Frank Bruni’s in Princeton and I’ve Got Him!

frank bruni

The former restaurant critic for the New York Times is teaching at Princeton University this spring. He graciously agreed to an interview with me for New Jersey Monthly to discuss his course, “Writing with Appetite.” We met at a Princeton coffee shop immediately after he conducted the first session. Bruni proved to be articulate, reflective and insightful (no surprises there), but also kind, polite, generous with his time and self-effacing.

The interview appears as the Dining Sidebar in the May issue of the magazine, and also online here. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it!NJ Monthly cover may14

 

NJ Super Heroes Edition: Edible Jersey! New Culinary Scholarship! Fighting River Blindness! (includes a recipe)

Edible Jersey Names 2014 Local Heroes & I Profile of One of Them

Among this year’s six winners, chosen by the readers of the magazine, are Caron Wendell & Joe McLaughlin of Lucy’s Kitchen & Market in Princeton. (You may recognize this place under its original, long-time moniker: Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen.) Read what sets apart Caron, Joe, and all these other Garden State greats in the Spring 2014 edition of Edible Jersey.

Edible Jersey cover spring14

Here’s the full list:

Food artisan: Michael Sirchio, The Arctic Market & Butcher, Point Pleasant Beach
Food shop: Lucy’s Kitchen & Market, Princeton
Beverage artisan: OQ Coffee Co., Highland Park
Farm/farmer: Jess Niederer, Chickadee Creek Farm, Pennington
Nonprofit organization: Franciscan Charities, Inc./St. Ann’s Soup Kitchen, Newark
Chef/restaurant: Aishling Stevens, Americana Diner, East Windsor

Dine Well & Do Good at the Joe Romanowski Culinary Education Foundation (JoCEF) Gala

JoCEF logo

Last year the Shore’s restaurant community was rocked by two back-to-back tragedies: first, the decimation of Superstorm Sandy and then the untimely death of one of its most admired and beloved chef/restaurateurs, Joe Romanowski. With his wife, Maggie, the couple’s restaurants, Bay Avenue Trattoria and before that Joe & Maggie’s, were legendary.

In Joe’s honor, a group of friends – among them Marie Jackson of the Flaky Tart in Atlantic Highlands and Andy Clurfeld, who for many years was restaurant critic for the Asbury Park Press – have founded JoCEF, the central focus of which is culinary scholarships for the Shore’s aspiring chefs. On Monday, March 31st, 30 of the Shore’s most talented chefs (e.g., Drew Araneo of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro) will help raise funds at a gala at the Navesink Country Club in Middletown, starting at 6:30 pm. For the full line-up and for tickets ($75), click here.

African Soiree Raises $16,000 to Fight River Blindness (& How You Can Help)

Photo by Robin Birkel

Photo by Robin Birkel

[Adapted from my In the Kitchen column in the March 14, 2014 edition of the Princeton Packet.]

A feast of authentic African food, the telling of lively African folktales, and a spirited live auction were joyous underpinnings to gala evening I attended earlier this month that raised funds for the United Front Against Riverblindness (UFAR). This Lawrenceville-based nonprofit works to control and eliminate that disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

About UFAR & River Blindness

More than one-third of the DRC’s 60 million people are at risk for river blindness, which is caused by a parasite and transmitted by black flies. A donation of $10 keeps 6 people from going blind for one year. The medicine, which prevents new cases and arrests the progress of existing ones, is provided free by the Merck Corporation, with UFAR arranging the distribution. UFAR treats more than two million people each year. Annual treatment for each person is required for ten years to eliminate the disease.

Christine Shungu, daughter of UFAR founder Dr. Daniel Shungu

Christine Shungu, daughter of UFAR founder Dr. Daniel Shungu

For more about the work of UFAR – including how your $250 tax deductible donation to their Adopt-a-Village program can spare a village of 500 people from river blindness – visit www.riverblindess.org, or phone 609.771.3674.

About the African Soiree

Much of the evening’s food was prepared by volunteer members and friends of the Princeton United Methodist Church and almost everything else was donated – including the space at the Princeton Theological Seminary and fare from two area restaurants: Makeda Ethiopian restaurant in New Brunswick and Palace of Asia in Lawrence.

