Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ahh Grasshoppaaaa...

My husband and I used to live in a town called Charles City, Va. This place epitomized country living. We didn't have a stop light. We didn't have a police or fire department. We didn't have a grocery store. We did, however, have a Feed & Seed and a fish hatchery.....the necessities I suppose. Saturday afternoon at the lake behind the fish hatchery was the time and place to see and be seen......."Hey Cletus! I see the tip of your thumb is healing right nice from where you done cut yourself trying to open that there beer with that old rusty knife you found lyin' on the ground."....and such. So not to be left out, my hubby and I would frequent the lake as well. We'd take our canoe and our fishing poles and head on down to Harrison lake with the rest of our "neighbors". My job was to pack the beers, untangle the lines, find the ores, find my husband's favorite fishing hat, bring a fresh cooler for the off chance we'd catch fish......and my husband's job was to criticize my stroke and occasionally splash me with his oar. We had fun ;) Finding bait was my job as well. Unfortunately there wasn't a "bait department" in the corrugated steel shed that was the Feed & Seed, so I was supposed to dig for worms. "Sorry honey. I can't believe it either but there are NO worms in our backyard" is a phrase I've uttered many a time, and my husband would just smile and laugh at my lame attempt to get out of it(we lived on 5 acres of soft, worm loving earth, but I wasn't budging on my no-worm stance). So we would get to the lake, try to catch fish with synthetic worms, fail miserably, and then spend a half hour on the banks of the lake catching live grasshoppers to use instead. Catching them was hard, but the fish loved them. Unfortunately the fish we caught weren't much bigger than the grasshoppers themselves. If I knew then what I know now about the taste, texture and all around wonderfulness of grasshoppers, I would never have let those damn fish have any of them....my grasshoppers....mine.

We went to dinner at Xochitl(so-cheet is apparently how it's pronounced but I can't for the life of me figure that one out so the redneck in me will just call it X-O-Chittle). It's in the Society Hill/Old City section of Philly. They were featuring a 4 course "indigenous Mexican" tasting menu in honor of Benito Juarez's birthday, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how "indigenous" it was. Grasshopper tostadas! Yes please! Crispy calf's brains! Yes please! The list goes on(frogs legs(a Charles City staple...I'll write up a recipe for anyone who thinks they'd love meat that's a mix between chicken and fish...delish), wild boar, venison), but the grasshoppers and brains were by far the most note-worthy of the meal. If you've never had grasshopper and you get the opportunity...please do so. They're crunchy and nutty and not at all what you would think a bug would taste like. As soon as we left the restaurant I started my search for a big bag of salted grasshoppers(still searching by the way). I just read that they only have about 100 calories in 100 grams and they're almost pure protein! Why hasn't the Hollywood elite or Jenny Craig jumped on this bandwagon?

Now for the calf's brains. The texture and flavor can best be described as "meat butter". It was soft(no, not just soft, melt on your tongue soft), yet it held together nicely. It also had a slight gamy flavor. Sort of like liver but not as strong. Oh, and don't even get me started on the cocktail pairings. There was one per course, but the one that made me fall in love all over again with fermented ANYTHING was the margarita made with fermented pineapple juice. It's the kind of drink that you would rather have served in a glass the size of a big gulp container(just throw a straw in it please and I'm good). If I had any idea at all how to properly ferment a pineapple I would try this. Unfortunately I'm not that brave, so I'll just have to keep reliving it over and over again in my head....ahhh yes, that's nice :)

Xochitl on Urbanspoon

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Stretch a Buck in the City of Brotherly.........

My last two travel posts have been about pretty over-the-top vacations in terms of eating, drinking and spending money. Vegas and New Orleans are about excess…excess of excess actually. But when I’m at home(or on small trips) I’m quite the penny pincher. I’m not into clothes or the latest trends(when I’m dressed in something other than jeans and a t-shirt my husband doesn’t know what to think). I cook dinner, at home, just about every night of the week and I pack my lunch(out of leftovers) for work. I clip coupons. I re-use store shopping bags as kitchen trash bags. I could go on and on(don’t even get me started on my husband the paper towel Nazi…one(1) paper towel per person per day is the rule). But we still love having fun. I mean, life should be fun. So here are some great ways to stretch a buck…but still have a lot of fun…in my neighborhood in Philly.

Nosing around for some grub....

1.) I pack my lunch in a brown bag for work, but my husband doesn’t. Instead he makes it his daily mission to find delicious and cheap food at lunch. I honestly think it’s the best part of his day. Each afternoon he and his buddies leave the office in search of a good, and yummy, deal. They do the usual, pizza, subs(hoagies here…and Primos to be exact…a Primos sub is a must have if you’re visiting…maybe even more than a cheese steak), but he’s found the deal that just can’t be beat…lunch carts. He’s quite the food snob, so if he’s in love with these things they can’t be all bad. He pays $3 for a meatball sub, chips and a drink. $2.75 for two hot dogs, chips and a drink. And apparently the cheese steaks rival the “Jim’s” and “Pat's” and “Gino’s” of the city. And they’re half the price.! If you’re not looking for an artery clogging lunch I’ve seen carts that just sell fruit salad, green salads, falafels, the list goes on. And since spring is here, just grab some grub off a cart and enjoy it in one of the many parks that dot center city. It isn't quite a cheese and wine picnic in Paris, but it's got it's charm. And never will you pay too much.

