May 29, 2012


One of the best parts of food blogging is getting to know other food bloggers- it's always fun to find people who share a common interest, and better yet, one that's easy to come together as strangers and meet over.  We recently attended an event featuring Michael Natkin, food blogger and newly published cookbook author, to meet and mingle with other local food bloggers (and Michael himself!).  The center of the event was his new book, titled after his blog, Herbivoracious.  The event was held in a meeting space at R2L, which neither of us have ever been to.  Needless to say, we were in total awe of the views from the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place.

The event was very laidback, with no real structure- just come, eat and drink, meet Michael, and enjoy yourself.  As the book features vegetarian dishes, we were treated to a number of R2L's renditions of veggie based appetizers- some of which are on their regular menu.  We noticed they have a fondness for truffles and blue cheese, both of which are fine by us.  The servers were kind enough to allow us to photo some of the passed trays- kind of necessary in a room full of bloggers!

Our favorite of the night (and it seemed the whole room's favorite as well!) was the Crisp Risotto Arancini with Truffle Sauce- a smooth interior of melted rice surrounded by a crisp fried shell, well complemented by the rich truffle flavor.  These little guys are only available on the Happy Hour menu, which we suggest trying out for a less expensive way to enjoy the views and some good eats.

Clockwise from Top L: Grilled Truffle Flatbread, Beet and Goat Cheese Crostini, Caprese Salad, Truffled Arancini
Beyond the food, meeting Michael- who is extremely down to earth and easily approachable- as well as making some new blogger friends made the night a success.  We also walked away with a copy of Michael's new book, which was beautifully displayed alongside samples of one of the featured recipes. 

The Grapefruit Crudo was a small bite that had huge flavor- bittersweet grapefruit paired with creamy avocado, salty capers, and a splash of olive oil.  I thought this was a perfect example of most of the recipes in the book.  While there are some simple, classic recipes, the majority of them take a unique approach to food- pairing and grouping foods in ways I would have never imagined.  He also spans a wide range of cuisines, making even some of the most foreign cooking styles and ingredients seem remarkably doable.

While flipping through the book, it was hard to pick out a SINGLE recipe that I wanted to make-- eventually I plan to cook my way through many of the options.  However, one recipe that I kept coming back to was the "Loaded Otsu Noodles."  I don't even know what Otsu means (a quick Google search tells me it's Japanese for "strange, quaint, or stylish") but the mix of ingredients in this recipe had me craving the flavors.  

The recipe is a bit of a riff on the classic Asian-inspired "soba noodles in peanut sauce" (does this dish have a real name?).  However, Michael bulks it up by adding in chunks of crispy tofu, as well as giving an extra spike of both flavor and nutrients with eggplant and cucumber.  While the ingredients list is a bit long, and the instructions lengthy, this dish was worth the extra few steps necessary.  Overall, the recipe probably only takes about 45 minutes to come together.

For me, Step #1 was to get the eggplant in the oven.  I chose to broil, although the author also suggests using a grill pan.  Slice, coat with olive oil, and broil for about five minutes before flipping and repeating.  The broiling gives an extra dimension of flavor relative to a simple roast, as it adds a bit of a char.

It's also suggested that the sauce (Step #2!) be made ahead of time to allow for maximal flavor depth.  It calls for a tahini base, but I threw some peanut butter in as well, since I really wanted these noodles to be extra nutty.  The recipe calls for a few ingredients I didn't have on hand-- including a sweet soy sauce and a specific chili pepper.  However, several possible substitutions are provided which worked just fine!  I love a cook that is sympathetic towards a poorly stocked kitchen.

Onto mini-project #3: prepping the tofu.  I chose to use a SUPER firm (yep, that's what it was labelled as!) block of sprouted tofu, which worked beautifully.  The chunks of tofu should end up crisp (not falling apart), and a softer tofu wouldn't have been able to stand up to the job.  A little look into my favorite method of prepping the soy stuff: slice into 1/2-3/4" slices, lay on a clean, absorbent, low-lint (very important) towel, fold over and lightly press down for about a minute.

These slices of tofu were then pan fried in a generous amount of sesame oil.  Just leave them be in the pan for about five minutes per side- the crispier the better.  It's actually difficult to overcook it, in my experience.

Steps #4 include boiling the soba noodles- we used Japanese somen instead, which gave a bit of a different taste AND texture, as somen is a thinner noodle made of wheat as compared to the nuttier thicker buckwheat soba.  Next time, I'll use whole wheat spaghetti as a better substitute if I can't find soba.

