No More Soul (food) Searching

Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern US. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations such as Charleston, Atlanta I call it “down home” cooking and think immediately of one of my favorite places packed with memories: New Orleans. While NOLA has its own brand of Southern food – Cajun – it’s all about soul too. My vision is an African-American family cooking together.

This is not a particularly health-mindful cuisine as many of the original cooks could not afford shortening to fry. They would use and re-use the cheaper lard. In order to be more appealing to a more food-educated society, some tradition is overlooked to save a few arteries, but ethnic preservationists argue that taste and tradition are sacrificed with the use of vegetable oil and the substitution of pork.

But what about the sweet potato? It saves the day with its beta carotene, and collard

20171119_134443

Candied Yams

greens are packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, helping to mask the other high levels of starch, fat and cholesterol. That’s why I highly recommend those two items as sides at Paula’s Soul Food Cafe in Hackensack, NJ. It’s easy to drive right by and not notice it among the two continuous rows of retail storefronts that comprise Main Street. But the word “Soul” got my attention.

I had just eaten lunch but needed to check it out for future reference. The cafeteria-style display of foods allowed me to get an overview and see its potential. Okay, I had to try something small, so I left with a side of candied yams.  That was enough to make me want to return for lunch the next Saturday.

I left there feeling a sense of culture, of family working together, even though we are in the North and the owners are Hackensack natives, which is not a town in Georgia. The Baileys opened their first location in the Bronx, and after two years, embarked on a hometown location. I saw a middle-aged gentleman dressed in a suit on the patron side of the counter, pointing at the younger man hustling behind the counter with other family members, proudly exclaiming to another: “That’s my son!” No sooner did he take off his jacket, roll up his collared shirt sleeves and jump behind the counter to assist.

After you peruse some of the items they have to offer – don’t miss out on the seafood offerings that may not be visible – you place your order and pre-pay. The food gets dished with generous portions on a plate and complemented with a piece of their cornbread (I missed the texture of some whole kernels in this version).

20171119_134049

Cornbread

Your name is called for pickup.

Generally, I am turned off by deep-fried foods because I imagine the unhealthy effects taking place the moment it is being ingested. There’s something about fried okra, though, 20171119_134046that transports me geographically and emotionally. It reminds me of gumbo (which can only be eaten in New Orleans in my opinion) and of my husband, who so often spoke about not being able to get good fried okra in this part of the country, and I agreed. So he made pickled jars of okra at home. Prepared any other way, it tends to have a slimy texture, but fried adds the exterior crisp needed to enjoy this vegetable. The South has a love affair that the rest of the country doesn’t understand. They fry, pickle, grill and add the green pod to stews. It contains potassium, vitamin B, vitamin C, folic acid, and calcium. It’s low in calories and has a high dietary fiber content. And Paula’s does it right, so go for it!

20171119_134042

Beef Short Ribs

A true testimony to the quality of food here: My tennis partner and I recently celebrated a winning match. He’s Jamaican, and I dared to suggest having a soul food lunch. As he viewed his options, he discounted the oxtail and told the woman, “I’m from Jamaica; I’ll try something else.” Our other friend got an order and offered a taste. Our MVP exclaimed, “Mmm, goodbye Jamaica!” There’s also chicken galore: baked, barbecued, fried, smothered; but the large turkey wings wound up being the dark horse.20171119_133817

20171119_134853

Sampling Away

Advertisements

In Search of Pie to Die For, Part II – The Stairway

It was only three days after I found a most delicious baker of pies in Southern Bergen County, New Jersey, and wrote this blog post, that I made a new discovery and found the stairway to the golden gate of the apple pie in the sky. It is nearly heavenly, but again, only Mom’s pies will ever be worthy of that adjective. I will not reveal a secret component.

