Monday, July 27, 2009

Low Country - Charleston, South Carolina

My husband hates the heat, isn't that fond of the beach but loves Charleston, South Carolina. How can this be you ask? I asked myself the same thing. Most days it's 95 degrees with about 85% humidity in that low-country area. The whole place is one big marsh and beach. How can HE love it there? But while we were down there last weekend he explained to me that, "yes it's hot, and yes, there is sand and sun" but Charleston has, "a lot to offer"... and I couldn't agree with him more.

Charleston is, in my opinion, not your typical beach community. It has it all. There is a wonderfully quaint downtown with some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. There is a lovely (albeit somewhat crowded) beach with powder-like sand and a bath-water warm ocean. There are mazes of small creeks, bayous and such in the outlying areas of Charleston, where you'll find beautiful birds, pristine flats of marsh as far as you can see and the most "southern looking" grand, old trees. The trees are gorgeous...and they look as though they too feel the heat and humidity and show it with their weepy branches, draped with low hanging moss. It really is quite a lovely area and small enough to allow easy access to whatever may tickle your fancy.
So here is a list of things to do, see, buy, eat and enjoy. We were lucky enough to be down there for our friends' John and Lindsey's wedding, but you don't have to wait for an invitation like that to visit (although it was wonderful...thanks you two...and congrats!!). So grab your sunscreen, bring your appetite for shrimp and head down to Charleston for a good 'ol Low-Country time.

I was so jealous walking through Charleston. Having lived in Richmond, once the capital of the confederacy and full of history, you would expect most of the buildings there to be old, historic and, well, actually there. Unfortunately Richmond was burned pretty much to the ground during the civil war…Charleston, however, was not. Actually, there was very little property damage after Charleston was captured so the historic part of town is lined with beautiful old structures...houses and churches alike. I must have taken about a dozen picture of this architectural oddity that seemed to be part of most houses in the historic district. As you can see there is a very normal "front door" attached to most everyone's porch. I can only assume that rocking chair theft was a very real danger back in the 1700's. Or, that people were just very fond of their porches. I could probably research this one but honestly, I'd like to fill my head with all sorts of wild assumptions instead. It's just more fun this way.
See the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Charleston is right proud of this place, and I can understand why. The basement is actually a dungeon...and at one point it held real live pirates! I wonder if any of them were as good looking as Johnny Depp? Probably not huh? Anyway. The dungeon was pretty cool and I loved the story about how Charlestons' residents had a love hate relationship with pirates. They sold cheap goods that had "fallen off the back of a" well, I guess ship back then, so the residents loved the bargains...but hated the plundering, debauchery and such. I guess it was a bit of a double edged sword me mateees. The rest of the building has some historical relevance but honestly, compared to pirates it was downright boring. Oh, and just like Boston, most of Charleston has been built on marsh land by "filling in" the wetland areas. Last time I was in Boston I sat through an hour long description of how they did it there and I still can't wrap my mind around what it would take to build half a city on what is nature's equivalent of a wet sponge, so this amazes the heck out of me. At one time the water backed up against the back wall of the Old Exchange. If you were there and saw how far it was away from the ocean you would be amazed.

See the vegetation, foliage, landscaping, gardens....basically the plants. I think Savannah has to be next on my Southern Cities list because although I didn't know this before, I just found out that I love tiny, creepy, almost over-grown gardens and cemeteries. I just couldn't get enough of them. And they were everywhere. Some were between people's houses. Some were behind churches. Some were just in alley-ways. Some were well kept. Some looked like they were going to consume the wrought iron fences that tried to keep them contained. All were worth a look.

I don't usually put a "shop" section in my travel blogs but here's the exception. Shop the outdoor Market at, where else but Market Street. Our friend Amber told us we should go and I'm glad she did. My husband LOVES haggling. We buy about $100 worth of crap whenever we're in Mexico because haggling is a sport to him and if had he not haggled we would have bought $300 worth of crap. Well done Nick! This market in Charleston reminded me of the outdoor markets in Mexico. It's filled with all sorts of goods (leather goods, jewelry, clothing, arts and crafts, hot sauce, etc.) and it seems to go on forever. I'm not sure if people did a whole lot of bargaining here, but it seemed to me like the type of place where it would be ok to at least try to say, "I'll give you five bucks for that".

Do bring your bathing suit and do visit the ocean. It's a bit more crowded than I expected but I think it's because the beach is pretty narrow. But go early and claim your spot. You'll be happy that you did. The water is warm...very warm. The sand is soft...very soft. There are plenty of beach access points and parking is only $5. Not too shabby.

