Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blog Bites: A Round-Up of the Week's Top Food Stories

Philly.com, home to The Inquirer and The Daily News, will celebrate the launch of a new food site on July 7 at the Reading Terminal Market


Philly Mag and Foobooz undertake "The Great Philadelphia Pizza Quest," tasting pizzas from 547 Philly-area restaurants and collectively consuming 603,840 calories in the process, in an attempt to determine the top 50

Next Night Market will be held in Mt. Airy on August 4 - Meal Ticket

• Uwishunu has more details on the food vendors at Taste of Philadelphia, which kicks off the 11-day Wawa Welcome America July 4th celebration in Philadelphia

• Will the bacon trend ever end? You can now get a banana cupcake topped with peanut butter cream and chocolate covered bacon from Philly Cupcake - Foobooz

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strollo's

When I was little, I would go to Bradley Beach in New Jersey with my parents and sister all the time. We had family there—grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins—with whom we stayed. We would snack on the beach, get Pagano’s sandwiches for lunch, and eat Vic’s pizza for dinner. But our menu was never complete without Strollo’s.

Strollo’s is a little shop in Belmar that my great uncle introduced to us years ago. It has two ice cream windows, outdoor seating, and always a line that hits the street. I’m not a big fan of outdoor seating or waiting in line, but you can easily take your order to go and the workers hustle so that the wait is never too long. Strollo’s sells soft-serve yogurt, hard ice cream, and Italian ice, but personally I think that if you’re going to go to Strollo’s, you have to get the Italian ice. I am sure that their ice cream is good, but it is their Italian ice that is unique to them.

Strollo’s Italian ice is a mix between Italian ice and soft-serve ice cream. It comes out of a soft-serve machine and looks like soft-serve too. When it first hits your tongue, it has a creamy texture, but when you touch your teeth to it, you taste tiny flecks of ice. The flavors range from classic to exotic, tart to sweet: lemon, cherry, blue raspberry, lime, orange, red raspberry, mango, coconut, vanilla, chocolate, cappuccino, and peanut butter. Each flavor is full and distinct, not watered down whatsoever. My favorites are vanilla and mango. But I really like the peanut butter and coconut too. When I go to the beach for the weekend, I will get a cup with mango, vanilla, coconut, and peanut butter. The next night I will just get mango and vanilla; and the third night, mango and vanilla again. Yes, I will go three nights in a row. It is that delicious!

You can get a small or large cup or cone with up to four flavors. I start with four so I can get a little bit of everything I like and then I cut down to two so I get more of my favorite flavors in one cup. Another great thing about Strollo’s is that it doesn’t feel heavy at all. Even after having a big dinner, there’s always room for Strollo’s!

The problem with Strollo’s is that it is only open in the summer and the hours are sometimes arbitrary. Since it is not a chain, the owner can close the shop at any time if he feels business is slow. I’ve been told before that they would be open until 10 and then they closed at 9. So try to get there as soon as possible just so you can guarantee that you won’t miss it. I don’t remember Strollo’s ever closing before 9. But as the summer season goes on, Strollo’s doesn’t close before 10: the crowds are so big that it can’t close any earlier! Also, sometimes all the flavors aren't always there. Strollo’s seems to test the more unusual flavors and determine by its popularity if it will stay. So just keep your mind open as to what flavors you will have. But believe me, it’s hard to go wrong at Strollo’s!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rediscovering Ice Cream

I confess to a pretty sizable sweet tooth, one that I try to satisfy as often as possible, in as many ways as possible. I’ve made cookies, cakes, pastries, puddings, tarts—you name it, I’ve probably attempted to make it. And I’ve definitely attempted to eat it.

There was always one glaring omission in my dessert-making endeavors, though, and that was ice cream. I didn’t know that I was missing much in the way of homemade ice cream—after all, I could just pop by a local ice cream shop for a heaping scoopful of mint chocolate chip, birthday cake, or, my favorite, cookie dough ice cream. And so I did for close to 20 years.

Unknown to me, a perfectly functional ice cream maker gathered dust in my basement at home.

I discovered the existence of this ice cream machine last month while on the phone with my mother. I had just churned ice cream with a friend and the experience was little short of revelatory.

“You have to try it, we have to buy an ice cream machine,” I said at least a dozen times in the conversation.

“What are you talking about? We’ve had an ice cream machine for years.” (The way my mom said this, you’d think the machine had been sitting on the kitchen counter all this time—not forgotten in the back of a closet somewhere.)

I convinced myself that the reappearance of our family ice cream maker was a sign. I had a newfound appreciation for just how creamy, custardy, and flavorful ice cream could be; now I could share this “discovery” with everyone around me. I ordered a copy of David Lebovitz’s book of ice cream recipes, The Perfect Scoop. His inventive flavor combinations caught my eye, and I couldn’t wait to try out the avocado, toasted coconut, and tiramisu ice creams. I looked over a recipe or two, stuck my nose in the ice cream maker instruction manual for good measure, and decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, my first few attempts at making ice cream bordered on the disastrous. The machine’s freezer bowl hadn’t pre-frozen enough, the sorbets turned to soup in minutes, and I was more than a little heavy-handed with the Kahlua for the tiramisu ice cream. But with a few weeks of practice (and a better understanding of how the ice cream machine worked), I saw a definite improvement. The ice creams are lusciously smooth and creamy, the sorbets and frozen yogurts packed with fruit flavor. What’s more, these frozen treats are among the easiest desserts to prepare—so long as you keep a few key tips in mind.

Some Tips for Making Ice Cream at Home:
• Read the instruction manual for your ice cream maker. Really, though. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why my mango sorbet wouldn’t freeze…until I read the manual and realized that the freezer bowl needed at least 12 hours in the freezer between churnings.
• Don’t get too worried if you’ve put freshly-churned ice cream in the freezer, only to find that it’s become rock solid. Take it out of the freezer and let it thaw for about 10 minutes. It should be as soft and delicious as ever.
• Booze can help. If you’d still prefer the ice cream to maintain its consistency while in the freezer, a small splash of liquor can do this for you. Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than most freezers, so the ice cream won’t solidify. (Just make sure the flavor combinations of the ice cream permit the addition of alcohol.)

Recipe for Avocado Ice Cream
From The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

Ingredients
3 medium-sized ripe Hass avocados
¾ cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Big pinch of salt

Slice the avocados in half and pluck out the pits. Scoop out the flesh with a spoon and cut it into little pieces.

Purée the avocado pieces in a blender of food processor with the sugar, sour cream, heavy cream, lime juice, and salt until smooth and the sugar is dissolved.

Freeze immediately in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
-Eesha Sardesai

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Eggplant Burgers

Tired of using the same burger recipe week after week? Want to make one dish to satisfy both your meat-eating and vegetarian friends? Then look no further! This eggplant burger is a refreshing change from the typical hamburger, and will convince even the most carnivorous of your friends that vegetarian food rocks! Though I am not a vegan/vegetarian, I have many friends who are, and whenever I throw dinner parties, I try to make something that will appeal to everyone who attends. These burgers are easy to make, extremely versatile, and most importantly, they taste good.