Goat Stew a la Congolaise, Saltfish with Collards, Fufu

Goat Stew a la Congolaise, Saltfish with Collards, Fufu

Among the 20-plus church and UFAR volunteers who cooked for the event was Isabella Dougan, who made African banana fritters (recipe below).

They can be served plain or with hot sauce or dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

AKARA (Banana Fritters)
Isabella Dougan
Serves 4

3 ripe bananas, peeled
1 cup rice flour, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup olive oil

  1. Mash the bananas in a bowl into a smooth paste. (Alternatively, use a food processor.)
  2. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt in a bowl. Add the mashed bananas, mixing well. (Add additional flour if the mixture is too soft, or water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the mixture is too stiff.)
  3. Heat oil in a skillet until medium hot. Scoop round tablespoons of the banana mixture into the oil and flatten slightly. Cook until underside is medium brown and flip over to fry the other side.
  4. Place cooked balls on paper towels to remove excess oil. Serve hot.

2 Must See’s: My Interview with Judy Wicks & “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti” @ George St. Playhouse

Judy Wicks of the Legendary White Dog Cafe to Speak at Duke Farms This Sunday

GoodMorning Beautiful Business

Wicks, local foods pioneer and a nationally recognized leader in the socially responsible business movement, is the keynote speaker at Slow Food Northern NJ’s event this Sunday, March 23rd, from 1 to 3:30 pm. Last week I spoke with Wicks about her upcoming appearance and her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business. Read the conversation at www.njmonthly.com, then click the link at the end for tickets to the event, which cost $18 and include a lunch of local foods prepared by two of NJ’s finest chefs: Anthony Bucco of the Ryland Inn and Dan Richer of Razza and Arturo’s. The barn at Duke Farms in Hillsborough is the location.

Eat Your Heart Out at Charming, Hilarious One-Woman Tour de Force @ George St. Playhouse

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

I must admit it was with some trepidation that I attended the opening night in New Brunswick of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, the adaptation of Giulia Melucci’s best-selling memoir about her romantic misadventures and how she cooked her way through them.

First off, like both Ms. Melucci and the actress who plays her onstage, Antoinette LaVecchia, I am an Italian-American girl with an East Coast accent who grew up eating my way through joys and sorrows while making Sunday gravy. Usually, this means my radar for authenticity gets in the way of my enjoyment of artistic representations of such. (Sorry, Cher, but this includes your performance in Moonstruck.)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Second, the action involves Ms. LaVecchia preparing a 3-course meal onstage and serving it to a small number of audience members over the course of the performance. Antipasto, salad, and fresh pasta with Bolognese. So even my radar for authentic cooking would be on overdrive.

Third, the play itself or the acting could have fallen short, especially since it is a one-character play, and that character speaks directly to the audience. (High potential squirm factor.)

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Obviously, I Loved, I Lost… cleared all these hurdles. And then some. The set, simple but effective, is a working kitchen island and Ms. LaVecchia really does use it to make from-scratch Bolognese sauce (a can of Cento tomatoes included) and fresh pasta dough that she runs through a pasta maker and boils before our eyes. I had my doubts as to whether the results would taste good, until aromas began to waft over the theater in the third act. (For insurance, afterwards I approached some of the 10 diners who were perched at bistro tables on stage during the play, and who ate and drank wine – poured by Ms. LaVecchia – throughout. They confirmed that the sauce was terrific and the pasta perfetto.)

Lest you think this play is all gimmick, let me clarify. The character, Giulia, is smart, funny, earthy, real, and heartbreaking. (Someone characterized the book, correctly, as “Sex and the City meets Big Night.”) Ms. LaVecchia engages the audience from beginning to end. She’s so good at it and so relatable that when she asked, “Now where was I, what was I saying?” after a snafu with sound equipment had temporarily halted the performance, someone in the front row blurted out, “You were telling us why you broke up with Ethan.” Just as if a friend had asked during a tete-a-tete.

One cool side note: Catherine Lombardi restaurant, next door to the playhouse, is donating the ingredients needed for the production.

I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti runs through April 11. Tickets and info at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or call the box office at 732.246.7717.

