It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2008 Archives

Cool things I saw in Germany:

Spoon scale, which could be used to weigh spices and leavening. I saw this briefly on some "consumer product test" segment of some daytime show.

Hand-held espresso maker. Now, in my ideal office environment, there would be someone to make me an espresso or cappuccino as the need arises. This little gadget would be ideal, except for 1) the price and 2) the custom "pods," which surely cost double any comparable coffee, and are useless in any other system.

Milk for your cookies

Milk, by Anne Mendelson

Milk has something for every kind of foodie. Recipes you won't find anywhere else? Check. Popular and under-the-radar food cultures? Check. History and culture? Check. Food chemistry, with your own experiments? Check.

(Before I go further, I need to say that not only did I read pre-publication chapters and test recipes, but Anne Mendelson is my husband's aunt. She is a good friend, with a wit so dry it's almost British.)

Milk's first section is a history of dairying in human society. How and where it (probably) first came to be and the first products (yogurt and fresh cheese), later specialization, industrialization, health regulations, and how sweet, drinking milk came to dominance as a healthy food, although most people over the age of five cannot digest milk sugars. Her take on the raw vs. pasteurized milk issue is sure to disappoint proponents in both camps: pasteurization as practiced today does alter flavor and is a panacea for poor farming and handling practices that encourage bacterial growth; raw milk sold safely through retail sources is possible, but only with stringent monitoring.

This is followed by a section of 120 recipes from the world over. There are traditional favorites like a Panna Cotta variation (Russian Cream), dulce de leche and the world's best ice cream recipe. Mendelson also included recipes from eastern Europe (Kofte in yogurt sauce -- fantastic), central Europe (liptaur cheese) and India. She included some recipes of her own provenance, such as apple cream soup, which will be the first course at my Thanksgiving dinner, and the hoppelpoppel will be featured at Christmas. Each recipe has an extensive introduction on the food's place in its home culture, and why you will like it.

Most fun — I haven't tried it yet — are nine "experiments" for making your own yogurt and fresh cheese. It starts with separating cream from non-homogenized (not raw) milk. How excited a book makes me to start cooking is my ultimate test, and this section has me most excited of all!

Available from Amazon and Powell's.

Postcard from Darmstadt

This month I visited the motherland, Germany.* The trip started in Darmstadt, a city about half an hour from Frankfurt, Germany's financial center (and the center of most air routes for the German airline Lufthansa). This trip, like all others was as much about the food as it was about the friends and family — if only because everyone kept inviting us to eat.

Of course the food starts before you even get to the airport, especially when traveling with a preschooler. What kind of snacks should I take? What can I get through security? What are the chances he'll eat the airplane food? The flight was scheduled to take off at 6 p.m., but hadn't even started boarding by then. Dinner wasn't served until 9. Thankfully, the packed snacks held us both over — and became my son's dinner:

  • three serving-size bags of hard pretzels,
  • two apples,
  • a sippy cup, with the lid in one bag and the cup in a second (no chances with someone misinterpreting that three-ounce rule)

So, yes, my son had pretzels and an apple for dinner that night. Once in the lounge area, I filled the cup with water for us, and the flight crew was happy to pour apple juice into the cup (with fewer worries for me about spilled juice).

I too, was tempted to turn up my nose at the airplane food. The food is actually one reason we fly Lufthansa. It's usually OK, and better than USAir. Lufthansa has fallen off though, with food you would find in an employee cafeteria, and much worse than Air France two years ago. (The horror of Charles DeGaulle Airport will keep me from flying Air France, though.)

The entrees were a choice between typical bow ties with jarred red sauce and something with rice pilaf (it was utterly forgettable). This was accompanied by a tired cesar salad, tiramisu, a roll with Land O'Lakes butter and a piece of colby cheese (orange). My mother's retirement home has better food. Alright, they also have a real kitchen, but I've had goose with red cabbage on Lufthansa flights. At least the coffee is still German.

