La Viola

After a long day of suit shopping for the incredibly difficult-to-fit boyfriend at Macy’s, on Thanksgiving weekend, I was in need of some immediate, delicious, comfort food. I’ve been meaning to go to La Viola for years, and, having only ever heard mostly wonderful things, had even recommended it to friends without a visit (I know, not best practices). Finally making it in for dinner myself, I was not disappointed.

We picked up a tasty Grenache at the wine and spirits store down the street, and were lucky, unfashionably early enough, to walk in without a reservation. La Viola is dim, and warm, and filled to capacity with a diverse crowd. We had to squeeze ourselves into the center of two other two-tops, but everyone was friendly and generous about getting up to let us slip by. We began the meal with a basket of very hot, very crusty homemade french bread with an balsamic vinegar, fresh rosemary and olive oil dipping bowl. I started with the Funghi Trentino – porcini shitakiand portbello mushrooms in a garlic basil and olive oil sauce.

La Viola's Funghi Trentino
La Viola's Funghi Trentino

Mushroom lover that I am, I was in heaven. The prima portion was huge enough that I was able to share, and mopped up all the delicious sauce at the end with another slice of bread, just because I couldn’t help myself.
Gnocchi Al Filletto Di Pomodoro
Gnocchi Al Filletto Di Pomodoro

I ordered the Gnocchi Al Filletto Di Pomodoro, a homemade spinach gnocchi with tomato basil sauce and fresh ricotta cheese. Gnocchi, delicious gnocchi.The pasta was startlingly light and pillowly, perfectly sauced, and salty ricotta chunks, sliced and eaten with every bit, added just enough bite. I finished with a dark coffee, black, and a few bites of the house tiramisu. I’m not really into dessert, but compared to the rest of the meal, dessert with only “good.”

At it’s affordable, BYOB prices, and with such delicious, comforting Italian food and impeccable service (especially in such a tight space) I understand why has loyal regulars.

La Viola on Urbanspoon

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Nan Zhou Handdrawn Noodle House

I’ll go to Chinatown any time, but a Dr. Dog concert located just up the street at the Starlight Ballroom gave me a convenient excuse to convince friends to visit Nan Zhou Handdrawn Noodle House. Nan Zhou has been on my “to visit” list for months now, and did not disappoint. It’s small and has brusque service that requires a lot of pointing and ordering by number, but the noodle soup, either handdrawn in the small open kitchen or fresh-shaved, is delicious, ridiculously cheap, and arrives at the table in 5 minutes. I was so eager to start slurping my vegetable and fried egg soup with handdrawn noodles, I forgot to take a photo until half the soup was safe in my tummy, but I think you’ll still get the idea.

handdrawn vegetable and egg noddle soup
handdrawn vegetable and egg noddle soup

The vegetarian soup costs less than $4, though I added an extra, entirely unneeded deep-fried egg, for an additional 50 cents. You can see the tangle of fresh noodles, which got even more delicious as they absorbed more of the soup broth, the deep-fried egg, and what remained of the generous heap of fresh cilantro. The broth is quite delicate, and I added two Tbs. of hot chili oil and soy sauce. Handdrawn noodles can be difficult to find, and I’d suggest ordering these instead of the thicker, very doughy shaved noodles. The menu can be a bit difficult to decipher, mostly because of poor English translations, but I think they do offer one side dish that isn’t meat-based (my dining companions split the spicy beef tendons), Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. Not being a fan of oyster sauce, or anything fishy, I skipped them, but wished for a vegetarian -friendly side dish. Overall, though, I was very pleased with the flavor of my soup, and its great value. The soup was so perfect on a blustery fall day, I somehow managed to finish the entire, huge, bowl!

Nan Zhou Hand-Drawn Noodle House on Urbanspoon

Thanksgiving Love Feast Rolls

Each year I celebrate Thanksgiving with a group of college friends, most of whom have families far away in the Midwest. We’ve been getting together for so many years that, by now, we all have our own traditional dishes that we bring to the potluck. I’m on rolls. Depending on how much time I have, this could mean a few loaves of French bread or, like this year, a more complicated, rich dinner roll. My mom makes these love feast rolls for special occasions, and I followed her recipe.

