Monday, December 24, 2012

Housemade pasta, creative pizza, local craft beer and more at Birroteca

I think I'm in love. With a restaurant. Birroteca. And it's literally a minute from my house, affair has ensued. I think I've told everyone I know how fantastic this place is. It really could be love. And by the looks of the place, many other Baltimoreans are also having a love affair. Packed - all the time. So, be sure to make a resie on Open Table or just go early and sit at the bar. 

Don't dismiss Birroteca as a pizza place. Or a regular old Italian restaurant. Or, that they only serve beer (but I will say, the beer is a very, very good reason to seek this place out.) Or be weirded out by the location. Why you SHOULD go? The menu is inventive, delicious and beautiful...but not stuffy or pretentious. The servers and bartenders are friendly, helpful and yes, they do sport kinda hipster-esque outfits...but there is no side of 'tude with the plaid shirts. This place is laid back, comfortable and welcoming. So good. I wish I could go once a week. 

Here are a few photos of some of my favorite dishes at Birroteca.  (Wait, is beer a dish?) 
p.s. They are very nice about letting you have a taste of the beers before you order...

Who knows what beer this is? I've tried so many...

Crispy polenta (crispy outside, soft and creamy inside) with eggplant ragu dippage
My favorite thing there - and I usually don't love eggplant...

Risotto with lobster, calamari, artichokes and topped with baby lamb chops

Crudo of porchetta, tuna aioli and pickled fennel

Ravioli with butternut squash and madeira sausage

Fazzoletti with wild boar bolognese


Pizza with spicy fennel sausage and mushrooms 

Pizza with duck confit, fig onion jam and trugole cheese, topped with duck egg

Grilled calamari with lemon, garlic and parsley

Ricotta cheesecake

Happy girl and her beer

And check out Richard Gorelick's and Wesley Case's Baltimore Sun write ups.  

I overheard some folks talking recently about how much they did not like Birroteca. I wanted to shout, "No, no, no. Go back! You got the wrong things!" Here's what I would absolutely not skip: crispy polenta, grilled calamari, kale salad, sausage and mushroom pizza, duck pizza, butternut squash ravioli with madeira sausage, wild boar bolognese and...if they have it, get the ricotta cheesecake. I also loved the olive oil and sea salt ice cream. The flavors are subtle and delicious. And...each night there is a special dish served family style. The folks next to us got the lobster risotto topped with baby lamb chops and that's on my list for next time (have to remember to go on a Wednesday and pray it's still on the menu...)

Seriously, this place is not to be missed. Go!

Monday, November 19, 2012

A delicious adventure begins

About a year ago, I started playing around with recipes for salted caramel brownies. Heard the word salt and thought, YES! After changing the ingredients and measurements a few times, I ended up with what I felt was a darn near perfect brownie - rich, dense, fudgy, chocolatey, a tiny bit salty.

Dannng, look at that.

Then, I started doing some weekend cooking for private clients - busy people who just want a nice home cooked meal that would feed them on Sunday and also give them leftovers for part of the week. Simple good food prepared with local, organic, ingredients (in-season from the Waverly Farmers Market whenever possible) including dishes like herb roasted chicken, butternut squash risotto, tons of soups and stews, pies, etc. I offered the salted caramel brownies to my clients. And...they flipped. OUT.

I found out over time, too, that they are even better a few days after they are baked and camping out in the fridge. They become more dense and there's something about letting it thaw slightly and biting into a rich, thick brownie (and looking at the salt and caramel added to the top just before they are packaged) that just makes you happy. Even for me, the gal who prefers savory to sweet nine times out of ten. This is my kind of dessert.

