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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Taste of the Nation

As we walked out of Distrito the first day of our visit to Philadelphia, we crossed paths with numerous homeless people begging for change or asking us to walk into McDonalds to buy them a burger. Maybe some of you have experienced this, but walking home, stomach full, wallet empty, I can honestly say I felt slightly guilty to have spent a significant amount of money on an unbelievable meal, when there are so many people hungry in our country today. After running into two, we were out of anything to offer. We can make ourselves feel better about seeing this everyday by reasoning that we will actively do some "good" in our food adventures. Despite our budget, we try to buy local whenever possible. We rarely eat meat, and typically grass fed or fair farmed or free range alternatives. But according to Share Our Strength's sources, nearly 17 million children go hungry each year in the US. Through event's like Taste of the Nation, Share our Strength hopes to end childhood hunger in the US by 2015.

Attending taste of the nations was like a food lover's dream come true. Where else can you sample foie gras stuffed cherries, popcorn cupcakes, beef tartare, and truffled mac and cheese all at one time? Where else can you sample drinks from some of the most creative mixologists under a single roof? Where else can you walk away having sampled all of this knowing that the money you spent is going to help fight child hunger? If you have an answer that isn't the Taste of the Nation event put on by Share our Strength, please let me know. I'll be there next! For obvious reasons, I'll only touch on some of the dishes or restaurants that were memorable, but keep in mind that I speak for both of us when I say everything fell somewhere along the tasty to sublime spectrum. 

Our first favorite dish of the evening came from Fish. We tasted a tuna sashimi on a bacon waffle, topped with a little whole grain mustard that was not only tasty, but after talking with the staff there, they apparently have a nice reasonable tasting menu to offer guests on Sundays (second set, right column, middle row). For something a little more fun Varga Bar offered the truffled mac and cheese I mentioned that is made with gruyere, fontina, and marscapone cheese with black truffles and topped with bacon (first set, top left corner). This was slightly more filling than the array of grape tomato and pineapple gazpachos offered (although they were quite tasty in their own right), and packed a ton of flavor. From Sole Food, located in the Lowes Hotel, we sampled a lightly fried squash blossom stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness including ricotta, lima beans, and anchovies (first set, top middle). I wish I could remember everything else that was in it, because the range of flavors and textures that danced across the palate was quite delicious. Everyone else apparently felt the same way, as when we got to their booth, there were only four left!
Daniel's favorites included a savory shortbread topped with apricot jam and duck prosciutto from Funky Lil' Kitchen (last set below, bottom right corner). We managed to devour  one of these each rather quickly, and will hopefully be recreating them in the very near future. From Lacroix, we tasted a foie gras stuffed cherry, topped with a smoked balsamic and sitting on a bed of toasted pine nuts (second set, middle row, right column), a perfectly balanced blend of flavors and textures. I can't help but mention that throughout the event, we  enjoyed various cocktails as well, the most inventive being the beet flavored drink (first set, top right corner).

If you take a look at the ticket costs and initially gasp, factor in the ability to sample amazing cocktails from some of the best mixologists in your area as well. Not to mention that tor dessert, we had our choice of a few unique cupcakes from Mugshots Coffee House & Cafe including a popcorn and margarita cupcake (last set below, top right corner and bottom left corner), as well as artisan gelato from Capogiro, and a delicious yogurt panna cotta from Eric Ripert's 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge (third set, middle row, left column).
And as if that wasn't enough to get you to go to your next event, you never know who you'll run into! We planned to meet up with Emily Malloy of Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, and after some back and forth phone and texting tag, finally met up about halfway through the event! If you've never read Emily's blog, not only should you do so (and soon!), but it's always neat to see how someone's bright personality shines through in their blog. Emily was as friendly and awesome in person as she is in her blog, AND if it hadn't been for her prompting, we would have missed the squash blossoms at Sole Food! And as if that wasn't a cool enough person to meet, guess who else we ran into?

