Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fork

Don't you just love it when restaurants have names like this......Fork. I mean, there is no chance of mispronunciation and looking foolish in front of your pals. No, "Oh, we went to the most amazing restaurant last night called exo-chittell(actually spelled Xochitl)l". "You mean, soocheet(phonetically spelled of course)?" they say in that somewhat superior tone. "Uhhh, yes, that's what I meant...what you just said...of course you would pronounce Xochitl soocheet". And then your story about eating grasshoppers and calf's brains suddenly seems less exciting and more like you're describing a great plate of cheese fries at the neighborhood dive bar. And I know, I know. I probably wouldn't want to eat at a restaurant named something like, Mystery Meat and More, or Your Guess Is As Good As Mine. Of course you'd like to get some sort of idea of what you're getting yourself into when you walk in the door and that's when the name of the joint comes in handy. I'm just saying, sometimes good food doesn't need a fancy name. Like the restaurant Fork. They even have a bakery/breakfast/lunch joint attached to the main restaurant called "Fork, etc." Isn't that great! You know what else is great? Their food.

We've had quite a few friends and family visit us since we've moved to Philadelphia. I guess the lore of a hustling, bustling, historic and food-centric city is more tempting than 5 acres down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere Virginia. I can see that(although I'm sure some of them must be missing the bonfires(actually we were just burning down a stump and it took years) in our yard). So whenever we have visitors we take them on the usual tour...cheese steaks, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Elfreth's Alley...Love Park...The Rocky Steps at the Art Museum...ChinaTown...The Italian Market...Reading Terminal Market...you get my drift. And then we always try to find a new but exciting place for dinner. Chloe in Old City used to be a tried and true staple but they've since lost my recommendation due to a less than sterling performance one evening. Farmacia is always a good choice if you're looking for fresh, home style food. And then there's Fork. The hubby and I have been avoiding Fork. We live steps away but the prices always looked a bit too steep AND it wasn't a BYOB(you want to make my day? tell me I can bring my own booze). But we had some friends in from out of town last weekend and on a whim decided to give it a try......

We couldn't get a seat inside due to lack of planning but were able to grab a table on the sidewalk. It was a less than perfect setting due to the parade of buses that march up and down Market street, but it was a lovely evening so we decided to make the best of it. I'm sure you've read by now that my husband and I will eat just about anything and enjoy it. When we were in Munich a few years ago we fell in love with head cheese. Now, I'm not sure if you're familiar with head cheese. I describe it as meat jello. It's basically bits of meat from, you guessed it, the head of an animal(calf, pig, sheep, etc.) seasoned and set in aspic(gelatin made from the natural gelatin found in meat that occurs when boiled then left to cool). It turns out looking like this(top right of this pic) and it's delicious(this plate also featured a lovely terrine, some rillets and other meaty delights). If you closed your eyes and tasted it you would most certainly enjoy the tender meat, delicious mix of flavors and the aspic melting on your tongue. I could eat it like lunch meat. I adore it. It's not one of those items that you run into on every old menu, so when I saw it on Fork's menu as part of a house made charcuterie plate I got a little selfish and decided for the table that we WOULD be having that as a starter. Our friends were quite good sports...tasting a bit here and there but I felt guilty having ordered it for my own selfish reasons...however, 5 mins into chowing down the guilt faded away(or was perhaps eaten away by the head cheese itself) and all I felt was joy.

For the mains....

I had the snapper. I'm a sucker for snapper. We buy a whole snapper about once a week...take it home...stuff it with aromatics and roast it whole. *drool* I wish I had some in the fridge right now. I like getting whole fish at restaurants, but what I like even more is getting a portion of fish....with crispy skin...like fish flavored potato chip(hmmmm, I wonder if the Japanese have thought of that yet...light bulb!). They cooked the fish perfectly(with my potato chip like skin) and then laid it on a bed of English pea ravioli, fiddlehead ferns(this was my first time trying them and honestly the reason I ordered the dish...do you like asparagus and the smell of fresh cut grass? then you might enjoy a good fiddlehead...honestly though, they were delicious and I have since gone to the farmers market and brought back armfuls of them) and a sweet and vinegary sauce that brought out the flavor of everything perfectly. Gooood.