Breakfast was equally disappointing: a granola bar, monterey jack cheese, a roll with American butter. No yogurt or fruit, but again, German coffee. On the way out, a steward gave my son an extra breakfast from first class. A better, softer granola bar, a banana, yogurt (American and low fat, of course), a cheese sandwich on whole wheat.

After finding our luggage, finding the bathrooms, finding our friend, the car rental counter, the Autobahn and finally the hotel (with parking!), we found ourselves in downtown Darmstadt looking for lunch. (First I got Euros and holy cow! have you seen how the dollar has tanked?)

We (Tobi) chose the Nachtrichtung Treffe Cafe in the center of town, on the recommendation of his friends who swore up and down that lunches were good, he would like them. NT is a typical German restaurant with bar. Unlike America, customers often seat themselves, or select from multiple choices offered by the staff. We three sat at a table for eight where another man was already reading the newspaper. During peak hours, it's encouraged that smaller groups share larger tables.

I should make clear that although I was in Germany from early to mid-October, I had missed Oktoberfest, which occurs in late September and in Munich, an altogether different part of the country. But, I was in time for the new wine, when restaurants and bars serve glasses of newly-pressed wine that's just begun to ferment. It's yeasty and sweet, nothing like an aged wine at all. A Federweisser is light and fruity, a good drink on a cool fall day, when you want to spend a few hours in Gemütlichkeit with close friend and family, or the stranger at the other end of the table. The traditional accompaniment is Zwiebelkuchen, onion tart, something I've avoided since childhood. I'm sure it's lovely, if you like onions.

That afternoon we wandered through the center of Darmstadt and found a small farming festival in one of the city squares. Tractors! Produce! Animals! Honey! For dinner, I picked up some tomatoes and apples at a fruit stand, and a pretzel and a roll at a bakery. Germany is great for out-of-hand meals that can be eaten in a hotel room with only a mini-fridge. Bakeries carry rolls of all types (most carry sandwiches), butchers offer lots of dried sausages like Landjäger and apples are always in season.

* Germany is where my mother's parents immigrated from. For me, the Fatherland is either Philadelphia or Kentucky.

German tomato salad (that's not a typo)

German cooking is amazingly well-suited to picnics and barbeques.

Don't believe me? Let's start with the main course. What's the usual barbeque entree — hamburgers and hot dogs, aka, wieners or frankfurters. When grilling with Germans, you aren't limited to just wieners. In the red sausage category there is Bierwurst and Knackwurst (pronounce all the k's). For white sausage there's the familiar "brats," Bratwurst (those things you buy in the grocery store? I have no idea what they are, but they aren't true Bratwurst), along with Bockwurst and Müaut;nchener Weisswurst. Best of all, there's Leberkäse, a loaf sausage that can be sliced thickly and grilled, then served on a kaiser roll with German mustard. My mother is still astounded that I like the stuff, as she's hated it most of her life. Those are just a handful of wurst available at any good German butcher.

Everyone's familiar with potato salad and cole slaw. Most people think of German potato salad as having bacon, but that's only one region's version. In the southwest, potato salad is made with sliced potatoes, apple cider vinegar, salad oil, minced onions, chives, salt, pepper and a little sugar. The "cole" is a bastardization of one of two German worlds for cabbage, Kohl. (The other is Kraut, and yeah, that was Chancellor Cabbage.)

Now your barbecue has sausage, potato salad and cole slaw. You might think the Germans had contributed enough. But wait! There's more! And not just beer!

One of my favorite ways to eat vegetables in Germany is in a salad. Everything can be and is a salad, although not an American mixed salad: Radish salad, cucumber salad, lettuce salad, potato salad! I do love radish salad.

Most clearly I remember my grandmother's tomato salad, made from her own tomatoes. The recipe is scandalously easy, so easy that it's one of the few I do without written directions. It's also not shockingly different for Americans used to tomato-and-iceberg salads.

