The Cook's Tour: September 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

September Plums...


otherwise known as Italian Prune Plums. They are only available for a short period of time, right around mid-September so when I see them, I grab them. These little babies are full of purpley-sweet deliciousness. With beautiful gold flesh, they make terrific desserts. For me, the arrival of these plums heralds the coming of Fall.

One of my favorite prune plum recipes comes from a recipe my late mother-in-law made for years: Viennese Plum Cake. She clipped it from a newspaper who knows how long ago. The Xeroxed copy I have is wrinkled and stained from over-use (is there such a thing as over-use with good recipes?).

This is a perfect example of a cake that is good "plain or fancy." It is excellent as a simple coffee cake with no adornment whatsoever, but with a quick whip of some vanilla-tinged heavy cream, you could dress it up and serve it to some lucky dinner guests. And it is really fast to put together -- I made it Thursday night in about 15 minutes (not including baking time, obviously). Delicious warm out of the oven and at room temp. You cannot go wrong with this cake!

Viennese Plum Cake

1/2 C butter at room temp
1/2 C sugar
2 eggs
1/4 t salt
1 C flour
1 t baking powder
16 medium-sized Italian prune plums - washed, halved, pitted
1/2 C sugar
2 t cinnamon
1 TB butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8x8 square pan.

Cream together butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Blend together salt, flour and baking powder in small bowl. Combine flour mixture with butter mixture. Spread dough evenly in prepared pan. Place plums skin side down on top of batter.

Mix together cinnamon/sugar combination; sprinkle over plums (this mixture seems like too much, but use it all). Dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until top is golden.

Wrapped well, it keeps for 4-5 days (this is just an estimate because it never lasts that long).



Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fascino - Montclair, NJ



While it is Italian in cuisine and lineage, Fascino in Montclair, NJ is by no means your average Italian restaurant. Set toward the not-yet-totally re-gentrified end of Bloomfield Avenue, Fascino sits back quietly unassuming, confident in its abilities to provide high-end, sophisticated food and service. This is the kind of culinary evening people in the north Jersey area previously had to travel to New York to experience. And while there are many fine restaurants in Montclair and the surrounding areas, Fascino is a cut above.

Headed in the kitchen by Executive Chef, Ryan DePersio, the food practically glows as it makes its way to your table. We have been visiting Fascino since they opened in 2003 and it keeps getting better. Last night's meal was no exception. An amuse bouche, consisting of a bite-sized morsel of crisp halibut sitting so daintily in a light yogurt sauce, was presented to our group. Just enough to whet your appetite for what lay ahead. I wanted more.

Excellent breads from Gina's Bakery (also in Montclair) made their way to our table along with an incredibly fruity olive oil.

One of my favorite spring/summer items is fresh Zucchini Flowers and
Ryan stuffs them with Maine Peekytoe Crab and ricotta and lightly fries them. It is served with a
light, fresh yellow tomato Gazpacho. Incredible.

Fascino is BYO, which is always a plus for us. And even better for us last night, our dinner companion was a friend who is a wine consultant and he brought a delicious Orvieto from a small, family vineyard in Tuscany. Just acidic enough, this crisp white blended perfectly with the zucchini flowers and Bernie's appetizer of Fresh Seafood Salad. For the record, he couldn't stop "oohing and aahing" over the incredible array of seafood laid before him - shrimp, clams, squid, octopus - see the photo above for the beautiful presentation.

Since it was a rainy, chilly evening, it seemed appropriate to order a Fall-like dish (truth be told, I never really need an excuse to order Osso Buco). Ryan's Veal Osso Buco served with brussel sprouts over a pillow of delicious sweet potato puree, was mind-blowing. That's my Osso Buco at the top of the post - look at the gorgeous shellac on that shank! A gentle prod with my fork sent the ever-so-tender meat cascading into the potato puree, creating a wonderful taste combination. That veal shank was picked clean when I was done.