Step #5? Chop an English cucumber and some green onions.  Then, the whole dish began to come together-- draining the noodles and tossing them with the sauce, the roughly chopped eggplant, the cucumber, and the tofu (also diced into 1" pieces).  The recipe also includes a sprinkle of sesame seeds but I substituted sunflower seeds for that necessary crunch.  

Served in a wide, shallow bowl over some crisp iceberg lettuce, this dish is best at either room temperature or right out of the refrigerator.  The noodles soaked up the sauce, giving them plenty of nutty flavor.  The cool cucumbers balanced out the bit of heat from the sriracha (a little extra drizzle doesn't hurt!).  Leftovers the next day were even better!

Even though I didn't follow the recipe exactly, I think the dish came out as Michael intended- a hearty vegetarian dish bursting with flavor and fun.  While I hesitate to say the cookbook would be a good buy for a real meat-and-potatoes family, it's perfect for an adventurous amateur cook open to adding more veggie meals into the rotation.

Thanks to Michael and his team for a great event, a great book, and many great meals to come!

May 24, 2012


It's not a secret that we have a slight serious food crush on Peter McAndrews.  We've eaten his ridiculous sandwiches at both Paesano's, tested the Italian cuisine at Modo Mio, and even gotten up close and personal with the chef himself (and his outrageous personality) at COOK.  While we were at COOK, he talked briefly about his soon-to-be-opened restaurant, Popolino, located a few blocks west of Northern Liberties.  It went directly onto our mental list of restaurants to check out.

Unfortunately, Popolino (which means "the common people") has gotten some bad press, including a somewhat scathing review from City Paper's Adam Erace.  He did note that the very recent change in kitchen staff might make a difference- and if our experience was any reflection of that change, his prediction is more than accurate.

The space is on the smaller side, but open and bright, complete with tiled floors and Roman-inspired decor.  Our waiter, Scott, was incredibly helpful throughout the meal- we could not have asked for more personalized service.  As we settled in and perused the menu, he brought out a little bite to jump start our palates- thinly sliced pieces of toast topped with a slightly sweet compilation of balsamic-glazed onions, peppers, and golden raisins as well as a salty bit of cheese (feta?).  Simple, yet fun and flavorful.

The menu is full of Roman-inspired dishes- Peter initially wanted to incorporate plenty of offal, but apparently the commoners weren't too pleased. The most affordable way to eat is to opt for the Menu Turista- if you've eaten at Modo Mio, you're familiar with this.  For $40, you can pick one choice from each section of the menu.  We all decided to go this route, with our perpetually hungry friend ordering a few extra dishes on the side.

A fun list of appetizers include the option of ordering a mix of room-temp antipasti from the "Tavola Calda"(which for some reason translates to hot table, not cold table as I imagined it might..). The Tavola Calda takes up a pretty extensive amount of space in the center of the dining room.  Ten vegetable dishes, a few olive choices, and a block of proscuitto are up for grabs, though your waiter will make up the plate for you (with your input, of course).

We placed our order (including one plate from the Tavola) and then received the bread service- a wedge cut from an extremely dense, well-crusted housemade loaf with a nutty aftertaste.  A bowl of buttery olive oil is lined with garlic puree, easily coating bits of bread.

Our table shared almost all of our dishes, which is always fun- we got to try so many different things, but to simplify I'll just discuss the plates A & I ordered.  We started out the sharing with A's Tavola plate- her only specific request was for the carrots, which were cut into star shapes and lightly marinated, turning the crunchy vegetable a bit soft.  A few toasted slices of almonds added back some texture.  I ate more than my share of the olives- the green was crisp and meaty while the black were pickled a bit longer and therefore less astringent.  Skinny strips of sweet and sour red pepper were our least favorite, primarily because the complexity of them contradicted the simple, bright flavors of the other vegetables.

My antipasti choice was one of my favorite dishes of the night- the Nervetti, a crispy fried slice of calves' foot pate.  Creamy on the inside- the standard texture of a well-sieved pate.  The flavor was lighter than I was expecting, obviously much less metallic than the usual liver-based pate.  An interesting assortment of toppings made each bite a bit different- pistachios, fava beans, sliced olives, baby raddichio and a dollop of a fruity jam (unfortunately without a flavor I could identify).  Everything about this dish was playful, with the fried pate grounding the other flavors with its richness.

Though I didn't try it, I loved the idea behind the Lingua- a slice of grilled calves' tongue served atop thinly sliced fries and topped with a fried egg.  Reminiscent of a certain breakfast poutine, McAndrews is taking an unusual cut of meat and making it extremely approachable.

