And so it was in the City of Brotherly Love for me this week. I expected Philadelphia to be a coffee Mecca, given the large Italian influence on the place. Well, maybe not Mecca, exactly, that would be Seattle. But I expected a decent espresso. Turned out to be quite a chore. Ultimately, I prevailed (of course), and we’ll get to that – but I have to warn you that for a change I have extra time on my hands as I type this, so it’s likely to be a long one.
I was in The City for a trade show. As a former southeast Pennsylvanian, I can refer to Philadelphia as “The City”, even though we all know New York is The City. The fact that Philadelphia is not much of a city by New York standards gives us no pause in our mischaracterization. While attending my other trade show, I had the pleasure of crashing the National Association of Produce Managers convention – kind of like Wedding Crashers, only not nearly as entertaining. But I ate well. They really need better security if they want to keep the riff raff out. Nice carrot sticks, guys.
Speaking of eating well, this trip was a gastronomical delight. It started with dinner at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, when I offered to bring some groceries and spend a few hours cooking together. In anticipation, I wandered through the Reading Terminal Market listening to the vegetables. My sister-in-law has taken to calling me The Food Whisperer because I possess the supposedly unique talent to converse with produce, but I refuse to believe that the rest of you never hear a beautiful tomato call out your name and say, “Hey, big boy, use me in a sauce”. Only this time it was the mushrooms. Beautiful fungi from the Mushroom Capital of the World (in this case, a legitimate and indisputable title dating to the late 1800’s) called out from the Fair Food Farmstand. In the end, it was a pretty little yellow oyster mushroom that won my heart when she whispered “mushroom cream sauce, Chef”. Mushrooms know that flattery will get them everywhere with me, but truth be told, she had me at hello. Add a little double smoked bacon, some fresh butter, raw milk and fresh cheese, a few free range eggs, assorted herbs (damn lying marjoram passed itself off as oregano – last time I ever take the word of an herb) and some flour, and we were all set to make fresh pasta and cream sauce. A loaf of artisan bread and bottle of Pennsylvania wine (the ’05 Merlot from Blue Mountain, please don’t give me any crap over choosing a clearly inappropriate wine, of course I would have preferred a big buttery white, but this falls into the “best of what’s available” category) made it the beginning of a perfect meal. Oh, and don’t forget a couple brownies from The Flying Monkey…. mmmm.
So I taught my brother to make herb pasta from scratch, a process so easy my twelve year olds could do it if they had the strength in their hands, though Andy clearly needs rolling lessons, as evidenced by the “pasta rustica” he churned out. While we drank wine we also whipped up a bacon infused cream sauce. After dinner we chased the brownies with a press pot of Brazil Fazenda Catuai that I had sent them a week or so earlier – again, no comments on my sommelier skills, we were using up a bag that I had preground. And we enjoyed some great family time doing it. I honestly don’t understand the infatuation with going out to eat, especially for a special occasion when you want to share some quality time with special people. There is not a chef on the planet that can make a more special meal than we enjoyed that evening (more technically perfect, maybe; more special – never), and it’s so simple that even Rachel Ray could do it. It took less than an hour and could easily be done ahead for weeknights, so the “I don’t have time to cook” argument holds no water; you will spend more time waiting at Maggiano’s Little Italy (ugh), which bears not even a passing resemblance to any Italy, than you will preparing this meal. I spent about $40 on all the ingredients, not including the wine, to be fair, and we figure there was enough ingredients to prepare at least ten meals, including some breakfasts. And at that you would have some extra herbs, flour and a few other odds and ends of staples leftover. So at about $4 per meal I’m afraid I don’t understand the “good food costs too much” arguments, either. It’s convenience that costs too much, both in money and in the part of your soul that is assaulted and left for dead each time you succumb to the Big Food marketing machine.
Now no trip to The City would be complete without a jaunt to South Philly. First stop, cheese steaks. I’ve always been a Geno’s man myself, no so much because of the steaks, but because that was our occasional later night road trip when I was an undergraduate. So I got in line on 9th Street and waited about ten minutes to get to the window. It was then that I saw the “Order in English” sign, which apparently has been big news nationally. I only had to think for a second. Since when is the phrase “one wiz wit” English, anyway? (For the uninitiated, the way to order a Philly steak is to specify “wiz”, meaning Cheese Whiz, the secret ingredient of a real Philly steak, or to remain silent on the subject of cheese, signifying its omission. They are also available with American or Provolone; Provolone is an acceptable, if less desirable alternative, but I can’t recall ever seeing one with American or even hearing one ordered. The utterance “wit” is used to signify “with onions”. So “one wiz wit” means a cheese steak with Cheese Whiz and onions.) Anyway, I stepped out of line and went across the street to Pat’s, where I will go from now on. And got one wiz wit.
