January 25, 2010

Eating Locally

I have to admit, I never really think about where my food comes from. A picks out recipes every weekend, we make a list, and we go shopping. Tomatoes? Check. Apples? Check. Zucchini? Check. Wait, it's January. None of these things grow in January. At least not anywhere near Philadelphia. Which means somewhere in the land of Far Far Away, someone is growing these things and then putting them on a gas guzzling truck to bring them to ShopRite. On one hand, I have to say, this sounds super. We have the technology, its the 21st century, why not be able to get any possible food item we want? Two (main) reasons. 1) Gasoline use. I'm not your typical left-leaning young adult, but even I think that driving an orange 3000+ miles seems slightly absurd. We complain about gas prices, but our consumption is only pushing us along the whole Econ 101 supply & demand principles. 2) (and most important) The taste of said shipped foods. How is a tomato supposed to make it all that way? -- they always look so perfect in the store! Genetics, apparently.

I recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's "memoir" Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver happens to be my all-time favorite author (Poisonwood Bible=best book ever) so when I spotted this book at my friends place at a New Years Eve get together, I was immediately intrigued. The concept of the book follows Kingsolver, her husband, and her two children as they attempt to eat locally (ie food grown on their own farm, or purchased from neighbors) for an entire year. A mix of amusing stories as well as tons of information regarding the WHY of this endeavor, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the kinds of things they put into their bodies (which should be everyone...). It all boils down to one main idea- our bodies need a variety of nutrients, and the annual growing cycle provides an ever-changing variety of foods for this purpose. And those perfect tomatoes have been purposely bred to maintain good shipping properties, with no real regard to taste. No wonder the best tasting tomatoes are the odd-shaped ones that come straight from Grandma's garden in the summertime...

In the interest in not seeming like a nutritional Nazi, I'm going to focus this more on the idea that out of season vegetables & fruits don't taste all that great. As you all know, we like food. Delicious, fresh food. One obvious way to accomplish this is to take the Kingsolver route- eat locally (and therefore seasonally). So... dig a tomato bed in the back alley? Don't think so. Fortunately, Philadelphia is surrounded by farms. Some of the food from these farms is sold at Farmers Markets across the city. However, another option is to participate in a CSA- community supported agriculture. The concept is to support local farmers by signing up for a food "subscription". Instead of paying for gallons of gas and a tasteless tomato, you could be getting a box of fresh, local (and organic, if that matters to you) vegetables delivered every week.

A and I recently signed up for a half share in the Lancaster Farm Fresh Coooperative (http://www.lancasterfarmfresh.com/csa.asp), which required a $150 deposit. By April, we'll have to shell out another $300, but we will eventually start receiving our weeks worth of vegetables (enough for two people) for 28 weeks (roughly six months). We broke it down to cost per week, and though we probably aren't saving any money, we are going to be eating super delightful fresh produce for half of a year- and I can feel better about where my money is going (not to the Middle East).

Here's an example of one (full) share's weekly delivery:
* 1 sugar baby watermelon – transitional
* 3 candy onions – certified organic
* 1 bitter melon – certified organic
* 1 bag tomatillos – certified organic
* 3 green bell peppers – certified organic
* 3 jalapeno peppers – certified organic
* 4 yummy peppers – certified organic
* 1 bunch herbs or 1 bag okra – transitional
* 1 box cherry tomatoes – certified organic
* 5 heirloom tomatoes – transitional
* 10 red and yellow slicing tomatoes – certified organic

Even though it won't arrive till May, I'm already looking forward to the first delivery.

For more info, check out Kingsolver's website: http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/

January 24, 2010

We Heart Indian Food

Our love of Indian food began in college, with the conveniently located and inexpensive Indian buffet New Dehli right around the corner from Penn's campus. Even though the word "buffet" can be scary, in this case it is pure deliciousness. Serving a large variety of both vegetarian and meat dishes, it's difficult to even taste everything without making several trips to the buffet. Although sometimes the flavors start to blend together (spicy & tomato based), a piece of warm, fluffy naan or a crisp samosa quickly prepares your mouth for more spiciness. We've left the restaurant more than a few times feeling borderline ill from stuffing our faces, but it is really SO worth it.

Now that we live in Center City, we don't make it out to West Philly all that often, and we haven't found any remarkable Indian restaurants near our house. We often take advantage of Saturdays to make some more time consuming and experimental recipes, and this week, we decided to try our hand at two of our favorite Indian staples: Chicken Tikka Masala and naan.

The naan was extra adventurous to make because we've never made anything that even resembles bread (well, do pancakes count?). We've recently been interested in baking our own bread, but the possibility for failure seemed high. How do you know if the dough has risen enough? How warm should the bowl be while its rising? Yeast? What's that? Seemed like a lot of unanswered questions that we didn't want to mess around with. When we decided to try to make Indian food, however, the idea of doing so without naan seemed completely absurd. So, I sucked it up and googled "naan recipe" and figured I'd give this baking thing a shot.

This recipe had few ingredients, didn't seem too time consuming, and the actual "baking" portion was short, and even better, performed on a grill! You may be wondering why this is a good thing, as we live in a small condo in a brownstone with absolutely no potential grill space to speak of. However, one of the best cooking-related purchases we have ever made has allowed us to grill in the warmth and safety of our own kitchen time after time: a grill pan. Seriously... go buy one. Right now. It is amazing. Ours is a solid cast iron version from Williams Sonoma, which sounds expensive but really didn't set us back all that much (thirty bucks?).