The pasta dishes are also quite inventive, straying from traditional flavor profiles.  However, I chose one of the simplest- the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, a hollow spaghetti tossed in a surprisingly spicy tomato sauce intensified by bits of salty guanciale. I always love the springy bite of bucatini, and these sauce-slicked noodles were no exception.  Shaved pecorino cheese softened the acidity of the tomatoes, but the sauce was intense.  No surprise- A loved it.

A ordered the canneloni, paper thin rolls of pasta stuffed with veal and nestled into a sweet, cocoa-tinted tomato sauce accented with extra juicy raisins- a Roman twist on a mole?  Perhaps with a bit of cinnamon?  Completely unique.

Unfortunately, the gnocchi di castagne was quite disappointing- the tiny fluffy pillows of chestnut and riccota gnocchi had little to no flavor.  However, one of the specials of the evening- hand-folded pockets of pasta stuffed with creamy sweetbreads and peas- redefined delicious.

The secondi course reads like a list of proteins, and each plate was relatively unadorned- don't expect "sides" to come with your meat.  I chose the grilled rib-eye, the one dish that I thought came out a tad too salty (a common complaint on Yelp).  The caper-based sauce contributed to this dilemma, but the meat itself was well-prepared- tender and juicy with plenty of flavor, the way a ribeye should be.

While we were starting in on our dishes, a server came by with a couple of "freebies" from the kitchen.  Apparently if you break out a few cameras and talk about little else but the food, the staff takes you somewhat seriously.  These herb and butter rubbed roasted potatoes were a great starchy compliment to my ribeye.

A chose something a bit lighter- the seared bass.  Flaky chunks of the white fish paired well with a topping of lightly dressed fennel and raddichio and a drizzle of oil and pesto.  Indicative of Popolino's new menu for the spring/summer months- almost everything has changed from the current menu posted online.

A surprise Rocket salad also made its way to our table- a pile of arugula lightly coated in a bit of olive oil and lemon juice and dusted with shaved Parmesan.  Nothing you couldn't make at home, but a nice accessory hit of greens.

Scott recited the dessert menu for us- a short list of Italian staples.  I claimed the panna cotta for myself, which was served with a macerated strawberry topping.  A thick, creamy pudding with a bit of summer fruit? Don't mind if I do.  Not particularly inspired, but a nice sweet end to the meal.


A chose the budino- a cappucino flavored pudding topped with a puddle of whipped cream and a few blueberries.  I can't help but compare every budino to Barbuzzo's infamous salted caramel version.. and obviously this one wasn't even in the same ballpark.  However, it was a decent replacement for an after-dinner cappucino.

As I stated at the beginning of this post (long, long ago if you've made it this far...), our experience seemed to be the polar opposite of the "sweaty chaos" endured by Erace.  The service was spectacular (thanks again, Scott!), and almost every dish passed around the table received words of praise.  I can't comment on the authenticity of the "Roman trattoria," but to us, it was clearly another success to add to McAndrew's expanding empire.

501 Fairmount Avenue
BYOB and cash only

May 20, 2012

Supper Burger: Best of Philly?

Joining Burger Club PHL has really opened my eyes to the world of burgers.  I typically skip over the burger for more unique menu options, but now I find myself giving them a bit more attention- at the very least quizzing any burger consumers about their experience.  And here's a first- actually going to a restaurant specifically to eat their burger.  This weekend we got together with new Burger Club friends to check out the infamous Supper Burger.


We're big fans of Supper- brunch, dinner, special events, you name it.  This time, the service was a little... weird? But no matter, we were here for one thing.  The Supper Burger is currently up for Best of Philly 2012, and for good reason.  The description alone makes it stand out- a 10 ounce dry-aged custom Pat LaFrieda blend- and that's just the patty.  The meat is served on a brioche bun with caramelized onions, melted cheddar cheese, a crispy piece of country ham, and a slow-roasted tomato.  Yes, this is a serious sandwich (and with a serious price tag, ringing in at $19).

Before I comment on that tower of perfectly cooked beef, I want to mention the duck fat fries that come with the burger.  A good thick steak fry with that slight sogginess and depth of flavor we come to associate with duck fat- and absolutely perfect for scooping up embarrassingly large dollops of truffle mayo.  Even though the fries come with three housemade sauces (beer mustard and thousand island being the other two), the truffle mayo is where it's at.

