Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bulgarian Culinary Highlights: Banitsa

One of the most popular Bulgarian dishes is a cheese pastry called banitsa /bAH-nee-tsah/, similar to the Greek tyropita and the Turkish borek. It is among the comfort foods I miss the most when I am away from home, so a victory dance ensues whenever I manage to find the ingredients.

Banitsa is essentially composed of five things: phyllo (filo) dough, cheese, eggs, yogurt and sunflower oil. Sound easy? If you're 5000 miles away from home, not really. However, one of the numerous advantages of being a Penn student is the urban location, which immensely increases the chances of finding exotic foods such as phyllo. During my freshman year, I was amazed to discover packets of it in the chilled foods section at Fresh Grocer. The phyllo was Greek and thinner than the Bulgarian one, yet I made banitsa with it two or three times and it always turned out delightfully satisfying.

So how do you actually make banitsa? First, you need a cup of Bulgarian white cheese (you can find it in Fresh Grocer), broken down into small pieces. Mix it with a cup of yogurt - at Penn, I use Danone low-fat. Add two or three beaten eggs to the mixture and stir very well. Proportions can always vary according to taste - if you prefer your banitsa juicier, use more eggs and yogurt; if you like it chunkier, add more cheese (but keep in mind that Bulgarian white cheese at Fro Gro is very salty, if it's not in brine, so make sure the finished mixture is not too salty). If you decide to go the lazy amateur way and use store-bought phyllo like me, you can prepare the pastry in two ways.

1. Spread some vegetable oil on the bottom of a baking tin. Place three thin sheets of phyllo in it, spread oil on top. Repeat. Spread one third of the egg, cheese and yogurt mixture on the dough. Add six more sheets, then again filling.Repeat until you have no sheets or filling left. Ideally, those two should coincide, but if you are almost out of filling halfway through the phyllo packet, just mix in some more yogurt and cheese and go on. Finish off with phyllo, generously spread some oil on top, cut the banitsa into rectangles or triangles, depending on the shape of the baking tin, and bake at 350F(180C) for half an hour to 45 minutes, until the top and bottom are golden brown.

2. To prepare banitsa in a fancier way: instead of layering the dough and filling, take three sheets together, oil them, put filling on top and roll them up. Repeat for the rest of the packet. Next, either place the rolls next to one another in a rectangular baking tin, or roll them up as a spiral in a circular tin, starting from the center.

If you feel you have had enough practice with store-bought phyllo banitsa, you might want to go the professional/traditional way and try to prepare it with home-made phyllo. It takes 600g (about 1.5 pounds) of white flour - I would go for bread flour, but all-purpose should also be good enough. Mix it with a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of vinegar and enough lukewarm water (about 300ml/10oz) to make moderately soft dough. Divide it into 12 to 15 balls, cover them with a cloth or towel and leave to rest for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the filling. Next, using a long thin rolling pin, roll out each dough ball into a very thin, almost transparent sheet, making sure there is always enough flour on the work board, on the rolling pin and on your hands to prevent sticking. Sprinkle each sheet with oil and filling, roll it up and arrange all rolls into a spiral on an oiled circular baking tin, starting from the center outward. Bake at 300F (180C) for half an hour until golden brown on top and bottom - if the top starts to burn early, cover with tin foil until baked through (the same goes for store-bought phyllo banitsa).

Once done, sprinkle with water, cover with a cloth or towel and leave the banitsa for 5 minutes to "take a walk around the field" where it was first born (as wheat), according to Bulgarian folklore. The walk will make it soft on the inside, while it remains deliciously crunchy on top. Enjoy it hot with yogurt or ayran (a yogurt and water drink). In my opinion, the sense of piping hot home-made banitsa melting in my mouth is one of the greatest small pleasures in this life.

Home-made phyllo dough recipe courtesy of

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pescatarian: An almost vegetarian with a dark penchant for brutality towards seafood

Last September, on impulse, I decided to give up all meat with the exception of seafood. I can eat shrimp pad thai, but not chicken pad thai. I can chow down on clam chowder, but not dumplings. The reasons I gave for my decision were several. Depending on who asked me, my answers were a) I did not want to eat any meat that I could not kill myself if I were stranded on an island, b) I had always wanted to become a vegetarian and was simply taking the first step in that direction and c) just because.

Through the past five months of limiting my diet, I’ve experienced several things. First, the most irrelevant and aggravating fact is that whenever I say that I am a pescatarian, some person will say “Presbyterian”? No. Presbyterian is a religious denomination while Pescatarian is not.

Secondly, a week into my change, I developed a sinking sensation when I realized how many foods had meat in them. Goodbye chicken nuggets. Goodbye steaks and fajitas and chicken noodle soup. The most tragic moment of my pescatarian experience was on a cold November day when I saw the Don Memo’s food truck between 38th and Sansom. I ran up to it, excited that I caught the elusive truck before it left for the day and then, realized that there was nothing I could order.

I have also come to understand that a pescatarian is a halfling of herbivore and omnivore. However, shifting into this position has helped me discover delicious alternatives to meat. Before, I was a strictly meat, carbs and vegetable girl. Now, I have learned about the beauty of beans. Chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, all of these members of the legume family add flavor and protein in place of meat.

While I am still adjusting to and contemplating about my newfound pescatarianism, I have learned to love beans. One of the best recipes I’ve tasted all semester is for vegetarian chili. My friend Melissa used a recipe from, and the chili was so good that sometimes, I dream about it. So even if you are not a vegetarian or pescatarian, give this recipe a try; you will love it.