Ingredients:
2 large eggplants
1 medium sized onion
½ cup water
1 cup shredded carrots
½ cup chopped chives
2 cups Italian breadcrumbs
1 can of tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Hamburger buns*
Provolone or American cheese*
Garlic powder
Various dried herbs such as parsley, basil, etc.
Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Chop the eggplants and onions into small pieces. Place into pan with ½ cup water and cook on medium-heat until translucent. Let cool.
2. Throw eggplant-onion mixture into the blender or food processor. Pulse on high until the mixture becomes a puree. If you are using a blender, you may need to slowly add small increments of water to keep the blade from getting bogged down in the mixture.
3. Transfer the puree to a large bowl. Add the shredded carrots, chives, breadcrumbs, garlic powder, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly. If the mixture is too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Once evenly incorporated, place mixture in the refrigerator to firm up for about 1-2 hours.
4. Drain the liquid from the can of tomatoes. Add salt, pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to the tomatoes. Set aside.
5. Take the eggplant mixture out of the fridge and form patties. Pan-fry until crispy.
6. Toast the hamburger buns. Layer your burger with one slice of cheese, the eggplant patty, and the tomatoes.
That’s all there is to it!

*Note:
-These burgers will be crispy on the outside, light and creamy on the inside, so regular bread works great if you already have a loaf of bread at home.
-Find out whether or not your vegetarian friends eat dairy products. If they do, use the cheese. If they don’t, omit it. The burger tastes great either way.
-Feel free to add any other veggies you want to the mixture. In the past, I’ve added shredded potatoes and zucchini to bulk the burgers up and add more texture. No matter what you add, these burgers will turn out well.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Egg Poaching 101

First let me start off by saying, there are many things in life that are easier said than done and there is no shame in admitting that. There is also no shame in trying and failing. With that in mind, this blog post is not as much a tutorial as it is a step by step guide accompanied by a story of my own successes and failures when met with the challenge of poaching an egg.

Poaching an egg is one of those tricks that every chef seems to have in their arsenal and it was something I had always wanted to try. So, with my task set, I looked up any advice I could on poaching an egg. Most places I looked all gave similar advice, simmering water, white vinegar, room temperature eggs, and patience. What the recipes seemed to conveniently forget to mention was just how difficult it actually is.

So, first step in almost all the recipes was to fill a pan with one inch of water, three tablespoons of white vinegar, and one teaspoon of salt. There were variations on the amount of vinegar and salt but I can't see how it would really make a difference. The vinegar is there to help the egg whites set and doesn't add vinegar flavor to the egg so don't worry about that. Next, I set the pan on the stove and got the water to boil. At this point the directions told me to turn the heat down so the water was simmering. So far so good.

Next I cracked an egg into the simmering water and left it until the white looked firm and cooked through. Despite this being my first attempt, it actually didn't come out too bad and at least the egg was cooked. However, it became clear after this first egg that I hadn't put enough water in the pan because while everything seemed alright I realized after taking it out of the pan that the top had cooked but it hadn't actually been in the water so the first one was more like a sunny side up egg cooked in water. It wasn't exactly appetizing so I got rid of it.

After adding more water I tried again, first simmering the water and then carefully adding the egg. This time seemed to be going much more smoothly than the first time and the egg looked right. However, when it was time to take it out of the water, egg number two became a victim of the slotted spoon. As I was removing it part of the yolk got stuck in one of the holes on the spoon I was using thus cracking the yolk and ruining the (almost) perfect poached egg.

Alright, so now I had the correct amount of water and I knew to be more careful taking the egg out and I was ready to try again. This time I was a little too anxious and I took the egg out too early, which meant the white wasn't cooked enough and the white ended up separating completely from the yolk.

At this point I was getting a little discouraged and I wondered what it would take for me to get it right. With three eggs already ruined, I wanted to try just one more time to see if I could do it. Finally, this time everything went right. I put the egg in gently, I let it cook through, and I made sure to remove it carefully so as to not disturb the gently cooked egg.

After all those attempts I was just glad to have one good egg to show for it. It was far from perfect but I was happy with it. I definitely need more practice but for my first time it wasn't bad. I had planned to make some sort of recipe using the egg such as a hollandaise sauce but after all the work that went into the egg I just didn't have it in me to make it so I just enjoyed it simply with a piece of toast. Maybe next time.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blog Bites: A Round-Up of the Week's Top Food Stories

• Under the Button reports Tyson Bee's, the much-loved Korean taco vendor, has called it quits


UTB and Foobooz both have the scoop on the future addition of Shake Shack, a burger and milkshake joint popular in other cities, to Philly's burger scene

• ...but Grub Street Philly wonders whether the city's "Burger Bubble" will burst before Shake Shack even opens

The Inquirer interviews Mark Summers, famed for hosting Nickelodeon's "Double Dare" and more recently the Food Network's "Unwrapped," about his take on Philly's food scene


Meal Ticket talks with Top Chef season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga about his new restaurant opening at 440 S. Broad Street early this fall

Uwishunu reports the Taste Of Philadelphia Food Festival is bigger than ever this year and will be held at Penn’s Landing June 24-26, featuring restaurant samples, live music, food trucks, cooking demos and more

The Inquirer profiles Little Baby's Ice Cream, a new tricycle ice cream cart serving up many organic and original flavors like "sriracha Earl Grey," (which Midtown Lunch recently reviewed positively)

"Musical Stalls at Reading Terminal"--Foobooz reports on some vendors' location changes due to renovations

• The politics of food: Food Politics discusses the Environment Working Group's "dirty dozen" list of pesticide-laden produce


Friday, June 17, 2011

Barbuzzo

Barbuzzo delivers on the hype. After hearing from various friends, acquaintances, and bloggers that Marcie Turney's Mediterranean kitchen is Fantastic with a capital F, I was overly excited and worried that my sky-high expectations would kill the meal before it had a chance to prove itself. My four friends and I sat outside on a balmy evening. Despite the fact that we were eating mere inches from a parked SUV and a large puddle (so close that we had to move when the woman needed to get into her car), it was hard to be unhappy with the setting when the weather was so lovely. Even though it drizzled during dessert and both a menu and a fork ended up in the puddle courtesy of sudden gusts of wind, I was glad we dined al fresco. Perhaps in the winter Barbuzzo's dimly lit interior is cozy and inviting, but in the summer it seems dark, hot, and stuffy. 

Barbuzzo recommends that you order 2-3 small plates per person and share; the menu makes this difficult because there are so many tasty looking and interesting dishes. Of the starters, I tried the "pig popcorn," chicken liver and foie gras mousse, and roasted beets salad. The pig popcorn (not popcorn at all but smoked pork rinds) was crispy and light, served with horseradish aioli, apple cider vinegar powder and espelette chile. The popcorn was a big hit at the table; it disappeared quickly. The chicken liver and foie gras mousse was one of my favorite dishes of the night: golden brown crostini and a tiny mason jar filled with the mousse and brandied cherries, and slivered carrots and beets on the side. Honestly, if I could have bought another jar and brought it home with me I would have. Velvety smooth foie gras set against the acid of the beets: it was perfection in an appetizer. And then there was the beets salad. A heap of shredded kale and crumbled pistachios atop a smear of goat cheese, several slices of beets, and sweet, juicy oranges. The ribbons of kale are slick with pesto; each bite is an exercise in the eloquent balance of salt and sweet, chew and crunch. It's also nice to look at: the deep green of the kale speckled with yellow nuts against the sharp purple beets, bright oranges and vivid white cheese.

For the main course, I shared the asparago pizza and coniglio pizza. I also tried the sweetbread ravioli, but I didn't have enough to really get a sense of the it, though what I tasted was good. The pizzas, unfortunately, didn't shine quite as much as the appetizers did. The asparago pizza is topped with asparagus, pancetta, cheese and an egg. It also has truffle and a "secret white sauce." You'd think that it would be over the top with so much going on, but it failed to pack a flavor punch, and to me, it needed salt. Compared to the earlier dishes it was a bit bland (of course, it wasn't bad by any standard, it just paled in comparison); it was gooey and rich but not complex. The same could be said of the coniglio pizza, with spicy rabbit sausage, olives and basil. However, in terms of bang for your buck, the pizzas are the way to go, especially when compared to the entree "plates" which are smaller and cost about the same.
 
