Category: Phillycentric

a clarification + some of the things I’ve been staring at this week

In the grand tradition of other people for some reason caring what you’re putting in your mouth enough to comment on it, I’ve already been getting some of this stuff: “Wait, you’re not eating cheese? Why are you vegan? WHAT ABOUT PROTEIN?”

…it’s a couple of weeks, people. So I don’t think it really needs to be addressed. But, just to be clear, I’m not turning my nose up at animal products out of any sort of conviction about anything. Sometimes you need to interrupt your food habits, though, and any rigidly restrictive diet will definitely help with that. (Eating out a lot is a more fun option, but I don’t have the money to be That Kind of Food Person.)

That said, I already know what my first meal is going to be when I stop this, and it’s eggs and scrapple fried in bacon grease, so hopefully anyone concerned for my well-being can relax now.

It could be argued that almost anything would be more interesting than this. Here are some candidates:

If I were more creative when it comes to swine puns, I’d totally enter this contest to get into the opening party for Pork Slope. There’s one day left for you to do that, though, if you’re gifted in that arena.

I particularly liked Adam Erace’s review of The Industry, but then I think I’ve also favorited at least 3 different tweets just because they included photos of the lamb neck gravy, so I might be easily bought in this regard.

Also from Meal Ticket, this Mushroom Wiz Wit burger pocket whatsit has found a place on the list of meaty things I’d like to ingest, but then, I am awfully hungry.

Does anyone actually like these WHAT DOES HE HAVE IN HIS FRIDGE features? Spoiler alert: Danny Bowien has some mustard at home. And an almost-empty jar of pasta sauce?! Chefs! They’re just like us!

I’ve had this tab cluttering up my browser for over a week now. It’s not about food, but it is one aspect of the broader American culture of “It’s not us, it’s you” that I’m kind of fixated on in general. Fact: 9 times out of 10, when someone tells you there’s something wrong with you, they’re either trying to absolve themselves of some responsibility, or they’re trying to sell you something. That’s just hard math.

This was a good gotcha moment from Eater (and as it turns out, it was also the only way anyone, including Newsweek, has brought Newsweek to my attention in about 8 years). And also: seriously? Is Newsweek hiring middle schoolers now? And if so, will they hire me, I sort of dress like I’m 12 and tweet about boners a lot??

I cannot believe I signed up for a SkillShare class. But, in my defense, I do like to keep tabs on Eddie Huang and—far more importantly—it was free. I think it might still be free, if you’re dying to know what Eddie Huang has to teach about branding, but not really dying enough to pay $10.

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wherein i try to embrace
the suburbs, kinda

An oppressively steamy weekend in a locus of suburban blight about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia doesn’t sound crazy-awesome, because it’s not.

But in this case, it was a little nicer than it sounds. I think (I hope!) things might be looking up for Lansdale, PA. The town has long had some things going for it (a number of good BBQ spots; far more diversity than many surrounding areas), but it’s never been in danger of drawing the kind of people that like to get out of the city to spend the day tossing around words like “charming” or “adorable.” Its Main Street is not exactly thriving just yet—a number of businesses have shuttered in recent years, and where replacements have come in, several have not lasted long—but there’s been a steady trickle of interesting new businesses popping up, too. The best of the new spots seem to be doing quite well.

My favorite diner is there, and we’re well-known to the staff, as Jarred is apparently the only person they’ve seen finish entire orders of their gargantuan pancakes. (It’s a rare instance of huge food that is also good food.) It’s been around for a few years, but the chef was able to buy the place from the original owner towards the end of last year, making an already good place even better. A few doors down is Virago bakery, which specializes in vegan and gluten-free desserts. (There are some hits and some misses there, but no shortage of interesting choices.)

This spring, Lansdale even got its own brewery, right downtown and within easy walking distance of the town’s train station. Round Guys brewery has plans to begin serving food and operating as a brewpub, but thanks to the notoriously slow and finicky PA licensing boards, they can’t even sell pints yet. Even so, they’re there producing beer to distribute to a couple of bars, and to sample and sell in growlers to anyone curious enough to stumble in.

