Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Get Some Air In There - Wine Decanters - A Great Gift

My husband and I buy two main types of wine. I'm not talking about red and white. I'm talking about what we call "maintenance" and "bottle" wine. As much as I hate to admit it, the hubby and I have NO problem polishing off a good bottle of wine with dinner...and a not so good bottle will be gone by the following day's dinner. I also cook with wine...often in fact. If you do the math and consider that we drink wine with dinner about 4 or 5 nights a week, and factor in the wine I use for my beef bourguignon, wild mushroom risotto and lets not forget those burgundy mushrooms that sit atop a nice piece of aged steak, it can end up being quite an investment in wine. So over the past few years we've started splitting our wine purchases into box or what we call "maintenance" wine, which we use to cook with or drink when we're looking for a "one glass" evening, and bottles of wine, which we save to pair with a particular dinner or break out when we're feeling a bit saucy (I love that word). I think our box/bottle system has made all the difference in our wine budget.

Alright. Not all boxed wine is created equal, and having tasted some pretty nasty ones over the years, I can understand how they gained such a poor reputation. But recently the boxed wine movement has been pumping out some good wines in convenient boxed form. A few of my favorites right now are Bota Box's Old Vine Zinfandel (they make a pretty bitchin Shiraz too), Pinot Evil's Pinot Noir (I'll be honest...it's not my fav boxed wine but it's good AND it's got the "see no evil" monkeys on the box...cute), and the bargain wine that started it all for the hubby and I...drum roll please...Banrock Station's Riesling. Food & Wine magazine has given this riesling kudos over and over again. 3 or 4 years ago, after reading it's praises AND finding that my local Kroger in VA had it on sale for $3/bottle for about 3 years in a row, I became somewhat of an addict. I recently found it in boxed form and it's just as good as ever.

So what does all of this boxed wine talk have to do with the title of my post you ask? Even some of my favorite bargain wines could use a little help. That's where decanting comes in and where my next "holy crap, Christmas is in 10 days and I still need a gift for 8 people" gift comes to the rescue. Decanters! After our latest trip to the Napa Valley the hubby and I have been decanting fools. Basically, young wine (as most boxed wine is) needs to "breath" a bit before you drink it. I'm sure you've all heard this term associated with wine. The lady in Napa told me something about the tannins in young wine being rough and oxygen helping smooth them out and blah, blah. I'm not a chemist...I'm a drinker. Here's what I DO know. We honestly enjoy our boxed wine MUCH more when we decant it. We can even get away with serving it at dinner parties! We use a traditional crystal decanter that we received as a wedding gift (I love it) but there are some new, inexpensive (and conveniently small) decanters/aerators out there on the market that can make the perfect gift for people who even mildly like wine...because it makes even the most mediocre wine better! The Vinturi aerator is the most popular hand-held one out there now but there are plenty to choose from. I think a cute gift would be a cheap-ish bottle of wine (like my all time bargain bottle fav Banrock Station) and a Vinturi type aerator OR a box of wine with a traditional decanter. For around $30 or $35 you can give a cool, useful and fun gift. For even more fun I recommend doing blind taste tests (try it when you're sober...grape juice spiked with vodka might taste good after a few too many).
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You Got Your Bacon In My Chocolate - Great Holiday Gifts Part 1

The holiday season is upon us once again and the air is filled with joy and good cheer. But while those sleigh bells are jinglin' and ring ting tinglin', you're staring at the list of people you need to buy gifts for and realizing that once again you have NO idea what to get them. So between now and Christmas I'm going to be blogging about some unique gift ideas to get you in the holiday spirit and out of that gift-giving-holiday-funk.

Today's gift: Bacon-Chocolate: That's right folks! Move over Reese's Peanut Butter Cups...because this time I've got bacon in my chocolate.

I'm not sure if y'all keep up with the novelty gift trends, but recently, bacon themed EVERYTHING has been at the top of the novelty gift charts. Bacon wallets (I took this picture at a very normal gift shop in Charleston SC). Bacon band-aids. Bacon Christmas Tree ornaments. And there are SO many more. Honestly, I would have trouble spending my hard earned money on a box of bacon strip bandages. I wouldn't, however, have any trouble spending money on bacon spiked chocolate and neither should you. It makes the perfect stocking stuffer or unique gift for your next door neighbor...AND...it's good! This bar is by Vosges Haute Chocolate (I hate the fact that they put Haute in their name but I forgive them) and I bought it at World Market but I'm sure you can find bacon chocolate in lots of places these days. It's flavor is sweet and salty with a hint of smoke. There are actual pieces of applewood smoked bacon in each bar that gives it a unique texture and aroma. It may not be for everyone but it's certainly worth a try. So get that hard to shop for person something unique this year...and grab yourself a bar while you're at it.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ring In The New Year

Time flies huh folks? Can you believe that this year is almost over!? I used to be shocked when I walked into a store and saw them displaying Christmas stockings next to Halloween costumes, but now I get it. October 31st turns into January 31st in the blink of an eye. You've got to act fast or plan well if you want to make the holiday season a success. And all of this planning takes a lot of work. By the time the holiday season is over don't you feel like you've earned a break? I do. So when the wrapping paper is in the trash and all of the leftover ham has gone into the dog's bowl we give ourselves a little break...a little fun...all in the way of a little trip. Every year the hubby and I travel to a different city (within driving distance of wherever we might be living at the time) to ring in the new year and party like a local for two or three days. It's the perfect way to cap off the hectic holiday season and I recommend everyone try it at least once. This will be our 6th new year together and since we now live 5 1/2 hour north of where we used to live in Richmond, VA, a new world of drive-able destination possibilities has opened for us.

