Category — spring

The First Fire in Early Spring

There’s something magical about lighting a chimney full of charcoal for the first time in the spring, where the dusk temperatures still dive down low enough to warrant standing closer to the grill to warm up.  After a winter that saw the accumulation of over 40 inches of snow over the span of four days, the onset of afternoons filled with bright sunlight and daylight that lingers ever longer into the dinner hour brings a sense of hope and renewal.

Grilling is almost a natural reaction to those times when I don’t feel like cooking.  When the kitchen is clean, and I don’t want to disturb its serenity by breaking out all manner of pots, pans, and plates, I grill.  Likewise, when the kitchen is dirty or cluttered – again, with those pots, pans, and plates that were all called into the service of some multifaceted meal, I grill.  For me, grilling distills cooking down to its primal elements – meat and fire.  Really, what else do you need?

On the occasion of discovering perhaps the most perfect butcher shop in all of Chester County, we came home that day with a perfect Delmonico steak – well marbled throughout with streaks of fat.  The shop in question, Country Butcher in Kennett Square, sells USDA Prime cuts that are locally sourced and grass-fed, along with a good selection of cheeses, oils, and other food items.  Out of respect for this grand specimen of beef, I treated it simply – a little bit of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper, and a rubdown with a cut garlic clove.  Having never tried a steak from Country Butcher, I avoided masking the true flavor of the beef with overly aggressive sauces and seasonings.

Having had grass-fed beef in restaurants, I was already familiar with how outstanding a good steak can become if treated well.  But I had always attributed a greater portion of the responsibility to the chef than to the farmer that raised the cow and the butcher that sourced it and sold it to the restaurant.  As it turns out, the steak was one of the best home-prepared dinners that we’ve ever had.  I can’t take any credit for it – all I did was throw it onto the grill, stand there for five minutes, and flip it onto the other side.  More tender than any other home-cooked Delmonico, with an unexpected depth of flavor, it rivaled the quality of some of the top-dollar, triple-digit dinners that we’ve had in downtown Philadelphia.  It was that good.

April 22, 2010   Comments

The Best Burger in Chester County, Pennsylvania?

It was the first truly nice evening of spring.  A two-day heat wave gave way to a dusk that was tinged with the smell of cut grass, the rhythmic chirps of insects awakening to their own dawn, and the longing of everyone who, bone-tired of a winter chill that had long overstayed its welcome, just wanted to sit outside with a cold drink and a nice meal.  As it so happens, that’s exactly what we found at the Four Dogs Tavern in West Chester.

There’s some history behind the stone walls and heavy wooden floors of this place.  Two centuries ago, The Four Dogs Tavern was a stable, an accompaniment to the neighboring stone edifice that is now known as the Marshalton Inn.  A few days earlier, we had made an attempt to come to the Four Dogs Tavern for dinner and drinks with our neighbors, but the weekend crowds had packed the establishment so thoroughly, it was impossible to even find a hostess to find out about the wait.  We left, frustrated, only to fall prey to a lackluster dinner at a nearby bar that, in hindsight, should have never even been considered as a second, third, or even fourth option.

Despite the initial impression, we made a second effort to hit Four Dogs a few days later.  Like a lot of things in life, it turns out that timing is key – having gotten there at around 5:15, we were seated immediately in the outdoor patio area.  By 6:00, though, a line of hungry patrons had started to form around the periphery of the patio, with various sets of eyes darting to and fro, looking for any signal of a dessert order, or a request for the check.  There would be no such satisfaction, though, at least not from our table – given the weather, the beer, and the excellent food, our early bird status had given us free license to linger and savor each moment.

We started with an order of the calamari, served on a long serving platter, crusted with parmesan, and dotted with remoulade and parsley pistou.  Far from being overwhelmingly chewy, a sure sign of poor quality pre-frozen ingredients, each of the tender rings was delicate and tender, lightly batter-coated and flash-fried until just barely done.  Despite the wispiness of the coating, the richness of the remoulade made for a deceptively heavy dish, at least when apportioned between two people.  Overall, the calamari is a pleasant departure from the traditional heavily breaded stalwart tubes that one always sees served with a cup of marinara.