Anyway, making the naan was actually really easy. I bought some bread flour and instant yeast, and used about 25% whole wheat flour to increase the "health" factor. I mixed all the ingredients in a bowl and literally just dumped it on my countertop. Kneading bread is actually kind of fun, even though I didn't actually know what I was doing. Sort of a dough massage.

After the requisite hour of rising, I didn't really feel like it had grown all that much (I should have taken before & after pictures..). Instead of adding chopped garlic, I kneaded in a few tablespoons of ground flaxseed and garlic powder (I'm lazy!). Then I broke the dough up into tennisball size chunks, covered them as directed, and this time let them rise in the oven, which I set on 100' with the door slightly propped- this definitely helped the dough rise.

Grilling the naan was way easier than I thought- I literally just stretched out the chunks like pizza dough, placed them on the grill pan for 2 minutes, flip and repeat. Hello delicious doughy fluffy grill-marked wholewheaty NAAN. I love naan. A lot. Very excited about the frozen leftover pieces currently living in my freezer (but not for long!)...I will most definitely be making this again. It also gave me that first step in the right direction toward actual bread baking.
Note: This recipe made about 12 thick chicken breast sized pieces of naan.

Of course, you can't make naan without making something to dip it into! Chicken tikka masala seems to be everyone's favorite Indian dish- and it's one of ours too. We decided that instead of going for the "3 months pregnant with a food baby" feeling we always have after several trips up to the buffet, we would try to lighten this Indian classic. Indian food has the innate ability to be healthy- lots of veggies, flavored with tons of spices, and filled with lean meats. However, most Indian restaurants have a heavy hand with the butter (or is it ghee...) and the cream... which makes it taste great but you'll be feeling that baby for awhile.

Our recipe was inspired by a recipe that seems to have spread around online- if you're looking for the exact recipe that we half-followed, Google "Skinny Chicken Tikka Masala." We're not sure how it is "skinny" but at least it's relatively health-conscious! The main preparation goes like this:

Combine a big can (the 28 ounce version) of tomatoes (chopped, diced, whole, it doesn't matter) in a food processor with 1/3 cup non-fat Greek yogurt, 1 tbs. ground tumeric, 1 tbs. garam masala, 1 tsp. ground ginger, 1 tsp. paprika, and 3-4 garlic cloves (or more if you are a big garlic fan). Puree the whole mess, and combine about half of the mix with 2 (or more if you're feeding more people) chicken breasts cut into chunks, placed into a Ziploc bag. Marinate (in the fridge of course) for 12-24 hours (we only marinated for 8 and it turned out fine but rumor has it that longer is better). Keep the other half of the pureed mix for later as well.

When you're getting ready to start cooking, chop an onion and a big red bell pepper. Heat some butter (don't be too generous) in a pot (we used a Dutch oven type pot), and saute the onion and bell pepper with 1 tsp. ground coriander and 1 tsp. cumin (we told you there were a lot of spices involved!). After a couple of minutes, remove the chicken pieces from the bag and add to the pot. Let them start cooking before you add the marinade from the bag- just a few minutes to start browning. Add the rest of the contents of the bag, and the remainder of the tomato-spice-yogurt mix. If you use the whole batch, the dish will be slightly soupy- we realized this a little too late and let it boil without a lid for about 15 minutes longer than needed in order to thicken it up a bit.

If you're running short on time, only use enough marinade/sauce to coat the veggies and chicken. Minumum cooking time suggests that it should boil for at least a few minutes to kill all those potential chicken-related bacteria and of course, cook the chicken through. On the other end of things, don't worry about over-cooking; the marinating process and the sauce keep the chicken moist and the vegetables from burning. As long as you keep on eye on it and stir it once in awhile, all will be well. Towards the end of your cooking time, add 1 cup of light coconut milk (about half of a can). This will give the dish the creamy flavor and texture that you are looking for, but with less fat and some extra health benefits.

If you didn't make your own naan like we did, you can buy it at most grocery stores. Other serving suggestions include regular pita or brown rice- you need some sort of carb to soak up all the sauce. Mmmm... Indian delight.

January 18, 2010

Restaurant Week: Pros and Cons

Ever since we were freshman at Penn, we've heard the bi-annual "buzz" that is Center City Restaurant Week. Our older peer advisors raved about how this event was a great way to experience the many restaurants that Philly had to offer. For those of you who don't know, Philly's Restaurant Week creates a (near) city-wide food event, where participating restaurants offer special 3 (or sometimes more) course menus for a fixed price. When we first arrived in Philly, this event was only one week (usually 7 days) long, the only meal offered was dinner, and the price was a "mere" $30 per person.

So of course we saved our money and started anticipating this event. Our first Restaurant Week dinner was at Lolita- an adorable Mexican restaurant that is still one of our favorites in the city. With entrees all priced above $20, we thought we were getting a great deal. Since that meal, we have experienced several restaurants via the special Restaurant Week deals- Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel, XIX at the Bellevue, Zahav, Salento, and Supper. Every time we went to pay the check however, I still felt like I was paying a lot- particularly when we were undergrads. A few years ago, the price increased to $35 for dinner, and for two with tax and tip the bill would top $90. It was definitely a "splurge."