The hubby had the whole cape may fluke. Look at that smile :) The artichokes that accompanied it looked delightful and the fish(so I hear as he left no opening for me to take a taste) was perfectly cooked as well.

Our friends both had the salmon. It was text book salmon and lovely, but I thought the star or their show was the diced yukon gold potato salad tossed in a lemon aioli. I don't know why I haven't been making potatoes this way all along. They go together like...well...yukon gold potatoes and lemon aioli(who says peas and carrots get to corner the market on that one).

So if you're in the Old City area and staring down that long line of restaurants on Market Street take my advice and poke your head in at Fork. Perhaps you'll get lucky and get a table. Or get extra lucky and be able to share it with some good friends(who might just pay for your lovely meal...thanks again guys).

http://www.forkrestaurant.com/

Fork on Urbanspoon

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Il Dolce Far Niente

Il Dolce Far Niente
Have you ever heard this phrase? It's a lovely idea with an even lovelier name. Il Dolce Far Niente is a phrase, idea and all around life philosophy that the Italians cooked up which means(and I'm paraphrasing here), "the sweetness of doing nothing". Even in the hustling, bustling metropolis that is Rome it's obvious that this idea is embraced by many. Most 30-something men still live at home with their parents and the men that are out there on their own and making a living are sure to give themselves ample time to "do nothing" throughout the day. You see an awful lot of locals just, well, sitting and staring with a cup of coffee or cigarette in hand. And I find this ironic. Visitors to Rome, or any part of Italy for that matter, are hard pressed to enjoy Il Dolce Far Niente(unless they're renting a villa in the countryside for a month). I mean, yes, we did have 3 hour dinners(pic above) where we downed litres of delicious house wine and ate course after course of delightful and scrumptious morsels while watching the world go by, but then it was back to hitting the streets because we're in freaking Rome and there's just too much to see!! The Forum, The Colosseum, The Pantheon, The Vatican. Oh, and eat! The list of meats and cheeses... wines and desserts... pastas and breads that I had to check off my culinary list left no time to waste. Then there's the day trips to the sleepy villages. We had to see Anzio and swim in the Mediterranean. We had to experience the small towns on the outskirts of Rome. And it was worth it. It was worth every second of somewhat hectic at times sightseeing. And I wouldn't have changed a thing. But I certainly didn't find my own Il Dolce Far Niente there.
Surprisingly......I found it in Mexico.

I thank my lucky stars the my husband likes to travel as much(almost) as I do. We love immersing ourselves in new cultures. We love traveling to far off places. We love walking a whole city, just trying to look like locals. But we also love sitting on a beach and having someone bring us drinks. I mean, come on, who doesn't. So once a year we take our Il Dolce Far Niente inspired trip. This year it was to The Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The deals right now for Mexico are unheard of. And no. We didn't come back with swine flu. We just came back with a smile on our faces and a fading tan.

The Yucat√°n Peninsula, Mexico... In my opinion it's a frugal traveler's dream vacation destination, and a foolish traveler's invitation to get ripped off. I've been on both sides of that story. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to the all too well known Cancun. An overpopulated strip of beautiful resorts, cheesy theme restaurants and overpriced everything. Then just down the road(and I do mean THE road...there's pretty much just that one along the coast) there is a little town called Playa Del Carmen. I suppose you can call it "Cancun in training". It's an old fishing village that has become a resort town. But the best thing to me was that it didn't seem to lose it's charm in the process. And finally there is Cozumel. Just a short(and cheap) 45min ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen you'll find the island of Cozumel. All three are different, good and bad in their own right. What are you looking for in a vacation?

