December 31, 2010

Silk City Diner

December was a month chock full of traveling and hectic times at work for both of us. We've hardly spent any time in the city, and when we have been here, it's been almost impossible to make it out of the house to eat. With Christmas behind us, I spent the awkward Christmas-New Year period in Philly alone, trying to catch up at work. An out-of-town friend was nice enough to accompany me in what was probably my only activity that did not involve work, the gym, or my house. He suggested we venture over to Northern Liberties and try Silk City Diner.

Silk City is a strange combination of a train car (?) style diner and a dark, club-like bar. Veer right when you enter and you might never know there's another room attached on the back-- at least during normal dining hours.

The Diner; Source

It's also gained a moment of fame by being featured on the popular TV show, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

I was a little hesitant to try it out- the menu looks fairly simple, but after watching this video, I was sold. Too bad those empanadas are no longer on the menu...

If you're expecting ho-hum, typical diner food, this isn't the place for you. It's more of a casual gastropub, with simple twists on classic comfort foods. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but also nothing over $15 or so (my kind of place). They also have a fair number of daily specials, which always helps to mix it up for the regular customers.

I'm fairly certain my dining partner has a secret mission to try the wings in every restaurant in Philly, so that's what we started with. A huge pile of buffalo-style wings ($8) that were that perfect texture between fried and grilled, with a sauce that went a bit beyond your typical buffalo sauce. I couldn't decide exactly what the addition was, but it seemed more garlicky than I'm used to-- a good thing, in this case. Solid- I wouldn't write home about wings, ever- but they were tasty.

We had a lot of trouble deciding on entrees- lots of options seemed appealing- but my friend finally decided on the Hot Roast Beef Sandwich ($11). A fairly ubiquitous diner food, and a classic Philly one at that, the sandwich came open faced on a large, crusty baguette- much better bread than most diners would serve. Sliced cheesesteak-style meat was piled on the bread and topped with a hefty serving of melted Gruyere. It also came with two sauce choices- a simple au jus, and a horseradish-black pepper cream sauce. Pouring both on the entire sandwich certainly kicked it up a notch. All of the sandwiches are also accompanied by a pile of fries- fresh cut, skin on, just the way they should be.

I chose an unusual dish- making a few substitutions to your classic Fish & Chips ($14), which the server declared "Fish & Spinach" as he placed it before me (without batting an eye). I really enjoy the fish part of this meal, but never want a huge pile of fried potatoes alongside it. Silk City has several vegetable based sides, and I went with the garlic spinach (and swallowed an additional $2 charge). The fried fish combines two of my favorite things- cod and tempura. Two generous pieces of thick, perfectly cooked-through cod were coated in a thin, crispy layer of freshly fried tempura batter, allowing the fish flavor to really shine without the soft, bread-like coating that fried fish often dies beneath. With a smear of tartar sauce and a squeeze of lemon, I was in fried fish heaven. The spinach was a great side- a stack of sauteed baby spinach with chunks of roasted garlic and just the right touch of butter. It evened out the heavier meaty fish, and gave me a good dose of veggies.

On the side, I enjoyed one of the best pieces of cornbread in the city ($3). Dense yet crumbly, the tall wedge of bread was complete with just a smattering of smoky jalapeno bits. Briefly grilled to help bring out the sweet flavors of corn, and then served atop a pool of honey, each bite was slowly savored.

Silk City is certainly one-of-a-kind: great food in an interesting atmosphere, with your choice of dance club and outdoor patio (in the warmer months) just steps away. It's eclectic nature makes it a stand-out in a city full of good food, much deserving of its moment in the Guy Fieri spotlight!

Silk City Diner
435 Spring Garden Street

December 25, 2010

Dutch Baby

Merry Christmas! In celebrating the holiday at home in sunny Florida, our dad suggested we make a new breakfast item he recently discovered while watching Cook's Country TV- the video version of Cook's Illustrated, the magazine famous for developing and meticulously testing and tweaking the "perfect" way to make a specific dish- from pork chops to frittata.

On an episode titled "Breakfast Showstoppers," the chefs cooked up a number of treats perfect for the morning meal. One of these was something completely unfamiliar to my dad (and us)- the Dutch baby. After cooking for so many years, a novel dish is always exciting to find. For the next available weekend breakfast, my dad carefully followed the detailed instructions and created his very own Dutch baby. Originating in Germany, the dish is similar to Yorkshire pudding- a thin, eggy batter baked in the oven until puffy and crispy. Of course we wanted to try this as well, making it the easy choice for Christmas Day brunch.