In the past we've spent new year's eve in places like Baltimore's inner harbor, Washington DC's Georgetown and Philly (before we moved here of course). They were all easily drive-able from our home in Richmond and made for a stress free getaway (oh...and one year in Cancun *that explains the Feliz Ano Nuevo picture at the top of the page*, but that was for our friends' wedding so we were happy to disregard the "drive-able" rule for that one!). This year we're heading to Niagara Falls, Canada to ring in the new year. It's 6 1/2 hours from our home, it offers plenty of sightseeing opportunities AND there will be a huge firework display, free outdoor concert and festival area...complete with beer gardens. I expect this location to be darn near perfect for a new year's eve trip (fingers crossed!). After years of hits and misses I've compiled a list of things to look for in a new years eve destination to ensure you'll have a great time. So if you're interested in trying something new to start off 2010, here are a few tips to make it a wonderful experience:

1.)Be sure to seek out some sort of entertainment prior to 11pm and have a plan or destination for midnight...lest you want to fall asleep and miss everything:
It's not always better to burn out than to fade away. If you party a little too hard prior to, say, 8pm and then find yourself just waiting around for midnight, you may not make it. The hubby and I always spend most of new year's eve day sightseeing and being active (we are in a new city after all). Find an ice skating rink (this one was in DC but there was one in every cold city we've been to during new year's), visit the historic section of town or do some shopping. Then we rest in the hotel and don't even think of going out on the town before 7pm. A good way to keep having fun all the way up 'till the ball drops is to seek out a "happening" area. The inner harbor in Baltimore was chock full of entertainment. In Philly you might want to go to South Street or Old City where there are bars and restaurants every 10 feet and PLENTY of interesting people. What I don't recommend is going to one bar/club and staying there all night. What's the point of going to a new city if you never see it. Washington DC can be tough for this. Many of the clubs and bars in the "happening" area of Adam's Morgan had $100 (plus) cover charges so bar hopping wasn't exactly feasible. But that's the first time I had ever encountered such a phenomenon.

Many cities offer a lovely firework display at midnight...but many don't. Be sure to know where the fireworks will be held and plan to work your way in that direction during the night. Bar hopping isn't a bad way to travel in such a situation. One of the more memorable fireworks displays we saw took place in Baltimore's inner harbor. This place was perfect for a new year's eve celebration. It had plenty of bars and restaurants all in a small area...perfect for bar hopping. And all of said bars had large patios and outdoor areas that made watching the firework display easy as pie. The close proximity also allowed for everyone to enjoy the many bands and various sorts of entertainment, and, you were never far from your "inner harbor" hotel...a MUST for getting back to your bed safely and efficiently at 1am. Philly also has a great show that can be seen from the South Street pedestrian bridge and you can bar hop yourself silly on the way there.

2.) Don't get caught in a stuffy bar with no escape plan OR stranded outside with no bathroom:
I hear that spending new year's eve in Time's Square is hell for anyone not wearing a diaper...and I suppose hell for anyone standing next to someone who is in fact wearing a diaper. It's a caged in area with no bathrooms and little access to booze. No thank you. The polar opposite of this would be spending that $100 to be stuck in a bar and still have to pay for your drinks. The perfect location to start the new year would be somewhere that has good "open container" laws such as New Orleans, Las Vegas or Key West, where you're free to stroll the sidewalks wearing a damn beer helmet if you like (my kind of place). We've spent ample time in all three of these places and they all offer that "new year's eve feel" every day of the year. But we don't all live within driving distance of these gems so our best bet is to find a part of town with lots of options AND entertainment, or seek out a festival like the one we'll be attending in Niagara Falls.

3.) Don't overpay for your hotel:
After buying hundreds of dollars worth of Christmas presents I know the last thing you think you can afford is a trip. But if you're driving there and only staying a few nights the trip can be downright cheap! Please, pretty please with a cherry on top, bid for your hotel room if you're planning a new year's trip. Go to Hotwire.com or Priceline.com and you'll be able to find lodging for close to 1/2 of what you would pay on an Orbitz.com type place. People get scared that they don't know what hotel they'll be staying at until after they pay for it but a 4 star is a 4 star no matter how you slice it. Here's how to do it:
1.) Go to www.biddingfortravel.com
This site has allowed me to get 4 star hotel rooms in places like San Francisco for as little as $69/night. Bidding For Travel is a bulletin board of sorts. Since priceline only allows you to bid once per 24 hour period on a specific star rated hotel in a specific area you need to make your bids count. This site allows you to read people's posts on what worked and what didn't work for them so you know how high or low to bid. Just find the city you're looking for on the bulletin board and read away.
2.) Once you're ready to bid research the "areas" on the priceline map carefuly to be sure you're bidding for a hotel in the exact area you're looking for. Priceline doesn't let you choose a specific hotel but it does let you choose a specific area. And after all, it's really all about location, location, location at the end of the day. Look for things like access to subways or trolleys and bars/restaurants/entertainment when choosing your area.
3.) Bid. Ok. This is the part that scares people but fear not. It's not scary after you do it just once. Priceline is going to ask you to choose your city, the exact area in that city and the star rating of the hotel you want. Then it's going to have you put in all of your credit card info and click to bid. At this point you've basically told them if they can find a, say, 4 star hotel in the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco that will take your bid of $69 for one night, that they can charge your credit card immediately. It's scary...but a rush too :) Keep in mind that you cannot get a refund on this room so be sure you're plans are set. If you win the bid then you're all set and I promise you'll enjoy your trip more, knowing that you paid next to nothing for your luxury accommodations. If you lose the bid wait 24 hours and bid a bit more, every day, until you win.

So get out there and treat yourself to a little getaway for the new year. After all of the holiday hubbub is said and done, getting away can be just what the doctor ordered.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recession Smeshmession - Eating Out (Well) On A Budget

We've all seen those commercials for Chili's or Applebee's or pretty much any one of those chain, casual dining restaurants, advertising their 2 for $20 menu. Basically, for $20, you get to split a crappy, previously frozen appetizer with your dining partner. Then you get to choose an entree each (choose from deep fried meat or deep fried meat over lettuce) and then you share another previously frozen dessert. Oh. And you have to drink water, unless you want to run that bill up to $40 by ordering a few of those "big" beers. Now. I hate to knock these chains. They appear to be successful so obviously they're doing something right AND people are eating there. But when you live in a town full of fantastic Mom & Pop restaurants, all struggling with a down turned recession, I'd prefer to give my hard earned money to the little guy. Unfortunately, the little guy doesn't have the cash to pay for a commercial full of good looking, thin, 20-somethings, laughing and carrying on while they pretend to enjoy their variety-plate of artery clogging fried food that you know they would never normally touch in real life. But that doesn't mean that the little guy isn't offering good deals...or even GREAT deals...deals that make the 2 for $20 menu look like pig slop. The hubby and I recently tried out two such deals in Philly and I'm happy to report that you CAN still go out to a nice meal, with good quality food (made with love and care) for around $20 a couple. Like I said. Recession Smeshmession - with the right info you can still afford to go out and have a good time - and not worry about diving into the kids' college funds to do it.