Aaron McCargo Jr. who won The Next Food Network Star in 2008 and who currently hosts Big Daddy's House on the Food Network! We felt kind of silly asking to take a picture with him, but he was really nice and really cool.  
So now. What more reason do you need? You. You should consider clicking click over to the Taste of the Nation's website and see if there's an event near you. If so, GO!!!!! Even if you've already missed the event closest, consider looking at all of the other ways to contribute your time and your taste buds to this great cause. We will not only be attending the Great American Dineout (although we'll cross our fingers that more restaurants in our area get involved), but I'm also going to look into a bake sale sometime soon. See what works for you!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Philadelphia- Part 1

Where should I begin explaining about our food exploits in Philadelphia. You'll have to be a bit gentle when critiquing our pictures for this post. We are definitely not the seasoned veterans that many of you are when it  comes to "in-restaurant" photography. We are still infants in this field, but you have to crawl before you can walk, and Philly is truly a city for walking.

Our food odyssey begins with an overnight rendezvous at Dawn's grandparents who warmly greeted us with chocolate cake despite our arrival at midnight and filled us with a blueberry crumble cake and fresh cantaloupe in the morning. We toured their thriving box garden of squash, hanging tomatoes, cabbages, onions, and a rainbow of decorative flowers. Every time we visit the food is delicious and the company is comforting and occasionally competitive when the Wii bowling gets going.

Around three on Saturday we reached Alexander Inn, which served as a nice cool respite from the miles of walking that also served as penance for the indulgent eating. The Alexander Inn is a nice boutique hotel bordering Antique Row and convenient to Market Street and the Rittenhouse square area. For the most part there is a big city ambiance of wafting kitchen scents, what can only be described as 'back alley odor, all the specialty shops that cooks dream of, and enough new and old standby restaurants to keep anyone busy. 

Around 5:30, we walked the two and a half miles from our hotel to the University District to partake in Jose Garces' Mexico City tapas style restaurant, Distrito. From the moment I walked in, I couldn't stop thinking that the decor reminded me of a a mixture of Nacho Libre and Alice in Wonderland. The whimsical hot pinks, the luchadore wall, the gold specked tables, and the lime green taxi car tables provided an oddly outstanding backdrop for his interpretation of Mexican and Spanish cuisine. First, Dawn ordered the fresh watermelon margarita (12), and I ordered a glass of Tecate (2) to accompany the chips and Mexicana salsa (5). The Los Hongos Hurache (12) was by far the best item we had all night. From the shaved truffle specks and truffle oil, the dish was mushroom heaven with a hint of microgreen herbage.

Dish two was the lengua tacos (7) that I'm always a fan of and was glad to see on the menu. These were lusciously rich with a hint of radish, just enough tang from the pepper sauce, and a nice corn tortilla to surround it.
Next was the Hamachi taco (14) which was a pillar of whitefish, coated with panko and fried, topped with a creamy chipotle sauce and surrounded by a flour tortilla. Although it could have used a touch less breading and a touch more sauce, we happily devoured the set of three mini tacos.

Dish four was an Amarillo mole of rabbit (10) that had a very nice presentation. The tiny staub cast iron casserole presentation was perfect with the rabbit fanned out and the sauce puddle in a vibrant cheddar orange hue. Unfortunately the habanero sauce needed more basics such as salt, pepper, and a hint more body.
Garces' take on the black bean quesadilla (6) was an empanada like version that won both of us over with the presentation and its onslaught of flavor. Surrounded by a terra cotta red sauce and drizzled with a creamy sauce that married well with the turtle beans, it was an awesome dish.

Dessert was truly an homage to Spanish cuisine in the shape of churros (7), or starfish as my dad refers to them because of their shape. They were crisp, chewy, and mesmerizing. The effect was like sinking your teeth into the perfect pomme frites, fries, or chips, yet these churros included a lovely thick cajeta sauce, a spicy chocolate sauce, and of course a perfect scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Overall the whacky themed restaurant prepares picturesque food, that was for the most part an exciting trip for the palette, ample service although at times too much, and great drinks and atmosphere. It is well worth a try if you are in the area.

