November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Addition: Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Thanksgiving for all families is filled with traditions, both new and old. Our traditional Thanksgiving is held at our parent's home, with several members of the family and a few family friends present each year (more or less). We eat the same meal every year, cooked primarily by my dad. I must say we've had a few variations on the standard turkey over the years-- my dad even invested in a Turducken a few years back (quite delicious), and has experimented with injecting flavors, brining, basting, the works. Outside of the turkey, the side dishes have remained almost completely stagnant.

Not to say that's a bad thing- we've always loved our Thanksgiving meals- but as we've grown up and learned our way around both food and the kitchen, we've started to ask ourselves why it must always be the same. This year, we decided to change things up a bit by introducing an entirely new dish to the table (gasp) and we were happy to see that our dad also altered one of the traditional sides (sweet potato casserole) to produce an even better rendition.

Since we are big vegetable fans and our Thanksgiving table tends to run a little low on green-colored foods, we decided to add a veggie dish. Inspired by Giada de Laurentis on the Food Network, I proposed a side of brussel sprouts, roasted with cranberries and pecans in order to make it more "Thanksgiving-y." We sent our ingredients list to our dad, who unfortunately had to do a wild goose chase through our hometown in order to hunt down what may have been the last package of fresh brussels in town-- thanks, Dad!

Our dish had to be able to fit into the tight prep/cooking/oven schedule that must be kept in order to get all of the food on the table at the right time. Roasted brussels fit the bill- easy and quick to prepare, and only need about 30-40 minutes in the oven right before dinnertime.

Thanksgiving Brussel Sprouts
based on this recipe

1 pound fresh brussels
3/4 cup pecans (I used halved)
1/2 cup dried cranberries
2/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 Tsp. salt

J and I worked together on the prep work. She removed the tough base of each sprout and quartered them, then combined them in a baking dish with the cranberries (roughly chopped) and the pecans. We had raw pecans on hand, and gave them a quick toast in a pan in order to bring out additional nutty flavor.

I started on the orange juice-maple glaze by first reducing the orange juice. This took about 8-10 minutes over low heat in an uncovered pot (the water needs to evaporate!), with sporadic whisking to prevent burnage. Once it was reduced to about half of its original volume, I removed it from the heat and added the maple syrup, butter, and salt. Once the butter melted and everything was whisked together, it was poured over the brussels. At this point, the prep was done, and the only thing left to do was bake it.

The oven was already going at 425, which is a perfect roasting temp. After 20 minutes in the oven, I checked the sprouts, and was a little nervous to see that the pecans-- which had been nicely pan toasted-- were increasingly browning in the oven. Not wanting burnt nuts, I gave everything a toss, bringing the glaze from the bottom of the dish up to moisten the pecans. This seemed to work for a bit, but I pulled the whole pan out after 30 minutes (total cook time) to stay on the safe side. While other dishes were being plated, I covered the pan with tin foil in order to allow the sprouts to self-steam and finish cooking without ruining the nuts.

Our dish was met with mostly positive comments-- I know we both appreciated a new friend on the table, and more green on our plates. I wouldn't go so far as to call this a "healthy" dish- with the juice, cranberries, and maple syrup, it has a fairly high sugar content, but the sweetness really compliments the star vegetable and the crunchy nuts. A few family members were a little bit nervous about eating brussels-- I guess they don't have a great reputation. We were happy that most members of the nervous crowd were very pleasantly surprised, although one could only go so far as to comment that her little taste "didn't make me throw up." I'm still debating whether I should take this as a compliment.

Does your family stick to the same exact foods, or would they be willing to try something new?

November 25, 2010

Pub & Kitchen: "Country Delight"

Between both of our recent trips (A to California for work, me to Boston for the race) and the Thanksgiving holidays, A and I haven't had any good opportunities to try a new restaurant. We decided to treat ourselves to a mid-week dinner out, which happened to coincide with the night of Pub and Kitchen's "2nd Annual Country Delight." We've been fans of P&K for awhile now- their brunch is one of the best late Saturday morning options near our place. The whole "country" theme is something we typically enjoy as well, so it seemed like a good bet.

