Monday, August 31, 2009

Meet Your New Hungarian Family

I remember my Uncle Jerry once saying something along the lines of, "you can't eat ambiance". And of course, he was right. We've all fallen into that trap once or twice. You'll be walking down the street in a city, perusing the menus posted on the outside of the restaurants and your eyes get the better of your stomach...and mind for that matter. You find yourself choosing between a small, quaint looking restaurant with hand-written specials on a chalk board and that money pit of a restaurant with modern decor, high ceilings and a bitchy hostess. Unfortunately sometimes we choose the latter and are always sorry we did. The lesson to be learned from this is that looks can be deceiving and that my uncle was can't eat ambiance. Case in point...restaurants in strip malls.

Growing up in New Jersey, I've eaten in my fair share of strip mall restaurants. My favorite bagel shop of all time was in a small, grungy strip mall in a not-so-good part of town. The best pizza in New Jersey, and perhaps in North America, came out of a row house in Trenton...without a bathroom (De Lorenzo's on Hudson Street in Trenton). Yes. You heard me correctly. There was no bathroom (don't ask me how they got away with it...but I tell you no lie). I've learned that good things come in unassuming packages. I recently had the pleasure of eating in such a restaurant this weekend while visiting my parents in Ewing, NJ.

My parents took my husband and I out for an early anniversary dinner (we'll be married two years this Sept. 8th!). They had been raving about this mom and pop Hungarian restaurant, called Barbara's Hungarian Food, for months so we were happy when they suggested dinner there. Now, I haven't lived in NJ for 6 or 7 years and I'm always surprised at how many things can change in that amount of time, but then again I'm always surprised at how many things stay the same. We pulled into a strip mall that was very familiar to me and it made me smile. We walked into Barbara's Hungarian Food restaurant and it made me grin some more. Both Barbara and her husband immediately greeted us at the door with big smiles and a warm welcome. We were the only ones there when we arrived for an early Sunday dinner around 5:45 but by 6:15 the place was almost full.

The menu was simple and concise, and in my opinion, the simpler the better. I want to eat at a restaurant where the chef lists only what he or she loves and loves to cook and this seemed to be no exception. There were no appetizers on the menu, just soups...Hungarian gulyas, cauliflower soup, pea soup, chicken noodle. All were around $3. Then came the entrees...pork with sauerkraut, stuffed pepper, stuffed cabbage, 4 kinds of stew (if it were about 10 degrees colder that day I would have tried the stews...they sounded wonderful) and some breaded pork and chicken cutlets. All were around $10. $10!! What a deal! My husband asked about the pork with sauerkraut and instead of trying to go through a long description Barbara simply brought us a small tasting. Nice huh? I liked what I tasted and ordered it, my mother ordered the stuffed cabbage (my second choice) and my husband and father ordered breaded pork cutlet and chicken respectively. We also ordered some cucumber salad and a very large side of spaetzle (I love the stuff) to share with the table (again, each one only $3...and that spaetzle could have been an entree itself). I stopped short of ordering the noddles with cottage cheese as I didn't want to order the ENTIRE menu in one trip but it was hard to stop.

While we waited for our meal I watched as Barbara worked her magic in the kitchen. Like so many other restaurants these days it was an open kitchen so you could see her work. Unlike so many restaurants these days the kitchen made me feel as though I was sitting in my grandmother's house, waiting for some soul soothing, home cooked comfort food. It was nice. It was relaxing. It was great to sit there and feel as though you were in a house surrounded by family and not in a stuffy, cold restaurant.