Trader Joe’s Cookbook; Review of Resto @ Paper Mill Playhouse; Suburban Living Amidst a Farm

Attention Trader Joe’s Fans! Meet the author of  “Cooking with Trader Joe’s/Lighten Up” @ Princeton Barnes & Noble

Trader Joes cookbook
Author and nutritionist Susan Greeley’s popular book uses Trader Joe’s products for quick and easy recipes that she says are smart & lightened up to be more nutritious. She’ll be talking & signing on Sunday March 16, 1 PM at Barnes & Noble at Market Fair, 3535 US Highway 1, Princeton. Phone 609-750-9010 for info.


My Review of the Carriage House @ The Paper Mill

NJ Monthly cover mar14

With its first ever bona fide chef (Holly Gruber), I’m happy to take advantage of the gently priced fixed meals served in a pretty setting before performances at the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse. My take on the latest incarnation of the Carriage House here, in the March issue of New Jersey Monthly.

Agri-hoods: Who Knew I’d be Decades ahead of this Trend?!

Farmer Ronny Lee, right. Courtesy Lee Turkey Farm.

Farmer Ronny Lee, right. Courtesy Lee Turkey Farm.

I had a good chuckle reading this story in Wednesday’s NY Times dining section about the phenomenon of suburban tract housing centered around small farms. It wasn’t quite like that when I moved my family to an East Windsor development in 1986 that happens to back onto Lee Turkey Farm, but the effect was the same. My daughters grew up able to walk directly from our unfenced backyard onto fields growing corn and strawberries (in alternate years), to pick their own seasonal produce, and to regularly visit turkey chicks as young as one day old. (Let us not discuss what happened when the girls discovered what became of those chicks mere months later. Let’s just say that these days both girls eat turkey with gusto and are thankful that they had a farm in their literal and figurative backgrounds.)

Dim Sum Comes to Princeton & The Pillsbury Bake-off Evolves

No Carts, but Excellent Dim Sim at Peony Pavilion

Assorted dim sum, Peony Pavilion

Assorted dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

The Princeton area has long suffered from a dearth of dim sum. In particular, good dim sum. Which is why I jumped at the chance to try that of Peony Pavilion, which otherwise tags itself an “Asian fusion” restaurant. This stylish spot opened late last year in the space that had been Sunny Garden, and ever since I have been pleasantly surprised by its excellent sushi and successful fusion dishes. One example of the latter, pictured below, is miso-glazed Chilean sea bass with cinnamon-scented Korean black rice, sautéed East and West vegetables (e.g., baby bok choy, Brussels sprouts, and carrots), herb oil, & hoisin reduction.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Prices for the fusion entrees hover around the mid-twenties, which is of a piece with their quality and with the modern East-meets-West decor. (The rest of the menu, given over to pan-Asian noodle and rice dishes such as Pad Thai and teriyaki, skews lower.)

Bean curd skin rolls. Dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

Bean curd skin rolls. Dim sum @ Peony Pavilion

So when Peony Pavilion’s owner Lisa Shao – who also has the highly regarded Szechuan House in Hamilton – invited me to stop by for the dim sum that’s offered on weekend afternoons, I jumped at the chance.

And I was not disappointed. The selection and the execution reflect the restaurant’s overall aesthetic: authentic yet tweaked to be modern, made with first-rate ingredients, prepared by knowing chefs, and beautifully presented. Here are examples:

Shrimp Dumplings, Peony Pavilion

Delicate shrimp dumplings with translucent wrappers, Peony Pavilion

Beef with Rice Noodles, Peony Pavilion

Beef with Rice Noodles, Peony Pavilion. Silky rolled noodles, tender black mushrooms, succulent shredded beef.

Pork & preserved egg congee, Peony Pavilion. I could eat this every day.

Pork & preserved egg congee, Peony Pavilion. So soul-satisfying I could eat this every day. In the rear: crisp crab dumplings, the dim sum chef’s specialty.

Steam golden buns, Peony Pavilion.

Steam golden buns @ Peony Pavilion.

A sweet mixture of lotus seed paste & egg gives the golden bun its name. Peony Pavilion

A sweet mixture of lotus seed paste & egg gives the golden bun its name. @ Peony Pavilion

These are just a fraction of what I enjoyed and of what’s available. Prices range from $3.95 to $7.95. Dim sum is served on Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm and Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm. Peony Pavilion serves Alba Vineyards wines, but BYO is welcome.

