Grain of Truth

If you haven’t eaten rice today, have you really eaten at all?

As a culinary historian and historic interpreter, I am never happier than when I’ve got in front of me a solid dish of red rice. This simple, hearty dish—one of the many direct contributions of West Africa to the Southern table—isn’t only an edible link to my genes, my DNA, my blood and bone. It’s a way to my heart. Indeed, rice has played a pivotal role in shaping my identity. My favorite rice dish growing up was my Alabama-born grandmother’s red rice (often misnamed “Spanish rice”)—a tasty, tomato-rich rice pilau with bell peppers, onions and spices. Little did I know that, if you followed that one dish back through all of the mamas and grandmas that came before her, you would go overland from Alabama to South Carolina and then across the Atlantic.

My grandmother’s great-grandmother was born in Charleston, the center of red rice country, and her great-grandmother’s grandmother was born in Sierra Leone, among the Mende people. To this day, one of the staple dishes of Sierra Leone is jollof rice, the West African antecedent of red rice. Prepared in different ways up and down the Atlantic world rice belt, today’s versions of red rice essentially maintain the same orange-red glow, as well as a taste that is pleasantly warm and pairs well with just about any leafy green or protein.

There’s an apocryphal story that rice entered the South through Charleston in 1685. A ship blown off its course from Madagascar to England landed unexpectedly in Charleston, where aid was provided to the crew. The grateful captain repaid the colonial British governor with seed grains from rice, which from then on could be grown in Carolina and used to enrich the colony for all time. Though rice was most likely already here when the ship from Madagascar arrived, this story of rice’s entrance into the South highlights how significant it was for the region. In the antebellum South, if cotton was the king of commodities, then rice was the queen. And the queen brought incomparable economic power. Charleston, and later Savannah, were thriving cosmopolitan trading ports, with fabulous wealth guaranteed by the cultivation of cash crops, which relied on the knowledge and labor of enslaved West and Central Africans.

West Africans from Senegal to Liberia, the western half of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and deep into the interior along the Niger and other rivers, had grown rice for almost four millennia by the time the transatlantic slave trade picked up in earnest. With the spread of Islam and the settlement of the western African coastline by the Portuguese, the indigenous red rice known as Oryza glaberrima and several other wild and cultivated species were joined by Oryza sativa, or “Asian rice.” On the island of Madagascar, some of my other ancestors were growing the latter, their ancestors having brought seed from Indonesia in outrigger canoes. As African and Asian cultures mixed, rice became both a staple and the central feature of Madagascan economic life. In West Africa, too, my forebears knew this reality, with women taking a primary role in processing of the crop.

It is no accident that my great-grandmothers passed their knowledge of rice culture from generation to generation. In the 1700s, planters from North Carolina to Florida imported thousands of enslaved human beings—many of them women—to properly grow and process husked rice. They were already rice-production experts. On the other side of the South, along the Gulf coast and up the Mississippi River Valley, the French sent Africans with rice that had originated in Benin and Senegal. Other Africans arrived in the Americas with similar knowledge, having grown Asian rice to supply slave ships sent to the Americas.

Jollof Rice

Jollof rice, the famous West African dish, is named after the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia, who themselves call it benachin. Maggi, a bouillon cube ubiquitous in West Africa, has become part of the flavor profile of everything there. If you have access to an international market, it will have Maggi cubes; you can use them to make a Maggi broth to replace the stock in this recipe—just follow the instructions on the package. Be careful…it tends to be salty, so go lightly at first to find your bearings. Makes four servings.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1.5 cups long-grain white rice, washed and drained
  • 1 habanero pepper, seeded and chopped
  • .5 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or Kitchen Pepper*
  • .5 teaspoon seasoned salt or jollof rice seasoning
  • 2.5 cups vegetable or chicken stock (homemade or store-bought) or Maggi broth

*Kitchen Pepper is an old-school spice mix popular in early American cooking. It contains black pepper, nutmeg, ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground mace, ground white pepper and red pepper flakes.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft. Add the tomato paste, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the rice, chili pepper, black pepper and seasoned salt. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the stock, cover, turn the heat down to low and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is nearly but not completely absorbed. Remove the lid, place a piece of aluminum foil over the pan, return the lid to the pan over the foil and steam for another 20 minutes.

We can see the importance of rice in African American folklore, which carried over rice’s unique mythology from Africa. Supposedly carried in seed form in the braided hair of African grandmothers, rice offered the enslaved a hidden and sacred link to ancestors and their deities. Among my Mende ancestors, for instance, rice mixed with palm oil fed the ancestors at their graves. For many other groups, too, African rice was a revered food, not just dinner.

They say in Sierra Leone that, if you have not eaten rice that day, then you haven’t really eaten at all. I appreciate that sentiment, as fare like pilau (which in some places is called perloo)—a simple southern chicken-and-rice dish—or a rice crepe stuffed with green onions, Vietnamese herbs and fresh seafood, trigger some of my most Pavlovian moments.
But even more important, rice connects me to every other person, southern and global, who is nourished by rice’s traditions and customs.

Editor’s Note:
Michael W. Witty is a culinary historian and author of the James Beard Award-winning book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty’s new book, Rice, features 51 recipes ranging from Southern classics to international dishes. It explores the culinary history and African diasporic identity of rice. This story is excerpted from RICE: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook by Michael W. Twitty. ©2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For more information or to order visit uncpress.org


Red Rice

This tomato pilau is one of the greatest dishes ever to emerge from the Low Country and can be adjusted depending on your tastes. The recipe was inspired by the erudite Damon Lee Fowler—culinary historian and cookbook author from Savannah and a keeper of old Southern culinary traditions—who published it in The Savannah Cookbook in 2008; it is included with his permission. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

  • .25 pound thick-cut bacon or salt pork, diced small
  • 1 medium onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cup long-grain rice, washed and drained
  • 2 cups Italian canned plum tomatoes, with their juice, chopped
  • 1 cup beef or chicken stock (homemade or store-bought), or water
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt, ground cayenne pepper and whole black pepper in a peppermill or Kitchen Pepper*
Put the bacon or salt pork in a Dutch oven and turn the heat to medium. Fry, uncovered, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp. Spoon off all but 2 teaspoons of fat. Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir until it’s well coated and warmed, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, stock, Worcestershire sauce, salt, cayenne and a liberal grinding of pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and stir, scraping any loose grains that are sticking to the pan. Loosely cover, reduce the heat as low as possible and let simmer for 25 minutes. Remove it from the heat and allow to steam for 15 minutes before serving.

The Chef Recommends

EDGE takes you inside the area’s most creative kitchens.

Grain & Cane Bar and Table • Lobster Roll

250 Connell Drive • BERKELEY HEIGHTS
(908) 897-1920 • grainandcane.com

Our famous lobster roll is back for the summer! Fresh, butter-poached lobster tossed in a citrusy light lemon mayonnaise served in a perfectly toasted top cut brioche bun and complimented with our house-made potato chips. Pairs extremely well with our ice-cold craft beer selections!

— Chef Louis Bayla

 


The Thirsty Turtle • Pork Tenderloin Special

1-7 South Avenue W. • CRANFORD
(908) 324-4140 • thirstyturtle.com

Our food specials amaze! I work tirelessly to bring you the best weekly meat, fish and pasta specials. Follow us on social media to get all of the most current updates!

— Chef Rich Crisonio

 

 


The Thirsty Turtle • Brownie Sundae

186 Columbia Turnpike • FLORHAM PARK
(973) 845-6300 • thirstyturtle.com

Check out our awesome desserts brought to you by our committed staff. The variety amazes as does the taste!

— Chef Dennis Peralta

 

 


The Famished Frog • Mango Guac

18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN
(973) 540-9601 • famishedfrog.com

Our refreshing Mango Guac is sure to bring the taste of the Southwest to Morristown.

— Chef Ken Raymond

 

 


Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Pork Belly Bao Buns

1230 Route 22 West • MOUNTAINSIDE
(908) 518-9733 • partyonthegrill.com

Tender pork belly, hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber served on a Chinese bun.

 

 

 


LongHorn Steakhouse • Outlaw Ribeye

272 Route 22 West • SPRINGFIELD
(973) 315-2049 • longhornsteakhouse.com

Join us for our “speedy affordable lunches” or dinner. We suggest you try our fresh, never frozen, 20 oz. bone-in Outlaw Ribeye—featuring juicy marbling that is perfectly seasoned and fire-grilled by our expert Grill Masters. Make sure to also try our amazing chicken and seafood dishes, as well.

— Ed Durina, Managing Partner

 


Ursino Steakhouse & Tavern • House Carved 16oz New York Strip Steak

1075 Morris Avenue • UNION
(908) 977-9699 • ursinosteakhouse.com

Be it a sizzling filet in the steakhouse or our signature burger in the tavern upstairs, Ursino is sure to please the most selective palates. Our carefully composed menus feature fresh, seasonal ingredients and reflect the passion we put into each and every meal we serve.

 

 


Support Our Chefs!
The restaurants featured in this section are open for business and are serving customers in compliance with state regulations. Many have created special menus ideal for take-out, delivery or socially distant dining, so we encourage you to visit them online.
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Feeling the Burn

Exercise your right to take a culinary stay-cation this summer.

 

Overseas travel may continue to be a challenge in the rush to get everyone vaccinated. However, you can still enjoy a taste of a country’s cultural identity through its national dish. Whether picking from a dine-in or takeout menu, or shopping in one of New Jersey’s now-ubiquitous international markets, feel perfectly free to cobble together your own culinary itinerary. We’ve picked out six of the spiciest signature dishes—three you can find easily, and three that may just turn out to be your gateway to adventure.

Kimchi

The “five elements” theory of Korean culture is embodied in kimchi, fermented cabbage that combines sweet, sour, salty, bitter and knock-your-socks-off spicy. It’s an ancient staple that has crossed over into American kitchens and restaurants in many creative forms—in main dishes, stews, side dishes and condiments—and its availability is no longer limited to Asian markets. In South Korea, kimchi is served with almost every meal, including breakfast.

Mole

Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) is Mexico’s curry, kind of—there are countless versions, with limitless complexity. Mole pablano is the most common served in the U.S. What they all have in common is bittersweet dark chocolate, which is flavored with chilies, garlic, onions and a dozen or more spices. The caffeine in the chocolate releases endorphins, while the capsicum in the peppers provides a shot of adrenaline. It’s a rush. Mole is often part of the most expensive dishes on Mexican restaurant menus for a reason. Expect spicy not sweet, if you order it and be aware that it often contains ground nuts.

Pad Thai

The signature dish of Thailand has rocketed to prominence over the last 25 years and now ranks among the most popular foods on the planet. And yet pad Thai is less than 100 years old, the result of a competition in Siam during the 1930s to create a national dish. It’s made with stir-fried rice noodles, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, tamarind, scrambled eggs and just about any combination of meat and vegetables. Simple as pad Thai sounds, in the U.S., every restaurant seems to have its own slightly different take—so if you like spicy, it’s always helpful to let your server know. The translation of pad, if you’re interested, is “fried” (most people think its “noodles”).

Ema Datshi

So on your next visit to your friendly neighborhood Bhutanese bistro, make sure to order Bhutan’s signature dish, an intriguing combination of tear-inducing chilies and soft cheese in a tomato-and-onion stew. Actually, there are quite a number of Bhutanese immigrants who have made their home in the U.S.—between 100,000 and 200,000, in fact—and many have settled in the northeast, from Pennsylvania up through Vermont and New Hampshire. Many are refugees who traveled through Nepal to get here, and are thus classified as Nepalese. Your best bet to locate this dish is in a Himalayan restaurant, of which there are more than a few in the tri-state area.

Machboos

The Kingdom of Bahrain achieved independence in 1971, so if you don’t know exactly where it is, you may be giving away your age. For the record, Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf, connected to the Arabian Peninsula by a 25-mile bridge. Its national dish—often consumed with family members on Fridays—Machboos, is a spicy chicken meal strongly influenced by Persian and Indian cuisine. It is popular throughout the Middle East and is actually fairly easy to make at home. In addition to chilies, classic ingredients include ginger, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. So yeah, it’s super-aromatic.

Pepperpot

If you’re partial to Caribbean peppers, the national stew of Guyana is one you ought to try. Its signature ingredient is cassareep, a dark, syrupy extract from the cassava root that probably dates back to Guyana’s indigenous inhabitants, who used it as a preservative. The meat is whatever’s available, but typically beef, goat or oxtail. Roughly a quarter-million Guyanese-Americans live in the US, with most residing in New York’s outer boroughs (as well as northern New Jersey), so finding a good pepperpot isn’t as hard as you might think.

The Fermentation Factor

Cheese, wine and bread…this trio is life’s essence, a microcosm representative of its nourishment and joy.

 

I’m not a highly curated, picture-perfect human. I’m a quirky, line-drawing, scribbles person. Also, I would operate at lightning speed if I could. Thankfully, I’ve found an antidote to this haste: fermentation. When things aren’t moving fast enough for me, fermentation reminds me of the value of waiting. Feeding my sourdough starter every morning, brewing a new batch of kombucha weekly…at the risk of sounding like an unhinged hipster, these are the routines that ground me. The practice of fermentation is as old as civilization itself, but the splendor of it found me in my early thirties while exploring cheese, wine, and bread in England, Italy and France.

Fermentation is under our noses, but is only now entering most people’s awareness. It is the process by which a substance breaks down into a simpler substance, altering food with microbes rather than by cooking it with fire. If this produces the most essential, delicious foods on earth, what can the same process do for us, as humans? Our lives ferment; we all have awkward, smelly phases along with delicious, robust ones—mine certainly has.

Cheese, wine, and bread, I think you’ll agree, are three of life’s most delightful things. They can be found worldwide, each place informing them with its own unique history and stories that extend far beyond the delicious dance on the plate. These are three of my favorite recipes…

Stilton Scones with Cranberries

Scones are as English as Stilton. If you’re American, you probably pronounce it scoan, like “stone.” In England, it’s pronounced scon, like “con.” However you say it, scones are an essential part of the afternoon-tea tradition (and also wonderful any time of day, in my opinion). Cranberries and blue cheese are a winning combination, and especially Christmasy. Another of my favorite variations is to swap out the cranberries for 2 tablespoons of coarsely chopped hazelnuts; if you do opt for the hazelnuts, try the scones with a smear of red onion and port marmalade or another fruity jam to bring the sweet kick.

6 tablespoons (¾ stick/90 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing

2½ cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour

¼ cup (50 grams) sugar

4 teaspoons (15 grams) baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

2⁄3 cup (160 milliliters) whole milk

1 large egg

2 tablespoons (about 20 grams) dried cranberries

6 ounces (180 grams) Stilton blue cheese, broken into large chunks (about 1 1⁄3 cups)

  1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Grease a sheet pan with a little butter.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt until well combined and lump-free.
  3. Add the butter and use your fingertips to rub it into the dry ingredients until the butter is fully incorporated. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Add the milk, egg, and cranberries and mix with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until the dough comes together.Gently fold in the blue cheese chunks until just incorporated (you want those chunks to remain intact, not break down into smaller crumbs). The dough will be fairly wet.
  4. Using a tablespoon, take a heaping scoop of the dough (about 2 inches/5 centimeters in diameter, a bit smaller than a tennis ball but bigger than a golf ball) and place it on the prepared sheet pan. Repeat with the rest of the dough, spacing the scoops 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) apart. (The dough spreads as it bakes, so if your pan isn’t big enough to space out the scones, you’ll need to use two.)
  5. Bake for 5 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for 5 minutes more. They’re done when they’re golden, with some browned bumps on the uneven surface. Bake for 2 to 6 minutes more, as needed.
  6. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the scones to a wire rack. (Some of the melted cheese will have escaped and gotten crispy on your baking sheet—that’s the cook’s treat to nibble on!) Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Spaghetti all’Ubriaco (Drunken Pasta)

When Italians discovered the joy of using their favorite beverage (wine) to cook their favorite food (pasta), variations of this plum-colored pasta dish became a standard meal. Spaghetti all’ubriaco—“drunken spaghetti”—isn’t as inebriated as it sounds: the heat burns off the alcohol in the wine. In cooking the pasta with the wine, however, the noodles are imbued with a subtle sweetness and depth of flavor. A medium-bodied dry red wine works well here, but honestly, I’ve used a wide variety of leftover reds. (The origin of this dish is considered to be Tuscany, so if you want to stay regional, you could uncork a Chianti or some other wine made primarily with sangiovese grapes, one of the most important grapes in Italy and grown abundantly in Tuscany.) Ideally, it would be a delicious red wine you would happily drink—and sometimes I do pour myself a glass and cook with the rest—but I also think the adage “waste not, want not” is perfectly applied here: If you have an opened bottle that’s past its prime for drinking, this is the perfect use for it. I make this version with nuts, cheese, herbs, garlic, and red pepper flakes. I love garlic, so I use a lot. If you don’t love a garlicky pasta, use fewer cloves. Ditto with the red pepper flakes. These simple ingredients are all you need to put together an addicting, lip-smacking plate of pasta. I find these deep-plum strands of spaghetti completely irresistible, as sexy as a satin sheet.

