Monday, April 30, 2007

Jamaican Vacation

All-inclusive resort. Wow! I’ve never been to such a place, as I normally travel on the cheap. Free drinks, free food, scheduled activities, stage shows, and a staff that caters to your every whim is the surreal lifestyle to which I had to adjust. I can only imagine that this is what a cruise ship or camp is like. (Neither of which I have experienced.) I likened my trip to a Jamaican vacation camp for adults.

Not a single picture of food was taken while I was away. (It’s a vacation, after all.)

My favorite luxury was a 24-hour, self-serve, soft ice cream machine. Yes, dreams do come true! Amazingly, I only hit it up twice the entire week not because I wasn’t ecstatic about free ice cream all the time, but because I was constantly bloated from all the other food and drinks.

My favorite food was steamed cabbage. Yeah, not too exciting, but…I had forgotten past encounters with cabbage for breakfast in the Caribbean, and was beaming when I saw steamed cabbage on the breakfast buffet. I pouted when I saw steamed callaloo or bok choy substituting for cabbage. I forget how much I love cabbage until it is presented to me, and I excitedly inhale all the thick, leathery-leaf goodness.

My favorite drink was the Hummingbird – a “girly drink”, as described by the bartender, but the boys were sucking down the smoothie-like concoction made from bananas, milk, rum cream liquor, coffee liquor, strawberry syrup, and ice just as fast as the girls.

I felt unnaturally lazy from all the eating, drinking, and wading in the water with nothing pressing to do. While it was fun and indulgent, I am that annoying person that is glad to be back at work. What can I say? I enjoy my job.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Urban Gardening - Mid-April

Sugar pea seedling going no where fast.

It has been unseasonably cold around here – about 10-20° below normal. Plants don’t like that. The cold air has put a moratorium on growth; seedlings have virtually halted their growth, or have grown very little. The sugar peas that I planted at the end of March finally emerged from the ground, but have only grown about a centimeter in two weeks due to the cold weather. We’re due for spring (for real) next week, so the garden can get on with getting on. Finally. (That groundhog is a good-for-nothin’ liar!)Turning the 6-pack into a 17-pack.

Leeks can stand the cold weather, so I grabbed a six-pack at a local nursery. Now, it's a 6-pack, but often times, individual cells contain more than one plant. If the plants are young enough, you can separate the plants without causing the plant too much shock. The best way to do this is slip one of the plugs out of the pack, and toss it on the ground so the soil breaks apart and loosens the roots. Then, gently pull the plants apart. I was able to get about 17 plants from the 6-pack. Plants are actually quite tough, if you give them a little TLC after roughing them up – by TLC,
I mean plant them immediately, and water them. (Don't try this with plants that are already under stress.)Leeks line up behind the lettuce.

Leeks develop the edible, white, lower stems by hilling soil up loosely around the base of the plant to blanch the stems. If you don't' hill, the entire stem will be green and tough. (Don't hill soil at the base right away, as young seedlings are prone to rotting.)I was tired of watering my floppy lettuce seedling in their 6-packs, so planted them in the smaller of the two pots outside the kitchen door – in Organic Mechanics Soil, of course. The lettuce seedlings are planted entirely too close together, but for the purposes of grazing baby leaves and not letting the plants reach maturity, close spacing is fine. I'm not sure what's destined for these pots later in the season –veggies, herbs, or ornamentals. Plans are great things, but so hard to make – and follow.

Urban Gardening - Early March
Urban Gardening - Early April

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Café Nhu Y

Sorely missing the seitan Vietnamese hoagies enjoyed while living in Minneapolis, my partner thought finding this seitan sandwich would be as simple as walking into one of the many Vietnamese restaurants around Washington Street in South Philly. Not so. We kept poking our heads in Vietnamese hoagie shops that didn’t serve vegetarian sandwiches.

I had never had a Vietnamese hoagie, or Banh Mi, so was anxious to try the sandwich he so raved about. When we caught wind that Café Nhu Y served tofu Vietnamese hoagies, we were there! Café Nhu Y is a tiny store front near the corner of 8th and Christian with barely enough room to hold the small deli case, drink cooler, one bistro table, prep area, and the owners of the store.

As I sat and watched the owners fill the long, narrow french roll with thinly sliced tofu and vegetarian paté, strips of sweet pepper and cucumber, pickled radish and carrot, cilantro, jalapeño, and sauce, I couldn’t wait to get home to see what I was missing.