Speaking of bathing suits. If for some reason you find yourself bathing suit clad in the middle of Charleston go ahead and walk over to the fountain at Water Front Park near the French Quarter. You may, and are encouraged to wade in it. There were some other fountains in the area (pic) that didn't have "no lifeguard on duty" signs next to them so I'm not completely sure if wading in them was acceptable, but if I were you I would play dumb and say something like, "If you're going to post a "no lifeguard on duty" sign next to one fountain you really should post a "no swimming" sign next to all of the other ones". I wasn't wearing a bathing suit...but after a few hours of walking through Charleston in late July I almost got in the fountain fully'll see what I mean if you go there.

There are plenty of plantations to visit as well. Having lived in a plantation packed town in VA we were happy to skip it but I hear they're beautiful. There are also plenty of nature tours available. We didn't have time to take a 3 hour kayak tour of the swamps but I really wish we did. I think if we ever return to Charleston I'll be sure to check that one off my list. I can't even iimagine all of the wildlife that there is to be discovered in those marshy, swampy areas.

Yes. This was the license plate on our rental car. It's as if they were waiting for us :) Charleston has some of the best food I've ever consumed...and lots of it. I think everyone there takes immense pride in their food. I know you're not going to believe me but I swear I had one of the best pieces of carved turkey at John and Lindsey's wedding reception (at the Dunes West Golf Club...beautiful...just beautiful) that I've ever had. I know it sounds silly for me to rave over turkey, but I think it illustrates my point. They take pride in every meal they make...whether it's "true" southern style food or just a great classic. They all have a passion for food and it shows everywhere you look. I also had some bitchin' shrimp and grits at the wedding. Just had to throw that one in there. So get out there and eat. The downtown area is teeming with great restaurants. I stuffed my face as much as time would allow and I didn't even scratch the surface. Eat low-country cuisine. Eat seafood. And eat some high-on-the-hog low-country cuisine. Charleston does all three wonderfully.

Eat at Hominy Grill:
It's not quite in the middle of it all but it is amazing. Now. I don't always do everything Anthony Bourdain tells me to, but in this case, I saw him visit Hominy Grill on his show and I just had to go. They cook classic, good 'ol fashioned low-country cuisine and they cook it well. They start you off with boiled peanuts for the table. If you've never had them you must try them once. I'm sure that there are two quite distinct types of people when it comes to boiled peanuts. Those who love them and those who just can't get over their weird texture. They don't taste like peanuts at all and their texture is somewhere along the lines of cooked chick peas. But please try them. They're a taste experience to say the least. I had the shrimp and grits...of course. The hubby had the Low Country Purloo, which was a rice dish topped with sausage, ham, shrimp and fried chicken wings(of which he demolished). And our friend Amber had the catfish with fried cheese grits(pic right). I think she might have had the winner with that one. The catfish was crispy. The grits were to die for and she doesn't even like grits. A+ for Hominy Grill. Oh....and the staff was great. Super friendly and attentive. I think our waiter might have gone a little overboard on the southern hospitality, accent and "ma'am's"... but I found it charming.

Over the bridge in Mt. Pleasant or Isle of Palms? Looking for some water front dining and a great view? Eat here: Vickery's at Shem Creek:
Ok. So there are a few locations in this "chain". It looks like one in Atlanta and a few in Charleston. Not normally a good sign. And look at that website!? Doesn't exactly say fine dining huh? Lucky for me I didn't know anything about this place when our friends John and Lindsey...yes, bride and groom...booked this place for a dinner and drinks get-together. If I had seen the web site or know it was a chain I would have had a bit of a prejudice before I walked in. And I'm a bit ashamed of that. Because the place was great! The view was wonderful(Pic: Nick and John enjoying the view...John is the proud writer of Rare & Well-Done's "stogie" section). The bar-tenders were great. And I have no complaints about the food. Nick and I shared the Low-country Saute'(pic left) to start. It was filled with crab, crawfish, shrimp, fried oysters, all in a bourbon butter over grits. I don't have a single bad thing to say about this dish. It was perfect. Since we enjoyed that so much we decided to try the crab cakes. They were good. Lots of crab...not a lot of cake...just as they should be. I've eaten some great crab cakes in my day and these weren't the best, but certainly were noteworthy. I think I was mostly taken by the yummy cajun remoulade sauce that they came with. Me likey saucey. Now, Nick and I "technically" stopped our meal there, BUT, we did do a little bit of picking off some friends' plates. Our friends Coach and Amber(a Jersey girl too) got a plate of fries with pepper gravy and we just had to steal a few. If I weren't surrounded by people I would have eaten the gravy with a spoon. It's sort of like the brown gravy they serve with steak fries in Jersey Diners...but a thousand times better. Move over cheese fries...there's a new tater topping in town.

