Thursday, November 14, 2013

Kabocha Squash & Shrimp Curry

Well, it certainly has been a while since we've posted anything here, but tonight we happened onto a dish so tasty that it didn't seem right not to share.

Starting with a Thai-inspired curry paste, this savory curry gets a healthy dose of color, richness and sweetness from kabocha squash. They're a real pain in the neck to cut into and peel, but it was worth it. Coconut milk and a little fish sauce round out this tasty dinner, which we made in our electric pressure cooker.

Kabocha Squash & Shrimp Curry

For the curry paste
One half-inch slice of ginger, minced
Two cloves of garlic, minced
One stalk of lemongrass, outer sections removed, minced
One arbol chile -or- one teaspoon of a chili paste like samba oelek
Salt to taste
One kaffir lime leaf, minced, or about a half-teaspoon of lime zest

One tablespoon coconut oil
One half kabocha squash, seeds removed, peeled and chopped
Eight to twelve ounces of coconut milk
One tablespoon fish sauce
One pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on or off
A handful of greens (spinach, kale, etc.), coarsely shredded

Start with the curry paste: add all ingredients to a mortar and pestle and pulverize to the best of your ability, or, if you don't like unnecessary hard work, put everything in your food processor and grind into a coarse paste.

In the bowl of an electric pressure cooker on the medium heat setting, melt the coconut oil and sauté the curry paste for one or two minutes until fragrant. Add the squash, toss to coat everything, then add the coconut milk and fish sauce. Cover your pressure cooker, taking all appropriate safety precautions, and cook on the low pressure setting for about eight minutes.

Alternatives, if you don't have a pressure cooker: Well, you could just simmer the squash until tender with the lid on, or roast the squash separately and then add fully cooked at this point. The pressure cooker is really only to speed up the cooking of the squash because heck, it's a weeknight, and it needs to justify its existence somehow anyway.

When the pressure cooker is done and the squash is tender, add the shrimp. Cook on low to medium heat for a minute or two, then add the greens and cook for another minute until they're wilted. A nice addition might be a sprinkling of chopped cilantro before serving. Enjoy!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cesary, Bacony Kale Salad

Once in a great while when I was growing up, my mom would make a spinach salad with a bacony dressing. Twenty-something years later, at brunch at Lacroix, we had a kale salad with in a Cesar-type dressing. Somehow these two leafy-green-salad ideas met up in my head and produced this offspring, a tasty kale salad with a rich yet balanced dressing. If you've been looking for a way to eat more kale (and who isn't?) this is a great way to try it.

1-2 strips thick-cut bacon
1 egg yolk
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 tsp mustard powder
Pinch of cayenne
Salt and black pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan or Romano
As much kale as you like, roughly chopped

Cook bacon however you like and reserve the drippings. Chop bacon coarsely and set aside.

Combine the egg yolk, lemon juice, garlic, mustard, cayenne, salt and pepper in your salad bowl. Whisk together and slowly add the bacon drippings (as though making a mayonnaise). Add the kale, sprinkle the cheese on and toss. Top with more cheese if desired before serving.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Brunch at Santucci's

Pop quiz, hotshot: It's Saturday. 10:30 AM. You're at 10th & Christian and you're hungry. Where do you go?

Wrong. You go to Santucci's.

That's right, the place that makes the square pizza with the sauce on top also makes a killer weekend brunch, and with any luck you won't have to wait in line for two hours to get it. In fact, it was in a totally empty restaurant that we found ourselves on a recent Saturday, just the two of of us, plus our friends Jenny and Don in from Oakland, and one baby. And it's a damn good thing too, because we were all starving. (Well, our baby wasn't.)

There's nothing too outlandish on the menu, but plenty of alluring options that by and large lived up to their promise. In fact, I'll say that my spinach and goat cheese frittata was the best frittata I've had out anywhere. Lightly browned around the edges, yet still just faintly loose in the middle, it was packed with goat cheese and flavorful fresh sautéed spinach. Served with your choice of hash browns or tater tots (I went with the tots) and toast (which I skipped), it puts any diner omelette to shame. My totally unnecessary additional side of sausage was great too.