The $10 Burger at Butcher and Singer:
I know what you're thinking. $10 for a burger doesn't seem like a good deal. But folks, $10 for the BEST burger you've ever had, in a ritzy steakhouse, with a side of the most amazing french fries that ever accompanied a piece of beef IS a good deal. I'm talking about the Butcher and Singer $9.95 burger. Butcher and Singer, another one of Stephen Starr's Philadelphia gems, used to charge almost $20 for this lovely hunk of meat. Then one day they put the word out that they would be running a special where you could get that $20 burger for $5...yes...$5. The hubby went running out of work at noon the day of the special and made a b-line for the steakhouse. He and his co-workers were seated amongst a veritable sea of burgers, and, the rest is history. They dropped the price to $9.95 permanently and I'm happy they did. The hubby and I went to lunch a few weeks ago to enjoy the Butcher and Singer 10 buck burger again and let me tell you, I think they must be losing money on this burger, because the quality of beef they use, combined with the fries and the bakery fresh, buttery roll that it sits on is certainly worth more than $10. Add the atmosphere, the pleasant (not to mention perfect) wait staff and you get an experience worthy of a three-piece suit and a top hat. If you go be sure to look somewhat presentable. This IS a really nice restaurant. I'm not talking gold lame'...perhaps just non-holy jeans and a nice sport coat or sweater. The best part for me was not feeling bad about just ordering the burger and a glass of water. The wait staff treated us the same as if we had ordered the petit filet and a bottle of wine. And the restaurant was filled with "suits" ordering the burger. So please give it a shot. Order it as you would a piece of filet mignon. Medium rare. The quality is amazing. The texture is pure meat-butter that begs to be eaten with a knife and fork. The flavor is rich and earthy. Even the damn garnishes are top notch. I couldn't decide whether it was more like steak tartar or a rib-eye on a bun. Either way...it's worth way more than $10...but don't tell Stephen Starr that...I fully intend on getting my Alexander Hamilton's worth for a long time to come.

Gnocchi - 2 for $25 steal of a deal:
The hubby and I don't go to many Italian restaurants. I mean, don't get me wrong, we love Italian cuisine (ahhh, such a general term, Italian cuisine, Mario Batali would hunt me down and beat me if he knew I used it so broadly). We, unfortunately, don't often leave an Italian restaurant feeling satisfied, regarding both money and quality. So many places throw $2 worth of frozen shrimp over ten cents worth of dried pasta and charge you $20 for shrimp fra diavolo. Not on my watch folks. The other day we heard about this small Italian restaurant near South Street called Gnocchi that was offering a 2 for $25 deal. With further inspection we found out that for $25 (for the two of us) we could get a salad each (from a choice of 3) a pasta each (from a choice of around a dozen...FRESH...HOMEMADE! gnocchi and pastas), two desserts and two cups of coffee. Oh. And the kicker...it's a BYOB! We couldn't get to the liquor store fast enough that Wednesday night. We picked up a bottle of wine that was on sale and walked to Gnocchi. It was a slow night for Gnocchi and I think if more people knew about this deal it would have been packed. The salads were lovely. I had the house salad topped with a hearty helping of roasted veggies and the hubby had a mixed green with goat cheese salad. We both ordered their namesake gnocchi. The hubby had the tomato basil and I had the special, a plate full of pumpkin gnocchi in a creamy white wine sauce. A loaf of bread, two salads, a bottle of wine and two wonderful plates of moist, pillow-like, homemade gnocchi later and we almost didn't have room for dessert. But who can say no to homemade tiramisu and a good cup of coffee? Not I my friends...not I. They offer this special Monday - Thursday and if you're looking for a romantic and cheap date night, look no further. We will certainly be back to Gnocchi...soon. Next time I'll try one of their pastas, unless they offer another Gnocchi special like the fresh pumpkin balls of wonderfulness. You know what? For $25 a couple, we'll just keep going until we've tried everything.
Gnocchi 613 E Passyunk Ave (215)592-8300

Now, I know that not everyone lives in a big city and sometimes you might think that all you have in the way of recession proof menus is the chain restaurant, 2 for $20 deal. But just look around and I'm sure you'll find plenty of good deals at your local mom & pop feeding trough. My Mom called me a few weeks ago and said that her local diner (in a small township in central jersey) was offering a ridiculously good fish and chips deal. I can't remember the price but I do remember listening to her run down the list of food that came with it and it was so extensive that it's probably why I can't remember the price. And when I lived in Richmond, I remember going to Cafe Rustica's (http://events.richmond.com/richmond-va/venues/show/987693-cafe-rustica) "Sunday Supper" and wanting to tell the world about it. For $15/person you got a three course set menu that rotated weekly AND they had great deals on wine ($10 or $12 bottles). I just looked it up and they still offer the Sunday Supper and I'm sure it's as good as ever.

