Saturday, July 25, 2009

Good Food, Good Beer Saturday at Headhouse Square Shambles

A cool July night beneath the Headhouse Square Shambles...what better way to pass the time than a food & beer event for charity? Don't let the 'Do Not Enter sign fool you, there were quite a few interesting bites to be had here...local restaurants were presenting some delicious dishes and the beer, also provided by local brewers, was all-you-could drink.

I won't delve into the details about the beer...suffice it to say that you had a good representation of all the Philly locals (PBC, Yards, Sly Fox, Earth Bread Brewery, Dock Street) as well as regionals were on hand to help wash down the small-plates being served up by local kitchens.

We bought our tasting tickets and dove into the shambles. the event started at 6PM and by 7:30, when we arrived, several stations were already on their last-gasp. Here you've got a grilled peach and summer corn salad. The peaches were somewhat meaty and had a great char-taste. The corn also had a nice grilled flavor and rested on a peach sauce that had a bit of tang.

Here we had a quinoa & veggies salad, prepared by none other than Philly's own Next Food Network Star contestant Katie Cavuto. The salad was studded with little bites of flavor...earthy black beans, tangy cherry tomatoes, crunchy veggies. The only time we cooked with quinoa we botched it completely, so it's nice to be reintroduced to a summer rice-alternative.

Southwark had the most interesting of all the dishes we saw...a plump grilled shrimp, touched with a creamy orange-tinged sauce, resting atop a salad of green tomato and a paper-thin tostada. The shrimp was plump and flavorful (seemed like a gulf pink?), the green tomato salad was tangy and well-seasoned, like a salsa verde of sorts, and the tostada was super thin and crispy...almost like an Indian crispy cracker (paratha?poori?) that we've enjoyed...this one had a tinge of cinnamon which was very interesting...almost like a giant cereal flake.

Le Virtu was packing up as we approached their table...we nabbed some of the last squares of what seemed to be a veggies lasagna of had a 'chicken-stock' flavor to it, kind of like a chicken pot-pie and a lasagna mixed together. The one thing that was obvious was that Le Virtu hand-rolls their pasta...the supple & thin, yet pliable and toothy layers of pasta were silky smooth and delightful. We are definitely headed down to East Passyunk for the authentic pasta that Le Virtu is rolling out.

We had two tasting tickets left, so we splurged and threw them both down on the table at the Rx stand. Living on the east side of Center City, I hadn't heard of Rx, a West Philly/ University City joint...they seemed to be serving up some great down-home classics though and we were sold on the spread. Here you've got a nod to southern slow/comfort food...slow-cooked brisket, corn-bread and slaw. Descended from a long line of Texans, an appreciation for good brisket is genetic. Rx's brisket didn't seem to go for those smoky notes and seemed to lean more towards a saucy/tangy BBQ taste family. The cornbread was simply good-eatin' and I used it to sop up the bits of brisket juice on the plate.

The real star of the show foodwise (again, this was a beer-forward event) was the blueberry cobbler from Rx. I saw these little pie-tins floating all around the shambles and we were lucky enough to cash in our last tasting ticket for a scoop. This dessert was not cloyingly sweet, which I appreciated, but had enough thickness and fruity filling to still deliver a tasty end to the evening's meals. The topping was halfway between a biscuit-top and a crumble...there were even bits of the dough mixed into the blueberry treat itself, providing a toothy chew to the fruity dessert.

All in all, I'd advise showing up a little earlier next year so you can get a first-shot at the offerings, but this was a great way to soak up some beer while experiencing local samples.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mama Palma's Margherita Pizza

Got a tip from a workmate about this place after mentioning I haven't been able to find really good pizza in Philly. She mentioned Mama Palma's, on the corner of 23rd & Spruce.

Although they do carry out, this place seemed much more like the kind of pizza shop you want to sit down and linger in...families enjoying not only pizzas, but other Italian fare...couples & groups of friends enjoying the summer night w/outdoor seating.
The menu had a wide variety of gourmet ingredients and pies to choose from(Clam white pizza looked good!), even Belgian beers to drink...too bad tonight we were in the mood to Grab&Go.

This is a pretty accurate caricature of Mama on the fact, she happened to put in a surprise appearance while I was waiting...with a young mother and slew of babies in tow, the place pretty much erupted into an"Italian baby bouncing" scene...what was already a family joint really went over the top...still, the place had a charm.

OK, enough about the establishment, let's talk about the pizza. Mama's has the classy brick oven cooking approach and you can taste the quality in every bite; we ordered a Margherita w/ Veal Sausage...pricey at $20 for 12 inch, but worth the flavor.

The aromas of this pie had been wafting out of the box for the walk home, promising a fresh, full flavored pizza.

On the first-bite you can taste the herb-dusted mozz...fresh and full of milky flavor...the fresh tomato chunks blend in perfectly and the fresh basil & veal sausage created a peppery-fennel richness in every bite. We drizzled a little bit of olive oil over the pie upon serving to spread those lovely flavors around.

The crust and those signature tiny bubble that signify crispiness...although the pie had sogged up a bit on the walk home, a few minutes in a blazing hot oven firmed up the crust.

