Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Cook's Tour - 2014 Year in Review

Dispatch New Jersey
December 30, 2014

The end of 2014 marks my sixth year of writing The Cook’s Tour (wow!). I’d like to thank you, the readers, for taking the journey with me. I am always happy when you comment on my posts, and even more so when you tell me that you enjoyed a restaurant I wrote about, or a new food product I’ve tried, or a recipe I’ve suggested. So I thought the approaching year-end would be a great time to review where the Tour has gone this year. Come along with me as we revisit highlights!
Vetri Cookie/Chocolate Plate
January saw the recap of our wonderful post-Christmas trip to Philadelphia.  There were several great food experiences, but the definite highlight was our dinner at Vetri. As I wrote in that post, and even after a year to reflect, Vetri was one of the best food experiences ever! Expensive? Yes, but one of those “musts,” along with places like Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or Fore Street in Portland, if you are a  serious food lover.

We also visited DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal. The polar opposite of the Vetri experience, but no less delicious. Their signature sandwich, roast pork with escarole and sharp provolone is not to be missed if you go to Philly!

Also a "don't miss" is the incomparable cinnamon ice cream at Bassett's.

And rounding out January was the Super Bowl right in our own backyard! Of course, there was some grousing about traffic, crowds, etc (remember, this is New Jersey!), but all went off without a hitch. That occasion gave me a chance to repost my award-winning South of the Border Super Bowl Baskets, which you should definitely add to either your New Year’s Eve/Day menus, or February’s Super Bowl party list. They are quick, easy, and delicious!

Then the depths of winter were upon us. New Jersey, and the entire Northeast, suffered through one of the worst winters ever. In terms of blog posts, the winter was a little lean, but I did find time to bake these fabulous Nutella Brownies – make these, people! You will not be disappointed and they just might get you through the long, dark winter.

In the early spring, I visited CafĂ© Matisse in Rutherford and the new Mighty Quinn’s BBQ in Clifton. You can’t get two more different restaurant experiences if you tried. Follow the links to read about them.
Perfect Soft Shells

Since I’m starting (already!) to pine for summer, I am going to skip ahead to my July 26th article about a wonderful soft shell crab dinner we enjoyed on the deck. Just looking at the pictures makes me feel better.

September saw us heading up the GSP to Red Hat on the River in Irvington, NY. This is going to be an annual trip, I think, because it’s got two essential elements of a perfect fall road trip (good food and beautiful water views).
Lost Kitchen

Lost Kitchen

Lost Kitchen Oysters

We were lucky to get reservations at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine during our late September trip. And it was a good thing we got there before the New York Times put the restaurant on the map because the chances of getting in there again are slim. This restaurant is right up there with the best of them. A superb culinary experience.

Palace Diner corned beef hash
Palace Diner sublime eggy, custardy French Toast
On the way home from Maine, we had one of the best breakfasts ever at The Palace Diner in Biddeford. These guys know what they're doing. Why, oh why, are there no places like this in north Jersey??? 

In November, the nice folks at the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, once again, invited me to join them on their annual NY State Dairy Tour. If you haven’t been to the Finger Lakes region of New York, you must add this to your travel planner. They've got it all up there: gorgeous lakes, great food, and fabulous vineyards.
"The Girls" at Patterson Family Farms

Rounding out the year was our trip to Austin, Texas just a couple of weeks ago for five days of BBQ! You read that right. We traveled to Austin strictly for BBQ. That post is coming in January (here's a sneak peek at what's to come):
Franklin BBQ Brisket

Here’s wishing you health, happiness, and good food in 2015!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Luvo Flatbreads

I was just introduced to a delicious new product from Luvo, a company whose philosophy is, food should be delicious, nutritious, and it should come from a good place (meaning supporting farmers, using non-GMO, antibiotic-free meat and poultry). They also believe the smart choice should be an easy choice (don’t sacrifice nutrition or taste in the name of convenience).

That all sounds great but you know I’m all about the taste, ‘bout the taste, ‘bout the taste (sorry, couldn’t resist)! The folks at Luvo sent me four varieties (2 breakfast and 2 lunch/dinner); mushroom and egg flatbread with spinach ricotta, and an apple-cinnamon flatbread with apricot ricotta. The lunch/dinner flatbreads were a caramelized onion mushroom with ricotta cheese, and a market vegetable flatbread with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and bell peppers.
Apple Cinnamon Flatbread

First off, they are quick and easy to prepare. Pop them into your toaster oven (the recommended prep) and bake for 6-8 minutes. I am definitely a breakfast person so I was eager to try those products first. Really liked the apple-cinnamon-apricot-ricotta flatbread. Thankfully, the flax seed crust was not what I expected (i.e., resembling cardboard). It was appropriately crunchy with a nice, toasty, wheat flavor. But the real plus here was the topping! Delicious, not-too-sweet, chopped apple-apricot jam over ricotta. There are two flatbreads to a box (breakfast versions), and one flatbread definitely kept me going for a few hours. They are low in fat, high in fiber and protein, and only 240 calories (one flatbread).

Unfortunately, they’ve got some work to do on the mushroom-egg flatbread. I liked the concept, but the eggs just don’t translate well to toaster oven preparation.

