October 30, 2012

Spiga + CityEats Giveaway Winner!

Thanks to all of you who entered into the drawing to win a $100 gift certificate to Spiga courtesy of CityEats!  We used a random number generator and a little Excel spreadsheet work to determine our winner, who will be contacted via email.

We asked all of you to peruse the Spiga menu and choose items to formulate the meal of your dreams, and our winner had this to say:

First the polenta fries, grilled zucchini and anchovies. Then the Tartars. Finally, the stuffed pork, because the only way to improve on pig is to stuff things into it! ...Or maybe the burger...Gah! Stupid limited stomach capacity!

Based on our own experience, it would be hard to choose between the burger and the stuffed pork- but once that gift certificate is in hand, that decision may not be necessary!

A special thanks to CityEats- making our reservation using their website was incredibly easy.  Although we typically use OpenTable to make reservations online, we might just have to make the switch.

October 29, 2012


Earlier this year, several food writers (both local and national) made some predictions about the food trends we would experience in 2012.  One of those focused on specialty desserts: cupcakes were on the way out, and PIE was on the way in.  In my opinion, cupcakes are great, and while you can formulate a million different flavor combinations, at the end of the day, they're still cake.  Pie, on the other hand, seems like much more of a special treat.  So, apologies to all the stores that sell cupcakes, but we might start passing you up in favor of dessert at the newly opened Magpie.

It won't be too difficult, because Magpie is just an easy five minute walk from my house- dangerous!  Located on the continuously booming, up-and-coming South Street West, the outside of the shop is fun just to look at, with a huge bird etching across the entire storefront.  A couple of two-tops sit on the sidewalk, but the inside of the shop is more inviting- small but brightly lit, with cozy cushioned booths, a few small tables, and a long counter (eating pie at a counter is sort of classic America, no?).  On my first visit, I gathered a couple friends to sample some pie with me- the tiny shop offers just a handful of flavors on weekdays, with a couple additional specialty pies on the weekends, and flavors rotate seasonally.

A sampling of the menu
On our visit, we had the choice of two "Fruits," three "Custards," and two "Savory" pies- but since we were there for the sweets, we opted for a few slices of the former options.  Based on what my friends ordered (and what the husband at home requested), I ended up with the Praline Streusel Pumpkin ($5) with optional whipped cream- on the side please!  The pies are served cold, which was fine by me, but seems to be a common complaint on Yelp.  The pie was mostly quintessential Thanksgiving dessert- a flaky, buttery crust, and a creamy spiced pumpkin custard.  The slice was just the right size- I could easily finish it myself but didn't feel skimped.  The price point is slightly high, but I'd definitely pay more for dessert at a restaurant!  A pecan streusel topping definitely took it up a few notches, adding great texture to the otherwise simple pie.

The fruit pies are not your typical pies for several reasons- most importantly, they aren't round.  Both the pear and apple options are made in large, rectangular deep dishes, and the slices reflect this in the same shape.  For a mere $0.50 more than a slice of custard-based pie, you get an enormous serving of the fruit pies.  Unless you're planning on skipping your next meal or two, plan to split this with a friend (or three).  The Pear Ginger Oatmeal Crumb sounded a little bit... boring to me, but one glimpse changed my mind- look at those fat, sugary crumbs!  Here, the outer crust (normally my favorite part) takes a backseat to the crunchy oatmeal topping and the packed-to-the-brim stack of sweet, ginger-spiced pear slices.  I don't typically jump at fruit based desserts, but this was perfect.

The Chocolate Cinnamon Coffee Pecan (wow, what a name!) was another favorite, but in a unique and pushing-pie-boundaries way ($5).  There were so many components, each lending a different quality which together all made a darn good piece of pie.  The outer crust extended over the pie, but was thin and crackly in an almost toffee-like texture.  A layer of pecans lies directly underneath, providing a sense of familiarity, while the thick layer of sticky custard brought a chocolate explosion with subtle hints of cinnamon and coffee.  For those of you who think pie is just the same old holiday dessert, try this one.

