Wednesday, May 30, 2012

on why you should not drink like your literary idols

I have a voracious appetite for two things: literature and good food.  Mixing them, however, is a dangerous game, especially when it comes to alcoholic beverages.

As a teenager, I fell for Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones' Diary" as my first view into modern adult-hood: the wit, sarcasm, sex, British accents, and a completely lovable, flawed heroine fighting and surviving her way through her 30s imprinted on my brain as a tale of adult hood being simultaneously everything and nothing that it's supposed to be.

In addition to her men, family, and work-related woes, Bridget drinks copious amounts of alcohol throughout the book.  I had heard of most of the beverages before, but "Pimms Cup" sounded emblematically English.  After a little research, I discovered I was correct: completely British in style and origin, Pimm's is a gin-based tonic originally produced to aid digestion by British gent James Pimm in 1823.  The Pimm's No. 1 Cup is the most famous descendant of Mr. Pimm's tonic: mixed with strawberries, cucumbers, mint and a perfectly literary title, it sounded like the ultimate garden-party cocktail to sip on a steamy summer evening.

Garden, yes. Tasty... not quite. More like, "garden-party-in-your-mouth-without-the-party." Strong cucumbers had an acidity and bite that I associate with pickles, and while cucumbers and strawberries are an intriguing taste-combination, pickles and strawberries go past "intriguing" to just plain "weird." Good idea, in essence. In practicality, however, the pickle-mint-strawberry combination leaves most readers, let alone drinkers, puckering their lips and wincing in taste-anticipation.

This was not my first experience with literary-drinking-gone-wrong. Several years ago, visiting Venice, I stopped in to Harry's Bar, a spot haunted by Ernest Hemingway many moons previous.  He'd sat in Harry's, ordered a martini, and never having tasted a martini, I gave myself up to the romanticism of the drink and the spot.  18 euros and two sips later, I had my answer: martinis were extremely alcoholic and not very tasty to my wine and fruity cocktail loving palate. Another romanticized drinking dream dashed.  On the rocks.

Heed, therefore, my cautionary tale: imbibe the words that intoxicate you, but be wary of sipping like the characters themselves!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Varga Bar - a review

My corner of Philadelphia has several notable characters and many character-full restaurants.  While we are packed to the gills with good eats, one restaurant consistently stands out: the Varga Bar on Spruce and 10th.

The menu is upscale bar food classics.  Appetizers run the gamut from Duck Wings in a pomegranate barbeque sauce to fried Brussel sprouts to truffled Mac and Cheese (all delicious).  Dinner entrees are reasonably priced, with sandwiches and burgers ranging from $10 to $15, and non-sandwiches varying from $17-$25.  Tonight was an old stand-by night for me - Veggie Burger with salad.

The veggie burger has a chick-pea base, and is mixed with corn, sprouts, and all kinds of good-for-you vegetables. Topped off with cheddar and cucumbers, it's refreshing, sort of like munching your way through the neighborhood garden.

The other food order this evening was the crabcake sandwich.
The crab meat itself got high marks for freshness and deliciousness, but as the photo so nicely illustrates, the bun-to-meat proportion was somewhat uninspiring.  I would have loved a little trompe-l'oeil bun action, fooling me and my man into believing that the crab was more plentiful, rather than drowning in its overly large, bready wrapping.  Old Bay fries were quite yummy, however, and the house made ketchup is spicy, sweet, and all together addicting.

Varga Bar also serves up creative alcoholic beverages named for the summer months (ie Miss July).  Being a July baby, I went all out for the Miss July - strawberry lemonade spiked with vodka - while my man gamely ordered Miss May - a mango margarita.

There's no skimping on the beverages, and my lemonade was the perfect antidote to the cloudy-muggy weather mix.

So, to recap:

Varga Bar has fun food, excellent prices, and some fabulous fruity drinks, as well as a respectable beer and wine list.  My totally arbitrary star rating, on a scale of one to five, is as follows:

Food: *** 1/2
Creative bar food, fresh ingredients, occasional proportion errors

Drinks: ****
Fruity and flavorfully fabulous

Ambiance: *** 1/2
Pin-up girls abound, as do 50s era drawings, but the windows open up and the restaurant spills over onto the sidewalk, making the whole scene fairly irresistible.