After a rewarding breakfast provided by the hotel, we spent the morning out and about visiting the historic sights of Philadelphia. For lunch, we stopped at a little hole in the wall in Chinatown called Chung King. We rarely go on a trip without eating somewhere we stumble upon and this is the restaurant. Unfortunately the pictures inside didn't turn out at all, but as we sat down and looked over the menu, we were surprised at the astounding selection of delicacies they offered. Generally I am more adventurous when it comes to ordering strange dishes at restaurants, but Dawn went above and beyond when I ordered the twice cooked pork, and selected spicy pig ears. The waiter looked at her oddly and asked if she liked pig ears, and she responded, "we'll see," after which he brought us a complimentary pot of green tea. Although the pig ears had a unique flavor and were served over a delicious chili broth, they were served cold and were texturally a little much for her to handle. The more I ate them, the less the texture seemed to bother me. The double cooked pork I ordered consisted of thin slices of pork belly along with a rich sauce produced by the fat in the pork, onions and currants. For a meal where you're thinking about your wallet and feeling a little adventurous, this was a nice place to stop for around $20.

After more sightseeing and walking, we were ready for our next culinary adventure and and set off for Pietros Coal Oven Pizzeria. There are a couple more locations around Philadelphia and in New Jersey, so it is not a singular pizza joint, but one that produces a mean pie. We sat down inside instead of on the patio because moments before we arrived, Dawn suggested we stop by Max Brenner's chocolate shop. It reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when just inside the door you are welcomed by a gust of cool air perfumed by chocolate ecstasy. Inside the doors we were given a candied chocolate coated pecan that told me this pit stop was a good idea. After perusing for awhile we decided to pick up a Textures box of eighteen truffles (24), a single giant truffle (3) and a small bag of toasted pistachio and coconut chocolate balls (4). Everything was fantastic and a worthwhile stop in Philadelphia. We missed the restaurant the store was attached to this trip, but maybe next time!

Back to to the pizza. The decor inside Pietro's was homey and inviting with tables adorned in green and jugs of herb infused olive oil. After we were seated the warm complimentary foccacia rolls were simply delicious. Dawn ordered a "small" salad for us to split before the pizza arrived, and their definition of small is certainly relative. The arugula salad with sun-dried tomatoes and pecorino with a honey olive oil vinaigrette was easily enough for three. But, we were starving and finished it before moving on to the pizza. The pizza we ordered was a piccante pizza consisting of spicy ham, aged provolone, crushed red hot peppers, and Italian tomatoes for a change of pace from what we normally order. The crust was crisp and lightly charred in spots with a really nice crumb. The spiciness of the ham went well with the lightly fruity dry edge of the sangiovese.

Monday, we perused every nook and cranny of Reading Terminal market. Iovine's produce does make me quite envious, but glad I had a chance to stop in. While there we purchased some dry ingredients that would survive the trek home, but were sad to pass up the fresh morels. We did manage to score some dried morels, dried black mission figs, and dried currants though. So many meat and seafood purveyors under one roof are truly astounding. We stopped by the spice rack and picked up some smoked peppercorns, and Dawn eagerly chose some new extracts to try.

But who can visit Philadelphia without sampling the cheese-steak. My choice was as close as I could get to sampling both the famous roast pork sandwich and the famous cheese-steak at the same time. I choose an Italian cheese-steak with roasted peppers, broccoli rabe, and sharp provolone. It was messy goodness in a bun.

All the amazing food and drinks we enjoyed in Philly can't compare to the extraordinary fare and drinks we enjoyed at Taste of that Nations though, held at the Loews Hotel. Sorry for the lengthy description of our endeavors so far, but while we finish sorting through pictures you'll have to wait a few days for the big event! Stay tuned for more about the event, including a meet up with Emily Malloy of Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, and even a surprise run in with a Food Network star!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Life Gives You Onions...

When life gives you onions, don't cry. You can always make jam! Granted, you may cry a little in the process, but it will be worth it in the end. Last year I made my first batch of jam with the last of the fresh summer tomatoes. Within a couple weeks we had devoured it and the summer farmer's markets were well over. Since then, I've been wanting to expand my jam repertoire. Thanks to Daniel's canning adventures last week and the extra mason jars we had lying around, I quickly felt the urge to jam.

Like many delights from the kitchen, making jam is not nearly as daunting a task as you may think. Just keep stirring! This onion jam recipe yields a buttery onion spread that offered a burst of sweetness and delectable onion flavor that will make even a piece of dry toast dance across your palate.I used vidalia onions for this recipe because they are sweeter and have a higher water content. More natural juice means you don't need to add liquid and more onion flavor.

