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.

Uova in Brodetto (Pasta with Eggs Poached in Red Sauce)

The other night I pulled this dish out of my memory bank for a quick and easy meal. It is inspired by a dish called Uova in Brodetto: Eggs in Tomato Sauce by Mario Batali. I got this recipe from watching one of his old cooking shows. This is a bit of a variation on that original recipe since I just prepare it from memory. Either way the credit here goes to Mario, not me. For the dish you need:

Pasta of your choice– I think a wider pasta like papardelle works best because it catches the sauce better than thinner pasta.

Tomato sauce– Use your homemade recipe or a good store-bought sauce. I’ve done both but most recently used Trader Joe’s organic marinara.

Four eggs

Good-quality parmesan

Boil pasta to your desired tooth. While the pasta is cooking, bring the sauce to a simmer in a high-sided pan. Crack the eggs into the sauce. Do this gently in order to maintain the shape of the eggs. You want to keep the eggs evenly separated from each other with at least a couple inches between them. Cover and check often. As the eggs begin to become cooked, you can spoon some sauce over them. Keep cooking with the lid on. You want the eggs to cook to the point where the whites are solid but you have a liquid yoke.

To serve, put pasta in a dish and spoon one to two eggs on the bed of pasta. Add as much sauce as desired. Serve with rustic or garlic bread.

As you eat, the yolk will break into the sauce, creating a creamy and flavorful treat.

This is vegetarian (if you eat eggs, of course) and easily made gluten free by using GF pasta.

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Pappardelle with Fresh Vegetables and Chicken

Just a quick light dish that I whipped up last night. Sarah and I had both eaten late lunches  and weren’t particularly hungry. The base of the dish was some really good sprouted wheat pappardelle pasta from Trader Joe’s. I used an 8 oz. bag.

While this was boiling, I sauteed ripe Roma tomatoes (from the Headhouse Market) cut into quarters, some diced onion, two cloves of garlic, one diced small zucchini and salt and pepper. I threw in some diced chicken breast that I had browned earlier. To this I added extra virgin olive oil and some good balsamic vinegar. You don’t want to cook this for very long. If you do the tomatoes will get soft. Just heat the veggies and the chicken through and toss in the pasta. I use an old-fashioned technique here: instead of draining the pasta first, I just pick it up with tongs and add it directly to the saute pan. This allows a little pasta water (in all of its starchy goodness) to become part of the sauce. To the pasta, I added some fresh chopped basil and some grated Parmesan.

A quick note on the basil. This is some of the best basil that I have ever had. We bought it from our new friend Jennie at Weaver’s Way.  Unlike mega-mart basil, this has little bits and holes where insects and worms have taken small bites– in fact, an inchworm fell out of this bunch when I was washing it. My mother always used to say she didn’t trust produce that didn’t have some evidence of insect life. I didn’t understand that as a kid, but I do now. A healthy ecosystem includes insects and worms. Mass production uses pesticides that eliminate this insect life so you have prettier produce. But you also sacrifice some of the nutrients that provide healthfulness and flavor to the produce. We’ve bought this basil twice now and it has wowed us both times.

As for the pasta, it made for a quick and tasty meal.

This dish could be made gluten-free by just using some GF pasta. There are some very good ones out there right now. A dairy-free option here would just be eliminating the cheese. If you use good, flavorful veggies, it wouldn’t be necessary. A vegetarian option would be to substitute the chicken with some wild mushrooms. Shiitakes or Criminis would work well.

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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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Heirloom Tomato Pizza

Heirloom Tomato Pizza

This was our first attempt at homemade pizza in years, and we were very pleased with the results.  I should admit up front that, since it was a work night, we didn’t attempt to make the dough from scratch– that’s more of a Sunday project.  We bought a blob of pizza dough from Trader Joe’s instead.  But we had some beautiful fresh orange and red heirloom tomatoes straight from the farm, fresh mozzarella, local raw-milk gruyere, a monster of a shallot and some fresh garlic, all from the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market.  The fresh ingredients really made a difference!

