Friday, July 31, 2009

Some final words on road food

Heading for New Orleans, we stopped for gas and coffee on July 6 at a filling station off I-10, near Chattahoochee, Ala. On the counter, near the register, were large jars of pickled pigs' feet, eggs, sausage, kosher dills and shredded pork ears.

I saw fried green tomatoes on a menu only once, at Buck's Diner in Loxley, Ala., part of the Lucky 7 Truck Stop. They were expertly fried, with crackling exteriors and steaming interiors, and served with a nice dipping sauce.

We bought ice for our cooler at supermarkets -- Gooding's, Winn-Dixie and Publix. We also got dinner at the Publix, on the outskirts of Atlanta, eating it in our hotel room. The Mediterranean rotisserie chicken was one of the best I have ever had, with moist breast meat, a rarity. (The package showed the time it was prepared and the time it was to be taken off the shelf if unsold.) A pasta salad of bow ties with feta cheese, tomato and black olives was the perfect side dish.

We stumbled upon the K&W Cafeteria in Roanoke, Va., while searching for another supermarket and decided to eat breakfast there, on our final leg of the trip July 12. This is one of those classic steam-table restaurants with made-to-order eggs, pancakes and other items. The three of us ate for $21.40, compared with our usual breakfast tab of $30 to $40.

The $24.07 lunch (Chapter 2)

I went into the city with a friend for the $24.07 lunch today at Del Posto, the fine-dining Italian restaurant opened by Chef Mario Batali and others. We ate in 34 minutes -- we had to park more than two blocks away and were limited to a one-hour meter (cost $2).

The meal, three courses for the price of a lunch entree, included heirloom tomatoes, smoked prosciutto (speck) and drug- and hormone-free Berkshire pork, in an elegant setting of marble and dark wood. Highlights were a complimentary prosecco aperitif and the bread, baked in-house, especially a dark roll filled with black olives. I started with the prosciutto, served with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings and baby arugula. Both of us had the pork loin, a gloriously moist and fatty medallion, topped with some onions and sweet peppers. Dessert was ricotta cheesecake and small, sweet strawberries.

The food was delicious, the service crisp and our bread basket was replenished without prompting. On the way out, we looked at the posted dinner menu, which offers Dover sole for two at $130. And Manhattan remains a hassle, with limited street parking and way too many cars. That's why I had my first $24.07 lunch on a Sunday, when you can park just about anywhere and you don't have to feed the meters.

Today was supposed to be the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, but all the places taking part have extended the $24.07 lunches and $35 dinners to Labor Day. I wonder where I'll go next?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

They are like no other empanadas

If you live in North Jersey, you've probably eaten plenty of Colombian, Peruvian and Cuban empanadas, not to mention Jamaican patties, Syrian spinach pies and other hand-held delights.

But I am sure you've never eaten anything like the oversized, delicious, dough-wrapped treats from Julia's Empanadas in Washington, D.C., our first stop during our road trip. These empanadas are hand-made, with beautifully turned edges and an eggwash, and each filling has its own distinct shape. I had to park two blocks away from the unassuming takeout shop in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, but it was worth the hassle.

We enjoyed empanadas filled with chorizo, spinach and cheese, Jamaican-style jerk chicken and Indian-style curry chicken. We also had the daily vegetarian empanada. Each was priced at $3.41. The closest I've found in North Jersey is the empanada stuffed with ground beef, half of a hard-boiled egg and raisins at Pollos El Chevere, the Peruvian rotisserie-chicken place in Passaic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What I missed on our 3,750-mile road trip

Great bread.
Panera Bread (St. Louis Bread in Greater St.Image via Wikipedia

In 15 days on the road and in hotels, I missed the great bread I enjoy in North Jersey. Just two examples are the $2 baguette with a crackling crust from Balthazar Bakery in Englewood (this is a living crust that softens in humid weather) and the fresh pita from Fattal's in Paterson that allows you to turn every meal into a pocket-bread sandwich.

Even in New Orleans, what they call French bread is this large, doughy loaf with no crust to speak of, suitable for soaking up the juices from the overstuffed po' boy sandwiches. It reminded me of the water bread used in Cuban sandwiches, but that crust is compressed and heated in a press before serving.

About the closest thing to a great-bread experience is the yeasty southern biscuit, sometimes served soaked in gravy. I loved the biscuits served at Lil' Dizzy's Cafe in New Orleans and in a Cracker Barrel Store in Alabama. Driving back to New Jersey, we found a Panera Bread in Hagerstown, Md., where I had a Mediterranean vegetable sandwich -- a salad between two slices of good wheat bread. And the baguette served with the terrific chicken soup, though doughy, was excellent.

