Friday, August 22, 2014

Toasting the king of inexpensive wines, oversized cantaloupes

This 1.5 liter bottle of 2012 California Cabernet Sauvignon from Costco Wholesale costs the equivalent of about $4 a bottle, but its smoothness and complexity set it apart from other inexpensive red wines.

Editor's note: Today, I discuss Kirkland Signature California Cabernet Sauvignon and peeled Christopher Ranch garlic, both from Costco Wholesale, and compare cantaloupes from ShopRite and the Teaneck Farmers' Market.


By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

"Black currant with broad, red fruit notes that linger on the palate and are surrounded by hints of spice and sweet smoke with a graceful finish of cherry and mocha."

I'll take your word for it, Costco Wholesale.

But I'd describe your Kirkland Signature 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the smoothest, most delicious red wines I have ever tasted.

And I've tasted a lot of cheap, red wine from around the world -- routinely ordering introductory cases from wine clubs that usually cost $5 to $7 a bottle, including shipping.

I buy your Cabernet in a 1.5 liter bottle for $7.99 -- or the equivalent of less than $4 a bottle -- at the Costco in Wayne.

This week, I opened a bottle I bought in March to eat with spicy fried fish and was bowled over again by the smoothness and complex, mouth-filling flavors. 

I'll drink to you, Costco.



I used a few fistfuls of peeled Christopher Ranch Monviso Garlic from California, a refrigerated product from Costco Wholesale, for this dish of store-bought bok choy (79 cents a pound at the Englewood H Mart) and string beans from our garden with sherry, salt, black pepper and other seasoning. I blanched the vegetables first in boiling water and sauteed the chopped garlic in extra-virgin olive oil.

Facing a garlic deadline

I'm using a lot of garlic in my cooking, especially in view of the "BEST BY" date of Sept. 6 on my latest 3-pound bag of peeled Christopher Ranch Monviso Garlic from Costco Wholesale.

On Thursday night, I chopped up a few fistfuls of garlic and sauteed them with extra-virgin olive oil for a side dish of bok choy and string beans.

This week, I also used lots of garlic in mashed sweet potatoes.

About 10 days ago, I threw three or four handfuls of whole peeled cloves into an electric cooker with organic chicken stock, brown rice, a trio of lentils and diced tomatoes, and the garlic cooked beautifully.

Now, I am again having a problem re-closing the bag of garlic I have in the refrigerator, and I'm using a rubber band to keep air out.

Some of the garlic in a previous bag got moldy before the "BEST BY" date.



A simple salad of red-leaf and romaine lettuces with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I bought the two large heads of lettuce for $1.99 each on Thursday at the Teaneck Farmers' Market.

The cantaloupe I bought for $4 at the Teaneck Farmers' Market, right, next to two others from ShopRite in Paramus, where they were 99 cents each on Tuesday.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Teaneck Farmers' Market, sweet potatoes with garlic and more

On my first visit to the Teaneck Farmers' Market this summer, I bought fruit and lettuce from Sunden's Stone Pointe Farm in Old Tappan.

Editor's note: I won't make a special trip to a farmers' market to shop for pricey fruits and vegetables, but will stop at one if I happen to be passing by. Today, I also discuss garlic mashed sweet potatoes, and how I've come to rely on Costco Wholesale's pure egg whites to make a quick open-face omelet. 

By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

New Jersey farmers' markets are terrific, but their higher prices discourage me from making a special trip to one.

When I lived in Englewood, I loved the downtown farmers' market, and even Hackensack had one for the first couple of years I lived here.

Closter's market is one of the bigger and better ones, but I've been there only two or three times on Sundays, when I've driven up for a haircut at a Korean barber shop.

Now, the closest market to me is in Teaneck. Today, I stopped in on the way home from doing an errand in town.

Two farms set up stands at Garrison Avenue and Beverly Road in Teaneck on Thursdays, and Sunden's Stone Pointe Farm from Old Tappan seems to have better produce.


