Recession Food: Matzo Brei

Yes, folks, now that the financial sector is in total collapse and we’re staring down the very real possibility of a new Great Depression, it’s time for another installment of what will clearly be our ongoing series, Recession* Food!  Those of us who didn’t make millions running banks into the ground are tightening our belts, cashing in our change jars and wondering about that seven hundred billion dollars (!!) we’re being told we’ll hand over to the rich, so I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing many fancy restaurants on this blog anytime soon.  Seriously, a loaf of bread, a block of store-brand cheddar and a bag of Lay’s chips just cost me eight bucks.  It’s going to be a rough winter.  I will, however, be creative at finding ways to make tasty, nutritious food as cheaply as possible.  After all, that’s what most of the six billion people on this planet try to do every day.  Which brings us to matzo brei (or matzah brei), a Jewish favorite with Ashkenazi origins.

I’m not Jewish, and it’s been only recently (thanks largely to the lovely folks at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) that I’ve been introduced to the joys of Jewish culinary traditions.  So my introduction to matzo brei came from a book: the delightful Garlic and Sapphires, former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her adventures in dining.  In one chapter toward the end of the book, Reichl is describing a period when the backbiting and snobbery of the food world began to get under her skin.  She reacts one night by cancelling her reservation to a lofty temple of haute cuisine and staying home with her two-year-old son making matzo brei, his favorite.

This matzo-and-egg dish is incredibly simple, quick and cheap.  (It’s also vegetarian and very Crohn’s-friendly, with its high protein and easily digested matzo.**)  I used Manichewitz ‘everything’ matzo, which, like the ‘everything’ bagel, has bits of onion, garlic and poppy seed for some added flavor.   There are lots of versions out there, including one that’s closer to a fritatta; there are also sweet versions with fruit and sour cream.

This recipe is meant for two, but Joe and I found that it took three crackers and four eggs to satisfy us.  Enjoy for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  This takes five minutes to make.  Really.

Matzo Brei (recipe by Ruth Reichl)

2 matzo crackers

2 eggs

Salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Set a colander inside a bowl (to catch the crumbs) and break the matzos into little pieces, dropping them into the colander.  Remove the colander from the bowl and hold it beneath running water until the matzos are damp.  Allow them to drain; then put the damp matzos into a bowl.

Break the eggs into the bowl and stir with a fork just until mixed.  Add salt to taste.

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat.  When the foam subsides, add the matzo-egg mixture and cook, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes, or until the egg is cooked and there are a few crispy little bits.

Put on plates and serve at once.

(Note: This might be blasphemy, but the spice lovers in my household ate this with a generous dollop of Sriracha hot sauce.)

*Stay tuned, I may have to rename it “Depression Food” and start offering recipes for roadkill and bathtub gin if this keeps up.

**Celiacs, you can buy gluten-free oat matzo, or try this recipe.  I haven’t tried these, so I can’t comment on their quality.  For those with wheat allergies who can tolerate spelt, though, I have eaten spelt matzo and it is freaking delicious.  Both are available from MatzahOnline.com.

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Pic-a-nic in the Park

Sarah and I have been planning on taking a nice afternoon and going on a picnic in Penn Treaty Park. [where:19125] We had discussed just bringing sandwiches (boring) or a roast chicken (time consuming and heavy). Sarah had the idea to do bruschetta because we have all of these awesome heirloom tomatoes from Greensgrow Farm in our neighborhood.

So, I seeded and chopped about six tomatoes of varying sizes (about four cups’ worth), tossed in three finely chopped cloves of garlic, the juice of one lemon, a quarter cup of good extra virgin olive oil, a splash of rice wine vinegar, some fresh basil and thyme from the herb garden, a handful or two of shredded mozzarella, and salt and pepper to taste. This went into the fridge while I grilled some olive oil-rubbed bread. I used some Italian baguette-sized bread cut on the bias to maximize surface area. The bread went on a cooling rack so they would stay nice and firm.

We packed up the bread and the bruschetta topping along with some fruit and cheese that we also bought at Greeensgrow and headed to the park on a beautiful late afternoon on Labor Day.

