Monday, December 8, 2008

Omelette Epiphany

As do many foodies, I thoroughly enjoy the versatility of the egg. A truly delicious and nutritious food! This morning I set out to make a quick, French style omelette for breakfast--not knowing that the few minutes in the kitchen would be worth blogging about...

The other night before bed I read about Peter Mayle's experience at a pretty sacred truffle festival in the French town of Richerenches. The book is French Lessons and the topic of discussion at the end of the chapter was omelette aux truffes, which makes my mouth water with curiosity. Mayle writes about his experience getting some omelette advice because even a simple omelette takes some know-how to perfect.

Then, perhaps because I had truffled omelette on the brain, I stumbled upon the Philadelphia City Paper Meal Ticket blog only to find a great video clip of Julia Child preparing omelette bliss. I thought I had my egg cookery down pretty well, but I think my omelettes are often too dry. I was enlightened to see Julia's eggs go from from pan to plate in no time at all; not to mention the fact that no spatula was necessary.

So today I cracked a couple eggs to copy the technique I saw this French Chef demonstrate: Let the pan heat up (longer than the eggs will be in it). Two eggs, salted and just beaten to combine yolks & whites. Generous butter in the pan. A quick toss around the pan, a flip onto the plate at the precise point that my paranoid American mindset chimed in and said, "those eggs look like they need a bit longer."
Try it yourself if you want to know what it tastes like. All I have to say is amazing. All along I have been meticulously over cooking and folding my omelettes, often using more egg than is actually necessary. I wanted something neat and tidy. Well, today's omelette was roughly tossed, delicate, moist, buttery and a mellow-yellow color with a pleasant glisten. It was a purist omelette--no cheese or fillers necessary--so one could really enjoy the egg flavor. I devoured it promptly.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Unemployed brownies

A quick post about quick brownies. Making brownies from scratch is quite simple and I find the results to be more fulfilling than box mix brownies. Perhaps that is my unemployment talking, the part of me that enjoys having a free afternoon to do a little baking. But really, with no mixer required and very little mess, I made some decadent dark chocolate brownies from this recipe out of SAVEUR (what can I say, I've had the same issue on the coffee table for a while). If you want late night snacks for a few days, make these brownies and make sure you have enough milk to wash them down.By using dark baker's chocolate (72% cacao) and a hefty dose of cinnamon, I jazzed up this recipe which needed no jazzing up. The result was a highly addictive fudgy treat with a deep brown color. I recommend using a smaller pan than the 9x13 inch listed in the recipe; I like my brownies to be thicker. I used a 8x8 pan and baked it a tad longer than the directions told me to. This produced a very thick brownie, very moist in the middle with a pleasantly crunchy exterior. If you are into it, sprinkle some walnuts on top before baking.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tarte de Pommes

Thanks to my lovely mother, I own a copy of the book COOKING by James Peterson. Over the past year I have used this book to guide me in finding and attempting new recipes...recently it was Classic French Apple Tart. I must admit that I totally cheated on this recipe. First, I did not make my own tart dough (used store bought refrigerated pie convenient!) and second, I used my favorite little ceramic pie dish because I do not own any tart pans. Other than that I followed the recipe, which is quite easy and brief. The final product? Well, it was not on par with the baking from a patisserie francais, but it sure was tasty. However, I got caught up in eating the spiced apple sauce that makes the base layer of fruit for the tart. Next time I buy apples I will just make a batch of apple sauce and forget about baking it into a pretty tart. The tart was quite pretty though; I would say the major benefit of following the technique taught in the book was aesthetics. Now I know how simple it is to make an appealing apple design atop a tart. Overall, I would say that I spent a little too much time on this recipe, despite my shortcuts, for it to be worth making often. It was still an enjoyable dessert and I'm glad I tried this instead of making the usual apple pie.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

NYC foodie comments

My blog is by no means intended to fill up with restaurant reviews, but if I have a wonderful experience I might not be able to keep it to myself. This is the case today; I am writing two days after a trip to New York City and I am still thinking about my lunch in the real Little Italy.
Before I talk about the lunch, let me set the scene. Upon arriving in midtown Manhattan I had a list of prospective eateries to check out on this particular trip, some of which were recommended by The Frugal Traveler of the NYtimes. I had taken the bus from Philly for an interview, but my side project was of course to eat. I must say though, that some of the iconic names in NYC eateries are both over priced and too touristy for good quality. I easily managed to pass up the trendy burger and cupcake offerings, as I have seen too much of the same thing come about in Philadelphia. I did find it somewhat comical that within 5 minutes of deboarding the bus I saw a combined burger and cupcake joint. Especially because a recent 30 Rock quote said that New Yorkers were off cupcakes and back on doughnuts.

