Saturday, August 27, 2011

Peanut Butter Brownies With Chocolate Ganache

How do I prepare for an impending hurricane? Stock up on baked goods, of course. With Irene on the way, I decided to perform my best and only magic trick: conjure up a decadent, rich treat from the ingredients already stowed away in the pantry. These are the brownie equivalent of a Reeses Cup, although they aren't actually very brownie-like. The peanut butter base is thick--almost like a slightly cakey fudge. The chocolate topping hardens for a dessert that looks as good as it tastes: all that dark chocolate set cleanly against golden brown. They're pretty gourmet as far as bar cookies go. They'll put your standard box brownies to shame, and they won't require a special trip to the grocery store or hours of your time.

Recipe adapted from Gourmet.

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup creamy peanut butter
2 eggs plus 1 yolk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour

Chocolate Ganache
1 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup half and half
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9x13x2 baking pan with parchment paper and butter. Beat together butter and sugar until fluffy, then beat in peanut butter. Beat in the eggs, yolk, and vanilla. Gradually stir in the flour until just combined. Spread the batter in the pan evenly (it will be very thick) and bake for 40 minutes or until golden and puffy and a toothpick comes out with crumbs. Let cool completely.
2. Put the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a boil and then pour over the chocolate. Wait 1 minute, and then add the butter, stirring carefully until the mixture is smooth. Spread the chocolate over the cooled brownies. It will take about 20 minutes to set. I put mine in the fridge to speed up the process.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Food Events @ Penn

What: Popped! Music Festival Food Bazaar
Who: Nomad Pizza, Gigi & Big R, Cantina Dos Segundos, Jimmies Cupcakes, Cucina Zapata, Farm Fresh Lunch Truck, Sweetbox, and more
Where: FDR Park
When: September 23-24
Cost: Single day ticket $59.90. Visit for more information.

Fair Food Farm Tours

What: Visit Beechwood Orchards (who sell at the Penn Farmers Market) and Three Springs Fruit Farm; enjoy a catered dinner, live music and dancing. Transportation included.
Who: Fair Food; sponsored by Grid Magazine, Birchtree Catering and Mugshots Coffeehouse
Where: Adams County Orchards
When: Saturday September 17, 8:30 am
Cost: $70. Buy Tickets here.

Kennett Square Mushroom Festival

What: mouth-watering food, a festive street fair, cooking demos by celebrity chefs including Jose Garces and Kevin Sbraga
Where: 14 W. State Street, Kennett Square
When: September 9-11
Cost: $2. More information here.

Summer in Provence Wine Dinner

What: 5 course locally sourced meal paired with wine
Who: Barbuzzo
Where: 110 South 13th Street
When: Wednesday August 31
Cost: $55. Call 215.546.9300 to make a reservation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CrabFest 2011 at City Tap House

I seem to shock folks sometimes when I tell them what I like and don't like to eat. So here we go again: I don't like lobster. As in, I don't really like it, I don't really want it, and I definitely don't seek it out. (That said, a lobster roll with just the right amount of mayo still has the potential to get my attention.)

Crab, on the hand, is a whole other story. I adore crab in practically any and all forms. And the bigger chunks of crab I get, the happier I am.

So as one of my last summer food adventures, I picked up an early bird ticket to City Tap House's CrabFest 2011. For $35, I had access to all-you-can-eat boiled crabs (with delicious Old Bay Seasoning), corn on the cob, red potatoes, bread, and drinks.

For all-you-can-eat anything, a girl's got to bring along her fellas, right? I had good company in Erich and Joe, who had more than their fair share of food and drinks. Little did they know that I could hold my own as well! (Actually, never mind, I'm sure they were well aware.)

First off, full disclosure. I pretty much adore City Tap House. It's a great venue for lunch, dinner, happy hour, formal meetings, informal gatherings, and last-minute, off-the-cuff get-togethers. Even when the service is a little slow due to volume issues, the staff almost always make up for it in one way or another. And party planning is easy breezy. As the Director of Events, Jessica McGarvey is definitely on top of her game. (And I swear I don't know her personally!)

As soon as I walked into CrabFest, I knew I was in for an awesome experience. Until that point, I had no idea that the ENTIRE restaurant was set up for the event. As in, the ENTIRE bar, the ENTIRE dining room, and the ENTIRE patio. And even though the event started at 2PM, and it was only 2:45PM when we walked in, the place was already covered in crab shells atop newsprint!

After Erich and I signed in (yes, signed in!), picked up our drink tickets (which they didn't even bother asking us for after we sat down), and strolled out to meet Joe at one of the fire pits (yes, fire pits!), a server (of which we had several throughout the afternoon) came out with two big silver buckets. The large bucket contained some pretty big crabs covered in varying amounts of Old Bay seasoning, and the small bucket contained corn on the cob, red potatoes, and bread (most of which I didn't partake -- why fill up with unnecessary carbs, right?)

