Thursday, April 27, 2006

Brunch in the Fan

I didn't know what my weekends were lacking until I moved to Richmond. Sure I'd heard of it and participated in it before, but brunch is a serious meal here, and many restaurants offer it on Saturday and Sunday. This past weekend I indulged in brunch twice, at two very different places. Neither of the two eateries were my fallback brunch spot, which is the Galaxy Diner in Carytown. The diner is close to my apartment, and consistently serves both breakfast and lunch food: omelets, hashbrowns, biscuits, black hole pancakes (they have oreos in the center), breakfast sandwiches, burgers, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, macaroni and cheese, etc. The diner comes through when you want french toast at 9 p.m., but having to choose between two types of cuisine at one time of the day makes brunch that much more special.

I've only been to Joe's Inn twice, but I understood it's allure immediately. It's cozy and slightly old-fashioned, and the portions are huge. I composed my own omelet (ham, spinach and provolone) when I tried Joe's Inn the first time, and it was memorable enough to go back. "The Big Breakfast," which I opted for on Saturday, includes pancakes or french toast, two eggs any way, homefries and ham, bacon, or sausage. It's only $6.50, and is the perfect combination of sweet and savory breakfast foods. I had three huge pancakes, scrambled eggs, and ham (served on two plates), and I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day. The homefries at Joe's Inn, which I dream about from time to time, are made with red potatoes and onions, and are almost as good as the ones my dad makes. Three thin slices of grilled ham complemented my eggs, and the pancakes weren't completely made from scratch (I could taste Bisquick), but they did the trick.

Sunday I walked to another (very different) popular Fan brunch spot. 3 Monkeys, which is also a bar that serves food until 1 a.m., is always crowded on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I can't say I've had great service at 3 Monkeys, but there are notable breakfast pizzas and outdoor dining on a covered porch. One of the best brunches I've had there was a spinach, feta and roasted red pepper omelet with homefries (theirs are cubed potatoes fried with a reddish orange seasoning) and toast. The breakfast pizzas are big enough for two people and are also satisfying, with eggs and other toppings on a crust that's not too thick or too thin.

Maybe it was because of "The Big Breakfast" the day before, but my most recent experience at 3 Monkeys wasn't what I remembered. My friends both chose lunch food - a chicken pesto sandwich and a beef tenderloin wrap with fries. I selected an omelet I haven't had, with country ham, brie, and asparagus for $8. I love ham for breakfast, but there was an overpowering amount compared to the cheese, eggs and asparagus in my omelet. The brie was also a little too strong with the ham and asparagus, and I think there were only 5 or 6 small pieces of the vegetable. I could tell that the ingredients themselves were fresh, yet they weren't put together in a way that brought out their positive qualities. I'll probably go back to 3 Monkeys at some point, but for $1.50 less, brunch at Joe's Inn is looking better and better.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Brief Tribute to Ice Cream

Ice cream comes in so many varieties, it's impossible not to find the perfect flavor. Mint chocolate chip, strawberry, cookie crumble, chocolate almond, peanut butter supreme, black cherry, vanilla, chocolate chip cookie dough, butter pecan, and even strawberry cheesecake bring people joy to people of all ages. I'm not overly fond of the non-chocolate flavors, but I appreciate differences in tastes and the value of a cold, delicious treat.

When I was home two weekends ago I had the pleasure of visiting the 3B's ice cream shop twice (to my knowledge, it's been around for awhile but no one's sure of what the 'B's actually mean). For anyone who hasn't been to Harrisburg, 3B's is an old-fashioned looking wooden stand, and there a few in the central Pennsylvania area. The one closest to my house doesn't have indoor seating, and it's located in a small parking lot on the corner of two major roads. I had the pleasure of eating a kid's cup (two huge scoops) of Nutty Milky Way and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup. My companions indulged in Caramel Apple and Chocolate Marshmallow. One of my other favorite varieties, Death by Chocolate, is no longer on the extensive 3B's list, although Turkey Hill makes the same flavor and having it from a carton is almost as satisfying eating it out of a cup with a plastic spoon.

I recently tried Maggie Moos for the first time (the type of shop where they fold the toppings into the ice cream), and I definitely prefer it over Coldstone. The ice cream is much tastier and creamier, and the choices for add-ins aren't quite as overwhelming. I had cinnamon ice cream with brownies and hot fudge at Maggie Moos, and I'm eagerly anticipating all of the possible combinations I can concoct at the store in Richmond.

