Sunday, July 26, 2009

Southwest Meets Northwest...

If you've been reading my blog, you might know that I absolutely love summer. Even those hot, humid days we tend to get here in NJ (I prefer to think of them as "sultry"). I think everything is better in the summer - people are more relaxed (no annoying snow and ice to contend with), no need for bulky coats, bounties of fresh fruit and veggies, and a few more hours of daylight to enjoy your favorite outdoor activities. We took advantage of a beautiful midsummer's night this past Friday when we had a few friends over for dinner al fresco. We had a lovely evening and the forecasted rain held off until we were just finishing up dessert.

In case you're wondering about the "Southwest Meets Northwest" title, that was the theme of our dinner. Appetizers from Mexico and the Southwest US and dinner and dessert from the Pacific Northwest. Everything was sublime.

A casual first course as people gather helps ease everybody into the evening. A selection of different salsas with some interesting chips is always fun. But a new (and oh so simple) entry into the appetizer arena is fried Queso Blanco. This versatile cheese from Mexico is similar to mozzarella in texture, but to enjoy it you need to do nothing more than slice it in about 1/2 inch sections, add it to a non-stick pan, and fry until it's toasted a golden brown. Absolutely delicious! Dipping into the salsa adds a nice dimension.

After appetizers, we quickly traveled to the great Northwest - home of wild salmon, Pinot Noir, and blueberries. We are kind of obsessive when it comes to salmon - no farm raised for us, thank you very much. So when our local Costco had fresh Alaskan wild salmon available, there was no doubt that would be our main course. Barry selected a beautiful piece of salmon and I selected this recipe from the August issue of Gourmet. We've done cedar-plank salmon before, but we usually just season it with fine sea salt and pepper. This recipe called for a mixture of lemon zest, rosemary, grainy mustard, and maple syrup to be spread on the salmon before grilling. Grilled to perfection in about 15 minutes, after soaking the cedar plank for about 2 hours, it was definitely the centerpiece of our dinner. Complementing the salmon nicely was a lovely Pinot Noir (there are so many delicious Pinots from the Oregon wine growing region, you almost can't go wrong with any choice). Our friend, Noreen, brought a terrific pasta salad dotted with Kalamata olives, sundried tomatoes, and capers - like herself, it was perfectly dressed. Grilled asparagus, romaine hearts (have you tried grilled romaine yet? if not, you should), and fresh Jersey corn rounded out our dinner. What could make this meal even better you might ask?

Well, I'll tell you: Blueberry Pie with Almond Crumble Topping. Yes, I'm kind of on a pie kick and a blueberry kick (see last week's post here) but really, when you can get gor-
geous, fat blueberries you must avail yourself of them. And I made my own crust this week - I had the time and it was well worth it. I was pretty pleased with myself when it came out of the oven, but when I served it with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and tasted the sweet blueberries with the delicious marzipan crumbs, I thought this recipe might be a keeper. When one of our friends had two pieces, I knew it was.

You should plan a midsummer's night dinner soon - it's almost August and you know what comes right on the heels of August...that's right, Fall and Winter. But I'm not thinking about that now. I'm savoring the many tastes and joys of summer.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Nothing says summer to me like pie. I love the "idea" of pie, the whole sort of image it conjures up. I see county fairs and picnics - bakers bringing their best pie to show off.

I didn't set out to make pie this weekend; in fact, I was going to make one of the delicious-sounding (and looking) fruity bar cookie recipes in the July issue of Bon Appetit. But there were two things that triggered my pie making event. First, I came across a recipe for blueberry pie in a magazine I never read (Family Circle -I was stuck in a doctor's office with very slim pickins' for reading material). And second, I remembered an interview with Michelle Obama in O Magazine shortly after the inauguration where she was just gushing about the pie in the White House. Not just how good the pie was, but the constant availability of it. So I thought to myself, pie! And just to seal the deal, beautiful, big blueberries are everywhere right now.