Back to business.  A and I shared this burger, and it was quite a beast to split in half.  The first thing I noticed was the bottom bun, already completely drenched in pink meaty juice.  However, the density and egg-washed aspects of the brioche bun kept it intact.  I'm a sucker for brioche buns, and this was no exception- a delightfully fluffy and slightly sweet way to keep my hands (mostly) clean.  We ordered our burger medium rare, but there was a definite range in doneness as you moved through the burger from the edge (almost well-done) to the center (medium).  However, the flavor and texture of the meat were mindblowing, which to me overrides every other aspect of the experience.

Honestly I was so absorbed in how good the patty was that I hardly noticed the accompaniments, but I have no doubt that they contributed to the burger as a whole.  Crispy ham is a fun riff on the typical bacon with a slightly different flavor profile but same extra kick of salt.  However, a few of our dining mates found it a bit distracting. Did I mention how good the patty was though?  Yeah, nothing else matters.

So I know I just said nothing else matters, but my inner food critic has to step in and point out a flaw of this burger.  Note the height on that patty.  Because it's on the taller side (and so, so satisfying to bite through... but I digress), the radius is considerably smaller than the wider bun.  I was pretty sad to find myself left with several bites of bun without it's meaty partner.  I have to admit to a bit of a "But why is the burger gone?" meltdown.

We also ate a kale salad ($14).  There was some kale, some pecans, some fun "frittata croutons," fresh radishes, and serrano ham.  Great salad, but it was no burger.

Since my foray into the world of specialty burgers has been a recent development, I know I have some catching up to do.  However, I completely support this burger being in the running for Best of Philly 2012.  What's your favorite burger?

926 South Street

May 16, 2012

Graeter's Ice Cream

We very rarely buy ice cream to have around the house.  With a Rita's right down the street, and the #1 Place to Eat Ice Cream in the WORLD around the corner, why would we buy the grocery store kind?  However, we were recently offered the chance to try Graeter's, an ice cream company based out of Ohio.  With a long history (founded in the mid-1800's), this place has developed a faithful following.  Our media rep informed us that Oprah Winfrey gets the stuff shipped to her no matter where she is, and they have the magazine mention to back it up.  At $70 to ship six pints, you really gotta love this stuff to pay the price.

So why were we offered the chance to try it ourselves?  Good news for us Philly folks- Graeter's has worked out a deal to sell their goods at local Weis'.  I'm already on the hunt for the nearest one... and a friend with a car.  The company sent us four flavors to try, all in their "Signature Chip Flavors" line.  Each of these flavors is special as it contains a massive amount of chocolate ribbon chunks.  The first one we tried was the Mint Chocolate Chip.

One thing we noticed throughout each of the varieties we tried is the pure flavor, which reflects the pure ingredient list.  The list looks similar to the types of ingredients you would use in homemade ice cream- real cream (from farms that don't use artificial growth hormones), pure cane sugar (no artificial sweeteners or corn syrup), and no iffy ingredients I can't pronounce.  Look at the label on the ice cream you typically eat-- probably more stuff in there than you thought/there should be.  I will note that most of the flavors contain one or two soy products, which is unfortunate for those with allergies.

The Mint Chip was subtly minty, and not in the least bit weirdly green-- just natural mint extract.  The texture is unbelievably creamy, with just the right amount of crunch from the chocolate swirled throughout.  Graeter's uses a "French Pot" process, which blends the cream and the egg together into a smooth custard while slowly swirling in a frozen metal pot.  As it freezes, it's scraped off of the side and folded into itself, preventing air contamination (hello freezer burn!), and creating a super dense texture.  What makes the process even more unique is that only two gallons are made in each batch- makes me feel kind of special!

I'm usually not a huge fan of vanilla ice cream, since it's a bit on the boring side.  However, I loved the Graeter's version-- partially because of the chocolate!  Even without it, the richness of the ice cream itself would have been just as enjoyable.  The use of Madagascar vanilla gives it an extra vanilla punch you don't usually find in vanilla "flavored" products.  This pint was a good example of the huge chunks of chocolate you find throughout- not just tiny specks you hardly notice, but good solid pieces that melt in your mouth.

We hit jackpot with the third flavor we tried, the Chocolate Chocolate Chip.  It was both of our favorites- and for good reason.  Cocoa plays a huge role here, but isn't overwhelming- just the right combination of bitter and sweet.  Sprinkle a little salt on here, and you've got one of the best simple desserts you can find.

A little look at the ingredients.
Another thing you might be wondering-- the nutritional status of ice cream is never great, but Graeter's is particularly high in fat, as it's made with mostly heavy cream.  You might find that your frozen yogurt or sorbet can rack up 150 calories per serving, but the good stuff here will get you twice that.  However, I find that just a few bites (about the size of a single scoop) is just as rewarding and satisfying as a whole pint of the "low fat, 1/2 the calories" kind.

