Monday, March 31, 2008

Urban Gardening 2.0 - Late March

It doesn't feel like spring here in Philly, but I couldn't help myself the other day when I stopped in the garden center and saw gorgeous flats of cool weather vegetables and pansies, and, so, the second year of vegetable gardening in the tiny raised bed on the tiny back patio began this past weekend.

Plants are so expensive, but without a greenhouse or cold frame to start seedlings, the expense of buying starter vegetables is justified. A few extra bucks spent on starters instead of seeds, and I don't have to deal with bringing trays in and out of the house every day. The pansies weren't justified. I just couldn't help myself.We started by adding Organic Mechanics soil to the bed to raise the soil level and add some love in the form of compost and worm castings.

With limited sun on the patio, lettuce and greens did really well for us last year. This past weekend we planted lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, arugula, mizuna, cilantro, brussel sprouts, and celery. I know some of these crops will not mature (brussel sprouts and celery) before it's time to put in warm weather veggies, but we can't help ourselves. This is similar to the affliction of planting twenty tomato plants per person.We set the flats of plants outside, and damn it if the squirrels didn't decimate one of the kales and a six pack of lettuce. Don't know what it is about city squirrels? They're either desperate, or don't know better.And, so, the bird netting fortress went up. Take no chances!While we were at this whole spring cleaning of the patio, I had the boy divide a pot of mint and trim the rosemary. I tried to let him participate in the planting of the garden by having him do most of the work, while I just helped (I do this for a living, so nothing new to me).

I admit I am not the best teacher and lack patience especially when I can do something faster than I can explain it. I did a fairly good job of letting him be in control (I said fairly), except, when it came time to trim the rosemary, I pried the scissors from his hands. Sorry. I'm a mini-shrub/topiary-trimming Nazi.When it was all done, this is what it looked like. We brought out the table and chairs in anticipation of warm nights and wine to come. We even grilled veggies on the world's tiniest grill. Come on spring! We're ready!

Urban Gardening 1.0

Friday, March 28, 2008

Philly Food Blogger Meet-up

Philly Food Blogger Meet-up
Friday April 18
Art Museum Area

We're doing it again!

If you blog, vlog, podcast, or whatever about food or drink in or around the Philly area, are not already a member (you already have an invite if you are), and would like to join up and meet some of your fellow bloggers
, please send your name and blog url to (at) gmail (dot) com.

An invite with details will follow. Please pardon slow responses to requests made the second week in April, as I'll be out of the country. So, hop to it, if you wanna be in the know!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More Jerusalem Artichokes

You may be asking, “What do I do with Jerusalem artichokes if I’m not into the long, labored task of making relish and pickles.” You also may be asking me to get over it. I promise this is the last post (at least any time soon) about these crunchy tubers.

If Jerusalem artichokes aren’t pickled and relish-ified, I like them best fresh, sliced thinly in a salad. Think water chestnut or jicama. Crunch!

Roasted is tasty, too. Toss with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast in the oven at 450° for 20-40 minutes. This softens the tuber and imparts a toasty, nutty flavor. Think warm hugs...from a tuber.

If feeling silly, you can make Jerusalem artichoke chips. Silly, because the chips are about the size of a quarter – or half dollar, if you’re lucky. Break out the Fry Daddy, and season as you like. This preparation is not worth it, in my opinion, but I’m not a chip eater. Think twice.

Soup is also popular, but I ran out of tubers. Think next year!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cheap Eats: 27 Hours in NYC

We went to NYC for the weekend to hook up with the boy's old high school friend. It was also the weekend before my birthday, so I figured I could throw that in as an excuse to possibly eat out at a nice place. Oh, and it was Easter, too – my favorite holiday.

Things don’t always go as planned – or as you imagine, really. I had no real plans. And that’s fine. I usually take things as they come. Make plans, and they're sure to be ruined.

Our first stop was Rai Rai Ken, a cheap and delicious ramen noodle bar with friendly servers a few blocks from our hostel in the East Village. The miso ramen soup with slices of fried garlic, sprouts, and cabbage was perfect on a chilly day!

Before we took off, I emailed the ever gracious Linda at The Village Vegetable for her suggestions of restaurants in the city, and Rai Rai Ken was one of them. This is the only spot we hit up from her long list (not that I didn't want to hit them all, but things happen...).

The big wrench in our day was the fact that the Kansas basketball game (March Madness, folks!) was moved from early afternoon to early evening, and considering the fact that there were four KU alums in our group, a trip to the KU alumni sports bar to watch the tournament game was a given. Eight hour of drinking and one hummus appetizer that tasted like canned refried beans later, this is what I felt like eating…

For fun, we chose the most disgusting looking slice of pizza – ziti topped – and, you know what? It wasn’t that bad! Perhaps because it was more pasta than pizza? Perhaps because we were wasted? Don’t know where we picked this up from.

