Tuesday, July 25, 2017
On our way to a family vacation in Maine we took a weekend in Philadelphia. I realize Philly isn’t exactly on many people’s lists of ideal weekend getaways – it’s not Vegas or NYC and it’s got quite the blue collar reputation – but that should change. We had a blast. The city lacks any pretensions, is easy to get around, and the eating was awesome. Here’s a quick rundown.
The night we arrived we strolled over to Monk's Cafe. This place has been on my must-visit list for 20 years due to its reputation as a beer-drinker’s mecca. It’s renowned specifically for its Belgian beer selection. It did not disappoint. It’s a simple neighborhood place, lively late into the night and serves its full menu till 1am. The beer selection is profound and represents a gigantic swath of Belgian beer, but also a nice selection of others nations’ best. This is not the sort of place that inflates its 300-beer selection with every variety of AB/Miller/Coors. I opted for a La Chouffe which came with its brewery-specific glass and tasted wonderful. Some Monk’s moulles et frites, a small salad, some baguette and an additional frites and I might as well have been in Brussels. The food was fresh, perfectly prepared and delicious. We could have eaten here every night and been thrilled.
For breakfast the next day we tried the highly-recommended Green Eggs Cafe. People start lining up here early and its stays busy all morning. Stand close to the hostess stand to wait for your name, the line moves fast and they don’t wait around for you. Once seated we were in a very busy and simple place that clearly loves fresh, local food served in large, but not overwhelming helpings. I opted for the kitchen sink – a skillet of potatoes, onions, sausage and peppers topped with three eggs, a biscuit, Gruyere, and a creamy, white gravy. Amazing! This is what a vacation breakfast should be. Granted, I needed a nap after, and a run to the Rocky steps was needed but out of the question!
On our last day we took in what many say is the best Philly cheesesteak in the city at John's Roast Pork. A line out the door greeted us. Once inside we were amazed by the energy. I don’t know how many people were at the grill, but the place was hopping and was no-nonsense. Do not be intimidated. Know what you want and step up for it…then wait patiently but when your name is called step up again. They must serve hundreds of sandwiches daily. But since this isn’t the well-known Pat’s or Geno’s you want to know how it was, right? It was perfect. The bread was just strong enough to hold on to the juicy meat for as long as it took to eat it. The beef was tender, chopped just right and the cheese (I went with American, I like the way it melts) creamy through out. Look, this place is the epitome of having no pretensions – you’re not here for dining. This is the place for a simple sandwich and they all looked amazing.
For dinner we found a gem, Mr. Martino’s Trattoria. Martino’s is opened only Friday through Sunday, is cash only and is BYOB for no corkage fee. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. Outside there’s no grand marque, no lit sign. The front window isn’t lit and curtains cover the windows. It looks perpetually closed. But open that door. Inside is a dimly lit space with seating for a couple dozen, sparsely decorated and well worn. But if you can get a reservation, do not miss this quirky, delicious, relaxed experience. Maria cooks on a 6-burner stove, servers will stop and chat, Mr. Martino will check in with you, regulars will wander in for a treat and you will eat deliciously. If I lived in Philly I would be here once a month.
Philly proved a wonderful weekend getaway. The Liberty Bell and historic Old City, 13th street and its nightlife, the 9th Street Market, Reading Terminal Market, and the museums along Ben Franklin Parkway offer enough to keep anyone busy for a long weekend and then some. I know we look forward to getting back!
Sunday, January 22, 2017
One of my most vivid food memories is my grandmother’s touké, a meat pie, essentially a French Canadian pork pie, or tourtiere. The smell, the unique spices, the texture of the crust mixed with pork fat, were like nothing else I ever ate…until recently.
A couple years ago my grandmother passed after over 80 years of near flawless health. It came as a surprise. And honestly, one of the saddest thoughts I had at the time was that there might be no more touké. I know various family members made attempts to replicate virtually the only thing she could cook, but nobody had been able to nail it. Then one day last year I was at a great falafel place, Falafel's Drive-In, in San Jose. I had one of my usuals, the kouby, among other things. But this time when I bit into the kouby, described on the menu as “a middle-eastern meatball. It has a shell of cracked wheat that is stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, and onions,” I had an epiphany. Some of the flavors were identical to the touké. Maybe if I found a recipe for kouby I could adjust it, put it in a pie crust and end up with touké. I put this on my to-do list. Then last month I was in Ottawa and walked through a bakery in the Byward Market and saw a tourtiere, the French Canadian meat pie. I didn’t get any but determined that I would make my own when I got home.
A few weeks ago I did just that. I looked up Middle Eastern kouby or koubeh recipes and a few tortiere recipes and then crafted my own. When I added my seasonings to the meat I knew I had something. The smell was exactly as I remembered. As it all cooked in its pastry shell the house filled with all the rights scents. At dinner, when I finally took a bite, I wept. It was almost perfect. It was a taste I hadn’t experienced in years. And now I knew how to keep my grandmother with me always.
Meme’s Touké, or French-Canadian-Lebanese Meat Pie
2 pounds of ground beef
2 pounds ground pork
1 large white onion, minced
1 egg, beaten
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 pie crusts with tops
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon each of:
¼ teaspoon each of:
-Saute the onions and garlic in butter until slightly translucent
-Add all the meat and all the seasonings and cook thoroughly, stirring often, crushing the meat into very small, minced pieces.
-Prep the pie tins with pie crust bottoms.
-Drain most of the liquefied fat from the meat, reserving about three tablespoons. Leave that in the meat and let it all cool for about ten minutes.
-Scoop meat filling into each of the pie shells, spread out evenly.
-Top each pie with a top, brush with beaten egg and pierce with a few vents/slits
-Bake pies for 45 minutes at 350 or until golden brown.