* 1 (19 ounce) can black bean soup
* 1 (15 ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
* 1 (15 ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
* 1 (16 ounce) can vegetarian baked beans
* 1 (14.5 ounce) can chopped tomatoes in puree
* 1 (15 ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
* 1 onion, chopped
* 1 green bell pepper, chopped
* 2 stalks celery, chopped
* 2 cloves garlic, chopped
* 1 tablespoon chili powder, or to taste
* 1 tablespoon dried parsley
* 1 tablespoon dried oregano
* 1 tablespoon dried basil

1. In a slow cooker, combine black bean soup, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, baked beans, tomatoes, corn, onion, bell pepper and celery. Season with garlic, chili powder, parsley, oregano and basil. Cook for at least two hours on High.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Distrito Now Serves Brunch


Beginning on Saturday and Sunday, March 6 and 7, Chef Jose Garces’ modern Mexican restaurant, Distrito (3945 Chestnut Street, 215-222-1657), will debut a Weekend Brunch.  The menu will include a host of fun Mexican flavors, served in Chef Garces’ signature small plates style, every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. 
“One of the meals I enjoy the most in Mexico City is breakfast because of all the flavorful options,” says Chef Garces.  “This menu will bring our interpretation of those dishes to University City and offer new place for brunch in the neighborhood.”
Distrito brunch menu items include:  Chilaquiles, fried egg with Mexican crema, queso fresco, grilled red onions, green chile sauce and micro cilantro;  Torta de Huevos, eggs, queso Oaxaca, Benton’s bacon, avocado, tomato and crema;  Steak and Eggs, Kobe beef with two eggs any style, refried or black beans and chimichurri sauce;  Huevos Rancheros, eggs with roasted tomato and green asparagus;  and Torrejas, French toast with cajeta, berries and Chantilly cream.  Prices range from $8 to $15.
An assortment of brunch-friendly cocktails, playfully nicknamed “Vuelvo de la Vida,” or “Return to Life,” will also be offered, including:  Distrito Bloody Maria, chipotle infused vodka, fresh tomato, horseradish, lime and cilantro;  Sparkling Margarita, Hornitos Plata tequila, orange liquor, lime juice and sparkling wine;  and Ojo Rojo or “Red Eye,” Mexican hot chocolate, coffee, Patron XO, whipped cream, and caramel.  Distrito’s popular Fresh Juices will also be available during brunch.
Distrito is located at 3945 Chestnut Street and is open for brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.  For more information, or to make a brunch reservation, please call (215) 222-1657 or visit

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Winter Harvest

It’s mid-February.  Temperatures are frigid, Fresh Grocer’s most ‘local’ produce items are grown half a continent away, and the farmers’ markets that dot the city during the warm months are closed (rationale: see aforementioned climate comment).What’s a girl (or guy) to do?

Fear not, fellow foodies, for the Winter Harvest Buying Club is here to quell all your locavore anxieties.  Winter Harvest, a buying club organized through Farm to City, the Philadelphia-based program that brings locally grown and produced food items to city residents and restaurants, allows Philadelphians to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of the labor of nearby farms. 

Winter Harvest allows you to pre-order your food online in two-week intervals, and then weekly, Penn students host a buying club pick up site (On Thursday evenings from 5:15-7:15 PM in Hill College House). 

The list of products is tremendously expansive, spanning from Pink Lady apples to kohlrabi, to pickled kimchee, to locally raised meats and eggs, to organic baby spinach, to Yukon Gold potatoes, to goat cheese spread, to dried herbal teas—and everything in between.  You can get anything you want—as long as it is in season.  Buying from Winter Harvest teaches consumers an important lesson of which we Americans are all too often remiss: what it means to eat in season.  You won’t find any red bell peppers being grown by farmers in the Northeast United States in the middle of winter. Or peaches. Or bananas.  So, despite the plethora of items offered by supermarkets such as Fresh Grocer, be well aware that many of summer-time foods you see during this time of  year are quite unnatural.  They were grown thousands of miles away, picked while still green, boxed, flown thousands of miles, gassed with ethylene to speed the ripening process, and then presented delicately on a stand in grocery store. What's "fresh" about that?

Seek solace in Winter Harvest and know that you can do a world of good by eating food that’s less well traveled than the expanse of positivity emanated out from your food choices.  By participating in Winter Harvest, you support local, small-scale farms and their families, a diminishing breed in America's large scale economy.  You reduce greenhouse gas emissions because your food has only been transported short distances to get to you, not crossed oceans and traversed national boundaries.  Local, small-scale farmers are more likely to utilize eco-friendly agricultural techniques, and they allow their fields to exist in harmony with the environment and climate.  Lastly, it’s important to note the ultra high quality food that the farmers of Winter Harvest produce.  Think you’ve tasted fresh yogurt? Try the black cherry yogurt of local Pequea Valley Farm and you’ll find yourself wondering why you’ve settled for anything less.

Food is something to get excited about, and Winter Harvest lets you do that! Andy Warhol once said, “The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting.”  Luckily, there’s only a short lag time between when you order food through Winter Harvest and when you can pick up your order, but whether it’s the “idea” of the Winter Harvest experience, or the knowledge that you’re supporting local farmers, or just how absolutely delicious the food products taste, Winter Harvest certainly is “more exciting” than an exhausted stroll through the supermarket. Join Winter Harvest today at, click on Buying Clubs, and Philadelphia Winter Harvest.  If you have any questions, please contact

- Debbie Schub

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Curried Tilapia and Raita: A Recipe


1 five ounce fillet of Tilapia

Tilapia Seasonings
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon

1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
Juice of 1 lemon
A tablespoon of olive oil

1/2 cup plain yogurt (non-fat, low fat, or greek, just so long as it is plain)
A pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon of cumin
1/3 of a cucumber, seeded
A pinch of cayenne pepper
2 cloves of garlic, minced

Preheat oven to 350 F

Cook the tilapia according to the pouch method. I employ the crimping method I learned from the Alton Brown School of Culinary Arts, which can be found here.