The complexity of the flavors in the heirloom tomatoes was a wonderful change from the standard red tomato. It had tart green finger tomatoes, semi-sweet reds and this awesomely sweet yellow tomato (it made Sarah and me remember that tomatoes are fruits). The bruschetta was visually appealing as well. The varying colors combined with the cheese and herbs excited the eyes as well as the taste buds.  I wish we had a camera so I could show you the beautiful colors.

We decided that this would be our picnic staple from now on.

This is, of course, vegetarian and it could be gluten free eaten with some GF bread. Also, I know you are saying, “This sounds yummy, but heirlooms are so pricey!” One, I would say that it is worth it for a time-to-time treat. And two, if you live in Philly, get yourself over to Greensgrow Farm on Cumberland Street in Fishtown/Port Richmond. They are only $1.75 per pound there, as opposed to the normal four to five dollars a pound most places that you go. We are won to the place and we plan to buy a share or half share next year so we can have their great produce all of the time.

Slow Food Nation: What Does That Mean?

All right, so it’s kind of killing me that I’m not at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco this weekend– if you’re anywhere near the Bay Area, go check it out!

There will be plenty of coverage by every food blogger with the cash for a plane ticket, but so far my favorite is this appeal by Serious Eats’ Ed Levine:

I have always found the Slow Food movement here in the U.S. to be more about nonspecific soaring rhetoric and less about specific actions we can all take that actually further the cause of slow food in America. Eating delicious, sustainable, artisanal foods and calling attention to those foods is laudable, but it is not enough.

Because right now in America there are hundreds of artisanal food purveyors under siege, threatened by the mushrooming homogeneity of our food culture and the march of “progress.”

Go read the whole thing.  It’s an impassioned plea for concrete action to help the people who keep traditional American foods alive.

I think that should absolutely be a plank in the Slow Food platform.  Ultimately, though, the movement will have to deal with the question of how to rebuild the food system.  Between global warming, peak oil, natural disasters and serious safety failings in the mass production of food, we need a way to ensure that should the food distribution system be disrupted, people are still fed.  Building a locally based, organic food system will drastically reduce energy use and change the way people think about food, which can only be positive– but it’s also an insurance policy against hunger.

There seem to be some promising political meetings on this topic at Slow Food Nation– I hope we’ll be hearing more about this in the near future!

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Leek Mashed Potatoes, with a bonus leftover recipe

There are some beautiful leeks coming out at the farmers’ market right now.  I love the flavor of leeks, but the only recipe I really know is potato-leek soup.  Joe and I put our heads together and came up with this easy, tasty fried leek mashed potato dish.  We had it with a roast chicken and Jennie’s excellent and easy roasted green beans.

Leek Mashed Potatoes

3 leeks, with green parts cut off, split down the middle

1 1/2 lbs potatoes (we used Yukon Golds), skin on

3 tbsp light cream

2 tbsp butter

4 tbsp olive oil

Salt to taste

Dice the potatoes, leaving the skin on, and boil them until they are tender enough to poke with a fork.  Soak the leeks in water for about 20 minutes to wash out any dirt.  Remove from water; drain.  Slice the leeks into 1/2-inch strips.

Heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the leeks.  Let them cook down until they are soft.  Remove them from the oil and put them into a food processor.  Pulse the processor just once or twice– you don’t want to puree the leeks, you just want to chop them into smaller pieces.  Return to pan with 1/2 tbsp butter and sautee until the butter is incorporated.

Mash the potatoes in a large bowl.  Add cream, remaining butter and leeks and fold in until they are incorporated.  Serve hot.

This recipe is gluten free and vegetarian.

Got leftovers?

Leftover Leek Potato Pancakes

Leek Mashed Potatoes

1/2 cup homemade bread crumbs

1 egg

olive oil

plain yogurt or sour cream

Form leftover mashed potatoes into balls and flatten.  You should have a pancake about the size of your palm and half an inch thick.  Beat the egg in a bowl and dip pancakes in egg to coat them.  Roll them in bread crumbs.  Heat the oil in a pan and fry until golden brown and delicious.  Serve with yogurt or sour cream.

This recipe is vegetarian.