You'll want to use large, ripe tomatoes. For six people, I'll use four tomatoes, weighing three to four pounds. It's best to use tomatoes bought a few days or a week in advance, and left to ripen on the counter until needed. This recipe improves even super-firm, underripe tomatoes, but with perfectly ripe tomatoes, it's fantastic. Really, it's best to use tomatoes just picked from the garden, but if you don't have a quarter acre under cultivation ...

Peel the tomatoes if you want. (My grandmother peeled them because my grandfather liked them that way. Teenage feminist me swore I'd never peel tomatoes for any man. Turns out I don't like them unpeeled. It tastes wrong. Certainly part is the firmer texture of unpeeled tomatoes, but the tastes seems plain wrong too.) Drop each tomato in boiling water for 30 seconds, then into a bowl of cool water. When all the tomatoes have been boiled and cooled, cut a small X in the bottom, and peel. Sometimes the skins will crack and slip off, it depends on how long they boil, how cold the second water bath is, and probably the alignment of the moon. Congratulations, you now understand blanching and shocking.

Seeding the tomatoes produces a less soupy salad. Eh, there are worse things than soupy. Serve with a slotted spoon!

Cut the tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. If the tomatoes are peeled, be very careful, as the tomatoes are very slippery. Cutting the tomatoes in half, then in half again, and in half again (to make eight wedges), and cutting the wedges into pieces seems to be safest, with the fewest number of tomatoes slipping out from under the knife.

Sprinkle 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt on the pieces, using more for the less ripe tomatoes. I actually just grab two big pinches of kosher salt.

In a small bowl, whisk together a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar (Cider vinegar is just wonderful; it has real taste! You should really give up on white vinegar and substitute cider vinegar. If you bake regularly, a cup of whole milk plus a tablespoon of cider vinegar is a great substitute for buttermilk.), three tablespoons of canola oil (Not extra-virgin olive oil. This is German cooking, not Italian. Germans use neutral-flavored oils.), one-and-a-half to three teaspoons of sugar (again, more for less ripe tomatoes) and a few gratings of pepper. Pour the dressing over the tomatoes. Snip about a tablespoon of fresh chives over the tomatoes, and mix. Let sit for a few hours before serving.

(This is pretty much the same dressing for potato salad, but it uses more chives and some finely minced onion, and gets a tablespoon or two of water.)

(And notice that you can serve this to almost anyone, no matter what food restrictions they live with. Low-fat or low-carb? Kids with severe food allergies? Vegan raw foodie kosher friend? No problem! Well, leave out the sugar for the low-carb and diabetic eaters.)

At a barbeque, what do you drink? Beer, or course! To be properly German, choose a summer beer (beer has seasons, like fruit). The perfect summer beer is the Hefeweissen, a sweetish, unfiltered, high-alcohol beer sold in sixteen-ounce bottles. My favorite brand is Franziskaner, either the normal golden, or the dark. Least favorite is anything by an American brewer. I've had many over the years -- Brooklyn's on-tap version comes closest -- but the German brands are still leagues ahead. There is a trick to pouring a Hefe. First, you'll need a large (0.5 L) Hefeweissen glass. Hold it nearly parallel to the ground. Very, very slowly start to pour the beer. As the beer fills the glass, very, very slowly start to tilt the glass upward, but just enough to keep the beer from spilling out. When only a few inches of beer are left in the bottle, swirl the beer in the bottom to pick up all the Hefe that has settled, and quickly pour it into the glass to distribute the Hefe and give a nice head.

For dessert, whatever fruit is in season, like dark cherries (pit-spitting contests), berries grown in your host's yard, or bizarre currant-gooseberry crosses (Jostaberries, pronounced yostaberries).

Best birthday present ever

The older I get, the fewer things I want. I am very, very lucky to have everything I need and much of what I want. With age also comes the knowledge that much of what I have I neither need nor want. Granted, much of the stuff isn't actually mine, and I have no real use for a two-foot high stack of ham radio magazines.

This made it difficult for my friends and family when I recently turned 40. What I really wanted was to take to dinner the people who had made the last 40 years so good. They very nicely let me, and we all had a wonderful, lovely time.

