Sunday, November 18, 2007

Eric & Micah Eat Cheesesteaks

My friend Micah Engber and I have enjoyed many a good meal together. We found ourselves in Philadelphia earlier this fall. I mentioned that I had never had a cheesesteak sandwich in Philadelphia, so Micah said he'd take me to both Geno's and Pat's, the two most famous purveyors of cheesesteak, across the street from each other. Pat's claims to have invented the sandwich.

Aficionados will claim one is better than the other, or that there are better purveyors in Philly than these pioneers.

We decided to do an apples to apples comparison. At each place we had a basic sandwich with just steak, onions and cheese. We chose Whiz at both stands, although it appeared more like melted American cheese than something shot from a pressurized can.

We enjoyed both, but discerned no difference between them. heresy, I know. Micah's Mom, Harriett, joined us and took these photos.

From Micah:

Both use rib eye (Delmonico) steak, sliced thin for their cheese steaks. Geno's never claimed to be the creator of the sandwich, they just claim to make a better sandwich then Pat's.

They each use different styles of grill keeping. While Geno's keeps there grill immaculately clean, and free from grease, Pat's keeps their grill covered with grease from the previous sandwiches. Both claim that it makes for a better taste. Both are also supposed to be open 24/7 -365.

The other big rivalry is between Pat's King of Steaks and Rick's Philly Steaks. I heard the story on FoodTV but took this part from Wikepedia to save time in toying it all out.

"Pat's King of Steaks is the original shop opened by Pasquale "Pat" Olivieri and his brother, Harry. Harry's grandson, Frank, owns Pat's. Pat's grandson, Rick, owns Rick's Original Philly Steaks at Reading Terminal Market.

Pat's son, Herbert (Rick's father), expanded the business by opening franchises of Pat's King of Steaks. In the 1980's, the Olivieris split up the business. Harry and Frank Sr. kept the original location, Herbert ("King" Pat's son) opened Olivieri's Prince of Steaks in Reading Terminal Market. Herbert's son Rick renamed it "Rick's" in the mid-1990s, still using the crown logo and mentioning his grandfather, Pat Olivieri.

In October 2006, Pat's sued Rick's, alleging trademark infringement, trademark dilution and unfair competition, based on the use of the crown logo and the name "Pat Olivieri"."

I've made cheesesteaks at home.

My method is to thinly slice a relatively inexpensive cut of steak such as round and fry the slices in a cast iron pan, seasoning liberally with kosher salt. I use 1/4 pound per person.

Separately, I saute sliced (not chopped) onions and green peppers until soft. Quantity is based on how you wish to balance the vegetables with the meat and cheese.

For cheese, I use yellow American -- the actual cheese, not cheese food or process cheese food, and melt it in the microwave. I use two slices per sandwich.

The roll is always a supermarket brand soft sub roll.

I've made these as part of a party spread and cut each roll into three or four pieces.

A great tarted up steak sandwich is the Number 9 at D'Angelo, a sandwich chain in New England. I once had one when dining with a girlfriend. As chunks of food fell out of the sandwich and juices ran down my chin she said, "You're making a spectacle of yourself!" Indeed I did.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hatch Chiles

Hatch Chiles roasting at Cherry Creek Farmer's Market, Denver

This time last year I posted about the wonderful peaches from Colorado's western slope that may be the best in the world.

Hatch Chiles are another fantastic food that comes this time of year.

These come from Hatch, New Mexico and are roasted locally throughout New Mexico and parts of Colorado. You'll find them at roadside stands and farmer's markets.

The smell of roasting chiles is intoxicating. I generally buy mild peppers (what they call "mild" around here is what easterners call "medium"). I've made pork green chile stew with them. Mostly I use them in omelets or on sandwiches. But to some degree I buy them just so the vendors will keep coming back so I can smell the peppers roasting again.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When In Cincinnati...

My 5-way in Cincinnati

One of the great remaining strictly regional foods in America is Cincinnati Chili. Created by Greek immigrants in the early 1900s, it has no relation to Tex-Mex chili.

It's served over spaghetti, with grated cheddar on top, and in between -- optionally -- are red beans and onions.

My favorite place to have it is Skyline Chili, a chain of diner style restaurants. I had one night in Cincy this week and enjoyed a dish of 5-way for the first time in years.

If you'd like to try it at home, I know there are recipes on the net, but the one I've made with great results was by Jane and Michael Stern in their wonderful book, Square Meals.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Casa Mono

A couple of years ago, my friend and co-worker Dan invited an industry friend and me to join him for dinner at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship restaurant in New York. It was the meal of a lifetime and I wrote about it here.