I told my husband I'd bring him home half of my slice, but we quickly realized that wouldn't work since he is an apple pie afficionado and it's not my go-to (I'm glad we had this talk before my visit, since there's no way I would have been able to stop at a half slice of pumpkin!).  The words "Buttery" and "Caramel" in this pie name should have warned me though- this is not your grandmother's apple pie.  The apple filling itself was epic- thick sliced apples in just enough caramel sauce to hold everything together- again, they certainly didn't skimp on the fruit!

I could eat this fruit filling on top of ice cream, or pancakes, or just on its own- it's phenomenal.  The top crust was thin, but the thick sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon provided a crunchy exterior and an little extra spice (I don't love a lot of cinnamon, so this was perfect).  The edge crust was thin, which in most cases would leave me sad, but the pie itself was so good I literally forgot that this is typically my favorite part.

Again, the pie slice was extremely generous, allowing us to snack on this for several consecutive nights- definitely well-worth its price point.  My friend wrapped up a slice of the Butterscotch Bourbon for her husband and reported that he gave it his full approval after "wolfing it down."  So that makes it official- every single sweet option at Magpie is a winner.  I'm definitely interested in returning for the savory options as well- the Butternut Gouda is for sure calling my name.  I would have to follow it up with a slice of the Chocolate Pecan.. or maybe the Ginger Pear?  I'm glad they don't have more options, or it could potentially be a serious source of stress to choose just one!

1622 South Street

October 25, 2012


*Have you entered our contest for a $100 gift card to Spiga yet? It ends 10/29!*

CityEats was also generous enough to provide us with a little incentive to head over to Spiga to check it out for ourselves! To be honest, it wasn't real high on my list after receiving some rather unfavorable reviews.  However, after getting to taste an awesome burger from the Italian restaurant, I knew I should give it a chance.

 Spiga is run by a couple guys from Le Castagne, a staple in Rittenhouse Square for more traditional Northern Italian cuisine.  Spiga, with its brick, leather, and red velvet interior, sets an upscale scene for its more "modern" menu.  However, a baseball game on TV at the bar as well as the grouping of patrons in the glass-and-brick lined front area made it a bit louder than I'm used to, especially for a mid-week dinner.  Crap, I must be getting old.  But really, who likes raising their voice to speak to their dining mates? The service was hit-or-miss; our waitress checked in on us plenty of times, but she seemed to magically disappear when we actually needed something.
The menu was also slightly different than the one posted on CityEats (and on our blog!), with the antipasti option replaced by a handful of pizzas.  We tried to order a variety of menu items to get a good feel for what the kitchen had to offer.  A little bucket of bread- likened to Gumby's Pizza's Pokey Stix- was served right away.  A basic pizza dough coated with a sprinkle of cheese and herbs- quite addicting.

A & I tried to leave the breadstick eating to her new husband, since the two of us decided to split a pizza as an appetizer.  We easily agreed on the fig mostarda, Gorgonzola, and prosciutto offering ($14).  A thin crust pie with a classic pairing of quality ingredients made a good snack (and a great lunch the next day!) but we weren't overwhelmingly impressed.  We've been so impressed with other pizzas in the city recently that this flat, unbubbled crust just didn't measure up.

The chef's selection of charcuterie was a better bet (and a better deal at $13!), with an enjoyable array of meats including speck, soppresata, and capicola.  Olives, a sweet onion jam, and lightly pickled vegetables rounded out the plate.  We thought the speck here and the prosciutto on the pizza looked suspiciously similar, but A conducted a not very scientific taste test and decided otherwise.  Although the meats here aren't house made as is the rising trend in this city, the "chef's selections" were still quite good.

Since I can only use my marathon as an excuse for carb-loading for three more days, I took advantage of the upcoming race and ordered the cavatelli ($16).  The mini-hotdog bun shaped pasta might be my new favorite type of pasta; unfortunately it seemed as if the pasta wasn't completely drained before being tossed with the remaining ingredients- it was just a little watery.  A few chunks of slow cooked oxtail were extra-savory and well balanced by the bright herbs and lemon zest coating each piece of pasta.  Can a girl get a few vegetables?