Coarse sea salt

12 ounces (340 grams) dried spaghetti

¼ cup (60 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil

4 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup (250 milliliters) red wine

½ cup (1.6 ounces/45 grams) freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving

¼ cup (45 grams) finely chopped nuts (I like pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds)

1⁄8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sprigs of parsley, for garnish

  1. Fill a large pot three-quarters full of water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous amount of coarse salt (the adage “It should taste like the sea” is a good gauge of how much). Cook the spaghetti for 2 minutes less than the instructions on the package for al dente. (You don’t want it to be completely cooked because it will continue cooking in the red wine later.)
  2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large, high-sided pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Pour the wine into the pan with the garlic and stir. Remove from the heat while the pasta finishes cooking.
  3. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup (about 250 milliliters) of the pasta water.
  4. Add the pasta to the pan with the wine and garlic over medium heat and stir. Cook, occasionally stirring gently, for 2 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente and has absorbed most of the wine, taking on a plum hue.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and mix in the cheese and nuts. Stir in a tablespoon (or more) of the reserved pasta water; its starchiness mixes with the fat in the cheese to create a silky coating on the noodles. Finish with the nutmeg, season with salt and pepper, and stir to incorporate well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if you think the dish is asking for it.
  6. Serve garnished with parsley and topped with more cheese, and enjoy slurping down the drunken noodles.

Susie Q’s Sour Cream Challah

When I started writing Cheese, Wine and Bread, I asked my mom where she initially got her challah recipe, and learned that “mom’s loaf ” has evolved over time. This current iteration, which she’s made consistently for over a decade, was adapted from a dinner roll recipe from a 1990s issue of Cooking Light.

2 (¼-ounce/7-gram) packets active dry yeast (4½ teaspoons)

½ cup (125 milliliters) warm water (around 110°F/43°C)

½ cup (1 stick/115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup (105 grams) sugar

1 cup (240 grams) sour cream

2 large eggs, whisked

5 cups (600 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 egg white, beaten, for the egg wash

Poppy seeds, for garnish (optional)

  1. Combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Cream the softened butter and sugar in a medium bowl using a whisk until smooth. Gradually stir in the sour cream until combined. Set aside.
  3. Add the eggs to the yeast mixture and mix well. Add the sour cream mixture and stir until smooth. Add 1 cup (120 grams) of the flour and the salt. Gradually mix in the remaining 4 cups (480 grams) flour until you have a shaggy dough.
  4. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Tip the shaggy dough out onto the surface and sprinkle with a couple more pinches of flour.

Knead the dough with the palm of your hand (avoid poking it with your fingertips), adding flour as needed to prevent it from sticking to the work surface and your hands, until the dough is smooth, not sticky, and gently springs back when pressed with a fingertip (also called the “poke test”), about 5 minutes. (Another way to check that the dough has been kneaded long enough is by performing the “windowpane test”: Cut off a chunk of the dough—around 50 grams—and stretch it gently between your fingers into a thin sheet. If it breaks too easily, it needs more kneading, but if you can stretch the dough thin enough to see your fingers through it when it’s held up to the light, it’s good to go.)

  1. Pour the canola oil into a large bowl, then place the dough in the bowl and rotate to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and place in a warm (75 to 80°F /24 to 27°C), draft-free area for about 90 minutes, until the dough has doubled in volume.
  2. Remove the dish towel and punch down the dough. Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide it into two equal portions. Cut each portion into thirds so you have 6 portions. Roll each of these portions into a rope on a clean workspace (or just in the air, rolling the dough between your palms) about 15 inches (38 centimeters) long. Working with three ropes at a time, braid the ropes, pinching the ends to make sure they don’t unravel during the second rise, to form two loaves.
  3. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Place each shaped braid on its own pan. Cover each with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area for 30 to 45 minutes, until they bulk up in size a bit (but are not doubled).
  4. Near the end of this proof, arrange two racks in the oven—one on the bottom notch and the other second from the top—and preheat the oven to 375° F (190°C).
  5. Prepare an egg wash by whisking the egg white and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl until frothy. Uncover the dough and use a pastry brush to brush the loaves with the egg wash. Sprinkle with the poppy seeds, if using.
  6. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the loaves are a dark golden brown and sound hollow when you knock on the underside. Make sure to switch the sheet pans’ position on the oven racks and to rotate the loaves 180° degrees halfway through to ensure even baking.
  7. Transfer the loaves from the sheet pans to wire racks and let cool thoroughly. Then enjoy!

The draw of these foods is that they take time to be transformed almost magically by the microbes within, which is a comforting prospect, and a necessary antidote to our live-tweeting culture. For instance, when you post a photo on Instagram or Facebook, do you automatically refresh the page as the likes pop up? Imagine if you had to wait two weeks, or two months, before you could see the responses, but when you received them, those responses, although not instantaneous, were somehow able to endure, like a lingering hug or a letter that’s traversed an ocean to land in your mailbox. Rather than the quick high of a digital fist bump, you receive a warm embrace. To me, that’s akin to the satisfaction fermentation offers.

If fermentation is the preservation of food, those same principles of change and transformation must apply to us. We bring a bit of our past selves with us, and a hope for the future. When a new obstacle, opportunity, or question arises—as one always does—all we need to do is take a deep breath and let things ferment. Don’t overthink it. Just let it ferment.

 

Editor’s Note:

Katie Quinn’s new book Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France ($29.99) was published in April by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. In it, Quinn shares the stories and science behind cheese, wine, and bread, along with dozens of classic recipes. Part artisanal survey, part travelogue and part cookbook, it features more than 100 pieces of art, including watercolor illustrations and color photographs.

Roosterspin

“I want to take everyone I know to this restaurant…‘This is how we should be eating!’ I want to shout.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Roosterspin Wine Bar & Eatery

251 North Avenue, Westfield. Phone: 908.233.7333

Open for lunch and dinner at 11:30 am 7 days a week: Sunday thru Thursday until 10:30 pm and Friday & Saturday until 12:30 am. For more information log onto info@roosterspin.com.

Defending Jersey’s restaurants is so 20th century, but we do it anyway. We do it because attacks are frequent and the attackers a mix of the ignorant with strong cravings for superiority and the wise who know our state’s chefs and restaurants could really, truly do much better.

This is our collective issue: the dichotomy in restaurants that brings us both brave brilliance and sorry retreads. Restaurants such as Cucharamama in Hoboken, A Toute Heure in Crefending Jersey’s restaurants is so 20th century, but we do it anyway. We do it because attacks areanford, Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, and Zeppoli in Collingswood fortify our pride as we learn from, and feast on, the visions of their pioneering chefs. The same-old, same-old menus of countless copycats, be they Italian or Asian, traditional American or globally influenced, do little but provide the busy or the bored a supper away from the stove.

That’s why the emergence of a restaurant with both verve and vision—and extremely delicious food—is cause for celebration. Roosterspin in Westfield, which opened last fall as the sibling of Mono + Mono in New York under the stewardship of owner Mihae Cho and chef Hyun Han, may take off from an uber-trendy genre of modern Korean restaurants with must-offer dishes, but it does it with singular style and technical prowess in the kitchen.

Roosterspin rocks.

Often, literally. There are LPs galore as decor and a deejay at a computer taking requests. I somewhat hesitantly ask for John Coltrane and, within a minute, get a couple tracks of Coltrane. We take menus from a tuned-in server and receive a concise, but not condescending primer on how to navigate a rather novel bill of fare. We dig into a series of dishes that connect the accessible to the adventurous and fall in love with Roosterspin’s cuisine—and concept.

I want to take everyone I know to this restaurant, sitting pretty in a multilevel woody-modern/industrial-cozy space in the downtown district conveniently near the train station. “This is how we should be eating!” I want to shout. This is food we should know and food we can learn from, taking riffs from Roosterspin’s plates into our home kitchens. This isn’t rocket science, either; it’s fun eating, with some new ingredients and twists on techniques making that happen.

Take a simple dish, something as familiar as fries. Season them, give them a dipping sauce pumped with the taste of spirited kimchi, and let folks dig in to something old energized by something new. There is a drizzle of tame cheese to smooth the way, but the novice eater is already craving more.

It is time for another small plate, which is how you can start here or dine straight through. Slurp map chae, sizzling skinny sweet potato noodles spliced with beef, wild mushrooms and shards of Asian vegetables. Bright and unexpectedly light are the seafood patties known as seafood jeon, packed with calamari, shrimp and vegetables and bound by egg. If you are looking for something hearty, snag galbi LA cut, a signature dish here, is a perfect partnership of silky short ribs with rice cakes and vegetables served with a nod to beloved Korean barbecue. Looking for light? The mango salad, flush with pretty beets and sweet potatoes and dressed with sesame, is a dandy mix of flavors that you will have a hard time separating ever again.

OK, but the real reason you come here is to find out what all the fuss is over this Korean fried chicken business. Deep-fried twice to ensure super crispy skin and a desirable burning off of the fat, this is chicken at its best. You can get it with a soy/garlic sauce or a fiery hot sauce. Request a half order with one and a half with the other. Why choose?I took it with a side of fried pickled radish and smiled as I ate.

Roosterspin’s range does not stop with the basics. It serves forth Korean rolls such as the kimchi, with shrimp, kimchi, cucumber, crab and beets given a smack of crunch, then dappled with a smoky spicy màyo. Delish. Roosterspin does sliders in rice buns that demand attention—a spicy tuna tartar with cherry tomatoes and greens and a pop of addictive Korean red pepper paste, a beef bulgogi given the crunch of pickle and the zing of wasabi, and a chop of shrimp and calamari topped with calm tartar sauce.

I do not want to lose the lingering flavors of Roosterspin’s savory fare by ordering dessert, but we need to, right? Soba noodle pudding is serviceable and the green tea mochi de rigueur. No interference, thankfully.

You can be one of the Jersey restaurant bashers, sporting a chip on your shoulder, or you can support a truly thoughtful concept and check out Roosterspin. New is nutrition for the taste buds.

SEOUL FOOD

If Roosterspin whets your appetite for more traditional and authentic Korean fare, you might want to head toward southeastern Bergen County, to Palisades Park or Fort Lee.

Over the past two decades, Palisades Park has transformed itself into New Jersey’s unofficial Koreatown. Three in five of the 20,000-or-so residents are of Asian descent, with the vast majority hailing from South Korea. In terms of density and percentage, Palisades Park is now America’s “most Korean” municipality. The most popular restaurant in Palisades Park is probably So No Nan Jip on Broad Avenue. It features authentic Korean barbecue and is usually packed—often past midnight. However, you can duck into almost any eatery along the town’s main drag and find an authentic Korean meal.

Palisades Park’s next-door neighbor, Fort Lee, also boasts a large Korean population, as well as a robust commercial section featuring Korean shops and restaurants, which stretches from just south of the George Washington Bridge north to Englewood Cliffs. Two of the best are Gammeeok on Main Street and Dong Bang Grill on Palisade Avenue. Besides traditional Korean fare, Dong Bang Grill also does a brisk business at the sushi bar—which is saying something, considering the number of excellent Japanese restaurants in Fort Lee.

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey. The longtime food critic for the Asbury Park Press also has been published in Gourmet, Saveur and Town & Country, and on epicurious.com. Her post-Sandy stories for NBCNewYork.com rank among the finest media reporting on the superstorm’s aftermath and recovery.

Somewhat closer to home and also quite popular are Kimchi Hana, located in South Plainfield, as well as New Keum Ho Jung and Chung Sol Bat,both in Edison. —M.S.

Easy Does It

Rediscovering the slow cooker in COVID times.

The irresistible appeal of a slow cooker is its convenience and simplicity. Turn it on, and it cooks dinner while you do other things. You have no pot to watch. It doesn’t burn or spill over. Just set it and let it do its work. Next thing you know, your kitchen smells heavenly, and you feel like your personal chef did all the work. One profound effect of the current pandemic stay-at-home culture is that we are doing more home cooking. In and of itself, this can be a good thing. However, it has also given rise to stress eating and weight gain. Remember the “Freshman 15,” the weight-gain trend on college campuses? The pandemic gives us a new trend being called “The COVID 19.” Two ways to counter unwanted weight gain are to stop eating junk food, and keeping lots of healthy foods on hand, especially plant-based whole food meals made with beans, whole grains, and vegetables.

The growing interest in slow cooking has come at a time when more and more people are focused generally on better health and healthy eating, and specifically on the benefits of a plant-based diet. When you factor in a widening awareness of world cuisine, we may well be looking at a game-changing culinary moment. This confluence of trends encouraged me to revisit a book I wrote nine years ago, Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker. In 2020, I authored a new book that features more than 225 recipes using only plant-based ingredients—with chapters on everything from breakfast to main courses, appetizers to desserts, and condiments and beverages. These are some of my favorites…

Root Vegetable Bisque with Herbs de Provence
6 to 8 hours

Traditional bisques are often thickened with rice, so I’ve added some to this recipe. The soup is puréed after cooking and then returned to the pot to serve. If you prefer a chunky rather than creamy soup, you can omit the puréeing step. Just don’t call it a bisque!

1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 medium-size parsnips, peeled and coarsely
chopped
1 small turnip, peeled and diced
1 medium-size Yukon Gold potato, peeled
and diced
1/3 cup (63 g) raw brown rice
1 (14-ounce, or 395 g) can diced tomatoes, drained 4 cups (960 ml) vegetable broth
2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons (8 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley,
for garnish

1. Combine the onion and garlic in the slow cooker. Add the carrots, parsnips, turnip, potato, and rice. Stir in the tomatoes, broth, herbes de Provence, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook on Low until the vegetables are tender, 6 to 8 hours.
2. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup right in the pot or transfer the soup, in batches, to a high-powered blender or food processor and puree until smooth, then return to the pot. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed. Serve hot, sprinkled with the parsley.

Holy Mole Red Bean Chili
6 to 8 hours

The rich depth of flavor from the mole sauce elevates a humble chili to new heights. I especially like the addition of chopped seitan in this chili, but you may substitute Soy Curls, tempeh, or jackfruit, if you prefer.

1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped 3 tablespoons (48 g) tomato paste
2 tablespoons (10 g) unsweetened cocoa powder 2 tablespoons (32 g) almond butter
2 to 3 tablespoons (15 to 22.5 g) chili powder
1 tablespoon (17 g) minced chipotle chiles in adobo 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (14.5-ounce, or 410 g) can diced fire-roasted
tomatoes, drained and juices reserved
1 (14-ounce, or 395 g) can crushed tomatoes 3 cups (768 g) cooked dark red kidney beans
or 2 (15-ounce, or 425 g) cans beans, rinsed and drained
8 ounces (225 g) seitan, chopped
2 cups (480 ml) water
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Diced avocado, pepitas (green pumpkin seeds)
chopped scallions, and/or chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

1. In the slow cooker combine the onion, garlic, and bell pepper. Stir in the tomato paste, cocoa, almond butter, chili powder, chipotles, cinnamon, and the juices from the diced tomatoes, stirring to blend.
2. Stir in the diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, beans, seitan, water, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on Low for 6 to 8 hours.
3. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed. Serve hot, garnished with desired toppings.

A World of Beans

Because bean cooking was the intended use of the first slow cookers, it almost goes without saying that beans are a natural fit for the slow-cooking method. While many of us enjoy cooking a variety of different beans, it’s a safe bet that most of us have barely scratched the surface in terms of what types are available. Believe it or not, there are more than 13,000 different beans and legumes in the world. That’s a lot of beans!
Because beans take longer to cook than most vegetables, I prefer to use beans that I have already cooked in most of my recipes to avoid overcooking the vegetables. Another reason for using precooked beans in recipes is that it allows me to drain off the cooking liquid after cooking beans, making them more digestible. Cooking beans from the dried state in the slow cooker is both easy and economical. Here are some of the basics…

● A convenient way to prepare dried beans to use in recipes is to cook the beans in your slow cooker overnight on Low. They will be done by morning.
● A small piece of kombu sea vegetable added to the pot while the beans cook will help tenderize the beans while adding flavor and nutrients.
● Dried herbs should be added to beans during the final thirty minutes of cooking time. However, it is best to add fresh herbs after the beans are cooked for the best flavor.
● To keep cooked beans from drying out, cool them in their cooking liquid. For improved digestibility, be sure to drain the bean cooking liquid first before using the cooked beans in a recipe.
● Consider cooking a large amount of beans, portion them into airtight containers, and store them in the refrigerator for up to one week or in the freezer for up to six months.

Artichoke Risotto
2 hours

In order to achieve the right texture and flavor, this risotto requires a few minutes of skillet time before combining in the slow cooker. It’s not a bad trade-off when compared to all of the hands-on stirring involved in making conventional risotto. Using nutritional yeast makes this soy-free, although you can substitute a soy-free vegan Parmesan instead.