I know we're all pinching pennies these days, but there's no reason why you can't go out and enjoy yourself and still put money aside for a rainy day. Live in another town (or philly of course) and know about a great "recession proof" deal? Leave a comment, and help a fellow bargain hunter out!
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Friday, November 13, 2009

Where's The Beef? Bean Stroganoff - No Beef Needed

Growing up, food was a big part of our household. We cooked dinner, sat down at the table and ate together every single night. This ritual was as much about us spending time together as it was about the food, which was probably a good thing because this food wasn't your typical Leave It To Beaver type cuisine. Food in our house when I was younger was, I suppose, a bit strange. My parents adopted the "whole earth" lifestyle before it became the fad that it is today. We had a compost pile, a solar powered lawn mower and the food to match. Yup. I'm talkin' granola munching, refined sugar shunning, only eat meat once in a blue moon type household. I didn't know that you could put beef in tacos or lasagna until I was about 10. We always ate bean filled tacos and vegetarian lasagna. I'm pretty sure I didn't taste a piece of white, Wonder type bread until I was in my early teens. And I got mocked more than a few times by the kids in the cafeteria for eating bean sprouts on my sandwiches.

I attribute my good cooking skills today, to growing up cooking Bulgar wheat and raisins for dinner when I was 9. If you can make Bulgar wheat taste good, cooking a good steak is a piece of cake. I don't cook quite that healthy anymore. I still try to buy local produce, meat and free range eggs (I am telling you folks...you CAN taste the difference). But when it comes to the actual cooking process I've adopted a "richer" way of cooking. I use wayyyy too much butter. I love adding cream to, well, almost anything. And we probably eat too much red meat...ok, we definitely eat too much red meat. So the other day when I was staring at the pantry, trying to come up with a side dish for dinner I had a nostalgic craving and an idea to add my butter and cream laden way of cooking to an old favorite...my parent's Bean Stroganoff.

Bean Stroganoff was one of my FAVORITE vegetarian dishes growing up. It's satisfying, creamy AND without using meat it costs mere pennies to make. I probably add more butter...much more butter and cream to my version of this than my parents ever dreamed of...I used it as a side dish to accompany a whole roast chicken and back in the day this was a whole meal...but it's good...very very good...and I promise, you won't miss the meat one bit.

Bean Stroganoff (side dish portion for two hungry folks...or four normal eaters):
1 1/2 cups egg noodles
1/2 of a 15 oz can of pinto beans
1 cup raw sliced mushrooms (I used cremini shrooms)
1/2 onion sliced thin
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1 1/2 tbs. butter
1 tbs. heavy cream
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil. In the mean time saute the onions, mushrooms and thyme in the butter over medium heat until just soft (8-ish mins). Add the egg noodles to the boiling water and cook until done (7-8 mins). While the egg noodles are cooking add the white wine, beans and cream to the mushroom mixture and cook until most of the wine has reduced and the sauce thickens a bit (it should take about as much time as the noodles take to cook). As soon as the noodles are cooked, drain and transfer them directly to the sauce and take the pan off the heat. Toss the whole mixture with the sour cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. You may not need all of the sour cream OR you may need more, depending on how creamy you would like the finished product to be.

And that's it! Serve as a side dish with some roasted chicken or if you're my vegetarian brother...double the recipe and eat it as an entree. Vegetarian or not...it's a delicious dish and something out of the ordinary. I might just make it again tonight!
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cutting The Cheese

Have I told you about my love affair with cheese? Oh look at me. So brazen. Shamelessly flaunting my relationship. No. Not just one relationship. Oh there have been so many. Cheese after cheese after cheese. Some firm, some soft. Some robust, some mild. Oh and the stinky ones! Why must I adore the stinky ones so! Ahhh, forgive me. I seem to have gotten carried away here. This really isn't about the cheese. This is about cutting the cheese. I'm not ashamed of it. How else can you enjoy it without cutting it? Any other means would be barbaric. I may be a cheese hussy but I'm a classy and sophisticated one. I prefer to use the right tool for the job, and that tool my friends, is one I feel as though I can't live without. The Zyliss hand-held cheese slicer.

I'm not one to run out and buy every new gadget on the market. Food Network's Alton Brown has a rule about certain gadgets...anything that can only be used for one, single purpose, a "uni-tasker", has no place in the kitchen. I typically agree with him. I have no room in my loft apartment kitchen for one of those Giant Cupcake baking pans or a Taco Taxi...this this is freakin' ridiculous...it looks like a napkin holder but it's designed (I use this term loosely) to keep your taco upright until you're ready to eat it. Paaaa-llleeaassssee people. If you can't deal with those unruly tacos then maybe you should limit your food intake to pudding. I do, however, have a few uni-tasker exceptions, and the Zyliss cheese slicer, my friends, is certainly one of them.

Look at this puppy. It's perfect! It's got a handy dandy thumb wheel that allows you to dial your preferred cheese slice thickness. It's got a sharp (but not too sharp...if you get your hand too close to the cheddar and the blade you won't get cut...anyone who knows me will understand that this is a must...I'm surprised I still have all of my fingers) slicing plane that is wide enough to slice sandwich size pieces of cheese (never again will you have to pay deli cheese prices!). It's reasonably priced (around $12). And best of all...it works! I've used it 5 or more times a week for about 3 years now and it's never let me down. I think deep down inside it loves cheese as much as I do! We might be soul mates.

So if you're looking for that holiday gift for the person who has everything, why not give the Zyliss hand-held cheese slicer a try. Your friend or loved one will be cutting the cheese with ease and thanking you the whole time.
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Getting Down To The Root Of It - "Root" Liquor is the Drink of the Month

For as long as I can remember my husband has been coming home from the liquor store at least once a month with some crazy new spirit. Some turn out to surprisingly good, like Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. It's made in South Carolina and I'll be darned if it doesn't taste like some true southern sweet tea...and of course pack a punch. Some turn out to be surprisingly bad like Barenjager liquor. It's a German honey liquor...think really thick honey flavored cough syrup. And some turn out to be, well, something worth experiencing. My drink of the month, Root, just happens to fall into that last category.

The story of Root is actually really interesting. The folks that made it actually re-created something called Root Tea. Root Tea was an alcoholic folk recipe from the 1700's made of birch bark, wintergreen and a bunch of wild roots and herbs. Native Americans taught the recipe to the colonial settlers and soon after it became a heck of a lot more potent (apparently the "white men" liked their drinks strong). Eventually prohibition came along and took away all of the liquid fun. At that time a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol from Root Tea and renamed it Root Beer (a cruel name I would think). So long story short...that Root Beer that accompanies your ice cream in a float or quenches your thirst on a hot summer day all stems from this ancient, back-woods concoction. Pretty neat right?