A was sold on my burger-ravings and decided to try it out for herself ($12). A thick puck of beef was unfortunately slipping off its bed of creamy goat cheese and creating a pool of greasy juice on the plate- which almost immediately was being soaked up by the bottom bun (of the slightly sweet, fluffy wheat variety).  Regardless, the bacon, sauteed spinach, and sweet onion mostarda created that same tasty combination that I remembered.

The fries were cut into tiny matchsticks and had a thick, crunchy exterior.  I personally prefer a bit more of the steamy insides myself.

The third in our trio (is this blog going to become Three Eat Philly??) continued the meaty trend with the stuffed pork chop ($24).  A thick, bone-in chop was split open and grilled to a nice medium and then stuffed with... nothing?  An accompanying pile of "peperonata" had no peppers or onions to speak of, instead offering a simple mix of lightly sauteed zuchhini and carrots.  A creamy pecorino cheese sauce added some pizazz to the dish; without it, it would be a very simple pork chop with veggies.  I can make that at home, for far less than $24.

Adam Erace raved about the tiramisu cheesecake as a redemptive dish, so we figured it must be worth a try ourselves ($8).  However, ours seemed a bit different from the version he described.  An odd, slightly soggy graham cracker crust was topped with a layer of dense cheesecake- this tier was terrific.  Thick and creamy, with a hint of vanilla, the slightly sweet cake was well-balanced by a sprinkle of bitter cocoa and powdered sugar.  A coffee-infused whipped topping and drizzle of caramel completed the tiramisu flavor profile- a decent "reconstructed" dessert.

We can definitely see where critics are coming from in the sense that Spiga doesn't hold its own amongst other Italian restaurants in the city.  Considering its location in hot-spot Midtown Village, the chefs need to step up their game if they want to compete.  Overall, the dishes just didn't have much inspiration and were... well, boring.  However, our meal was never less than pleasant dining experience, and we owe many thanks to CityEats for footing part of the bill!

1305 Locust St.

October 23, 2012

College Inn Ultimate Recipe Challenge

We were recently invited to take part in a recipe contest, hosted by College Inn (you know, the chicken broth company!).  They generously provided some fun cookware and an array of different broths, from basic to complex (the Thai Coconut Curry just might be my new favorite for quick-and-easy Thai soup).  The contest is co-hosted with celebrity chef Amanda Freitag- although she keeps busy with her job as a judge on Chopped, she made time to recreate one of her father's family recipes to inspire at-home chefs like ourselves to submit their own recipes.  Since we were prompted to follow suit, we asked our dad for the recipe for one of our favorite family meals growing up-- unfortunately, it doesn't have a fun or useful name, as we've always dubbed it "Mom's Favorite Meal" (for obvious reasons).

The recipe has two secret ingredients: Marinated Artichokes (including the spiced oil marinade itself), and fresh feta in brine.  We added a third secret ingredient: College Inn Chicken Broth, of course.

You will also need:
Four chicken breasts
Four Roma tomatoes
Two large or three medium white onions
Pasta of your choice (we recommend cappellini)

It all begins with chicken.  Four chicken breasts, sliced in half to produce eight thin pieces of meat.  After a simple coat of salt, pepper, and garlic powder is applied, we browned them briefly on each side before adding a cup of chicken broth to the pan.  The meat slowly simmered in the combined juice of the meat, a little olive oil, and the chicken broth, leaving it plenty moist.
With the chicken taking care of itself, I prepared the (very short list of) additional ingredients.  My dad suggested three pounds of onions, but since I purchased mine at a local produce shop, I guesstimated with two enormous onions.  Peeled and "chunked," they began to cook down in a stovetop stock pot.  After a few minutes of "sweating" (Dad's terminology), I added the marinade from one of the jars of artichokes, providing a bit of oil to prevent any sticking, a little liquid to give the onions some steam, and a whole lot of flavor.
Hope you like onions!

After another 2-3 minutes, I added four chopped Roma tomatoes (the small, oblong shaped variety), both jars of artichokes (after draining the second one), and most of the brine from the feta (save the cheese for later!).  This creates an almost soupy mix of vegetables, and some unbelievable smells.  Allow it all to cook together for about ten minutes.