Not always worth the detour

On our road trip, we strayed far from the interstate only twice in search of good food. On mind-numbing I-95 to Florida, Gardner's Bar-B-Que is one of the few local restaurants to advertise to drivers.

The 5-mile drive to the restaurant in Rocky Mount, N.C., was pleasant enough, but the meal was a disappointment and I was partly to blame, succumbing to the offer of a $6.99 lunchtime buffet. Two things the South has in abundance: all-you-can-eat buffets and fried food. Gardner's steam table was large. Still, about the only item of quality was the fried local trout.

We did much better a couple of days later when we left I-95, drove 3 miles to Woodbine, Ga., and stopped at the funky lunchroom of Creative Catering & Design. After we ate, we learned that the owner had returned the night before from visiting her parents in New Jersey. I really enjoyed my salad of fresh arugula with moist chicken breast in a tasty dressing. The desserts ordered by a mother and her two small daughters at the next table looked fabulous.

Aggressive pricing at Fairway in Paramus

The Fairway Market ad in today's Record shows prices on only eight items, but that may be enough to get me to make a trip to the store, in my least favorite Paramus mall, the Fashion Center.

The Manhattan-based market seems intent on being perceived as the price leader, undercutting the traditionally low-price supermarket, ShopRite. Fairway is offering Maine lobsters for $4.99 a pound from Aug. 1-7 in Paramus, matching ShopRite's lowest price for lobsters this year. I bought two pints of Jersey blueberries this week in Fairway's Harlem store for $4, or $1 less than I paid at ShopRites in Hackensack and Rochelle Park.

Fairway in Paramus also is offering whole Murray's free-roaming, drug-free chickens for 99 cents a pound, cut from $2.49 a pound, and Fairway-made baguettes for 99 cents each. The Murray's sale is rare and Fairway doesn't often cut prices for organic or grass-fed meats. At Whole Foods Market, you usually can count on discounts on naturally raised pork, beef and other items. And ShopRite regularly has sales on free-range, grass-fed Australian beef and lamb.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Putting a quality meal on the table for $8

If anyone tells you they can't afford good food, consider that my dinner tonight of grass-fed, free-range lamb chops and Jersey tomato-peach salad, with a few slices of toasted bread and seltzer, cost about $8.

The biggest problem when it comes to good ingredients is not so much price as it is finding them on a consistent basis. ShopRite offers free-range Australian lamb and beef, but it is not always there when you want it. It also sells Readington Farms drug-free chicken, though the slection varies from store to store.

Of course, if money is no object, do all your food shopping at Whole Foods Market, which has the widest variety of naturally raised meats, poultry, farmed seafood and produce in North Jersey.

More '101 Simple Salads for the Season'

Tonight, I made salad No. 2 on the list of 101 salads published on July 22 in The New York Times and it went nicely with my lamb chops:

"Mix wedges of tomatoes and peaches, add slivers of red onion, a few red-pepper flakes and cilantro. Dress with olive oil and lime or lemon juice." I also added some fresh basil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. The Jersey tomato and two Jersey peaches I used were purchased at a farmer's market or farm store. I piled this salad on some organic spring mix from Costco. Delicious.

Praising Australian beef and lamb

Why can't the United States produce high-quality, free-range beef and lamb for a reasonable price, such as the Australian products I have been buying at ShopRite and Costco for years?

For dinner tonight, I ate about half of an Australian lamb rib roast, which I trimmed and cut into chops, along with a salad of Jersey tomatoes and peaches. The leftover chops will make another dinner. The grass-fed lamb is sweet and tender, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. The chops spent about 10 minutes under the broiler for medium rare (turned once), seasoned with only salt and black pepper.

Costco sells the rib roast for $9.99 a pound (mine cost $11.49). Australian lamb shoulder chops are cheaper, but I have searched in vain for them in recent weeks at ShopRite, which has instead offered USDA lamb. U.S. producers make no claims that their lamb is raised naturally.

About 10 days ago, my dinner was two small steaks, no more than 7 ounces or 8 ounces total, cut from that grass-fed, free-range Australian beef tenderloin I bought on sale at ShopRite for $2.99 a pound with a Price Club Card. (In other words, they gave it away.) I seasoned it with steak rub from Costco and cooked it rare to medium rare: The steaks were deliciously chewy and beefy.