To reiterate, unfortunately, Mom is under temporary medical care at a hospital in Northern Bergen County. I visit her daily, and food always seems to help improve the mood. Monday it was my homemade lasagna with ground turkey and broccoli. It was that same day I received a local news eblast and was attracted to a headline about a local farm making cider donuts for the season. It brought me over to this story on the best cider donuts from Bergen County farms: http://mahwah.dailyvoice.com/lifestyle/farm-fresh-these-four-places-have-bergens-best-cider-doughnuts/724031/. Not a huge donut fan, I was till piqued by the thought of the taste of the “best” of them. Coincidentally, the number one place, Abma’s Farm, was just half mile from where I had to go to see my Mom! The farm name is familiar to me because of a local supermarket’s long-standing partnership with this family of farmers for their produce.

Complete with an actual petting zoo, greenhouse and country store, Abma’s has been running for nine decades, and I’m ashamed to say it was my first time there. I am thrilled when I hear about the longevityIMG_5027 of a local family business. It warms my heart, and in this case, my belly. I walked into the market, doused with that country feel and in search of these outstanding donuts, and what did my wandering eyes see – PIES, rows of pies with golden, well-baked crusts and ingredients straight from the ground of this farm I was walking around on. What donuts? I saw good old covered apple pie with an open center (Erie did not have traditional basic pies, rather a little fancier on the flavors).

IMG_5026

There was a tug of war going on between the apple and the Swedish apple, which had walnuts as well, along with a baked crumble topping. According to Abma’s, they bake everything from scratch. All of their fresh ingredients are preservative free. They pride ourselves in baking the finest homemade pies, muffins, breads and treats from their own homegrown fruits and vegetables.

I hurried back to the office to share this Swedish Apple key to the gate but needed some IMG_5028unbiased opinions. It was unanimous! — This is among the best pies that my associates have tasted. A friend even called it, “Nearly as good as your Mom’s!” That’s huge! Not only do they have the freshest ingredients, but somebody there knows how to bake with them! Don’t they go hand in hand. What did they have the edge on — the edge! The crimped crust at Erie’s was a bit thicker and at moments was a little hard to get a fork through. I didn’t mind because fingers were used to break it off. But I favor the thinner, flakier pinched edge, even though both were browned to near perfection.

Take a trip and explore the bottom of the stairway leading to the golden pies. Other varieties included pumpkin (and pumpkin walnut), harvest (apple, cranberry, peach) and pecan. While you’re there, explore the homemade soups, eggs from their hens, and lunch and dinner options. Say hello or goodbye to the barnyard animals because you will be back.

 

In Search of Pie to Die For

If you know me or at least read my blog, you’ll know that my Swiss Miss Mom is a most delectable baker, with pies being a specialty. Anyone and everyone who is fortunate enough to catch me on an unselfish pie Sunday and who has tasted as little as a forkful will testify to the maximum level of deliciousness she delivers. Unfortunately, it’s been about a year since she has been well enough to perform her culinary craft, and that leaves me, family and friends pieless!

I have been in search of backup pie for years. Nothing is ever as good as Mom’s European love touch that forms every golden crust. I thought for certain that my favorite Italian pastry shop Pasticceria Rocco’s would deliver, but for me, it’s the one thing they fall short on.

IMG_4981

The dough is more like a sweet cookie crust and thick; I require flaky and thin pie crust, not a thick tart frame. It is good under another definition but not “pie”.

IMG_4982

I receive lists in food-oriented e-blasts of the “best pie in the country”, but it doesn’t help me when they are located 3,000 miles away in San Francisco or when I merely see a photo of a pie with a half-baked blonde-colored crust! Oh no; dough! However, one such establishment was on a list of best pies in Bergen County, NJ. I couldn’t imagine any of the mostly American bakeries in this county being able to deliver a Pie worth Dying for.IMG_4984Erie Bakery in Rutherford’s web site lists both sweet and savory pies, scones, muffins – more like European breakfast baked goods – no icing or color. So I happened to be passing the exit on the way back from a business meeting and took a quick detour to find a cute bakery with a window counter and a handful of stools. I immediately put it to the test by trying the pear-crumb muffin and the burnt banana bread. Everything is made on premises. I was quickly ready to graduate to pie. Unfortunately, only whole pies can be purchased. Surprisingly, there was no standard apple pie. Varieties include Buttermilk