Regarding the Geno’s sign, I thought about how I treat my own customers. Which is, order in any language you please, just give me enough of a hint that I can figure out what you would like. And pay me in any currency you like; hell, I’d prefer Euros. The whole situation reminded me of a night in France a few years ago. I was with my friend Ishaq, who is Afghani but speaks better English than most Americans. We went to a café in Lyon, or maybe it was Grenoble or Avignone, and sat at the bar next to a couple guys and a very large dog. I realize this sounds like a joke, but it’s not. They spoke not a word of English, and us not a word of French, but it ranks among the best conversations of my life. I learned that they were both painters, and married, though not to each other. And that they both liked good liquer more than wine, and were not at all fond of beer. I know that they were not fans on the Bush administration. They had been at the bar a few hours, and were regulars. The dog was named Bouche, liked lamb bones and ear scratching, and had very nasty flatulence. They learned that we were both engineers, married (also not to each other), and that Ishaq was from Afghanistan. They did not believe me when I told them I was Canadian, my standard cover story when speaking to strangers abroad; must have been my southern accent. We bought each other drinks in Euros and Dollars and Swiss Francs, all of which were handled with equal ease and correct change. We left singing at 2 AM. I’m really glad that bar had no sign that said “Order in French”, and no Joey Vento bartender. So sorry Joey, no more Geno’s for me. Ever.
On the way up 9th Street, with the smell of cheese steak on my hands, I stopped the car in the Italian market section north of Pete’s Live Produce. It was there that the lyrics of “I Saw God Today” started playing in my mind. If there is a Deity, surely this is the place She calls home. I knew I was in earthly heaven when I saw the animal carcasses in the windows. Above the sweetbreads, which are neither sweet nor bread. No attempt to camouflage it, to insult our intelligence with sterile Styrofoam packaging and shrink wrap. No sir, this was very clearly a dead animal without its skin. Hung over its entrails. With no apologies. And it made me hungry. It was then I realized just how utterly culinarily bankrupt the place I now call home is. Don’t get me wrong, I do love North Carolina and there are several fine food traditions here – but not this, not even at Cliff’s Meat Market, or Capri Flavors, or that market on Person Street whose name I always forget but is across from the original Krispy Kreme and its Hot Donuts beacon of light. So I wandered the market, and left only after my carry on bag was full of tonno in oil with salt, sopressata, lard, and Italian pastry, and when my jacket was permeated with the aroma of fine cheese and charcuterie. I can smell it now as I type (cue the George Strait). My only regret is that I didn’t think the fresh sardines could make the trip.
And so we come back to the coffee. I searched and I searched. But clearly center and south Philly is nearly as much a coffee wasteland as the rest of Dunkin’ Donuts America. Then I met Jack. Actually, I saw the 12 kilo Probat before I met Jack. Jack is the Roastmaster at Old City Coffee, which has its aforementioned roaster in the Reading Terminal Market. He was roasting up a batch of French Roast, or at least that’s how it turned out, as we spent a few pleasant minutes chatting. He has been in business since 1985 and acquired his Probat in 1988. He has been through a couple failed locations but is “doing alright” in the RTM. I had my morning (and afternoon) espressos at Jacks for the three days I was in Philly. I must admit that the first morning I was disappointed – my single espresso of his Six Bean Blend was a bit flat, which I guessed before I tasted it by virtue of its light crema and the rapidity of its delivery. But then I met Dirk, quite by accident. Turns out that OCC has two locations in the RTM – the main shop near the entrance, and a “satellite” counter on the east side of the market. Dirk was manning the machine when I encountered him on my first afternoon. When he pulled a proper ristretto for me I knew this is the place I would return. The Six Bean Blend had acquired a Whole New Life under Dirk’s capable management. Way to go, Dirk.
As a reward for listening to the ranting of a homesick foodie, I thought I would share my pasta recipe and cream sauce with you. The pasta starts with about 3 cups of flour, two eggs, a generous pinch of salt, and a little (tablespoon) olive oil. Herbs are optional – if you want some, mince them and mix with the flour. On a large board, make a mound of flour (into which you mixed salt and herbs) then a crater in the center. Add the eggs and oil to the crater. Beat the eggs, then start pulling flour into them with a fork. Mix, then knead till it’s dough. You may have to add a little water(teaspoons at a time) if it’s too dry, or a little flour if it’s too wet. When you have a nice, elastic, nonsticky ball of dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour while you make the sauce. When you are ready, cut tuna-can size hunks off the dough and roll them really thin. Slice them into ¼” ribbons.
For the sauce, start with a couple slices of bacon (or better yet, pancetta) and dice into ¼” cubes. Cook in large skillet till just crispy, then drain off the grease (save it!). Add a big hunk of butter to the warm skillet, then a quart of milk and some shredded hard cheese like parmesan, asiago or whatever you have around. Simmer a while. Drink wine while simmering. Add herbs if you like. If it’s too thin, dissolve some flour in water, increase heat to a hard simmer, then add flour water slowly a few teaspoons at a time till the thickness is as desired. Taste and season with salt and pepper. You can add a little more bacon fat for some more flavor. We added the fresh mushrooms and some frozen peas just before serving, allow them to heat through.
When the sauce is ready, cook the pasta in boiling water. Depending on thickness it will only take a minute or three, till al dente or not even quite that much. Toss pasta and sauce together. Serve with a green salad. And more wine.