Now to present day......

A Philadelphia based company now produces this recreation of the original Root Tea and they call it, simply, Root. It's certified organic for all of you folks out there that like to "keep it real" and it's got a rather interesting flavor. The back of the bottle lists some of the many crazy ingredients and they include things like cardamom, smoked black tea, anise, spearmint and of course things you would expect like sugar cane and birch bark. It does taste a lot like Root Beer, but it also, in my mind, tastes a lot like Jagermeister. I'm not saying it's for everyone, BUT, like I always say, "you'll never know unless you try".

The bottle comes with a cute little booklet that details its history and recommends a few drink recipes. But if you do decide to try Root, might I recommend you first give it a shot almost completely au natural........

Root Au Natural:
Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour Root in the glass just shy of 3/4 of the way up the side. Fill the rest of the glass with plain seltzer water. Stir and enjoy.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Can you really ever have too much of a good thing? You can when you've got a Tupperware container full of if, your household consists of two people (plus dog) and it's shelf life in the refrigerator is about 3 days. I'm talking crab here folks.

I recently found the best seafood deal going. My fave fish monger, John Yi at the Reading Terminal Market, sells a two cup container of fresh crab claw meat for under $10. I know what you're thinking..."way to cheap out on quality there Jessica...ever heard of lump crab meat?". I do love me some lump crab meat, but when you're stuffing flounder or mushrooms, or mixing it into a creamy seafood bisque all you're really looking for is that sweet crab flavor and a tender texture, and I promise you, for about 1/3 of the price of lump, claw meat delivers. The only problem? I can never eat it all! Hmmm. Doesn't really sound like a problem huh? You're right. It's not really a serious issue, but one that I felt needed solving...I suppose that means that world peace can wait huh?

Last week I got a hankering for some crab stuffed flounder and realized I was still looking for something to serve at a cocktail party I was hosting that weekend. At that moment I knew I had found the solution to my "can never eat it all" crab dilemma...Hot Crab Dip! It's the perfect way to use the rest of that delicious crab AND make my guests happy at the same time. Hot crab dip, to me, is like the love child of seafood bisque and a Maryland crab cake. How could that NOT be amazing!? So next time you're perusing the seafood counter grab a container of crab claw meat and make this dip. You'll probably have to invite some friends over to give you a hand eating it all, but I'm sure they won't mind helping you out. What are friends for right?

Hot Crab Dip:

-1 1/2 cups fresh crab claw (or lump you high rollers) meat *note* This will be pre-cooked by your fish monger and packaged fresh - I'm not a big fan of the canned stuff - ask your fish monger for a hand if you're confused
-1 tbs. butter
-1/4 cup chopped onion
-1/8 cup chopped celery
-1/8 cup chopped green pepper
-5 oz neufchatel OR cream cheese
-1/3 cup mayo
-1 tbs. brown mustard
-1 tbs. worcestershire sauce
-1/3 cup grated munster cheese
-1 tbs. chopped fresh parsley
-1/2 tbs. onion powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. In a saute pan on medium-low heat sweat the onion, celery and green pepper in the butter until soft (about 7 mins). Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl combine the neufchatel (or cream cheese), mayo, mustard, worcestershire sauce, grated munster, parsley and onion powder in a bowl and mix thoroughly (if you leave the cream cheese out for 30 mins before hand it will help this process). Now add the onion, celery, green pepper mixture as well as the crab and mix well. The crab has been pre-cooked prior to your purchasing it so you can taste this mixture cold. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. I usually add about 1/2 tsp. of pepper and about the same amount of salt. Once combined transfer mixture to a greased baking dish (preferably one that is shallow and wide) and bake at 350 for about 30 mins or until the edges begin to bubble and it's warmed through. Let cool for a minute or two then serve while still warm. You can dip anything in this...pita chips...tortilla chips...pretzels...crackers. Enjoy!
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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Star Is Born - Pizzeria Stella is Out of this World

My husband calls Philadelphia restaurateur, Stephen Starr, "King Midas". Every restaurant this dude touches turns to pure gold. Although, I think his success has less to do with him having super human powers and more with him being a smart business man who knows food and knows even more what people want. Apparently people want variety because he owns 13 (plus) restaurants in Philly and they run the gamut......high end steak houses, new-Mexican cuisine, a place that serves thanksgiving dinner every night! But I'll save the "Stephen Starr experience" for another blog post (also it will give me time, and more importantly reason, to visit the few restaurants of his that I haven't...I'm nothing if I'm not thorough...ok, and hungry). Today I'll be talking about his newest venture...his aptly named pizza place, Pizzeria Stella.

Oh how clever Mr. Starr is. He named his pizza place after the Italian word for "star". Cute Stephen, cute. But whether he was hoping to name it after himself, or, just imply that the place would be out of this world doesn't matter, because it's great, any way you slice it. Pizzeria Stella serves the kind of pizza I love. It's got a thin,chewy crust and it's topped with amazing quality ingredients. I mean, what's not to love?

We showed up the week that Stella opened at around 6:30 and the place was packed...of course. They took our cell phone number and told us that it would be about 20 mins and they would call us if we wanted to go grab a beer at a nearby bar. 15 mins later the phone rang and the very polite hostess invited us back. We were seated communally. Most of the tables in Stella are communal...big, long, farmhouse looking tables. Now, this is where I think some people might walk away. Very few people I know actually LIKE eating with strangers. The list, actually, is probably limited to my Dad, who will talk to just about anyone and in 5 minutes time be telling stories and buying rounds of beer (honestly...you just can't take that guy anywhere without this very thing happening...I'm having dinner with him this weekend and I'm thinking of hooking my dog's leash to his belt so I can keep track of him). The rest of the world, in my opinion, doesn't want to feel like they're back in the middle-school cafeteria when they're out for dinner. That being said....I honestly kind of liked being seated at the big table. It was warm and cozy...a bit loud and raucous...and informal in the best sort of way. The tables surround the kitchen and the big, beautiful wood burning oven at the center of it. It kind of feels like you're sitting around a camp fire with good friends. I thought it was fun, and my husband, much to my surprise, agreed.