Sweet Potato, Bourbon Pecan, Pumpkin Pepita, but I went with the Salted Caramel Apple Crumb. It was about 15 minutes before I couldn’t resist the temptation of the taste test. In went the fork, and when there was a slight struggle getting the prongs to easily go through the bumps in the crust, I knew there was great potential here.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4988At $30, this pie better have a lot of love packaged. It embraced me, and I felt as close to home as I’ve been on Sundays a year prior and past. Next came the judge and jury though. I was then on my way to visit mom. Even though she hasn’t been completely herself these days, I approached with the box and a plastic fork, opened it up and put it in front of her. Nothing was said, but the fork went from box to mouth repeatedly, and her fingers broke off that bumpy end. There was a pause as it rested in her mouth awaiting a verdict. It got a nod – passing grade. An hour later Dad called and said, “By the way, that pie you let me taste was very good.” So far, it leads the race in the chase towards Mom’s pies, even though they will always be a lap ahead of the rest of the pack. Finally, something can join the race as a temporary substitute.

IMG_4989

A Rekindled Bouley Affair

When I read that Chef Bouley would be closing his flagship restaurant, I felt like I was hearing second-hand that my boyfriend was breaking up with me. Why did I have to read about this on the popular EaterNY, where everyone else would know at the same time? We had a bond, Bouley and I, even though we hadn’t yet met. I’m sure he doesn’t recall our rendezvous during my 11th wedding anniversary. I returned a year later Rosmarie & Evyfor him to meet my mother. Okay, really it was just to celebrate Mother’s Day with a five-course lunch tasting. So you see, the two most important people in my life had been introduced to him.

Still, he sold his longtime home but didn’t leave town. In fact, I found out quickly where he resided, and so he left himself open to being stalked by a nostalgic gourmand. Truthfully, the restaurant Bouley sealed its significance in my heart when I lost my husband unexpectedly in 2016. I vowed not to return there yet, and now it’s a forced issue. But somehow, I received digital notification of an educational dining event taking place at Chef David Bouley’s new venue Bouley Botanical, an urban farms event space with over 400 species of edible plants growing in the window gardens, which are directly used in cooking the dishes served. It was a chance to reunite with my love affair – the man who epicuriously turned me on without getting near. He delivered his love to me through his food creativity.

My income doesn’t quite allow me to fulfill being a bon vivant, but I make other sacrifices of luxury to live like one occasionally, and this occasion was suitable: Inside-Out Health: Eating for Optimal Athletic Performance” with Dr. Robert G. Silverman, Duke University Defensive Lineman AJ Wolf and Chef David Bouley at Bouley Botanical. How did they know I was an athlete? Would an educational dinner take the enjoyment out of the food experience? Would it turn eating for me from an art to a science? I took a chance and made a reservation for one. Daniel would have enjoyed this immensely.

The room had one long communal table with no assigned seating. It was bright green from the glow of chlorophyll.  I felt healthy already and selected the end seat closest to the kitchen. I wanted front row on the culinary action. I took handwritten notes on nutrigenomics and how to maximize fuel based on the type of sport you play. The mention of gut rot, however, didn’t seem conducive to pre-dining conversation. I was also uncomfortably cold with the air conditioning blowing upon us on a 50-degree evening. When someone asked the event coordinator to adjust the temperature, his response irked me: “The kitchen staff gets warm.” I mumbled to myself sarcastically, “We’re more concerned about the employees’ comfort than the patrons’.” I later asked another gentleman kindly, and he immediately obliged. The diners slowly uncrossed their tight arms, and we were now ready to ingest these healthy foods that we listened so much about.IMG_4762

IMG_4769

The first plate – Last of the season Chatham Wild Blue fin, matsutake mushrooms (which had a floral fragrance upon the tongue), and golden Osetra caviar.

