Thursday, January 23, 2014

Super Bowl New Jersey!

Believe it or not, not everyone in New Jersey is excited to have the Super Bowl in our backyard. Especially if you live in northern NJ. Which I do. Fifteen minutes away from Met Life Stadium. Can you see the back-up (without any, a-hem, "bridge closures") on the major arteries in/out of the Meadowlands? Can you picture the rest of us average folks trying to go about our daily lives? Get the picture? I thought you would.

Now that we're all on the same page, the Super Bowl is a perfect excuse for a party and it's not too early to start planning. If you're having a house party or going to one, I've got two great recipes for the start and finish of your Super Bowl festivities!

We begin with my award-winning South of the Border Super Bowl Baskets. A few years ago, I entered a ConAgra Super Bowl snack contest and won! These little appetizers are perfect party food - they are easy to make, delicious, and can be held in one hand while balancing a beer or glass of wine in the other (not that I'm advocating drinking during the Super Bowl). Made with spicy chorizo, guacamole, refried beans, and shredded Mexican cheese, they really hit the spot!

When the party starts to wind down, that's your cue to brew some coffee and trot out dessert.  I'm a big fan of coffee cakes. Not only are they delicious, but they invoke a warmth not found in other desserts. And at the end of a long day and night of Super Bowl fun, you want to send your guests home feeling warm and cozy. And this cake does just that!  Epicurious' Pear Streusel Coffee Cake is baked in a 9x13 pan so you'll have enough for a crowd and it can be made a day ahead, which is always a plus. A moist, sour cream cake topped with a delicious streusel full of crunchy pecans, hearty oats, and sweet pears. A great combo! And a nice use of a lovely winter fruit.  It doesn't really need it, but if you want to dress it up a bit, add a dollop of creme fraiche.

So even if your favorite team doesn't win on February 2, your party contributions will definitely split the uprights!

South of the Border Super Bowl Baskets

Pear Streusel Coffee Cake

Monday, January 20, 2014

Philadelphia Weekend, Part Two

Where were we? Oh yes, great meals in Philadelphia!

The Cook's Tour is not in the business of slamming sub-par restaurants so I will not go down that road. Just suffice it to say that our other two dinners in Philly were kind of mediocre so I certainly won't be going back to those restaurants on my next trip down there.

However, lunch at DiNic's was outstanding! Set in the Reading Terminal Market, DiNic's occupies a cozy spot in the middle of the market. We got there about 1pm on Saturday when the entire market was jumping. There is no real organization as to how you order or get a seat, but somehow it works. Basically, you get on the end of the line and inch your way up to the ordering spot. If, by some lucky streak, you happen to be standing behind a seated patron who gets up, bingo, you get a seat!  Well, the food gods must have been with us that day because after only about 10 minutes on line, the people sitting in front of us got up. And we slithered right in.  DiNic's is staffed by some very efficient waitresses who take your order and constantly monitor the action at the counter. The cooking and sandwich building is manned (literally, I didn't see any female cooks) by four or five cooks bustling around a not very large space.

Hubby and I shared the famous "best sandwich in America" (so named by Adam Richman), aka, roast pork with escarole and sharp provolone, on wonderful Italian semolina bread. The sandwich is definitely big enough for two. It's also messy, but in a delicious way. Sublime pork juices drip down your hands; tender, bitter "'scarole" florets escape from the bread, and shards of biting provolone are melting all over! I hate this term, but it really does fit here: it's a beautiful hot mess. I couldn't get enough of this sandwich. I secretly wished my husband wouldn't finish his half so I could scarf it up! Shhhhh!

DiNic's isn't a place you hang around. Once you're done, you move on. Also, counter vultures are circling for your seat!  But that was ok because I had one more stop to make in the market.

True, I was stuffed to the gills after my roast pork, but I wasn't leaving Philadelphia without a cinnamon ice cream cone from Bassetts.  This cinnamon ice cream is the gold standard. Sure, other ice cream purveyors offer this spiced confection, but they are usually too cinnamon-y. I have no idea how Bassetts formulates their recipe, but it is perfection. Now I could leave Philadelphia completely satisfied!

Lest you think all we did was eat, we also took advantage of some of the great art and history in Philly. We spent a good part of one day at The Barnes Foundation. This is an educational art and horticulture foundation established by Dr Albert Barnes in 1922. His vision was to "promote the advancement of education and the appreciation the fine arts and horticulture." He collected some of the greatest works in the world, including the masters of impressionism, post-impressionism, and early modern art. He was also very adept at collecting Pennsylvania German arts, and unique metal arts. We took a tour of the foundation with one of the docents, and it was truly enlightening. I highly recommend visiting the Barnes if you travel to Philly.

Our next stop was the new National Constitution Center. As stated so eloquently on their site, this is "the first and only non-profit, non-partisan institution devoted to the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed: the US Constitution." The center offers many rare artifacts and films, and cool interactive exhibits (I enjoyed pretending I was a Supreme Court Justice and offering my "opinion" on famous cases the Justices have heard). One of the most moving parts of the center is a 360-degree theatrical production called "Freedom Rising." Combining film with live actors, this takes you through the story of the US Constitution. The other part of the center that I loved was Signers Hall, with 42 life size bronze statutes of the founding fathers. Here we are chatting up George!

Of course, we couldn't leave without paying our respects to the Liberty Bell. We had seen it many years ago, but now it is housed in a brand new visitors center. What amazed me about this new house, is that the bell is protected by nothing more than a rope; no glass, no walls, separating you from it. It's out there in all its rough glory unprotected; close enough to touch (not recommended though, as the Park Ranger standing close by would be quick to remind you).