Lauren opted for French toast, about which I really can't tell you anything, because she wouldn't even spare one bite for me – though I can tell you that fresh strawberries and a generous scoop of mascarpone were involved. She also tried a side of the "homemade Greek yogurt", which had almost more of a ricotta-like texture, topped with honey and apple slices (more on those later).

Don went all-out lunchy with his brunch and got the roasted pepper, arugula and goat cheese flatbread, which is of considerable size and absolutely delicious. Having had that item before, I almost prefer it to the traditional pizza because of its bright flavors that shine through rather than getting muddled in sauce.

Jen got one of the specials: toad-in-the-hole with taleggio and sautéed wild mushrooms. This was an interesting concept held back by one strange decision: the mushrooms were earthy and delicious; the taleggio was allowed to stand alone in its own glory; the bread surrounding the egg was nicely browned and crisp, but the egg yolk was cooked all the way firm. This dish was the kind of thing that a runny yolk would have sent straight to the top of the all-time brunch charts.

Still, Jen proclaimed it the best brunch she ever had. The only other misstep I would point to is that the apples atop the Greek yogurt must have been sliced on a board that previously was home to some onions or garlic, because there was an unfortunate flavor to them.

Service was very friendly, and after our meal we even got a chance to chat with the chef – a real friendly guy with truly inventive facial hair.

I think brunch at Santucci's is a complete no-brainer: inventive, unpretentious food at reasonable prices, and with any luck, none of the waiting. I almost hesitate to recommend it so highly because I don't want the place jamming up and forcing us to wait next time we come!

Santucci's Original Square Pizza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pork Tenderloin Wrapped with Speck and Sage

So here is an answer to the question, "Don't you guys actually cook anything anymore?" Well, yes, but not everything is worth telling the world about. I'm not even certain that this is, but it was pretty tasty and easy-to-make, so why not? Plus, if I'm recalling correctly, I stole the idea from Shola so here's an opportunity to link to his intriguing blog.

What we have here is a pork tenderloin wrapped in speck with a few sage leaves tucked between the pork and the speck. Speck, if you are not familiar, is sort of like a smoked version of prosciutto. I asked the friendly guy at DiBruno's to slice it as thin as possible, which turned out to be almost too thin, so you may want to ask for it to be sliced "almost" as this as possible, or bring your own sliced-meat calipers to check the thickness.

The technique here should have been to lay the speck out so it overlaps in a solid sheet, top with sage leaves, roll the (salt and pepper) seasoned tenderloin in it, then wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or two so everything sort of sets together. I did not have the requisite hour or two, so things fell apart a little bit, but the end result was still tasty.

Basically, get an oven-safe pan rocket-hot, add a little olive oil and sear the tenderloin until your house fills with smoke. Then pop it in a 425° oven for about 10-15 minutes, depending on thickness, let rest and enjoy. If you've done it right, the pork will still be a little pink in the center, and the speck will have become delightfully crisp, adding an earthier, fattier note to what can be a boring cut of pork.

Not pictured: the fig and balsamic reduction I made as a pan sauce. When your pork is resting elsewhere, add a handful of chopped dried figs and a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to the hot pan. Let reduce and serve over the sliced pork.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: Il Pittore

If memory serves, Il Pittore is Stephen Starr's first (non-pizza) Italian effort since the late and not particularly lamented Angelina. With an SRO gift card in hand, my mother-in-law watching our new baby, and a desire to try something new, we headed out for a date night to see how this effort stacks up.

Occupying the Sansom Street space formerly housing Noble, Il Pittore is surprisingly intimate for a Starr joint, and the white walls and dark wood give it a refined sense of rusticity that put me in the mind of Mario Batali's Babbo up in New York. Seated on the second floor, the crowd was strangely dominated by the old-men-in-suits crowd; maybe the word has gotten out that this is a great out-of-the-way place for a romantic business meeting?

The structure of the menu is typically Italian, with antipasti, pasta courses, mains and "contorni" (or sides). Looking the menu over, though, provided some explanation for the expense-account nature of the crowd, as prices are a bit high with apps and pastas averaging between $15 and $20, and mains running from $25-$35.

Lauren had a glass of a very nice prosecco from the all-Italian wine list, while I enjoyed a Pennello (more or less an Old Overholt Manhattan with a splash of Cynar in it; a very well-balanced and dangerously smooth and drinkable cocktail). Out came a basket of breads, all made in-house, which featured a nice but somewhat cake-like herbed focaccia, light yet flavorful ciabattini, and thin, anise seed-studded breadsticks.

