Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Day

Christmas Day was a quiet affair this year at the house, just the 4 of us, and probably the first time that the twins GOT what was going on, Santa and presents and all that. Even though I came to the parenthood game quite late in life, I finally have gotten to experience that insane childhood joy of Christmas morning. I am truly blessed. Truly.

Lots of Leap Frog toys for them, a remote control red racecar, an enormous Thomas the Tank Engine train set for Ben, a big pink treasure chest of princess costumes for the Fairy Princess Sophie, and all those boring clothes that the kids quickly open and just as quickly toss aside.

Queen (more on her later) scored a bunch of workout clothes and a new Coach wallet from the kids, and I scored some much needed workout socks, loungewear and a gorgeous bottle of Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon. Can't wait to taste that amber nectar.
Made a traditional Christmas ham overnight, keeping alive a tradition that my father so very much enjoyed on Xmas Eve. Mustard-brown sugar glaze, a really good ham, too.

Christmas with the whole extended Pawlak clan was scheduled for the 27th at my brother Bob's house on Long Island. Mom's making gnocchis!!! More about that in my next post.

Seven Fishes Dinner Recap

As I mentioned in a previous post below, we are blessed, truly blessed , to be invited every year to a Seven Fishes Dinner on Christmas Eve, hosted by Joe and Sandy Attanasi and their family at their home in Cranford, NJ. It is an Abruzzi-style marathon of impressive food without equal, and Joe Attanasi, the patriarch of the family, does almost all of the cooking for the dinner, with help from his son, Joe and me. Joe Sr. has kept alive this family tradition for Xmas Eve for over 20 years, tracing his experience back to childhood when his grandparents prepared and served the dinner. Joe's parents kept the tradition uninterrupted, and Joe has kept the string of dinners a constant in his family.

Most years I have provided an eggplant parmesan to the menu, other years I've also prepared one of the fish courses. This year's diiner, attended by a flowing group of 16 or so, was a smaller gathering than many of the previous years, but the dishes were spectacular.
We always begin with drinks (Joe Jr. brought a nice cooler of microbrews including Geary's Hampshire Ale, Troegs Hopback Amber, Sierra Nevada Celebration and Abita Turbo Dog , if I recall correctly), assorted salamis, crackers and cheeses, and then, once everyone has arrived, sit down to bracingly fresh jumbo shrimp cocktail. That opener is followed by linguine with clam sauce, a lusty version with garlicky, herb flecked sauce and plenty of clams. Despite the awareness that so much more food is eminent, the is the one course where many people have second helpings. Strange, I know, but it's the best damn linguine with clam sauce I'VE ever had.
The next course was stunning in its simplicity: baked cod filets, marinated in sesame oil and lemon and dusted with paprika, the fresh , clean cod was firm, the marinade was subtle and that paprika dust tied it together. best fish of the night, hands down. Next came salmon filets with a soy-lemon pepper glaze that balanced the richness of the salmon very well. Next came out a very nice version of eggplant parmesan made by a local Italian food market, the eggplant sliced razor thin and wafered around a judicious amount of tomato sauce and cheese.
Tilapia in a panko crust was next, and the filets were the largest, thickest tilapia cuts I've ever seen (Joe sourced the tilapia at Costco, he confided)! Their shape and size helped the thin panko crust retain a lot of moisture in the fish, so the tilapia was surprisingly moist, and was sereved up with some homemade tartar sauce. For the next course, I prepared my recipe for Shrimp all Ajillo, posted previously here, and I tweked it with roasted red peppers and green peas and served it over steamed white rice. I notched the heat up a bit, closer to the original Spanish recipe, and a few folks found it a bit too spicy, but they didn't exactly stop eating it either.
Next came three cold seafood salads: bacala salad with hot cherry peppers and garlic, prepared by Joe Jr., scungili salad with shiitake mushrooms, and octopus salad with lemon and olive oil, the latter two made by Joe Sr. The heat and garlic elevels of the bacala salad put my shrimp dish to shame, but it was a dangerously delicious dish to eat. The scungili and mushrooms are a good pairing, very earthy and sweet. The octopus salad was tart and chewy and a lot of fun, a new addition to the cold salad course.

After a bit of a break from all that dining, the women in the family bring out a prodigious array of desserts and cookies, from traditional Xmas cookies to cheesecakes and carrot cake, pies and tarts, even rice pudding, all of it completely overwhelming. But the lively conversation assuages most of the guilt and it always seems like I try way too many desserts.

And you'd think we would be done with that, but, um, no. AFTER dessert comes fresh slices of scamorze (dry mozzerella), salami and prosciutto, and cordials or wine for nightcaps. We started at 6:30 PM. We left at 12:30AM. This is serious eating. And the biggest best, most glorious meal I eat all year

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


These first few weeks of my blog have been amazing, and the response and feedback I've gotten have been the best Xmas presents I could have ever hoped for.