Then things got interesting. I was telling my friend Susannah about them and she offered to sell them at her amazing shop, Ma Petite Shoe. If you're not familiar with Ma Petite Shoe, they have been selling shoes and chocolate on the Avenue in Hampden for over ten years now. Such a great shop - shoes and chocolate! Susannah is someone I trust and admire and we've been friends for many years, so it's perfect that she is the person I'm working with to launch my side biz. So, now I deliver periodically to Ma Petite Shoe and each time I do, the brownies fly out the door. They are boxed ready for gift giving and sell for $4.99 each. Worth every single penny. Many of my friends refer to them as the "crack brownies" but I didn't think that name was really the "brand" I was trying to create...but you can call 'em that if you want.

So, get to Ma Petite Shoe, hon. Also, I have been selling food photos, brownies and jars of salted caramel sauce and three kinds of jam - fig jam, bacon bourbon pepper jam and grapefruit ginger pepper jam. Great to have on hand during holiday entertaining season and also for hostess gifts and stocking stuffers.

From my little urban farm to you, happy eating!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Giving Thanks

Cooking. Relaxing. Friends and family. Great food. No pressure of gifts! I love Thanksgiving.

When I was a kid, my parents would host all of our aunts, uncles and cousins for Thanksgiving dinner at our house in Kingsville. It was so much fun...laughing, catching up, hearing old stories from our parents, watching football and the best part...eating! We had a traditional meal of roast turkey and sides like mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, sauerkraut (you have to have it, no questions - this is Baltimore), gravy, soft dinner rolls and butter. Old school. So many great memories. I loved every minute of it.

Over the years we got together as a big family less often, cousins moved south, my brothers had their own families and in-laws, etc. So, during much of my adult life, I've celebrated the holiday with different groups of friends and family and it's actually been lots of fun. Once I went to the home of a vegetarian friend and had tofurkey - not bad at all, but I kinda missed the real bird. One year, my friends and I made pizzas using ingredients from Baltimore's amazing Italian grocery, Trinacria.
That was a Thanksgiving I will never forget!

While I do miss the old days of Thanksgiving for 30, it's also fun to mix it up and also to start new traditions, too. The last few years, I've hosted my mom at my house in Hampden. As the youngest of six kids, it's pretty darn cool to get to be in charge! I do the turkey, a few sides and sweet potato or pumpkin pie and mom brings a few sides, too. Two years ago, we just roasted a turkey breast and a couple of legs...and that was great for the two of us. But last year I wanted lots of leftovers, so I ordered a whole local, organic bird from Andy at Andy's Eggs & Poultry at the Waverly Market. Doing that again this year - thanks, Andy! Thanksgiving is the one time of the year when I actually love leftovers. Nothing like hanging out in your jammies the day after Thanksgiving enjoying a plate of leftovers for lunch. Heaven.

These days, thanks to Tyler Florence, I butterfly the bird. I happened to catch him on the Today Show last year and he showed how to easy it is to split it in two right down the back. This way, the turkey only takes an hour and a half or so to cook, stays very juicy and the skin is nice and crispy. I thought, I can do that (you need a good, solid sharp chef's knife or kitchen shears.) And, I did it. It was delicious.

Also...check out this piece from the food lab over at Serious Eats - some very helpful advice to guide you as you prepare to cook your feast, And here are some recipe ideas from Epicurious, Gourmet and Food52. Good stuff!

After Thanksgiving, two of my favorite things to make are turkey pot pie and pumpkin ice cream.

photo by the kitchn

For the pumpkin ice cream, it couldn't be easier. Scoop filling out of leftover pumpkin pie, mix with some really good vanilla ice cream, freeze and enjoy later.  Ridiculous.

Here's what I want to know: What are your favorite things about Thanksgiving? Do you and your family or friends have any interesting traditions? Any recipes you'd care to share? Post them on my facebook page!


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Good eats in Charm City

What's the best meal you've had in B'more recently? That's a tough one. For me, it's more than just the food. It's the people I'm with, the surroundings, the service, the vibe, etc. And yes, of course...the food. If the food is bad, what's the point?