Want to put on a pretty sundress or a pair of khakis and a pink polo shirt and go out to a nice meal(what is it with Charleston men and pink??)? Head over to S.N.O.B.:
It's actually called Slightly North Of Broad but I have a feeling locals love going to a place called snob. This place was fantastic. I heard rave reviews about it, and in a town full of great restaurants all fighting to be crowned best New Southern American (I guess...who really knows what to call this) restaurant, you have to be this good. We started out with the pork belly. Yes. I know. We eat a lot of pork belly. But there's a reason for's finger licking good and almost impossible to screw up. They paired it with an arugula, goat cheese and walnut salad and topped it with slices of probably the freshest peach I've ever eaten. Now the arugula, walnut and goat cheese I've seen before. A lot. What I haven't seen before??? Pork and peaches. I have no idea why I've never thought of this. It was amazing. I think I'm going to try it with some bone-in pork chops this week. If it turns out well you have to try it too. If'll have to go to S.N.O.B. and try this dish because everyone needs to taste this combo. For the mains we had the specials. Nick had the bbq tuna(pic left) and I had the swordfish(pic right). I think I had the winner here. You never see swordfish on a menu right? And understandably so. It is a big 'ol bitch to get right. Sometimes it's oily. Sometimes it's dry. Not this bad boy. My swordfish was so good Nick wanted to ask the waitress to seat him at a different table to stop me from oooing and aahhhing over it. It came with a vegetable medly. I think it was corn, tomatoes and okra. All bursting at the seams with flavor this time of year and I was so happy to have them accompanying my fish. The drinks were good and not overly expensive as well. The dessert, as usual, wasn't quite up to par with the mains, but it was good. I mean, it was peach cobbler. Fresh peaches, crumbly top and ice cream. It can't be bad.

So even though I went into Charleston hoping to discover that one, undiscovered gem of a restaurant and ended up going to one of the most popular places in town and another place that was on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, I'm happy. There's a reason why these places are popular. They're darn good.

Well. This all depends on what you're looking for. If you want to go to the beach every day I recomend staying in Mt. Pleasant. It's just over the bridge from Charleston and there are some decent deals to be had on hotels there. All you have to do is drive about 8 mins down the Isle of Palms Connector and you are AT the beach. You practically drive in to the ocean. And even though you're not in the middle of the city there's still plenty to do in Mt. Plesant. A few miles away you'll find Shem Creek. It's an area on the water packed with restaurants and bars. There's also PLENTY of golfing opportunities to those who desire to do so (I thought that golfing in that heat would be painful at best, but when our friend Coach came back from his golf outing with the groomsmen he let us in on the secret...apparently the beer carts "make" the game. Now that I know this I too may think of taking up golfing). We stayed in Mt. Pleasant because it was close to the church and reception and I have no complaints. It was lovely. Coach, Amber, Nick and I shared a two bedroom suite in an extended stay type place. That's the way to go if you're traveling with friends or family. I highly recommend it. Oh. And when you do decide to drive into Charleston proper park in the Public Parking decks. It's dirt cheap during the weekdays and it's FREE on the weekends.

If you want to walk, and drink, and eat and not have to worry about getting in a car most of the time you're there...stay down town. Charleston is really not that big so even though you'll sweat a bit during your journey, walking is a great way to see the city. I thought the French Quarter and Broad Street area seemed to be in the center of it all. You probably won't get an outdoor pool like we had at our hotel or a full size kitchen (I'm a big fan of these extended stay hotels...every room should have a full size fridge in it) but you'll probably get some classy diggs in a great location.

Before I sign off I just have to wish John and Lindsey all the happiness in the world. I took a bunch of great pictures of them all decked out and posing perfectly, but this one is my favorite. They're taking a well deserved break from being a great host and hostess (and perhaps hiding from the barage of photo ops) and hopefuly ejnoying the lovely location that they picked for their reception. I can promise you I enjoyed it.
John and Lindsey...congratulations you two!

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Hi out there to all of you folks that visit Rare & Well-Done. I just wanted to take a minute to say how much I appreciate your support! If you're an avid follower you can add your profile to the "followers" section of my banner. Just click the "follow" link. You can never have too many followers! Also, if you've got about 2 seconds, you can scroll down to the bottom right hand side of the banner and vote for me as a FoodBuzz Featured Publisher. Just click the "vote" button and you're all set. So thanks again and stay tuned for my next post...Charleston, South Carolina...coming any day now!
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Surprise!...guests that is...put down the toilet seats, sweep the dog hair under the rug and hope you've got something to feed them