We unknowingly saved one of the best for last- one of the companies all time best sellers, the Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip.  For some reason I was under the impression that it was Black Cherry, and since neither of us love cherry flavored foods, we continued to overlook it.  However, it was a sleeper hit, with a bit of a tart tang from the black raspberry puree that plays a starring role.  The chocolate was a perfect match for the fruit, the combination contributing to my fondness for this flavor.

A big thanks to Graeter's for shipping us some samples- the values of the company, their commitment to natural products and old-fashioned production techniques speaks to me, but the textures and flavors of their ice cream seal the deal.  If you live near a Weis', look for this stuff soon, and send me a pint of the Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip if you see it!

May 10, 2012

Bouchons Au Thon from "A Homemade Life"

We recently helped form a book club with a small group of girls who share a common love of food.  This shared interest inspired a food-themed club, which is actually a rather general category of literature.  Our second meeting revolved around a book by blogger-turned-author Molly Wizenberg of Orangette.  The book, titled A Homemade Life, is a fantastic mixture of a memoir and a cookbook- with each recipe attached to a poignant short story.

The stories traverse Ms. Wizenberg's life from childhood through her recent marriage, tying recipes together with common characters and general life experiences.  It brought A to tears at points- a rare effect of a cookbook.  We highly recommend it for the simple, delicious recipes, the touching stories, and a brilliant and attention-grabbing writing style.

Our book club decided to host a potluck as part of our get-together, so I sifted through the baked goods and salads for something a little more hearty.  I settled on a simple but completely unique recipe for Bouchons Au Thon- or as the author interprets this- tuna muffins.

Based on a light dinner recipe from Ms. Wizenberg's Parisian study-abroad host mother, the idea of a fishy muffin is... weird, and slightly gross.  However, a second glimpse through the ingredient list convinced me to give it a go.  These really aren't muffins at all (no flour or sugar), but an egg, tuna and cheese mixture- "tuna quiche" might be a more appropriate translation.

The instructions couldn't be more basic- simply mix together a handful of ingredients and bake.  The opening of a can of white albacore had our tuna monster pestering me for the leftover liquids.

She's just fluffy, not fat!
 I did have to exercise some basic cooking skills by chopping a bit of onion and grating a full cup of Gruyere, which translated to about 5 ounces of the semi-hard cheese.  I used the medium grate to ensure an even distribution of salty Gruyere throughout the mixture.

The recipe also calls for a second type of dairy- creme fraiche.  I am embarassed to say I don't think I've ever purchased this cream cheese-butter-sour cream combo before.  It has a fantastic texture similar to cream cheese icing with a rich, tangy flavor.

The combination of each of the ingredients into a bowl resulted in a slimy pile of unappetizing pink mush.  Unfortunately, I made these mere hours before our potluck dinner, so there was no turning back.

Using a generous amount of butter, I greased the heck out of 8 compartments of my muffin tin- it's known to encourage some serious stickage.

The recipe calls for baking at 325 for 20-25 minutes, but our oven runs cool so ours required 25 minutes at 340.  I then turned the heat off and let them sit in the oven for five additional minutes until I thought they looked completely set across the top.  Thankfully after baking they take on more of an orange-y brown color- a little like a corn muffin.

I was extra nervous about pulling them out of the tin, but a sharp knife tip around the edge and a large dinner spoon brought them all out in a single piece.  Cooling on a rack for about an hour allowed them to firm up even more.

I am pleased to say that these tuna cakes (there were a few crab cake comparisons) were a big hit!  Although I'm sure everyone had some initial hesitation, the flavors of the tuna, tomato paste, and cheese combine in a seriously savory way.  The egg provides a custard-like texture which held its shape relatively well.  Baking these in a muffin tin keeps the portion size small- they would serve well crumbled over a salad or as a (high protein!) snack.

We got to sample several other dishes from the book, including a comforting vegetable soup, a fun arugula salad (with chocolate!), and a zucchini pesto pasta.

Zucchini pesto pasta.
Thankfully one of the book club girls is a fantastic baker and took on two of the many sweets recipes to provide us with dessert- one from the book, and one from the blog.

Lemon-blueberry yogurt cake.

Salted chocolate cookies.
We're absolutely loving our book club- reading books that we certainly would never read on our own, expanding our knowledge of food, and sharing good eats with friends new and old.  I've already recommended A Homemade Life to as many people as possible- it would make a great Mother's Day gift!