New York City, October 15 – Breakfast

I don’t know which was the crazier idea: deciding to walk through 32 blocks of traffic and pedestrian-laden New York City streets, or ending that journey by casually strolling into the Hotel Plaza Athenee, sans reservation, for breakfast.

To my surprise, the hostess did not bat an eye at my denim-clad, slightly-sweaty form as I requested a table for one.  She ushered me into the dining room and tucked me away into a far corner, which gave me a full view of the space.  The chandelier lit a high-ceilinged area, yellow with cream accents.  Harp music played softly on an overhead sound system.  As I was presented with the coffee service, I lifted the urn and found it to be silver and heavy in the way that the carafes at IHOP aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  Usually, when I find myself solo in New York City, I’d be spending breakfast on the run, with a Krispy Kreme doughnut in one hand and a grande Starbucks in the other.  But today I was lured to the Plaza Athenee by their new Chinese Breakfast, which offered a broad variety of authentic Asian delicacies curated to appeal to the Eastern palate.  Intensely curious, and with no appointment until the afternoon, I decided that a thorough investigation was in order.

The first offering was a bowl of congee, which I had always referred to as jook when I was growing up.  Served with a side of chopped scallion, the presentation could not have been more elegant.  Yet, as is the case with most comfort food from childhood, I found the congee to have missed the mark.  As a preparation, it was textbook – grains of white rice, cooked until they’ve collapsed into a soft, smooth porridge.  The texture was spot-on.  Unfortunately, there was little flavor to be found, even after garnishing with scallion.  In my household, there would always be bits of salted pork or chicken mixed throughout, adding both flavor as well as a certain level of luxurious fat to the dish.  It occurred to me later that maybe it was my responsibility to season the dish, much like when you order grits in the South, but there was little indication that this was the case.

Thankfully, the meal improved from there.  The second course consisted of a two-tiered bamboo steamer, with three steamed buns (bao) on the upper level and a variety of dim sum underneath.  Each bun held a different filling, and I was pleasantly surprised to bite into the first to discover a sweet egg custard inside.  I’ve never had it before, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.  From there, I proceeded to finish off the shredded pork bun (a classic filling that was well-executed) and the bean paste bun (never my first preference, but still fairly good).

The dim sum were the standard “safe” options, with three har kow (shrimp) and three shui mai (pork), with nary a chicken foot in sight.  Both varieties were excellent, bearing the expected thin dumpling skin surrounding very fresh, perfectly seasoned contents.  Along the way, the dining captain delivered a tea-boiled egg alongside a small bowl of soy.  The egg looked like an orb of alabaster, with streaks of gray where the tea had soaked through the cracks of the shell.  And yet, for all of that presentation, I still found it to be too similar, in both taste and texture, to a standard boiled egg.

I took my time finishing the meal, watching the servers and the dining captain cater to the small handful of occupied tables in the room.  Each dish may not have looked like a lot of food, but the cumulative effect was quite filling.  I asked for the check, expressed some sadness at the lack of a room number to sign it to, and took to the streets of Manhattan to walk off breakfast.

*the above photo layout is courtesy of Diptic.  Check them out on the App Store!

October 25, 2012   Comments

Yes, Please: ScrappleFest 2009

I love scrapple, and I always have.  So, when I found out that there was going to be a ScrappleFest down at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia last weekend, attendance became an absolute imperative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with scrapple, Wikipedia defines it as “a savory mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour”, which is pretty much a spot-on description.  Cut into slices and fried until crisp (but with the inside still soft), scrapple tastes, to me, a bit like breakfast sausage.  To my wife, who hates scrapple, it tastes like barn.  There is no middle ground when it comes to scrapple – either you absolutely love it or you can’t stand it.

A little more background exposition, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia – the Reading Terminal Market is a large hall filled with a dizzying array of food vendors, produce stalls, fishmongers, and butchers.  Chances are, if you’re craving a particular food, you’ll find it there.  At the height of the weekend during tourist season, there’s barely enough room to move through the crowds that pack the aisles, either gawking at menus or waiting in overflowing lines to place an order.  Seating, as can be expected, is always an issue, and finding an open table feels like finding a parking spot at the mall during the holiday shopping season.