We split the cod appetizer, which consisted of a lightly smoked and hard-seared piece of cod set atop a golden yellow, saffron-enriched mound of soft (almost polenta-like) baccala, with a poached calamari salad on top. Unfortunately my splitting skills were not the best and I ended up shorting myself on the delightfully crisped edge of the cod, but the subtle smokiness of the fish was flavorful enough.

Though we originally intended to split a pasta course as well, the selections proved too alluring and we each ended up with our own. Lauren's lobster-filled tortellini, served with a burrata and topped with a not inconsiderable amount of shaved black truffle, were flavorful, though to me the pasta's wrapper gave off an oddly Asian wonton vibe.


My pasta, the Gramigna, was absolutely sensational. Loose, short corkscrews of pasta ("chianti-stained" according to the menu, though no red color was evident), topped with a duck ragout, shaved bitter chocolate and grated cheese. The thing that made this dish so wonderful was the perfectly balanced hint of acid that blasted through the rich, savory duck sauce. As much as I like to never order the same thing twice, I would be hard-pressed not to get this again on a return visit. (And thanks to Lauren for insisting I order it in the first place; otherwise I was going to go for the corzetti with braised goat, mint and chili oil, which sounded great, but then I wouldn't have had this!)

Mains were similarly successful. Lauren's monkfish "saltimbocca" was three or four pieces of the fish, wrapped in prosciutto so thin that it disappeared completely upon cooking, leaving behind only the slight hint of porky saltiness. Better, though, was my braised veal cheek, two nicely-sized pieces that glistened from their intense braising liquid. Underneath, polenta taragna, which is both coarser than the usual polenta grind and also blends in buckwheat – even without the veal on top, it would have made a satisfying dish of its own. (And halfway through, we switched entrees. This is how you know I love my wife.)

I must admit we did not get dessert, because Il Pittore is, unfortunately for them, located deep within the Capo Giro sphere of influence.

Service was pretty decent, although our waiter was just slightly strange, and pulled the old "I am so cool I do not need to write down your order; here I go to put it in; wait, here I come back, what was your pasta order again?" routine. The aspirations are definitely on the higher end of the Starr service spectrum though, as is befitting the prices.

So Il Pittore is not cheap, but nor does it fail to impress. I give it a full recommendation for a special-occasion Italian meal, whether you are discussing mergers and acquisitions with your grey-suited ilk or putting the moves on your sweetheart. If you're in the area and not looking to drain your wallet to such a degree, Porcini and Melograno are both excellent options on the same block, but nowhere near on the same level of refinement.

Il Pittore on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: Vedge

Honest. Unselfconscious. Maybe a little playful, with a sense of humor. These are great qualities in people, and maybe even better qualities in food. That's why I've never been a fan of vegetarian and vegan dishes that pretend to be something they're not: I'm of the belief that the best vegan food is simply good food that happens not to have any animal products in it.

Because of this, I never was the greatest fan of Horizons, the vegan spot formerly on Seventh Street, whose menu was a minefield of seitan, tofu and other protein pretenders. So I was pleased to learn that the new place from the folks behind Horizons was supposed to focus more on the real stars of the plant show: vegetables. We took a trip to Vedge to see if it lived up to this ideal.

The space on Locust Street is certainly larger than Horizons' second-floor perch was, and it's appointed in a fairly old-fashioned manner, if a bit spare. Comfortable enough; now a look at the menu.

Broken simply into "small bites" and "plates", there's no real indication of the various dishes' sizes, and I had to ask the waitress for some guidance (which otherwise didn't seem to be forthcoming). She suggested two or three "plates" per diner, with perhaps a few "bites" to share around. So it seems like they are going for a "small plates" paradigm, but we will discuss the problems with that later.

The bites we started with were the peel-and-eat lupini beans with piri piri, the mixed black olives, and the truffled fingerling fries with porcini salt. The lupini had that great unique piri piri flavor without being too spicy, if the beans themselves were on the hard side. The fingerlings, in a delightfully motley assortment of sizes and degrees of smashiness, sported a very delicate crispy skin, though not a whole lot of truffle or porcini flavor. The olives were pretty much just olives.