2.)BYOB!!! Ahhh. My favorite acronym of all time. In Philly, NJ, and surrounding areas, not all restaurants can get liquor licenses(it has something to do with the amount allowed per area, or price, or something(I don’t really know or care why, I’m just happy to be a part of it)). Basically, if you own a steakhouse, you don’t want to be the one to tell someone they have to have Sprite with their fillet instead of a nice glass of red wine. So they have BYOBs. This is the best overall “restaurant” deal in town. Take your big bag, fill it with wine, beer(my husband and I have even started taking a flask of gin or bourbon to drink on the rocks before the meal starts…and no one bats an eye) from home, and they’ll open it for you, pour it, chill it, you name it. They just want your business. So you can go to a somewhat pricey establishment for just the cost of food(AND get tanked and have a good ‘ol time). My favorite BYOB so far is Chloe(in Old City…it might not be a “stretch a buck” kind of place but the food is to die for, New-American cuisine, and if you bring your own wine it can be an affordable “special” night out). A BYOB that DOES fit the “stretch a buck” theme is Mejiu Korean Restaurant(in Old City as well. It’s cheap and wonderful. Don’t go in expecting Chinese. Korean is a world away.). You can go to this site: http://www.gophila.com/byobmap/ for an interactive map of all the Philly BYOBs by neighborhood.

3.) Chinatown baby!! My husband wishes we lived there. Lucky for him(and me) we only live 8 blocks away. The dining-out deals that can be had in Chinatown are second to none. And it isn’t all General Tsao’s Chicken, oh no, it’s an amazing and eclectic mix of Asian cuisine. I have a bunch of favorites but I'll give you two out of my top 10 recommendations this time around.
-Lee How Fook – You know that song “Warewolves of London” by Warren Zevon. He mentions "a" Lee How Fook(you know, "gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein"), and every time I’m in this place I can’t get the song out of my head. It’s reviews are consistently good and so is the food. The menu here is more along the lines of what you would think of when you think “Chinese” food. But there are also some great departures and it's a(drum roll folks.....BYOB!!).
-Nan Zhou, Hand Drawn Noodle House - I'm almost at a loss of words when it comes to this place(almost). It's a small, hole in the wall restaurant on Race street in Chinatown that sells the most addictive noodle bowls this side of the Pacific ocean. It's a quaint place and lets also call it "friendly". Basically they'll make you share tables with other diners if it's getting too full. But it's worth sitting next to a slurping stranger for these noodles. They're hand drawn on premises(dinner and a show folks!). You can actually watch the guy making them in the back if you care to peek. And I know I said it was cheap, but goodness gracious, cheap doesn't describe it. Basically if you're looking for an out of this world noodle bowl AND you're looking to use up some spare change, check out Nan Zhou(honestly...like $6.50/person for a gut-busting experience).

Best "bang for your buck" bar in Old City

....and no, unfortunately it isn't this one(although my dog Lindy does shake up one bad ass martini)

My husband and I like a good drink special. We shoot pool at this pool hall in our neighborhood that always has drink specials at times OTHER than when we’re there. It’s become a bit of a joke actually. We’ll get a table, say "hi" to the waitress that knows us, and then like clockwork my husband will ask if there are any drink specials and the waitress will say, "not until-------"(fill in the blank…it’s always an hour later than we want to stay or an hour before we got there). But the pool is cheap and we enjoy it so I can’t complain. BUT when I find a bar that has fantastic deals I’m a free, walking advertisement. That being said, go to Sugar Mom’s in Old City . It’s in the basement of an old warehouse-turned loft apartment complex. We almost chose to live there while conducting our apartment search many months back, but when we though about what life would be like(the good AND the bad) if we had a great, cheap bar in our basement, we decided that might be a little too much temptation, and chose to go elsewhere.

Sugar Mom's:
Sugar Mom's is one of the best if you ask me. The best of what? You name it, and they're the best of it. They have a wonderful decor(dungeon meets arcade meets pool hall meets Cheers meets hipster bar meets....well, meets my approval), great food specials and they sell Wells Banana Bread Beer(it's a guilty pleasure...half dessert, half beer, all delicious...if you're an adventurous beer lover it's a must try). Sunday they have PBR tallboys for a buck...yes $1 and yes, they're 16oz of cold, frothy goodness. They also have half priced sandwiches and margaritas. Wednesday is 25 cent Pierogie day and $2 bud bottle day(I have Polish grandparents so it's like they climbed in my head and found out what I like, potato filled dough and cheap beer). Thursdays they boast $1.50 PBR tall boys, $3 burgers(veggie included) and $2 mixed drinks. Their list of specials go on and on and change often, but one thing stays the same....it's a cheap place to drink and have fun in a not-so-cheap part of the city(P.S it's non-smoking to my delight).

I’ll re-visit this subject many times, I’m sure. So if you’re thinking of visiting Philly leave me a note and I’ll do a Top 10 list for you.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Drink of the Month

I have a cocktail shaker that I stole from an old roommate(thanks John). It’s defective of course. That’s what I get for “permanently borrowing” something. But what it lacks in ease of use it makes up for in style. It has, engraved on all sides, classic cocktail recipes. I mean, talk about a good design. You’re probably already a little shnockered when you decide that mixing up some god awful concoction out of whatever you can find lying around is a good idea. So this shaker helps you out. “No!” it says. “Don’t mix Bailey’s Irish Cream and lemon juice! Listen to me. I can help.”, and it does. My drink of the month comes from said shaker. It’s a New Yorker. I had never heard of this drink before the shaker called out to me one inebriated evening. Give it a try. It uses minimal ingredients and packs a nice, smooth, refreshing punch.