Dessert consisted of the warm cinnamon apple bread pudding and the famous salted caramel budino. The pudding, with walnuts, caramel and vanilla gelato, was good--the melting gelato contrasting nicely with the warm bread and apples--though not spectacular or unique. But the budino was another story. With sea salt, vanilla bean caramel, and a fine dust of dark chocolate cookie crumbs layered on top and bottom, this is a bite you aren't likely to forget. It's silky and thick, the caramel's sweetness punctuated and deepened by the salt. Dessert heaven in a jar. Luckily this is a jar you can bring home: it's $45 for six at weheartphilly.com. Now if I could just order some of that foie gras mousse, I'll be set.

Barbuzzo
110 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
215.546.9300

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chifa

This past week I had the opportunity to go to Chifa, one of Jose Garces' many restaurants. This particular restaurant focuses on a unique blend of Peruvian and Cantonese cuisines that can be found in Peru. It has been open for a while now and I have been there once before shortly after it opened. I can't say that I remember much about the first time I was there as it was at least a year ago but what I do remember was the atmosphere which was somewhat Asian inspired with a distinct Latin American feel. The second time I went, the decor was the same as when I went before and I was equally as impressed with it this time as I was the first time.

The service was friendly and helpful. Since the food is served tapas style, many small plates coming to the table guests have the opportunity to try a few bites of many different things. Our server helped us navigate the menu. She was able to tell us that we should get two of one dish so it would be easier to share with five people. She also helped us to figure out the ceviche part of the menu and she made suggestions for us too.

Before our meal even started they brought out the bread basket. At most restaurants this is a disappointing hard roll and a pat of butter but at Chifa it is a warm cheesy pastry-like roll which is served with guava butter. The guava butter was definitely the most delicious thing I had all night. I couldn't get enough of it. If they sold it in stores I would totally buy it.
Then came the meal. At Chifa they serve the food as it comes, so whenever it's ready they bring it out to your table. The first thing we ordered was the Peruvian ceviche. This was my first experience with ceviche so I wasn't sure what to expect. This particular ceviche (Chifa offers three different ceviches which come with a different seafood in them each night) had leche de tigre, sweet potato, mote, rocoto aioli, and pickled onion. All in all it was definitely an interesting dish and I really enjoyed the fish that was in it that night but I'm not sure if I was sold on the ceviche as a whole. The idea of a ceviche is that it is seafood "cooked" by some sort of acid so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the food tasted pretty acidic. One person I was with really liked it but the rest of us tried it and then moved on to the other dishes. So here I don't really have much judgment because I'm not sure how it was supposed to taste so I don't want to be harsh and I don't want people to be afraid to try it but I can definitely say, if you haven't had ceviche before, approach with caution.

The next dish we got was a spring roll that had smoked shrimp and peanut hoisin sauce. They were good but the smoke taste was a bit overwhelming for me. We all liked the dish though and I would say this one was worth ordering again. Next we got crab empanadas. These, we all really liked. The outside pastry shell of the empanada was flaky and not too thick while the inside crab meat was delicate and tasty. I would definitely suggest this dish especially if you like crab because this thing was literally full of it.

We also ordered spicy Cantonese eggplant which I thought was a really nice dish. The eggplant was cooked just the way I like it, not too mushy but not too firm, it still had a bit of a bite to it. The sauce it came in was just spicy enough to have a little zing but not be overwhelming. At the same time we got this dish we also got the BBQ ribs. They were fall-off-the-bone tender and had a sweet and savory glaze on them. We all agreed that these were delicious. We probably could have done with another order of them though as there were five of us and the plate came with only three ribs. They were easy to share because the meat came off the bone easily but we all wanted more so I would definitely suggest two orders of this if you have five or more people.

We also ordered Lomo Saltado which was braised beef and stir fried veggies and potatoes over white rice. The beef was good but there wasn't much of it and I was expecting to have slices of steak on it but it was actually more like shredded beef. I also didn't really think the potatoes were necessary since it already had starch from the rice, it was also a little heavy on the salt but we were overall pretty happy with this dish.

Then we had red curry which came with rice, crab meat, and tofu. This dish I was actually a little disappointed in I found it to be a little too salty and kind of soupy with very little crab meat and tofu (all I ended up getting was rice and curry broth). This dish was good but not great and I don't think I would order it again if I were to go back.

One dish that stood out was the lobster bowl. Mainly it stood out because we couldn't figure out how it fit in with the rest of the menu. It was noodles with lobster in a cream sauce with peas and bacon. Don't get me wrong, it was really tasty and it was more filling than the other dishes because it was more hearty, but I didn't really see how it was Peruvian or Cantonese it tasted more like pasta carbonara that many Italian restaurants serve. Maybe this is a typical Peruvian dish but I certainly don't know.

Overall the meal was pretty good but none of us came away from it particularly excited. The meal as a whole was a little too salty for my taste (good thing they kept refilling our water glasses) and some of the flavors were a bit one dimensional to me (the ceviche and the spring roll). There were some stand outs too though, such as the empanadas and the BBQ ribs so I would say Chifa is a good, solid restaurant which is worth giving a try. The atmosphere, service, and food make it a great place to go for a night out.

Chifa
707 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia PA 19106
215.925.5555

Monday, June 13, 2011

Night Market

Part 1: Defying the Weather In Pursuit of a Good Time
Food Trust's Night Market couldn't be stopped Thursday night in University City. Neither oppressive heat, snaking lines, violent weather nor fleeing crowds deterred the dozens of vendors in attendance. Hundreds of people descended on the parking lot at 39th and Market for a truly Philadelphian street-food experience, complete with a beer garden, picnic tables and everything from tacos to crepes to cheesecake.

After careful consideration, I decided to pass on Honest Tom's fish tacos and Renaissance Sausage's hummus burger (though they both looked good), and risk line-fatigue by joining the mile-long Nomad Pizza queue. It was worth it. Nomad had set up a make-shift oven and tent, serving up thin-crust gourmet pizzas in rapid succession to a mob of eager diners. I love thin-crust pizza--I've never been much for the gooey, heavy Chicago-style stuff--and this was some of the best I've had. I ordered the Margherita (basil, mozzarella, parmesan, olive oil), and got a "whole" personal sized pizza for $9. With hefty chunks of melted mozzarella and fresh, juicy tomatoes heaped atop a crispy crust, this was a slice to remember. The Hopewell, NJ based Nomad will be opening a Philadelphia location in September, where vegan restaurant Horizons is currently located. I can't wait.

Just as I was finishing my pizza around 8 (there were nowhere near enough chairs, and I ended up sitting on a curb with the pie balanced on my knees, which was fine, albeit it tricky in a sundress. But it would have been nice to have more table space), I heard a girl complaining that it was going to rain and looked skyward to see looming, purple clouds. As Philadelphia summer storms are wont to do, it broke suddenly and forcefully. The crowd scattered in a matter of seconds, girls clutching their skirts in the gales of wind and covering their hair. I live close by, which meant not only that I was able to seek refuge before getting rained on, but also that I was able to return as soon as the storm died down.