I wish for you a great holiday, friends and family, warmth and comfort and lotsa laughs under the tree, under the covers, and, of course in the kitchen and at the table.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Carrots in my Beer

Finally got to have a Philadelphia Brewing Co. Rowhouse Red, during a quick holiday stop into McGillin's Old Ale House in center city Philly. Veteran bartender John Doyle, dressed in a Santa suit and just bombarded with banter from the crowd at the bar, served me up my pint, and I tried to forget something that beer writer Lew Bryson said in our previous night's beer chat in the No Bull Inn (, 11:30PM EST Fridays), namely that he thought Rowhouse Red tasted like carrots!
Well it only took one sip, and, unfortunately, I have to agree with him. Carrots aplenty. And no matter how many sips I had, that flavor note stayed on my palate. Power of suggestion? Maybe, but not likely. I've enjoyed PBC's Kenzsiger and Newbold IPA, and I really like the folks at PBC, but what's with the carrots in Rowhouse Red???

A quick half glass of water (my constant companion when enjoying a good brew in a bar), and I had Doyle pour me a Penn St Nikolas . Ah Christmas!

Beer and Food Pairings

I love pairing good beer with good food; it's just pure magic when the flavors marry and dance together in the mouth. Over the years I've discovered, and been told about some really good beer food pairings, and I'd love to hear about yours. Here are some of mine, along with some pairings suggested by some beer friends whose palates I really respect:

Red Hook IPA and an Italian hoagie (from Mike Gates, Haddonfield, NJ)

Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale and a plate of nachos

Victory Hop Devil and Thai curries

Maredsous 8 and creme brulee (Bob Rescinito, Oklahoma City, OK)

Ommegang Brown Ale and creme brulee

Saranac Caramel Porter and Amish sourdough pretzels

Yuengling Porter and beef stew

Guinness Stout and oysters

Victory Prima Pils or Pilsner Urqell and Sechuan Chinese food

Sierra Nevada Celebration and a thick grilled steak

Spaten Oktoberfest and pork chops braised with apples and cabbage

Rolling Rock and pizza

Tsing Tsao and red gravy Italian, like lasagna and/or linguine and meatballs

Troegs Troeginator Dopplebock and braised lamb shank over polenta

Troegs Mad Elf and Christmas cookies!

One Guy Brewing Cinnamon Boldy and apple fritters (Lew Bryson, Newtown, PA)

Hefeweizen and Indian cuisine (Tom Cizauskas, Baltimore, MD)

A bowl of spicy chili and Boulevard Brewing's Bob's 47 (Bob Rescinito, Oklahoma City, OK)

A Christmas ham sandwich and Saranac Season's Best Nut Brown Lager

A NJ Italian hot dog and Grolsch lager (John Fox, Union, NJ)

OK, I've started the list, now I want to hear YOUR pairings!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Feasts of the Seven Fishes

I've been attending a knock-0ut marathon Feast of the Seven Fishes in North Jersey for over 10 years now, put on by our dear friends, the Attanasi family, and it's always one of the greatest culinary experiences of the year---a true food orgy in the fashion of Abruzzeze cooking. Last year at this time I penned an article for a local magazine that discussed the growing proliferation of Seven Fishes Dinners across the Delaware Valley, and this year's roster of restaurants offering thie special kind of meal is growing by the day. I just received a press release that heralds one of the more attractively affordable Seven Fishes menus I've seen so far, from Chick's Wine Bar in Philly. Chick's has become quite famous in the last year for its cocktail, wine and beer selection, under the stewardship of my friend and legendary bartendrix, Katie Loeb, but the kitchen at cozy Chick's is no slouch either.

Here's their Feast of the Seven Fishes menu for this Christmas Eve:

Chicks Cafe and Wine Bar

Seven Fishes Dinner

Wednesday, December 24th
Seatings from 5-8 pm

Antipasto Trio:
Boquerone Crostini
Calamari Fritto
Lobster Bisque
Tagliatelle Pasta with Grilled Shrimp and Scallop
Pan Seared Red Snapper
Leek, tomato and mussel broth with fingerling potatoes and haricot verts
You may choose from our dessert menu
$45 * tax and gratuity not included
* must be ordered by the entire table
Optional wine pairings available for $30
Chicks Cafe and Wine Bar
614 South Seventh St.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147
This menu is available for TAKEOUT from MAIA, the spectacular, hybrid restaurant/lounge/market/bistro in Villanova, courtesy of their super PR agency, Dish Public Relations:
Feast of the Seven Fishes
75. per person, minimum order for 4 people
Items can also be ordered separately as an addition to your holiday feast.
calamari salad, nicoise olive, romaine, herbs, parmesan
maia norwegian smoked salmon, red onions, lemon, cornichon
shrimp cocktail, cocktail sauce
maryland jumbo crab cake
new england clam chowder
blue bay mussels, white beans, escarole salad
lobster pot pie, winter vegetables,
creamy lobster bisque
Orders for the Feast of the 7 Fishes and holiday pies must be placed by Monday, December 22nd and picked up by 2pm on Christmas Eve.
789 East Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA
I'll try to post as many truly interesting and high quality Seven Fishes Dinner menus from local restaurants as my investigative abilities and time will allow. If you know of a really good one at a local restaurant (or nay restaurant where you are reading this), please drop me a line and I will inlcude in this thread.

Monday, December 15, 2008

12 Pound Beef Stew

Here's my stab at finding a silver lining in almost everything.

Full-time daddyship of the twins has taken me out of circulation for the most part, so instead of writing about restaurants, I'm writing more about what I'm cooking at home. I won't begin to chronicle every damn thing I make; not every dinner is a winner, nor even that interesting. But every once in a while I stumble upon a success (like the previous posts about garlic shrimp and tzatziki) that I want to share.

The winter winds are already here, despite the weird fluctuations in New Jersey weather. So out comes the big soup and stew pots, and it's a Sunday afternoon of chopping veggies and football on the radio.

I make big pots of beef stew a lot during the cold weather months. It's a 2-3 hour project that pays dividends for a couple of weeks. It contains no flour (I made it this way even before the Queen discovered she was gluten-allergic, more about her later) but makes a terrific gravy, it reheats easily, the kids seem to like it (Sophie doesn't care for the beef sometimes, I can never figure out why) and this version looks great on the plate (I'll get a photo done, I promise).

And the recipe is easy to remember: 3 pounds of cubed beef, 3 pounds of onions, 3 pounds of carrots, 3 pounds of potatoes---the 12 pounds. Everything else in the recipe is the end result of years of tweaking and playing with other accent ingredients. Sourcing a jar of Herbes de Provence, with which the meat is seasoned, does add a terrific flavor to the whole dish, but you can also use Italian Seasoning mix, or an herb mix of your own design. Play with it like I did. But it's the symetry of those 4 kitchen staples that make this stew sing. So turn on the radio and start choppin'!

3-4 tbs olive oil
3 lbs stew beef, trimmed and cut into small cubes
3 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced to taste
3 lbs onions, roughly chopped
3 lbs white, red or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut like beef
3-4 tbs Herbes de Provence
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 dried bay leaves
12 oz btl beer, preferably porter or stout
1 bunch flat parsley, chopped
6 oz Dijon mustard

Trim the beef of gristle and as much fat as possible, cut into 3/4-1 inch cubes. Place meat in a large bowl or zip-lock bag and toss with salt , pepper and herb mixture. Allow beef to marinate in refrigerator for 2 hours or as long as overnight. As beef marinates, peel and chop carrots and onions, and peel potatoes. The beef , carrots and onions may be done in advance.

In large dutch oven or stew pot, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Brown beef cubes in 2 batches, remove beef with slotted spoon and place in a bowl. Add onions and carrots, toss in the oil that remains in the pot, and stir frequently until carrots begin to soften and onions are glistening.

Return beef cubes to pot and combine with vegetables. Add bay leaves and porter/stout. Yuengling and Sierra Nevada porters work well, as does Sierra Nevada, Guiness, Beamish or Murphy's stout. Stir to circulate beer and evenly mix the meat and veggies. Raise heat to high and add water to the pot to a level 1-1.5 inches above the mixture. Cover the pot and heat to a vigorous simmer. Remove the lid and lower heat to medium. Simmer for at least 1 hour. Add peeled, cubed potatoes and stir to blend all ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes more. Add chopped parsley and stir in. Add mustard and stir in. Simmer 20-30 minutes more, until sufficiently thickened.

Ladle into warm bowls. Serve with a green salad, cucumber-tomato salad and some crusty bread. And some pints of porter!

TWEAKS/VARIATIONS: Add 1-2 lbs of acorn or butternut squash, cubed, and then that much less potatoes or carrots. Use 12 oz of red table wine in place of beer. Use spicy brown or horseradish mustard instead of Dijon mustard.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shrimp al Ajillo

For over 3 years I've been making a shrimp dish whose recipe I skimmed from a New York Times Magazine article that was a kind of meditation on garlic. It's a simple shrimp dish, very much like the garlicky shrimp found in tapas bars all over Spain, and now found in all of the Iberian-themed restaurants that have been sprouting up all over Philadelphia. I've found the best versions of this dish at Amada restaurant in Philly, and the Spanish Tavern in Newark, NJ's Ironbound neighborhood. And over the past three years, I've tweaked the dish, adding diced green peppers on one occasion, scallions and parsley on another, upping the garlic sometimes, ramping up the heat at other times. But last night, I think I found the best version to date, adding green peas and diced roasted red peppers. Total time for preparation and execution is about 30 minutes, depending on the starch you choose to serve with the shrimp. If you make this for a party, a day of football or just potluck somewhere, you're talking 15 minutes start to finish. It's the simplest dish to prepare that you could ever imagine.