The second plate came out not long after  – Organic Connecticut Farm Egg steamed in Artichoke Heart, Cesare Casella Prosciutto and Fava Beans.

Then I thought I heard a drumroll, but I imagined it because the culinary rock star slid discretely into the kitchen area and was standing off to the side until he was officially introduced. He came out to applause and spoke a bit about the ingredients used this evening and their benefits and was accompanied by a slide show. He was thrilled to share what he learned from his visits to Japan. While he spoke, a plate of Dayboat Chatham Skate sat in front of us (Eat it, wait, don’t eat it, wait?). My excuse was to not lose the temperature at which it was served. My skate skated off the plate and into my mouth before he finished speaking. Then I got up and had the honor of shaking

hands with the man who IMG_4772unknowingly participated in my culinary affair. I held his hand while we spoke, and he didn’t even know that he had helped me cheat on Eric Ripert. I didn’t want to let go of those masterful tools.

The next course piqued my interest because I have never been a fan of salmon except in sushi form. This was Wild Alaskan Salmon with buckwheat pasta, and an array of mushrooms (wild porcini, trumpet, shiitake). Blindfolded I would not have guessed salmon. The question is, however, how does the general consumer obtain that type of wild hooked salmon. Dr. Silverman commented that it would basically be too expensive.

IMG_4773

The first of two dessert courses was light and refreshing – Biodynamic Concord Grape

Sorbet, Coconut Butter, Chestnut Honey. Dessert two was more than satisfying as the  final chapter: Cocoa Sacher Cake, 70% Valhrona Chocolate, Almond Milk and 10 Exotic Fruit sorbet, and a hard sugar-coated almond, just to put a bow on the package. But the bow wasn’t tied. A mignardises plate of about 15 assorted minis (three of each kind) was placed at our end of the table. Five of us on the end were attempting to sample one of each until we realized it was the only plate on the long table and maybe we were supposed to pass it along. Oops, where does chocolate fit into my nutrigenomics? I didn’t really want to know that answer. I pretended to want to share, passing the plate down with three tiny bites remaining for the 15 or so other people. Fortunately they all looked too full to care.IMG_4782

I walked away with energy, not feeling overstuffed and lethargic – mission accomplished. I will likely implement half of what I was educated on, half of which I was already aware. The other half I will reserve for happiness. How could I ever eliminate fresh baked breads from my palette, particularly the types Bouley used to offer? The bigger question is why would I want to be miserable?

Chef Bouley, we will have another rendezvous when I stalk you at Test Kitchen one day.  You can’t hide those epicurean eyes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CIEL IT WITH A SEMI-SWEET KISS

If you even just know me by name, you probably know that all retail desserts are measured against the quality of my mother’s desserts. Most don’t come close: too sweet, too many artificial ingredients, not baked enough, etc.  As a result, I am extremely selective – some label it snobbish – as to if and where I eat dessert elsewhere.

Most of you who do know me, know I’ve found the perfect competitor in Rocco’s, New York City, but that’s across the big river. I’ve written about two worthy contenders in New Jersey:  one in Ramsey, L’Arte , where I even dared to bring my mother once, and the other in Teterboro, Palermo’s. So when I saw a nearly full-page newspaper article (yes, I look at an actual printed newspaper), on a four-month-old French pastry establishment in Westwood, NJ, my eyes and mouth perked up. A panic rush of self-addressed questions comes over me – why didn’t I know about this, could it be as good as the pictures look, how soon can I try it? The first answer I don’t know. I was four months behind on this intel. Shame on me. The third answer was …this evening! And that would provide the second answer: yes!

20170920_214927Open until 10 p.m., which excites me by fitting into my late night schedules, I dashed to Westwood at 9:30. The space is tucked sideways, perpendicular to a strip center with another Korean-owned eatery, focused on bbq, called Kimchi Smoke, which moved from Bergenfield. The bakery case in front appeared nearly wiped clean, but there were a few desserts left. The Korean man (owner/partner) explained that these rectangles were called pallets. They are like mini-pound cakes that are warmed up and sliced, but they’re elaborate. One was pistachio, draped in white chocolate and another was milk chocolate and coffee with almonds. I ordered one of each to sit down and enjoy.