New Yorker:

1 ½ oz whiskey

Juice of ½ a lime

2 dashes of grenadine(I’ve used cranberry juice in a pinch and it’s just as delicious)

1 tsp sugar(plain old granulated sugar…it won’t dissolve completely, but I guess it’s not supposed to)


Shake all ingredients together. Serve on the rocks with a lime wedge garnish. Na zdorovye!!
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NOLA......the one...the only...New Orleans

Never has an acronym so poorly represented something. NOLA. New Orleans Louisiana. Bah. This place defies description. The amount of musical talent alone send chills down my spine. I can’t believe I was 27 the first time I went(last month to be more exact). I’m ashamed. I’ve been to Australia, I’ve traveled all over Europe. I’ve been to 49 of 50 states in the US and all of the Canadian provinces, and never, until last month, have I been to New Orleans. This place is a Mecca for people who like to party and have a good time. For people who love good food, good drinks and DAMN good music. We were lucky, no, downright blessed to have been there with some good friends of ours who have been to New Orleans close to 2 dozen times. Clare, our friend/tour guide, is about as close to a local as you can get without living there 12 months a year. She took us to some amazing places and showed us one hell of a time. So Clare(and Eric of course)….thanks!!! Now……if you go, WHEN you go, please, pretty please, find your way off the beaten path. Sure, go to Bourbon street for the experience, but also go where the locals go. Eat where the locals eat. And listen to music where the locals do. Now here’s a disclaimer: this blog entry is long….but if I were a first time NOLA visitor again, I think this info would help me immensely. So if you’re planning a trip to NOLA, or if you’ve just always wondered what it’s like….read on.
My husband and I landed in good ‘ol New Orleans at about 9:30 on a Thursday night. Unfortunately we arrived during a freak cold spell and weren’t welcomed by a balmy breeze, but at the time Philadelphia, where we are from, was a chilly 18 degrees, and so by that comparison, we were happy. We stayed at the W on Poydras Street in the convention center/business district. Now I know this isn’t a very “classic New Orleans” place to stay, but it was dreamy. The hotel was great and the reception couldn’t have been more perfect at 10pm. We walked through the large double doors into a modern, hip, drapery ensconced lobby. My husband commented that it seemed to be a hotel lobby taken directly out of a David Lynch movie. Techno music was pumping away, candles were lit EVERYWHERE and projectors were streaming random images on the ceilings and walls. We were immediately put in “the mood”. We dropped off our bags in the ultra modern room and met our friends in the lobby. First order of business…..eat.
Since we arrived so late there wasn’t a plethora of dining options in the area so our friends took the bartender’s advice and we headed to Rambla:
Rambla: http://ihhotel.com/restaurant.html
International House Hotel
221 Camp Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
Tel. 504 553 9550
Convention center/ business district
Rambla is housed in the International House Hotel, a lovely and grand building. We sat down very close to closing time, but the wait staff was friendly and certainly didn’t rush us in the least. The décor was rustic, bohemian and cozy, with lots of modern touches thrown in. We were so rushed to get some sustenance that we didn’t even realize until we sat down that the menu was tapas. I have to admit that I’ve had some good and some horrible tapas, and so I’m always wearing my judges robe when I sit down for some small plates. We perused the menu and were immediately pleased. The prices were very, very reasonable ($8/$10/$12 plates) and the influence wasn’t just Spanish, but French as well. I’ve always thought that classic French cuisine is perfect for small plates and I was happy to see that this restaurant shared my belief. The menu was full of classics and we ordered four very classic plates, and two other plates. We had steak tartar, pork rillettes, escargot and empanadas, plus a bowl of sautéed mushrooms and a flatbread. All were fantastic. The empanadas were tender, flaky, buttery and filled with a braised greens and pulled brisket mixture. They were delicious, and in my opinion had to be if they were on a tapas menu. The steak tartar did not disappoint. It was a classic tartar with capers and Dijon, and the portion was very generous for a small plate. Steak tartar is one of my favorite dishes and this was comparable to the tartar I have eaten at the sidewalk cafés of streets like Rue Clair in Paris. Fresh ingredients were easily the show of this dish. The pork rillettes were good. My husband and I recently visited Quebec City and Montreal, and had some top notch rillettes of all types while there so I’m a bit spoiled, but Rambla’s execution was just fine and certainly tasty. The escargot arrived in the crock it was cooked in and was swimming in a rich, buttery herb sauce. They were fresh and mild tasting and in a generous quantity. There was enough for 4 people to pick and be satisfied. The mushrooms were cooked in sherry and were adorned with slivered almonds. They were nothing special but good, and a nice filler. The flatbread followed along the same lines. It was a large, crisp flat bread with good quality toppings of fresh spinach, tomato and a tangy chevre’. This was the perfect menu item for someone in your party that didn’t “do” snails or raw beef, but I enjoyed it thoroughly as well. All of the dishes were classically prepared and met with our lip licking approval. The wine list was good and well matched for the cuisine. $20 bottles abounded, which made the whole experience a “good deal”. This was just a last minute recommendation by the hotel staff as a good place to grab a bite late at night and ended up being a fantastic find. We showed up close to closing and the food was still wonderfully prepared and the quality obviously wasn’t sacrificed at that late hour. Rambla just opened on October 1, 2008, and I expect great things from them. It’s a great place to grab a bite late night, or any time.
Jacques-Imo’s: http://www.jacquesimoscafe.com/
8324 Oak Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
Where do I start? This place was the epitome of “word of mouth” advertising. EVERYONE knew about it and EVERYONE came into the restaurant with at least one “I heard that….” story that they had been told on the street about the owner, or cuisine, or old man that stands out front and tells your fortune, etc. We showed up at 7pm on a Friday night….and that being said, it was entirely our fault that we had to wait 2, yes, 2 whole hours to eat. But the bartender poured MAMOTH drinks and the fellow waiting diners were great company. We were even lucky enough to have a little run-in with the famed owner, Jacque. We heard stories that Jacque was a happy, sloppily dressed man who loved to drink and if given the chance would buy a round of tequila shots for some lucky patrons. We were such patrons, and Jacque was, as it had been told, a happy, very sloppily dressed man who was absolutely intoxicated. At first glance I couldn’t figure out why the staff wasn’t politely escorting this obviously underdressed and fall down drunk man out of the establishment. Then when he began playing with my hair and saying that he was Jacque, and he could “do whatever he wanted” we realized he was the proud owner. And he did, in fact, buy us a round of tequila(Petrone for that matter!). But I digress. Everyone that passed us by on their way to the dining room emphatically assured us that it was worth the two hour wait. When we finally sat down the hype had built to enormous proportions. We were ready to have an almost orgasmic meal. Before I talk about the food I have to say that it has to be near impossible for any place to live up to the kind of hype that New Orleanians put on this place. So here goes…. Jacques-Imo’s is housed in an old row house in uptown NOLA. The unassuming exterior and signature pickup truck parked outside is always a good sign in my opinion of a good place to eat. As soon as you step foot in the place you’re hit by a wall of people…all waiting for the famed Jacques-Imo’s experience. When told that you’ll be waiting for two hours the only reasonable next step is to belly up to the bar(if you can get to it). The drinks were plentiful and CHEAP and as I said before, the bar-side company was charming and warm. When your name is finally called you feel as though you need to run to your table to avoid losing it by some cruel twist of fate. You are led through the kitchen to the dining room which is a sprawling enclosed “porch” that is packed with tables. The wait staff was friendly and we decided that we needed to start our meal off with the talk of the town… a shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, priced at a reasonable $7.50. When it arrived it certainly resembled a cheesecake. It was a LARGE “cheesecake” slice of pie…and it was good. But like I said before…nothing could ever live up to the hype that preceded it. It was more of a quiche and less of a cheesecake but it was flavorful and complex and certainly hit the spot. Next the waitress brought out the house salad of baby spinach leaves dressed with a worscheshire based dressing. It was a palate cleanser of sorts and not so much a salad but after the rich appetizer it was a welcome course. Then came the mains. My husband ordered a foie gras stuffed quail, I ordered the crispy rabbit over creamy pasta and our friends ordered the seared scallops and mahi. Our food was good. Actually our food was very good, but there was a slight problem. It was 9:30pm and we had become a bit weary from the wait, and the hype(and dare I say the booze), and so, I fear, didn’t give the food it just desserts. But it was well cooked, flavorful, imaginatively classic Creole food. And it was yummy. My rabbit was whole and de-boned, deep fried in a spicy Creole crust and served over mild and creamy pasta. It was heavy but tasty and for about $18 not a bad deal. My husband’s quail was cooked perfectly, although unfortunately he stated that he was unable to taste much, if any of the foie stuffing which was quite disappointing. I tasted my friend’s scallops and they were seared well and plentiful. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the side dishes. I can’t tell you the last time I’ve been to a “fine dining” establishment that let you pick your own sides, but Jacques-Imo’s seems to defy all norms. They allowed you a choice of two sides from a myriad of southern/Creole classics like greens, red beans or butter beans and rice, corn maquechoux, mashed sweet potatoes, beets, the list goes on. My side of corn maquechoux was delicious, as was my side of greens. Perfectly seasoned and cooked. And the only reason I didn’t lick my husband’s empty plate of butter beans and rice is because we were with friends whom I respect and didn’t want to see the very unapologetically “chunky monkey” that hides deep within me. I don’t even know if they had dessert on the menu as I was blinded by a gut busting full belly and a sleepy, but happy demeanor. If we hadn’t been staying in a hotel I would have taken my entire table’s leftovers home as there was ample left on our plates. So walk, don’t run to Jacques-Imo’s, and be sure to get there early. It was good, plentiful southern food with a bit of a twist served in an unassuming but warm environment…… and I think that about sums it up.

