October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies

With fall in full swing, A & I decided to do some festive baking with the standard autumn ingredient: pumpkin. After several incredibly long blog posts, I'll try to make this one a bit shorter. This task will be pretty easy considering the recipe we used for the cookie portion of some deliciously amazing (if I do say so myself) pumpkin whoopie pies.

1) Mix together one box of spice cake mix and one can of pumpkin.

2) Blob large tablespoons of the mixture onto a well-greased cookie sheet, smooth a bit with fingers and/or the back of a greased spoon.

3) Bake 12-15 minutes at 350F, until the dough becomes slightly firm to the touch (ie not wet dough).

4) Done!

It comes out as sort of a cookie/cake mixture- fluffy and soft without a bit of crispyness. Incredibly moist (and with no oil!), full of spices and that delicious pumpkin flavor that always makes me think of sweaters, fireplaces, and fall foliage.

To balance the earthy, rich, spicy flavors of the cookies, A whipped up a cream cheese frosting to make the filling of the pies. Take out 4 ounces of light cream cheese and a half stick of butter and let them come to room temperature. Using a mixer, briefly beat the cream cheese until it gets fluffy.

Add the butter and 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract and mix that in. Slowly add 1 cup of confectioners sugar and beat until it is completely incorporated.

Using a mixer keeps the frosting airy and "light", meaning you can use a bit less for each pie. Of course, you can use more or less depending on how much you like cream cheese and sugar (I happen to love both... a lot).

The sweet creaminess is a great contrast sandwiched between two spice cake cookies- not too heavy or too sweet. Overall a great fall dessert meant to be shared with friends.

October 27, 2010

JG Domestic

Jose Garces strikes again.. the Iron Chef is becoming quite the entrepreneur in Philly, recently opening his SEVENTH restaurant in the city. I'm really not sure how he does it- somehow he has created an empire, each restaurant more creative/delicious/ambitious than the last, without losing quality at the older places. Amada continues to be one of the best, most popular restaurants in the city, and a recent visit allows me to personally attest to the fact that Garces Trading Company has perhaps even improved since it opened (with the exception of the prices, but that's a different story). While I have commented previously about Distrito's "decline," I also fully realize that Jose is playin' it safe by catering to his target population.

Garces' model shot: courtesy of Phoodie.info

Garces opened JG Domestic under two weeks ago, perfect timing for a trip to check it out with the wielders of a credit card parentals while they were visiting. We've taken them to Tinto, Distrito, and GTC all with high degrees of success, and my dad was drooling over the menu once we had it downloaded. My mom on the other hand-- the picky eater in the bunch-- wasn't so sure. But, reservations had been made, and we made the trek over to the Cira Centre. {Warning: this post may be very long and descriptive. But this meal was too amazing to miss a single detail!}

One comment- accessing the restaurant is a little awkward. It's actually best to go through 30th Street Station, head north through the SEPTA terminal, and cross over into the Cira. Walking across several lanes of non-pedestrian-friendly traffic is not recommended. Once inside, however, I was quite impressed. Having never been in the building before, I don't know what kind of building blocks Garces began with, but he has created what feels like a European open air cafe. A variety of different seating areas and options, a large bar with seating, an open kitchen, a semi-private back room, and even an upstairs area (not sure what's up there!). We sat at a long communal table, thankfully not crowded by the parties on either side.

Our waiter was a bit unsteady at his new job-- but I'll cut him some slack since he'd only been there a week-- and walked us through the menu. The focus of the restaurant is the origin of the food- all sourced from the United States, with information about each participating "grower." Honestly, I didn't really read it too carefully, I was just excited about eating, but I do find it an interesting concept, and one that seems to be embraced more and more.