As we've become more accustomed to dining out (and spending the $$$), we've slowly come to realize that Restaurant Week isn't as great as we used to believe. Most importantly, unless we're eating at one of the top tier restaurants, we almost never spend $90 for dinner (yes, Amis was an exception! It happens). We can easily experience most of the 100+ restaurants for a good deal less than that- and have the option of choosing anything on the menu, not just the limited few items the Restaurant Week menu offers. To be honest, some of our cost cutting ways also involve cutting calories- a three course restaurant meal is usually just too much food. Sharing an appetizer and a dessert (or hitting up Rita's on the way home) still leaves us stuffed and with $15-20 extra in the bank account.

However, maybe you're in the mood to eat a lot, or maybe you're fine with the ridiculous amount of fat, calories, and salt that usually accompany restaurant meals. In that case, you may be thinking $35 for 3 courses is perfectly acceptable! The case still stands that you're usually NOT getting that much bang for your buck (**unless the restaurant offers more than 3 courses, in which case, our argument that you really do NOT want that much food is more pertinent here). Take for example, the Restaurant Week menu for Twenty Manning. A stylish, romantic restaurant right off of Rittenhouse Square- sounds great right? I start with the Grilled Lemongrass Meatballs ($8 off the regular menu), order the Seared Ahi Tuna as an entree ($22), and end with one of the variety of desserts ($7-$8). A delicious meal, but I saved $2-3 by coming during Restaurant Week. On top of that, I didn't get a prime-time seating on Friday night because of other RW diners, my waiter was much less attentive that normal, and the food came out in rapid succession, cutting my dining experience much shorter than if I had come on any other Friday night of the year. All for that whopping savings! Not. Worth. It. Another example: Rouge. Another trendy Rittenhouse staple. The menu is so limited that I'm not even going to analyze the cost comparison: for the first course you can choose from a soup and two salads, for an entree: salmon, chicken, a burger, or a vegetable risotto, topped off with gelato for dessert. If I can't get a salad, a burger, and gelato for less than $35... it's pathetic.

There are a few tips that we recommend if you just must make RW reservations. First, compare menus as we have just done- make sure you are getting a good deal. Second, choose a restaurant that is not super "trendy"- this prohibits Stephen Starr or Jose Garces places. People will be clamoring for these spots, and the service will almost certainly not be up to par. Third, go for lunch! Lunch was added just last year for $20; many restaurants offer a very similar menu for both lunch and dinner, so if you can get out of work (and go back in a food stupor), it's worth it monetarily.

We have had *very good* RW experiences at both Zahav and Supper. This may be because these restaurants are just stellar and it would be impossible to have bad experiences here but.. we thoroughly enjoyed them and did not feel as if they were busier/trying to rush us. At Zahav, the menu mirrors the pre fixe menu that is available EVERY night for just $1 more, so it definitely isn't a big savings. However, it is worth every penny. The food is different than anything in the city and every dish is a delight. Last year, Supper had FIVE courses on their RW menu. You may be thinking that this goes against what I said earlier about stuffing our faces, but the dishes at Supper take "small tapas style" to a new level. The flavors are amazing but the servings are MINI. Five courses was not too much food, but instead perfectly satisfying. The food here is some of the best we've had, but if we went on a normal night, it would be way too much money to fill our stomachs- we calculated that our meals were "worth" over $50. A great deal. Unfortunately, the restaurant must have realized how good of a deal this was, as they have cut their RW menu to four courses this year.

So for those of you who just love Restaurant Week and plan your reservations ASAP, think about what you're getting in return. RW shouldn't be "an opportunity to try something new"-- you can do that any day while still saving yourself money and getting the most out of the restaurant experience.

January 17, 2010

Spinal Tapas & Philly Kitchen Share: Texas BBQ

I begin this entry with a bit of hesitation because I am spreading the word about something I'd almost like to keep to myself. Last night we attended an event hosted by a group of chef-writers who call themselves "Spinal Tapas." It was held in an industrial kitchen that is apparently owned by the same folks who run PhillyCarShare (not our favorite people, but that's an entirely different story). The idea is that people who want to make and sell food can legally do so by renting out the kitchen, located on South St near 15th, which has been certified to meet all the various health codes and such that are required by law.

We found out about this event through another food blog (Foobooz maybe?), advertised as "Food, Music & Booze Inspired by Regional Texas Barbeque." An all-inclusive, multi-course meal for $40- whats not to like? We managed to snag two tickets to the 9 PM seating- a bit late for our eating habits, but certainly manageable.

We arrived to find a brightly-lit glass-front brownstone. Greeted by several women who we later learned were the wives of the actual Spinal Tapas chefs, we took seats at the end of a cafeteria-style table covered with a black checkered "picnic table" tablecloth. We were literally sitting in the middle of the kitchen, surrounded by stoves and counterspace. The set up promoted us to make quick friends with those seated around us. Most of the attendees happened to be fellow writers from Philadelphia Weekly, so there was somewhat of a dinner-party atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else (making me feel personally lucky to be able to attend!). As the chefs finished final preparations to begin serving the food, the wives made us feel welcome by serving sweet tea (which ALMOST met my "sweet-enough" standard) and telling us more about the kitchen and the group of chefs.