Casamento’s Restaurant: http://www.casamentosrestaurant.com/main/main.html
4330 Magazine St.
New Orleans, Louisiana 70115
Commanders Palace: http://www.commanderspalace.com/
I had a list of things I wanted to eat in New Orleans, as with almost every one of my trips. Unfortunately I would have had to live there for a few years to complete said list, but I did my best. One such list item was oysters, and lots of them. Local oysters are seasonal in NOLA, and while some restaurants will simply ship in some out of town oysters to keep their establishments open, Casamento's closes shop. Yup. They close during the summer and open during the winter months. After hearing this we decided we had to visit. We took a cab to what felt like the ends of the earth. “Are we even still in New Orleans” was a phrase uttered during the trip. Then the cab stopped in a very residential area and we arrived at a small shop front on a dark street. We had arrived, bellies empty and ready to be filled with some cold, raw, briny goodness. I'm happy to report we weren't disappointed. This place is apparently a NOLA icon, and for good reason. It's a tiny, old place with tiled walls from floor to ceiling. Honestly. The entire place is tiled. Some said it reminded them of their grandmother's bathroom, but I though it was more reminiscent of an old hospital or morgue. Cold and sterile inside and the wait staff's personalities fit that description to a T. I'm sure you've seen the type. They act like taking your order is an inconvenience and like if they were to smile they might pass out from the shock. But after we sat down and opened the menus we were in heaven. Cheap! Fresh! Local! Good beer selection! And that was all we were really looking for. Oysters on a half shell were an amazing $8.50/dozen. $8.50!! And they were mammoth! The rest of the seafood on the menu was primarily deep fried so we ordered a seafood platter to pick at as filler. It was good and fresh, as was everything I saw leave the kitchen, but the oysters were the star of the show. So if you're a raw bar fiend, or if you're just looking for a cheap libido lift, I highly recommend Casamento's. My only word of advice is to take a beer with you in the cab......it makes the ride more enjoyable, and hell, it's probably the only place in the US where doing so won't even get you a second look.

