January 30, 2012


We typically try to avoid Restaurant Week in Center City- not a great deal, rushed service, limited options, and so on.  However, it always happens to fall around our birthday, so we embraced the lunch option and organized a group celebration down in Old City.  Fork is a "New American" restaurant that has been a stable force on Market Street for over ten years.  They preempted the hyper-local/seasonal trend and actually change their menus almost daily to reflect what is available.  This means that even the pre-established RW menu that we'd perused online had a few changes by the time we made it down.

The space is elegant and simple, but we were led down a long, narrow hallway to a private dining room which was a special surprise.  I suppose they thought we might be a loud, obnoxious group- our waitress seemed a little bummed when none of us ordered anything to drink.  The service was excellent- our three courses stretched out for an appropriate two hours and water glasses were consistently refilled.

We all ordered from the pre-set menu which had three appetizer options, four entrees, and one dessert (one!? really?), although the regular brunch menu was also available.  I started with the sweet potato soup- a thick and creamy, slightly sweet puree topped with another dollop of cream and a few bacon sprinkles.  I thought the soup played mostly on its sweet notes but my boyfriend claimed it had an Indian spice component.  Regardless, it was hearty and satisfying.

A ordered the salad option- a pickled beet salad complete with huge chunks of multiple beet varietals, turnips, and raw cauliflower and radishes.  Pinches of creamy goat cheese, a sprinkle of arugula, and a flourish of thick golden beet puree decorated the salad.  The beets had a great softened texture which contrasted the crunchy radishes- although the raw vegetables were a bit of a surprise. 

The last option was great for any veggie-phobes in the group- beignets with cranberry compote.  Three airy puffs of fried dough were sprinkled with powdered sugar and embedded in a thick, tart cranberry sauce.  Both the density and the quantity of the compote seemed out of proportion to the fluffy doughnuts- difficult to use as a topping or spread.

The most popular entree was definitely the short rib sandwich- a thick pile of braised meat pressed in between slices of grilled ciabatta.  Crumbles of blue cheese were optional- I personally thought the flavor of the cheese overpowered the tender beef.  Crisp, salty fries completed the plate- a perfect mid-day dish for the meat and potatoes type.

Since so many people were ordering the sandwich, I decided to be a little different and chose the most breakfast-y item on the menu.  A thick patty of egg was folded over pale slices of smoked salmon, a few tendrils of purple onion, and more thick pinches of the most pillowy goat cheese.  Because the eggs were cooked separately, the texture of the omelet was a little bit chewy- I prefer my omelets to have a little more cohesion and incorporation of everything in each bite.  Home fries had a nice crispiness, but for some reason the elegance of the dishes and place settings made them seem a little sad. 

There was also a pumpkin and chestnut risotto topped with pea shoots- a nice change from the typical mushroom risotto offered up for vegetarians.  Apparently the chestnuts were practically nonexistent, but the risotto had a rich, earthy flavor that A likened to roasted corn.  At first sight, the portion seemed a bit meager, but as a lunch entree the lightness was appreciated.

The one option for dessert seemed a little like an afterthought- it  makes sense that they need something easy and quick, but the flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-orange ice cream was sloppily plated.  The ice cream was melted across the plate, pooling around the cube of fudgy cake.  I'm typically anti-chocolate cake (too boring), but the density and thick ganache icing gave the cake a richness that was undeniable.  Conversely, I am a proponent of plain vanilla ice cream, so the melted Creamsicle slush wasn't my favorite. 

The Restaurant Week aspect of this meal was definitely limiting- I would have ordered a completely different meal had I gone a la carte.  However, the overall experience was fantastic- the personal service of the private dining room made it feel much more celebratory.  Everyone seemed pleased with the meal and it essentially worked out to everyone getting a free dessert thanks to the $20 prix fixe format.  I'd love to make it back for dinner- the location, menu, and atmosphere make it seem like a prime date spot!

