July 31, 2011

Pisto Manchego

During my last visit to Boston, my boyfriend and I had dinner at a solid tapas place right down the street from his apartment. Taberna de Haro specializes in Spanish tapas and wines and has a great outdoor seating area perfect for a Boston summer evening. Their menu is extensive and seems quite authentic- we've always been pleased with our choices. On this particular visit, one dish stood out to me- the Pisto, described as "slow-braised eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomatoes, and a poached egg." Served in a piping hot cast-iron skillet with a few slices of bread, the dish was outrageously flavorful and just had that rich, hearty, cooked-for-forever essence that is soul satisfying no matter the season. Though I didn't think to snap a picture, another out-of-town blogger documented the dish.

After a year and a half of blogging my meals, my memory for great dishes has been well honed. When I returned home, I spent some time reading about pisto (otherwise known as Pisto Manchego, as it originated in the La Mancha region of Spain) and Googling recipes. As it turned out, we received an eggplant in our CSA, so I quickly claimed it to make my own version of the dish at home.

Pisto Manchego
Makes 2 large or 4 small servings

2 cloves garlic
1 eggplant
2 sweet peppers (I used yellow)
4 small potatoes
2 zucchini
3 onions
1 can diced tomatoes
olive oil, salt and pepper

Halve and deseed peppers. Halve or quarter potatoes, depending on size. Quarter zucchini. Cut onions into quarters but keep the skin intact. Toss everything with olive oil and spread evenly over a pan.

Broil the veggies in the oven on high for 15 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on the level of char- I pulled the peppers out early since they're a bit more fragile than the others. The time in the oven adds an important depth of flavor- that fire roasted smokiness- that could also be attained with a grill.

While these are going in the oven, mince garlic and peel and chop the eggplant into 3/4 inch cubes. Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the garlic, saute 30 seconds. Add the eggplant, stir frequently and cook for 15 minutes, adding a few pinches of salt about halfway through. The eggplant will brown a bit and get some texture- a bit of crispiness.

After the oven items are "done" (the potatoes and onions might not be cooked through- that's fine!), let them cool for a few minutes and then peel off any majorly charred areas- this will easily flake off of the peppers; the outer skin of the onion should come right off as well. Don't stress about this too much though- I left a solid amount of char on the peppers for flavor. Roughly chop everything into bite-sized chunks and toss everything into the pot with the eggplant.

Give everything a good stir and let things cook for a few minutes longer on medium heat.

Add the can of diced tomatoes including the liquid to the pot. Mix it in, add salt and pepper to taste (the tomatoes should have a fair bit of salt so I didn't add much), cover the pot, and turn the heat down to low.

At this point the vegetables are softening and melding together, releasing liquid and becoming a unified ratatouille. This step of the cooking can go on indefinitely but I would recommend at least 25 minutes. Stir occasionally.

At the very end of the cook time, heat up a small frying pan with a bit of oil. Plate the pisto using a shallow bowl.

Fry one egg per serving over easy, keeping the yolk as runny as possible. You can also poach the eggs, though this requires a bit more work. Top the vegetables with an egg and immediately begin cutting it into the dish until it is completely mixed in. The egg will finish cooking from the heat of the eggplant. This step can be done table-side- although the egg adds a very necessary deliciousness (and helps makes it a "complete" meal) the dish is a little prettier before the egg is mixed in. Serve with crusty bread.

I was a little nervous that I wasn't going to enjoy this as much as I did at Taberna de Haro, but even though my rendition was definitely different, it was still full of flavor and just as satisfying. This is a great recipe to modify by adding or subtracting veggies depending on what you have on hand- would be great with corn, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, yellow squash, etc. The eggplant acts as a sort of neutral "glue" that acts as a base for the rest of the more flavorful slow-cooked veggies... a great way to use an eggplant if you're not that into eggplant. Overall a delicious vegetarian meal or side dish.

July 27, 2011

Little Pete's

Almost every morning, I run the same route to my gym, allowing me a very good sense of these five blocks of the city (at least the way they are at 6:15 and 7:30AM). Every day, twice a day, I pass by Little Pete's- a little classic diner located in prime real estate, open 24 hours a day. Every day, I see the regulars drinking coffee at the counter, the big platters of eggs and pancakes, and the waitresses bustling around. Having grown up without a single diner in sight, I don't tend to gravitate towards them. However, the sights and smells and sounds surrounding the place intrigue me, so with a willing father in town, the three of us hit up the diner for a late breakfast.