3 T butter
1 cup flour (either bread, pastry or all-purpose)
1/4 cup cornstarch
zest of one lemon + juice from 1/2 lemon
1 t salt
3 eggs
1 1/4 cups skim milk
1 t vanilla extract
3 T confectioners' sugar

Another important "ingredient" is the proper pan: a stainless steel 12 inch skillet (not the nonstick kind... just metal). Something we don't have, so a new kitchen item has been added to our wish list. The first step is to preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with the top shelf being about midlevel. Prep the pan by melting 2 T of butter in the microwave and "brushing" it into the pan, covering the bottom and sides all the way up to the top. Once the oven is hot, place the pan in to preheat for ten minutes.

Next, combine the dry ingredients in a bowl: flour, cornstarch, lemon zest and salt.

Whip the eggs up in a separate bowl- use a whisk to vigorously whip the eggs for about a minute. Add in the last tablespoon of melted butter as well as the vanilla and milk- skim milk is key here- the fat in anything else will decrease the crispy factor of the end product.

Pour about 1/3 of this mixture into the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth- add a bit more if it seems too dry to incorporate everything in. Unlike pancake batter, where lumps are a good thing, this batter needs to be completely smooth. My dad had to intervene since my arms just don't move fast enough. Dump in the remaining milk/egg mixture and mix well- the batter should be very thin. To make the next step a bit easier, transfer the batter into a large measuring cup- or anything with a pouring lip.

Once the pan has been in the oven for ten minutes and the butter is browning nicely, open the oven and pull the rack out- do not remove the pan from the oven. Pour the batter into the pan and quickly close the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes.

Prepare the post-bake topping: a few tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, confectioners' sugar, and whatever else you might want. Keep it simple though- we opted for blueberries.

Our oven was running a little cool, so we kept it in the oven for a few extra minutes- the batter poofs up along the sides of the pan, creating a crispy crust.

It's surprisingly easy to slide out the pan onto a cutting board- finish it up by sprinkling the top with lemon juice and sugar. A pizza cutter quickly rendered the "baby" into slices, with the crispy edges making it easy to cut and serve. The blueberries as well as sliced pear and apple and a few deliciously salty pieces of bacon helped round out the brunch.

Not knowing quite what to expect, the Dutch baby proved to be a totally new experience- a sort of combination of pancake, french toast, and souffle. Not too sweet (as the only sugar is the sprinkle on top), a hint of lemon; the real interest here is the texture. Fluffy yet crispy, doughy yet airy, just altogether intriguing. I'm still not sure how this is representative of a baby, but the fun name adds to its charm. The one downside is the fact that making multiple batches of this breakfast would be time-consuming and near impossible, so it's only good for a small family or as a component of a bigger meal. A & I are already hoping Santa brings us a new pan (preferably before next Christmas...) .

December 23, 2010

Butternut Squash Gnocchi

Most days, J and I try to throw together a healthy dinner at the end of the day. It's a priority for us to cook and eat at home-- the cost of eating out can take a toll both financially and nutritionally. Most of the meals I plan take about 30 to 40 minutes to make; easy enough to squeeze into our busy schedules. On the weekends, if we're not splurging on dinners out, I like to play around a bit in the kitchen and prepare a more hands-on, time intensive dinner.

Last week, with freezing temps and gusty winds slowly becoming the norm, I decided to make a healthy spin on a warm, comforting perfect-for-winter meal: gnocchi made from butternut squash instead of white potatoes. The recipe I used as inspiration called for a simplistic four ingredients: squash, flour, salt, and pepper. The mechanics of the recipe weren't quite as simple. The first step: bake the squash until well-softened. I purchased a huge six-pounder, which easily filled up my baking pan.

Cut into four sections, de-seed and place face down (as above) in a baking pan with about an inch of water. Bake in a 425 degree oven for forty minutes. Flip squash and bake for an additional thirty minutes, until extremely soft. Remove from oven, drain water carefully, and let cool until able to handle. Then, peel the squash, and mash with a fork (or could be done with a food processor if you're OK with cleaning another dish). Spread out on a baking sheet and allow to cool completely.

Scrape cooled squash into a pile and begin adding flour-- I used whole wheat, but any type of flour will work (I think a fine corn meal would be another interesting possible twist). Fold into squash with a spoon or two, or by hand (the messy, but more fun version), and continue to add flour until a dough begins to form. For a 4.5 lb squash, you should use about 1.5 cups of flour.

Move the ball of dough to a well-floured work surface (a large cutting board works well and makes cleanup WAY easier), and add your seasonings to taste-- about 2 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of fresh ground pepper, and a sprinkle of sweet paprika for good measure worked for me.