We showed up a little after 7 and the party had already started. Lights were dim, hay bales were everywhere, and country music was blaring near the bar. Thankfully, we were led to one of the last tables in the back room where it was a lot quieter. A western movie and the staff's bandanna & boots get-up kept us feeling included. We were offered the regular menu, which had the "country special" scrawled on a little extra piece of paper.

Before we get into the special, there were a few other items on the menu that we wanted to try. P&K recently updated their "snacks" section of the menu, and the cheapest option is the duck mousse ($3). I was totally enamored with Barbuzzo's mousse (and even went back to have it again) so I ordered this to start. It was served in the standard manner- ramekin full of mousse with a few small slices of super toasted bread. The texture was a little bit "finer" than I have had in the past- easy to smear across the bread and lick off the end of the knife. And while the mousse was good, and we easily finished and enjoyed it, it seemed to be lacking some extra dimension of richness that I was craving. It wasn't quite creamy enough and didn't give me that mouth-watering, good down to my bones feeling that I experienced at Barbuzzo. However, P&Ks is a bit cheaper and closer by, so I wouldn't say no to having more of it.

Since the country special would be inevitably artery-clogging, A & I also decided to split a salad- the mixed greens ($9). Expecting a nice pile of lettuces and a few other assorted veggies, the salad looked right up to my standards. After I stabbed up a forkful, I noticed it seemed a little.. dry. I tried my best to mix everything together but it was still just.. dry. It was like they gave us one or two tiny drizzles of dressing that seemed to evaporate before we could taste it. However, I know I can enjoy a salad without a flood of oily dressing. If the toppings provide a lot of flavor and moisture, no problemo. However, this salad was the complete opposite. Thin slices of apple were barely sweet, and some circles of daikon or white radish had no flavor, crunch, or moisture to be found. Seriously. This is why carnivores call it "rabbit food."

We went all out with the one-night special and split the "fried chicken and cornbread" ($13) and ordered all three sides ($3/each). Four pieces of chicken (two legs & two breasts) were dipped in a buttermilk batter and deep fried- and this aspect of the chicken was amazing. With a super "light" texture, and tons of crispiness, I definitely tried to nibble off every bit of the outer fried layer. As for the meat of the meal, I have mixed feelings. At first bite, my teeth easily sunk into the juicy meat- not a hint of toughness and plenty of meat on the bone. However, this "softness" became just a little bit strange- A compared it to seeming almost undercooked, although this certainly was not the case. I'm no chicken-frying expert, but it seems like something may have been off in terms of oil temperature or cooking time. Either way, it had me wanting some Korean Fried Chicken from across the street at Meritage (which they aren't serving anymore... I'm slightly devastated...).

The chicken also came served with a single "jalapeno" cornbread muffin. Fortunately, it had little to no flavor and the texture was much too fine and dense- we like a good gritty crumbly cornbread. Had it been delicious, we might have had to battle it out- why 4 pieces of chicken and 1 piece of cornbread?

The sides were also served in small ceramic dishes and covered all the bases in terms of country staples. My favorite was the parmesan grits- P&K made up for the cornbread in this dish. The gritty corn-based mush is down-home at its finest, and the addition of a solid amount of good-quality parmesan flavor added creaminess and the saltiness that grits always need. The cider-braised greens were also quite satisfying. A good vinegar base, tons of soft-cooked onions, and just the right amount of salt to complement the greens. A paper cup full of hot sauce was served to add as we wished- the greens got a good dollop. Nothing beats greens and hot sauce. The third has somehow completely slipped my memory- I think I only had a bite or two, clearly not enough for my synapses to fire- but A claims it was a cup full of baked beans in a thick barbecue sauce. Apparently they were "pretty good."

A couple of the dessert options sounded good (especially the bread pudding with dried fruit), but we had a MANNA carrot cake waiting at home in the fridge. Which was sadly, probably the best thing I ate all night. Not that the country food at P&K was bad, it just wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. I did love the concept of a one-night theme- the Garth Brooks in the background was very much appreciated. Looking back at the whole thing, I think P&K was definitely concentrating on this from their "pub" aspect- cheap beer and special drinks seemed like the real reason most people were there- letting loose before the holiday, I suppose. Oh, well. We'll certainly be back for brunch at some point.

