Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Another great seafood lunch on Maywood's charming main street

Soft-shell crabs and fresh trout on ice, above and below, at Seafood Gourmet, the Maywood fish market and restaurant where you can order just about anything you see served to you in the dining room.


Maywood's downtown is not only pleasant to visit. 

The main street is called West Pleasant Avenue.

That's where you'll find Seafood Gourmet, the market and restaurant that keeps your fish or other selection fresh on ice until you order it for lunch or dinner.

On Monday, I met a friend for lunch there, then strolled along the main street, where parking is free, and stopped at Maywood's Marketplace, one of the best independent supermarkets around.

Grilled Wild Salmon Miso with Jasmine Rice and Bok Choy was one of the specials on Monday ($14.99).

My friend ordered another special, Southern Fried Catfish with Black Beans and Yellow Rice ($12.99), and picked up the check.

From simple to sophisticated

The kitchen at Seafood Gourmet can prepare your selection simply broiled with steamed vegetables, but also offers sophisticated specials, such as the wild salmon with a miso glaze I ordered.

I tasted my friend's catfish, which was coated in corn meal before frying, and it was moist and delicious.

The cook shows restraint in adding salt and other seasoning, a nod to the many older customers who patronize the restaurant.

The small dining room can get noisy when full, as it was on Monday afternoon.

Other specials on Monday were an entree of Crabmeat Stuffed Calamari, simmered in a Blue Crab tomato sauce ($13.99); and an appetizer of Prince Edward Island Mussels steamed with beer and jalapeno peppers ($9.99)

Twin Door Tavern at 122 W. Pleasant Ave. is offering an Oktoberfest menu.

Maywood's Marketplace is an independent supermarket that may remind you of Cafasso's Fairway Market in Fort Lee. I bought five ears of fresh sweet corn for $1.99.

At Maywood's Marketplace, there is plenty of opportunity to say "cheese."

The deli counter.

Seafood Gourmet, 103 W. Pleasant Ave., Maywood; 201-843-8558. Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays. BYO, free street parking, Web site. 

With only 38 seats in the dining room, reservations are recommended for dinner.

Maywood's Marketplace, 78 W. Pleasant Ave., Maywood; 201-843-8361. Open 7 days from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Web site.

Monday, September 29, 2014

ShopRite makes you stoop for deals on 100% whole-wheat pasta

DeCecco 100% Whole Wheat Pasta from Italy is on sale this week at ShopRite in Englewood, but the boxes are only 13.25 ounces, not a full pound. They are displayed at eye level. A much better deal can be found on the bottom shelf -- 16-ounce bags of Luigi Vitelli-brand organic 100% whole-wheat pasta, also from Italy, for only $1.19, below. The better buy also is non-GMO.

The ShopRite in Paramus also displays this Luigi Vitelli-brand organic whole-wheat pasta on the bottom shelf. I've read that food companies pay supermarkets to place their products on higher shelves to better catch the attention of shoppers.

Editor's note: The best deals in the supermarket aren't always easy to find. Also today, I discuss ShopRite stores north of Trenton selling 100% grass-fed Australian beef at a hefty discount, only $5.99 a pound.


ShopRite in Englewood and other supermarkets may be inadvertently discriminating against seniors by placing better buys on hard-to-reach bottom shelves.

That certainly seemed to be the case today at the Englewood ShopRite, where I stopped for a few items after running an errand.

I've switched to 100% whole-wheat pasta, which has more fiber and less carbs than conventional pasta, but the only real bargains in Englewood are on ShopRite's bottom shelf.

Displayed prominently at eye level were 13.25-ounce boxes of DeCecco 100% Whole Wheat Fusilli and Penne Rigate from Italy, on sale for $1.99.

Compare that to Trader Joe's and Whole Food Markets, both of which sell organic versions of 100% whole-wheat pasta for $1.39 for a full pound.