306 Market Street

January 26, 2012

HubBub Coffee

Even though this is a food blog, we have to admit: we have a thing for coffee too.  Ending a good meal with a quality cappuccino, savoring a single-origin brew at Elixr- even gearing up for a long run or race with a big cup of steaming hot caffeine- coffee is something we enjoy in many forms.  While we don't drink it every day, sometimes you just have one of those days, where all you need is a jolt of energy to get yourself going.  You know what I'm talking about.  Unfortunately, our workplaces don't give us a great variety of choices in terms of picking up a good cup of coffee- sorry, ABP, but your coffee kind of sucks.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the latest and greatest (at the time) food truck phenomena on Penn's campus, HubBub Coffee- just a few blocks from my lab, and brewing my personal favorite Stumptown beans.  If you've never tried this Portland-based coffee, you should search it out.

Owned and operated by a Penn grad, the truck has been sadly closed for the past.. year?.. or so, but recently we received word that it was rejoining food truck society (we asked the owner what happened, apparently he's been away attending graduate school).  Of course, I needed to go ASAP.  The truck sits adjacent to the bridge over 38th Street at Locust (which ironically happens to be immediately next to a Penn-operated Starbucks AND Au Bon Pain), and is hard to miss- it's big and bright red.

The menu is actually pretty extensive for a coffee shop run out of a truck, offering a number of espresso -based drinks as well as lots of options for tea drinkers.  Their long list of cold drinks makes me think it would be even more popular in the summer months.

I ordered a cappuccino, which comes in a single size- a little on the small side, but it packs a punch ($3).  The beans used on this particular day (I think they rotate through different Stumptown roasts) were a mix from Africa, Indonesia, and Central America, and "Hair Bender" is a well-deserved name for the assortment.  While this wasn't the all-time best cappuccino I've ever had (Bodhi gets those honors), it's hands down the best one available in University City.  Strong, smooth, and full of flavor, the beans don't lose the war to the steamed milk.

We also got a cup of regular coffee (available in Little or Big), a good deal at $1.50 (even watered down WaWa coffee can be more than that- yep, I'm a coffee snob).  The "Little" seeemed on par size-wise with a medium at that coffee shop that rhymes with Smarbucks.  It was interesting comparing the flavors of the espresso based drinks to the drip coffee- even though I believe they're made from the same beans, the regular brew was so much smoother (not in a good or bad way).  Served with a touch of cream (at our request), it wasn't scorchingly hot which made it dangerously drinkable.  Dangerous?  Yes- you definitely don't want to gulp this down because it's just too darn good.  AND it packs a caffeine punch that you might want to apply slowly.

We're pretty pumped to have HubBub back in business, and while it's still a special treat to skip out of lab for 20 minutes to grab some coffee, you can bet we'll be doing it from time to time!  We're hoping they also add back some baked goods to their menu, since they originally served locally baked croissants and muffins.  If you live or work in the University City area and drink coffee, do yourself a favor and stop by.  They're currently open 7AM-1PM Monday through Wednesday and will add extended hours (and more days of the week) once the weather perks up.

HubBub Coffee
38th and Locust
track them on Twitter!

January 23, 2012

Ten Stone

It's been fun to watch how much Penn has changed since we graduated in 2008- new places to live, new places to eat, and now- with the opening of Penn Park- new places to play.  They've even made it winter-friendly with the addition of "the Bubble"- an enclosed soccer field, free of ice and snow.  A few friends started playing in a soccer league this past weekend so we stopped by to check out the space and half-heartedly follow the game (sorry guys...).

We wanted to grab dinner somewhere between the park and home, but options are rather limited on that stretch of South Street.  Thankfully, we slipped into one of the last tables at Ten Stone, a cute and inviting neighborhood pub complete with pool table and all the current basketball games on TV.

Service was a little spotty- they seemed to be a bit short-staffed- but we were always able to flag down our waitress when we needed her.  We quickly placed an order for something warm- the hot crab dip ($11).  Served with a generous amount of tri-color tortilla chips, the dip comes in a toasty crock pot fresh from under the broiler.