Service: ***
Friendly, laid-back, slightly overworked hipsters bring the food fairly quickly, although things like silverware and ketchup needed to be begged from the hostess.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"long day at the office" frittata

Today was one of those endless office days. Our company car had a very low back tire after I retrieved it from the shop, so I put on my fix-it-skirt and filled the tire to prevent any accidents. One hour later, one of our company members drove over something in the road... causing a different tire to blow out, ending my day as I started it: tending to the car and its finicky tires. Ah well. Sometimes the best laid plans are completely useless, and a shrug and a good meal are all that can and should be the answer to the problem. That's where my "Long Day at the Office" frittata enters in. Frittata is easy, cheap, healthy, delicious, and very pretty (the pretty is just a bonus, really). Another bonus is that it takes 30 minutes, tops, and you can eat it with salad, more vegetables, or roasted potatoes for a filling, calming meal.

Eggs are good for you! I know there was a long time in the press where they were lambasted for their cholesterol content, but at the moment, the Harvard School of Public Health states that eggs, in moderation, have nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, and folate ( Of course, if you have high cholesterol and don't want to stress out even more after your stressful office day, you can always substitute some egg whites into the mix.


6 eggs
One tablespoon of half and half
One sweet potato or yam
One green pepper
Two scallions
1/2 cup of crumbled goat cheese
Olive oil
Pinch of salt

Step 1:
Heat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. 

Step 2:

Put enough olive oil in a saute pan to lightly coat the bottom, and turn the pan on to medium heat. Cut up the sweet potato into thin coins, and add them to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally to avoid potato stick-age, until the sweet potatoes are soft (10-15 minutes).  As the sweet potato cooks, slice up the green pepper into bite size pieces and the white part of the scallion into small coin size pieces. Add them to the pan too, and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

Step 3:
As the vegetables cook, mix the eggs and half and half together, whisking in salt as you go.

Step 4:
Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. Crumble the goat cheese on top, and stick the whole shebang in the oven for 15 minutes. When the frittata is no longer jiggly, it's done! If you like extra salt or pepper in your food, now's the time to add it!

Serve with green salad, fresh vegetables, or potato wedges, and watch your office cares melt away. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

spring is in the air

When I was younger, I remember sitting in my backyard in early spring as I "gardened" - otherwise known as pulling out any and all grass that looked too high or ostentatious to my regal eye.  I especially loved uprooting onion grass: the damp, sharp smell of the beautiful white and green bulbs encapsulated the smell of spring. 

My green thumb has improved slightly since my grass-pulling rampages, but my palate has remained entranced by spring onions. I was therefore delighted to recently come across a recipe for leeks, a similar smelling onion-y vegetable that reminds me of my childhood onion grass days.  My recipe is inspired by Elizabeth Bard's excellent "Lunch in Paris," and I've added a few pictures and twists of my own.

Step 1:
Turn your oven to 400 degrees Farenheit, and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  As the oven warms, cut off the hairy end of the leek and the dark green part of the leek so that you are left with a sleek tube of glistening white and pale green.

Step 2:
Slice the leek in half, leaving about an inch of green at the top uncut. Turn the leek so that the uncut side is on your cutting board, then slice down the top in half again, leaving the same inch at the top uncut. You should end up with four leek-quarters stemming out of the top green inch.  This makes it immeasurably easier to clean the leek, as you can rinse away the dirt from all of the layers while not ending up with a mess of leek skins all over your sink. Side note: I've always loved leeks but avoided cooking them since I didn't know how to clean them. They are now in a regular meal rotation since cleaning them has become so much simpler.

