Friday, March 27, 2009

In search of the perfect taco al pastor

It's been more than a year since we went searching for a great taco al pastor in Mexico City, spending a couple of hours sampling these scrumptious taquitos at three restaurants. We decided that the best one was served at El Cailfa (photos top and bottom) and returned two more times.

Here in New Jersey, we haven't been able to find the taco, which is made with marinated pork roasted on a vertical spit, in the Lebanese style (photo left); fresh pineapple, and chopped onion and cilantro.

Oh, sure, we've ordered tacos al pastor listed on menus. One place in Jersey City used canned pineapple -- much too sweet. Another, in Passaic, didn't have any pineapple. So the search continues.

Wasted trip to Whole Foods

On opening day of the Whole Foods Market in Paramus last week, the plump chickens roasting in the rotisserie cases made my mouth water. But the store had run out of carts and my reusable grocery bags were already bulging and heavy, too heavy for me to buy one.

I asked the employee behind the counter how much the drug-free, vegetarian-fed chickens weighed and the price. He said they were four-pounders for $5.99 each, a two-week special. When I returned to the store today, intent on making one our Friday night dinner, the employee (he may have been the same one I spoke to last week) said the chickens were $7.49 each and that the special price was for one week only, expiring the day before. He also apologized.

An apology doesn't really fill you up like a rotisserie chicken does. If I bought it, I would have felt like a sucker who falls victim to bait-and-switch. So I walked out empty handed, somewhat humiliated. I'll bet they don't weigh four pounds, either.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

First impressions at Fairway Market in N.J.

The debut of New York's Fairway Market in Paramus was messy, at least when I was there before 2 p.m. Wednesday.

At the Whole Foods Market opening last week, just a few miles away, the store ran out of carts. There were plenty of carts at Fairway, but that proved to be a problem as shoppers struggled to maneuver through the store, often encountering gridlock or getting rear-ended by another shopper. Apologies were profuse.

A newspaper ad promised food samples and music, but none of that was in evidence. There also was a raffle being conducted but I never encountered any entry forms. Check out took a long time and the woman bagging my food just threw the items into my reusable bags. The checkout counter itself was dirty.

Fairway's owners say their store is a cross between Whole Foods and ShopRite, with prices at or below those supermarkets. I didn't have the luxury of looking at all prices, but a half-gallon of Tropicana orange juice was priced at $3.69 in Fairway; I purchased one last week at Whole Foods for $3. I saw organic pork chops at Fairway for $5.99 a pound, $1 dollar under the normal price for drug-free pork chops at Whole Foods that were on sale for $4.99 a pound last week.

The best deal at Fairway that I saw were the wild-caught domestic "jumbo" shrimp for $5.99 a pound; I bought two pounds-plus. Mexican asparagus were $1.49 a pound. Murray's antibiotic-free, free-roaming chicken was under $2 a pound for leg quarters, thighs and drumsticks with the skin on; my friend, Jay, complained that his wife Sue paid $3.49 a pound for drug-free thighs at Whole Foods. I also got two pounds of Fairway coffee beans, ground to my order, for $6.99 and $6.49 a pound (and an argument from the employee on how to spell Habanero; Fairway spells it Havanero).

There has been a lot of discussion of how Fairway, Whole Foods and ShopRite compare, but no one is talking about the great food and prices at Costco in Hackensack, where I shop once a week. I didn't get a chance to see if Fairway had smoked, preservative-free wild salmon, but I doubt that store could beat Costco's price, under $14 a pound. The organic salad mix at Costco ($4.49 a pound) is $1.50 cheaper than the non-organic mix I saw at Fairway.