ScrappleFest took place in the middle of it all, in a central court that, I believe, is usually taken up by that all-important seating that I mentioned.  Thankfully, since we’re still in the off-season, the Reading Terminal Market was well-populated, but not too crowded, so the reduction in tables and chairs was hardly noticeable.  Imagine a large rectangle of scrapple vendors, and a line of scrapple enthusiasts performing a slow, rotating tour of all of them, and you’ve gotten the gist of Scrapplefest.  There was a recipe contest, as well, pitting various creative interpretations of scrapple against one another, but in all of the time that we spent there, I never saw where the contest was being held.  It’s a shame, since I would have wanted to see that, but the charm of ScrappleFest lies in the fact that it’s not well publicized, not slickly marketed, and it doesn’t have a dedicated website.  You kind of just show up and eat scrapple.

All of the major pork product producers were at ScrappleFest, such as Dietz & Watson and Leidy’s, as well as smaller companies and family-owned operations.  At each station, there would be one or two staffers dutifully frying up the signature slabs on portable electric griddles, or frying pans set over hotplates, and a tray of samples from which to pick from as you walked by.  There was even an offering of vegan scrapple, which I can at least now say that I have tried.  I must admit that the turkey scrapple was better than I would have expected.

Oh, and no writeup of ScrappleFest is complete without a mention of the scrapple sculptures.  There was a Phillies cake made out of scrapple – while the shout-out to the local World Series champions was certainly appreciated, in all other respects the cake was merely a large rectangle of porkiness.  But, the true awesomeness of scrapple artistry came from Leidy’s, whose table featured a small Leidy’s delivery truck, manifest as scrapple, with little cherries for lights, slowing bleeding crimson rivulets down the porky contours of the sculpture.

You can check out other writeups of ScrappleFest here and here.  Amazing that there aren’t more, really.

March 26, 2009   Comments

The Best Southern Breakfast Ever – Charleston’s Cafe, Mount Pleasant SC

This is the best breakfast I’ve had in the region, ever. Housemade corned beef hash, topped with perfectly fried eggs and accompanied by creamy grits and a buttermilk biscuit.

October 15, 2008   Comments

Impromptu Breakfast

Another vacation morning on the Isle of Palms, another quick post. Slow start this morning, so I took a leftover meatball, squished it, fried it, and slapped it onto a toasted English muffin with a fried egg.

October 15, 2008   Comments

Crepes with Smoked Salmon, Creme Fraiche and Chive

We had a fairly solid plan for breakfast on the morning following the Big Pig Gig.  Since we only had a couple of overnight guests, we figured we would whip up some crepes on Sunday morning, something quick and easy that doesn’t require a lot of thought.

Then, Drink-O happened.  Plus we went to bed at 3:30am.  And I forgot to make the crepe batter ahead of time, and in the morning I discovered that a crucial element for the batter, milk, was nowhere to be found in the fridge.  We also felt like a truck hit us.

So, crepes never happened on Sunday, and we ended up at a Bob Evans on Sunday afternoon, which is the best place to grab a meal of breakfast food after a night of BBQ and booze-fueled debauchery.  After a couple of days, when everything was cleaned up and put away and the house returned to normal, I picked up some milk and went about implementing my crepe plan, two days late and for dinner instead of breakfast.

Hardware-wise, it’s nice to have a crepe pan.  It’s not absolutely essential, and if you don’t have one you can always use a non-stick saute pan.  I’m very idiosynchratic about my crepe-making process – I always use my same crepe pan, and I have to always use my wooden spoon that measures out exactly the 1/4 cup of batter that I need for each crepe.  But, at minimum, you need a nonstick pan, a ladle or other means of providing a consistent measure of batter, a nonstick spatula, and a nonstick pair of tongs.

The batter recipe that I use is from the site Chocolate and Zucchini, and you can get the recipe there by clicking on the link.  You’ll find most crepe recipes don’t vary much in their ingredients – flour, eggs, water, milk – as long as you end up with a thin batter, you should do just fine.

Like my other favorite quick meal, omelettes, crepes are more about technique than anything else.  You need to get your fillings in order before you start cooking, so chop whatever needs chopping (in this case, smoked salmon and chives) and have them close at hand.  Open up your container of creme fraiche (sour cream is a good substitute) and put two spoons in there (one to scoop, one to push off the creme fraiche onto the crepe).

Now comes the fun part.  Take your pan and set it over high heat, and put a drop or two of water in the center of the pan.  Take some butter out, and get a pat of butter ready (for each crepe, about half a tablespoon, maybe even less, depending on the size of your pan).  When your water droplets sizzle and boil away, the pan’s hot and ready – put your butter in, and use your spatula to spread a thin layer of butter across the pan’s surface.