Please note that I didn’t take a picture of the actual beer. In an obvious display of my commitment—both to food blogging and to the domestic sciences—I had no clean glasses that weren’t pink.  So yeah, I’m by no means a beer aficionado. As with wine and whiskey, I drink plenty of it, I try new ones as often as possible, I can point to styles I particularly like, but I’m just not a hobbyist when it comes to beverages. In fact, say more than a few words to me about a drink or ask me any in-depth questions and, I can’t help it, my inner frat boy comes out and I really, really want to tell you to stop being such a puss and just drink it already. Even so, I think these guys are doing some pretty interesting things, and they’re clearly only doing what they love (from their own FAQ):

What they really seem to love are sour beers, which is a genre I went in particularly unfamiliar with, but I ended up walking out with one nonetheless. We also tried the Alpha Blackback IPA (which I loved), the Mini-Bob (which is a very drinkable session ale, but I didn’t find it compelling in any way), and the Berliner-Weisster, which despite being described on the menu as “like a lemonade on a hot summer day,” still surprised me by tasting… like lemonade. Quite tart, though you can also order it with raspberry syrup, which makes it a Himbeer. Or so they tell me. (I liked it just as it was.)

Soon, it looks like there will be a take-out seafood restaurant opening, with the unnecessarily difficult name “Shellfish Sue.” But for now, the youngest addition to Main Street is Tabora Farm, a satellite store location of a farm in Chalfont that’s been a hugely popular vendor at the Lansdale farmers’ market since it began. The cafe and store, which just opened a week or two ago, sells bulk spices and teas in addition to their own baked goods, ice cream, and (soon, hopefully: wonder if the PLCB might be involved here again?) wine. (I never realized how much weird wine people are making around here until I heard about Cardinal Hollow, a couple minutes down the road in North Wales, where they make wine from peaches and jalapenos. Note to self: buy jalapeno wine.)

The market in Lansdale is currently in its third year, but only recently did they finally answer my prayers and get someone in to sell tamales. I don’t know what my deal is, but any time I see a gathering of people or tables of any sort, I immediately start nosing around for tamales. These were good. I was a little too distracted by the fact of their existence to ask a lot of questions or, you know, read their sign, but whatever. Tamales! The Food Trust clearly knows what they’re doing.

Like everyone else in the world, I love a farmers’ market. Not for any particularly poetic reason, or because I live to hunt down new things to challenge myself with, but just because the market experience fits so seamlessly into a lazy weekend. In a grocery store produce section, I’m lost without a list. I’ve thought of what meals I’ll be making, and I’m shopping to make them happen. At a farmers’ market, I just sort of find myself holding a giant bunch of beets, and then I guess I know what I’ll be eating. Pasta with beet greens, garlic, and pecorino romano that night; beet salad the next day. Whatever. Perfect.

So, to close this out, my “recipe” for beet salad:

Roast or boil beets (for now, boil them; it’s a little hot for a fast oven) until tender.

A few minutes before they’re done, slice an onion, drop it into a large bowl, and douse it with vinegar. Enough that you can also toss your beets in it, and don’t bother with a soft or subtle vinegar here. In fact, this is the time to take a second look at that jug of white vinegar you keep around for cleaning. Salt, pepper, dried dill, toss. No one’s stopping you from using fresh dill; we’ve just given up by now trying to grow dill for ourselves. We only keep growing it so the swallowtail caterpillars don’t starve.

Peel and slice the beets while they’re still hot, and toss them in the bowl with everything else. Stick the bowl in the fridge for a little bit.

That’s it. I don’t use oil in this case, because beets are already pretty lush, and the oil just dampens the acid. These are just shortcut pickled beets, really, but they’re what I usually turn to. In this case, tossed onto some lightly-dressed lettuce from the backyard. Beets are never going to be quick nor neat, but they are easy, and a big bunch ends up providing a few meals. Which leaves you to your weekend, be it somewhere idyllic or just, you know, in Lansdale.

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guess that’s why they call it
the Queen City

There are no nice things about your computer giving out on you. No matter that we still have Jarred’s, or that I always have a little one in my pocket anymore, or that somewhere, someone’s children are dying of starvation or exposure as we speak. Actually, no, that did it, I feel like a dick now.

Especially since I’ve already ordered a replacement. Although, to be fair (and I do want to make sure we’re being fair), I’m beginning to suspect that UPS may have just launched my new laptop into space from Sylmar, CA. It’s either that or they don’t use planes. They do use planes, right? How did my computer leave Sylmar, CA so many days ago and not arrive at any other place yet?

Anyway, computer troubles are dull, and I’d rather talk about Allentown.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know this myself until a couple of years ago, but the Lehigh Valley is sort of great. It’s beautiful, and it’s also got good things to eat and the @IronPigs and a good radio station (that last one is a thing I haven’t said in a very long time).

