Archives for July 2012

Recipe: Chocolate Toffee Cookies

I’ve been watching some of the swimming and gymnastic events during these first few days of the Olympics and there was a brief moment where I felt inspired to take up something sporty. But, then I realized that I can’t swim, so any water-based sports are out of the question. And, since I frequently fall when walking up a flight of steps, I should probably stay away from balance beams and uneven bars. It’s a shame that eating isn’t an Olympic sport, because I’m fairly certain I could qualify and probably even win a medal.

To accompany our Opening Ceremony viewing on Friday evening, I decided I wanted to make something British-inspired. The only desserts I remember eating on my visits to London were of the ice cream variety, but that seemed too basic. So, I looked up a recipe for sticky-toffee pudding, but it sounded way too complicated. Then, I came across a fairly easy recipe for Chocolate Toffee Cookies. Perfect.

I didn’t feel like crushing the Heath bars, so I just gave them a rough chop with a knife. The larger pieces caramelized a bit during baking, which enhanced their buttery flavor (I don’t recommend buying the already chopped Heath bits you can sometimes find along with chocolate chips in the baking aisle. They’re pretty bland and there’s too much chocolate coating in comparison to crunchy toffee). I also left out the rum (mostly because Chester wasn’t home and I couldn’t get the cap off myself. I know, I’m a weakling, right? Yet another reason why my Olympic dreams will never come true) and added an extra teaspoon of vanilla.

The cookies will be quite soft when you take them out of the oven, but will crisp up after sitting for about 15 minutes. The combination of the fudgy cocoa, buttery toffee and sweet almonds make this a totally decadent cookie. I’m surprised that we have any left in the container two days later, but it seems that the longer they sit, the richer the flavors become. Be sure to have a big glass of milk nearby.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies

Just slightly adapted from:

Bon Appetit Desserts: The Cookbook for All Things Sweet and Wonderful

What you will need:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped Heath bars
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds
What to do:
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Add egg, rum and vanilla and beat until well blended.
  3. Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into small bowl. Stir dry ingredients into butter mixture.
  4. Mix in toffee and chopped almonds.
  5. Drop batter by heaping tablespoonfuls onto heavy large ungreased baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart.
  6. Bake until cookies puff slightly and crack on top but are still soft to touch, about 11 minutes.
  7. Let cookies cool on sheet 1 minute. Transfer cookies to rack and cool at least 15 minutes, so that cookies will crisp up.


The Craft of Ice Cream at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

I started working at an art school last year and since then have become a bit more in tune with the organizations that foster the visual and performing arts in the city. I’ve seen a couple of great exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and was really excited when I started to get e-mails advertising events focused not only on the traditional craft and design mediums, but on the craft of particular foods as well.

To me, creating good food definitely does share some of the same elements that go into creating things like jewelry or glass. Many professional chefs and bakers, for example, spend years training in various techniques and continue to refine their skills over the course of their careers. They think creatively about how to use ingredients that make dishes interesting (both in terms of their taste and visual presentation) and keep customers coming back to their restaurants and businesses again and again. And, many of them then go on to train and mentor others to do the same.

The most recent installment in the Art Alliance’s food-focused event series brought together one of my local favorites—Franklin Fountain—and the Alliance’s new, on-site restaurant Rittenhouse Tavern for an evening focused on summer’s quintessential treats: burgers, fries and ice cream. Obviously, this was pretty much the perfect date night for me and Chester. I’m not sure if the pricing is standard for each event, but I thought that the $35 registration fee, which included the RT Burger and fries, the discussion and ice cream tasting was pretty reasonable for a night out (Note: Beverages were not included and there was also a $20 registration option that just included the discussion and tasting).

Rittenhouse Tavern has only been open for a few months, but I have been hearing good things about the food being created by chef Nicholas Elmi (formerly of Le Bec Fin) and the beautiful garden dining area (which was just listed by Philadelphia Magazine as the best outdoor dining spot on its recent “Best of Philly” list). The whole space, in general, is gorgeous. The décor is classic and elegant—distressed wood tables, leather chairs, and marble accents—that really complements the original artwork and details of the historic mansion that the Art Alliance calls home.