The menu consists of "snacks" (related to a bar snack), cold and warm "plates" similar to a small appetizer, vegetable "sides" and meat and fish. To create more of an entree, you would combine a meat or fish with one or more of the vegetable plates, as the meats come rather alone. There is also a chef's tasting menu ($65), a few daily specials, and a "whole animal," which varies from night to night and showcases different parts of a single animal. Each of us made several selections based on what we were interested in, but then proceeded to share each dish as it arrived.

We started with the Salt & Vinegar Kettle Chips ($4), which were the freshest potato chips you will ever experience. The vinegar flavor comes from a creamy aioli that lies beneath the chips. The bowl was quickly polished off and practically licked out (this became a theme of the evening), and we moved onto the house-baked rolls: soft, yeasty, hot and perfect with a dab of butter and a smidge of homemade jam.

Our first appetizer followed on the carb wagon- Wood Oven Flatbread ($12), similar in style to Garces' flatbreads at each of his other restaurants, and covered with a variety of mushrooms and salty cheese wisps on a crispy base. Definitely delicious, but not necessarily one of the highlights of the night.

One of the night's specials was an abalone dish- red abalone, shipped from the coast of California, is a large sea snail which our waiter called "foie gras of the sea." Well, after that description, there was no way we were turning this down-- but for the $25 price tag, we would have liked a little more. And, to be honest, it wasn't anywhere close to foie gras! It's a little bit buttery, a little bit rubbery, a little bit clam-like. Served atop a pile of perfectly cooked rice, intermixed with a bit of steamed-down greens and wild mushrooms, the presentation overall gave it more of a meaty feel rather than a seafood feel. The mushrooms maintained a good bite, with a bit of a woody taste and texture. Very unique, but not necessarily in a good way?

However, the next dish to arrive pretty much blew us away. I think we all would have agreed that the Smoked Chestnut Souffle ($9) was at the top of our list for the night. It's hard to describe, but essentially a base of creamy spaghetti squash, crunchy candy-like chestnuts, and soft golden raisins are topped with souffle- essentially eggy, bready, whipped cream. It came with a small pot of pureed squash, butter, and maple syrup, a perfect sweet topping that I wanted to spoon up eternally.

Pure Food Genius

Next up: the meat dishes. One of the more unique options was the Texas Wild Boar ($22), which came prepared much in the same way as I imagine a classic beef dish- grilled, smothered in a mustard based glaze, and served atop creamy grits and braised greens. The party next to us ordered a platter of four of these "steaks," leading us to false hopes that we would be getting our hands on a lot of meat. Not the case-- each order is a single serving, but we all enjoyed the bite or two we had, swiped into quite possibly the best grits of all time. I envisioned boar to be more closely related to the domesticated pig, but the tender meat was much like a good cut of beef.

My meat dish of choice was a little out of character- the Colorado Lamb Spareribs ($16). I don't typically like lamb- it has that gamey, weird flavor, but I was convinced that if anyone could make me like lamb, it would be Garces. These ribs are texturally amazing- soft and almost falling off the bone. The dark glaze seemed to have a deep Asian-inspired flavor, which helped offset the hint of "lambiness" (closely related to "goatiness") of the meat. Am I now a lamb convert? Maybe not, but these were good! They were served with a tiny pile of soft "country fried" apples, which seemed more like a classic baked apple.

We had a bit of a lull in our meal at this point, much to the chagrin of our waiter-- who kept anxiously checking in on us and assuring us the next "course" would be out soon. We didn't mind at all; a few minutes to talk and digest were more than fine! Soon enough, the final vegetable side and meat dishes arrived. The Kabocha Squash ($10) may scare some diners off by it's name and description, but we weren't fooled and loved it just as expected. Kabocha is similar to butternut or acorn squash, and was melon-balled and roasted for perfect caramelization and flavor. The round chunks are tossed with tender kale and baked pumpkin seeds, adding necessary crunch.