An awful meal at Denny's

Although we managed to avoid fast food on our 3,750-mile road trip, we couldn't completely avoid lousy food. Our July 6 lunch at the Denny's on Route 53 in Madison, Fla., was the worst we had on our two-week trip. As we exited the interstate, my 12-year-old son offered from the back seat, "Let's stop at that Wendy's." But recalling Denny's TV ads, which focus on breakfast, I ignored him.

I ordered chicken-noodle soup and a "garden salad," each $1.99. I should have known from the price that the food wouldn't be any good, but the low quality surprised me. The soup was gummy as if it had been prepared a couple of days before. The salad was 98% iceberg lettuce. My wife's "breakfast prime" looked like warmed-up, pre-cooked beef with scrambled eggs. Did the name of this dish suggest this was prime beef, the highest USDA grade? For $8.49? My son had trouble getting his shrimp off the skewers and they were overcooked and hard.

As we ate, other people walked through the door of the half-empty restaurant, but had to wait because of uncleared tables. The bus boy was unshaven and his shirt was wet; was it perspiration or did he get caught in the rain? After we returned home this month, I called Denny's headquarters to complain and ask for a refund. Today, I received a certified letter containing a $35 gift card -- for use at Denny's. I guess we'll go for breakfast. How can they screw up eggs, sunny side up?

Slow food in the fast lane

On most interstates, you really have to search for good food among the complexes of fast food places at the interchanges. But in some cases, real, slow food is only a few hundred yards away from the end of that highway ramp.

Driving from New Orleans to Atlanta, I was delighted to find Wintzell's Oyster House in Saraland, Ala., where we watched the highway traffic pass as we enjoyed a lunch of seafood gumbo, chili, crab soup and a dozen raw Louisiana oysters, shucked after I ordered them. At the Cracker Barrel Store (No. 231) in Opelika, Ala., we had the fish fry (we chose cod instead of farmed catfish) and a bowl of some of the best turnip greens I've ever had.

The next day, on the leg from Atlanta to Roanoke, Va., we stopped at the family-owned Daddy Joe's Beach House in Gaffney, S.C., for lunch and were bowled over by the saucy St. Louis-style pork ribs -- the tender meat came easily off the bone -- and the pulled-pork sandwich with coleslaw.

On the back of Daddy Joe's menu is a history of barbecue in the South: "These roadside BBQ shacks were an interracial meeting place long before the forced integration of the 1950s and 1960s.... In some places, blues and boogie-woogie music ... drew fans of every class and color."

Monday, July 27, 2009

A cool dish for a hot day

Sagging a bit under today's heat and humidity, I stopped by Homung Nangmyun, a Korean cold-noodle house, to chill with one of their signature dishes. The place was packed and I had to wait 15 minutes for a shared table.

I ordered a regular-size bibim nangmyun ($10.95), traditional buckwheat noodles in a hot and spicy house sauce. First I received three side dishes -- radish kimchi, salad and stewed potatoes -- and a small thermos with hot, milky beef-bone broth. The Korean merchant sharing my table explained the broth would warm my stomach against the shock of the cold noodles.

The waitress used a scissor to cut the long, bundled noodle strands before she set down my bowl. The noodles, which resemble angel hair pasta, are garnished with half of a boiled egg, some boiled beef and thin-sliced cucumber and radish kimchi. Slurping is encouraged. After my cool meal, I felt pleasantly full and my lips tingled.

The cold-noodle house is in Closter Commons, a shopping center on Piermont Road in Closter, near other Korean businesses: bakery, nail and hair salons, spa, rice-cake house and barber, which is where I got my hair cut and vacuumed before lunch. Yes, every haircut includes a vacuuming of your head -- a combination massage and cleaning of stray hairs. (This post has been revised.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A colorful, delicious summer dinner

After my salad and seafood lunch today at Artisanal (see previous post), I felt like a light dinner, so I baked a fillet of fresh wild salmon that I bought at Costco on Saturday, seasoning it with salt, cumin, Aleppo red pepper and fresh chopped parsley from the garden. In a 350-degree oven, 11-12 minutes gave me five medium-rare pieces from a fillet of average thickness.

For a salad, I prepared No. 7 on the list of "101 Simple Salads for the Season" that was in The New York Times on July 22: "Grate carrots, toast some sunflower seeds, and toss with blueberries, olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of black pepper. Sweet, sour, crunchy, soft." I didn't have sunflower seeds so substituted pistachios and almonds, both salted. I grated four small carrots and added about a third a of a pint of Jersey blueberries.

