Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Falling for the Jersey shore, local seafood all over again

Dolphins hunting for a breakfast of oily bait fish on Saturday off the New Jersey shore resort of Wildwood Crest, below. Tourists enjoy an abundance of locally caught seafood, but busy restaurant kitchens may overcook it, as we discovered at three meals last weekend in Cape May and Sea Bright.

By Victor E. Sasson

You don't have to live in the Garden State to fall in love with Jersey shore, its clean ocean air and its abundance of locally caught seafood.

My love affair with the shore dates to the 1950s and 1960s, when we'd pile into the car in Brooklyn and drive to our summer home on Third Avenue in Bradley Beach.

My father would take the train five or six days a week to his Grand Street dry goods store, A. Sasson, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

When we'd pick him up in the afternoon, I would put a nickle or quarter on the rail, where it would be squashed by the locomotive, and then he would shop for a 50-pound bag of potatoes and other produce at the farmers' market just across the tracks.

Our house had eight bedrooms, and most of them were filled with Brooklyn relatives who took turns spending a week or two at the shore, gathering for big meals in our dining room.

I'd walk barefoot the three blocks to the beach, staying mostly on the grass to avoid the hot shale sidewalks.

I also remember a Mr. Haber, who took the train to Bradley Beach and would hawk fresh Syrian bread from a baby carriage he pushed down the middle of sleepy, sun-splashed streets, which were lined with homes that had wraparound porches.

Crab cakes at the Pier House were topped with a fried tortilla, mashed potatoes and a breaded shrimp -- much too fussy for my taste -- and there was more breading than crab.
Our server at the Pier House didn't mention that the dressing for a lunch salad topped with scallops contained bacon, and when I sent it back, she returned in minutes with a bacon-free dressing, but with the same scorched, overcooked scallops from the original.
The retail fish market at the Lobster House in Cape May on Saturday offered fresh medium flounder fillets for $6.95 a pound, as well as locally caught swordfish, tuna, scallops and other seafood.

At The Lobster House, a case holds the shell of a 37.25-pound lobster caught in July 1985 by Capt. Arne Jensen of the F/V Courageous at George's Bank.

In recent years, we've made day trips to Bradley Beach, and spent weekends in Barnegat Light, which has one of New Jersey's big commercial fishing ports.

Most of the local seafood I ate there came from Kubel's Restaurant and Off the Hook, a takeout shop with outdoor tables affiliated with the Viking Village commercial fishing dock, all in Barnegat Light.

New Jersey fishing ports land sea scallops, swordfish, tuna, flounder and lots of other seafood. Clams are another Garden State specialty.

This past weekend, my wife and I attended the 52nd annual meeting of the American Littoral Society, a coastal-conservation non-profit based in Sandy Hook. 

We stayed at the comfortable La Mer Beachfront Inn in Cape May and ate at its restaurant, the Pier House, on Friday and Saturday. 

The annual meeting was held at The Lobster House in Cape May after a big seafood dinner on Saturday night, and, on the way home Sunday, we stopped for a seafood lunch at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright. 

At the Cape May restaurants, we encountered servers and kitchens that couldn't keep up with the 40 to 65 members that attended meals.

At dinner on Friday, Pier House crab cakes tasted like crab, but had too much breading. The next day, the kitchen badly overcooked and scorched scallops that crowned a lunch salad.

At The Lobster House on Saturday night, we had a wonderful broiled seafood platter with scallops; a stuffed clam with bacon I didn't eat; and tasty crab meat-stuffed half lobster, shrimp and fillet of local flounder, but the fish spent too much time on the fire and lost all of its normal flakiness.

The Littoral Society meal plan was prepaid, limited and allowed no substitutes. 

My server at The Lobster House said there was no "regular milk" for the coffee, and that I couldn't get fruit instead of artery clogging cheesecake for desert.

Perfect fish on top of a perfect salad at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright.

Also at Woody's, the shrimp on top of a Caesar salad were leaden and overcooked.

The freshly made salsa at Woody's was so good we asked for and received another bowl.

Woody's reopened about five months after it was flooded by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012.

On Sunday, at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright, the cozy ground-floor dining room, which has a bar and working fireplace, was full when we arrived, and we were seated upstairs, in what turned out to be exile.

The waitress, Ali, handed us lunch menus of salads, tacos and sliders, but forgot to recite the specials.