I came back at 9 to find the space soggier and emptier than I'd left it. But it was by no means deserted. In the dark, it felt almost like a carnival, with the strings of lights adorning the trucks glowing yellow, people talking and sipping beers. For dessert (the reason for my return), I headed over to Sugar Philly. I had wanted to try Sweetbox's cupcakes, but I was unable to resist the allure of Sugar Philly's creme fraiche cheesecake (silky cake topped with strawberries and blueberries and sitting on a bed of graham cracker crumbs). Their macarons are also delicious, perfect pocket-sized, brightly colored treats. I adore Sugar Philly; their desserts are my favorite mid-afternoon sweets indulgence, and they are always so friendly and welcoming. As I waited to order, I watched a camera crew set up and shoot a scene of founders Franklin Shen and John Suh, and chef Daniel Tang biting into French macarons in the truck's window. The camera crew was from the Food Network. Sugar Philly brought a touch of celebrity to Night Market--Duff Goldman of Ace of Cakes fame was there to film a segment with the truck, serving macarons and hanging out with the Sugar Philly staff. Because I'm a bit of a Food Network dork, this was very exciting to witness. I'm glad I braved the 100 degree heat, lightning and driving rain for this event, and I look forward to the next one.
-Kiley Bense
Photo Credit: nomadpizzaco.com and Nicole Woon

Part 2: A Victim of Too High Expectations.
As with many things in life, if you set up too high expectations, you're bound to fall...and fall hard. Having been to the Food Trust's night market in the fall -- a street full of food carts with twinkling lights and eclectic music -- and to many amazing street festivals in NYC, and having seen images of night markets all over the world, I was definitely disappointed upon walking into a fairly empty parking lot at 39th and Market.

I was fully expecting something more bustling, and what I got was something fairly sparse, with food trucks spread out around the outer edge, and a handful of them creating a line down the middle. The oppressive heat certainly didn't help matters, making it hard to even think about eating anything hot -- which pretty much applied to two-thirds of the trucks present. In addition, the lines coming out of either side of the single beer truck were pretty ridiculous as well. At first, my friends and I thought Guapos Tacos might have had the longest line, until we realized how many people were standing around waiting to get hydrated.

After some dithering on our part, my friends finally decided to grab tacos at Tyson Bees. As I'd already been introduced to them by my friend Diana, I didn't feel the need to have them again on a super hot day. My friends though found Tyson's bulgolgi (Korean BBQ short rib beef) tacos and thai basil chicken tacos quite satisfying and well-seasoned. If I'd had any appetite for it, I would've grabbed the steamed roast pork bun -- noted on Tyson's website as Philly Cookout 2010's appetizer of the year.

I, on the other hand, floated over to Jimmies Cupcakes instead to pick up a much-needed ice cream sandwich. After perusing their menu options, I went with the strawberry ice cream sandwiched between two sugar cookies. While the cookies 'n cream ice cream and the chocolate chip cookies would've been a killer combination, the heat made it more appropriate to choose something a bit lighter. The strawberry ice cream tasted pretty good, but the sugar cookies were a bit thicker than I would've preferred.

All that said, I probably didn't give the whole experience a chance. I certainly blame the weather first and foremost, as temperatures in the 80s would've made it more likely for me to linger longer. Especially since I'd heard that Duff Goldman was giving out macarons at my favorite Sugar Philly truck! However, I honestly didn't last more than 20 minutes before ending up in the air conditioning at Capogiro a few blocks away. And I'm kind of glad I wasn't outside when the rain started pouring a few hours later!

Kudos to the Food Trust for a good effort (for the marketing was quite spectacular!) even though the results were kind of mixed. Thankfully (for those of us at Penn), most of these trucks are staples in the neighborhood, so we really don't have to go very far to see them in action!

-Hoi Ning Ngai

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Blog Bites: A Round-Up of the Week's Top Food Stories

The Daily Pennsylvanian talks Philly Beer Week and the city's upcoming series of "Night Markets"

New indian food cart planned to open in University City before fall classes start - Grub Street Philly

• Philly food blog Row Home Eats reports the best of last week's Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll

The Daily News gives West Philly's Desi Chaat House a three fork "fabulous" rating


Au Bon Pain is redesigning its restaurants and menu, though the DP reported in April that the location on Penn's campus may leave in 2012

University City will host "Sustainable Saturdays" starting June 18, a summer-long local food series featuring ice cream tasting, workshops, a Farm-To-Table Trolley Tour, and more - Uwishunu

• Foobooz creates a Philly version of the USDA's new MyPlate food chart; as you'd imagine, the Philly edition includes heavy portions of Tastykakes and soft pretzels

• If beer week didn't satiate your cravings for cocktails, check out Center City Sips, a summer-long event occurring every Wednesday with discounted cocktails and appetizers - Foobooz

• Yikes: the former associate commissioner of foods at the FDA says an E. Coli outbreak similar to the one in Europe could happen in the U.S. - Civil Eats


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bibou

Bibou, the tiny French BYO hiding a few blocks south of South Street, has been building quite an impressive resume, from James Beard nominations to its current "Best of Philly" Philadelphia Magazine ranking (#3 ... behind Italian powerhouse Vetri and another restaurant that isn't even in Philadelphia). With seats to fit a mere 20 or so people, Bibou serves what is probably best described as French "peasant-style" food. Personally, I'm not a fan of the phrase ("peasant" doesn't exactly encourage my appetite), but it does stress that the dishes are a departure from fancy-shmancy French-inspired fare (e.g. Le Bec-Fin). At Bibou, there are no "artistic" scrapes of sauce, no precarious pyramids of veggies, and, as far as I can tell, no foams or liquid nitrogen. Instead, the husband-wife team (Pierre and Charlotte Calmels) puts out rustic dishes that evoke feelings of comfort and coziness. When I see the dishes, I sometimes think to myself, "yeah -- I could do a dish like that" -- but right after I take a bite, I know full well that I couldn't ... but more on that later.

I've been to Bibou on a few occasions in the past, and, having had good experiences, decided it was time to really put it to the test and bring some of my food-savvy friends (I was looking for any excuse to go). I booked a party of 5 for a Saturday night (nearly 2 months in advance for such a "large" party) and eagerly counted down the days. The wine guru of the party wanted a heads-up on the menu so that he could plan to bring some appropriate pairings. I emailed Charlotte, only to have her reply that unfortunately even she doesn't know what's going to be on a week's menu until the first day of the week (Wednesdays). While I can't tell if this is due to indecisiveness or "hyper-seasonality", there are some dishes that are always on the menu -- probably because removing them might cause grown men to weep, beg, and cry (the escargots, the boeuf, the pig's feet). So if you're planning on bringing a bottle, you may be able to anticipate a few of the courses ... or ... you could be like our wine guru and bring one of everything, and open up whatever strikes your fancy at the time.

For atmosphere, the most accurate word for Bibou is "tiny." Charlotte's not keeping the number of diners at 20-something for exclusivity's sake; if there were space for even one more table, then I'm sure she'd add one. Additionally, the decor is minimal. Take note -- it's not some kind of chic minimalist decor - the decor is literally at a minimum. Beyond the tables and chairs, there are a few hanging pictures, plainly-painted walls, some lamps suspended from the ceiling, and that's about it. It's as if someone decided to stick a restaurant in the bottom floor of a rowhouse. Consequently, taking a first date or visiting family there might leave a lackluster first impression -- it doesn't look "nice." Wait -- that doesn't sound right -- allow me to re-phrase: there are no loud colors, no strobe lights, no soaring ceilings, no fancy spigots in the bathrooms, etc. But that's the point. This is not some sort of themed Steven Starr or Jose Garces joint. The theme is simple: focus on our food.

We were shown our seats and invited to peruse our menus. It was very similar if not identical to the menu listed on their website, with only a handful of options available for appetizer and entree. There was an add-on special appetizer (a salad featuring shaved melon), but it really didn't do much to sway us from the ones on the menu (it's hard to make "melon salad" sound sexy). Similarly, there were two add-on entrees (one of which was a soft-shell crab) -- but those, too, didn't really matter; we had a lot of first-timers at the table, so they were going for the basics (pig's feet and steak).