I sliced and toasted a Balthazar dinner roll, poured what was left of some Portuguese vinho verde and Spanish sparking grape juice and really enjoyed my Sunday night meal.

Shopping notes: I picked up the blueberries at Fairway Market in Harlem, where I stopped for goat meat (the Paramus Fairway doesn't carry it). In Manhattan, the Jersey fruit was priced at two for $4, compared with two for $5 last week at ShopRite in Hackensack. The fresh wild sockeye salmon is $8.99 a pound at Costco and has been consistently delicious. And Fairway's price for goat meat on the bone, $2.99 a pound, is a great price in view of the quality (more meat than bone).

Hair in my salad and other $20 lunch stories

I have been sampling some of Manhattan's finest spots during Restaurant Week for at least a decade, starting when a three-course lunch was priced according to the year: $19.96, $19.97 and so forth. A couple of years ago, with little fanfare and no notice in the media, the meal jumped from twenty dollars and change to $24.07. Sometimes, I still call it the $20 lunch.

Today, I drove into the city by myself for a fine meal at Artisanal Fromagerie & Bistro on East 32nd Street, and the waitress was nice enough to substitute a cheese plate for the high-calorie desserts listed on the price-fixed menu. As it turned out, it was the least she could do.

I started with the mesclun salad, served in a deep bowl, and just as I was remarking to myself how nicely dressed it was, I noticed a hair on the side of the bowl that came into view as I ate down the red- and green-leaf lettuce. When I pointed it out to the woman who seated a couple next to me, she whisked it away. I got another salad and apologies from three staff members.

My entree was a superb skate wing, breaded and served over a bed of miniature croutons, baby cauliflower and capers in a sweet blood-orange sauce, one of the chef's specialities. I finished with two cheeses, quince and bread.

The hair wasn't the only problem. I saw two flies, a tiny one that came out from who knows where when I was eating my salad and a larger one that seemed to be heading for my face and zigzagged at the last moment. I have seen flies in fine-dining places before, including Nobu and Tribeca Grill in Manhattan, and do not understand how the staff tolerates them. They are among the filthiest insects.

The $20 .... uh .... $24 lunch is sort of a game with me. I have been drinking only tap water since restaurants started charging for refills of iced tea, seltzer and so forth. I tip exactly 18%, up from 15% last year, but exclude the tax. Today, the check read $24.07 for food and $2.02 for tax. I added a $4.33 tip for a total of $30.42. Summer Restaurant Week is scheduled to end this coming Friday, when I'm planning to join a friend for the $24.07 lunch at Del Posto, the enormously expensive Italian place opened by Chef Mario Batali and others.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Where every meal is a great meal

On our road trip, we drove for 12 hours to reach New Orleans and the first room our historic B&B showed us was a dump, but we were restored by our meals. Despite the destruction still evident nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, the restaurant scene inside and outside of the French Quarter is vibrant.

We pigged out for lunch at Cochon, a Cajun restaurant that buys whole hogs and butchers them in-house (our waiter said all the food is raised naturally within 90 miles). Our feast included a platter of cold cuts, pulled pork topped with cracklings, ribs, and a beautifully seasoned redfish fillet with crispy skin (but the scales were left on, ruining the skin). I always stop at the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter for a dozen of Louisiana's extraordinary oysters on the half shell, and they didn't disappoint. My wife and son shared two pounds of crawfish boiled in a spicy broth (they are about three inches long and you'd swear they were miniature lobsters).

We're crazy about po' boy sandwiches and headed over to fill up at the lively Parkway Bakery & Tavern, which overlooks a bayou. My French bread was overstuffed with fried catfish and fried oysters, lettuce, tomatoes and pickles, hold the mayo, and I had sweet potato fries on the side. Cooks were doing Cuban sandwiches pressed under foiled-wrapped bricks on a sidewalk grill. Other highlights were the fresh spinach salad with moist chicken breast, pizza, and spaghetti and meatballs at Mona Lisa Restaurant and curry goat and braised oxtails at Boswell Jamaican Grill.

Our breakfasts included a huge portion of nut-and-banana pancakes at Betsy's Pancake House and shrimp with grits at Lil Dizzy's Cafe. The gravy, fresh tomato and crunchy wild shrimp elevate the bland hominy into a tasty, rib-sticking breakfast (a daily, off-menu special). Don't forget to order a homemade biscuit to sop up the gravy. Both these breakfast places are filled with locals.