Some friends and I were talking the other day about our favorite restaurants in Baltimore. There were some strong opinions! Here are some of mine...not really in order. I love them all for very different reasons.

b - Bolton Hill

Cozy, warm space....chalkboard menu, friendly service and of course, amazing food. Love the roasted forest mushrooms, bistro salad and crispy pork belly...entrees like duck confit, steak frites, roast chicken. Yum. Oh, and the homemade ice creams and sorbets - interesting flavors like cardamom, ginger and blood orange. They also have excellent wine selections and they're half price on Tuesdays. Add in al fresco dining in charming Bolton Hill on a beautiful night - perfect. It feels like a nice night out but not too fancy (I love 'not too fancy'.)

The Food Market - Hampden

Creative, delicious food, reasonable prices and - it's not trying too hard to be cool. But it just IS cool. Super talented Chef Chad Gauss and the oh-so-charming front of house man, Elan Kotz are quite a team - turning out great food and giving diners a smooth, enjoyable experience. My favorite things here change a lot because the menu changes with the seasons and local ingredient availability (and also because I can walk there and seem to be there every other week.) This summer, I loved the heirloom and burrata (soft, buttery cheese...oh, dear it is gooood) salad with balsamic...and the lobster roll, soft pretzels and Buffalo pickles are always a hit. Plus, they do brunch and offer free valet. Yes, it's loud, but they're continuing to work on that. Request a table in the's quieter. Or even better? Get there early, sit at the bar and you'll be outta there as the crowd begins to swell. Love, love, love

Corner BYOB - Hampden

I'm an adventurous eater and here, that's a good thing. But if exotic meats (think elk, kangaroo...) and fish you may never heard of (skate, sablefish...) are not your thing, you might go for mussels, burgers, steaks, risotto, salads and more. Yum. The people here are so accommodating, helpful and best of all, they want you to love your meal. Every time I've visited, the food has been fantastic. Audible gasps (but then, that's me.) I also love that it's BYOB - bring something from home or hit the Wine Source next door. Some of my friends have complained to me about the corkage fees, but I really don't mind them. This is a gem.

PABU - Harbor East

What a great place. Izakaya style's kinda like a restaurant and a very cool bar in one. Food and beverages are both to be appreciated equally. Modern, yet approachable. The sake list was artfully curated by sake sommelier Tiffany Soto. She is insanely talented and will help guide you through the list (and her Sake 101 classes? Fab.) Chef Jonah Kim is skillful, creative (you have to have his 'Happy Spoon') and he locally sources his meats, dairy and more. These people are true artists. Get down to Harbor East..have a great dinner out with friends, take a sake class, sushi rolling class and hit their great happy hours. It's really like no other place in town. (Here is a little more in depth look at PABU.)

Woodberry Kitchen - Woodberry

Duh. Spike and Amy Gjerde's comfy supper joint. They got it all right. The space, the people, the vibe, the menu...oh, how I love it here. I can't always afford dinner here, so sometimes I just meet a friend at the bar early (like by 5:30, no later) to have a cocktail and nibble on simple snacks like kitchen pickles, smoked onion dip and deviled eggs. What you must try? The CMP. I am not a huge sweets gal, but holy dirt...I fully agree with Duff Goldman that the CMP is amazing! It comes in a glass with a hard sugar top. You have to tap the sugar to break in and then you find malt ice cream topped with marshmallow fluff, chocolate sauce and wet peanuts. Happiness.

Peter's Inn - Fell's Point

Part neighborhood bar, part gourmet restaurant. The New York strip, mashed potatoes and garlic bread make me very, very, very happy. The menu is smart and tight and changes a lot, which I love. They do 1/2 price wines on Wednesdays and have a great selection of draft beers. Highly recommend the white chocolate caramel pot du creme for dessert. I do not get down to Peter's nearly enough. Such nice people - they really know what they're doing here. And, the ladies room is quite entertaining!

