Philly Bargain: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College

This past Saturday Sarah and I went to the Restaurant School for dinner. She had a tough week and needed to be treated. We had often thought about checking this place out, with its $21 three-course prix fixe for the European Courtyard French Menu. For those who don’t know, the Restaurant School is a culinary institute between 42nd and 43rd on Walnut St. in West Philly [where: 19104]. In addition to the school itself, it has two restaurants, a bakery and a market with sandwiches. The restaurants and the stores are run by the students under supervision from instructors. There are some rough edges, but overall we had a good time and a good meal. Read the rest of this entry »


Pound Cake with Lemon Curd

pound cake

Oh, pound cake, you buttery temptress.  So satisfying, yet so versatile.  You’re dessert, breakfast, a coffee break snack.  You’re so easy to make, yet so often you’re served dry and crumbly.  Can I do you justice? 

The good news is that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, that venerable friend of vegetarians, has a beautiful pound cake recipe.  And my favorite cooking guru Alton Brown has a wonderful recipe for lemon curd that goes with it beautifully.  Lemon curd, if you’re not familiar with it, is a tart, lemony custard that has many, many applications, my favorite of which is as a topping for pound cake. 

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Asiago, Mascarpone Cheese and Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Seared Sea Scallops

This is a simple, light yet elegant meal I put together the other night. The ravioli is from Trader Joe’s. Despite the name they were not very cheese flavored, so I would suggest using some grated cheese of your choosing.

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Special PMS Treat edition: Chocolate-covered pretzels, Steak with Red-Wine Chocolate Sauce, and a Brownie Sundae– ALL Gluten-Free.

PMS makes me glad to be a foodie.  Yes, it brings me headaches, cramps, a variety of aches and pains, mood swings and cravings.  But it also has its consolation prize: a heightened sense of taste and smell.  My palate is at its best when I’m premenstrual.  The taste of chocolate during one particular week of the month is, for me, far more intense, complex and satisfying than at any other time.   It’s a sharpening of the senses that, I suspect, eludes those who don’t get a big burst of progesterone once a month.  And it’s pretty damn cool.  I mean, “superpower” is a strong word, but…

This is also common in pregnant women.  It’s a sweet little evolutionary adaptation.  When our bodies are working hardest and either feeding the next generation or at their most fertile, we need protection from spoiled food and poisons.  It was an adaptation that helped to ensure survival in an environment that didn’t include refrigerators.  So now we hormone-enhanced women have a culinary advantage.  (And yes, I can tell when the bread’s going moldy at least a day before my husband can.)

Different women, of course, have different reactions to their menstrual cycles; most of us eventually have cravings of some sort, but one that’s craved particularly often is chocolate.  It’s a common sexist stereotype: the angry, hormone-crazed premenstrual woman slavering over a bowl of chocolate ice cream.  In American society, at least, we’re told that we’re useless at this time of the month: we’re irrational, flighty, irritable and utterly unfit for human contact.  We’re told to hide our symptoms and stoically endure pain that would send most men home early from work, and if in masking our intense cramps we snap and yell at a catcaller on the street, we’re ‘crazy bitches’ who are untameable, except perhaps with chocolate, or maybe expensive prescription drugs.

I think we’re going about this all wrong.  Instead of pathologizing what is a perfectly normal human event, let’s look at the facts.  It’s not so much that we’re moody and irrational; it’s that our emotions and our senses are both heightened already, and then made even sharper by the presence of physical pain.  We feel things more intensely, positive or negative. We laugh harder, we are more deeply moved by, say, the series finale of Six Feet Under (I’m still crying inside!), we feel rage more keenly.  We are more perceptive (another evolutionary advantage handed down to those who are more physically vulnerable).  And things taste better.  Especially chocolate.  You are now in a position to enjoy chocolate in a state the world’s top male chefs only wish they could achieve.

I say we celebrate our strength, our competence, and our ass-kickin’ taste buds at this time every month.  Here’s my prescription for getting through the day before your period; I recommend combining this outrageous, bad-for-you, utterly over-the-top meal with your painkillers of choice, a comfy pair of sweatpants and some Margaret Cho DVDs.  Also, a warm cat purring on top of your stomach is a nice touch.


The Appetizer:

Gluten-Free Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels

If you think it’s overkill to start this meal with a sweet, salty chocolate snack, you’re obviously not a premenstrual woman.  I’ve always been a fan of chocolate-covered pretzels; I started making my own when I realized that was the only way I was going to get them gluten-free was to do it myself.  It’s quite simple:

1 cup chopped chocolate

½ cup creamy peanut butter

1 bag gluten-free pretzels (Ener-G is the best kind)

Fleur de sel

Melt the chocolate in a pan until liquid.  Dip the pretzels in it (it’s easier if you hold them with tongs or chopsticks) and lie flat on a sheet of waxed paper.  Now melt the peanut butter and drizzle as much as you like over the pretzels.  Sprinkle with fleur de sel.  Allow to cool (you can put them on a cookie sheet in the freezer for a little while).  Dig in.