There is no indication on the DeCecco box that these pastas are non-GMO. But when made from organic whole wheat, the resulting pasta is non-GMO. 

ShopRite also has an organic version from Luigi Vitelli, but you'll have to stoop to pick up the 1-pound package from off of the bottom shelf, where it is on sale this week for $1.19 -- 80 cents less than non-organic in a smaller box.

Non-organic Gia Russa-brand 100% Whole Wheat Spaghetti is no bargain, when compared to organic versions sold for $1.39 at Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's

Smart Balance spreads are also on sale with the store card at the Englewood ShopRite this week, and all versions are non-GMO. For the lowest total fat and saturated fat, go for the 15-ounce Smart Balance Light with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, above center.

Beef from Australia
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a Nature's Reserve 100% Grass Fed Whole Beef Tenderloin for Filet Mignon from Australia on sale for $8.99 a pound, and reported that ShopRite's deep discounts were no more.

But the ShopRite flier that came with the Sunday newspaper has the same beef on sale this week for only $5.99 a pound with the store card.

I plan to go to my Paramus ShopRite to take advantage of the rare deep discount.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

After years of pleasing diners, Lotus Cafe's congenial host retires

Leafy, crunchy and bright green, Chinese Broccoli with Fresh Garlic at Lotus Cafe in Hackensack may be the perfect vegetable dish.


Philip Su, who greeted us, seated us and satisfied us with wonderful Chinese dishes at Lotus Cafe in Hackensack for more than 15 years, has retired.

Mr. Su, who was born in Taiwan, and wife Tracy opened Lotus Cafe in a Hackensack Avenue shopping center in 1993.

On Saturday night, we had dinner at the restaurant, and I expected to see the congenial, well-dressed host in his usual place, standing at the front counter to welcome us. 

We had a nice meal of soup, noodles, shrimp and a vegetable, and on the way out, I asked about him, only to learn he had retired on Aug. 31.

Prawns in Chili Sauce is marked on the menu as spicy ($16.95), but don't expect the fire of Korean or Thai dishes.

Instead of white or brown rice, we ordered Chow Fun with Vegetables ($8.95), a dish made with broad rice noodles.

Make it 'light'

Chinese food can be very salty, because of the heavy reliance on soy sauce.

We return repeatedly to Lotus Cafe, where we know the owners and most of the waiters, who suggest dishes new to us and customize our order.

I ordered Chinese Broccoli with "fresh garlic" to avoid the sodium in oyster sauce, and our waiter agreed to ask the kitchen to make us a "light" version of Prawns in Chili Sauce.

We had plenty to eat, and took home leftover shrimp, broccoli and noodles.

Price-fixed and banquet menu

In addition to an extensive a la carte menu, Lotus Cafe serves price-fixed dinner for four to eight people, and banquets for 10 to 12 diners -- all excellent values.

On Saturday night, I saw four Japanese couples with two six-packs of beer ordering Dinner for Eight, a 10-course meal for $160, plus tax and tip.

The meal includes soup; beef, pork, chicken and seafood entrees; a vegetable, noodles and dessert.

Seafood Soup for Two has tender squid, scallop, shrimp, fish cake and crisp vegetables swimming in a tasty broth ($7.50), above and below.

The tastefully furnished dining room of the BYO, above and below.

Lotus Cafe, 450 Hackensack Ave., Home Depot Shopping Center, Hackensack; 201-488-7070. Open 7 days, BYO, large parking lot.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Here is why you should never, ever put salt in your pasta water

There is plenty of sodium in my organic whole-wheat shells with canned sardines and anchovies -- in the bottled sauce and canned fish I use, and in the grated sheep's milk cheese I sprinkle on before I eat it. So, there is absolutely no reason to add salt to the water I boil to cook the pasta, above. Nor do I use gallons of water; enough water to cover the dried pasta works fine.

Editor's note: Today, I discuss making pasta without salting the water and the appeal of comfort foods at every meal, and provide an update on a shortage of Christopher Ranch garlic at Costco Wholesale. 