Easter dessert at my house is always ice cream and homemade hot fudge. We have the traditional ham, baked potatoes, salad, and pineapple (fresh and crushed) for dinner, but Easter often overlaps with Passover, and the Jewish half of my family is usually in town to celebrate with us. This limits dessert choices to items that don't have any type of leavening, hence the decision to serve ice cream. My mom's hot fudge is the best. She has a knack for achieving the perfect combination of brown sugar, evaporated milk and semi-sweet chocolate chips, and it's the ideal end to a fairly salty meal. I've tried and tried, except somehow I can't quite get my hot fudge to the same heavenly consistency and taste.

When I can't get to 3B's or have my mom's hot fudge, I turn to Bev's in Carytown (a mere two minute walk from my apartment). The ice cream is homemade, and includes flavors like Espresso Oreo, Cinnamon, and Dirty Chocolate as well the standard types. The employees also allow you to pick your own brownie for brownie sundaes. They then proceed to microwave the brownie before scooping ice cream and a topping onto it. If that sounds good, it gets even better: instead of whipped cream, you can choose an additional topping. I'm picky about whipped cream and would rather have crushed oreos or chocolate chips or peanut butter cups on my sundae, so in my opinion, Bev's is doing a great job of keeping a customer.

Another way to relieve an ice cream craving is Ben & Jerry's, which is an entire posting in itself, or Edy's Girl Scout Cookie flavors. My personal favorite is the Thin Mint. The cookies are crushed into chocolate ice cream that has a solid taste but isn't overpowering, resulting in an exquisite blend of mint and chocolate in an unbeatable texture. Edy's also makes Tagalong and Samoa ice creams. Unfortunately, all of the Girl Scout varieties are only available for a limited time. This isn't as big of a setback as it sounds, however, because all of the other brands and ice cream stores are just waiting to be chosen and eaten.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Converting Veal into Pork

It's not often that I have time to cook a full meal. If I do, the food ranges from a fallback dish I'm very familiar with to new, more time-consuming recipes. Two weeks ago I found myself with a night off and I decided to experiment with a potato and fennel dish in February's Gourmet. I also had pork chops on hand, so I searched through my aesthetically pleasing Boulevard cookbook. Boulevard is an elegant restaurant in San Francisco, and the cookbook itself was actually nominated for an award because of its beautiful photography.

Anyway, what appealed to me at the time was a recipe for veal chops stuffed with porcini mushrooms and asiago cheese. I figured the ingredients could also go well with pork, so I decided to alter the recipe a little according to the contents of my freezer. After a trip to Kroger, I changed the flavors again slightly because there weren't any porcini mushrooms (I bought cremini instead, which are my favorite mushroom).

A few pages before the veal chop recipe, Boulevard includes a page with this sentence:

"There is a lot more to cooking than getting to the end of the recipe." (It's an intelligent cookbook.)

That was something I actually thought about a lot while I was making this meal, because it turned out to be a little trickier than I'd anticipated. I'm certainly not a professional chef, but I do consider myself somewhat experienced in the kitchen. When the amount of water I added to the pot with the braised fennel and potatoes continued to evaporate at a fast pace, I continued pouring more in. I think it ended up being four times the amount the recipe requested. The dish turned out slightly more well done than I'd prefer, but was still very flavorful because of the fennel (at the end of the recipe it calls for the addition of chopped fennel fronds, which gave everything another layer of anise flavor).

The pork chops weren't "bone-in-center," nor were they thick enough for the sage, mushroom and asiago "sandwiches" in the instructions. I did my best to cut into the center of the chops without going all the way through, and I managed to get a couple slices of cheese, sage leaves, and pieces of mushroom inside before I started to pan sear the pork in olive oil. The recipe also involves a meat thermometer, which I don't have, and I had to gage the cooking time for pork instead of veal. The instructions say to add butter and sage leaves to the pan "about 2 minutes before you think the chops are done," which made me laugh because I was doing everything according to what I thought was going on with the pork chops anyway. I ended up throwing a quartered zucchini into the pan while the pork finished (my original plan was to saute the zucchini) and finishing the sauce on the stove by reducing the pan juices with sherry.

It was a more challenging meal than I've made in awhile, but all of the time and effort paid off because the plate looked appealing and tasted even better. The veal chop page in my cookbook is a little splattered with olive oil, but it's a nice reminder that I can improvise and still achieve desirable results.