I went to the first place on my list for my first lunch: midtown's mozzarella bar OBIKA [as a cheese lover, I had to see it to believe it]. It was affordable for midtown, and especially for the quality of service and food that I received. I was surprised how quickly the fresh mozzarella di bufala and Sicilian caponata filled me up!

Perhaps I started off on too high of a note, because my next experience at Katz's Deli was not as I expected. I love a good old delicatessen, but my sandwich at Katz's was just not worth the money. Either I didn't know the right way to order it or, as with the cheese steak places of South Philly, tourism has taken its toll on the quality. I had a brisket sandwich, but I found it to be less than exciting despite a good helping of meat. My friend ate a reuben, which I also tasted and found to be a bit over priced. It was fun to try out Katz's Deli, but now that I have been there I probably won't return since I know what I can get at Carnegie Deli, which remains a favorite. I also, reluctantly, tried two even more touristy places for late night snacking--it had been a long time since I had either NY Cheesecake or a good slice of pizza, so I gave it a shot. The cheesecake at Lindy's was good, not great, but it did have a pleasant lemon zest note that a classic NY cheesecake should have. The problem here was Manhattan pricing; cheesecake and a cup of coffee amounted to the same price as my mozzarella lunch! Next, I tried a slice at Famous Ray's (the Original, you know). I couldn't help it! I was curious. The verdict: it was pizza, but nothing better than what you would find at a suburban mall's food court. Philly seems to be playing with the big boys of NYC on this one; I put Lorenzo's right up there with Joe's Pizza for the best late night snack for the buck.For one of the last activities of the NY trip I wanted to venture into the Bronx, past Yankee Stadium, to the Belmont neighborhood around 187th street and Arthur Avenue. Despite the great offerings of cheese and cured meats around Manhattan, I had to head up to what my grandfather always called the REAL Little Italy. It seems nostalgic for my whole family; everyone knows about Arthur Avenue. And it is nostalgic for me too; I remember seeing it as a kid, eating at Dominick's restaurant and Mario's (where apparently my mother once saw John Gotti dining). Arthur Avenue is full of Italian American culture, especially the old world foods from the poor province of Calabria, in southern Italy. After buying hot sopressata and a scamorza, both of which were made in-house, I set out to find lunch. Dominick's is closed on Tuesdays (I seem to remember ordering without a menu at that restaurant and I must return another day to try eating there). The other restaurants had similar lunch specials and I received a "They're all good!" recommendation from a local shop keeper. Enzo's was decided on, primarily because the lunch menu included chicken calabrese and I am currently very into learning about my family's roots in Calabria.

It was the best lunch I have had in a long time. We started with fried meatballs with onions, hot peppers and garlic. There was a plentiful basket fresh bread on the table (I like to use it as a utensil). The generous, Italian grandmother sized portions came to the table and we were happy with our decision to visit Arthur Avenue even before taking the first bite. My chicken calabrese was succulent braised chicken, bone in--skin on, soaking in a rich broth of tomato, lemon, pepper and magic. The chicken was accompanied by perfectly tender potatoes and little nuggets of rustic Italian sausage. It was a perfectly comforting stewed dish for a cold day and I couldn't resist having a glass of Chianti to help it go down. My friend Justin ordered a basic chicken parm dish, which although widespread is easily ruined with thick, dry chicken and cheap, scantly sprinkled cheese. This place had thin, scallopini style chicken; tender and delicious with a perfectly crispy breading. The cheese was generous, covering the entire dish of chicken and burnt to perfection on top (just enough burn for a little crispiness and extra flavor). Last but not least, the dish was served with fresh, sweet tasting marinara and a little side of pasta. Mangiavamo. The meal was outstanding, molto bene, and the best deal I have seen in NYC--only $11.95 for the lunch special. Ordering the fried meatballs kinda did us in though, I felt like I was waddling out of the restaurant.