What really made the meal, though, was the burger.  Described quite simply on the menu as an “8oz Black Angus Burger with Fries”, its unassuming title fails to convey the absolute perfection of what arrived at the table that evening. A pillowy bun, wrapped lovingly around a thick patty that was prepared precisely to order (an occurrence so rare in other establishments that I’m actually surprised when someone gets it right), with a burst of sizzling hot juices that run down your wrist on your first mouthful, and the crusty char that is characteristic of the best tavern burgers around.  This is why I would be a miserable failure of a vegetarian.  Some cultures worship cows as sacred beings; I worship cows because they are delicious.  Is this the best burger in Chester County?  It may very well be.

The fries are worth a mention, for the sole reason that they reminded me of the fries that they used to serve at Veterans Stadium – crisp, thin, and not at all greasy, and not at all like what is served today at Citizens Bank Park.

The quality of this meal went a long way towards convincing me that, one day soon, we need to book a reservation at the Marshalton Inn for dinner.  If the kitchen can be so artful in its execution of a simple grilled burger and fries, I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by the higher end menu items that are served across the parking lot.  But, before that day comes, I suspect that I’ll be having quite a few more burgers at the Four Dogs Tavern.

June 5, 2009   Comments

How to Grill Chicken

There’s something quite primal about cooking over fire – tossing something raw over smoldering coals, hearing the fat sizzle as it melts and drips into the flames, the smell of wood and meat and smoke comingling briefly before being carried off by the breeze of a slightly chilly spring evening.  Three years ago, one of the deciding factors in our electing to purchase our first home was our leasing company’s ludicrous prohibition on outdoor grilling – those were dark years, and I swore to never go that long without grilling ever again.

I now have my own deck, and on it sits a steel monstrosity forged in the very bowels of Amish country, three hundred pounds of black metal that serves as my mechanism for transforming meats into meals.  My name has become a grilling word.

I used to think that everyone knew how to grill, but now I’ve come to reconsider my presumption after having witnessed the embarrassingly cringe-worthy performance of someone who was unfamiliar with charcoal and afraid of fire.  I’ve never seen a situation where more food ended up under the grate, withering away on the coals, than on the grate where it belonged.

So, with that, I’m presenting a short primer on how to grill chicken -  specifically, chicken thighs.  For newcomers to the thrills of outdoor cooking, chicken thighs are fairly forgiving, because their uniform size and shape, combined with the amount of fat that is laden throughout the meat, means that there is a very low likelihood of ruining dinner.  And with the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, there’s a good chance that more than a few of you will be grilling for a crowd.

When you’re shopping for chicken thighs, try to select pieces of poultry that are roughly the same size, to ensure that they will all cook at the same rate.  When you get them home, rinse each piece under cool running water, then pat dry with a paper towel, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate for transport to the grill.  Pick up a nice bottle of barbecue sauce, one that’s hopefully not too sweet and not packed with corn syrup, or make your own.

About an hour and a half before you plan on eating, start your coals, preferably in a chimney starter (which allows for the preparation of coals without the chemicals of a liquid starter – hover over the link for a picture).  I presume you are cooking with charcoal – if you aren’t, I can offer no guidance, since I’ve never used propane.  Once the coals have turned ashen, about 20 minutes, spread them in your grill, mounding slightly on one side, and set your grate into place.

Now comes the part of grilling that’s filled with fun and danger.  Using tongs, place your chicken thighs, skin down, on the grate over the higher portion of the charcoal mound.  Squeal with delight as the fat from the chicken skin drips into the fire, causing massive flareups!  Don’t panic – just take your tongs and move the chicken pieces that are over the flareups to the side of the grill that contains fewer pieces of charcoal, and wait for the flames to die down.  Every so often, move the chicken pieces around and flip them over – your goal is to achieve a nice char on both sides of each thigh.  Treat it like a big game – the fire wants to eat your chicken, and you have to play keep-away.