Armed with wooden gavels and seafood crackers, we made our way through some hefty crabs (and the fellas through some hefty beers -- and me through some hefty lemonades). All the while, we got to enjoy an awesome band that had an awesome grasp of the greatest hits of the 90s. Woohoo!

At some point early on, we were left waiting for a while before more food and drinks came along. It probably seemed a pretty long while because we'd all decided to come to the event in a somewhat starving state. As such, we were definitely grumpy. Our servers attempted to pacify us with more corn and potatoes, but we were NOT to be distracted. Well, that is, until the beers came around. A sure sign of a restaurant that knows its clientele!

As soon as the new batch of crabs were ready though, they came out full force. We had servers swing by several times with very fresh and very hot crabs. Before long, we were sufficiently full. (Well, I was sufficiently full. The fellas took a while longer to fill up.)

My biggest goal of the day was to eat more than the table, or rather the series of tables, next to us. Here's how they fared with at least 8 people.

And here's how we fared with only 3:

Needless to say, we were quite impressed with ourselves.

All in all, this was an absolutely wonderful way to end the summer. Great food, great music, great company. Not to mention a great crowd all around. Lots of folks of varying ages -- big groups of friends, small groups of friends, lots of families -- and some very cute couples showing off their dance moves!

Thanks to City Tap for a fabulous event! I'll be back in November for that Turkey Roast for sure!

City Tap House
3925 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fettuccine Alfredo

Mino, my friend from Japan, loves Fettuccine Alfredo. One day, she asked me if I knew how to make the sauce from scratch. She explained to me that while many Tokyo grocery stores carry the jarred kind, the stores in her area of Japan do not. I offered to teach her how to make it, and by the end of the evening, she was quite shocked at how quick and easy it was. “I can definitely make it when I go back to Japan. And this homemade sauce tastes much better than the Ragu sauce I buy at Fresh Grocer!” she cheerfully proclaimed. I concur. Whenever possible, I try to make things from scratch rather than use ready-made products because it's simply more delicious and more fun!

½ cup of butter
1 cup of heavy cream
1 ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp garlic powder
1 egg yolk

1. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the cream.
2. Add salt, nutmeg, black pepper, garlic powder, and Parmesan. Stir constantly until evenly incorporated, then quickly whisk in the egg yolk.
3. Once mixture starts to thicken (about 3-5 minutes), remove from heat and serve with your favorite type of pasta and toppings. I used spinach fettuccine and two different types of chicken sausage to create the Fettuccine Alfredo found in the image above.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

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

Soup & Wich, a new food truck serving up, you guessed it, soup and sandwiches, is looking to come to University City this fall - Under the Button

• More food truck developments: Gozen Yogurt, self-serve froyo on wheels, is soon rolling out at either Temple or Drexel - The Feast

UniEats (formerly known as PennEats) has announced its new restaurants for the 2011-12 academic year

• Tasty vendors for the POPPED! Music Festival have been announced - Uwishunu

Talula’s Garden named on Bon Appetit's "Best New Restaurants in America in 2011" list - Philly Homegrown

• The Inquirer reports on Rittenhouse restaurants' new "le fooding" trend--"high-quality-but-casual eating and drinking that falls outside of all established genres"

Grub Street Philly: "Chapter Two of Our Top Chef Tale of Two Jens," Jennifer Carrol and Jennifer Zavala

• Food dramz: "Spat between Indian restaurateurs turns ugly" - The Inquirer

• National food news: Are we ready for this? Nabisco announces new "Triple Double Oreo" - BITES

Thursday, August 18, 2011

You "Otto" Not Go Here

Otto Enoteca Pizzeria is located in a bustling Italian town square. The sky is pale blue with a gentle brushing of wispy clouds, contrasting the clean, earthy tones of the ornately-architectured buildings surrounding the plaza. Street performers, from human statues to operatic singers to court jesters on stilts, showcase their acts throughout the day.

Granted, this piazza is inside a hotel. The Venetian Hotel, Resort, and Casino in Las Vegas, NV, to be precise. Those Vegas architects and designers outdid themselves with the Venetian’s Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), because everything about the environment feels real. No detail is too small; you truly feel like you’re in Venice!