Step 3:
Lay the leeks out on your baking sheet and drizzle them with olive oil.  Rub the olive oil all around the leek to make sure it's evenly coated, and then stick the baking sheet in the oven.  After about 30 minutes (or when the leeks are fork-tender), take the leeks out and let them cool.  After about 5 minutes, your entire kitchen will smell like spring - sharp and sweet and fresh - and I recommend staying in the kitchen and sniffing the air as your leeks roast.

And voila! Sweet and pungent, the leeks go well with fish dishes, or can be gobbled up on their own.  If you'd like a sauce for your leeks, I like mixing equal parts whole grain mustard with olive oil and a pinch of sea salt, and dipping the roasted leek ribbons into the mix.  

My dinner was leeks, sauteed kale, and roasted salmon with herb dressing.

Happy eating!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

to market, to market

With May comes the return of the Headhouse Farmer's Market, my favorite Sunday mid-morning - early afternoon adventure.  The old covered market space on Second Street between Pine and Lombard is overrun with farmers, foodies, and everyone in between, sampling wares and ogling vegetables.

Why a farmer's market when we have so many grocery stores?  Places like Whole Foods have amazing organic produce and huge variety, so my organic-conscious self is sated in knowledge that I'm buying healthful vegetables.

At a farmer's market, however, you are buying local produce, a giant, world-saving step, believe it or not.  Since they're local, the truck exhaust pumped into the atmosphere is much lower than say, a giant truck driving organic oranges from Southern California across the country to Philadelphia. In addition, since there's a much smaller fuel charge, the cost of gas is much lower, meaning we are supporting more oil-independent businesses, and therefore putting less money into propping up oil-o-crat dictatorships throughout the Middle East. See? I wasn't kidding. We're saving the world one gorgeous, green-satured lettuce leaf at a time!

If you're not convinced by my Superman-world-saving rhetoric, there's another great reason to buy local. In this election season, we hear so much about small businesses, and supporting small business owners. What better way to support local business owners then to purchase their goods?

lavender honey

And even if the save-the-world, save-the-economy, do-gooder earnestness of my ideology is a little much for you, the farmer's market is a fun place to make friends. The stall-keepers are cheerful, and willing to discuss everything they make or grow... plus they'll let you taste almost everything they make. The incredible John and Kira's chocolates always has a yummy display, the cheese makers have multiple samples, and Talula's Garden has a friendly stand-keeper who always encourages you to sample her favorite home-made spread of the day (Smoked Mackerel today... holy mackerel, was it delish). And what's better than free food and drink with some friendly conversation and vegetable-eye-candy thrown in to start your day?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

the incredible edible beet

I've slowly but surely become obsessed with beets.  Not the canned, pickled, slightly-tinny-tasting sort of vegetable, but the home-roasted variety.  The deep red is beautiful, the texture is firm but soft, and the taste is sweet, warm, and earthy. Not convinced yet?   What if I told you that beets are also super cheap and extraordinarily healthy?  Beets are high in folate, manganese, and potassium, and also a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium (wikipedia and google are the sources of that info!). So here's my recipe for roasted beets, complete with pictures.

Step 1:
Wash those dirty beets! Get as much of the dirt off as you can.  While you're at it, chop off the stems and the greens. Set 'em aside for later (they are excellent sauteed in a little olive oil and garlic). As you pat the beets dry, turn your oven to 425 degrees Farenheit. 

Step 2:
Wrap the beets in foil so that they're completely covered (we don't want beet juice covering the oven!).

Step 3:
Pop the beet-packet into your oven. Set your timer for an hour, and go do something fun.

Step 4:
Take them out! Stick them in the sink for minimal beet-juice-damage to your counter, and run them under cold water. 

Step 5:
After the beets have cooled, you'll be able to rub the skins off easily with your hands. In addition, since those bad boys are in the sink, they won't dye the rest of your kitchen a lovely shade of pinky-purple.

Step 6:
Cut them up! Toss them with some olive oil, a little salt, and your favorite vinegar (I like balsamic, while others swear by red wine). If you feel fancy, toss in some feta cheese and black olives, OR add some capers, pickles, and goat cheese. Saute those leftover beet greens, and you have yourself a delicious dish.

Step 7:
Eat 'em up!