Costco also has great 100-percent and organic juices at prices lower than I've seen elsewhere; fresh wild salmon for about six months of the year at around $8.99 a pound; drug-free chicken sausage; herbicide-free tomatoes, free-range Australian lamb and many other items. Where Costco lags is in not offering much organic poultry. I once bought organic ground beef for around $4.99 a pound, but the store had discontinued it when I returned for more several weeks later. (Corrected April 1, 2009)

I've shopped in Fairway's Harlem store since it opened, stopping there almost every time I was in the city. I'm glad Fairway is now in New Jersey, after years of delay, but it's new home is in my least favorite mall, the Fashion Center, which is difficult to get into and out of. Whole Foods is much closer to my home and it has superb seafood and a much wider selection of drug-free poultry and meat.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Weekend at the sea

Old Barney
Image by WildVanilla (Rob) via Flickr
The lighthouse at Barnegat Light.

Our weekend at the sea was also a seafood weekend.

We drove down to Barnegat Light, a New Jersey fishing port at the northern end of Long Beach Island, and stayed at a B&B called Minerva's By The Sea. At the end of the street was Kubel's, which opened in 1927, and we had dinner there Friday and lunch Saturday. Unfortunately, Off the Hook, a takeout place for great prepared seafood, and many other places we have enjoyed in years past, had not opened for the season.

But fresh fish and shellfish is one of the reasons we return to the Jersey Shore year after year, and we weren't disappointed. Friday night, we had a great piece of halibut with small shrimp in a light tomato sauce, served on a bed of sauteed spinach; steamed clams and Alaskan king crab legs. We had flounder and crab cake sandwiches for lunch the next day, along with steamed clams and clams on the half shell.

In search of lobster Saturday night, we had dinner at the Engleside Inn in Beach Haven, one of the most popular towns on Long Beach Island. But the restaurant had no whole lobsters, only South African lobster tails. We ordered those, panko-covered scallops from Barnegat Light and a yellowtail tuna sushi roll. Only the too-thick lobster bisque was disappointing.

Our best seafood meal awaited us on the road back to North Jersey. A small building with some peeling paint on the exterior and the word "Fishery" on Route 35 in Sayreville (732-721-9100) had closed in the year or so since we had been there and had been reopened by a man from Greece about a month ago. He kept the menu, prices and recipes, adding distinctly Greek touches.

We started with small bowls of a light lobster bisque that tasted of sherry and Maine lobster, clam and corn chowder. Great. The steamed clams were outstanding, surpassing the ones we had at the shore. They came with a small cup of butter plus another cup with clam broth, garlic, herbs and white wine. Wow!

We also ordered the grilled whole bronzini from Greece on the specials list ($21.95). The fish, which we had seen nestled in ice in The Fishery's seafood display, came topped with a white wine sauce that contained whole garlic cloves, and was accompanied with rice and sauteed fresh spinach. It looked to be about 14 inches long. My son took the tail portion, my wife took the head and all of us shared the delicious white flesh in the middle. We only had room for a little of our second entree, perfectly fried whiting, which we took home.

There had been signs of an auspicious weekend. At the Whole Foods Market opening Thursday (see earlier post), I saw a whole monkfish with a sign that it had come from Barnegat Light, where Scandinavian fishermen settled in the 1920s. Then we learned that Minerva's, the B&B where we stayed, is in a building that once housed a fish wholesaler. The top-floor kitchen, where we had breakfast Saturday and Sunday, was where the wholesaler prepared fish for customers from Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere, said our host, Emma.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Opening day at Whole Foods Market in Paramus

Vegetables in Whole Foods MarketImage by Masahiro Ihara via Flickr
Vegetables galore at Whole Food Market.


I arrived at the new Paramus store shortly after 10 in the morning and found customers milling about the entrance. 

It had opened at 8 and in two hours, the store had run out of shopping carts. Luckily, I remembered to bring an insulated bag from Trader Joe's and reusable bags from other stores.

Some people call the store Whole Paycheck, because of the perception that it is among the most expensive. But no other store has anywhere near the selection of poultry and meats that are raised on a vegetarian diet without antibiotics and growth hormones. 