In any case, back to Otto. The place is a Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich partnership. The two restaurateurs’ goal with their second Vegas project (the first being B&B Ristorante) was to “offer guests a gathering place to enjoy la bella vita, or ‘the beautiful life'” by integrating food and wine into a casual Italian eatery. Otto’s menu contains much variety, including various antipasti like house-cured meats, Italian-imported cheeses, and various fritti snacks; thin-crust pizzas; pasta dishes made with all types of noodles; gelati and sorbetti for dessert; and an extensive exclusively Italian wine list. My companion and I wanted to eat fairly lightly at lunch (a.k.a. just the main course, no appetizers or desserts), since we knew we’d be having another large meal for dinner. I accordingly selected the Pancetta and Goat Cheese Pizza (tomatoes, caramelized onions, and Coast Farm cheese); she went with the Spaghetti and Meatballs (beef brisket with a touch of cayenne).

The sous-waiter quickly brought packaged breadsticks and "fresh" foccacia to the table. I didn’t try the sticks, but the foccacia that arrived looked promising: fluffy with an herby exterior. Unfortunately, it was room temperature. I always believe that bread should be warm—if not steaming hot—when served before a meal, Italian or otherwise. I feel that it accustoms your palette to the hot entrees soon to come (unless you’re dining primarily on salumi, cheese, or salad). The excellent olive oil and balsamic vinegar slightly mollified my distaste for “cold” bread, but I was still disappointed.

Entrees came soon after. My opinion on the pizza was lukewarm. On the bright side, the thin crust was delicious. You could see and taste the oven-baked char on the crust, which gave the pie a rustic flavor. The dough had its own strong herby flavor; if this was placed before me at the start of a meal, I’d wolf it down in seconds flat. Trust me, it was much better than the pre-meal foccacia. Combined with the toppings, however, the pizza dough’s taste was drowned out by sauce and extreme saltiness. I know I chose pancetta (a type of Italian bacon) and goat cheese, both naturally salty ingredients, but I expected the chef to temper it with sweetness or whatever is opposite to the salty taste bud receptor. I had to drink plenty of water to clear the excessive sodium from my mouth.

My companion found her spaghetti all right. She was slightly off put by the volume of each meatball, each about the size of a marble. I tried one and found the taste good. You could tell the beef brisket used was high quality, and the gentle kick from the cayenne perked up the meat and imbued each meatball with a light spiciness. If only they were larger! She thought the al dente noodles tasted fine and were of the right consistency, although the tomato sauce was salty. She wasn’t blown away by her dish.

If you’re in the Vegas area, there are countless other places to dine. I’d pass this salt-philic place up and try a different eatery… like Thomas Keller’s Bouchon (coming soon in a future post!).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Hankering for Hodad's Hamburgers

Their storefront sign humorously says, "Under 99 Billion Gazillion Sold!" Their motto, emblazoned on a sign above the cash register, reads, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem!” The definitive Southern California beachside burger joint is found at Hodad’s, where the line stretches a block down every day with crowds clamoring to get inside.

Named for “someone who comes down to the beach and has a surfboard, but never surfs,” Hodad’s opened in 1969 through the efforts of Byron and Virginia Hardin. First located on the beach at the end of Santa Monica Avenue in Ocean Beach, several moves took it to its current location in the heart of Ocean Beach’s Newport Avenue in 1991. They opened a second location downtown San Diego this past year, with the restaurants now owned by second generation Burgermeister Mike “Boss Man” Hardin and long time friend Teri Rhodes. Hodad’s has received national acclaim over the years. CNN named Hodad's one of the "five tasty burger joints worth visiting" (April 2009) and Food Network featured the burger joint on Guy Fieri's “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (August 2008) and “The Best Thing I Ever Ate – Bacon” (June 2009). Fieri’s visit even prompted a burger dedication on Hodad’s menu: "The Guido," topped with fried pastrami, Swiss cheese and caramelized onions.

Fortunately, the line moves quickly for the number of people waiting. After about 20 minutes, we were ushered inside and seated at long benches (I was hoping for the 3-person car booth, but there were 4 of us). The menu is simple and straightforward: a single page listing different burgers, sides (fries, onion rings, or “frings”—1/2 and 1/2), and drinks. I was tempted by the strawberry milkshake (served in an icy-cold metal cup heaped high with huge scoops of ice cream, so thick you need a spoon to consume it), but knew I wouldn’t have room for what I was really here for. I decided on a Mini Bacon Cheeseburger (1/6 lb burger, about the size of a In N’ Out patty if you’ve ever eaten at the West Coast phenomenon). Our table also shared onion rings and fries.

Our burger accompaniments came to the table first as our burgers sizzled on the grill. The onion rings were delicious! The thick slices were coated with a light crispy batter; I was also happy to discover they were not greasy. The fries turned out to be potato wedges… not what I expected. The combination of mealy interior with the lightest crunch from the exterior tasted fine, but the potato was far outshined by the onion at this meal.