I love entertaining. No. Strike that. I'm not sure if you can call what I do entertaining (unless you're talking about me burning myself or breaking things while company is over). I love food, drinks, music and people. And there's nothing better than putting them all together at my house. I'm no Martha Stewart... far from it in fact. I'll admit that I join right in the party when I have company. My place settings are nothing more than my every day dishes and to make it extra special I break out actual napkins instead of the ripped-in-half paper towels I usually use at dinner. If I have fresh cut flowers on the table it's only ever by pure coincidence and I'm sure I've accidentally served one or two guests a drink in a dirty glass. Sorry. But for me a get together isn't all about pinkies in the air and pomp and circumstance. I like to graze on yummy finger food, mix drinks and demolish cheese trays. I like to play old records and get extra loud and rowdy. I like to tell stories. I like to laugh... a lot. And I like to not worry about having to talk to my guest over my shoulder as I cook something elaborate that needs to be served last minute. And I certainly don't want to dread inviting people over at the last minute. Some of my favorite get-togethers have been very spur of the moment. "You'll be over in 45 minutes?" I say to them over the phone. "No problem...Can't wait to see you!". And I mean it. No problem! Want to never worry again about having to entertain some spur of the moment guests? Or just cut down on your stress level for a planned gathering? I can help.
I'm sure you've caught the tail end of a Food Network show where they're saying, "These are all items I'm sure you have in your pantry", and then they go on to list truffle oil, Spanish imported Marcona Almonds, 10 year plus aged balsamic vinegar, etc. Then you sit there thinking to yourself, "How pathetic is my poor pantry that I only have REGULAR almonds and store brand olive oil!". Don't let them get to you, and even more important, don't just stock your cabinet with chips, salsa and pretzels. Here are some things you can keep in your pantry AND in your fridge to be used in all sorts of yummy ways at a moment's notice:

-Good crackers: Crackers are the backbone of a party. You can put ANYTHING on them and you'd be shocked at how many crackers that lone picky eater will consume. I keep Stoned Wheat or Water crackers on hand at all times.

-Dried fruit(stone fruit) : I keep a bag of dried stone fruit in the closet at all times. Adding a handful of them to a cheese plate makes it look fancy, kind of healthy and pretty. Plus, if you keep dried figs in that mix you can make this compote to spread on a cracker then top with a soft cheese. I haven't found a better accompaniment for cheese yet: Fig Compote (recipe at bottom of page)

-Nuts(almonds, walnuts, peanuts, any kind will do) : Nuts are another versatile item. You can make candied nuts to top a last minute, boring salad: Candied walnuts (no real recipe...put walnuts in a dry pan on medium heat and sprinkle with granulated sugar...stir steadily until coated with melted sugar and for burning as it can happen fast) or you can make either of these awesome bar mixes out of them: Maple Rosemary Nuts OR Honey Roasted Peanuts (recipes at bottom of page)

-Honey : Drizzle honey over fresh strawberries, use it in your Honey Roasted Peanuts, or make one of my all time favorites...Honey, Ricotta and Pine Nuts on a Toast Point (another non-recipe...take old baguette...slice thin and toast in oven on both sides...let with a dollop of ricotta, then drizzle with honey and top with a few toasted pine nuts). The hubby loves the ricotta and honey mixture. I think you will too!

-Onions : I'm not sure if I could cook a meal without onions. I use them in just about everything. So if you've got some in your pantry you're in luck. You can make either of these showstoppers: Swiss and Onion Tarts (recipe below) These are SO yummy and couldn't be easier. Store bought phyllo dough from your freezer (another staple ... more below), onions and some cheese! And people think you worked so hard on them...suckers ;) Caramelized Onion Dip (recipe at bottom of page) I took this to a family picnic a few weeks ago and people just about licked the bowl when it was all gone. Caramelizing the onions takes a bit of time but once it's done you just mix a few other staples together and there you have it. A dip that isn't your same old Lipton Onion Soup Mix dip. Serve with some pita chips, crackers or some crudites if you have fresh veggies in your fridge.

-Cheese!!!! : Cheese has such a good shelf life if properly stored. Even if you get a little bit of mold on it just scrape it away and you're all set. And who doesn't love cheese?? A nice brie on a board with some of those crackers and stone fruit from your pantry and you have a classic AND about the easiest last minute snack to put out for those "We'll be over in FIVE minutes" guests. I try to keep these cheeses at all times: Cream cheese(I use it in the onion tarts and prosciutto purses). Ricotta(in the Ricotta, Honey Toast Points). Swiss(In the Onion Tarts AND as a good mild cheese for a cheese board). Good, sharp cheddar(cheese board cheese and I pretty much always have it for last minute quesadillas or tacos). Goat(best cheese for a boring salad along with those Candied Nuts I talked about). Sometimes I'll pick up a nice, soft cheese or one speckled with truffles for a special occasion, but you can do so much with just these staples.

