Thank You, Passionate People…I Owe You One

Sometimes the world seems cold and heartless.  And sometimes it seems like no matter which way forward you try to take, there’s nothing there but frustration waiting.

But sometimes, our lives are graced with the presence of warmth and goodness and passion – moments we too often squander hastily in some masochistic favor of “the grindstone.”

Luckily, that horrid vapid abomination of a holiday called Valentine’s Day managed to get me thinking about the people around me that spur those moments of almost tangible optimism, most of them so distractedly and unintentionally that it’s hard to appreciate. There are so many people that put so much love into what they do that just being around them and the products of their passionate pursuits makes me feel like there’s something worth living for. And here are just a few of them:

At the South Philadelphia Tap Room, Chefs Scott Schroeder and Mark Regan reign over an ever-evolving menu of specials that keeps it real with classics like fried chicken and eggplant parm, but also delves into the deep dark corners of the culinary world…and that is why I go back again and again and again. Be it head cheese, monkfish liver or just a spectacularly-prepared cevice, Scott and Mark’s dedication to serving fresh, fun, honest, diverse and delicious food has got me hooked. Well, that plus their usually stellar draft list and gang of wicked cool servers. To the SPTR crew: YOU RULE.

I learned a lot during my first visit to Le Virtù. After a long-overdue foray to their cozy bar for wine (yes I drank wine!) and an unbelievable plate of a variety of house-cured salumi, Chef Joe Cicala had the good grace to show us where the magic happens. In the nondescript basement of this quiet Italian oasis, Joe is truly working miracles. Their small in-house salumeria houses row after row of beautifully marbled cuts of meat, each seasoned simply and traditionally (as per Joe’s regular training trips to Abruzzo), dangling tauntingly, aging to perfection. Right there in South Philadelphia. It is a sight to behold. So much love. To the Le Virtù crew: YOU RULE.

Sometimes produce speaks for itself. Sometimes a farmer speaks too. One look at Culton Organic’s produce and one chat with farmer Tom Culton were enough to hook me on this Lancaster farm’s artisan goods. Like the regular table at Headhouse Square wasn’t enough, I was lucky enough to visit the farm, which Tom manages almost single-handedly. His dedication to the preservation of heirloom varietals of game and produce and his almost aggressively frank passion for living with and not on the land (not to mention his impressive collection of colorful satin scarves) is contagious. What a dude and what a farm. To the Culton crew: YOU RULE.

Here are just a handful of the other people and places that make me all warm and fuzzy on the inside because of how much they rule:

  • Catherine and Al Renzi and their dedication to Yellow Springs Farm in Chester County,
  • Jean Broillet and his unwavering commitment to the blossoming Tired Hands Brewing,
  • Marisa McClellan and her amazing preserving and lifestyle blog Food in Jars,
  • Fair Food (Farmstand) and everything they do to bring local farmers and local consumers one step closer together,
  • and so many more.

So who for you?

Celebrate Often, and with Cheese

I was torn about the paltry and primarily symbolic raise I received last week.  The weekend was largely spend navigating extremes, oscillating from pangs of bitter entitlement to moments of humble appreciation.  Emerging now from the emotional turmoil into a week dedicated to raw food and yoga, I realize how gosh darn dumb I really am.  THE ANSWER IS THAT YOU SHOULD BE THANKFUL AND GLAD, EMILY.

Darn.  The belated epiphany totally took a dump on my chance to celebrate what I should have (at least with the promptness that gives a celebration that gutsy gusto).  Luckily – memories of the past’s more successful celebrations live on.

So in an attempt to recreate that feeling of exuberance, I’m going to revisit a ridiculously decadent celebratory cheese spread that John and I enjoyed last fall.

And I hope to at least leave someone with a lesson from the errors of my waffling ways: celebrate what you can while you can, be it the laughter of children or the smell of Pillsbury crescent rolls, because, well, duh.

Before I get into the chees-ifics, I should mention that despite how amazing each and every cheese we savored that day was, the winner of the night was hands down the jar of Dilly Beans I myself had made the summer prior with fresh-picked green and wax beans.

That said, there was nothing even remotely close to a loser on the table that night.  We started off with a real stunner: Jasper Hill‘s Moses Sleeper.  This Vermont-made bloomy rind cheese is perhaps the best American made brie-style wheel you can get.  Pillowy, gooey and smooth, the pasty center is at once buttery, citrusy and freshly earthen.  If you’re looking to convert a “non-brieliever” (yes, I went there) this is the cheese to do it with.

Next up was Valley Shepherd Creamery‘s Oldwick Shepherd, a classic favorite from the Garden State.  Fresh raw sheep’s milk is pressed into these firm wheels and cave-aged for at least 3 months to produce this wonderfully nutty Pyrenees-style cheese.  The earthen qualities of the lightly molded rind and the rich fatty sheep’s milk make for a slightly salty bite that would please even the most discerning Basque.