Caramelized Onion Mushroom Flatbread
A couple of days later it was time to try the dinner varieties. The caramelized onion and mushroom flatbread was delicious and the definite winner of the two flavors. Again, the platform is a flax seed crust. This time it’s topped with nicely caramelized onions, tender mushrooms, and a ricotta-herb topping. A clever addition is a packet of balsamic glaze that you add when the flatbread comes out of the oven. This gives it a little zip. Add a salad, a glass of sauvignon blanc, and you’ve got a quick, tasty dinner.

With the New Year holiday later this week, I could see these cut into wedges for an easy cocktail party appy or as part of your brunch menu.

The dinner/lunch varieties have one flatbread per box for 191 calories.

Luvo Flatbreads are available in supermarkets around the country.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

New York State Dairy Tour 2014

Baby Calf at Patterson Family Farm
Do you know where your milk comes from? No, this isn’t a joke with a cutsie answer (“duh, a cow,” or worse yet, “duh, the store”). I mean, how does it get from the cow to the store to you? The process may surprise you.

On a recent weekend in the New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region, I followed the entire process of milk production. Visiting the Patterson Family Farm in Auburn, NY, we met the sixth generation of this family that started dairy farming in 1832. Beginning with just 100 cows, they now have over 1,200 Holsteins. They also grow their own feed on 2500 acres (corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, grass, and hay). It’s a huge operation with 30 full-time employees, growing to 45 during harvest.

But their main focus is the health and well being of their “girls.” These cows are treated like VIPs – the best feed (each cow eats 130 pounds per day!), freedom to roam around the barn, soft beds, automated brushing stations, and Afi tag pedometers to measure their exercise. Imagine a bovine spa resort!
Patterson Family Farm

One of the highlights of the farm visit was meeting the day-old calves, which were so cute and friendly. What a treat it was to be able to bottle-feed them!

Owners, Jon and Julie Patterson, are part of an innovative group of central New York dairy farmers who invested in and own the newly opened, state-of-the-art Cayuga Milk Ingredients (CMI) plant, which was the next stop on our tour.

Opened in June, after a two-year build, this is a one-of-a-kind, $101 million milk processing facility, and we were one of the first bloggers to tour it. The plant uses the latest technology to separate high quality milk into high quality components that are added to other products to boost nutritional value. They remove the water from the milk to produce dry ingredients, extending the shelf life to up to 18 months, meaning that ingredients produced today can be feeding children in South America and the Middle East in a short amount of time.

CMI processes 2.6 million pounds of milk trucked in every day from the area’s 36,000 cows. Just to put this into perspective, it takes nine pounds of milk to create one gallon!

Some of the products CMI produces are skim milk, condensed milk, cream, and protein powders. In fact, CMI is only the third plant in the world that can make a 90% protein powder. In the future, they hope to produce infant formula.

The plant is totally computer-operated, and it takes only 6-9 people to run the entire plant. Obviously, there is a heavy focus on bio-security. We had to don paper lab coats, hairnets, and booties for the tour (we were oh so attractive!) and were not allowed to take any pictures (photos at CMI were provided).

After lunch at our hotel, Geneva on the Lake, we were off to the next logical progression in our dairy tour: a cooking class at the New York Wine and Culinary Center to create some delicious dairy-based dishes.  Opened in 2006, the center was built to create a place where the people of New York and visitors to the area could learn about and enjoy the delicious foods and wines of the region. Besides a well-equipped kitchen classroom for a wide range of culinary interests, the center boasts a restaurant, a Wine Spectator educational center, a wine tasting room, and a culinary boutique. It is quite impressive.

Chef Jeffory McLean (or “Cheffory,” as they call him), Lead Instructor at the center, paired the group into teams and gave us directions for our recipes. My husband and I were assigned “Inside Out Poutine.”
Cheese Curds!
Inside Out Poutine
If you are not familiar with it, poutine is the Canadian dish consisting of cheese curds, French fries, and brown gravy that is slowly sweeping the US (a poutine restaurant has just opened in Chicago). Having never tried cheese curds, I was a little skeptical, but after Cheffory explained it, I was on board. The basic premise is as follows: you take a bit of mashed potatoes in your hand and form a hollow. Insert small portion of a cheese curd (we used Buffalo wing flavor), add more mashed potatoes to form a ball. Dip into an egg wash, and then roll in Panko crumbs, and deep fry. They were awesome! These would make a fabulous Super Bowl snack. Other teams at the class made a crudité plate with yogurt dipping sauce, Parmesan cups filled with a terrific pulled chicken topped with sour cream, and for dessert brownie cups filled with vanilla ice cream. A great night cooking with new friends in a beautiful facility!

So our milk journey came full circle – from the cow to the processing plant to the table. Next time you pick up a gallon of milk, a quart of ice cream, protein powder, or some yogurt, think about the long trip it’s taken to get to your store shelf.

The American Dairy Association and Dairy Council is a non-profit nutrition education organization funded by dairy producers in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Thanks to the ADADC for this informative, educational, fun, and delicious weekend!

All photos courtesy of Katie Becker Photography.