Il Dolce Far Niente?... and lots of it?
The all-inclusive hotels on the strip somewhere between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen are right for you. These resorts have it all...honestly, everything you need is in one place...and you only have to open your wallet once. Some have room service and beach/poolside waiters... some have their own scuba dive instructors, boats and equipment. They pretty much all have nightly entertainment(casino night, disco night, mariachi bands, etc.), more booze than anyone should have access to, great pools with swim-up bars, a variety of dining options and a variety of daily activities(everything from kayaks to catamarans or bike riding to ping pong)...all included in the price. We sat on the beach for hours...periodically taking a dip in the ocean...while a server walked a quarter mile back and forth in the sand to bring us drinks. We floated around the pool(huge pool) for hours not ever having to get out to get a drink since there were two swim-up bars. One morning the idea of getting dressed for breakfast proved too challenging so we ordered a delightful one through room service. Hmmm, we have two hours between now and dinner shall we go to the sports bar and play some pool or cards? Or shall we ride some bikes across the campus? Maybe we'll sit in he hammocks and drink our cocktails. No, lets pick up where we left off on our week long ping-pong game. This is the kind of doing nothing I like...you can do a lot of nothing...a little nothing...or the true nothing...sleep by the pool all day long.(this was our last trip...we stayed here at the Valentin Imperial...it was rated 5 star, but I'll give it 4...all rooms were suites...there was classy, if not stuffy, dining options but the food was good...this(pic left) was a sea bass, all of the fish I had there was cooked to perfection, the sides on the other hand left a lot to be desired...but if we didn't like a meal at one restaurant we could just mosey on over to another...it was all included...room service and beach service included...lots of activities...and it was off the beaten path and not in Cancun "proper")

Il Dolce Far Niente... and a little adventure?
I'd say Cozumel is probably more up your alley. There are still plenty of large resorts to choose from on Cozumel(so you can still practice doing nothing), but it's a bit more "wild" and adventurous. You can rent scooters for an entire day for just $25USD/person(they also offer 4-person dune buggies and all sorts of Jeeps). You can also find some of the best and cheapest scuba diving all around the island. We bought our trip through a very large dive company(Aquaworld) because we could buy it while drunk and lounging around the pool at our resort AND because it offered full round-trip transportation, gear and lunch(and not the normal "scuba lunch" that consists of a cheese sandwich while still in your wetsuit on the boat...they took you to a local hole in the wall after the dive and let you chow down...yes please!). It was a bit pricey($135usd/person for a two tank dive) and didn't quite offer the personalized attention we've grown to love while diving with the smaller outfits(if you're ever diving is St. Lucia you MUST dive with Frogs, they are wonderful), but it was good. I was told by a few other divers that if you're staying on Cozumel and if you go to a smaller outfit, they can offer you two tank dives for as low as $50usd/person. Now that's a good deal. And the diving is wonderful! It's home to the second largest barrier reef in the world(actually called the Belize Barrier Reef because it stretches from Belize to the Yucatan Peninsula).

Il Dolce Far Niente...and a little Culture?
Then I'd say Playa Del Carmen is the right destination for you. The hotels are much smaller, but they're also located down the small streets and alleys that make up Playa Del Carmen. There are restaurants at every turn, local crafts for sale, little food carts everywhere selling plastic cups filled with local tropical fruits. It's got a more sleepy pace, but there is still quite a lively night life. The back streets and off the beaten path areas were filled with locals...and where there are locals there is local food. Also, Playa Del Carmen is located very close to a number of famous Mayan Ruin sites like Tulum as well as a number of of "eco-parks" like Xcaret. What's Xcaret?? I'll tell you.......

One of the big money makers in the area is the day-trip biz. Do you want to see Mayan ruins? Do you want to take a zip line through the "jungle"(p.s. the jungle that they're talking about is a dirt pit surrounded by brush)? Do you want to snorkel? Do you want to go shopping? Do you want to swim with dolphins? The list goes on and on. If you're looking for a great place to do almost all of these things for one price(and only one day away from enjoying your doing nothing) then go to Xcaret. We did.

Xcaret is what they call an eco-park. It has no rides, it has no pool and it's lined with dirt paths. BUT. It's got some other very nice things going for it. It was lovely. Pricey($90 USD/person). But lovely. It was kind of a one-stop-shop for tourists. It had some Mayan ruins(the ruins are behind our massive heads)....