I'm here to ignore decades of advice from Italy, instructions on the box and American chefs on adding salt to the water I boil for cooking dried pasta.

And while I'm at it, don't waste water. You don't need the several gallons of water called for on the package when you are making spaghetti or other pasta.

Usually, as with the pound of shells I prepared on Thursday night, water to cover the dried pasta is enough.

Adam Weiss, a 37-year-old Ridgewood chef who thinks he will live forever, was quoted in the paper the other day on his "simplest tip for improving home cooking."

"When a box of pasta tells you to put one teaspoon in for a gallon of water, no! It has to be salted like the ocean because ... you want the salt to adhere to the pasta," Weiss claims.

"I use a quarter to half a cup."


Take sodium out

I certainly don't want to add salt, because every time I prepare shells with canned sardines, anchovies and capers in bottled pasta sauce, I try to reduce the sodium of the dish.

I drain the anchovies and rinse them under the faucet. 

The two to three cans of Moroccan Sardines with Tomato Sauce that go into the sauce I use have the lowest amount of sodium of the three varieties sold at Fattal's in Paterson (99 cents a can).

I also rinse the capers under the faucet.

Bottled pasta sauce contains a lot of sodium. 

I use Kirkland Signature Marinara, sold in 32-ounce bottles at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, adding several ounces of red wine and extra-virgin olive oil, plus red-pepper flakes, dried Italian seasoning, powdered or fresh garlic and black pepper.

There is more sodium in Pecorino Romano, a grated sheep's milk cheese from Italy sold at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, where I get most of the ingredients for the dish.

The organic whole-wheat shells from Italy are sold at Whole Food Market in Paramus for $1.39 (1-pound box).

Adjust cooking time

If you buy the 365 Everyday Value Organic Whole Wheat Shells from Whole Foods, be sure to adjust the recommended cooking time (14-15 minutes) to 10-11 minutes.

The box recommends five quarts of water and "a pinch of salt," if you use the entire pound.

Luigi Vitelli-brand Organic Whole Wheat Capellini also recommends using five quarts of water, but calls for one tablespoon of salt and a cooking time of 3 minutes. 

I usually drain the pasta a little early, add it to the sauce, which I prepare in a large, non-stick pan; combine them well and cook them with the cover on for a couple of minutes to combine flavors.

Other sauces

I've followed the no-salt rule even when I don't use sodium-laden bottled pasta sauce.

When I made my own pesto sauce, using a blender recipe from the late Marcella Hazan, I eliminated the teaspoons of salt she called for, knowing there was plenty of sodium in a chief ingredient -- a half-cup plus two tablespoons of grated Pecorino Romano Cheese.

I also eliminated the butter she used.

Now, I buy Kirkland Signature Basil Pesto from Costco Wholesale and add nothing but the sauce to whole-wheat pappardelle or other pasta.

Costco's pesto contains 26% of your recommended intake of sodium in a quarter-cup serving, so adding salt to the pasta water would be foolhardy.

Organic Whole-Wheat Shells with Sardines, Anchovies, Capers and Pine Nuts is a comforting dish for dinner, above, or for breakfast with an egg-white omelet stuffed with reduced-fat sliced Swiss cheese and Mexican green salsa, below.

After plating and heating up the leftover shells in the microwave, I drizzle on extra-virgin olive oil.

Another comfort dish, mashed sweet potatoes and kabocha squash with extra-virgin olive oil, is a great foundation for two organic eggs sunny side up with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese from Costco, and Aleppo pepper and za'atar thyme mixture from Fattal's in Paterson.

Grilled wild Canadian sockeye salmon, $8.99 a pound at Costco, and mashed sweet potatoes and squash are delicious accented with bottled Mexican green salsa, above and below. Medium-hot green salsas are available at Hackensack Market, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, Target, ShopRite and other stores.