The food arrived and it was good. Pure and simple. Oh, and generous...can't forget generous. My pork and sauerkraut was just that. Pork braised with sauerkraut, paprika and pork juices, garnished with parsley and sour cream. It was delicious and even though I'm sure there weren't more than a few ingredients in it, it didn't need any more. Simple food done right can stand on it's own. My mother's dish was a bit more complex. 3 mammoth stuffed cabbage rounds sat on her plate. I tasted them and immediately thought to compare them to my grandmother's stuffed cabbage. My grandmother (on my mother's side) is Polish through and through so I can't even attempt to eat something like stuffed cabbage or peppers and NOT compare it to her cooking. My mom noticed a difference right off the bat. The paprika. A staple in most of the dishes we ate that night, paprika, really did give everything the most wonderful kick...not to mention color. The next time I make stuffed cabbage I'm going to be sure to add some paprika...delicious. The breaded pork and chicken looked beautiful (you could hear Barbara in the back banging the cutlets thin just minutes before so they couldn't have been any fresher). I, unfortunately, didn't grab a taste of either dish as the men were quick to inhale their meals. That can only mean a thumbs up in my book. The hubby did say his was crisp and tender. Perfectly cooked. The sides went quickly as well. The cucumber salad offered a nice, refreshing break from the richness of the food and the spaetzle, covered in butter, brought that richness right back. Truth be told I think I probably ate most of the plate myself. It looked as spaetzle should...homemade. And it tasted as spaetzle should...tender and buttery. No complaints from me. I would have eaten the whole plate had Barbara not brought out an apple strudel as a little sweet treat and an anniversary congrats. It too was wonderful. A flaky dough wrapped around more of an apple-sauce type filling as opposed to a whole apple filling. It was the perfect end to the meal.

So when all was said and done I left the restaurant feeling as though I had made new friends...Hungarian friends who smile a lot, really know how to cook, and who like to feed me. Who wouldn't like friends like that!?

I highly recommend giving Barbara's Hungarian Food a try. In a region that is filled (to the brim) with the same old Italian restaurants, this home-style Hungarian eatery is a breath of fresh air...and a diamond in the stripmall-rough.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Dim Sum Translates to Yum Yum

Ok. Dim sum doesn't really translate to yum yum. Apparently it means something like, "a bit of heart" or "touch the heart", but don't tell my stomach that. To my belly it means yum...plain and simple.

My husband and I watch travel shows like they're going out of style. Ok. Maybe I watch them like they're going out of style and my wonderful husband humors me with a smile and a "yes sweetie...we will go there some day" as I bounce up and down on the couch pointing and squeaking like a child who had just spotted the latest and greatest toy. In these shows they go to the ends of the earth and back to experience, see, understand and eat all that the region has to offer. And in most, if not all of the shows featuring the hosts trying new and exciting cuisine in places like southern China, the shows are sure to include a bit on dim sum and the infamous boiled chicken foot. Some may look at this part of the show with disgust. The hubby and I, on the other hand, look at it wide eyed and drooling. When something as gross to us as a chicken foot is so common place for folks in another culture we can't help but wonder why, and so, we almost always set out in search of that exotic taste and hopefully a look into another culture. This weekend we we got lucky and not only were able to experience a bit of the tradition surrounding dim sum...but also got a chance to taste that new and exciting dish....chicken foot.

Dim sum originated in southern China and was, and still is, focused around drinking tea and sharing small plates as a sort of snack. It is also meant to be eaten as a late breakfast or lunch, and many restaurants(like this one) stop serving Dim Sum after 3pm. It's funny to me that this was traditionally supposed to be a snack, sort of like you would eat for "tea time". If you sat in that room filled with cart after cart of rolling deliciousness you would find it hard to simply "snack" and instead fight to keep your inner piggy from jumping out and eating every plate that comes your way.