Commanders Palace:
“In defense of decadence”. That was the title for a NY Times restaurant review of the famed Le Cirque in NY city when it re-opened a few years ago. It was faulted for being, well, decadent, or, too decadent for that matter. I used to hate restaurants like that. I love eating in jeans and a t-shirt. Hell, I almost got married in jeans and a t-shirt(no shit…I‘ll post about it later…stay tuned…it‘s a good read). So when I walk into a place and feel underdressed, and as if all eyes are on me for just that reason, I get uneasy. But I've recently fallen in love with decadence, and I'm head over heels. Thank you Commanders Palace....thank you. My friend Clare said we must, simply must go to the Commanders Palace for Jazz Brunch, and of course I said, “yes please”. I say yes please to everything and I'm happy I do. We took the street car to the garden district on a lovely Sunday afternoon. We strolled a few blocks down the beautifully manicured streets and sat our weary little hung over butts down in one of the most amazing dining rooms I've ever seen.....and didn't feel underdressed ;) Instead we felt transported. The Commanders Palace is amazing. It's another “true” New Orleans landmark. It was opened in 1880 and had been renowned ever since. Still feeling my head swimming from the night before I decided to start my brunch experience off with a mimosa, and maybe another, and, “you know what, just keep 'em coming”. With a smile on my face and a mimosa in my hand I stared starry eyed at the menu. Turtle soup, shrimp and Tasso henican, oyster & absinthe dome, eggs Sardou, bourbon lacquered Mississippi quail, pecan roasted gulf fish, roasted pecan flap jacks topped with duck....and the list goes on. For the price of the entree you get an appetizer, main and dessert(if you can fit in down your gullet when all is said and done). Now, the prices are, unfortunately, a bit up there and I think the drink prices were even more “up there” since a brunch for 4 turned out to be $280.00, BUT, and I can't believe I'm saying this as I‘m about as frugal as them come……..it was worth every penny. Yes, I said it, and I don’t regret it. The experience was wonderful from the word go. I started with the Shrimp and Tasso Henican. Now, I know this is a food blog and I'm supposed to describe my meals, but this was almost indescribable. It was delicious. No, orgasmic. My husband was ready to ship me off to another table if I didn't stop ooing and ahhing over it. It was Tasso(a Cajun smoked pork from the shoulder butt...they call it ham but it's not...it is, however, amazing) stuffed shrimp in a spicy beurre blanc of sorts with pickled okra(my new addiction) and five pepper jelly. There's no way this description does it any sort of justice. It was sweet and Smokey and spicy and tender and juicy and I want to marry it and have babies with it. Once again, if I wasn't in public, I would have licked the plate clean and, if I wasn't married, would have proceeded to make out with the chef. I still haven't had the guts to try to re-create it at home, but when I do I'll keep y'all updated. If I do it even half as well as the chef at Commanders, I may never eat anything else ever again. Whew, sorry about that rant, I'll continue. My husband had the Classic Eggs Sardou and it too was delectable. It was a soft poached egg on a steamed artichoke heart in a hollandaise sauce. It was, as the name states, classic and perfectly prepared. It was rich and buttery with the welcome tang of the artichoke heart and the lemon juice in the hollandaise. He enjoyed it thoroughly. For the main I enjoyed the special which was, and hold onto your hats, Pecan crusted fish(some local catch of the morning...remember, I was pounding mimosas...but it was apparently alive about 5 mins prior to cooking) topped with champagne poached crab and swimming in the most rich and oh so very not fat free sauce I've had in a while. It was sprinkled with edible flowers and almost too beautiful to eat....but not quite. The fish was perfection. The crab was the sweetest crab I think I've ever had, and considering I used to go crabbing in Maryland every summer and steam the crabs I caught almost as soon as they came out of the water, that's saying a lot. It was perfect. I hate using that word, but it was. My hubby had the duck topped pecan flap jacks and he cleaned his plate. It was IHOP on crack. A flap jack the size of a car tire, rich yet fluffy, covered in moist, shredded duck and sprinkled with fresh toasted pecans and a delectable sauce. I would call it the quintessential brunch item as it was a wonderful mix of sweet and savory. By this time we're ready for our “comfy pants”, but we are told we can't leave without tasting the bread pudding soufflé with bourbon cream sauce. Our friend said he never eats more than a spoonful or two of it and orders it primarily because he likes drizzling the bourbon cream sauce in his coffee. The rest of the table took heed. And a bite or two is really all you need. It's rich and flavorful and a great flavor cap to the meal. I loved it. I loved it all. Every bite. Every sight. Every sound(the jazz trio that wandered through the dining room was wonderful). If there is such a thing as reincarnation I have added another “I want to come back as” to my list. I want to come back as a bird that lives in the beautiful courtyard of Commanders Palace. Feasting on delectable dropped bits of heavenly food and listening to the sweet sounds of jazz brunch.

The Rest::::
Now it isn't all yummy in my tummy experiences in NOLA. We had some very mediocre po boys at a crappy restaurant in the French Quarter(so uninspiring I don't even remember the name). We also had some less than hospitable service at Pat O' Brien's(AKA the home of the hurricane) and I honestly wasn't all that impressed with the beneigs at Cafe' Du Mond. Fried dough covered in sugar is, well, fried dough covered in sugar. Oh, and although this is a food blog, and at the risk of ruining your appetite, I have to mention the overflowing sewers that seemed to pop up at every turn. No shit. Well, actually, yes, shit…..everywhere. But I suppose there’s a price to pay to eat, drink and party like kings and queens folks.
Get to bourbon street, but, don't stay on bourbon street. Get out of the French Quarter. See where the locals spend time. Go to the Spotted Cat and see the Jazz Vipers play. They're for sure a local favorite. If you're lucky some random legend will walk through the door and sit in for a “session”. NOLA residents love their city. Take time to get to know the parts of the city THEY love.
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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