It had traditional Mayan inspired shows like these flying guys...

It had a natural, underground river that you can snorkel through(this surprised the hell out of me...the water was crystal clear and at parts you could see down into these deep, cavernous holes under the river...it was sort of like cave diving minus the scary parts)...It had turtles and turtle breeding grounds, dolphins, sharks, monkeys, jaguars, a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, a bat cave(literally a cave that you walked into filled with bats overhead), the list goes on. It had this beautiful coastline with spot after spot after spot of places to hop in and swim or snorkel...I'm not usually one to say that spending $90(we got the "package" deal and spend$130) per person on a day trip is a good idea, but this place is really worth seeing. And you can practically fit a dozen day trips into one day...easily. Now, I know I said that this was a tourist place, but I think there were as many(if not more) Mexicans there than non-Mexicans. And where you find locals you also find local food. There was a plethora of dining options in this place. They all said they featured some Mexican food but one said it featured ALL Mexican food. I believe our guide told us in broken English, "Not wanna-be Mexican...real Mexican". And it was. Look at this picture.....This plate alone has the following on it...clockwise from the top...lamb(probably sheep) tostada, chicharron, pickled jalapenos, fried pork belly, caso blanco empanada, "traditional" stewed pork, "traditional" rice, Vera Cruz style fish(white fish in capers, tomatoes, onions and spices I couldn't identify), pickled pork fat on flour tortilla(this was interesting...kind of like pork ceviche), chicken tamale, smoked pork rib tips(towards the middle)....and a tomato. I'm not sure why I though putting that lone tomato on my plate would help make me feel better about eating a half a pig ;) Oh...and the chicharron! My husband ate a chicharron(cracklings, pork rinds, all the same thing) the size of a car tire on the way out the door. The food here was amazing. Go in with an empty stomach, an open mind and no aversion to the "other" bits of the pig. Lately I've come to believe that if this poor pig died for us we should not let the less popular bits go to waste. Plus.....they taste friggin' amazing.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New York Times, Let Me In - Not By The Hair Of My Gin-ey Gin Gin


I read a NY Times article in 2007 called, No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis, by Eric Asimov. The article itself was good, informative, not mind-blowing, but that title(great title), and the subject matter(GREAT subject matter), and the fact that he got paid for putting this delightful article together really got me. I mean, I fell in love at that moment with the idea that maybe, one day you or I or anyone could do something that we love(and get paid for it)...like being invited to have a 20 martini lunch with 3 friends, write about your experience(if you can remember it) and walk out with a big fat check for your "trouble". Yup, I was smitten. So recently, when I was taking my weekly, leisurely stroll through my neighborhood liquor store and spotted Pennsylvania's OFFICIAL Wine and Spirits Quarterly with this issue's headliner, "Gin Classics" it caught my eye. Now, I'm certainly no writer for the NY Times, and I'm anything but close to getting paid for writing my blog, but I know my way around a martini, and I've sampled my fair share(ok, who are we kidding, and YOUR share) of gin. So in the spirit of spirits, and with high hopes that one day I might be paid to have a 20 martini lunch, here is my Drink of the Month post...NY Times, let me in - not by the hair of my Gin-ey Gin Gin