Prepare the parchment paper on a baking sheet.

Combine the spices, garlic, lemon zest, half of the lemon juice, and just enough olive oil to make a fairly thick curry paste. Place the tilapia fillet near the folded edge of the parchment paper, and slather the curry paste on. Pour on the rest of the lemon juice, and a little olive oil. You can place lemon slices and some chives on top, but that's mainly for presentation. Crimp the edges and place in the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes. It will depend on the size of the fillet.

To make the raita, roughly chop the cucumber(you can peel it and slice it thin, but I prefer the chunky texture on the fish). Place the yogurt, garlic and spices in a bowl and mix well. Then fold in the cucumber, and you are set to enough a delicately flaked and spiced tilapia with raita.

A Pinch of Home

I was born in the Southeastern European country of Bulgaria, and raised on traditional Bulgarian cuisine, which is heavily influenced by Oriental cooking traditions. This is particularly evident in the endless variety of spices which can be found in the kitchen counter of an average Bulgarian home. One of these spices, however, is used exclusively in Southeastern Bulgaria – the so-called “samardala”, also known as “green salt”. It is a mixture of plain salt and freshly ground young leaves of the flowering herb samardala (Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. bulgaricum). In English-speaking countries the plant is known as Honey Garlic or Ornamental onion.

In the wild, Honey Garlic has been found in Romania, Moldova, Crimea and Turkey. According to the website Dave’s Garden, the plant has been said to grow in regions all over the US, from Maine in the north to Texas and Florida in the south (, and forum visitors give lengthy advice on proper growing conditions. The Beth Chatto Gardens of Unusual Plants, located in Essex, England, offer bulbs of Nectaroscordum siculum bulgaricum for 2.95 GBP, or about $5. It seems that in the Western world, Honey Garlic is exclusively used as a flower – it is suitable for beginner gardeners since it hardly requires any special conditions to grow, and blooms in pretty pink bell clusters. However, Honey Garlic fans are in for a big culinary surprise if only they sacrifice a handful of leaves before flowering has started.

In cross-section, the leaf looks like a three-pointed star – legend has it that when God was creating plants, He caught the Honey Garlic leaf with three fingers to pull it out of the ground, giving it this peculiar shape. Fresh young leaves can be used to season salads, but their flavor simply shines when prepared as green salt. Once picked, the leaves are left in a shady place for a day, and then ground to a fine pulp using a mortar and pestle, a blender or even a meat grinder. During the process they emit an extremely pungent, spicy odor, arguably surpassing that of onion or garlic, so efficiency is recommended if you don’t fancy spilling tears over a worthless plant. The bright green pulp is then mixed with salt and spread to dry out in a shady, airy room, and stirred periodically. Once the mixture is sufficiently dry, it can be transferred to a salt cellar and enjoyed with any of the following: fried, roasted, or boiled eggs, roast chicken, potato dishes, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, buttered toast, feta cheese, lamb, and sweetbreads.

As green salt ages, it gradually loses its original bright green color and refreshing spiciness, so it’s very important to keep it in the dark, in a closed container, if you want to enjoy it for a longer time. Once it becomes brownish and tastes predominantly like salt, you can throw it away. Also keep in mind that green salt is, essentially, salt, so if you are planning to season your dishes with it before serving, reduce the quantity of salt in the recipe.

Image, plant information and instructions for preparing green salt are courtesy of

-- Zhana Sandeva

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pizza, Pizza, Pizza

I recently stumbled across a few interesting tidbits on pizza making.
The first is a pizza-making prodigy recently featured on CNN (what were you doing while you were 9 years old?).
That somehow led me to a video on pizza throwing, which apparently has some physics to it, from the California Culinary Academy.
Check them out and try them with this pizza dough recipe for your next culinary spree.

French Bistrot in Philadelphia

Bistros in France are restaurants that serve simple, delicious and unpretentious food in a casual and comfortable atmosphere. Bistrot la Minette prides itself on being an authentic French bistro in the heart Philadelphia. So, when my friend and I stepped into this establishment late one cold, snowy, Friday night, I was pleasantly surprised by the authentic bistro décor. As the General Manager, John Gonzalez, walked us to our table, I surveyed the restaurant. The walls were covered with scenic photos of France, which I later learned were taken by Peggy Woosley, a professional photographer and the wife of Executive Chef Peter Woosley. The room was filled with diners eating at the small, white, marble tables so typical of French bistros. Moreover, the chatter of satisfied clients and the clink of copper pots from the open kitchen muffled the French music playing in the background. As I contemplated the menu, I was glad to see many classic bistro dishes, such as Escargots de Bourgogne and Cassoulet de Toulouse as well as other dishes I was less familiar with; for example, Flammenküche, described on the menu as being an “Alsatian ‘pizza.’”

After ordering, my friend and I were given a complementary gruyère gougère, which is a small, warm cheese puff. Being a fan of cheese, and of complementary food, I found the amuse-bouche hard to resist. When my appetizer arrived minutes later, I was struck by the presentation of my Escargots de Bourgogne ($12). Instead of being served in shells or a small bowl, each escargot was placed in its own individual grey, ceramic terrine. The presentation was impressive, but I found the taste and texture of the escargot even better. This dish was a wonderful example of the holy trinity of escargot preparation: a perfect balance of butter, parsley and garlic. My companion’s Terrine de Campagne ($9), which is sort of like a cold, French version of meatloaf made from pork and chicken, was served with two little brioche buns and ceramic jars of cornichons (the classic French pickle) and Dijon mustard. Although my companion and I both liked the dish, we agreed that we would have liked the flavor of the terrine to have been a little stronger and meatier.