Soon, the first course was served- Texas chili. Let's just say they made a good first impression... In true Texas-style fashion, the bowl of chili was pure meat. Slow-cooked with a massive amount of spice for 8 hours, the cubed chuck fell to pieces, creating a stew that was essentially delicious meat pieces in thick meaty juice. Topped minimally with cheese and green onions, and served with sour cream (if you were "pussy" and needed to cut the spice... which I did, thank you very much), it was in every way to best chili I have ever eaten. The jalapeno cornbread was served alongside the chili, which also had a spicy kick of its own (spice will be an overriding theme of this post). A & I have a very soft spot in our hearts for cornbread; sweet, gritty, dense bread. Yum. We actually snagged a few of these to take home (yes, even when we're so full we can't even think, we want more delicious food in our future).

The second course was served family style- big bowls of pulled pork, collard greens, and pinto beans, as well as a platter of brisket were passed around - this turned into essentially an all-you-can-eat affair. All of this food was topped off with three variations of barbeque sauce- original, spicy, and chipotle- as well as slices of white bread for sandwich making. The pulled pork was apple-brined and hickory smoked, incredibly tasty and perfectly complemented by the barbecue sauce (I liked original best). The brisket was smoked for 12 hours, served as thick cut slices as well as a chopped fattier portion which could only be described as "melts in your mouth." The collard greens were certainly a highlight of the night- several portions of this went on my plate throughout the evening, even as I was reaching bursting-at-the-seams status. Probably due to the fact that they were 50% bacon, they were tender, just salty enough, and very rich. Even the man across the table from us, whose fiancee swore he never ate greens, gave them a try and a thumbs up. The beans were atypical as they were pinto, and stewed with peppers, with the burnt ends of the brisket stirred in as a final touch. Certainly something entirely new to my tastebuds, and they were quite pleased.

As if all this food wasn't enough, even more meat began being served- this time slow-cooked goat meat served in fresh corn tortillas (made that day!) with pickled red onion, creating an interesting twist on a taco. This meat also had a subtle yet strong spiciness and a heartier, gamier flavor. A big scoop of cool and creamy guacamole made this an incredible eating experience that I will remember for quite some time. I wish I had had room for more than one...

Because dessert is essentially necessary to my survival, I was happy to end the meal with a Texas-style sweet. Called "kolaches," these dense pastry buns were topped with cinnamony apple delight. Like a less sweet, compact version of a cinnamon bun, this dessert was happily tucked into my dessert pouch (yes, I have an extra stomach solely for dessert storage, which was useful at this time).

Even though it took me almost 24 hours to recover from the inevitable food coma, I was altogether very impressed with this group of chefs and their inspiration for, and production of, this meal. The food was superb, the atmosphere enjoyable, and the event was most certainly deemed a success. I am definitely looking forward to info about the next event that they will be hosting- so don't steal my seat!!


January 16, 2010

Review: Vetri's Amis

Philadelphia has a few "big name" chefs/restaurateurs: everyone knows of Stephen Starr (you're not even special if you can name all his restaurants), Jose Garces (yes, we have our own Iron Chef) and Georges Perrier. But one name gets less street-talk than the others: Marc Vetri. Maybe it's our peer group (mostly other "poor" students), but we know very few people who have had the pleasure of dining at either of his restaurants, Vetri or Osteria. Maybe it's his lack of showiness, which creates an air of exclusivity-- no big ads, no television shows, no gimmicky themes, no participation in Philadelphia's "Restaurant Week" (stay tuned for more to come on this annoying phenomena).

Regardless, he still has arguably some of the best food in the city- Philadelphia Magazine placed both Vetri and Osteria in the top 5 in their latest rankings of the city's restaurants, and Craig LaBan gives both restaurants high marks (the prestigious 4 bells for Vetri, and not-too-shabby 3 bells for Osteria). Not surprisingly, these restaurants have been on our list for awhile, but the $$$$$ on the menu have kept us away. Thankfully, Mr. Vetri has been so kind as to create a third restaurant in the city, which he models after the trattoria in Rome- more of a casual, neighborhood spot with simple dishes done well. Amis- which means "friend" in Italian- opened just this week near 13th and Pine, and the prices on the menu looked more up our alley. A reservation was made, a dining mate was procured, and there it was. Our first Vetri meal.

The restaurant space itself was nothing out of the ordinary, and seemed to follow along with some recent trends we've noticed- open industrial ceilings (exposed pipes and the like), an open kitchen (which, as we were tucked into the corner, we couldn't see at all), and touches like dish towel cloth napkins. It was a cute space, and definitely seemed to fit the bill for what Vetri was intending.

Our waiter was super nice and pretty funny (not saying much if you know us), although more than a little clingy (we should have counted how many times he came to check on us). He informed us that most of the plates were on the small side- and that he would guide our choices if he thought we were ordering too much or too little. Nice of him, particularly considering waiters practically work on commission. Apparently he was satisfied with our choices- we all chose to start with two small plates and one pasta as our main course. He warned us (?) that our first plates would arrive "so fast its almost hilarious" which seemed a bit odd... but thankfully all of the food arrived in a timely but not hurried manner. He also brought us the complimentary bread- small strips of fluffy foccacia topped with caramelized onions and roasted garlic. The table next to us never touched theirs, and I had to refrain myself from stealing it. Good stuff.