1/4 cup (60 ml) water, or 2 teaspoons olive oil 1 small yellow onion or 2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine
1 1/4 cups (237.5 g) Arborio rice
3 1/2 cups (840 ml) vegetable broth, plus more
if needed
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves,
or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups (600 g) canned or frozen artichoke hearts,
thawed, chopped
2 tablespoons (7.5 g) nutritional yeast, or 1/4 cup
(33.5 g) Almond Parmesan
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup (30 g) chopped toasted walnuts, for
garnish
2 tablespoons (6 g) snipped fresh chives, for garnish;

1. Heat the water or oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook for 30 seconds, then add the rice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
2. Transfer the rice mixture to the slow cooker. Add the broth, thyme, and salt, cover, and cook on High until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is just tender, about 2 hours.
3. Stir in the artichokes, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed. If the mixture is too dry, stir in a little more hot broth as needed.
4. Serve hot, spooned into shallow bowls. Sprinkle each serving with the toasted walnuts and chives.

Why Slow-Cook?

• It’s a convenient way to prepare healthy home-cooked meals.
• It allows you to cook and serve in the same vessel, so it saves on cleanup time.
• It can have dinner ready and waiting for you at the end of the day.
• The slow, gentle cooking adds depth of flavor to foods.
• It keeps the kitchen cool on hot days.
• It’s an ideal way to cook beans and seitan from scratch.
• It doubles as a chafing dish or hot punch bowl at parties.
• It’s economical because it uses less energy than oven cooking and makes great leftovers.
• It can be used as a mini-oven to slow-bake cakes, casseroles, potatoes, and more
• It frees up stovetop burners when cooking for parties or for a crowd on holidays.

Rustic Potpie Topped with Chive Biscuits
5 to 7 hours

This rustic potpie features a top crust of tender drop biscuits that cook right in the slow cooker. The steam heat produces a soft and tender biscuit topping. If you prefer a drier texture to the biscuits, let the cooked potpie sit uncovered for about 10 minutes before serving. To make this gluten-free, use diced tempeh or extra-firm tofu instead of seitan and use a gluten-free flour blend. For soy-free, omit the soy sauce and use Soy-Free Sauce, or coconut aminos, or add some soy-free vegetable broth base or additional salt, and a soy-free plant milk.
2 tablespoons (30 ml) plus 2 teaspoons olive oil 1 medium-size yellow onion, minced
2 large carrots, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons (32 g) tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 cup (124 g) plus 3 tablespoons (23.25 g)
all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons (45 ml) dry red wine
1 tablespoon (15 ml) soy sauce
1 cup (240 ml) vegetable broth
2 medium-size Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and
cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
8 ounces (225 g) cremini mushrooms, coarsely
chopped
8 ounces (225 g) seitan, cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (97.5 g) frozen green peas, thawed
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon (0.2 g) dried or (3 g) snipped fresh chives 1/2 cup (120 ml) plain unsweetened plant milk

1. Heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrots and sauté for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, thyme, and marjoram and cook for 1 minute longer. Sprinkle on 3 tablespoons (23.25 g) of flour and cook for 30 seconds. Add the wine, soy sauce, and broth, stirring after each addition.
2. Transfer the onion mixture to the slow cooker. Add the potatoes, mushrooms, seitan, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Cover and cook on Low until the vegetables are tender, 4 to 6 hours. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed, then stir in the green peas.
3. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 1 cup (124 g) of flour, the baking powder, chives, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Quickly stir in the plant milk and the remaining 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of oil until just blended. Drop the biscuit mixture by large spoonfuls onto the surface of the simmering stew. Turn the heat setting to High, cover, and cook until the dough is cooked through, about 1 hour longer.
4. Serve within 15 minutes after the biscuit dough has finished cooking.

Variations: Instead of the seitan, use cooked chickpeas or chopped tempeh. You could also use sweet potatoes instead of the white potatoes, or add turnips in addition to the carrots, and so on. Different herbs could be used in the biscuits—instead of chives, try dill and a little dried savory, if you have some.

Happy Half-Century

The Rival Crock-Pot turns 50 this year. In 1971, Rival bought the “original” consumer electric slow cooker, the Naxon Beanery, which was originally developed for bean cooking. The Crock-Pot was marketed to working women as a way to make a home-cooked meal while they were at work, and they quickly put it to use in preparing pot roasts and other meat-centric dishes. A phenomenal hit at the time, the Crock-Pot fad faded, only to enjoy a resurgence some 30 years later. Since the early ’70s, more than 80 million slow cookers have been sold.

Coconut Rice Pudding
with Mango
1 1/2 to 2 hours

A favorite dessert in Thai restaurants, rice pudding with fresh mango is easy to make at home in your slow cooker. If you prefer a sweeter pudding, add up to 1/4 cup (50 g) extra sugar.

1 1/2 cups (300 g) raw jasmine rice
1/2 cup (100 g) granulated natural sugar,
or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 (14-ounce, or 395 g) cans unsweetened
coconut milk
1/2 cup (120 ml) unsweetened plant milk, plus
more if needed
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and chopped

1. Lightly coat the slow cooker insert with vegan butter or nonstick cooking spray. Combine the rice, sugar, and salt in the cooker. In a saucepan or the microwave, heat the coconut milk and plant milk just to boiling. Slowly add the heated milks to the slow cooker, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cover and cook on High until the rice is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
2. Turn off the slow cooker and stir in the coconut and vanilla extracts. Allow to cool, uncovered, for 10 minutes, then stir in the mango. To help thicken the pudding, stir it gently to let it absorb any remaining liquid; it will continue to thicken as it cools. If the pudding is too thick, stir in a little more plant milk until it’s the consistency you like. The pudding can be served warm, at room temperature, or chilled. To serve chilled, spoon the pudding into dessert glasses, cover, and refrigerate until cold.

A slow cooker is an easy way to prepare nourishing and comforting dishes such as chili, casseroles, stews, and hearty soups made with beans, grains, and vegetables. Preparing food in a slow cooker retains all the nutrients and condenses the delicious flavors. And because slow-cooked dishes can be made without oil, they are low in fat and contain no cholesterol, making them ideal for these challenging times when we may be prone to eating more. EDGE

Editor’s Note:
Robin Robertson is a veteran restaurant chef, cooking teacher and columnist. She has authored numerous cookbooks, including The Plant-Based Slow Cooker ($27.99 Harvard Common Press) and best-sellers Fresh from the Vegan Slow Cooker, Vegan Planet, Vegan on the Cheap, and Quick-Fix Vegan. For more info visit her web site robinrobertson.com.

A Trip to Bountiful

What’s in store for New Jersey’s adventurous eaters?  You name it.   

By Andy Clurfeld

Remember trying to guess the number of jelly beans packed into a big glass jar at a county fair? I was never good enough at math to come up with a reasonable jelly-bean-per-square inch count that I could multiply by jar height and width to hazard a reasonable count. I admired those who even approached a ballpark number. After speaking with dozens and dozens of culinary professionals as indoor dining in New Jersey was coming out of its long hibernation, I learned I’m in ample company in the “it’s anybody’s guess” department: Nobody in this COVID-canceled-it world can say with any certainty what the state of our restaurants will be as the year 2020 winds down. 

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Although we may not know what’s in store, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s actually in Garden State stores, which carry a world of foods. So what I set about doing, rather than a review or profile a restaurant that might be in flux, in re-set, in one sort of modification or other by the time you read this, was to shop markets outside the general stock-up norm and see what’s available— specifically, what might bring to your home table the spirit of dining out.  

Mind you, I wasn’t looking for our old standby favorite, the rotisserie chicken. I wasn’t parsing the deli counters for cold cuts and three-bean salads. Nor was I grabbing prepared skewered beef cubes and bell peppers for the grill at the meat counter or marinated tuna chunks in the seafood department. I was hankering for more exotic tastes, a smack of adventure, a journey to another land on a plate.  

And I found those experiences at New Jersey’s bountiful ethnic mega-markets. 

Fattal’s Bakery

From the true super-size stores, such as Hmart (Korean/Asian), Netcost (Russian/Eastern European), City Fresh Market (Latin American), Seabra Foods (Portuguese/Brazilian), Mitsuwa (Japanese/Asian); Patel Brothers (Indian), Supremo (Latin American) and Kam Man (all-Asian), to the more intimate shops, including Chowpatty (Indian), Fattal’s (Middle Eastern), Nouri Brothers (Syrian/Middle Eastern), Piast (Polish), Makola African Market and The Greek Store, to the beloved neighborhood-centric Mexican and Indian corner stores, there’s a veritable United Nations of foods in our midst. 

Consider stamping your dining table much as you  would your passport, with a global menu of meals. I can vouch for finding food-shopping happiness at all the markets noted above—and experiencing the joyful, delicious meals that result with little or no effort. In fact, I often tell dinner guests who compliment my cooking that I’m not a particularly talented cook, but I am a very good shopper

Want some examples? There really are no recipes here…just mealtime put-togethers at a variety of  price points. 

Photo by Andy Clurfeld

Let’s start easy, seriously easy, with a completely ready-to-eat meal from Hmart, which has stores in North and Central New Jersey. We’ll progress to an elegant appetizer (or even an entrée) that’s assembled from prepared and purchased foods at Netcost. Then we’ll do what I think of as the two-step: quick and easy two-element bites that elevate your eating game.  

So rev up those taste buds and stretch your palate. 

Hmart sells myriad and many prepared foods, including sensational Korean kimbap rolls, which look like Japanese sushi rolls, but spotlight vegetables instead. Buy a package of those and partner with an “egg” roll, an omelet-like layering of scrambled-then-cooked egg punctuated by peppers and onions and lined with nori sheets, a skinny version of a handroll known as a “finger” roll, and a petite side of cucumber-sesame salad. Use the pickled vegetables that come with the rolls to garnish and punch up the prettiness of the plate

Piast Meats & Provisions

NetCost, with Jersey stores in Paramus and Manalapan, is world headquarters (well, my personal world head-quarters) for caviar and many other Russian and Eastern European foods. Now, caviar isn’t everyday fare for me, but when I want to do something special, I layer in a ring mold a few things I find in this uber-market’s extensive prepared foods sections (a chunky, creamy salad of potato, peas, onions, peppers; an egg-based salad; slices of smoked salmon) plus one of the thick, rich Russian sour creams NetCost sells (doctored with snippets of fresh chives and sliced scallions) and, slathered on top, a generous schmear of black caviar. You can welcome the New Year with this, or use it as the centerpiece of an intimate supper. Bring on the black bread from NetCost’s bakery department and plain crackers

While you’re browsing NetCost’s prepared foods bars, fill a tub with one of the excellent eggplant salads, maybe some silky chopped liver and/or a few soupcons of something mushroom. Why

Photo by Andy Clurfeld

You’ll need them to fill the pani poori (or puri) you’ll score at Chowpatty, my Iselin-based must-stop for cocktail party snacks, as quickie two-step hors d’oeuvres. Pani poori are a classic snack food in India—airy, crisp, hollow puffballs that you (carefully!) use a chopstick to poke a hole in and then stuff with pretty much anything. I do love using those NetCost salads, as well as chickpeas (rousingly seasoned), potatoes of all stripes, minced herbs and chilies (got a pesto lying around?), chopped-up smoked fish. Stuffing elements are endless; just make sure you fill your poori just before serving: They are delicate and most stuffings make them soggy after a while

Chowpatty Foods

More two-steps? Coming right up. Chowpatty is also my source for potato chips, particularly the chile-spiced ones, which form the base of the easiest of appetizers. Layer on top a slice of NetCost salmon or a dollop  of caviar. Or a swirl of Hmart barbecued beef or  jarred kimchi. Or muhummara (red pepper-walnut-pomegranate spread) or tabbouleh you forage at Fattal’s in Paterson

You get the idea. The Garden State has a diner-size menu of ethnic food shops open for exploration. Eat, learn, play in the kitchen

Try Something New




When you walk into an ethnic market, you’re bound to encounter a new food, or a familiar food presented in a new way. Play Marco Polo or Columbus or Magellan and explore. For instance, at Hmart, take a stroll through the produce department and you’ll find big and baby choys, musk melons and snow pears, honey apples and dragonfruit. Segue to the seafood department, and there will be icy bins of whole fishes and tubs of whole crabs. 

At NetCost, there’s a selection of at least a couple dozen caviars, a sea of smoked fishes, and herring enough to satisfy a famished Norwegian. There are scores of different breads, various styles of sour cream, and preserves that transcend anything Smucker’s makes. You already know same-old, same-old. Challenge your taste buds

Better Shop Around

Some of the markets in this story are located in towns near you, so you know about them already. Take note of those that aren’t…if you are traveling to another part of New Jersey for business or pleasure, take the opportunity to stop in and explore. Most are on or close to major roads and highways

NetCost • Manalapan and Paramus 

Hmart • Paramus, Cherry Hill, Fort Lee, Edison, Leonia, Ridgefield 

City Fresh • Union City 

Seabra Foods • Newark, Kearny, Harrison 

Mitsuwa • Edgewater 

Patel Brothers • Edison, Iselin, North Brunswick, Parlin, Plainfield, Perth Amboy, Trenton, Pennsauken 

Kam Man • Edison, East Hanover Chowpatty • Iselin 

Fattal’s • Paterson 

Nouri Brothers • Paterson 

Piast • Garfield 

Makola African • Newark 

The Greek Store • Kenilworth 

Andy Clurfeld, who racked up a lot of miles for this story, notes that while we do take-out from our favorite restaurants—while we support them in any way we can right now and as the future unfolds—eating more adventurously at home today will make all of us more appreciative diners when our eateries are again at full capacity. “If there’s one thing I’ve been hearing from chefs,” she says, “it is that, in the post-COVID Era, they can’t wait to cook at full tilt.  And then some.”

 

Heads Up, Eyes Down

Dan Lipow May Be Foraging at a Meadow Near You

By Andy Clurfeld

Right now, Dan Lipow is talking chanterelles. Don’t stop him. You’ll miss the opportunity to learn more about the princess charming of wild mushrooms than if you’d had an encyclopedia on the fruiting body of a fungus implanted in your brain while you slept. Because no tome on wild mushrooms—or most anything else that grows in the wild—can pinpoint for you the precise locations where such not-so-buried treasures lie like Dan Lipow can.

Ok. Chanterelles. This could be a great summer for chanterelles. As well as for, Lipow says, day-lily flower buds, purslane, wild ginger, elderberry, garlic scapes and sea beans. But you’re stuck on mushrooms?

“Local log-grown shiitakes, chicken-of-the-woods, milky cap mushrooms, lobster mushrooms—and more!”

“Makes me hungry,” Lipow adds.

Dan Richer, multiple-time James Beard Award-nominated chef of Razza Pizza Artignale in Jersey City, might say Lipow is always hungry.

“I’ve known Dan Lipow since 2006, 2007,” Richer says. “His love for food has kept evolving and intensifying. Fact is, my success has a lot to do with Dan’s support.”

Russell Farr, a soccer coach who lives in Morristown, hears the name “Dan Lipow” and immediately exclaims, “The ramps! The fiddleheads! The nettles! Dan’s selection is more than unique. It’s led me to a lifestyle. I started going to the farmers’ markets just to talk with him.”

Arirang

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So who is this maestro of the meadows, the scavenger of the streams through the woods, the lord of the locavores? And what is The Foraged Feast, his burgeoning enterprise that, in short order, united the best foragers here in New Jersey with foragers in other prime-source parts of the country in order to bring wild things safely into home kitchens of the Garden State?

For someone who appears to live a kind of swashbuckling existence of thrashing out into territories less-than-tamed, Dan Lipow is warm and friendly, welcoming and inclusive, a natural teacher and a deep believer in connecting novice to expert.

He’s a good dude.

Born in New York City, raised in Connecticut and lucky enough to have a relative with a farm where he first encountered wild things, Toddler Dan was enthralled with the berry patch in his own suburban backyard.

Grain & Cane

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“It was a mature patch, red raspberries and blueberries, and I used to pick the berries. A lot of berries,” he says. “My parents put in a vegetable patch. They put in a row of asparagus—we grew all sorts of stuff.”

A nearby apple orchard, trips to Long Island Sound for fishing, and “big, really big trees—there must’ve been morels there, with those big, old trees” occupied his time and mind. His family moved to Greenwich, and soon Teenage Dan was eyeing “massive oysters that we’d pop open” and “digging steamers and quahogs.”

Flash forward. He didn’t go to college right after high school, but strapped on a backpack and took off for Europe. It was 1987 and he was 18. “In Greece, a big gyro was 25 cents. All the stuff I ate there, I wouldn’t’ve eaten here. I hit 13 countries, going by ‘Let’s Go,’ ” the budget-friendly travel guides.

He returned to the U.S., worked in photography and went to Boston University for a year “so I could get into the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California.” Three years there taught him much about California cuisine and even more about Mexican foods.

Soon, he was a sought-after photographer in New York City, traveling the world—and eating its cuisines. “I’d have an assignment, three weeks in Tokyo, for instance, and carte blanche for meals.” By the time Lipow was 30, he’d been to dozens of countries and “experienced food everywhere.”

He spent five months in Southeast Asia on a project of his own creation through the United Nations Human Rights Council. In consort with Habitat for Humanity,  he documented issues in children’s habitats, the conditions, the realities. He presented his work at a U.N. conference in the mid-1990s.

“Hard work and great food,” he now recalls.

But by the end of the 20th century, he’d met his culinary-adventuring dream:

A giant Puffball. A mushroom that can grow to the size of, say, a basketball.

A friend who knew of Lipow’s prowess in the kitchen said, “You’ve got to Iron Chef this thing.”