Onion Jam

Although there are plenty of alternatives you could throw in our substitute, for this batch I wanted a strictly aromatic onion jam with a nice caramel color and a burst of sweet onion flavor.

3 lbs Vidalia Onions, halved and quartered
1/4 Cup Olive Oil
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 Cup Brown Sugar
2/3 Cup Sugar
2 tbsp vinegar

1. Place oil and onions in medium stock pot. Season with salt and stir onion quarters to coat with oil. Place over medium heat and cover with tight fitting lid. Allow onions to cook 20-30 minutes until tender, checking s little as possible.
2. Add both sugars and vinegar. Stir to dissolve and coat onions evenly.
3. With medium heat, using a wooden spoon stir occasionally at first, and more often as it gets closer to being done. As you stir, use the spoon to begin squashing onions. Continue cooking and stirring until you reach desired consistency.
4. Place in glass jars, allow to cool, and seal.
5. Enjoy!

There are a plethora of options for you to choose from as you decide where to use your delicious homemade goodies. I already have plans to use it on a bacon tomato foccacia and am contemplating a savory thumbprint cookie. But, since we weren't going to be able to try them until this morning, I choose to use them in our breakfast fare atop some warm rosemary scented scones. Whatever you choose to use it on, you and whoever you choose to share it with will be delighted.

Rosemary Scented Scones

The rosemary in these provides a subtle herbaceous note that pairs beautifully with a slightly sweetened scone on its own, and becomes a delectable breakfast treat with the extra sweetness and onion goodness from your own onion jam

1 Cup All Purpose Flour
1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
2 Tsp Baking Powder
1/4 Cup Sugar
1 Tsp Dried Rosemary Powder
4 Tbsp Butter
1 Egg
1/2 Cup Half & Half plus additional for brushing
Himalayan Pink Sea Salt for Sprinkling

1. Preheat oven to 425. Line baking sheet with baking mat. Mix flours, baking powder, sugar, and rosemary in bowl to combine. Cut in butter until mixture resembles crumbs.
2. In a separate cup, mix egg and half & half. Once combined well pour over dry ingredients and stir until mixture just comes together.
3. Remove mixture from bowl (there may be some dry ingredients left behind, don't worry), and pat into a circle on baking sheet. Cut circle into 4 or 8 wedges depending if you want small or larger scones.
4. Separate across baking sheet and brush with half & half. Sprinkle with pink salt and place in oven.
5. Cook 10-15 minutes until golden brown.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Happy Marriage of Flavors

Relaxing weekends are such an adventurous cook's dream. The time passes and you begin churning thoughts, taking action, and then if you are in the process of  pickling---wait, wait, wait. Like a fine piece of braised meat, waiting is of the essence and oftentimes pays you back with an incredibly delicious and economical snack.

When I thought of pickling certain items over the weekend (grapes, radishes, carrots, and green tomatoes), my taste buds wandered to pots of simmered mustard greens drenched in pepper vinegar. You know, the kind sitting on the table of some barbecue joints and roadside stands and country kitchens. Bottled in old liquor bottles or soy sauce bottles with conducive drip caps already provided to contain dozens of varieties of peppers, depending on what is at hand. Why is this concoction so prevalent at the aforementioned institutions you might ask? The answer is simple---at least in my estimation---fried food.

That tang of vinegar and spice is mystifying when combined with the warm crunch of fried food. Fried chicken with pepper vinegar, fish-n-chips with malt vinegar, even the acidic spritz of lemon juice on fish straight out of the fryer. The concoctions are endless and paramount to the iconic dishes we cherish. 

We snacked on a handful of the pickled radishes after I initially pickled them over the Memorial day break, but the fish-n-chips certainly thanked us for the vinegary kick in the salad from the carrots and green tomatoes. Who says you can't make a mean fish-n-chips with the American sustainable fish that so many foodies used to snear at. If you guessed the substitute for the traditional cod or haddock was catfish, you would be correct. 

Catfish and fried spuds will certainly surprise when they are shown some respect and attention. The sesame oil gives these fish a piquant earthiness, and double frying the chips will put a smile on your face. This dinner deserves a nice cold ale to accompany it, but you certainly wouldn't be out of place to drink a chilled sauvignon blanc. Either way, it is a weekend pleaser for just two, or a crowd. 