Two ears for $1

You know I haven't been to a farmers' market in years when I tell you I was shocked that $1 now buys only two ears of sweet Jersey corn.

Sunden's cantaloupes were much bigger than the other vendor's, and they were $4 each, compared to $4 each or two for $7.

I also picked up beautiful Jersey peaches with the fuzz still on them for $1.99 a pound, and big heads of romaine and red-leaf lettuce for $1.99 each.

One good thing about a farmers' market is that produce generally looks better and is bigger than what you find in a ShopRite or other supermarket.


More signs needed

One disadvantage is a lack of signs. Most items I saw at around 10:30 this morning were unlabeled -- no prices and nothing on where they were grown.

After I wrote this, I got a call informing me the hours of the market are noon to 6 p.m., but vendors will sell to you before the official opening.

I only want Jersey produce when I go to a farmers' market, yet I saw boxes of pineapples, bananas and other fruit that clearly aren't from the Garden State.

And all that other stuff they sell -- Amish pies, fresh mozzarella, empanadas and whatever -- why bother?

This year, the market's last day will be Oct. 30.



Don't spare peeled California garlic from Costco Wholesale when making mashed sweet potatoes, a terrific substitute for a bagel or bread at breakfast, below.

A simple, open-face omelet with a slice of reduced-fat Swiss cheese takes only minutes when you use Kirkland Signature Egg Whites from Costco Wholesale.


Sweet potatoes and garlic

I stopped at the Paramus ShopRite looking for sweet potatoes on Tuesday, and saw only loose yams, which are starchier and probably have more calories.

In the week since my last visit, some produce department fixtures were moved.

Then, on a low shelf, I saw net bags of Southern's 10 in 1 Sweet Potatoes, a reference to 10 ways they can be prepared as shown on the label (3 pounds for $2.99).

They are triple washed, and all about the same size.

When I opened the bag the next day, one of the sweet potatoes was rotten and inedible, but I cut up the rest -- skin and all -- and boiled them with fistfuls of peeled Christopher Ranch Monviso Garlic from Costco Wholesale in Hackensack.

They take about 45 minutes to soften. 

After I drained them and returned them to the pot, I added liberal amounts of extra-virgin olive oil, a little salt and just about any other seasoning I had around:

Black pepper, red-pepper flakes, cinnamon, dried onion and no-salt seasoning.

Then, I mashed and served them. There were plenty of leftovers.



An egg-white omelet with sliced reduced-fat cheese, Wild Alaskan Smoked Sockeye Salmon from Costco Wholesale and Aleppo pepper.

An egg white-smoked wild salmon omelet with leftover organic whole wheat spaghetti in bottled pasta sauce with added anchovies, sardines, red wine and organic diced tomatoes, below.


My wife used more peeled garlic from Costco when she made escoveitched fish on Wednesday, frying fresh whole porgy she bought at H Mart in Englewood for $2.49 a pound. Onions, sweet pepper, garlic and whole peppercorns are stewed separately in vinegar, then spooned over the plated fish.

Teaneck Farmers' Market.



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why you should take Costco Wholesale on your next vacation

The soaring lobby of Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall, an ultra-expensive, all-inclusive, adults-only resort near Montego Bay, Jamaica. I booked a three-night stay through Costco Travel, saved money and received some valuable extras.

The hotel has 285 rooms, a presidential suite, four specialty restaurants, two buffets, a cigar bar and a nightclub. Two family oriented hotels are next door, Iberostar Suites Hotel and Iberostar Beach Hotel.


By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

I appreciated the money Costco Travel saved me on my flight and three-night stay at a 5-star hotel in Jamaica last week, but really loved all the time I saved at the airport before boarding the flight home.

Montego Bay's departure terminal is notorious for long, serpentine lines you have to join to check in for your flight, and then more lines that take you through security.

Even after you leave security, you can be selected for extra screening inside a room, where your hands are examined for drug residue.