We began the meal with a glass of Lillet -- a French aperitif wine which was completely new to me, but apparently not to anyone else at our table. Actually, upon our arrival, even Charlotte commented "Oh, I love Lillet" or something to that effect, when she saw the bottle. Even though we didn't have a bit of orange to garnish it with, the Lillet was quite captivating, with a light citrus and sweetness and a super-smooth finish that's dangerous in a 17% EtOH wine. It was a fun accompaniment to their well-done bread and butter (I'm always distressed when restaurants serve crappy bread).

As our first courses hit the table, inviting aromas danced in the air. Our table featured at least one of each of the following: "terrine," "gravlax," "escargots" and "foie gras." I hadn't thought I was at all hungry until my foie touched down and I found myself drooling upon the smell -- a nondescript yet powerful meat-and-sweet aroma. My mouth waters as I write this. You should know that I'm not a huge fan of foie -- and it has nothing to do with the ethics of the meat, rather, the texture/flavor; a lot of foie tastes like a peculiar combination of tofu, butter, and cheese (pardon my unrefined palate).

Nevertheless, I was told that this was the best in the city - so I was obligated to try it, right? Smells aside, I must confess that the dish didn't look particularly pleasing to the eyes -- probably more like a Chinese stir-fry of chicken (without the veggies) than anything carrying the upper-class, white collar appeal of foie -- so perhaps it's better than I didn't take a picture of it. I shouldered on, as the scent was so paradoxically inviting. How'd it taste? Two words. Holy crap. The foie had a deep sear and was served in a duck sauce (so the dish was primarily brown in color) and accompanied by a cooked apricot (dark orange - nearly brown) and a piece of what tasted like gingerbread (more brown). The foie's texture had some initial bite to it (firmer than a tofu) that gave way to a palate-coating creaminess that, when mixed with the duck sauce, sent me straight to a rich, decadent heaven. I used the apricot to cut through the richness and reset my palate, just so I could start all over again with another piece of foie. I actually didn't happen upon to the gingerbread until most of the foie had been consumed, but it coupled so nicely with the sauce that I now wonder if a gingerbread stuffing would go well with duck in the future. All in all, the dish was absolutely amazing. I only wish that I had poured a heartier wine than an Alsatian Riesling (think fresh, zippy fruit and palate-cleansing minerality) for this course, but I was spending so much time focusing on the food that I would have neglected the drink, anyhow.

A dinnermate had the escargots -- a past favorite of mine. They appeared to have been prepared as before (fava beans, mousseron mushroom, tarragon) and were identical to the picture on their website. I did get a chance to sample the perfectly cook escargot (just the right balance of spring and give) and a fava bean. It wasn't as garlicky as I remember -- but flawlessly executed nonetheless. My tablemates also had a terrine (guinea hen ballotine, stuffed with foie) accompanied by a tiny cornbread waffle (it was so cute!) and a sauce which is written online to be port and raisin reduction. I did taste some of the terrine and found it to be surprisingly light in flavor, which could be good or bad depending on how you look at it. I didn't taste any of the waffle but wondered if terrine+waffle is a good combo or not. My wife ordered The gravlax (featuring cured trout with jicama, alvendar, mango vinaigrette). She reports that the trout was surprisingly not fishy and had a rich flavor that stood up to the tropical flavors surrounding it. In her words, "it was delish!"

So, on to the main course. I had no choice but to get the pig's feet. But banish any misconceptions you have about pig's feet because this is a smidge fancier than you'll find in Chinatown. Actually - you can see how he makes it here. It didn't really look like much. Actually, it kind of resembled a large, oblong chicken McNugget atop a pile of lentils.

First off: the lentils. These French lentils are not your namby-pamby-oh-I'm-a-vegetarian-in-need-of-protein lentils ... these are leather-skull-cap-wearing-motorcycle-riding-with-a-skull-and-crossbones-tattoo lentils. The texture was right-on (not mushy, but cooked through) and they're cooked in what I can imagine is pork fat from the pig leg (although I could be wrong). There are scattered carrots and pieces of meat throughout, which contribute to a flavor that is deep and downright hearty. If you didn't know any better, you'd wonder if this was some sort of lovechild between a hoofed animal and a lentil.

And now that pig's leg that I blasphemously described as a relative of the McDonald's menu item. If you like bacon or pork belly (which I do), then this is the dish for you. If you prefer pork tenderloin or pork chop, then keep moving on, as the fat:meat ratio in this is much higher and probably close to 1:1. Add on the foie gras stuffing, and what you have is a succulently fatty item with a firm, crispy crust and chewy texture. It's actually so fatty that it's sweet-tasting. This is where most readers will divide. Some will be salivating, while others will think this is horrendously gross (i.e. they can't handle it ... wusses). I loved it. It is no surprise that my pig's feet loving friend (he's Chinese -- pig's feet is ordinary to him) claims that this is the best he's ever had. Shazam. The only real drawback to this dish is that it is SO hot when they serve it that you're torn between wanting to consume it immediately and not wanting to burn your mouth -- so proceed with caution!

My dinnermates also enjoyed the pig's feet (one of them couldn't get over the lentils). And others enjoyed the hanger steak dish (accented with a peppercorn sauce, asparagus, and potatoes), claiming it was perfectly cooked and up there among the best steaks they've ever had. That said, a criticism is that it didn't really surprise them (like the lentils had) -- it was a superbly cooked steak and accompaniments, but didn't re-define steaks forever. But that's not so bad.

By this time, we had dipped into some "bordeaux"/Bordeaux blends (a Quintessa -- a California "bordeaux" blend featuring, unsurprisingly, some of the most vivid/smooth/refined fruit I've ever had, and an '03 St. Emilion which had a nose/flavor of barnyard/leather in addition to fruit that were quite pleasant ... two takes on similar grapes), so we were quite happy.

Next course was a cheese plate. Featured were an herb-coated goat cheese, a semi-soft cheese washed in cognac, and a stinky blue. We switched to Champagne (except for me -- I don't like bubbles) and the party continued. On one hand, the cheeses were pretty tasty, but I personally felt that the accompaniments (or lack thereof) left me wanting. Of course, maybe French peasants (or cheese purists) don't muck around with compotes, dried fruits, and nuts to go along with their cheese, but I, being the ignorant American that I am, appreciate those additions, no matter how heretical that may be. Of course, we did have wine, which was a perfect accompaniment, so not a bit of cheese survived our wrath.

We finished with a variety of desserts, including a creme caramel, a slice of blueberry pie, and a trio of chocolate (mousse, ice cream, cake). Ahhh, dessert. I'm a sweets kind of guy. Let me first say that each of the desserts was well executed and tasted precisely as it appeared. So, in short, they were a delicious pie, flan-like substance, and trio of chocolate. But here I felt that something was missing. The appetizer and entree that I received both appeared a certain way (homely) and then blew me away upon first taste. For dessert, they taste exactly how they appear, which, while very good, is not quite mind-blowing. As a result, my fondest memories of Bibou are attached to the appetizer and main course. In my mind, the desserts are Bibou's weakness -- if you can really call "having obviously delicious desserts" a weakness. However, had they had the desserts of Talula's Table or Zahav, then maybe, just maybe, I'd never be able to eat anywhere else ever again.