“I went to the Whole Foods in Chelsea and stocked up,” Lipow says. “I cooked and cooked with that Puffball. Roasted. Made stock. Sir-fry. Cubed it—sugar plum and pepper balm. That giant Puffball opened the door. It could make magic.”

Soon Lipow was tutoring himself in mushroom studies. He was also studying foraging, and going for hikes in New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate New York.

“I was good at identifying mushrooms, and bringing them back home and using them. I was taking it all very seriously; I’d suck up the information.”

Meanwhile, Lipow and his wife decided in 2005 to move to Maplewood, where he was even more clearly able to see and experience the seasons and the cycles of what grows in the wild.

“You don’t see that in New York City,” he says.

He began to realize he was a true forager, understanding what edible treasures were right there, if not in plain sight, at least able to be unearthed by the knowledgeable eye.

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“Knowing that about a forest is very powerful—knowing where the chanterelles exist. I want to find those [treasures] in that environment, understand the sense of place, the environment, the possibilities.”

He found his perfect world, “a world where you can’t stop learning.” And what he discovered in New Jersey is “its many, many terroirs; it’s not like everywhere else. There are lower and upper reaches, hillsides, valleys. Here in Maplewood, we sit in the Watchung Range. Sussex County has terrain a lot like Appalachia. Glaciers came down to just north of I-78.”

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Soon a sign in the window of Arturo’s in Maplewood attracted Lipow’s attention: “Home-cured duck prosciutto.” That sign was written by its then-chef/owner Dan Richer, who was splicing authentic regional Italian dishes into the old pizzeria’s menu. Kindred spirits in more than first name, the Dans started collaborating.

Says Richer: “Dan taught me where the ramps are. When garlic mustard is in season. What Japanese knotweed is.

Back when farm-to-table what not yet a thing, I learned how exciting a walk in the woods with my friend could be. He brought these things to my menu—and they bring joy to people’s meals. It’s all so special.

“When Dan was considering transitioning from photography to foraging, well, I thought that was a  no-brainer. I just told him to bring it to me, and I’d cook with it.”

A new career was born.

“I’d show up with wild maitakes and we’d roast them in Dan’s pizza oven at Arturo’s,” Lipow recalls. “I’d find things, I’d call him, and he’d say, ‘Bring them over!’ We’d then go in for tastings he’d make just for us.”

Those tastings, Richer says, expanded from private  to reservation-only Saturday nights. Then a second tasting night was added. Indeed, on the basis of those resolutely original, hyper-seasonally focused tasting menus, Richer was nominated for a James Beard Rising Star Chef Award.

Lipow found other chefs willing to follow the forager along uncharted paths in the Garden State. By 2016,  The Foraged Feast was rocking at a half-dozen farmers’ markets in New Jersey, and Lipow was working with other four-star foragers “as an aggregator… of the  best-quality foraged and cultivated mushrooms,” as well as seasonal foraged fare such as those cherished sea beans, ramps, spring onions, spiky Devil’s Club Shoots, green briar tips, Juneberries, and what to some is  pesky knotweed, but to Lipow is easily broken down  by stovetop cooking until it caramelizes to pure deliciousness.

Courtesy of Dan Lipow/The Foraged Feast

He’s caught the attention of revered chefs, including Justin Antonio of Summit House, who “purchases mushrooms from him all year long” and makes spotlight dishes that include “his wild watercress, which I puree and serve with grilled calamari, preserved lemons, his ramps and his fiddleheads. I use his maitakes in a salmon dish, with fermented Napa cabbage, and I also roast his maitakes with pastrami spice. He challenges us all the time. No one I’ve ever met has more knowledge of his product than Dan Lipow.”

Melissa Goldberg of Short Hills, the founder of the Farm & Fork Society CSA, is another fan who uses his mushrooms in virtually everything she cooks: “Omelets, tarts, soups—if I’m cooking, and Dan’s mushrooms are in my kitchen, I throw them in! Have you had the velvet pioppini?” She pauses to exhale. “In a tart? With pasta? He opens people’s eyes to the world of mushrooms. He has such a connection to the Earth.”

One recent night, Dan Lipow is talking about his culinary colleagues at Garden State Kitchen in Orange, where he has his warehouse and often mingles with artisans preparing foods for market. He’s talking about the chefs he forages for, the customers who are now friends, the satisfaction he gets from sharing food and stories.

“Food can get staid and boring if you don’t experiment,” he says. “But there’s inspiration all around.”

He takes a (rare) breath, then continues: “It’s always about looking for that great morsel—that morsel that someone makes into that perfect bite.

“You know, I’ve got these great porcini. I shaved them, drizzled with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Sea salt, black pepper. It was so— I’ll send you  a photo.” EDGE

Editor’s Note: Dan Lipow is on Facebook and Instagram through www.theforagedfeast.com. He can be reached at The Foraged Feast through email: theforagedfeast@gmail.com.

Opening Thoughts

AJ Capella and Anthony Mangieri on summer,  the shutdown, and the new normal.

By Andy Clurfeld

The world is a different place than it was at the start of this year, or even at the start of spring. Now, as summer dawns, it’s challenging to imagine what the traditional season of sun- and-fun capped by a lazy, long dinner at a favorite restaurant might bring. Restaurants? Some open, but differently; some closed, sadly permanently; most in a state of flux.

We speak to two acclaimed restaurant chefs, both New Jersey-born and bred and Garden State loyalists to their core.

Anthony Mangieri, nationally renowned and referred to as the Pope of Pizza, started his career in the early-, mid-1990s in a slip of a storefront in Red Bank, where he baked authentic Neapolitan breads. A few years later, he opened his first Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, before moving Una Pizza first to  New York’s East Village, then to San Francisco’s Mission District, next back to New York, on the Lower East  Side, and finally, home again, in downtown Atlantic Highlands. He is, rightly, credited with inspiring a new generation of pizzaiolos and showing pizza-eaters that his pizza, based on his otherworldly dough (starter born in 1996), is the original “transporting” pizza.

AJ Capella, a rising star in the culinary world, garnered respect and devoted fans during his turns at the Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station; the Aviary in New York, and  A Toute Heure in Cranford, before taking the top chef spot at Jockey Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Morristown. Now 30, he’s spent half his life working in restaurant kitchens and developing a style that marries the soul of authentic European peasant cookery with globally accented high-style finishes. Mangieri and Capella, each working and percolating these past months, take stock and reflect, refresh and predict.

Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza on Orchard Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has closed completely during the COVID-19-induced pandemic; however, Mangieri had, on Feb. 28, opened his new Una Pizza Napoletana at 91A First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. That Una Pizza has remained open, serving takeaway pizza Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Expanded hours are planned as restrictions on commerce ease.

Mangieri:

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“This shutdown has given me time to reconnect. It’s a forced shutdown, but it’s given me more time with my family and to do things other than restaurant cooking.

“The issue is not so much the shutdown, but the reality of restaurants. What is that reality? For me, we’ve had to revert to minimal staff, which we can do and still do our pizza. But what is the reality for bigger restaurants with bigger staffs? The hardest transition at this time is for those restaurants.

“Do they go at half-capacity for six months? Most fine-dining restaurants will not come out of that. Elaborate menus need bigger staffs. I understand adapting to the time, but fine-dining take-away?

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“I had no interest in doing take-away; it’s a different product. I’ve never myself had delivery (food), ever, and neither has my wife (Ilaria, who is from Naples and has a background in classical music and communications). The shutdown didn’t change my business model, my approach. I’ve had to limit ingredients, because I can’t now get some of them. I’m now using mozzarella made in New Jersey, from a company that imports buffalo mozzarella from Italy and makes it here.

“So I make the amount of pizza I can myself handle, about 90 pizzas a day, and that’s what I’ll do. We’ll be open four to five hours a day, and I’m toying with the idea of taking some reservations (if dine-in restrictions are eased) so I can control things.

“I get to work at 7, 7:30 in the morning, prep for hours, then make pizza the whole time we’re open, then clean up. It’s intense—the mental and physical focus. To open with outside tables—that would cost lots and lots of money: new tables, umbrellas, staff going in and out.

“Right now, I’m excited about the new ingredients I’ve got—pepperoni, peppers, great basil.”

Anthony Mangieri starts talking about the great jars of imported tuna he’s been tasting, then about chocolate, and ice cream, and gelato. The best ingredients lure him, inspire him and, inevitably, propel him to share them. Always have, always will.

Capella:

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“I was in Italy when this whole thing started. I was in Bologna, late February, Modena, having Lambrusco at a winery, tortellini en brodo everywhere, eating mortadella every day! Gnocchi frito—everywhere. It’s fried dough that expands and hollows out. Super-thin, filled with air. It’s served like a bread.

“We were eating a lot of a tangy, creamy farm cheese that’s spreadable, soft, with thick curds. I was talking to Sal (Pisani, a cheesemaker who operates Jersey Girl Cheese, and a friend of Capella’s) and he told me he’d work on making it here.

“Anyway, we got one of the last flights back. I quarantined; didn’t go anywhere, didn’t leave my house except to walk my dog. Then the shutdown.

“We cooked and cooked at home. My girlfriend is a pescatarian, so I don’t eat meat at my house. Cooking at home was fun, not rushed.

“Now, I don’t know about high-end dining, which is what I’ve always done. I don’t think it’s going to be back any time soon. Takeout, yes, doing online groceries, yes. I’m organizing all of that now at Jockey Hollow.

“But I’m also thinking, ‘What can I be doing differently? How can I reinvent, say, a fast-food sandwich? I’m thinking, say, crispy lamb neck instead of a chicken sandwich. ‘Cause high-end restaurants, if they have to cut back from doing 400 or 500 covers to 125 people, that’s not workable. You’ll have to do take-out plus a grocery in the basement.

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“I’m thinking, coming up with ideas. A 10-, 12-seat café for high-end dining, plus take-out. All locally sourced foods on the menu. A two-sided place. I think a lot of opportunity can come out of this pandemic, and the new post-pandemic restaurant models will change. The days of high-end dining as we know it are over.

“I’m thinking of a menu with scallop ravioli, with a whole scallop inside, poached, with compound butter, as the ravioli cooks. A smoked duck egg custard. You know, a riff on chawanmushi, Japanese steamed custard. But finish it with a tiny dice of Taylor ham, top it with cheese and egg. Classic New Jersey!”

Then AJ Capella talks through a menu for this new-restaurant dream that fuses the world’s cuisines with the Garden State culinary traditions and ingredients. His food always will have a heartfelt New Jersey accent.

Seoulville

“Bulgogi jeongol, marinated beef cooked with a tangle of sweet potato noodles that mingle with mushrooms, tofu and vegetables, is a party in a pot.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Seoulville

45 West Main St., Somerville. Phone: 908.854.4100
Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m. Note: Seoulville takes a late afternoon break Tuesdays through Fridays and closes from 3 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Major credit cards and reservations accepted. Prices: Appetizers: $6 to $15. Barbecue dishes: $23 to $29. Dolsot (rice bowls): $15 to $17. Soups: $13 to$17. Casseroles (jeongol): $35 to $38. Entrees: $14 to $32. BYOB.

Kimchi jjigae is the Statue of Liberty of soups, beckoning for generations to the tired, the poor of health, those huddled under quilts struggling to breathe free of wintertime colds and flus. It is potent of broth, fired as it is by spices seeping from fermented vegetables and long-simmered pork belly, and soothing of texture, with slices of tofu and slivers of tenderized cabbage, radishes and other roots turning up in every bite. Kimchi jjigae fortifies the ailing body as it restores the flailing soul. It’s a wonder of a dish, and Seoulville, a relative newcomer to Somerville’s ever-diversifying restaurant scene, nails it.

Seoulville is the result of a natural progression: In before-culinary-enlightenment times in Somerville (and many county-seat centers of New Jersey suburbia), you had your red-sauce Italian joints, your chow mein Chinese joints, your continental masquerading as classy (dress up and take out Aunt Gert for her birthday) or slumming (diners didn’t serve moussaka in those days), and little else. Then came the white sauce known as alfredo, Szechuan and something called “cuisine minceur,” or a lighter side of French cuisine that blew the lid off the butter-and-cream classics and made us feel virtuous and oh-so-nouvelle.

Photos courtesy of Brian Kim/Seoulville

Was it sushi that helped us shake off the shackles of the 1950s Germanic meat-and-potatoes diet? The advent of olive oil? The Eurail pass that allowed post-grads to travel and travel and eat and eat? All of that, for sure. During the course of a decade or two, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Mediterranean from many ports, island fare and, critically, strains of America’s own regional specialties, came to star on menus at everyday-style strip-mall restaurants throughout the Garden State.

Why it has taken more than a decade of the 21st century for Jerseyites to welcome Korea’s comfort foods to their backyards puzzles me. But after years of trekking to Fort Lee, Palisades Park and Edison, I’m grateful that Brian Kim and his parents Helen and Kenny were brave enough to bring Seoulville to at least one corner of New Jersey that lacked real-deal bibimbap.

Is there a food more comforting than this stew of a salad that flips crusty-topped baked mac-and-cheese on its fanny and actually weighs in as nutritious? Seoulville’s casserole of rice, beef (or chicken or tofu), slivers of mushrooms, carrots, spinach, daikon, a runny fried egg, a scattering of sprouts and, on the side, a cup of gochujang (a Korean chili paste embraced by millennials who spoon it on everything they eat while curled up on Klippan sofas) is filled with ingredients we know. Here, they’re re-assembled, cooked in a stone bowl that crisps some of the rice, and brightened by that smoky-hot-sweet-mysterious sauce it doesn’t take a prophet to forecast as the successor to salsa.

Brian Kim, the front-of-the-house man at Seoulville and the guy who truly wants to teach gochujang, kimchi jjigae and bibimbap to the uninitiated, is happy to guide you through the menu of classics tailored, in varying degrees, to American ways. Give a listen, give a try. You can eat your same-old any time.

For here, the chicken wings come glazed sweet and spicy—and that do-si-do of dolce and daring isn’t sticky and cloying, but invigorating to the meat. Which is the point. The seafood and scallion pajeon, a pancake that tilts in texture to an omelet crossed with a crepe, isn’t even a tad oily, allowing the shreds of shrimp and squid to take charge. My favorite starter is the fried tofu, batter-dipped cubes with taut, crisp crusts that squirt with milkiness. Eat a cube, with or without a brush of sweet soy glaze, then check out the banchan–small bowls of vegetables and condiments, including cubed radish, sliced cucumbers, pepper-licked potatoes, marinated mungbean sprouts–and enjoy the interplay.

Made for sharing, and worth the investment, is the Korean hot pot. Bulgogi jeongol, marinated beef cooked with a tangle of sweet potato noodles that mingle with mushrooms, tofu and vegetables in a broth that tastes meaty but is all about slow-cooking with shiitake mushrooms, is a party in a pot. Stir in a spoonful of gochujang; snag a leaf of lettuce from your bossam platter and pile some of the beef and vegetables inside, wrap and eat; mix some of your banchan with your bulgogi on a side plate. This food is all about customizing to your own tastes. Your own expanding tastes, I hope.

Speaking of bossam, Seoulville’s pork belly boiled in water scented (I suspect) with ginger and garlic, peppercorns and onion till super-tender—then seared and served with leeks and onions—is minimalist compared to some contemporary takes. But comforting it is, and if you ply it with the sauces and banchan, you’ll be well on your way to understanding not only how to eat Korean, but what you can do to charge up your own dining regime at home.

Grilled beef short ribs are a no-brainer to eat and love. Served on a hot plate, meant to be speared and fired and consumed without judgment, they’re one of Seoulville’s relatively shy dishes. So is the cod braised in a soy-based sauce and served with a splay of mild vegetables. It reminds me of a tame version of miso-glazed black cod, a dish made famous at Nobu—a dish that once seemed as foreign as, well, kimchi jjigae.

For weeks after that dinner, I thought of Seoulville. Its mission to serve as a bridge between mother country authentic and suburban Jersey educational did make me a little sad, however. I kept wishing the Kims didn’t feel that need to cotton to Western palates at all. But they are in it for the long haul, definitely wanting to take locals on a culinary trip. I stopped back with a friend, ostensibly for bowls of a couple of soups I’d missed, but really to see how the little place with the big heart was doing.

The room was nearly full at an early-dinner hour. I looked at the menu and chuckled. How could I not have ordered the famous “Hangover Soup,” arguably the most loved of Korean standards, my first time there? Its beefy broth, fortified with both soybean paste and red pepper paste and strewn with cabbage, sprouts and vegetables, might not have the infusion of jellied oxblood that the original must possess, but it scares my friend’s cold into submission. A seafood broth bolstered by that same spicy pepper seeps into soft tofu and infuses it with hints of shellfish, riffs of chilies; it makes for a soup I find magical.

Seoulville, a modest but pleasant storefront with subdued décor and the most welcoming of service, could be part of the natural progression of things culinary. It might just be what the good denizens of New Jersey had to work up to. But it’s also about a carefully orchestrated menu by the Kim family and a style of cooking that’s at once educational and experimental, yet purposefully easy to digest. We’re getting there.