The next day was Easter, and, it never fails, every year I delude myself into think I’m gonna wake up to 70 degree days, so I can have a picnic in the park for my birthday (and Easter, this year), but it’s cold as hell in the Northeast in March. Boo. Hiss. No picnic. No Easter. You came too early to fit you in!

We hit up 'sNice Café, a cozy vegetarian and vegan coffee and sandwich shop in the West Village. I wanted one of their many veggie sandwiches, but s'Nice Café is bucking the brunch trend, and doesn’t serve lunch until noon. I had a tofu scramble wrap by default. Not bad, but nothing exciting. The yummy looking platters of veggie and grain salads for lunch that whizzed past me looked good, though.

I finally got to eat a veggie hot dog in NYC – but it wasn’t off a cart like in my original dream. This soy dog comes from Better Burger in Midtown West, one of three Better Burger stores in NYC that offers organic burgers and dogs on whole wheat buns. You know, better for you!

I got a NYC soy dog – kraut and bbq onions. The bbq onions are more like tomato paste onions, and the whole wheat bun is a bit of a chewy clunker. Dog Almighty in Austin, with their buttered and grilled buns, wins hands down. Junk food doesn’t need to be too healthy.

The veggie burger at Better Burger was a little tasteless, but a good effort. The fries are baked, not fried, and they were very good – thick, meaty, and you never would have guessed they were baked. The best part was the curry ketchup and Cajun ketchup for dipping.

Then we hopped on the Chinatown bus for Philly. Zzzz.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pickled Jerusalem Artichoke

I’m not a frequent canner. It’s an all day job, and when you’re done, you’re left with a bazillion jars of an item – great if you’re building a bunker and never coming out, or dream of becoming the Pickle Fairy and sprinkling your fiends and family with gifts.

There is one thing that sends me straight to the kitchen to don my Pickle Fairy tutu, and that’s Jerusalem artichokes – the knobby tuber of a sunflower with thin brown skin, and crispy white flesh.

Gifted with two huge bags of Jerusalem artichokes last Friday, I was on the hunt for canning jars that evening, and in the kitchen the next day making Jerusalem artichoke pickles. (I swear I'm not a complete dork. I went to a show, out to the bar, and took in Sixers game that weekend, too.)

Last year I canned Jerusalem artichoke relish, which is my absolute favorite way to eat Jerusalem artichokes, but pickles are the next best way to eat these tubers – at least in my opinion.

These Jerusalem artichoke pickles retain the pleasing, crunchy texture of raw Jerusalem artichokes, but have a spicy, sweet-and-sour zing, and a cheery yellow color imparted by turmeric.

Harvest the tubers after the first frost, but before they sprout again (time is getting short now that it’s spring), or pick them up at the market when in season (I’ve seen some at Trader Joe’s recently). If you harvest your own, you must clean the bejesus out of the soil-caked knobby knobs, but it’s sooo worth it. And don’t peel them – unless you’re masochistic!

Gifted with so many Jerusalem Artichokes, I needed to multiply the recipe below by six! If you don’t feel like canning, this recipe makes only 2 pints, which you will eat in no time. I doubled the sugar amount, which is reflected in the recipe, but adjust sugar to your liking.

Pickled Jerusalem Artichoke
Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
Makes 2 pints

1 ¾ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, washed
1 quart water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 cups cider vinegar
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon coriander seed
3 whole allspice berries
½ teaspoon whole red peppercorns (optional)
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 dried red hot chilies (Thai or chiles de arbol)

  • Bring a 3-quart pot, three quarters full of water to a boil. Set jars and their lids, along with a slotted metal spoon in the boiling water to sterilize. Boil for 15 minutes, then remove carefully with tongs, and set aside.
  • Trim bad spots from tubers, and cut the tubers into chunks between the size of a grape and a walnut (you should have about 4 cups of artichokes chunks).
  • In a bowl, combine artichokes, 1 quart of water, and one tablespoon of salt, stir to dissolve. Soak for 4 hours on the counter top, or overnight in the refrigerator. Drain and rinse the artichokes, then pat them dry.
  • Bring vinegar, 1 cup of water, the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt, sugar, and all the spices except the chiles to a boil for 4 minutes.
  • Using the slotted spoon, place one pepper in each jar, then carefully pack the jars with the artichokes, and pour the hot vinegar brine over the artichokes up to 1/2 inch below the neck. Place any remaining spices in the pot into the jars. Seal the jars, and process in boiling water if canning (I processed these 15 minutes). If only making a small batch, allow to cool, and store in the refrigerator. Unprocessed pickled artichokes will keep for about 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fitzwater Café

It has taken nearly three years of walking past Fitzwater Café in Bella Vista to finally duck into this once corner gas station for brunch, but I did it!