We immediately dug in when our burgers arrived. They possessed some of the freshest ingredients I’ve ever tasted on a hamburger. From the onion’s distinct crunch and spicy-sweetness to the green lettuce’s crispness, every topping seemed like it was just picked from the garden. The meat was good, each bite infused with juiciness and flavor. However, I would recommend getting a “Single”-sized burger (1/4 lb); the thickness of the patty will make it juicier.

My conclusions: Hodad’s makes a solid burger. We were quite satisfied with our meal and I consider the wait worth it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Turkish Take on Pizza

L.A.’s Original Farmers Market, located at 3rd and Fairfax, is Los Angeles’ version of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. What started in July 1934 as a dirt lot where farmers could congregate and sell their fresh produce has now transformed into a renowned dining extravaganza for tourists and locals alike. From Brazilian to French to Japanese to standard American diner fare, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

On this particular trip, I gave The Village a go. The unassuming stall is dedicated to serving a beloved Mediterranean snack food: the boerek. Owner Mosves Aroyan already headed Moishe’s Restaurant, a Farmers Market stand specializing in Mediterranean and Lebanese cuisine. Yet after traveling through Europe, he discovered the boerek and decided to open The Village.

Many people may not be familiar with what a boerek actually is. Also known as pide or pedeh, they are savory pastries that look like modified pizzas. They can easily be carried and eaten on the go, and are eaten at every meal of the day. Toppings range from the familiar to the unusual; from spinach to fried egg, feta cheese to eggplant, it satisfies both safe and adventurous taste buds. Some people consider it an open-faced sandwich, where the rich flavors take center stage. Invented in the Anatolian Provinces of the early Ottoman Empire (what is now Turkey), the boerek is now commonly found throughout Europe.

The Village has a street-corner bakery atmosphere. A large, dome-shaped oven lined with ceramic tile is located at the heart of the stall, which is where all the boerek baking occurs. A glass case filled with showcase boereks—all adorned with an assortment of toppings—accompanies the menu, enticing passing visitors to give these Turkish pizzas a go. After perusing the offerings, my companion and I decided to split a pesto and fish boerek. Yes, it’s a slightly odd combination, but we’re an audacious pair when it comes to food.

The boerek was made-to-order and it was neat to watch the entire process. It all started with a ball of dough. The woman making our boerek quickly ran the ball through a metal machine, which flattened the dough into an oval shape about the size of a large slipper. She next took the sides and rolled them over towards the center, forming a thick crust all the way around. Ingredients came next: she generously slathered the dough with bright green pesto and chunks of white fish, then sprinkled copious amounts of fluffy white feta. Grabbing a wooden pizza board, she swiftly picked the boerek up and slid it into the hearth oven. As I watched the glowing, dancing flames inside and smelled the street food cooking, I was transported to the alleys of a small Turkish town. Vendors shout their day’s specials, kids play with each other at street corners, the smell of meat grilling permeates the air, and buyers clamor to attain the freshest produce and finest wares. That’s how rustic The Village is!

We began munching as soon as we cut the boerek into pieces. The thick-crust base tasted quite similar to pizza dough. Its yeasty flavor and tender texture made it a treat in and of itself. Yet what made it more than just bread was what went on top. The crust was the ideal cradle for the ingredients; although it worked well as a snack on its own, it was the perfect baseline allowing the toppings’ rich flavors to shine. The pesto-fish grouping complemented each other well, drawing out the salty ocean tang from the seafood and the vibrant herby taste from the spread. The deliciously-gooey cheese stretched for miles with each bite, such stringiness proving its freshness.

I loved the rustic charm of The Village and its food. I’m interested in trying some of their other toppings in the future, whether it’s breakfast-themed (bacon and egg), Italian-influenced (sausage and pepperoni), or Middle-Eastern-inspired (eggplant, tomato, spinach, and feta). I may be on the hunt for a boerek when I return to Philly, so any advice for where to find one would be appreciated!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stephen Starr-Garry Maddox BBQ Challenge

Despite an absolutely delicious and filling brunch at Supper earlier in the day (and changing my mind at least five times over the course of an hour), I somehow found room in my stomach for the Stephen Starr-Garry Maddox BBQ Challenge. With all the proceeds going towards academic support and enrichment services for children in troubled neighborhoods, I thought the event was well worth the time and money.

Even though a light drizzle (and a series of flood warnings) had started to come in for the afternoon/evening, my Serious Eats foodie friend Ben and I decided to brave the weather and trek out to Citizens Bank Park for some porcine-focused fun.
After paying a ghastly $15 for parking, we made our way through the first section of the event -- the amateur competitors. With their grills grilling, their smokers smoking, and the smell of BBQ filling the air, we couldn't help but get excited. Unfortunately, the amateurs weren't allowed to share their wares (BOO!), so all we could do was proceed through as quickly as possible without salivating too much.