Kickin' Fish-N-Chips
You will find it hard not to dig right in to these morsels of delight, but you have to whip up some tartar sauce to go with them first. Or, if Dawn won't give you her tartar sauce recipe, English mustard does the trick as well.
1 lb Catfish Fillets
2 Lbs Russet Potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8ths
6 oz lager or other pale beer
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
1 Tsp Sesame Oil
5 Grinds Black Pepper
1 tsp kosher salt

Canola Oil for frying

1. Whisk flour and dry ingredients to remove clumps. Combine sesame oil and lager.
2. Whisk until smooth consistency, similar to cake batter. Add a bit more flour or beer if necessary and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Batter will have a bit of a nutty flavor from the sesame oil.
3. Heat oil to 325 degrees and add chips in batches, cooking 5 minutes then draining.
4. Heat oil to 350 degrees and fry chips a second time for 5 minutes in batches until golden, wait a few seconds so they don't burn your tongue, I know it's hard.
5. Dip catfish in batter and drop gently into the grease frying in batches 6 to 8 minutes. Turn several times while cooking to achieve a nice amber brown hue.

Dilled Carrot Pickles (Adapted from "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern")
If you think about it carrots have the perfect texture for pickling just enough crunch to keep them crisp and mesmerizing in just about an hour.

2 medium carrots peeled and sliced into 1/8 inch rings
6 sprigs dill
1 tsp. sugar
8 whole black peppercorns
1 small shallot thinly diced
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 C white vinegar
1/2 C apple cider vinegar

1. Wash out two pint jars extremely well with hot water.
2. Fill two pint jars with equal amounts carrots and shallot.
3. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer in a small pot.
4. Pour the liquid over the vegetables until completely submerged and cover loosely until they cool at which point they can be transferred to the fridge for about 3 weeks. I doubt they will last that long once you try them.

Spiked Green Tomatoes
These are so unique with the bite the jalapeno imparts to the tomatoes. These would be an awesome accompaniment to tacos or to make a mean version of salsa verde.

2 medium green tomatoes, cored and cut into half moons
1 jalapeno thinly sliced
1/2 yellow onion thinly sliced
1 C white vinegar
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar

1. Wash out two pint jars extremely well with hot water.
2. Fill jars with equal amounts tomato, onion and jalapeno.
3. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer in a small pot.
4. Pour the liquid over the vegetables until completely submerged and cover loosely until they cool at which point they can be transferred to the fridge for about 3 weeks.

Rosemary Pickled Grapes (Adapted from "The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern")
What a cocktail hour treat or something to nibble on when you are outside watching the grill. These are the most intriguing snack your friends have seen in a while.

1- 1/2 # green grapes or a mixture of varieties 
1 C white vinegar
1 C apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. sugar
2 sprigs rosemary, only the leaves
5 grinds black pepper
3 garlic cloves crushed

1. Wash out two pint jars extremely well with hot water.
2. Fill jars with equal amounts of grapes.
3. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer in a small pot.
4. Pour the liquid over the fruit until completely submerged and cover loosely until they cool at which point they can be transferred to the fridge for about 3 weeks. Once you notice how weird it seems that these remind you of olives yet in a fruity sense you will be back for more.

Fennel French Radish Pickles
If you are as lucky as me to find a couple bunches of beautiful candy white tipped French radishes at the farmers market you should consider making these. It has already made a convert out of several non-radish fans I know.

1 # french white tip radishes, washed and sliced 1/4"
1 C white vinegar
1 tsp. ground fennel
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt
10 whole black peppercorns

1. Wash out a pint jar extremely well with hot water.
2. Fill it with radish slices.
3. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a simmer in a small pot.
4. Pour the liquid over the radishes until completely submerged and cover loosely until they cool at which point the can with canning lid can be transferred to the fridge for about 3 weeks.

*All of these are quick pickles, meaning the cans are not sealed. But if you desire to seal them you can bring a large pot of water to a boil with the cans full of pickles and brine already in the pot. In about five minutes you will hear a pop from the top of the can meaning it is sealed. Make sure the cans do not sit on the bottom of the pot- they make a crab like device to prevent this- but either way happy pickling.