiritual qualities. In fact, they believe that this area is especially important to otters, and ships (no matter how small) cannot go beyond a certain point during the spring birthing season so as not to disturb these beautiful creatures.
Waterfalls galore in SE Alaska!
Dawes Glacier calving!

The latest in Alaska cruise wear!
Now let me tell you about life aboard the Explorer. This was not one of those mega-ships (no 3,000 vacationing companions for us, thank you). The Explorer welcomes 34-36 guests aboard (with a crew of 18). There is a relaxed ruggedness to the cruise. Rest assured no one is dressing up. You spend your days in jeans or convertible pants, hiking shoes, fleece jackets, and down vests. When out in the elements, waterproof boots, pants, jackets, wool hats, gloves, and (sometimes) long underwear are de rigueur. Nobody is vying for the “best dressed” award - the goal here is to stay warm and dry. 

The food on the boat was terrific. From the just-baked pastries every morning at 6:30 (so right up my alley), to delicious lunches, the very civilized cocktail hour at 5:30pm, and fabulous, creative dinners, the Explorer and Un-cruise easily won my vote. But one of my favorite rituals was the the greeting you received when coming back aboard the boat after a morning or afternoon of exploring. Our charming bartender, Silas, would meet returning explorers on the back deck with a thermos of a delicious “hot toddy.” One day it might be hot apple cider with (optional) Jameson’s. Another day,
Fabulous Rack of Lamb
Early riser treats!
hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps. 

Every morning, people would gather on the sun deck at 7am for yoga. I must tell you, beginning your day with these incredible mountains as the backdrop, was one of the highlights of the week. And just as the session ended, a steward would magically appear with a tray of hot green tea with honey and lemon. I’m telling you, a girl could get used to this!

The wonderful week aboard the Explorer ended all too soon. Our cruise was over, but not our vacation. 
After the cruise, we took an overnight trip on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward, where we visited Seavey’s Sled Dog camp (and got to hold adorable three-week old sled dog pups!), hiked Exit Glacier, and viewed a salmon run. Seward is a cute little fishing village (or as the locals say, a drinking town with a fishing problem!) about 4 hours from Anchorage (via train). BTW: the Alaska Railroad is a terrific way to see the landscape. You can also opt for the dining car package (yes, a real old-time dining car with pretty good food) to make your trip a bit more fun. We spent a few hours at the Alaska Sea Life Center, viewing rescued otters, octopus, and a very playful harbor seal. 

The culinary gods were with us for our one dinner in Seward. Directly across the street from our hotel, was The Cookery and Oyster Bar. What a find this was! Innovative, delicious food with friendly, professional service; I tried to convince them to leave Seward and come to New Jersey! No dice… 

The Cookery and Oyster Grill, Seward
The executive chef/owner, Kevin Lane, has got it going on! Starting our evening with BLToast (fabulous house bacon, tomato jam, & arugula), and the House Rustic Bread (salted butter, sun-dried tomato pesto), we knew we had come to the right place. For our main courses, I had the incredible “Smoked Brisket Steak Au Jus” served with fingerling potato/cabbage hash and sweet/sour tomatoes. Barry had a special of delicate pan-seared Sable fish that was just outstanding. 

But it was the desserts at The Cookery that really blew us away. My husband has a world-class chocolate obsession. So of course, his choice was the Chocolate Charcuterie (dark chocolate “salami,” smooth “pate,” and crackers). OMG. Even I, not a chocolate-obsessed individual, could not get enough of this.

My dessert that evening was (are you ready?) Cream cheese ice cream, balsamic reduction, and strawberries. To put this in perspective, I LOVE ice cream. When presented with dessert options at a restaurant, if there’s homemade ice cream on the menu, that’s it, I’m done. This ice cream dish at The Cookery was probably the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Hands down. This may even beat some of the gelato I’ve had in Italy. No kidding. Do you live in Seward? Are you anywhere near Seward? Get yourself to The Cookery. Now. This was our best restaurant meal of the trip.

Mama & baby Moose
Bull Moose
Dall Sheep
After returning to Anchorage, we met up with friends who graciously offered to show us the beauty of their state, starting in Talkeetna. A rustic little town supposedly the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure (I could see the resemblance). While in Talkeetna, we stayed at the beautiful Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, with incredible, dead-on, gorgeous views of Mt Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley). Wow. That’s all you can say about Denali. Magnificent also comes to mind. We were especially lucky to have unobstructed views of  the 20,310 foot Denali for almost two days. Our friends tell us this is very rare. Most days, Denali is shrouded in clouds and many people never get to see it at all. Denali is so high it has its own weather system (wow, again).

From Talkeetna, we headed north to Denali (Denali means “tall one” in the native Athabaskan language) National Park and Preserve. If you have not heard, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and Denali was the first park commemorated. It’s a good year to see YOUR national parks.

Chocolate Pot de Creme
Scallops with Crispy Prosciutto
Espresso Ice Cream
We had dinner on our one evening in the park at 229 Parks. Talk about in the middle of nowhere! Laura Cole, chef/owner, is a James Beard award nominee, and it shows. Housed in a beautiful log-cabin-type structure (built by the chef’s husband), with warm light streaming in and fresh flowers everywhere, the food is inventive and delicious. This restaurant is an oasis in a sea of not so great food options within Denali. My scallops with crisp prosciutto was a dream. Desserts were knock-outs, too. Our friends loved the Chocolate Pot de Creme, and true to form, I had the luscious Espresso ice cream. If you visit Denali National Park, and want a real treat, make a reservation at 229 Parks.

The next day it was time to see the park. One of the few ways to see a small part of the six million acres that is Denali, is via a NPS bus tour. They restrict personal vehicles to preserve and protect the precious wildlife that call Denali home. We took a six hour (yes, six hours) tour that slowly traverses the mostly unpaved roads (and sometimes scary, no-margin-for-error hairpin turns). It was long, but during that tour we saw moose (including a mother with babies), caribou, bear, Dall sheep, eagles, and countless other birds. 

What an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip this was! As one of our cruise expedition leaders described it, “Alaska: more eagles than bears, more bears than people.” Eagles dot almost every tree in Alaska, but you never lose that sense of awe every time you see one. And that’s the way it should be. 

All pictures copyright The Cook's Tour 2016. No reproduction or downloading without express permission.

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