RECIPE: Wild(&crazy) Mushroom Risotto

My husband and I are lucky to live in the city that is home to the Reading Terminal Market. I love this place…I just love it. Sure, there is the 9th street Italian market that’s a bit more rustic and traditional(I shop there whenever I can find parking). It's a food oasis in the middle of a few blocks of a residential neighborhood full of row-houses. It is lined with butchers, fish mongers, exotic meat and cheese shops and produce as far as the eye can see. And don’t get me wrong….I love it there too, but the Reading Terminal Market is a one stop shop for all things yummy(and it’s indoors and practically sitting on top of a subway stop….location, location, location). And there you can find(amongst the Amish bakeries, fish mongers, butchers and specialty food booths) Iovine Brother’s produce. I’m addicted to this place. They have towering tables of the freshest produce and it’s dirt cheap. DIRT cheap. I’ve gotten to the point to where I now have to bribe my husband to meet me there after work on Fridays because I simply don’t have enough hands to carry everything home by my lonesome. But even though they have mountains and mountains of produce to pick from I’m never content leaving without visiting the small display of pre-packaged and oh so exotic mushrooms at the register. I suppose it’s their version of the impulse purchase. But as for me, I would much rather spend $1.50 on Yellow Foot mushrooms than a pack of gum. It is because of this new found plethora of exotic(and affordable) mushrooms that I give to you this recipe:

Wild(and crazy) Mushroom Risotto:

1 cup aborio rice

3 cups beef stock(you should really use beef stock to get the best out of this recipe, but chicken will do in a pinch)

¼ cup white wine(sometimes I throw in a splash of brandy or bourbon as well...I find that mushrooms and thyme like bourbon almost as much as I do)

1 cup chopped assorted mushrooms(once again, you can use just plain old button mushrooms for this, but to make this the best it can be I recommend a nice mix of whatever you can find at the market)

½ onion – chopped

2 tbs. butter

2 tbs. olive oil

1 tbs. fresh chopped thyme



Parmesan cheese for sprinkling

Start by bringing the beef stock to a barely-there simmer. Meanwhile, begin sautéing the onions and mushrooms in the butter and olive oil(it may seem like a lot of grease but we’re adding a lot of rice to soak it all up…yum). Once both ingredients have softened and released some of their water, add the rice and thyme. Stir the rice for a minute or so to be sure all of the grains are coated in some butter/oil. Next pour in the wine(and liquor if you're using it). Stir another minute. Now slowly add the beef stock, one ladle at a time and stir the rice until all of the liquid is absorbed(You’ll want your heat to be moderate for this, perhaps medium-low, to allow the stock to just simmer away, not boil). A good way to tell if the liquid has been absorbed completely is if you can drag your spoon across the bottom of the pot and leave a risotto-free line that lasts a second or so. Continue with this process for about 20 mins. After 15 mins taste the risotto. You’ll do a lot of tasting in this dish which is probably why I love making it so much. Ideally you want the risotto to be al-dente. I know, I know, everyone knows that they should eat their pasta and risotto al-dente, but honestly, just cook it to your liking(as long as you don’t like mushy, over-cooked risotto, because that’s just wrong). The rice should end up being moist but not sticky, and you most likely won’t use up all of the 3 cups of broth getting to this point. Once you’ve cooked it to your liking salt and pepper it to taste. ALWAYS salt and pepper at the end when you’re dealing with dishes that have stock added to them. Stock is salty(even the low sodium stuff) and you certainly don’t want to end up with ruined risotto after 20 mins of non-stop stirring and attention. That would be devastating(and I’ve been there). Once it’s on the plate I like to add a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese(if you stir it into the whole pot of rice I find it ruins that silky smooth consistency you’ve worked so hard to achieve). And you’re done! I serve this as a side dish, a main dish(with an arugula, asparagus salad topped with a poached egg...recipe to follow...keep an eye out for it!) or as an appetizer. And the leftovers work great in risotto balls or in a rice and herb stuffing.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

RECIPE: Tried and True Pork for You(featuring Shallot green beans & Parsnip puree)

These first recipes are of the Tried and True variety. They're easy as pie, and just as delicious. My husband is particularly fond of these pork chops. He'll finish every bite of these chops even after downing a truly gigantic Philly Cheese steak, some chips and a soda for lunch that day(not unlikely).

Maple & mustard glazed pork chops with shallot green beans and parsnip puree::::
I love big meat. That's right.....large, hunks of meat. I hate paying for someone to butcher my meat for me. I have knives, I have hands, I can do it myself. So that’s precisely what I do when I have the opportunity. I mean, I'm not trying to butcher a whole side of beef, I just want to save a few bucks on pork chops. This is where the pork loin comes in. I’m not a big fan of an entire roast pork loin. I feel like it inevitably dries out, no matter how much I stuff it, or wrap it in bacon, it never turns out as well as a juicy, succulent chop. So that’s what I use. I butcher the loin into mammoth chops. I mean it, huge, tender morsels of pretty pink pork. I’m getting hungry.


4 thick cut pork chops(1 ½ inch thick or more)
1/4 cup of maple syrup(use whatever you have...I’m no syrup snob when I’m cooking with it)
1 tbs. spicy brown mustard
1 tsp. onion powder
2 tbs. orange juice
1 tbs. apricot or orange marmalade(I recommend the apricot if at all possible)
1 tsp. brown liquor(you can use bourbon, brandy, whiskey...just nothing that tastes like coconuts)
Pre-heat your oven to 425. Salt and pepper your chops well. There is no s&p in the glaze so make sure the chops are nicely seasoned. Heat a saute pan to medium heat and add some olive oil(enough to just barely coat the bottom of the pan). Add the chops and leave them be for a few mins. It may seem like med. heat is too low to sear these but they’re thick chops and we’re going to leave them in the pan, un-fooled-around-with, for about 4 minutes per side. Now take the pan off the heat, slowly pour the glaze over the chops and pop them into the oven. Leave them in the oven for about 5-7 more mins(checking on it every now and then to spoon some of the glaze off the bottom of the pan and back on top of the chops). "Safe" pork temp. is supposed to be 160. I cook mine to 150 or so and then take it out and tent it to let it rest and come up to temperature. As long as it’s just barely pink inside(don't be scared....a little pink hue is what you're looking for) and around 160 you should be good to go. Serve with the remaining pan juices poured over top.