My first larger course was the honshimeji mushrooms "beach style". I'll be honest, I couldn't remember what a honshimeji was, but my surreptitious Googling told me it was a mushroom – though it could not tell me that I had unintentionally ordered a soup. Not what I expected from the description, and to be honest, the first several spoonfuls of the mushroom, celery leaf and red potato soup were awfully bland, but at some point the flavor kicked in and the dish coalesced into a steaming bowl of rich, umami-powered goodness.

Then, all our plates were cleared, new silverware was delivered (including oversized steak knives; these seemed to be trying to make some kind of statement), and we waited for quite a while.

Some time later, our second main selections arrived. Mine was the eggplant "braciole", a slice of smoked eggplant wrapped around some sort of finely-minced mixture which was apparently cauliflower, and swimming in a creamy, fresh garbanzo-studded sauce.

And it was in this course that a problem that existed even at Horizons manifested itself. It was salty. Very salty, and salty in a cumulative way that made the last bite taste exponentially saltier than the first. (My three lovely dining companions, including one who is a real salt fiend, all agreed.) By the end, I wasn't tasting vegetables at all; just a lingering, tongue-coating "sameness" on the salty-creamy axis that kept the veggies' natural flavor from shining through.

This was even evident on the two items we ordered off the "dirt list", an ever-changing sampling of today's "farm vegetables" (where else would they come from?). Though you would expect these preparations to highlight the natural character of the vegetables, the royal trumpet mushrooms were sliced very very thin and were served practically drowning in some sort of buttery-tasting white sauce, and the shaved and grilled brussels sprouts found themselves coated in a similar salty substance. In effect, this is precisely the opposite of what I expected and desired from these preparations. If there is effort being made to develop flavors in these vegetables through cooking technique, it is being overshadowed by the heavy-handedness of the seasoning.

Beyond the cooking foibles I found, I have to point out the unsuitability of the dishes for a "small plates" format. Very few things were readily shareable (being soups, or single large pieces), and the coursing was fairly rigid, so there wasn't the sort of rolling, convivial dining experience that you would expect from, say, a Jose Garces restaurant. Plus, the waitress's recommendation to order "two or three" large dishes would almost certainly result in you getting too much food.

So here is a restaurant named for and intended to celebrate the vegetable, which instead has a tendency to beat them into submission; a place where the potential for culinary discovery is derailed by a confused menu concept and clumsy service. I came to Vedge excited, with a completely open mind, leaving my Horizons experiences behind me. I left knowing that the potential exists for a vegan restaurant to stand on its own culinary merits, to put the full force of both centuries of tradition and cutting-edge modern technique behind exalting the roots, leaves and fungi that can be so varied and exciting. But for now, at least, this place is not it.

Vedge Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 28, 2011

Roasty Brussels Sprouts

So I think collectively as a culture, we've gotten over our revulsion to Brussels sprouts. If you haven't, maybe it's because you haven't had them prepared the right way – boiling into oblivion is no way to do this noble cruciferous veggie justice. Roasting allows the sprouts to attain a nice texture that's tender, but not too soft, and preparing these little guys with the right mix of flavors helps bring out their natural goodness.

The technique I used with these also works well with roasting or grilling other vegetables – basically, it entails making something like a vinaigrette, then tossing the veggies in it before cooking. Emulsifying everything helps ensure a more even coating than the old "dash on some oil and vinegar and pray" approach. In this case, I'm using bacon fat, because that savory smokiness really adds something to the dish; however feel free to substitute your favorite oil if you're not a bacon fan for whatever reason.

Ready for roasting

Roasty Brussels Sprouts
(all measurements approximate)
1 lb Brussels sprouts
1 tbsp bacon fat, melted (or oil of your choice)
1 tbsp maple syrup
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp coarse-grain prepared mustard
2 tbsp apple cider (if you have it)
Healthy pinch of salt
Few grinds black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425°. Wash the sprouts and DRAIN THOROUGHLY. Trim off the brown ends if present, then split each sprout down the middle top to bottom.