A mere five-minute wait on a weekend and we were in the door, guided past cases filled with scrumptious pastries made in-house, past a counter bar, and seated at a roomy table at the far end of the cozy restaurant, which is an Italian bistro when it’s not doing the breakfast brunch.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done decadent French toast, but I dove into the banana and Nutella toast sprinkled with powdered sugar. Good and sweet! A bit much for even dessert-loving me, but I balanced out the sweet with savory by stabbing at the plate across from me…

Scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese on one of their buttery croissants accompanied by potatoes and sliced tomatoes. I could have eaten the whole croissant, but it wasn’t mine. The sautéed potatoes lost favor with crispy potato boy.

Fitzwater Café = Good breakfast brunch basics with a short wait to get in! We did have to wait longer than normal for the bill, though. Win some; lose some!

Fitzwater Café
728 S. 7th St., Philadelphia, PA 19147

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tofu Banh Mi

It’s pretty much a guarantee that five days a week I’m eating a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a veggie turkey sandwich for lunch. If I’m feeling particularly lazy, a sandwich is on the menu for dinner, too.

Sandwiches for dinner sounds a little pathetic, but not if you’re making Banh Mi, the Vietnamese hoagie brimming with Asian flavors thanks to carrot and daikon slaw and cilantro.

This usually meat-filled sandwich gets a vegetarian makeover with fried tofu. A little prep is involved in making this sandwich – time is needed to marinate the tofu – so plan ahead. If you want to cut prep time, buy already marinated tofu. And the slaw will be ready before you are.

This ingredient list looks long for a sandwich, but it’s just a list of all the yummy fillers…and their marinades.

Tofu Banh Mi

1 baguette
1 block firm tofu, drained
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup, plus 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 stalk lemongrass, diced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ lb daikon, shredded
1 carrot, shredded
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 jalapeño, thinly sliced
½ red onion, sliced thinly
1 bunch cilantro
mayonnaise (can substitute vegan mayo)

  • Combine soy sauce, 3 tablespoons rice vinegar, garlic, and lemongrass in a container with a lid. Slice drained tofu into ¼-inch slices and place in soy sauce marinade, turning container upside down to coat the tofu. Marinade tofu in refrigerator for at least one hour, or overnight. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, fry marinated tofu in oil until browned on each side, about four minutes each side. (Save any leftover marinade to brush on inside of baguette)
  • In a small bowl, stir together ½ cup vinegar, salt, and sugar, and toss with shredded carrot and daikon. Let marinade for 15 minutes, then drain.
  • Meanwhile, heat split baguette in oven, about 5 minutes.
  • Assemble the sandwich: Brush inside of baguette with soy sauce marinade. Top bottom layer of bread with jalapeño, onion, cilantro, tofu, slaw, and lettuce. Spread mayonnaise on the top layer of bread.
  • Slice the sandwich crosswise into fourths, and serve.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pizza by Elizabeths

I’m not a huge pizza lover, but I do like a good pizza (interesting toppings, crust thick, thin, in-between…just not greasy and floppy) every once in a while.

Pizza by Elizabeths, a casual pizzeria in a strip mall on the edge of Wilmington serves pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens that I would call good – crisp, medium-thin crust with all your standard toppings, and a handful of interesting toppings. My last visit to Elizabeths is not my first, so I can solidly say that their pizzas are tasty.

The gimmick at Elizabeths, a joint run by two Elizabeths, is that each pizza is named after a famous Elizabeth – Queen, Shue, Claiborne, Davis, Hutton, Saint, and so on. There is a Taylor pizza, which happens to be vegetarian (goat cheese, rosemary onion sauté, sun dried tomatoes, parmesan, basil, and black olives), and I, of course, have sampled this lovely combination.

On this last visit we shared the field greens with curried pecan salad, and our choice of one of their homemade dressings, which they bring out in a large glass bottle for you to dress the salad. If you like their dressings, you can purchase a bottle. What we wanted to purchase were the curried pecans; these were fabulously perfect!

At Elizabeths you can create your own salad and your own pizza, if you don’t like one of their proven creations. White, whole wheat, and gluten-free crusts are available. A couple each of tomato-based, cream-based, and pesto-based pizza sauces, along with roasted garlic spread are available, and, of course, a whole boat load of meat, veggie, cheese, and herb pizza toppings.