On the take-out trail in Englewood

Englewood is known for its restaurants, but it's also a great place for take-out -- Korean dumplings, French pastry, Jamaican jerk chicken and more.

Yesterday, I started a the farmer's market near the old train station, picking up Jersey tomatoes, bi-color corn and peaches at the Alstede Farms stand. My next stop was Balthazar Bakery on South Dean Street, where I bought a dozen assorted dinner rolls, a baguette and a crispy pissladiere.

About a half a mile south of the bakery is Jerry's Gourmet, where the free lunch lives. I sampled a half-dozen different full-fat cheeses (which I rarely eat), luxurious prosciutto di Parma, bread and toast before I purchased one of Jerry's incredible $6.99 dinners (shrimp, rosemary roast chicken and three vegetable sides), a Neapolitan pizza with vegetables and prosciutto-mozzarella bread (the last two for the freezer). With my wife and son away, there was no need to visit Ashanti's for jerk chicken, Gaboh Inc. for kimchi, Mandoo Inc. for dumplings or the Broadway Coffee Shop for Colombian empanadas.

For dinner, I started with the pissladiere, a pizza with a thin, crackling crust, caramelized sweet onions and four white anchovies radiating out from a black olive in the center. Then I heated the side dishes from the Jerry's dinner: sauteed escarole with beans, green beans with pine nuts and dried cranberries, and a stuffed artichoke, and ate them with some baguette. I also steamed the two small ears of corn (which weren't sweet). I finished with a small sandwich of the rosemary roast chicken.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Eating outside Downtown Disney

On our road trip, we spent July 1-6 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., home of the Walt Disney World Resort and theme parks, but avoided eating at any of the restaurants in Downtown Disney.

On our first night there, we ate dinner at Flippers Pizzeria, which is in a shopping center across the road from Disney World. Our salad and pizza were good, but I especially appreciated the glasses of wine priced at $3.49-$3.99 (you won't find that in New Jersey).

We ate dinner twice at Havana's Cafe, a Cuban place in a nearby shopping center with an Orlando address that serves big portions. We enjoyed whole red snapper swimming in garlic sauce, fried green plantains (tostones), black beans cooked with rice (congris) and white rice with black-bean soup, called Moors & Christians (moros y cristianos).

For lunch one day, we stopped at Fuddruckers, near Flippers Pizzeria, but I was disappointed they had run out of the drug-free ostrich burger I love to order in Paramus. The fish sandwich was artificially-colored farmed salmon. So I had the antibiotic-free buffalo burger and heaped on sliced jalapenos from the small salad bar.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What else is in those processed hot dogs?

I would gladly join the lawsuit that was to be filed today against hot-dog makers by three New Jersey residents, who are seeking class-action designation. 

They are asking the court to order the food processors to add warning labels, and cite research showing a heightened risk of colon cancer in people who eat hot dogs and other processed meat.

I stopped buying cured hot dogs and preserved cold cuts a couple of years ago, hoping to cut down on harmful nitrates and nitrites. 

But I also didn't want to eat meat or poultry that was raised with antibiotics and hormones, and fed animal by-products, the industry euphemism for the bits of dead animals that go into the feed. 

Do you really want to eat beef from a cow that ate bits of dead animals and may have fallen down sick on the way to the slaughterhouse, only to be dragged inside to its death?

Trader Joe's, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Fairway and Whole Foods sell a variety of uncured hot dogs, uncured bacon and unprocessed cold cuts. 

Applegate Farms produces a large variety of cold cuts without preservatives. You can find them at the ShopRite in Englewood and at Fairway in Paramus, among other stores.

I have some Nature's Promise all-beef hot dogs from Stop & Shop in my freezer. They are uncured and not preserved, and contain no nitrates or nitrites, "except for naturally occurring nitrates in sea salt, celery powder and nutmeg." 

Equally as important, the beef used was raised without antibiotics and hormones, and the cows were vegetarian-fed.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Way better than tuna salad

I don't think I can top the wild salmon-wild smoked salmon sandwich I had for breakfast three days last week, but I'm happy with the no-mayo canned fish salad that has succeeded it.

I combined cans of yellowfin tuna from Italy (Costco), fat smoked sardines from Morocco (Fattal's) and Alaskan red salmon (ShopRite), including the oil or water in each. I then diced about two-thirds of a medium red onion, adding it along with two or three tablespoons of powdered cumin and Aleppo red pepper to taste. Finally, I moistened it with two or three ounces of extra-virgin olive oil. This made four cups of fish salad -- enough for about 10-12 sandwiches.

