July 30th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Moving to suburban Philly after college, I got a lot of flack about being from Western Pa. “Pittsburgh? That’s not a city!” And then I moved to New York for graduate school. You can just imagine what I heard. Yet, when getting together with my childhood friends, I can think of no more fitting gathering spot than the city of our youth. With a wealth of museums, parks, shopping districts, restaurants and bars Pittsburgh offers both the casual visitor and hardcore tourist countless things to do.
This summer my friends and I revisited the Andy Warhol Museum, the largest American museum devoted to a single artist. Want to see Elvis, the Last Supper, Silver Clouds or Brillo Boxes writ large? The Warhol’s got them as well as 4,000 other works of his art.
Along with a love of New York, the Velvet Underground, eccentricity, art and cats, the late pop artist and I share a birthday. I found it quite fitting to be there, admiring the best of Andy and his Wild Raspberries cookbook, less than two weeks before our special day.
A short ride up the Duquesne Incline brought us to observation platform on Mount Washington. From there we looked out onto the three rivers, ball parks, Carnegie Science Center, the Point and skyline. A few feet away on Grandview Avenue we had a wealth of fine-dining-with-a-view options, including such standbys as the Tin Angel and the Le Mont.
Back on river level we wandered around the Strip District. Once home to factories, mills and produce and meat wholesalers, the Strip now houses bars and restaurants as well as cookware, coffee and antique shops. It also has outdoor vendors selling food, tchotchkes, stacks of Myron Cope’s gold-and-black “Terrible Towel” as well as Steelers, Pirates and Penguins paraphernalia.
In Shadyside, our home base for the weekend, we shopped and dined along Walnut Street. The tree-lined street offered a mix of independent boutiques such as Tennis Village, The Picket Fence and Shadyside Variety Store and upscale chains including Apple and Williams-Sonoma. We walked away with lighter wallets and larger credit card bills but also with some great finds. The best part of visiting Pittsburgh? The opportunity to spend time with dear friends whom I could never see often enough.
July 28th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
If you have ever lived anywhere near Pittsburgh, you will undoubtedly recognize these magical words: Jeet jet? No, j’ou?
I did eat, and quite well, at this year’s annual gathering of childhood friends in Pittsburgh. From ice cream at Dave and Andy’s in Oakland to french fry-stuffed sandwiches at Primanti Bros. in the Strip District, Ann, Jen, Marilee, Nickie and I gorged ourselves on some of the Steel City’s finest classic foods.
Our culinary tour de force began at Girasole in Shadyside. Located in a basement level, former coffee house on Copeland Street, this cozy bistro featured Northern Italian cuisine dished out in an intimate, exposed stone-walled dining room.
On this particular Friday evening Girasole was a blur of activity. A packed house didn’t prevent us from receiving attentive service and delightful meals, though. Each entree came with a house salad, two words that invariably make me cringe. At most restaurants “complimentary house salad” translates into limp iceberg lettuce topped with slivers of pink tomatoes and a scattering of carrot confetti. At Girasole it meant plates brimming with mixed greens, whole cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, crumbles of gorganzola cheese and sunflower vinaigrette. Such a treat!
Pasta lovers, we ordered such entrees as penne marinara with chicken, spinach and ricotta ravioli in a tomato cream sauce, gnocchi and spinach spaghetti with nubs of fresh corn, sliced cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella. Talk about a night of pleasant surprises. My meal, the room temperature spinach spaghetti, provided an intriguing mix of textures – melt-in-your-mouth cheese, crunchy corn, al dente pasta – and flavors. Yet another hit.
For dessert we indulged Ann’s love of cheesecake and split a slice of chocolate cheesecake five ways. From the dark chocolate crust to the cocoa whipped cream and the chocolate-infused cake, fresh blueberries and strawberries in between, this was a to-stop-your-diet-for dream.