 

The back room is the open kitchen with counter and stools, along with a handful of tables. I was given a menu for separate plated desserts, which were more elaborate. At this point of the night, I had not eaten dinner. Dessert was destined to be my dinner because that’s what Ciel serves, and it’s served very well! Chef (and co-owner with her spouse) Jane’s resume sparkles in the pastry arts. Eleven Park Madison, Le Cirque and Nobu piqued my level of impression.  They both explained that they don’t and won’t serve savory dishes because they are doing only what they do best…..dessert! After all, you wouldn’t expect the pitmaster at Kimchi Smoke to serve up crème brulee.

When asked for a recommendation off of the dessert lounge menu, the gentleman suggested the chocolate soufflé as a first timer (a familiar French word of course). It is

 

baked to order in seven minutes and served with fresh made creme chantilly. The airiness and the gooey inside combined in a light and not-so-sweet marriage. That choice paired with the two “pallets” should’ve been a good enough first-visit tasting. But no; I had to notice the apple tarte tatin. I couldn’t  pass it up. It was the most beautiful looking of the desserts I had, but also the smallest portion. Here, Chef Jane’s artistic prowess was exhibited best. The “tarte”  looked like a large, square caramel filled with pieces of fresh apple. It was decorated with thin, dried apple slices, dabs of meringue and radish micro greens.

20170920_215627

Remember, French pastries such as these are meant to be tasted meticulously and slowly with small bites because the portions are not large. The textures are meant to touch every side of your mouth. In fact, the tasting of such desserts, rather than shoveling, is celebrated with a distinctive offering….a dessert tasting menu experience. Ciel offers a 20170920_215724five-course dessert tasting that she serves at the counter. The unique experience with her personal explanations takes about 1.5 hours. There’s also a three-course version that would take about 45 minutes. Reservations for a tasting experience is required at least 48 hours in advance. The tasting menu option truly brings the quality and New York food experience across that river and into this Bergen County town that’s filling up as a foodie destination.

She is quoted in The Record: “I barely use sugar. Fruits — raspberries, mangoes, cherries — have plenty of sweet in them. I don’t use anything that isn’t good for your body.” Her partner told me he goes to the market every morning to select the freshest fruits.

Dessert you can feel good about consuming! She even offers some that are vegan and gluten free, so there’s no excuse for anyone not to try her creations.

UPDATE: This writeup tasted so good to my co-workers, we all decided to try the three-course tasting created by Chef Jane. The images will artfully and tastefully speak for themselves…

 

 

Batard: A Lone Shining Star, the Sequel

 

IMG_4609Not to start this out on a discordant note, but this is the sequel to my first and only visit to Batard two years ago. It was my last anniversary dinner with my husband. I felt a need to revisit the experience – alone. As I walked down North Moore street looking for the restaurant again, I had a vivid recollection of last time when we walked by the entrance two or three times. It’s a somewhat dark section of West Broadway. At 6:45, the restaurant only had two other occupied tables, and I was led through the empty room to the same table we had occupied, but this time, a chair was removed. I sat on the bench seat along the wall. I requested that table in my reservation, sillily thinking it would stir up some remnant particles of previous presence. Instead it was just a sad reminder of the absence.

But the server greeted me with a smile that I forced myself to comply with. At least I knew Michelin-starred (1 still) dishes would be on their way to me soon enough to forget about those things for a while. And then, it returned: the algebraic dilemma – two or three or four courses and the added complexity of which combination of courses would best add up to the number selected. I settled on appetizer, first course and entrée after I saw the complimentary bite-sized dessert being given to the table next to me at the end of their meal.

First came two selections of bread, both of which were placed on my bread plate: a slice of grain sourdough and a brioche topped with sea salt. Bread is my starter dessert, and when the woman asked if I’d like more bread, the left side of my brain said, “Don’t; you’ll get too full.” The right side said, “It’s too good to pass up; you have plenty of room in that empty stomaIMG_4607ch.” Out came: “Yes please”. Right side wins, and I unexpectedly was given one of each again.