When we arrived at Ocean Harbor, a very traditional dim sum restaurant/dining hall(this place was huge) in Philadelphia's China Town for Saturday's lunch, we found ourselves surrounded by large groups of families and friends all sharing in a sort of "brunch". It was loud. Bustling. A bit intimidating, truth be told. But we took our number and went with the flow. When it was finally our turn to be seated we were asked if we would mind sitting at a table with a few other people. Of course we didn't mind at all and were seated with a nice and quiet older Asian couple (please forgive my broad use of the word Asian here...we didn't ask their place of origin...they didn't speak any English...I'm sure you understand the point I'm trying to get across with such a politically correct failure). I have heard a few accounts of a sort of prejudice at Ocean Harbor, where tables of non-Asian (forgive me once again) folks were treated somewhat curtly and the servers wouldn't even bother to offer the table certain dishes such as chicken feet or jellyfish. My husband and I didn't experience this at all during our visit, but he was quick to point out that we WERE sitting with this other couple so they would be more inclined to come to our table to offer up these more unusual delicacies. I'm sure none of this is done out of malice and more done out of seeing westerner's pass on these seemingly unsavory items over and over again. I can't say any of this for sure but I can say that we were treated very nicely on our visit.

Now for the most important part....the food! I would venture to guess that at any given time there were upwards of 100 different types of dishes being wheeled or carried around the restaurant for your choosing. You would simply catch the server's eye, point to the dish you wanted then she would place it on the table for you (sometimes dress it with a condiment first) and mark your little dim sum punch card in the appropriate place: $3, $5, $7 (in this picture you can see the small punch card next to my husband's tea cup and his anxious chopstick wielding hands as he stares down the passing food cart). With eyes as big as saucers and the bellies to match we pretty much said yes to everything that passed our way in the first 10 mins of sitting down.

We were lucky and got some delicious chicken feet, boiled and then probably fried and coated with a sweet and hot sauce (top left of in color). I thought they were amazing and the hubby agreed. Being chicken foot virgins we were happy to get the ones covered in sauce. They were difficult to eat. You had to pretty much suck the "meat" (more like fatty chicken skin) off the toes and such but it was worth it for that unique and honestly delicious flavor they offered up. **please forgive these I said...the place can be intimidating and, well, I was hungry to boot**

We also pointed at what looked like a plate of squid (bottom left of picture) with sauce but ended up being a sort of noodle-ish thing. At the time we had no idea what it was. We loved the dipping sauce and the flavor and texture that the noodles had...hint of sesame and a bit of a crunch. Hours later when we researched it we found it to be this paper thin type of rice noodle/wrapper that they use to wrap all sorts of dim sum delights like shrimp, pork, veggies, etc. We got sesame rolls and shrimp filled rolls.

Then came the dumplings. These were my favorite (3 in picture right). Filled with some sort of green vegetable(almost like a southern green), garlic and other delightful things. The dumpling itself had the most wonderful texture on this one. I really, really enjoyed it. And you would never imagine how many different types of dumpling wrappers and doughs there are out there. Every single dumpling we had was made with a different shell. I was in dumpling heaven!

This was my husband's favorite (two in picture left). It's filled with pork and chicken and the dumpling shell is made of, well, my best description of it would be a savory-sponge-cake-biscuit. I wasn't the biggest fan of the texture but the hubby loved it.

We also got some seafood dumplings. Pretty standard in terms of flavor, but as with everything else we had, perfectly executed. And this is no small feat considering the amount of dumplings that are made in that kitchen daily.

By this point we were hurting. With eyes still as big as saucers but stomachs nearing their capacity we decided to grab dessert and call it a day. sesame roll. This thing was awesome. It was like a black sesame jello log that almost had a sort of meaty taste (and not meaty like hearty...meaty like pork). It was tough to grab with the chopsticks and I'm sure I looked like a fool eating it...but it was worth it. You must try this if you go.