Once all of your chicken is browned, with a nice, crisp skin, move the thighs to the cooler part of the grill (skin up) and close the grill by setting the cover on it.  Open the vents slightly to let air through.  During this time, the grill will act as an oven, roasting each chicken thigh to doneness.  Since the thighs are dark meat, they will remain moist even if left in the grill for a few minutes longer than needed.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet called for barbecue sauce.  A lot of novice grillers make the mistake of putting their barbecue sauce on their chicken/ribs/whatever too early, which only serves to insulate the chicken from browning properly.  It also guarantees that the high heat of grilling burns the sugars in the sauce, resulting in a carbonized, blackened mess.

After about 35 minutes, pour some barbecue sauce into a small bowl and equip yourself with either a large spoon or, preferably, a basting brush.  Take the lid off of the grill, flip each chicken thigh over, and splash a dollop of sauce on each piece, using either the spoon or brush to coat each chicken thigh evenly with sauce.  Flip each thigh over, so that the skin faces up, and repeat.  Replace the cover, cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, then serve.

May 20, 2009   Comments

Maia Market and Restaurant in Villanova

Yay – Excellent food, superb bottled beer selection, and friendly servers and staff.

Meh – Layout, at least at dinner, is somewhat confusing, ‘market’ area needs more variety of items.  Some food items are priced appropriately, while others court the realm of ‘ridiculous Main Line markup’.

Summary - Definitely recommended for the food and beer, although it would be wise to keep an eye on the prices, as the bill tends to go high quickly if you aren’t careful.

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We recently had an opportunity to stop by the Maia Market and Restaurant in Villanova for dinner.  Having previously experienced the talents of chefs Terence Feury (Striped Bass in Philadelphia) and his brother Patrick (Nectar in Berwyn), we were looking forward to seeing what the two would do together on this Main Line collaboration.

Maia occupies two floors, with the first floor dedicated to a grab-and-go gourmet market and bar area and the second floor reserved for tablecloth-and-good silverware fine dining.

When we first walked in, the sense of the space was overwhelming.  We were greeted by the hostess and told her that it was our first time visiting, and we wanted to walk around and check the place out.  We wandered through the first floor, stopping to check out the coffee and pastry bar, and slipped through the bar area to the ‘market’ portion of the restaurant.

The Maia Market consists of display cases containing a number of varieties of charcuterie, pates, and cheeses.  You can see the potential there, but it needs a bit more diversity before it can reach the status of ‘market’.

The overall feel of the market area of Maia evokes a showroom type of atmosphere, with a handful of the very finest ingredients, displayed in quiet reverence behind glass, with a Maia employee behind the counter who is very eager to speak about the goods in the finest detail.  Three loaves of bread, baked on-site, displayed on a shelf, are dusted with flour to exhibit a monogrammed ‘M’.  I can see how one could call this a ‘market’, but it’s a market dedicated to Main Line folks who don’t cook.  Ever.  The kind who spend $50K outfitting a kitchen with the best of everything, but who will never turn a single burner on.

When I think of an upscale market, I tend to think about DiBruno Brothers House of Cheese, or Tallulah’s Table out in Kennett Square.  I like diversity.  I like variety.  I want to be able to pick from dozens of cheeses and other specialty items.  Granted, Maia has a worthy selection of pates (most impressively, a truffle and sweetbread one) and a moderate selection of meats, but as far as cheese goes, they’ve got a cheddar, something from the gruyere category, and a couple of bleu varieties.  Again, it’s a food market for people who don’t cook.  It’s all top quality, but it’s just not that many items.

If there is one shining superiority about Maia Market, though, it is the selection of bottled beers in the cold case.  It is stunningly vast, consisting of local selections such as Victory, somewhat local breweries like Ommegang out of New York, and extending to wonderful imports from around the globe.

