While I profess to be opinionated about food, I would never declare myself an expert on food. I don’t know everything there is to know about food, but I do know what I like, and have been exposed to some mighty good food since I’ve set foot on this earth. I have my family to thank for that. They’re all foodies, in a sense.
My mother’s parents were farmers – not the kind that grows a thousand acres of corn as a commercial commodity, but they were farmers in the more traditional sense. They grew a plot of tomatoes, a plot of corn, a plot of butter beans, and a plot of cucumbers destined for the local farmer’s market and the local folk's bellies.
My mother is an excellent cook. We ate a home-cooked meal every night, and school lunches came in brown paper bags packed with love by mom. When I was younger, the only time I set foot in a fast food restaurant was on school field trips when the bus pulled in to McDonalds – how pathetic of the schools. Of course, I’m not that sheltered; I was later acquainted with fast food restaurants in high school when I started getting out on my own.
My mom taught me how to cook by letting me stick to her side and help her in the kitchen; I was the pot stirrer, the cheese grater, the bean sheller, and, of course, the brownie bowl licker. Thank you so much, mom, for feeding me wholesome, delicious love cooked up every night.Granddaddy chefs it up while I keep his chair warm
My father’s parents were city folk. My granddad was the chef while he was in the Coast Guard; they asked who could make biscuits and gravy, and he raised his hand. Later, he sold restaurant equipment and designed commercial kitchens. I remember sitting at his drafting table, unrolling blueprints of the interior of restaurants and gazing at all the circles and squares.
Granddaddy was also famous for his catfish stew and hushpuppies, which were not only requested at home, but at large events where he would lord over the stew in a huge, cast iron cauldron set over a flame. My granddad taught me to skin a catfish (this requires nailing the fish to a tree and pulling the skin off with pliers) and pull molasses candy (Granddaddy had a fierce sweet tooth).
My sister has worked in the gourmet food industry since she was sixteen. She started at a retail gourmet food and wine store, and over the years has been a personal chef and a pastry chef. She even made the cover of the Chicago paper many years ago with a soup inspired by my Granddad, and has dined with the likes of John T. Edge. She currently is a wine and cheese buyer for a Southeastern competitor of Whole Foods . She’s has lived and breathed food since she was a teenager, and when she has her game on is quite the little food snob.
My brother has worked in the food industry most of his life, too, but as a server in restaurants. Don’t take serving lightly. Many are truly professionals in this field, and he was one of them. Unfortunately, you won’t be served by him any more. A life changing event led him to pick up and pursue his dream of sailing. Godspeed.
My dad is, the only way to put it, a wine and food connoisseur. We might have been the only family in our neighborhood that had a wine cellar back in the 1970’s. We might have also been the only family with a dad that kept the “good” chocolate locked in a safe (shit you not), so that the kids didn’t eat it all.
My dad is very opinionated, and it must have been from him that I learned to critique food. To everyone’s embarrassment at the table, he never hesitates to send food back at a restaurant and loudly voice what is wrong with the food and how it should properly be prepared.
My dad also has some weird talent or personality trait that I was not born with which enables him to envision, organize, and create festivals – I’m talking large festivals that thousands of people attend. This has been going on since I was a child, and embarrassingly leads to pictures of your dad in papers. He currently is the founder and president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, a very serious association that does not take barbeque (ussage: noun, specifically pork; and transitive verb, "barbecued") lightly, and sentences like, “I have discussed going to all butts as opposed to whole hog and butt” are not a joke. Of course , he created a barbeque festival, and disseminates his trained troops to smaller festivals throughout the state. Anthony Bourdain, his camera person, and my Dad.
So, this all leads to the picture of Anthony Bourdain and my Father. The fourth season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations begins July 30th, and my dad was filmed for a segment on the South Carolina episode coming up this fall. Being the go-to barbeque guy in South Carolina, my dad hooked Tony up with some real barbeque and schooled him on the way it’s done. My dad had a blast that day, and said Tony was down to earth, polite, funny, and an all and all nice guy – contrary to what you might imagine him like from his sarcastic side seen on TV and in his books. And, yes, he does smoke that much.