And finally, I'll mention service. The service at Bibou is absolutely top-notch. The servers are nice and very refined. The staff knows how to serve food, how to clear tables, and [importantly] how to properly serve wine. Yes, they do call you "monsieur" and "madame"/"madamoiselle", but it's not done in a snooty manner, rather, one of respect for a dining patron. Furthermore, Charlotte's presence in the front of house and a visit from Pierre near the end of the meal are truly excellent touches that make you feel like family ... or maybe at least "a distant relative."

In the end, Bibou has maintained its vice-like grip on my heart. It serves my kind of food. The food makes you feel at home -- which is odd because you will never find foie gras or pig's feet in my home. I imagine that others have had similar experiences, as reservations are usually difficult to come by, and I hear that there are quite a few standing reservations taking up slots as well. Just don't expect TFL or Per Se, or innovation like WD50 and Alinea, as it's a tiny south-of-South BYO (n.b. cash-only). If anything, in true Philly style, Bibou is the understated, homely dressed restaurant that'll surprise the hell out of you if you give it a shot. They do have a Sunday tasting at $45 which is quite a deal. True, they're probably trying to clear out the pantry before their days off, but trust me, the food is every bit as good on Sunday as it is on Saturday.

Bibou
1009 South 8th St
Philadelphia PA 19147
215.279.8857

Friday, June 10, 2011

Philadelphia Cheese Experiment

This past Sunday, I stopped by World Café Live for an event dedicated to one of my favorite things in the entire world: cheese. To fill you in: the Philadelphia Cheese Experiment is part of an annual series of themed cooking competitions known as The Brooklyn Food Experiments, hosted by chefs Nick Suarez and Theo Peck. Other stops on the Food Experiments tour include Austin, New Orleans, Washington DC, Boston, and lastly, the beautiful NYC borough after which it is named (admittedly, I am a little biased, as it is my hometown). The winners of each contest, who are selected by both the audience and a panel of judges, receive both a cash prize AND the coveted chance to participate in the Brooklyn championship in September. 

This time around, the challenge was to produce a delicious cheese-based dish. That was where the rules ended and the creativity was allowed to flourish.

Unfortunately, by the time I arrived on the scene, swarms of fellow Philadelphia turophiles had already descended upon most of the available samples, but I was able to savor some (read: at least five) absolutely delectable artisanal cheeses from Chester County, PA, as well as an unbelievable grilled cheese on butternut squash bread, complete with a salty strip of bacon in the middle. There was organic coffee. There was Brooklyn Brewery beer. Everyone in attendance walked around with satisfied smiles on their faces, as if they had discovered their culinary happy place. I empathized greatly.

Gorging myself on cheese was amazing, but perhaps one of the most valuable things gained from this experience was the abundance of helpful literature that was made accessible to attendees, particularly the Local Food Guide, presented by Fair Food and Grid magazine. It divulges incredibly useful information about where and how to eat, drink and shop locally. As Philadelphians, we are constantly surrounded by fresh ingredients everywhere we look, and it would be foolish to not take advantage of that. The PDF version of the guide is available on Fair Food's website (http://www.fairfoodphilly.org/our-work/fair-food-publications/).

Hoping I can make it up to Brooklyn to watch the Food Experiments championship!

-Laura Johnson

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Guapos Tacos

Guapos Tacos should be good. It's part of the Garces Group, after all, bringing Jose Garces' prestige and big name to street-food. The truck looks promising enough-- covered in hexagons of colorful beer bottle caps, it's bright without being gaudy, an understated, clean and unpretentious look by way of recycled Heinekens. The modern Mexican menu is simple, too. The best food trucks, like the best restaurants, tend to have shorter, uncluttered menus. The service is all right; not overly friendly, but certainly not standoffish.

And then there are the prices. $6 for guacamole. $8 for two duck tacos. This would be acceptable if the food were good enough and the portions big enough. However, based on what I ordered, it isn't and they aren't. And while I'm sure this is justified on some level as a brand-name mark-up, part of the point of trucks is avoiding too-high prices. Running a truck is inherently cheaper than running a restaurant; this allows them to charge less for more food (aside from differences in ingredient quality).

I ordered the Chipotle short rib (sliced radishes, white onion, cilantro and cheese) for $7, expecting if not a feast, at least enough to constitute a full meal. What I got were two small soft shell tacos, which were cold and soaked in runny, dull sauce. It was pretty boring to bite into--the radishes weren't crunchy, there was no punch of bright flavor, and it wasn't even spicy. I'm veering into Woody Allen-irony territory here ("the food was terrible, and the portions were so small!"), but the disappointment of a tepid taco was made worse by the fact that I was still hungry afterward. I'd recommend saving your money and heading somewhere else.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Audrey Claire - A neighborhood gem

Living above Twenty Manning, I've found it way too easy to simply stroll downstairs, grab a quick meal, and run back up to my apartment. Since moving into the area last summer, I've been meaning to try all of the local restaurants. Unfortunately, it took me 10 months to even make it to Audrey Claire, which is only one block away. SIGH.

Considering that my friends Allison and Rich are moving back to California in a few weeks, we thought we'd get in at least one meal together (which we also weren't able to fit in over the last 10 months until now). We decided on Audrey Claire because they hadn't been back since the changeover between seasonal menus (for which both Twenty Manning and Audrey Claire are known for), and well, I'd never been.

Given the sudden heat wave, we decided to sit inside rather than outside. With its white walls and green trim, the interior of the restaurant looked both clean and spacious. That said, the acoustics of the room (as well as the bustling dinner crowd) made it very difficult to hear both our server and each other. At first, we all commented on our server's intense enunciation. After a while, we realized that maybe she was doing it on purpose. Regardless, we were thankful. For that, as well as great service throughout the meal. (She even rinsed off their baby Carter's rubber place mat, which somehow got covered in tomato juice. Well, at least it was the juice of fresh tomatoes....)

One of the main reasons that it's taken me this long to make it over to Audrey Claire is the fact that I'm simply not that into Mediterranean flavors (the same way I'm not that into Italian or Mexican flavors). I won't necessarily not go to a place, but I also won't deliberately go either. If someone picks it, I'd probably go along for the ride. And for this reason, I'm glad I'm not always the one choosing where to eat.

For his meal, Rich went for the pork chop entree and the grilled baby artichokes. While I avoided the artichokes, I got to try a bite of the pork chop, which was brined in maple syrup and sprinkled with wild boar bacon. Although a bit salty, the pork chop was perfectly moist. And needless to say, the wild boar bacon bits were definitely better than your average bacon bits.

For our meal, Allison and I decided to share several small plates. Per my friend Jared's suggestion, I picked out the seared haloumi with candied dates and sesame-fig compote. The cheese (which I've had in delicious form at Zahav) had a crispy exterior and a semi-firm interior, which created a great chewing experience. Moreover, the pairing with the fruit flavors offered a great balance of saltiness and sweetness. Definitely my most favorite dish of the night. Definitely.

The crab, avocado, and apple terrine was made up of light ingredients with clean flavors, which came together like a refreshingly cool drink. The baby arugula salad with candied figs, fresh berries, french lentils, and warm goat cheese, came tossed in a light dressing. As I pretty much love every ingredient in this salad, it was quite simply catered to all of my taste buds.

Allison picked out the braised short rib flat bread with melted fontina cheese and truffle oil. As I tend to avoid both pizza and red meat, I was once again thrilled that I wasn't the only one choosing, because this flat bread was absolutely delicious. I inhaled my two slices fairly quickly, savoring the the creamy fontina, the tender short rib, and the fragrant truffle oil. Thankfully for my anti-carb orientation, the flat bread was perfectly thin, serving merely as a vehicle for the aforementioned ingredients.