The salmon spends 8 minutes on a grill pan over medium to medium-high heat, turned once, for medium rare, and 10 minutes for cooked through, and continues to cook when the pan is taken off the heat.

Christopher Ranch garlic

I just got a return call from customer service at Christopher Ranch, which supplies garlic to Costco Wholesale.

On my last trip, the Hackensack warehouse store was out of the refrigerated 3-pound bag of peeled California garlic, which I use with pasta, rice, egg, mashed sweet potatoes and other dishes.

The woman says Christopher Ranch has been unable to keep up with the demand from Costco members, and also supply the other stores that sell its garlic.

The shortage at my Hackensack warehouse store isn't related to the drought in California.

A 3-pound bag of peeled Christopher Ranch Monviso Garlic is only $5.99 at Costco.

Peeled California garlic from Christopher Ranch makes it easy -- perhaps too easy -- to add this healthy ingredient to home-cooked meals, including boiling it with sweet potatoes before mashing, below. Better too much garlic than too much salt.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Some critics are unclear on dangers of genetically modified food

Nature's Bakery Fig Bar, which I buy at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, is labeled "non-GMO," meaning none of the ingredients are genetically modified. But there are no laws in the United States to compel such labeling.


Jersey City Mayor Stephen Fulop is the latest official to declare that consumers have a right to know if the food they are eating contains genetically modified ingredients.

In a newspaper opinion column on Wednesday, Fulop discussed "an explosion of GMO foods on the shelves of our grocery stores" since they were first introduced in 1996.

"Inadequate testing of these genetically manipulated crops has left many consumers concerned about the safety of these foods.

"As of today," Fulop wrote, "GMO foods have still not been independently tested by the federal government for long-term impacts on human and environmental health and safety."

Local food

Fulop notes Jersey City is a major force in the local-food movement, "with seven farmers' markets running weekly this season."

He urges New Jersey legislators to join Connecticut and Maine, the first two states to pass laws mandating GMO labeling on all products on store shelves.

The catch: More populous states in the region must pass similar laws before their mandates go into effect, the mayor says.

But besides the lack of testing and labeling, Fulop doesn't get much more specific about the dangers of genetically modified organisms in our food.

Healthy eating

For that, consumers should turn to the Web site of the Institute for Responsible Technology, which says it is "the most comprehensive source of GMO health risk information" on the Internet.

Here's a link to the site:

Healthy eating starts with informed eating

The IRT Web site includes detailed information on the dangers of genetically modified organisms, non-GMO shopping and dining out guides, and other startling information.

GM crops

The site also lists the percentage of "commercialized GM crops" in the U.S., including:

Soy (94%), cotton (90%), canola (90%), sugar beets (95%), corn (88%), Hawaiian papaya (more than 50%), zucchini and yellow squash (over 24,000 acres).

Olive oil is recommended for cooking to avoid soy, cotton and canola oils containing GMOs.

Go to the Web site of the Non-GMO Project to find a list of products without genetically modified organisms:

Choose Non-GMO

All food products labeled organic are also non-GMO. These Love Beets are grown in Europe and sold at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack.
A growing number of organic and non-organic products carry the label of the Non GMO Project. This one is on a bag of Tru Roots lentils from Costco.
House Foods Firm Tofu, a new item at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, isn't organic, but it is non-GMO, as you can see from the Non GMO Project Verified badge on the label to the right of the American flag, above.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Good and bad news at the Hackensack Costco Wholesale

Teterboro Landing will be an enormous new shopping center across the street from Teterboro Airport. A Costco Wholesale with a gas station and a Walmart will be the anchor stores. The Costco is scheduled to open in November 2015.


Costco Wholesale won't be closing its Hackensack warehouse store after a larger Costco with a gasoline station is completed about 3 miles away in Teterboro.

That's the good news. And the bad news?

Members who rely on the Hackensack store for wild-caught fish, organic and non-GMO groceries, clothing and other items no longer will be able to shop there.