Pub & Kitchen
1946 Lombard St

November 21, 2010

Spirit Success

So remember that sandwich competition I randomly entered a few months ago? No? Yeah, I hardly did either. Then one day last week, I received a package notice from the post office and bewildered, went to pick up my mystery package. Turns out, my entry won one of the runner-up awards! Apparently they decided not to contact me, and just sent the award package-- two panini spreads and a Tom Colicchio cookbook, "'wichcraft," full of wonderful sandwich ideas. (Side note: the winning recipe consisted of a cold lamb and sheep's milk feta sandwich).

Of course, I had to read through the entire book, ooh and ahh over the delicious sounding eats, and exclaim over at least a dozen of them to J (I don't think she was as amused). My first goal was to create one of the sandwiches in the book, using one of the panini spreads that were also a part of the package. Unfortunately, it didn't seem possible-- none of the recipes included cranberry apple chutney or olive tapenade. Since I'm not one to follow recipes to a tee, I found one that could be modified to include the olive spread.

The recipe involved sourdough bread, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, poached chicken, and a spinach-basil pesto spread, all pressed and heated. Instead of creating my own pesto spread, I decided to substitute the new olive tapenade, and was forced to switch from red peppers to green due to the abundance of green peppers in last week's CSA.

First step: roast the peppers. You can either do this by baking them whole for about 45 minutes at 350, or take the easier/quicker route by broiling them in strips for about 8-10 minutes. My peppers were of the mini bell pepper variety, and didn't take long under the broiler before they were charred and blistered. We're going for burnt here! I set them aside to cool while I prepared my chicken.

I combined dried rosemary, dried thyme, salt, and pepper with a half pot of water and waited for it to boil. Once boiling, I dropped in a pound of chicken breast strips and allowed them to cook, covered, until completely cooked through (about 10 minutes, but more time doesn't necessarily hurt). The poaching process allows the flavors of the herbs to infiltrate the chicken without any fear of drying the meat out. I've never thought to do this-- it's quick, easy to clean up, and created a juicy, flavorful sandwich component.

I somehow forgot to take a picture with the chicken... Also, this looks deceptively like a skillet, but it is, in fact, a pot.

After the peppers cooled, I carefully peeled off the charred skin-- easier said than done. Since these were on the small side, the flesh was a little too thin and fragile to hold up to the rough peeling process. A larger, more mature pepper would have made it much easier, which I suppose is what I get for trying to make substitutions.


The final assembly could then be done: spread tapenade over one slice of bread, lay roasted peppers and sliced fresh mozzarella over this. Then, add chicken strips and a pile of fresh baby spinach (in keeping with the spinach theme from the left-out pesto). Top with second piece of bread and carefully lay in a hot, buttered pan (or a sandwich press, if you have one). I placed my cast iron grill pan over the two sandwiches to help emulate the press and speed the crisping process.

Bread + tapenade = probably a delicious snack

They cooked for 3-4 minutes on each side, just until the bread was toasted, the spinach was wilted, and the cheese was melted. Total, the meal took about 30 minutes to put together-- perfect for a weeknight meal.

The final product was a great combination of textures and flavors, kind of creating a beefed-up spin on a grilled cheese. The olive tapenade created the perfect saltiness, bringing more flavor to the fresh spinach and peppers. It wasn't a ground-breaking recipe by any means, but introduced me to a convenient cooking method and a quick meal idea. I'm looking forward to trying some of the more complex recipes soon-- I have many recipes marked as "must haves." The whole experience also has me considering other food-related competitions-- you never know, you could end up with a surprise win!

November 15, 2010

Boston Eats: Picco

Although it definitely looks like I missed out on those delicious looking pork chops A made over the weekend, I always eat well when I travel to Boston. This time, my weekend revolved around running my second half marathon race, again with my boyfriend in tow-- the truth is, he barely trained and still easily ran alongside me. One great bonus of long distance running is the large quantities of food you can consume post-race (as you all have recently witnessed in our Lacroix visit). After a solid performance up and down the hills of Newton (but somehow mostly up), we discussed celebration tactics. Armed with a tip from my yoga instructor and further recommendation from a couple of foodie friends, we headed to Picco, a restaurant specializing in pizza and ice cream in the South End.