We decided to both create our own pizzas. The boy went with tomato sauce, red onion, mushroom, sun dried tomato, smoked Gouda, and mozzarella. No complaints from that side of the table.

I just had to try a pizza with mushroom duxelle sauce. I added scallions, mushrooms, spinach sauté, and Parmesan cheese. At first, I was a little upset that the toppings were so skimpy (mushrooms in particular), since at home I top pizzas with a heavy hand, but everything came together in perfect proportion in my mouth. And that duxelle sauce is subtle, and something I would definitely order again (I was afraid I had ordered a Campbell’s mushroom soup pizza).

What I would not order again is the bread pudding. It tasted fine, but was tiny and swimming in buttery sweet liquid. I’ve never had such wet bread pudding.

My advice is to skip dessert. They give you complimentary chocolate and nut covered toffee, anyway.

Pizza by Elizabeths
3801 Kennett Pike, Greenville, DE 19807
302 654-4478

Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cantina and Royal To The Rescue

Plans of visiting friends in Chester County for a home cooked meal on their farm this past Friday were abruptly derailed when one of the biggest killjoys known to man happened to my boyfriend on his way out of Philly – car wreck! He was rear-ended on I-95 during rush hour, causing him to be sandwiched between two SUV’s. Boy’s OK, but car’s crumpled.

After it was all cleaned up and taken care of, I picked him up at a body shop in Philly, and we’re kind of out of our homemade mushroom soup and stuffed squash dinner in Chester County.

What do you do when your brain’s frazzled and you’re hungry? You turn to an old standby and favorite. For us that would be Cantina los Caballitos, the mexi-bar in South Philly with great mixed drinks, many veggie and vegan choices, and a rockin’ jukebox.

This being the third post on M&C about Cantina (first and second), this joint deservingly wins the popularity contest around here. My first formal post mentions the vegan fajitas with grilled seitan and tofu (the best veggie fajitas ever), but doesn’t have any pics. I solved that with this last visit.

And here’s a shot of the tooth-pickingly good grilled corn on the cob with cilantro, lime, and queso fresco.

As an aside, the lovely bartenders at Cantina comped two of our drinks on this last visit for being honest when I pointed out that the drinks were missing from our bill. That lack of filter in my brain sometimes has its advantages.

Now, can I rant a little bit about the South Philly Pub Crawl last Saturday that was part of Philly Beer Week? Not anywhere in the promotion of this event does is say that tickets are limited and to purchase tickets in advance. We figured you could show up at any participating bar all night long, throw down $12, and get a pass. Not so! After marching down to South Philly Tap Room only an hour after the event started, they tell us tickets are sold out, and to try the next bar! At the P.O.P.E? Nope. We gave up. Who knew tickets were limited? We didn’t, and apparently a lot of other people we passed on the street didn’t either.

So, a little peeved about the South Philly Pub Crawl event promotion, we head to our other standby – Royal Tavern. Royal has been written up here once before, so I guess they’re only second behind Cantina in the popularity contest, but considering that they both have the same owners, is there really a winner?

Food pics also don’t appear in my formal write up of Royal, because it’s the darkest place I’ve ever taken food photos, and they hopelessly look like shit. There ain’t no fixin’ these photos, but here they are…

The tempeh club is the bf’s favorite, even though the towering sandwich stack rips the top of his mouth every time.

My favorite is the vegan sloppy joe, but this evening I bravely tried the vegetarian crab cake sandwich special (it’s so hard not to order your tried and true!). I’m afraid of fishy smells and tastes, but the crab cake was only subtly fishy, and quite good. If only the size of the patty didn’t leave me asking, “Where’s the beef?”

So, thanks, Cantina and Royal, for being there when our plans fell through, and lending a little comfort.

Cantina Los Caballitos
1651 E Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19148

Mon-Fri, 12p.m.-1a.m. ;Sat-Sun, 11a.m.-1a.m.
bar open until 2a.m.

Royal Tavern
937 E. Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19147

11:30am-2am; Sat-Sun, 10am-2am; kitchen open ‘til 1am

Sunday, March 9, 2008

No Country For Vegetarians

Yep, that's the title of my trip to Portugal!

I knew Portugal was fish and meat-centric, and that pastries would be about my only option, but I really thought there might be just a teensy, itty-bitty bit more for vegetarians in Portugal. A vegetarian commenter even warned me that she starved in Portugal, and recommended a vegetarian safe haven in Lisbon (thanks, by the way, but time and place didn't sync up).