The squash was brought out alongside our "Whole Animal," which on this night was a Jidori Chicken ($28). Our waiter once again tried to make an analogy with a well-known meat, comparing the Jidori chicken to Wagyu beef- originating in Japan, and being top-of-the-line in terms of a common meat. In a serving bowl were laid onions, carrots, and fingerling potatoes, and topped with large pieces of the chicken (actually, not a whole animal, but a half!). Breast, leg, thigh, drumstick- all slow-roasted, creating a juicy interior and a bit of a crispy skin. The vegetables underneath benefitted from the chicken fat drippings, and were super soft and coated in gravy.

At this point, we had run out of dishes arriving from the kitchen, and it was time to think about dessert. Usually, after hitting all those high food notes, I would choose to pass, but word on the street was that dessert was not to be missed. We decided to split two of them- each named with a single descriptive word, the "Pumpkin" and the "Chocolate." Our waiter seemed hesitant to recommend the Pumpkin ($8), and told us it wasn't quite as it sounded- the Pumpkin Cake and Ice Cream were accompanied by a bit of PB&J influence, with peanut butter worked into the cake and grape jam also making an appearance.

Thankfully, we happen to love this flavor combination, and were glad we stuck with it. The cake was a good mix of both nuttiness and organic sweetness, and the ice cream tasted more like butter than the advertised "Sour Cream and Pumpkin Swirl." The grape jelly reduction was a great addition, bringing a burst of fruity sweetness to every bite swiped through it. Possibly the best part of the dish-- the pumpkin confit piled a bit lonely on the other side of the plate. Nature's candy? Garces' love of the green garnish also played a role.

The Chocolate ($8) was also a big hit- basically, if you at all like chocolate, you will love this. A rich chocolate cake, oozing melted chocolate with the first bite, sprinkled with rich dark cocoa and accompanied by "chocolate chip" ice cream-- cacao nibs playing the role of chocolate chips and providing a sharper, more bitter flavor. Chocolate soaked figs and a drizzle of olive oil finished the deal- seemingly strange, but a match made in chocolate heaven.

I have somehow picked up the habit of craving a warm coffee drink at the end of huge, decadent meals, and decided to try one last item on the Dessert/Coffee menu. Entitled "Coffee & Donuts," I asked our waiter if my coffee would in fact be accompanied by donuts. The answer-- no. Instead, fresh glazed donuts are soaked in milk overnight, and this milk is then strained and steamed and served with coffee, cafe au lait style. Can I just say it again- Pure. Food. Genius. Or, coffee. Whatever. I signed up immediately, and savored every last sip. With each taste my brain wavered, "Is it coffee? Is it donuts?" It was amazing-- the perfect end to one of the best meals in my recent memory (do I say that a lot..?).

The total bill actually didn't break the bank as much as I expected-- and while the parents were footing the bill, I was glad it wasn't too outrageous. My dad listed off each item that we had ordered, marveling at the range of foods we had experienced in a single meal, "Abalone.. boar.. souffle.. a whole animal!" It was pretty impressive, and we still left many items left to be explored. I'm hoping for a return trip, and very soon.

JG Domestic
Cira Centre, Ground Floor
2929 Arch Street

October 23, 2010


I recently had a great opportunity to travel to Toronto, Ontario for a science-related conference. Overall it was a fantastic experience; my first podium presentation went well, and I learned a lot. More importantly, I got to experience a wide range of delicious foods during my stay. I was very lucky to be traveling with a true Torontonian (don't you love that word?), and with his knowledge of my love for food, he certainly showed me what the city has to offer.

Shortly after arriving, we took a rather lengthy car ride to a Northeasterly suburb known as Richmond Hill. We took the "scenic route" through the city to see some highlights, so we were nice and hungry by the time we arrived at Restoran, an authentic Malaysian restaurant. We started with a hot tea drink known as "Teh Tarik" while we perused the lengthy menu. The drink is made with black tea and condensed milk- the trick is pouring it back and forth between two containers to make it extremely creamy and frothy. Sweet and warm, it was the perfect start to the meal.