Iggie's - Mt. Vernon

If there is ever a time when I like "fancy", it's on my pizza. You know, unique toppings like red onion confit, roasted duck, mushroom ragu...stuff like that. But then at a place like Iggie's, even a basic cheese or pepperoni pizza is not's insanely good. You can also "take and bake" your pie if you want to cook it at home, too. And the best part? It's BYOB! Weekend afternoons are a great time to go - sit outside and watch the world go by. Even though some great new pizza places have opened recently (Hersh's is amazing and their menu is much more extensive), I still think Iggie's makes my favorite pizza in town.

Little Grano - Hampden

Tiny, tiny, tiny. Catch it at the right time? Heaven. And it's BYOB. You choose your pasta and your sauce (I am a big fan of the Bolognese), add in a nice little salad, pour your wine and enjoy. Go early, or will be happy!

Here is Baltimore mag's list of top restaurants for last year.

Also, check out these new dining spots in charm city and let me know what you think.

Johnny's - Roland Park

Birroteca - Hampden
Kettle Hill - Power Plant Live
Gordon Biersch - Harbor East
Ouzo Bay - Harbor East

What local restaurants do you LOVE? Fave dishes?

Here some yum plates from some of my faves (and others I didn't write about this time around...)

Happy spoons at PABU

Crispy polenta at Birroteca

Cipolla pizza at Iggie's

Cappuccino at Johnny's

Macarons at LAMILL 

Shrimp and grits at Langermann's

Candy bar dessert at Blue Hill Tavern

Duvel at Alonso's

Roasted pork and fennel sausage at 13.5%

Sofi's gruyere and bacon crepe 

Bolognese and ravioli at Little Grano

Lobster wedge salad at Thames Street Oyster House

Buffalo pickles at The Food Market

Skip the chains, go local!

p.s. My current restaurant crush is Birroteca. More on that later...

Monday, October 29, 2012

This is a (really great) Cookbook

This is a short post...just want to share this cookbook filled with recipes for real food - seasonal stuff, not too fancy or complicated. It's by Eli and Max Sussman and I love it. 

I've had it a few weeks now and so far, I've cured bacon and made grilled flank steak, roasted squash and jalapeño coleslaw. Can't wait to make the roasted corn soup, grilled peach salad and panzanella next summer. (...and tons of other stuff like spicy aioli, orzo salad, roasted leg of lamb, Korean short ribs, grilled whole fish, homemade pasta....)

If you like approachable, simple food - get this cookbook!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Makin' Bacon

I'm completely fascinated by chefs that cook 'nose to tail' style - using every part of the animal - like kidneys, brain, feet and more. One of the most front and center of these chefs is Chris Cosentino. Often as his restaurant Incanto in San Francisco, he'll offer a plate called "Odds and Ends" making amazing dishes out of what many chefs toss. Some say gnarly, I say let's try it. If you're an Instagram user, follow Chris - he's fun. He also founded the artisan salumi company, Boccalone, and they make the most amazing salami and other tasty salted pig parts. I love the orange and fennel. The head salume (the guy who actually makes all of this art), Stephen Pocock is a Baltimorean and a very cool guy. He also runs his own business called Damn Fine Bacon, which keeps Bay Area bacon enthusiasts quite happy.

So, yes...I'm a fairly adventurous eater now, but I was kind of a picky eater as a child. Being the youngest of six (five older brothers) I learned to eat what I was offered...and to grab it pretty darn quick. As I started to cook somewhat seriously in these last few years, I began to try my hand at what I guess I'd call "projects" like preserving food and making things like bread, cheese, pasta and more. Then, when I saw a recipe for curing bacon in Max & Eli Sussman's (awesome) new cookbook, I decided that bacon was next. And, by the way, I've made several things out of the cookbook (the flank steak is awesome and easy) and I love it. Very approachable, good stuff. Highly recommend this cookbook.