We didn't do a great job of sampling from the entire menu- both the bruschetta and salumi portions were left untouched. Also of note, the menu was slightly different (both in terms of items and prices) than the sample menu we had viewed online ahead of time. Most of the small plates will run from $8 to $12, but of course you can pick out the "cheap" ones. We sampled one antipasti di pesce and three antipasti di carne between the three of us. The marinated seppia with fennel and grapefruit ($6) was exactly that- nothing special about this dish. It would certainly not be ordered again. It wasn't bad, just sort of bland- chopped squid pieces with the aforementioned fennel and grapefruit. Good texture if you like squid, but little flavor.

The meat appetizers were definitely favored- particularly the polpettine with tomato potato ($8). Tomato potato? Yeah, we were confused too. But basically, that's what it was! Three meatballs (but these were beyond your average meatball, maybe due to an excessive amount of cheese mixed in) over a slow cooked mash of tomato and potato. The flavor of the tomato was almost outrageous- it's January! How do they do this?

The arancini di riso with meat ragu ($6) was also a hit, although on first glance we almost sent them back- where was the promised meat sauce? Two fried risotto balls sat in an otherwise empty dish. One bite into them revealed the secret- it was hidden inside the outer shell of soft rice. The outer crust was reminiscent of hushpuppy- crisp but without that deep-fried greasy texture. Very flavorful- they looked small, but they were so rich that the portion was perfectly satisfying.

We also tried the crispy sweetbreads with fennel marmalade ($10), another small portion that was perhaps overly rich. The subtlety of the "I've been in the deep fryer" that worked for the arancini unfortunately wasn't passed to the sweetbreads.

We all chose a pasta as a main dish, thereby also leaving the meat and fish entree dishes unexplored. We would definitely recommend this if you see a pasta dish that interests you- the portions are large enough for an entree, the pasta is all housemade (ie extra delicious), and most of them contain meat or fish, so you won't miss out on your protein. Perhaps most importantly, they're a little less expensive- all of the pastas are $14, while the other entrees range from $16-26. The pasta dishes were definitely the highlights of our meals (or maybe the desserts were.. hmm..). Two of us chose the rigatoni with swordfish and eggplant fries, and J ordered the gnocchi alla romana with oxtail ragu. The rigatoni was pretty much to die for.. lovely pasta pieces in a whole-tomato style sauce, with bite-sized perfectly cooked chunks of swordfish, fresh basil leaves, and the eggplant fries. Ohhh, the eggplant fries. I almost ordered an extra side of these fries. They somehow magically made eggplant taste like fried plantains. One of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. The sauce on the dish was also ridiculously good, with great flavor- as a whole it looked like something we could put together at home, but the flavor would probably be impossible to capture.

The gnocchi was not the traditional potato pasta we know- perhaps we missed out on what "alla romana" means, but we're now pretty sure it means "delight." The pasta seemed to be made mostly of cheese, and came in two palm sized (we have child hands, so with this reference they weren't huge) discs covered in the meaty ragu. Talk about rich... a smaller portion than the rigatoni, but perhaps it was a "less is more" kind of dish. She also ordered a side of escarole, braised with a parmesan topping ($6). Most anything would be great if you topped it with quality cheese, but this also had that super flavor going for it that we were continually amazed with throughout the meal.

After all of that food, we still had room for dessert- and we highly recommend it. We all ordered something different, but once they arrived I couldn't think about much beyond what was going into my mouth- a play on "pineapple upside down cake." No pineapple was directly involved in this, nor was cake. Pineapple flavored granita (you know, the shaved ice type dessert) sat pebbled over a scoop of vanilla semifreddo (it's like ice cream.. on crack) and a piece of extremely sugary, dense.. ok, maybe it was cake. But it was caramelized, and so sweet it melted in your mouth. We've heard people describe some desserts as just too much- perhaps many of them would say that about this one. Personally, we can handle sugar. It was definitely worth the $8 price tag.

The ricotta and espresso budino ($6) was an authentic Italian dessert- sort of like pudding, but way creamier. And just better. A good cap to the meal, particularly because of the bitter espresso flavor- no need for a cappucino, thanks.

The mango crisp was ordered by our dining companion, although we didn't taste any. It came nestled at the bottom of a small All-Clad pan with handles- giving the feeling that you were eating right out of the baking dish- and had a liquidy cream coating on top. It was decided that vanilla ice cream would be a better pair.

The dessert pushed us towards the edge of food coma, which perhaps helped in dealing with paying the check- even at his "cheaper" restaurant, we still put $100 in Mr. Vetri's pocket. For a freshly opened spot (we were there the day after it opened), the service was adequate, the food was great, and business sure was booming. We were glad to be one of the first to check it out, and may be back at some point to try some of the other dishes and to return to those we will surely be craving again soon.

13th Street & Waverly Street

January 9, 2010

German lunch at Brauhaus Schmitz

As being from the South gave us authority on BBQ, perhaps having a German heritage gives us some authority on German food.** Brauhaus Schmitz opened sometime in the summer of 2009, and it has been on our list of places to check out for quite some time. A good way to try a new place without blowing the budget is stopping by for a weekend lunch- in this case, we also avoided the loud, drunken festivities that one can imagine occur nightly at any German "brewhouse".