The burger, features dry-aged beef, provolone, watercress and “special sauce.” It’s served on a multigrain roll, baked with Yards’ Extra Special Ale, which gives it a rich, yeasty flavor.

Unfortunately, the burgers came out a bit more well done than our requested medium (me) and medium rare (Chester). Perhaps, in light of the number of people expected to attend that night, a lot of the prep and cooking was done in advance, making it difficult to get things just right. Overall, though, it was one of the best burgers I’ve had in awhile in terms of the flavor combination—the sharpness of the cheese, slight bitterness from the greens, and tang of the mayo-based sauce. I would definitely return to Rittenhouse Tavern to sample more of what’s on the menu. There were many appealing options listed, including the fish entrees and family style fried chicken supper, as well as an extensive cocktail, wine and beer list (For a hot summer night, I highly recommend the Tavern Lemonade, which has just a bit of rum and mint.)

After dinner, we went upstairs for the discussion with Eric Berley, who co-founded Franklin Fountain along with his brother in 2004. He spent about 40 minutes discussing how they built their business, from hunting down traditional soda fountain equipment, to working with antique ice cream making supplies and molds, to apprenticing with an ice cream maker in New York to learn the craft. Berley has quite an extensive knowledge of the history of soda fountain and ice cream in general. Since opening Franklin Fountain, he and his brother have made ice cream in the shape of Liberty Bells and colonial houses for special events and have been called upon as consultants for other entrepreneurs looking to refurbish old soda fountains in other cities.

Of course, there were samples, including a refreshing raspberry sorbet, creamy vanilla bean, and fresh blueberry.

From adjusting the amount berries that are needed to give the blueberry ice cream its subtle hue to achieving a perfect, thick consistency for hot fudge, to playing around with the amount of  syrup needed for a smooth coffee ice cream, Berley and his team go through an extensive trial and error process to ensure that each recipe is just right. They use local ingredients to craft traditional favorites, such as vanilla, rocky road, and coffee, as well as flavors with a historical context (such as  teaberry and huckleberry). This attention to detail and the use of natural ingredients ensures that Franklin Fountain ice cream and toppings taste exactly what they are supposed to taste like, without any hint of artificial flavoring or cloying sweetness.

I really enjoyed hearing the story behind Franklin Fountain and it made me appreciate the craftsmanship and passion that goes into making one of my favorite treats. The Art Alliance is planning a few future “Craft of…” events, including a November program, featuring Franklin Fountain’s sister business, Shane Confectionery. I’ll definitely be putting that on my calendar!

You can visit the Art Alliance website to sign up for its mailing list so you can get in the loop. Aside from the food related events, the Art Alliance shows a lot of great work. One of the current exhibitions, Shiny Monsters, features Adam Wallacavage’s gothic, under-the-sea inspired chandeliers and light fixtures  (if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you might remember that I posted one of his pink octopus chandeliers back in April, when he exhibited them in UArts’ annual fundraiser). They’re kind of crazy, but I kind of wish I had a place for one in my house.


This Week for Dinner

Well, hi! Hope that your weekend was just dandy. It was gorgeous here in Philly on Saturday, and I took advantage of the pleasant weather to have lunch outside and run some errands around Center City. Yesterday, I had to work in the morning and upon returning home I plopped on the couch and got sucked into a Travel Channel marathon related to all things London. It really makes me want to jump right on to the next plane and go to there and eat mass quantities of chicken tikka masala as well as loads of tea and pastries every afternoon. Who’s with me?

The reality is, though, we probably aren’t going to London, so if you need a back-up plan for your menus this week, here are a few things to consider:

Lemony Pasta-Veggie Salad with Chicken

From: Cooking Light

I’ve probably posted several variations of this salad already, but I will never get tired of this combination of ingredients. Ever.

Parmesan-Pesto Crusted Fish

From: Pink Parsley

The original recipe calls for halibut, but you can probably use any mild white fish that you would like, since the lemon, pesto and cheese will give it a robust flavor.  And, I suppose if you were really ambitious, you could make your own pesto, but the jarred varieties are just fine and will save you a few extra minutes on the prep time.