Philly’s Best New Cheap Eats: Ekta and Zhi-Wei-Guan

Joe and I are headed to Kitty Hawk, NC for a week of internet-free relaxation on the beach.  If you’re in Philly, though, two new spots to try:

Ekta

I posted about Ekta’s opening, so you know I was in a hurry to try the food.  I’m happy to report that Chef Raju Bhattarai has matched the quality that his fans came to expect at his former post, Tiffin, at his new restaurant a few blocks down Girard.  [where: 19125]  I ordered one of the few dishes I hadn’t seen before, Murg Pahari, described on the menu only as “chicken cooked in a village’s style.”  It arrived hot and on time, and it was comfort food– the chicken was cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of onions, tomatoes and herbs.  No heavy cream thickening the gravy here, just fresh vegetables and a low level of heat that allowed the flavors to shine.  Peshawari naan and onion bhajis were tasty, but the real standout was the freebie “chef’s accompaniment” that arrived labeled “semolina.”  It was a dessert semolina porridge with golden raisins and toasted almonds, its subtle sweetness cut by a hint of black pepper.  I hope it makes it onto the menu– I’d order it for dessert or for breakfast.

Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant

I’ve posted a lot about Race St. between 9th and 10th: Wong Wong, HK Golden Phoenix and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles all live on this blessed block. [where: 19107] Between Nan Zhou* and HK there’s a new neighbor: Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant, the Magic Kingdom of Dough.  (That’s what it says on the business card.)  Zhi-Wei-Guan is named after a famous restaurant in Hangzhou, China, and Hangzhou dishes are proudly featured throughout the menu.  We had an amazing Hangzhou-style duck noodle soup with bok choy, and noodle dishes are clearly a specialty.  The real star here, though, is the juicy buns.  When we arrived, around 9:15 PM, our server welcomed us cheerfully** and told us that the pork/shrimp/mushroom buns ($7.50) were almost sold out.  There were only five left, but she’d round out the order with some beef buns.  Who could say no to that?  The buns were indeed juicy, fresh and full of flavor.  The beef buns were very lightly cooked, still pink inside, but delicious, with a lighter flavor and texture than you might expect from a beef dumpling.  Definitely worth the price.  We also ordered a noodle soup with fried tofu and stewed spareribs, and found it deeply satisfying.  Unlike Nan Zhou down the street, which is known for its noodles, the amazing, knock-your-socks-off component to Zhi-Wei-Guan’s soup is the broth.  Both of the soups we tried were all about the complex, rich flavors of the broth.  The way it permeated the fried tofu– oh, man, you’re just going to have to try it.  The soups, by the way, are all in the $5-7 range.
They’re open until 10, and the service is amazing.  Our server was a friendly, personable woman in her twenties who chatted with customers, recommended dishes, brought us freebies (sliced cucumber with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce, yum!) and even took our pictures for the wall.  I wish I’d caught her name.  I’ve worked as a server and in retail, and I’m not a fan of the classic servile style of restaurant service– I’d rather talk to a friendly fellow human being who knows and cares about the food they’re serving.  I loved the food, but our server gave us such a good experience that I know I’ll be coming back regularly.
With that, I’m disappearing for the week– off to enjoy the tasty treats of Kitty Hawk.  Have a nice week, folks!

*a.k.a. Lanzhou (兰州/蘭州), not to be confused with Hangzhou (杭州).  Chinese transliteration is a complicated business; I’m not about to hazard guesses about what’s right or wrong.  Chinese speakers, please feel free to chime in.

** This is a welcome contrast to the dumpling house that briefly occupied this space before Zhi-Wei-Guan– I stopped in one night half an hour before closing time to order takeout and was shooed out by a surly server.

Sketch Burger: Holy Kobe!

I have been to the top of the mountain… and they serve hamburgers.

OK, that mild rise on Girard isn’t really even a hill, but the hamburgers really are amazing.  I’m talking about the newly opened Sketch Burger and Shake Joint, at 413 E. Girard in Fishtown [where: 19125].  Dear readers, we have a serious contender for Best Burger in Philly.