After negotiating with our waitress (she didn't think I would like some of the more authentic dishes... rude) we settled on two entrees- a noodle dish and a curry dish. We also ordered a bowl of coconut rice and of course, some fluffy roti to round out the meal. The noodle dish, called Mamak Mee Goring, came as a platter sized portion heaped with chewy noodles in a ridiculously good sauce- the perfect balance of sweet and spicy. Small shrimps, bites of chicken, some fried egg and a few vegetables were incorporated together. Every bite had a new flavor, keeping my mouth very interested.

The curry dish, Penang Gulai Nonya, was mild, with just a slightly spicy broth chock full of large chunks of veggies and huge shrimp (my ideal meal, seriously). Tomatoes, fresh okra, lots of onion, and baby eggplants... and shrimpies! So good! Served over rice cooked in coconut milk, there was a huge range of flavors and textures to round out the dish. I could probably drink the broth by itself, but it was also great as a roti dipper.

We weren't really feeling dessert after all that food, so we took a quick trip to Chinatown for some authentic bubble tea. Since University City's Bubble House closed, I haven't found a decent place in Philly- the prepackaged stuff I see in our Chinatown makes me quite nervous. Ten Ren Tea is a chain with several locations in New York City. The Richmond Hill location was enormous- very open and bright. The tea menu was equally enormous- I ended up choosing a black tea coconut milk concoction with tapioca balls. The icy treat subbed in as a light dessert and was the perfect cap on a delicious dinner. Side note: I should never drink caffeinated tea during/after dinner. Bad idea.

After a little bit of sleep and a long day of conference, our next eating destination was a true Canadian classic- a poutinerie! After the foie gras topped version I ate at Adsum, I was excited to try it from the source. We headed to Smoke's Poutinerie on Adelaide Street, where they literally serve nothing but poutine. Start with fresh thickly cut fries, cooked to perfection (at least in my book)- on the soft side with a lightly golden crisp. Top these with a generous amount of squeaky cheese curds and a pool of rich peppery gravy. Last but not least, add on some extra toppings- I chose the "Montreal" which came with shaved smoked ham, a dollop of mustard, and a pickle. The "regular" size was probably a solid three pounds of food. Even though we were hungry, we hardly made a dent. The concoction is extremely rich and extremely heavy, especially to my stomach that is used to a majority of veggies. However, as a big mess of a comfort food, it can't be beat. It was perfect for putting me in a food coma induced sleep to make up for the previous night.

The next day, after a gorgeous ten mile run on the Lake and a few hours of meetings, I was ready for some street food. Although Philly seems to have Toronto beat in terms of variety, there were plenty of deep-inhale-inducing carts cooking up huge hot dogs and sausages.. and of course, poutine. I ordered a Spicy Italian sausage, which was scored along the top to ensure a large surface area to grill. Not too spicy, the sausage soaked up all the smoky flavors of the grill. Crisp skin and juicy insides made for a delicious bite- the fluffy bun helped keep me from making a mess. Sauerkraut and mustard from a huge array of topping options were great accompaniments. Clear blue skies and sun made the outdoor eating experience an absolute delight.

Another spectacular meal was my first experience with Peking Duck. With insider knowledge of the best Chinese restaurant in Toronto, our whole group made the perfect number of people to enjoy this special dish. The bird prep is relatively time intensive so we started out with some hot and sour soup. Piping hot and spicy, sweet and tangy, the bits of egg and noodles melded together in an incredibly well-balanced cup of soup.

Eating Peking duck requires making a little burrito. Start with a soft pancake, add a large piece of crispy duck skin that has been dried and slow roasted with a sugary glaze, top it with strips of scallion and a sweet red bean sauce, fold up and enjoy. The pillowy pancake and the sweet and incredibly crispy duck skin cooked in its own fat... it was seriously like eating a savory piece of candy. I ate many of these.