I toasted some Italian semolina bread from Newark, spread on hummus and added salad greens. Then came lots of the fish salad, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings and tomato slices with za'atar spice mixture. My side dish was kimchi, my drink iced tea.

Neopolitan pizza: Is less more?

A Mano (by hand) opened in Ridgewood about two years ago, but I didn't get to the restaurant until last night's free demonstration by a pizza maker from Italy. After Antonino Esposito handed out samples of his minimalist pie, I began to rethink all that I know and love about pizza, which I started eating in Brooklyn more than four decades ago.

I have eaten pizza in Italy, but never in Naples, where the standards for authentic pizza were set in the late 1800s. Last night, Esposito made the dough by hand -- using Caputo flour from Italy and adding only tap water, a little yeast and salt -- crushed the whole peeled southern Italian tomatoes by hand and topped that with house-made mozzarella made by one of the oven tenders. There are lots of toppings available, including arugula and prosciutto, but pies come in only one size -- 12 inches.

The pie spends about 90 seconds in the wood-fired oven, one of two assembled by Italian craftsmen with material sent from Italy, including volcanic soil and rock. What emerges is a thin-crust pizza that is deliciously chewy but topped with a minimum of tart tomato, gooey cheese, some olive oil and fresh basil. If you hold it at the wide end, it just droops. So there's no use asking for it well-done as you do with an American pizza in hopes of getting a stiff, crunchy crust.

After free samples of the pie and house made buffalo-milk and cow-milk mozzarella, I ordered an A Mano salad with imported marinated Italian artichokes ($7.99) and a marinara pie -- just tart tomato sauce and slivers of garlic over that soft, charred, chewy dough ($9.99). Oddly satisfying in view of my love of bigger, brawnier pizzas.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Eating great food near and far

I enjoyed two great meals over the weekend -- dinner at Green Door Cafe in Tenafly and a sumptuous five-course affair with organic French wines served under a tent at Griggstown Quail Farm in Princeton, where the poultry is free range.

"Your doorway to real food" is the motto at the Tenafly bistro, which serves poultry and meat free of antibiotics and growth hormones and organic or locally farmed produce. My kind of place. I usually eat wild seafood when I dine out, but the entrees Saturday night included only what appeared to be farmed salmon from Scotland described as organic, though there are no standards for organic fish.

So I went with the roasted organic half-chicken, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. The chicken was well-seasoned and unlike chicken served in most restaurants, the white meat, my least favorite, was juicy. I cleaned my plate, leaving only a pile of bones. I started the meal with a thick, deep-red, cold soup of pureed beets and a slice of Eli's bread.

The meal at the farm for about 100 people benefited Slow Food Northern New Jersey programs and turned out to be a belly-buster. All of the food came from Garden State farms, but too much was served and I was pleasantly full after the second course. Still, I pressed on and it was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. I can't believe I ate the whole thing (almost).

The first course was a delicious chilled cucumber soup filled with whole peas and a mint-and-yogurt sorbet from The Bent Spoon in Princeton. The oregano-and-honey marinated Griggstown quail came next. Served rare over a cold salad of yellow beans and radicchio in a black olive vinaigrette, this was the tastiest course for me. After checking that the man next to me knew the Heimlich maneuver, I ate the small bird bones and all. Delish.

Roasted and braised Griggstown chicken was the third course, but either the burnt but still moist Frenched breast or the drumstick and thigh would have been enough. Japanese eggplant and squash were served on the side. The fourth course was my second favorite, three cheeses from Bobolink Dairy in Vernon served with bread and perfectly ripe Jersey peaches (I had two). I usually don't eat dessert, but managed to finish one of the two crepes filled with lemon verbana curd and and topped with red raspberries. I didn't touch the honey-lemon thyme ice cream. All the food was served on plates made from fallen palm leaves.

We were entertained by a jazz duo. The chefs were David Felton, formerly of the Pluckemin Inn, and Christopher Albrecht of Eno Terra. They did their magic under a tent not far from ours. The red wines that were served had lots of unpleasant tannins. I'm not sure why they weren't opened ahead of time to allow them to breathe. And I could have done without the flies. (This post was revised.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More Korean restaurants pop up

We have dozens of Korean restaurants in North Jersey, but more seem to open all the time. Yesterday, I had lunch at Haha Donkatsu, 1630 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee, which took over the space once occupied by a Korean baby octopus restaurant.