Our timing was optimal as we were seated about ten minutes to twelve, scoring the best table in the house right by the front windows. The space isn't too big, with a long bar occupying one side; a cushy bench along the other allows for efficient use of table space. We were greeted by our waiter and began to peruse the menu, which thankfully isn't too complex. Sandwiches and pasta options looked like standards, with a few "specials" that kicked it up a notch (pumpkin ravioli? yes please).

Our mutual love for vegetables had us opting to start with a garden salad ($6.50). Since we were splitting it, Picco graciously served the salad on two smaller plates, ensuring that I got my fair share in the split. Ingredient wise, it was everything I love- a good mix of arugula, baby speckled romaine, and a bit of endive, as well as finely chopped cucumbers and peppers and a shave of carrot. The dressing was incredibly minimal- perhaps only the slightest mist of oil. I topped mine with a few grinds of pepper from the baby pepper mill on our table. The earthiness of the greens provided me with a bit of freshness before we dove into some heavier fare.

Because Picco came on the recommendation of their pizzas, we knew we should focus on this portion of the menu. We each chose a small pizza to share- with the small size at least a foot across, serving up four reasonable slices. I immediately decided on the Alsatian ($13.50), which Picco describes as "our version of France's tarte flambe". Wikipedia tells me that this is a pizza-like item with pork, onions, and creme fraiche. Picco stays fairly true to this description, with their doughy yet crispy crust covered in chunks of bacon, caramelized onions, garlic and shallot, finished with shreds of gruyere and dollops of creme fraiche. This unique combination was a savory and salty mix of meat, bread, and cheese- again a nod to some of the things France is known for. The garlic and onions give a sweet and rich depth of flavor, while the creme fraiche just makes this pizza completely luxurious.

The boyfriend initially chose the Broccoli Rabe, Sausage and Olive pizza, but I shot this down- I don't love rabe and olives on pizza aren't my thing. After getting teased about being "a picky eater", I pointed out the Sausage & Mushroom ($13.50) as a fair alternative. With the red sauce of chunky tomatoes and fennel-rich crumbled sausage, this pizza was on a whole different level of the taste spectrum. I'm not sure why I thought the two would be similar, but they weren't at all. The ingredients here were a bit more "wet", giving the crust a more doughy consistency, though it held up well through the eating/holding process. Stringy slices of mild mozzarella provided some glue to hold everything together. I commented that I typically enjoy eating the crust of pizza the most- but this was not the case with these pizzas- I happily gave up my crust to allow more room in my stomach for gooey topping-covered goodness.

Although I was certainly full by this point, Picco is also well-known for it's ice cream. A solid selection of sorbet and ice cream flavors are available in their purest form- in a cup or cone accompanied by a small number of topping options. My boyfriend doesn't hold back when it comes to dessert, so he ordered the most decadent option- the Dark Chocolate Brownie Sundae with Dark Chocolate Ice Cream ($7.00). The bite of brownie I stole was pretty standard, but the real winner here was the thick chocolate fudge- almost like a hot fudge but incredibly dense and with a flavor much more similar to a solid bar of dark cacao. With most hot fudge being super sweet and "fake" tasting, we were both impressed with the quality and richness providing a bitterness to complement the sweet and creamy ice cream.

I went with something a bit more simple- caramelized apples with vanilla ice cream ($6). Our waiter said it was a new item on the menu, though I'm not sure if it is permanent as it is not advertised on the website. I have a soft spot in my heart (stomach?) for good vanilla ice cream, and Picco didn't let me down. Speckled with vanilla bean, the flavor was perfect- not too rich, almost delicate. The apples were caramelized to a golden brown, providing tons of natural sweetness as well as a kick of spicy cinnamon and a buttery touch.

Overall I was incredibly impressed with the standard of quality at Picco. The two pizzas outshone everything I've had in recent memory, even the uovo pizza at Barbuzzo. The crust had that powdery char on the bottom but was still substantially thick (NOT a thin crackery wisp) providing lots of chewy carbs to satiate my post-race hunger. The salad appeased my need for veggies while the ice cream was a pure reward to end the meal. Although the place got very busy and filled with many young families with more than a few kids, our little corner by the window provided sunshine and amusing views of the passers-by. The prices were OK considering the location, as well as the quality/quantity of food we were served. I think our waiter was pretty impressed (or perhaps disgusted) with how much we consumed- a normal couple in for a lazy Sunday lunch would not need nearly as much food as we did. I'll definitely have to work up an appetite for next time!