God knows what potentially embarrassing thing my Dad just said?
I can’t wait to see what snarky comments Tony edits in if my Dad makes it into the final cut. You guys will have to tell me about it (tape it), since the Travel Channel is not one of the one hundred cable channels I pay obscene amounts of money for.
So, that’s my family, and why I am the way I am. Sue them, not me.
Of course, I took it a bit further. I had six types of vinegar in my pantry: rice vinegar, ginger infused rice vinegar, cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, and strawberry infused balsamic vinegar. (Some cooks take hits from extract bottles, I take hits from vinegar bottles; I like vinegar so much.) It turns out that it really doesn’t matter what vinegar you use; the differences are subtle. Just use what ever vinegar you have.
After fifteen minutes of roasting in the oven, the grapes soften, release juices, and caramelize a bit. The homegrown grapes I was using were very tart, so these roasted homegrown grapes mixed with vinegar were too tangy for most people to handle.
This ain’t gonna work! I reached in the fridge and pulled out the store bought green grapes I bought before the grape harvest came in. (Yep, it’s grapey over at my house.) I tried it all over again with store bought green grapes. Much better. These grapes ended up being sweet and only slightly tangy from the vinegar. These guys can go on a cheese plate without arresting your taste buds.Roasted Grapes
1 bunch of grapes
a few tablespoons vinegar (your choice)
- Wash and dry grapes.
- Toss grapes with vinegar in a bowl.
- Place grapes in an ovenproof dish or on a baking sheet, and cook in a preheated 450°oven for 15 minutes.
Efforts have paid off, and we managed to salvage about fifty percent of the fruit growing from two Lakemont grape vines growing on a pergola with a minimal, but regimented, spray program. Previous years had very low percentages (lucky to get a handful), so I was quite pleased to take home a heavy plastic grocery sack of grapes. My partner took home a bag, too, as well as the not so pretty grapes, which were crushed to make grape juice.
I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my bounty of grapes – make grape pie! I know. WTF? I’ve never eaten grape pie, much less heard of it, until I saw it on some show somewhere (Food Network, god bless 'em) and thought, “Gotta try that sometime.” Well, the time has come. And gone. As has the pie. I ate it in two days. I’m quite efficient.
I would have to say that my favorite fruit pie is cherry, but after eating this grape pie, I questioned the ranking order of my fruit pies. Grapes are round and cook down like cherries, and, if you had blindfolded me, I might have guessed this pie was a tart cherry pie.
This grape pie was tart due to the fact that these homegrown grapes were tarter than store bought grapes, but these fresh grapes were not tart to the point of making your face squench up. I’m not sure what a pie made from store bought grapes would taste like, but I’m guessing good, as there are plenty of recipes out there for green or red grape pies.
This pie is not the prettiest thing I’ve made. Make grape pie and serve it to your family; buy some puff pastry and make grape tarts to serve to your friends. Your family already knows you’re a screw-up, but you’ve worked too hard making your friends believe you’re perfect, so make pretty little tarts to impress the friends. Give it a go. Try something new. Your disillusioned friends will think you’re a genius.
Green Grape Pie
2 pie crusts
7 cups green grapes
1 1/2 cups sugar (adjust according to sweetness of grapes)
zest from 1 lemon
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons butter
- Crush 3/4 cup of the green grapes in a saucepan.
- Add remaining grapes, sugar, lemon zest, salt, and cornstarch to the crushed grapes.
- Heat fruit on stove, stirring occasionally until the juice has thickened.
- Fill pie crust with fruit. If there is excess juice, use a slotted spoon to transfer the fruit, so the pie will not be a wet mess.
- Place pats of butter on top of pie.
- Top pie with the second crust, crimp pie edges, and cut slits in the top of the pie.
- Place pie on a foil-lined baking sheet to avoid cleaning headaches.
- Bake in a preheated 425° oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
With so many wine bars in Philly, how does one choose? While I have been to a handful, I have not been to all. Eager to try more, I took a recent article in the Philadelphia Weekly that featured wine bars, nixed those I had been to, then chose what seemed to be the least pretentious establishment and closest wine bar to my Philly digs – ‘cause walking is the only way to travel when drinking.