I can't say I'm a huge fan of the browned cheese skin that stretched across the top of the dip, but it encapsulated a cream cheese-based dip that was surprisingly good.  With visible chunks of crab meat, pickled jalapeno peppers, chopped artichokes, and bits of red and green bell peppers, the combination of ingredients really came together to make for a much higher quality appetizer than I was expecting.  It was also incredibly satisfying- a much larger portion than the three of us could finish off.

The rest of the casual menu is comprised of mostly salads and sandwiches, so A and I split one of each.  On a previous visit several years ago, A had ordered the grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich ($9).  It's telling that it's still on the menu all this time later- no real effort to make something new, or maybe more of a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality...  This sandwich leans me toward the latter- a few layers of thinly sliced, salty Virginia ham and tomato are melted underneath a layer of Swiss cheese and sandwiched inside a (thankfully unsalted) soft pretzel.  A thin and super sweet honey mustard glaze smothers the top surface of the sandwich- it might even have been likened to being dipped in a vat of the stuff.  It errs on the side of overwhelming, but in an enjoyable way.

We tried to balance the sandwich out with a salad- choosing the aptly name "Kitchen Sink" salad ($12).  Lots of chopped romaine is tossed with a mix of vegetables- tomato, cucumber, avocado- as well as proteins- hard-boiled egg, pepperoni, and grilled shrimp.  The dressing is listed as a roasted tomato basil ranch, but tasted more like a basic creamy peppercorn.  While the salad did seem to be 90% lettuce, it was plenty to split between the two of us.  A also thought the shrimp should have been served warm, but considering we were eating at a bar (and not a "gastropub"), these complaints didn't prevent us from enjoying the opportunity for some fresh veggies.

A's fiance had a hard time choosing between the burger and the flank steak panini- we convinced him to go for the latter ($11).  Slices of medium-pink flank steak are partnered with bacon and melted gruyere, pressed between slices of a thick bread that toasted well- soft on the inside but with a crispy crust.  Horseradish mayo adds a spicy undertone to accentuate the juicy steak.  Sandwiches are served with fries (nothing special) or a side salad.

With the growing population of casual restaurants taking bar food up a few notches, it's sort of nice to see a place stick to more of a classic American menu.  However, that doesn't mean this is just a boring place to get wings and burgers- they definitely have some interesting and well-executed options, while maintaining a friendly and very approachable neighborhood atmosphere.

Ten Stone
21st & South Street

January 19, 2012

Pesto: No Basil Required

It seems that food critics and regular reviewers like ourselves often look for one thing when judging a chef's handiwork: originality.  Sure, it's great to produce the BEST burger, or the BEST spaghetti, but it is way more fun to find something delicious and unique.  And, since there is a lot to be said for the comfort of regularity, we tend to gravitate towards twists on the norm.  Take a dish we all know and love and add a special touch, and it's likely to be a hit.  On that note, I recently found myself making a pesto with spinach and parsley- a bit off the beaten path of basil, parmesan, and pine nuts.

Pesto forms a great base for a variety of dishes, from pastas or toppings for meat or fish, to stuffings or dips.  They're creamy, richly flavorful, and their finely processed form lends them an ability to permeate.  This past week, I made two different forms of pesto which both strayed from the classic recipe, but inspired me to think of pesto as much more versatile.

Both recipes were found via TasteSpotting, and adapted a bit.  First up, a broccoli based sauce!

Broccoli Pesto: inspired by The Flour Sack
makes about 1 cup

2-3 cups chopped, loosely packed broccoli
1/2 lemon, juice and zest
1-2 ounces parmesan, shredded/grated
2 small cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. olive oil
salt + pepper

The great thing about pesto is how easy it is to make.  For this version, there is a short cooking step, but usually it's just shove in your food processor and go.  However, even for this one, as long as you can boil water, you're halfway there.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add your broccoli florets.  While they're getting nice and soft, add the other ingredients directly to your food processor.  I used a mini processor, just because it's easier to clean and I wasn't making a gallon of pesto.