Whisk together the remaining ingredients in a large bowl until fully incorporated. Add the sprouts and toss to coat thoroughly. Dump everything out on a cookie sheet, making sure that the sprouts are flat side down and not touching each other. (If there's not enough room for the sprouts to spread out, do two batches or get a bigger pan, because they won't caramelize properly if they're all on top of each other.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until sprouts are brown around the edges.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Liquid Education: The Manhattan at Tryst

Sure, we tackled the Manhattan here at I'll Eat You with Project Manhattan, but when I learned about a class on the classic cocktail being offered at Tryst (the bar under Le Bec-Fin, formerly Le Bar Lyonnais), I knew it would be a must-visit. I must say my that Jonathan, my partner in whiskey appreciation, and I were not disappointed in the least, and I'd recommend the rest of the classes on the course schedule without hesitation.

The presentation was done by Erik Lombardo, bar manager and chief mixologist at Tryst. As someone who got started in the business by making cocktails at home, his passion and enthusiasm were palpable throughout the evening, and I had a feeling that if not for the scheduled end time, the event would have lasted all night. He started with some historical background about the rise of the cocktail in the nineteenth century, and shot down a few of the apocryphal stories of the Manhattan's origin (including the story that Winston Churchill's mother invented the drink – which would have been difficult, since she was giving birth to the future prime minister in England during the New York party where the drink was allegedly first served).

We then got into ingredients, and a little more historical information on the rise and fall of rye whiskey in the US. Once the liquor of choice in the North, Prohibition brought production to a halt, and even following the repeal, rye never regained its popularity. Now, with the renewed interest in old-timey mixology, rye is enjoying a comeback, and a newcomer is making a big impression on the scene. I've always liked Bulleit bourbon, but now the good folks who make that fine potable are producing a whiskey made with 95% rye. It's a little spicy, nicely oaked, and served as a great all-around base for the three cocktails we enjoyed.

The first was the classic Manhattan. Whiskey, vermouth, bitters. Stirred. The details, of course, make the difference. The relative amounts of whiskey and vermouth are very important, and this one was made with a 2:1 ratio. That sounds like a lot of vermouth, but when you're using good vermouth (this was Cinzano) and not something that's been rattling around the back of your liquor cabinet since the Clinton administration, you actually want to taste it – and a complex, spicy whiskey like the Bulleit Rye is more than a match for the vermouth's sweetness. With the addition of the angostura bitters, the balance is impeccable.

The other ingredient not mentioned is water (in the form of melted ice). Shockingly, water can end up being 25% of a cocktail, so it's important to use pure, dense ice, in pieces as large as possible to avoid excessive melting. And for God's sake, don't shake a Manhattan, stir it, because you don't want froth and chipped ice in your drink, you want velvety smoothness. Trust me. I think James Bond, with his "shaken, not stirred" tagline, did more damage to the proper preparation of cocktails than he did to his Cold War adversaries.

Next, we were served a little snack of seared veal tongue served with pea shoots and a citrus vinaigrette, delicious and as pure of flavor as anything else that comes out of Le Bec's kitchens.

The other two drinks shared the same "plot" as the Manhattan (as well as New York-related names), but it was striking how different they tasted. The Brooklyn, made with whiskey, Amer Picon, maraschino liqueur, and dry vermouth, had a citrusy zing, but I wasn't fond of the sharp herbal notes from the dry vermouth. The last cocktail was the Red Hook, which seems to be a recent invention (from the mid 2000s). Made with Punt e Mes (a red vermouth already spiked with bitters) and maraschino, it had an oxidized, "brown"flavor reminiscent of a Port, and I could see serving it as a welcome substitute to that dessert wine.

Maybe this write-up was a little long-winded, but I didn't even cover all of the information conveyed during the event. If the rest of this series is like this one, I really can't recommend them enough, and at $25 they're quite a steal considering that you're getting three half-drinks, a small appetizer and a dazzling amount of knowledge. Perhaps what I appreciated most, though, was that every detail of these drinks was fussed over with the utmost scrutiny and passion, and yet Erik openly rejected any pretentiousness about the whole topic. This stuff is supposed to be fun, right? So grab some rye and stir up a Manhattan, or come out to Tryst to enhance your beverage repertoire.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Delilah's Soul Food

So I know it's not super fair to review a place solely on one dish alone, however, this particular dish was so 1) overhyped and 2) disgusting, that it is imperative that I share my dissapointment.