I guess Allentown isn’t what most people would consider A Destination, but most people don’t know shit, and Allentown has a great indoor farmers’ market. And if that doesn’t do it for you, it’s right at the Allentown Fairgrounds, where you can take in a show by someone like Blake Shelton, or just about any musician who enjoyed any amount of fame in the 90s.

But the farmers’ market is pretty complete, so if you ever eat, there’s a good chance you’ll find something in there that’s more interesting than Collective Soul. It’s the sort of place that has a ton of produce vendors (in the broadest possible sense of the word produce), but also a wine shop, an unseemly number of baked goods, a place that sells just potato chips, a place that sells just vacuums (oh, I don’t know), and also a few restaurants and a few more places with prepared foods to take out (Allentown has a great park system, for the picnic-inclined). The Pennsylvania Dutch specialties you’d expect are there in full force; the Vietnamese place you smell before you even walk in is a little less expected. And, if you’re the kind of prick who props yourself up by snickering at strangers, you will also be interested to know that you are almost guaranteed to find yourself waiting in line at the fishmonger behind a girl in ill-fitting jeans that have been sliced across the front and back to almost make super short cut-offs, except the side seams have been spared so the pantlegs are still attached. And also she’ll probably have a technicolor tramp stamp that reads “Vixey.” I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing.

We stock up on the best bacon when we visit, and smoked pig ears for the dog. I like to snack on an empanada while browsing, and always have to stop at one bakery whose name I still don’t know, despite knowing their chocolate and coconut cream pies very intimately. When we were there this weekend, we also tried a Moravian apple sugar cake from the Amish bakery. Which, we found out, is basically some sort of coffee cake topped with apples and gobs and gobs of sticky bun-style topping.

So yeah, I’m dead now, but happily I also got to have dinner in Allentown before that happened.

Now, I can only be who I am, so I’ve been quite happy just to pay Yocco’s a visit when I’ve found myself in Allentown in the past. This time, one of my companions actually did some research beforehand and emailed along some links to places we might want to try. And who would’ve otherwise known that Allentown is a goddamn hotbed of Syrian and Lebanese food?

The answer to that turns out to be “anyone who’s watched the Cooking Channel recently,” because as I found out only once we were there, the restaurant we chose was just featured on it a couple of weeks before. They were visited by The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, which is a show that, according to all available sources, exists. I don’t know anything about that, but while pictures alone tell me that his schtick may be intolerable, I have nothing to say against his taste in restaurants.

I fell in love with this place almost immediately. Speaking generally, Middle Eastern food ranks really high up there on my list—maybe even tops it—but I haven’t eaten it in quantities as significant as I’d like since I left San Francisco. It was an absolute staple there, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of Philadelphia’s great strengths. In many respects reminiscent of some of the places I haunted in SF, Damascus is a small place with all the atmosphere of a hospital cafeteria that just happens to have some camel-shaped knick-knacks scattered about, drinks limited to odd bottles or cans or whatever booze you brought for yourself, and some of the nicest, warmest people that will ever sell you food.

I don’t think everyone at our table was quite as enamored of Damascus as I was, but a) see above observation on what most people know, and b) hey, it’s 2012! I’ll be damned if I’m going to care about anything other than myself and what I think! And more importantly, I tried everything on the table, so I can say for sure that I could find nothing not to like here.

While we were eating, a couple came in that were clearly regulars. They greeted everyone who was working, asked about the TV show taping, and regretted that they had missed the show when it originally aired. From here, they launched into a conversation several minutes long about whether or not anyone there had taped it, and if so, could this patron trouble them for a copy? It’s nice to know that there are still people in this world who, if they miss a show at its first airing, think the next logical step is to request a VHS copy directly from the subject of said program. And I don’t even mean that sarcastically.

And no, I don’t actually have a clue where the nickname “Queen City” came from. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone knows, or has ever known, and I really doubt that anyone could ever concoct an explanation that would make the nickname sound apt. Allentown has a lot of things to recommend it, but if we’re being honest, the less-common nickname “the Cement City” sounds a little more like it. But that’s ok, Allentown! Regality is overrated.

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people keep calling it a milestone

A while back, while talking about birthday cakes I would be making for other people, I said that as usual I was stuck on the idea of ice cream cake, but that the notion would likely be abandoned by the time my birthday rolled around. I guess Jarred wasn’t about to let that happen.