Crossing the world and going back in time to a provincial French monastery, we sample Abondance.  This alpine-style cheese produced exclusively in the Abondance valley is made from the milk of their prized Abondance cows (or occasionally the Montbéliard and Tarine breeds).  This ancient farm cheese touts a firm, smooth and supple body with fruity overtones and a lovely hint of hazelnut.  No wonder this is one of France’s most popular cheeses!

Like that all wasn’t enough, we really hit it big time with Cardo, an incredible washed rind goat cheese made by Mary Holbrook (yes, one lady and one lady only) at Sleight’s Farm in Somerset, England.  Don’t be deceived by it’s innocent creamy appearance — this stunner reeks of meaty pungency.  And yet while its full bodied texture coats your tongue with a savory, earthen, tingly funk, it still manages to deliver the fresh dry delicate floral tones one would expect from a goat’s milk cheese.

Mary has spent years perfecting her technique, which actually incorporates some inconsistency by rule.  For instance, she cuts the curds of the set milk with only her arms, leaving the curds free to maintain some irregularity.  Also setting this magical wheel apart, Mary uses cardoon (aka artichoke thistle) stamen instead of animal-based rennet to start her cheese, a Portuguese tradition.  After an aging process facilitated by Neal’s Yard Dairy (as she has no caves of her own, poor woman), a few lucky folks get their hands on this very limited production treat.

I rounded out this wildly decadent spread with a classic: Colston Bassett Stilton.  This creamy crumbly blue produced with all the pomp and circumstance of English tradition is the best way to finish out a night (especially when paired with a link of the Northeast’s own Rieker’s Landjaeger Sausage and some homemade black raspberry jam).

Take it from me — if you really want to celebrate (be it a baby or a finished book), $50 and a trip to Di Bruno Bros. can take you there.

Do it.

Birthdays for Fat Kids: Sushi, Burgers, Shakes and…Harbison?

There was no doubt that my 24th birthday had to have something to do with food.

It all started at Zento.  With several recommendations to back it, we thought this would be a great opportunity to break from our norm, Vic’s on Sansom, to satisfy the sushi crave.  Unfortunately, we flubbed our ordering steez, going for lunch specials instead of their famously creative rolls.  We ended up with an okay spread of maki, sushi and sashimi.  Good quality and fresh, but by no means stellar.  We’ll definitely be back to try the Omakase, though.

Next, we headed straight to Charlie’s, a burger joint in Folsom, PA (airport territory) recommended to me for it’s black & white milkshake.  And man.  Did this place do the job.  Best burger and best shake I’ve had in ages.  Got the Charlie Special – one of approximately three menu options – and a black and white.  No frills perfection.  I’ve dreamed about that soft, mushy burger and dangerously chuggable shake every night since.  No lie.

After an afternoon perusing countless of the creepiest raw food maniac websites you’ve ever seen watching Vitamixes versus Blendtecs (you see – my lovely boyfriend got me the two best birthday presents ever: a Shun chef’s knife and a high-powered blender.  What a babe.), we headed to Di Brunos to finalize the pièce de résistance of my birthday’s gastro-bration, the spread:

We worked in trios: three meats, three cheeses, three beers.

Three meats: Smoked Paprika Salami handcured in Washington State, light little lomo florets, and a few precious slices of that unbelievably rich and greasy wild pig jamon iberico.  All stellar.

Three beers: a selection of Mikkeller single hopped brews:And the cheeses.  First up – Yellow Springs Farm Melange, a briefly aged goat and cow cheese charmer.  Smooth mouthfeel, sweet and supple with hints of citrus – it’s definitely worth a try if you can make it out to Chester County (unfortunately the lovely couple that owns Yellow Springs and their 30-50 Nubian goats, produce on far too small a scale for Di Brunos or other urban retailers to carry it for a marketable price):Next up, a classic – Fiore Sardo, a Sardinian ewe’s milk cheese, aged for several months on wet reeds, yielding a slightly smoky, damp, cellar-y flavor, which is refreshing in combination with the hard, crumbly and somewhat chalky texture.  Salty nutty sheepy delicious, especially tasty paired with some homemade black raspberry jam, here she is:And lastly, the star of the show – Jasper Hill Farms‘ new bloomy-rind beauty, Harbison:  Hard to get in the East and apparently impossible to get anywhere else, this gilded mystery is a must try.  Wrapped in the bark of trees freshly cut from their own woodlands, Harbison is aged to perfection for between 3 and 6 weeks.  Pillow-y white, her taut rind peels back to reveal the ooey gooey innards of a goddess…see the moment of truth here.  As you spoon the creamy goodness out of that stiff hoop of bloom-caked bark, the scent of the earth – floral, grassy and bright but also deeply dank and meaty – envelopes you as the paste melts into high heaven on your tongue.  My god:What a day.

All I have to say in closing is thank the lord for the Vitamix, because I spent the next five days drinking my meals in an attempt to make it all up to my poor intestine.  My stomach on the other hand – he had no complaints.