Once the chicken is cooked through, I cut the breasts into strips and lay them in a baking dish, adding the chicken broth pan juice to keep all the flavor in the dish.

The onion, tomato, and artichoke mix is then spread on the top, and again, include the liquid, as this is where all the good stuff lives.  However, we did have to toss some of the liquid, as our baking dish was almost filled to the brim!  We don't want any spills in the oven here.

Finally, crumble the feta over the top of the mix in an even and generous layer.  I used about six ounces total.

Bake at 350 for half an hour, until the feta has melted and the liquid is bubbling away.  Serve atop your pasta of choice, and make sure you dish up some of that liquid as well!  The slurpy noodles at the bottom are the best!

With just a handful of simple ingredients, the dish comes together quickly but provides a ton of flavor- those three secret ingredients each pack a punch.  The artichoke marinade is sweet and spicy, while the brine provides a super tangy bite, and the chicken broth adding a depth of meatiness without a ton of extra fat and salt.  Every mouthful was like a trip back to childhood (when we remember being somewhat averse to the artichokes-- how weird!).  It also can serve up to eight, so it's great for large families, dinner parties, or lots of freezer meals (the flavors are even better later).  Special thanks to our dad for sharing the recipe, and of course, our mom for making this dish family famous!

AND good news for all of you, you can still enter the recipe contest yourself- no special invitation necessary!  Share a family favorite that uses any of the College Inn products via their Facebook page, and you can win $5,000 AND a trip to San Francisco to eat your heart out AND meet Amanda Freitag-  sounds like a great prize to us.  The contest ends this Sunday, October 28th, so get your submissions in soon!

October 19, 2012

Deep Fried Everything

For our birthday this year, a good friend bought us a deep fryer.  If you're a Penn alum, you'll probably understand my obsession with fried Oreos- I have great memories of eating them on a sunny day in the Quad during Spring Fling.  I also happen to enjoy eating other fried things, but I have an extra-special soft spot in my heart for fried Oreos.

Since it's been many months since our birthday, we finally decided to haul the fryer out of the closet and give it a whirl.  A few friends, a deep fryer, and a bit of imagination ended up with what we dubbed a "frying party."  We traded emails back and forth with ideas- I was really pushing for using lard (I know it makes great fasnachts!) but none of us could find it at the grocery store, so we settled for regular old canola oil.  Thank goodness too, because opening up the box provided this little warning...

I love how they capitalized the words "Deep Fryer."
Although several of the things we wanted to fry were going in "naked," I also did a little Googling to come up with a basic batter recipe.  It consists of things most people have in their pantry- flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and the secret ingredient- cornstarch (1 to 1 ratio with flour).

None of us had any experience with a deep fryer, but this particular version makes it pretty fool-proof.  Add oil to between the minimum and maximum lines on the side of the bowl, crank up the heat, and wait for the "ready" light to turn green.  We used a gallon of oil and probably waited about 20 minutes for the fryer to do its thing.  First up: carefully cut (thanks A!) sweet potato fries.  A few more inquiries to Mr. Google gave us a cook time of 5 to 6 minutes, so we filled up the basket (use tongs!), popped the lid on, and set the timer.

Maybe it was a bit of beginner's luck, but these were actually my favorite "fried thing" of the day.  Crispy on the outside, with a sweet and salty piping hot inside.  We let them cool on a paper towel to soak up any extra grease and then dug in.  A little sriracha mayo didn't hurt a bit.

We also tried making kale chips, which, while tasty, ended up being a lot greasier than the baked version we're used to (go figure..).  The sturdy leaves turned into fragile-as-glass crisps that melted in our mouths.  However, it was a bit too "vegetable oil in chip form" for me to eat more than a few.

We had a few more things on hand to go into the fryer as-is: a couple of soft pretzels and a can of artichoke hearts.

The hearts took a bit of prep- we all know water and oil don't mix, so they needed to be squeeze-dried and patted with a paper towel before their trip into the greasy sea.  The outer leaves folded back and crisped up like a charm while the inside maintained some briny softness- these were also a big success.

The pretzels soaked up a lot of oil, as one might imagine, but also took on more of a hard pretzel crunch- not my favorite, but the guys loved 'em.