The store, which opened in July 1994, is expected to be converted into a Costco business center exclusively for members who buy by the pallet, a store manager said on Monday.

The Teterboro Costco is scheduled to open in November 2015.

The walls of the Walmart store went up in about three weeks, a Teterboro police officer said.

The new Costco will go up in this area.

The main entrance to the shopping center will be via Teterboro Landing Drive, which is about a block from Route 46 and across the street from a busy business airport, below.

Costco v. Walmart

I plan to boycott the new Walmart in Teterboro -- because of its labor policies -- but will go into the store to see if it offers anything to compete with Costco Wholesale's Kirkland Signature store brand and its selection of organic, antibiotic-free and non-GMO food.

I appreciate a bargain as much as any shopper, but don't shop by price alone, which is the main appeal of Walmart.

I am not interested in the gas station the new Costco in Teterboro will have.

My Toyota Prius gets better mileage on Shell than it does on any other brand, including the low-price fuel sold at Wawa.

The Walmart in Teterboro will be 160,000 square feet and the Costco will be 156,000 square feet, compared to 122,000 square feet in Hackensack, according to press reports.

There should be enough room in Teterboro for a wine department offering Costco's Kirkland Signature label, and for wheel alignment, which is missing at the Hackensack Costco tire store. 

Two new items at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, above and below.

A large bottle of cabbage kimchi is a good value, but the label lists "beef bone extract" as one of the ingredients, below.

Missing items

Will a bigger Costco in Teterboro mean the store will not run out of items as much as the Hackensack Costco does?

In April 2013, I bought a 164-foot roll of Kirkland Signature Parchment Paper for $5.99, and when it finished, I could never find it again in Hackensack.

The "genuine vegetable parchment" eliminated the need to use aluminum foil when roasting fish, meat, poultry or salt-free almonds in the oven.

On Monday, I couldn't find any salted fish in the Hackensack warehouse store -- not the Canadian cod we had been buying or the Alaskan pollock we used as a substitute.

I also came up empty when I asked for a 3-pound bag of peeled garlic from the Christopher Ranch in California.

A manager said the store had run out of the refrigerated item, and that there may be a shortage.

I e-mailed the company, but haven't heard anything back, which is typical of Christopher Ranch.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Frittata's many accents, H Mart bargains, confusing signs

A 10-inch frittata made with smoked wild salmon and extra-virgin olive oil proves to be a linguist, speaking in Italian, Swiss and Middle Eastern accents, above and below.

This morning, I had a wedge of frittata with a leftover rice-lentil-diced-tomato side dish I prepare in an electric cooker. I added a Mexican accent with roasted green salsa before heating up the rice.


My latest weekend frittata mixes accents -- grated Pecorino Romano, a sheep's milk cheese, and pesto, both from Italy; Aleppo pepper and za'atar thyme mixture, two spices from the Middle East; and reduced-fat Swiss cheese.

I started with a mixture of egg whites and organic whole brown eggs from Costco Wholesale, and added a little low-fat milk, grated Italian cheese, and chopped green pepper and tomato.

For a 10-inch frittata, you can use up to four cups of egg mixture, which you pour into a pre-heated non-stick pan with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil.

Three or four reduced-fat Jarslberg Lite Swiss slices can then be added, along with slices of smoked wild Alaskan salmon, both from Costco.

When the crust sets, move the pan to the oven and cook for about 15 minutes under a low broiler setting or until the frittata puffs up and turns brown (my oven has "low" and "high" broiler settings).

Mildly spicy Aleppo pepper, za'atar and Basil Pesto, also from Costco, are added after the frittata is removed from the oven.

A za'tar mixture includes dried thyme, sour-tasting wild sumac, crunchy sesame seeds and salt. 

Za'atar also is great accent for fresh tomato slices or sprinkled over cooked rice, and the mixture can be used as a coating for fish, chicken or lamb.

