Archive for May, 2014

The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.

 

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And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Hot Dining without the Heat

My favorite “Iron Chef” thus far has been Mario Batali, but I am exploring the restaurants of his competitors and successors. Forgione (Marc) came first, and now I have finally tackled his fellow redhead; and being one too, I almost feel obligated to support the red-head chef club. But I must admit, I have avoided dining in a Bobby Flay establishment because heat emanates from his fiery red follicles and translates to his dishes.

Growing up with parents from Germany and Switzerland, my digestive tract never had the opportunity to be acclimated to spicy foods. Therefore, the association with Flay to chile, habanaro and any other peppers of that sort are directlIMG_6513y linked to discomfort rather than enjoyment. Tearing eyes, flushed skin and a burning hole in my gut are not the memories I’d like to conjure up from a dining experience.

Then, Bobby opens Gato recently – Mediterranean focused, and this opened the door for me. I immediately made a reservation three weeks out. This would be his opportunity to prove to me that not every Flay dish is laden with fiery spice. The design was a bit similar to Forgione, with the brick walls and exposed black pipes. There is bench seating along a wall of windows that frame the kitchen. Once I saw Bobby working, I chose the chair facing him and asked my husband to take the bench with his back to the kitchen. It’s hard not to become a little chef star-struck, but I gain a deeper appreciation seeing him actually cooking instead of hiding behind fancy camera work.

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We truly did want to order almost everything on the menu, but narrowed it down to the following:

SCRAMBLED EGGS ALMOND ROMESCO, BOUCHERON CHEESE, TOMATO CONFIT TOAST – I had read from a reviewer that this is a must, and boy was he right. When I ordered it, my husband exclaimed “scrambled eggs!?”. The server and I both said, “It’s not what you think.” It was better than what anyone could think.

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ROASTED OCTOPUS LEMON, BACON, BASIL – The smokiness gave the outside a nice grilled crackle, but the octopus was oh so tender.

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Chef Flay stepped out of the kitchen several times (standing right next to our table) and surveyed the dining room. My husband complimented him on the scrambled egg appetizer after realizing his pre-conceived notion was way off. He said, “I’d love to get that recipe, haha.” Flay responded in a humble yet secretive way: “It’s just eggs.” No, no; it is like eggs that were pampered and mixed with a silk spoon. And yes, there was pepper with the romesco (nut and red pepper sauce), but it was a mild heat – one that creates a contrast yet balance.

The waitress talked us into trying a vegetable side, and this may have been my favorite flavor profile of the evening:

ASPARAGUS & FAVA BEANS YELLOW ROMESCO, PECORINO, PISTACHIOS

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STEAMED HALIBUT SICILIAN OLIVES, MINT, ANCHOVY, SAFFRON-TOMATO BROTH,
COUSCOUS

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ORATA PIQUILLO PESTO, ROASTED LEMON OLIVE OIL, PINK & BLACK PEPPERIMG_6518

 

We were quite full as dessert approached and were debating since we kept dipping the bread in the olive oil from Sicily with a bit of sea salt. What the heck – let’s get the full experience:

MEYER LEMON TART PISTACHIO WHIPPED CREAM

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TARTE TATIN SALTED CALVADOS CARAMEL, VANILLA-BLACK PEPPER GELATO

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Field of Food Festivals in NJ

There must have been one time that an adult reprimanded you for eating while walking or running around. We all know now that it was done in our best interest, so as not to choke on food and to simply develop proper eating habits by sitting at a table and acting civilized. But let’s admit, it’s not easy to remain seated with the grill fired up and a hamburger, watermelon or ear of corn in hand.

Now that spring is in full swing in New Jersey, there are a number of opportunities to combine food and the outdoors. Here are a few that I try not to miss, mostly because the food goes beyond zeppoles and hot dog carts.

While the Hoboken Arts & Music festival does not denote food, it is a major component. The combination of music and food awakens your auditory, olfactory and gustatory senses all at once. Now that’s a way to feel alive. Hoboken offers this in both the spring and fall, so if you’re reading this after May 4, 2014, you have another chance this year to attend. The music performances are some of the best FREE acts you can see in New Jersey, including a headliner of high merit. This year it is Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, but in years past, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Joan Jett, Peter Noone, Mickey Dolenz, Roger McGuinn, Flo & Eddie, and John Eddie. Yes, I’ve been to a few. But before settling into the music, it is a priority to grab some lunch from some of the finer vendors or restaurants with stands. It is probably the only time I ever eat a gyro. Two of the most popular vendors are closest to the end stage: the crab cakes and the brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches. For those who prefer traditional fair food, there are plenty of fried oreos, cheese steaks, and potato chips on a stick to give an elephant arterial discomfort.

My absolute favorite festival, however, comes along in June. It is the Annual Seafood Festival in Belmar. For all of you crazy crustacean lovers, this is a weekend-long celebration of breaking legs and peeling shells. Many of the tents offer the same types of platters that can include a whole lobster, shrimp, clams and corn on the cob for a set price. Walk around the field and scout them all before you jump at the first claw reaching out to you. The lines tend to be long, and seating is sparse. I prefer to take a few steps across the street and sit cross-legged on the boardwalk, facing the ocean while dipping everything in a little clarified butter and lemon and making a mess on my hands. There’s the added benefit of a beer and wine tent for those who want to wind down with a cold one, but looking at the Atlantic Ocean is generally calming enough.

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Now begins the season of great New Jersey festivals. If your focus is food, there are plenty of others such as: Shad Fest in Lambertville, Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival in Augusta, Highlands Clamfest in Highlands, NJ Chili & Salsa Cookoff in Toms River, plus many more. Now is your chance to be that rebellious child – grab some food and eat while walking!