The Meal:

Steak with Dark Red-Wine Chocolate Sauce (courtesy of Joe)

2 steaks (I like porterhouse, but the cut’s up to you.)

1 shallot, finely chopped

2 tbsp butter

2 cups red wine (Remember, don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t serve.)

2 tbsp unsweetened (baker’s) chocolate

¼ cup heavy cream

Sliced shiitake mushrooms (optional)

Salt and pepper

Saute a shallot in 1 tbsp butter. When soft, add the mushrooms and sauté for about a minute.  Add two cups of red wine. Reduce to about a cup. Add two tablespoons of unsweetened chocolate, the heavy cream and a tablespoon of butter. Bring to a boil, remove and add salt and pepper to taste.  Drizzle over steak and serve with potatoes.

I recommend pairing this with a nitro can of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout.


The Dessert: 

Brownie Sundae

Now, I’m not a big fan of baking mixes or pre-prepared food generally– if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that when I cook, I do it from scratch even if it doesn’t make much sense to do so.  But I’ve found a brownie mix, an amazing, rich, moist brownie mix that can be customized any way you like, and I just don’t want to make brownies any other way any more.

Oh, and the mix is gluten-free.  It’s the Gluten-Free Pantry’s Chocolate Truffle Brownie mix.  They carry it at most Whole Foods stores, and you can order it at their website.  Buy it and follow the simple instructions (add water and eggs, stir) to make brownies.   Only, when you do it, add about a tablespoon of good-quality ground cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Trust me on this.

Bake your brownies and let them cool (but not completely).  Then add a scoop of premium chocolate ice cream (I like Godiva), some chopped super-dark Belgian chocolate (available in blocks at Whole Foods), some toasted almonds, and Joe’s chocolate sauce.

Tweak as desired.  Go crazy.  Treat yourself well, and give yourself a break today.  

Note to men:  Congratulations on making it all the way to the end of the post!  If you’re jealous of our turbo-charged superpalates, just try to console yourself with the fact that you still make more money than we do, you can probably walk down the street without getting threatened or harassed every day, your weight probably isn’t a topic of public scrutiny, and you don’t have to wear pantyhose unless you want to.  If you’d like to do a good deed and remind a woman in your life that you’ve got her back, try surprising her with one or more of the above dishes.

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Two Easy Sauces: Chocolate Sauce and Raspberry Sauce

Sarah’s husband Joe here. These are two sauces that I make that can be kept around for regular use, a chocolate sauce and a berry sauce. I just keep them in the fridge in plastic squeeze bottles. They both keep quite well and I have not had one go bad yet. So here are the recipes:

Chocolate sauce:

1/2 lbs bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate, chopped

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar (Depends on whether you use bittersweet or unsweetened chocolate. If you have to use semisweet chocolate, omit the sugar altogether.)

1 tbsp. of butter

1/4 cup of Grand Marnier (Sometimes I use bourbon or rum as well.)

In a pan, heat the cream and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Bring this just to a boil and remove from the heat. Immediately add the chocolate and stir until melted. Add the butter and stir until it melts. The butter gives the sauce a nice shine and some smoothness. Add the Grand Marnier and stir. If the sauce is clumpy or if it breaks, just add more cream and it should come together. NEVER add a non-fat liquid, as this will turn your sauce into a ball of nasty. Fat is the key to the sauce being smooth. Store in the fridge for up to a month. It will solidify when cold, so 30 seconds or so in the microwave and a little shaking will bring it back together.

Berry Sauce (It can be made with any berry. My berries of choice are usually raspberries.)

One box of fresh raspberries

Juice of one lime

1/4 cup of sugar

A splash of bourbon

Add all ingredients to a food processor or blender. Mix at high speed until the sauce is a little thickened. Strain through a fine mesh strainer to remove the seeds. If the sauce is too thick, add a bit of water. It keeps in the fridge for a few weeks.

NOTE: Adding alcohol to these sauces is optional. But in small amounts like this, alcohol helps to bring out the natural flavors. It also acts as a preservative.

Serve over ice cream, on pound cake, over fruit, or however you desire.