BYOB

It’s possible my love for Korean food is fueled by its compatibility with wine. Specifically, gewurztraminer, the fruit-forward, spicy personality white wine that adores intensely seasoned foods—particularly ones plied with chilies. Bring to Seoulville your best gewurz, be it from Meyer-Fonne or Albert Boxler. In reds, consider an un-shy number from Spain, perhaps something from Rioja or the Ribera del Duero. Or a Priorat. You want something that allows its fruits and heft to be balanced by spice and a little earthiness; a high-alcohol, amped-up, resolutely “big” wine will be discordant with the nuances of seasoning in Seouville’s signature dishes.

The Frog and The Peach

“The ricotta gnocchi, lavished with black truffles and nibs of wild boar sopressata, was so sensational I did something I’ve rarely done when dining out on the job.”

By Andy Clurfeld

The Frog and The Peach

29 Dennis St., New Brunswick. Phone: (908) 846.3216 

Reservations and all major credit cards accepted. Open for dinner seven nights a week and for lunch Monday through Friday. Prices: Soups and salads: $9 to $14. Appetizers:$16 to $19. Entrees: $21 to $43. Sides: $9. Desserts: $12 to $14.

In the beginning, there was The Frog and The Peach…I wrote that sentence in my mind more than 25 years ago, when I started reviewing restaurants in New Jersey and concocting a sociogram of sorts that linked anyone and anything culinarily worthy in the Garden State. The Frog and The Peach was nerve central, chair of the brain trust, the heart that pumped inspiration and example to everyone else who served forth to the public. The Frog, born in 1983 on a bleak side street in New Brunswick and named for a Dudley Moore-Peter Cook comedy sketch, is where trends and some of the most respected, accomplished culinary and hospitality professionals in the state got their start. Industrial chic? Marquee status to local ingredients? Eclectic, boutique, artisan wine list? Fine-dining at a perfect-pitch bar? Check off a list that goes on and on: It all comes back to The Frog.

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The Frog today is owned by executive chef Bruce Lefebvre, who purchased the restaurant in 2012 from its birth parents, Betsy Alger and Jim Black. (Rutgers grads, of course.) The married couple had transformed the circa-1876 building at 29 Dennis St. that once housed the printing presses for New Brunswick’s newspaper, The Home News, into a multi-level theater for dining, where various stages could be set nightly for a variety of experiences. Tete-a-tete in an alcove? Communal dinner featuring cult wines in a set-off space? New and novel bites at the bar? Alger and Black’s revolution of continual evolution at The Frog also ignited their neighborhood: Once desolate and stark, with but one other restaurant and a synagogue nearby, the Hiram Square community is now desirable and swank, with brick townhouses that look plucked from Philly’s Old City and luxury condos that house Johnson & Johnson execs.

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The Frog as design guru/community activist/social conscience, however, is another story.

Lefebvre (facing page), schooled at Wake Forest, the Culinary Institute of America, post-college Frog kitchen and stints at New York City landmarks Aureole, Daniel and Lespinasse, is tag-teamed by general manager/wine director Jim Mullen, an alum of Georgetown, the Corcoran School of Art and restaurants such as the ground-breaking New York wine-and-food mecca Montrachet. There are well-informed front-of-the-house folks no matter where you step and a kitchen crew that seems eternally tuned to Betsy Alger’s famously exacting orchestrations. That’s the way of The Frog, back to the David Drake days, the Stanley Novack era and the Eric Hambrecht reign. Every one of these acclaimed chefs did time as top dog at The Frog.

The current menu under Lefebvre hits on all cylinders. It’s neither silly-obscure nor fearful of challenging diners who come here expecting to learn. There’s Le Quebecois veal tartare, given the sultry counterpoint of winter truffles more potent than the norm and pickled mustard seeds, a one-two punch of earth and warmth that cuts the richness of the veal and encourages a dab at the quail egg and a roll in the lardo. What could be too much luxury, particularly in a starter, is calibrated carefully—an exercise in control.

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Littleneck clams are partnered with a classic companion, pork sausage. But it’s the infusion of fresh ginger that elevates the dish, intensifying the flavors of both meats with a penetrating heat. Romanesco cauliflower, oh-so hip these days, is romanced by a fancy-schmancy duck Bolognese and a duck egg, then scattered with breadcrumbs. Intriguing, though its texture was off: I wanted to taste something crunchy or crisp to balance the plushness of the double ducks. Loved the concept of the octopus, billed as charred and Portuguese, even though it was served with a world of accents—enoki mushrooms, a chili-miso sauce, treviso, eggplant—but found the execution problematic: The chunks of octopus were alternately tough or mushy and the chili-miso sauce oddly without spirit.

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But the ricotta gnocchi, lavished with black truffles and nibs of wild boar sopressata, was so sensational I did something I’ve rarely done when dining out on the job:  I hailed a server and asked for another round. I had to taste more—immediately—of those near-weightless mini dumplings I once believed had reached their apex at the restaurant Vetri in Philadelphia, but have a new master hand in Lefebvre. Strewn amid the gnocchi are strands of mildly bitter greens, sweet roasted garlic and squash, deftly inserted accents that, again, serve to balance more forceful ingredients.

Opah, a warm-blooded fish that ranges from pale pink to rosy red when served raw but turns ghostly white when pan-seared as it was here, was brightened by two strong plate partners: a walnut paste much like the Georgian condiment satsivi, which brought a butteriness to the dish, and an olive-spiked brown butter that added a smoky salinity. Pompano took on a world of accents—taro, an avocado-coconut mash, sticky rice and kale soaked in chilies—and might have been more successful streamlined. Duck is done as a duo here these days, Long Island breast and quarter-size meatballs parked on the same plate with pretty cold-weather vegetables: pearl onions, squash and Brussels sprouts. The unifying component here is the duck jus, lush as it is with truffles and parmesan. That’s one delish sipper. Another twosome spotlights Iberico pork,

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cured ham from Spain and Portugal. The Frog’s Iberico indulgence is splendid, what with a silky-textured skirt steak sliced from the pig and soulful nutty-herby croqueta made from braised rib meat. Maitake mushrooms, an aioli laced with sherry vinegar and blooms of nasturtium complete the plate. 

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There’s lots of rum firing the flavor of the praline cake, which has an every-day-is-Mardi-Gras appeal. I was thinking the lemon-scented goat cheese tart needed a kick of another stripe to rev up its engine. But a confection that sounded ordinary—milk chocolate ganache isn’t exactly on trend these days—held my attention through the last fine bite. 

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We don’t seem to want to leave The Frog and The Peach on this night; it’s late and there’s been a huge “Beer vs. Wine” dinner party in the garden room that I wish I’d had the courage to crash, the staff is quietly, discreetly re-setting tables for the next day. We should go home. But we linger. We’re in the bosom of the mother culture of restaurants in New Jersey, and it just feels good.  

Foreign Service

Eating my way through ethnic Montclair.

By Helen Lippman 

In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, we’re likely to hear a lot of divisive language about “foreigners” in our midst—so much so that one could easily forget that one of this country’s long-defining qualities has been the way it makes room for new people and cultures. Fortunately, we have places like Montclair to remind us. Craving Cuban black beans or an Indian samosa? You’ll find it here. Love Middle Eastern fare? Sample food from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Turkey—all within a walkable, small-town mile. As an added bonus, virtually all the restaurants are BYOB To tell you about a few of my go-to places, I’ll start, as my husband and I sometimes do, with the first meal of the day. Simit House Bakery & Co., a casual Turkish eatery on a corner of Church Street, calls its breakfasts “sunrise abundance.” You can order a ”petite” plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta or a “hearty” serving with sausage, cured beef, hard-boiled egg and provolone added to the mix. I prefer menemen, a creamy egg dish with a kick from pepper paste, chopped tomatoes and onions. The namesake simit—a sesame seed-covered cross between a bagel and a pretzel that’s been a popular Turkish street food for hundreds of years—surrounds the eggs. Served warm, it needs no butter or jam. 

Owner Ibrahim Yagci, a native of Istanbul, says his aim in opening the bakery was to preserve the simit’s legacy. But the menu has grown steadily in its two-plus years of existence. The sausage-shaped potato roll—onion-flavored mashed potatoes juxtaposed with the crunch of spicy phyllo dough—has become another local favorite, as has the spinach pie. Sweets, salads, soups, sandwiches and Turkish coffee are on tap, too.

Uncle Momo, a French-Lebanese bistro a few blocks away, has a bountiful brunch menu (as well as lunch and dinner). Owner and chef Wissam Elmasri, who is Lebanese and attended culinary school in France, serves a mix of American, French and Middle Eastern fare. The crepes, made from quinoa, are light and airy.  The most unusual is Zeit W Zaatar, made with labne (yogurt cheese), cucumbers and olives, all seasoned with dried thyme. My two favorites—spinach & goat cheese and smoked salmon & spinach—are delicately flavored and topped with greens. Ruby red pomegranate seeds give the salad an unexpected zing.

Individual pitzas, so named because they’re made with fresh-baked pita rather than traditional pizza dough, are also worth a try. I especially like the lamb pitza, seasoned with parsley, onions, and a hint of cinnamon.  I’ve also become attached to the muhalabia, a milk pudding flavored with rosewater, and Wissam’s saffron rice pudding, a colorful twist on an old-fashioned dessert that’s wonderful with mint tea.

Ani Ramen, a trendy Japanese noodle house that opened in 2014, is a good place for lunch, snack or a casual dinner. Its success is not surprising, given that owner Luck Sarabhayavanija and his team tried hundreds of combinations of noodles and broth before settling on a menu. The result: A half-dozen ramens to showcase and about 20 more in the mix. “We have a simple chicken broth, a more complex miso, a brothless ramen with intense flavor, a wonderful vegetarian—our hidden gem—and our signature rich and creamy pork broth,” he says. 

My strategy is to share a bowl of ramen so I have room for other house specialties—the chili-charred, sea-salted edemame, the light and spicy kale salad and particularly, shrimp buns. Made of marinated panko shrimp (a house secret, whispers Sarabhayavanija) pickled cucumber, shredded cabbage and spicy miso mayo on a fresh-steamed bao bun, the taste keeps me coming back for more. 

Right next door is Spice II, a restaurant owned by Sarabhayavanija’s mother, Sheree, and my favorite of the three Thai restaurants on Bloomfield Avenue. Its bright red and gold décor and subtle smell of spice evoke memories of a long-ago trip to Thailand.  I usually start with the fried tofu, served with a piquant plum and peanut dipping sauce. The mango salad—a fruity blend with apple, pineapple and red onions in a chili-lime dressing—is another favorite starter, as is the lemongrass- and lime-infused tom yum soup. Many entrées can be tailored to taste, not just for spiciness or main ingredient, but also with a choice of basil, garlic or ginger sauce and a vegetable mélange. Chicken rama, made with carrots and broccoli in a peanut sauce that’s sweet and spicy, is a house specialty.  Feeling adventurous? Grab a few friends and head to Mesob, where the food cries out for sharing. It arrives on a pizza-sized communal platter, to be eaten not with fork or spoon but with injera, the spongy flatbread that doubles as an eating implement in Ethiopia. Friendly waiters keep replenishing your supply as long as there’s food left to be scooped up. Order carefully here. My husband and I often ask for chicken and lamb tibs—marinated and sautéed with onions, garlic and jalapenos—prepared “between mild and medium,” but which is quite spicy. If you prefer food with little or no heat, select dishes marked “mild.” Each entrée comes with two sides. Misia wat (spicy lentils) and kik aletcha (yellow split peas) are among my favorites. 

Costanera, a Peruvian restaurant whose owner/chef, Juan Placenia, was born in Lima but moved here when he was a tot, is two doors away. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and everything I’ve eaten here—even the humble rotisserie chicken—has been top-notch. That said, fish and seafood take center stage. The restaurant features a raw bar and several ceviches, marinated in leche de tigre, the Peruvian name for the citrus and chili mix that cures the fish. But Placenia has a penchant for unexpected combinations, blending crab, ahi tuna and shrimp, for instance, in a single ceviche. Seafood entrees range from Asian-style shrimp to Peruvian seafood stew. Escabeche de pescado, pan-roasted cod with spiced pickled onions and yams, is my usual choice. Fried yuca, sweet plantains and quinoa salad, perked up with lime vinaigrette, almonds, tomatoes and the tartness of dried cranberries, are favorite sides. Dessert is a main event, too. The tres leches cake won’t disappoint, and the combinado classico blends the tastes of rice pudding and Peruvian purple corn pudding made with apricot, papaya and pineapple in a single parfait. 

If you love Paris—and who doesn’t?—save room for dessert at Le Petit Parisien. Crepes, salads and sandwiches are also served here, but the macarons, pastries and croissants create the biggest buzz. Macarons come in many flavors and hues, including raspberry, pistachio, blood orange and sour cherry. Little cakes and tarts are tempting, too. A strawberry passion fruit mousse cake, covered with tantalizing swirls and topped with a bit of chocolate wrapped in edible gold like a tiny treasure, catches my eye, but I order the flourless chocolate cake instead. 

Owners Limi Maldonado and Baptiste Chigot moved to Montclair directly from Paris, and the atmosphere here is as French as the pastries. “There are a lot of Francophiles in the area,” says Maldonado, “and they tell us they feel like they’re in Paris.” Indeed, anyone who has seen the lights of the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night and watches the blinking lights of the mini Eiffel Tower in Le Petit Parisien’s window can’t help but feel that way. 

BLOOMFIELD & CHURCH

There are dozens of exceptional restaurants in and around Montclair. These are some of my favorites on Bloomfield and Church. Call or check their web sites for days and hours.

 

on BLOOMFIELD AVE.

Ani Ramen House

401 Bloomfield Avenue 

973-744-3960 aniramen.com

 

Costanera

511 Bloomfield Avenue

973-337-8289

costaneranj.com

 

Fusion Empanada  

706 Bloomfield Avenue

973-707-7174

fusionempanada.com

 

Mediterranea

578 Bloomfield Avenue

973-744-1300

mediterraneanj.com

 

Mesob

515 Bloomfield Avenue

973-655-9000

mesobrestaurant.com

 

Spice II 

399 Bloomfield Avenue

973-509-2110

spiceii.net

 

Uncle Momo 

702 Bloomfield Avenue

973-233-9500

unclemomo.com

 

on CHURCH STREET

 

Fresco

15 Church Street 

973-337-8225 frescoonchurch.com

 

Le Petit Parisien

10 Church Street 

973-746-0288 lepetitparisienmontclair.com

 

Manny’s Diner

12 Church Street 

973-509-9600

mannysdiner.com

 

Mundo Vegan

20 Church Street 

973-744-5503 

mundovegannj.com

 

Raymond’s

28 Church Street 

973-744-9263

Raymondsnj.com

 

Scala del Nonna Ristorante 

32 Church Street 

973-744-3300

scalinifedeli.com/scaladelnonna

 

Simit House Bakery & Co.

2 Church Street

973-893-5970

simitlove.com

 

Just

“The duck mix in the little tacos enjoys a two-step dance with the broccoli pops that escape convention with that hint of chili  in the sesame sauce.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Just

Route 9 South, Old Bridge, next to the Emporium International Market

Phone: (732) 707.4800 

Open Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Prices: Soups and salads: $10 to $13. Starters:$10 to $13. Entrees: $22 to $38. Side dishes: $6. Desserts: $8 to $12. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. There is a serviceable wine list and a more creative cocktail list.

I am power-shopping at Emporium International Market, snagging a vacuum-packed, hot-smoked whole mackerel and asking the kindly woman behind the seafood counter to dole out a quarter-pound of caviar, which will cost me $10 and elevate the hors d’oeuvres at my next night’s dinner party from nice-enough to all-luxe. I’ve already had wrapped a pound of peppered slab bacon, which I’m cooking in my mind: Tiny dice, fry, remove bacon-nibs, add a huge amount of greens, sauté, top with the little bacon bits, eat.

I am snapped into the here-and-now by the members of my dine team. We’re booked for dinner at the restaurant next door and it is now post-time for chow time, they remind me. It’s 7:30. The Emporium is open ’til 9:30. I want to get back to finish my shopping; I feel as though I’ve only just tapped this market on Route 9 in Old Bridge with all manner of Eastern European foods and a distinct Russian accent. But dinner in two hours? Fat chance.

justrestauranrnj.com

Seven minutes late for our reservation, we spill over into Just, the singularly named spot that shares an address with the Emporium, and apologize profusely to the hostess. “I was shopping,” I start to say as the gal smiles and replies: “No problem. It happens all the time.” I bet it does. The owner of both the market and the restaurant, Igor Maller, is a native of the Ukraine who emigrated to New Jersey and, once upon a time, operated a club in Moscow. International is his way of life. Putting together the one-two punch of a market aimed at adventurous home cooks and a restaurant whose menu runs the global gamut is a no-brainer for the culinary juggernaut: Maller’s vision of geographical borders and boundaries is that they don’t exist. Unite, fuse, take ingredients to their natural conclusions, and prove that even if politicians can’t seem to bring about world peace, the big table of the world proves we all eat many, many of the same things, just in different guises.

justrestauranrnj.com

The conductor of Just’s culinary orchestra is chef Jonathan Vukusich, who reins in the far-reaching menu by believing in the taste-good factor. His food is approachable and, often, fun. He elevates comfort foods, street foods, iconic foods to date-night dine-out levels. He cares about deliciousness and design in equal proportions and executes his plates with panache. In the airy dining room that is often filled to the max, the vibe is merry and bright. It’s a happy scene.