When our server arrived with our main courses, my dinner partner and I both took a minute to admire, and take photos of, our beautifully presented dishes. My Truite Meunière ($23), a miller’s-style trout was wonderful in its simplicity; it was generously covered in a lemon brown butter sauce and served with green beans and fingerling potatoes. The fish was cooked just right—the meat tender enough to cut with a fork and the skin nice and crispy. The sauce was simple, but tasty, in the way only butter can be and the vegetables were well-cooked. However, the most notable thing about the dish was the sprinkling of chopped, toasted almonds, which gave each bite a unique taste as well as a satisfying crunch. Nevertheless, my friend’s Lapin Rôti à la Moutarde ($25), a mustard-braised rabbit with house-made tagliatelle, was the favorite of the two dishes. The rabbit’s sauce, a rich and powerful mixture of mustard, parsley and white wine, exploded in my mouth with its intense flavor. Moreover, the rabbit was tender and moist and the pasta, cooked to an a la dente perfection, was an ideal vehicle for consuming the flavorful sauce. My friend’s only complaint about the dish was that there wasn’t enough sauce or pasta, a testament to how much he enjoyed his meal.

Despite feeling slightly full from our previous two courses, my friend and I consumed our two desserts with gusto; we shared a Tarte Tatin ($8), a type of hot upside-down, caramelized apple tart as well as a raspberry Mille Feuille($8), a classic French dessert of layered puff-pastry, vanilla cream and fresh raspberries. Both deserts were simple, unpretentious and delectable—the defining traits of bistro cuisine. Moreover, after we finished our meal, our server presented us with two pieces of home-made dark chocolate truffles to fortify us against the cold Philadelphia night.

Overall, Bistrot la Minette is what it says it is—a traditional French bistro right off of Sixth and Bambridge. If you are searching for complicated, stuffy and pretentious French food, this is definitely not the restaurant you want. However, if you enjoy eating simple and classic French dishes, in a warm and inviting atmosphere, then Bistrot la Minette is the right place for you.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Blending Fruit into Your Diet

One of my favorite things to drink are smoothies.  They provide an opportunity for my friends and I to gather over refreshing drinks. They are fantastic because of just how easy they are to make and how flexible their recipes are.
My friend Genevieve discovered that if by adding frozen fruit to the smoothie, you do not have to include ice, and since I know a few people who dislike ice in their smoothies, frozen fruit offers up an ideal solution.

A Tropical Smoothie Recipe


1/2 cup frozen mixed berries
1/2 cup frozen strawberries

1 cup frozen mango

1 cup frozen pineapple

1 cup of peach yogurt

3 cups of soy milk


Put the frozen berries in the blender with 2 cups of soy milk. Use the stir setting on the blender. Then add the rest of the soy milk, frozen mango and pineapple pieces. Use the stir setting again. Then, add the yogurt. Use the stir and mix settings until well blended.

The result is a healthy and fabulous treat. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Upping the Year with Year Cake

Unlike the regular new year, the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration lasts for about two weeks. Chances are if you hop on SEPTA and go down to Chinatown this weekend, you're still in time to catch some of the festivities.

As the post below highlighted the importance of eating dumplings during the new year, another important food is the year cake or 年糕 (pronounced "nian gao"). Nian gao is more often consumed by southerners in China, whereas dumplings are more commonly consumed by northerners during the new year. Nian gao is a sweet, chewy (similar to Japanese mochi) dessert made of glutinous rice, usually dark yellow or light brown served in thick slices and sometimes pan-fried for a crispy outer texture. (My sister made the dark yellow pan-fried kind in the picture). Some serve it with red bean paste.

Nian gao has significant symbolic meaning to the Chinese. Nian gao is also a homonym for nian gao, meaning "year" and "high" (年高). Nian gao (年高) is strongly related to promotions and improvements often associated with the new year. Working people hope for raises and promotions; students hope to do better in school; and shopkeepers hope for more business to make more money. Nian gao also sounds like a sticky cake 黏糕, so we eat the year cake nian gao (年糕 ) for prosperity and good fortune for the new year.

The original recipe found here calls for steaming, which is the traditional method, but baking works as well.
1 lb. glutinous rice flour (note: this is not the same as "rice flour")
2 cups water
3/4 c. brown sugar (more or less depending on your preference)
1/4 c. vegetable oil
Optional mixings: sesame seeds, red beans, Chinese dates, nuts

Melt the brown sugar in the water over low heat. Cool the syrup for about 15 minutes. Add the glutinous rice flour and vegetable oil. Mix well and get rid of the lumps. Note that this is a very thick batter.

Grease and flour a baking pan or line with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean. Timing will depend on the size/depth of the pan used.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Chinese New Year

Happy Chin
ese New Year!!

February 14 is not just Valentine's Day this year, it is also Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year. 2010 is the Year of the Tiger, and in order to celebrate this occasion I made pork dumplings with some friends.

We cribbed the recipe from the Steamy Kitchen Blog, which also has recipe suggestions for a new year feast. We changed some of the instructions because we don't have a food processor, and we had slightly different amounts of meat, so here are the intructions we followed, but the original recipe can be found here, and there are also folding instructions.