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Asian Spiced Tuna Steaks with a Black Bean and Red Wine Butter Sauce

Joe: We bought some nice tuna steaks at the Reading Terminal Market and I decided to try something new. This recipe is a variation of a recipe from Ming Tsai. He uses fermented beans and serves the steaks on a bed of potato salad. I used regular black beans and did a presentation where I layed strips of tuna steak on deep fried potato slices.

First I cut a potato very thinly. I fried the slices in some canola oil until they were nice and brown. Drain and set aside.

I ground three tablespoons of peppercorns (assorted if you have them), a tablespoon each of black cumin, cumin and coriander seeds and a teaspoon of chili powder in a mortar and pestle. Salt the tuna, and then coat in the spice mixture and set aside.

Slice one shallot and some ginger. Heat a small pot or saucier over med to med high heat. Add the shallots, ginger, a half cup of red wine of your choosing, a quarter cup of black beans, salt and pepper. You want to reduce the wine completely. After the wine is about gone, pour in a quarter cup of cream. When the cream comes to a boil remove from the heat to a blender. Blend on high. Add 3/4 pound of cold butter in one inch slices until the sauce is smooth. You can keep this warm in a double boiler.

Put a small amount of canola oil in a pan and get the pan very hot. Saute the steaks until the spices turn brown. You are looking for a nice crust and medium rare inside.

To serve, cut the steaks on a bias. Arange the potato slices on the plate and put a slice of tuna on each potato. Drizzle sauce on the tuna and on the plate.

Sarah: This was a tasty dish, and beautifully presented. I think the spice crust was a bit much– it tended to overwhelm the tuna. This probably would work better with a thicker tuna steak– ours was only about an inch thick, which makes it hard to get a nice sear and still be rare inside, and I think that a higher ratio of tuna to spices would balance the flavors better. Amazing sauce, though!

Tenderloin Filet Mignon and Fingerling Potatoes with Bearnaise Sauce

Another amazing dinner from my husband Joe, who has gone during the course of our relationship from a vegetarian to a steak connoisseur. This was amazing, largely because the quality of the meat and the potatoes, both from Trader Joe’s, was excellent. I can’t get over how flavorful fingerling potatoes are, especially when fried shallots are involved. Here’s Joe’s recipe:

Tenderloin Filet Mignon and Fingerling Potatoes with Bearnaise Sauce

Two 2 inch thick Filets
Salt and Pepper
1/2 Shallot
Half pound Fingerling Potatoes

Bearnaise Sauce:

2 Egg Yolks
Juice of one lemon
One stick of butter
1/2 Shallot
One shot of bourbon

Allow filets to come to room temperature as you prepare the ingredients.

Slice the fingerlings on the bias in about half inch thick slices while you boil a pot of water. Boil them until a fork slides in easily but with some resistance. Drain. Set aside. Chop a half shallot finely for the sauce and slice the the other half in thin half moons for the potatoes.

Generously salt the steaks. Heat a cast iron pan on high until it is very hot. At the same time heat another pan on med high and put a generous amount of veg oil (canola) in the pan to get nice and hot for the potatoes. Lightly coat the filets with a bit of oil. I just poured oil on my hands and gave them a little massage. To achieve a nice crust you want to use as little oil as possible.

Put the potatoes in the pan with the oil. Brown on each side and add the shallots toward the end. You want them to cook and crisp a bit but not burn. Place in a 200-degree oven to keep warm until time to serve.

At the same time put the steaks in the cast iron pan, which by now should be smoking slightly. Cook four minutes per side and remove to let the juices settle. The goal is a dark crispy crust on the outside and medium rare on the inside. It worked perfectly last night.

While the steaks settle make the Bearnaise sauce. Bring a small amount of water to a light boil in the pot you boiled the potatoes in. Put a stainless steel bowl over the pan as a double boiler. Put the two yolks in with a pinch of salt and whisk constantly over the heat. Remove from the heat from time to time. You don’t want the eggs to cook and solidify. Whisk until they start to turn a light yellow. Add the lemon juice and whisk until the sauce is about doubled in size. Add the butter cut into 7 or 8 pieces. You want to keep the butter cold until it’s time to add it to the sauce. Add little by little. The sauce should get very thick. Add the shallots and whisk some more (30 seconds or so). Add the bourbon (classically it should be white wine but I like this little variation). Turn off the heat.

Serve with Bearnaise sauce poured over the steak or in a side bowl for dipping. Garnish with chopped chives for presentation. We had none last night so we just poured the sauce on the steaks and a little dab on the side to dip the potatoes in.

We had this with a nice Argentinian Malbec from the Chairman’s Selection (a great program by the PA state stores that makes high-quality wines affordable and accessible). A great meal overall if I do say so myself.