Local Flavors: Philadelphia - #106

BURT WOLF: Every town in the world has a local flavor, a flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients, or a type of restaurant that's popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment, or a cooking technique.  There are dozens of things that make up the local flavor.  But the most important influences are always the result of history, geography and economics.  During the Colonial period, Philadelphia was North America's most important commercial city.  It was the home of the American Revolution.  And the first capitol of the United States.  But it was also a center for great eating and drinking.  Famous for its bakers and pastry makers, ice creams, and restaurants.  And it still is.  It's the place where a visitor can trace and taste many of the major influences on the history of American eating and drinking.  So please join me, Burt Wolf for a taste of the local flavors of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This is Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, and it's the place to eat your way through the gastronomic history of the city. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The plantations that grew up around Philadelphia were based on the English manor system.  A central element was the bake and brew house that used yeast to produce beer and bread.  Wheat was the major cash crop of the colony and it was used to produce the money that the colony needed to trade with England.  But it also produced some great bakers.

BURT WOLF: Baking bread was the most important work.  But Philadelphia was a great trading port with access to an extensive range of spices.  The Mennonites in Germany and the Amish in Switzerland were attracted to Philadelphia because of its promise of religious freedom, but they were master bakers and skilled at the use of spices.  Cinnamon buns were one of their specialties.  The fame of the sweet baked goods of Eastern Pennsylvania is based on their recipes.  They also produced great fruit pies.  Three times each week ships sailed into Philadelphia with fresh produce from the Caribbean ... coconuts, bananas, pineapples, limes.  They were regularly available.  People expected the market to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Foods and spices came up from the Caribbean but so did settlers. Many of the members of the first African-American community in Philadelphia came up from the Caribbean and introduced West Indian recipes.  And it was the city's African-American cooks who, in the late 1700s, and early 1800s, helped organize the city's catering industry.  They introduced the first catering contracts and changed the way people entertained.  

BURT WOLF: Market stalls have been in this area since the late 1600s.  But the Reading Terminal Market came into existence in the 1890s when The Reading Railroad tried to have a group of market stalls demolished so it could build a new terminal. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Not a chance.  The farmers held together and the railroad had to build their station above the market.  As a matter of fact, the tracks are still up there.  For many years the market and the railroad worked as a team.  Someone in the suburbs would place an order, the market would pack it up, put it on the right train, the conductor would drop it off at the right station, and hold it until the customer came in and got it.  As we developed a national railroad system, the food manufacturers in Philadelphia learned how to distribute their products throughout the nation.

BURT WOLF: In the middle of the 1800s, Philadelphia headed off to a new place in the world of gastronomy.  For over 150 years, it had been a center of individual creativity.  Now it was becoming a center for industrial innovation.  The small store-front shops making small batches of ice cream by hand were still here.  But in 1848, Eber Seaman patented a machine for making ice cream on a large-scale basis.  It turned the luxury food into something that could be distributed to a mass market and made Philadelphia-style ice cream famous throughout the country. In 1858, John Mason invented the Mason jar and home canning took off.  The market is filled with products that could only exist as a result of Mason's innovation.  Philadelphia was also well known for its cheesecake.  A shop called the Cheesecake House was in operation during the 1730s.  Cream cheese is also a Philadelphia specialty.  It was made here during the 1700s from fresh cream that was thickened and pressed into little rectangular forms.  Cream cheese and other dairy products from Pennsylvania developed a national reputation for quality.  So highly valued were Philadelphia dairy foods, that some products that were never made in Philadelphia carried the Philadelphia name so people would think well of them.  Like Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese that was made in New York State. Animal crackers were introduced here in the 1870s by the Wilson Biscuit & Cracker Bakery.  Philadelphia became America's focal point for the mass production of quality food products.  But it also continued to develop its own local specialties.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  The streets of Philadelphia, like the streets in many American cities, are filled with food vendors. Here in Philly the tradition got started with guys who were selling food at the centennial celebration of 1876.  They were known as hokey-pokey men and what they sold has changed over the years with changing food fashion.  Pepper-pot soup became Italian ices.  Breads were introduced with sausages.  They even sold anti-pasta!

WOMAN ON CAMERA:  Hi. Can I get two soft pretzels with mustard, please?

BURT WOLF: These days they're famous for soft pretzels served with mustard on top.  They've been sold in the streets of Philadelphia at least as far back as the 1820s. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of Philadelphia's most interesting gastronomic innovations took place in 1879.  Gilbert and Sullivan were giving their first Philadelphia performance of their new operetta "H.M.S. Pinafore."  To help celebrate the event, the bakers of the city introduced a bread in the shape of a boat which they called a "pinafore."  To join in that celebration the hokey-pokey men began serving their anti-pasti on that boat-shaped bread.