And he didn’t order me just any ice cream cake, either. That’s a GRAHAM SLAM ice cream cake you’re looking at. With my damn name written on it in frosting! I can’t even remember the last time I ate a cake with my name written on it.

Anyway, it was delicious, and now I’m 30.

As an aside, I’m not sure—does graham slam ice cream exist outside of Philadelphia? Turkey Hill sells it as a Phillies-branded thing, so maybe not. Theirs has a graham swirl and little chocolate-covered marshmallow cups, and its potential tastiness is seriously dampened by the fact that only maybe 12% of its ingredients are actually food. The far-superior version here comes from a smaller local dairy and swaps in chocolate-covered graham cracker clusters for the mallow cups. It’s Golden Grahams in ice cream form, more or less—and as it turns out, it makes the best ice cream cake ever.

Better yet, my first slice of ice cream cake functioned as Second Dessert, coming on the heels of an unimpeachable birthday dinner at Vedge, a vegan restaurant I’d been wanting to try for a while. I can’t give you the full standard-issue blog review with a photo of every single thing I put in my mouth, for a couple of reasons:

1. Predictably enough, I am one of those people that feels like trying to document everything for posterity as it happens takes me out of the moment, and I sort of like it when people put their damn phones and cameras away for an hour or two and just enjoy something unfolding in front of them. (Yeah, I’m guilty of spending way too much time staring at my phone too, but not during my birthday meal, thanks.)

2. This reality, illustrated by the one photo I did snap when we were done eating and Jarred asked what time it was, then commented appreciatively on the tableau of demolished desserts spread out before us:

I’ve seen countless online reviews populated with photos like this, and while I appreciate others eschewing the flash while dining… well, that alone doesn’t make me want to squint through the somber haze and blur to make out, what, maybe avocado or is that some sort of fish?

At any rate, my expectations were high going into Vedge, and they were still easily surpassed. It is casual and homey and stylish all at once. The entire staff had that grace that’s the hallmark of any place (regardless of price or location) serving really good food: every single person there took very obvious pride in what was being put out. Service was polished without adopting that completely invisible slickness of some more seriously high-end venues (Vedge is awfully reasonably-priced for its caliber), and every plate the kitchen put out was flawlessly executed and impeccably plated. …But also a lot more fun than that sounds.

Trust me. I’m wracking my brain to find anything to say that might make this appraisal look less treacly and biased, but no joy: we couldn’t have been happier anywhere.

In capsule form: There were honestly no misses here, no to-be-avoideds or not-quite-worth-its amongst all that we ordered. Our meal felt very substantial, contrary to many reviews I’ve read complaining that portions are small and they don’t put any grains or starches on the plates. Our waitress made clear to us that they recommend at least 2-3 plates per person, and the portions were perfect for that. Moreover, this place doesn’t exist to educate people on what a quotidien vegan meal might look like. They bill themselves specifically as “a vegetable restaurant,” and that is what it is. Each dish highlights a vegetable or two and doesn’t fill you up with anything but. Desserts were even better than everyone says, which is saying a lot. Here I’ll sneak in an admission that not only did I eat multiple desserts this night, but I also made a whole other cake the next day (that might need another post all to itself). I didn’t even glance at the wine list on this occasion, but they do have a concise list of cocktails and beers that is very thoughtful and well-suited to the food.

For locals and others who are inclined toward this flavor of curiosity, here’s a rundown of everything we tried (spoiler alert: we ate close to half of the menu). Continue reading

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eating assholes

Finally, a post for all the people who end up here having googled “eating assholes.” (Sorry, guy who keeps googling “eating candy from assholes” on a near-daily basis and for some reason clicks on this site EVERY TIME, you’re on your own.) I assume this is what you’re all looking for:

Farmers’ market scrapple! Farmers’ market scrapple!! Omg, has anyone ever been so excited about scrapple?!

Probably, somewhere, maybe even pretty often!

Even so, pretty exciting stuff. Scrapple (or pon hoss/haus, which is the Pennsylvania Dutch name) is one of those really polarizing regional specialties, despite the fact that something similar seems to exist in many places and traditions. It’s got European roots, it’s incredibly similar in taste to Irish white pudding, and I’m pretty sure I once saw some Southerners on tv (Bizarre Foods, maybe?) holding a festival to celebrate something they were calling “livermush” that looked awfully familiar to me, aside from the fact that they were eating it with grape jelly.