Across the street from Haha Donkatsu is Pho 32, a Korean-owned place specializing in the Vietnamese soup called pho and shabu-shabu, where you cook meat, seafood and vegetables in hot broth on your table. It is around the corner from a Vietnamese-owned pho restaurant called Mo' Pho. Haha Donkatsu specializes in breaded pork cutlets, and I had mine diced and added to a bowl of Korean bibimbap -- steamed rice and julienned vegetables ($8.99 with several side dishes). The sauce you add is truly spicy.

Today, as I returned from ShopRite, I saw what looks like Hackensack's first Korean restaurant (the city already has a Shilla Korean bakery on Main Street, near the Sears parking lots). I didn't catch the name, but signs offer barbecue and shabu-shabu. This is a small place that has housed a number of unsuccessful restaurants, between The Record and Pep Boys.

Another lull in food shopping

With my wife and son on an extended visit to relatives, there isn't much reason for me to go food shopping, but that hasn't stopped me.

When I got an e-mail from Heritage Foods about an extraordinary ham raised naturally on the Lucki 7 farm in Rodman, N.Y., I called and ordered one, then remembered I'm the only one here to eat it. It was supposed to be 9-10 pounds but turned out to be more than 12 pounds, so I called Purdy & Sons, the farm that prepared it and was told it's OK for me to put it in the freezer until my wife and son return.

Today, I visited a food store for the first time since we returned from our road trip July 12, the ShopRite in Hackensack. Compared to the other ShopRites in Rochelle Park and Englewood, where I used to live, this place is a disappointment. The selection of drug-free Readington Farms chicken was limited and there was little free-range Australian lamb to choose from.

ShopRites are no longer cutting the price for canned Alaskan red salmon during the Can-Can Sale, so I paid $4.99 for one large can from Bumble Bee. But I found cans of ShopRite organic black beans and organic kidney beans for 99 cents each. ShopRite produce is hit or miss. I picked up Jersey blueberries ($2.50 for a pint, which weighs three-quarters of a pound) and Northwest cherries for $1.49 a pound (I originally wrote Northeast in error). Why do cherries from thousands of mile away cost less than Jersey blueberries?

The sparkling, 100% red grape juice from Spain also wasn't on sale, but I bought four at $2.79 each because it is so hard to find. Other varieties are white grape juice, peach and apple. All are good.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Homemade kimchi is a little harder to find

I stopped by my favorite Korean catering store this afternoon to buy a jar of kimchi and found myself staring at unfamiliar labels of commercial kimchi in place of the homemade stuff I have enjoyed for years.

The cashier couldn't tell me why Poong Yeon Korea on Broad Avenue in Palisades Park stopped making its own kimchi, which is spicy, fermented cabbage, cucumber, radish and other vegetables, the centerpiece of every Korean meal. The store had been one of my two main sources for homemade kimchi, the other being Gaboh Inc., a small factory in Englewood that makes and sells the Arirang brand.

The one-half gallon jar of Goshen kimchi I bought today at Poong Yeon costs $12 v. $10 at Gaboh. Fortunately, the Goshen kimchi isn't made with MSG and Poong Yeon still turns out hundreds of packages of homemade food daily, including japchae or translucent Korean sweet-potato noodles. For my dinner Monday, I'm planning to steam Korean mandoo (beef, shrimp or kimchi dumplings) from my freezer, heat up the japchae and fill a small bowl with kimchi.

Should Costco offer anchovies on its pizza?

If you live in Hackensack, as I do, any debate about great pizza begins and ends with Brooklyn's, the coal-oven place on Hackensack Avenue that doesn't charge extra for the attitude baked into every pie: no slices, no delivery, no credit cards.

But there's no denying the appeal of the massive, 18-inch pie made fresh at Costco less than a mile away -- and at $9.95, it's a comparative steal. You can get slices at Costco, but you can't get anchovies as one of the toppings. And if you ask for it well done, they just humor you, because the pie is baked on a moving belt whose speed can't be varied.

I topped the pie I brought home this evening for dinner with anchovies, olive oil from the can, and slices of the wild lox I buy at Costco. To get some crisp into the crust after the pie had cooled, I baked my slices for about 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven. The Costco pie is doughy, but has lots of full-fat cheese. Each pie has 12 slices.