Now that I know how easy it is to get to NYC's Arthur Avenue (we took the D train into the Bronx, followed by a short walk) I plan on returning for a meal each time I visit the great city.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fried Ricotta Fritter Fun

Polpette di Ricotta
These were a special treat that I made a while back to experiment with frying a bit in my own kitchen. It's not often that I eat deep fried foods prepared at home and it is certainly not often that I eat anything that tastes as good as these. Although these ricotta fritters are far from healthy, consuming them certainly made me very happy (which is good for the heart) and hopefully the red wine worked its wonders.

I took this recipe idea from the September 2008 edition of SAVEUR magazine. I say idea, because I kinda forgot to measure amounts and I made one ingredient substitution based on what supplies Cucina D'Aquino had in stock. In place of chopped prosciutto I used a U.S. produced sweet sopressata, which did the trick just right. I followed the procedures for the recipe very closely and the fritters were a hit! They were little flavor bombs; panko bread crumbs formed a super crunchy, golden brown exterior that, once broken, released a somewhat gooey, salty explosion of rich, warm cheese, a little spice, and cured meat. When dipped in some homemade tomato sauce (with fresh, home grown basil) the flavor just decided to linger longer on the tongue. The sauce first added a welcome dose of sweetness to the savory fritter flavor, followed by some zing from the hot pepper flakes that had been cooked with the sauce. A sip of wine was almost necessary to finish pleasing my palate. This recipe was truly impressive and quite easy to make, despite the need for deep frying.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food origins, my farewell to being a Cheese Monger

As an undergraduate student of Food Science, I spent one year interning in the product development kitchens of a large North American food company. I dealt with foods that I rarely consume myself and seldom recommend to my friends and family. This is not to sound pessimistic, because most of us realize that our fast pace society demands convenience foods, which tend to be mass produced. Although I more often enjoy what I would consider to be slower foods, I understand that processed faster foods are here to stay.

Whether you are a fast food junkie, an inquisitive foodie, or a 100% natural-organic-local envirogastronome, you probably ponder the origins of some of your foods. Perhaps not the physical origin—as in cow to cheese, seed to fruit, et cetera—but the entire gastronomic origin: why is it that a particular edible exists? Sure, the food you are eating was grown somehow, there is some physical science to describe that, and somehow the economics contiguous with the food brought it to you at a certain price. Is the food on your plate there because it is abundant in your area, because you and your family like the taste, because most people don’t have time to cook their own dinner, or perhaps because a small time farm wanted to get creative with some of their milk?

For the last few months I had the opportunity to work as a cheese monger at the Di Bruno Brothers specialty grocery store in Philadelphia. I had such a wide variety of outstanding cheeses laid out in front of me each day at work. I got to taste, learn, and taste some more; followed by some necessary reading to learn a bit about the individual cheeses. The store carries a large selection of both classic European cheeses and artisanal products produced in the United States. One can find cheeses of all shapes, sizes, flavors, and personalities at a store like Di Bruno’s.

When you start to learn about cheese, learning the about origins of the product is key. Many places throughout Europe produce a traditional product that is unique to the area of production. Many cheeses are mass produced in factories, but there is still a great selection of cheeses produced in small quantities on family farms. The taste of the land, or terroir, really can set agricultural products apart; a cheese made in Vermont has the potential to taste quite different than a cheese made in Sicily because of the types of grass and feed that the animals consume. I remember receiving a cheese shipment from the folks at Vermont Sheppard one day. The cheese came with a lovely little card that told the story of the particular wheel. It was part of the farm’s Xth batch, aged for exactly X number of months and, as the card stated, before being milked the cows had been grazing on the greens of a particular pasture. I felt something new when I took my first bite of the cheese wheel because I had a sense of admiration for the cheese makers’ efforts. But, even more so than the local milk used, the cheese makers’ recipes and cultures (both microbial and ethnic) will always be influencing the final products.

I will never forget my short time working as a cheese monger. It was a valuable learning experience, especially for my stomach. Now I will always look for new cheeses to try, especially unique and obscure products from different locales. It is so fun to take a tour of the world by tasting new foods, whether they are fast foods or slow foods, it is nice to know what is out there. And with a good cheese monger, you can take a different tour de fromage each time you need cheese.