Love Feast Rolls
(makes 12-20 depending on the size of the rolls)
1 large potato, peeled
3/4 c sugar
1/2 c butter/margarine, cut up
5 1/2-6 c all purpose flour
2 pkg active dry yeast
2 eggs
1 tsp finely shredded orange peel
1 beaten egg

kneading love feast rolls
kneading love feast rolls

I add a Tbs. of shredded orange peel instead of the tsp. because I really like citrus zest. Then its kneading and some more kneading.
Instructions:
Cook potato in boiling water for 30-40 minutes until tender. Do not drain. Mash potato in liquid; measure and add water to equal 1 3/4 c. Add sugar, butter and 1 tsp salt. Heat until just warm. In a mixer bowl combine 2 c flour and the yeast. Stir in potato mixture; add the 2 eggs. Beat on low speed for 1/2 minute. scraping bowl. Beat 3 minutes on high. Using a spoon, stir in as much remaining flour as you can. Stir in orange peel. On lightly floured surface, knead in enough of remaining flour to make moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic. (6-8 minutes). Shape into ball in greased bowl. Turn once. Let raise until double (about one hour). Punch down. Divide in half–divide each half into at least 6 and roll into balls.(depends how big you want the rolls to be). Place on greased baking sheet. Cut M with shears on top. Rise until doubled. Mix beaten egg and water. Brush on top. Bake 375 degrees 17-20 minutes or until light golden.
love feast rolls
love feast rolls

Because they are brushed with beaten egg, the color of the rolls varies widely depending on which oven rack you use. I also found out, the hard way, that they brown very quickly on the bottom. I had best results with an air insulated baking sheet, using the upper third of the oven, and by reducing the cooking time to 15 minutes. These rolls take a bit longer, because they raise twice, but are delicious, surprisingly light, and have a brioche-like richness without overwhelming your meals other flavors.

Lolita

On the cold and blustery night that was last Saturday, the bf and I spent an afternoon gathering sweaters from the clearance racks and and picking out new glasses with the very hip and helpful staff at Urban Eye. Feeling a tad hungry, and after a yummy pineapple margarita with a cinnamon-sugar rim at El Vez (sorry, I forgot the photo), swinging my feet at the bar, I looked across the street and saw the twinkling white christmas lights of Lolita. The bf had never been. It was not a hard sell.

blood orange margarita with mint
blood orange margarita with mint

Lolita is a BYOT restaurant (Bring Your Own Tequila). We brought a nice bottle of reposada and enjoyed a pitches of the blood orange margarita mix. I love blood oranges, but too often the flavor, when ordered out, is too sweet. Not at Lolita. The mix offers just a slight sweet edge, and fresh muddled mint.
chips with dos salsas
chips with dos salsas
We shared the fresh, homemade chips that and two salsas, one a cilantro-heavy, mild green salsa, the other a spicier, complex roasted poblano and tomato salsa. Luckily, our appetizer came quickly, or I would have eaten the whole basket!
fundido de queso
fundido de queso

I’m lactose intolerant, and have to say that I didn’t do so well with the ordering this night. Thankfully, I always carry a handful of Lactaid for cheese emergencies. We ordered the fundido de queso (with the chorizo on the side for the bf), and it arrived hot, beautiful, and crispy black on the sides – just the way I like my baked cheese! Warm petite corn tortillas, wrapped in a cotton cloth, were the perfect paired for our eager, cheese-scooping fingers.
enchiladas verdes
enchiladas verdes

I considered substituting portabello mushrooms or chile tofu in one of the entrees, an option that makes Lolita uniquely vegetarian friendly among Philadelphia BOYB’s, but on our waitress’s suggestion, I ordered the enchiladas verdes, substituting crisp fried tofu for the shrimp. Everything at Lolita is presented beautifully, and the sauce was a creamy, cilantro-heavy dream. Perhaps I’m just extra cheese sensitive now, or maybe it’s because I love mushrooms so much, but I would have preffered more shitakes in the enchiladas, and less Lancaster jack cheese. It was, truth be told, still entirely delicious, and though I could hardly make it through half of the entree, I could hardly wait to eat the rest the next day!

Like many small BYOBs in Philadelphia – we’re overly blessed to have so many wonderful ones – Lolita is small, and can be loud and crowded, especially on the weekends. We were lucky to score a tiny table in the front corner, and had a lovely romantic night anyway. Our waitress was just attentive enough without being overbearing, dishes were cleared promptly, and the food came out faster than we could finish our pitcher of margaritas! The prices we also reasonable, and it always helps the bill at the end of the night to BYOT!