In my youth, I ate my first slices of pizza at Spumoni Gardens, near Lafayette High School, in Brooklyn. You could hold a well-done slice at the thick end and it wouldn't droop at the point. You can't do that with either a Brooklyn's or a Costco slice.

I can't resist all that luxurious-tasting cheese on the Costco pie. I'm ashamed to say I ate 5 of the 12 slices for dinner, plus a big salad, but I assure you the slices were smaller than in a typical pizza. The rest went into the freezer. (This post has been revised.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A spectacular breakfast sandwich

I can still recall the taste of the Egg McMuffins I ate for breakfast occasionally when I was a general assignment reporter for The Record in the 1980s, when coffee and cigarettes got me going in the morning. A lot has changed since then: I quit smoking in 1986, The Record's general assignment reporters now work out of an office building in West Paterson, the paper is no longer printed in Hackensack and I stopped eating Egg McMuffins 20 years ago.

For many years now, my breakfasts have usually included fish -- smoked, canned or fresh -- kimchi and tomatoes.

Today, I toasted two slices of 100% whole grain bread from Costco, slathered on Lebanese hummus I had prepared from a can I bought at Fattal's, and topped that with Earthbound Farms organic salad greens, also from Costco. Next came a slice of smoked wild salmon and a fillet of fresh wild salmon (both from Costco) I had baked with parsley, oregano and red pepper. On top of that was a slice of ripe tomato with the spice mixture called za'atar and shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Costco).

The sandwich was at least an inch and a half thick, but revealed its layers of wonderful flavor every time I took a bite. I had some kimchi on the side and washed it all down with iced tea. I guess you could call this the Costco breakfast sandwich.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Chasing wild seafood down the East Coast

A publicity photo from Rusty's Seafood and Oyster Bar, where you can watch cruise ships leaving Port Canaveral, Fla.


When you leave home on vacation, all bets are off on the origin of the meat and poultry served in restaurants. 

Most restaurant menus fail to deliver any detail on how the food is raised, and that's one of the reasons I usually eat seafood wherever I go.

On our first stop, Washington, D.C., we had a wonderful meal of wood-grilled farmed tilapia and wild catfish at Tackle Box, a family-friendly place where you share a large picnic table with other customers. 

Sides included grilled asparagus and sweet potato fries.

At the Noisy Oyster in Charleston, S.C., I had a beautifully grilled mahi-mahi sandwich and fished 10 steamed oysters out of my wife and son's seafood hot pot.

In Mount Pleasant, outside Charleston, Gullah Cuisine served us a whole fried wild catfish (minus the head), delicious crab cakes and a spicy fish-head soup (again, fish but no head) that we liked so much we ordered more for takeout. 

We even found a homemade corn and crab chowder at Buck's Diner, which occupies half of the convenience store at the Lucky 7 Truck Stop in Loxley, Ala.

In Cape Canaveral, Fla., we had a great lunch after our visit to the Kennedy Space Center at Rusty's Seafood & Oyster Bar: 

A wild grouper sandwich with mashed potatoes instead of french fries, jerk-style jumbo shrimp, a dozen local oysters on the half shell and ahi tuna, the rare slices fanned out on my plate and served with seaweed salad, wasabi and pickled ginger. Awesome.

Check out the Green Door Cafe in Tenafly

I haven't eaten there yet, but Jason Perlow, creator of the Off The Broiler blog, says Green Door Cafe in Tenafly serves only "proteins which are antibiotic- and hormone-free or organic" and produce that is "organic or locally farmed seasonally."

Take a look at the gorgeous photos on his blog:

Monday, July 13, 2009

15 days and 3,750 miles but no fast food

Finding good food on our driving vacation down the East Coast, over to Louisiana, and back wasn't easy but we did it -- with the exception of one really awful meal. We had some terrific meals in unlikely places and ate like royalty in New Orleans.

Local restaurants usually don't advertise on the interstate. And venturing a few miles off the highway in search of food isn't always rewarded. We never took the easy way out by stopping at one of the hundreds of McDonald's, Burger Kings or Wendy's. The one time we had lunch at a Denny's was a disaster.

Despite all the fast food, there are lots of people knocking themselves out every day to prepare slow food and we were delighted when we found one of them. One is a Jersey girl who is now a caterer and runs a lunchroom in a small town in Georgia and the other is "a country cook" who took over half of the convenience store at a truck stop in Alabama.

I'll tell you more about them and what we ate in the next several days. Today, I went to Costco in Hackensack to stock up on fresh produce, organic salad greens and fresh wild salmon.