Shallot green beans:::

I do green beans a million different ways. You can add sesame seeds and sesame oil to them for a wonderfully flavorful side, or onions and mushrooms with butter, white wine, garlic, salt and pepper, or bacon(this one I’ll touch on later.....it’s got a twist). This one is just nice, mild and it complements the pork well:::
4 servings of green beans
2 or 3 medium sized shallots
1/8 cup white wine
1/4 chicken stock
1 1/2 tbs butter
½ tbs olive oil
Toasted almonds are a nice touch but optional
Heat a saute pan to medium low heat. Add 1 tbs. of butter and ½ tbs. of olive oil. Slice 2 or 3 shallots rather thin and add to the pan to sweat. Shallots burn quickly so watch the heat. You just want them soft and translucent. Once they’re almost translucent add the green beans, stock and wine. Cover and let cook for about 8 - 10 mins(cook them to your liking....I like mine different ways depending on what mood I’m in...but just over al-dente is good for this recipe). Take the top off and reduce whatever is left of the liquid in the bottom(there shouldn't be too much). As it's reducing stir in the last ½ tbs of butter(it gives it such a nice glaze). Salt and pepper to taste and add the almonds if you’re using them.

Parsnip puree:::

I love ALL root vegetables. Parsnips are particularly yummy because they’re sweet AND starchy. This combo makes them perfect for a mash/puree. Some people use all parsnip for their puree but I like to add a potato in there to round out the flavor and texture. It makes it a bit more mild.
2-3 parsnips(depending on size)
1-2 potatoes(depending on size)
3-4 tbs butter(you may not need all of this....but if you do it will certainly be yummy!)
1/8 - 1/4 cup whole milk(mixed with some heavy cream)
This recipe is one that you'll have to make by “eye”. Taste, taste, taste it. It will probably take a few tries but it's worth it. I promise. First, peel, chop and boil the parsnips and potatoes. Cut the parsnips a bit smaller than the taters as I find they take a bit longer to cook. Once they’re tender(maybe 20 mins or so) drain them thoroughly and add them to a food processor(a hand mixer works OK, but not as well as the Cuisinart). Add most of butter(maybe reserve a tbs at first) and only half of the cream/milk mixture. Give it a whirl and check out the consistency. It won’t be as fluffy as mashed potatoes so don’t look for that. Look for it to be firm enough to sit nicely on a fork but also smooth in texture. Add the butter and milk/cream until you get this right(it may take a few tries). This is by no means a science. Then salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!
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Monday, March 16, 2009

TRAVEL: Vegas.........Las Vegas


What can I say that hasn’t already been said? A lot I hope.

My husband and I went to Las Vegas as so many before us had....for a convention. While my husband sat in class....I sat by the pool. Thanks honey. Both of us were Vegas virgins and I have to say, I wish we had done more research before our "first time".

We though it was a free ride. Hotel paid for, flights paid for, half of our meals paid for and all of that meant that we could eat and drink like kings and spend the rest of our budget on gambling. We would get wonderful comps and be treated like royalty. They would be throwing free drinks at us and rolling out the red carpet while they escorted us to our upgraded room with a view of the Bellagio Fountain! Now, my husband and I are avid travelers and generally down to earth folks, so we’re normally not this delusional, but hey, it’s Vegas baby! The land of $2.95 buffets and liquor flowing from the water fountains right? I guess it’s like all other "first times". You’ll definitely do it again and it was nice, but definitely not what you had imagined. Here goes.........

We flew Air Tran and upgraded to the oh so affordable first class that Air Tran offers(really, it’s dirt cheap) for the free booze. And I’m happy to say that it was worth it. We landed in Vegas nicely buzzed and ready to lose our inhibitions....and perhaps some money.

We stayed at Caesars Palace. All Vegas hotels are huge, but Caesars Palace is massive. I have a friend that lived in Vegas for a few years who said that she ventured in there once, got completely lost, couldn’t find her way out, almost started crying in desperation and never went back. I can see it. BUT it is lovely. By husband wants to go big ballin’ and stay at the Wynn if/when we go back but I’d recommend pretty much any hotel in the middle of the strip(between the Tropicana and the Wynn).

I think the Vegas strip is like an oasis. The big ritzy hotels are that deep pool of cold water in the middle of hot, dry, nothingness. They can get away with things like not having a coffee pot in your room so you have to go downstairs to spend $8 on a cup of joe because you can’t go anywhere else for it. They can get away with charging $10 for a beer or $14 for a food court sandwich because you’re there, and you’re hungry or thirsty, and by the time you find your way out you’ll be too famished to find your way to the Subway or Denny’s, but MOSTLY because you’re in Vegas dammit and you’re not going to eat at a chain restaurant. You want to eat in the big, beautiful casino....and you do. But I can help avoid getting ripped off...at least getting TOO ripped off. Here goes.......

1.) Walk tall and carry a big bag:

We tried gambling for our free drinks but goodness gracious do you have to wait a long time for that waitress to bring you a small, watered down vodka and cranberry. Instead carry a big bag. Yes. I bought a 12 pack at the gas station behind the strip, chilled it off in the sink(wash your hands in the tub...the sink is always used as a cooler in our room), lined my big purse with a plastic bag and toted ice cold beers around with us all afternoon. If that sounds silly, and a bit "much" here is option 2...and a great options I must say:

2.) Do the "movie theater" thing:

We all had that mom who would sneak soda and popcorn into the movie theater in her big, mom-sized purse. I use the same idea, minus the big, ugly hag bag. Street vendors are your key to making this happen. The strip is full of sidewalk vendors selling cheap drinks...... dirt cheap drinks to be more precise. It's legal to walk the streets with an open container and it helps make the long, hot walk down the strip more bearable. So take full advantage and grab a fresh drink before you go into a pricey casino. Hell, double fist it if you think you're going to be there for a while. No one frowns upon it and everyone does it, and those who don't are just paying way to much for their buzz. And that is a true buzz kill.