Lolita on Urbanspoon

lunchtime salads

I prepare lunch buffets for work at least once a week, and try to keep them delicious, healthy, vegetarian-friendly, and budget conscious. Since I’m often eating these lunches, too, I also don’t want to feel bored, either preparing them or eating them, especially when I have multiple lunches to prepare in one week. I’ve started making more exciting salads to keep me entertained, and happy with my lunch!

lunch salad with greens, dried cranberries, apples, goat cheese, toasted walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette
lunch salad with greens, dried cranberries, apples, goat cheese, toasted walnuts, and raspberry vinaigrette

I made this salad with mixed field greens (purchased in bulk instead of in the clam shell casing), dried cranberries, apple sliced tossed with white balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, toasted walnut pieces and a Maple Grove Farms fat-free raspberry vinaigrette. Later in the week I made the same salad, but added pomengranate seeds, and used a cranberry goat cheese.

Dinner Party Club

One afternoon some friends and I were sitting around, talking about how much we liked to cook but how our busy work schedules and general roommate-living often prevented us from cooking anything other than one-pot specials. We formed a dinner party club with our houses, and every two weeks one of us takes a turn cooking the meal, while everyone else brings a bottle of wine. It’s often the highlight of the week to leave a long a day of work and know that you have a home-cooked meal and some relaxing times with your friends, over the dinner table, ahead of you. Of course, it’s fun to do the cooking, too. Last week, it was my turn.

carrot fennel soup from Gourmet Nov. '08
carrot fennel soup from Gourmet Nov. '08

We started with a roasted carrot and fennel soup from the Gourmet Nov. ’08 issue. Most of the recipes from my meal came from this magazine. While I usually cook out of vegetarian cookbooks, when I use recipes at all, the beautiful photos in this issue, and its Thanksgiving-style comfort food, sucked me in. The November issue actually has a full vegetarian menu, but I picked and choose recipes from the entire issue. We had an unusual cold snap in Philadelphia last week, and these foods seemed warm and comforting. I may have been a bit lax in stirring the vegetables while they roasted, as they got a little black and crispy on some of the sides, but the flavor of the soup wasn’t disturbed and the color a bit more “complex” than it would have been otherwise. The soup is is garnished with a fennel seed oil and fresh fennel fronds. I served the soup with a crusty loaf of olive oil rosemary bread from Metropolitan Bakery.

mushroom farro (barley) pie
mushroom farro (barley) pie

This mushroom and farro pie is made with pre-packed puff pastry (homemade puff pastry takes hours, and isn’t really possible on a Tuesday night, post-work). It’s filled with pearl barley (substituted for the farro) ricotta, cremini mushrooms (though I substituted baby bellas) and green onions). I was worried that it wouldn’t be large enough to feed 8 people, but I was very wrong. While the the pie doesn’t seem dense, it’s very filling. You can see the steam rising from the pie.
novmeber dinner party club meal
novmeber dinner party club meal
To accompany the slice of mushroom pie, I made a baked squash with cream and parmesan from the Gourmet recipe, and along with mashed potatoes with garlic oil and the roasted garlic vegetarian gravy from Gourmet (which was, btw, so crazy delicious and wonderful smelling I almost drank it all on Sunday night, when I made it). For color, and in the interest of daily vegetables, I also make a kale with with garlic. We took a long break before dessert.
baked apples
baked apples

We ended dinner with apples, baked in cider with cinnamon, fresh whipped cream with rum and sugar, and candied walnuts. It was hard to find room in the stomach, but we were victorious, and warm, and full.

Falafel Balls and Pomegranate

I do a lot of cooking and catering as part of my full-time job. Yesterday I prepared a reception for a Lebanese novelist, and wanted to make the spread colorful and welcoming. For sweets, I put together a dessert tray of baklava, kolache (nut rolls) grapes, figs and dates.

Middle Eastern Dessert Platter
Middle Eastern Dessert Platter

I love fava beans, and Ful Madamas, so I made a salad using my own recipe, which is primarily fava beans, a healthy handful of chopped parsley,  4 minced garlic cloves, the fresh juice of one lemon, and boiled eggs to garnish.

Ful Madamas
Ful Madamas

Though I usually lean towards elaborate platters instead

of individual hors d’oeuvres for an event like this, I wanted to play a bit in the kitchen and so made up this hors de’oevor using falafel balls, slices of pickled turnip (which I love), a drizzle of tahini sauce, and fresh parsley.

falafel hors e'oevors

Alongside some of my usual tricks (crudite tray, fresh pitas, hummos) I added a platter of stuffed grapes leaves, fried eggplant in tomatoe sauce, and stuffed cabbage leaves.

Stuffed Grape Leaves Platter
Stuffed Grape Leaves Platter