Some people weren't able to travel nearly 4,000 miles just to have dinner with. Instead, my beloved aunt Heide, who taught me to bake like a German during my internship in Stuttgart, mailed me a notebook of her baking recipes.

She divided the book into sweets, Christmas and savory baking. Old favorites like Schokoladekirschkuchen (chocolate almond cherry cake) are there, along with recipes I've wanted for years, like rhubarb cake and Swabian apple cake.

There are nearly fifty recipes in the book, many things I've had at Heide and Ernst's dining room table, or in their back yard next to the River Aich (more of a big stream), or in my aunt Emma's Stube, or in cousin Christel's garden. Not-so-sweet cakes with fresh or jarred fruit; spicy and nutty Christmas cookies; German quiches that make winter vegetables yummy. It is truly the best birthday present ever, representing decades of fond memories.

(I must qualify here -- it's the best birthday present that is a thing. I also received a surprise visit from a friend that is like a son. Both presents made me cry.)

I'll have to tell my produce store to keep some rhubarb and fresh currants for me.

One recipe I've meant to try for years is "Käsefüssle" which literally translates as cheesey feet, and will not surprise you is an idiom for stinky feet. They are a rich, flakey, cheesey foot-shaped "cookie" that makes a great appetizer. The recipe is very simple (combine, knead), and lots of fun for even small children to make. Obviously, you could make cheesey squares, or cheesey triangles, or cheesey strips if you don't have a foot-shaped cookie cutter.


1 2/3 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
pinch of hot paprika
1 egg
9 Tbs butter (1 stick plus 1 Tbs), cold, cut into 18 pieces
7 oz gouda or emmental, finely shredded
1 egg yolk
2 Tbs sesame seeds or poppy seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, mix all ingredients except yolk and seeds until it looks like crumbly, streusel topping. Turn onto counter and knead just until dough comes together into a uniform dough.

Alternately, by hand, knead all ingredients except yolk and seeds just until dough comes together into a uniform dough.

Roll out to 1/4-inch thick. Cut out using a foot-shaped cutter and lay on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Brush with yolk and sprinkle with seeds. Re-roll scraps and cut out more feet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes until just a bit brown around the edges.


After SakeFest, GR and I went to dinner in Center City. (I know the area east of Broad and west of Washington Square has a catchy name -- maybe Washington Square West -- but it's not catchy enough for me to remember.) During our wanderings, I spotted TBar, 117 S. !2th, which I'd wanted to try since first learning that my old neighborhood went upscale a few years after I moved out. That, and we were down to PG Tips loose tea for breakfast.

TBar is both retail and restaurant; I was interested only in the retail. They have an extensive selection of loose teas: black, oolong, green and flavored. Prices start at $6.50 for two ounces, making it some of the most expensive tea I've ever bought.

However, there are lots of ways to make an informed choice. Most or all teas can be purchased in a pot; TBar offers a large "Book of Tea" with extensive descriptions of the teas; staff offer to let you smell the loose tea. I just picked from the descriptions.

If you are used to the to the supermarket descriptions of English breakfast, Irish breakfast, Earl Grey and Dareeling, you might be lost. The teas are described by country of origin (Indian, Ceylon), and some have tea grades (like SFTGFOP: Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe). Teas are organized by TBar name; to find an assam requires perusing the descriptions. There were a number of flavored teas and a wide selection of green and oolong.

English Breakfast: A not-to-strong, well-balanced basic tea. There were no surprises and likely to be acceptable to anyone used to Lipton. The second brewing was nearly as good as the first, and also good cold.

Nilgiri: Delicate with lots of bright notes. The second brewing was not nearly as good as the first; all of the bright flavor was lost.

Mt. Everest: Mildly smoky but not heavy. The second brewing was close to the first.

Moonlight PM: Billed as low-caffeine and tastes it; tea doesn't lose it's caffeine easily or well. The only good decaf I've found so far has been Barry's Gold, an Irish import.