Changes Made to the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Gluten-Free Bakers Take Note!

Pillsbury BakeoffIt’s that time again. You can enter to win the $1 million prize or, for the first time ever, you can cast a vote to determine this year’s winner. Plus, there’s a new gluten-free category. Here’s the scoop, straight from the Pillsbury folks:

“Start your ovens! The iconic 47th Pillsbury Bake-Off® Contest is redesigned and calling home cooks to compete for the $1 million Grand Prize. This year’s contest, which is now open for entries at www.BakeOff.com, will culminate at the finals November 3, 2014, at the Omni Nashville Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
What’s new?

  • For the first time, America’s vote will be combined with the judges’ decisions to determine the Grand Prize Winner.
  • The Contest ingredient list has been expanded to include Pillsbury’s Gluten Free line of products.
    • Judges will award the Pillsbury® Gluten Free Award to the Finalist with the best recipe which uses a Pillsbury® Gluten Free product and does not contain wheat or any products that include wheat as an ingredient.
  • The Bake-Off® Contest now features four recipe categories with two separate entry periods.

Participants have two chances to enter and vote. The first entry period includes the Simply Sweet Treats and Savory Snacks & Sides categories and is open for entries from now until March 27 (11:59 a.m. CDT), 2014. The second contest entry period runs from March 27 (1:00 p.m. CDT) to May 8 (11:59 a.m. CDT), 2014 and calls for Weekend Breakfast Wows and Amazing Doable Dinners recipes.”

Beard Awards: Big-time Semi-finalists from NJ; Food Photography Lesson; Marvelous Meyer Lemons

Jersey Chefs Up for National & Regional Awards

I was thrilled to see 3 Garden Staters on the national lists and another 3 up for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic among the semi-finalists for the 2014 James Beard Awards, which were announced earlier this week.

Maricel Presilla

Maricel Presilla

Marc Vetri

Marc Vetri

Congrats to Maricel Presilla and Marc Vetri for their nominations as Outstanding Chef in the U.S. – Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken and Vetri for Vetri in Philadelphia. But because he crossed river this year with Osteria in Moorestown Mall, I’m claiming him for NJ! I can’t stop myself from including another name here: Gabrielle Hamilton, who’s nominated for her work at her NY restaurant, Prune. But since she was raised in Lambertville, I’m labeling her NJ, too.

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Congrats also to Ben Nerenhausen of Mistral in Princeton, who is nominated for Rising Star Chef in the U.S.

Congrats, finally, to these 3 who are among the 20 nominees for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic region: Scott Anderson, Elements; Joey Baldino, Zeppoli; Lucas Manteca, The Red Store. What’s particularly gratifying to me is that all 3 restaurants are in the southern half of the state – Princeton, Collingswood, and Cape May, respectively – which has long played second fiddle to the more populous metropolitan areas up north.

A dandy showing! Good luck to all.

Want to improve your food photography?

Lord knows I need to! We’ll get the chance on Sunday, March 9th when professional photographer Frank Veronsky of Princeton Photo Workshop presents “Shoot It & Eat It” at Tre Piani in Forrestal Village. During the 3-hour class, guests will first photograph and then down a 3-course dinner. Click here for details and to register.

My Meyer Lemon Madness (with recipes)

(Adapted from my “In the Kitchen” column in the Princeton Packet of 2/28/14)

Meyer lemons 006

A few years ago I fell hard for sweet, floral Meyer lemons at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers Market. At the time they weren’t regularly available around these parts, so my San Fran-based daughter, witness to my infatuation, thoughtfully gave me a dwarf Meyer lemon tree for Christmas. My sapling arrived months later, complete with excellent instructions for potting and growing, from Four Winds Growers based in Winters, CA.

Meyer Lemon brochure 002Here in Zone 7 the tree must winter indoors. It took three growing seasons, but this past summer mine produced 5 big beauties (pictured above) that ripened just before the first frost. (A 6th was still small and green; more on that later). I was so excited, I planned an entire dinner party for 4 guests around those 5 lemons.  For inspiration I turned to this L.A. Times article: “100 Things to Do with a Meyer Lemon.”