By chance, this restaurant is mere doors down from Percy Street, at 7th and South. Sandwiched between Domino's and... something else... the front of the restaurant is brand new and totally inviting. The German flag hanging from the second level acts as a sort of beacon to those craving brats and/or giant beers served in boots. Around 1 PM the bar was already full but a sign directed us to seat ourselves at one of the many open tables on the first floor (there is also a second floor presumptively used when it gets busier). We chose a booth with benches that were kind of like low church pews... slightly awkward for eating. Our waitress was quite attentive, but all of the servers were dressed in unfortunate "authentic" dirndls that were almost obscene.. not cute.

Our lunchmate and the two of us all ordered appetizers- there are bigger appetizer plates as well as "small plates", which at $3 seems like the best way to try some of the more typical German fare. We chose the Bavarian pretzel (laugenbrezel) and the rollmops on rye. For the former, as Philadelphia residents, we can appreciate a good soft pretzel, and this was certainly delicious. Not quite as dense as something you might find at a street cart, but more flavorful than a Philly Pretzel Co. pretzel. Our table had two small jars containing two types of mustard (housemade?), but the pretzel honestly needed no accompaniment (Dad- you would love this!). The rollmops was a much more unique dish- a little like tuna salad on a piece of bread, but with herring, big chunks of crispy pickles and softer potato, and a sour cream base. The rye bread could have used a little more substance to stand up to the weight of the fish- it was too soft to cut with a knife which made for messy eating. Our friend ordered chicken wings ($7) which seem like a copout just to offer a bar food option that anyone would like. He said they weren't anything special... if I remember correctly, the quote was "they're not that great". Neighboring diners had chosen one of the meat & cheese plates- a German charcuterie which looked totally delicious. But I suppose any combination of meat, cheese, pickles and bread would look totally delicious to me...

For the main course, two of us chose to go with standard German eats- brats and kraut ($10/sandwich, $11/plate). The sauerkraut was very different from what I usually eat (Ba-Tampte, straight out of the jar)- it was much drier, the cabbage was very finely chopped- overall, quite satisfying. The bratwurst was good as well, mild flavor with an almost grainy texture. Would like to try the other types of Wurst as they're supposed to vary in flavor intensities. I tried both types of mustard with the brat. The first looked Dijon-ish but had an almost bitter taste- not a fan. The other was a grainy, spicy-sweet mustard that was a hit. I prefer my mustard to be a bit more horseradishy, but this was a good enough substitute. The brat sandwiches are served on a crusty round white roll that seemed like a good choice to let the brat taste really come through. Sandwiches are also served with fries... I thought those were French? Anyhow, they were a little soggy and bland, and even worse, the ketchup had a good bit of curry powder added- unexpected and weird.

The "winner" of the dining experience was A's dish- the Gulasch mit Spatzle- spicy Hungarian beef stew served over Spatzle ($12). But what exactly is this "spatzle"? I would have described it as a crispy pasta-gnocchi sort of combination, formed into small pieces of an odd shape- kind of irregularly round (as you can see, hard to describe)- according to Wikipedia, they are egg noodles. The stew had a spicy flavor (but not hot spicy) with good chunks of meat and potato in a tomato based sauce. Tasty!

Overall, it was a unique restaurant experience, but I wouldn't run back (well.. maybe for the pretzel). The dinner menu seems quite a bit more extensive, with many additional entree options, mostly priced in the $20-$25 range. The place certainly has a heavier emphasis on drinking, but if Craig LaBan reviewed it (2 bells), its an eating establishment worth checking out.

** Note: We do not actually have ANY authority on German food.


January 7, 2010

Kombucha and Parmesan Fritters

When we're planning our meals for the week, we often use the internet (food blogs!) as inspiration for meals. Last week, we chose a recipe, "Pumpkin and Feta Fritters." (http://closetcooking.blogspot.com/) Due to a few planned and unplanned bumps in the road, we ended up with something similar but with a twist. Most importantly, the main two ingredients are different! A whole, fresh squash is required, and after Halloween it's pretty difficult to find a fresh pumpkin. We decided to just use a butternut squash-- it's similar in flavor and color, right? The butternut squash selection at our local produce shop was sparse, so we grabbed a replacement- unknowingly to us, a kombucha squash (also called a kobucha?) Then, a trip to Trader Joe's on a Sunday afternoon (never a good idea) failed to turn up feta cheese- they're always out of something you need. Improvisation time! We chose crumbled Gorgonzola instead- totally different flavor, but similar texture to feta.

After keeping this recipe in the back of my mind all week, the decision was made to forget the Gorgonzola and instead use another cheese we had in our fridge-- shredded Parmesan. The flavor of feta is fairly subtle-- really, it would just add a considerable amount of salt to the fritters. Same deal with Parmesan (this wasn't top of the line Parm, just a tub from TJs). The outcome was superb; crispy potato-pancake-like-fritters that sort of melted in your mouth but were solid enough to pick up (forks and knives are often ignored in our house).