Those searches can really ruin a vacation. Last year, a bottle of homemade jerk sauce was removed from my carry on and tossed in the garbage.


Costco's 'fast track'

I didn't have to worry about any of that with Costco Travel's "VIP fast-track access" through immigration and security, and admission to Club Mobay, a VIP airport lounge with an open bar, sandwiches, wraps, patties and coffee.

I lucked out when a terminal worker herding me and an endless line of others checking in for a United Airlines flight to Newark got me a boarding pass at a kiosk.

Then, I was through immigration and security in minutes, and made a beeline to the VIP lounge for a rum punch.

The Costco package also included a $100 credit on Chukka Tours' Jeep 4X4 Safari to a beautiful waterfall.

The guided tour was part thrill ride over dirt roads, part nature lesson on the lush island's beautiful trees and plants, and part history lesson in an old sugar-cane plantation hit by a slave revolt. 




On a hot and humid day, a hazy view of Montego Bay from an elevation of 1,300 feet during Chukka Tours' Jeep 4X4 Safari. The nature-and-history tour cost me and my wife $89 per person before Costco's $100 credit.

Our guide took coconuts off of a tree to provide us with a refreshing drink. Four couples belted themselves into seats in the covered bed of a Toyota 4X4. Other refreshments during the 4 hour-plus tour were rum punch and bottled water.

The corner balcony of our oceanfront junior suite afforded a sweeping view of the Jamaican coast.

The lobby of Iberostar Suites Hotel Rose Hall, which is connected to the Spanish hotel company's Grand Hotel Rose Hall.

A steel-drum band and dancers entertained guests of Grand Hotel Rose Hall during an afternoon beach party, where lunch was served. In view of the hot and humid weather -- with temperatures in the low 90s -- and limited protection from the sun, I watched from my balcony.

Guests lined up for coconuts.


Endless food and drink

With four specialty restaurants, breakfast and lunch buffets open four hours at a time; "snacks" available near the pool, at least three bars and room service, guests of the Grand Hotel can eat and drink all day and late into the night.

There is no limit on bottles of inexpensive Spanish and Argentinian wine.

Guests also have access to a restaurant in the adjacent Suites Hotel that serves food all night long. 

It was a bit much, and I gained 3 pounds on my first night, even though I didn't touch bread or dessert. When I got home, I was 5 pounds heavier than when I left. 

We told the hotel staff we were celebrating our anniversary and my wife's birthday.

On Saturday night, a female staffer brought us a bottle of Spanish sparkling wine in an ice bucket and two champagne glasses.

We finished another bottle of wine during dinner in the hotel's Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant.

Then, I had cognac and coffee in the nightclub, where we watched a hilarious couples competition.

When we got back to our suite, we found the butler had drawn a hot bubble bath strewn with rose petals in our whirlpool tub.



From the lobby of the Grand Hotel, marble staircases bring you to the main buffet and restaurant level.

At the breakfast buffet, I started with a plate of Jamaican fruit, including intensely sweet nesberries, and a glass of freshly squeezed sour sop juice.

Jamaican specialties included Ackee and Salt Fish, the national dish, and Mackerel Rundown or salted fish cooked in coconut milk. The buffet also has two omelet stations and another station for smoothies and freshly squeezed juices.

A selection of cheeses at breakfast, above and below. 


Freshly squeezed mango-carrot juice.


One of the tastiest salads I encountered at the lunch buffet was shrimp, provolone and parmesan cheese.

A platter of European cheeses at lunch.

One of my lunch plates included, clockwise from upper left, boiled shrimp, fish in pepper sauce, quinoa salad, zucchini with cooked onion and crab salad on toast.

The kitchen tended to overcook fish, such as this wild-caught snapper available at lunch one day. The buffet also served farmed fish, including tilapia and basa fillet, despite all the wild fish available locally.

On Sunday morning, I enjoyed marinated tuna, above, and smoked marlin, below.