Earlier this year, we were in New York together again and dined at another restaurant that Batali is a partner in, Casa Mono. This is a tapas restaurant, whose birth is described in the book Heat. Chef Andy Nusser wanted to create a Barcelona-style taverna.

Since it's been some months, my memory of the specific dishes we enjoyed is not as sharp as when I wrote about Babbo. But all of the ten or twelve plates we had were exquisite.

I remember chipirones, tiny little squid served with white beans, duck egg with potatoes, broiled mushrooms, razor clams, skirt steak with an onion melange. If you don't love garlic and salt, stay away!

Of course, they have a fantastic wine list, and while certainly not inexpensive, Dan chose a couple of Spanish wines that were better than any I had enjoyed, both under $100. Most of the plates are in the $11-15 range. So an expansive dinner such as we had does add up. But alternatively, a couple could have four plates and a glass of wine each and get out for $100 including tax and tip. For this quality of dining in Manhattan, that's a deal.

Pork Rib Technique

I've been trying different techniques for grilling/smoking pork ribs and finally hit on something I really liked.

Since first making my Hickory Maple sauce, I haven't tried anything as good. I do have some recipes not yet tried, but the family and I like this one so much we have no incentive to change. But sauce does not make the dish alone. It's really just the finishing touch.

For some time I've used one method or another of cooking the ribs before they hit the grill, including boiling and baking. There are two advantages to pre-cooking. I think you can get a better result in the end, and it saves time, because you're cooking them while the coals are heating. Yesterday, I steamed them, and that got me the perfect result I've been seeking.

I filled the bottom of a big pot with water, dropped in a vegetable steamer, covered it and set the flame to high. I went outside and lit the charcoal. Back inside, I covered the ribs liberally with a dry rub. It was the last of a rub I had been using for some months, and I'm embarrassed to say I don't know where I got the recipe -- I'll hunt through my cookbooks for it, because it was pretty good.

By then the water was boiling. I was using a full rack of spare ribs which I had cut in half. They fit in the pot with one somewhat on top of the other. The steam cooked off lots of excess fat, and made the dry rub into a paste that stuck to the ribs.

When the coals were ready -- in about 30 minutes -- I removed the ribs from the pot and let them drip off. I spread the coals for direct grilling. I skipped my usual step of adding soaked hickory chips to the coals, but as the sauce includes Liquid Smoke, I knew I'd get some hickory flavor.

I put the ribs on the grill, covered it and closed the top vents halfway to retain smoke. After 10 minutes, I turned the ribs and mopped on some white vinegar with hot pepper flakes. Returning the cover, I now opened the vents. In 10 more minutes, I turned the ribs and repeated. The ribs were nicely blackened but not overly charred. Five minutes later, I brushed on some sauce, turned the ribs and brushed sauce on the other side. Just a minute or two on each side with the cover off produced a nice glaze.

I put the ribs on a cutting board and returned to the kitchen. With a carving knife (and I plan to buy a cleaver), I trimmed the rack to produce St. Louis cut ribs. If you order spare ribs in a restaurant, chances are that's how you'll get them. You do this by removing the unwieldy section at the top of the rack that is difficult to slice through as well as the tip of the rack, so that you're left with ribs of a fairly consistent length.

I'm sure there is correct terminology for this, but what it left me with was a nearly uncuttable long bone that had run perpendicular to the ribs and a number of chunks that I separated into tasty morsels, along with the small ribs at the end of the rack.

Arranging all the pieces on a platter, I brushed some more sauce on top. They were the best ribs we've ever had. Moist inside and crispy on the top and bottom. The St. Louis portion of the rack was also fairly lean.

I would also say that meat quality makes a difference. I find the ribs purchased at Whole Foods significantly better in taste and texture than the ones I used to buy at Sam's Club. But they are perhaps twice as expensive. For now, we've decided we'd rather have naturally raised meat, and if it means having ribs a bit less often, so be it.


I imagine most cooking enthusiasts have at times imagined working in a restaurant or even owning one.

I've had several restaurant concepts, though have always realized I would be ill-suited to actually work in a restaurant.

Nothing has ever brought the reality of the restaurant cooking experience to life for me as well as the book Heat by Bill Buford.

When it came out, this book gained notoriety as an expose about Mario Batali. But it's really not that at all. Yes, Batali plays a major role in it, but really this is the story of one man's search to know food in a way it can only be known by hands on experience in the kitchen with great cooks, or in one case, a butcher.