We ordered two salads, one topped with the perfectly rare, sesame-seed encrusted ahi tuna I requested ($18), and the other with leaden, overcooked shrimp in their shells ($14).

My wife said the shrimp tasted as if they were prepared the day before, and when I mentioned that to the waitress, she apologized and said she would inform the chef.

But there was no offer to prepare the dish again or adjustment of the check. 

And I only learned of the specials, at the end of our meal, when I overheard another serving reciting them to other customers.

If you are seated on the second floor at Woody's, you can amuse yourself trying to count the fish on the unusual lighting fixture that hangs over the main dining room.
The view from La Mer Beachfront Inn in Cape May.

Amid Cape May's Victorian architectural splendor are custom-built homes, such as this one on Beach Avenue that appears to be topped with the smokestacks of an ocean liner.

The lighthouse in Cape May Point is the third at this location and dates to 1859. The  park is perfect for viewing the fall bird migrations.

Salt marshes are easy on eye.
You'll find a boat filled with flowers at Coral and Lighthouse avenues in Cape May Point.

Returning from a futile search for whales.
Another beautiful day in paradise: Sunrise on Sunday.

Pier House Restaurant, 1327 Beach Ave., Cape May; 1-609-898-0300.

The Lobster House, 906 Schellengers Landing Road, Cape May; 1-609-884-8296.

Woody's Ocean Grille, 1 E. Church St., Sea Bright; 1-732-936-1300.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Good wine, pasta and poultry buys at Whole Foods

The Don Simon Tempranillo, front, is a smooth red wine from Spain.

By Victor E. Sasson

Antibiotic-free chicken drumsticks for $1 a pound.

Red wine from Spain for $3.99 a bottle.

Organic 100% whole-wheat pasta from Italy for $1.39 a pound.

I found these good deals on Thursday at Whole Foods Market in Paramus. 

The drumsticks, from vegetarian-fed chickens, are on sale through Oct. 29, and come in packages weighing 4 pounds to 5 pounds.

The whole-wheat pasta matches the price at Trader Joe's, but comes as linguine and shells, two shapes not available there. 

With a price like this, why would anyone buy crappy chicken from Perdue?

Cases of wine were displayed under signs offering reds, whites and a rose for "under $7.99" and  "under $9.99."

I bought two bottles of Spanish red wine for $3.99 each and a bottle of California pinot noir for $4.99.

I screwed opened a bottle of tempranillo from Spain, and had a glass with my dinner of Trader Joe's Organic Whole Wheat Spaghetti with marinara sauce, sardines, anchovies, sweet peppers, onions, garlic and fresh tomatoes.

Sweet Potato and Apple Soup.

The wine was smooth and free of harsh tannins.

I'll drink to that.

As usual, Whole Foods offered about a dozen soups. 

I tried an 8-ounce cup of Sweet Potato and Apple Soup ($3.49), and I'm not sure that combination really works.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Icelandic fish and Mexican sauce -- dinner is served

Snowy, wild-caught haddock is a meaty fish from Iceland that I buy at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack. A bottle of Green Mexican Salsa serves as both the cooking medium and as a sauce for brown rice, above, or whole-wheat pasta. I served the fish with kale.

Editor's note: Fall means the end of the wild-salmon season at Costco Wholesale, and the return of fresh haddock from Iceland. Ripe pears, savory cheese and smoked wild salmon add substance to salads.

By Victor E. Sasson

Fresh fish fillets and a bottle of Green Mexican Salsa translate into a quick, delicious dinner that is ready in minutes.

Last night, we cooked portions of a 1.9-pound fillet of  fresh, wild-caught Icelandic haddock from Costco Wholesale in green salsa for under 10 minutes or until the fish turned snowy white and was firm to the touch.

I served it with leftover organic brown rice, covered with sauce from the fish, and kale, which I had blanched in hot water, drained and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, powdered garlic and a little salt.

The haddock was $8.99 a pound and it served three with leftovers.

I emptied a 16.7-ounce bottle of La Costena-brand Green Mexican Salsa or Salsa Verde into a pot, added fresh juice from half of a lime, heated it to a low boil and then added portions of haddock fillet.