We chose Chick’s, a small bar on the corner of
I started with the roasted beets, goat cheese, and mache listed under the vegetable small plates section of the menu. I’m rarely disappointed with beets, and this dish was no exception. The beets were perfectly tangy from vinegar and complimented by the creamy, mild goat cheese. This small plate was not minuscule like some small plates at wine and tapas bars, but perfectly portioned.
The Gorgonzola and fig flat bread was the star of the table. You just can’t beat the classic pairing of fig and Gorgonzola cheese. Again, the portions were substantial, and thank goodness, because we wanted all of it.
The brie, pear, and onion marmalade panini had my name on it, as one of my favorite sandwich spreads in onion jelly or onion chutney. I was disappointed with the panini. The sandwich could have used a little more brie and pear to balance out all that bread, which was the most perfectly crisp panini I’ve ever had. Mostly I was disappointed with the onion marmalade. The sandwich contained what appeared to be caramelized red onions that were slightly bitter, not a sweet onion marmalade. Again, this sandwich was another example of sauce (or absence of sauce) making or breaking a sandwich. The panini came on top of a stack of skinny fries which were the crunchiest, happiest skinny fries I’ve ever had, unlike the floppy, sad skinny fries I usually run into.
We were stuffed, but had to try dessert. The attentive, but unobtrusive server recommended the dark chocolate crème brulee. The crème brulee was not as rich and thick as some crème brulees I’ve had, but that was not a concern. The dessert was fabulous, and the caramelized bananas on top were the pièce de rèsistance.
The price and pretension at Chick's is low, and the quality and service is high. I can get behind that.
Chick’s Café and Wine Bar,
Yeah, I’ve had ice cream machines before, but they were those big machines that require ice and rock salt. Too high maintenance for me. My little guy needs none of that. Just pop his hot, sleek bod in the freezer overnight to chill and were raring to go.
Anything he touches is soo much better. Smoothie? Freeze it. Juice? Freeze it. Yogurt? Freeze it. That’s how I can love him so much and not get fat. But about once a month we have a “special” night where we make full-fat ice cream. It’s sinful, but oh so good.
We finally got around to making the hazelnut ice cream that was supposed to be my “first.” It’s yummy and very rich. I’m so glad I waited. Well, I couldn’t wait ‘til marriage, but I waited long enough.
I tried as hard as I could to follow the directions in David Lebovitz’s ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, but it just didn’t happen. I forgot to buy milk chocolate at the store, so used dark chocolate I had on hand. I also tried to make the recipe just slightly less indulgent by subbing non-fat milk for whole milk, and reducing the eggs by one. (It was still so rich that I thought I was going to go into cardiac arrest.) I also couldn’t waste all the hazelnuts that impart the hazelnutty flavor to the custard, so threw in a few tablespoons towards the end of the churning for crunchy little nut bits.
Chocolate Hazelnut Ice Cream
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Levovitz
Makes about 1 quart
1 ½ cups hazelnuts, toasted
1 cup non-fat milk
2 cups heavy cream
¾ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon coarse salt
4 ounces dark chocolate, chips or finely chopped
4 egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Toast hazelnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet in the oven for 12 minutes at 350°, turning half way through. Cool nuts. (ha ha) Rub nuts (hee hee) in a dish towel to remove the skins, then chop finely in a food processor or blender.
- Combine milk with 1 cup of the cream, sugar, and salt in a pan over medium heat. Once warm, add the chopped hazelnuts and remove from the heat. Cover and let steep for 1 hour.
- Heat remaining 1 cup of cream in a pan on the stove until it just begins to boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate pieces, and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth.Pour the hazelnut-infused milk through a strainer or cheesecloth into a pan, squeezing all the liquid from the nuts. Save 3 or 4 tablespoons of the hazelnuts to add to the ice cream.
- Rewarm the hazelnut-infused milk. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm hazelnut-infused milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly.
- Stir the egg and milk mixture over medium heat, making sure to scrape the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens into custard. Pour the custard into the chocolate mixture, add the vanilla and stir until cool over an ice bath.
