February 27, 2015

Five on Friday

1) Restaurant Resolutions.
We hosted a group of wonderful friends for New Year's Eve, and while we were all sitting around our table, someone asked who had New Year's resolutions.  I'm not a fan of typical resolutions -- I don't really understand why you have to wait until January 1st to make a change in your life -- but on a whim, I threw out the idea that I'd like to try to visit as many restaurants on the Philly Mag Top 50 list this year.  Even with the places we already dined at prior to the start of 2015, I know we won't hit all of them -- a combination of time limitations, budget, and the desire to still fit into my pants come 2016.  
Considering it's only the end of February, I think we're doing pretty well so far.  In previous years, we've dined at Fork (#2), Vernick (#3 - and our personal favorite restaurant in Philly), Sbraga (#5), Zahav (#13 - my thoughts here), Amada (#27), Pub and Kitchen (#33), il Pittore (#34), Russet (#39), Petruce et al (#41 - which inspired my vegetarian bechamel lasagna I posted earlier this week), Ela (#42), and Indeblue (#49).  Thus far in 2015, we've managed to visit Amis (#18 - my thoughts here), Le Virtu (#21 - my thoughts below), and Noord (#50).  And coming up over the next few months, we have reservations at six more restaurants on the list.
Phew! It's a lofty conquest, but I think I'm up to the challenge.

2) Le Vertu.
Last week, we headed down to East Passyunk to check out Le Virtu, a charming little Italian restaurant featuring the culinary flavors of Abruzzo.  Like so many other restaurants, it focuses on local meats and produce, along with imported products straight from Abruzzo, like cheeses, olive oil, and the flour used to make their (delicious) pasta.  In total, we ordered the suppli (fried risotto, wild boar ragu, and peas), taccozzelle with house-made sausage, porcini, and truffles, the brodetto casalese seafood stew (which reminded me of this Mediterranean Fish Stew, just shellfish based), the stinco d'agnello braised lamb shank, and an amarena-chocolate semifreddo for dessert.  We each thoroughly enjoyed what we ordered, though I think we were a bit spoiled by our recent trip to Amis - nothing stood out quite as much as the dishes did there.  That said, it was still a wonderful dinner, and I'd certainly go back... but first, I have a lot of other restaurants on our list to tackle!

3) Workout Music.
Any good playlists or new music to suggest?  I'm starting to get bored with mine.  I usually listen to fast, upbeat music for cardio and then switch to podcasts for lifting, but I haven't added anything new to my cardio list in a while and I could use something new and exciting while I force myself to plow through yet another workout.

4) Westminster Dog Show.
Any other fans out there?  We watched both nights that were televised, although our dog was less than impressed.  She’s waiting for them to accept mutts, and also establish a “Couch Potato” group.  I was really pulling for the syke terrier, because how fun are those ears?!  Our dog walking group walks a skye terrier and I love when they post pictures of him. 

5) Weekend.
Hooray!  It's almost the weekend!  Weekends are SO much better now that I don't have to work every single one (postdoc in biophysics lab >>>>> grad student in cell biology lab -- no cells, no mice, nothing that REQUIRES that I come in every weekend).  Tonight, we're off to dinner at Osteria (on the top 50 list, of course), tomorrow we're brunching with friends at Pub and Kitchen, and Sunday the dog and I are off on a pack walk, with some errands and cooking thrown in the mix.  My neighbor's birthday is next week and both our husbands will be out of town for work so we're going to order in and I'll bring dessert -- now for the tough decision of what to bake!

February 26, 2015

Buttermilk Lime Quick Bread

Normally, I’m a huge proponent of cooking (and eating!) in season.  In the winter, I gravitate towards more time-consuming, heartier recipes, like lasagna, Swedish meatballs, or fish stew, while in the summer, it’s all about quick recipes featuring fresh vegetables from my CSA, such as this tomato and zucchini galette, coleslaw, or a grilled steak salad.  While many desserts tend to be less seasonal (cookies and brownies are perfect year-round!),  I tend to find a lot of what I bake rotates throughout the year as well – berry crumble bars or mint chocolate chip ice cream are summer-only desserts with fresh berries or mint from my garden, and clementine vanilla quick bread and hot chocolate only make appearances in the winter.  But when life hands you a bag of limes leftover from a margarita-making adventure, you just can’t let them go to waste, even if there is snow on the ground and temperatures well below zero.  This buttermilk lime quick bread is not remotely seasonally appropriate, but maybe if you close your eyes and crank up the heat while eating a slice, you can pretend it’s summer for a few minutes.