For years, Philly tea enthusiasts were limited to the Spice Terminal, Fantes and other stores in the Italian Market. Although the teas were better than the supermarket, none had the variety or quality offered by Steap and TBar. It's wonderful to see the selection expanding: no more mail order for me!

Will I go back: I'm inclined to keep my purchases at Steap, which has better prices and as wide a selection. On the other hand, if I'm in the area and looking at a near lack of tea for the weekend, I wouldn't mind trying the Russian caravan or other teas.

Biscuit quest

Biscuits have mystified and intimidated me all of my Northern life. One needs a "delicate hand" we're told. Biscuits should be tender, flakey and impossibly tall. The ideal of Southern cooks can make biscuits without measuring, knowing only from the feel of the dough how much to add.

Even being born in the South is no guarantee of biscuit prowess; witness the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout complains of home ec class, and the rock-hard biscuits she made.

(I'd also like to say we'd never think of wasting good food on sartorial concerns.)

So, because the idea of carbs + fat for breakfast is appealing, I've been testing biscuit recipes with the help of two excellent baking references. The heavy cream biscuit recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From my Home to Yours are absolutely the easiest ever. No cutting butter, just mix, knead briefly, cut, and bake. For a fast breakfast, these are your biscuits. They are not, however, the best. Nick Malgieri's butter biscuits in How to Bake had better flakiness and lift than the Greenspan's cream or butter biscuits. But Greenspan used less flour and more butter for better flavor.

Each author had recipe variations, but none were really the perfect biscuit. One morning, desperate to use up a quart of buttermilk, I tried Greenspan's buttermilk variation, upping the baking powder to the two teaspoons that Malgieri used. (Why is buttermilk sold by the quart, when one only ever uses a cup before it goes bad, but heavy cream is sold by the half pint, when it keeps forever?) The biscuits were perfect, and the key is the buttermilk, which seems to tenderize the dough sufficiently to overcome any overkneading:

2 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbs butter, cut into pieces
3/4 c buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Wisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Cut in butter until pieces are very small, about pea-sized. As Greenspan points out, some pieces will be smaller. Mix in the buttermilk until the dough starts to hold together. Dump onto your kneading surface and knead gently until it begins to hold together; Malgieri recommends a fold-and-push technique that will create lots of layers. I find the buttermilk doesn't absorb all the flour in the bowl, so no extra flour is needed.

Roll to a half inch thick, and cut with a round, two-inch cutter (don't twist!). Bake on a cookie sheet for 12 to 15 minutes until golden brown.

An additional great thing about these is the lack of eggs. Not that I run out of eggs that often, but when I do, it throws a wrench in any weekend breakfast plans. And you can substitute whole milk for the buttermilk, and skip the baking soda; or substitute whole milk and add two teaspoons cider vinegar for the buttermilk.

SakeFest! 2008

GR and I went to Sake Fest. Most memorable events: the catgirl, octopus salad from Fork, Gekkikan sake cocktails (a mohito and something with pineapple juice -- I'm happy to say I identified both the mint and the pineapple), crisp and fruity bubbly sakes, and best of all: dinner at the unfortunately named Lolitas on S. 13th.

Tasting wine makes me feel incompetent enough; it reduces me to the mantra of philistines everywhere: "I know what I like!" Sake just seems out of my league: I have few chances to try anything other than Gekkikan (I live in Pennsylvania, home of the most draconion liquor laws in the country). Additionally, I can't even distinguish between labels, let alone read them!

Sake Fest has been put on in past years, and seemed the perfect place to learn about sake. Its the perfect place to learn about new-to-you sakes if you are already comfortable with sake, but it was bad for a beginner.

There was no way for me to know what I was tasting or comparing. Each importer had their own printed material about the sakes they offered. There was an overall guide to all vendors and their wares, but it was merely a list -- not very useful. I eventually settled into a plan of tasting each table's cloudy sake to be able to compare apples to apples. At one table I just worked my way through four of their dryer sakes. (Turns out my cooking sake -- Fu Ki -- is dry. Who knew?) By the end of the night, I could apprecieate the difference between sweeter sakes and dryer sakes, and the cloudy (or milky) sakes. Of course, I liked the bubbly sakes.