When all was said and done our meal came out to $19.25......$19.25!!! And we ate 'till we could eat no more. I can't wait until our next trip where I'll try a half dozen new, exciting and all around delicious dishes. Talk about a one of a kind experience AND a one of a kind deal.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dog Days Of Summer

Ahhhh. The dog days of summer are here. Sweltering, sticky heat is upon us. No longer are we jazzed about our new bathing suits or that first trip of the year to the beach. August, without doubt, is one of my least favorite months of the year for all of these reasons and more. There is one thing, however, that gets me through the month with a smile. Food. Ok. Truth be told, food probably gets me through most of the year with a smile, but August does it in style....with produce.
How many neighbors, relatives or co-workers do you know that, during the month of August, bring you paper bag after paper bag filled with squash, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, green beans, peppers and of course.....tomatoes! Then proceed to practically beg you to take that beautiful bag of garden fresh veggies off their hands because, "my garden is simply bursting with these things and I just can't eat them all". Or how often do you walk into the grocery store or farmers' market and see that sign for tomatoes or zucchini that advertises something like 3 pounds for a dollar. 3 pounds for $1!!! It's enough to make you want to put your family on an all tomato diet for the rest of the summer. And the cucumbers. I just bought 5 for $1 the other day. Yes. 5 cucumbers for one dollar. It's nature's equivalent of a clearance sale. And I'm here to help you find something....anything different to do with these lovely gifts from mother nature....and your neighbor of course ;) These aren't the most gourmet or elaborate recipes I've ever posted but part of using fresh ingredients and making them shine is, well, leaving them the hell alone.

This week we're tackling tomato, eggplant, basil and cucumber. Next week we tackle corn. Don't miss it. It should be aMAIZEing!

Let's start with a rather unusual use for cucumbers. It's my drink of the month.....a lovely Cucumber Cocktail.
The only thing better than having your neighbor bring you a bag of beautiful cucumbers from her garden would be if she also handed you a fifth of gin to go along with it. If for some reason you have a neighbor that's this cool, be sure to say thank you, call me and let me know where you live because I might think of investing in property around said neighbor's house, and last but not least.....make this drink. I first tried something like it at my favorite celebrity chef, Eric Ripert's restaurant, 10 Arts. It was sweet and salty and had a few chunky bits in it. It was rather complex. It was good. Ok. It was really good. But I'm a bit of a purist when I make my drinks so here is my version...

-1 cucumber, peeled
-1 tbs. fresh lemon juice
-A double shot of gin (Hendricks would certainly be the best for this since it's actually flavored with cucumber but I used one of my favorite multi-purpose bottles of gin....Seagram's)
-1 tsp. simple syrup

Take the cucumber and cut about 1/8 of it off...reserve for later. Take the rest of the cucumber and run it through a food processor or blender, then take the puree and put it through a fine sieve. You just want to get the cucumber juice out and discard the pulp (you can make a lot of this and keep it in the fridge for a few days if you really love this drink). Now mix the cucumber juice, lemon juice, gin and simple syrup in a shaker with ice and give it a nice beating. Serve on the rocks with a lemon and cucumber slice garnish and if you like, cut up the reserved piece of cucumber into small cubes and throw into the drink for texture, flavor and a bit of decoration. This is what mine looked like. I think it's quite pretty :) Try this before summer is over. You will be glad you found a use...that tastes this good...for that bag full of cucumbers.

For the main course - Pesto Crusted Chicken with Deconstructed Eggplant Parmesan
If you grow basil in your garden you know that by this time of the summer that basil looks like it's ready to take over your yard. That stuff can grow. And if you never thought you were a big pesto fan now is the time to give it a shot. It couldn't be easier. It's just oil, basil, garlic, nuts and cheese thrown in a Cuisinart. You don't even have to cook the damn thing. Oh. And I forgot. You can make a million different kinds of pesto. I make a bitchin spinach and walnut pesto for those who aren't too keen on basil. I'll write that recipe when spinach is in season though ;)

-3 cups fresh basil leaves (1 large bunch)
-1 large clove of garlic
-1/4 cup toasted pine nuts(or walnuts, or almonds...I think I've used both in a pinch)
-1 tsp. lemon juice (optional but it adds some zing)
-1 tsp. kosher salt
-1/4 tsp. black pepper
-1 cup olive oil
-1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Throw everything in a food processor. Turn on. Blend until it reaches the consistency of a paste...or whatever consistency you desire. If it gets dry add more oil. If you want to save some in the fridge be sure to cover with plastic wrap and have the wrap actually TOUCH the surface of the pesto to avoid oxidation.
You can toss this with linguine (like I did in the picture). Or rub some on a chicken breast or thigh and pan sear (also in the picture). Or spread on a toast point with a slice of fresh tomato as a sort of crostini. Or stuff some white button mushrooms with it and a bit of fresh mozzarella then bake off. The possibilities are almost endless.