If you’re unfamiliar with scrapple, it’s usually made primarily of pig offal and cornmeal.  It has a mushy consistency and comes in loaf or block form. In its simplest and most common preparation, you just cut slices and fry them up to develop a crisp crust. Flavorwise, it can vary a lot depending on who’s making it, but I’d say the primary seasonings in most versions are black pepper and sage. Around Philadelphia and in some other Mid-Atlantic locales, you can order it in any diner, just as you would order a side of bacon or sausage. I like it plain, but it’s commonly eaten with ketchup in this area, and sometimes with sweet toppings like maple syrup. It’s a breakfast meat, and it’s awesome. In its natural state, it looks like this:

Hey, it’s called scrapple.  If you were expecting overt beauty, that’s on you.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me on how awesome scrapple is. To some, it’s just a sort of gross-sounding something eaten by people old enough to have been sufficiently hardened by the Great Depression. It’s got liverwurst status, basically. And just like when you’re seen eating a hotdog, there will often be that one dude who feels the need to chide, “You do know you’re eating snouts and assholes, right?”

I know. Those of us who could be labeled “foodies” (and, like, recoil at the very word of course, because ew) may have forgotten by now that eating snouts and assholes isn’t desirable to all people. At the same time, some would say scrapple doesn’t have quite the same cachet as a $75 severed head on a plate. (By the by, if someone can please hook me up with that delightful-sounding lady who went up to a complete stranger to announce that she and her “friends…are ‘snout-to-tail’ eaters,” at a place like Alla Spina no less, I can’t help but think she’d make an excellent guest blogger.)

No, scrapple is not about nouveau rediscovery and elevation of variety meats. It’s the sort of thing that people came up with a long time ago to stretch what little was left into something that could maybe let them forget they were eating snouts and assholes—not to mention yet more cornmeal.

That said, chefs love scrapple, too. It’s on the menu at plenty of places in Philly that are decidedly not diners, as evidenced by the duck version at in Rittenhouse Square (that photo is by Holly Moore, whose is a must-follow if you’re in or around Philly). And while you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find it if you’re not around here, you never know: when I moved to the Bay Area years ago, I was pretty surprised early on to find Bette’s Oceanview Diner offering housemade scrapple in Berkeley. Scrapple has its admirers far and wide.

Once cooked, it looks a far sight more appealing than it does as a block of mush.

(The irregularity of the slices here speaks to my fervor for scrapple: I bought this frozen and wasn’t willing to wait for it to thaw. In my struggle to hack off a chunk, any consistency in slicing was a lost cause. I didn’t much care.)

The farmer I bought this from makes two varieties of scrapple. The one pictured in this post is not just pork, but a mix of pork, beef, and beef liver. Aside from the liver, he chooses not to elaborate on which parts of the pig and cow he’s using. This variety also uses a combination of cornmeal and buckwheat flour, though some producers use wheat flour in place of buckwheat.

The most widely-available versions use only pork products, but truth be told, the taste is not drastically different with this combination including beef. I think the best standard version that can be bought at the grocery store is Habbersett original (they have an all-beef version, too, which I haven’t tried). The ingredients are listed there for you to see, and they include pork heart, liver, and tongue.

Once I run through the supply from the market I’ve got in the freezer, I’m thinking it might be time to make some of my own. There are some truly hideous-looking recipes out there, but there are many others that look like more promising jumping-off points. I think that if you’re leaving out the liver, you’re making a huge mistake, but beyond that recipes like this necessarily offer a lot of leeway as to which actual cuts you use. Heart is commonly used, and it’s pretty lean, so I’m guessing you want to incorporate a healthy portion of skin and fattier cuts on the bone as well. (The bones and skin, of course, are strained out. In broad, sketchy terms, picture making a rich stock in which to cook the grain filler, with the remaining meat to be finely ground and incorporated.)

The spicing is also pretty crucial, and of course most producers would consider that a trade secret. As I said above, black pepper and sage are a given, perhaps rounded out with some other herbs common in German and other Central or even Eastern European traditions. We Poles like our marjoram, and I don’t think it would be unwelcome here. Thyme also sounds about right, and white pepper might be worth looking into. But then, if you’re not after replication, or if you want to explore using other meats, I suppose the sky’s the limit.

But the specifics on the homemade stuff will have to wait for another day and another post. Right now, I’ve got three pounds of farmers’ market scrapple to work my way through, and let’s call it research.

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