Let the broccoli boil for 5-7 minutes until completely cooked through and bright green.  You can alternately steam or microwave your broccoli, and you don't even need to use the fresh stuff- frozen is more than fine.  Once it's done, drain well, reserving 1/2 cup of the water in case you need to thin it out a bit.  Add the broccoli to the food processor and blend until everything is very finely chopped and well incorporated (you may have to add the veggies in two or three batches).

Broccoli Pesto
We incorporated it into a pasta dish with white beans, more broccoli, and some pan-seared shrimp.  It actually had a very subtle broccoli flavor, and I imagine if you added an additional flavor or two (basil, parsley, walnuts, or  roasted red peppers to name a few) you'd be able to sneak this onto any picky palate's plate.  We actually love broccoli though, so enjoyed eating it in multiple forms all in one dish.

Our second batch of pesto was used in an entirely different way, although I imagine it would also go well in a Mexican inspired pasta salad.  This time, the base for the sauce was swiss chard, a beautiful green that we don't eat enough of (I'm not sure winter is its best season).  Chard has a much more subtle flavor than any herb you might typically use in a pesto, and is similar to spinach.

Swiss Chard Pesto: stolen adapted from Tasty Kitchen
makes about one cup

5 large chard leaves, stems discarded and roughly chopped
1 jalapeno (seeded or not-- depends on how hot you like it!)
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds (no shells)
2 small garlic cloves
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 large lime, zest and juice
2 Tbsp. hot sauce (I used Frank's Red Hot)

No cooking required here- chard is fairly delicate and has great flavor raw (unlike thicker greens like collards and turnip greens).  Just chop it up and stuff it in the food processor with the other ingredients.

You may need to add additional olive oil or water if your pesto is too thick or hard to blend.  My processor didn't love the pumpkin seeds, so you may want to add them slowly at the end if you have a temperamental machine.  The final product should be fairly thick, if you use it in the same way that we did.  For a salad, you could certainly thin it out even further.

Since I loved the way I saw it served in my inspiration post, we did the same-- as a topping to sweet potato and black bean tacos.  It actually acted in place of guacamole, with a texture that made it easier to spread over the entire taco, as well as providing a nuttier, earthier heat.  The prominent note was lime, but the quantity of juice and zest could definitely be reduced.  To give it even more of a guacamole inspired flavor, a handful of cilantro would work great.

This little pesto "experiment" definitely changed my own definition of the stuff- you can almost mix anything up together and call it pesto.  These two renditions will likely be used again, since they went perfectly with their respective dishes.  As always, we invite you to share your own crazy (or classic!) pesto recipes in the comments.

January 16, 2012


There's something about a warm bowl of Thai curry that is absolutely perfect for a cold winter night- and we've definitely had quite a few of those recently.  Rounding out a month of fun dinners with a friend home for the (very long) holidays, we decided to end it on a new-to-all-of-us spot, the relatively recent Circles in South Philly.  Noted as "Contemporary Asian," I would probably call this "Typical Thai," although there are a lot of fun deviations from the norm.

The corner spot is long and narrow, with the majority of the tables clustered near the front.  It sits adjacent to a separate storefront that specializes in the same dishes, just packed up for take-out.  We've heard that the kitchen is shared, with food shuttled in from one store to the next, but we saw no evidence of that.  We made a reservation (couldn't pass up 1000 points on OpenTable), which almost seemed ridiculous for such a casual place, but we'd recommend it.  
The service was phenomenal, with two guys running the entire place with ease.  After lots of discussion, we came to an agreement to split a number of apps to start our meal.  J had her eye on the Tofu and Corn Fritters ($6.95), which sounded promising- can't go wrong with anything involving the deep fryer and corn.  However, these little corn cakes surprised me- I expected a breaded texture throughout, but instead we were met with an oozing center of corn and pureed tofu, surrounded by a flash fried, panko-based batter.

