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Archive for May, 2013

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Pat’s, a South Philly landmark.

When I was in college, my boyfriend Paul’s fraternity embarked on an epic quest to Philly each year. Around 10 p.m. on a Saturday, they’d pile into three or four cars and race up I-95 (I don’t even want to know how fast). Their destination? Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly. The treasure? A cheesesteak “wit” onions and Whiz (Cheez-Whiz).

When you order at Pat’s, you say “wit” to mean “with” and “wit-out” to mean “without.” Onions are fine, but  Cheez-Whiz? Honestly? Thankfully they also have Provolone (although some will argue it’s not a cheesesteak without the Whiz).

Philly meets Las Vegas.

Philly meets Las Vegas.

Travel to the intersection of 9th and Passyunk at around midnight on any given  Saturday night and you will find a lively, if not peculiar scene. Across the street from modest Pat’s is flashier competitor Geno’s Steaks. The wild lights display, reminiscent of something you might see in Las Vegas, feels out of place in the middle-class South Philly neighborhood.

I first visited Pat’s with my mom several years ago. I ordered a Provolone cheesesteak “wit-out.” The shaved ribeye, soft hoagie roll and slightly melted cheese on top was divine at the time, so I devoured the entire monster. Paul, my boyfriend, had asked if I could bring back a cheesesteak for him in Baltimore. I can’t imagine anything is good after sitting in a car covered in Cheez-Whiz for several hours, but I’ve never seen him happier after eating his steak.

My first Philly cheesesteak.

My first Philly cheesesteak.

Last year, Paul and I visited Pat’s late one Saturday night on our way home from a track meet in rural Pennsylvania. We drove 30 miles out of the way just to make a stop at Pat’s. We ate them inside my car because Pat’s only offers outdoor seating (In 30 degree January weather, that’s just not fun). For the rest of the drive back, the odd scent of Cheez-Whiz from Paul’s cheesesteak permeated my car.

He's in heaven.

He’s in heaven.

Most recently, I joined Paul on a road trip up to New Jersey for his summer job. I looked at a map beforehand  and realized we would be passing Philly – obviously, this warranted a stop at Pat’s. Upon later inspection, I realized that Philly was a little out of the way, but of course I waited until afterwards to tell Paul this. Needless to say, he admitted it was probably the best detour he’d ever taken.

Don't take my photo while I'm chewing!

Don’t take my photo while I’m chewing!

Pat’s opened about 30 years before Geno’s, but equally long lines of out-of-towners and locals form outside both destinations. It’s a question often asked: “Who has the better cheesesteak? Pat’s or Geno’s?”

Ask Philadelphians this question and they will probably direct you elsewhere in the city, such as John’s Roast Pork or Phillip’s Steaks. Yes, Pat’s and Geno’s can be touristy, but they are classic Philly landmarks. And if you live in D.C. like I do, you should visit them at least once.

Sometimes, it’s more about what the place means to you personally. For Paul, visiting Pat’s reminds him of good times with his fraternity in college. For me, I think of the fun trip my mom and I took to the city years ago. For these reasons, we’ll keep going to Pat’s. And, if we’re feeling extra adventurous, we might even try a cheesesteak at Geno’s.

Photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat’s_King_of_Steaks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geno’s_Steaks

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The grill. I’d feared it since I started as an extern at the restaurant where I currently work. The endless assault of steaks, burgers and other proteins struck every Friday and Saturday. I’d watched cooks fly finished plates off this station and I’d also watched cooks drown in the flood of orders. After working the salad station and the saute station (where I only cooked fish) for months, it was only a matter of time before I’d find myself here.

Not the average backyard grill.

Not the average backyard grill.

About a month ago, it finally happened. I worried about my lack of previous experience. I remember one of the cooks (it might have even been the sous chef) telling me: “If you can cook fish, you can cook anything.” I’m not so sure this is entirely true.

My father was territorial of our grill when I was younger (must be a man thing), so I’d always stayed away. We had touched on grilling briefly in culinary school, too, but we mostly stuck to sautéing, braising and baking. Oh well. I had to dive in at some point.

Once I figured out how the heat was distributed across the grill, everything became easier. No, not all grills are created equal, and it’s important to understand this before you slap a piece of meat onto it. The hottest part of the grill is a perfect spot for quickly getting a dark, heavy sear on meat. The sear from the hot bars adds another depth of flavor and is one of the most important aspects of grilling. Sure, I burned off quite a bit of arm hair figuring this out, but at least my steaks looked nice.

Surprisingly, I found working with a set of piping hot grill bars much preferable to using saute pans on the stove. Some dishes I’d made in the past on the saute station required three or more pans, which could quickly became a nightmare during a busy dinner service. With a limited amount of burners, I’d often run out of space for my pans. Forced to wait until a burner freed up felt like a death sentence at the time – anything that slows you down in the kitchen during a busy service is never, never good.

Working the grill simplified everything. No pans, just bars and flames.

After a solid month of working this station on busy nights, I’ve grilled a number of different meats and vegetables. Last week, it was brocoli rabe. This past week, it’s been grilled asparagus. Char from the grill brings life to the earthy, mild flavor of the asparagus.

The ideal season for asparagus is anytime from February to June, with April being the peak. For seasonality’s sake, this recipe is definitely appropriate. Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, one of my favorite vendors at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, recently featured some attractive-looking asparagus at their tent.

Read on for a recipe that is simple but loaded with flavor:

Grilled Asparagus

  • 1 bunch medium-thickness asparagus
  • 1 whole lemon, sliced into wedges
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional garnishes: breadcrumbs, shaved Parmesan, Maldon sea salt
  1. Preheat grill, according to instructions (Like I said, not all grills are created equal!). Your grill should be very hot before you cook the asparagus.
  2. Snap off tough part of asparagus stems at the bottom. It should break off naturally with little effort.
  3. When grill is ready, brush olive oil over asparagus and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place asparagus on a hot part of your grill. Use a set of tongs to roll the asparagus over once one side has a good amount of char, but not too much.
  5. Once both sides are nicely charred, move the asparagus to a less hot part of the grill to let them finish cooking.
  6. When cooked, the asparagus should be tender, but still have some crunch (Limp, wilted asparagus are overcooked).
  7. Let the asparagus cool and garnish with breadcrumbs, thinly shaved Parmesan or Maldon if preferred. Serve with a lemon wedge and enjoy! They’re delicious warm or at room temperature.

Image: http://globalequipment.us.com/restaurant-grill-equipment.shtml

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