Owing to its heritage, it will always go well with a nice, dry fino sherry. But it also pairs well with a German or Washington State riesling, an Oregon or California syrah or even petite syrah, as well as any good Oregon pinot noir. I recently opened a bottle of Kaiken Ultra Malbec from Argentina with this shrimp, and the two danced beautifully together. A crisp pilsner, from Brooklyn Brewing, Victory, Stoudt's or Pilsner Urquell will also pair superbly with this shrimp. But be forewarned: this stuff is scarily addictive. 2 pounds may not be enough.

1 c olive oil
3 tbs chopped garlic, or more to taste
2 lbs medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 tsp Tabasco or other hot sauce, to taste
1 tsp sweet or hot paprika, to taste

1 c finely diced red and green peppers, scallions, carrots or onions (optional)
1/2 c chopped parsley (optional)

Heat a large lidded wok or dutch oven over low to medium heat. When the pot is hot add olive oil and garlic; cook until garlic softens but do not brown, about 2 minutes.
Raise the heat and add the shrimp; stir and saute for about 2 minutes, until all start to turn pink.
Sprinkle in the pepper flakes, hot sauce and paprika. Season with salt to taste. Cover the wok or pot and reduce heat to low. Cook until the shrimp are firm and opaque, about 5 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust heat to your taste. Transfer to a warm bowl. Serve by itself or with fried potatoes, white or saffron rice.
TWEAK NOTE: Add 1 cup of finely diced veggies like peppers, carrots, scallions or onions, or a cup of cooked peas when you add the pepper flakes, hot sauce and paprika, and gently stir into shrimp. Add chopped parsley in the final minute of cooking, if no chopped veggies are being added, or if you just like more color.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oxymoron of the Week: Gluten-Free Pizza

Dr. Al Pasia, the primary physician for the Queen (more on her later) told her last week that he discovered a pizza parlor that made a very good gluten-free pizza, so, given the Queen's allergy to gluten, we quickly headed down to Bordentown, NJ to a small roadside pizzeria called PALERMO'S (674 Highway 206 South--just north of the famous Mastoris diner; (609) 298-6771). This is the original location of a three-shop local chain; we'd been eating at their newest, third location in Ewing, NJ (1292 Lower Ferry Rd; (609) 883-0700) since it opened; it was a convenient dinner stop after a summer day of swimming at our swim club with the kids (very kid friendly, good version of Trenton tomato pie, great pasta fagioli soup--the kids' favorite--and above-average contemporary Italian cooking).
Now I'm a total sucker for Trenton tomato pie. The best version of pizza in the country, IMHO. So I was psyched for some Palermo's tomato pie and I was very curious how they'd pull off a gluten free pie. According to the Bordentown manager, they buy gluten-free shells from a supplier, top 'em however the customer wants and bake 'em. I only sampled a couple of bites of the gluten-free pepperoni mushroom pie the Queen ordered, but it was surprisingly good, a corn-based pizza shell that looked pretty much like an average pizza, but the crust had good flavor, was heavier than a typical pizza crust, but not so much that you might discern a major difference. It was a good foil for Palermo's slighty sweet, chunky tomato sauce, which I think happens to make their tomato pie one of the better ones in the Trenton area.
Good waitstaff at Palermo's in Bordentown , too; they had fun with the kids (spaghetti and meatballs for them, and bites of my tomato pie and salad), checked with them to make sure they were eating, and brought their food out very quickly; always makes major points with me!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riding the Red Rocket

For my weekly visit to the No Bull Inn on, the weekly online beer chat session that I've been visiting for over 10 years now (Friday nights starting at 11:30PM) , I opened a 22 oz bottle of Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale, a hoppy "bastardized Scottish style red ale (another red ale!)" and it was, um, agressively delicious.

The pour: dark red color, lumpy pillowy khaki colored head, peaty whiskey aroma. And some SERIOUS hopping going on, with lots of bitterness on the sides of the tongue, meaty malt in the middle. It's a bottle conditioned beer and it was lively, with a smooth mouthfeel. Nice beer, but quite a handful. Maybe best drunk with some pretzels or some hummus and pita even. It's only 6.8%ABV, but it FEELS like it packs a whallop.