-Serve hot with a salad and a rich red wine or hoppy beer.
Additional variation, add a few tablespoons of toasted ground pine nuts to the cooking meat and sprinkle some paprika on top of the pie crust before cooking. And feel free to alter the seasonings based on your individual tastes. These are unique and strong flavors.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
I took 2016 off from each of my blogs to focus on bigger projects. I wish I could tell you I’ve sent a completed book to a publisher, but I cannot. I made progress, but discovered a great truth…It’s really hard to write about something when you’re in the middle of it. Writing about something well requires some distance, some time. So in 2017 other writing projects will evolve, but I am back to my blogs.
I ended 2016 with a week in Canada visiting family in Ottawa. As always, eating took center stage on the journey, so let me share some of what I ate. I had never been to Canada before so eating some particular things was a must. The first stop in Ottawa was the legendary Beavertails.
This is sort of a flat donut meets a funnel cake slathered with a topping like chocolate and bananas, Nutella, garlic butter and of course, the standard bearer, maple butter. Eaten outside in the freezing cold of late December, this is sure to make anyone smile, though a hot chocolate with it sure doesn’t hurt. We hit the location in Byward Market, a great area for a stroll (as evidenced by President Obama’s own stroll here) some food shopping and a meal or drink.
It lived up to the hype and was a great welcome to Canada. Then we headed over to The Highlander for dinner. Yes, the is a Scottish pub, and there are many pubs from the Isles in this heavily British-influenced city. Dinner was excellent and included an excellent dish of haggis, a good introduction to poutine, a nice curry, a Newfoundland-style clam chowder, fish and chips made with haddock and an incredible scotch selection. There’s a reason this pub has been a landmark in Byward for years. This is a must-stop. After all that heavy food and drink, the Byward Market offers some great food shops to stroll through. Patisseries, cheese mongers, butchers, fish shops and small grocery stores abound. I swung into La Bottega and fell in love. Their selection of Italian foods was glorious, and I left with cuttlefish ink and my treasured Mon Cheris. On another evening in the market we took The Clocktower Brew Pub. Here I had the best poutine of my trip, a simple, reasonable bowl of fries and cheese curds covered in a simple brown gravy, topped with wild boar sausage. Delicious!
On another night we celebrated the season with the family’s rendition of paella. As usual, this was festive and delicious. New friends, more dancing, and lots of laughed marked the night – a rare time when my wife and all her siblings were together. One of the highlights of paella this year was shopping for it. We checked out Canada’s T&T Supermarket. There really aren’t words for this place. All of East Asia was represented throughout this gigantic market. Prepared hot foods, all sorts of fresh foods, live fish and shellfish of all kinds, every sort of noodle, dumpling, and produce. If I lived in Ottawa this could be my main market.
We took a day trip to Montreal and let that day completely revolve around food. The first stop was Tim Horton’s for coffee, hot chocolate and a donut. I understand why Canadians stuck in the States long for this. Not much of a coffee drinker but an avid consumer of donuts, their donuts are far superior to what Dunkin’ Donuts has become. Once in Montreal we headed for the Marche Jean Talon In Little Italy. This place is reminiscent of so many food markets throughout Europe such as Barcelona’s Boqueria or Florence’s San Lorenzo Market. It featured four covered halls, two filled with some of the most amazing produce I have ever seen. Heads of cabbage the size of volleyballs, kiwis like baseballs, vibrant colors and endless varieties in every direction. The other two arms were a combination of meats, fish, cheese, flowers, nuts, wine, honey and of course, maple products. I walked away with some pork fat mousse, pate and some young, unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese. A delicious stop indeed. After some very chilly wandering and a stop at the Cathedral we had dinner at Modavie, a French restaurant. Dinner was superb and featured steak frites, beet salad, wild boar, duck, calamari, an amazing corn soup, panna cotta, a chocolate dome cake, great cocktails and wine that was spot on for all of us. Best of all, service was truly excellent…even if they were all out of moules et frites.
A few food-oriented podcasts kept me hungry while I traversed the continent, and I have to pass them along to you. First and best known, was The Splendid Table, often heard on NPR. Next, I enjoyed The Sporkful, a podcast for eaters, not foodies. Finally, A Taste of the Past, a look at the history of certain foods and food traditions.
Finally, it was the holidays and a few gifts had a foodie theme. Can you see it?
Sunday, January 24, 2016
The wonders of Netflix and other Chromecast-able video apps have brought a wealth of foodie documentaries into my home. Granted, finding the time to sit and watch is not easy. However, we did just get a chance to watch PBS’s documentary adaptation of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Let me say from the outset that I completely understand that many people won’t sit down to read the book and that most who would already have. With that, I encourage you all to spend 90 minutes with this film.
What Pollan does so skillfully and with ample evidence is illustrate the challenges and the nuances of figuring out what really is healthy to eat. What was deemed fine in one decade, appears to actually be dangerous in the next (margarine). What we thought was bad for us, turns out to be somewhat helpful (limited amounts of red meats). Many things are actually necessary to eat, but dangerous in large quantities. Making matters more challenging, the food industry loves an opportunity to repackage their wares to meet the latest health and food trends.
Pollan constructs the movie around his eventual conclusions about how we should eat – Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. I like another suggestion mentioned by Marion Nestle in the movie – eat the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the interior. Or avoid foods that have packages – think apples, not apple sauce and Apple Jacks, think real poultry, not chicken nuggets. If we all ate appropriately portioned foods in natural forms we would solve so many health problems.
Though I have seen Pollan speak and have read a few of his books, I found In Defense of Food to be a succinct, user-friendly way to initiate discussion about healthful eating. In fact, it stays exceptionally true to the book of the same name. I encourage you all to seek out this documentary and consider not a diet, but new life-long habits.