The cilantro, and radish and carrot salad gave the hoagie a distinct flavor not to be found in most hoagie shops. You'll love Banh Mi if you love Asian flavors. My partner was a little disappointed, as the hoagie he loved so much in Minneapolis had seitan instead of tofu, and a tangier, sweeter sauce than the light sauce on Café Nhu Y’s hoagies. I wished the sandwich had been stuffed with more innards, but at $2.75, I guess you can’t complain.

Café Nhu Y, 802 Christian St., Philadelphia, PA 19147, phone 215-925-6544

Sunday, April 15, 2007

BBC Good Food

Last summer, when I visited the UK, I fell in love with BBC’s Good Food magazine. I brought three issues home, and then researched the subscription price for delivery in the US – £59!!! No thanks.

I don’t know why it never hit me in the face that they have a food site, BBC Good Food, but they do. I just stumbled upon the site a few days ago. The site is very similar to one of my other favorite recipe sites, Epicurious, with articles and spotlights on seasonal foods, themed dishes, wine, kitchen techniques, and, of course, a recipe directory – don't worry, there's a conversion guide.

Next time you’re looking for a recipe with that peculiar British twist (They have an affinity for fried eggs and curry. Not together. Please, no.), give BBC Good Food a try.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Homemade Bibimbap...Sort Of

Is there such a thing as a mail-order mom? If there is, I’ll take an Indian mom, a Thai mom, a Japanese mom, an Italian mom… Aw heck, I’ll just take one of every kind. I love my Mom dearly, and she’s a great cook, but she never shared the secrets of making curry or kimchi with me. She does not know how to make authentic dishes from around the world.

I have discovered the closest thing to a surrogate Korean mom I’m going to find. I call my new mom Yong’s Oriental Food Mart. She lives in a strip mall on Kirkwood Highway on the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware. Yong’s is a small Korean market right next to an Asian gift store, and Kahl-Bee Korean restaurant. All three places are owned by the same people.

The best part about Mom's… um, Yong’s... is that the cooler is stocked with some of the same Korean food components that are served at the restaurant next door. They just pack up food like kimchi and spicy tofu that will be showing up in your meal at Kahl-Bee, and sell it at the market. All you have to do is pick up the components to a Korean meal and assemble the dish at home.Starting at top: seasoned mung bean sprouts, spicy tofu, seasoned cucumber (I made that one), sweet beans (I don't know their real name, but they're good), seasoned mustards, kimchi cabbage, seasoned fern stems.

I visit Young’s when I have a hankering for bibimbap at home. I just pick up assorted containers of already prepared vegetables and tofu, and all I have to do is make rice. Easy! The containers have enough vegetables to make a family-size meal, or feed a single person for days. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of kochujang sauce to top off the bibimbap.

If you want to get all Martha-like and do it from scratch, you can start here. Since my Mom has never shown me the secrets of Korean food, I don’t even try.

Yong’s Oriental Food Mart, 2017 Kirkwood Highway, Wilmington, DE 19805, Phone: (302)994-4664

Monday, April 9, 2007

Organic Mechanics

I’d like to give a shout out to my friend's new soil company, Organic Mechanics. This is also a heads up to you people in the area who are following my Urban Gardening series, and thinking about coddling some new plants.

Simply put, Mark Highland's Organic Mechanics soil is black gold. There is nothing like Organic Mechanics soil out there, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a friend.

What makes Organic Mechanics soil so awesome?
100% Organic
Peat-free (Peat is a non-renewable resource)
Contains compost
Contains worm castings

Where do I get some?
Whole Foods
Or one of the other constantly expanding locations

Mark is dedicated to soil, compost, vermiculture, and the environment. (You may have read an article about him and his worms in CityPaper a while back.) He’s so dedicated, he even uses bio-diesel and waste vegetable oil to fuel his equipment and delivery trucks. Plus, he's the nicest guy on this earth.

Now, go get a bag! Your plants will love you.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Chocolate Toffee Matzo

My traditional Easter picnic was a total bust this year due to unseasonably frigid temperatures. Instead, I endured almost 48 hours of observing Passover dietary restrictions this weekend with only one small transgression involving an éclair.

How do you make matzo-filled breakfast, lunch, and dinner more tolerable? You cover matzo with caramel and chocolate, then have it for dessert. This quick recipe turns matzo crackers into a chocolate-covered toffee dessert that’s as good as a Heath Bar.