At $5 a ticket or $10 for three, Ben and I both decided to start with three. Within 10 minutes, I had to go back for three more. Shocking, right? Go figure.

Having perused the list of 17 restaurant competitors (and also Garry Maddox himself), I'd already decided on a short list that I definitely wanted to try. Unfortunately, I only really wanted dry rub pork ribs (my preparation and meat of choice), and not every restaurant was serving them. Some went instead with pulled pork, BBQ chicken, and even (surprisingly) beef filet.

I started off with Le Cochon Noir, who gave me one measly rib. If my rib had been amazing, I suppose I wouldn't have griped. That said, it wasn't. It was decent, but seemed to be missing something. Salt? Spice? It was hard to tell. Not worth $3.33.

Next I tried Bull's BBQ. Good texture, but definitely way too salty. Ben and I both finished off our ribs, but we probably shouldn't have.

Ben was particularly interested in North Carolina pulled pork (having studied down south), so we trekked backwards to find Baby Blues BBQ. Having tried their food several times already, I let Ben go at it. Unfortunately, the sauce wasn't up to his standards, and he thought it could've used more vinegar.

At some point, I thought I was getting in line for Carolina Blue, but instead found myself getting ribs at McFadden's instead. And while some random gentleman found the (unnecessary) need to express his disregard for all things McFadden's, I actually found my rib quite tasty. Ben wasn't a big fan of the flavor, but I thought the rib had just enough sweetness and just enough char.

Ben decided on Rubb BBQ for his second attempt at pulled pork Unfortunately, he found out that the sauce was tomato-based rather than vinegar-based, which made for a sad Ben.

In between bites, I decided to check out the judges tent. Having only experienced BBQ competitions through the Food Network, I was even more jealous now that I got to see the judges live at work -- gnawing through rib after rib, with offerings piled high in carefully marked yet nondescript styrofoam boxes. In all his infinite foodie wisdom, Ben mentioned how there were training events for potential BBQ competition judges. I'm not sure my stomach could ultimately handle this sort of work, but "BBQ judge" is definitely something I wouldn't mind having on my resume!

I also wouldn't mind having "pitmaster extraordinaire" on there either, especially if I could potentially win one of these shiny pig plates. Talk about impressing potential suitors.

Seeing that the queue had disappeared at Carolina Blue, we decided to try their peachwood smoked bistro filet. Even though the meat was tender, I personally hate beef filet (I swear filet mignon makes me gag -- I know, I know), so I had half a piece, and promptly offered the three remaining pieces to Ben -- and then to some random strangers. And yes, that's how much I hate beef filet. It so does not belong in the BBQ context. Thankfully, everyone else enjoyed my generosity.

To work off some of our serious eats, Ben decided to ride the mechanical bull. Yes, the mechanical bull -- one of several entertainment options at the event. And at $2 a ride, why the heck not? Let's just say that Nancy (Ben's wife) most certainly missed out on witnessing Ben's prized moment!

Even though Famous Dave's is a chain, I decided that Dave had to be famous for a reason. And seeing as how Wilbur (the mascot) was nice enough to cheer on Ben *and* take a photo with me, I felt I had to oblige by sampling some of Dave's hickory-smoked ribs.

To my surprise, I was actually quite pleased with the extent of smokiness pervading the meat. Ben even went so far as to point out the smoke visible in the pinkness of the rib.

Our absolute favorite restaurant offering of the day was the ribs from Butcher and Singer. Not only were they the perfect blend of fat and lean meat, but they had great char and great seasoning. No other dry rub we'd tasted had demonstrated such depth of flavor. There was just enough salt to bring out the complexity of spices, and Ben's more well-refined palate actually detected a fair number of them.

Unfortunately, what followed was absolutely horrific. Seeing as how Garry Maddox was the founder of the organization associated with the event, I thought we should at least stop by his tent and check out his ribs. I really should've known better when I saw the big Kraft sign and the display of multiple Kraft BBQ bottles. What a total waste at a serious BBQ competition. Ugh.

After taking a picture with Gary (and even now, I still don't know who he is), I picked up his ribs -- completely encased in BBQ sauce. Even though we both should've known better, Ben and I proceeded to take hearty bites of our ribs. As soon as we did, I proceeded to make a face of disgust and chuck my rib into the nearest trash can. Not only do I generally despise sauce, I was thoroughly dismayed at the complete overdone-ness of the meat and the absolutely intolerable gross-ness of the sauce. Talk about wanting to wash my mouth out with soap.