Although the room wasn't packed, the tables were so small that it was a slog to get through and get a tasting cup. Attendees tended to get to the table, get a cup, stand right there blocking everyone else while tasting ... and get a taste of something else. Uniform materials about the sakes from each vendor would have been fabulous, especially if the material showed a picture of the bottle, the name in English, a general description (dry vs sweet), and a place for tasters to make notes. It could be part of the packet handed to attendees (drinkers?) with their fuschia wrist bands.

Honestly, I'd rather spend $55 on a few bottles and taste at home with friends!

Grab bag

I don't see why it should be so hard to find a good grocery store. And yet, most of the stores near my house are so dreadful I get a stress headache driving into the parking lot. My needs really are few:

  • small — a small floorpan really can cut shopping time in half
  • fresh produce and meat — not the buy it and use that night store from Center City
  • close to home (on my way is impossible now that I only drive 3 1/2 miles a day)
  • organic milk, and not hidden 15 feet from the regular milk
  • no TVs in the store

Alright, I admit it, ideally I'd live in a little German village, where the produce store is across the street and the baker around the corner is my grandmother's step-brother's wife's nephew (no, really, he is kinda a cousin by two marriages). But I don't, and I'm stuck in the land of the supersize, and all I can do is thank my stars I don't live in Texas, where everything is even bigger. There once was a time when I loved to spend hours in the grocery, looking for odd ingredients and dreaming up menus to use them in. Now I have a toddler.

The giant Acmes with the blaring TVs and complete lack of white baking chocolate are right out. The giant Genuardi's which trades privacy for fake "discounts" is out. The two-acre Shop-N-Save is out. The giant Giant is out, despite the truth-in-advertising theme of its name.

There is a wonderful Shop-N-Bag (George's Dreshertown), which was "big" when it was first built in the 60s or 70s. Now it's quaint, but it has great produce, a huge dairy section including whole-milk and Greek yogurts, a fishmonger, two butchers — kosher and non, LeBus bread, and really perky checkers who always gave my toddler a "Thank you for shopping" sticker. No loyalty cards. Prices sane. Fresh food was fresh. Small enough to be in and out in half an hour with groceries for the week. On the way home, so I could shop every other day if I needed, and I often did. Problem? We switched day cares, and the shopping center was so good I almost considered keeping my extra forty minutes of commuting to still go there.

When I'm really strapped for time or patience, I go to O'Niell's in Keswick: absolutely tiny (two check-outs), but well-enough-stocked. I can be in and out in 20 minutes. They're so small that I count on only the basics, but an often pleasantly surprised at what they do have. If I had brand loyalty, I'd be screwed, but I only have square-footage loyalty. Parking is on-street with meters, but that keeps the riff-raff away.

Within walking distance of my mother is the Hatboro Deli, which is either the world's smallest hoagie shop with a grocery store attached, or the world's smallest grocery (one checker, four aisles) with an in-store hoagie shop. The hoagies are good, but the grocery is better. They carry lots of prepared foods, but also rib roasts and Crystal hot sauce (I couldn't find Crystal for over a year in the Philly area, and here it was half a mile from my mother the whole time). Plus cheap greeting cards, and I'm sure they'll be open on my mother's birthday.

I can stand Whole Foods and its ilk. (What ilk? They've bought them out.) They often have the odd things I want like vegan chocolate chips, dried pears and Spanish goat cheese. They're packed but the footprint is small enough that you never have far to fight your way through. Trader Joe's is just too damn crowded. And neither is open at the sensible hour of 7:30 am., so that I can beat the crowds.

For the truly exotic, it's H-Mart on Cheltenham Ave. and Rieker's in Fox Chase. H-Mart is a Northeast chain of Korean groceries, and carry lots of souteast Asian ingredients, and have a small housewares section I always must visit. (Every Asian grocery seems to have a housewares section.) Rieker's is the German delicatessen/butcher my grandmother shopped at. They still make their own sausages, and carry lots of seasonal delicacies.