This month I'm going to post a recipe(if you can even call it that) that is close to my heart...and on most nights my lips, gums and belly as well. It's a martini recipe, and about as simple as they come. But it's less about the recipe as it is about gin in general. I remember when I first fell in love with gin. I was at a gala filled with, well, lets call them "older than me" folks. I was easily the youngest person there. This was a classy shin-dig with an open bar and the only thing I could think to order at the time in my life(that wasn't a Jager Bomb or something along those lines) was a Cosmopolitan. Good choice. Classy and feminine. Then all of the sudden I witnessed a gentleman mosey(or maybe amble...no! saunter...yes...saunter!) up to the bar and order a, and I quote, "Beefeater on the rocks with a couple of olives". Ahhhhh! I had no idea you could order something without a "name". I didn't know you could just ask for something that you wanted...specifically wanted...that didn't have any sort of cute moniker. I was floored! So I ordered one(or 4) of them. Then I was in heaven...and then back to being floored again(more specifically on the floor later that night). But it grew on me, and now gin is most likely one of my great loves and yes, at times, great enemies. I think Eric Asimov called gin a "thinking person's spirit". It's vodka that took a year to study abroad and absorb all sorts of foreign ideas. It's a drink that was the ruin of many a great mind...but I'm sure that mind loved it while it lasted. I still love my gin(Bombay - not Bombay Sapphire - good 'ol Bombay w/the red and white label - but I drink Seagram's most often as it's most likely the best tasting gin for the money) on the rocks with a couple of olives. But I love martinis as well. My martini is often made to the liking of those who feel that a good martini is when you shake gin over ice, walk by the shaker with an open bottle of vermouth, then without adding said vermouth just pour the gin into a martini glass and add a few olives. There are may who feel this way. But if you want the best martini that actually follows the guidelines set by our martini creating forefathers, then this is the recipe for you. It's my husband's recipe(I think made especially for me but he'll never admit it), and it's wonderful.

Martini:::

-Ice
-Enough gin to almost fill whatever martini glass you have(must be gin...a martini with vodka is a "vodkatini"...still good...but I have to go with tradition...not a "martini")
-About a half cap-full of vermouth
-3 olives(pitted)
-1 toothpick(I mean come on...if you're going to "class it up" and drink a martini you sure as hell don't want to be digging into your glass with your grubby little hands to fish out those olives)

Put a few ice cubes in shaker. Add the vermouth. Swish vermouth in shaker. Pour vermouth out(you just wanted to coat the cubes in vermouth). Add gin. Shake well. Pour in glass(straight up - sans ice). Add olive. Repeat...because you know you want to.

So I said "enough gin to almost fill whatever martini glass you have" right? But I didn't say what gin. Here is a rundown of many of the gin I've tried(not nearly all) that I think will be easy to find and are most certainly worth trying:

Beefeater - what I would consider to be a "mild" gin - not overly flowery - I've even been a few sheets to the wind and thought it was vodka(not one of my finer moments)













Bluecoat
- A Philly produced gin - delicious au-natural or in a martini - it's got a great balance(something I adore in a gin) - I don't recommend for mixing with tonic though













Bombay - My favorite gin of all time - perfect mix(in my mind) of mild flavor and botanical essence













Bombay
Sapphire - Heavy on the botanicals - I think it's overpriced












Citadelle - Perfect specimen of a French gin - they say they use 19 botanicals but it's not overpowering in the least - I would definitely try this if you're a gin-virgin













Gordon's
- Decent priced bar staple type gin - great for mixing - not flowery in the least










Hendrick's gin
- not for the faint of heart - this puppy packs a crazy punch of spices - I don't know what to recommend doing with it - but you should definitely try it once(buy a small bottle if you can find one)












Plymouth gin - This gin won the 4 people 80 martini taste test in the NY Times article I wrote about - they said it made the perfect martini - I like it as well and it does go well with a bit of vermouth(not every gin does) - I would most likely only use this gin for martinis













Seagram's Gin
- Good substitute for Bombay for the price and an all around winner - I use it in everything from martinis to tonics to on the rocks - very versatile - and from Canada you hosers












Tanqueray - I know a lot of people drink Tanqueray and Tonics and I have to admit, I'd rather have it with tonic than in a martini - but it's good in it's own right
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Waste Not - Want Not