Everything about Little Pete's is authentic, almost transporting you to any other diner in small-town (or big-city) America. Interestingly enough (and perhaps this is common knowledge to others), most diners on the East Coast are owned and operated by Greek immigrants. My dad caught the owner outside on a break, and after chatting him up, asked how this cultural phenomena came to be. The answer apparently stems from a flood of immigration over the span of a couple generations, bringing in non-English speaking laborers who specifically sought out dishwashing jobs (always available, and no real communication needed). These jobs led to busboys and line cooks and waitresses, and eventually, the business of owning their own little pieces of the American dream.

Our waitress was an older woman who looked like she'd been serving plates of comfort food for longer than I've been alive, but was efficient and friendly. Our dad ordered a simple feta and tomato omelette, sans the usual hash browns and toast that comes with it. At $7.95 for the entire meal, it's a little pricier than some of the other breakfast spots in the city, but with its convenient location and proximity to a million hotels, I don't blame them.

Unfortunately, the order got put in wrong, and no tomatoes existed within the roll of egg and cheese. Fortunately, it was delicious without it- just the right touch of butter, perfectly cooked without a hint of burnt spots.

I also had to get a big pile of eggs, but chose the Western omelette ($7.20). The filling consisted of huge chunks of softened peppers, onions, and mushrooms, and a few of these pieces lay scattered on top as well.

They added a bit of salt and substance to the fluffy eggs, although I'm used to the filling being more incorporated into the egg mix instead of surrounded by it-- it was almost as if the omelette had been pre-made and then veggies added as it was rolled up. Still, consumed together, it was a satisfying meal. The accompanying hash browns were half shreds, half cubes of potatoes and were a bit bland- but nothing a good dose of ketchup couldn't fix.

My meal also came with a side of toast, which our dad insisted be Jewish rye. Apparently it is non-Kosher (no pun intended) to order anything but at a diner. With the first bite I can see why- somehow, considering the combination of the way the bread is made, sliced, buttered, and toasted, I'm not sure I ever want to eat any other toast. Even with a lack of caraway seeds, the rye flavor was just prominent enough to remind me of a quality corned beef sandwich.

J had to mix things up, and ordered the "Hot Cakes" with a side of scrapple ($4.50 + $3.95). If there is one thing a diner should be able to make, it's pancakes, and Little Pete's didn't disappoint. These don't quite hold up to the nutritional stats of our homemade cakes, as they basically ooze butter onto your plate- and into your mouth as soon as you take a bite. But for a once-in-awhile breakfast treat, they are fluffy pancake delights.

The scrapple was an attempt at adventure, as J had never tried it before. I don't want to get into the politics of scrapple (how it is made), but suffice it to say you just don't want to know. But, as a Philadelphia breakfast staple, you at least have to try it once. The scrapple at Little Pete's is heavy on the breadcrumb/cornmeal filling, but tastes essentially like a soft, crumbly brick of sausage, with a crispy fried exterior. Very similar flavors to this other "scrap meat product" item, with a bit of spice.

The portions here are pretty large (as I almost expect at a place like this), so we ended up leaving a fair portion behind. Nonetheless, what we did consume was just what we had expected when we made our breakfast choices- both in choosing to try Little Pete's and in choosing what to eat.

It seems odd to me to heap praise on a restaurant that is an island of artery-clogging, inexpensive, basic foods in a sea of gourmet, fresh/local/organic, upscale restaurants, but sometimes, all you want is a greasy breakfast. Thankfully, Little Pete's has you covered.

Little Pete's
219 S. 17th Street

July 19, 2011

Grilled Pizza

We're certainly not the only ones to constantly peruse the internet for food inspiration and commentary. We recently received an email with the words "Let's do this!" and a link to a Williams-Sonoma blog post about how to grill pizza. As the sender of said email has a small backyard complete with grill (a hot Center City commodity of which we are quite jealous), we quickly accepted the challenge- I'm up for any chance to enjoy an outdoor feast in the summer months.

The idea is to use the super hot temperatures of the grill to recreate a pizza oven- conventional ovens don't get nearly hot enough to make a good pizza. Since grilling a pizza involves several components- dough, toppings, and grill to name a few, I offered to make the dough for the weekend pizza grilling extravaganza. Although I do have some experience with making various types of bread, I know the flour to water ratio is crucial to developing the right type of dough for your desired end product. Thankfully another friend chimed in with the link to another great food blog post detailing the nitty gritty specifics on how to make the perfect grilled pizza, complete with dough recipe.