I have always felt that Washington, DC should be mandatory for every US citizen; now I'm adding Philadelphia to that mandate.

As I mentioned in part one of this piece, Philly hit all the right marks on our weekend getaway criteria. Can't wait to go back.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Philadelphia Weekend

The day after Christmas we hopped in the car and took ourselves on a little 3-day getaway for eating, drinking, and general touristy stuff.  Our criteria was simple:

  • Not more than a three hour drive from north Jersey
  • Great restaurants
  • Pampering hotels
  • Walkable
  • Good sightseeing 
Ding, ding!  And the answer is? What is Philadelphia?

An easy drive down the NJ Turnpike and two hours later we were checking in to the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. Smack in the heart of Philadelphia’s Center City, the Loews had everything we wanted – affordable rates, prime location, on-site bar (for that all-important pre-dinner cocktail), knowledgeable concierge, and free parking. Besides all that, we were upgraded to a high-level floor with gorgeous views of the City of Brotherly Love. William Penn, perched high atop City Hall, bid me good morning every day, and what a way to start the day!

Of course, I had done my homework re restaurants, museums, history sights, etc. At the top of the list (and for our first night) was Vetri. The restaurant sighted by Mario Batali as “possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast,” and by Alan Richman as “probably the best Italian restaurant in America,” was a must. I managed to get a 6:45pm reservation, and after a brisk walk, we arrived.  Situated in a lovely townhouse, Vetri, headed by chef/owner Marc Vetri, has only one type of dining experience – a tasting menu. I usually veer away from tasting menus because they are expensive and you rarely get enough to eat. But after reading about Vetri’s tasting menu, I was confident this would be different. Yes, it was expensive, but there was so much food, at one point, I considered telling them to not bring the next course.  Then I thought, “are you insane, you will probably never be back here again, bring it on!”  The food was exquisite. As was the service.

Before I begin, you will notice there is only one photo of our dinner at Vetri in this post.  Being an enthusiastic food blogger, I take pictures of almost all my meals (just in case I might write about them). But the atmosphere at Vetri was rarified. Not that it was pretentious or stuffy; on the contrary, it was very warm and welcoming. It was like dining in Chef Vetri’s home (one could only wish for that opportunity!) and taking photos in “his home” just didn’t feel right. I didn’t even feel that it was appropriate to take notes, so most of this is from my delicious memories!

As soon as you are seated, the wait staff offers you Prosecco and a plate of luscious stuzzichini (hors d’oeuvres). This consisted of probably the best olives I’ve ever had, house-cured salami, pastrami-spiced foie gras on toast (killer!), raw vegetables with a balsamic crema, and fabulous bread. Then the parade of courses begins.

As the staff explains, even though this is a tasting menu, each guest at the table receives a different item, this way you can sample more of the chef’s work. The first course is di pesce (fish). We were treated to Bocconcini di Baccala (small bites of delicious cod) and Pappardelle with Cockles and Tardivo. While I loved the luscious pasta in this second dish, the cockles, for my taste, were too salty and fishy. When I didn’t finish the dish, the server graciously offered to bring me a different fish item.

Next up, Di Verdure (vegetables). A Sweet Onion Crepe with Truffle Fondue was otherworldly. Delicious onions sautéed and enveloped in tender crepes with a delicate truffle sauce. Our second vegetable dish was the Ricotta Ravioli with Wild Pecan. One of the many things Vetri is known for is their pasta. I can’t begin to tell you how good these ravioli were. Which, for a food blogger, is not exactly a positive thing (LOL!).  These little pillows of fragrant ravioli filled with wild pecan were heavenly.

Di Terra (from the earth) was the next course. The famous Vetri Tortellini Pie, which is a distant relative of the timpano or timballo (see the movie “Big Night” for an in-depth course on timballo), is a fabulous little package of pastry-wrapped tiny “polpette” (pork, veal, and beef meatballs) with a “mortedella mousse Bolognese” topped with a velvety béchamel sauce. And if it couldn’t possibly get any better, it’s served with a 25-year old balsamic from Modena.  Follow this link to see Vetri Chef de Cuisine, Adam Leonti, making it. This was my favorite dish at Vetri.  The other earth course was Chestnut Fettuccine with Wild Boar Ragu. I must admit that before my dinner at Vetri, I had never tasted wild boar. This is a dish based on Chef Vetri’s days in Tuscany. He adds a bit of cocoa powder to cut the gaminess and enhance the flavor of the chestnut fettuccine.  One word, succulent!

Vetri’s sommelier will pair wines for each course, but we opted for a bottle of a delicious 2011 Barbera d’Alba that went beautifully with each course.

And, finally, Dolce (dessert). But Vetri doesn’t just bring your designated desserts. No, first there is “pre-dessert.” At this point, I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to take a picture! 

I would have been good with our little plate of luscious chocolates and cookies, but we were treated to a delicious Chocolate Polenta Souffle and a delicate Pistachio Flan with Milk Chocolate Gelato.

When you finally must leave this lovely cocoon of fine dining, the staff gives you a small bag with samples of Vetri’s wonderful coffee cake to savor with your next morning’s coffee. OK, they had me at “hello,” but that was the icing on the cake (so to speak).

Our meal at Vetri ranks in my top all-time meals. The first being Steirereck, in Vienna, the second, Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse in California. And now, Vetri, is added to that list. If you have the chance, go. It is not to be missed. Mario Batali and Alan Richman were right.

Part two of our Philly trip next week, where I will tell you about the second best meal of the trip – DiNic’s roast pork sandwich.

1312 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

1200 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107