You can substitute saltine crackers, if you're not observing Passover or don’t want to buy matzo. Use egg-free matzos or Saltines, margarine, and vegan chocolate if you're observing veganism. Embellish with nuts, coconut, or anything else your heart desires (gefilte fish not recommended).

Chocolate Toffee Matzo

4-6 matzos
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
pinch of salt

  • Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a cookie sheet with foil, then place parchment paper on top of the foil.
  • Cover the cookie sheet with a single layer of matzos. Fill gaps with smaller pieces of matzo so that the sheet is completely covered.
  • Cook the butter and brown sugar over medium heat in a sauce pan, stirring constantly until comes to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and pour over the matzo to cover completely.
  • Place the baking sheet in the oven, immediately reduce the heat to 350°, and bake for 15 minutes. If it is browning too quickly lower the heat to 325°.
  • Remove from the oven and sprinkle with salt and chocolate chips. (Skip salt if using salted matzos or Saltines.) Let stand for a few minutes so the chocolate melts, and then spread the chocolate over the matzo with the back of a spoon.
  • Break into pieces while still warm. Chill in the pan until set.

Friday, April 6, 2007


Sometimes (sometimes) I’m jealous of salaried desk jockeys that get to take lunch breaks. I don’t get paid when I’m not working, so eat a PB&J with one hand, and work with the other hand five days out of the week. I’d love to eat something more exotic for lunch, so, when I had a day off a while back, I joined my partner for a rare lunch date at Giwa. Giwa is a Center City Korean joint on the 1600 block of Sansom Street that serves “simple, good Korean food.”

During the lunch hour rush, the place is packed. Look past these people and you’ll see a clean and modern interior with stone veneer walls, small glossy tables, and narrow counters along the wall and the prep area. The space feels like a trendy Korean fast food restaurant, and that’s what I’d call it – the food is even served on those familiar orange trays.

The menu is limited to a handful of appetizers, soups, and entrees; not nearly as many options as you would get at most Korean restaurants. I’m sure the limited menu helps facilitate a speedy lunch that desk jockeys demand. Also, don’t expect a plethora of complimentary banchan (small Korean side dishes) that you normally get at more formal sit down restaurants. There’s no way to eat a speedy lunch if you have ten side dishes. Plus, they wouldn’t fit on the orange tray!

My favorite appetizer, kimbap, was not on the menu. Kimbap is Korean sushi – thinly sliced rolls filled with pickled daikon, spinach, carrots, and egg. Why it’s not on the menu, I don’t know.

My favorite entree, bibimbap, was on the menu. Bibimbap is basically a large bowl of rice with many types of vegetables, meat, and a fried egg on top. This all ends up getting eaten mixed together with kimchi, and kochujang sauce – a spicy, ketchup-like condiment. For $8.50, I ordered the vegetarian bibimbap without an egg, instead of the $9.50 bibimbap with tofu.

The rice bowl came out topped with cabbage, carrots, lettuce, red peppers, seasoned greens, seasoned mushrooms, and shredded nori. Kimchi, kochujang, and seasoned mung bean sprouts were on the side. The vegetables were fresh, but either not seasoned or lightly seasoned. Where were the more exotic fern stems, pickled daikon, and other pickled or fermented vegetables I normally get at Korean restaurants? I felt like Giwa’s bibimbap had been dumbed-down for the masses.

I dumped the kimchi, bean sprouts, and hot sauce in the bowl, then shoveled the rice and vegetable mixture in my mouth. It was “simple, good Korean food,” even if it was not the most authentic bibimbap I’ve ever had. If I could get paid to take a lunch break, I’d be back for my Korean fast food fix.

Giwa, 1608 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103, 215-557-9830
Mon.-Fri., 11am-8pm; Sat., 12pm-9:30pm; Sun., closed.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Urban Gardening - Early April

It's only the beginning of April, and I feel like the garden is lagging behind. A sobering shot of cold air due to arrive in the Northeast any minute tells me that I just have ants in my pants.