The two accompanying sauces were also great- particular the curry tomato compote, a thick sauce with chunks of tomato and a few tiny pieces of crab meat mixed in.  The "citrus aioli" option seemed like a classic sweet chili Thai sauce, good, but a bit too thin to really stick to the cake.  It was also not as good of a flavor match as the acidic tomatoes were for the sweet corn.

J also really wanted to try a salad- Circles has a really nice selection, unlike many Thai restaurants- and settled on the Calamari Salad ($7.95).  Unfortunately, besides the generous portion of grilled calamari (both tentacles and large rings), she felt the salad was far too heavy on the green and red onions.  While they were marinated a bit in the thick, sweet, lime-scented dressing, if you ate this serving as is, you'd have a serious case of onion breath.  A few strips of red pepper helped save the dish, but the advertised-yet-absent mint and cilantro would have been much appreciated as well.

We also chose two Thai classics to share, starting with the Pan Fried Dumplings ($5.95).  A note on portions- these were all great to share with our small group, and we felt they were reasonably priced.  The dumplings had a thick, chewy wrapper, toasted to a crisp on one side, encasing a little lump of spiced ground pork.  A soy based sauce helped liven them up, but I felt like these were too boring.  I was outvoted though, as this was a favorite amongst the other two.

Our second classic was the Spring Rolls ($3.95), a perfectly executed version of the dish we've all probably had a thousand times- chopped veggies and chicken encased in an eggroll-like shell and fried.  They were tasty little treats- and again, great for sharing- as they were each cut in half, serving as little scoops for the sweet and sour sauce.  If you're going for original, we'd recommend the Tofu + Corn Fritters, but if you just want a nicely done piece of Americanized Thai, get the Spring Rolls.

Our friend couldn't start his meal without his favorite Thai soup, the Tom Yum ($3.95).  Richly scented with lemongrass, the soup was more of a broth, flavored with galangal (similar to ginger) and kafir lime, and filled with mushrooms, onion, and chicken.  While flavorful, it could have used a heavier hand with the spice.  A hefty portion for a small price, you could easily order a plate of spring rolls and this huge bowl of soup and walk out satisfied for under $10!

After an appropriate interlude, we were greeted with our entrees- which to me, is where all the excitement lies.  I may have played a role in convincing J to order the Eggplant Stinger, a dish full of sauteed vegetables, and of course, lots of soft eggplant, all stir fried in a dark sweet and spicy sauce.  She added shrimp to her portion, as well as a side of brown rice, for a total of $11.95.  Choose chicken, beef, pork, or tofu, and stick with the free white rice, and again you'll pay under $10- a steal for such quality eats.  Beware, however, of the large quantity of bamboo within- J isn't a huge fan (weird) of the woody vegetable, so she ended up picking around it.  While she asked for a "Medium" spice level, it hardly hit Mild on our spice-o-meter.

Eggplant Stinger with Shrimp
The Pad Thai came highly recommended by Yelpers and bloggers alike, so we were happy that our friend decided to order it.  To mix it up a bit, he chose to try one of the Pad Thai "specialties," the Duck Pad Thai ($14.95).  It was served on an enormous platter, making the heap of noodles seem deceptively small, and we immediately wondered at the large pieces of flattened, battered-and-fried.. duck.  What?  Our past experiences with Pad Thai had us under the belief that the protein is incorporated within the dish, not laid scattered on top.  Even so, if the duck had been of the soft, pan-seared variety, it would have been fine.  Instead, each piece was deep-fried to oblivion, leaving just a chewy piece of meat behind.  The rest of the dish was intensely flavorful, and oddly, although also ordered at a "Medium" spice level, had a mind numbing heat (in a good way, but it still represents a lack of consistency).  Certainly the best Pad Thai I've ever tasted, but we all thought a "specialty" should actually live up to its name.