Because I didn't want to spend one more second inside than I had to (bee-utiful weather here this weekend), I drastically cut corners and used packaged, refrigerated pie crusts (I know, please don't hate me). Once I got over my shame and guilt (in about 3 seconds), I was able to whip the filling together in a flash. The recipe calls for a lattice top, but frankly if I wasn't going to spend time making my own crust, I certainly wasn't going to detract from my outdoor time by cutting little strips of dough and weaving them together. I added some cinnamon and fresh nutmeg to the blueberry mixture because it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Let me tell you, this was PIE in every delicious sense of the word. Nothing but sweet, juicy blueberries in a pretty decent crust. I didn't glom it up with too many extraneous flavors, or ice cream, or even a dollop of creme fraiche. Just the berries, ma'am. That's all you need.

One housekeeping issue before we get to the recipe: The Cook's Tour is getting it's own web site address! Yes, we've taken the plunge and purchased our own URL. The current web site should transition seamlessly and you will probably never notice anything, but please make note of our new address: Thank you!

Blueberry Pie (adapted from Family Circle Magazine, June 2009)

1 package refrigerated rolled-out pie crusts (or your own pie crust recipe)
2 packages (1 pint each) blueberries
2/3 C plus 1 t sugar
1/4 C cornstarch
dash cinnamon
dash fresh nutmeg
1 t fresh lemon zest
2 TB fresh lemon juice
1 egg white, lightly beaten

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll crusts out slightly. Fit one crust into a 9 inch deep-dish pie plate. Set aside second crust.

In a large bowl, toss blueberries, 2/3 C of the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon zest and juice. Let stand 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, with a pastry cutter or pizza cutter, cut remaining crust into 1/2 inch wide strips.

Transfer blueberry mixture to crust-lined pie plate. Weave a lattice top, alternating strips of crust. Crimp edges to seal. Brush crust with egg white, sprinkle with remaining teaspoon of sugar.

Bake pie at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue to bake for an additional 45-50 minutes or until center is bubbly and crust is golden (tent with foil if browning too quickly). Serve slightly warm with vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The All Dessert Posting

Most of my postings involve a dessert or a baked good, I know. But today's post is about a day filled with desserts! How luscious is that?

First of all, it was a picture-perfect summer day here -- lovely blue sky, sun beaming, a light wind, 75 degrees, and no humidity - one of only about 10 or so days that we get like this in the New Jersey/New York area. We spent a good part of it visiting the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. A special trip to Sweet Melissa Patisserie for brunch with our friends, Pete & Melissa. I've lived in this part of the country all my life but have never been to Brooklyn. But you know me, I'll go just about anywhere for the promise of outstanding bakery items. We sat in their garden and enjoyed a delicious brunch - potato and leek quiche, frittata of summer squash, a European-style breakfast, and good coffee. But the real enjoyment for me came when we went next door to the Sweet Melissa bakery and purchased the fabulous cupcakes and Madeline's you see in this photo. The cupcake is chocolate with a ganache frosting and the Madelines run from dark chocolate to pistachio, and everything was just delicious.

Also in the photo are sweets from The Chocolate Room, almost directly across the street from Sweet Melissa. A cafe and chocolate bar filled with the most exquisite chocolate confections, ranging from Knipschildt chocolates to homemade ice cream, to chocolate-centric desserts. We bought a small sampling of several of the chocolates to enjoy after dinner today. I just finished the rest of my Smoking Loon Zin with a Marzipan and Pistachio Truffle - what a way to end the weekend.

Not to be outdone, when dark clouds loomed overhead yesterday afternoon and squashed my plans of lazily floating around the pool, I scooted inside and whipped up a quick dessert for the weekend: Cherry Brown Butter Bars (thank you, Smitten Kitchen). This is an absolutely fabulous vehicle for the cherries in season right now. They are cut into little squares, and how convenient is that because believe me, you cannot eat just one. The brown butter gives these bars a delicious, toasty quality, almost like brown sugar. The sweetness of the cherries with the cookie crust and the butter-vanilla filling is heavenly. And it goes together very easily -- the most time consuming part is pitting the cherries (do yourself a favor and buy a cherry pitter before starting this dish). Enjoy!