Food: I love to eat. I love to eat new things. I love to eat new things in new places. Vegas is a veritable smörgåsbord at your fingertips. There is food everywhere. Famous chefs have famous restaurants around every corner. And they're f-in expensive. But I refused, downright refused to eat shitty food while I was there(and trust me, there's plenty). So here are my hits and misses:

Mesa Grill, by Bobby Flay, in Caesar's Palace:

My food was delicious. I met my husband there for lunch one day as a sort of "splurge". Two entrees and three beers later we had just bought ourselves a $75 lunch. Ridiculous price. Really good food. Best chile rellenos I've ever had. Perfect execution. Amazing flavor. Small portion(really small, with none of the usual “chips and salsa” crap to fill you up). But tasty as can be.

Le Village buffet, in Paris:

Yes. We went to a buffet. But we did our research first. There are only a handful of what they consider to be "gourmet" buffets on the strip and this was one of them. Once again, it was pricey. Like $55/person pricey and that didn't include adult beverages. But it was worth it if you know what to eat and what not to eat while you're circling the biggest room(beautiful room) full of food you've ever seen. They had a MASSIVE cold seafood bar. Shellfish abound! They had antipasto bars and poultry bars and red meat bars(obviously they called them prettier names, but you get the idea). I had a wonderful piece of prime rib(a Vegas must of course), stuffed grape leaves that were noteworthy, some great braised meats(true to the Parisian theme) some so-so other things(really, you don't want me to mention it all...the wedsite gives you a pretty good description) and enough pick and peel shrimp and crab legs to choke a horse. Now, I don't normally stuff myself to the point of vomiting, but something came over me when I saw all of that food….and the price tag. It's nothing like Paris(my Paris article is coming soon), but it was good.

Noodles, at the Bellagio,

I recently moved to Philly and I live in Old City, about 8 blocks from China Town. I have what some would call a noodle-bowl addiction. Before I moved to Philly, this noodle bowl in the Bellagio was the best bowl of broth and noodles that I've ever put in my mouth and it was reasonably priced! Rejoice!!! Well executed and oh so flavorful noodle bowls were the name of the game there. And this is also where we stumbled upon one of the most amazing things I've ever put in my mouth. A century egg. Here's the picture, and I promise you, it didn't look any more appetizing in person, but it was scrumptious. Basically, they take and egg and bury it in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw for a few weeks or months. What you get is a whole new egg. The yolk becomes a dark green with a hint of sulfur smell, and the white becomes dark brown and jelly-like(see picture above). It looked like a pre-historic rock.......but a yummy, meat flavored rock. It tasted to me like chicken-flavored egg(I know, shitty description, but you have to taste it to understand). It reminded me of head cheese(gelatin speckled with lots of, "junk" bits of animals). I love head cheese and I love century eggs. You have to try this. You just have to.

Triple 7 Restaurant, in the Main Street Station Hotel & Casino

We went down to Fremont Street. The "original" Vegas. My husband loved it. The gaudy lights. The 65 year old cocktail waitresses in mini-skirts. The dirty, smoke filled casinos with the "real" gamblers in them. You're immediately put in the classic Vegas mood. And what better way to celebrate that mood than a cheap steak dinner. We stumbled upon this place by pure luck(P.S. Don't stay here....just eat here...walking through most of it made me very, very depressed). But this place was a hit. I mean it. A hit. We stumbled upon it after passing by some less tempting establishments(and there are plenty). We had perfectly cooked steaks, loaded baked potatoes, salad, soup, veg, their own micro-brew beers(a lot of them) and a full, happy tummy for about $35....for the both of us! It wasn't daring New American cuisine or fusion or anything of the sort, but it was really good steakhouse food at a good price(which will be a very welcome sight after a few days in this town). This is the place to go for your "cheap steak dinner” fix. You won't be disappointed. I guarantee it!

Les Artistes Steakhouse, in Paris

This is what I hate about Vegas. We got a coupon for a discounted dinner at our choice of “high falutin” restaurants with our Zoomanity show tickets. Good show, bad choice of restaurant. I know, I know. We ate at Paris twice! I never do that. I almost think think that's a travel “sin”. But we looked down the list of participating establishments and this one looked wonderful. Classic French dishes draped the menu! Shit I tell you. Pure and utter poopie. Everything was A La Carte. Now I don't mind this normally, but each A La Carte item came out horribly prepared. My husband ordered mashed potatoes with brie(for the cost of an arm and a leg) and he sent it back 3 times because it had blue cheese and a thick layer of grease on top each time. The servers were rude(and we looked damn nice that night I might add), the food was horrible, the atmosphere was stuffy and pretentious and it seemed as though if you wanted lemon in your water you needed to pay $7 for it AND promise your first born to the Maitre D'. Don't go there. Don't go there. Please, go somewhere, anywhere else.

Daily Sustenance:

As much as I didn't want to, we did eat some meals in the food courts. You need snacks, quick lunches, sustenance. And the food isn't bad. I had a really good fish taco at Caesar's. I wish I had gone across the street for a $1 hot dog once just to try it out. I think even if it turned out to be crap it was still a good deal. So I suppose you have to pick and choose your battles. We were there for a week, and if we tried to eat great, gourmet food at every meal we would be broke AND we would have had no time to get drunk and loose with our money at the roulette table. Grab a hot dog at lunch. Munch on a food court fish taco if you're hungry. Then enjoy a good meal for dinner and try not to get ripped off. That's about the best advice I can give on the subject.

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