First question was where to go to get the 5lbs of pork belly. I immediately thought of the Green Onion Market in Hamilton, which also happens to be run by Bill DeBloom, a 'kid' I grew up with in Kingsville. Ha, kid...we're in our mid-40s now! Bill runs the place with one of Baltimore's own nose to tail guys, Winston Blick of Clementine. These fine folks have been curing their own meats and creating some of the most creative and delicious charcuterie around town longer than most B'more restaurants. They also sell their own housemade charcuterie to many local restaurants, too. I have to say that the word charcuterie - basically, the branch of cooking devoted to prepared meat products, such as bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, pâtés, etc, primarily from pork - sounds so fancy and foreign at first. But it's really not. It's a simple thing with a fancy pants name...and to me, it's just beautiful. 

Other good spots I like to visit for charcuterie? Bluegrass in Federal Hill and The Wine Market in Locust Point. So flipping good. Look at this little number from The Wine Market. (sigh.)

Back to the bacon. First, the pork belly was from local pigs raised at Zahradka Farm, a local farm that Clementine works with all the time for the restaurant, market and also a very popular local meat CSA. So, Winston was excited to share their own pig with me, the eager student. I followed a New York Times recipe by John Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, co-authors of Charcuterie. (I want that book - hint, hint...) It was very clear and easy to follow. Basically, you choose your flavors, rub them onto the pork belly and then put it in a zip-loc bag in the fridge, turning it over daily. Then, at the end of 7-8 days, you simply cook it in the over on 200 for 90 minutes. You can also use a smoker, but well, I don't have a smoker and I can't imagine I will be getting one anytime soon.

For the recipes and techniques, I also consulted the Sussmans' cookbook. The only modification I made was to skip one ingredient - pink Himalayan sea salt. It makes the bacon pinkish in color - similar to bacon you'd buy in the store - but it also contains nitrates and Winston said I could definitely skip it at home. He said my bacon would look sort of grey until I cooked it - and he was right, of course. I made one savory bacon rubbed with fresh herbs and garlic and one sweeter kind with brown sugar and coffee. 

This weekend I used my bacon as a garnish in my grits and in my butternut squash soup - so, so good. 

What kinds of cooking projects do you like to do? Are you a pasta pro? A bread baker? Or maybe you're a cheese whiz? (Sorry, that was too easy...) Which end results do you think are worth the time and effort? I feel like bacon is something I will do at home over and over. Really super easy.

There is always more to learn. Onward!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Risotto is your friend

I'd always been told that making risotto is a bear. All that stirring, stirring, stirring. Blah, blah, blah. How do you know when it's done??  But thanks to the wonderful folks at America's Test Kitchen, I've found that it's not that hard. Risotto actually is your friend.

I've written about this show before, but it is well worth repeating: America's Test Kitchen is like no other cooking show. These talented cooks prepare recipes over and over and over, modifying them along the way in order to find the best way to make just about anything. If you like to cook (and learn) and you've not watched this show on public television - and its sister show, Cook's Country - get on it! They also review products and cooking tools on each episode, which I find especially helpful. Host Chris Kimball is adorable, nerdy and fun, so that's a plus, too.

Last year, I bought their MAMMOTH cookbook, which lists all of the recipes from the last ten years of the show, plus a shopping guide (ie: what's the best hot sauce, cheese grater, chef's knife) and also a great conversion and equivalencies guide. I've made a bunch of things from the cookbook - the best so far being mushroom risotto, oven fried chicken and beef stew. Yummm.

I highly recommend becoming a member on their website. I'm a member of Cooks Illustrated online, which is part of the same group of cooking sites. You can try a FREE 14-day trial membership, then if you want to continue after two weeks, it's about $30 for the year. This gives you access to their excellent recipes and videos.

Okay, so back to their fabulous mushroom risotto recipe. So good. I wanted to just eat it out of the dutch oven...but, alas, we got out the plates. Also, I've shared two other risotto recipes I've made over and over.

It's getting cold out. Time for some comfort food!