Joe stretched the dough out to about a foot in diameter– it was quite springy so that wasn’t an easy task, even for someone who used to work at a pizza shop.   We started with a gentle drizzle of olive oil and some chopped shallots and garlic.  Not too much,  you don’t want to overwhelm the flavors of the tomatoes and cheese.  Next, a layer of grated fresh mozzarella, then a quick grate of a much smaller amount of gruyere.  Finally, sliced orange and red tomatoes arranged on top of the pie and drizzled with a hint of olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  We don’t have a pizza stone (although, ahem, my birthday is November 15), so we baked the pizza on a cookie sheet.  It worked out fine, although a pizza stone would have crisped the bottom of the crust a bit more.  The directions on the dough said to bake it for 8-9 minutes, but the tomatoes and mozzarella release so much water that we ended up baking it for about 12 minutes to get some nice browning going.

When it had about 3 minutes to go, Joe sprinkled some chopped fresh basil on top of the pizza. 

The result was one of the better pizzas I’ve had in a long time.  The tomatoes were bursting with flavor, the basil was delicious, and the garlic and shallots gave it just enough of a kick.  The crust wasn’t massively flavorful– when we do it from scratch we’ll salt and season it a bit– but it was perfectly serviceable and had a nice texture to it.  I’d prefer homemade, but for an after-work meal on a Wednesday night the packaged dough made this an easy, quick meal.  Not bad for a first attempt!  I’ll post a picture tonight if our crappy Earthlink internet access is up to it.

Also:  The Real Potato received our 5,000th hit today!  Woohoo!  Cookies for everyone!

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Chocolate Almond Zabaglione

This is a nice dessert that is very flexible. Instead of chocolate and almond you can flavor it as you see fit. Classically, the flavoring is about a quarter to a half cup of Marsala wine. This is served with fruit. But this is something you can really experiment with. On to the recipe:

Chocolate Almond Zabaglione

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

4 tablespoons of Amaretto

2 tablespoons of Almond extract

3 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa or a 1/4 cup of chocolate, melted.

Boil about an inch of water in a pot. In a bowl that will fit on top of the pot to make a double boiler, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. When well blended, put the bowl on the heat. Add Amaretto and Almond extract (or any other liquid that you decide to use). Whisk vigorously for 5-7 minutes. You want it to be light in color, about doubled in size and falls off the whisk in long ribbons. Remove from heat and whisk in chocolate or cocoa. Serve with fruit or crushed biscotti etc. I used some crushed almond cookies and some fleur de sel and served it in a martini glass. But be creative and enjoy.

Gluten-free folks in the Philadelphia area would be well advised to use hazelnut biscotti or almond pizzelles from Mr. Ritt’s GF Bakery in this recipe!

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Osteria: This one’s for the foodies

I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in a long time.

Joe and I heard some good things about Cobre, a Puerto Rican-Mexican hybrid that opened recently on a newly gentrifying stretch of North Broad here in Philly. We trudged north to find it, but when we got there, the place was empty. At nine o’clock on a Friday night. Empty! That scared us, so we backtracked a few blocks south to Osteria, about which we had heard even better things. (In fact, it was featured in a Philadelphia Weekly article on “The Rebirth of North Broad.”) It was a bit pricy for our budget, but Joe just got a raise and we were celebrating, so we decided to give it a shot.

We were a little worried about getting in- we were both in jeans, and we were turning up without a reservation on a Friday night. I half expected to be sneered at and shown the door. Instead, we got love. Seriously, they were wonderful. We were immediately shown to a seat at the bar, overlooking the pizza oven and rotisserie, and the hostess even apologized for the lack of a table. There are two dining rooms, and the one in which we were seated was decorated simply, with brick walls, brushed concrete floors, wooden furniture, and warm lighting that made the whole place feel congenial.

It took a few minutes to get our menus, but after that the service was a well-oiled machine. In fact, our waiter was one of the highlights of our experience. He was clearly a serious foodie and took pride in the dishes he was serving. His face lit up when I asked about the rabbit casalinga with pancetta, sage, brown butter and soft polenta– he explained that the recipe came from the chef’s mother in Italy, and that the polenta was cooked in the embers of the open fire blazing in front of us (under the rotisserie). He had thoughtful answers to our questions, and asked our opinions on the dishes. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t catch his name, but he really made the experience for us.