This recipe is really simple with a refreshing citrus flavor.  The lime glaze kicks it up a notch – don’t leave it off if you’re looking for a little extra sweet-tart flavor.  Alternatively, the bread isn’t extremely sweet on its own, so if you’d like something a little more savory, serve it for brunch with a side of lime-scented cream cheese.  There’s no reason you couldn’t swap the lime out for lemon and make a lemon bread instead, but lime is more unexpected when it comes to bake goods, and I like the little element of surprise.  Keep this in your back pocket for the spring or summer… but if you can’t resist making it sooner, I won’t blame you.  Sugar IS season-less, after all.

buttermilk lime quick bread

Buttermilk Lime Quick Bread
Adapted from Betty Crocker


  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • lime zest from 4 limes
  • 4 tablespoons lime juice, divided
  • 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar


  1. Heat oven to 350F.  Grease and flour the bottom and sides of an 8x4 or 9x5 inch loaf pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, oil, lime zest, and 2 tablespoons of the lime juice until well blended.  Add in the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and stir until just moistened (some lumps will remain).
  3. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  4. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the bread to a cooling rack and cool completely, about 1 hour.
  5. In a small bowl, mix together the confectioners sugar and 2 tablespoons of lime juice, adding additional lime juice if necessary to reach the desired consistency.  Drizzle the glaze over the bread and allow it to solidify, about 30 minutes, before slicing and serving.

February 24, 2015

Vegetarian Bechamel Lasagna

We’re not big pasta eaters in my house – sure, I make it as a quick dinner on occasion, but it’s not uncommon for us to go several months without consuming any.  So when we went out to dinner at Petruce et al (highly recommended – one of my personal top 5 restaurants in the city) al back in September, the lasagna didn’t even register on my radar as a possible option… until the server came and mentioned that if we were interested in the lasagna, it was purposely served on the crispy side and not just accidentally burnt.  Suddenly, my interest was piqued: I love when dishes with cheese (or noodles) are on the very well done, extra crunchy side.  This knowledge, combined with the many rave reviews I read about the lasagna beforehand, was enough for us to go ahead and order it to share.  The lasagna was, hands down, the best I have ever had (sorry, Grandma), and we both kept raving about it throughout the meal.

vegetarian bechamel lasagna

I decided to try to make my own version at home, which I served for our Yom Kippur break-fast with our families.  Every year, I swear that I’m going to save myself the hassle of cooking all day while fasting and just do the traditional bagel and fish spread, but just like every other year previously, I forged ahead with full on dinner plans.  The lasagna was actually perfect for this, since I rolled out all the noodles and assembled everything the night before, so it was one less thing to think about in the midst of everything else I was trying to prepare while constantly reminding myself not to taste things.  The lasagna was a big hit, and while it definitely wasn’t a match for the Petruce lasagna, I was quite pleased with the outcome for a made-at-home version.


So what makes the lasagna special?  Well, it’s a bechamel lasagna with the addition of caramelized tomatoes, adding a touch of sweetness.  There’s no ricotta – just the nutmeg-spiked bechamel and shaved pecorino.  And it’s baked in a cast iron skillet in their wood burning oven, so it comes out extra hot and crispy, with a slightly smoky flavor.  Obviously, I don’t have access to a wood burning oven, but I did go ahead and make mine in cast iron.  I used this 10.5-inch square cast iron skillet, and it worked out beautifully.  I love the size and the square shape and it has become my go-to cast iron for cooking, getting much more use than the 12-inch round cast iron skillet I also own.  I also hand-rolled my own pasta for the lasagna with just a rolling pin and lots of elbow grease.  Sure, you could use store-bought pasta noodles, but why not have a little fun and try making them yourself?  They’re not hard (just lots of rolling!) and you most definitely don’t need a fancy pasta roller to get the job done.  This recipe has a number of steps, so it’s not an ideal weeknight option, but I promise it’s well worth the effort.

Vegetarian Bechamel Lasagna
Inspired by Petruce et al


  • For the tomato sauce:
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 small onion, chopped
    • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
    • pinch of salt and pepper
  • For the pasta:
    • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
    • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
    • 2 large eggs, room temperature
    • 2 large egg yolks, room temperature
  • For the bechamel:
    • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
    • 4 cups milk, room temperature
    • large pinch of nutmeg
    • pinch of salt
  • For assembly:
    • 4 ounces shaved pecorino


