Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Pass


It's the rare restaurant that inspires me enough to write a blog post, and through the years, readers of this blog know I've written about a few memorable restaurant meals, including those at Le Bernardin, Per Se and Del Posto. It's been a long while since a restaurant bowled me over, but on my recent visits to "The Pass," located in Rosemont, New Jersey, my dinner companions and I were pleasantly surprised --- no strike that phrase -- we were truly wowed by the delicious, inventive take on food presented there by the chef/owner Matthew Ridgway, including this pre-dinner offering of cured tilefish, caught off the coast of Long Island. It was like no crudo I've ever eaten - unctuous, with the unusual and deliciously melding flavors of black cardamom, cinnamon, thyme and salt.
When you enter the casual, homey place, (named for the space in a restaurant kitchen where the chef oks food ready for serving), the decor gives no hint to the excellence of the dishes that are served. It once was home to the popular Café at Rosemont, and looks much the same still - almost like an old-fashioned general store along a country road. 
There are even artisanal products for sale in one section of the room.
 

A large meat grinder in another corner is apropos, since Matthew makes his own charcuterie (which he has sells at The Pass and to high end restaurants like New York's Café Boulud.) 

The wild boar's head adds a touch of whimsy and serves as a reminder that aside from the excellent fish dishes, meat is also given due respect here.
Including this appetizer, which we didn't order but happily gobbled in short order. At The Pass, two dishes -- meant to be shared, and chosen by the chef -- are placed in front of diners before the first course. They're larger than the typical "amuse bouche" but smaller than a true appetizer course. What's in this one, you ask? Well, it may look unappetizing, but it's one of the most delicious things I've been lucky enough to place in my mouth this year. It's ……. (drum roll) …. beef tongue, something I rarely order. But this unusual take on beef tongue… where have you been all my life?
I'm sure if beef tongue tasted this divine at all restaurants, we'd see a lot more mute steer. This was cured "pastrami style," then steamed, rough chopped and tossed with nuc mom, or a Vietnamese fish sauce. It was like eating a Vietnamese hoagie on toast points and we only wished there were more.
Another night one of the freebie aperitivi was this tomato gazpacho with hot smoked steel head salmon that was cured with mug wart grappa, made in-house. Betcha you haven't seen mug wart grappa in too many places, right? We licked every last drop.
These initial lagnaippes got better and better and were an auspicious taste of what was to come the rest of the meal. Take this, for example -- (well, yes, thank you. We did and with pleasure) -- fried shishito peppers with garlic in sweet vermouth and sherry vinegar, topped with ricotta salata cheese. Use some of the bread that's set before you to wipe the plate clean. The bread -- made in-house using a very wet "poolish" or "sponge"-- and flavored with za'atar, is so deliciously addictive, you'll be tempted to ask for more. But be warned, you must leave room for the rest of the wonderful taste sensations coming your way.
OK, now let's go to the printed menu. It's a small menu that changes every two weeks, with a surprisingly reasonable fixed price of $49 for three courses (four if you're including the apertivo). The selection is slim, but there are usually two other "extra options" listed on the side of the menu that will add a little more to your bill, if you're so inclined. Or, if you're hankering for a Lucullan feast, The Pass offers a six-course chef's choice menu too, for $79.
There are only two possibilities for each course, but that hasn't been an issue so far, because everything has been excellent and highly creative. For example, here's a first course of Maine sardines, that had been pickled for three days, then removed from the pickle and packed in oil. It's topped with foie gras, and green raisins plumped with brandy. Who'd have thunk? Fois gras with sardines? Matthew Ridgway, that's who, and the dish was a big hit at the table. 
And how's this for an unexpected combo? Local peaches from Manoff Market in Solebury, Pa., served with shaved truffle and a tumble of salad greens, plus a small toast smeared with uni, or sea urchin. I don't know where Matthew comes up with these ideas, but this was another winner that left me wanting more.
OK, so on to the main event, which in this case is tile fish again, but this time roasted and served with thin slices of sweet and sour globe zucchini, floating in a pineapple vinegar broth. Slurping encouraged.
Another entree was this perfectly cooked tuna pavé, accompanied by fried haricot verts, and more of those sweet yet tangy shishito peppers, all sitting in a puddle of satay sauce. The sauces at The Pass are all so complex and delicious. This one was made with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, peanuts, coconut milk, coconut vinegar, garlic and onions, then finished with butter. Uh-huh. That's why it tastes so darn good.
For beef lovers, this beautiful and succulent New York state braised beef shin did not disappoint. And that's an understatement. It was served with heirloom tomatoes from Blue Moon Acres farm in Pennington and a pillow of burrata cheese imported from Puglia. The entire dish was surrounded by a sauce made from the meat stock, French vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. 
I loved the desserts too, but to me, the other dishes on the menu are really the stars. There's a good reason that New Jersey Monthly named The Pass as one of the 25 best restaurants for 2014.
 Still, The Pass knows how to create a delightful end of the meal course. This crème fraîche soufflé tart served with steamed plums in an olive oil and fennel jus, was ethereal and disappeared far too quickly.
For those who prefer cheeses to dessert, excellent offerings are an option from the always reliably delicious Bobolink Dairy in Milford, N.J. 
One last thing -- There's no liquor license, so bring your own (a bonus for those of us who enjoy fine wines but don't want to pay inflated restaurant prices.) 
Thanks Matt, we'll be back again -- and again -- and again.