As always we thoroughly studied the menu before dinner. We would order the octopus and calamari antipasti and the pizza Tartufo (truffle). The waitress said that the truffle pie was their unofficial signature dish. Oh, and speaking of the waitress, Stephen Starr must run his wait staff through a boot-camp-like training process because they are good...really, really good. Always knowledgeable and super gregarious. Our waitress at Stella was all of these things and more. Of course the wait staff is important, but the food is what you're there for, so here goes........

The antipasti was amazing (notice the blurred fork in the frame...the hubby obviously liked it too). The octopus and calamari were tossed in a lemony sauce with olives, new potatoes and red onions. The hubby thought it resembled a ceviche, and I thought it resembled a sort of nicoise. It was the perfect start to the meal. (FYI: The menu offers Antipasti, Insalata and Pizza...that's it...and that's ALL you'll need...I promise) We also ordered two glasses of the house red. They have a great wine selection for a "pizza" place and the price for a glass of the house was only $5.50. It was good...not great...and I wished that they offered it in a litre size (if so it would have taken me right back to Rome) but they only offer individual glasses of the house so we made do. The Tartufo pizza was, in my honest opinion, one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. It's a bold statement, I know, but a sincere one. The pie was the perfect size for two. The crust was toasted to perfection in that wood burning oven and it was covered with fontina, parmesean, truffle, of course, and a sunny side egg that was lovingly broken and smeared across the pie like icing on a cake table side. The truffle perfumed the entire pie and the egg "glaze" added a richness that sent me into a pleasure coma.

So it looks like Philly's own King Midas did it again. Starr gave Philadelphia something I think it was lacking...really GOOD (and unique) pizza. In my opinion, I think he deserves a gold star for this one.

Pizzeria Stella - at 2nd and Lombard (at the Headhouse Shambles)

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Any vegetable with "butter" in it's name is ok in my book - Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Butter-Nut...yes please! No other vegetable I can think of has been given a yummier name. When you hear it listed as an ingredient or see it on a menu you don't even think of it as squash, you just think of the wonderful marriage between the flavors of butter and nuts. Unfortunately this squash doesn't taste anything like butter or nuts (a cruel twist of fate in my mind) but that's ok, because it offers a flavor all it's own.

At the store recently and noticed that we’re entering into fall vegetable season? Walked by the squash section and realized that all of the green and yellow squash have been replaced by acorn and butternut varieties? Grab an armful and make this soup. It’s as simple as can be and it’s a perfect meal for a chilly fall day.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup:
1 large butternut squash
1 medium onion
1 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tbs. olive oil
½ tsp. ground allspice
½ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
1 tbs. sour cream or crème fraiche for garnish

Cut the rind off the outside of the squash and remove the seeds with a spoon. Cut the squash into chunks. Peel and quarter the onion. Toss the squash and onion in olive oil, sprinkle with about 1 ½ tsp. of salt and roast in a 350 degree oven for 20 – 30 mins or until the squash is fork tender. Place the squash and onion mixture into a food processor and add the chicken stock, then blend mixture until smooth. Here’s where your soup preference comes into play. If you like your soup thick in texture don’t put this puree through a sieve. If you like your soup creamy and you don’t want to taste the texture of squash run this mixture through a sieve then put it in a pot over medium heat. Add the heavy cream, allspice and salt and pepper to taste. Go easy on the pepper. You want this to be on the sweeter & milder side. You can cook the soup down a bit (15 mins or so) if you like it thicker or just pull it off the heat as soon as the cream and squash mixture heat through. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and enjoy! I know I did.
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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Forget Rice-A-Roni...San Francisco Is The Treat

It was 41 degrees and raining last weekend in Philadelphia. As much as I love to cozy up by the fire with my dog and a good book on a cold rainy day, I was thinking that I would rather be back in California where the hubby and I were a few weeks ago. We

traveled from LA all the way up to wine country in California, but San F

rancisco was the place that really impressed me so that's the subject of this travel post. Forget Rice A Roni...San Francisco is a treat in itself.

HIT: The Sea Lions at Pier 39:
Whenever my husband wants to make me smile (or act like a giddy 5 year old) he takes me to the zoo. We must go 4 or 5 times a year, and each time we must spend ample time at the otter tanks. In my mind, sea lions are a hundred times cooler AND bigger than otters so seeing these wild animal just lounging around next to yachts in the pier 39 marina was more than a hit...it was a home run. Yes, the smell can be a bit overwhelming but it's worth it to stand there and watch these guys flop around on top of each other, searching for that perfect spot to catch some rays. There is some speculation that the sea lions showed up in the marina in 1989 after an earthquake but most believe they just feel safer there. Whatever the reason I, and I'm sure the city of San Francisco, are happy they decided to stay.

MISS: The Rest of Pier 39:
Aside from the sea lions and the great view, the rest of pier 39 area and fisherman's wharf is a bit of a tourist trap. We had some time to kill before our Alcatraz boat left so we took that hour to stroll the pier. An hour is about all you'll need there...20 mins to look at the sea lions and the rest of the time you'll just enjoy the scenery. If you're hungry while you're there don't fall for the tourist trap food. Go to the end of the pier area towards the Boudin bakery (home to that infamous sourdough bread) and grab a snack from a row of not so fancy looking seafood shacks. They've got some really good looking (and cheap) seafood for sale in street-food friendly packaging. There are no bells or whistles at these shacks...just good looking seafood and plenty of it.