- Chill the mixture in the refrigerator, then freeze in your ice cream maker. Add the reserved chopped hazelnuts to the ice cream a few minutes before it is ready.
Sazon sits on that uninviting hodgepodge strip of
We started drinking a white wine we brought along (Sazon is BYOB) and ordered the sampler appetizer plate with empanada, arepas, and tequenos accompanied by a tomato salsa. These appetizers came out more fried and greasy than I had expected. The wine must have been working because I’m normally pissy when I have to eat fried appetizers. I was quite happy to eat the fried teqenos (a glorified mozzarella stick), and the cheese and bean stuffed arepas and empanada. Full size arepas and empanadas stuffed with various meat and non-meat fillings can also be ordered.
I ordered the dinner plate of grilled tofu mixed with portabellas, seasoned with tomato salsa, and served with brown rice and black beans. I substituted white rice (just because I’m a vegetarian doesn’t mean I'm some health nut), and requested sweet plantains, too. I was a little unimpressed with the menu description, but was pleasantly surprised by the tofu, portabella, and tomato mixture that resembled a ragout. This mixture was very flavorful and not spicy at all. In fact, nothing we ate that night was spicy. Venezuelan food at Sazon is mild, simple, home cooking. When you eat black beans, you taste black beans; not a mouthful of coriander and cumin.
My partner ordered the tilapia special that came with an avocado salad and fried green plantains. He said the fish was cooked perfectly.
For dessert, the server recommended the coconut flan. While I’m iffy on flan (this saying, apparently, is quite funny after a bottle of wine), my partner likes flan. We went with the recommendation. The dessert was a mash up of a coconut macaroon and flan. I enjoyed this much more than traditional flan, but my partner would have probably enjoyed the traditional flan more.
Sazon is very affordable, thanks in part to the fact that you’re saving money on drinks by bringing your own. We got out of there for under $50, and $23 of that bill was the fish special. At those prices (not the fish special), I want to go back and try the full size arepas and empanadas, or maybe the weekend brunch. Gitchi Gitchi Ya Ya Da Da!
* Some people (comments deleted) are getting worked up over this comment, so I'll explain. I have since discovered that the picture is of Celia Cruz, a salsa singer. While I did not know at the time who the picture was of, I also did not believe the picture was of Patti LaBelle. I merely found humor in imagining (operative word) Patti Labelle popping out of tropical foliage singing a silly song. Can't a girl drink a bottle of wine and have a little fun?
Sazon, 941 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, PA 19123
Tues.-Wed, 11a.m-3pm, 5:30p.m.-9p.m.; Thurs. 11a.m.-3p.m., 5:30p.m.-10p.m.; Fri., 11a.m.-3p.m., 5:30p.m.-11p.m.; Sat., 11a.m.-11p.m; Sun., 11a.m.-8p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 11a.m.-3p.m.
This weekend I forwent my normal weekend bike ride and participated in a bike tour of urban farms in
We started the morning at Weaver’s Way Co-op Farm, a one and a half acre, non-certified organic farm located on Awbury Arboretum in East Mt. Airy that supplies produce and flowers to the Weaver’s Way Co-op.We then booked it over to visit Mill Creek Farm, a collectively run urban education garden on the site of previous vacant land in West Philadelphia that is devoted to sustainable living and the immediate community.Jade, co-founder of Mill Creek Farm, standing on the living roof of their cobbed shed.
Calendula and tomatoes at Mill Creek FarmA quick stop was made at the
Downtown Philly towering over Spring Garden community gardensPerennials and vegetables co-mingle in a Spring Garden plot
A quick ride over to Fishtown and we arrived at Greensgrow Farms, an operation that sells produce grown in greenhouses on the site of an old galvanized steel plant to local restaurants and the community. Greensgrow is also one of the only nurseries supplying ornamentals accessible to those in the heart of
The tour ended a few blocks away at Yards Brewery, where “Beer is the answer,” but if you read this blog you know that beer is never my answer. (It’s a shame Philly doesn’t have a vodka brewery.) A quick peek inside at the facilities and a break in their bar area with a beautiful high timbered ceiling, and I was ready for lunch.