There is produce store around the corner ... and down the mile-long hill: Peas in a Pod. Wonderful produce, with a big organic section. Pumpkins at Halloween. Local in season. Suppliers deliver every day. Cute little bushel baskets for shopping baskets. Fresh, whole-grain bread. Local eggs. Now, if only I can convince them to carry buttermilk and whole-milk yogurt.

Well, there you go. If you live near me and want an old-fashioned grocery with a good selection, you know where to go. And if I ever get amnesia and forget where I shop, it's right here.

Still crazy after all these years

Nearly twenty years ago, my sister took me to dinner at Upstares at Varalli, because it was across the street from her hotel. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, as she was and is never in town. I'm fairly certain it was a Tuesday.

I also remember clearly where we sat (windows along Locust Street), what I ate (linguine or fettuccine) and most of all, what we discussed: should I start seeing this new guy I'd met? She gave me the best advice ever: yes, date him.

He and I eventually moved to an apartment around the corner and ate at Upstares regularly. We took my father there when we had tickets for Messiah and the Nutcracker; they always made sure we were out in time to make it across the street to the Academy of Music. We took friends who were delighted to discover that Italian food went beyond red sauce. After moving to the burbs, we would occasionally return with out-of-town guests.

While hunting ever more desperately for a place for my fortieth birthday, I finally remembered Upstares, and its downstairs sister Sotto Varalli. Yes, they could fit 25 to 30 of us in a private room and feed us a three-course meal.

The menu started with rocket salad or their field greens salad. Sensibly, most everyone picked the rocket salad, which had the most amazing, large ripe strawberries. These were better than the grocery store carries in June. I had the lobster ravioli, Tobi had the steak, and that guy I started dating had the linguine. We finished with enormous portions of chocolate pyramid or tiramisu (trite, but still excellent). The weakest note was the coffee, but was more than compensated for by the excellent wine selections — I threw myself on the staffs' mercy, and they selected the wonderful Zefiro Prosseco with the appetizers, and the Terlano Pino Bianco and Red Mud Shiraz with dinner. Yes, I had at least a glass of each.

Will I go again? Will I have another birthday?


It might be all about the food, but heavens, I hate cooking on weeknights. Whenever I read someone berating the rest of us for not cooking nutritious, wholesome, organic, complex, three-course meals from scratch every night of the week, I seriously want to kidnap the writer and make them cook in my kitchen and on my schedule for a month.

When Food TV ran "Gordon Elliott's Door Knock Dinners," I always hoped he'd show up at my door and I could see what he would make of two frozen pounds of butter, some limp greenery, and half a can of cat food.

That was even before kid, with a set bedtime and extra time to pick up from daycare and a husband to get from the train station. I'm rarely home before 6:15 and we need to finish eating by 7.

You try making a pot roast in 15 minutes with a three-year-old.

But you know what's easy? Eggs are easy. Eggs are fast. Eggs are yummy, if you put enough cheese in them. Eggs are even gourmet if you call them omelet or frittata. I'm calling this frittata-like. Big advantage: most ingredients are things likely to be in the pantry — my pantry, at least, plus a Spanish goat's-milk cheese, which may be common in your pantry.

I used
three eggs
at a time, because that's how many fit in my six-inch cast-iron fry pan., which was heating on the stove. I whisked the eggs to a lovely froth with
a few tablespoons heavy cream
. (I've tried separating the eggs and folding in the beaten whites, but the result was too eggy and not cheesy enough.) I'd pre-heated my broiler to 400 degrees.

Then I added
three ounces carpricho de cabo (or manchego, or other goat's milk cheese) broken into bits
one roasted pepper, julienned
a four-inch length of dried chorizo, sliced very thinly
and poured it all into the hot fry pan.

When the bottom has cooked, put the pan under the broiler until the top is nicely browned and the eggs have cooked through. The eggs will puff nicely. Immediately show your audience, er, family, and invert onto a plate and eat.