Goat cheese with fruit was another breakfast selection.


More attention to detail needed

Jamaican officials give 5 stars to Iberostar's Grand Hotel Rose Hall, but the all-inclusive resort loses points for several exceptions to its all-inclusive policy. See:



There also is a puzzling lack of attention to detail, such as not providing a corkscrew for a welcome bottle of wine, and being slow to replenish items in the free minibar.

The luxurious junior suites are about 30 feet long, not counting the balcony, with a marble bathroom, a bedroom and a sitting room.

When you enter the suite, you are flanked by a wardrobe on your left that hides a safe, minibar and coffee maker.

The bathroom on your right has two sinks, separate stalls for the toilet and shower, with a 12-inch shower head, and a whirlpool tub.

The two sinks are about 15 feet apart, but only one box of tissues and one wastebasket were provided initially.

And the rack for the bath towels was awkwardly placed on the wall above the whirlpool bath, requiring a long reach and stretching over the tub to get them.   



A hot bubble bath awaited us when we returned from the hotel nightclub. To get a bath towel when we weren't taking a bath, we had to reach over the tub to a rack on the wall.

Admission to Club Mobay, a VIP departure lounge at the Montego Bay airport, was included in the Costco Travel package I bought.


Transfers need work

The most disappointing part of the Costco Travel vacation package I bought were the transfers to and from the hotel provided by Jamaica Tours LTD, which seemed overwhelmed trying to handle large numbers of vacationers.

The trip from the airport to the hotel was delayed about 30 minutes, and I was asked to stand outside in the hot, humid weather to wait for a vehicle.

The pickup also was late in arriving at my hotel and at the airport, and the driver couldn't find vacationers on his list.



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Iberostar in Jamaica: Where all inclusive meets portion control

An impressive display of ahi tuna, large Caribbean lobsters, beef and lamb at the Galleon Surf & Turf Grill & Steak House, one of four specialty restaurants inside the all-inclusive Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

My entree of Surf & Surf included portions of smaller lobster tails, above, after the waiter at the 5-star hotel deflected my request for one of the big tails from the magnificent crustaceans on ice near the entrance. I asked for the thick tuna steak cooked medium rare, and it came out perfect.



By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

I ate plenty of succulent Caribbean  lobster, enjoyed many rich European cheeses and drank as much Jamaican rum and Spanish wine as I desired.

But my three-night stay at the highly rated Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, turned out to be "all inclusive" with a number of important exceptions.

The 5-star resort from the huge Spanish hotel company offers two buffets and four specialty restaurants that serve limited menus offering guests three-course meals: 

Kiniro Japanese Restaurant, Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant, Galleon Surf & Turf Grill & Steak House and La Toscana Italian Restaurant.

At Kiniro, only farmed salmon and "red" tuna were available as sashimi, not the fresh local fish I had hoped for, and Japanese beer wasn't served.

In the Gourmet Restaurant, which serves classic French dishes, premium wines displayed near the entrance were available only at extra cost, and the menu listed no salads.


Fruit and wine

We arrived last Thursday afternoon too late to eat lunch, but were delighted to see a fruit plate and bottle of wine waiting for us on a table in our spacious oceanfront suite.

Unfortunately, there was little Jamaican fruit on the plate, and no way to open the bottle of inexpensive Spanish red wine.

I asked our butler for a corkscrew, but the bottle sat on the table unopened until we left on Sunday, and wasn't worth taking home.


Italian or Japanese?

Given all the Italian-American restaurants in northern New Jersey, where we live, I decided to try the Japanese restaurant on the our first night at the resort.

I planned to order slices of fresh local fish -- like those I saw at a roadside market only a few miles from the hotel -- content in knowing my wife, who doesn't eat fish raw, could enjoy grilled and other cooked food.

But only pale farmed salmon and tuna were available as sashimi, and the slices were unusually thin.

I ordered warm sake and Japanese beer, only to be told the latter wasn't available, another disappointment.