Cherry Brown Butter Bars

Makes 16 2-inch square bars (pictured), or 32 2×1-inch bars


7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
Pinch of salt


1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, diced
1 pound sweet cherries, which will yield 12 ounces of pitted cherries, which yielded some leftovers, perfect for snacking (alternately, you can use 12 ounces of the berry of your choice)

Make crust: Preheat over to 375°F. Cut two 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the 8-inch width of an 8×8-inch square baking pan. Press it into the bottom and sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, perpendicular to the first sheet.

Using rubber spatula or fork, mix melted butter, sugar, and vanilla in medium bowl, or in the bottom of the small saucepan you used to melt the butter. Add flour and salt and stir until incorporated. Transfer dough to your prepared pan, and use your fingertips to press the dough evenly across the bottom of the pan. Bake the crust until golden, about 18 minutes (it will puff slightly while baking). Transfer crust to rack and cool in pan. Maintain oven temperature.

Make the filling: Cook butter in heavy small saucepan (a lighter-colored one will make it easier to see the color changing, which happens quickly) over medium heat until deep nutty brown (do not burn), stirring often and watching carefully, about six minutes. Immediately pour browned butter into glass measuring cup to cool slightly.

Whisk sugar, eggs, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add flour and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Gradually whisk browned butter into sugar-egg mixture; whisk until well blended.

Arrange pitted cherries, or the berries of your choice, in bottom of cooled crust. Carefully pour browned butter mixture evenly over the fruit. Bake bars until filling is puffed and golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes (this took about 50 minutes in my oven - watch your bars carefully). Cool bars completely in pan on rack.

Use the parchment paper overhang to carefully remove cooled bars from pan and place them on a cutting board and cut them into squares with a very sharp knife. The cherries, if they fall over your slicing lines, will want to give you trouble but if you saw a sharp knife into them slowly before pressing down, they’ll cut neatly and with minimum carnage.

Do ahead: Can be made at least a day ahead, and stored at room temperature. Any longer, keep them cool in the fridge.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Rain in Maine...

...falls mainly on our vacation. Apparently, the Jersey rain followed us north.But even though our vacation was a wash-out, and therefore, cut short, we still managed to get in some must-do eating. So, without further delay, here now, the promised follow-up to my Maine travelogue (apologies up front for the weird spacing -- a Blogspot quirk).

The first stop: a late dinner at Wo's BBQ on Verona Island. This was not on the original food itinerary, but after getting a much later departure out of NJ and 8 hours in the car, all we wanted to do was get something to eat and relax. Wo's popped up on the main thoroughfare from Rt 1 to Verona Island about two years ago. Just a man and his smoker by the side of the road. Of course, we had to investigate. It seems Wo relocated to Maine from Florida with a desire to bring real smoked pit BBQ to Maine. We skidded into their parking lot just as they were closing, but Mrs Wo took pity on us and offered us some dinner to go. Those pulled pork sandwiches, topped with cole slaw, and Wo's homemade, just-spicy-enough, chipotle BBQ sauce hit the spot. I was so delirious from the ride that I wolfed down the sandwich without taking any photos!

The next day we returned to our planned itinerary. Lunch at Crosby's Drive-in in Bucksport was first up. Crosby's is an old-fashio
ned kind of place (no web site): park your car, place your order at the window, wait for your number to be called, pick up your tray-o-food at the counter, and find a spot at a picnic table or eat in your car. Feast your eyes on the glorious
fried seafood in these photos. Fried seafood is a staple up and down the coast of Maine, and we have sampled it in many locales. But we keep coming back to Crosby's. The clam roll is my favorite - huge,
sweet clams with just
a light coating of breading to keep all those little clams together. Another big hit is the scallop roll - moist, delicious scallops, gently fried, not a hint of grease anywhere.

Later that same day, we drove north toward
beautiful Bar Harbor and had dinner at Red Sky in Southwest Harbor (view full menu here). Let me come right out with it: this restaurant and this meal rank in my top 5 dining experiences. They hit every note right. When I first read about Red Sky in the July issue of DownEast Magazine, I thought it sounded good, but I had no idea how good. Run by Elizabeth and James Lindquist (she of the front of the house and he manning the stoves), and a very capable staff, they welcome you into their "home," and make you feel like you never want to leave. The restaurant encompasses a beautiful, warm space - deep burgandy walls behind the bar, lovely muted pastels in the dining room. They have installed a wonderful "comfortable-ness" to this restaurant. The owners and staff exude a zen-like calm that pervades the building.