I stuck with my forever-and-ever favorite, the Red Curry.  As always, I ordered it with tofu, but jumped at the chance to have brown rice ($11.95 + $1 charge for the rice).  The sauce was extremely rich and creamy, with a heavy dose of coconut milk, which balanced out the heat from my requested "Spicy!".  The thick triangles of tofu were battered and fried, giving it an extra grip on the sauce with each trip to my mouth.  Lots of sweet basil, bamboo, and barely-blanched green pepper each presented different textures and flavors to prevent any monotony, but even without them, I probably would have wiped up the entire bowl.

The brown rice seemed to be a multi-grain variety, with a range of sizes and brown hues throughout.  The nutty flavor was lovely on its own, but was easily overwhelmed by the curry broth- fine by me, since I could happily drown in the stuff.  The rice worked better with the eggplant dish, as the thick, sticky sauce could coat each piece while still letting the whole grain flavor and texture shine through.

When reminiscing about our meal a few days after, J made the exact same comment that she did regarding our recent trip to Jasmine Rice (another Thai spot in Center City)- while she enjoyed it, she's just not a huge fan of Thai food.  I, on the other hand, am a sucker for the stuff, and can't wait to find a reason to return.  The option to take-out or have the same exact food delivered to my door is also quite tempting!

1514 Tasker Street

January 13, 2012


We're not shy about our love for South Philly, especially the bustling corridor of Passyunk Avenue.  Recently the Ave has seen a few new restaurants open up, inviting us for a return visit.  Birra, a new pizza place at Passyunk's intersection with Morris Street, showed a lot of promise thanks to quite a bit of drool-inducing press coverage.

Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn't take reservations.  After our arrival at 7:30 on a busy weekend evening, even more unfortunate was the host's complete lack of hosting skills. Aimlessly wandering around the restaurant to check on diners' progress, giving me a vague estimate of "about thirty minutes," and then blaming a group's "second round of espresso" for our over 75 minute wait is somewhat inexcusable.

The extended wait gave us plenty of time to check out the menu and make some decisions.  One of our friends is lactose intolerant, so the white pizzas were out of the question, but we ended up choosing two red pizzas, three "plates" and a panini to split amongst the four of us.  We skipped over the antipasti section- nothing caught our eye.  Thankfully the pizzas don't take a whole lot of time to make, so they came out first. Obviously we were pretty hungry at this point, so it's no surprise that the first dish we ate was the unanimous favorite- the margherita pizza ($10).

2/3 cheese
 The pizzas seemed larger than the advertised 12", so they were great for sharing.  The simple margherita showcases the crust (thin, crispy, boring) and the sauce (perfect balance of sweet and acidic, well-seasoned to enhance the robust tomato flavor), as well as thin circles of mozzarella and a few pieces of shriveled basil.  Fire-roasted dried tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil provided the pie with a unique flavor profile.  When I eat pizza, I'm usually excited to get through the middle to the outer crust, but in this case, the sauce is boss.

Our second pizza found it's home atop the double-decker pizza stand, and we dug in to our more "interesting" selection- the three little pigs ($18).  Three types of pork- thin capicola, thick cubes of fatty pancetta, and chunks of roasted porchetta- are smothered in mozzarella and topped with a few sprinkles of fresh parsley.  This pizza sounds awesome, right?  Sadly, all I could taste was grease and salt. So much salt. A had to pick off all of the pancetta because it was the worst offender- explosions of chewy salt-cured fat.  My new-found love- Birra's sauce- was completely lost under this mess.

Out next were the meatballs al forno ($11)- three fist-sized balls of beef and veal topped with (not enough of) their sweet and tangy "gravy" and a shave of parmesan.  These 'balls have a velvety smooth texture, melting in your mouth without a hint of breadcrumb glue- just a few very finely chopped onions.  However, we all agreed that the flavor was just sort of... missing.  Perhaps because our tongues had essentially just licked a block of salt?  Quite possible.  A few more herbs or a different combination of cuts of meat might help, but I'm no meatball expert.  Again, a promising dish that fell a little flat.