We are happy to embark on a world tour with the starters. There’s a take on Tater Tots stuffed with shrimp, crab and a binder of mozzarella and goat cheeses. There’s a sesame-flecked tuile molded into a cone and filled with sushi-caliber tuna and wasabi’d tobiko. There are mini soft-shelled tacos plumped with Peking duck and shreds of cucumber and scallions, then swished with a citrusy, slightly sweet hoisin sauce. There’s broccoli fried Korean-style, then splashed with a heat-licked sesame sauce. Funny how the tuna cone, with its now-conventional forward-flavor Japanese accents plays off the soothing taste and texture of the seafood-cheese nuggets; intriguing how the duck mix in the little tacos enjoys a two-step dance with the broccoli pops that escape convention with that hint of chili in the sesame sauce.

justrestauranrnj.com

The kitchen also has fun with avocados, fashioning them into an Eastern Med-North African salad by torching, then plating them with chickpeas, nutty-tart pickled garlic and a burnt orange vinaigrette that achieves the kitchen’s goal of unification: Don’t count out the intrinsic flavor of an everyday orange to ratchet up the tastes of a creamy, mild avocado, earthy chickpeas and good old garlic. For it does…especially in this fired-up incarnation.

One of my personal favorite spices is sumac, the sour-tangy-tart red berry that is picked from a bush in the Middle East, dried and ground into a powder or flaked. Its inherent balance, not to mention vibrant color, makes it a fine choice when lemon won’t do. Here, at Just, sumac powers up shrimp and scallops that are served over couscous flecked with vegetables. A coconut curry sauce infused with tomato takes a shine to Chilean sea bass: The velvety curry is cut by the acid in the tomato, and the result is a balanced accent for the mild, yet rich fish. Hamachi sashimi, however, is overwhelmed by shiitakes and peppers sautéed in a sauce of coconut and ponzu that’s incongruously sweet. It was wrong for the fish.

The pork shank special, relatively tame in a brandied mushroom sauce, isn’t one of Just’s top-tier entrees, but the accompanying pork-fried orzo, with its smoky nibs, should be sold by the quart. Short ribs could be partnered with the broccoli app: The meat is slow-roasted in a Korean barbecue sauce and served with a super-smooth puree of potatoes that cozies up to salsify. Tasty stuff.

www.istock.com

Desserts follow suit here, meaning you’re not going to get simple or plain. An apple tart cosseted in puff pastry is given a condiment of its own in a honey-quince foam. Vanilla ice cream, too. The pastry’s a little thick, a little heavy, but the apple-honey/quince partnership is a natural. What do you get when you layer chocolate fudge, toasted meringue and a graham cracker custard? A S’mores crème brulee. Didn’t you earn that badge on a Scout camping trip, Skippy? You also can face-off with Oreo zeppoles, which you will either love or choose to ignore. The requisite uber-intense chocolate confection is dubbed “Mona Lisa,” and it’s a layered cake of dark chocolate mousse, ganache and whipped cream swirled with raspberry preserves. It’s more obvious that its sly-smile namesake.

As I figured, we’re at Just way past Emporium International Market’s closing bell. But that’s okay. I leave feeling as though the shopping prelude and the eating opera is exactly what this excursion to a tucked-away world is supposed to be about.  

justrestauranrnj.com

NEW TWIST 

Shortly after you are seated for dinner at Just, you will be served pretzel buns with honey-Dijon mustard butter. These are clever and addictive. The pretzel bun is much like a soft pretzel, and definitely on the Amish end of the soft pretzel spectrum. The butter, softened and speckled with mustard seeds, isn’t too sweet, but there’s a definite smack of honey.

You must slather the butter—in my case, in frosting-like proportion—onto the pretzel, eat and repeat. The repeating process is likely to, well, repeat itself.

My Chemical Bro-mance

A loving look at the science of wine.

By Mike Cohen

The wide appeal of wine encompasses devotees along a remarkably broad spectrum. From the ordained Court of Master Sommeliers to the masters of the supermarket special, wine has the capacity to leave an indelible imprint on the human mind. No wonder people like me can wax on endlessly about the aromas and flavors from our favorite gulp. To non-oenophiles, this may seem like so much inside baseball; they wonder, isn’t it enough that it tastes and smells good? Yes, of course it is. But that’s not what drives the wine industry, and certainly not what reaffirms our interest each and every time we open a bottle and drink the night away. Perhaps the better question is, “Is there any science behind this phenomenon?”

The answer is Yes. Indeed, chemistry has given us a whole new set of toys to play with to define what it is that we love so much about wine. 

FOLLOW YOUR NOSE

As we begin to nose (or smell) a wine, there are primary aromas from grapes, both fruity and floral. Secondarily, aromas arise from fermentation. These are called esters. In young wines, these esters impart pear and banana characteristics. If the wine has undergone malolactic fermentation (where the grape’s tart taste mellows to a softer-tasting lactic acid), battonnage (a stirring of dead yeast cells and other particles that remain in a wine after fermentation) and oaking (which adds aroma compounds to a wine) extracts enter the picture with creamy diacetyl and woody vanillin aromas. Finally, there are tertiary aromas from the aging process. Wines typically contain some dissolved oxygen, but if they are barrel-matured, they absorb additional oxygen. All this leads to what is considered beneficial oxygenation with the formation of aldehydes, creating that unique and hard-to-describe signature of a finely aged wine. 

Once in the bottle, maturation changes the volatile compounds. It’s basically an anaerobic process that reduces the oxygen content of the wine. Full-bodied reds need this maturation process to balance out the aromas and flavors that define this segment of the wine industry. Tertiary aromas are what take us away from simplistic descriptors of wine. 

We all know that guy who says something like, “I’m getting hints of saddle leather mixed with Havana cigar, woodland floor, and autumnal garden.” Well, that guy might actually be dead right. There happen to be over 400 wine odor compounds (many with catchy descriptions) that have been identified in small concentrations that pierce the olfactory threshold. Compounds in grapes that are precursors of wine flavors include free amino acids, phospholipids, glycolipids, aldehydes and phenols. Alkyl esters, a result of fermentation, are important compounds that give secondary aroma characteristics. Terpenes present in grapes are unchanged by fermentation and therefore contribute to primary aromas. Young wines made from grapes with a high terpene content include muscat, gewurztraminer and riesling. Their nose screams of primary fruit and show overt grape-like aromas. Other compounds unchanged by fermentation include the pronounced black currant or cassis aromas of cabernet sauvignon.

www.istockphoto.com

ON THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE

Relatively speaking, our ability to taste wine is almost a dead end. The tongue can only perceive four sensations: sweetness, bitterness, salty, and acidity. Yes, I know people argue there’s a fifth one, umami—aka a mouth full of soy sauce—but it’s not my thing, so let’s stick to what we do know.

Sweetness can be detected on the tip of the tongue but cannot be smelled. For example, muscat varieties have fragrant and aromatic nose qualities that are reminiscent of sweet table grapes, but the wine, when tasted, may be bone dry. Sweetness perceptions may also be found in higher alcohol levels, and when vanillin is present in oaked wines. Thus, a high-alcohol wine stored in barrel may actually taste sweeter than the actual level of residual sugar in the wine. A technique to understand this is pinching the nose while swirling a wine around the mouth to perceive it’s actual stimulation to the tip of the tongue. Also, the higher the acidity of the wine, the less sweet the wine will be, as acidity impacts the taster’s perception of sweetness.

Residual sweetness in wine is due to fructose, post-fermentation. White wines can contain between 0.4 to 300 grams/liter, while red wines fermented dry lie between 0.2 to 3 grams/liter. However, it is not unusual for New World reds to contain up to 8 grams/liter of sugar to soften any bitterness imparted by phenols. These would not be considered sweet red wines, but rather balanced.

Acidity, often considered the most critical aspect when it comes to tasting wine, is perceived on the sides of the tongue and cheeks as a sharp, lively, tingling sensation. All wines have it—whites greater than reds, cooler-climate wines more so than warmer climate wines. Sugar and acidity in wines are inversely related, so as one goes up the other must come down, and vice versa. The greatest acid present in wines is tartartic acid, although malic and citric acid account for some sizable concentrations. Other acids may be present, including acetic acid (aka vinegar). Acid has the ability to negate sweetness in a wine’s palate, and plays a huge role in dessert wines. 

Tannins, another compound found in grapes, also give tactile sensations in the mouth, making the teeth and gums feel furry and dry. They are often a key component in big red wines that offer what is called “grit” and complexity to the taste. Tannins are polyphenols taken primarily from grape skins, but also found in stalks, which impart a greener, harder nature, so whole-cluster wines will have this incorporated into the taste. Oak is another source of tannins, often a more subdued character with a more aromatic side to it. 

Tannins bind and precipitate proteins. This is why red wines match so well with meats and cheeses. This combination causes wines containing tannin to congeal into strings, or chains, thus changing our perception of the wine as it mixes with the food proteins. It is often assumed that white wines contain no tannin. This is untrue. They are there, but at lower levels than red wine. White wine is pressed pre-fermentation, and the solids are settled out. Unless there is any period of skin contact post-crush and pre-press, the phenolics in the skins will have a limited impact. Whole cluster pressing may make up some shortcomings on tannins, but typically it is oak aging that gives white wines their tannin character.

QUALITY NOTES

Nose and taste are just two of the components we consider when evaluating the quality of a wine. Also coming into play are flavor, balance and length and price. Quality will present itself as an unbroken line of attack on the senses. From the initial nose, followed by the first mouth sensation and then on to the finish, a quality wine will develop and change in the glass and gain complexity as it changes chemically. There will be a clear, individual personality about the wine that defines its origins and maintains this footprint through repeated tastings. This is the holy grail of wine quality. And quality can be further broken down into two areas of concentration: natural factors and production factors. 

For example, climate has a considerable influence on the quality of wines produced. Cooler regions may not fully ripen grapes and often are subject to considerable variability—producing wines of sometimes questionable quality. Grapes from these regions will produce lower sugar levels and higher acid levels than grapes in hotter climates. Red grapes from cool climates will have weak concentrations of compounds, green tannins and raging acidity. In these regions, chaptalization (adding sugar to boost alcohol content) and deacidification (the removal of wine acids prior to fermentation) are often used to make up for climatic shortcomings. Hot regions have their problems, as well. Grapes may ripen quickly, with high sugar levels, yet without time for sufficient flavor development—in essence getting burned out. Growers able to place vineyards in the ideal mix of warm and cool climates will obtain the best of both worlds. This favors flavor development and balance of sugars and acid. Climates that have a large diurnal variation also produce the same outcomes. 

The role played by soil cannot be understated in the quality of a wine. The most important characteristic is the ability to control water supply, either by holding or drainage. Quality wine is not produced from poorly drained vineyards. The texture of the soil will affect the vine’s ability to absorb water, nutrients and minerals, and can be altered by preparation and vineyard management techniques, such as the addition of gypsum. Compaction should be avoided to allow oxygenation of the soil. The pH of the soil must also be considered. Though it may seem counterintuitive, vines grown in high-acid soils will produce grapes with a lower acidity than those grown in a low-acid soil.

Soil and drainage also impact aromatics. Historically, it was believed that poor (low N) well-drained soils were best for growing wine grapes. However, recent research in Bordeaux indicates that a relatively high nitrogen content

will increase aromatics of varietals such as sauvignon blanc. Research at the University of Bordeaux has determined that top chateaux in and around Bordeaux have high percentages of acidic gravel and pebbles. These soils are naturally poor in nutrients and deficient in magnesium, due to high levels of potassium. This imbalance contributes to low vine vigor and yields. 

THE HUMAN FACTOR

I am a transplanted New Jerseyan who teaches a wine course at the College of Charleston, and you just got the chemistry and geology overview. There’s also a “people part” of the class, and it’s just as important to master. Over the millennia, the human species has vastly diminished its smell world. We’ve traded our olfactory acuity for enhanced color vision. DNA coding for olfactory proteins are no longer important for humans, as this sense—as well as taste—are largely restricted to food choices. Our senses are bombarded constantly by a mass of information and it is the higher brain functions that extract from this sea of data the features we wish to zero in on. This is called higher order processing. 

Think of all the aromas that bombard your senses from a glass of wine. How do we process this and come to our simplistic descriptors of wine? Flavor processing incorporates smell and taste to identify nutritious foods and drinks, and to protect us from eating things that are bad for us. Flavor processing is tied to memory and emotion. We remember the way a great cabernet smells and we like the pleasing taste. Neurologically speaking, the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain transforms taste and smell and forms the sensation of flavor. Add in touch and vision and now we have a complex unified sensation that the brain tells us is a nice, hedonistic experience.  

Remember the old slogan Better Living Through Chemistry?In my book, that’s what a great bottle of wine is all about. 

www.istockphoto.com

STRESS TEST

Vines, like people, work best under stress. Growers have no control over rainfall, but they do over irrigation. Many growers practice deficit irrigation. Neutron probes are inserted into the soil to indicate when water is required. Stressing the vines causes the roots to synthesize abscisic acid (a kind of plant hormone), sending this to the leaves and deceiving them into reacting as though there are drought conditions. Shoot growth stops and all energy goes into ripening the fruit.  Moderate water deficit can double or triple the concentration of the precursors of the varietal thiols that are released during fermentation. Timing of stress is also critical. It is beneficial for sauvignon not to be stressed, especially if pyrazine aromas are desired in the wine. Unstressed cabernet sauvignon also produces very pyrazine-dominated wines.

 

Source of Pride

Where on earth do you get this stuff?

By Andy Clurfeld

Courtesy of Razza

Dan Richer, the multiple James Beard Award-nominated chef at Razza Pizza Artigianale on Grove Street in Jersey City, may have skipped his graduation ceremony at Rutgers to go to Italy, but he’s been the university’s biggest booster as a restaurateur. You’ve heard of Richer’s renown Project Hazlenut Pizza? No? Well, look it up on The New York Times web site and understand why the newspaper’s restaurant critic Pete Wells gave Razza a three-star review in 2017. The background according to Richer: Before the 1900s, the hazelnut tree was prevalent in New Jersey. Disease wiped it out. Oregon became the hazelnut capital of America. But, with hazelnuts in demand, a worldwide shortage ensued. Enter Rutgers, with its prominent school of agriculture and Dr. Thomas Molner, the head breeder of what soon would be known as Rutgers Project Hazelnut. Molner and his crew worked, and worked hard, to revive the hazelnut in New Jersey. What they produced, Richer supported – by purchasing the crop. He made—of all things—a pizza of hazelnuts. A pizza! Who knew? “The Project Hazelnut Pizza has hazelnuts, a little fresh mozzarella and ricotta and a few drops of local honey,” Richer says. It’s brilliant. Unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. And pure Garden State. “Now there are more than 10,000 hazelnut trees in New Jersey under Rutgers’ supervision.”

Travel down Ryders Lane in the New Brunswick-Millstone environs and take them in. Extraordinary. And it’s thanks to a famous chef that the hazelnut, Dr. Molner and Rutgers are getting their due.

Who are the other farmers and food artisans Richer relies on to keep Razza riding high?

“My neighbors at Cedar Hill Farm, on Red Hill Road in Middletown, Agnes deFelice and her son Gary deFelice,” Richer says. The deFelices grow strawberries on their farm for Razza and, during that precious three-week season in spring, Richer picks them up on his way to the restaurant and takes in the aromas of still-warm-from-the-sun strawberries all the way from Middletown to Jersey City. “On Day One, we do strawberry salad. Day Two, we have to put them in the fridge, so we make strawberry jam or a topping for dessert. I just guarantee Agnes and Gary that I’ll buy whatever they pick. It’s worth it. The season is so short. I just pray they don’t sell their land to developers.”

What and who are the favorites of other restaurateurs and chefs?

Mark Pascal & Francis Schott • Owners • Stage Left Steak and Catherine Lombardi • New Brunswick

“Dreyer Farms in Cranford is a seven-acre farm in an area that has become surrounded entirely by suburb. Family-run for generations, they have a great farm market for consumers and they also work well with restaurants, letting us know what is coming in and making sure we are able to take advantage of it.

“Mike Baker is a lawyer first and a farmer second. He owns 4½ acres in East Brunswick, and basically grows us whatever we ask for. We have a meeting every year at the end of winter and decide what the plantings will be for the coming year. He supplies the lion’s share of our heirloom tomatoes—also a tremendous amount of herbs that we use.”

Courtesy of Common Lot

Ehren Ryan • Chef-Owner • Common Lot • Millburn

“We use a few local farmers for very specific items and they are all very seasonal. We love what they produce—in season. First is Malcolm Salovaara, of PK’s Four Brothers Farm in Bernardsville. This is a family-based farm who raise mainly pigs and chickens. The chickens are some of the best I have eaten anywhere. They are very seasonally driven, so the chicken season is from around April to October. We use the chickens with ramps, morels, spring items that bode well with the flavor of their chickens.