Buford is a superb writer, and this book was by turns visceral, funny and heartwarming. As much as it made even clearer that restaurant cooking is very hard work, it made me wish even more that I was suited to it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More Maine Food

Continuing my Maine visit, I made two more coastal food stops. One was Five Islands Lobster Co. Located at the town wharf with a view of islands and marina. I had never been there, but it was mentioned by Jane & Michael Stern in the current issue of Gourmet. They raved about the lobster.

For some reason, I felt that eating a lobster is a social activity, so being solo I had a lobster roll. It had lots of really tasty lobster meat and no mayo at all, so I mostly skipped the roll and just picked out the chunks of meat. As accompaniment, I had onion rings, cole slaw and a bottle of Moxie, one of the oldest brands of soda still made, and hard to find outside of Maine. It's rather medicinal tasting, but I like to have one every couple of years.

As with many of the old places, you go to the building where they cook the lobsters for lobsters and steamers (steamed clams), and to a separate place for everything else. In this case, the Love Nest Snack Bar.

The next day I sneaked in one more waterside meal at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster in Freeport, one of my old haunts. It's also located at a town wharf. I had a serving of steamers followed by one of my old favorite lunches, a clamburger with onion rings. A clamburger is a clam cake (chopped clams and breading made into a disk and fried) on a bun. The onion rings at Harraseeket are my favorite. Although I prefer my clams in crumbs, I like my rings in batter. I enjoyed these much more than the rings at Five Islands. I got so much into the food I forgot to take a picture until I was nearly done.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Clam Up!

Planning a quick trip to Maine, I was as anxious to enjoy some of my favorite foods as I was to see the ocean. Fortunately, there are some places where you can do both. One of the best is the Lobster Shack near Portland.

I first ate at the Lobster Shack 30 years ago, and I think nothing has changed except, of course, the prices. The years I lived in Maine, we would always go opening weekend which was around my birthday.

Last night's dinner was a clam plate. There has always been controversy as to whether fried clams should be made with batter or crumbs. I come down firmly on the crumbs side, and so does the Shack. The french fries are frozen crinkle cuts. But the cole slaw is home made with a light dressing of mayo and the secret ingredient, pineapple juice. I like that you can fill your own cups of tartar sauce.

Arriving at 7:15 on a Sunday evening, I was served at 8:00. The order line remained long until just before official closing time at 8. But waiting here is not a problem considering the scenery.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Maine Italian

Pictured above is a "Real Italian" from Amato's sandwich shop in Maine. The Maine "Italian" is one of those few remaining true regional foods.

It's claimed that a man named Amato created this sandwich about 100 years ago, selling them to fellow immigrants working the docks in Portland.

I'm sure it has evolved over the years, but today's standard version, same as when I moved to Portland 30 years ago, consists of:

a very soft bun
a thin layer of boiled ham (I'll bet Mr. Amato used salami)
a thin layer of mild provolone
sour pickle spears
tomato wedges
green pepper slices
black olive halves
salt, pepper, oil

One thing that makes it very different from most subs is that there is a lot more vegetable matter than meat and cheese. Its simplicity is its elegance and appeal.

The Italian pictured above -- which I order sans olives -- was enjoyed on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth, just down the road from an Amato's location in Scarborough.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Joy of Tri-Tip

Tri-tip is a cut of beef from the bottom sirloin that was created in a supermarket in Santa Maria, California, in the late 1950s.

Now when I say "created," it's not as if the butchers there made meat where there had been none. Instead, they took a portion of the sirloin that was not a standard cut and had been used for ground meat and tried it out. Turned out to be very tasty and tender.

It's remarkably easy to prepare on the grill, and after trying several methods, I've found the "classic" Santa Maria preparation to be my favorite.

The trickiest part of tri-tip is finding it if you're not on the west coast. The only place I have been able to purchase it, either in the East or in Colorado, is Sam's Club (I'm not a Costco member, so don't know if they might have it. No supermarket or butcher shop I've been into has it, nor have most heard of it.

There are two ways to buy tri-tip: The full roast, which is around two pounds, or cut into long strips, which I would guess are good for making into kebabs. But I only buy the full roast.

My first tri-tip experience was at a county fair in Bozeman, Montana. The food court there had a stand called "Tri-tip Kitchen." They weren't very busy. I went there and told them I had always wanted to try it, so I had a sandwich and it was really good. The proprietors were from California and said they noticed that not many people at the fair knew what tri-tip was. Unfortunately, the word "tri-tip" looks somewhat like "tripe" on first reading. Perhaps by now they've changed their sign to read "Steak Sandwiches."