Here’s my menu:

Meyer lemon feast 013Nibbles & drinks: Marcona almonds; hefeweizen beer with slices of Meyer lemon
Main: Roasted monkfish with Meyer lemon salsa; basmati rice; zucchini and sliced Meyer lemons
Dessert: Meyer lemon-almond cake with Meyer lemon Chantilly cream

As you can tell, I stretched my quintet as far as it could go. I even used the lemon leaves for table decor. ??????????

Amazingly, the dinner did not result in Meyer lemon overload and, with one exception, was wildly successful. Beer and Meyer lemon is a match made in heaven, although it takes a few minutes for the lemon to assert itself. I chose monkfish for its dense, meaty, snow-white flesh, but found the salsa, which contained shallots and olives as well as the fruit, bitter and overpowering. Next time I’ll substitute the compound butter I’ve included in the recipe below. On the other hand, the combination of thin rounds of zucchini and even thinner ones of lemon sautéed together in olive oil was a revelation! I may never make zucchini without lemon again.

??????????Without a doubt, though, the Meyer lemon-almond cake, a variation on one of Claudia Roden’s, stole the show. It has the texture of a tea cake and is as simple to make. It’s good on its own, and its flavor even deepens overnight, but I felt compelled to gild the lily by adding Chantilly cream flavored with Meyer lemon.

??????????

As to the fate of that last green fruit left on the tree: It continued to grow indoors, albeit at a greatly reduced pace. Just as it became full, ripe, and ready for plucking, this recipe from Bobby Flay for Meyer lemon potatoes the New York Times. It turned out to be the perfect coda to my Meyer lemon season.

ROASTED MONKFISH WITH MEYER LEMON COMPOUND BUTTER
Serves 4.

1-1/4 pounds monkfish, in one piece (tuna can be substituted)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the Meyer lemon compound butter:
1/2 stick butter, softened to room temperature
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
1-1/2 teaspoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves only
Salt & pepper to taste

  1. Make the compound butter: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Mash and stir until well blended. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an oven-safe baking dish with oil.
  3. Make a series of small incisions on both sides of the fish, and insert a sliver of garlic into each cut. Rub or brush fish with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Place fish in prepared dish and roast in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until just opaque and cooked through. Slice fish into thick, diagonal slices and serve with compound butter at room temperature.
    Serves 4.

Where to Find the Best Breakfasts in NJ; Edible Jersey, Winter 2014 Edition

The cover story of the February 2014 issue of NJ Monthly is all about the best breakfasts to be had around the state.  Read it and see if you agree with my picks for Central NJ, as well as all 57 entries.

NJ Monthly cover feb14

After you read it, check out these links to my selections: Brick Farm Market, Button’s Creperie, Caffe Galleria, Lovin’ Oven, Market Roost, Teresa Caffe, Wildflour Bakery & Cafe, Zoe’s Vintage Kitchen.

The winter 2014 edition of Edible Jersey is out. Gosh, I love this cover photo:

Edible Jersey cover winter 14Be sure to pick up your free copy at any of the usual places around the Garden State. Inside, I am proud to have contributed an entry to the “Edible Life” feature, which “celebrates the little things in life that define many of our best memories of eating and drinking.” I’m a bit embarrassed, though, to report that my memorable little thing involves Jell-O. To be exact, the Joys of Jell-O Cookbook.

Meet Max Hansen; Catch 3 Central NJ Dining Deals

The Star-Studded Story Behind One Bucks County Chef-Caterer-Shopkeeper-Best-Selling Cookbook Author

Late last year when I attended Customer Appreciation Day at the new Max Hansen Carversville Grocery I was so impressed that I not only blogged about it here, but knew I wanted to dig deeper. His life story doesn’t disappoint! To name just a few of the key players: Julia Child, Thomas Keller, Carly Simon. I tell all in the January 15, 2014 issue of U.S. 1.

btw: The US 1 cover story by Dan Aubrey on his firsthand experience dealing with the Christie administration makes for timely, powerful reading.
Update: On January 28, 2014, the NY Times picked up Dan’s story, as a “portrait of a smear.” Here’s the link.