Greek Quesadillas

From: Annie’s Eats

This was the second time we made these, and I love, love, love them. They are a nice change of pace from the standard Mexican ingredients and flavors. We had some leftover chicken, so we tossed that in to one of the quesadillas, but they are just as filling and tasty without meat. And, that’s the beauty of a quesadilla, really–you can fill it with whatever you like and satisfy any picky eaters.

Side note: you’ve been following along for awhile, you’ll see I’m pretty good at finding things to make for dinner and sticking to that plan. When I have leftovers from dinner, I usually take them for lunch, but on the days that this is not the case, I’m kind of at a loss. I can’t look at another Lean Cuisine. And, I came to the realization on Friday that I should probably eat something other than frozen yogurt or the man at Sweet Ending and I are going to be on a first name basis very soon.  Any lunch suggestions? Send them my way!

On the Road: More from Tuscany

View of San Gimignano, from the farm

I really miss Italy. It started last week when I saw To Rome With Love (Go see it. Woody Allen is nuts.) and got worse yesterday when I was chatting via Facebook with Bethany, who is planning a trip there. That exchange caused me to spend an inordinate amount of time, neglecting my work and instead reminiscing in my head and looking at the photos of my trip. I know, I’m a model employee.

While I was wasting time, I realized that aside from our lunch in Chianti, I haven’t shared a whole lot else about our four days in Tuscany, which was such a highlight of the trip.

We stayed on an agriturismo—a working farm, with guest accommodations. The owner, Stefano, grows grapes for wine and olives on the farm and could not have been nicer or more welcoming.

Clockwise from the top: The view of the olive trees from our bedroom, my friend Kira and the farmhouse.

Since we stayed in one of the houses with its own kitchen, we were able to shop at the local market and cook our own food. It was a nice change of pace from eating in restaurants and gave us a chance to feel like “locals” for a few days. We noticed that poultry was less expensive than here at home, while fresh fruits and vegetables were pricier. Everything seemed more flavorful and fresh (I’m still thinking about the tomatoes and green peppers, in particular, which were much sweeter and more flavorful than what I buy around here).

Clockwise from the top left: Pasta; chicken with peppers, tomatoes, prosciutto and polenta; sausage and peppers; Panzanella salad; breakfast, including eggs and pancetta.

The farm was located about five minutes away from the town of San Gimignano, a tiny, walled medieval town. During the day, it’s packed with tourists, so we liked to go into town in the early evening, after the departed for the day. We felt like we had the place all to ourselves.

Main square in San Gimignano. Pretty quiet at the end of the day.

We had dinner in San Gimignano on our first and last nights in the area, at places which I would definitely recommend if you are in the area.

The first, Dulcisinfundo, is located high up on one of the hills of the city and offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding area. The menu is comprised of typical Tuscan dishes and changes with the seasons. Standout menu items on our visit included the sausage with wild mushrooms, over a creamy, cheesy polenta, the spinach lasagna, layered with rich meat sauce and topped with fresh mozzarella and the meatballs. The latter were made with pork, so they had a full, rich (and kind of fatty) flavor, and served an red sauce with a generous helping of saffron, which is local to the region.

The second restaurant, Chiriberi, was recommended by Stefano, and was tucked into one of the little alleyways near the main gate of the city. Its vibe was a bit more rustic and casual than Dulsicinfundo and I got a huge kick out of the host/waiter, who was cranky in a charming kind of way. I really enjoyed the light crespelles (crepes), filled with a mixture of spinach and ricotta and Chester gave high marks to the hearty boar ragu over tagliatelle and the rabbit. The final bill was definitely one of the lowest of our trip. Given the quality of the food, we felt like it was a really good value.

San Gimignano is centrally located to many of the other small towns worth seeing in Tuscany, including:

Pisa, where you have to get a photo, like so. This one took quite a few tries to get just right:

Lucca, which we probably would have enjoyed more if it hadn’t been raining like crazy. Not pictured: Unflattering shot of us in ponchos:  


 Volterra, located way, way up on a winding hill. Some of us weren’t feeling to great after that drive:

Siena, where they have horse racing twice a year in Piazza del Campo. I would love to go back and see that!

By the end of our stay, we had a nice little routine down, in which we took a drive to another town in the morning, make a late afternoon stop at the market, and then head back to the farm to relax and eat for the rest of the evening. Chester and I decided that everyone else can have the beach. Tuscany–and the farm–is our ideal vacation.