Nonni's brisket sandwich ($9) was another beast of a plate- two generous chunks of Italian bread spread thin with a pepperoncini jam and stuffed with chopped brisket.  The large amount of slow-cooked meat and bread without much of a buffer made the sandwich a little dry.  Coincidentally, a cute pitcher of jus is served for just such a situation, but a splash of the brown gravy returned us to Salt City.  The bread was good- fluffy and chewy the way I like it- but the sandwich was nothing special.

During our long wait, I smelled and saw the mussels ($11) and made a special request for the steaming shellfish.  Again, a very large portion (this restaurant definitely caters to those who like to share). We all had at least 7 or 8 mussels, dipped into the buttery Peroni sauce flavored by garlic, more of those roasted and dried tomatoes, and skinny dried chili peppers. They definitely hit all of the necessities for a great mussel sauce.  More of the delicious bread- this time with a nicely toasted crust- was perfect for dredging through the sauce.  Certainly still on the salty side of the spectrum, but much more balanced by the other components.  A note: curiosity killed the cat- the dried peppers are not meant to be eaten.

Our last plate was the lemon oregano chicken- a simple plate of a breast and a leg (skin-on slipping off) served over broccoli rabe.  The host served this plate to us, and somewhat redeemed himself by pointing out  that a piece of the sliced meat had fallen away from the rest- instead of questioning our photography he actually helped out with the food styling!  A and I eagerly gobbled up some of the rapini- the only true vegetables of the evening- and enjoyed the mild bitterness offset by a bit of the lemon-scented jus.  The chicken itself was reminiscent of the meatballs- unbelievably decadent texture, absolutely some of the most well-cooked chicken I've ever tasted.  The lemon flavor was also pervasive down to the bone, maintaining a surprising intensity that was unfortunately a bit one-note.  Oregano needs to play a more prominent role to keep it from being a chicken flavored lemon.

At this point, we were full to the point of bursting- our late-evening hunger levels had us eating everything save for a few slices of the pork pizza.  However, a super salty meal needs a super sweet counterpart, so we decided to split a dessert- always a good way to end dinner.  Only a few options for the evening, we chose a sticky toffee chocolate pudding cake ($8).  Two wedges of crumbly, slightly dry cake were embedded in a thick and sticky pool of caramel and topped with shaved white chocolate and a small, melted pool of vanilla ice cream.  Though the cake itself was pretty bland, I'm a sucker for salted caramel, and Birra delivered- it was like melted butterscotch.  At this point, it was hard to appreciate anything salty, but I still have to acknowledge that the sauce on this is pretty stellar.  Over some plain vanilla ice cream? Yes, please. Hold the cake.

A few days later, I was reminiscing on the meal with one of our friends and we both agreed that (other than the one pizza), there was nothing unpleasant about the meal.  I just felt like I was quickly going from one dish to the next, waiting for something to really excite my tastebuds.  Maybe the fact that the margherita came out first set me up for disappointment, but that's really what this meal was- a long and salty stream of dishes that just weren't as good as I wanted them to be.

1700 E Passyunk Ave

January 10, 2012

Corn and Crab Pudding

I'm amused by the correlation between age and Christmas gifts.  As a kid, you're so excited for Santa to bring you the latest toy, as you get a little older maybe you ask your parents for clothes or some sort of gadget, and then once you're an "adult," the gifts tend to be more functional.   As long as I can remember, when deciding on a gift to get our dad, we usually think of two things: 1) books, and 2) kitchen/cooking related items.  For the past few years, this has slowly become us: last year we were gifted a food processor, and this year, a blender (I sadly killed our cheap one a few months back...).

My mom also picked up (and surprised me with) some mini ramekins, which are one of those things I've eyed for a long time but never purchased- and aren't those items the BEST gifts?

And they even match our kitchen!
And then the question arose-- what exactly do you MAKE in these?  After some extensive internet browsing, I realized a lot of the recipes intended for ramekins are for dessert, but I also realized that non-ramekin recipes can easily be tweaked for these little guys.  I wanted something that could work as a side dish at dinner, and decided on a twist on corn pudding.  Technically, two twists: corn pudding is traditionally a mix of creamed corn, eggs, butter and milk, and I wanted something a little lighter.  I also wanted to add something to make it slightly more substantial (Counteractive? Perhaps.).  Thus, mini Corn-Crab Puddings were born.