“Second is Dan Liplow, [who operates] the Foraged Feast, all over New Jersey. Dan is our forager and mushroom guy. During spring, summer and fall, Dan will search out interesting ingredients for us to test in our dishes. He brings sassafras for us to use, which we turn into root beer. Wild garlic roots, wild watercress. He also brings us black current wood for oils. During the winter months he has access to cultivated mushrooms that are by far are the best-tasting mushrooms.

“Third is Colleen Gilmore, of Buds and Blooms in West Milford. Colleen has a small farm that supplies us with all different types of herbs, edible flowers, small heirloom tomatoes and other little items. We sit down and chat about what can she grow for us—bronze fennel, Thai basil flowers, chive flowers, etc. The quality of the herbs and flowers is second to none. So pungent, so much flavor, and they look so bright.”

Courtesy of Osteria Radici

Randy Forrester • Chef-Owner Osteria Radici • Allentown

“We use Korean grapes and pears from Evergreen Orchard Farm in Yardville. We compress the pears with stracciatella from Italy and preserve the grapes for our semifreddo. We use potatoes and cabbages from New Sung Sang farm in Millstone. We hay-smoke both the cabbage on a pork dish and purée the potatoes as a thickening agent in spaghetti, with mussels.”

Bruce Lefebvre • Chef-Owner The Frog and the Peach • New Brunswick

“We love Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley. The owner and cheesemaker is Eran Wajswol. (Valley Shepherd) has more than 500 sheep, 100 goats and 50 cows. Eran uses traditional European methods to produce many kinds of cheeses from grazed animals’ milk. They milk the female ewes on their unique rotary milking carousel, which you can see firsthand by taking one of their tours in spring. They also age the cheese in a hillside cave. We have used so many of their cheeses over the years, including Oldwick Shepherd, Crema de Blue, More Beer, Oldwick Shepherd, Nettlesome and Carameaway. Valley Shepherd Creamery also has a shop that is open to the public.”

Shanti Church Mignogna • Co-Owner Modine and Talula’s • Asbury Park

“We get fresh greens year-round from Lew at Thompson Family Farm. He grows beautiful hydroponic greens right in Wall, which is like 10 minutes away from our restaurants. A few years ago, we asked him to put together a mix with tatsoi and mustard frills for Talula’s and I’m pretty sure his ‘Asian mix’ is one of his best-sellers now. It’s always awesome when farmers are willing to grow specific things you ask them for.

“At Modine, we have put a lot of thought into our meat program. Our chef Chris is a skilled butcher, so we have the ability to source larger cuts of meat and break them down ourselves. He’s been working with Fossil Farms since opening. All of our eggs, beef and pork comes from them. We get whole Berkshire and Duroc pigs that are pasture-raised, completely naturally, which means without hormones or antibiotics. It’s pretty cool that our meat is completely traceable and comes from less than 100 miles away. Also at Modine, we love getting the freshest, most delicious local oysters from our good friends at Barnegat Oyster Collective! It’s a family-run business and they represent 12 local shellfish growers in the Greater Barnegat Area. You can always find their oysters on our menu, either raw with a seasonal granita and/or broiled with chipotle bourbon butter.”

(Shanti quotes oyster-grower Sarafina Mugavero of Forty North Oyster, who says: “The number of oyster-growers has grown just in the past few years because more restaurants and retailers are supporting a burgeoning local agriculture industry.”)

Courtesy of A Toute Heure

AJ Capella • Executive Chef A Toute Heure • Cranford

“I use a lot of farms. I think it’s important to support the community you live in as well as small businesses. I extend that theory to other purveyors, not just farmers. [I use] Breadsmith in Cranford and Dan Lipow’s Foraged Feast. Roamin’ Acres in Lafayette raises Berkshire pigs, and one of the products they do is prosciutto. Cured in the same way prosciutto in Italy is treated, salt-cured for 18 months. I have eaten many prosciuttos and cured hams, and the flavor of this one is remarkable. The color is vibrant red, the fat is pure white, and there’s a slight crispiness to it. It is hands-down my favorite cured ham.

“It’s funny how the food world in NJ is seemingly large but, in reality, quite small. Everybody knows everybody.”

Somos

“Chef Juan Placencia has branched out from his cozy Peruvian restaurant Costanera in Montclair to open this self-styled Pan Latin beauty.” 

By Andy Clurfeld 

Midway through the cachapa at Somos, I’m realizing it is the ultimate every-meal food. A corn pancake that’s more flavorful than those based on wheat, it’s not in need of a blast of sweet nor a slather of dairy to entice. It requires no wake-up call from a caffeinated beverage to wash it down nor a counterpoint of anything chilled to stimulate the taste buds. Its inherent sweetness is mitigated by starch, balanced by moisture and toyed with by a chef who understands its potential intuitively and by virtue of practice. 

All photos courtesy of Somos

This cachapa, a homey number that spans all but the rim of a white dinner plate, is topped with a warming stew of leeks and mushrooms punctuated by pops of corn kernels and given a quick flourish of cilantro and cojita. The crowning glory? Tangy tomato jam, plopped not so much artfully as purposefully in the shape of rough quenelles atop the whole thing. The ensemble has a charming peasant-y quality to it, and its potential as breakfast, lunch or dinner makes me happy chef Juan Placencia has branched out from his cozy Peruvian restaurant Costanera in Montclair to open this self-styled Pan Latin beauty in North Arlington. 

Somos is large. You enter to a posh tavern of a space that shows how architect-designer Michael Groth likes playing with geometric shapes as much as Placencia likes stretching the parameters of traditional ingredients and classic dishes. Banquettes make little rooms out of a cluster of four round tables set for two. Semi-circular high-tops align to form the outline of another, larger circle. Chairs with short backs belly up to a bar softly lit from both the floor and the underside of the counter. There are arches as doorways and shelving and also as ornament and decor. You segue to a dining area that’s far less dramatic, set with light wood tables and chairs and lighting that’s not about creating a scene. That’s the purview of the food. 

You can eat the cachapa all night, if you’d like, or you can pry chunks of black bass from slivers of red onion in a ceviche that’s brightened by a vivid soup of tomatillo flecked with nibs of avocado, snips of cilantro and the suspicion of chilies. Grab the tortilla crisps angled on top to scoop up the tomatillo broth—or ask your server for a sauce spoon. The ahi tuna ceviche is richer and more spirited, with its base of coconut milk plied with rocoto and lime. In this one, use the strips of fried plantain to sop up the sauce. I couldn’t ask you to leave behind the chicharron de pescado for the chicken-filled croquettas: The silky cod crusted in quinoa and topped by both a chop of tomato salsa and an aioli infused with sweet piquillo peppers is a terrific table partner for the pert fritters deftly fried and synched to the tune of aji amarillo chile peppers. 

Though little at Somos weighs in as heavy in the startertapas round, working a couple of salads into your meal is all-around wise. I think Placencia’s warm quinoa salad ranks as the standard by which all other main-dish tosses should be judged: It’s served slightly warm and the elements that mingle with the tiny seeds—kabocha, Bartlett pear, Brussels sprouts, chorizo, tomatillo— are either chopped or crumbled so as not to overwhelm the focus of the salad. The signature Somos salad starts with large leaves of Bibb lettuce and tops them with a haystack of spiralized carrots and onions, as well as avocado and, yup, more quinoa. The best part of this one? A vigorous sofrito vinaigrette that lifts familiar ingredients. 

If you wish, you can stop here, with a full slate of small plates that will evolve and change with the seasons and the desires of Placencia and his chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero. The main courses are scaled back in quantity and also achievement. Peruvian pot roast is shredded and served with wide noodles in a spare sauce of tomato, carrot and even green peas. Chicken is roasted with achiote, plopped on mashed potatoes and a messy splay of limp jicama slaw dressed in something that gave it a garish magenta glow. Branzino, grilled with little seasoning, was a snooze alongside yuca fries with far less personality than mainstream French fries, plain white rice and a metal ramekin of bland pico de gallo. The patatas bravas, which we paid for as an extra side, needed more of the good romesco aioli. But they had flavor.

Don’t expect the pineapple tres leches to look like any tres leches you know: Here, it’s served as a layered parfait in a clear, tall glass, with a zippy coconut-rum sauce and chunks of passionfruit laced within—and a toasted mashmallow-y substance on top. My dining companions really liked it, as well as the squash doughnuts drizzled with a cinnamon-streaked fig relish. Me? I could’ve returned to bliss with the cachapa.

For when you find that one-in-a-million dish that does it all, you stick with it

Behind the Scenes at Somos

Juan Placencia is a bona fide star chef in New Jersey. Born in Lima, Peru, he came to the United States as a toddler and got his first whiffs of the restaurant life at the places his parents owned and operated. If you know Oh! Calamares, now in Kearny, you know where Placencia got his start. He went to culinary school and then, in the early aughts, worked at top restaurants in Manhattan, including Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. Before opening his own restaurant, he did turns at Gotham Bar & Grill and Del Posto, to learn more about the operational side of things. In 2010, he opened the BYOB Costanera in Montclair. Somos opened in the late fall of 2018. The chef’s team includes chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero; the architect-designer Michael Groth; general manager Brian Bode; and beverage consultant Rachael Robbins. They are the “we are” at Somos—which translates as just that.

SOMOS

185 River Road, North Arlington 

Phone: (201) 621.0299 • somosnj.com 

Open weekdays, except Tuesdays, for dinner; open Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards and reservations accepted. Prices: Tapas and starters: $7 to $14. Main dishes: $17 to $27. Sides: $4 to $5. Desserts: $8 to $9. There’s a cocktail list ($11); glasses ($8) and pitchers ($26) of sangria; wines by the glass and bottle; and beers on draft and by the bottle.

Storied Arc

Outstanding in the Field Returns to Riverine.

By Andy Clurfeld

Chef David Viana looked quite at home where the buffalo were roaming, on the plains of Warren County where Riverine Ranch sprawls across 62 verdant acres in a hamlet known as Asbury. Viana and his crew from Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge were working under a tented outdoor kitchen and on grills set up astride the bustling space as ranch owners Courtney and Brian Foley gave tours of Riverine, introducing some of the 150-odd buffalo and their products—meats, cheeses, yogurt, butter—to 250 guests who had journeyed from all parts of New Jersey, plus New York and Pennsylvania, to take part in the ultimate in farm-to-table dining: the national Outstanding in the Field (OITF) program.

Viana, himself a nationally recognized chef who this year was nominated for a coveted James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region—and the Foleys, a teacher and an electrician originally from Queens (who in 2004 moved to Washington Township in Warren to farm)—were anointed by the Outstanding in the Field hierarchy as worthy of hosting a dinner. This is a big deal.

OITF, founded by Jim Denevan in 1999 as a “traveling celebration of people and place and the origins of good food,” had stopped in New Jersey once before, last year, at Riverine. Folks had such a good time at the buffalo farm, OITF decided to come back. The Foleys reached out to Viana, who brought his Heirloom crew (Sean Yan, Kendall Szpakowski, Katherine “Kat” Norat, Rob Santello and owner Neilly Robinson) to the farm to do what they do best: Make the most out of from-the-farm ingredients. The 250 diners were waiting—and had been since seats to the long table set in the signature OITF arc had gone on sale the first day of spring last March, and sold out shortly after. It’s a competitive sport, acquiring OITF dinner reservations; there are those who follow the flow of the transcontinental dinner party as it serves forth starting in the early part of the spring in the warmer climates and continues through fall, touching down in colder parts of the country. Demand is such that, after a break for the OITF home team during the holidays, there’s now a winter session of dinners in the warmest parts of the country. 

After cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres, after sampling Riverine’s extraordinary buffalo milk cheeses and visiting the cave where some cheeses are aged, the congregation segued to the arc’d table and took a peek at the chefs. There was Viana (above), turning hunks of buffalo over on a charcoal grill, while his team prepped platters of Riverine buffalo tartare served with crusty toasts of bread from his pals at Talula’s in the “other Asbury” (Asbury Park, that is, down the Shore). They’d amped up the opening round served at table with pickled vegetables from Hauser Hill, a farm based in Old Bridge, and cornbread and corn butter from Thompson Family Farm in Wall. A salad of tomatoes from Hauser and buffalo mozzarella from Riverine came with microgreens, while gnocchi made with smoked Riverine buffalo ricotta took a liking to condiments constructed with Hauser carrots, onion and apple. It’s all served family style, with guests and their new best friends quickly settling in at the table. On this night, buffalo roast was carved and plated with chimichurri, polenta and corn, and a suitable finale of roasted pepita pavlova came with Forbidden Rice meringue laced with Riverine buffalo milk. “It’s a pretty big undertaking,” Viana says, noting that it takes a good week to prep and cook outdoors for the huge crowd. “It’s not easy to cook for 250 on a charcoal grill! But we’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s all about people coming together at the table…there’s an energy that’s palpable.”

Courtney and Brian Foley (left)

For Courtney and Brian Foley (left), it was a “fantastic opportunity to work with the people from Heirloom Kitchen.” And, adds Brian, a chance as well to share our “passion for water  buffalo.”

In the lead-up, the Foleys hosted Viana and his crew at Riverine, giving them tastes of the various buffalo meat and dairy products and sending them home with samples. The chefs then worked up a menu for the OITF dinner in conjunction with farms and artisans Viana often works with at his restaurant. After that, “we just straightened up the farm a bit,” Courtney says with a laugh. “Our buffalo are very friendly and very photogenic.” Top that off with delicious from-the-farm fare and you’ve got a dinner for the ages.

 

Simply Outstanding

  • Riverine Ranch is located at 247 Cemetery Hill Road in the Asbury section of Washington Township. The Foleys sell their products out of a store on the farm, which is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. For information, call (908) 319-3356 or visit riverineranch.com.
  • Heirloom Kitchen is located at 3856 Route 516 in Old Bridge. For information and reservations to its dinners and cooking classes, call (732) 727-9444 or visit heirloomkitchen.com.
  • Outstanding in the Field’s dinners can be tracked on its Web site, which also offers links for reservations: outstandinginthefield.com.

 

Heirloom Kitchen

“Duck is Viana’s signature dish, and no matter the micro-season, he works what’s fresh and what’s purposeful into his nightly duck program.” 

By Andy Clurfeld

When it comes to people with one-of-a-kind voices, New Jersey has given birth, or a place to work and live, or prominence to more than its share of singular talents.

Think Sinatra. Springsteen, of course —now a newly minted Broadway star. Count Basie, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Sarah Vaughn, and Patti Smith. Then there are Einstein and Edison; Yogi Berra and Derek Jeter; Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells. And also Annie Oakley, Shaq, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Philip Roth and John McPhee, all peerless in their respective fields.

Now consider that Alice Waters, impresario of the ground-breaking Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, founder of the Edible Schoolyard initiatives and modern-day instigator of eating local and organic food, is from Chatham.

Yes, Alice Waters, whose influence on what and how we eat today is comparable to The Beatles’ influence on rock, is Jersey born and raised.

Time to take your medicine, Garden State denizens. Time to toss to the curb the cliches of New Jersey’s mass-produced culinary past promulgated by those intent on keeping original voices at bay while promoting the same old pizza and pork roll places, the overstuffed hoagies and subs and leaden bagels, as well as the ‘dogs, doughnuts and diners that give credence to out-of-town critics’ rants.

For there’s a new breed of chefs in New Jersey, and they are skilled, savvy and seeing things clearly now.

Leading the way are nationally regarded chefs, such as Dan Richer of Razza in Jersey City; Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, and Drew Araneo of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, as well as critically acclaimed voices with relatively new restaurants that include Ehren Ryan of Common Lot in Millburn; Greg Vassos of Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell; and Randy Forrester of Osteria Radici in Allentown.

Factor in the wealth of ethnic restaurants that reflects the vibrant cultures and communities rooted in this, one of America’s most diverse states, adding both talent and a gastronomy that extends to all parts of the globe, and you have a collective table that groans glorious. It’s a simple mix of good ingredients and good people.

Photography courtesy of Heirloom Kitchen

It’s just what the doctor ordered as a prescription for eating in 2018.

David Viana, now chef-partner at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, could be the poster child for the vanguard born out of old guard.

He is Portuguese, raised in the traditions of the table, and took in the ways of professional cooking at some of the best restaurants in Europe, New York and New Jersey. Anthony Bucco, executive chef at the empire that is Crystal Springs Resorts in Sussex County, lauds Viana as the “most talented, gifted chef” he’s worked within a pro kitchen. Visionary chefs including Vassos and Ryan are honored to be part of collaborative dinners with Viana; young chefs, notably Jon Boot, now at Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station, and Sean Yan, current pastry chef and assistant to Viana at Heirloom, are inspired by his food. 

Because it’s unlike any other.

I’ve eaten a half-dozen dinners in as many months that either Viana created or collaborated on and find his voice to be, at present, the most original in the Garden State.

Viana starts with a main ingredient as his inspiration, be it duck or spring peas, apples or porcinis, scallops or cauliflower, and builds from there. His accents challenge and enlighten, yet they stop shy of being fussy. They are always artfully applied.

Photography courtesy of Heirloom Kitchen

Art on a plate scares me. I’ve seen and tasted too much artifice. Viana’s washes, pin-dots, and arcs of sauce, spears of vegetable, frothy poofs of concentrated herb and ringlets of leafy things never do anything but enhance the main element. The “art” supports, and shows, Viana’s control over a plate.

