June 29, 2011

Mettbroechen, Croissants, and Pizza

As A alluded to, I've been quite busy the last ten days traveling around Europe- primarily in Switzerland for a week-long conference, with a short visit to Florence to visit our cousin as well as some brief jaunts in German airports. The trip was an absolutely wonderful experience, a perfect mix of fun and learning. Of course I always love experiencing a new location through it's food, so here are a few things I ate while I was away.

I had a few minutes in the Frankfurt airport (which, by the way, is the most enormous airport) between flights and wanted to snag an "authentic" snack. The only thing close to my gate was a little place called MoschMosch which was actually a "Japanische Nudelbar" but also had a few German items in a small case near the register. I inquired about something interesting looking called Mettbroechen and was informed that it was a pork tartare. Served as an open faced sandwich topped with bits of raw onion, it was reminiscent of a meatball or hamburger mixture.. before cooking, of course. Slightly peppery, silky smooth ground pork with the crunch of pungent raw onions. Where can I find this in the States??

The conference was held in a small town called Les Diablerets, about 90 miles from Geneva.

All meals were included, served at the Eurotel Victoria. Lunch and dinner were always formal seated three course affairs, with a wide range of menu influences. On the other hand, breakfast was always a buffet- and it was always my favorite meal of the day. A huge spread of pastries, breads, juices, meats, cheeses, yogurts, fruit, veggies and cereals as well as the standard bacon and eggs satisfied absolutely any breakfast desire.

I always ate the same thing: chocolate granola with plain yogurt and a dollop of jam, a piece of fruit, and a buttery croissant with honey. The honey is served as a giant cake-sized solidified mass that you just knife a hunk off of- small glass bowls provided. Even though the breads and cheese called my name loudly, I could eat this plate of food every day for the rest of my life and be completely happy.

After an 11 hour train ride to Florence, Italy for a quick weekend visit, the first thing on my mind was a snack. Fortunately there are "self-service" restaurants on every corner offering pizza and sandwiches. I opted for an interesting combination of blue cheese, capicola, tomatoes, spinach, and a few shreds of mozzarella. The crust was thin and crunchy and the salty combination of flavors quite satisfying.

Lunch the next day was an equally simple affair- a small sandwich consisting of thick slices of brie and a thin spread of pesto on a flat white roll. Bread and cheese is one of the world's most delicious combinations.

We also popped into Grom, the famous gelateria that also has an outpost in NYC. While Florence has a plethora of places to get gelato, most of them sell a processed form of the treat recognizable in the form of tall, piled heaps of the stuff. Grom keeps theirs in closed metal containers. I opted for a mix of Caffe (coffee) and Crema di Grom (an egg cream with bits of dark chocolate and crumbled cookie). Perfect for savoring on a hot and gorgeous day, coffee and chocolate are the perfect complements. I'm happy to know Capogiro is always nearby when my gelato needs kick in.

After a very American dinner at the new Hard Rock Cafe, I tried out an Italian dessert- puffs of pastry encasing a custard filling, topped with a generous coating of fudgy dark chocolate, fresh whipped cream, and a crunchy cookie. Incredibly rich chocolate was offset by the airy lightness of the pastry buried beneath.

Breakfast on my last day consisted of a pastry and cappuccino- the latter being the highlight. A thick, almost caramelized foam hugged a sweet shot of espresso. The pastry was crispy on the outside and airy within, also slightly sweet with a hint of lemon.

The food highlight of the trip (OK, Swiss breakfast gives this a run for its money..) was a pizza from Gusta Pizza, across the Arno river on the quieter side of Florence. The place offers a short and sweet list of 6 or 7 different pizzas. I went with the recommendation of the Calabrese, a simple combination of mozzarella and thick curls of spicy sausage. You better believe I ate every bite of this pizza- the crust was thin while still maintaining a good chew, not too crispy which is just how I like it. The spice of the sausage was mild until you got a good bite of it- the little kick in the throat was addicting.

Another pizza with mozzarella, grape tomatoes, generous shaves of parmesan, and peppery arugula was also a hit. The arugula was some of the best I've had- thick and a little more "mature" than I'm used to, giving it a more developed earthy flavor to balance the spice. I made a little side salad of cast-off leaves- the pizza had a huge pile of the stuff.

Recounting the highlights of the trip in food reminds me just how lucky I am to have opportunities to travel. I can barely keep up with what Philly has to offer- the rest of the world is so overwhelming and yet so inviting.