Seeing as how there was no way I'd let us end on that kind of note, I raced over and bought one more ticket. While I'd suggested going back to Butcher and Singer, Ben thought we might as well give one more restaurant a chance. We went with Rosey's BBQ, which had no line and samples set out for pick-up. Definitely some good smoky flavor, but no Butcher and Singer spice-wise.

With our appetites sated and our stomachs full, we trekked back through the amateur section, checking out all the funky names and signs we'd passed by quickly on our way in.

As we were walking out of the event, we had the opportunity to sample the wares of an amateur pitmaster. While we weren't able to exchange tickets for samples, I supposed it was okay for the amateur pitmasters to give away leftovers at the end of the competition. Lucky for us, we passed by at exactly the right time to check out their ribs -- and for the adventurous folks, their bacon-wrapped pickles. (Personally, I find the concept gross. Probably because I despise pickles. And yes, I despise a lot of things.)

Although Ben had been saying it as soon as we arrived at the event, it wasn't until I tasted these ribs that I emphatically agreed with the following: Based on how tender and flavorful these ribs were, I have no doubt in my mind that our tasting experience would've been vastly improved if we'd been allowed to sample from all of the amateur pitmasters. It's like they actually tried.

If anyone ever needed to get my attention, all they'd need to do is set these ribs in front of me. While Ben placed Butcher and Singer's ribs slightly ahead, I went back for seconds here. I found the meat slightly moister, and the dry rub more suited to my palate.

Considering that this was my first ever visit to Citizens Bank Park, I was more than happy that I was able to enjoy some amazing eats without having to sit through a baseball game. And yes, I'm not afraid to say it: I care more about yummy BBQ than the Phillies!

P.S. Check out the following press release for the Challenge winners:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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

Meal Ticket has more details on the Grill Fish Café soon to come to 814 S. 47th St. in West Philly

Neapolitan-style pizza truck hopes to grace locations at 35th and Market and Love Park by late September - Meal Ticket

Food Network’s Duff Goldman calls Philadelphia his "favorite food town in the United States" - Uwishunu

Taco lovers: Meal Ticket has compiled a run-down of the best taco offerings in the city

• More taco buzz: check out an interview with the owner of Honest Tom's in The Inquirer

• Philly Homegrown has the complete guide to picnicking in Philly

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cucina Zapata

Wedged between a parking lot, an overpass and hulking Drexel buildings, Cucina Zapata has carved out a tasty niche for itself amidst the crowd of food trucks jostling for attention at 31st and Ludlow. Though they’ve only been open for a few months, the Thai-Mexican fusion truck has already conquered the Philadelphia Vendys (where they earned People’s Choice) and built a sizable—and wholeheartedly devoted—following.

Cucina Zapata’s appeal starts with a vibrantly painted truck, a riot of purple, orange and neon green, with their name spelled out in glimmering silver graffiti across the front. Among the boring white trucks that compete with it, Cucina Zapata sticks out like a brilliant, upbeat thumb. It exudes a homegrown chic; it’s cool without trying to be, from the ceramic cats and box of plastic fruit on the ledge to the hastily scribbled chalkboard menu.

Robert Zapata, who takes orders and makes drinks, is friendly and personable. He makes it a point not just to remember your face, but also the trivial details you’ve mentioned in past snippets of small talk. Show up a few times, and he’ll cheerfully inquire about school and work and future plans.

However, I wouldn’t recommend braving the lunch rush unless you’re willing to wait for a while. Cucina’s staff hasn’t quite adjusted to a growing demand; with only two people working, they sometimes get behind when there’s a long line. Ordering can get chaotic if he doesn’t take names, occasionally leading to mix-ups and misunderstandings. It’s a testament to the food that people tough it out, even when they’re standing in office clothes under a pounding Philly summer sun. If you don’t want to wait, come early (they generally open at 11) or late (they close either at 5 or when they run out, whichever comes first). Just be warned that they may be out of some of the more sought-after items later in the day.

None of this (not the decor, popularity, or affable customer service) would matter if the food weren’t good. Happily—triumphantly—it is. Cucina’s brand of Thai-Mexican cuisine is a delicious blend of spices, crunchy vegetables and well-seasoned meat. It sits at the intersection of the unexpected and the familiar: witness the Tilapia burrito ($6), stuffed with fried fish that’s breaded with Cap’n Crunch and doused in spicy peanut sauce. At two for $5, the heaping tacos are a delectable bargain. There are two options: chicken satay or Thai short-rib. Both are packed with lettuce and tomato and topped with delicate slivers of avocado, and both make a filling, zesty lunch, but I prefer the chicken because the meat is better quality. (The beef is a little chewy). I’m not as big a fan of the Sweet Potato Chicken Curry ($6). Served over sticky rice, it becomes a bit bland after you’ve eaten half of it. Then again, this could be due to its enormous portion size. Finish your meal off with an iced Thai tea or coffee ($2): sweet and refreshing.