Once satisfied with the flavor and texture of the dough, split off a large handful and with well-floured hands, begin to roll it out. The goal is to form one long, thin roll, about 1 inch wide.

Cut this strip into gnocchi-sized pieces, slightly longer than they are wide.

Dip a fork in flour, and roll each piece of dough between your hand and the back of the tines to form small ridges. Place on a baking sheet lined with wax paper or parchment paper, and finish rolling, cutting, and adding ridges to the rest of the dough (note: requires patience).

Gnocchi City

Allow to dry for up to two hours. The entire process is aimed to reduce moisture in the dough without adding too much flour (you don't want dry flour balls). When you're ready to eat, bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop in enough gnocchi to cover the bottom of the pot (too many may cause them to stick together). Keep cook time short-- once the dough balls begin to rise to the surface, they're done. Carefully drain- I used a slotted spoon and moved gnocchi to a strainer to ensure maximal water removal.

While J didn't love the finished product as much as I had hoped, they still made for a fun and different dinner. The texture was just right- soft and not too chewy, and the boiling process erased any hint of raw flour flavor. The flavor of the squash wasn't as apparent as I expected, but served as a perfect base for a bowl of warm, satisfying "pasta." The lightness of the squash was well-appreciated; I certainly didn't feel stuffed or weighed down at the end of the meal.

These gnocchi can be served a variety of ways-- I used a spinach sauce that I happened to have on hand (spinach, potato, onion and vegetable broth boiled and blended). A classic marinara also worked well with our leftovers the next day. To kick these up a notch, you can add a cup of ricotta to the blend (makes a creamier, saltier bite) or a number of other spices (rosemary, thyme, basil...) depending on which sauce you choose. We plan on making the "kicked up" version for Christmas dinner, along with braised short ribs.

December 19, 2010

Gingerbread Blondies

We had the pleasure of visiting our out-of-town friends recently, and in formulating plans for our quick visit, we decided we should spend an entire afternoon in the kitchen. Our friend is a self-proclaimed cookie monster, and with an upcoming vacation of her own, wanted to stock up on homemade goodies for the trip. I love baking, and eating baked goods, so it was a win all around. I trolled around TasteSpotting for a bit, and as soon as I saw these White Chocolate Gingerbread Blondies, knew I wanted them to be "my" contribution to the cookie-fest.

White Chocolate Gingerbread Blondies

2 3/4 c. flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice

1 1/4 c. (2.5 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
1 1/4 c. packed light brown sugar
heaping 1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup molasses
1 3/4 c white chocolate chips

First, the oven! Preheat it to 350, and while you're at it, prepare your pan. Simply grease a rimmed cookie sheet, preferably one that is 12x17. The lip is critical for holding in the blondies.

As with most recipes, this one calls for combining the dry ingredients separately. I mixed together the flour and the next five ingredients in a medium bowl, substituting allspice for the previously suggested cloves.

In our hostess' lovely KitchenAid mixer (we really need to get ourselves one of these!), the butter and both types of sugars were creamed together. The temperature of the butter really helps with this-- too cold, and it won't combine well, too warm, and it will be runny.

Next, I added the eggs and egg yolk one at a time, pushing down the butter/sugar combo that accumulates on the sides after each addition. Then, I added the other wet ingredients, the molasses and the vanilla. Both of these help create that rich gingerbread flavor.

Publix brand, of course.

On low speed, the flour mixture was added in small batches, mixing until just combined before adding more (I split it into three additions).

Then, either on the lowest mixer speed or by hand, mix in the white chocolate chips. You could also add dried fruit, semi-sweet chocolate chips, or nuts (I'm thinking a dried cherry, pecan, white chocolate combination would be killer!). I then dumped the entire mixture onto the greased pan, and with a spatula, spread it out to the edges until a smooth, even layer was formed. These bars end up fairly thin, so if you wanted to produce thicker, "cakier" bar, you could make these in a 12x9 dish and increase the baking time.

The recipe I had suggested a 23 to 25 minute baking time, but at 20 minutes, our edges were browning and the whole pan seemed well-set, so we removed them then. The bars were quite springy, with more of a cake feel than brownie feel at this point. I then allowed the entire pan to cool on a wire rack until ready to slice.

Once cool, these can be sliced into whatever size bars you desire. I sliced up 35 bars, but even some of these were on the large side. Their thinness allows maximal bars out of minimal dough, making these good for feeding large holiday crowds or for producing many baked good gifts.