To top off an already full meal, we decided to try the white chocolate cranberry bread pudding. Even though I've always found bread (and rice) puddings to be a bit odd, I've always had a soft place in my heart for them. The reason is that my younger brother, who generally avoids desserts and sweet things, thoroughly enjoys almost any version of bread pudding he sees. That said, Allison and I found the one at Audrey Claire quite good, though we couldn't actually locate the white chocolate. Given that white chocolate is essentially milk and sugar, it could easily have been baked right in (as opposed to being drizzled on at the end). Regardless, we were pleased.

Because neither Rich nor Allison are big fans of seafood, we generally avoided seafood in our dishes (except for the crab terrine, which I'd called dibs on). Next time, I'm aiming for the grilled octopus and the grilled rosemary tiger shrimp. I'm also hoping the grilled branzino (which was a special the night we were there) will be up for grabs again. Mmmm....

Audrey Claire
20th St & Spruce
Philadelphia, PA 19103
215.731.1222
www.audreyclaire.com

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

With Love Beer Garden

Last year, the Chester County-based Victory Brewing Company teamed up with Philly Beer Week and the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation to brew the limited-edition Summer Love Ale--an approachable, refreshing beer that served as a popular bottled ambassador for Philly. This year, Victory and Philly Beer Week are sharing their love with Philly with the launch of a new pop-up: the With Love Beer Garden. Located in the lush Four Seasons’ Courtyard at 1 Logan Square, the beer garden is open nightly this week (June 6-10) from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. They’ll feature a different local brewery each day, alongside backyard barbecue-inspired bites from Four Seasons’ executive chef Ralph Gonzalez.

Last night, I stopped by the With Love Beer Garden’s launch to sample featured Victory beers, including the re-released Summer Love Ale. I strolled into the courtyard via the 18th Street entrance at around 5:00 p.m., and dozens of just-off-work Philadelphians were already checking out the scene and swilling Summer Love Ale. For the beer garden, the Four Seasons has outfitted their lawn with summery iron furniture, tall bar tables, and a grill station where you can cop (very) small plates. Up on the waterfall-bedecked patio, bottles of Victory favorites like Hop Devil and (the albeit out-of-season) Storm King Stout were featured alongside the Summer Love Ale.

The With Love Beer Garden is using a ticket system for beer and food purchases--a system that should make the buying process more efficient, as the vendors don’t need to count out change for each transaction. Unfortunately, the tickets just seemed to lend a sort of impatient, disorganized school-carnival feel to the garden. The ticket booth is located in the far corner of the patio, and by 5:30 p.m. the line was so long that it intertwined with the line at the centrally-positioned bar. The tickets are pricey, too. Last night, all Victory beers were $4.50, except for the stronger brew Golden Money, which went for $6.50. I found the bottled beer steeply priced, as I usually pay around $3 for bottles of Victory at Food and Friends. Food tickets, on the other hand, were $6.50, though pretzel tickets only cost $2.

My fellow garden-goer and I grabbed a bunch of tickets and sampled the Summer Love Ale, the Port Richmond Kielbasa Sandwich, and the Philly Beef Slider. The Summer Love Ale was a pleasant surprise for both of us--we’re both hop fiends, and we had been expecting less bite from this crowd-pleaser American Blonde Ale. Instead, we got a smooth, citrusy, refreshing beer with a fairly aggressive hop finish. Victory also brews Summer Love Ale with German Malts, which give the beer a nice depth. On the food front, the Kielbasa (pictured) was our favorite little bite. Saddled neatly in a toasted split French roll (and thankfully not the ubiquitous, soft hoagie roll) the porky, savory sausage came topped with sauteed onions, and a mild, almost sweet Polish mustard. The Philly Beef Slider was a messier, greasier affair: topped with Taylor Pork Roll and an American cheese bechamel, it satisfied my salty summer food cravings. The little round of Pork Roll was an unexpected touch on this “Philly” slider--isn’t Scrapple our strange meat?--but as a Central New Jerseyian (we call it Taylor Ham) I appreciated the smokey bacon substitute. The grill was also offering a soft shrimp taco, a half-dozen Lancaster County chicken wings glazed with honey, and steamed New Jersey Clams, as well as soft pretzels and mustard. We topped off our beer and bites with a complimentary scoop of strawberry-and-Summer Love Ale ice cream from the Franklin Fountain ice cream cart, manned by bowtied co-owner Eric Berley. My companion deemed it the best ice cream he’d ever tasted--made with now in-season organic strawberries, the creamy scoop benefited from the zippy notes of beer.

Despite my reservations about the prices, I would recommend the With Love Beer Garden as a happy-hour meeting spot during Beer Week. As I enjoyed the last sips of my Summer Love Ale in the well-groomed garden, I realized how rare of a treat it is in Philly to get to enjoy beer in a green space, rarer still in a snazzy private courtyard like that of the Four Seasons. So, relish this limited beer garden while you can.

Here is the rest of the With Love Beer Garden brewery schedule. Summer Love Ale will be available throughout the week, as will the cookout menu of small bites.

Tuesday: Weyerbacher

Wednesday: Dock Street Brewing Company

Thursday: Sly Fox Beer

Friday: Yards Brewing Company and Stoudt’s Brewing Company

-Kristen Martin

Tiny Treats

Cupcakes are huge right now and they’re certainly big on my list. But at Baked by Melissa they are actually quite tiny! Baked by Melissa is a cupcake shop that sells cupcakes the size of a quarter. Her concept is to give people the chance to try several flavors without the glutton.

Cupcakes are great because they can satisfy a variety of palettes, with flavors ranging from the simple classic, vanilla with chocolate buttercream, to more complex combinations like chai-infused cake with chocolate cinnamon ganache. They’re a smaller version of the sheet cakes that many of us enjoy on special occasions, so they give us a chance to make any day a celebration but without so many leftovers. Baked by Melissa plays on this concept, but on an even smaller scale.

I pass by one of the shops in New York City every time I go to work. The cupcakes look adorable lined up in rows by flavor: red velvet, cinnamon, cookie dough, chocolate chip pancake. I couldn’t help but try one, especially because you could just pop one in your mouth! So I tried a red velvet one day and a cinnamon the next. The red velvet did not impress me. The top of the cupcake was crispy, not soft and delicate. The bottom of the cake was softer, but because the cupcake was so small you always got some crisp in each bite. Personally, I don’t think that cupcakes should be crunchy. However, the frosting was tasty. It was a smooth, sweet cream cheese. The cinnamon cupcake was a little better. The top was still crisp, but this cupcake was filled with a cinnamon cream that was delicious. The cinnamon flavor in the cream was full and distinct. And the cream cheese frosting on top of it was the same as that covering the red velvet.

For me, the cupcakes were too small to impress my palette. I like more intricate flavors, and it is hard to make such a small treat very complex. On the other hand, they are the right size for a little something sweet after a meal. In my opinion though, I would rather get a big cupcake and enjoy it over a few days. That way, it can be soft and moist, simple or complex, and overall more satisfying. If you’re going to have dessert, really have dessert!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Summer Resolutions

I have always liked to make lists and plans. Summer often looks like a three-month opportunity to work on resolutions and grand projects, but I never do undertake them. Summer is about people, sun, heat and water, and the exhilaration and disbelief of that luck and spontaneity which vacation affords. Yet my plan-making tendencies are hard to break, and so this summer I must have some goals in mind to accompany my three-month exercise in impulsiveness.

Striving for true summer, though, I’ll pick out a few primary goals and let the rest of summer shape itself around those. I want to frequent Zavino, bake a country loaf from Tartine Bread, and develop a farmers’ market habit. Each item is on my list for a specific, rich reason: Zavino, to soak up the atmosphere and food I like so much; Tartine, as I’ve baked bread for years but haven’t yet made a good starter dough; and farmers’ markets for the produce I want to look at and live off of all the time. These are things I'm excited about.