The recipe calls for an overnight "proofing"- which essentially just means the initial rise occurs overnight in the refrigerator. This actually makes the dough making a little less hectic, since it occurs the night before. When I first started mixing the dough it seemed a little on the dry side, as mixing by hand typically does. However, I continued to knead the ingredients together and ended up with a really sticky dough. I resisted the urge to add more flour, and by the end of the ten minute knead period had a workable if not slightly sticky ball of dough. Trust your recipe. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Looking a little dry...

Kneaded through the sticky stage.

Checking late the next afternoon revealed a bowl o' dough. I pulled it out and partioned it into ten pieces (I multiplied the initial four-serving recipe by 2.5), letting each seemingly small chunk rise again in greased bowls- make sure you give them a little space to expand. Since the dough was starting out chilled, I gave them a good hour and a half to do their thing before gently layering them in a bowl between pieces of Press 'N Seal (parchment would work too) to tote to the pizza party.

The resident grillmaster started up the coals while our hostess prepped all of the toppings, of which the options are endless. We grilled some of the veggies before starting on the pizzas- asparagus, zucchini, and red pepper. We also somewhat unsuccessfully grilled bacon- keep this away from the flames! A skillet designed for the grill was utilized, with the bacon grease kept up high on the grill "shelf." We also had chopped jalapenos, onions, pepperoni, sliced tomato, sundried tomato (highly recommended) and some canned artichokes. Pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella completed the spread.

Since the actual pizza cooking time is incredibly brief, make sure all toppings are prepped in advance.

Step 1: Spread a chunk of pizza dough to desired thickness on an oiled cutting board. Brush with olive oil. Bonus points for artistic shapes.

Step 2: Pick the dough up with your hands (like you're picking up a tray) and place dough oiled side down on the grill directly over heat. I learned quickly that you should leave a little "spread" for the transfer- it stretches out a bit when you pick it up.

Step 3: Brush top with oil. Wait 2 minutes or until a spatula easily slides under the crust.

Step 4: Using the spatula, transfer half-baked crust back to the cutting board, raw side DOWN. This provides a cooked surface on which to place your toppings.

Step 5: Quickly spread your sauce, add toppings and cheese. It helps to have a game plan ready with regards to toppings so that the cooking process is somewhat continuous.

Step 6: Transfer back to the grill. At this point it can be away from the heat source, and the lid can be closed to help with cheese melting. Depending on how close you are to the heat will determine how long you should keep it on- anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes.

The toppings are barely getting warm here, so don't put on anything you don't want to eat raw. I think the chopped jalapenos got to at least a few of us... The great thing about this is that the pizzas are totally personalizable- you can have as few or as many toppings as you'd like, crust as thin or thick as you'd like, as much or as little char, etc. There were some impressive pizza masterpieces! Once we got the hang of the dough on/dough off process it was super simple (it might be good to have an extra chunk or two as sacrificial practice dough) and the finished products were oh-so-delicious. Piping hot, with that hard to perfect crispiness AND a good deal of fluffy crust. A great summer weekend project... that you get to eat!

July 18, 2011

Cheap Eats: Manakeesh Cafe

Another day, another Groupon. Our most recent deal-of-the-day purchase was for Manakeesh Cafe and Bakery, a West Philly Lebanese outpost that is relatively new. It's received some buzz around the online food-loving community, including a glowing review and accolade of "Best Baklava in the City" by our friends at 22nd and Philly. We love baklava, and we love to save a little dough, so as Groupon would say, the deal is on!

We headed out to cash in our coupon for a quick middle of the week dinner. In this weather, even the short hike to 45th and Walnut was almost unbearable (my Florida blood thins more every summer), but the bright atmosphere and blast of air conditioning welcomed us to the Middle Eastern oasis.

Upon entering, it's impossible to miss the gigantic display of desserts on and in the front counter. The cafe is also a bakery, offering an overwhelming quantity and variety of sweet treats- most of them foreign to us. Before we even started thinking about what to order for dinner, J started scheming about what to get for dessert. I had to force her to focus on the task at hand- ie which "Manakeesh" or flatbread sandwich/pizza to order.