Time to talk about the restaurant portion of Maia.  After looking at the menus for upstairs and downstairs, we decided to grab something to eat from the first floor and just sit at a table to enjoy our dinner.  We stood at the spot under the sign that said ‘Order Here’ and watched as servers and other employees rushed past us in all directions.  After a few moments, we thought that we were doing something wrong (ASKING FR FUD – UR DOING IT WRONG) and stopped one of the employees to ask if someone could take our order.  He looked at us in a puzzled sort of manner, and then spoke to someone else, and then said that someone from behind the counter would take care of us.  We waited a bit more without much success before I resorted to going up to the nice girl at the hostess station.

As it turns out, we were doing it wrong.  The ‘Order Here’ sign, and the menu posted next to it, was only for lunch.  If we wanted to eat dinner, we’d have to be seated with menus.  Some of the lunch menu items, such as the burger, are unavailable for dinner.  Others, like the hot pastrami, are available, but at a higher price.  Food-wise, my only complaint about Maia Restaurant is that while most of the dishes are priced appropriately, like $8 for the pate starter and $19 for the steak frites entree, other dishes seem far overpriced for what they are, Main Line notwithstanding.  The pastrami sandwich, officially labeled the ‘House Smoked Snake River Farms Kobe Beef Hot Pastrami Sandwich’, is $14.  A neighboring table ordered it, and I snuck a peek – it looked like a decent hot pastrami, but even with Kobe beef, asking $14 for it is kind of a stretch, especially for an item that doesn’t necessarily reflect an outstanding level of artistic skill on the part of the kitchen.  And I speak from the point of view of someone who’s smoked a lot of barbecue.

We ordered the Maia House Country Pate as a starter, and the Choucroute and Roasted Hangar Steak Frites as entrees.  Enough of my bitching about the confusing layout and inventory of the market -  the food in the restaurant, from our experience, absolutely shines.

The Country Pate ($8) was a nice thick slice of pate served with a frisee salad and mustard.  It tasted as a good pate should, very rich with a good mix of flavors that paired very well with the sharp tang of the mustard.  And, as could be expected, all of this paired nicely with a glass of Ommegang Hennepin.

My Choucroute ($15), consisting of knockwurst, bratwurst, and frankfurter, was not at all what I expected, but in a good way.  Instead of a large platter of sausages, I was presented with a smaller plate, with a small crock of wursts nestled in what I would describe as the very best sauerkraut I have ever tasted.  Next to the crock was a smaller container of whole grain mustard, and next to that were a few poppy seed rolls, split.  I believe the intent was to eat the wursts hot dog style on the rolls, but I went the route of slathering mustard on each bite of wurst and kraut, using the rolls as a palate cleanser.

My wife’s Steak Frites ($19) was a perfect example of what steak frites should be.  The steak was presented, sliced and fanned, with a dash of butter and fries.  Steak frites should not be the most tender thing you’ve eaten – it should have a little bit of chew to it and a lot of flavor, and this describes what we had exactly.

Our server was good, and seemed to enjoy his work, which makes all of the difference between great service and acceptable service.  Plates were cleared promptly, glasses were refilled without asking, and an offer for a second plate of bread was gladly accepted after we had finished the first.  Overall, each of the employees that we met were really good at making eye contact, and seemed content in their tasks.  Good training makes a big difference.

We decided against seeing the dessert menu, because I wanted to grab coffee and croissants from the pastry area.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the pastry selection was a little lacking, and there were no croissants to be found.  We ended up not getting anything else, and instead stopped at Rita’s for custard on the way home.

We picked up a menu for the upstairs dining room, and from what I can see, it looks like the Feury brothers are taking all of their experience with seafood and going all out, which should translate to off-the-charts awesome.  Of the ten entrees on offer that evening, only two weren’t seafood.  The prices are in-line with upscale Main Line dining, and it definitely looks like something that would be on our radar in the future.

June 18, 2008   Comments

The Main Event – A Springtime Dinner Party in Three Courses

Man, I’m a little tired.  But it’s a good kind of tired.  Three courses, ten people, and everything turned out alright.  I have to apologize for not having more pictures – I was too busy running around the kitchen and forgot to grab the camera until, as you can see, the aftermath.