June 26, 2011

Modo Mio

Confession: I have a food crush on Peter McAndrews. As the owner of four Philly restaurants, and the creator of some epic sandwiches at Paesano's (so popular they've opened two locations), he even had time to face off against Bobby Flay in a sandwich-making throwdown (and won, duh). I've heard raves about his original spot, Modo Mio, for quite some time but its unfortunate location at 2nd and Girard has kept me away. Until this weekend. And now I'm quite annoyed with myself for not getting down there sooner.

Beautiful (Source)

One of my "foodiest" friends and a frequent blog meal sharer is in town for the summer, with the added bonus of being a car owner. He agreed to drive us down to Northern Liberties for a 'welcome home' meal. I called about a week ahead for reservations and had trouble snagging an 8PM spot- apparently while I'm (once again) late to the game, the rest of Philly isn't.

The space is pretty small, with only a few windows letting in natural light. The "front of house" doesn't have a full time hostess, and doubles as a bread serving/slicing station. For such a small place, there seem to be quite a few employees, and we were initially checked on by three or four of them before being assigned a full time waitress. Service was never a problem, although the meal proceeded at a snail's pace (my favorite). Before ordering, we were given a little bite- a sundried tomato bruschetta. I'm always a fan of a pre-meal snack, especially at 8 PM!

The menu is split between appetizers, pastas, and entrees, or you can do the four course "turista" menu for $34 (one of each plus dessert). This was a no brainer-- and one of the best deals in the city, hands down. The menu continuously changes, allowing a new experience every time you dine.

After making our decisions, our waitress handed us some freshly baked bread (from an oddly shaped, enormous loaf that sits up front)-- all of the bread, pasta, and desserts are made in house. The bread is dense and nutty, with slight char around the crispy crust-- perfection on its own, but also a fantastic vehicle for the truffled olive oil and smooth ricotta served alongside.

I started with the scallop appetizer (or Capesante. Also of note, all appetizers are priced at $8 a la carte). Two large scallops are served on a bed of a thin chickpea-flour crepe, folded into a fan shape. Bits of chopped asparagus are countered with sweet cherries and salty chunks of ricotta salata. The oil based dressing added another dimension, but the scallops themselves weren't overwhelmed-- each well cooked, meaty bite was much enjoyed.

My friend went with a potato torte, a cake like construction made from slices of potato topped with an impressive crab salad. The large chunks of crab were tossed with basil and roasted red pepper, creating a summery finish to what could have been a heavy starter.

After a long lull (the time between courses was sufficient to make room for the next, as well as just enjoy the evening, but not long enough to worry that there might be a mishap in the kitchen), the pasta courses were served ($11 a la carte). My Bucatini Amatriciana looked like a pile of spaghetti with tomato sauce but was infinitely more. Bucatini is made with a tiny hollow in each strand, giving an extra doughy bite. The flavor and freshness was intense- I rarely have fresh pasta but can always tell the difference. The sauce was super spicy, leaving a pleasant burn with each bite. Chunks of pancetta leant the entire dish a smoky meatiness- overall, the dish was a clear winner. The portion was enormous (I could have made this a meal in itself), so I ended up leaving a lot of it uneaten. Remembering the flavor and looking at the picture, I'm currently regretting this.

(Post-sunset=unhappy camera)

Across the table, my friend was enjoying a decadent rigatoni dish made with chicken livers and pancetta-- the rigatoni alone was easily worth $11. Fresh, doughy pasta, I love you.

Moving onto our main entrees, I was eyeing the whole branzino, but was turned off by the fact that they won't debone it AND it's a $5 surcharge on the prefixe. Probably still a good deal, but I went with a fish alternative- the monkfish (entrees range from $15-19). The other options hit every type of animal product possible- skirt steak, duck, veal, lamb, sweetbreads, and more, with a single vegetarian option (eggplant). The monkfish is served as two small filets, pan cooked with an ever so subtle breaded coating (perhaps just dipped in flour?). It was definitely not fork tender, awkwardly requiring the use of my butter knife-- not sure if this is typical of monkfish or just because of the preparation. It's served over and under a sauce heavy on tomato, with a few bits of wonderfully earthy porcini mushrooms and.. walnuts. I love nuts, but I've decided that fish and nuts don't go together. Altogether, the dish was flavorful but the toughness of the filet and the nuts made this my least favorite part of the meal.