I’ve watched Viana in his open kitchen at Heirloom Kitchen—which is a restaurant three nights a week and a classroom other evenings—break down a duck: butcher the duck, score its fat, prep it till it’s ready to be called upon for a precise 40-minute stove-top sear that will star in a seasonal preparation. In the space of a few weeks late last year, there were two of note: johnnycakes and oatmeal, persimmon and delicata squash and a rush of pomegranate on a regular-dinner night in early December at Heirloom, and one with herbed wheat berries and granola, parsnips and date puree, coffee and pecans, and the unmistakable umami of maitakes with a squirt of duck jus at the venerable James Beard House in New York, where Viana was invited to cook dinner days before Christmas.

Duck is Viana’s signature dish, and no matter the micro season, he works what’s fresh and what’s purposeful into his nightly program. Viana’s regulars might have duck every month at Heirloom, without duplication. 

They also might have pork belly with a bacon marmalade and loops of Vietnamese caramel, the richness of which is offset by thick-cut half-moons of celery and salty peanuts. They might have pork-smoked apple raviolo and come across on the plate a bacon-pine nut crumble there expressly to play off the pasta pockets with a slyly silky texture—as well as pivots of delicata squash and sweet potato and a splash of mustardy jus. 

Scallops in cold weather will be appropriately accompanied by dug-up vegetables such as fingerling potatoes and carrots, both of which are roasted and—with the scallops —given a choice of playmates: almond-mint pesto, chestnut puree, and lemon-brown butter emulsion. The accent editing is pitch-perfect. Likewise, halibut will see kohlrabi smoked and pureed, chanterelles gently warmed, an egg yolk scented with truffle and mustard seeds pickled to give them added depth and a defiant edginess that the mild, dense, meaty fish appreciates.

Viana rises to the challenge of sides: Cauliflower gets a sultry-snappy lift from pomegranate molasses and mint pesto; kale is laced with duck confit and topped with a fried egg; Brussels sprouts are plied with a gastrique that bristles with mustard and then all’s calmed by the inherent sweetness of butter infused with, of all things, parsnip. You have to think: Sides? These are sides? They could comfort and cosset and fill in a bowl by themselves, eaten on a couch. Yes, they could. But they appear on Viana’s Heirloom menu, to be passed family-style at the table or counter, depending on where you sit.

If you are at Heirloom Kitchen, which is owned by Neilly Robinson, you will be seated (depending on your choice and the availability) at the chef’s counter, facing the stoves at which Viana cooks. A row back, there is another counter, also with a “view,” but without the same opportunity to watch, and converse with, the chef. Then there are tables of the regular dining-out sort—two-tops and four-tops, and a larger one for parties of perhaps 10.

I’m not forgetting dessert, made by Sean Yan to suit the Viana style. Lemongrass mousse, for instance, is backed by gingerbread and plated with white chocolate that’s been roasted and mint that’s been pulverized to the texture of dust. There’s the suspicion of bourbon in the mix, and a whiff of Asian pear.

But don’t count on repeats of anything you read here right now. In the world of a singular voice such as David Viana, yesterday is history to learn from, today provides a chance for change, and tomorrow is the opportunity to play out a dream deemed a privilege to share.

New Jersey, after all, thrives on its one-of-a-kinds

Heirloom Kitchen

3853 Route 516, Old Bridge • Phone: (732) 727.9444

Major credit cards accepted. Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for dinner and, generally, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings for cooking classes. Menus change weekly and special collaborative dinners are planned seasonally. Visit www.heirloomkitchen.com to view schedules for classes as well as current menus. Reservations are required, and tables book early. Heirloom is a BYOB, but offers a small selection of wines from Domenica Winery for purchase on site.

 

DePesca

“DaPesca brings honor to New Jersey’s fishes and fishing industry and fills a void in fine dining…created by restaurateurs and chefs who have failed to place local fishes on a proper pedestal.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Set back from the main drag of Morristown is the old Vail Mansion, a formidable structure that could, and once did, house any number of governmental offices in this, the county seat of Morris. Instead, it is home to four distinctive eating-and drinking entities that have, under its reinvention as Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, become the dining-out headquarters in north-of-the-Raritan New Jersey for the tuned-in, private jet, chef’s-on-a-night-off, wine geek and raw-bar-loving sets. Translation: It’s the high-style crowd’s home away from home.

Christopher Cannon, late of the New York City restaurant scene, where he won James Beard Awards for Marea and L’Impero, came to New Jersey by way of marriage. Becky, his wife, grew up in North Jersey and knew it was ready for a visionary. Chris Cannon is a visionary.

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

For a time, Cannon was a visionary without a place to practice his progressive restaurant ways. A bitter divorce from his New York restaurant partners left him without dining rooms and bars to pour the artisan, quirky, impossible-to-find wines he was known for—and without a constant stream of fans looking to partake in the latest “Cannonball” blind wine-tastings. So the Cannons and their kids moved to Becky’s home state, and Chris Cannon started looking around for the perfect place to create a public space. Hey, why not a circa-1917 mansion on South Street in Morristown? What might intimidate most only inspires an industry veteran who appears to live by the motto, “If something’s easy, how can it be fun?”

Three years ago, Jockey Hollow became The Oyster Bar, which rocks nearly nonstop with pristine raw fishes, charcuterie, and plates small and large; The Vail Bar, a speakeasy-style hideaway where the go-getters and the glamorous convene over cocktails and fine fare; the Rathskeller, the basement beer hall-private events space that used to serve as Morristown’s very own jail and now hauls ‘em in for live music and top-tier craft brews to wash down German grub; and, upstairs, a somehow-intimate 70-seat fine-dining space.

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

You can explore the bars at your leisure. Right now, we’re talking about that upstairs restaurant-within-a-restaurant that the father of reinvention himself reimagined this winter as DaPesca.

DaPesca brings honor to New Jersey’s fishes and fishing industry and fills a void in fine dining that, inexplicably, in our state bordered by 130 miles of ocean, not to mention rivers and bays and myriad and many lakes has been created by restaurateurs and chefs who have failed to place local fishes on a proper pedestal. Cannon was bothered by this. Having recently acquired a chef as formidable as the mansion turned- restaurant itself—Craig Polignano, ex-Ryland Inn, among other high-end restaurants—to take charge of all things food at Jockey Hollow, and having developed an association with Eric Morris, founder and owner of Local 130, the New Jersey seafood specialist, Cannon was ready to shame the gun-shy of the Garden State. DaPesca does just that.

Sourcing primarily from Local 130, as well as Forty North Oysters, the Barnegat Oyster Collective and Sona-Far Hills Seafood, DaPesca names on its ever-changing menus the boats and their captains who fish off our coastlines and make possible what Polignano and his kitchen crew create. 

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

If you eat at DaPesca regularly, captains such as Jim Lovgren and Eric Myklebust might become your guidestars for how to order.

There really is no better way.

For the Barnegat clams, sparked by a wispy ring of Calabrian chile, and the local oysters, with their slurpy salinity and ping of minerality, pave the way to a Spanish mackerel crudo set atop a tangle of cucumber strands spliced with puffed rice and scented with the penetrating power of yuzu. That intense citrus tames the mackerel, probably my favorite fish on the planet, and infuses the toasty puffed rice scattered about with unexpected freshness. The dish shows how inspiration can take hold. You’ll find the calamari á la plancha a revelation, especially if you’ve been eating the same-old, same-old renditions for a generation or so. Here, the local stuff isn’t fried and sent out to pasture with tomato sauce, but given an Asian twist with tamarind and noodles of papaya, Balinese peppers, and peanuts that act as so much more than a give-away garnish. I learned something new about calamari’s versatility in every bite. Our local tuna, too, took a spiritual trip to the Far East when Polignano chose to plate it in a pho-style broth scented with Thai basil and popping with crunchy sprouted mung beans. Polignano and Cannon readily admit pledging allegiance to the flag of Italy, culinary religion in New Jersey, after all. Which brings us to the pasta-risotto portion of the menu: Don’t pass by the “little hats” of pasta—cappellacci stuffed with nuggets of braised pork—that are set in a rich shellfish broth with little clams spurting big juices. Those curious counterpoints to the clam-pork duet? Beech mushrooms. They sop it all up. Meanwhile, the pinched logs of dostalini stuffed with the buttery-tangy Piedmontese cheese castelrosso take to a saucy combo of orange and puntarella, a hopped-up chicory, along with a side crumble of pistachios; and the risotto is positively daring, what with crab dancing with almost-sweet Meyer lemon and a verdant, rough chop of seaweed pesto working pine nuts not ground into the mix, but left whole and therefore more forceful. You know skate wing, right? Well, be prepared for something completely different here, as Polignano turns it on its ear. It’s twirled into something that looks like a mini muffin and partnered not just with the classic caper-butter duo, but with an Italianate twist of roasted cauliflower and grapes. This silky-textured, mild fish always tastes ever so slightly nutty to me. Well, darned if the chef doesn’t give his skate a flourish of hazelnuts at the finish. Bingo. Dayboat scallops are done simply and right here, with a slaw-like base of celery root and apple, cubes of potato and mysterious notes of black truffle that appear when least expected. The best lobster dish I’ve ever had in New Jersey is Polignano’s butter-poached lobster, which yins against the yang of translucent curls of fennel and threads of tarragon. But it’s the frothy bouillabaisse cream that did me in: How boffo is the rich-on-rich marriage of lobster and shellfish bubbles?

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

Not everything at DaPesca is divinity of the sea. I don’t get the need to wrap monkfish in prosciutto like the minions do, especially when sidemen include olives and sausage that only add to the oversalted taste of the dish. I also hope the squid ink gnocchi, with more squid on the plate, is nixed by now since it was mushy in texture and muddy of flavor. Desserts, too, need work: I’m not a fan of oversize anything, but the two cubes of lackluster carrot cake with a two-bite torpedo of mascarpone ice cream ain’t worth $4, let alone $14, and the trio of sorbets—blood orange, cranberry, and Meyer lemon—had awkward shards of ice within.

Next time, I’ll nab another round of the butter-poached lobster and see if I can get an extra bowl of that bouillabaisse froth. I’ll bring fish-shunners to sit at my table so I can order extras of the calamari and skate and mackerel and dive into their plates without competition. I’ve been looking for a big-ticket seafood joint like this for decades. DaPesca is where my odyssey ends.

NEW JERSEY’S BEST WINE LIST?

Chris Cannon may be over-the-moon about Jersey’s fishes, a fanatic about forging relationships with Garden State farmers and fascinated with the history of his newly adopted state, but there’s nothing more he loves than wine. Unless it’s the collection of eyeglass frames he’s amassed with a fervor that could be described as manic. But that’s a story for another issue of Edge. Cannon has the most idiosyncratically desirable wine list I know, a list that you’re given to scan on an iPad as you are seated, but really deserves a conducted class by itself on a day when Jockey Hollow is otherwise closed. Think a library-style, hushed opportunity to sit and read, and re-read a list that seems like it cannot be real. But it’s a list he’s been working on most of his adult life, establishing connections with importers, distributors, and winemakers, forging relationships with wine names major and utterly obscure. Frankly, Cannon’s tastes tilt to the obscure.

But his prices lean friendly. The centerpiece of his wine program is an evolving, always-changing list of “60 Under $60.” It’s a treasure trove of wines you never thought you’d be able to try, of grapes you’ve never heard of from winemaking regions that have no beaten paths, of styles that will teach you how to pair wine with food once and for all. Cannon and his floor crew love talking wine at the table with their guests, and they love sharing their latest finds. If you’re so inclined, give a call to arrange a “Cannonball” wine adventure, in which the wine maestro himself will pour—blind—wines largely from this “60 Under $60” list and guide you through the tasting. The Cannonball experience takes place on Fridays.

No matter where you dine at Jockey Hollow, you can take advantage of New Jersey’s best wine list.

DaPesca

At Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen • 110 South Street, Morristown • Phone: (973) 644.3180

Reservations accepted and recommended; major credit cards. Open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from5 to 10:30 p.m. A four-course tasting menu is $86, while a seasonal six-course tasting to be ordered by the entire table is $116. (With wine pairings, the six-course menu is $190.)

A la carte service is available at DaPesca except on Saturdays when only the tasting menus are served. For more information, visit www.jockeyhollowbarandkitchen.com.

 

A Matter of Taste

In pursuit of the American Dream, immigrant cultures are reshaping New Jersey’s foodscape.

By Andy Clurfeld

From “America” by Simon & Garfunkel
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

Drive the Turnpike in 2018, 50 years after “America” was released by the poet-rocker duo, and you’ll find today’s America at every exit. Its sister thoroughfare, the Garden State Parkway, offers the same people-scape at every exit ramp as well. Cross-hatch the ’Pike and the Parkway with major roadways such as Interstate 80, 195 and the Atlantic City Expressway, and you’ll find jump-off points that lead to people, places and things of incredibly diverse origins.

NetCost

Is New Jersey America’s most emblematic state? Could this Mid-Atlantic stalwart of the original Colonies, gateway to the Northeast, subject of Mason-Dixon Line debates and most teased member of the family of states united under a red, white and blue flag signifying liberty and justice for all be the poster child for America itself?

The argument could be made.

It would be won, slam-dunk, on the merits of our peerlessly diverse and delicious foodways. I’ve taken to saying, as I’ve worked the past year to form the Garden State Culinary Arts Foundation, that New Jersey—a peninsula of 8.9 million people bordered by two major rivers, a connective ocean and the unique and fertile Delaware Bay—is singularly positioned as the nation’s culinary leader.

Gourmanoff

For not only does it benefit from those waters, but from a wide-ranging geology that allows for the cultivation of many and myriad crops and provides lands for raising animals. Somehow, in a state that balances extreme densities of populations in its cities with expanses of space in its countrysides with veritable crops of varying housing types in its suburbs, we’ve also become one of the most diverse states in America. Our ethnic communities have taken root in cities, in rural areas, in the suburbs.

No matter the roadway, no matter the exit, you’ll find foods that define the now-wide-breadth of today’s cuisine in America.

It started in New Jersey with waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland,

HMart

India, Germany, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Ellis Island—whose 27.5 acres were found by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 to be dominated by New Jersey —was the gateway for these folks, who settled in Garden State cities, farmed its lands north, central and south, and set up shops everywhere to make Old World staples and invent hybrid foods that used New World ingredients in recipes developed back home.

DMart

The next waves of immigrants, from Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Korea, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Portugal and other parts of India, formed enclaves throughout the state and brought with them their culinary traditions that added to the increasingly rich foodscape.

Food Bazaar

Foreign-born populations in Hudson, Middlesex, Bergen, Union and Passaic counties began serving forth in restaurants and specialty markets foods you’d once needed a passport to experience. From Ducktown, an Italian enclave in Atlantic City, to the Koreatowns of Palisades Park and Fort Lee; from the Ironbound’s Portuguese community of Newark to Havana on the Hudson in West New York and Union City; from India Square in Jersey City and Little India in Edison/Iselin to the Little Istanbul, Little Lima, Little Bangladesh and the huge number of various Little Middle Easterns in Paterson, there’s a world of authentic cuisines in New Jersey.

Travel to the ‘burbs outside Atlantic City, and you’ll find expert Vietnamese food. There’s more in Cherry Hill and on the outskirts of Camden. Filipino fare is flush in Jersey City’s Little Manila and also in Bergenfield, Piscataway, Edison, Belleville, and Woodbridge. Scout Mexican in Long Branch, Freehold, New Brunswick, Trenton, Vineland, Bridgeton, Lakewood, and Red Bank. Don’t expect to visit South Paterson without spending a day devouring Turkish foods.

Mitsuwa

What’s more American than a bountiful table with an equally bountiful number of options? Our food choices in New Jersey, thanks to the various waters we have for fishing, the wide range of soils we have to cultivate and grow crops and raise animals for meat and dairy, and the globe-spanning backgrounds of our population who bring a world of edibles right to our doors, are second to none.

Second to none.

I see that as I shop in Mitsuwa, the Japanese uber-market in Edgewater with not only a peerless selection of fresh and prepared foods but also with a food court that puts to shame anything you’ve experienced in a major mall.

Chowpatty

I see, as well, that we indeed are second to none when I scour the shelves at NetCost, the Russian/Eastern European supermarket in Manalapan or its sister, Gourmanoff, in Paramus. There’s an increasing number of Hmarts in the Garden State, a testament, yes, to the Korean populations but also to the interest folks of all ethnicities have in Korean cuisine and ingredients. Food Bazaar (I like the one in West New York) is where you can find Latin-leaning ingredients, and Jersey City’s India Square is home to a host of markets, including D-Mart. I’m also a fan of Chowpatty’s small snacks-and-sweets shop in Iselin.

If you want to look for America today, start here at home, in New Jersey. Because we are both the original melting pot and the modern melting pot, convening in our compact state at the biggest table the world has ever known.

Bon appetit!

Editor’s Note: The 2018 Garden State Culinary Arts Awards took place in April. Among the winners were Razza Pizza Artigianale’s Dan Richer (Outstanding Chef), who was profiled in a past issue of EDGE, and Ariane Daguin (Culinary Legend) of D’Artagnan in Union.