3/4 a head of napa cabbage leaves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
4 stalks minced green onions
1 lbs. pound ground pork
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 package frozen round dumpling wrappers (gyoza/potsticker wrappers), defrosted at room temperature for 30 minutes (sometimes you can find these in major supermarkets, but your best bet is to head down to Chinatown, where you can also pick up the rest of the ingredients)


Combine the ground pork, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil and mix until uniform. Then add the ginger, cabbage scallions, salt and pepper and fold to incorporate.
You can salt and drain the cabbage, but we didn't and the dumplings didn't end up soggy.

Filling Instructions:

Put a good spoonful in the center of the wrapper, then use your finger to paint water on one edge of the wrapper, so that they stick together, then you can try your hand at crimping, or just fold over in a half moon style.

Here is a sample of what our's looked like
Our crimping certainly wasn't perfect, but we tried.

Cooking Instructions:

You can either boil or pan fry these. We actually boiled all of them first and then pan fried some of them, because it is easier to do it that way. You will probably have to boil in batches, but you can reuse the same water for a a few batches at least.

Bring a large pot to boil, then add as many as you can as long as they are not piling on top of each other and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes. If you are planning on pan frying them, I would lay them on a paper towel lined plate to make them as dry as possible before putting them in the oil.

To Pan Fry: heat enough oil (vegetable is fine) to line the bottom of the pan, place dumplings in a ring around the pan, and cook until the bottom is a crispy golden brown, which will take about 5 minutes.

You can enjoy them as is, or whip up a dipping sauce with soy sauce, sesame oil a few sliced green onions!!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cheese 101

Last semester, the preceptorial gods decided to throw me a bone. It has been nearly four years of being slighted, after all, so I assumed it was about time. They granted me access to no, not the Wine Tasting preceptorial (I wasn't nearly favored enough for that) but the less famed Cheese Tasting preceptorial. And to hold the class the week before finals was so kind of them! I procrastinated studying finals by attending this preceptorial and this is what I learned:

Cheese: A Penn/Tria Rundown

The Fromager, Jenny Harris, from Tria came. The room smelled rank. She apologized.

She distinguished between styles of cheeses -- the first being fresh. To be classified as fresh, the cheese has to have no rind and be less than 60 days old. Examples include feta, mozzarella, and goat. They are often acidic and pair beautifully with beets. Goat cheese pairs well with white wine and wheat beers.

Then she further differentiated cheeses by their rinds. They can be bloomy (white on the outside). Camembert would be an example. These pair well with sparkling wines. The rind is formed by washing the outside of the cheese with penicillin. And yes, the rind is edible. This question was asked multiple times. And every time she said yes.

You can also have a rind washed with fortified wine, which would be termed an epoisse. They are often pungent. They pair well with honey and dessert wine. She also informed us that you could wash your own cheeses at home with beer! Cool! She recommended washing a Camembert with a Porter. Apparently the results are phenomenal. I might give this a go and report back.

Uncooked and pressed cheeses often have a nutty, olive oil flavor and are not nearly as pungent as those with a bloomy rind.
A cooked press cheese, on the other hand, is aged longer and tends to be more dense and sweeter. They pair well with bold red wines. Examples include Gouda, Parmesan and Cheddar. (Side note: the only thing that makes cheddar orange is dye. There is no difference in taste between white and orange cheddar.)
(Side note 2: "to cheddar" refers to the process of cutting curds into blocks and stacking them).

Then we got to the good ol' Bleu cheeses. These are fantastic paired with honey. It brought out a whole new flavor when the two were combined. To get the bleu in bleu cheese, the cheese is punctured with needles so air is introduced throughout the cheese which produces mold -- the bleu. She noted that you can tell a commercialized bleu cheese because the bleu/mold will be in perfect rows throughout the cheese. Rather than let the mold grow naturally, manufacturers inject the mold directly into the cheese. Sick, I know.
Bleu cheeses should be paired with something sweet (I highly recommend honey) and with dessert wines or a chocolate stout.

She was very adamant that cheese should always be tasted at room temperature.

Inspired by this knowledge, my roommates and I threw an informal cheese tasting party with cheeses from Winter Harvest. We had a grand time but couldn't say our palates were refined enough to speak knowingly about the flavor complexities. See the picture above for an idea of the cheeses we tried. We tried Birchrun Hills Farm "Fat Cat" -- a raw milk cheese aged a mininmum of sixty days. The "Birchrun Bleu" we all agreed was our favorite. It was peppery with hints of floral. Paired with honey and apples, it was a true delight. The final cheese was a "Highland Alpine" that none of us cared for. That's still sitting in our fridge. It tasted little better than store bought Swiss. But overall, the cheese tasting was a huge success. Next time, we hope to accompany the cheeses with wine pairings.

-Marianne O'Brien

Trail Mix

Wandering through the aisles at my local Target, I stumbled upon a remarkable discovery – an entire wall of assorted trail mixes. There were bags with ingredients that ranged from the generic mix of peanuts, raisins, and M&M's to the more exotic dried apricots, yogurt covered raisins, and cinnamon glazed pecans. I stared in wonder at the variety and creativity of the differently themed mixes. I have always been a lover of nuts, chocolate, and dried fruit, so the endless possibility of combining these delicious flavors intrigued me.

After trying countless varieties of trail mixes from organic grocery stores and even airport newsstands, I have found that there is nothing that beats creating your own blend. I tend to favor mixes that are loaded with nuts, especially almonds, peanuts and cashews. Cereal, often Cheerios or Chex Mix, is also a common staple that provides a foundation for this tasty treat. The sweet flavorful bursts from the dried fruit and chocolate make the mix thrilling for the palate.