Our waitress described the dessert choices of the night (no dessert menus!) as we approached the end of our third hour of eating. Most of the dessert options are classic Italian-- tiramisu, panna cotta, etc, which typically aren't my favorite. I found the ricotta torte with black pepper and fig jam to sound the most interesting, so took a gamble and made it mine. The desserts are made in house, and thereby have a bit of a homey look about them-- both my torte and my friend's panna cotta looked like creations out of my own kitchen. The flavors were clearly professional though-- the smooth ricotta was slightly sweet (and thankfully not salty), with the black pepper creating a very subtle burn. Figs and ricotta are always BFF, and the jam created a friendly fruity flavor burst. The panna cotta was also sinfully smooth, and paired with sweet strawberries, was a perfect summer treat; I might now be a classic Italian dessert convert. As long as they're coming out of Peter McAndrew's kitchen.

Yeah, you can laugh.

I left pleasantly full but not stuffed, and practically shouting my love for Modo Mio down the streets. It might just be my next date spot, and is good for small groups-- there were at least two birthday celebrations while we were there. The amount and quality of the food you receive here would easily be worth $60+ at other (subpar) places around town- perhaps the location brings down the price a bit. We were also lucky enough to have Mr. McAndrews himself in the kitchen, and he took the time to greet each table- I might have been a little starstruck when he stopped by ours. I'm also looking forward to trying his newest spot, Monsu, located in the Italian Market. And I'm always craving a Paesano's sandwich! Like I said.. food crush.

Modo Mio
161 W. Girard Avenue

June 23, 2011

Collard Wraps

We've been receiving collard greens almost weekly in our CSA, and the hot weather calls for something other than hours of steaming and braising. We recently started trying a new-to-us concept-- using the large round leaves as substitutes for tortillas or other carby wraps. After a few tries, I think we have the technique perfected. So the next question is- what goes inside? To us, the green wraps call for something a little different. I taste tested three recipes and loved them all. Here they are!

Operation Collard Wrap: Take #1

J picked out this recipe as inspiration, since she loves the vegan chicken salad at Whole Foods. This cashew based mix tastes surprisingly like the real deal.

Chicken Cashew Salad

Makes enough for 2-3 wraps

1/2 cup cashews (raw or roasted, no or reduced salt)
1 stalk celery
1/4 onion
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove
1 tsp dried thyme
lots of fresh ground pepper

Disclaimer: My DSLR camera went on a European vacation, so I've been stuck with a point and shoot. Help!

Easy, peasy: combine all of the above in a food processor and give it a whirl. Add a drizzle of olive oil or water if it seems too thick, but don't go too crazy- you want a thicker, chunkier consistency (especially if you want to fool yourself into thinking nuts are chicken).

Oops, a little watery.

In the meantime, get a pot of water boiling- collard leaves can be used raw, but we prefer to blanch them to soften them up a bit. Prepare your leaves by rinsing them and trimming the stem to the bottom of the leaf. You can also make your life easier by carefully slicing off the thick part of the stem horizontal to the leaf to ease folding.

Once the water is boiling, submerge your leaves and let them go for about 2-3 minutes. I played around with the blanching time, and learned that if you leave them in longer (7-8 minutes), they are more palatable but tear easier. It's your call.

When they're done, remove and rinse with cool water, shake to remove excess moisture. Lay flat and assemble the goods in the middle of the leaf. With the chicken salad, we added pea shoots and avocado slices- keeping things cool and fresh.

Wrapping of the leaf is easy to do but difficult to take pictures of single-handedly. First, fold both sides in and over.

With your other hand, grasp the bottom edge and pull up and over the folded sides.

Continue pulling until you can tuck the leading edge over the pile, then roll the bundle forward over the final (top) edge. This is definitely a two handed, sometimes messy process. I usually find myself helplessly stuffing the overflowing filling with one hand while pulling the leaf over it with the other. Somehow, I am usually successful at fitting at least a small child into one collard leaf.

I highly recommend then cutting your log wrap in half, for more manageable eating.

Operation Collard Wrap: Take #2

For my second go, I used a very similar technique, taking advantage of my food processor to produce another baby food filled wrap. I mean, Beet-Chickpea-Carrot Hummus wrap (inspired by this recipe).

BCC Hummus

Makes enough for 4-6 wraps

4-5 small (or 2 large) beets, preferably yellow or golden (canned or roasted)
1 c. roughly chopped or baby carrots
1 c. chickpeas (canned or cooked, your choice)
juice of 1 lemon
1 heaping Tbsp. tahini
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 garlic clove
salt + pepper
fresh herb of choice (parsley, oregano, basil)

I made this wrap twice, using red beets and parsley first, and then baby Chioggia (more of a golden beet) and oregano for the second round. If you'd like an earthier, bright red mix, go with the first combo; if you want a sweet, subtle flavor go with the latter. Beet roasting trick: trim and scrub, then wrap each whole beet in tin foil and place in the oven for 45 minutes at 450 degrees. The foil helps keep the vegetables moist and practically steams them out of their skins- you don't HAVE to peel them for this recipe though.