I'm not complaining. I choose to be vegetarian, and no one, or country, should accommodate me, but, really, finding food that I truly wanted to eat was difficult (non-veggies even have the same problem). I'm certain that eating vegetarian in Portugal would have been a much better experience with a local and off the tourist path, but, hey, I was just that a tourist with no clue!

So, here are my meals in all their glory...
Day 1: Lisbon
There are cafes and pastry shops every fifty feet in Portugal all serving the same thing: pastries, salads, fish, and meat. Each shop varies little from the next, so just sit down at any one you like they're all the same. My first "meal" in Portugal was coffee and orange cake. The salads i.e., plate of one type of vegetable did not interest me, and that only left dessert to choose from.

Still hungry, I had a custard pasty from a shop down the road.

Variety in restaurants and food is not to be found easily in Portugal. Thankfully, J. had marked down the location of an Indian restaurant. The chick pea and spinach and potato curries were mediocre, but very welcome after a jet lagged day of only pastry consumption.

Day 2: Lisbon
The Ribeira Market in Lisbon was described as not-to-be-missed, but I found the market to be sad, with each vendor offering the exact same produce as the next. The Ribeira is not nearly as vibrant and varied as Borough Market in London, a market that truly should not be missed. Knowing the dearth of vegetarian food from my first day's experience, I bought plums and oranges to carry around with me.

These custard pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon from the famed pastry shop, Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, are very good. They're worth fighting through the mob of locals and tourists at the counter.

A few doors down from Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, there's a sandwich shop with vegetarian sandwiches. Lord love the sandwich! What a great invention! Mine contained couscous, sliced hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, shredded carrots, lettuce, corn kernels, and special sauce.

Dinner that evening was at one of the many identical restaurants lining the streets. This one advertised pizza (I know, lame, but the vegetarian selections are virtually nil), so we headed in. If Tostino's has a Portuguese relative, this pizza is it - except think of frozen pizza back in the 80's when they weren't all fancy like they are now. This frozen pizza cost about $12! I later found the exact same pizza in the grocery store frozen section.

Day 3: Lisbon
Lunch is a banana and another orange cake, this one much better than the first.

Midday snack is ginjinha, a Portuguese favorite liqueur made from ginja berries fermented in brandy, served in plastic cups for the low, easy payment of 1 Euro. Not my thing, but when in Rome Lisbon... Sugar and alcohol also enhance the surreality of being in the middle of a huge communist rally!

There is a chain sandwich shop in Lisbon, Ca das Sandes (sort of like Subway, even though I did spot an actual Subway) that serves similar vegetarian sandwiches as the one I had before in the suburb of Belem. After checking out a dismal and uninspiring grocery store for goods to take back to the hostel and make a meal, I opted for the chain sandwich. Good sandwich! Hard boiled eggs and corn kernels make an appearance again. This chain was going to be my friend, but I never spotted it again in my travels.

Day 4: Cascais, Sintra, and Leiria

No pictures! This is the day I starved! Besides the hostel breakfast of toast and eggs, I ate two granola bars (I should have packed a lot more granola bars from home!), three plums, and one ice cream bar. The small tourist towns of Cascais and Sintra had nothing to offer vegetarians but pastries, and, I love dessert, but my body could not handle more sugar. I ate a high-fat ice cream bar right before riding a rental bike 10 kilometers along the coast of Cascais, just because I knew I'd need the energy. By the time we made it to Leiria, most restaurants were closed.
Day 5 & 6: Porto
Things got better in Porto with the discovery of a larger grocery store still uninspiring, but at least they had tomato sauce! I bought pasta, tomato sauce, and sweet peppers for the next two night's meals at the hostel. And cake. I know, I just said I couldn't handle more sweets, but a body can handle dessert after a real meal!

I didn't drink "my" Port, but drank a glass each of sweet white, dry white, ruby, and tawny port from another port house with a lovely Swedish couple.

Day 7: Going Home
I swear to you that the sandwiches in Europe and the UK that come in triangular, plastic packages are very good. I couldn't find a vegetarian sandwich in these containers in Portugal all contained ham or fish. This tomato, mozzarella, and pesto sandwich came from the Frankfurt, Germany airport. I'm telling you, they're good!

I flew Lufthansa there and back, but didn't take pictures of the hard-as-a-rock rolls and bland, squash puree-topped, spinach ravioli on the way to Portugal. This return-flight meal of cheese stuffed tortellini with a tomato and pesto sauce accompanied by slaw, a soft roll, cheese wedge, and strawberry mouse cake was actually good, and, outside of the baguette sandwiches, probably the best meal of my trip. Sad.

Lufthansa's cheese pizza with sun dried tomatoes on soft, floppy bread. Not so good, but at the end of a nine hour flight I was starving.