  1. Start by making the tomato sauce.  In a medium pot or dutch oven, heat oil over medium high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft, 5 to 10 minutes.  Add the tomato paste, breaking it up with a spoon as it cooks.  Once it has deepened in color, add the tomatoes and continue to cook until there is no excess liquid in the pan – the sauce will be quite thick.  Continue to cook, stirring, until the tomatoes start to caramelize.  Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Let sauce cool and refrigerate until use.  This can be prepared a few days ahead of time – letting the sauce sit will enhance the flavors.
  2. To make the pasta, create a large mound of flour on your rolling surface.  Sprinkle with the salt and make a well in the center.  Break the whole eggs and the egg yolks into the well and scramble the eggs with a fork.  Use the fork to slowly incorporate more flour into the egg well in the center, continuing to mix until the eggs are no longer runny.  Switch to incorporating flour with your hands, bringing the outside edges in.  Use only the amount of flour necessary to form a soft ball – you may not need all the flour available on the counter.  Knead the dough until it is smooth, about 10 minutes.  If the dough becomes too sticky while kneading, add in some of the additional flour.  Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow it to relax at room temperature, 30 minutes to several hours.
  3. Roll the pasta by hand with a rolling pin (or use a pasta roller, if you have one).  Cut the dough into quarters, rolling one quarter at a time.  Very lightly flour the work surface.  Roll the dough into a circle by rolling 1/4 of the way back onto the rolling pin and then gently but firmly pushing the pin away from you.  Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat.  Keep rolling and stretching the dough until the pasta sheet is thin enough to see the outline of your hand through it.  Spread the sheet on a flat, dry surface and dry for 15-20 minutes.  Repeat with the remaining dough.  Cut the noodles into 4x8-inch pieces.
  4. For the bechamel sauce, heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the butter starts to foam.  Add the flour and whisk constantly for 1 minute.  Whisk in the milk, 1/2 cup at a time.  Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 8-10 minutes, whisking often.  When the mixture resembles the consistency of heavy cream and is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add the nutmeg and season with salt.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
  5. To assemble the lasagna, start by cooking the fresh lasagna noodles in a large pot of salted boiling water until just softened, about 10 seconds.  Remove with tongs and dip in a bowl of ice water.  Drain the noodles between layers of paper towels or on cookie cooling racks; be sure to keep the noodles separated or they will stick together. 
  6. Spread 1/4 cup bechamel sauce in the bottom of the cast iron skillet (if you are using a normal baking dish, grease the pan).  Top with a layer of noodles, spread over a spoonful of the caramelized tomato sauce, and top with a few shavings of pecorino.  Repeat this process 7 more times, or until you run out of ingredients (the number of layers will vary depending on the size of your baking dish).  Top with additional grated or shaved pecorino.
  7. At this point, the prepared lasagna can be stored in the refrigerator overnight or baked immediately.  When it’s time to bake, bring the lasagna to room temperature, then bake in a 350F oven for 45-50 minutes, or until bubbling and beginning to brown.  Let the lasagna rest 30 minutes before serving.

February 17, 2015

Swedish Meatballs

While the content of this blog doesn’t reflect it, I cook far more than I bake.  I think the posting mismatch is likely because I find desserts and sweets so much easier to photograph, both because they are more visually appealing and because I’m not trying to actually get them on the table for dinner in a timely fashion.  Let’s take a break from all the cookies and muffins and quick breads and get back into some savory dishes.

If you live in the mid-Atlantic or northeast, you’re probably covered with a layer of snow right now and dealing with sub-zero temperatures.  It’s cold out there, people, and there’s nothing like a nice, warm dinner to combat all that cold weather and dreariness.  These Swedish meatballs come together quickly enough to constitute a weeknight meal after a day of work, but they’re also cozy enough to enjoy if you’re stuck at home with a snow day.  The leftovers freeze well, so if you do happen to find yourself with an unexpected day at home, why not make a double or triple batch and stock your freezer for later?  Go ahead and mix them right in with the gravy, allow them to cool, and freeze in airtight containers or a freezer bag.  When you’re ready to eat them, thaw overnight in the refrigerator and warm on the stovetop the next day.