Once again, combine all of the above ingredients in the food processor-- for a thicker consistency, you can grate the carrots and add them in once the blending has finished.

Add the mix to your leaf and top with assorted vegetables of choice- though tomato, cucumber, and avocado can do no wrong.

Roll up and enjoy-- remember, Left. Right. Bottom. Tuck. Roll. Cut. Eat.

Operation Collard Wrap: Final Mission

For my last collard experiment, I decided to pander to my meat-eating friends/family/readers, but opted for another somewhat unusual filling, with a bit of an Israeli inspiration. I wanted to make a ground beef mix and combine it with cauliflower "rice" but the cauliflower that arrived in my CSA wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

I went with what I had though, and combined ground beef, chopped onion, sliced mushrooms, and the cauliflower (finely chopped) in a pan with a little olive oil, garam masala, garlic, coriander, salt and pepper. After everything was cooked through and nicely softened, I added it to my blanched leaf and topped it with diced dried apricots and cashews. A little bit of an impromptu and strange combination, but it really worked.

Super flavorful, with the sweetness of the apricots and the crunch of the cashews playing equally important roles. As much as I hate to admit it, this one might have been my favorite. I truly believe using a typical flour wrap would have overwhelmed the flavors and textures here-- the softened collard leaf was practically flavorless and served as a perfect vehicle for the spicy meat to travel into my mouth.

You can bet what I'm putting on our recipe list next time we get collards from our CSA-- and now you can use these greens in a summer friendly manner, too. They're also great for picnics-- leaves can't get soggy, so they pack, store, and travel well.

June 17, 2011

Pure Fare

We clearly spend a lot of time (and money!) in restaurants, but tend to keep our outings for the weekend. This cuts down on expense, and allows for more of a "splurge" feeling; because, on the weekend, you're allowed to spend that hard earned graduate student stipend money and relax on the healthy eating front a little, right? However, sometimes during the week you want a little break from the kitchen, without breaking the bank or ruining all those hours at the gym (we're exaggerating a little here.. we aren't that uptight).

This week, we had the pleasure of checking out a relative restaurant newbie, Pure Fare. Marketed as a quick stop for healthy eats, their website had me pretty worked up-- everything on their menu sounds like something I'd want to make in my own kitchen, relying heavily on plant-based ingredients that are too often neglected in the restaurant scene (quinoa, wheatberries, kale, to name a few).

For those a bit wary of veggies, don't fear, there are several options based on lean meats (tuna, turkey, chicken) and cheeses, mostly locally sourced and organic. On top of all of this, the portion sizes are perfect, and all the menu items have been nutritionally broken down for those interested in fat/protein/calorie/sodium content. AND the menu is quite diverse, ranging from soups, salads, and sandwiches to a few choice "entrees", as well as coffee drinks, smoothies, fresh juices, and baked goods.. ALL made in house. Does it get any better?

We visited on a weekday evening, which is currently a pretty quiet time there. The restaurant has only been open for two months, and the owners are still working out the quirks, including hours of operation. Their website advertised a closing time of 8PM but they started closing up shop about an hour early during our visit. The owners (a brother-sister twin team!!) seemed to be running the whole show, with one operating the food side and the other working the coffee/juice side.

They were both extremely friendly, providing samples when possible, answering questions about ingredients and preparation, and explaining that the half-empty salad and sandwich display shouldn't dissuade us from ordering any of the options of the day (they currently don't make all of the menu items listed online everyday, but select 60-75% on a rotating basis). We chose four items to split, a perfect balance of soup, two salads, and a baked quinoa-based skillet bread.

We started with the soup, the cold cucumber ($4.25) that was perfect and refreshing in the warm weather. Everything is served so that you could easily take it to-go, but we decided to stay and eat at the fun communal table (there is also limited outdoor seating). A generous serving of the frothy cucumber puree is topped with a spicy tomato compote. This is the soup I would try to make at home and hate-- it's so easy to make a watery, flavorless veggie-based soup, but with the addition of fresh herbs (dill and tarragon), creamy Greek yogurt and a bit of milk, I could probably live off of this stuff. The salsa-like topping seals the deal, adding a pop of color and heat to keep it interesting. At 87 calories, this would never be the main component of one of my meals, but works perfectly as a filling "appetizer" or a delicious snack.