I think the following recipe was taken whole from one of the many good web pages on tri-tip, but I can't remember which, so apologize to the author.

Charcoal Grilled Tri-Tip with Santa Maria Rub recipe

1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1-1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder or granules

Apply a thick coat of rub to the roast 30minutes to two hours before grilling.

Soak some hickory chips for 30 minutes. Arrange the coals for indirect heat. Place roast on the grill, drain chips and sprinkle on the coals and cover grill with vents open.

Grill meat for 30 minutes, turning after 15.

Check temperature -- 130 degrees is ideal.

Let the meat rest on a cutting board, tented with foil, for 10 minutes. Slice 1/4 inch thick, against the grain.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Fave Eats

Responding to a meme for my 5 favorite places to eat. It's dang hard to come up with just five, but let's see what happens...

Sammy's Romanian Steakhouse - New York
Much more than its name implies, this is a Jewish Experience. It's like going to a Bar Mitzvah in the Catskills. The menu includes most of the "K" foods -- kishke, kreplach, kasha varnishkes. But the steaks are amazing. Giant strip steaks with an indescribably delicious Romanian marinade. And to dip your bread? Not butter. Not olive oil. But schmaltz. Yes, liquefied chicken fat. Yum! Order Vodka and you'll be served a bottle of Absolut frozen in a block of ice, left at your table in a tub, just like champagne. Remember those old-fashioned seltzer bottles? There's one on your table. When you're done with the main course, your waitress will bring milk and Fox's U-Bet Chocolate Syrup. Those in the know will then mix their own egg creams (no egg, no cream, but it's nectar from heaven) to enjoy with a plate of rugulach. I forgot to mention the entertainment. Depending on the night, you might find a fellow who looks like Bobby Vinton singing and playing Jewish favorites and standards on a keyboard. The owner is the guy with the gold chains, a glass of wine in his hand and bawdy comments at the ready. Not to be missed! Leave your business card on the wall and buy a souvenir T-shirt.

Katz's Delicatessen - New York
One of the few authentic Jewish deli's left, this one is atypical. It is set up cafeteria style. You go to the counter, and a counterman makes your sandwich. Order your corned beef or pastrami on club bread for a great alternative to the ubiquitous rye. Enjoy the decor, which includes hanging salamis and a sign dating to W.W.II that urges you to "send a salami to your boy in the Army" (in New York, that rhymes). See my post from a 2005 visit.

Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles - Hollywood and other L.A. area locations
The name just about says it all. This combination works. Roscoe's is a specialized kind of soul food joint. You'll be greeted by a friendly security guard/mâitre d'. The menu is mostly various combinations of fried chicken and waffles. The chicken is wonderfully breaded and fried, available with or without gravy. The waffles are tender and fluffy. A side order of collard greens cuts through the heaviness of the gravy and syrup.

Billy Goat Tavern - Chicago
Many times, I've walked up Michigan Avenue just north of the Chicago River (one of my favorite spots in any city) and not noticed the sign for the Billy Goat. This time, my friend spotted it and we went down the stairs to a lower level on which cross streets run, to see what it was. Immediately on entering, I realized the import of our discovery. The Saturday Night sketch about a Greek burger joint - "Cheeborger, cheeborger . . . no fries, cheeps . . . no Pepsi, Coke." - was a take-off on the Billy Goat! It was a great cheeborger! I got a double, because the counterman refused to sell me a single. It is served on a piece of wax paper which you take to a fixin' station with onions, pickles, relish and condiments, and then carry to your table. Alert the historic preservation society; the Billy Goat must always stand!

Café du Monde - New Orleans
Enjoy fresh squeezed orange juice, that wonderful New Orleans chicory coffee, and beignets at this open air cafe near the waterfront. Beignets are incredibly wonderful, square, donut-like delicacies that are pummeled with powdered sugar. Most mornings, local street musicians will provide a jazz serenade.

OK, I can't stop at five...

Two Lights Lobster Shack - Cape Elizabeth, Maine
When visiting Maine between late April and early October, enjoy this classic seaside seafood experience. A beautiful, rocky setting just south of Portland. Lobsters, lobster rolls, great lobster stew, fried clams, shrimp or fish. Get a basket with fries, and cole slaw that has a hint of pineapple juice. Dine inside or out.

Arthur Bryant's - Kansas City
In a city known for its barbecue, this place ranks at the top. First finding national fame in Calvin Trillin's writings in the New Yorker, Bryant's has not been ruined by its celebrity. The key to its success is a uniquely flavored, grainy sauce. Get on line and be served whopping portions of ribs and fixin's on a metal tray. Enjoy your meal in decor that looks like a men's room, but is otherwise pleasant.