I served mine over garlicky, lumpy, hand-mashed red potatoes (lumpy and garlicky are the only way I can stomach mashed potatoes – unlike most, I truly detest whipped/riced potatoes) with a dollop of lingonberry jam and a side of sauteed kale.  Can’t find lingonberry jam outside of Ikea?  Substitute red current jam, which you should be able to find at most supermarkets.  Enjoy!

swedish meatballs
  • 12 ounces ground pork
  • 12 ounces ground chuck
  • 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2.5 cups beef broth
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • lingonberry or red current jam, for serving
  1. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the pork, ground chuck, breadcrumbs, shallots, egg yolks, and spices.  Mix by hand until well combined or beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Roll 1.5 – 2 tablespoons of the mixture into golfball-sized meatballs. 
  3. Heat the butter in a large saute pan over medium-low heat until melted.  Add the meatballs and saute until brown on all sides, about 7 to 10 minutes.  Test for doneness by cutting a meatball in half.  You may need to do this in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan.
  4. Remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and rest on a paper towel.
  5. Once all of the meatballs are cooked, decrease the heat to low and all the flour to the pan.  Whisk until the flour is lightly toasted, 1 to 2 minutes.  Gradually add the beef stock, continuing to whisk, until the sauce begins to thicken.  Add the milk and continue to cook until the gravy reaches the desired constitancy.
  6. Add the meatballs back to the pan and warm.  Serve with a side of ligonberry jam over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

February 13, 2015

Five on Friday

1) DC Weekend.
Last weekend, we headed down to DC to visit our wonderful group of college friends.  We took off on Friday so we could head down early and beat the traffic, instead of our usual drive down Saturday morning trip.  We had a great time -- Saturday, the girls had a delicious brunch prepared by our lovely host and spent the afternoon at the spa for massages or facials, and the boys spent the morning and afternoon day drinking.  It was a weekend full of good food and great friends, relaxation and drinking, babies and dogs -- in other words, a perfect weekend.  We hope to make it back for another visit soon!

2) Amis.
I was really sad to leave DC, mostly because of leaving behind all the friends mentioned above.  I'm surprised by how much I've come to love Philadelphia, but it really is a fantastic city -- the food scene is excellent, the housing is affordable, the cultural opportunities are never-ending, and the walkability means I can continue to delay car ownership.  We've been so caught up in trying all the new restaurants that quite a few good already-established restaurants fell off our radar, like Amis.  We went last week and really, really enjoyed it -- I cannot recommend it enough.  We split a variety of small plates, and each one really delivered, unlike many places where there are definite winning dishes... and a few that just don't make the cut.  Between the two of us, we ordered the baked pecorino with almond honey, swordfish meatballs, rigatoni with short rib ragu, monkfish piccata with blood orange, and the lemon fried brussel sprouts.  It's hard to choose a favorite, but if there was one do-not-miss dish, I'd have to say it's the swordfish meatballs - pretty sure I've dreamt about them.

3) Zahav's Lamb Shack.
With so many new restaurants popping up (and older ones we haven't visited), we rarely wind up at the same restaurant twice.  Zahav is the exception to this -- we are big fans of both Zahav and Mike Solomonov, and this marked our 4th trip back.  This time, it was for their special "Lamb Shack" -- the restaurant is undergoing renovations, so rather than close the entire restaurant, they closed down most of it and kept two smaller rooms open serving up nothing but "whomping hunks" of their world-famous pomegranate and chickpea roasted lamb shoulder (or a vegetarian option), along with the standard salatim and hummus and dessert.  Normally, the lamb is only available for parties of 9 or more, so this was the perfect opportunity to check it out with a smaller group.  We went with another couple, and everything was amazing, as expected.  We practically had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant after gorging and I swore I wasn't going to eat the rest of the week but somehow we found ourselves going out to dinner again the next night.  Moral of the story: if you come to Philadelphia and ask me for a restaurant recommendation, Zahav will be first on my list.  If you live in Philadelphia, you need to go to the Lamb Shack, which runs through February 28th.

4) Sick Doggie.
On a significantly less enjoyable note, our poor doggie is sick this week.  We noticed she was peeing twice on walks on Monday, and by Tuesday, her urine was bright red with blood.  We took a sample to the vet (you might be a scientist if your dog urine collection tools include a 15 cm tissue culture dish and a 50 mL conical tube) but while we were waiting for results, found dozens of little puddles of blood all over the house -- diagnosis: bladder and kidney infection.  He prescribed an antibiotic right away and hopefully she'll be feeling back to normal soon.  In the meantime, getting peanut butter twice a day with her pills and getting to sleep in our bed (which we normally don't allow) surely makes the healing process a little better.

5) This Weekend.
Woo! It's Friday - almost the weekend.  Looking forward to a low key weekend at home: hopefully finishing up a crocheting project, editing some pictures, and hanging out on the couch with the dog.  We don't really celebrate Valentine's Day, but I do think the day calls for some chocolate pancakes for breakfast and we're going to visit some friends in the suburbs later in the day.  Sunday, Dreidel and I are supposed to participate in our bi-weekly pack walk, but the weather forecast currently calls for -10F windchill so... sleeping in under some heavy blankets might win out. 

Stay warm, friends!  Enjoy your weekend!

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