The night we dined there, James greeted us at the door and sat us. Not dressed in chef's whites, I had a pang of fear that he wasn't cooking that night and our meal might not be what I had hoped for. Not to worry, he apparently has trained his kitchen staff very well. James set about to offer us a cocktail or a sample of the Malbec he was pouring that evening and to tell us about the restaurant. Then he left us to relax, enjoy our wine, and peruse the menu.

A small basket of wonderful, crusty bread with a dish of perfectly softened butter appeared at our table delivered by our very pleasant waitress (you notice, I delightfully have no idea what her name is...) who returned to her home state after living in Austin, Texas for awhile. There was absolutely no rush on her part for us to order even though the restaurant was filling up fast for the evening.

We began our dinner with two outstanding appetizers: House-made Duck and Pork Sausage with a Cranberry Pear Relish and Spicy Whole-grain Beer Mustard, and the Sauteed Maine Shrimp over Sweet Potato Parsnip Latkes with Spiced Peanut Sauce (see photo of shrimp). Both dishes were delicious and we lapped up every morsel, but the stand-out ingredient was the mustard from the first dish. It was, by far, the most delicious, interesting mustard of its type we've ever had. When we raved about it and asked our server where it came from, she said it was house-made (I don't think there is much here not house-made).

With a start like that, I could hardly wait to see our entrees. We were not disappointed. Barry had a hard time deciding between the Baby Back Ribs slowly braised, then finished on the grill with a maple glaze, and the Grilled Round of Lamb marinated in Dijon, EVOO, Roasted Garlic and Rosemary, with a Cider Mint Reduction. Our server, based on her years in Austin, heartily recommended the ribs, but Barry ultimately decided to go with the lamb. Even though my Libra-like tendencies usually kick in at critical decision points, this evening I had no trouble making a choice. From my first pass
at the menu, I knew I'd be ordering the Seared Tuna with a "lively" Lime Ginger Glaze, Sesame Soba noodles and a Cucumber Salad. OMG - pay careful attention here, people: these two dishes were THE BEST of their kind either of us EVER had ANY
WHERE. I don't give in to superlatives easily, but it is so well deserved here.

The lamb was from Colorado where James lived for a time. The tenderness of the lamb combined with the unusual and delicious cider mint reductio
n was just outstanding. Now, about that tuna. I have enjoyed seared tuna many times, and at some of the best seafood houses around, but this was unlike anything else. First of all, the size of the portion was huge. Grilled perfectly rare, butter-soft, and seasoned just right, there was not a bite left when I was done. Not to mention, the soba noodles and cucumber salad. I was a little wary of the soba noodles as I ordered, given previous experiences with them, but these were incredible - delicious flavor and light, light, light.

Room for dessert? What do you think? You people know me so well. There were several good choices on the dessert list, but using my laser-like dessert-scoping abilities, I zeroed in on "James' Gingerbread." With a description like this: "served toasted with our own caramel sauce and cream cheese whipped cream spiked with apple brandy,"
how could I choose anything else? It had me at "hello!" I am not normally a big fan of caramel, but this was so soft and mellow; and when grouped with the other ingredients, I was hooked. I'm sure you've had gingerbread before -- the plebian versions served around the winter holidays. I've had my share of those, too. This just wasn't on a different plane, this was from another galaxy. This was GINGERbread - emphasis on the fabulous, biting ginger taste at the back of your throat. But wait, there's more. The whipped cream cheese? This was ethereal. I've been a baker for many years (and a cheesecake baker at that) but I've never had cream cheese like this. It was like little clouds of sweet air lightly landing on my plate.

There are very few restaurants (most of them are in Italy) where before the meal is over I'm exclaiming, "I can't wait to come back here." Red Sky has been added to the list. Scratch that: I must come back here. I'm already scheming to see if I can wrangle a birthday dinner here in October (ah, Fall in New England...).

When the waitress brought our check, she deftly planted a small to-go container on our table. What did it contain? Some of that terrific mustard...which I am hoarding for a virtual trip back to Red Sky to tide me over until I can return.