Aleppo pepper -- a crushed red pepper -- and za'atar are available from Fattal's, a Syrian bakery, grocer and butcher in Paterson's Middle Eastern bazaar (open 7 days, 975-77 Main St.; 1-973-742-7125).

Fattal's says you can call to order crushed red pepper and za'atar, along with bulgur wheat, bread and some other items, and they will be sent to you by United Parcel Service (UPS).

Large, seedless cucumbers are on sale through today -- the first day of autumn -- at H Mart in Little Ferry, one of the biggest stores in the Korean chain.

When I got them home on Sunday, sliced cucumbers made a nice salad dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, Ponti-brand Chianti and Pinto Grigio Wine Vinegars from Jerry's in Englewood; and Himalayan Pink Salt and Organic No-Salt Seasoning from Costco.

Kabucha or kabocha squash at H Mart in Little Ferry is on sale through Thursday.

H Mart has good fall deals

At H Mart in Little Ferry on Sunday, I picked up a 15-pound bag of California-grown Kokuho Yellow Label white rice on sale for $10.88, a savings of $5.11, according to the Korean supermarket.

Before the drought in California, the same bag would go on sale for $8.99. 

Other bargains were large, seedless cucumbers at 69 cents each and kabocha squash at 49 cents a pound.

Golden pineapples were only $1.99 each, compared to $2.99 at ShopRite in Paramus.

Whole, fresh, wild-caught croaker were $3.99 a pound.

There is no indication on signs you need the H Mart Smart Card to take advantage of fall sales.

The card provides a 1% store credit after you spend $1,000 (that's $10).

I bought three wild-caught whole croaker at the Little Ferry H Mart on Sunday ($3.99 a pound), and asked the fishmonger to cut them into steaks, including the heads. My wife seasoned them with Old Bay (celery salt, red and black pepper and paprika) and prepared them with olive oil; onion, tomato and sweet pepper, and chicken stock.

The entrance to H Mart in Little Ferry is one of the shabbiest in North Jersey. The store is clean, but worn floors, stained ceiling tiles and other signs of a long-overdue renovation abound. At the same time, the store offers more than a half-dozen free samples on Sundays.

Too good to be true. At ShopRite in Paramus this morning, a tote bag of Bosc Pears weighed 6 pounds, but you can't buy one for 99 cents. The sign, in smaller lettering, lists the price per pound as 99 cents, which is the same price, if you buy the pears loose. 

Confusing signs, rotting tomato

When I'm food shopping, it's bad enough when I can't find a sign that lists the price for an item.

But confusing signs don't help either.

Today, at ShopRite in Paramus, I found at least two of the signs in the produce department confusing, and was turned off by a rotting cocktail tomato when I turned over a package that was on sale.

A sign with 6-pound tote bags of Bosc pears had "99 cents" in big type, but smaller type listing that as the price per pound.

Nearby, a large bin with loose Bosc pears had no price sign.

The $2.99 price sign for Golden Pineapples was partially obscured by the fruit itself, and a $3.99 sign for honeydew melons was mounted just above it.

No sale. Campari-like cocktail tomatoes from Mexico were on sale for $3.49 (2-pounds), a dollar less than the price at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack. But when I turned over one package ....

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Top automobile writers get really racy in the Catskills

A special of Pan-Seared Fresh Trout and Organic Black Quinoa at Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, N.Y., a 10-year-old restaurant that supports local merchants and promises "eco-lectic cuisine." The meal was a highlight of my visit to New York State's Catskill Mountains, once known for big resort hotels and their comedians.


When some of the nation's top automotive writers gathered this week in the heart of the old Borscht Belt, they weren't there to tell dirty jokes.

Instead, they acted racy by driving new models from American and foreign automakers on-road, off-road and on a challenging road course in New York State's Catskill Mountains.

The annual International Motor Press Association (IMPA) event brought together journalists, bloggers, carmakers, public relations people and the independent firms that primp and deliver fleets of "press cars" to the writers who evaluate them year-round.