Disclaimer: Resorted to Blackberry-based photography

The range of sandwich toppings covers the savory- a thyme-based pesto like sauce is quite popular- cheese, veggies, and various meats, as well as sweet- Nutella and a yogurt & honey combo are both available. J went with the vegetarian "combo," a flatbread covered in the thyme pesto and olives on one side, and cheese on the other, with the addition of "veggies," a vague term which added $0.75 to the whopping base price of $3.85. Probably one of the best deals in the city, the enormous pita-like bread was folded in half to contain all of the inner goods.

The veggies on the sandwich consisted of some chopped fresh cucumber and tomato, offering a tiny bit of respite from the saltiness of the other ingredients. Serious salt. I tried a few bites but I don't think I could have managed a whole one myself- while delicious flavor-wise, the salt was overwhelming.

I went for a meatier option, choosing the Kafta flatbread, $5.50, again with the addition of the veggies. However, the veggies for the meat were different than those for the vegetarian options- or perhaps it's just random. The creator of my little pizza-like meal provided pickle slices and onion atop the flattened ground beef and lamb pieces.

I would like to thank him for the tomatoes though- nice touch. Overall, I loved the combination- the thin bread gave enough chew and substance to hold up to the generous amount of meat, and allowed the spiced lamb to take center stage. If I could have had a little grilled bell pepper, I would have been even happier.

Thankfully, I got a small serving of veggies in the form of a side, the small Fattoush salad ($2.75). A little bowl of chopped lettuce, tomato, and cucumber was topped with crispy fried pita pieces and an oil-based vinaigrette that was bursting with the flavors of oregano and red wine vinegar. A large version of this salad and a simple cheese Manakeesh would be a perfectly satisfying meal for two.

I'm presenting these dishes in a logical order, but to be honest, we were served our dessert selections first. We had a really difficult time picking them out at the counter, but our friendly server guided us through our options, and only kind of smirked at our fat kid tendencies.

We had to stare at our plates of cookies and pastries while waiting for our main courses. Particularly difficult to ignore was the Manakeesh "Power Bar," an amazing concoction of a graham cracker shortbread topped with walnuts and pistachios tossed in a simple syrup which holds everything together in a sticky shell. We picked off pieces of nuts while we waited, and then tackled the rest as soon as we were done with our entrees.

Left: Pistachio Ma'moul, Right: Power Bar

The portion of nuts alone easily justifies the price of this bar, and would have been enough dessert to satisfy my sweet tooth if it hadn't been faced with 45 other options. The second creation we tried was called a Ma'moul ($2.25). This was a soft, crumbly cookie stuffed with ground pistachio paste. Just a hint of sweetness complimented the butteriness of the shell and the rich flavor of the green nuts- I could eat this daily.

Our second plate of decadence included a variety of smaller cookies and pastries. We sampled two types of baklava- that rich, layered dessert combining ground nuts, flaky pastry and a sweet syrup. Manakeesh offers walnut, pistachio, and cashew, and we asked for the latter two. Three small flaky pieces arrived on our plate, so we weren't really sure which was which. What was overwhelmingly obvious upon first bite, however, was that it simply didn't matter- the flavor and texture of these little bites was out of this world. Dense, sweet, crunchy, yet soft- yes, this is hands down the best baklava we've experienced in any recent memory. Next time you have a spare $1.50, your best bet is this baklava.

Left to Right: Triangular Baklavah, Round Baklavah, Fried Dough

Our last, random pick was a piece of fried dough ($1). Several varieties of these little glazed-doughnut-like items are piled on top of the counter, making it near impossible to turn down. The outer shell of these little pinecone shaped doughballs is thicker than you might imagine, yielding to a crossaint-like interior. Sticky, soft, and sweet, with a hint of cardamom or cinnamon (something spicy), it was a sugary taste of the Middle East.

Overall, our meal at Manakeesh was a steal- in part because of the Groupon, but realistically would have been cheap eats regardless. From the salty, savory, meaty flatbreads to the trays and piles of sweet, homemade pastries, you can easily eat yourself sick for under $15. Not that we recommend that, but it wouldn't be difficult in a place like this. Bring your computer, enjoy the bright, clean little dining room, the breezy patio, or the plush couch and make yourself a little home in this cafe- trust us, you won't want to leave for awhile.

Manakeesh Cafe
4420 Walnut Street

July 17, 2011


Sharing meals with other people who love food makes each bite a little more enjoyable. We recently got together with some fellow Philly food bloggers 22nd and Philly, scheduling a Sunday dinner at Pumpkin. A cute, tiny restaurant on South Street that typically is a bit out of our price range ($8 for a side dish??) but offers a seasonal, locally-inspired five course tasting menu each Sunday for a rather affordable $35 (plus tax and tip).