513 Tremont Street
Boston, MA

November 14, 2010

Stuffed Pork Chops: Anatomy of a Meal

One week prior: Make plans to have dinner with the boyfriend while J is out of town. Begin agonizing over what to feed my harshest critic/pickiest eater. Decide to make something new. Ponder French Roast. Realize it takes a bit too much prep time. Settle on stuffed pork chops.

One day prior: Filter through ten to twenty stuffed pork chop recipes online. Compile ideas and instructions, begin to formulate original recipe. Prepare shopping list.

Two bone-in pork chops
One Granny Smith apple
Red onion
Sweet dried cherries
Dried thyme
White wine
Honey Wheat bread
Gorgonzola (crumbled)

Fingerling potatoes
Green Beans

Five hours prior:
Pick up produce items and cheese at produce shop, hit up DiBruno Bros. for meat. Get slightly overcharged for chops. Decide not to contest it since the super nice butcher has already put up with rewrapping request. Plus, realize the sheer joy of being in/shopping at DiBruno's is worth more than a few pennies. Treat yourself to decaf cappucino.

Four hours prior:
Realize brining of the meat would be a good idea. Combine salt, sugar, pepper, apple cider vinegar and a lot of water in a shallow pan. Mix until combined, add chops, ensure coverage is complete, place in fridge. Take a nap.

90 minutes prior: Begin prep work. Dice apple, 1/8 red onion, one garlic clove, and roughly chop cherries. Toast one slice (the large butt) of bread. Open bottle of wine. Congratulate yourself for properly completing this task. Begin side dish prep. Peel two mini sweet potatoes (CSA items!), 2 carrots, and prepare green beans.

1 hour prior: Remove chops from fridge. Remove excess fat from edges, create pocket for stuffing by forming a horizontal slit about half way through the meat. Place back in brine, allow to come to room temperature.

Begin cooking. Saute prepared stuffing items until softened, add dried thyme and 1/2 cup white wine. Allow to simmer for 10-12 minutes until wine is mostly absorbed/evaporated. Add cubed toasted bread, mix well, remove from heat. Add 1/4 cup Gorgonzola crumbles.

While stuffing cooks, finish prepping side dish. Cut beans and fingerlings in half, dice down carrots. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, dried thyme and rosemary. Set aside.

40 minutes prior: Preheat oven to 425. Drain chops, ponder why meat looks slightly white-ish. Decide it must be a result of the acidity of the vinegar. Ignore. Heat butter and olive oil in a pan. Shovel as much stuffing as possible into chops, compacting it to aid the process.

When pan is screaming hot, carefully add stuffed chops to pan. Add butter and olive oil to a small roasting pan, place in oven to melt butter/heat pan.

Allow chops to cook 2-3 minutes per side, until well browned. Flip carefully, about the axis of bone to prevent stuffing spillage. Realize some spillage is inevitable due to overstuffing.

30 minutes prior: Transfer chops to pre-heated pan, place in oven.

20 minutes prior: Add vegetables to oven. Set the table. Clean the kitchen. Wait for the boyfriend.

5 minutes prior: Remove chops from the oven. Check for doneness by carefully cutting into meat directly next to bone. Breathe a sigh of relief when meat looks slightly pink and juicy. Place tin foil over chops to allow a few minutes of extra cook time and to let chops rest. Check vegetables, minorly panic that carrots are still hard.

Ten minutes after planned eating time (oops): Re-check softness status of carrots. Remove from oven. Plate chops and vegetables, serve.

Enjoy delicious dinner, discuss how improper picking chop up by the bone would be. Think up alternate stuffing ideas. Eat week's worth of meat. Bask in cooking success, good food, and good company.