Food isn't worth the detour

But the food at Honor's Haven Resort & Spa in Ellenville, N.Y., the headquarters hotel, wasn't anything to write home about.

No seafood was served, not smoked salmon at breakfast or shrimp and fish at dinner. 

The Test Days banquet on Wednesday night offered beef and turkey, and as someone who doesn't eat meat or poultry, I found only cooked vegetables and potatoes available for my dinner.

Lunch on Tuesday at the Monticello Motor Club, a private 4.1-mile race circuit, wasn't much better, again with no concession for non-meat eaters.

Hot dogs, hamburgers and boneless chicken were put out with sandwich makings, so I grabbed romaine lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes, salad dressing and potato salad for my lunch.

Wednesday's lunch was better, and I enjoyed two paper plates full of parmesan-crusted tilapia and salad. 

I had my best meal on Tuesday night at Aroma Thyme Bistro, a restaurant in Ellenville with a sign offering "Steak, Seafood, Vegan."

I ordered a salad of fresh spinach and tomato ($7), pan-seared local trout with fresh peas ($19) and a 6-ounce glass of pinot noir ($9).

My waitress said the chef doesn't cook with butter, and two slices of sourdough rye brought to my table came with a white-bean dip.

Parmesan-Crusted Tilapia at the Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, N.Y.

This terrific salad was served at only one of the two lunches at the Monticello Motor Club.

Aroma Thyme Bistro, above and below.

The restaurant is at 165 Canal St., Ellenville, N.Y.; 1-845-647-3000

Complimentary vehicles

For decades, the Big Three and Japanese, German and other foreign automakers have focused their promotion and marketing efforts on journalists and others who write about and evaluate cars.

IMPA members work for magazines, such as Road & Track, Automobile and Consumer Reports; The New York Times and other newspapers, and in recent years, a growing number of blogs and Web sites no one has ever heard of.

General Motors even has a Grass Roots program that lends new models to so-called influencers whose blog or business may have nothing to do with automobiles.

The carmakers usually hire independent national and regional companies to keep their fleets of press and marketing vehicles humming.

Those management companies, in turn, employ low-wage workers to wash and deliver so-called test vehicles to the homes and offices of the writers, who are allowed to keep and drive them for a weekend or a week at no charge.

Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers also provide cars and drivers to editors, boutique owners and others during New York's semi-annual Fashion Week. 

Cars also are delivered to VIPs and for use in fashion shoots or left at airports for working or vacationing writers to use at no charge.

On both sides

Only Consumer Reports buys the cars, SUVs and trucks that are evaluated in the magazine -- also one of the few publications to expose the practices of car dealers who make buying a new vehicle such an ordeal.

I have been on both sides: 

Starting in the late 1980s, I covered Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and other foreign auto importers for a daily newspaper in northern New Jersey, and wrote a monthly road-test column that evaluated new cars.

I also wrote consumer-oriented pieces, such as an expose of a Hyundai dealer who charged one unwitting loan customer an interest rate of 29%.

I attended IMPA Test Days at Lime Rock Park and Pocono Raceway, but haven't been to one in more than 15 years.

After I retired, I also worked part time as a driver for a press-fleet management company.

Trouble in paradise

This year, drivers at the New York office of Events Solution International of Troy, Mich., voted to join the Teamsters Union.

ESI is the biggest press-fleet company, and managers at its other offices around the country are wondering if they are next.

ESI's New York office, near the turnpike in East Brunswick, N.J., delivers cars to writers in Pennsylvania, New York City and State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

ESI drivers start at $10 an hour and typically earn about $12 an hour, but working conditions are difficult, and they are always battling traffic to meet delivery deadlines.

Before the vote to join the union, one driver was sent to New Hampshire to pick up a car, and was told to drive it back overnight so ESI wouldn't have to pay for a motel room.