This Week for Dinner

Hope that everyone had a good weekend! It seems as though the summer is just flying by, but July has been a bit more relaxing than June was. Thank goodness for that.

Still looking for some ideas for dinner this week? Well, here you go!

Steak Fajitas with Sweet  Potatoes

From: Real Simple

I’ll get these out of the way first, because I just wasn’t a fan. I’ve decided I feel the same way about skirt steak as I do about snow peas. Big dislike. Maybe with a different cut of beef, I would have enjoyed these more. And, maybe you like skirt steak. In which case, you should make these.

Honey Cashew Chicken

From: Cooking Light

Moving on to better things, with this stir-fry, which had a great combination of flavors and ingredients. You could substitute whatever vegetables you happen to like or maybe what you have growing in your garden this summer.

Summer Pasta Bolognese

From: Real Simple

This sauce has a nice, chunky texture and includes all of the best summer vegetables, including sweet tomatoes and basil and cool zucchini. I really need to start growing tomatoes though, because those things are expensive–four beefsteak tomatoes at our grocery store were nearly $8. That’s crazy.

Mini Greek Lamb Burgers

From: Martha Stewart

We don’t eat lamb that often, but this recipe reminded me how good and versatile it can be. If you are grilling, you could make these into larger patties, but the sliders are pretty adorable, aren’t they?

Summer Squash, Prosciutto and Pasta Salad

From: Cooking Light

We make so many pasta salads in the summer that they all start to run together. That’s all I have to say about that.

What was your favorite recipe from last week and what’s on your menu this week?

It’s National Ice Cream Month!

There’s a food related observance for just about every day, week, and month, but I can really get behind July’s cause: ice cream.

Most of you probably know that I love to make ice cream at home (you can take a look here for the short list of flavors I’ve blogged about). Sadly, the only thing I’ve broken the ice cream maker out for this so far this summer has been lemon-raspberry sorbet. I need to ramp things up as we go through the rest of the summer.

But, I did happen to have my favorite store-bought ice cream brand, Blue Bunny, on hand last week and decided to use it to make ice cream sandwiches.

And, you know what? They were kind of a pain in the ass to make. The cookies were fairly simple to make, but working with the ice cream was really annoying.

This was the easy part.

You see, if you don’t work quickly, your ice cream will start to melt and you’ll have an “ice cream massacre” (as Deb from Smitten Kitchen called it) on your hands. I was able to put together about three sandwiches at a time before everything started dripping all over the place and I had to return the cookie sheet full of ice cream to the freezer to harden again. Because all of my projects become Chester’s projects, I made him stand by with sheets of plastic wrap so we could get the sandwiches into the freezer quickly. But, a fair amount of ice cream still seeped out the sides of each sandwich.


There is no mistaking that these guys are homemade.

Even though they were pretty tasty—the cookie had a similar taste to the ice cream sandwiches I remembered eating when I was younger, although it was a little crunchier and didn’t have that “stick to your fingers” quality that those versions had—I won’t be undertaking this little project again. It ended up taking me the better part (of a 103 degree day) to finish everything and left me and almost every surface of my kitchen counters covered in ice cream.

Or, maybe next time, I’ll just follow my friend Kate’s advice and use some break-and-bake Tollhouse cookies. Her ice cream sandwiches are a heck of a lot prettier than mine and I’m sure they were a heck of a lot faster to put together. Which is critical when you want an ice cream sandwich, like, yesterday.

Actually, do you know what’s even better than making ice cream at home? Having someone else do it for you.

We recently hit up Franklin Fountain, which re-creates the turn-of-the century ice cream parlor and soda fountain. The line frequently stretches out the door, but it’s worth the wait for homemade ice cream in all of the classic flavors, as well as massive ice cream sundaes. My mom and I shared the Mt. Vesuvius, which includes vanilla ice cream with bits of fudgy brownies and a generous helping of hot fudge, malted milk powder and whipped cream. Chester and my aunt gave high marks to the Chocolate Pretzel and the Hydrox Cookie ice cream, too.

I was barely able to set this down on the table before my mom had her spoon in it.