The meat of the duck is used to make a stir fry type dish with onions and carrots and served in perfectly round pieces of lettuce- sort of the typical lettuce cups yet with a rich duck flavor. I preferred the slivers of beef that were fried and also tossed in a sweet sauce. Something about sugar and meat really does it for my taste buds.

Although I enjoyed the economical use of all the parts of the duck, the soup made with the bones was not good. Without nearly enough time to leach out all the good marrow flavor, the broth was thin and watery. Huge chunks of tofu didn't help the bland factor.

Certainly the most unique dinner I had was at 360- the restaurant at the top of the CN Tower. Well... not quite at the top. It's in the "donut" about 2/3 the way up the 1815 foot tower. We were luckily seated at a table next to the windows; with the slow revolution of the restaurant space, we saw a full sweep of Toronto and Lake Ontario in daylight, as the sun was setting, and with the lights of the city lighting up the night.

Although most of my attention was on the wonderful view, the three course prix fixe dinner was pretty tasty as well. The first course was probably my favorite- chilled potato and leak puree poured over a little pile of salmon and cubed potato. The mild flavors of the puree were accented by the salty, smoky chunks of fish. Crispy potato skin sticks on the top gave it a little crunch. As a relatively simple dish, I would love to try to recreate this at home.

The second course involved more salmon, this time pan seared and flaky, served over brown rice with a nutty toasted almond glaze. The baby bok choy were almost bite sized, steamed and full of green goodness. Any potential dryness of the rice was offset by the slightly sweet sauce.

For dessert I chose the summer berry shortcake, which seemed almost out of season. The cake itself was on the boring side, but I loved the ball of sour cream ice cream rolled in graham cracker crumbs. A nod to the current not-too-sweet frozen yogurt trend, but with the creaminess giving it back a touch of decadence. A big chunk of white chocolate was a creative touch to complete the presentation.

I'm so glad I got to experience such a wide range of food in this multicultural Canadian city. From street food to the reaching heights of the CN Tower, I certainly made the most of my short trip abroad. I'll finish with a couple good shots of the CN Tower...

Ten Ren Tea
Smoke's Poutinerie
CN Tower 360

October 22, 2010

Distrito Taco Night

Just one day after our incredible brunch at Lacroix, we once again put on our "all-you-can-eat" hats. Distrito recently began a fantastic deal in their downstairs "Cantina," featuring unlimited tacos and enchiladas ($25) coinciding with Monday Night Football games. We're not really into the NFL, but we are definitely into Distrito tacos. A group was organized, and we met just prior to the 8 PM start time in order to snag seats. The deal is limited to the Cantina, which you can't make reservations for, so we recommend you get there early to get a spot, especially if you have a larger group.

The whole table must be in on the deal-- no problem there-- and you are allowed to order two items on the first go round, and one item with each consecutive request. The deal also comes with some sides, which we used to whet our appetites as we waited for our first orders to come out. The Chilango Chop Salad was a good start; some fresh veggies to begin a long night of chowing down. It is one of Distrito's signature salads, and comes with assorted greens, apple slivers, delicious spiced toasted pecans, and chewy cheese cubes (along the lines of queso fresco, or a really mild mozzarella), all tossed in a light yogurt-based dressing and topped with crunchy tortilla strips. I really could have made a meal of this salad alone-- which may be what Garces is aiming for by providing it prior to the taco-fest.

The two other sides are bean based, and while good, were somewhat random in my opinion. Salty, creamy refried beans were very yum, but on their own? I typically don't eat refried beans by themselves. I ended up using it as a little topping to some of my tacos later on, just so I could enjoy them, but a more "stand alone" side such as the rice and beans makes more sense. Also-- two bean dishes? Why? I'm not complaining, I definitely did NOT need anything other than the tacos, but the choice is somewhat baffling.

Our first taco/enchilada order took the longest to come out of the kitchen-- we were getting a little nervous that our precious two hour time slot was ticking away while the chefs took their time. However, once the food started flowing, it never really stopped (we actually didn't even make it to 10). J and I were determined to try each and every option on the menu between the two of us, and we were ultimately successful-- minus a single dish, which I sampled from another dining mate's plate and she missed out on.