I spent part of Thursday and all day Friday putting together as many things as I could ahead of time.  On Thursday, I made the duck ragu and a batch of chicken stock.  On Friday morning, I made a chocolate pot de creme, stuck that in the refrigerator, and spent some time chopping the asparagus and mushrooms for the soup.

That being said, we were still a little late getting dinner rolling, but that turned out fine because we had the most compatible group of guests that I think we’ve ever had for a party.  The very best parties are the ones where you can disappear from the conversation into the kitchen and the guests carry on for themselves.

The culprit in my tardiness turned out to be the pasta.  I had forgotten that, despite the fact that the dough is really easy to put together, the rolling and cutting of the pasta sheets by hand takes a bit of time.  I had gotten through three-quarters of the mound of dough when I realized that I only had a half hour before go time – so we decided not to roll and cut the last bit of dough.  I took a few minutes to get some cheese out, prepared the one “made” appetizer – goat cheese marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, black pepper, parsley, and chive – and cut the last sheet of pasta into ribbons before running upstairs into the shower.

Guests started arriving at around 7:15, and between the beer, wine, the conversation and the appetizers, we all found a sweet spot where time just slowed down.  I had the asparagus soup ready by around 8pm, and we ushered everyone into the dining room, which my wife had bedecked with a lovely centerpiece of candles and glasses.  I ran out of soup and tried to extend it with some stock – so, for a fact, I know that three of us had overly thin asparagus soup.  I motored through my bowl and headed back into the kitchen for the pasta course.

Having set a pot of water to boil well beforehand, the pasta course was the easiest of the three to prepare.  The duck ragu, having been made earlier, needed only to be heated, and the ribbons of pasta had had a good long time to dry a bit in a colander, which contributed considerably to their texture in the final dish.  One minute and thirty seconds after entering the kitchen, the second course was ready to send out.

This is the point in the evening where I was entering unknown territory.  The one dish that I had not had time to do a dry run for – grilled shrimp over risotto – was going to take a bit more time to prepare.  I had peeled the shrimp when guests first started arriving, and thrown them into a ziploc bag with some white wine, garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  As I started the risotto, we drafted one of our guests to skewer the shrimp for us, which was a real timesaver.  I started a chimney of charcoal on the grill and came back to the risotto.

Here’s the thing about risotto – it takes 18 minutes.  No more, and no less.  But it also requires constant attention, stirring and adding stock constantly for nearly all of those 18 minutes.  The great thing is, hearing the conversation carry itself in the next room, I was actually quite fine with standing at the stove.

The risotto deserves its own entry, but I’ll summarize here now:

Roasted Tomato Risotto

6 C chicken stock, simmering
1.5 C arborio rice
1/2 onion, chopped
Butter

A few roasted tomatoes (I need to tell you about these later, too)
Shallot, chopped
White wine
Saffron, pinch
1/4 C light cream

In one saucepan, combine chopped roasted tomatoes, the shallot, about 1/2 C white wine, and the saffron and bring to a hard simmer.  When that’s reduced by about half, stir in the light cream, bring back to a simmer for about five minutes, and turn off the heat.  You’re done with that for now and can back-burner it.

Take a pot with high sides and melt some butter in it.  When it’s good and hot, toss in your chopped onion and saute that for a couple of minutes, then add your rice, stirring that up to coat all of the grains with butter.  Add 1/2 C of white wine and stir it in, letting the grains of rice absorb it, and then start adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each 1/2 cup before adding more.  At around 15 minutes, bite into a grain to check for doneness.  It should be ready at 18 minutes.  Turn off the heat and stir the tomato cream mixture into it, and add salt to taste.

Grilling the shrimp took no time at all.  I dumped the coals into my grill, set the skewers of shrimp on, and grilled them for about five or six minutes per side.  There was enough risotto to grant everyone a fairly large serving, with four shrimp each.

I’ll talk about dessert in the next episode.  Everyone had a wonderful time, and that’s not even mentioning the beer-fueled Rock Band extravaganza that lasted until 2:45am, which certainly had a lot to do with it.

April 29, 2008   Comments