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 »


Salmon with Dried Shiitakes in a Marsala Cream Sauce; Potato and Carrot Chips

This is a variation on a classic French dish made with Madeira wine and heavy cream that I found while thumbing through Larousse Gastronomique. I like Marsala wine a bit better and it is what I had on hand. For the dish you will need:

Two salmon filets



Olive Oil

1 tsp. of butter

4-5 dried shiitake mushrooms

1/2 cup of Marsala wine

1/4 cup heavy cream

Juice of one lemon

Parsley and/or chives for garnish

First, salt the salmon well and set aside. In a bowl, pour boiling water over the dried mushrooms and let them soak for at least half an hour. You can use fresh mushrooms of your choice here. I like to use dried now and again because they have an earthiness and depth of flavor not found in fresh mushrooms. They can overwhelm a dish if you’re not careful, but since I was dealing with a rich fish with sauce I felt they could really add something.

Remove the mushrooms from their bath and remove the stems. Slice the caps in about 1/4 inch slices. Heat some olive oil and the butter on medium high heat. Dredge the salmon in the flour, add it to the pan and reduce heat to medium. Add the mushrooms and sauté a few minutes on each side. You want a nice crust. Remove the salmon from the pan. Deglaze the pan with the wine. Be sure to scrape the pan to get all the flavor from the salmon. Reduce the wine by about half and add the heavy cream and lemon juice with the pan off of the heat. Whisk continuously to avoid separation and curdling. Add the salmon back to the pan and cover in the sauce. Plate with some green garnish (I used chopped flat-leat parsley) and potatoes on the side.

For the potatoes:

On a mandolin (or with a knife if you have way more patience than I do) slice a potato on the thinnest setting possible. You should be able to see through them. Chop a carrot finely and put a bit of carrot on a slice of potato. Take another slice of potato and sandwich in the carrot. Fry these in vegetable oil until crispy. Salt and serve on the side. The carrot here is more for visual accent. You can try this with just about anything (meat, shrimp, mushrooms etc.).

This dish is gluten-free other than the dredging flour. You could easily use gluten-free flour as a dredge.


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Bar Ferdinand: Tops in Tapas

Sarah and I love tapas. Eating samples from multiple plates is our favorite way to eat. You can relax, take your time and enjoy the food, what you’re drinking and good conversation. A number of months ago we tried Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties. It was great and it had just opened recently. We went back a week ago and had an equally great, if not better experience.

First off, Bar Ferdinand is open late. They serve dinner until midnight and the bar is open until 2AM. What’s more, they have a late-night happy hour between 9PM and 11PM. Normally, this means $3 sangrias and $4 draught beers. The beer selection is very good, featuring Belgians and microbrews. The wine list is extensive with a nice amount of selections by the glass. One of the things we miss about New York is the ability to get good meals late in the evening. Bar Ferdinand satisfies this need for us.

On to the food.

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Orange Roughy in a Spicy Almond-Pecan Sauce

This is a cookbook recipe that ended up morphing into a very different dish!  We started out making “Fish in an Almond-Walnut Sauce” from The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz.  I chose this recipe because we have lots of fish and also some fresh tomatillos we needed to use, and the recipe called for both.  However, as we started to make it, it became clear that we didn’t have the exact ingredients we thought we had.  So we got creative with substitutions and made what turned out to be a really tasty and healthy dish.  (Also dairy-free and gluten-free.) Here are the ingredients we actually used:

Orange Roughy in a Spicy Almond-Pecan Sauce

2 orange roughy fillets

1 onion, chopped

1 cup white wine

about 8 fresh tomatillos

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup blanched almonds

1  cup pecans

1 tbsp sesame seeds

1 green chilli, chopped

1 chipotle pepper (canned), chopped

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

First, prepare the tomatillos (you can skip this step if you used canned): Heat olive oil in a pan. Put in quartered tomatillos. Add salt and the diced green chilli. Saute for a minute and reduce heat to med-low. Add a couple tablespoons of water. Cook on med-low for about a half hour.

Once they are cooked, strain them to separate the liquid from the fruit.  Heat the liquid in the pan with a cup of wine, the onion and garlic, and the salt and pepper.  Simmer for 15 minutes, then add the fish and cook until flaky.  Remove the fish to a covered serving dish.

Pour the liquid from the pan into a food processor and add all remaining ingredients (except the fish).  Blend until you have a smooth sauce.  Pour over the fish and serve.

It has a nutty, smoky taste that went really well with the orange roughy, and a little kick of heat at the end.   Serve this with some sort of bread so you can sop up the sauce.  Also, if you buy canned tomatillos, it doesn’t take long at all.  I’ll definitely make this again.  (Next time I might even buy the right ingredients so I can make the official recipe!)

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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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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!