Drivers also are responsible if they damage a car, even though the VIPs and writers who may return a vehicle with thousands of dollars in damage are not.

One ESI driver caused slight damage to the rear bumper of an inexpensive Toyota, and was forced to pay far more for the repair than the body shop charged.

Heavy metal outside Honor's Haven Resort & Spa, above and below, the $134-a-night headquarters hotel for the International Motor Press Association's annual Test Days. The car is a 2014 Bentley Flying Spur, which has an MSRP starting at $200,500.

The Alfa Romeo 4C, above and below, was in high demand for on-road and on-track driving. At more than $65,000 fully equipped, the mid-engine two-seater is a poor man's or woman's Ferrari. It is assembled in Modena, Italy.

The 1.75-liter turbocharged engine produces 237 horsepower.

I hopped into the white Jaguar F-Type Convertible sports car on Wednesday, and drove to Loch Sheldrake, about 7 miles from Monticello, N.Y.

Loch Sheldrake is one of many faded Catskills communities, above and below.

On Wednesday, rich men brought their toys to the challenging 4.1-mile road course of the Monticello Motor Club, where annual memberships start at $35,000.

A one-seat racing car.

IMPA members found cars lined up in a parking lot for driving on public roads on Wednesday and on the race circuit on Thursday, with automobile public relations workers on hand to answer questions and provide pricing and other information. Members also were given leather cleaner, T-shirts, hats, pens, tote bags and other items to take home. 

The rear badge of the Fiat 500 Abarth, a souped-up version of the small car.

BMW couldn't resist building a plug-in hybrid that drives and sounds like a sports car. The new i8's engine and electric motor deliver a total of 357 horsepower, but a high sill and scissor doors make it a nightmare to get into and out of. A woman who wears skirts would have to sacrifice her dignity and reputation to own this poorly designed car.

The BMW i8 starts at $137,500, but has an electric range of only 80 miles, about a third of Tesla's cheapest all-electric Model S, which has an MSRP of $69,900. With BMW, you get style over function. 

One gray-haired writer from The New York Times brought his grown son as a guest, and wouldn't allow another IMPA member to ride with them in the BMW i8, one of the few hybrid cars available at the two-day event.

At Wednesday night's dinner, IMPA Test Days coordinator Paul J. Licata scolded members for speeding and reckless driving on public roads in an around Monticello, N.Y. He said residents phoned in complaints to police, and one unnamed member drove "90 miles per hour on a dirt road."

Before IMPA members took cars onto the track at the Monticello Motor Club on Thursday, Licata reminded them, "We're here to test cars. We are not here to race cars."

One of the cars I got to drive on the track was a 640-horsepower 2014 Dodge SRT Viper.

Another car I drove is the Chevy Camaro ZL1, which has a supercharged V-8 and 580 horsepower. The Viper and ZL1 both have manual transmissions.

The king of American muscle cars is the 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, above and below. I was a passenger when another IMPA member put the car through its paces on the track.

The 2015 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat has an MSRP of $59,995, but ownership of a gas station is recommended.

A view from the Dodge Challenger's passenger seat.

The plain dashboard of the fearsome Nissan GT-R: The all-wheel-drive two-seater has a twin-turbo V-6 with 545 horsepower. Again, I held on for dear life as another IMPA member with racing experience hit more than 100 mph on the track.

The CTS is the first Cadillac I've driven with a manual transmission, and I was impressed with its speed, balance and handling on the track.

A Mercedes-Benz E 63 AMG station wagon is more suited for the autobahn than suburban America, above and below.

The twin-turbo V-8 pumps out 550 horsepower, but uses so much gasoline the cost would wipe out your savings on groceries at Costco Wholesale.  

Mitsubishi continues its reputation for bland designs with the 291-horsepower 2014 Lancer Evolution MR sedan, which is equipped with a terrific automatic transmission. In sports mode, the performance transmission shifts up and down as you accelerate and brake.

The sign is self-explanatory, but two words are misspelled.