Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dragon Dance on 2nd Street

In the bad old days, John and I lived in an apartment on 2nd Street that we affectionately called "The Shoebox." It was a painfully small but happy place. Since we didn't have a dishwasher, there were too many dirty dishes all the time. But we were in love, the rent was ridiculously cheap and we wanted to go out anyway. I'm sure you recognize the symptoms.

There wasn't much in the neighborhood back then, but just a few steps away there was a glimmer of what might happen on the Northern Liberties restaurant scene. There Hadar Nisimi and his staff made Aden the perfect neighborhood byob with attentive service and simply prepared fresh ingredients. Up the street, the historic Bull's Head Inn became Standard Tap. And 702 North 2nd Street, which has housed Pigalle and Sovalo, established itself as a location with good restaurant karma. Kong has brought exotic flavors to this location.

Kong arrived with a flourish of firecrackers and a traditional dragon dance, which for me bodes well for its success. Michael O'Halloran, chef-owner of Old City's Bistro 7, brings this taste of Hong Kong street food to the Liberties. We enjoyed all of the dishes we sampled there last week, including the Stir-fried Egg with crab, asparagus, rice, and Lap Cheong (think sausage) and the Dan-Dan Noodles with snow peas and peanut chili sauce. Best of all, you can get a good glass of wine to accompany your meal. I enjoyed the Torrontes Finca el Retiro and the Falanghina Terra Dora di Paolo. Michael has put together a nice selection of beers, too.

Now it is hard to believe that there was life before the Piazza, and the 2nd Street Renaissance, as my friend Rich envisioned it many years ago, is in full swing. We're homebodies since we've acquired more space and a dishwasher, but when we venture out it will be nice to dine at Kong and reminisce about the days in our little shoebox.

Note - You may enjoy reading Rick Nichols' article about Kong here.

Dinner in Tuscany

Staging my first blog photo shoot reminded me of the “Stop the Insanity” woman. You know, the one with the spiky blond hair who clearly never had heard of the Weight Watcher's Lifetime Membership, which is proof that the insanity never ends. Dragging a good lamp into the kitchen and posing a tomato like a supermodel made me question my sanity in the kitchen in a completely new way. All the days of admiring those gorgeous photos on smitten kitchen led to that moment, I suppose. Tonight needs no props, as my inspiration is our trip to Italy last summer.

Nothing, not even the stellar recommendations of the Moore Brothers cast and crew, could have prepared us for our arrival at Fallocchio, one of the guest houses at Fattoria Corzano e Paterno. It is a special place, one that stops you in your tracks and makes you thankful to be alive. I'm not sure if it was the scent of the enormous rosemary and lavender bushes or the view from our terrace, but before we could finish unpacking our rental car I turned to John and said, "I'm not leaving here in 3 days." We didn't.

Adjusting to the rhythms of the Tuscan countryside was easy. We frequented the cafes and shops in nearby San Casciano, enjoying each other and our new surroundings for long, lazy afternoons. We watched the locals emerge from the surrounding farmhouses for their annual festival, where gelato was served inside brioche, for a decadent please-don't-stop-this-insanity experience. And among the highlights of the trip was the opportunity to meet two winemakers whom we have admired for years: Paulo De Marchi of Isole e Olena and Aljoscha Goldschmidt of Corzano e Paterno. After a visit to her dairy, Toni Ballarin, cheesemaker at Corzano and Aljoscha's wife, recommended the best place to buy bistecca fiorentina, which is a classic Tuscan thick-cut porterhouse from Chianina oxen. I often deviate from the traditional cut by using a quick cooking, very satisfying skirt steak. A bottle of 2006 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico completes a lovely meal.

We are not dining in Tuscany tonight, but it sure tastes like it.

Tuscan Skirt Steak

1 1/2 - 2 lb skirt steak

a few sprigs each - rosemary, sage and thyme

1 clove garlic, minced

extra virgin olive oil (I used Corzano e Paterno)

gray salt

fresh ground black pepper

a sprig or two of basil, for garnish

Preheat grill. Cut steak into 2 or 3 pieces and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Prepare serving plate with herbs, garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill steak on medium for 5 minutes a side, then allow to rest for 10 minutes. Slice meat and place atop prepared herb plate. Pour beef juices over steak, then dress with olive oil, gray salt, and fresh cracked pepper. Garnish with basil. Plan your next vacation.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tomato Invasion

We have taken to eating tomatoes with every meal. It's really not that difficult: a slice on a bagel in the morning, chopped with cottage cheese midday, and then several courses at dinner. A conveniently placed bowl of cherries and grapes makes for great snacking, too. After blanching, freezing, and roasting this summer's bounty, I was ready for some simple satisfaction - Salsa di Pomodoro Crudo, or uncooked Tomato Sauce. I've been making this in different incarnations for years. On an oppressive summer day it can provide wonderful satisfaction, but it also has the potential to disappoint. Note to self: a little care goes a long way in a simple dish with perfect, seasonal ingredients.

One way I am improving all of my pasta dishes is by using Setaro pasta, which is made in Torre Annunziata, a province of Naples. It's made according to old world traditions with semolina flour and water from Mount Vesuvius. Well, that must be why it is so delicious! I first purchased it at Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market in New York during a trip to see "Hair," and this week I had it shipped to Philly. The folks at Buon Italia must understand food cravings because it arrived in two days, which feels like less time than it is taking me to write this post.

In a nod to Franca, the lovely and gifted matriarch of the family that owns one of our favorite local restaurants, Tre Scalini, I have been using more pasta alla chitarra. It feels fancier than spaghetti and really does absorb more sauce.

Earlier in the week the bunch of basil from the Northern Liberties Wednesday Farmer's Market was looking pretty sad, and the pine nuts had not been a in a cool, dark place, so I made some "almost" pesto. Actually, it wasn't pesto at all, just lightly processed basil and Chateau Calissanne extra virgin olive oil. I put it in the refrigerator hoping to buy a little time. It was perfect here and also in quinoa salad.

Some recipes recommend that the chopped tomatoes rest for as little as 30 minutes, but I let them "relax" for over 3 hours. I tend to use too much garlic, so I really held myself back here.

The dishwasher/wine guy/my sweetheart proclaimed this the "best ever." He also did a fabulous job pairing it with Le Roc rosé from Moore Brothers, of course.

Salsa di Pomodoro Crudo

2-3 ripe tomatoes, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

pinch of sea salt

basil in oil, at room temperature

black pepper

Setaro spaghetti chitarra, about 1/2 lb

Locatelli cheese (optional, but recommended)

Combine tomatoes, garlic and salt in a large bowl. Let them nap for a few hours. Bring cheese and basil to room temperature. Add basil and pepper just before serving.

Cook pasta according to the directions, which I believe roughly translate, "it's done when it's done." 9-10 minutes should do. Gently remove pasta from water with tongs or a spider and place right in the tomato mixture. Add a little pasta water if necessary. A little bit of basil and olive oil added to each plate before serving makes a nice presentation. Grate cheese at table, if you like.