What's that saying? Couples that play together stay together? Yah, I think that's it. And I have to agree with it. The hubby and I have lots of hobbies together. We play tennis, we target shoot, we travel, we scuba dive, we shop for old vinyl records, the list goes on and on. But unfortunately we only get to do these things once a week or month or sometimes year. That's when food comes to the rescue. I mean, lets face it. We eat every day...multiple times a day. What better way to spend quality time together than over a glass of wine and a medium rare piece of meat! Lots of our quality time together is spent hanging around the kitchen, mixing cocktails, listening to old records(breaking out in dance every once in a while) and cooking together. Or sometimes it's at the farmer's market on a Saturday afternoon, just strolling through the rows and rows of fresh, exciting food, and filling our baskets until they overflow. Unfortunately, sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs(yes, we have some gigantic eyes) and we purchase enough food to feed a small army. Then 5 days later when I get the itch to go spend some more dough at the farmer's market I look at the fridge and notice a few stragglers...some left-over elk steaks(last week the hubby went on a bit of a wild-game kick) that don't look nearly as yummy as they did a few days prior, or that lonely bunch of broccoli that's seen better days. We've all been here, and unfortunately sometimes it's just easier to throw those leftovers and stragglers away and start fresh. But don't. Next time you're face to face with this situation take the opportunity to get the most out of your buck, feel good about eating everything on the proverbial plate and try something new. Here's the first of my new monthly installments........Waste Not - Want Not

I have a dozens, maybe even hundreds of Waste Not - Want Not recipes that I've come up with over the years. Most of them are just normal dishes created out of leftover proteins or vegetables. I probably make my "fill in the blank meat" and black bean burritos 2 or 3 times a month because they're just so darn tasty, quick as can be to make AND you can use up just about any meat you've got lying around. But yesterday as I reached for the flour tortillas all I saw was an empty space. We were out. "Ugggg" I said to myself, "This leftover elk isn't going south of the border tonight". Instead I glanced at a container of fresh English peas and light bulb! Shepherd's Pie.I know, a piping hot mound of stewed beef and mashed potatoes doesn't exactly scream "spring", but the fresh, buttery English peas bring enough sunshine to the party.

Shepherd's Pie

1/2 - 3/4 pound of leftover red meat(elk, beef, venison, lamb, etc.) cut into small squares(I'll never make Shepherd's Pie with ground meat again...the small cubes are the way to go...if you don't have leftover meat just dice up some fresh stuff)

1 tbs. olive oil

1 tbs. butter

1 carrot diced

1/2 onion diced

1 stalk celery diced

1 parsnip diced

2 cloves garlic finely chopped

1/4 cup red wine

3/4 to 1 cup chicken/vegetable/beef broth(whatever you've got...or water if you don't have broth)

3 - 4 tbs. flour

1 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary

1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme

1 tbs. onion powder

1/2 tsp. black pepper

salt to taste at end

Topping:

4 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cubed

1/2 cup swiss cheese

1 tbs. butter

1/4 - 1/2 cup milk

S&P

Melt the butter and oil in a large, high sided skillet, add the carrots, celery, onion, parsnip and garlic and sweat on med/low heat until somewhat soft(7 - 10 mins). Add the diced meat, thyme, rosemary, black pepper, onion powder, then sprinkle the whole shebang with flour. Stir until everything is coated and cook for 1 min to brown the flour slightly. Then add the broth and red wine, scrape any bits off the bottom of the pan, stir thoroughly to be sure there are no lumps of flour, then turn the heat down to a barely there simmer and cook for about 45 mins to an hour(taste the meat at intervals to gauge tenderness...if you pull the meat prior to 30 or 45 mins it will inevitably be tougher than you'd like). You want the meat to become tender and the sauce to thicken. If it becomes too thick too early just add more broth/water.

When you have about 30 mins of cooking time left start boiling the potatoes(and pre-heat your oven to 400). Once they're fork tender, drain and add butter and milk and mash. Once you've got somewhat firm mashed potatoes, add the cheese. You want these potatoes to be thicker than your normal mashed taters. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

When both components are ready layer the meat mixture in a buttered casserole dish and gently spread the mashed potatoes over the meat until covered completely. Bake at 400 for about 10 - 15 mins then place under the broiler for 2 or 3 mins until the potatoes become golden brown. Remove from the oven and let sit for 10 mins minimum before serving. It's hot!! Enjoy with a side of buttered peas....or just an ice cold Guinness. I know this recipe seems labor intensive and long...but my husband and I ate 4 servings worth and we weren't even that hungry...it's that good.
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