Yocco's - Allentown, PA.
There are few local/regional fast food joints of distinction left in America, and Yocco's is one. Their specialty is chili dogs. A standard "Yocco's" is a well-done dog in a steamed bun with mustard, chopped onions and homemade chili sauce. I recommend asking for pickles and (banana) peppers. Instead of fries, order fried potato pierogies -- sort of an Eastern European ravioli. Dig their logo which shows an angry hot dog wearing a crown eating...a hot dog.

Brennan's - New Orleans
In the best dining-out city in America, Brennan's has a special place in my heart. This is where I had the most amazing breakfast in my life, and I love breakfast! The specialty is poached eggs and omelets in many varieties, done to perfection. Have turtle soup as an opener and finish with Bananas Foster (this is where it was invented) made tableside. Make reservations, dress well, and plan to spend more than you ever thought breakfast could cost. Just do it.

Lawry's Prime Rib - Chicago, Las Vegas, L.A.
A relic of a bygone age (like the 40's!), with waitresses identified as "Miss Soandso," none of the first-name-phony-familiarity that's run rampant. With the exception of one fish dish, they serve prime rib and prime rib only. Choose from a selection of cuts, carved tableside from a Buck Rogers-ish chrome cart. Salads are served from a bowl that your waitress spins by hand as she drizzles Lawry's salad dressing (a spicy French type) into it. Sadly, they no longer bottle the dressing; you used to be able to take some home. Yes, this is the restaurant that invented Lawry's seasoned salt.

Buckhorn Exchange - Denver
A real man's eating establishment, but women are invited, too. The oldest restaurant in Denver at 100+. A kind view of the decor, for non-hunters, is that it's like a visit to the Museum of Natural History. In other words, taxidermy abounds in a setting of rich hardwood. The menu features elk, buffalo, rocky mountain oysters and other game. Preparation and presentation are superb, and the food tastes wonderful, not gamy at all. This is the kind of place to which a gentleman will want to wear a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, though I don't think there's an official dress code.

Phillippe's the Original - Los Angeles
Phillipe's feels like a trip back to the 1940's, but the place is actually older. Founded in 1908, they claim to have created the French Dip sandwich in 1918 by inadvertantly dropping a roast beef sandwich in the gravy. The customer who accepted the soggy meal came back with friends for more, and a menu item was born. Also born was a verbal travesty as other places serve the gravy on the side and refer to their sandwiches as being served "with au jus." You want to upset the French, that's all you need. Me, I'll take the tasty soggy sandwich along with great sides -- cole slaw, served dry, medium or wet, macaroni salad with lots of pickle relish, an outstanding kosher dill pickle, beet-pickled eggs and pickled pig's feet. My friends also tried and liked the beef stew. And you can get dipped sandwiches with lamb or other meats instead of beef. Beer, wine and rich desserts also available. The 1940's feel probably comes from the uniforms of the (counter) servers and the signage.

AQ Chicken House - Springdale, AR.
Just a town away from Wal-Mart HQ is another stuck-in-time eatery. They make pan-fried chicken and I've never had any nearly as good. A chicken dinner with sides and ice tea ran about $14 including tip just a few years ago.

I knew I couldn't do just five!

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I've been making meatballs for more than 20 years now. I learned from my first wife who learned from her mother. I've made a few adjustments over the years and for the first time have written down a recipe so I can produce the same result consistently.

I often had a problem with the meatballs falling apart. The secret is the right amount of binder (eggs and bread crumbs), but I also found it helped to omit chopped onions and use onion powder or granules instead.

There are 66 cute little meatballs cooking as I write.

Italian Meatballs recipe

4 pounds chopped beef, 85% lean
2 tablespoons onion granules or powder
2 tablespoons garlic granules or powder
2 tablespoons dried parsley
3 tablespoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
4 large eggs
1 cup fine bread crumbs

Combine all ingredients well in a large bowl. Use your hands!

This recipe assumes you have lots of tomato sauce going -- I would make a smooth sauce using two 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes or puree. You just need to get it started simmering.

Roll into balls. I like them about 1-1/2" diameter.

Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan and brown the balls on all sides. Do not overcrowd the pan. Do them in shifts. For this size ball, about a dozen in a large pan at a time is good. Turn them gently with a tablespoon.

Gently lower the balls into the sauce and cook for at least an hour, preferably up to two hours so that meatballs are infused with the tomato flavor. I've had meatballs at too many Italian joints that were not cooked in the sauce, but only covered with it.

Too many leftovers? Freeze them!