-Cured meat : Have you ever noticed how long prosciutto or pepperoni or hard salami lasts in the fridge? I swear it only gets better with time (ok...maybe that's not entirely true...but you get my drift). Keep some good pepperoni or hard salami for your cheese boards...the carnivores at your party will appreciate it. OR make this super easy and oh so yummy finger food with some prosciutto and a few of your other staples Prosciutto Purses - with cream cheese, goat cheese and dill (recipe at bottom of page). **A good chartucerie plate can go a long way. Here is a picture of the real deal(pic right). This is from Beneluxx Tasting Room in Old City Philly. This guy makes all of his cured meats in-house. If you can pull something like this off you've got it made. Until then some good cheese and a few slices of prosciutto will certainly be well received**

-Good olives: For martinis!! When I lived in the country I would lose my mind if I ran out of green olives for my martinis. Because of that, to this day, I still keep a few jars in the pantry. You can also toss plain old green olives in a quick marinade of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and and italian blend of dried spices and serve OR if you keep a pre-made jar of marinated olives in your pantry you can just tell people you marinated them's ok...I won't tell ;)

-Phyllo dough: This is the trick to making those Swiss and Onion Tarts I talked about. Also, it lasts for an eternity in your fridge so you can break it out at any time you need it. Looking for one of the most versatile recipe bases ever? Line muffin tins with a few layers of phyllo dough (dabbing it with butter between each layer) then bake until just golden. You can fill these puppies with anything! Sweetened ricotta and fresh fruit (or macerate your fruit in some sugar and balsamic vinegar then top your tart with it), cheesy vegetable mixture (then bake off again with tin foil over the tarts to they don't burn...remove tin foil during the last minute or so of baking), or you could even fill it with some pre-made chili and top it with some cheese. That would be delicious! The sky is the limit for these puppies. **pic left...I couldn't find my muffin tins last weekend so I improvised and rolled it around my cheesy vegetable mixture...the proof is in the turned out great!**

-Frozen shrimp(raw): Did you know that most of the shrimp you buy "fresh" at the grocery store was previously frozen aboard a ship or at the farm? Yup. A lot of the seafood you buy has been flash frozen and then shipped. Now, some seafood doesn't hold up to freezing as well as you would hope...but that's not the case with shrimp. A bag of good quality frozen(raw) shrimp in your fridge can go far. You can make a classic... Shrimp Cocktail (recipe at bottom of page) or Bacon Wrapped Shrimp(just wrap thawed, peeled shrimp in bacon, secure w/tooth pick and either bake at 375, flipping halfway through until done OR pan sear, flipping until bacon is crisp and shrimp is pink) (bacon can be frozen too and this should also be a staple...bacon freezes VERY well) or if you can chop up some left over Shrimp Scampi or Cocktail, mix with mayo, salt, pepper and chopped celery and fill a phyllo cup with it. Maybe line the cup with some lettuce and you are ALL set.

Noticed that you haven't seen a lot of veggies in this list. You can always put out some crudites with your onion dip or add frozen spinach to your onion tarts if you've got it. But fresh fruits and veggies don't notoriously have the best shelf life so I didn't include them in this "out of the pantry" list of recipes.

Have some time to plan for your get together and need something WOW worthy? Make this pate'. It takes a little work, but with the time you're saving on the rest of your munchies, you can do it. Even non-liver-lovers will gobble this up. And the best part is it costs next to nothing to create.
Chicken Liver Pate::::
-3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
-4 bacon slices, chopped
-1 1/2 cups chopped onion
-1 garlic clove, minced
-12 oz chicken livers, trimmed
-1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, cut into cubes
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
-2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, quartered
-2 tablespoons dry Sherry, bourbon, or Cognac
-1 1/4 teaspoons salt
-Fresh parsley sprig

Melt 1/4 cup butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add onion and sauté until pale golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Add chicken livers, apple, and marjoram; sauté until livers are no longer pink inside and apple is soft, about 8 minutes.
Transfer warm liver mixture to processor. Add hard-boiled eggs, Sherry, and salt; puree until almost smooth. Transfer mixture to fine to medium sieve set over large bowl. Using sturdy rubber spatula, press mixture through sieve into bowl. Mix in remaining 1/2 cup butter. Season pâté to taste with freshly ground pepper. Cover and chill.

Fig Compote::::
-1/2 cup dried mission figs
-1 tsp. orange marmalade or jam
-1 tbs. orange juice
-1 tsp. brandy(I've used bourbon or dark rum in a pinch as well)

If you have one of those mini-food processors throw the figs in it and let 'er rip until figs are very finely chopped. OR just finely chop by hand. Add all ingredients to a sauce pan and cook on med-low heat for about 5 to 7 mins or until the mixture thickens a bit. If too thick add more orange juice...if too thin cook some more. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with cheese tray. It goes SO well with brie and nutty swiss cheeses. AND it's to die for on a cracker with some pate'. I want some now.

Maple Rosemary Cashews::::
-8 cups(this make a lot) raw cashews (you can substitute other nuts but the cashews really are tops)
-5 tablespoons pure maple syrup
-2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
-1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
-1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
-Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375. In a large bowl, toss the cashews with the maple syrup, olive oil, rosemary and cayenne. Spread the cashews on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned. Immediately season the cashews with salt and pepper; let cool, tossing occasionally.