The bars were super moist while they were still warm, leaving my fingers a little greasy as I snagged the first one. The gingerbread flavors are subtle, but contrast really well with the usually overwhelmingly sweet white chocolate. Once they cooled completely, the bars settled a bit and produced more of a dense, dark bar, and were one of my favorite creations of the day. This unique twist on a holiday favorite might just be what you need to get out of that Christmas cookie rut!

December 14, 2010

Collaborative Dinner @ Han Dynasty

Oh, Han. You look like you're twelve. You make expletive-filled jokes and blend in with your wait staff.


You also make RIDICULOUSLY good food. And with multiple Han Dynasty locations scattered across the Philadelphia area, a lot of other people seem to think so too.

A & I have been curious about Han Dynasty for awhile. Craig LaBan had only good things to say about the restaurant, but did note that most of the dishes are pretty high on the spice scale. A likes spicy food more than I do, and while I tolerate it and enjoy it in small quantities, the 20 course $25 tasting menu scared my tastebuds. However, A & I both noticed a blog announcement for a collaborative dinner with Chiang, David Ansill (of Ladder 15), and Sam Jacobson from Sycamore, a suburban restaurant we have yet to check out (not having a car makes these types of trips difficult). The concept was "Chinese-izing American food," which to me meant dialing down the heat- at least it would serve as a good intro to Han Dynasty.

We reserved two spots at the 6 PM seating on a Monday, and were squeezed in between other pairs of diners at a longish table. The spacing was a little tight/awkward, but the restaurant is on the small side so I'm not sure how else they could have organized it. Thankfully we were almost immediately served the amuse bouche to distract us. I will preface this long descriptive post with saying we had NO idea what would be served at this dinner, so it was an adventure. The amuse bouche definitely took away any hesitations we may have had. A teacup of creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup was topped with a drizzle of chili oil. Seriously, this might be my quintessential perfect dish- cream, artichokes, and a punch of heat- just enough to prep our mouths for the two hours of spiciness to come.

The first course- a take on salmon carpaccio- was also highlighted by chili oil. Thinly sliced salmon was topped with bits of green onion and pickled radishes, and finished with a drizzle of "tangy tofu sauce" (tasted like spicy sauce found on sushi) and chili oil complete with chunks of pepper. The presentation reminded me of Japanese okonomiyaki. Under all those rich and spicy accompaniments, the salmon didn't have a whole lot of flavor- it would have been a bit better if the salmon was smoked instead of raw- so it seemed a bit more like tuna. The smooth, cool texture of the fish was a comfort in the midst of the heat from the sauces.

The next few dishes were served family style- two big plates of food for the eight people at our table, as well as unlimited bowls of white rice. As our second course, the pigs ears' were probably our least favorite dish... for obvious reasons. The meat was cut into thin strips which had a striped effect- a snappy cartilage layer sandwiched by a softer "meat." The flavor was great- a spicy sweet taste that was reminiscent of Peking duck, interspersed with a vinegar note from a mix of sauteed cabbage and pickled turnips. We just couldn't get over the tendon-y feeling and crunchy aspect of the ears.

The chefs returned to a more familiar ingredient in the next course- marinated flank steak atop a bed of baby arugula and some red pepper strips tossed in a subtly spicy viniagrette. The flank steak was cooked to a perfect medium and had an incredible velvety texture. Smoky flavors enriched the beefy salty steak richness that we so rarely indulge in. I did wish there were some sort of crust on the outer edge- it was just ultra soft all over which confused my mouth. The arugula salad provided some much appreciated greens- the "baby" greens were less spicy than "adult" arugula, which allowed the Sichuan dressing to shine through. This was definitely an American-esque dish that anyone could enjoy.

Our fourth course had a mixed review. Big chunks of sweetbreads were... fried? I'm not sure how these were cooked, but they ended up being on the dry side- almost like badly cooked tofu with the outer "skin." The sweetbread taste isn't particularly flavorful, so thankfully there was a hefty dollop of what can only be described as General Tso's sauce... a sweet and spicy sticky sauce that can make anything taste amazing. Salsify (a flowering plant that looks like a weed) stalks were shredded and roasted- and I think I have a new favorite starch. They tasted like french fries but with a firm texture similar to asparagus. Salsify is known as the "oyster plant", contributing a salty flavor without the raw seafood aspect.