While the artichokes were cooking, I whipped up a batch of batter and started coating some basic dill chips because, really, who doesn't love fried pickles?  I carefully dried each chip and coated it in the batter, placing the coated chips on a plate.  The ridges of the chips held onto a good amount of batter, providing a full coat of breaded protection.  Salty, fried goodness at it's finest.

Unfortunately I think I got a little too cocky at this point, and decided to get a little more adventurous.  I wanted to move into sweeter things and I broke out the Double Stuf Oreos. Unfortunately, these really needed to be battered and immediately placed in the fryer- sitting on a plate waiting their turn meant softened cookies that crumbled apart in the fryer.  Bits and pieces of cookies and batter mean dirty oil- unfortunately it sort of killed the whole process.  However, I was so pleased with the way everything else turned out that I couldn't really be that mad.  Plus, it just gives us a good excuse to try again!

October 16, 2012

Couples Tower Isle: Eight Rivers Restaurant

The Monday after our wedding, my new husband and I set off on our honeymoon for a week in Jamaica.  We flew into Montego Bay and trekked east across the island to Ocho Rios to our final destination: Couples Tower Isle.  It was a perfect resort for us: just the right mix of all-inclusive activities and plenty of rest and relaxation.  One of our favorite things about "CTI" as it's known, was the food.  We never had a less than stellar meal, but some of our favorites were held at one of the on-site restaurants, Eight Rivers.  Requiring "reservations" (which, at far below resort capacity, were easy to score day of) as well as a bit of sprucing up (semi-formal dress preferred), it felt like a such a luxury to dine here.

Our first visit to the restaurant was on our first full day at the resort (the earliest we could go!).  They keep the restaurant at about 25% capacity throughout the evening, which keeps service at a maximum and noise at a minimum.  We were seated next to each other at a four person table, which was rather romantic.  Literally everything is included in your stay, so we technically could have ordered two of everything on the menu- for no extra charge.

The menu breaks up your meal into a potential five courses- appetizers, soup, salad, entree, and dessert.  Bread service is also offered at the beginning of the meal, with a variety of different small rolls to choose from- the earthy spinach was my favorite.

Since 1) we were in the Caribbean and 2) prices were clearly not an issue, I tried to eat my way through as much seafood as possible during our stay.  I began my first meal at Eight Rivers with the Caribbean Crab Cakes, two small breaded cakes served atop softened vegetables and a small pool of sweet and sour sauce.  The portion sizes for the appetizers were perfect- just enough to get a taste without filling up.

Of course, the Seafood Tasting Trio was calling our name as well, so we decided to split it.  The long plantain chip was served directly in a dish of smoked salmon and roasted artichoke mousse- a perfect, easy-to-eat pairing.  The resort served a lot of smoked salmon and smoked marlin, and we ate more than our fair share by the end of the week.  The "sushi" went straight to me, even though I know my husband would have liked it-- it may have looked like sushi, but was really just smoked salmon and ackee (a native fruit) rolled up in rice, and served with a citrus infused apple slaw.  Finally, a single shrimp in a sweet and spicy cocktail sauce completed the trio.

The entrees were considerably larger, but always provided a plate that gave equal weight to meat, veggies, and a grain/starch.  The Grilled Beef Tenderloin was my husband's favorite dish of the entire week- a perfectly prepared cut of meat "crusted" with a mash of sweet plantains and bacon.  Creamy mashed red-skin potatoes and a sauteed vegetable mix in a sweet sorrel rum and butter sauce completed the meal.

Sticking with Operation Eat the Sea, I went with the Grilled Fish of the Day- a flaky, sweet red snapper (the most commonly served fish at the resort).  With a touch of peppery crust from the grill and a lime butter sauce, I could easily have eaten this at every meal.  Some softened sauteed leeks and tomatoes, as well as carrots and green beans, satisfied the vegetable rainbow, and a triangle of basil infused fried mushroom and polenta cake was an odd but very enjoyable side.