January Dining Deals in the Princeton Area: Get ‘em While They’re Hot

1. Outback Steakhouse (Have I lost my bloomin’ onion mind?)

Regular visitors to this site know I have a soft spot for the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. Which explains why I’m suggesting you eat at Outback Steakhouse. One time, one location, one day only. The generous folks at the Outback on Route 1 in Mercer Mall are donating 50% (up to $5,000) of their sales tomorrow, January 20, 2014, to the Mercer County chapter of BBBS. That’s for lunch or dinner, from 11 am to 1o pm.

Tomorrow also happens to be MLK Day, as well as the restaurant’s opening day. The restaurant isn’t listed yet on either the Outback or Mercer Mall homepages. Here’s the phone number: 609.799.3039.

2. Calling All Brunello Lovers

Montalcino (Wikipedia)

Montalcino (Wikipedia)

I consider $80 for a 4-course dinner by Eno Terra chef Chris Albrecht paired with Lisini wines of Montalcino a steal. The dinner, at which proprietor Carlo Lisini will preside, takes place on Wednesday, January 29, 2014 starting at 6:30 pm at the Kingston restaurant. Featured wines include 3 Rosso’s and the 2007 Brunello. Tax & gratuity not included in the price. Reservations: 609.497.1777.

3. $5 AYCE Mussels at Tre Bar

How did I miss this one? I love mussels and every Monday night at Tre Bar, the eatery attached to Tre Piani in Forrestal Village on Route 1 near Princeton, they’re apparently all you can eat for $5. (Plus, wines by the glass are half price from 4 to 6:30 pm.) I hope to report back with a firsthand experience soon.

Update: Turns out that I hadn’t missed the word on this offer; it was just implemented on January 20th. Which is when I and my buddy Faith Bahadurian, who blogs at NJSpice went. We were among the first to try the mussels. They’re in a terrific marinara, come with lots of excellent country Italian bread and, yes, they’re AYCE for $5.

Scott Anderson @ Beard House; 2 NJ Slow Food Winter Markets; “Somm” the Movie

Elements & Mistral’s  “Elements of Extraordinary” Dinner

Scott AndersonAfter being named James Beard Award semifinalist in 2013, Scott Anderson is following up with a dinner at the Beard House in Greenwich Village on February 20th at 7 pm.

Among 5 passed hors d’oeuvre  – served with Szigeti Gruner Veltiner Brut NV – will be caramelized onion-bone marrow cromesquis. Yeah, I had to look that one up, too: “A small ball of ground meat which differs from a croquette in that a croquette is dipped in egg and breadcrumbs rather than batter or caul fat.” To paraphrase Homer Simpson: mmm…..caul fat.

A 6-course dinner with matched wines follows. The full menu is here, but to get your taste buds going think Long Island surf clam, Scottish trout, salsify, smoke, squab, preserved persimmons, and NJ grains.

Element's Chicken & Waffle

Element’s Chicken & Waffle

Although the price to non-members is a hefty $170, I can tell you that every dinner I’ve attended at the Beard House over the years has been cheap at the price, since chefs invariably put their best foot (and food) forward – and the wine flows all night long. For info and reservations, click here.

It’s That Time Again: Slow Food Winter Farmers Markets

Slow Food Central SnailSaturday, January 11: From 11 am to 3 pm at Tre Piani restaurant, Forrestal Village, Princeton. Vendors: BeechTree Farm, Birds & Bees Farm Honey, Cherry Grove Farm, Chickadee Creek Farm, Davidson’s Exotic Mushrooms, Donna & Company Chocolates, Elijah’s Promise Bakery, Happy Wanderer Bakery, Judith’s Desserts, Nice & Sharp Knife Sharpening Service, Rocky Brook Farm, Shibumi Mushroom Farm, Trappers Honey, Valley Shepherd Creamery, WoodsEdge Wools Farm. Directions at trepiani.com ($2 suggested donation)

Slow Food SnailSunday, January 19: From noon to 4 pm at Frelinghuysen Arboretum, Morristown. Vendors: Appleridge Farm, Good Fields Farm, Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, Griggstown Quail Farm, Churutabis Farm, Plaid Piper Farm, Flint Hill Farm, Valley Shepherd Creamery, Tassot Apiary, Rogowski Farm, Donna & Company Chocolates, Best Fruit Farm, Degage Gardens, Lazy Susan GranolaZen Bakers, Lickt Gelato. Directions to arboretum here. ($3 entrance fee supports Slow Food NNJ’s school vegetable garden programs)

Recommended Viewing: Somm, a Jason Wise Documentary

Somm logoApparently food-and-wine biz folks didn’t care much for this 2013 film about 4 young sommeliers preparing for and taking the mysterious Master Sommelier exam, which has awarded only 170 diplomas over the last 40 years. But I rented it over the Christmas break and highly found it captivating. Take a peak at the official trailer and see if you don’t think it’s worth a look.