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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Zucchini Blossoms Three Ways



One of the joys of having a backyard garden is being able to grow zucchini -- not so much for the actual vegetable, which you can buy at any supermarket or farmer's market. But for the beautiful blossoms that can be used in a plethora of ways. In Italy, it's easy to find them in markets when the season is right. Here in the U.S. though, if you haven't got a garden, you'd better quickly make friends with someone who does, or you'll be out of luck.
The fragile blossoms are best picked early in the day when the flowers are open. You'll want to pick the male blossoms (the ones on the long stems, but leave a few to help with pollination.) Flick out any unwanted visitors (bees, for instance) but I also rinse mine in the kitchen sink because a few ants are usually tagging along for the ride too.
Next, I open the blossom and carefully remove the pistil in the center. (If I've got my nomenclature wrong and there's a botanist or some other smartie-pants reading this, please feel free to correct.) I also remove the little green thing-ies sticking out near the base of the flower. (Yea, I know, I really do need that botanist.) Neither of these steps is necessary, but that's just how I roll.

 Then you're all ready to use those colorful blossoms. Truly though, they don't have much taste. They're more of a vehicle for stuffing, or for lending a pretty look to a dish.  One way that showcases them beautifully is this frittata, which also incorporates ricotta cheese and cherry tomatoes. This frittata is just ready to head to the oven, after having been started on the stovetop. The eggs will puff up and surround the flowers, while the ricotta will start to heat up and blend into the eggs. Use goat cheese if you prefer.

 Another delicious way to eat zucchini flowers is to stuff them and deep fry them. Yes, I know fried food isn't good for you, but once or twice a summer, what the hey! 
I make a batter simply by mixing flour, a bit of salt and sparkling water. Use beer for the liquid if you prefer. Some people also like to mix an egg in with the flour, but I find it's not necessary. Just dip the flower quickly in the batter. The filling won't come out if you give it a swirl.
They are so irresistible, and there are a myriad of ways to stuff them, including the traditional mozzarella cheese with a bit of anchovy - my favorite. 

The ones below were stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and bits of cooked zucchini. 

 If you're not up for fried food, what about pizza with zucchini blossoms? You can purchase dough already made from your local pizza shop, or buy some in the frozen food case at your supermarket. If you've never made grilled pizza, here's a post instructing you how to do it.
And while you're at it, grill some zucchini, roast some tomatoes and offer your family and friends a variety of pizzette from the grill. It doesn't get much easier than this folks, unless you're ordering takeout. But this is sooo much better. Just slice up those pizzette and pour me a beer.

Looking for still more ideas? Then try this zucchini omelet. Recipe here.
Or for something completely different, pasta with zucchini and zucchini flowers. Recipe here:


Zucchini Blossom and Ricotta Frittata

two scallions, or 1/4 cup shallots or onions
1 T. olive oil
6 eggs
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
some dollops of ricotta cheese
zucchini blossoms, cleaned
a few cherry tomatoes
chopped chives, minced parsley
salt, pepper
1 T. olive oil, 1 pat of butter

Sauté the scallions in one tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Beat the eggs, milk and parmesan cheese together and add the chives and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Add another tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter to the skillet (preferably a cast iron skillet.) Over low to medium heat, pour the mixture into the skillet (9 or 10 inches). Let it cook for a couple of minutes until you start to see the edges firm up (very slightly). Arrange the blossoms in the skillet and surround with dollops of ricotta cheese. Place some cut cherry tomatoes around the skillet and put it in the oven for about 15 minutes at 400 degrees fahrenheit. Remove when the eggs seem firm all around, or slightly earlier if you prefer a looser frittata.

Grilled Pizzette

Grilled zucchini pieces
roasted cherry tomatoes
zucchini blossoms
prosciutto slices
shredded mozzarella
pizza dough (purchased or homemade)
fresh tomatoes

Using purchased or homemade dough, let it rise slightly. (Honestly, it's good even if it doesn't rise much at all.) Make small rounds from the dough and place the rounds on a hot grill, one in which you've first oiled the grates. The dough will start to rise slightly. Lower the heat if it looks like it might burn. Keep a close watch and flip over when you see grill marks form on the bottom. Let the dough cook slightly on the second side (a couple of minutes) before adding toppings - first the mozzarella cheese, then other toppings, like zucchini and roasted cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, zucchini blossoms, etc. Close the lid on the grill and cook until the cheese is melted and the bottom of the pizzetta is nicely browned.

Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

for about six blossoms:

1/2 cup ricotta
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1 egg
salt, pepper
a bit of minced parsley and thyme
small bits of zucchini sauteed in olive oil

for the batter:
1 cup flour
1 cup water
1 t. salt

Mix the ricotta, parmesan cheese, egg, salt, pepper and small bits of cooked zucchini. Using a demitasse spoon, fill the washed and prepared blossoms carefully. Dip into the batter then into a skillet filled with hot oil. Fry for a couple of minutes on each side, until golden. Sprinkle with salt when the come out of the frying pan, to drain on paper towels.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Grilled Mussels and Clams


I used to say that Spring was my favorite season, as tulips and daffodils herald a rebirth of beauty, and trees burst out in flowery excess. But every year when summer rolls around, I start to rethink that. Summer's the time of year for Jersey's best produce -- luscious tomatoes, fragrant peaches and sweet corn; for lazy days at the shore; for catching up on the latest bestseller; and for grilling clams and mussels.  I know clams and mussels are available all year long, and I can even use my gas grill during the winter (provided I don't mind braving the cold out there on the deck).
 But when the weather's hot and you have a hankering for clams and mussels, and don't want to heat up the kitchen, there's no easier way to satisfy that craving than to fire up the grill. Save yourself the cleanup too, by using a disposal aluminum pan (ok, I always wash it out and reuse it to be environmentally friendly, but if you toss yours, I won't send the recycling police to your place.) Just pour a little olive oil and dry white wine around the shellfish, sprinkle with salt and pepper, chopped parsley, a LOT of garlic and a few red hot chili peppers.
Close the lid to the grill and wait for about 15-20 minutes. The shells will all start to pop open and you can sit down to eat right after that. Don't overcook or they'll get rubbery.
 You can cook up some pasta to go along with it if you like. But I like eating the shellfish with grilled or toasted bread, smeared with garlic and drizzled with olive oil, just like I had recently overlooking the Ionian Sea in Gallipoli, Italy. It's usually called mussels and clams sauté on menus there. If you can find those tiny cockle-like clams in the U.S., good for you. Otherwise, I use littleneck clams, the smallest available most of the time where I live.
Whenever I'm in Rome, I always order mussels and clams sauté as my first course in my favorite restaurant there - Le Mani in Pasta. They throw in a few shrimp and squid pieces too.
Grill the bread pieces before you cook the shellfish, and you can smear them with a little raw garlic and olive oil while you're waiting for the shells to open. Serve on a large, deep platter, accompanied by some more dry white wine - preferably the same wine you used to cook the shellfish. 
In this case, I used a California chardonnay called "Clambake," sent to me by its producers, Ripe Life Wines. The company was founded by a Jersey Shore native, Mary McAuley, who's a culinary school graduate and sommelier. So she knows a thing or two about pairing wines with foods. This one, with its great balance of floral and citrus notes, was perfect with the mussels and clams. If you're having a full-on clambake (click here for a great Jersey Shore clambake recipe), you'll want to serve this wine if it's available near you. You can buy it at stores in New York, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Click here for a list of stores.

Oh, I almost forgot - You can now follow what Ciao Chow Linda is up to on Instagram. Lots more food and other photos there. So swing on over to here and take a look.

Grilled Mussels and Clams
1 bag of clams (about three dozen - preferably littleneck clams)
1 bag of mussels (about three to four dozen)
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
at least six to eight large cloves of garlic
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 or 3 small, hot, dried chili peppers (peperoncini)
salt, pepper
1 loaf of good French or Italian bread, sliced and grilled
more garlic pieces and olive oil to smear on the bread

Preheat your grill and toast the bread. While the shellfish is cooking, smear a little raw garlic and olive oil on the slices.
Clean the shellfish by washing them in cold water thoroughly to try to remove any traces of sand. Throw out any shells that are already open. Place the mussels and clams in a large aluminum container that fits your grill. Then pour in the wine and olive oil. Add the garlic, parsley, chili peppers, salt and pepper. Place on the grill and close the lid. Toss it all together. Wait about 15 minutes and check. It may take another five minutes or so for most of the shells to open. There will be some stragglers, but remove the ones that are open and leave the others to pop open while you're eating. Place the shellfish in a large, deep bowl with the juices from the pan, and surround it with the grilled bread. 