Jun's Wild Sesame Tofu with gochjang, a red-pepper sauce, is delicious for breakfast, especially when heated in the microwave for about a minute and a half. The non-GMO tofu is available at H&Y Marketplace, a Korean supermarket at 1 Remsen Place in Ridgefield

Whole sea bass from H Mart in Englewood was prepared in a sauce of organic diced tomatoes, olive oil and powdered ginger and garlic, and served with organic brown rice and steamed organic carrots. A bonus when eating whole fish are the tender "cheeks" right below the eyes.

Diced ripe Bosc pear and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese turn a red-leaf lettuce salad into a sweet and savory side dish.

A light dinner salad includes smoked Alaskan wild salmon, ripe pear and cheese dressed in extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and calls for a glass of red or white wine.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Holy mackerel, non-GMO tofu and instant noodle soup

I've heard of Spanish mackerel and Atlantic mackerel, but H&Y Marketplace in Ridgefield has a special on wild-caught Norway mackerel.

Jun's Tofu is made from non-GMO soybeans at H&Y Marketplace.

By Victor E. Sasson

Shopping at H&Y Marketplace, a Korean supermarket in Ridgefield, is growing on me, even though it is farther away than H Marts in Little Ferry and Englewood, and smaller than a Super H Mart in the same town.

This H&Y is newer and cleaner than the Bergenfield branch, which has a badly worn floor that is a big turnoff.

And the shopping experience is relaxed, with no crowds to fight and plenty of empty parking spaces in the lot.

On Saturday, my second visit to the Ridgefield H&Y, I enjoyed more free samples, including cooked brown rice wrapped in seaweed and cabbage kimchi; bought natural tofu made in the store, and checked out the grocery aisles.

A big tub of Jun's Wild Sesame Tofu (1 pound, 15 ounces) -- made with non-genetically modified soybeans, black sesame seeds and sea salt -- was $5, and another customer advised me to try it with a little soy sauce. 

Samples were delicious. At home, adding a little gyoza dipping sauce and sesame oil, the tofu had a nutty flavor, and I liked the crunch of the sesame seeds.

A 16-portion box of Shin Ramyun spicy instant noodle soup was on sale for $11.99, as was a half-gallon of Lactaid 1% lactose-free milk for $3.49 or what ShopRite charges for its house brand.

I noticed H&Y carries at least three brands of a Korean staple called gochujang made with sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup, and at better prices than H Mart.

Gochujang is a vinegared, hot red-pepper sauce that can be added to soups and sandwiches, and eaten with barbecued meat and broiled fish.

In the fish department, fresh Norway mackerel was only $1.89 a pound.

At the H Mart in Englewood, a sign advises seafood buyers the store is supplied by the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. Tanks, left, hold live abalone and Dungeness crabs. The crabs were $10.99 a pound.

Wild-caught shrimp from Mexico at the Englewood H Mart.

More seafood

Today, I bought four wild-caught sea bass at the H Mart in Englewood for dinner tonight ($5.49 a pound).

I was tempted by large, wild-caught shrimp from Mexico -- as an alternative to Costco Wholesale's farmed Black Tiger shrimp from Vietnam -- but didn't feel like deveining them.

The live Dungeness crabs in a tank of water also looked good.

For an appetizer, I picked up a Jinga-brand seaweed, rice and vegetable roll called kimbap ($6.49).

A tray of kimbap comes with jalapeƱo peppers and Korean pickles.

H&Y Marketplace, 1 Remsen Place, Ridgefield; 201-943-7400.

H Mart, 25 Lafayette Place, Englewood; 201-871-8822.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Enjoying a hearty lunch at Harvest Bistro in Closter

Sauteed Shrimp with Garlic and Herbs at Harvest Bistro & Bar in Closter.

By Victor E. Sasson

Harvest Bistro & Bar is one of those local restaurants I have driven by time and again, and read about, but never tried.

Until Thursday, that is. I bought lunch for a friend who lives nearby, and we had a terrific meal.

Harvest Bistro offers a three-course lunch for $24, but I don't eat dessert and had no interest in the profiteroles with hot chocolate sauce.

Pan-Seared Branzino floats on a sea of lentils and spinach.

I decided to order a kale salad ($9) and an entree of pan-seared branzino ($25). My friend chose sauteed shrimp ($16).

Admittedly, the restaurant is a splurge, but we enjoyed the high quality of the food and preparation, and the professional service.