This is what street-food is supposed to be about: a deep-seated sense of community paired with affordable, innovative (without being contrived) fare. Cucina Zapata’s twitter proclaims: “Remember when you were like, Damn, I could go for some Thai food in a taco? Well, here it is. You’re welcome.” While most of us can safely say that that particular thought had never previously crossed our minds, I’m so glad it crossed theirs.

--Kiley Bense

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Let's Eat!" at the Orange County Fair

Every summer, the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, CA, transforms into a wild amalgam of amusement rides, food and merchandise vendors, games of chance and skill, sideshow curiosities, arts and crafts competitions, and live entertainment. I’ve gone each year ever since I was a little girl, always delighted to see the farm animals, indulge in fair food, and explore the countless rows of vendors and their products.

The Orange County Fair [OC Fair] has a theme each year, with 2011's being “Let’s Eat!”

Start the morning off right with a Texas donut! (It’s almost a foot long.)

No county fair is complete without something from the BBQ/smoker...

…and something that’s fried. The just-out-of-the-fryer hand-cut potato chips and onion rings are two of my favorite splurges at the fair.

Here’s a taste of some of the incredible creations made for the cake design competition:

Food-themed arts and crafts fill another exhibition room. A sampling of the amazing products:

Taking deep-fried Oreos to the next level, we've got fried balls of flavored drink mix...
...a funky fried combination of sweet and spicy......and the ultimate heart attack.It's a wonder that people don't pass out by simply looking at these sinful eats!

I, however, went with a delicious ice cream bar (the almonds encrusted on the chocolate made this a decadent treat reminiscent of toffee).

If you happen to be in Southern California this summer, the fair runs until August 14. (More information can be found at: It’s definitely worth the trip!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Go Bananas!

When you go to The Union Square Café in New York City, many people say not to skip dessert. The dessert person I am, it wasn’t difficult for me to save room!

My overall experience at The Union Square Café was great. The staff was cordial despite the stereotype that kids don’t tip, and also very knowledgeable about the menu. The restaurant itself was cozy and aesthetic. And the food was inspired and flavorful, starting with the bread basket. But the best part for me was definitely dessert.

The Union Square Café banana tart is highly recommended—and rightfully so. Although the chocolate brioche pudding also called to me, I had to try the restaurant’s signature dessert. The banana tart is a caramelized banana placed in a ring atop a macadamia nut brittle crust with honey-vanilla ice cream in the center and caramelized macadamia nuts on the side. The banana is served warm with a perfect crisp shell, like that of a crème brulée. The shell is thin, but robust with a burnt caramel flavor. The crust tastes as though it is made of shortbread cookies, soft enough to break with a fork, but hard enough not to completely crumble. It adds texture to the dessert and sweetness to the fruit. The honey-vanilla ice cream tastes much like plain vanilla. However, I didn’t mind because the rest of the dessert was so rich in flavor. Since the banana is warm, the ice cream melts over the tart, acting much like milk to cleanse the palette. Finally, the caramelized macadamia nuts are a nice finishing touch. They provide the major crunch factor. The macadamias are crisp inside a chewy caramel coating, which stick to your teeth long enough to linger as you chew the nut.

All of these components worked very well together. I did not favor one element over another, but savored them all. It was a true treat: intricate and unique, not too heavy, and a nice balance of soft and crunchy, cookie and fruit.

Just so you know, my friend got the chocolate brioche pudding. Of course I tasted it, but it was small and unimpressive, with the bread flavor more prominent than the chocolate flavor. My friend even asked me where the chocolate was! So the banana tart is definitely the way to go!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I love eating risotto, but making it is kind of a pain. It involves a lot of patience, because of the enormous amount of stirring and waiting involved. However, seeing the happy expressions of my friends after they taste the risotto makes it all worth it.

This risotto is vegetarian, gluten-free, healthy, and more importantly, tastes delicious! My friends call it “fiesta risotto” because it’s so colorful. I have made non-vegetarian versions in the past, with chicken broth instead of vegetable broth, and other mix-ins such as spicy chicken sausage or garlic shrimp. In the end, it’s a pretty versatile dish so you can add whatever you want to it and it’ll still turn out amazing!