Need a little more help?
Risotto tips from the kitchn
Risotto 'how to' video
Even MORE tips!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Oh, for the love of figs


They always seemed a little too exotic for me. Fancy pants. I didn't grow up eating things like figs - we were more of a steak and potatoes kind of family. But the older and wiser (cough, cough...giggle...yep, I said wiser...) I get, the more I want to try new things. So, when I discovered fig paste, I was intrigued. It was on a cheese plate at The Wine Market with Manchego cheese, honey, toasted baguette slices with olive oil, sea salt and was the best flavor combo. So simple and perfect! I was in love. Soon, there I was...buying fresh figs at Trader Joe's. I found a recipe for fig paste online and made a pint of the sweet and savory goodness. Shared it with some friends and it was a hit, so I thought I had to make it again. But this time, I went a little crazy. I filled many, many  jars of it...and this time, PRESERVED it! (Feeling so domestic, hon.)

I recently posted about's so much fun. Here are a few helpful references on both figs and canning:

Successful home canning

Hot water bath canning
Bon Appetit fig recipes and tips
The fig and the wasp

And, some photos of the canning process.

Also, check out this great sandwich - fig, prosciutto, Fontina. Oh em geeee.

Fig tart goodness

Some flavors that love to be with figs:

Cheese (everything from goat to blue...)
Crème fraîche

And, because it was there on the curb calling my name, I bought a fig tree at Whole Foods and it has a great sunny spot in the backyard. It's three years old now and bore teeny tiny fruit this year...can't wait for next year! The fig tree makes me really happy. 

Feed your soul. My soul likes figs.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Yes, we can!

Whatever you choose to call it - canning, preserving, putting up - I'm into it. I used to be pretty intimidated by the idea of preserving food, it just seemed so, well...domesticated. So, I started out with one of the easiest things you can make...applesauce. It made me feel like, okay, wow. I did it. I didn't realize how easy it was going to be, clearly! Then, later I moved onto jams, jellies, tomatoes and pickles. For the last few years, I've made some pretty darn good fig jam. I sold a boatload of it last year and didn't save any for myself...that's not gonna happen this year. I've already hoarded some...

It's such a bummer when those gorgeous, flavorful, locally grown fruits and vegetables are gone...womp, womp, wommmp. You walk through the farmers market kicking yourself - shoulda coulda woulda. But it doesn't have to be that can savor it! You probably have a friend who's always posting on Pinterest or Facebook about canning and other DIY projects. Ask them to help you get started - working with an experience canner is a great way to learn. Or, jump online and Google what you'd like to make, watch some videos, get yourself the gear (or McGyver your own) and your ingredients and recipes - cucumbers (I love pickles), radishes, tomatoes, apples...etc) and go to town. Get 'er done!

I found a super simple way of canning tomatoes via my very, very, very favorite food blog, the kitchn. As you will see if you click on this link, you just put fresh tomatoes in a roasting pan under the broiler for about 8-10 minutes on each side and just let them cool...then they peel very easily.

Then, onto the canning part...grab your jars and lids and boil them in a stockpot for about 15-20 minutes. Pull the jars out using a jar lifter and let them cool a bit. Fill the jars with the tomatoes, put the lids on and submerge the filled jars in the boiling water for another 20. Using your jar lifter, remove the filled jars from the boiling water, let rest and cool on a kitchen towel. This is the important part: you will hear each one seal with a "thump" sound. They don't all do it right away...don't panic. Sometimes they can take as long as an hour or longer to seal.

Can't wait to get a big 'ol load of tomatoes from the farmers market this weekend. It's gonna be so much fun - a canning partay in Hampden. I'm also going to make this tomato basil jam - oh, my!

Whatever you're preserving, be sure to do your research and follow directions very carefully to be sure you're working safely. This is not a project where winging it will work. This is especially true with tomatoes. Here is a great book to help you along the way - Food in Jars - I want it!

Grab a friend and put some stuff up! Come winter, you'll be glad you did.