I usually start with M&M's -- a staple in any trail mix. Raisins pair wonderfully with the saltiness of the peanuts and also cut the sweetness of the milk chocolate. Yogurt covered raisins are even more delicious and add a hint of vanilla to the mix. I like to add dried apricots, pecans, and sometimes hazelnuts, which when paired with M&M's create a taste reminiscent of Nutella. There are some other decadent ingredients that I have been known to add to my trail mixes, including white chocolate chunks, banana chips, cinnamon chips, and dark chocolate covered peanuts. Creating your own trail mix is an experiment in trial and error and it often takes a few tries to come up with a mix that has the perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, but whatever your blend may be, trail mix is truly the perfect snack for any occasion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Meeting of Two Cultures...via Fruit Salad

In an age of food that emphasizes the quick and easy, fruit salad is a dessert that fulfills these requirements to a "T". All you have to do is cut up whatever fruit you have at hand, throw them in a bowl, mix it around if you're like me and need things to be evenly distributed, and enjoy. There have, of course, been a number of variations on this idea, some involving the use of berries only or the addition of Amaretto liqueur. But the image that comes to my mind when I think of fruit salad does not resemble any of these.
Instead, I picture a creamy mixture laden with cut-up pieces of fruit. Often, the creamy base is composed of milk and sour cream; other times, mango pulp or even vanilla ice cream is used to give it additional flavor and richness. The fruit is diced, if possible, and is from both fresh and canned sources-the presence of cream in the salad allows you to get away with using some canned fruit. Types of fruit used include peaches, pomegranate pears, green grapes, bananas, applies, and pineapple.
This kind fruit salad is typical of many regions of India. As I myself am Indian, this was the only fruit salad I had tasted until I was about seven years old. You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was served something quite different at a picnic with a group of friends. A blend of watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, and assorted berries, it was refreshing, delicious, and very different. The idea that a dish with the same name could be so different in two separate cultures was a revelation to me at the time and it piqued my interest in the versatility of food. Both fruit salads fit the bill of what a fruit salad "should" be: quick and easy to make; yet they are, in fact, 'worlds apart'.

Recipe for my family's Indian fruit salad: (to prepare, simply mix together the fruit, add in the sour cream, milk, and sugar, and then top with saffron)
1 28 oz. can of mixed fruit (diced peaches, pears, grapes)
2 bananas, sliced
8 oz can of mandarin oranges
1 apple, diced
1 pomegranate (seeds only)
8 oz. sour cream
2 to 2.5 cups of milk
4 teaspoons of sugar
pinch of saffron

Photo by Rachel Stone

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One Block

South 8th Street, from Dickinson to Greenwich. I won't say that this block comes close to being the best block of food in Philadelphia, but it's a delicious one and a great way to experience South Philadelphia. On this block, there are two well-known food places, Cosmi's Deli and Termini Brothers Bakery. Cosmi's, a family owned place which has been sitting on the corner for 77 years, won the "Best Cheesesteak" award from Philadelphia magazine in 2004 and 2008, and Termini Bros., which has been there for 88 years, is a highly regarded bakery. While this block isn't easy to get to by public transportation, if you're willing to make the journey out to Pat's and Geno's, you might as well walk an extra few blocks and try these places instead.

My friend and I went to these two places towards the end of winter break. We each ordered cheesesteaks with provolone and fried onions, however, while I got mine on a crusty seeded Sarcone's roll, my friend got his on a normal, Amoroso-like Aversa roll that held up as well as mine did to the grease of the cheesesteak. Both of our steaks were made to order, and while they were cooking, we walked over to Termini Bros. and were greeted by assistants in spotless white pastry coats. We knew what we were getting before we got in, but looking around with a server carrying a silver tray behind does want to make you fill it up with tasty-looking eclairs and biscotti, to name a few . However, we just got our cannoli (and asked for chocolate chips and a dusting of pistachio), and they brought the crunchy shells back behind the doors and filled them with cream. We asked for the cannoli to go, and so they put them in a box and tied it up with string.

When we got back, our cheesesteaks were ready, and since there's no seating, we brought all of our food up to Pat's and sat at the back, where no one at the counter could see us. The steaks were sizable, containing a hefty amount of seasoned, juicy, yet well-chopped beef, and cheese in every bite. The onions were golden perfection, adding a little crunch to the sandwich. Afterwards, we easily polished off the delectable cannoli. The shell was still crispy by the time we got to the cannoli, and the cream wasn't heavy, but it was still rich, and was complimented nicely by the chocolate chips. Overall, if you're not too worried about calories and have the time, this combination will provide you with an awesome, highly satisfying, fairly cheap Italian meal. ($3 cannoli, $6.50 cheesesteak, though an extra $1.50 for the seeded roll)

A short note: This wasn't the first time I have gone to Cosmi's and so some friends and I have had the opportunity to try other sandwiches from their menu. Their chicken cutlet sandwiches (which have great names, such as Bobby Gags' or Vinny Riz's) are also quite savory, and my friends let me know that they also have great hoagies.

Photo credit: Comradechu

Something Fishy

Last weekend, as I sat at home huffing and puffing with a sinus infection, munching on a bagel with cream cheese and lox, I experienced a sudden revelation. Within the past week alone, I had eaten lox, grilled salmon, spicy salmon rolls, and had even eyed the coulibiac, a Russian salmon loaf, in the fridge (though I was too scared to actually try it).

Everywhere I turned, salmon was on the menu, whether poached or grilled or steamed. I roamed the freezer aisle in the supermarket and was legitimately surprised not to find a salmon ice cream flavor.

Why was this fish stalking me? I sat down and did some research.