The dessert menu (which we didn't photograph on this first evening) was heavy on the dairy, so we both inadvertently ordered the same thing (I married an unfortunate lactose intolerant), a ginger-pear creme brulee.  The resort actually offered creme brulee several times on the "regular" lunch and dinner dessert buffet, so it seems to be a specialty.  This one was just as advertised- delicious, with the ginger countering the sweetness with a bit of spice.

At each of the four Couples resorts (all in Jamaica), Friday night is "Lobster Night," with lobster tails offered at all resort restaurants during the lobster season.  Thankfully, we were in season, and decided to return to Eight Rivers as we thought they would have the best lobster (although, in hindsight, it's probably just as good at all the restaurants!).

Little Right Side
We were actually a bit confused, as we didn't see lobster on the menu at all!  AND, we were surprised to see an all new menu- apparently they switch menus halfway through the week so that guests who dine twice will likely be able to try something new.  However, our server listed the lobster as a special entree for the evening when delivering bread service and taking the beverage order.  Since the menu was new, we decided to conquer the regular entrees and ordered lobster tails on the side (genius move, right?).

The Smoked Marlin Sampler was even better than the Seafood Sampler, mostly because we had become super obsessed with smoked marlin at this point in our trip.  The infamous smoked marlin dip with plaintain chips, a thick roll of smoked marlin around a chunk of sweet canteloupe, and an interesting smoked marlin "ceviche"- with hardly a hint of citrus.

The beef carpaccio with roasted beet chip and goat cheese-green bean salad was both lovely to look at and to eat, although the "carpaccio" was actually fairly thick strips of seared beef.

The rest of our meal was similar to our first night, with slightly different preparations: steak for the man, seafood for the lady.

Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Pumpkin-Mint Salad and Smashed Green Plantains
Ginger-Honey Salmon and Garlic Shrimp with Leeks, Celery, and Plantain Risotto
The star of the show was shared between us- two grilled lobster tails drenched in a small pool of garlic-butter sauce.  I have very little experience with lobster, but these tails were FAT.  Not as soft of meat as I expected, and with a flavor profile similar to a mash-up of scallops and shrimp.  Several large mouthfuls of meat were consumed all on their own-- I'm glad we went this route so that the lobster could shine alone.  Definitely a treat!

The dessert menu on our second trip was also different from our first visit, and held two necessary options.

The Pot de Creme "Three Ways" was the best dessert we consumed all week- seemingly simple, but it packed an extreme amount of flavor into a single plate.  The chocolate creme was super rich, with a flavor reminiscent of the chocolate pudding we enjoyed at Supper just days earlier.  The passion fruit was love at first bite, mostly because I'm obsessed with passion fruit, but also because the texture was like a light, airy cheesecake.  However, I left most of it for my honeymoon partner after I tasted the coffee creme- I always forget how much I like coffee desserts.  Topped with crunchy, roasted coffee beans, it was like drinking the best cup of coffee you've ever had-- in food form.

While my "Double Chocolate Decadence" certainly didn't disappoint, it couldn't really stand up to the passion fruit and coffee cremes.  The dark chocolate mousse was similar to the chocolate creme, but with a much fluffier texture.  A thin, crumbly cashew brownie served as a good base and was well matched with a soft, roasted banana topping.

Our first two meals were so memorable that we decided we had to return to Eight Rivers for our last night at the resort.  It was bittersweet, but I'm so glad we did so- even if it meant skipping dinner at one of the resort restaurants altogether (next time!).  We received the same menu as our second visit (they were only two days apart), sans lobster of course.

One of the very few salads I consumed all week
Lobster Bisque: An Eight Rivers specialty
The coconut sorbet intermezzo (always served before the entree!)
Crab and Scallop Stuffed Chicken with Vegetable Orzo, ordered by the Mister 
Of course, there was more salmon and shrimp and a shared Pot de Cremes dessert- the best end to the meal!  Our three meals here were my favorites of the week- quiet and elegant, it was like dining at a five star restaurant, complete with efficient, quality service and multiple, well timed courses.  Espresso, coffee, and organic teas were offered with dessert, as well as any other drink you could ever want- and the best part, when you were done, no need to ask for the check!  We can't wait to return to Tower Isle and Eight Rivers for future vacations and celebrations.