HIT: Alcatraz:
In all honesty, Alcatraz wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be BUT I enjoyed the heck out of it all the same. Eastern State Pen in Philly is the first Penitentiary built in the US and it was designed to look like a freakin' castle. Unfortunately it ruined Alcatraz for me. There were, however, some really cool things about Alcatraz and the boat trip itself offered some great views. Did you know that the guards and their families actually lived on Alcatraz? Can you imagine growing up there? And did you know that most of the vegetation is there today because the seeds basically hitchhiked their way onto the rock in the soil that they used to fill in the island? I thought that was neat-o. Some tips...1.) Be sure to either pre-purchase your tickets online or expect to have to wait an hour or two between buying your ticket and actually getting on the boat. They'll give you a time to come back if that's the case so you don't have to wait in line. 2.) Take a jacket. My husband, the all powerful, never cold, polar bear of a man actually said, "gee, I wish I brought a jacket, I'm a bit chilly". Amazing folks. 3.) Be sure to purchase tickets at the only location that is actually contracted to sell them by the National Park Service : http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ ($26/person) it's at pier 33 and it's called Alcatraz Cruises. Some other places will take you on a cruise AROUND Alcatraz, but this is the only company that will take you to the island.

HIT: Boccalone's Salumi at the Ferry Building Marketplace (pier 48)
Their motto is "Tasty Salted Pig Parts" and that might as well be a freakin' haiku. They offer a variety of salumi but the thing that surely put them on the map was their salumi "cone". It's a paper cone filled with a variety of their tastiest cured meats. Move over ice cream. You're no longer the only thing that should be eaten out of a cone. http://www.boccalone.com/

MISS: The Actual Ferry
Building and Marketplace at Pier 48:
The rest of the marketplace was pretty crappy. Ok. Not crappy. Perhaps just overpriced and overhyped. If you're going there in search of some gourmet packaged food save yourself the trip. But if you're in the building for lunch you might find some good little places to grab a bite to eat. We split a roast beef and arugula sandwich and a beer for around $12 (not TOO shabby) at Il Cane Rosso's and it was of amazing quality. All local ingredients and it showed: http://www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com/cane_rosso_sf.php

HIT: The Public Parks:
I have found that California in general offers it’s residents a plethora of recreational opportunities. San Francisco was no exception. There were parks everywhere! Be sure to stop by Alamo Square Park for a great view of the Painted Ladies (the picturesque houses that were on the opening credits for Full House). While you’re in that neck of the woods head a few blocks west through the Haight Ashbury area to Golden Gate park. It’s a HUGE park with museums, recreational areas and the famous Japanese Tea Garden. It does cost $3.50 to get in and it’s debatable whether or not it’s worth it (pretty but small-ish), but you’ll at least want to check it out. Be sure to park as close to the tea garden area as possible. We thought we could walk from Haight Ashbury and got lost in the park. Like I said, it’s huge. **note** If you do wander off the beaten path in the parks you’ll SURELY run into some (ok, a boat load) of young drug dealers. But not to worry. They are as polite as can be and will just ask you if you’re “looking for anything” in passing and then tell you to have a nice day. We ignored a group of them and they said, “You know, it would be nice for you guys to at least tell us no thank you”. You’ve got to love it.

HIT (As Long As You’re Smart About it): The Trolley System:
The hubby and I only use cabs when it’s absolutely necessary. If a city has ANY type of public transportation we’re all over it like white on rice. The trolley system in San Francisco is made up of popular and not so popular lines. The MOST popular line is the Powell Hyde line and rightly so. It offers the BEST view of the city and bay. Not to mention the fact that it runs straight up a hill that even mountain climber wouldn’t want to scale. You’ll wait for a good 20 or maybe 30 mins at certain times of the day to ride this line. But you should still ride it once. Perhaps hop off at Hyde and Lombard and see that crazy twisty road (worth a look) and be sure to take pictures of the view. The rest of your time there steer clear of that line. The rest of the lines run quickly, efficiently, and cover quite a bit of the city. **note** The subway passes and the trolley passes are NOT interchangeable. They’re completely different.


San Francisco had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad because I went there with almost unattainable high hopes. If you go you MUST eat here:

Bar Jules 609 Hayes St – The menu here changes twice a day, every day. Yup. The entire menu! They don’t even bother printing out paper menus. They write the lunch or dinner selections on a blackboard, comprised of whatever was fresh that day, and that’s it. Eat what they offer or go home hungry. I recommend, however, that you eat what they offer. We started with the steak tartar. The hubby chose the salmon and I chose the poussin (young chicken). I almost never order chicken but something that night told me I MUST and I’m glad I did. This was the BEST chicken I have ever tasted. All of our dishes were perfect. No. Almost better than perfect…what would you call that...heavenly? Sure. Heavenly! The wine list wasn’t overly pricey. Actually, we ordered a more “modest” bottle of wine and the server opened it, smelled the cork and without us even having to ask gave us another bottle because she thought that one wasn’t quite right. To tell you the truth we could hardly tell, but it’s that attention to detail that makes this place amazing. We ate many meals on this trip but this place will always stand out in my mind and I will be a walking advertisement for them. If you’re in the city please try it. http://www.barjules.com/

Anchor & Hope 83 Minna Street – A few months ago the hubby and I had our first taste of sea urchin roe and we were instantly hooked. When I heard that this place offered a warm sea urchin appetizer I knew we had to check it out. You’ll have to look hard for this place. It’s down an “alley” and the chalkboard sign doesn’t exactly jump out at you. But I think it’s worth a trip. The food was good. Fresh, clean seafood. They had a good oyster selection (which we had in addition to our starters AND entrees…we’re suckers for a raw bar). The hubby had some nice scallops and I had a white fish (honestly can’t remember what kind) with a potato cake (the reason I ordered it…I love seeing new ways to cook potatoes) and everything was yummy and well prepared. I think the thing that sets them apart from the rest of the seafood restaurants in San Fran is this warm sea urchin appetizer. It was, in my mind, sublime. It was served in it’s shell with Dungeness crab and a lemon beurre blanc sauce. The hubby thought the lemon killed the urchin. I told him, “Hmmmm, then maybe you should just let me finish it huh?”. I thought the balance was perfect. The lemon cut the sweet, creamy flavor perfectly and the whole dish was a success. Perhaps you can head here for the raw bar and the sea urchin. The rest of the food was good, but maybe not worth writing hope about. http://anchorandhopesf.com/

Get Out And About:
We packed a lot into this trip to California (we started the trip in LA). There is SO much to see and do! If you find yourself in San Francisco be sure to get out of the city for a day. Just 15 mins or so north of the city (over the Golden Gate Bridge…so you can check that off your list of things to do and kill two birds with one stone) is Muir Woods National Park. It’s an old growth redwood forest filled with some of the biggest and most beautiful trees you’ll ever see. Even the drive down into the valley is worth the trip. While you’re down in the valley follow the signs to Muir Beach for a look at the rocky (and cold) coastline. I could have sat there all day. It’s worth the drive.