6 cups vegetable broth
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter or margarine
½ chopped onion
1 garlic clove
1 tbsp garlic powder
½ tsp salt
½ tbsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp dried parsley
1 bay leaf
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups broccoli florets
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup chopped chives

1. Heat the oil in a pan on medium heat. Add the garlic clove and onion, and cook until soft.
2. Add the rice. When it has toasted to the point of appearing translucent, add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and ½ cup of broth. Let it bubble, and then stir until reduced.
2. You will repeat this process of adding broth and stirring until you are down to your last 2 cups (takes about 20-25 minutes).
3. Add the broccoli, carrots, chives, and bay leaf. Keep adding broth, and stirring as usual, until the rice has soaked up the liquid and the veggies are cooked.
4. Remove from heat. Add parsley and melted butter/margarine. Stir thoroughly. Serve.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Dinner Parties & Candied Bacon Goodness

In honor of Erich's birthday, a few of us got together some amazing and eclectic eats for a bacon, sausage, and mushroom dinner party! What a theme, right? Not an easy task though, considering Erich's familiarity with wursts (and our lack of such familiarity).

Thankfully, Maki did her research! And we found our way to Rieker's Prime Meats, a German delicatessen out in northeast Philly. In addition to bockwursts, bratwursts, and knackwursts (Who knew there were so many wursts?! Well, Erich probably did.), she picked up several pork sticks (pork medallions wrapped in bacon), a black forest pork roast (a pork filet stuffed with sausage and wrapped in bacon), and several hot and sweet mustards. (Talk about a friend you should never let go of!)

Considering that every part of every course of the entire meal was amazing and delectable (including a fancy pomegranate citrus salad from John, and a flourless dark chocolate cake from Le Petit Mitron), I was particularly happy with my contributions to the evening's festivities -- sausage-stuffed mushroom caps, bacon chocolate chip cookies, and candied bacon. Mmm....
Even though my apartment smelled of bacon for at least three days after (and YES, believe me, you CAN get tired of smelling bacon), it was well worth it to have everyone enjoy my wares. Out of all three contributions, my absolute favorite was the candied bacon. Not only was it the perfect flavor combination of sweet and salty, but also the perfect textural combination of crispy and chewy.

To make my version, I combined several online recipes (Thanks to the Hungry Mouse for the most help!) and came up with the following -- easy, breezy, and addictive....

- Thick-cut bacon (though thin-cut bacon could work if you shortened the cook time!)
- Maple syrup
- Brown sugar

- Cookie sheet or sheet pan
- Aluminum foil
- Metal rack

While I loved the notion of using maple sugar (c/o the Hungry Mouse), that stuff isn't always easy to find, especially in smaller supermarkets. Instead, I decided to go with the next best thing -- a quick soak in maple syrup and a double-sided dusting of brown sugar.

To prep, line your cookie sheet or sheet pan with aluminum foil, and then set your metal rack on top of it. There will be quite a bit of fat and syrup dripping down, so cover the surface well in order to avoid a messy clean-up. At the same time, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Next, soak your thick-cut bacon in maple syrup. You don't necessarily want the bacon to be sitting in the syrup forever. There's no need for it to be sopping wet -- you simply want it to be infused with maple flavor. Making sure to leave some space in between the slices, place the bacon on the rack, and sprinkle the slices with brown sugar.

Place your sheet in the middle rack of your oven, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the bacon gets crispy (from the fat dripping off) and shiny (from the sugar glaze). Pull the sheet out of the oven, and flip the bacon over. Sprinkle the slices with more brown sugar, and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the other side gets crispy and shiny.

When it's done, let the bacon cool on the rack, and then on a plate. You can even place the bacon in the fridge to cool and harden quicker, but you should only do this if you're comfortable seeing a bit of bacon grease in solid form. (I, personally, of course, have no problem with this!)

At the end of the day, this was my final product. Gorgeous, no? And, might I add, absolutely PHENOMENAL-tasting....

Erich was utterly surprised and uberly pleased with the party. And everyone was certainly patting and rubbing their stomachs upon departure. Thanks to Maki for great planning, to Peter for great hosting, and to Jesse for great grilling! Till we dine again! :)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

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

• Owner of West Philly's Vietnam Cafe is opening a new Asian seafood restaurant next door called Grill Fish Cafe - Fooboox

34th Street calls Aksum, the new hookah bar at 4630 Baltimore Ave, the "pitch–perfect addition" to the West Philly dining scene

• The Fresh Grocer wine kiosk's days may be numbered - Grub Street Philly

• Just a week after a Craig Laban's lukewarm review for Talula's Garden, executive chef Michael Santoro is leaving the restaurant due to "differences in menu development" - Meal Ticket

The Inquirer has the latest scoop on renovations at Reading Terminal Market

• Magic: The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook has hit shelves, with recipes for yummy treats from the series like Pumpkin Pasties and Treacle Tart - Serious Eats

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