November 13, 2010

Honest Tom's Taco Truck

I have a Philadelphia foodie confession: I do not support food trucks. It's not that I have anything against them, rather I just have never really ventured into the scene. As I enter my seventh year at Penn (yikes), it seems almost impossible- they're everywhere, they're cheap, they're fast, and word on the street is that many of them are delicious. Don't get me wrong, I have eaten from them.. but only a handful of times. Recently (maybe since I graduated from undergrad?), the food truck scene has seen a bit of a change-- it seems the number of trucks has increased, and some of these are trying their hand at a more gourmet, out-of-the-box concept. One of these is Honest Tom's Taco Truck, which I have read about countless times, and seen more than my fair share of mouth-watering taco pictures produced by Tom.

Streetside view

The problem with these upscale trucks is location- they tend to roam about the city, not staying in one constant spot like many of the Penn classics. Honest Tom's has a few spots around town they tend to stop at, one of which is West Philly's Clark Park on Saturdays. Needing to do a little weekend work in lab, which is really just a few blocks from the park, I figured I'd make a side trip for some tacos. As I approached the park, the location of the truck was immediately obvious-- it's very bright colors as well as the hoard of eager taco-ites surrounding it made it easy to spot. I really hate crowds, and was bordering on hangry (the grouchiness/anger that sometimes accompanies deep hunger) but decided I had to follow through with my plan. I stood in a short, unorganized line to place my order with the woman at the window-- Tom made it easy by only offering a single choice, the breakfast taco.

Menu + Condiment Applying Zone

I then waited in a cluster of people waiting for food, and watched the process. Order, wait 5-10 minutes, hear name called, weave through people* to try to reach tacos, awkwardly reach around people* to squeeze hot sauce onto taco or God forbid, have to juggle both tacos and coffee to add cream and sugar to the latter, emerge from the crowd looking a bit worse for the wear, hastily scarf down food somewhere in a 15 foot radius of the truck. It was seriously enough to raise my blood pressure just watching. Like I said, I don't like crowds.
*West Philly hipsters. They were out in full force.

I finally received my order of tacos, hurried through the above process, and escaped across the street to the park to find a quiet bench to eat. The breakfast tacos (2 for $6) each consisted of a mini flour tortilla filled with scrambled egg, breakfast potatoes (chunks of simple pan fried potato), shredded cheddar, and a scoop of guacamole. They came with an option of sausage or no sausage (for all those vegetarian hipsters), and I chose one of each. The first bite was delicious- I love all of the above foods, so together wrapped in a soft tortilla, I was happy (particularly considering my hunger level).

However, as I worked my way through that first taco, I started to realize it wasn't all it was hyped up to be. To begin, it wasn't hot. Warm, maybe, but not nearly hot enough to melt the cheese. By the time I made it to the second taco, it was bordering on cold. The guacamole was also a bit off- the sharpness of the lime and onion was too much, overpowering the other items in both the condiment and the taco as a whole. The flavor of the eggs and potato were just.. lost, leaving their textures to try to fend for themselves. This might have been OK if the potatoes were thoroughly cooked- I had an unfortunate bite of crunchy raw potato in one taco. The sausage was the one saving grace, leaving me wishing I had ordered both tacos filled with meat. It had a sharp rosemary flavor that made a perfect breakfast sausage (although paired with guacamole, I'm not so sure). They were also a little on the small side- I might be used to the supersized portions usually found at food trucks, but I wanted something a little more substantial.

Palm-sized tacos. And I have small hands.

I was also looking forward to getting my caffeine fix via Honest Tom's-- they brew Stumptown coffee, the absolute best coffee I've ever had. My small cup ($1.50) should have been plenty- my experience with Stumptown has always been a perfectly bold but smooth coffee with a surprising caffeine kick, needing just a touch of cream to help it down. I'm not sure what happened here- it was just not good. It had a burnt flavor, and the "cream" offered by the truck (which poured much more like watered down milk) did nothing to temper the flavor. I sadly threw it out after just a few sips.

Overall, I have to conclude that Honest Tom's is overrated. Perhaps it was the size of the crowd that forced the truck to speed through the taco making process, but I'd rather wait a few more minutes for a quality product than eat mediocre food. I know I could make a better breakfast taco (perhaps a future blog post?), probably for a similar price. On the other hand, Honest Tom's does make a variety of other tacos, although I believe breakfast tacos is their Saturday special (the only day I would ever be able to get to them!), and perhaps they are better at these other options... perhaps.