We didn't need a reservation for lunch, and only one other table was occupied when we arrived.

The kale salad included fresh strawberries, candied walnuts and feta cheese -- in a balsamic honey Dijon vinaigrette -- but I would have welcomed more kale and less cheese.

Kale Salad with strawberries and feta cheese.

I loved how the kitchen crisped the skin-on fillet of branzino, a European sea bass, and served it on top of a big mound of green lentils and sauteed spinach. 

Delicious and healthy, and I was so full I skipped dinner.

My friend's shrimp entree included a rich squid-ink risotto with chorizo and sweet corn.

As for the service, a nice touch is the carafe of ice water on the table, but I have a couple of gripes: 

I don't understand how a restaurant on the level of Harvest Bistro can serve such mediocre bread.

It's true that I'm on a no-bread, no-pizza diet, but I was denied the guilty pleasure of a crispy bread crust dipped into good extra-virgin olive oil, such as the one served at Harvest Bistro.

And why do servers rush to clear the extra napkins, glasses and silverware when two people such as me and my friend ask to sit at a table for four in a nearly empty dining room?

Are they afraid we might steal a couple of forks?

The mediocre bread is completely out of place at Harvest Bistro.

Harvest Bistro & Bar, 252 Schraalenburgh Road, Closter; 201-750-9966.

Web site: Great food and service

Friday, October 18, 2013

Invite the 'King of Cheeses' into your home

Shavings of aged Kirkland Signature Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from Italy dress up a simple open-face, egg-white omelet with sun-dried tomato.

By Victor E. Sasson

My Costco Wholesale offers more than 50 cheeses, but I've narrowed them down to several favorites.

At the top of my list are wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano, an aged cow's milk cheese imported from Italy and sold under the Kirkland Signature house label.

At my Hackensack warehouse store, I paid $10.69 a pound, the lowest price I've found in North Jersey.

The hard cheese crumbles nicely in the mouth when you pair it with wine, nuts, fruit or salad; and melts beautifully when cooked with omelets and frittatas.

Shavings of the cheese get a flavor boost from balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil when you add it to a salad.

I try to avoid full-fat cheese, though make an exception for manchego, a sheep's milk cheese from Spain also available at Costco. 

Parmigiano Reggiano has less fat because it is made from part skimmed cow's milk.

Chef Mario Batali refers to it as the "King of Cheeses," and the taste and versatility certainly bear that out.

Another great reduced-fat selection is Jarlsberg Lite Sliced Swiss Cheese, sold at Costco in a 2-pound package for $8.59, a price cut.

Paired with cinnamon-dusted almonds.

A little heat transforms Parmigiano Reggiano, here with organic brown eggs.
Wedges sold at Costco Wholesale are aged for more than 24 months and have rinds on only two sides, meaning you get more cheese. At home, I trim the rinds and cut the cheese into several small blocks, storing them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

Another bonus: Parmigiano Reggiano is a reduced-fat cheese made with part skimmed cow's milk.

An egg-white omelet with Jarlsberg Lite Reduced Fat Swiss Cheese and Kirkland Signature smoked Alaskan wild sockeye salmon.
A bigger refrigerated unit debuted this week at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack. It adds a second cold room to the store for conventional eggs and other items.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Broth and stock: Trader Joe's v. Costco Wholesale

Trader Joe's sweet potatoes were sliced and boiled before they were added to a frittata, above, and mashed with extra-virgin olive oil, below.

Editor's note: Today, I discuss whether Trader Joe's or Costco Wholesale has the best chicken broth/stock. Also on the table: The magic of sweet potatoes, and a review of food prices.  

By Victor E. Sasson

Trader Joe's boasts of holding the line at $1.99 for a 32-ounce container of Organic Chicken Broth for more than 11 years.

That's pretty impressive -- until you compare that organic broth to Costco Wholesale's Organic Chicken Stock.

Costco says it's Kirkland Signature organic stock is "more versatile" than broth, and has "rich chicken flavor."

Stock is made from chicken bones and gristle, and broth from meat, and many cooks consider the flavor of stock to be richer.

Costco's stock has other clear advantages:

Zero grams of fat, compared to 1 gram per 8-ounce serving of Trader Joe's broth; half the calories, and slightly cheaper (six 32-ounce cartons for $11.59). 