The box proudly boasted Best in Philly 2001 and I'm happy to say that Mama's isn't lying to you. It's a little expensive, which makes it a luxury pizza...that's really the only bad thing I could say about it.

Thanks to M____ for the tip about Mama's! We'll see if Mr. Starr's experiment on Headhouse can deliver on the concept that Mama's seems to have gotten right...thin, crispy crust pizza full of fresh flavors.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fiori di Zucca con Insalata di Polpo Estate - Crispy Zucchini Blossoms with Octopus Summer Salad

One of our favorite farmer's stand, Blooming Glen, is bringing back the "wow" produce from last summer...massive zucchini blossoms. We decided to take advantage of the large cavities of these blossoms to stuff them after a quick-fry and a light dusting of cheese.

The result is a Crispy Zucchini Blossoms Stuffed with Octopus Summer Salad.

Fiori di Zucca con Insalata di Polpo Estate

Why Octopus? We were going to go with something a little more light & sweet, like crab-meat, scallops or shrimp, but we notice that Whole Foods had baby octopus on sale for $5.99#.

Baby octopus, unlike their full-grown siblings, are much less of an ordeal to clean & cook; no need for elaborate tenderization procedures here...just cut the head off and make sure the body is clear of ink sacs and any odd bits. Discard the heads and rinse the remaining body & legs.

Next, the octopus bodies go into a marinade for about an hour; we used a mixture of lemon juice, capers & caper brine from the jar with a healthy dose of olive oil. I threw in a few green peppercorns after the fact just because I was curious what the milder spice would the end it wasn't a noticeable addition of heat.

With the "polpo" marinating, it was time to prep the blossoms. We clipped the "fruit" off the end, a miniature version of what most people associate with being the zucchini. Next, we sliced the mini-zucchini into matchsticks, making sure to trim off any hint of seedy center...I probably could've used a veggie peeler or mandolin to get the same effect of thin green zuchini shavings.

Elizabeth seeded & finely diced some heirloom tomatoes from the farmer's market.

Next, the zucchini strands were blanched in hot water, then shocked in a ice-bath.

"Summer Salad" - The veg mixture was combined together with some kosher salt, cracked pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and diced garlic scapes...yes, garlic scapes. If you're not familiar with these, take a moment to brush up with this link...for the rushed reader, simply imagine a garlic-flavored crunchy green bean...these added not only crucnhy chew, but a pop of subtle garlic flavor to the intense tomato & zucchini flavors.

With the salad chilling it was time to apply soem heat. The marinating octopus went onto a super hot grill plate to char-grill. Just a few moments and these cephalopods were ready to be pulled off, cooled and chopped up.

While the octopus grilled away, Elizabeth prepped the blossoms for frying. Normally we stuff these with cheese or batter them before frying, but lately we've come to enjoy the simply delicate crunch of a lightly floured & fried blossom...naked blossoms is one way to describe it.

Elizabeth sprays them with some olive-oil non-stick before shaking the flower in a flour-filled bag to coat; we use rice-flour as opposed to all-purpose because it creates a tighter crust with more crunch, but regular flour is fine...just make sure to add a pinch of salt to avoid a bland coating.

Next, the flour-dusted blossom gets handed off to me for a quick dunk in the boiling oil; I use the tongs to maintain the right shape of the final this case, I actually insert the tongs up into the blossom and spread the folds of the bloom back to prevent them from closing up as it bubbles away in the bath...after all, we're going to be stuffing these with the zucchini-tomato salad, then topping with octopus, so we'll need to have them splayed out for an easier time.

The blossom comes out of the fryer and then it's a race against the clock...a heaping spoonful of the zucchini-tomate salad goes into the blossom, the we top it with a sprinkling of chopped octopus and finally dust the entire plate with some mild pecorino cheese to give it some aroma and provide some flavor to the delicate crispy petals of the fried blossom.

The final result is a colorful tribute to the flavors of a high-summer garden with a little unusual protein thrown in to compliment the somewhat unordinary crispy texture & taste of the stuffed cheese-dusted zucchini blossom crisps.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Lunch @ Leila Cafe - New Middle-Eastern Option

fattoush salad

Leila Cafe is serving up Middle Eastern dishes in a relaxed atmosphere. Check out the Meal Ticket review for links to their menu and a little background on the owners.

Recently opened, this is a great corner spot on Pine & 13th.

We were early afternoon customers and were greeted with a warm and friendly service. We were the first customers of the day and one of the owners treated us to free pineapple, banana, blackberry smoothies.

We tried Leila Maza, a sampler of appetizers. The Baba Ghanoush & Hummus were lemony and spiked with smoky paprika...definitely not a mild spread and very refreshing on a warm summer afternoon.

The second wave of mezze appeared...falafel-like kibbeh, grape leaves, tabouleh all served over a bed of yogurt-dressed greens, onions & tomato.

There was also fattoush, a chopped salad with toasted pita chips scattered throughout.

The kibbeh was very similar to a falafel, but with a little more spice...the grape leaves were lemony as well. All in all, the sampler was a good way to taste your way around the menu.

The had a variety of sandwiches (Gyro, Shish, & many vegetarian options) and desserts as those for next visit.

Outside seating & Hookahs as well.