Here's the backstory: a few years ago, Oprah Winfrey touted on her show that Delilah's Soul Food (at Philadelphia's own Reading Terminal) made the best macaroni and cheese in the country. Mac and cheese may be my favorite food in the world, but after reviewing the recipe that included a dozen eggs and velveeta cheese, I opted to pass.

Fast forward to today. Many of our loyal followers may not know that we're expecting a new addition to the I'll Eat You family. Next February, this little culinarian will be introduced to the world, but while she's still growing, I have to respond to her every epicurian desire. She seems to have inherited my taste for the stuff, because while sitting at my desk 3 blocks from Reading Terminal, this baby demanded some mac n cheese. While deciding where to procure the stuff, I decided that if there is ever a time to try the world's best mac n cheese, it might as well be while you're pregnant and have a little parasite in your body to help you burn the extra calories. So off to the terminal I went.

The offerings at Delilah's looked good overall, especially the fried chicken and collard greens, but I was there for one purpose only. I was a bit apalled to see that this stuff had gotten so much publicity that the price for a 5 oz cup was $5.00. Upon tasting it, I can confidently conclude that this was the WORST macaroni and cheese I have EVER eaten. And that includes KFC mac and cheese (have you tried that stuff? vile.) The overall appearance was oily, The sauce had separated and was grainy. Actually, it was chewy. The smooth and creamy element you expect in mac and cheese was missing. Well, unless you count the texture of overcooked pasta, but that's really more mushy. The cheese was sour-tasting, maybe due to the use of too much asiago, or maybe just because the whole dish is ill-conceived.

Please don't eat this. There are so many better food options at the terminal. You're much better off getting BBQ chicken from the Amish stand, Mexican from 12th st Cantina, or Cajun from Beck's Cajun Cafe. As for mac and cheese, you are better served by a container of Easy Mac from CVS then Delilah's.

Delilah's at the Terminal on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Zeppoli

Disclaimer: We dined at Zeppoli with a cousin of chef/owner Joey Baldino, so we were treated to free desserts.

So it's over the Walt Whitman to check out the new and much buzzed-about Zeppoli, a Sicilian BYOB helmed by Joey Baldino, who has worked with a roster of culinary greats like Marc Vetri, Alice Waters, and Georges Perrier. What we found was awesome Mediterranean cuisine showing a level of skill, refinement, and attention to quality ingredients befitting the chef's impressive resume. You're not necessarily going to taste anything you've never tasted before, but rarely do you come across it prepared so well.

The interior is simply appointed: assorted cacti and other succulents on one windowsill, vintage photographs of the old country on the beige walls that are embellished with wainscoting said to be donated by the chef of Mr. Martino's Trattoria in South Philly. Between the small size, all the hard surfaces, and the open kitchen, it can get a bit noisy, but the space is otherwise cozy and lively at the same time without being overly formal.

The menu is divided into thirds with salads and antipasti serving as starters, a column of pasta dishes that can be ordered in either appetizer or main-course portions, and traditional mains. All three of my dining companions started with the simple insalata verde, mixed greens with shaved fennel, topped with caciocavallo cheese. I had the Panzanella Catania, a take on the traditional bread and tomato salad topped with some very mild capers and fresh white anchovies. I think I'm so used to Lauren's delicious yet bread-heavy panzanella that this felt more like a "salad with croutons" than a full-fledged panzanella, but the tomatoes were ripe and flavorful, and I loved the subtle fishiness of the anchovies on top.

The agreement between Lauren and me was that we would go halfsies on the steak and the Sicilian Fisherman Stew, but Lauren became so enamored of the stew that it ended up as barely a case of quartersies. Clams, head-on shrimp, and mussels all cavorting in a saffron-spiked, silken (and perhaps buttery?) broth that also played host to some of the most completely tenderized calamari I've ever had. This, and coarse Moroccan couscous providing some additional texture.

As for the steak, the maybe half-inch-thick rib-eye had a fabulously flavorful and crunchy crust and just enough fat marbled throughout to make it a succulent experience without being too greasy. The arugula and tomato salad on the side, though a bit of a repeat from my panzanella, did a great job as a counterpoint to the savory beef.