Honey Roasted Peanuts::::
-2 cups peanuts
-2 tbs. butter (real's important)
-2 1/2 tbs. honey
-2 tbs. granulated sugar for coating - optional

Preheat oven to 350. Heat butter and honey in the microwave until butter is melted. Toss with peanuts. Spread mixture on foil lined baking sheet(not greased) and bake for 5 - 7 mins, checking and stirring every other minute or so. Remove when they are a golden brown. You'll recognize the color of store bought honey roasted peanuts. As with all nuts watch carefully while cooking as they can burn easily. Once removed let cool for 1 - 2 mins then toss with granulated sugar if desired. Let cool then serve. These are worth every second of cook time. They're amazing.

Prosciutto Purses::::
-12 slices of prosciutto (domestic is ok for this)
-1 1/2 tbs. fresh dill (chopped)
-1/4 cup cream cheese (at room temp)
-1/8 cup goat cheese (at room temp)
-1/2 tsp. black pepper
Mix the dill, cream cheese, goat cheese and pepper together. Spread the mixture in a very thin layer on each slice of prosciutto. Roll length wise and place on serving tray seam down. Enjoy!

Swiss and Onion Tart::::
-1 medium onion
-2 1/2 tbs. butter
-6 sheets of phyllo dough
-1/2 cup swiss cheese
-1/8 cup cream cheese
-1/2 tsp. onion powder
-1/2 tsp. black pepper
-salt to taste

Slice the onion thin and slowly sautee in 1 tbs. of butter until translucent over med-low heat. Meanwhile stack the 6 sheets of phyllo dough and cut into circles big enough to fit whatever muffin tins your using with some overlap (this recipe makes about 6 big tarts or 12 mini-muffin size tarts). Take the phyllo rounds and begin layering in the greased muffin tins, one layer at a time, brushing with butter between each layer (use that extra 1 1/2 tbs. of melted butter for this). Bake the phyllo, empty, at 350 for about 10 - 12 mins or until just barely golden. You don't want them to get golden brown yet. Remove and fill with this mixture: sauteed onion, swiss, cream cheese, onion powder, black pepper and salt(all stirred together of course). Bake filled tarts, covered with foil for another 10 mins then remove cover and bake for another 2-3 mins until phyllo is golden in color. ******This is just the most bare bones and basic "use what you've got in the house" version of this. You can add LOTS of things. I added sauteed swiss chard and bacon last weekend and they were wonderful...use your imagination! My muffin tins were missing last weekend so I rolled the phyllo around the stuffing instead of filling tins and it worked just as well(Picture above in the "Phyllo" section)******

Caramelized Onion Dip::::
-2 tbs. butter
-2 medium onions
1 cup sour cream
1/2 pound cream cheese(room temp.)
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 tbs. chopped parsley(if you don't have this one it's not a big deal)
1/2 tbs. Worcestershire sauce(this one you DO need this though)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper(season with the cayenne to might need a bit more)
salt and pepper to taste

In large skillet over low/med-low heat sweat onions in the butter until soft and golden brown. Take it slow as to not burn them. This will take about 30 mins. At the very end add 2 tbs. of water and stir until evaporated...3-ish mins. Let onions cool slightly. Once cool coarsely chop the sauteed onions and mix in a bowl with the sour cream, cream cheese, parsley, onion powder, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature(if it's cold it just doesn't spread, dip or taste the same). This will last in your fridge for a while...perhaps a week or a bit longer.

Shrimp Cocktail:::: This one is almost too easy and it will FLY off your buffet
-1 pound of frozen shrimp - raw and shell still on
-1 onion, quartered
-2 tbs. salt
-1 bay leaf
-1 tbs. whole black pepper corns

Put onion, salt, bay leaf, peppercorn and squeeze lemon into a medium pot of water. Bring to boil and simmer for 5 - 10 mins to let it get all flavorfull-ey ;) Add frozen shrimp and reduce heat to medium. Cook shrimp until they JUST turn pink and opaque...about 2-3 mins for fresh shrimp or 5-6 mins for frozen shrimp. You can always fish one out, cut it in half and check for doneness...then munch on it ;) When done, strain and cool in the fridge until cool enough to handle. Pell the shrimp(leave the tails on) and then put back in the fridge to chill completely. Serve with ::::
-1 cup ketchup
-2 tbs. horseradish(I use 3 but I like it hot)
-a splash of lemon juice if you like, but I just use horseradish and ketchup
Mix all ingredients, chill and serve alongside shrimp for dipping.
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Saturday, July 11, 2009