They aren’t goals that will easily overwhelm a summer; nor are they part of a tightly plotted, carefully scheduled resolution. Instead, they are ideas that will work themselves into my plans with friends, late weekend lunches, and walks home from the train. I like resolutions like these, sustainable and sustained.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Philly Beer Week 2011: A Round-Up of the Best Beer Week Guides


This week is all about the booze in Philadelphia, with several guides cropping up in the blogosphere for Philly's Beer Week 2011, which runs from June 3-12:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll

On June 2, I attended the first of four monthly Baltimore Avenue Dollar Strolls. Organized by University City District, the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll features the delicious offerings of fifteen local businesses lined up between 42nd and 50th streets. For just one dollar, strollers can purchase a sample of food from local favorites like Dock Street Brewery or the new Mood Café.

I found it easy to convince a friend who was staying at Penn for the summer to come with me, and the two of us walked from campus towards Baltimore Avenue, pockets loaded with dollar bills. While the campus was quiet and calm, the scene as we approached the nearest vendor, Green Line Café, was bustling and exciting. A small line had already formed at Green Line Café’s sidewalk booth where vendors were offering cold drinks and small sandwiches. I eagerly handed over a dollar and received an iced coffee, perfect refreshment for the warm but breezy day.

As we continued down the road, we noticed much longer and more intimidating lines that had formed for other restaurants nearby. I glanced jealously at passerby sampling veggie pakoras from Desi Village and spring rolls from Vientiane Café. We decided to walk to 50th street and choose just a few places to wait for food while we made our way back. As I recognized familiar faces and caught up with friends also enjoying the festivities, I began to appreciate the strong sense of community in West Philadelphia. The vendors, especially, were extremely happy to serve food and warmly greeted familiar customers.

As I made my way back east, seriously craving a lassi and ice cream, I was already planning my next trip back to West Philadelphia so I could fully enjoy the dishes and friendly atmosphere of the local restaurants. We waited in line at Milk and Honey for a cone of Bassett's ice cream and each received a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip or Orange sherbet. We finished our cones just as we made it in line at the Desi Chaat House where we noticed people leaving with generously filled cups of mango lassi. I paid two dollars for a lassi and a freshly fried samosa. The drink was rich and subtly sweet, just slightly chilled while the samosa was crispy and savory, filled with well-seasoned potatoes, onions, and peas.

My experience along Baltimore Avenue on Thursday night was really enjoyable. Fortunately, the UCD will be hosting this event three more times during the first Thursday of each month. If you have time and just a few dollars to spare, I definitely recommend taking a stroll and enjoying wonderful food and company.
-Jenny Chen
Photo from Milkandhoneymarket.com

Friday, June 3, 2011

Spinach-Artichoke Béchamel Lasagna

I love lasagna. There’s just something comforting about digging into layer after layer of pasta, meat, cheese, and sauce. However, frequent lasagna consumption tends to become quite unhealthy, and truth be told, rather mundane after a while. As someone who is constantly trying to think outside the box, I decided to cut out the meat and replace it with veggies to add a little healthiness to the dish.

Meet the Spinach-Artichoke Béchamel Lasagna.
It looks similar to the usual type of lasagna, except for the fact that there is no red sauce, no meat, and no extra cheeses like mozzarella or parmesan. One might be thinking right now, “What? That’s not lasagna!” Okay, that’s somewhat true. It’s more of a cross between a Greek Spanakopita, Egyptian Macaroni Béchamel, and Italian Lasagna. As a result, it seems fancier than the usual type of lasagna but it is actually quite simple to make.

Ingredients:
1 package of frozen spinach*
1 can of artichoke hearts
1 medium onion
Lasagna noodles*
Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese*
6 cups of milk
1 ¾ cup of all-purpose flour
Half a stick of butter
Salt and Pepper
Garlic Powder
Parsley
Nutmeg*

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Defrost the spinach by placing the frozen block into a small cooking pot on high heat. Once the ice has melted and all of the water has evaporated, take it off the heat and set aside to cool.
3. Chop the onions into small pieces and add to the spinach, along with the artichoke hearts and ricotta cheese. Mix thoroughly. Once everything is evenly incorporated, add salt, black pepper, and garlic powder to taste.

Now it is time to make your béchamel sauce.

4. Heat the butter on medium heat until it is completely melted.
5. Slowly whisk in the flour. Once all of the flour has been added, slowly whisk in the milk. Continue to whisk on medium heat until the mixture has thickened and looks smooth (the texture should be similar to pancake batter).
6. At this point, take the sauce off heat and sprinkle in salt, pepper, garlic powder, parsley, and nutmeg to taste.

Now you’re ready to assemble your lasagna.

7. Grease or spray your baking dish with nonstick spray. Spread a thick layer of béchamel sauce across the bottom of the dish. Then place one layer of lasagna noodles on top of that, followed by the spinach-artichoke mixture. Then more béchamel sauce, then another layer of lasagna noodles, then the spinach-artichoke mixture. You get the idea. When you’re about ¾ of the way to the top of the baking dish, top with the remaining béchamel sauce (my friends’ favorite part of the lasagna!). If you still have some of the spinach-artichoke mixture left, do not worry. You can eat it as it is (it’s delicious!) or freeze it for later use.
8. Place your lasagna in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until the top is evenly golden brown.

That’s all there is to it!

*Note:
-Frozen spinach works better than fresh spinach. I don’t know why this is but two friends tried my recipe with fresh instead of frozen and it did not turn out so well. The same friends later tried it with frozen, and they loved it!
-I use the no-boil lasagna noodles because they’re hassle-free. If you cannot find them in your grocery store, feel free to use the regular lasagna noodles. Just make sure that you cook them until al-dente before you start layering them in your baking dish. If you’re using the no-boil kind, wet the noodles with hot water, then place in the baking dish.
-Whole milk ricotta is a necessity! My health-conscious sister tried this recipe with Fat-free ricotta and it did not taste good at all. I’m still cringing from the taste.
-You can do without the nutmeg if you want. However, I feel that it makes the béchamel sauce taste that much better with it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Food Events @ Penn

Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll
What: Get $1 deals on espresso, ice cream, foccacia, samosas, beers, cupcakes, mango lassis, brownies and more. Participating merchants include Milk & Honey Market, Green Line Cafe, Dock Street Brewery, Jimmies Cupcake Co., Desi Village and Desi Chaat House
Who: University City District
Where: Baltimore Avenue between 42nd and 50th Streets
When: Thursday June 2, July 7, August 4, September 1, 5:30-8:30pm


First Friday at Wine School June 3
What: Wine tasting and wine class
Who: The Wine School of Philadelphia
Where: 127 S. 22nd Street
When: Friday June 3, 6-10pm
Cost: $30, no reservations






Philadelphia Cheese Experiment
What: Cook-off among Philly's amateur chefs with cheese as the star ingredient. Attendees will sample all dishes and vote.
Where: World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut
When: Sunday June 5, 12-4pm
Cost: $10, buy tickets online here.


Night Market
What: A street-food festival celebration of Philly's ethnic restaurants and gourmet food trucks. With: Guapos Tacos (Jose Garces' truck), Nomad Pizza, Little Baby's Ice Cream and 30 other vendors. There will also be music, fire performers and crafts.
Who: University City District, Philly Beer Week, the Food Trust
Where: 39th and Market
When: Thursday June 9, 6-10pm (rain date: Thursday, June 16)

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