Both are gluten free, and both add flavor to basics like rice, quinoa and mashed sweet potatoes, and make a great base for sauces, gravies and soups.

How sweet it is

When my trainer at the gym recommended a no-bread, no-pizza diet to lose weight a few years ago, he said I could eat sweet potatoes to my heart's content.

It seems our bodies process sweet potatoes better than white potatoes, and I love to boil and mash the former with extra-virgin olive oil or add boiled sweet-potato slices t0 frittatas.

The last time I mashed sweet potatoes, I inadvertently dumped a couple of ounces of black pepper into the pot when the loose-fitting strainer on the bottle of Kirkland Signature Coarse Ground Malabar Black Pepper came off.

Kirkland Signature Organic Brown Eggs from Costco Wholesale.

Costco's organics

My wife found a 10-pound bag of organic carrots at the Costco Wholesale in Hackensack today for $8.59.

A 10-pound bag of Organic Sugar from Brazil was $8.49; Organic Spring Mix from Earthbound Farm was $4.99, and three large hothouse cucumbers were $3.49.

Two of the cheapest items at Costco are 3 pounds of bananas for $1.39, and a bottle of Kirkland Signature Ground Saigon Cinnamon for $2.59, ideal for dusting sodium-free raw almonds I roast at home ($12.99 for a 3-pound bag).

The growing number of organic items at Costco allows me and other consumers to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

At Trader Joe's, a 2-pound bag of conventional sweet potatoes was $1.69, and a 28-ounce can of marinara sauce with extra-virgin olive oil was $1.99.

Organic Whole Wheat Fusilli was $1.39 for 16 ounces, but the Clifton Trader Joe's I shopped in last week didn't have Organic Whole Wheat Spaghetti. 

Wild-caught sea bass and mustard greens from H Mart in Little Ferry, below. The Little Ferry store is sorely in need of renovation.

Something's fishy

I've been shopping at the Little Ferry H Mart for years, lured by an abundance of fresh fish and a wide variety of Asian greens.

But on Sunday, for the first time, I detected a strong, fishy smell from the seafood department, where a dozen or more kinds of fresh fish were displayed on ice.

I bought four wild-caught sea bass ($4.99 a pound), which I seasoned and roasted in the oven, and they tasted as fresh as could be.

Still, the store is one of the oldest in the Korean supermarket chain, and it's sorely in need of renovation.

Besides fish, I picked up mustard greens for 99 cents a pound and two Golden Pineapples for $3.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Garlic lover's pasta, wild pesto salmon

Two full bulbs of California garlic -- at least a dozen and a half cloves -- go into a simple sauce for organic whole wheat spaghetti, above.

A second version of Garlic Lover's Pasta uses organic whole wheat fusilli and adds fresh organic baby spinach.

By Victor E. Sasson

Garlic -- and lots of it -- chopped fresh or canned diced tomatoes, and extra-virgin olive oil are all you need to prepare a simple and satisfying sauce for pasta. 

You can add grated cheese to the pot as well as at the table for the finishing touch.

I use Trader Joe's organic whole-wheat pasta ($1.39 for 16 ounces). The California garlic and organic diced tomatoes come from Costco Wholesale.

For breakfast, I crowned Garlic Lover's whole wheat fusilli and spaghetti with an organic brown egg.

Wild for salmon

Another simple and simply delicious dish is wild salmon fillets that get a squirt of fresh lime juice and a pinch or two of Aleppo pepper before they go into the oven.

I roast salmon in a 375-degree oven for  8 to  12 minutes, depending on whether I want it rare for me or cooked through for other family members.

Once they come out of the oven, all you have to do is spoon on Kirkland Signature Basil Pesto from Costco Wholesale.

Kirkland Signature Basil Pesto is a refrigerated product that you can use at room temperature for wild salmon, above; or as a sandwich spread and pasta sauce.

Canned-fish salad -- pink salmon, yellowfin tuna and sardines -- is great in sandwiches, but when you're on a no-bread diet, you can pile it high for breakfast with organic spring mix, kimchi, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. I dress the canned fish in Dijon mustard, fresh lime juice and ground cumin.

Why I cook in large batches. When dinner is as easy as plating and reheating leftover wild salmon with pesto and organic fusilli with garlic, tomato and spinach, followed by a salad, what's not to love?