Thankfully, my trip to Clark Park was made a bit better by the discovery of super cheap dried spices and a delicious "healthy" chocolate chip-four seed cookie (baked by previously unknown local Slow Rise Bakery), both found at the nearby farmer's market. I still have another taco truck on my "list," and we'll hope that this future experience will help bolster my opinion of food trucks!

Honest Tom's Taco Truck
Tues/Thurs 33rd and Arch Streets
Wed/Fri 18th and Vine Streets
Sat 42nd and Chester Streets

November 6, 2010


With our love for any food originating in the South, creole & Cajun food always hits the spot. But really, who doesn't like spicy fried things? Although we've never been to New Orleans, Catahoula, the new-ish Cajun restaurant on Front Street, gave us a little taste of the city. The location is a little further away than we usually venture, but hey, sometimes you have to make an effort to get to some good food.

Photo from Yelp

Arriving a little after 6 PM on a Friday, we snagged the last table, a two-top by the door. Without a hostess, the no-frills atmosphere lends itself to Catahoula's laid back vibe. With only a handful of tables and a long stretch of a bar, the space seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Some snazzy design elements such as huge gilded mirrors and ornate wood built-ins behind the bar are juxtaposed by the big-screen TVs and chalkboard menus. Advertising specials during Eagles games yet with a solid non-bar-food menu, it just seems like a weird mix of sports bar and cozy Cajun eatery.

One benefit of the weird mix is a solid list of Happy Hour deals. From 5-7 PM you can get several of their menu items in smaller portions and for less money. A & I opted to start with one of our faves: fried oysters ($5). Two fat oysters were rolled in a light cornmeal batter, deep-fried, and dusted with a spice mixture. The outside was soft and subtle, letting the bite of seafood shine. The highlight of the dish was the sauce- a creamy, tangy tartar with whole-grain mustard and dill. A squeeze of lemon made the whole experience ridiculously good. New favorite fried oyster? Quite possibly.

We also started with a "cup" of the Crawfish Bisque ($5). Although we ordered a cup, and were charged for a cup, we were definitely served soup in a bowl. With a darker color than most bisques, the flavor was still creamy with a strong seafood punch. A few small bits of crawfish gave a little texture- I would have liked a few MORE small bits. The roux seemed a tiny bit off- we both commented on the flour-y taste, but it actually ended up being a good thing. I literally felt like I was eating a buttery biscuit topped with a spicy piece of fish... in liquid form. So while some might see the flour flavor as a negative, we actually enjoyed it.

From the "Big Papa Plates" section of the menu, A chose the Braised Duck Jambalaya ($18). A big meaty duck leg came served on a bed of slow-cooked rice chock full of Andouille sausage and slow cooked veggies, namely celery and green pepper. Heavy on the heat, the texture and flavor of the jambalaya was rich and hearty. The duck meat was a little on the greasy side for me, but A loves duck and believes "you can't go wrong with duck." There did seem to be extra flavorful little pockets of jambalaya under the big hunk of meat- some of the skin was left on to add some of that juicy, smoky, meaty flavor. The sausage gave it an extra kick, but I preferred digging out the soft pieces of bell pepper that just soaked up all the jambalaya goodness.

I chose the catfish Po' Boy ($10), which starred a big hunk of whitefish fried in the same batter as the oysters. The sandwich roll was toasted, giving it a few crispy edges while still maintaining a super fluffy inside. The remoulade sauce was amazing- a more classic version of a tartar with chopped pickles and a touch of vinegar. A few slices of tomato and some shreds of lettuce seemed like an after thought. I was a little worried that the whole mess would be really crispy and crunchy, so I was pleasantly surprised to bite through soft bread, soft fried shell, and soft flaky fish. The sauce made everything pretty juicy so I made a bit of a mess, but overall it was a solid sandwich. However, I definitely think that the chefs could go a little more modern with this and play with some of the components. The side of fries, though well cooked, were ridiculously salty. Probably a good thing, since that limited my consumption.