Corn and Crab Pudding
Serves 4

1 cup milk (I used plain almond milk, since it was what I had)
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or more, if you like it hot)
1 egg
1 egg white OR 1/2 tablespoon flax meal + 1 1/2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 can (6 ounces) crab meat, drained
3/4 cup fresh or frozen sweet corn kernels

Preheat your oven to 450.  In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a boil.  Prepare the following four ingredients (cornmeal through cayenne pepper).  I used polenta, which is a coarsely ground cornmeal.  I like cornbreads with a rough grain- if you like a smooth cornbread/polenta, go with a fine to medium grind cornmeal.

Cornmeal, sugar, salt, cayenne
Once the milk is boiling, add these items to the pan, give it a good stir and allow it to simmer for five minutes.  Keep an eye on it, making sure it doesn't boil too high, and stir occasionally.  When it's done, you'll know- it should have a thickened consistency.  Remove it from the heat and let it cool for about ten minutes, until it's no longer steaming and you can comfortably touch it.

In a separate small bowl, combine your egg(s) and/or egg substitutes (ground flaxseeds for us), as well as the melted butter (be sure to cool it slightly before adding it-- you don't want scrambled eggs!) and baking powder.  Once this is well combined, stir in your corn kernels.  I used frozen sweet corn from Trader Joe's, which worked wonderfully since it is most definitely not corn season right now.  Stir the whole mix into the cornmeal.

Last but not least, the best part of the dish- crab meat.  While you could keep these vegetarian by adding slightly more corn, the crab meat turns them into a hybrid of corn muffin and crab cake, which is what makes these special.  I don't often cook with crab, so while I'm sure I'm committing some sort of crab crime here, I again turned to my friend Trader Joe for an inexpensive, easy alternative to fresh crab meat.

Gently incorporate the meat into the batter- you don't want to destroy any of the small lumps.  Plus, overmixing is never a good thing (something I've learned a little too slowly over the years).  Finally, butter your (1/2 cup) ramekins and carefully spoon in the batter until each is full.

If you don't have ramekins, don't worry-- you can still make this!  You can bake the entire batch in a souffle dish or a square baking pan, although you may need to double or triple the recipe depending on the size of the dish.

 Transfer the ramekins to the oven, and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned and a toothpick comes out clean.  Many of the recipes I've seen have the pudding bake at a lower temperature for an hour, but this will only increase the time until you can dig in- never my preference.

Remove the ramekins from the oven and serve immediately.  If, like me, you're busy plating the rest of the meal, a cooling rack works well until you can comfortably handle the ceramic bowls.

The 1/2 cup ramekins were the perfect serving size for a side dish, but they'd also work well as an appetizer for a longer meal.  If you have larger ramekins, these could even be altered a bit to serve as a main course (perhaps a bit of chopped spinach, broccoli, and bacon?).

I served them with roast chicken (my first attempt at a whole bird- incredibly easy and extra delicious) and asparagus.  While I wouldn't tackle all of these on a busy weeknight, it was fun to put in the extra effort for a special Sunday night meal.

I served the puddings directly in their ramekins, but once they're cool, you can easily remove them for a portable snack.  The texture changes once cold- a bit firmer compared to the fluffy texture of the warm version.  Both share the same slightly sweet flavor, attributed to both the sweet corn and the crab meat.  The whole corn kernels give you something to bite into, while the coarse cornmeal holds it together and provides good texture.

I'm now kind of in love with making everything I can think of in little individual ceramic dishes, but so far this has been my favorite- a recipe that doesn't take much expertise, but is far more impressive than a simple side of cornbread.  A fun mix of flavors from the deep South and the Mid-Atlantic, I'll definitely be making these again.  

If you have a favorite ramekin recipe, please share!