We didn't taste our friends' pasta dishes, but the spinach and ricotta gnocchi (very large, almost veering into gnudi territory) in brown butter sauce looked like a must-try for our next visit.

Thanks to our family connection at the table, we were treated to an assortment of desserts: a very lemony lemon tart, a sampling of three house-made gelati (caramel, torrone, and another flavor we couldn't put our fingers on), and an impossibly light and delicious chocolate and almond torte. The standout may have been the namesake zeppoli, looking just like small hole-less donuts, dusted in sugar and served with a chocolate-caramel dipping sauce. They were amazingly light and irresistible - if they put a drive-thru window in and start selling them by the sack, they could give Dunkin' Donuts a run for their money, even in Jersey.

Service was very pleasant, though the staff may need a little more time to get settled (a bottle of wine opened and left unpoured; some who-ordered-what pointing necessary when the mains were served). This is a minor quibble, though, and did not detract from our experience. The one thing I will say that though I think the portion sizes are ideal (not too big), they may be a touch on the small side for the price. The apps are all reasonable, but $19 for what I think was five or six (admittedly large) gnocchi and $29 for my not-particularly-large steak seemed a little high. I'm really not complaining; more of an observation, because given how satisfied we were with the quality of the food, there was no buyer's remorse. Update: word is that portions sizes have been upped a little. Investigating this is as good of an excuse as any for a return trip!

So I gladly give Zeppoli my highest endorsement for Jersey restaurants, the "Worth the Trip" seal of approval. It is not a place for culinary fireworks, but it excels at creating winning flavor combinations and letting the high-quality ingredients do the talking. Like its lighter-than-air namesakes, Zeppoli could be headed into the higher strata of the area's fine-dining atmosphere.

Zeppoli on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's a Vegan Coconut Flan

I've arrived at the conclusion that making vegan desserts is like being stuck on Gilligan's Island: coconuts will save your ass every time. Thanks to its creamy texture and pleasing flavor, coconut milk makes a great stand-in for dairy, and its tropical nature makes it easy to pair it with a variety of fruits.

So the next time the Vegan Harlem Globetrotters drop by for dinner, or you're trying to smooth things over between Ginger and Mary Ann, try out this dessert based on a recipe by The Professor Dr. Andrew Weil. Compared to the original, I upped the coconut quotient by using coconut milk instead of generic non-dairy milk, and paired it with a little pineapple-lime-ginger mixture. Should be ready in less than three hours! I'll stop now.

To be fair, this is not a 100% convincing vegan dessert. You can, to some extent, taste its constituent ingredients. But overall, it has a nice taste and not a bad texture, and if your guests aren't paying attention they may not notice its vegan-ness. The only trouble I had with this was bubbles remaining trapped in the flan as it set. I'm not sure what to do about this, other than more gentle blending, perhaps.

5 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 package soft tofu
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon of syrup (above)
Coconut extract to taste (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon)
Pinch salt
1 can coconut milk, plus half a can's worth of water
1 1/2 tablespoons agar agar, or 3/4 teaspoons agar powder

Place tofu, sugar, coconut extract and salt in your blender. Make the syrup by combining the brown sugar, water and vanilla in a saucepan and heating over low heat until it boils. Boil for five minutes, then add one tablespoon of the syrup to the blender, and divide the remaining syrup among 6-10 cups or ramekins. Swirl the syrup around the ramekins to coat.

Add the coconut milk and agar to the same saucepan and boil over high heat for five minutes (if it foams up too much, take off the heat for a minute). Add this mixture to the blender and blend carefully until smooth. Pour the mixture into the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and cool in the fridge until set.

When it's time to serve, run a knife or small icing spatula around the inside of each ramekin, place a plate on top, invert, and pray that it comes out.

Serve as-is, or pair with something tropical, like diced pineapple with lime zest and ginger. Mango with ginger and maybe some black pepper would be interesting as well. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Road Trip: Montréal

It has recently come to our attention that places other than Philly have food, restaurants, and the like. To investigate, we headed north of the border (inevitably in the slowest customs line) to that little slice of Francophone Europe in North America: Quebec. Montreal, specifically. The only other time I'd been there was in the winter, and unless you like frostbite and getting your tongue stuck to telephone poles, a word of advice: DO NOT GO TO MONTREAL IN THE WINTER.