Deconstructed Eggplant Parmesan:
I love eggplant parm. But it's just about one of the heaviest dishes I can imagine and whenever I make a WHOLE dish of it we end up freezing 3/4 of it, then forgetting about it, and then throwing it out. This take on it is my new favorite. You can make it for 2 or 20 AND you get to use up those fresh tomatoes you've got lying around.

-1 medium eggplant
-2 tomatoes
-1/4 pound mix of mozzarella & provolone cheese
-2 cups bread crumbs (just go ahead and buy the italian seasoned ones in the store)
-2 eggs - beaten with a tbs. of water
-1 cup flour
-enough vegetable oil to fry in - 1 1/2 - 2 inches deep

Slice the eggplant into rounds. Leave the skin on. Heat the oil to approx. 375 degrees. Create your dredging station. Have a bowl of flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs in a line. First toss the eggplant in the flour. Then in the egg. Then in the breadcrumbs. Then gently place it in the oil. Fry until golden brown on both sides (flipping halfway through). Repeat with all pieces of eggplant. When they're done frying place them on a paper towel to dry. While they're draining place some tomato slices on each one then cover with slices of cheese. Place on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is melted. Approx. 3-4 mins, but keep your eye on them. Serve as soon as you can to ensure they're crisp and delicious. Perhaps top with a chiffonade of some of your leftover know...pretty it up a bit ;)
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Friday, August 14, 2009

I scream, you scream, we all scream for....sea urchin??

Fish Foie anyone? Ok. It's not exactly like fish "foie gras". It's not exactly like caviar. It's not exactly like anything I've ever eaten before.....and I LIKE it! Sea Urchin. I think it's my new food obsession.

My husband and I joined our friends Eric and Clare for dinner last night. We had hoped to grab some dim sum (typically a Chinese brunch-ish meal) for dinner, but being that dim sum, in it's essence, should really only be eaten in the morning/mid day, the restaurant we were eyeing was no longer dishing out the dim. And rightly so. However, we were still in the Asian mood, so we followed ClarEric (wow...I like that...why haven't I come up with that before!) to one of their favorite local sushi places in Old City Philadelphia....Zento : ttp://

Shame on me. I didn't take a picture of the lovely sea urchin I am now writing about. Here is a stock picture from Wikipedia. It looks kind of gross right? I think, as a rule, most of the world's most delicious delicacies must look weird. I don't make the rules. I just eat them. Sea urchin is no exception. It has the texture of smooth fish roe, the color of a traffic cone and the taste of...well...nothing I've ever experienced. I guess it tastes of the sea in the best way possible. Fishy...yes, a bit. Mild...certainly. Meaty...slightly. Briney...just enough.

I'm sure my description didn't really help you to understand the beauty of this creature. So you're just going to have to go out there and try it for yourself. Yes. That was my plan all along ;) So head out there and try to find yourself some sea urchin. Our taste of it was around $5 which, in my book, is a bargain any way you slice it.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Whale of a Good Time

I was watching Whale Wars last night. Have y'all seen this show? Basically take a boat full of highly UNtrained hippie volunteers that want to save the whales and set them loose in the Antarctic Sea. Then add a fleet of Japanese whalers to the mix and let the fun begin. There are all sorts of legal and moral issues in the mix that I won't get into, but as far as reality tv goes...this one is at the top of the charts in terms of entertainment. These hippies may have big hearts but they are obviously missing the big brains needed to pull this off. So as I'm enjoying this weekly reality-tv "treat" I start thinking about a great whale watching trip the hubby and I took during one of our vacations last year. It was in New England and it was amazing, but you can hop on a whale watching boat anywhere from Long Island to Canada or from Catalina Island to Juneau Alaska. So are you still looking for something fun to do this summer, and don't mind the smell of fish breath? This might be right up your alley.