New American

There are SO many New American restaurants out there (and showing no sign of stopping). I think the success of New American has to do with it's approachability and availability of seasonal ingredients. Most people feel reassured when they can recognize (and pronounce) most things on the menu in front of them. Pan seared scallops, crispy skinned salmon, lamb chops, duck breast, whole roast chicken, etc. I'm not sure if I can remember visiting a New American restaurant recently that didn't have four out of these five items on the menu. And with good New American restaurants the menus change with the seasons and can reflect what's best and local at that time of the year. But perhaps that can be a problem. I mean, I still LOVE eating these things. And each restaurant puts it's own spin on these classics. But what they're buying in the farmer's market and what I'm buying in the farmer's market are pretty similar. Now, it has to be said that I am a farmer's market junkie. Right now in my fridge I have about 10 different types of veggies and three packages of butcher fresh meat. This will get me through the week and then I'm off again to the market to stock up with whatever looks fresh, cheap and amazing. And yes. These chefs prepare the same things in my fridge in their restaurant with more skill than I, but sometimes I feel like I'm eating the same things over and over again. Although I love these New American staple items (duck, lamb, steak, scallops, salmon, chicken, etc....fresh spring peas, seasonal corn, summer tomatoes and squash) I've found myself recently looking for a bit more variety.

I started thinking of this a few weeks ago when my husband and I were running down the Philadelphia Magazine's, Best of Philly 2009 restaurant list and visiting a BYOB called Matyson . The food was yummy. We started with the foie gras. It was delicious and unique. It was served on brioche french toast and was accompanied by caramelized figs and this delightful savory black pepper nut brittle. This, in my opinion, was a unique way to prepare a classic such as foie gras. Honestly...that brittle was genius. I was wowe'd by the starter. But then came the mains. My husband had the duck breast (see what I mean) and I had the monk fish(pic above) wrapped in bacon atop a fresh pea and corn mixture. Both of our meals were good. They were flavorful and cooked well. But I feel like the hubby and I were looking for something more exciting. So last Friday when we tried Gayle in the Queen Village area of Philly, and we found a bit more of the same, it got me thinking. The hubby had the beef special (pic with green sauce at top) - beef two ways - I think it was tenderloin and braised short ribs - and I had the skate "fish and chips"(pic below). They took pretty basic ingredients and cooked them really well. They added nice sauces (I really did like the sauces) but my fish was over fresh peas again, just like at Matyson and the hubby's steak was sitting atop a potato puree, just as his duck was at Matyson. I just felt like I was starting to see a trend here.

Now....I started writing this blog post with my mind set on saying that New American wasn't exciting enough anymore...and that I was looking for more when I go out to a nice place to dine. BUT. I can't write that blog. I had great food at both of these places. Sure it wasn't mind blowing, but it was REALLY good and so enjoyable. And it's inspiring. BECAUSE these are the same ingredients I use at home it helps open my eyes to new methods of preparation and new flavor combinations. The "fish and chips" preparation of the skate was new to me. I've had skate a lot and this preparation brought a whole new texture to the dish. And the hubby really appreciated the sauces that Gayle's staff cooked up. They really did put a new spin on traditional fare...even fare that we eat every week. And that made me realize that good food is good food and it doesn't need to be much more than that. Great execution and fresh produce (this place had some very fresh produce) can get $30/plate - as long as it's a BYOB place in my opinion - and I will leave happy. I did, in fact, leave both restaurants happy and will continue my " always looking for a bit more" relationship with New American. So when all is said and done I would, in fact, recommend either Matyson or Gayle. The service was friendly. The food was fresh and it was well prepared. And if you aren't a farmer's market junkie like me you will be shocked at how good fresh, seasonal vegetables can be and how they can really compliment a dish. I think the starters at Matyson were a bit superior to Gayle's, but I thought the sauces at Gayle's were superior to Matyson. But you don't have to choose if you don't like. They're both BYOB' grab a bottle and try both.

If you're looking for a bit of wow factor either before or after your New American dinner out there are different ways to tickle those taste buds. There is this GREAT gelato place in center city Philly called Capogiro Gelato and it's amazing! A treat for the senses and easy on the pocket book. They have flavors like Rosemary Honey Goat's Milk, Marscapone and Fig (one of my favs), and my all time favorite Burnt Sugar. It tastes like creme brulee!!!

Looking for a delightful spin on a classic beverage?? Go to Nodding Head Brewery (it's a bar/restaurant and micro-brewery) and try the Monkey Knife Fight(pic left). I'm going to turn into a 12 year old here for a second and say, OMG!!!! This beer is amazing. I describe it as noodle-bowl beer. It's a light and refreshing brew flavored with lemongrass and ginger. It's freaking delicious folks. And I think it was only $4. Yes. I'm pretty sure that was the price. You must go here and try it. Now, I warn you, the service is slow at best and the bar is down a sort of grungy back street, BUT, would you expect to get a beer called Monkey Knife Fight anywhere else?? I know I wouldn't.