Some of my other Philadelphia favorites include Bassett’s Ice Cream, which opened in the Reading Terminal in 1893 and is run by the same family to this day. I like sitting at the marble counter and having a cup of plain old vanilla with a Famous 4th Street Cookie. There’s also Scoop DeVille near Rittenhouse Square, which bills itself as an “exotic” ice cream parlor and is known for its unique combinations of ice cream blended with lots of extras. You can choose your flavor combination (I like vanilla ice cream with peanut butter and pretzels) or choose from a menu of concoctions that includes the Snicker Doodle Dough (vanilla ice cream blended with sugar cookie dough, snickers, and caramel syrup) or the Wasabi Coconut Banana, with a touch of wasabi mustard powder. Finally, I’ll also include Capogiro on this list. I know, they serve gelato, but National Geographic Magazine calls it the number one place to eat ice cream in the world, so I suppose it counts. Flavors vary from day to day and from café to café. If you are traditionalist, you’ll always find the basics, such as vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. More adventurous palates will find an equally tempting array of flavors, such as cucumber and champagne mango.

Do you prefer to make your ice cream/ice cream based treats at home or go out? What are your favorite places and recipes?

Lately: A Restaurant Roundup

I’m in a weird mood lately.

I’m tired and bored. But, strangely, I’m incredibly antsy at the same time. I can’t really seem to focus enough to get myself interested in anything. I’m going to call it a summer slump and I’m hoping that I will snap the heck out of it. Soon.

In the hopes of getting myself back on track, I present to you a round-up of all of the places I’ve  eaten recently, but haven’t gotten around to blogging about:

Zinc: This French bistro near Jefferson Hospital wasn’t really on my radar screen, but Chester and I decided to try it out before our last show of the season at the Walnut Street Theater a few weeks back and were pleasantly surprised by how good it was. I had a tasty salad with asparagus, poached egg, bits of crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce—kind of like breakfast for dinner—and a perfectly medium rare tuna dish. It’s the sister restaurant of Caribou Café, which I would also recommend for more casual fare or a light lunch.

Zama: When our friends from Chicago, Kristin and Scott, came to visit us for a long weekend and Kristin and I sent the boys off to a Phillies game and we had a spa/sushi evening. The menu at Zama, located in Rittenhouse Square, features more than 30 a la carte sashimi, as well as a variety of maki rolls. I couldn’t decide, so I got a sushi and maki combination, which included one of the best spicy tuna rolls I’ve ever had. Kristin got a roll that was a play on a Philly cheesesteak, featuring Japanese beef and provolone with spicy mayo and bibb lettuce wrapped in red pepper flaked soy paper. It’s a little pricier than the average sushi bar in the city, but the ingredients are definitely of such a high quality, so I would say that  it’s worth it!

Hundred Acres: Bridget came to spend two weeks in Philly and we took a fun trip up to New York with our moms and my aunt to see Evita (one of my favorites!). While we were there, we ate lunch at this farm-to-table spot in Soho. The menu changes frequently, but at the time we visited, there was a really nice mix of options for brunch, from pancakes and French toast, to salads and sandwiches. We both enjoyed our grilled cheese, with white cheddar, apple and pecans. The only thing that I didn’t really enjoy was the odd mix of club/semi-hardcore rap music that was playing. Not exactly what you associate with a casual brunch, right?

Zavino: Bridget came to have lunch with me in the city during her visit and we were both in the mood for pizza. I’ve been to this Midtown Village spot a couple of times before and really enjoy the pizzas here—the crust is not too thick, but not too thin either. I like the Kennett (a white pizza with mushrooms) and the ‘Stache (pistachio and pesto, topped with a generous helping of arugula. They get bonus points from me because all the pizzas can be made with a whole wheat crust and they serve their iced tea in Mason jars.

Ralph’s: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve eaten at Ralph’s, which is located in the Italian Market. It is reported to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the country that has been continuously owned by the same family and the second oldest Italian restaurant in the country. Ralph’s serves traditional, “red-gravy” Italian food. My most recent visit was with Bridget and her family, and we both got what we always get—the manicotti. I’ve tried other things here, but this is my favorite dish. Chester really likes the Linguine Pescatore, with shrimps, clams, mussels and crabmeat. Reservations are a must, because it’s pretty small—you’ll be sharing close personal space with your neighbors. I have to say though, I’m not a huge fan of the service, as it tends to be a bit brusque—bordering on rude. I’ll still keep coming back, though.