As it turns out, I wasn't the only one preoccupied with salmon. The red-fleshed fish plays a role in Norse mythology, Celtic folklore, and is a prominent character in Native American tradition. The Nez Perce tribe held annual ceremonies in honor of the salmon return, and in Irish legends, the fish grants wisdom to those who eat it.

Furthermore, salmon inspires ethnic cuisine worldwide. You've got your lox, influenced by Eastern European Jewry and popularized in New York; there's Indian tandoori salmon, flavored with an assortment of spices and slathered with yogurt; and in another corner of the world, Japanese sashimi is a huge hit (though it is actually only a recent success, with the advent of refrigeration).

It's really no surprise that salmon is such a citizen of the world. Its natural territories span from the northern waters of Canada and Norway to the southern shores of Chile, making it as versatile in the water as it is in the kitchen.

Photo Credit: Max Hass

Monday, February 8, 2010

Intrepid Chefs

"Quick! While no one is looking, dump the cheese into the water bottle!"

Since we weren't technically doing anything illegal, the hushed tones and ninja-like movements were probably unnecessary, but the amped up anxiety is all part of the sport my roommates and I make of dinner sometimes. Besides, taking cupfulls of maple syrup is likely frowned upon.

The practice of bringing Tupperware for yogurt, water bottles for milk, or weighing your backpack down with apples from the dinning halls to get your "swipes worth" ($15 for dinners!) is not uncommon as college students learn to stretch their meal plans. But the occupants of 1511 Harnwell College House have taken this thriftiness one step further by having a night of Iron Chef where the secret indigent is Commons Dinning hall cuisine.

Our goal is simple: to create the best meal possible using (almost) entirely ingredients found at the dinning hall. We make it a "family" dinner night - all three of us chipping in to "gather" the ingredients, cook, clean and invite friends to sample to results. Is doesn't stretch the swipe like a bag full of apples will and sure, we could all eat together at the dinning hall and not have to worry about the clean up. But, if you're like me, and you the meal plan you purchased for convenience knowing how stressful your life would get hear makes you miss cooking (I almost went to culinary school) then knowing it's possible to whip up a meal without a trip to Frogro is comforting.

This week we made entree nachos and "bread pudding" for dessert.

The Nachos are almost self-explanatory once you've gotten the ingredients and figured out a few tricks. For example, the pita put out by the Mediterranean station makes great chips if you peel apart the pockets and toast them on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes. Top them with cheese from the salad bar, suateed mushrooms and onions also from the salad bar and chopped tomatoes located in bowls around the room. For protein, we sauteed shredded chicken breast from the burger station and beans from the salad bar with an assortment of spices we keep in the room - paprika, chili powder, or any mixed meat seasonings will work. After everything was piled on the "chips" we put the tray back in the oven for about ten minutes and voila! delicious, dorm-made nachos that garnered rave reviews (if you've got a little money to spare buy some salsa from the store to make these even better).

The intended bread pudding started with a few slices of think bread with the crusts cut off and cut into cubes. The "pudding" part was a mixture of melted vanilla ice cream (to compensate for heavy cream), syrup from the waffle station, and eggs and cinnamon that I had in the room. Soak the bread, pour the whole mixture into a baking dish and bake for about an hour at 350 degrees. Since I realized last minute that we didn't keep a baking dish in the room, we poured the whole thing into a frying pan and made a cross between bread pudding and french toast. The mixture will have a lot more liquid than usual french toast but cook of medium heat for a few minutes and the bottom will get caramelized and crunchy and the top will stay soft and gooey. Spooned out onto plates, it was a lot like bread pudding - and a lot quicker to make!

At the end of the night, we all agreed it was the best meal we've had from the dinning halls in a while. And the chef in me was satiated - for now.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Victory HopDevil Review

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, and in honor of this great American holiday of sorts, I thought we should look at a local brew, the Victory HopDevil. It is an India Pale Ale, has 6.7% Alc/Vol and is brewed not too far away in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. And I don't like it. Just need to get my personal biases out of the way before people start to get angry.
Victory claims that HopDevil is "menacingly delicious," but I really think it is just menacing.
Before coming to this conclusion, I did give this beer a fighting chance. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find all the flavors in the complex taste. I sipped, swished, gulped and cringed my way through one bottle, and not finding any of the sweet malt or citrus floral flavors I was assured that this beer contained, I thought I should give it another go. Maybe the overwhelming bitterness that sticks in the back of my throat after each swallow making me cringe for an extra 10 seconds, would grow on me, so I drank another one, with similar results. Half way through the third bottle, which I was swallowing as quickly as possible just to make the misery end faster, I dumped a cracker in the beer....because I thought it would absorb the bitterness, obviously. Then, because that didn't work, I threw some frozen raspberries in it, because they have a way of carrying cheap champagne,  and I thought the raspberries would do similar things for this horrible beer. Needless to say, they did not.
What I did next was really an appalling waste of beer, and I am ashamed of myself...but not really.
I decided I would do an experiment to see if anything I could put in this beer would make it taste better. I tried some more frozen fruit, a piece of chocolate, and some candy corn. I of course waited a set amount of time to let the flavors meld and mix, and to let the fruit thaw out, and then tasted each in a very scientific manor. The results were disappointing. The fruit did nothing, the chocolate did less than nothing, and the candy corn made it worse, which in fairness to the beer, is probably not its fault.
The bottom line is, to me, this beer tastes the dregs of another beer, a Guinness more specifically, and I never want to drink it again. Ever. I am just not a fan of the very "Hoppy" flavor. But that is just me, maybe you like hops, and if so, this beer is for you. If you have tastes like mine though, and you want to try something from the extensive Victory offerings, I would go for the Victory Prima Pils. It is much lighter, and will not interfere with the taste of the nachos and any other snack food you are sampling during tonight's game.
Photo Credit: Victory

Friday, February 5, 2010


When Jamba Juice was unexpectedly replaced by Hershey's over the summer, the vast majority of the Penn community - including myself - was appalled. What was the school thinking? Thankfully, they got the message soon enough. A few weeks into second semester, word got around that there was a new kid in town - Yo-reka! (And yes, the exclamation point is part of the name).