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Burrata or Bust



Yes, it tasted as good as it looks. Both the burrata and the tomatoes. Forget the plastic plate. It's the cheese here that matters. I had been yearning to find some burrata from the moment we arrived in Puglia last month. I had eaten it in that Southern Italian region for the first time years ago, and Puglia's reputation for producing the best burrata is definitely warranted. Burrata, made with mozzarella on the outside, and cream on the inside, has a buttery, rich flavor. Not surprisingly, the word burrata means buttered in Italian. It's become easier to find here in the states, but to savor it where it's made, still warm and oozing with creamy goodness, surrounded by the sounds, sights and smells of Italy, is an unforgettable taste sensation. So when we found ourselves in the white-washed town of Ostuni last month, I had burrata on my mind.

Up and down the streets we roamed, in search of burrata, before finding some at a little hole-in-the -wall that even boasted a trip-advisor sign. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but I was too busy scarfing down the lovely silken cheese to note its name.
The region of Puglia is largely unknown to most American tourists, who stick to the major cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. They're all wonderful places too, but there's a whole lot of beauty awaiting farther afield. For instance, Puglia boasts a unique UNESCO World Heritage site in a town called Alberobello, known for its conical shaped houses called "trulli." We stayed in this one (below) at the end of the row and it was completely enchanting. The town is definitely not undiscovered. There are tourists everywhere, but the majority aren't Americans.
Puglia also has miles of coastline with both sandy and rocky beaches to choose from. This beautiful beach was outside our hotel near Gallipoli and provided the perfect place to decompress for a few days.
But back to the cheese. On this latest trip, I ate more burrata and mozzarella than my waistline was happy about. But my feeling is when in Italy, throw caution to the wind and repent at home. So I forged ahead and ordered the mozzarella whenever I could. If I get grilled veggies with it, doesn't that balance the calories from the cheese? Don't answer that. I don't wanna know.

The best mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo, folks, not the "home on the range" type) is produced in areas from Rome, in the region of Lazio -- to Paestum (near Salerno), in the region of Campania. Paestum is also known for its three Greek temples, in a remarkably good state of preservation, considering they date back to 200 B.C. All along the roadway into the town, you'll see signs saying "latticini," the name for a place that makes dairy products,  including mozzarella. You won't get it much fresher, so go inside and buy some. It's best eaten within hours after it's made. But if you're in Paestum, visit the temples first. They are astonishing.

You can can get good mozzarella in Rome too. We found some great mozzarella at Obicà, a "mozzarella bar" in the Campo dei Fiori. They've got two locations in Rome, plus a handful of other locations around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Dubai and London. This was what I ate for lunch at Campo dei Fiori location and the mozzarella and everything else were perfect. (See, I got the grilled veggies again. Shouldn't I be losing weight by now?)

Their salumi, burrata and flatbread are really worth seeking out too.
There's been an Obicà mozzarella bar in New York City for a while now, in a building atrium on Madison Ave., but it has a very limited menu. Last week, a new Obicà opened in the Flatiron district (They recently changed the spelling from Obikà because some people thought it was a Japanese firm.) It's got a sexy, sleek look to it and the menu is much larger than the uptown eatery. On our way to dinner at another place downtown, we stopped in to see how the mozzarella stacked up against the version we had at Obicà's Rome location. They import it twice a week from Italy, but it's not the same as eating it within hours of being made.
The verdict is that it wasn't exactly as transcendent as what we ate in the Campo dei Fiori, but it was delicious nonetheless. And the bellinis and aperol spritz were great too. I'd go back in a heartbeat to sample the fuller menu next time. 
At home with our unbeatable Jersey tomatoes, I'd say mozzarella eaten with these heirloom beauties picked from my backyard garden also has to be one of my favorite lunches.
Mozzarella is commonly used in so many cooked foods too, but for some reason, I am reluctant to cook burrata, since it's so ludicrously delectable in its raw state. But once I tried this burrata in guazzetto at Le Virtù in Philadelphia, I changed my mind. Spread this luscious melted burrata on toasted bread, and you're on another planet.

So I tried to duplicate it at home - easy as can be. It's hardly worth printing out a recipe, but I'm giving you one just in case. Cut some burrata and place it in an ovenproof bowl, along with some roasted cherry tomatoes, olives and some seasonings. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes and ecco -- a drool-worthy appetizer to serve with that prosecco.
Burrata in Guazzetto
printable recipe here

1 ball of burrata cheese
olives (green or black)
olive oil
roasted cherry tomatoes (or regular tomatoes)
basil
Take one ball of burrata and cut into pieces in an ovenproof dish (right in the dish so you don't lose any of that milk). Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over it, then add the tomatoes, a handful of olives and some dried basil (or fresh if it's summer.) Place in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until everything is melted.
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