But you want to know about the food. Osteria has an extensive wine list, which we barely looked at because we were too busy celebrating its small but excellent Belgian beer selection. I got a McChouffe.

From the antipasti menu, we split a salad of veal flank steak, snow peas, pancetta and red cabbage. (I don’t see it on the menu currently posted online, though.) It was all bathed (not drowned) in olive oil and garlic, with a light crunchy texture that balanced the richness of the meats. The portions are reasonable– not tiny, but not the ridiculous megaplates you see at too many restaurants.

Joe had eaten a large lunch, not knowing we were going to have such an amazing dinner, so he decided to keep it light and eat the salad and one dish from the primi section of the menu. He got a dish of translucent pork ravioli in a bright green basil sauce. It was light and pretty, and each small ravioli gave a gratifying burst of juice and flavor.

Finally, my rabbit. It must have been about a quarter of a rabbit, done to moist perfection, with dark, almost-crispy skin and little chunks of pancetta to add even more depth and richness to the flavor. The polenta was a bit plain, but satisfying. I’d ordered the dish thinking that it was a bit out of season; instead it was much lighter than I expected, not a winter dish at all.

And then there was dessert. We ordered shots of espresso at the recommendation of our waiter, who clearly takes his coffee every bit as seriously as his food, and were not disappointed. I’m picky about espresso– places like Starbucks tend to serve it burnt, but this was flavorful, with an unexpected bit of fruity sweetness. (Do I sound like a wine snob? OK, I do, but if you have a shot of this stuff, you’ll be singing the same tune.)

I had the chocolate flan with pistachio gelato. As the waiter warned us, it’s not technically a flan– it’s actually a flan-shaped cake with molten chocolate on the inside. It was rich and delicious, and not overly sweet. The gelato was forgettable, without much pistachio flavor.

Joe’s dessert, though, floored us. It was a puff pastry tart filled with mascarpone cheese and toppped with figs cooked in balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Joe doesn’t actually like figs very much, but he’d had such a delicious, thoughtfully prepared meal by that point that he decided to trust the chef. Good move. It was rich and light at the same time, and the balsamic-rosemary combination created a pine-y, fresh flavor that I’ve never quite experienced before. It was absolutely wonderful.

We were struck by a couple of things. First, the menu is very friendly to celiacs and people with food allergies. The kind of Northern Italian cuisine that Mark Vetri and Jeff Benjamin are preparing here uses polenta and potatoes much more than pasta, and preparations are kept relatively simple. The use of fresh, local ingredients also means less worries about the ‘stealth ingredients’ that show up so often in processed food. The kind of personal attention we received without even making a reservation (!) leads me to believe that any diner who called ahead and asked about a dietary issue would be accommodated and made to feel welcome.

Second, we had some questions when we arrived about the restaurant’s gentrification of the neighborhood. It’s an Italian restaurant with a mostly white clientele and high (for Philly) prices that’s located in an African-American neighborhood (and is probably raising that neighborhood’s rents). I’m not going to get into the politics of gentrification here (that’s for the comments!)– but I was pleased to note that both the hostess and the manager were Black, a rare move in Philly, where the front of house and back of house are usually the last frontier of segregation. I hope other restauranteurs will take note and give some people of color leadership positions in the front of the house, for a change!

The final word? Osteria is a foodie’s restaurant. It’s unpretentious, relaxed, and totally obsessed with the quality of its food. Everyone we interacted with– the manager, the waiter, the cooks we observed from the bar– seemed deeply invested in serving us really good food. And, most important, it works– the food is delicious, surprisingly healthy, and soul-satisfying. The prices are steep (knock $5 off just about everything, and I’d come a lot more regularly), but the quality of the ingredients, the preparations and the service are high enough to make it worthwhile. Go.

[where: 640 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19130]

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Osteria in Philadelphia