Around the country, Yo-reka! is actually a frozen yogurt chain. The bad news: our Yo-reka! is not. The good news: it's a healthy alternative to those who want to skip the burgers and fries at the neighboring station, or the long line at Subway.

What exactly is Yo-reka!? It's a buffet-style bar featuring a variety of yogurt and toppings, from which you can mix and match according to your personal preference. The toppings range from fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries) to dried fruit (mango, figs, blueberries, and cranberries), from fruit preserves to plain honey, from nuts to other extra bits and pieces. But the best part is the granola. You can choose one - or more! - out of six different granola flavors, all with appealing names like "strawberry vanilla hempseed" and "maple pecan dream." And trust me on this (because I've tried them all), they're all really good, whether you like the extra crunchy kind, the kind with dried fruit mixed in, or the "super nutty" (another flavor!) kind.

What Yo-reka! prides itself on is the yogurt itself: organic Greek yogurt. We're all familiar with the term "organic" and how the label prods us to open up our wallets in favor of something that's healthier (or so we hope). But not many people may understand the difference between Greek and regular yogurt - or may not have even heard of Greek yogurt until now. In short, Greek yogurt is much creamier and richer than regular yogurt, because the production process involves a straining method that removes all the liquid from the yogurt. Using roughly three times the amount of milk needed to make regular yogurt and a variety of live active cultures, Greek yogurt is all-natural, has double the protein, is gluten-free and fat-free. It is no wonder that Greek yogurt is all the craze these days, with a whole range of brands available at Fresh Grocer (including Fage, Greek Gods, Chobani, and Oikos - the preferred brand for Yo-reka!). Even Starbucks offers a Greek yogurt parfait at various locations. I myself am a Greek yogurt fan, although I admit, it did take me a while to convert.

For those who are tentative about trying out new things, no worries. Yo-reka! offers the ever-familiar flavors of blueberry, peach, and low-fat vanilla along with the Greek. Besides, the Greek yogurt offered here is vanilla-flavored, which is more friendly to the palates than plain.

So take things slow, try out a whole bunch of combinations, and see whether you can come up with your own special parfait concoction.

It's not Jamba Juice, but at least Penn is trying to keep up with the trend.

Photo Credit: Madeline Miller 

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Restaurant Week: Le Bec-Fin Edition

Luckily for Penn students, the beginning of each semester perfectly coincides with Restaurant Week in Philadelphia, a time when many elegant restaurants open up their doors by offering a reduced price menu. I thought, how better to celebrate my arrival back in Philadelphia with a three course lunch at Le Bec-Fin, one of the area's most infamous dining establishments, at the unheard of price of $20?

A friend and I made the trek out to 15th and Walnut on a Thursday afternoon between classes. We were promptly seated in the restaurant's main dining room, complete with hanging crystal chandeliers and gold-accented crown molding. The tables were rather close, likely to accommodate more patrons during Restaurant Week. Only a few minutes after placing our order, the first course came out. I ordered a salad of mixed greens adorned with a white balsamic and walnut oil vinaigrette. It was quite refreshing. The balsamic definitely had a kick to it, which I appreciated, and the walnut oil imparted a light, fruity flavor. We were served our main course quite quickly as well, which consisted of a filet of salmon cooked medium-rare topped enhanced with ground pistachio and coffee all over a parsnip purée. The salmon was wonderfully cooked and tasted very fresh. However, to my disappointment, the coffee and pistachio were barely detectable. The final course, Gâteau le Bec-Fin, was a delightfully fudgy layer cake made of a rum-soaked chocolate génoise. It was a great way to cap off a nice meal.

Service was prompt – almost too prompt – as if they wanted to churn customers quickly for Restaurant Week, which is perfectly understandable. The food was well executed and tasty, but certainly not inspiring. I'm certainly glad I went, if for no other reason than to say that I dined at Le Bec-Fin, which at one point was one of the nation's most influential restaurants.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A grape transformation

When I think back, I am amazed by how vastly different my sophomore year diet is from my freshman year diet. Mostly, the changes are for the better since I now cook for myself and can even make or buy whater I so choose. However, one change for the worse is that there is considerably less fruit in my diet. Freshman year, I could never nab enough oranges, apples, or peaches to eat. But, now, I barely touch any fruit -- that is, with the exception of grapes.

Grapes are the ideal fruit for dorm room eating. They are easy to wash, easy to eat, and easy to pack. Simply stated, they are the best snacks. If you ever are bored with grapes, I am also privy to a new and exciting method to treat and eat grapes.

Freeze them!

The idea came to me from my lovely Minnestoan friends who mentioned that the Mineesota State Fair sold bags of frozen grapes. After their suggestion, I promptly moved my grapes to the freezer. After an hour or two there, the grape still maintains its outward appearance. However, as you bite into the fruit, instead of its standard crisp and juicy texture, each grape tastes like a mini slushie or Italian ice. It is a refreshing difference. So if you are ever tired of eating a traditional grape, stash a bunch of grapes in the freeze. Your body and your senses will thank you for it.

-Anne Wang

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...