Next up was a prepared salad we snagged off the refrigerated shelf- the wheatberry salad ($6). I'm sort of obsessed with wheatberries in general, so couldn't pass it up-- you almost never see them at restaurants, and they're kind of time consuming to make at home. The dense, chewy, nutty nuggets are served with perfect counterparts- thin slivers of curly kale, soft beets baked with garlic and thyme to complement their earthy flavor, and a honey-sesame dressing. I need this dressing recipe. The menu also lists butternut squash, but if it was present, it was lost in the mix of other high-quality ingredients and flavors (plus, it's slightly out of season?). The nutrition density of this little salad is pretty incredible, but provides its punch with tons of flavor and satisfaction.

We also ordered a second kale-based salad, but the owner made a fresh bowl as they had sold out during the day. Listed as the "Chopped Kale Salad," it really is so much more than just the green leafy veg- and took us out of the world of vegetarianism with a healthy dose of shredded, roasted turkey chunks and cubes of salty, sharp Lancaster white cheddar.

The salad has a sort of fall flavor profile, as it also includes large apple chunks and almond slivers. The dressing, once again, almost stole the show, a creamy lemon-parmesan mix that coated the leaves just enough to be visible but not overwhelming. The parmesan flavor was quite distinct (so yum!), while the lemon worked its magic to soften the kale leaves.

Last out was a new item, named "Quinoa Skillet Bread" ($4.75). A huge chunk (perhaps intended to be more than one serving?) was left on the chopping block, and J and I were lucky enough to snag the entire thing-- better for sharing! The hefty slice contained quinoa, zucchini, red pepper, and onion, all held together with a few eggs. It was kind of a combination of cornbread and frittata.. just without the corn. And with a healthy dose of veggies hidden in there-- perhaps not hidden to the eye, but definitely in the soft, creamy, crumbly texture and the slightly sweet, nutty flavor. This was J's favorite of the night, but I had trouble ranking our eats-- whatever I was currently eating was my favorite.

Of course, we couldn't end the meal without trying a couple of their desserts, which remind me of those made at Sweet Freedom Bakery (the Pure Fare owner said the SFB owner had come by to sample!). The Chocolate-Avocado cookie (recently featured on MealTicket!) was calling my name, and J made our second selection- the Chocolate Chip Zucchini Bread, also a new item.

The cookie ($1.75) was soft and intensely chocolate-y, perfect for getting my chocolate fix with a dose of healthy fats. The avocado doesn't contribute to the flavor profile, but as MealTicket pointed out, lends a buttery texture. Simply (healthy) food genius. The zucchini bread ($2.20) was just as good, with a nice crumb and a subtle spice. I usually don't like cinnamon in baked goods, but this was perfect. I also loved that each of their baked goods was the exact same portion-- the brownies and cakes are all made with a small square pan, allowing the same nutritional profile and preventing me from trying to point out the biggest item in the case (what?).

As we were packing up to leave, the owners quickly wrapped up a few extra baked good items, as they were closing up shop for the night and won't keep these items around for more than a day. I literally felt like I hit the jackpot, as we got to sample four additional items. The fig bar (made with homemade fig paste and no added sugar), the brownie (secret ingredient: sweet potato), the banana cookie (one of their most popular items), and the orange muffin (made with a yogurt-based frosting/glaze)-- how lucky were we?? My first thought was to taste test the items on my boyfriend, who has a notoriously picky palate. They all passed with flying colors, which further enforces my opinion that these desserts are not only made with whole, nutritious ingredients but they also taste amazing.

You might be tired of my ravings at this point but I have a few more details to share:
1) The MyFare online system allows you to track nutritional intake (a meal plan/delivery system seems to be in the works)
2) Tons of options for vegan and gluten free eating
3) The owners are so passionate, friendly, and outgoing
4) It's SO affordable, especially considering the high cost of some of the ingredients
5) They serve breakfast (oatmeal, breakfast sandwiches, yogurt, etc)

We told the owners we were ready to move in, and while that is clearly not a viable option, we will definitely be returning as often as possible-- it's good for a quick coffee, an afternoon snack, breakfast, dinner, you name it-- as well as trying to emulate some of their recipes at home. We want Pure Fare to become a Philadelphia institution, so (perhaps a selfish request) go check it out yourselves!

Pure Fare
119 S. 21st St