Certainly not Fairway in the city; at the Harlem store, you'd be hard put to find much more than Murray's drug-free chicken and organic, grass-fed beef from Australia that fetches more than $20 a pound for the best cuts. 

Berkshire pork? Yeah, we get it once in a while, but don't have it now, the guy behind the Fairway meat counter told me a few of weeks ago.

Great fish counter

Fairway has great fish, but shoppers at Whole Foods in Paramus were mesmerized by an enormous, gorgeous opah from Hawaii that was nestled in the ice -- resembling a tropical fish with its red tail, bright skin colors and huge, clear eye. 

Next to it was a whole monkfish landed in Barnegat Light, one of New Jersey's great fishing ports. 

Yes, there was farmed salmon, which I usually avoid, but these fillets were raised without antibiotics. 

Another unusual offering were fresh, whole sardines from Portugal ($5.99 a pound), which you usually see only at Portuguese fish markets in Newark.

For meat lovers

I moved over to the meat counter, where a long, refrigerated case was completely filled with meat that was raised without antibiotics and growth hormones. Behind the counter was a large cold case with dry-aged beef. 

I bought six center cut pork chops for $4.99 a pound (on sale). I was looking for a rack of fully cooked St. Louis-style pork ribs in sauce from the Niman Ranch that I bought at Trader Joe's a few weeks ago for $5.99 a pound. 

Whole Foods had smaller sections for $7.99 a pound. I passed. I did find turkey necks, again without antibiotics, for $1.99 a pound, and ground venison from New Zealand that I sampled a few minutes earlier. Delicious.

Prepared food

What you notice at Whole Foods is all the food that is being prepared before your eyes, including four-pound, drug-free chickens in rotisserie cases that are selling for $5.99, a two-week special, and people talking with strangers about food and how it is prepared. 

At the fish counter, I had a brief conversation with another shopper about fishing at the Jersey Shore, triggered by that monkfish.

Near the rotisserie chickens, sushi was bring prepared at a Genji stand and I asked for a tray of eel rolls to avoid the farmed salmon and high-mercury tuna in most of the completed trays. Pricey at $10.49.

Rare cart

Without a cart, it was hard to spend more than an hour in the store, so I headed to the checkout, only to find an empty cart there; I gave it up as soon as I left the store to an employee helping a customer find one. 

All in all, I liked shopping there today and will rely on the store for pure pork and chicken, but I will still have to go to Costco for organic salad greens, wild smoked salmon and other items.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What is it about leftovers?

I've started preparing one of my mother's dishes once every couple of weeks, chicken and spaghetti (recipe follows). Each time we have it, my 11-year-old son declares that the spaghetti is the best he's ever eaten. The reason we love the spaghetti is that it cooks in the juices of the chicken, and is flavored with cinnamon and allspice.

But getting my wife or my son to eat the leftover spaghetti is nearly impossible. I'm the one who ends up eating it or it goes in the garbage, and I hate throwing away food. My wife and son enjoy the dish the night it is made, but just want to move on to something else. Me, when I was single, I used to cook for a few hours every Sunday night to turn out four dinners for the week, eat take-out on Friday nights and go to a restaurant on Saturday nights. The four meals alternated two entrees, chicken one night, then spaghetti the next, then chicken, then spaghetti, each meal accompanied by a salad and bread or potato.

Now, if we make a whole chicken, I'm very happy eating chicken sandwiches from the white meat one or two days later. But my wife and son hate white meat, which is why I will be making my mother's dish with leg quarters from now on. For this recipe, one of those black pots speckled with white, covered, works best. My pot is oval, about 14 inches long.

Grace Sasson's chicken and spaghetti

One whole chicken, about 3 to 4 pounds,
or four to five leg quarters, seasoned to taste
with salt, cinnamon and allspice.