Then came out my beautifully presented first choice: Madai Crudo, blood orange, cucumber and red pepper vinaigrette. The colors exploded in front of me like a bag of Sunkist candies. It’s still summer for sure! I see the French sauce spoon and am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t quite sure of its proper use. Should I break the fish with it? It’s somewhat flat, so I don’t see it being useful in scooping up that delicious vinaigrette that the snapper was bathed in. I faked it using the fork to break apart and eat the fish, alongIMG_4608 with the crispy curls of fish skin and then the ‘spoon’ for whatever less-solid remained. I cleaned up well.

The room began to fill up, and I didn’t feel so alone any more. It was a later-night dining crowd. The next course arrived. Tortellini,  tomato conserva, sweet corn, andouille, pickled chiles. It had just enough heat from the chiles and sausage to warm the tongue but not too much to burn the tummy. The little packages of pasta had the IMG_4610proper chewiness and the yin and yang of the gentle sweetness of the corn and slight sharpness pepper blended into a harmonious dish that left me wanting more….partially because of the smaller-sized portion.

Even though the waiter tried tempting me with the special pork schnitzel entrée, I told him I would reserve that for my German restaurant and go with the striped bass with goldbar squash puree, halved baby red potatoes, thai basil, roasted fennel bulb and some type of cabbage greens with the golden-browned fish draped over.

Surprisingly, probably because I went with fish versus meat, I wasn’t weighted-down full.

The two-bite-sized complementary pistachio mini muffin (but fluffier) with roasted pinapple laid in the top was enough to satisfy the need to end with a “dessert”. I’m doing it an injustice by calling it a muffin. In four bites, the two were politely completed.

asIMG_4613

My first visit I questioned why it wasn’t two-star rated. After revisiting LB last September, I recognize where Batard has some room to grow. I didn’t feel like the Queen I was crowned at the 3-star. I wasn’t asked how everything was! I want the chance to give positive feedback after each course. I will likely not return soon, as the memories are still raw, but under regular circumstances, I would want to return for the food!

Smooth Running Kitchen Macchina

What a nice find in search for a quick lunch on the upper west side of New York City on a holiday. Although they were short staffed, the food made up for it. We were mistakenly given the later day menu and were disappointed when we had no pasta options. Start with the avocado bruschetta and thick juicy burger appetizer though. Pickled onion pieces sat atop the guacamole-like spread, which included the same cilantro addition. The burger is a custom blend beef topped with sweet caramelized onions. Fries don’t tend to be something impressive, but these seemed like they were baked – no greasy fingers and some with a crispy blackened end. In choosing one wood-grilled oven pie, I selected the veal polpetto (meatball). It was a white pizza (no red sauce) with
smoked mozzarella and fresh oregano. Yum. The smokey flavor combined with the shavings of hard Parmesan cheese gave the mild veal meatballs a balanced punch of flavor.

And a little over a week later, I could not get the idea of a fig and fennel pizza out of my mind. Unfortunately, it’s only offered for dinner. So are the pastas! After a good workout, I deserved to have a 9:45 sampling. A quick drive to the Upper West Side was in order. After 20 minutes, I arrived and was immediately seated. Before the water arrived, I interrupted the waiter’s spiel and asked for the SPAGUETTI and clams, mussels, saffron, and parsely crumb. I squirmed at what I thought was a typo, but a quick Google search shows it might be a foreign spelling…Forgiven! There’s a $16 plate option and a $23 option. The $16 version was sufficient as it was much larger than an appetizer portion. It sat in a small pool of saffron-scented broth that demanded to be spooned over every forkful I took. The pasta was cooked to a nice al dente. 20170911_221314

Nothing has fallen short here, but menu items are somewhat limited, and I imagine for a full dinner, one might get a little bored with the selections; however, they do offer Specials.