Reservations are a must- the place only has a handful of tables- of which we scored the best, a four-top situated right inside the large front window. The space is simple and bright with a muted modern feel.

The five course menu offers two options for the appetizer, entree, and dessert, great for a pair of foodies- we were able to try every dish on the menu. The meal started out with a cold soup- a "green gazpacho" perfect for a warm summer evening. Bowls were brought out with a thin curl of cucumber, a few halved muscat grapes, pumpernickel crumbs, some edible flowers, and the best part- a scoop of creme fraiche sorbet. A thick blended soup was poured from a small ceramic pitcher over top, adding lots of earthy green elements such as sweet peas, cucumber, and cilantro. The combination of solid elements had an enormous range of textures and of course, the sorbet adding a soothing touch. The pumpernickel crumbs had a surprisingly strong presence- a bit gritty and nutty and totally fun. A described this dish in one word- fresh- which really encompassed the bright flavors that we continued to enjoy from our first bite to our last.

Bread service was offered alongside the soup- a few pieces of soft baguette and a shared bowl of oil infused with roasted garlic and a bit of chili. This exemplifies the "extra special touch" of each and every part of our meal- dishes were very carefully crafted without being overdone.

A & I split almost every dish pretty evenly, but I started out with the pork belly appetizer. To me, pork belly is a dense, fatty chunk of meat that can be a bit overwhelming, but this piece (a pretty solid chunk of it, no less) had elements of both pork belly (melt in your mouth fat) and my favorite type of pork- slow-cooked shoulder. The meat forked apart beautifully and the flavor was magnified by a tiny bit of syrupy glaze and a few pickled mustard seeds. A chunk of lightly pickled green tomato offered continuity to the vinegar flavor, while local white peaches upheld a subtle sweetness. This was one of our favorites of the meal- perfectly executed.

The other app option was the escargots which had an interesting combination of French and Indian influences. Five or six plump, tender snails held a spicy curry broth- similar flavors were also added in a light frothy foam. A few baby greens and thin, crispy cheese "croutons" added color and textural interest. Pureed charred leeks was spotted around the mollusks, but we weren't huge fans- a bit too bitter and burnt tasting; the dish would have been just fine without it.

Next up was the vegetable course- aptly named "peanut potatoes" based on the salty, soft, baby-sized potatoes that were the star of the show. A small amount of creamy, mild horseradish sauce was cool and spicy. Zucchini curls and slices added a bit of freshness and kept the dish light.

Of the two options for entrees, the skate isn't something I'm very fond of. A thin piece of fish that is typically over cooked and mushy, this piece was a little better- lightly seared, flaky, firm and buttery. A few baby squash and other bites of fresh veggies and two very different sauces completed the plate.

I gladly commandeered the other choice, a duck breast confit- dark meat and crispy skin sandwiching a thin layer of succulent fat infusing the meat with richness. Sweet plums and a pinot noir reduction sauce added a fruity, slightly spicy complement that cut through the richness of the meat. Crumbled chicory provided some nutty crunchiness. Again an absolutely perfect combination of flavors- each bite was better than the last.

Dessert is usually one of our favorite aspects of the meal, and Pumpkin didn't disappoint. However, both options were a little on the "boring" side- panna cotta and chocolate cake. I preferred the buttermilk panna cotta, a dense, smooth and creamy custard that was only slightly sweet with a hint of vanilla. Tart blackberries and white raspberries, a crunchy pumpkin seed granola and very finely ground coconut gave the dessert an essence of breakfast that I loved. A little creative twist to the standard panna cotta.

The chefs also took a few creative liberties with the chocolate cake, which was actually more of a fudgy brownie muffin crumbled over the plate. Small scoops of coconut and currant gelato kept the dessert chilly, and pureed dollops of black sesame added a surprise Middle Eastern/Asian flavor component- a little savory to balance the sweet.

The meal took a solid 2.5 hours to consume, with plenty of time between courses for our group to discuss the food blogging world, new restaurant openings, food cart offerings, and a few non-food related topics. The service was attentive without being overwhelming and the small capacity of the room kept the noise level to a minimum, perfect for getting to know new friends. The experience was truly a fantastic way to cap off a weekend- I'd definitely recommend the tasting menu to anyone looking for some really thoughtful renditions of more classic dishes.

1713 South Street
BYOB & Cash Only