Anyway, being blessed with gorgeous weather, we arrived and paid a visit to one of Lauren's former co-workers who is a Montreal native and now lives smack in the middle of the very historical and somewhat touristy Vieux Montreal neighborhood. We lucked out because there was a fireworks show that night, and her roof was a great vantage point. A most gracious host, she told us the best places to get two of the more well-known Montreal delicacies. After the fireworks, and getting close to midnight, we went out in search of bagels.

One $10 cab ride later we arrived at Fairmount Bagels, one of the two 24-hour bakeries (along with St-Viateur) vying for Montreal bagel supremacy. Even at this late hour, workers behind the counter were using absurdly long paddles to shuffle the bagels in and out of the wood-fired oven, and the bready delights were piling up, presumably headed for shops all around the city.

We got a bagel each and a tub of cream cheese and sat down on the bench outside. Shortly after finishing those, we were back inside buying another half-dozen to take back to the room.

Montreal bagels are different in that the hole is much larger than the typical bagel. They're also boiled in honey water, which imparts a slight sweetness to them. Though the classic flavor is sesame, we both really liked the "tout garni", which is like an everything bagel but with even more everything on it: sesame, poppy, onion, cumin seed, caraway, and I'm not even sure what else. Perhaps more remarkable was the Liberté brand cream cheese, which has a much more distinct cultured "tang" to it than good ol' Philadelphia. It made a great match with the bagels.

The second tip we got from our Montreal insider was to head to Schwartz's for a viande fumée, or smoked meat, sandwich. I had heard about this place in the course of my pre-trip research, but I was skeptical of it being one of those tourist-oriented joints that coasts by on reputation. Luckily, this was not the case.

Since it was just a short walk from our room, I grabbed a sandwich for take-out. Just as well, because even at barely 5:00 on a Sunday, the place was packed. Lauren doesn't like mustard, so I wanted to get some on the side, but the (somewhat acerbic) counter person said that they don't do that. Oh well. A few minutes later I was walking out the door with a greasy paper bag in my hand and a smile on my face.

Man. Great stuff. Like pastrami, but better: spicer, savorier, more melt-in-the-mouth tender. Even without the mustard, one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. Go there. You may be tempted to take one of the whole briskets sitting in the front window home with you, though good luck driving home with that aroma wafting through your car.

If you're interested in DIY dining, the Atwater Market is a great place to visit. Outside, there are produce stalls and scores of flower vendors, making it a nice place to stroll along and see some of Canada's native wildlife.

The inside portion has bakers, cheesemongers, and butchers featuring some really awesome-looking stuff. We stopped by one morning to assemble a picnic for the afternoon: cantaloupe, some jambon cru from Cochons Toutes Rondes (a little salty), some nice looking tomatoes, a cheese that turned out to be somewhat unremarkable (just our bad luck), and of course a baguette.

Since it was strawberry season in Quebec and the berries were piled high, we also got this attractive display to take home.

Finally, there was one more thing that I knew I couldn't leave Montreal without trying: poutine. Though its etymology is disputed, one interpretation is that it means "mess", and this is an apt description. At its base, it's a pile of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. At the recommendation of a co-worker, we went to Resto La Banquise to give it a shot. I was surprised that La Banquise was a pleasant, upscale-diner-type spot, having expected such a maniacal creation to come from the depths of some dive bar or greasy spoon. So here it is, the Poutine Rachel, which has sauteed onions, peppers and mushrooms in addition to the rest of the mess:

This is something I just didn't quite "get". The fries were good, impressively non-greasy ... the cheese curds gave some textural interest, but not a lot of flavor ... and the gravy was just sort of bland. It wasn't at all unpleasant, but it wasn't as outrageously good as you'd expect the combo to be. Personally I would have loved a richer-tasting gravy on them, but I don't think that's how it's done. Oh well.

We had a great time up in Montreal, and if you're anywhere near the border, I'd recommend a trip. Aside from the food, there are some great sights to see, and it's a nice town with pockets of European flair – a nice escape from being American that doesn't require a plane ride. Now to arrange a FedEx smoked meat delivery ...

Fairmount Bagel on UrbanspoonSchwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen on UrbanspoonResto la Banquise on Urbanspoon