One pound of spaghetti, regular, thick or thin

Two small cans of tomato sauce

Chicken broth (optional)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Spray the bottom of the pot with cooking spray, place the seasoned chicken inside, cover and cook, about one hour for the whole chicken or 45 minutes for leg quarters.

Meanwhile, boil pasta according to package directions, then drain. Don't overcook.

Remove pot from stove and remove chicken. Add spaghetti, tomato sauce, chicken broth if desired, and season with more cinnamon and allspice. Mix well.

Place chicken on top of the spaghetti, and put the pot in the stove, uncovered. Cook until a meat thermometer registers between 160 degrees and 170 degrees (for chicken without antibiotics). Exposed spaghetti should be browned and crisp.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Paramus food smackdown: Whole Foods Market v. Fairway

The fresh seafood counter at Whole Foods Market in October 2016.

Editor's note: When I wrote this post in 2009, I couldn't have seen how Fairway Market turned into a terrible place to shop. Prices rose dramatically over the years, and keeping with the staff's New York attitude, a Fairway employee refused to devein the jumbo wild Gulf Shrimp I wanted to buy. At Whole Foods in Paramus, they gladly devein your shrimp.


Food shopping will take a giant leap forward when Whole Foods and Fairway open supermarkets separated by only a few miles in Paramus. 

Whole Foods will get the drop on Fairway, with its grand opening set for Thursday, March 19 (and it's only 1.2 miles from my house); Fairway's opening is scheduled for March 25.

I shop at Fairway's Harlem store just about every time I return from doing something in the city, loading up on Murray's free-roaming, drug-free chicken; inexpensive 32-ounce bottles of Fairway pasta sauce, great fish, goat meat and other items. 

I've visited the Whole Food stores in Edgewater and Ridgewood only sporadically; they are just too inconvenient for someone who lives in Hackensack. I remember going to the Edgewater store when it opened and being disappointed by the selection of tomatoes and the high price of the organic salad mix, but Whole Foods does have great seafood and a wide choice of drug-free poultry and meats.

Whole Foods has the better location, and not only because it's closer to my home. The Fashion Center has always seemed to be in last place in a borough with great malls. Now, it will be interesting to see how the prices compare at the two supermarkets.

One caveat about Fairway's organic, grass-fed beef. Admittedly, I bought the cheaper cuts, but the shoulder steak I prepared last week was one of the toughest I ever ate. My wife couldn't finish her portion. I have another package, a different cut, but will have to find a way to tenderize it.

I'm looking forward to the drug-free pork and ribs available at Whole Foods and the high quality of produce at both stores, a welcome alternative to the crappy stuff sold at other supermarkets.

How many times have I brought home produce from ShopRite that either rotted overnight because of improper refrigeration or never ripened? I have to commend ShopRite for selling Readington Farms chicken, which is raised on a vegetarian feed and never receives antibiotics, and free-range Australian beef and lamb.

A couple of years ago, I asked a Fairway official in the Harlem store why the company initially hesitated in opening a store in northern New Jersey. He said Fairway felt it couldn't compete with the low-price supermarkets like ShopRite. 

But ShopRite is no competition for Fairway, unless you are shopper that judges all food by its price; then you deserve the low-quality of many items and the questionable freshness of fish there.

Here's a shout-out to my friend, Sue. Your husband, Jay, who as you know thinks organic food is a scam, is being careful not to mention the Whole Foods opening this week in Paramus. See you there, Sue.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Go fishing with me

There is so much great fish out there. My favorite meals involve seafood, and I have developed a strategy for eating fish that are low in mercury and making fish a part of my daily diet.

I have read that the Japanese eat more fish per capita than other groups, but judge for yourself how close behind I am. In my refrigerator, there is a container of smoked, preservative-free wild salmon from Costco, salted cod with red pepper and stewed whiting from the Korean supermarket in Little Ferry, and more salted codfish my wife uses to prepare that great Jamaican breakfast, ackee and saltfish. In my freezer, I have frozen wild salmon, also from Costco.