The menu is simple: burgers and shakes, and one token salad.  Pick your protein, sauce and toppings, and choose from four shake flavors (vegan or milk).  Options are beef, turkey, ‘smashed onion,’ vegan burger, chicken, and American Kobe beef, as well as the day’s special, a seitan burger highly recommended by the server.  Joe and I, being hedonists, went straight for the American Kobe burger ($9.75).  He got harissa aioli, I chose Thai peanut sauce on the side.  I went for grilled onions and avocado.  The burger arrived, and it was massive.  Really, I cannot believe they crammed that much meat into one burger.  Most kobe burgers tend to be on the small side– $9.75 may be expensive for a burger, but for kobe it’s really an excellent deal.  It arrived medium rare, thank God– overcooking meat of that quality is a sin.  We got our burgers to go, so the bun was slightly soggy, but it really held up well given the juiciness of the burger.  The grilled onions sat below the patty, and above it were slippery sliced avocado, a slice of juicy ripe tomato and some high-quality salad greens.  This is a difficult burger to eat.  It’s crammed full of fresh ingredients that want to come bursting right out of the bun.  The effort, however, is worth it, as is the 20-minute wait while your burger is cooked to order.  The end result is incredibly rich, flavorful, juicy, and did I mention rich?  It was a bit of a shock to my system since I’ve been eating lightly recently, but very much worth it.

We also shared a vanilla milkshake, which was flavorful and thick but not too thick.  (As Joe put it: “Thick, but I won’t have a brain embolism trying to suck it through a straw.”)  Everything is made fresh here, so no chalky chemical taste either.  I try to take it easy on the lactose, so I’m really looking forward to trying a vegan shake.

The shop itself is cute; there are blackboards everywhere and rolls of butcher paper on the tables, and customers are encouraged to doodle with chalk (hence the “Sketch” name).  It’s also open until 11 pm, which is wonderful for those of us who live in the neighborhood.  And vegans, vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant can all find joy in this menu.

I found only two downsides to our delicious, gut-busting meal.  One was the cheese selection: American (ew, plastic), horseradish cheddar, pepper jack, vegan and bleu.  One straightforward cheese option, an aged cheddar or maybe a sharp provolone, would be welcome.  The other was the standard side order of Cheesy Poofs– ours were stale.  Sketch would be better off dropping the little orange orbs and developing the ultimate French fry.  They’ve mastered the ultimate hamburger, so why not?

Dinner on Girard: Ekta and Sketch Burger Joint Opening Today

Good news for Fishtowners!  Chef Raju Bhattarai, formerly the executive chef at Tiffin, has opened his own restaurant, Ekta, at 250 E. Girard [where: 19125].  I stopped by the small storefront space yesterday, and Chef Bhattarai and his staff were busy putting on the finishing touches.  They greeted me warmly and handed me a menu.  Most of the choices are indistinguishable from Tiffin’s menu, no surprise there, but the prices are much more affordable.  One intriguing difference is in the bread section.  In addition to the usual suspects like garlic naan, roti, and the heavenly fruit-and-nut-stuffed Peshawari naan, Ekta offers basil naan, mint naan and rosemary naan.  Hours are also a bit longer than Tiffin’s: Ekta is open until 10 pm Monday-Saturday and 9 pm Sunday, good news for those of us who work the twilight shift.  City Paper reports that a second-floor dining room is in the works as well.  Opening day is today, so drop by if you get a chance– and send me a report!

The other restaurant opening today on Girard is Sketch Burger Joint, a brightly painted pink-and-yellow space run by the owners of Canvas Coffee Co.  The menu advertises itself as vegan-friendly, and wagyu burgers, high-end condiments and vegan milk shakes are on offer (check out the menu over at Foobooz).  Oh, this is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t talk about Girard without mentioning its unquestioned king, Johnny Brenda’s.   We had dinner at Brenda’s the day we moved to Fishtown, and haven’t stopped dropping by.  The new venue space on the second and third floors is a great place to see bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but what I’m really happy about is the expanded dining room, where the seating is much more comfortable, and you can hear your dinner partner talk.  Brenda’s menu is updated regularly, and the innovation hasn’t stopped yet– my latest favorite is the crab cake salad, three perfect, slightly spicy crabcakes with a creamy dressing and a pile of dark, flavorful salad greens.   I’ll really be happy when the Greek-inspired lamb sliders Brenda’s offered at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival finally make it onto the menu.  I’ve been craving those for months.