Chefs’ 1st & Best Food Memories; 2 Reviews: Montclair & Bernardsville

Happy New Year and, if you’re on the Eastern Seaboard, Happy Snow Day!  A good occasion for cozy reading by the cyber fireside – especially the following recollections by luminaries of the Princeton food scene about their earliest food influences.

From Disney World to Lahore, Pakistan: What Food Experiences Made Big Impressions on Future Foodies

(Adapted from my column in the December 16, 2013 issue of the Princeton Packet)

Each year my final In the Kitchen column is a compilation of answers to a question I pose to a different group of Princeton-area chefs and restaurateurs. The theme is always personal and often lighthearted, such as “My Craziest New Years Eve Ever.” (I just may have to reprise that 2005 gem next year.) This time around I asked two veterans of and two newcomers to the dining scene for their first and/or best food memories.

Newcomers are Ben Nerenhausen, chef at the critically acclaimed Mistral, which opened in May, and Lisa Shao. Shao has owned Hamilton’s Szechuan House for three years, but just weeks ago debuted Peony Pavilion, her Japanese and Asian fusion restaurant on Farber Road (in the space where Sunny Garden reigned for years). The vets are Jim Weaver and Jessica Durrie. Weaver’s restaurant, Tre Piani, celebrated its 15th year at Forrestal Village earlier this year, while Durrie’s Small World Coffee kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration in December. Below, in their own words, are this quartet’s reflections.

Mistral-Logo

Ben Nerenhausen, Mistral, Princeton: While I’m not sure if it’s my best childhood memory, I sure know it’s one of my most memorable.  It happened while we were living in Lahore, Pakistan. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and we had some local friends of ours who invited us out to one of their favorite places for lunch.

We arrived in the neighborhood, which was in one of the poorer areas of town and parked our car. We met our friends who told us from here we would continue on foot. They proceeded to guide us through the maze of side streets and back alley ways, all of which seemed to get smaller, shorter, and dirtier. We finally arrived at our destination. My family and I looked around quizzically. “Where’s the door?” my father asked.  Our friends pointed to a dark staircase that disappeared through an archway. “It’s upstairs” they replied. So our journey continued… After about three rickety flights we finally arrived.

There were no lights. There was no electricity. The soda placed in my hand was warm. Around us were maybe four or five dusky tables set with silverware, napkins, and bowls. In the corner of the room bubbled an enormous vat which smelled of fragrant spices and chilies. We sat down, and immediately warm naan and chapati were laid on the table. The “chef” – or at least the guy standing over the cauldron – began ladling the contents into our bowls. “What was it?” I thought. In my bowl was what appeared to be a boiled hoof surrounded by a bright red broth, thick with gelatin. “Goat” our friends announced emphatically.

Now, over the years I have come to love goat; it’s one of my favorite meats to work with. But for my eight-year-old self, the hoof sticking out of that bowl was a bit of a shock. I picked at the meat. The jelly and collagen stretched and melted away. A wave of panic and disappointment washed over me. I was hungry! I hadn’t eaten breakfast! In my desperation, my eyes fell on the broth. “Aha! There’s no sticky, melty goo in there,” I thought. I cautiously dipped a piece of bread into the savory jus and took a bite. It was amazing! The flavors from all that cooking, the richness of the broth, the complexity of flavors!  I was ravenous, and I quickly sopped up all of the broth in my bowl. To this day I have a fond nostalgia for the flavors and food of this part of the world, and experiences like this one have helped to shape me into the chef I am today. A little more adventurous, a little more appreciative, and a lot more happy.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Lisa Shao, Peony Pavilion, West Windsor & Szechuan House, Hamilton: One of my fondest childhood memories of food is a home-cooked dish that my mother used to make for me. It was simple goodness, was satisfying, and always cheered me up. It was fresh farm eggs scrambled with ripe, juicy red tomatoes, a splash of soy sauce and topped with bits of green onions that looked like confetti.