While you’re north of the city drive up into wine country! Sonoma and Napa are just about an hour north of San Francisco (maybe even less). Wineries abound and all of the wine is pretty decent. Most places will charge you $10 for a tasting but I would say it’s worth it. Be sure to get there early in the day. They all close around 4 or 5pm, but open around 10am. We weren’t really in the wine drinking mood early in the day and much to our dismay had to cut our day short. But no worries! We headed back to the coolest, not to mention quirkiest hotel around… The Flamingo Resort (Santa Clarita). I think we paid $50/night to stay here using Priceline and it was worth every penny. Apparently it’s an institution in the area and everyone we spoke to had a “once, at the Flamingo, I…” story. It’s old-school retro with updated rooms (not super updated…no marble tubs in here) and the largest pool area outside of Vegas (notice the bad ass neon flamingo sign (it spins!) in the top right hand of the picture...classic). I have to give this place two thumbs up. If you’re looking for a place to stay in the Sonoma/Napa/Santa Clarita area of wine country this is your place. Go in with an open mind, leave your pre-conceived notions of what you think you want in a hotel behind and you’ll have a great time.

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to San Francisco you can check out my Google Map that shows some of the places we visited. If you need any more info on this destination or any of my other trips just shoot me an email(link at top of page) and I’ll be happy to chat with you about it! I always love talking about the places I’ve been…can you tell?
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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Go Fish - Little Fish's tasting menu is a whale of a good deal

"22 seats?". "Wow, my wife can count!" said my husband facetiously. I was, in fact, stating the obvious, but I felt it needed to be said out loud. How could this 22 seat BYOB restaurant in South Philly have been named the third best "new style fish house" in the country (THE COUNTRY!) by Bon Appetit magazine in 2008 with only 22 seats?

We were seated promptly by Little Fish staff at 6pm on a Sunday. They only offer two seating times for their $28 price fix tasting menu on Sundays, 6pm and 8pm. Since my husband and I, shamefully, like to eat dinner at times that are more fashionable with people 3 times our age, dinner at 6pm on a Sunday was perfect. They opened the bottle of wine we brought (BYOB's are one of my top 5 favorite things about Philly), and gestured towards the wall at a hand written piece of craft paper. "Have you seen tonight's menu?" the waitress said while pointing to the paper. My husband and I already had some idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We normally jump at the opportunity to eat at places that offer tasting menus, lovingly arranged by the chef. Some people might have had a slight problem with the fact that the tasting menu was absolute in it’s offerings and denied you any say in picking or choosing your meal. I, on the other hand, being hopelessly in love with all food (honestly...pig’s feet...grasshoppers...you name it) and utterly unable to make even the simplest decisions without him and hawing over them for hours, welcomed the idea of a tasting menu with open arms (and mouth).

The menu consisted of 5 courses. It began with a salad of local lettuce, topped with bits of apple, orange, cranberry and goat cheese. The goat cheese was of excellent quality and the lettuce fresh and crisp. I'm sad to say, however, that my salad was lacking in pretty much everything else. Glancing at other tables I saw that their salads appeared to be complete and so, not to be a complainer right out of the gates, I chocked it up to a small oversight and prepared for the next course, Jerk Halibut. The halibut was my husband's favorite course by far. It was spiced to perfection, had a hint of smoke, slightly blackened and served with a crisp radish and cilantro garnish. Then came the skate. If you've never had skate (it's actually the skate "wing" that they serve) I recommend it. It's a delicate, flaky fish and it takes on all sorts flavors quite well. The skate was served with squash, clams and crab, all over a saffron broth. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that's true then I must have really loved this dish because I ran right out the next day and bought some crab and squash and attempted to re-create my favorite part of this dish. The sweet seafood paired with the squash and saffron broth was a winning combination. Two thumbs up...hands down. The fourth course was somewhat of a mystery to my husband and me. We have eaten what feels like hundreds of different types of seafood over the years and we have never encountered Brazilian Tiger Fish. When I expressed my curiosity about the fish to our waitress she said that the chef also had never encountered it and this was it’s début. What a début it was. It was simply pan seared and served over a mild and creamy coconut broth. Some very yummy collard greens and unfortunately, very unnecessary black eyed peas shared the bowl. I think the chef was looking for some textural contrast with this one but all I needed was that fish, crispy outside and firm but tender inside, floating on that yummy coconut broth. I hope that they consider making this a staple menu item. Delicious. Of course no tasting menu would be complete without dessert. I never hold out high hopes for dessert because I can't expect a restaurant to be good at EVERYTHING. This dessert was good...nothing more. A large hunk of chocolate truffle "tart" with a silky raspberry sauce. The truffle was rich and a bit much, but a welcome flavor to cap off the night.

When the check came my husband smiled. Rarely do you go out to dinner, have a wonderful time stuffing yourself with delightful cuisine in a cozy atmosphere while enjoying a nice bottle of wine, then look at the check and smile. $60. Yes, with tax the dinner came to $60 for a couple. If that isn't something worth smiling about, I don't know what is.

Reservations are necessary (and will probably have to be made weeks in advance) but it’s well worth the wait.


P.S. Keep an eye out for my review of Little Fish's brand new baby brother, Fish (I know....the owner really needs to come up with more imaginative names right?). I hear the entire menu will be under $20 and it will be lots of small plates and some larger ones. If it's half as good as my Little Fish Meal I'll be happy as a clam (no pun intended).

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