I started with the crab enchilada, thinking the sweet crabmeat filling was probably the most "worth it" item on the menu. Honestly though, the other ingredients of this dish overwhelmed the crab. Good crabmeat has little flavor of its own, requiring accompaniments to highlight it, not cover it completely. Thankfully, the construction and flavors independently top-notch- a mildly spicy salsa verde encasing the little roll of crabmeat and corn salsa, topped with fresh chopped poblanos. All of the enchiladas come as a single serving, in a little cast iron pan. These pans, besides being adorable, serve to keep the food hot long after it comes out of the oven.

Moving along in non-chronological order, J ordered both the chicken and the vegetarian enchiladas. The chicken enchilada and chicken taco (unpictured) were fairly similar- shredded chicken bathed in a red chile sauce, brighter and hotter than the salsa verde. A much better flavor match than the crab, but sort of.. unoriginal. It tasted to me like a solid form of tortilla soup- which I'm not overly fond of. The vegetarian enchilada, on the other hand, was excellent- sauteed mushrooms and a good pile of soft spinach combined with a smoked tomato sauce- exactly like something I would love to make at home (but about ten times saltier-- whew!).



We also tried all five version of the tacos; Pulled Pork (Carnitas), Pulled Chicken (Pollo Ropa Vieja; mentioned above), Tongue (Lengua), Fried Fish (Hamachi), and Vegetarian Mushroom (Hongos). All of these tacos brought very original tastes to the table (minus that chicken...), and are served as two mini tacos (about 2-3 bites each) per plate. Perfect portioning for the all-you-can-eat format, but a little measly if you ordered them on their own. The Hamachi tacos were sort of disappointing- the fish was heavily battered and fried to a crisp, preventing me from enjoying the yellowtail to its full potential. It also could have used moister accompaniments, since the fried-ness sucked out the moisture of the fish. I know this might sound overly critical, but as I've had these tacos at Distrito in the past, they've seen better days.

J's favorite of the night was the tongue taco- a little different from what you normally expect in taco fillings, but we like trying new things. The tongue tastes like tender beef, and with soft onions and peppers and tortilla all together, it reminded of a classic fajita. My favorite was the mushroom tacos-- which for some reason, the rest of the party seemed to shy away from. Sauteed mushrooms are tossed with a truffle oil and potato puree, and then topped with crispy potato sticks. The whole combination is admittedly quite greasy, but completely worth it- it tasted like a big crispy, crunchy, truffle flavored potato chip. After trying each of the options, I seriously considered ordering another round of these, but eventually decided my stomach just couldn't handle another bite.


As the meal went on, food started coming out at a furious pace- even when we were all slowing down. The waitress was awesome at keeping up with our continuous flow of orders, but the servers weren't quite as competent-- they would basically walk around the dining room with baskets of tacos asking "Hamachi? Carnitas?" until someone claimed their order. This resulted in a contradictory issue- on one hand, you could easily claim food that wasn't yours, and on the other, someone else could claim your food. Particularly with a big group, with everyone ordering similar items, it got a bit confusing at times. However, we tried to keep pace; at one point, J had two taco baskets on the table and when another dish was delivered, moved one to her lap. Our waitress found this hilarious and in jest exclaimed, "MUST EAT MORE TACOS!" Well, yes.. that was our exact plan, thanks!

We all walked away from the table absolutely stuffed, and spent a good while commenting that we would have been fine, but that "Those last __ number of tacos weren't such a good idea!" It's a great way to experience Distrito in a casual, over-indulgent way, and tons of fun with a larger group. In other news, I have NO idea what football teams were playing and which team won that night. It's really not a great place to catch a game-- only two or three smallish TVs-- but we couldn't have cared less!

3945 Chestnut Street