My husband ordered the exact same meal as me, but when I told our wine-knowledgeable friend, Bernie, that all the pastas are house-made, his fate was sealed. Tagliatelle
with Shredded Short Ribs was the winner - it looked (and by all accounts) tasted fabulous. Our wine for dinner was a 2004 La Vigna Mobile, a super Tuscan made up
primarily of Sangiovese grapes. A terrific accompaniment to the food.

A unique and delicious side is the Mascarpone Polenta Fries with Gorgonzola Fonduta (OMG!). Imagine these as Italy's answer to our own French fries or France's pomme frite! These disappeared from our table in a flash. Light, crispy, with an earthy richness - IMHO I don't think you even need the gorgonzola sauce. These are not to be missed.

A true family operation, Ryan's mother, Cynthia DePersio, is the Pastry Chef. Being a baker myself, I always look forward to trying one of Cynthia's creations. Last night's choice: Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Sundae
with Midnight Chocolate Sauce and Chocolate Coffee Bean Crisp ("HELLO!"). While my dining companions all professed to not being able to eat another bite after dinner, somehow there were three spoons in my dessert. This might be my new favorite dessert at Fascino.

There is a welcoming warmth about Fascino. Whether it's the deep red banquettes you slide into, or the greetings from the DePersio family (Ryan's brother, Anthony, is the GM and their father, Anthony Sr, is usually lending a hand with front of the house duties), dining at Fascino is always a pleasure. Now celebrating its' fifth anniversary, the "fascination" continues at Fascino.
Fascino on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Weekend Wrap-up

Well, we never got to the ribs I was so hopeful about last week, but it was one of the most relaxing weekends in a long, long time. There was alot of great food, though, so not to worry.

Friday was a terrific opener. After a late Thursday night work-related event in NYC, I was thankful to work from home in the morning; then we took a nice ride through some picturesque NJ backroads in my husband's just-recently-purchased, previously-owned convertible. My new weekend equation: beautiful, blue skies + warm breezes + a convertible = something pretty close to divine. There is nothing better than tooling around on a nice day in a convertible. Definitely good for what ails ya...

Later that day, with nothing really planned for dinner, I remembered reading a review in New Jersey Monthly for a Thai restaurant in Belleville. Since my husband, Barry, is always lobbying for us to visit non-Italian restaurants (not that he is anti-Italian food, in fact, he loves it, but there is a definite glut of Italian restaurants in NJ and Italian is always my go-to cuisine), I thought this was worth a visit. Topaz Thai is a small, family-run operation with "Mama," otherwise known as Wanida, at the helm. Wanida cooks for you like you were in her home; everything is fresh, plentiful, and cooked to order. When she learned that Barry had requested his food really spicy, and that he had been to Thailand many years ago, she came out to chat and to make sure he meant "really spicy." Wanida learned to cook at her mother's side in Thailand and this is the real deal. When I mentioned above that the food is fresh, I wasn't kidding: the fish of the day (Sea Bass) was caught that morning by Wanida's husband (a chef at the Pierre Hotel). It was delectable. We ordered it crispy and she suggested the chili sauce - definitely the right choice. We began the meal with two appetizers: Green Papaya Salad and Thai Spring Rolls. Both were wonderful. Looking forward to our next visit.

Topaz Thai on Urbanspoon
Sunday, we grilled Seasoned Chicken Burgers (from our favorite Goffle Road Poultry Farm), enjoyed with fresh corn, and Stiner's Famous Potato Salad. When we picked up the corn at the roadside stand in Chestnut Ridge, NY (just over the NJ border), the farmer had baskets of gorgeous apricots that I couldn't resist. I knew I had white nectarines waiting at home, now all I needed was a recipe. In my trusty recipe vault I found "Summer Fruit Crisp," a recipe (see below) that allows for many variations of fruit fillings. This was the perfect recipe for late summer stone fruits, and the crisp topping of butter, chopped walnuts, brown sugar was de-lish! I love the fact that you can use just about whatever fruit you have at home or can find at the local market -- the fig and cherry from the list below sounds divine.