New Delhi: This past weekend was a million degrees, so naturally, that’s the best time to eat Indian food, right? Chester and I pulled up to our perennial favorite, Sitar India, only to find it closed (hopefully, it’s just for renovations). So, we headed a few blocks down to one of the other University City Indian buffet spots. Sitar may have some competition when/if it reopens. As much as I love Sitar, it serves the same thing every day, and it seems that New Delhi rotates their items on a daily basis. And, the samosas and the chicken tikka masala at New Delhi may be just a little bit more flavorful. Plus, they have gulub jaman for dessert.

FARMiCiA: This is a solid Sunday brunch option in Old City. It doesn’t have the over-the-top dishes or long lines of Sabrina’s or Green Eggs. It’s just good, normal eggs, pancakes, and French toast, with a few other more fun options like breakfast quesadillas and cheddar grits thrown in. I enjoyed my crab omelette, which was bursting with a flavorful crabmeat, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. And, because it’s owned by the same folks that own Metropolitan Bakery, so the carb products are pretty outstanding. Now that I think about it, I should have gotten some granola because Metropolitan’s granola is the best (even though it’s probably like $10 per bag at this point). Next time. The service was a little slow, but the staff was super friendly—even to the guy next to us who was being a tool and wanted to order the steak and eggs with bacon and sausage instead of steak, over easy eggs instead of scrambled, and a side of spinach instead of potatoes. Right…

So, if you were worried that my summer slump was affecting my eating habits, never fear. It would seem that that’s the only thing I’ve been doing.

Is anyone else in a summer slump? What are you doing to cope with it?

This Week for Dinner

It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, and that’s because the last half of June was so crazy busy that we didn’t cook too many meals at home. I figured I would wait until I had a collection of things that somehow resembled a week’s worth of meals, you know?

So, without further adieu, here are some ideas for your upcoming meal plans:

California Grilled Chicken Avocado and Mango Salad

From: Skinnytaste

This is one of my favorite lunchtime salads from Mixto, which is located just down the street from my office. The dressing includes a white balsamic vinegar, which has a very clean, slightly sweet taste so that it doesn’t overpower the flavors of all of the good stuff in this salad.

Orecchiette with Sausage and Roasted Peppers

From: Martha Stewart

This is one of our staple pasta dishes. It’s quick and easy to make (you can use jarred peppers—we like the Cento brand the best—if you don’t want the hassle of roasting your own) and features the cutest pasta shape ever.

Easy Pesto Salmon

From: Cooking Light

You might have some basil growing like a weed in your garden at this time of year (we unfortunately didn’t get around to planting any this year, but maybe you have. If so, come on over, I have a few containers you can fill for us) and making fresh pesto is a great way to use it up. Pesto is one of my favorite complements to salmon. We made a simple side dish with sweet asparagus and yellow zucchini and also tried out one of the new quinoa blends from Near East, our go-to brand for instant rice and couscous. I recommend.

Farfalle with Creamy Wild Mushroom Sauce

From: Cooking Light

Another quick, easy pasta dish. We just used baby portabella mushrooms in this version, because that’s usually what is available in our grocery store, but you can mix and match with other varieties, like crimini, oyster and shiitake if you prefer.

Pulled Barbeque Chicken Sandwiches

From: Chester

It’s been too hot to grill outside, so this is a good way to get your barbeque fix in the comfort of your air conditioned kitchen. There are all kinds of recipes out there for pulled chicken, but here is Chester’s:

  1. Take three chicken breasts (this will make enough for about two people) and give them a dry rub consisting of paprika, coriander, garlic powder, onion powder (1 tablespoon of each), chili powder and cumin (1 teaspoon of each) and salt and pepper (to taste).
  2. Bake the chicken for 30-40 minutes covered in foil, while you make the barbeque sauce. The sauce is tangy, so you may want to make adjustments to it based on your preferences, but the basic recipe is: one can of tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard (2 tablespoons of each), vinegar (2-3 tablespoons of each, depending on how tangy you like your barbeque), brown sugar (1/3 cup at least, adjusted for your preferences on sweetness).
  3. Mix all of the ingredients together and simmer over low heat on the stove until the sauce thickens.
  4. Shred the chicken with a fork and mix with sauce; Serve on toasted rolls with your choice of sides.