Unfortunately, these fritters do take a good bit of work (and "elbow grease" as our mom would say). The squash had to be cut in half, de-seeded, peeled, and grated. I think a few bits of knuckle ended up in the mix. I also think I got a pretty good bicep workout. Into a big bowl went:

About 3 cups of grated kombucha
2/3 cup shredded Parmesan
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 egg
A few green onions, finely chopped
Fresh ground pepper
A sprinkling of sea salt
1 tsp Herbes de Provence
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

One note- spices and such are never measured around here. So this is our best estimate! We have a decent eye for these things so if this recipe is followed it would probably end up just like ours. Gave it all a good mix by scrunching it all with my hands, heated a few turns of olive oil in a pan, and formed some loose patties. Laid them into the pan, patted them down to get even thickness, and forgot about them for 5-6 minutes (good time to play "speed cleanup" and see how much of the kitchen can be cleaned prior to eating). They should be crispy and brown when you flip them- if they're difficult to flip, they're either not ready or you didn't use enough oil (its crucial to achieve optimal crispiness). Fry them for another 5-6 minutes on the other side and voila. Squash fritters.

If you're adventurous enough to try sweet potato pancakes, this is fairly similar-- and healthier. Squash is one of our fave veggies- very versatile and not too heavy. These tasted "like pumpkin pie without the sugar" says J, although I think they are a good bit more savory-- the cheese isn't overwhelming but provides a nice salty bite, and the green onions add to effect. The darker the crust the better, in our opinion- easier to pick up, and a better contrast of crispy outside and soft inside. You could modify this recipe (as we did!) with a variety of different squashes (just make sure its one without too much water-- using zucchini or the like would require more flour) and different cheeses.

We served these up with a big salad of mixed greens, granny smith apple chunks, the previously mentioned Gorgonzola, and walnuts with a poppyseed dressing. It was good balance of sweet to the savory fritters.

January 5, 2010

Our first "review": Percy Street Barbecue

Being from “the South” gives us some authority on good barbecue—and in the 5.5 years we’ve lived in Philadelphia, we can’t remember ever having it here. The opening of Percy Street Barbecue in November grabbed our attention- big names (Erin O’Shea and Michael Solomonov—yes, please!), interesting location (part of the South Street restaurant revitalization movement), and the promise of southern barbecue’s innate qualities: cheap and delicious.

The arrival of two male friends visiting from out of town gave us the opportunity to try it out after Christmas. Super easy to find, within sight of Whole Foods near the corner of 9th and South. It was fairly busy on a Tuesday night. We hate waiting for tables (popular restaurants that don’t take reservations are on our hit list), so thankfully that wasn’t an issue. If you did have to wait, there is a bar at the front of the restaurant, which seems rather out of place. Most of the restaurant exudes backyard eating- picnic tables, chalkboard menus (which are slightly redundant as you also get a paper menu), rolls of paper towels instead of napkins—not a place for a bar. The music selection made us a little sad, since we heart country music and never hear it in Philly. Apparently those picking at the juke box don’t share our love. We sat by the huge windows lining the street- it would be awesome in the summer, but with temps in the 30s it was a little chilly.

The server introduced the restaurant and explained the Texas-style concept to us- all of the meats are smoked for hours, which explained the smoky smell that stuck to our clothes after we left (don’t worry, it’s totally worth it). The menu is split into meats, sides, and desserts; the most economical way to experience it is through the combo meal. The “family style” serving of the food doesn’t make it a problem if everyone at the table wants something different- a larger shared dish will be provided if two people order the same side or the same meat, and the bread is piled together, but otherwise you are basically ordering for yourself.

We started with the housemade sweet iced tea- impossible to find in the North- which was served in a liter bottle ($4), perfect for splitting, along with two mason jars with ice and lemon. Apparently mason jars add to the experience… but the tea wasn’t worth it. Maybe we just have too big of a sweet tooth, but sweet tea is supposed to be SWEET!

All four of us ordered the combo meal ($15) with the brisket- you can specify whether you want lean brisket, “moist” brisket (what a nice word for fatty), or a combination of both. We all tried both, but next time we would get the lean- there is plenty of flavor, and nobody wants a mouthful of fat. Each person gets a half-pound of meat, sliced thin and long like bacon. The basket is accompanied by a few dill pickles and raw white onion slices, and the table was given a pile of white bread slices and housemade barbecue sauce. One tip: make a sandwich. Yumz. Second tip: ask for more pickles. You can never have enough pickles. The meat was smoky and just tender enough, and the barbecue sauce was ahhmazing- not too vinegary or too spicy.

Being twins, we ended up ordering the same two sides: sweet potatoes and collard greens. These came in two larger bowls for us to share, while our two dining mates had their own bowls. The sweet potatoes were whipped, almost too whipped… and a tad sweet. Definitely delish, although we’re not sure they are always on the menu. The collard greens were.. well, collard greens. We like vegetables and anything green, so we loved them. We also sampled the green bean casserole and the macaroni and cheese- classics, pretty much how your grandma would make them. The macaroni and cheese had a good crust on the top, and was a surprisingly large portion. The sides, if ordered separately, range in price from $3-$6.

The boys both ordered dessert, which of course we stole tastes of, both the German chocolate cake ($6) and the root beer float ($6). The chocolate cake was not traditional- two layers of dry chocolate cake sandwiched a peanut butter layer. Peanut butter? What? We love peanut butter, but it wasn’t German chocolate cake. The root beer float was delish- who knew that Yard’s root beer was so good? (PS you can also order it plain) Also probably more suitable for a summer night.

Overall, we all walked away raving about the food. It pains us to pay $15 for a simple barbecue meal, but the service, ambiance, and special touches made it worth it. Plus, this is Philly. We’ll be back soon, and really want to try the burnt brisket ends (limited quantities so you have to be lucky to get these!) and the pork belly. It would also be super fun to do “the Lockhart”, a REAL family style meal for the table with a sampling of all the meats and sides, and one dessert per person ($24).