Today, the last day of the long labor-less weekend, we are grilling chicken thighs in one of Barry's marinade concoctions that are always good, more corn (because at the end of the summer, you just can't get enough), potato salad redux, and probably another small helping of fruit crisp. Truly, a delightful way to cap the weekend. I hope good friends, great food, and a little R&R found their way to your home this holiday weekend.

Summer Fruit Crisp

8 Servings - serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a splash of good and thick heavy cream (good vanilla ice cream would also do nicely).

Crisp Topping:

1-1/4 C flour
1/2 C firmly packed light brown sugar
7 TB sugar
Pinch of salt
10 TB (1 stick plus 2 TB) cold, unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
2/3 C slivered almonds or chopped walnuts
1 t vanilla extract (may substitute 1/2 t each vanilla and almond extract)
Confectioners' sugar for dusting the baked crisp (optional)

Fruit Filling:

5 C fruit (peeled, pitted, thickly sliced stone fruit; berries, or a combination of sliced fruit and berries; see variations below)
2 TB peach or apricot preserves
6 TB sugar, or more to taste (if the crisp is made entirely of blueberries or blackberries, or with very juicy fruit, blend 2 TB cornstarch into the sugar)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a deep 12-inch ovenproof baking dish.

For the topping: in medium bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, sugars, and salt. Scatter over the pieces of butter, and using a pastry blender (or two round-bladed knives), cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small flakes. Add the almonds of walnuts and the vanilla. Using your fingertips, work the mixture to form big and small cohesive lumps of topping. The pieces will be moist, buttery, and irregularly shaped. Set aside.

For the fruit: in a medium bowl, gently combine the fruit or berries, preserves, and sugar. Turn the fruit mixture into the baking dish. Strew the topping over it to form an even layer, but keep the crisp light rather than packing it down.

Bake at 375 for 40-45 minutes, or until the topping is set and golden and the fruit is bubbly. Sprinkle the top with confectioners' sugar, if desired. Serve warm.

Note: the crisp may be made into individual servings. Divide the fruit mixture among eight 1-cup ovenproof baking dishes and sprinkle on the topping. Place the dishes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 375 for 35-40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbly and topping is golden. Just before serving, dust tops with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

Variations: a combination of sliced fruit and berries creates a flavorful base.

Peach (or nectarine) and Blueberry: use 3 C thickly sliced peaches (or nectarines) and 2 C blueberries.

Peach, Plum, and Blueberry: use 2 C thickly sliced peaches, 2 C thickly sliced red plums, and 1 C blueberries.

Apricot and Cherry: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Apricot and Peach: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C thickly sliced (peeled) peaches).

Apricot and Blueberry: use 3 C (halved, pitted, quartered) apricots and 2 C blueberries.

Nectarine and Cherry: use 3 C thickly sliced nectarines and 2 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Plum and Cherry: use 4 C thickly sliced plums and 1 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.

Fig and Cherry: use 2 C (stemmed and quartered) figs and 3 C (stemmed and pitted) sweet cherries.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The End of the Non-Summer

This happens when summer, which is supposed to begin June 21, for some reason was confused this year and began around July 20. I'm talking about the lackluster summer we've had in New Jersey. And now Labor Day is upon us, which traditionally signals the end of the summer. But the weather prognosticators have signaled good weather for the week and I am going to soak up every last ray of warmth and sunshine.

I am feeling the need for ribs. We haven't done a rack of ribs all non-summer so this weekend must be it. I've been wanting to go to Blue Smoke in NYC for the Texas Salt 'n Pepper Crusted Beef Ribs, and maybe we'll do that this week. If not, in our cookbook library at home, we've got dozens of 'Q books so I'm sure we can rustle up a suitable rib recipe. Friends of ours in California, Ron & Phyllis, do ribs with a wonderful apricot BBQ sauce that just might do the trick.

Gotta get ready for my day job now. Will you be doing any special cooking this weekend? Let me know! I'll be back later in the week with the end of the non-summer food festivities.


Echo