The following night we ate at the Surf & Turf Grill and on our last night, we had our best dinner at the Gourmet Restaurant, smallest of the four, overlooking the extra charge for premium wines.

I bought my vacation from Costco Wholesale.



At Kiniro Japanese Restaurant, slices of pale raw salmon were the thinnest I have ever seen, above, and the cooked eel sushi had been prepared ahead of time and refrigerated. The rice was still cold when served.

This thin sashimi was described as "Red Tuna Fish" on the menu, which had a number of misspellings. Often, plating of food was haphazard and very un-Japanese.

A serving of shrimp and vegetable tempura was disappointing. Inedible fried noodles came with the tempura.
  
My entree was unadorned grilled lobster and shrimp, with a side order of grilled vegetables on another plate. The restaurant also served beautifully tender lobster skewered or gently poached in fruit sauce, such as the appetizer below served on a cucumber slice. I asked for seconds.


In the Japanese Restaurant, this chef, who called himself "Egg Foo Young," entertained guests seated around a grill with his skill at balancing and juggling an egg, a bowl of rice and other items on his two spatulas. Here, he was scrambling eggs for fried rice.


Origin of food a mystery

There is no information on menus or signs in the hotel's buffet restaurants on whether fish, meat, poultry, eggs and produce are local or imported.

If you ask, you might find that a juice served at breakfast wasn't squeezed from Jamaican oranges.

French Brie and Spanish Manchego were served, but I never saw Italian Parmigiano Reggiano, which is sometimes referred to as the "King of Cheeses."

I loved the brie and cheddar offered for
dessert in the Gourmet Restaurant, but they should have been served with crusty bread, not crackers.




My wife's Surf & Turf included a small lobster tail and "beef fillet."

A green salad is one of the side orders available in Galleon Surf & Turf Grill.

As an appetizer, sea scallops were offered au gratin with a "ham-and-bread crust," but when I told the waiter I don't eat meat and didn't want a creamy cheese sauce, I got these juicy breaded scallops with diced tomatoes.
At Galleon Surf & Turf Grill and other restaurants, guests can drink as much inexpensive Spanish Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon as they can hold.

Despite the scarcity of local fish at the Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall, this painting in the Surf & Turf Grill offers guests a glimpse of how Jamaicans routinely look to the Caribbean Sea for fresh food.

Part of the menu at Galleon Surf & Turf Grill & Steak House.


A gift from the chef at Iberostar's Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant: Blue cheese and apple puree in puff pastry.

The dining room of Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant.


Perfect fish and more

At the Es Palau Gourmet Restaurant on Saturday night, we found out that "all inclusive" could mean more than smaller portions of the food we wanted to eat.

As we waited to be seated, I looked over several bottles of premium wine from France and California displayed near the entrance.

At our table, I asked the hostess if the restaurant had a list of those wines, and she said it did, but they were not part of the all-inclusive plan.

Still, the restaurant served our most satisfying dinner -- perfectly cooked European fish fillets and desserts of rich cheeses, dried fruit and almonds.



At my request, Hake Fillet Stuffed with Prawns in a Champagne Sauce was steamed without butter or cream, and served with crunchy vegetables. Though the portion was small, I was impressed with the fresh, clean flavors. 

My wife really loved her Sea Bass Cooked En Papillote atop Gratin Potatoes.

My wife is not a big fan of smoked fish, but she enjoyed this appetizer of Smoked Salmon Toasts Glazed with Hollandaise Sauce.

My choice to start the meal was Bouillabaisse with a Shellfish and Tomato Broth.

The brie, one of two cheeses in my dessert, was creamy and full of flavor, but I didn't go near the inauthentic crackers served with them.

My wife, who didn't have room for one of the traditional desserts, asked for almonds.
After dinner, I enjoyed Remy Martin Cognac VSOP and two espresso coffees in the hotel bar.



Tomorrow: 
More on my Costco vacation