Missed the bike ride, but still want a tour? There's a very similar tour during the Buy Fresh Buy Local week that takes off over at White Dog Cafe on Saturday, July 21.
How friendly are they? Well, I went in the other day to get twelve pitas to take home (just pitas, nothing else) and decided to ask if they sold their garlic sauce as well. You must understand that I would kill kittens for this sauce, and have even thought about running out the door with the squeeze bottle of garlic sauce that sits by the register, if it wouldn’t be stealing and make me look like an imbecile. (I should probably just ask what’s in the sauce.) The smiley man said that they didn’t sell the sauce, and then proceeded to make a small dish out of tin foil for me to carry some sauce home. I really wasn’t going home, nor was I about to eat the pitas, but how could I say no to Mr. Smiley – or the sauce.
So, there I am walking down
The eggplant in the garden is a variety called 'Fairy Tale', which I've never grown. I don't like the traditional Italian eggplant, simply because the fruit is too big and more eggplant than I know what to do with. I usually grow the long, slender Japanese varieties because they are smaller and more tender. I couldn't find any Japanese eggplant starters this year, so gave 'Fairy Tale', a miniature eggplant, a try. The purple fruits striated with white are absolutely gorgeous.
The jalepenos will probably end up in salsa – once the tomatoes ripen. 'Juliet' (tomatoes in this picture are smaller than they appear), not so early 'Early Girl', and too young for his stripes 'Mr. Stripey'
In the last post I mistakenly wrote that we had baby cherry tomatoes; we actually have a variety called 'Juliet', a prolific grape tomato. Grape tomatoes are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes and smaller than plum tomatoes, and oblong instead of round. Like cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes are perfect for popping in your mouth or throwing on salads. We also have an early variety, 'Early Girl'. Apparently, girlfriend doesn't wear a watch. The boy picked out 'Mr. Stripey', a low acid heirloom tomato that I neither love nor hate. I kinda like acidic tomatoes; it's how it's supposed to be, but I understand that some people have problems with acid. Head on view of the garden. The walls are turning green.
We pulled all the lettuce except one – they all bolted and were old and bitter. The boy likes bitter lettuce, so he gets one – just one! – plant. We also pulled the beets that were growing on the shady side of the garden. Like the kohlrabi on the shady side of the garden, the beets never developed a bulbous base. In addition to the two existing basil plants in pots, three new basil plants (pictures taken before the deed was done) went into the raised bed for maximum basilosity.
Urban Gardening - Early March
Urban Gardening - Early April
Urban Gardening - Mid-April
Urban Gardening -Early May
Urban Gardening - Late May
Urban Gardening - Late June
I said I was going to share biscuit making after I got back from Christmas and watched my Dad make biscuits, but I couldn’t until I had the right flour. You see, you need the right kind of flour – self-rising flour from the South, like White Lily or Red Band. National brands like Pillsbury will not work. Why? Because national brands use a different type of wheat. I had to throw out my Southern flour when the weevils invaded, but I just returned from my trip with a fresh bag of Adluh self-rising flour – a brand that is made about a mile from where I grew up in an old brick mill that I fondly remember touring while in grade school. (I cannot remember how that field trip tied into our lessons, but I do remember the warm biscuits and jam they served us.)Biscuit Bake Off – Biscuits made with Southern flour make lighter, better tasting biscuits. To prove the point, I made a test batch with Aunt Jemima self-rising flour. (With that character, you'd thinks it's a Southern flour, but it's not – Quaker owns Aunt Jemima.) I made the two biscuit batches (Adluh and Aunt Jemima) the exact same way, placed them on the same baking sheet, and baked them at the same time.
Overall, the Adluh biscuits rose just slightly higher than the Aunt Jemima biscuits, but the highest Adluh biscuit and the highest Aunt Jemima biscuit were the same height. The Aunt Jemima biscuits brown a little more than the Adluh biscuits.