Happy Weekend to all! Stay cool!

Lunch in Tuscany: Officina della Bistecca

Shortly before we left for our trip to Italy, Chester was watching an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain visited Dario Cecchini, owner of the butcher shop Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Dario, whose family has been in the business for more than 250 years, has an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for traditional Tuscan cuisine, particularly when it comes to the proper way to prepare Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine grilled steak).

On Sunday afternoons, Dario celebrates this and other classic dishes with his “Officina Della Bistecca” menu, a family-style luncheon on the second floor of the butcher shop, which features beef prepared five different ways. If you have been following along for any length of time, you know that Chester has never met a piece of steak that he hasn’t liked. So, when we discovered that Panzano was only about an hour away from our home base near San Gimignano, we immediately made a reservation.

The drive was much more complicated than we had anticipated. We traveled up and down hills and through winding roads and I spent most of the ride trying to contain my carsickness and praying for a gas station to materialize, since we were dangerously close to running out of fuel at one point. Luckily, one did, but by the time we finally made it to Panzano we were nearly 30 minutes late for the 1:00 p.m. seating. We almost scrapped our plans to go to Dario’s, thinking we were too late. Fortunately, Dario’s wife, Kim, who handles reservations totally understood the reasons for our delay and showed us to our places table.

We were seated with a really nice group of people, including an American couple who spends part of their year in Tuscany (she is an art teacher) and a Brazilian couple who had been enjoying a month-long stay in the area, and the conversations with them made the afternoon even more enjoyable. The atmosphere in the dining room was very homey and festive throughout the afternoon, with everyone laughing, being loud and passing jugs of wine back and forth across the table.

In addition to the five beef dishes, the menu includes bread and raw vegetables (which become highly addictive when dipped in olive oil, seasoned with a generous helping of the salt/pepper/garlic blend bearing Dario’s name), white beans and baked potatoes, Chianti “butter,” (which is actually lardo, or pork fat.) dessert, red wine, grappa and military spirits, and coffee. At 50 euros per person (right now, about $62), the pricing is far less than what you would pay for a similar experience in Philly, and the quality of the beef was far superior to the best cut of steak I’ve had here at home. All of the preparations were grilled to medium rare, seasoned with salt and pepper and doused with a bit of olive oil. This simple preparations allows the flavor of the meat to really come through.

I don’t eat red meat often, and on the occasion where the odd craving for it strikes me, I can barely ever finish a steak when I order it in a restaurant or when Chester cooks it at home. At Dario’s, I had seconds (and, occasionally, thirds) of everything. It was just that good. My favorite dishes were the beef tartar, which was finished with just a bit of lemon (I overheard one of the waiters referring to this dish as “Chianti sushi”) and the Panzanese steak, which is a cut from the rump of the cow that Dario helped popularize. I was surprised at how tender and flavorful it was.

Clockwise from top left: Beef tartar, rib eye, Florentine Steak, Panzanese steak, seared beef

Dario stopped by to expertly dismantle a cut of beef, fresh off the grill. As you can see from this video Chester shot, Dario is quite the showman, quoting Dante as he demonstrates some crazy knife skills.

Olive oil cake was the perfect finish to this meal. I must try to recreate it at home, although I know I’ll never be able to achieve the perfect balance of sweetness and crunchy top crust that this version had. I stayed away from the spirits and grappa, though, but can verify that they did make everyone, really, uh, spirited (including one of our table mates, who got into his car after lunch for a three hour drive to the Milan airport. Here’s hoping that he made it!).

If you plan to check out Officina Della Bistecca, you can also reserve your place on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Or, you could just visit the shop itself, where you will likely find the crowds spilling out on to the sidewalk and enjoying free wine and samples of food. Dario will likely be there as well, entertaining everyone while covered in blood and wielding a frightening looking saw, like so:

Chester’s favorite photo of the trip