The sweet delicacies didn’t end here. At Dave and Andy’s Ice Cream Shop on Atwood Street it was love at first lick. Homemade mint chocolate chip, cookies and cream or cookie dough spooned into crisp waffle cones or a generous bowl of birthday cake ice cream pleased our overheated palates on this sultry summer night. Likewise, the delicate peanut butter-iced chocolate cupcake from the Warhol Cafe provided the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Served on rose Fiestaware, it looked as pretty as a Wayne Thiebaud painting and was just as tasty as it appeared.
July 23rd, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Along with the unparalleled pleasures of good company and conversation, dining out with friends allows me to try places that I might otherwise overlook. Such is the case with Al Dar in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Had it not been for my friend Scott, who adores this bustling, Lebanese-influenced bistro, I never would have experienced a taste of the Middle East on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Seated in the main dining room amidst dimly lit, wrought-iron chandeliers, marble-topped tables, rich, gold drapes and padded, leather banquettes, I feel as though I have slipped away to Morocco. The din of the happy diners furthers this feeling of hanging out in the heart of Marrakech instead of on the edge of Philly.
At Al Dar we invariably start the night with a traditional mezze of hummus and pita and, in my case, a regional beer such as Flying Fish or Brooklyn Lager. The main course soon follows. For Scott, it will be one of two favorite entrees – a falafel salad or chicken kebab. A regular, he sticks with what he loves.
As a relative newcomer to Al Dar, I feel compelled to sample as many dishes as possible. One week I might opt for moussaka or a falafel sandwich with a side of tzatziki or dolmathes and ful medames, a mixture of mashed fava beans, onion, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Another time I may splash out on pan-seared striped bass with artichokes, olives, capers and tomatoes. No matter what I choose, I can expect well-prepared, traditional Middle Eastern/Mediterrenean food.
Representing another region of the city and of world cuisine, the haute French-Mexican restaurant Paloma in Northeast Philadelphia is loved by my friends Elliot, Jim and Juan and now by my husband and me. Tucked into a corner of Castor Avenue, Paloma doesn’t bowl me over with its locale. Nor am I knocked out by a decor reminiscent of my late grandmother’s living room, complete with peeling wallpaper and potted plants. One bite of the first course, though, and I am hooked.
At Paloma there are no culinary misses. Every dish possesses the perfect pairing of flavors, balancing fresh Mexican herbs and spices with classical French cooking, and precise yet artful presentation. From the delicate wild mushroom flan appetizer to such entrees as the airy shrimp-vol-au-vent and crusty escolar al pipian, I am floored by the creations of Chef Adan Saavedra. Who knew that food this original — and good — existed? Elliot, Jim, Juan, and the voters at Zagat’s, that’s who!
The evening ends with a trio of vibrant, all natural sorbets. Made by the chef’s attorney-by-day/pastry-chef-by-night wife, they come in such exotic flavors as blackbery brandy, cactus pear, mango-habanero and the fuchsia-colored hibiscus flower. Definitely a festive end to an extraordinary meal, one that I never would have experienced had it not been for my food-savvy, Philly friends.
July 11th, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
Well, no, actually I don’t. I did, however, take a hands-on preserving class last week that taught me a bit about canning. Foremost, I discovered that I won’t be spending my summer afternoons hovering a steaming pressure canner in my equally steamy kitchen. Why not? In a word, equipment. I don’t own a pressure canner, a key tool in canning. I suspect that I won’t develop a passion for preserving that is worthy of the $70 to $325 investment in one, either.
Equally important and, truthfully, the primary reason, I learned just how exacting food preservation must be. Dole out one under-heated jar of green beans or expired bottle of garlic-infused oil and I’ve served my guests a lovely bowl of botulism. Thanks to my tainted meal, they can look forward to dry mouth, slurred speech, difficulty breathing, diarrhea and vomiting followed by respiratory failure, paralysis and death. A to-die-for dinner indeed.