I did scratch my itch, and get a jump on the season by purchasing packs of mesclun mix and lettuce from a nursery this past weekend. I know! I started seeds for lettuce at the beginning of March, but I just could not resist the pretty packs of more mature greens. The lettuce seeds I started are coming along; they'll just be the second crop. The only problem I encountered with the lettuce seedlings I started was an unexpected week or so of abnormally cold weather that prevented me from putting the seedlings outside to catch some sun. The seedlings had to stay inside, so stretched in search of light. The stretching resulted in bases of plants that are a little long and floppy. Oh, well.
Left: Lettuce seedlings at the beginning of March. Right: Lettuce seedlings at the beginning of April.

We planted the more mature lettuce and mesclun mix from the nursery at the front of the bed in a curving line that mimics the curve of the bed. Lettuce can tolerate a little shade, so should do well in this garden, since it is not too sunny. The sun situation could pose a problem later on with sun-worshiping summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. We'll see. You gotta take what you're given.I need lettuce, too. At my house I planted some of the lettuce plants in a container on the fire escape. I also sprinkled the container with cilantro seeds that I saved last year in a nifty origami envelope made from a take out menu.Left: Kohlrabi seedlings. Right: Chard seedlings.

I exercised extreme restraint at the nursery when I passed up the packs of chard. I started seeds for chard towards the middle/end of March. It would be foolish to buy starter plants for every plant I started from seed. "Bright Lights" chard has colored stems that are present even when a tiny seedling. At the same time I started chard seeds, I also started kohlr
abi, pepper, and eggplant seeds. The kohlrabi is up. The peppers and eggplants are not up. They take longer to germinate. The seeds could also have lost their viability; I've had them for a few years. If they don't come up, it's off to the nursery!The boy purchased new patio furniture - a cute, mismatched blue and green, metal bistro set. The previous bistro set was a plastic, busted, trash pile find of mine. It served its purpose until the right set came along. If you look closely at this last (bad) picture, you'll see strings tied to the lattice. These strings are for the sugar peas we planted at the end of March to climb up. The sugar pea seedlings haven't poked their heads up, yet. Soon.

Urban Gardening - Early March

Monday, April 2, 2007

Boston Cream Cupcakes

There was a run on cupcakes this past week at my house. These Boston Cream Cupcakes were the undoing of me, though. There’ll be no more cupcakes for a while.

While I don’t remember eating Boston cream cake when younger, Pink Rose Pastry Shop in Philadelphia has remedied that omission in my life. I love Boston cream cake. A white or yellow cake with chocolate icing is my favorite kind. The cream is an added bonus that I’ve taken to with little arm-twisting.

Thanks to a Cook’s Illustrated double subscription snafu, we’ve been receiving Cook’s Country, a cooking magazine by the same editors of Cook’s Illustrated. Cook’s Country uses the same recipe testing approach that Cook’s Illustrated uses, only with more homey recipes. Every thing I’ve cooked out of Cook’s Illustrated has been golden, so when I saw a picture of my cupcake fantasy (Boston cream cupcakes) in Cook’s Country, I needed a reason to justify making them. Weekend cookout? I’m there. With cupcakes!

Three-part cupcakes – cake, filling, icing – are major pains in the asses to make. I did this last year, and complained then, too. Last year, I hollowed out miniature cupcakes to fill and ice. I thought working with larger cupcakes would be better. Not really. I spent over three hours in the kitchen making these cupcakes. Once a year! Filling cupcakes will only happen once a year – and you better be getting married or something else grand. (Exception: The black bottom cupcakes made earlier this week are pain-free – in and out of the kitchen in 30 minutes.)

I wanted to print the recipe for Boston cream cupcakes to share, because I was so excited about them, but I found the cake and cream components less than perfect. I would not put you through three hours of baking and assemblage with this recipe. Instead, I’d suggest using your favorite white cake, pastry cream, and ganache recipe to create these cupcakes. Getting the filling inside is done by cutting a cone from the top of the cupcake, hollowing the inside out a little, filling the cupcake with cream, cutting the tip of the cone off, and placing what, now, looks like a lid on top of the cupcake.

These cupcakes were very tasty, and not one was left at the end of the night, but they were not perfect. The cake sank after baking, and was too dense. The cream looked promising, but was not as velvety as expected. I’m sure pastry cream is something that needs to be mastered. I did not achieve mastery. Hopefully, there’s a more fool-proof pastry cream recipe out there. The ganache was simple. Ganache always is.

Unfortunately, the cupcake marathon ended on a slightly down note. Not what I wanted. Take this idea and run with it. I won’t be filling any cupcakes until next year.