Whale watching. It sounds pretty boring huh? Sort of like watching paint dry or grass grow. But it's quite the experience. You pay your money. You climb aboard a boat with a bunch of other people, and you're all thinking to yourselves as you head out into the open water, "Did I just pay money to go on a long boat ride to the middle of nowhere and not even get a guarantee that I'll see more than a sea gull or two?". I think that unknown factor is half the fun.

We took our tour out of Rye Beach New Hampshire. It was the second day of the whale watching season and although the sun was warm (and strong) the temperature out on the water was less than balmy. It was the beginning of June in New England and there was still snow on the ground in the mountains (this picture of Nick in the snow was taken the next day). But it was worth some shivers. I promise you. We climbed on our whale watching boat and were shocked at how full it was. I guess some people just can't wait for whale watching season to begin. Our guide was a very pregnant and very nice marine biologist, but the entire crew was pretty knowledgeable in the whale department and you could tell they loved their job. As we got ready to push off we heard that yesterday, the first day of the season, they got lucky and saw a few whales so we pushed off in that direction. Now here comes the boring part. You do, unfortunately, have to go pretty far out into the middle of the ocean to see any whales. So the trip out and the trip back get rather tiring. Sure, they tell you a bit about the area and point out things like these crazy little islands (that just look like big rocks honestly) that are inhabited by people whom I suppose like to be left alone. I sort of wish I took a book. But like I said about the chilly weather...this too was worth it for the experience.

We got out into the open water and started seeing some whales. At first you just see the water plume from their blow holes and then as you get closer you see them coming up for air and sometimes you get lucky and see a big tail and then a big splash. Apparently their tails come out of the water when they're preparing to dive deep. Although it doesn't sound exciting it really is quite amazing to watch. Now, this is what you can expect on a NORMAL trip out to see some whales. I've been on a few of these trips and that's been the highlight on all of them. But not this trip.

On this trip we got lucky. A curious adolescent Minke Whale decided to pay us a visit. And stay a while. A long while. It was beyond description how cool this was. He got close to the boat so we had to turn the engine off and just float and enjoy his company. He was quite good company I might say. He would come up and nose one side of the boat..then he would dive under and come up on the other side...then he would just hang out at the surface and stare at us for a while...then he would discharge air from his blow hole (about 5 feet from your face) and give you a little fish flavored spit bath (as weird as it sounds this was my favorite part). If I wouldn't have been breaking any rules I could have leaned over the side of the boat and touched him...and trust me...I thought about it. So about an hour goes by and we're all still enthralled by this close encounter. The marine biologist is in heaven. All the kids on the boat can't wait to get covered in whale spit again. It's fun. Then we realize that it's getting late in the day and that we really should be getting back to the dock....except our little Minke friend is still next to or UNDER the boat so we can't exactly turn that propeller on and get going. We were trapped. Trapped by a cute, curious, large aquatic mammal. Eventually we got moving and returned to the dock about 4 hours after we should have, but long story not so short we had a great time. I'm talking an experience I'll never forget. And we didn't miss dinner. We drove up the coast to Maine for some lobsters. And we came out with an unforgettable experience, these amazing pictures and a whale-spit facial. So although you may not get quite this lucky (our guides told us, "come on out and join us again folks....THIS will never happen again....but we'd love to have you back"), you most certainly will see some amazing wildlife that makes you realize that even though we may be the smartest mammals....we're certainly not the largest.
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