In reality the likelihood of me poisoning my friends is quite slim. As long as I faithfully follow the recipes, which I am rarely wont to do, and keep my pressure canner gauge at 11 pounds, I can safely can. WooHoo!
If I were to delve further into this form of food preservation, I would choose water bath over pressure canning. Inexpensive water bath canners preserve highly acidic foods such as fruits and tomatoes. Want to make jellies, jams, marmalade or preserves? Buy a $25 canner, some jars, lids and fruit and you’re ready to go.
My predilection for sweets and tendency to be a cheapskate are not the only reasons that I prefer the water bath. Time is another. With a pressure canner you’re tied to the kitchen — and canner — for several hours. Steam has to build up then vent in a steady stream for 10 minutes before the actual pressure canning process can begin. That then takes anywhere from 25 to 90 minutes. With a water bath, you can process 7 or 8 jars of fruit in as little as 5 minutes. As patience is absolutely not one of my virtues . . ..
In class we worked with high and low acid foods so used both types of equipment. Low acid foods such as vegetables and meats tend to carry botulism so must be preserved at a temperature of 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Hence why we employed a pressure canner for our jars of sliced carrots. With the lid locked in place, the canner cooked away for roughly 35 minutes. Once the cooker had cooled and the lid removed, we wound up with jars of beautiful, copper-colored carrot coins.
Packed in juice, our acidic pineapple chunks boiled away in a 212 degrees Fahrenheit water bath. In 5 minutes or so the jars of sunny fruit were plucked from the bubbling water. Fifteen minutes later we strolled out of class with two jars of canned produce in our hands. Time definitely is on the side of water baths.
Sitting on my kitchen counter, the jars serve as a reminder of my brief foray into canning. Perhaps they’ll inspire me to preserve some tomatoes or can pickles. Then again, they probably will prompt more trips to the farmers’ markets where I can buy already canned goods!
July 2nd, 2008 § Comments Off § permalink
It took moving to New York to get me to eat at Philadelphia’s renowned White Dog Cafe. I had worked in Philly for five years but had never visited this landmark restaurant. Two weeks after moving to Manhattan I returned to Philly to have lunch there. Talk about strange timing!
Eight years later I still love dining at this temple to local, sustainable and organic fare. Sure, I could find more experimental cuisine elsewhere. Yet, sometimes I just crave something wholesome such as a rainbow trout salad with local, organic microgreens and a chilled, locally brewed beer. The selection of draft beer varies but I’m always able to sample the offerings and find the perfect accompaniment to my meal. From Victory to Flying Fish, Yards to Troegs, White Dog offers a little sip of the Schuykill (or Susquehanna) with every pint.
For me, nothing beats Sunday brunch. Order a basket of muffins — strawberry, zucchini, and cinnamon crunch among the favorites — or a tofu-black bean-carrot burrito and a cup of coffee, sit back, and relax in one of the restaurant’s many dog-themed, antique-filled rooms. Prefer a mimosa, mojito or bloody Mary at 10:30 on a sultry Sunday morning? No problem. The bar serves them, too.
Eight years translates into quite a few brunch entrees. At present the favorite is Eggs St. Bernard. Two poached eggs sitting atop smoked salmon and toasted English muffins, all topped with a brandied hollandaise sauce and served alongside steamed green beans. Just delicious!
Along with its good food, I appreciate that White Dog supports good causes. Founder and owner Judy Wicks and her staff uphold sustainable agriculture by buying locally from organic and humane farmers and opposing genetically modified foods. A James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year (2005), Wicks sponsors talks on social and environmental issues, hosts themed events such as the Local Corn or Sustainable Wild Salmon dinner, and runs trolley and bike tours highlighting the city’s Mural Arts Program. Next door at the Black Cat gift shop, Wicks showcases arts, crafts and jewelry from local artisans.
So many good things, all in one central location. No doubt I’ll keep returning for many more years.