Using your left hand, hold the pan above the stove at a 45 degree angle (handle pointed down towards you – and if you’re left-handed, reverse whatever I’m saying here).  With your right hand, equip your ladle, and ladle about 1/4 cup of crepe batter into the pan, keeping the ladle at the same position while swirling the pan to allow the batter to coat the surface and form a circle.  Don’t worry if your circle isn’t perfect, it’ll be hidden when you fold it.  Set the pan back down on the burner and cook the crepe for about 30 seconds until the top is dry and the edges begin to curl.

Equip your spatula, and shimmy it underneath the crepe, lift it, and flip it over to cook the other side.  After you flip, start laying your filling ingredients in one quadrant of the circle (not a full half, since you’ll be folding this).  By the time you’re finished, it’s time to flip and fold – use your tongs to grab the edge of the crepe, drag it over the filling, and fold again to form a little wedge.  Shove this off onto a plate and start on the next crepe, adding more butter to the pan and letting it melt completely before ladling more batter.

Repeat as necessary.  You’ll find that you have more than enough batter, so it can keep for a day or two in your refrigerator.  We like to make a batch of dessert crepes, using things like Nutella, peanut butter, marshmallows, and/or bananas and chocolate.  Really, anything you can get your hands on would work just fine.  There are no crepe police.

July 24, 2008   Comments

Perfect Scrambled Eggs

I took the day off from work today.

After mowing the lawn, watering the garden, and refilling the bird feeder, I decided to treat myself to one of the most basic, yet misunderstood, of food preparations – the scrambled egg.

If your exposure to scrambled eggs has only been in restaurants, or at brunch buffet lines, then you probably do not understand my enthusiasm for the dish.  After all, it’s only eggs and butter, something to be whipped up quickly and in mass quantities for a crowd, right?

But that’s the problem – our society has taught us to interpret scrambled eggs as a dish that’s to be made as quickly as possible.  Here’s the real truth – haste is the enemy of scrambled eggs.  High heat makes for tough, dried out eggs, and result in the short-order scrambled eggs that you find in diners, and the egg jerky that you find in buffets that’s been sitting over a sterno flame for an hour.

Preparing perfect scrambled eggs requires the exact opposite of the process to make an omelette.  When sauteing an omelette, you want to work quickly, tilting and swirling your pan to coat the bottom with egg, over the highest possible heat so that the egg sets and you can roll it around whatever filling you’ve chosen.

For scrambled eggs, you want to cook them as gently as possible, over the lowest heat possible, to yield the most delicate structure that you can.  Perfect scrambled eggs should take a long time to make, and should just barely hold together.  It’s a spot-on dish for a day off from work.

This is my recipe for Perfect Scrambled Eggs.  You can jazz it up a number of ways, which I am sure will show up here soon, but today we’re starting with the basic master recipe.  As with all recipes with fewer than five ingredients, the better the quality of your ingredients, the better the final product.  Find the best eggs and butter you can get your hands on.

Perfect Scrambled Eggs

3 eggs, preferably organic or at least free range
Freshly ground pepper

Take a nonstick pan and set it over medium heat.  Place about 2 Tbs of butter into the pan, and keep an eye on it while you whip your eggs up.  You want to let that melt, and tilt the pan so that it gets an even coat of butter.  Once your butter is melted, turn the heat to the lowest possible setting. [note - all of my recipes presume gas cooking; if you are working off of electric burners, have one set to low and transfer the pan over to that one]

Crack the eggs into a small bowl, and use a whisk or fork to stir them up until you have a uniform beaten egg mix.  Pour the eggs into the pan.

Take a nonstick spatula or spoon, and give the eggs a good stir.  Wait a bit.  Stir some more.  What you’re doing here is incorporating the bits of egg that have cooked into the bits of egg that haven’t yet cooked.  As the eggs heat up, they’ll start to slowly firm up – the key is to reach this point in as much time as possible.  Avoid the temptation to turn up the heat – the eggs will cook faster, but they will be nowhere near as delicate, and you will have missed the fun train.

When the eggs are done to your liking, tip them into a serving bowl and top with a fresh grinding of pepper and some salt.  Welcome to the world of real scrambled eggs.

May 23, 2008   Comments