All the ingredients came from local farms in Szechuan Province – an agricultural-rich region – and purchased that day from the market by my mother. I loved the sound of my mom cracking and scrambling the eggs, their mouth-watering fragrance, and finally the beautiful colors presented to me on my plate.

This is my first recollection of when my passion for art, culture, and food began to blossom. Music and dance followed soon thereafter and whenever I heard music I would start to dance, at home or in front of crowds. I still dance today and I also serve my son my favorite dish from my childhood days. I have found that owning restaurants has enabled me to express my love for the arts in a much broader sense to many more people every day. (It is why I have included over 200 photos of the famous 16th century Chinese opera into the interior design of Peony Pavilion.) Being surrounded by and sharing great food, art, and music makes me very happy.

locavore_adventuresJim Weaver, Tre Piani, Forrestal Village: My childhood food experiences were pretty vanilla, but we did get a few fun things from time to time. My earliest memories are of cooking with my grandmothers and learning how to make such masterpieces as scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

I can say I was ruined for life when it came to a couple of items that I did enjoy very much, but I was more like eight or ten years of age. In my town one of my best friends had apple, pear, and peach trees. Eating those crisp, tart apples off the tree was amazing. Come to think of it, when I was even younger we were at Disney World and my father walked me into an orange grove and picked a couple of the fruits. They were like eating candy! Today, I cannot enjoy most of the fruit that you find at the supermarkets or out of season. (If you read the chapter on tomatoes in my book, Locavore Adventures, you’ll learn that fruits have been engineered purposefully to not have the “bite” like they were meant to have because most people prefer bland! UGGGGGGH!!!)

My other experiences were eating super-fresh seafood on Cape Cod where we spent summers. Fishing in either freshwater ponds for bullhead catfish or pickerel, cleaning them in the backyard, and frying them up with cornmeal at my grandfathers side was always a treat. We also went clamming and then enjoyed them within an hour of harvest. Saltwater fishing was also typical and we used to catch ridiculous amounts of wild striped bass – some over 60 pounds each!  Incredible fish, still illegal to buy or sell in NJ due to dated laws and the [lobbying of] recreational fishermen. I was privy to Wellfleet oysters long before they were in vogue and today when it comes to oysters – which I adore and would eat raw long before I could summon the courage to eat a tomato – I cannot eat them unless they are super fresh. Even a few days out of the water and my palate can taste it. Ruined for life!!

Small World Coffee Cafes

Small World Coffee Cafes

Jessica Durrie, Small World Coffee, Princeton: My Dad’s job [he worked for General Motors] took us to Italy in 1969 when I was three-and-a-half years old. We moved into an old farmhouse outside of Rome with eleven acres of vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens, rabbits and chickens. It was all taken care of by an old farmer, Carlos. During the summer those trees and vines were bursting with fruit. We ran free on this property, and had a big bell to ring so we would know when to come home for meals. I remember the smells of the fields, especially the wild fennel.

One of my favorite activities was collecting pinecones and picking out the seeds, which I would crack with a rock so that I could extract the delicious kernel, a pignole. I’m sure my older siblings showed me how to do this! I also remember the local neighborhood store where we could buy bread smeared with slices of gianduja. I remember afternoons at our babysitter’s house, where the smell of cooking in the kitchen was a constant: tomato sauce, pesto, homemade pasta, pine nut brittle.

As much as all of these memories are so strong and wonderful, I also have to say that when we would go back to the States for “home leave,” my siblings and I would rush to the 7-Eleven, near our beach rental at Stinson Beach in California, and binge on American candy and a Slurpee!

Reviews: Escape in Montclair & Bistro Seven.Three in Bernardsville

Sometimes a restaurant critic just gets lucky. These two are winners.

Escape, Bryan Gregg’s modern takes on Southern food, opened in Montclair earlier this year. Here’s my review, from the December issue of New Jersey Monthly.

That same issue includes my review of Bistro Seven.Three, the latest Mediterranean restaurant from a team of seasoned Bernardsville restaurateurs.