Percy Street BBQ


Welcome to our new blog!

Hello all,

Just wanted to welcome you to our new blog. We're twin sisters living in Philadelphia, near Rittenhouse Square. We're both PhD students in biomedical fields here in the city (but at different schools!). Outside of the lab, we have a great love for great food. Hailing from a small town in Florida, our primary introduction to food can be singlehandedly credited to our dad. As the chef in the house, he taught us not only how to cook, but also how to modify recipes, whip meals together on the fly, and most importantly, how to enjoy a variety of foods and flavors.

Living in Philadelphia for 5 1/2 years also has an impact on the palate. With so many amazing restaurants to try, offering so many different cuisines, new spots opening faster than you can say "Jose Garces"- we've certainly been exposed to a lot of food, mostly good. The food culture in Philly is also phenomenal- so many events, rising star chefs, but most inspiring to us, other food blogs! There's really no better way to get excited about a dish than to read about it as an experience (the pictures help too...).

Our goal with this blog is to share our experiences with food both from our own kitchen as well as from the kitchens of many fine dining establishments in this city. So to all of you who are reading, let's eat!

Edit: Please excuse the not so fantastic photography and nonuniformity of the post style- we're new to this! It will get better.

January 1, 2010

Cheap Eats

Eating GOOD FOOD inexpensively in Philly is easy-- all meals $10 or less per person.

Blackbird Pizzeria

El Fuego

Federal Donuts

Guapos Tacos


Honest Tom's Taco Truck


Hot Diggity


Jake's Sandwich Board

KoJa Food Truck

Little Pete's

Manakeesh Cafe and Bakery

Maru Global

Miss Rachel's Lunch Club

Philadelphia Chutney Company


Pure Fare

Rosey's BBQ


Shake Shack

Sketch Burger 



Restaurants visited outside of the Greater Philadelphia area.

Baltimore, MD

Tortilleria Sinaloa 

Lebanese Taverna

Boston, MA


Sweet Cheeks Q


Charlottesville, VA


The Pigeon Hole 

The Shebeen

Florence, Italy

Grom, Gusta Pizza

Gainesville, FL

Garlic & Ginger

O Sole Mio

Sonny's BBQ

The Ivy House (Alachua)

The Top

Lee, MA

Alpamayo Peruvian

Memphis, TN

The Bar-B-Que Shop

Nashville, TN

Baja Burrito

Pancake Pantry

Suzy Wong's House of Yum

New York City, NY


Raleigh, NC

The Pit

Big Ed's

San Francisco, CA


'wichcraft, Source, Tartine, Boudin, Ghirardelli

Toronto, Canada

Restoran, Ten Ren Tea, Smoke's Poutinerie, CN Tower 360

Washington, DC

Founding Farmers

Everything you need to know about out-of-the-ordinary events: one-night-only menus, pop-up restaurants, all-you-can-eat fests, and any other rant/rave we find "special"!

Tasting Menus
943: Five-course tasting menu (via Groupon)

Bibou: Seven-course tasting menu

Modo Mio: Four-course tasting menu

Pumpkin: Five-course Sunday tasting menu

Special Events

Beaujolais and Burgers with Mark Oldman

Chinatown Food Tour: Free Tours by Foot

Citizens Bank Park: dining at the ballpark

FEASTival 2012

Fishtown Pop-up at COOK

Han Dynasty: Collaborative dinner with Han Chiang, David Ansill (Ladder 15), and Sam Jacobson (Sycamore)

Kanella @ COOK

Meritage: Foie Gras Tasting Menu

Meritage: Knob Creek dinner

Peanut Butter Appreciation: Devil's Den

Pub & Kitchen: 2nd Annual Country Delight

Ready to Nosh Philly Food Tours: Progressive Dinner through Amada, Chifa, and Garces Trading Company

Spinal Tapas: Pop-up Peruvian Dinner

Spinal Tapas: Pop-up Texas BBQ

Square 1682: Six-course Earth Day vegetarian menu

Supper: Blogger Brunch Meet-up

Supper: Rehearsal Dinner

Supper: Southern Hospitality: Collaboration with Edward Lee (610 Magnolia; Kentucky)

Burger Club PHL

Backyard Cookout: Philly Cow Share

Grace Tavern

Perch Pub

Frankford Hall

Smokin' Betty's

Hickory Lane

Red Owl Tavern

City Tap House

Famous Menu Items

Franklin Fountain: Ice cream

Meritage: Korean Fried Chicken Special Revisit

Sang Kee: Peking Duck

Supper: Burger

For the Bottomless Stomach

Cuba Libre: All-you-can-eat Brunch

Distrito: Monday Night Football Endless Tacos and Enchiladas

Lacroix: All-you-can-eat Brunch

Jake's Sandwich Board: The Five-Pound Philly Challenge

A Week in the Life: Want to know what a week of our eats is like? Check these out!

Detoxing: Preparations Part 1 Part 2

A Week in Review

CSA Eats: Spring Summer

Cookbook Reviews

Farm to Fork (Emeril Lagasse)

Herbivoracious (Michael Natkin)

Tapas (Joanna Farrow)

'wichcraft (Tom Colicchio)