Next up was more meat- tea smoked ribs. Just one plate this time for the whole table- and served with a spoon. I took my own liberties and snagged a rib using my hands, but I did notice a guy spooning himself a rib. Very weird. The texture was like beef jerky- on the dry side- and the flavor was incredibly salty- definitely did not want more than one of these. Certainly a new and interesting take on ribs. A side dish of oily potato strings was also served. Oily somehow worked in their favor, but the chunks of dried chili peppers didn't provide much spice (though I didn't risk obliterating my tastebuds by eating one). So.. sort of like an oil-drenched potato stick. Not bad.

The last savory dish was individually plated "lasagna." My pasta aversion was appeased by the replacement of noodles with thinly sliced mushroom- using some type of mushroom that can be sliced into paper thin palm sized sheets. Mild blobs of pork layered between the mushroom, which sat upon a pile of braised Chinese greens. Chili oil once again brought the spice to the table, providing some flavor to an otherwise somewhat bland dish. I loved the concept of this dish but wish the pork had been cooked in a way that didn't strip it of all flavor and texture- it was just sort of mushy. It was also practically impossible to eat with chopsticks- lasagna requires a knife. A used each mushroom slice to wrap up the contents on top of it- converting her lasagna to ravioli.

Whew... I'm getting full all over again writing this post. However, Han & co. saved the best for last, at least in our opinion. Though some of the other diners seemed turned off by the dessert course, we were obsessed- warm ginger cake with peppercorn ice cream. The cake was incredibly dense- A compared it to fudge. The ginger flavor was super intense, complete with bits of pickled ginger dispersed throughout, as well as plump raisins. The ice cream was also a completely new experience- cold creamy.. peppercorns? It was baffling at first taste, but grew on me and by the end I was scraping up the drippings from my plate. The honey ginger sauce had a pinch of chili flakes and provided an extra sweet "juice" that was soaked up into the cake. It also left a lingering taste that was accompanied with a pleasant mouth tingly "buzz." Overall, so unique and so delicious.

We gladly forked over our $40/person and gritted our teeth against the wind that blew us home. The entry way was packed with the 8 PM seating, though this didn't seem to rush the chefs or servers. Overall the food seemed to be a good balance of Chinese and American- General Tso's sweetbreads? Tea-smoked ribs? The conceptualization of the entire meal was spectacular (minus the pigs' ears. That was straight Chinese weirdness... no offense). I think this was a superb intro to Han Dynasty, and we can't wait to go back and try out the truly authentic stuff.

Han Dynasty
108 Chestnut Street

December 11, 2010

More pancakes

You already know about our weird obsession with pancakes, and we happily continue to carry out our Saturday morning tradition through the fall and winter months. It's hard to beat a big mug of coffee and a stack of pancakes on a chilly weekend morning. However, we do like to mix it up from time to time, using different types of flour (or pre-made mixes...) and additions. Recently, the superfluous baking item this time of year, pumpkin, has played a role in our weekend ritual. After the AM workout and before embarking on an afternoon of Christmas shopping, I whipped up a batch of pumpkin pancakes that literally taste like pumpkin bread- just in small, flattened, circular shapes.

Ingredients (serves two):
1.5 cups of pancake mix (we currently love Hodgson Mill's Whole Wheat Buttermilk)
1 flax egg (or 1 real egg): 1 heaping T flax meal + 3 T water
1 T brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1/2 t ginger
3/4 cup canned pumpkin puree
~1/3 cup of milk or milk "drink"
Optional: 2 scoops protein powder- we use a whey/soy combo from Trader Joe's that adds a hint of vanilla flavor

Mix everything together well- I use a fork to help incorporate things in and get rid of any "bubbles" of flour. In order to get the dense pumpkin bread texture, the dough should be REALLY thick. If this isn't your pancake style, thin it out a bit with a couple extra splashes of milk.

Heat a large pan on medium and add a bit of butter or cooking spray. Use a big spoon to dole out pancake sized portions- you will need to use the spoon to flatten the dough out since it is so thick. These pancakes take considerably longer to cook so set the table, sip some coffee, cut up some fruit, etc. for about 5 minutes before attempting to flip the cakes. If they still seem fragile, let them go for a few more minutes. Once you get them flipped, its your call as to how long they go on the other side. We prefer our pumpkin bread to have a super moist "doughy" consistency, and since we don't have a raw egg concern, our pancakes match this to some degree.

These pancakes turned out perfect- the pancake mix has a bit of cornmeal giving them a slight grittiness to offset the smooth pumpkin texture, the nutmeg and ginger provide a subtle spicy flavor, and the cinnamon and sugar a touch of sweetness. Served with some fruit, a drizzle of maple syrup, and super-strong coffee... never fails to make me happy. A thought they needed "a few toasted pecans" which earned her a dirty look.