Serves one to two.

Miran, Center City

Whenever I'm downtown at night, I like to try a new restaurant because there is always a new place I haven't tried, and if I want to eat the same-old, same-old I can stay at home. Last night it was Miran at 2034 Chestnut after a massage at Total Serenity at 2108 Walnut. The atmosphere is "take out," but he food is better than that.

Miran's a BYOB, and, because I don't usually have a B tucked in my bag, I had the hot tea, which was probably Hyeonmi cha, Korean roasted brown rice tea. It was a wonderful antidote to January in Philly.

I started with the pork and kimchee steamed dumplings, then had the squid bokum &emdash; squid and veggies in a hot-sweet sauce. The dumpling filling and squid might have benefited from a minute less time cooking; the dumplings were not as juicy as I like, and the squid a bit more chewy. However, the flavor was good.

Most dinner entrees are served with "rice and side dishes," meaning short-grained rice and four or five small bowls of kimchee and a small bowl of iceberg lettuce, a slice of a tired tomato, covered in Russian dressing.

Service was casual (the waitress wore jeans and a McNabb jersey &emdash; I though the Eagles were out of consideration?), efficient (I was in and out in half an hour) and friendly (we both like su do ku). As I was finishing dinner about 6:30, the dining room started to fill up and my table was cleared immediately to seat the customers who had just walked in.

Squid bokum has become my favorite dish at Korean restaurants. As happy as I am that I can find something so good (and familiar) wherever I eat, it's disturbing to see Korean cuisine shoe-horned into American expectations of "these are the 20 dishes that $COUNTRY eats." That should have gone out of style with chop suey. If you wanted to define American food, you'd be hard pressed to limit it to 20 dishes. Of course, steak-house menus don't reflect that, do they?

Will I go back? Yes, Miran does at-table barbecue, and I'm sure my husband and son would love it.

Spatze Spatze Man!

I'll admit it — I make up song parodies for my toddler son. They are badly sung, badly rhymed, with a strong theme of "mommy's going crazy now, so listen to the nice song." But he enjoys them.

Tonight's Grammy-winner was inspired by leftover Käsespätzle and the Village People (to the tune of "Macho Man"):

Spatze Spatze Man!
I've got to be, a Spatze Man!

My husband assures me that being there makes it no funnier.

However, the Käsespätzle were delicious. People — well, chefs and food wanks, not people — claim Spätzle are Alsatian or Swiss to make them sound upscale, but I'm telling you, this is southwest German peasant food.

Käsespätzle (German cheese-noodle casserole)

  • 5 c flour (700g)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 1/4 c water (275 ml)
  • nutmeg to taste
  • 8 ounces Emmental or Gruyere cheese, grated (225g)

Boil at least 5 quarts (5 liters) very heavily salted water. Butter a large casserole dish. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees (160 C).

While waiting for the water to boil, measure the flour and a bit of grated nutmeg into a large bowl, and make a well in the center. Crack the eggs into the center, and pour in the water. With a fork, mix the eggs and water together, then mix in the flour. You'll have a very stiff batter, but not a dough. If you have dough that you would like to put through a pasta maker, add a few tablespoons water. Mix until smoothish.

Spoon/plop a quarter of the batter into your Spätzle press, press into the rapidly boiling water, and boil until the noodles float. I prefer thinner noodles. If the noodles are thick, either add a tablespoon or two more water to the batter, or hold the press higher, so that gravity stretches the noodles more. My press is the kind that looks like a giant garlic press, not the kind that looks like a food grater with a sliding handle thing on it.

When the noodles float, fish them out with a large slotted spoon, or strainer, or pasta spoon, or whatever works. Spread noodles evenly on the bottom of the casserole, and sprinkle a quarter of the grated cheese over them. Pop the casserole into the oven.

Repeat the cooking of the noodles, and the sprinkling of the cheese three more times, until all the batter is cooked and all the cheese used. The cheese will melt nicely in the oven.

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