Just about every morning, I assemble a fish sandwich for breakfast, using that wild lox, Moroccan sardines or canned red salmon and yellow fin tuna. Humus or made-at-home yogurt cheese is my preferred spread for the sandwich, which usually includes salad mix, sliced tomatoes with za'artar (a spice mixture available at Fattal's in South Paterson) and sliced Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese. A great, stick-to-your ribs breakfast, accompanied by green tea and a small bowl of kimchi.

This morning, I used the Korean-style salted cod to make an overstuffed omelet and ate it with Fattal's pita (toasted) and two kinds of kimchi. One dinner we had last week were small, whole sea bass with vegetables, which we enjoyed with basmati rice and black beans. The week before, we fried meaty ocean perch for dinner. Last night, I had a grilled mackerel at a Korean restaurant in Palisades Park. Yes. I really love fish.

Stick with wild-caught seafood if you can. Avoid too much bluefin tuna, lest you get hit with a mercury overdose, like the condition alleged by actor Jeremy Piven. I have read that farmed salmon is artificially colored, and that the salmon farmers can even pick from a palette of colors for their fish. In northern New Jersey, the variety of fish and the prices at H Mart in Englewood, Little Ferry and Ridgefield can't be beat. Fish is cheap. It's flown in from all over the world and even some of the fishing boats based on the Jersey coast roam hundreds of miles out to sea to bring home their catch. So don't overpay.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hear me, Oprah!

Did you see the Oprah Winfrey show the other day, when three celebrity chefs visited families that basically threw money at the problem of cooking meals at home? One family bought virtually everything from the frozen food aisle in the supermarket. Another spent lavishly to have meals delivered -- more than $51 on dinner for two.

The celebrity chefs, including Cat Cora and Tyler Perry, showed the families how to buy food for far less and prepare delicious meals at home. But there was no mention of the quality of the ingredients or how the chicken, pork and so forth had been raised; of whether the poultry and meats were filled with antibiotics or growth hormones.

Of course, the pan-roasted, jerk-flavored pork chops looked and tasted great, but did the family eating them know pigs received more antibiotics than any other animal raised for human consumption? The problem with eating animals raised on antibiotics is the growing human resistance to antibiotics prescribed by doctors. The silence on this subject by the celebrity chefs and Oprah -- and the general silence of most food writing -- is why I started this blog.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Food bargains

I just sent an e-mail to a reporter I used to work with, listing some great food values in northern New Jersey. I did so after reading his piece on "Top 10 rip-offs." Now, he's soliciting ideas for great deals. Here's my list:

1. The restaurant-quality, complete meals for takeout at Jerry's in Englewood. Fish, chicken or pork is the main course, $6.99 each. Usually includes two vegetables, pasta and other items.

2. The low everyday prices for fresh fish at H Mart, the Korean supermarket in Englewood, Little Ferry and Ridgefield. Try the meaty ocean perch fillets at $4.99 a pound. More variety of whole and filleted fish than just about anyplace else.

3. The $2 baguette at Balthazar Bakery in Englewood, the same price this crusty sandwich loaf has been sold for since the place opened around Thanksgiving in 2002.

4. Fat Moroccan sardines for 99 cents a can at Fattal's on Main Street in South Paterson, where you'll also find the best pita bread in North Jersey.

5. Crisp Portuguese vinho verde wine, usually under $5 a bottle, Total Wine in River Edge and elsewhere.

6. The eight-course dinner for six at Lotus Cafe in Hackensack, $20 per person, including tax and 15% tip.

7. Deals at Costco, where use of the American Express rebate card returns more cash than the annual fee: a pound of organic salad mix, $4.29; three liters of organic carrot juice, $2.50 per liter; two loaves of sliced, 100% whole grain bread, $1.99 each. The salad mix has gone up to $4.49, still a bargain (updated March 25, 2009).