The Adluh biscuits won hands down in the blind taste test. We ate both biscuits warm, straight out of the oven. The Adluh biscuits were lighter and had a real biscuit flavor. The Aunt Jemima biscuits were slightly chewier, with the browned edges (these edges were by no means over cooked) adding an unwanted crunch. The real difference was in the flavor; the Aunt Jemima biscuits tasted bread-like, not biscuit-like, and had a funny after taste. These were subtle differences, but after having the two side by side, I don’t think a restaurant (or you) would choose to make biscuits with national brand flour.
Dad's Biscuit Recipe
When I look into cook books for biscuit recipes, I find recipes with all purpose flour and baking powder, recipes with buttermilk, or recipes with yeast. I don’t remember biscuits being made this way; I remember just three ingredients – self-rising flour, shortening, and milk. I finally had to ask my Dad how he made biscuits. He showed me, and then emailed me his recipe...
- I do about 1 and 1/2 cups of self-rising flour (the other flour won't do).
- Then I sprinkle about a 1/4 cup of flour onto a paper napkin.
- I mix the Crisco into the flour with a fork ("cut it in") and that amount is best remembered as "about the size of an egg." I have no idea what the actual measurement is. (If you put to much shortnin' it will be crumbly.)
- After the shortnin' is cut in I add milk. I add enough milk until it is the consistency I want and that is only about a 1/2 cup (I think). Mix that up with the fork until it looks right. If you use too little milk the biscuits will be dry. Too much you can cook out. If it's too much milk and is a little "sticky" wet than you can cure that by placing the dough on the paper with the flour and sprinkling a little more flour on the top. You've got to have some flour on your hands anyway so you can handle the dough.
- Then, after it has been mixed up, fork it out onto the paper and mash it all out by hand and fold it 4 times as your mash it into the shape your want. (Mine always ends up kind of square.) Don't be afraid to add more flour to your hands and the top of the dough as you mix.
- I cook them at 400 degrees here but some call for it to be as high as 425 or even 450.
Notes on Dad’s Recipe - Turned out perfectly. Thanks, Dad!
- This recipe makes about 8-10 biscuits.
- Shortening the size of an egg is about 3 tablespoons.
- I used about 3/4 cup of milk.
- I baked the biscuits on a greased sheet for 10 minutes at 450°
Click on the above photo of the back of the Adluh flour bag to enlarge for an almost identical biscuit recipe .
Biscuit Making Technique – In order to get biscuits that are fluffy, it’s important not to handle the dough much. Some recipes call for kneading, but there is no kneading involved. Just mix the milk into the flour and shortening mixture until incorporated – do not over mix. Turn this wet glob out onto the floured surface, and sprinkle the top generously with flour. Press down on the dough with floured hands – about two or three presses. (This is not kneading, but merely flattening.) Fold the dough in half, press. You fold four times, adding flour as you go so that the dough does not stick to you. The dough is wetter and softer than you think it is – this is not the elastic dough you are familiar with and pound to death when making bread.Flour with shortening cut in, wet dough turned out onto floured surface, the gentle press, cut biscuit dough.
The scraps left over after cutting the biscuits out that you mash together to form more biscuits will not be light and fluffy - that's what a little extra handling will do to the dough!
Sopping Biscuits – My Dad also taught me how to sop biscuits. Lots of people sop up gravy on their plate with biscuits, but I don’t think I was ever served biscuits and gravy at home. Biscuits were for butter and sweet things like preserves or soppin’. What’s soppin? Soppin’ is dipping biscuits in cane syrup or sorghum syrup that has butter mashed up in it. You add room temperature butter to a shallow dish, pour syrup over the butter, and mash the butter up with a fork. You then dip your biscuit in the butter and syrup mixture, or spoon it up onto your biscuit after each bite.
Goddamn, this is good!
Cane syrup and sorghum syrup are other grocery items that I bring up with me after trips home. Cane syrup is sugarcane juice boiled down into a syrup, and sorghum syrup is the sorghum cane juice boiled down into a syrup. These syrups are thick, strong syrups that some may need to get used to, but very worth a try. It’s even hard to find pure cane syrup and sorghum syrup in the South anymore. Sometimes you have to order the good things – like Southern flour, cane syrup, and sorghum syrup.
I hope this has helped demystify biscuit making. Do search out or order some Southern flour if you're a hardcore biscuit lover - and try sopping, too.