Now not all different things are good. Lets talk about drinks some more. On the same street as Capogiro is a bar called Apothecary This place deserves one trip. In, out, and probably never to return. They specialize in making old fashioned tonics and elixirs and they do a great job of it. The bar tenders really get into their roles as old fashioned bar-keeps (it might even be a sort of lifestyle...I've never had the guts to ask a dude with a handlebar moustache anything so personal). It's an interesting concept with not so interesting results. The drinks are around $15 a piece expensive. And the worst part of all is...they kind of taste like they should be curing an ailment, not like a refreshing treat. They're weird folks. And I'm ok with weird. But not $15 weird. They do have a "recession proof" menu where they serve up a few elixirs and tonics for about $6 each but they don't offer them on the weekends so that's just crappy if you ask me.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Simple, Fun....and Simply Fun

Have I mentioned that I love to travel? I know. I sound like a broken record. It is, most certainly, my passion in life. I think I was born with said passion and growing up I was lucky enough to have parents who would indulge and foster that love I had for new places. But when I was a kid we didn't exactly jet set off to the Caribbean or Europe...we went on road trips...and we camped. As far back as I can remember my parents have had a motor-home. Also as far back as I can remember the rule of thumb was...if there wasn't an ocean between us and our destination...we were driving there. So I was lucky enough to see a lot of this great country that way (actually, just about all 50 states).

These days I still love camping. The hubby and I use a tent so it isn't quite as posh as it used to be, but it still has it's place in a travel junkie's life. Not every trip has to follow the "go big or go home" rule. Camping can give you a certain kind of joy that you can't find elsewhere. One of my happiest memories of all time was with my husband on our first camping trip together. We took a long weekend and went to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. We drove our old Jeep Wrangler up and down the sides of the mountains that surround that valley, then hiked our gear down to a secluded bank and set up camp. We didn't do much that day. I think we looked for firewood, fished a bit, swam a lot and stood on a rock, in the middle of the river, just admiring the view and enjoying our seclusion...for about 3 hours. That is where I go in my mind to find my happy place.

So the moral of this story is that you should try camping....with your significant other (being alone in the wilderness or snuggling up next to a roaring camp fire is just about as romantic as it gets)....with your kids (kids were made for camping...just set them loose to explore and hose them down when they come back)....with your dog (he or she will thank you for all of the new smell opportunities). Find a State or National Park near you (please avoid KOA's and such), pack up the cooler, dust off the tent and go on an adventure. It's cheap, it's exciting and it's a great way to "get away" for the weekend. Would you like a recommendation of some great parks to visit? Let me know where you live and I'll be happy to give you my recommendations. Last weekend the hubby and I joined my parents, brother, Mark and his girlfriend, Katie (no, actually, Fiance'!...they got engaged last weekend and I couldn't be happier for them...picture of them two years ago during 4th of July at Assateague...good job Mark) at Assateague National Seashore in's sort of a 4th of July tradition. Do you live on the East Cost? You HAVE to check this place out. Clean, unspoiled beaches (which are virtually empty), wildlife every where you turn...oh, and did I mention wild ponies? That's the selling point for me. They're wild, they're beautiful and they're everywhere. Sure you have to double up on the bug spray, and they only have pit toilets and cold water showers (more than we had when we were camping on the banks of the New River), but it's worth it to experience Assateague. Rent a canoe while you're there and paddle through the marshes. Try our hand at crabbing in the bay. Bring your surf rods and throw a line or two in the water and hope for a bite. Ride your bikes around the island in search of your favorite new pony. Or just lay on the beach (almost empty beach) and take a dip when you get too hot. There is no putt-putt. There are no ice cream shops. But there is a chance to experience a beautiful, natural environment and appreciate the little things again.

If you're going to Assateague (or anywhere this summer) try taking this dish along with you. I think it's perfect summer/camping/beach food. Pair it with a beer and you're all set!

This dish is ridiculously easy and SUCH a versatile item to take to a party/cookout. It can be served as a side dish to accompany something like grilled chicken. It can be used as a "salsa" of sorts and served with tortilla chips. It can even be a topping for tacos or quesadillas. It's vegetarian. It's just spicy enough, but the sour cream dressing gives it a refreshing and cool side. I love the hell out of this dish...and you will too.

Roasted corn and black bean salad:

4 cobs of corn
1 1/2 cans of black beans (drained and rinsed if you like...I just drain mine thoroughly...I kind of like the "bean juice")
2 jalepeno peppers (finely chopped)
3 scallions chopped
4 tbs. chopped jarred pepperoncini peppers
1/4 cup fresh cilantro chopped
1 small onion chopped
1/8 cup mayo
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 tbs. dried cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. onion powder
1 1/2 tbs. fresh lime juice

Husk corn and grill until slightly charred (turning occasionally). Let cool then cut the kernels off the cob. In a large bowl combine the lime juice, onion powder, salt, chili powder, cumin, sour cream and mayo together and stir until smooth. Add the onion, cilantro pepperoncini, scallions, jalepenos, black beans and corn to the bowl and toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving. Serve as a side dish OR as a "salsa" for tortilla chips.
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