Of course we're never ones to turn down dessert, and the dessert list is extremely enticing. We ended up making an unusual (for us) choice in the Molasses Pecan Pie with Buttermilk Gelato ($7). With that sickening sugar-jelly-weirdness that usually makes up pecan pie, it's just not our favorite. However, I like molasses and A knew the buttermilk-flavored gelato would be right up her alley so we took the risk. Thankfully, we were quite pleased with the outcome. With a soft, buttery crust with just a thin layer of pecan mush, most of the pie consisted of soft baked pecans drizzled with molasses. The gelato (tasted suspiciously like ice cream but whatever) was sweet and creamy and amazing. We ate every bite.

Although the atmosphere is a little off, we realize this place is going for a neighborhood feel. Fortunately, the food was tasty and the prices were fair for what we were served. Nothing was out-of-this-world unique or original, but everything we tried was solid; I'd love to get back there to try the brunch. With Craig LaBan reviewing it tomorrow in the Inquirer, it'll be interesting to see what his take is on the tiny, casual, Cajun Catahoula.

775 S. Front Street

November 3, 2010

Spice Encrusted Fish & Roasted Leeks

Inspiration for one of this week's dinners came from two sources: our lovely recently-wedded friends and our CSA. We were very thankful to experience (and be a part of) our friends' recent wedding, and took home wonderful memories as well as some great gifts. As the bride and groom currently live in Memphis, they gifted each guest with a small bottle of homemade spice rub, a little taste of their new hometown.

As soon as I saw these, I knew I wanted to use it on fish, and thankfully the opportunity didn't take long to arise. In this week's CSA we received two MONSTER leeks, and I decided to prepare it much the same way we prepare many of our CSA veggies: roasted. My first task was to create a "side dish" with the leeks, to go with the spicy fish. The best thing about my final product is the overwhelming simplicity of it. The entire meal used only seven ingredients (minus a few common items such as salt and pepper)!

Roasted Leeks and Tomatoes with Lemon-Cream Sauce
You will need:
2 large leeks
1 pint grape tomoatoes
1 lemon
1/3 cup light cream
1 clove garlic

First, I sliced my leeks into 1 inch chunks, starting from the end and working my way up through 2/3rds of the dark green part. I then sliced the larger chunks in half, and rinsed out the green pieces (leeks are notoriously dirty, and very good at hiding it). These went into a roasting pan sprayed with cooking spray, along with a carton of grape tomatoes. I sprinkled them with salt and pepper, gave them a light top coat of cooking spray, and into the oven they went (425 degrees for 35-40 minutes).

As my vegetables were baking, I started preparing the fish. I used two large filets of mahi-mahi, but any good white fish will work. I combined 1/2 cup of panko breadcrumbs with 1.5 bottles of spice rub- about 3 tablespoons. Sorry, you'll have to check with the newlyweds for the special spice recipe!

The fish was wet enough so that I could dredge it immediately in my crumb mix, but if it was on the drier side, a dip in milk/egg whites/water would do the trick. After a good coating was applied, I carefully laid it into another greased pan. I timed it so that the fish and the leeks would be done simultaneously-- allowing the fish about 12-15 minutes total. Bake for 6-8 minutes (the timing will really depend on how thick the cut is) and then carefully flip the filets and finish on the other side.


The final step: the lemon-cream sauce. Sounds kinda fancy, right? SO easy. I heated a small pan, drizzled in a tiny amount of olive oil and added a chopped garlic clove. While that was heating up, I zested and juiced a lemon, and added this to the pan as soon as the garlic was good and sizzly.

After about a minute, I lowered the heat and poured in the cream, stirring as I went. This stayed on low heat as I pulled out the fish (check for doneness by gently pulling a corner away-- if it flakes, it's done!) and the leeks (they should be soft and slightly crisp at the edges, and the tomatoes should be wrinkled) and plated both. Final step: pour the sauce over the leeks, add a piece of toasted bread, and serve!

One pound of fish and the two giant leeks provided enough for two dinners and one amazing leftover lunch-- but you can certainly scale up or down (or simply serve less-- our veggie portions are pretty outrageous). The flavors and textures of the juicy, panko-encrusted mahi with a hint of almost Cajun-y spice was well complimented with the subtle lemon-scented leeks and tomatoes. For seven ingredients, and just 45 minutes in the kitchen, I was impressed-- and I think you will be too!