BURT WOLF: People called the sandwich a "hoagie" using a contracted form of hokey-pokey.  These days it's made from luncheon meats, lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese and mayonnaise and presented on long Italian bread.  And while you're tasting the specialties of Philadelphia, you should include a slice of scrapple.  It's a mixture of pork that has been cooked in broth and thickened with cornmeal and buckwheat flavor and served for breakfast along with eggs.  It was introduced to America by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers and based on the pot-puddings of Northern Germany.  You might also try some of the water ices that came to Philadelphia with immigrants from Southern Italy. And finally, the famous or infamous Philly cheese-steak.  Thin slices of chuck-eye steak are cooked on a grill.  You can choose from four kinds of cheese.

MAN ON CAMERA: We've got American Cheese Whiz ... provolone ... mozzarella and pepper-jack.  The most traditional is the Cheese Whiz.  If you ask for a cheese-steak, they kind of expect to get the Cheese Whiz on it.

BURT WOLF: Whichever you choose, it's melted on top and onto the roll, and finally a topping of grilled onions.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  The American Revolution introduced the new government and Philadelphia was its first capitol.  And the new government introduced hundreds of politicians with expense accounts to Philadelphia.  This became restaurant heaven.  But things got even better for the restaurants.  As the American Revolution ended, the French Revolution began.  There was an also an uprising in Haiti.  By the middle of the 1790s, hundreds of Frenchmen had come to Philadelphia looking for a stable place to live.  And being French, of course, many of them were bakers and chefs, and candy makers, and wine experts.  This became the gastronomic center of our nation.  A great place to eat.  And it still is.

BURT WOLF:  And the ethnic diversity that was part of Penn's original plan for the city can still be seen today in the city's restaurants. Susanna Foo is one of the masters of Asian cooking in America.  She's written an outstanding cookbook:  "Susanna Foo:  Chinese Cuisine."  The food in her restaurant reflects her attention to detail and her ability to blend Asian and French influences.  One of her signature dishes is a chicken with mango, asparagus and ginger.  I'll tell you how to get the recipes for that dish, and the other dishes in this series at the end of the program.  Brasserie Perrier is where George Perrier, the latest generation of French chefs to take up residence in Philadelphia, presents a less formal rendition of his classic French recipes.  The food is excellent and well presented.  Today's plate du jour is sautéed sea scallops on a bed of green beans, with a lemon grass sauce.  Dmitri's on Third Street is famous for its consistently fresh seafood.  The Mediterranean dishes, with a decidedly Greek influence, are prepared by Laotian chefs.  Sit at the counter and watch them at work.  We settled in for shrimp scampi. 

We also had a good meal at The Blue Angel.  It started life as a restaurant in the early years of the 20th Century and much of the original decor is still here.  At the beginning of the 21st Century it became The Blue Angel.  It feels like the comfortable neighborhood bistros you find in Paris.  My lunch was a Steak au Poivre.  For a coffee break, we stopped into La Colombe, which is a hip coffee shop in the true European tradition.  Excellent espresso, cappuccino, and American-style coffee, and that's it.  Whenever I'm in a coffee house, I am reminded that most of the planning for the American Revolution took place in coffee houses. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: After the revolution, many eating houses ended up with two kitchens.  One produced French-style foods for people like Thomas Jefferson, who loved everything that came out of France, as a result of his years as our Ambassador to Paris.  The other kitchen produced English-style foods for guys like John Adams, who didn't like anything that came out of France.  You could often tell the political leanings of an individual by looking at what was on their plate.  America had come to a fork in the road and we had chosen independence.

BURT WOLF: And speaking of forks, when you come to a fork in the road, on Market Street, eat there.  Fork is the name of a restaurant that was built into a former dry goods store that was erected in the 1880s.  High ceilings, cast-iron columns and beautiful hand-painted lampshades.  Anne-Marie Lasher does the cooking.  Today she started with corn and roasted pepper soup.  Next was pan-seared chicken, with a creamy Vidalia onion sauce, and chive mash potatoes.  For dessert, we had rhubarb gingerbread cake with fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream.

The recipe we're going to work through is for the main course.  And we're starting with the mashed potatoes.  Butter and milk are heated in a large saucepan.  In go the potatoes that were cooked in boiling water. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Anne-Marie is using a whisk to mash the potatoes, which is fine.  But you could also use a potato ricer like this.  It is basically a cup wit lots of holes in the bottom.  You take the potatoes that have been cooked, you put them into the ricer, and you press down the plunger, and the potatoes rice out the bottom.

It doesn't make any difference whether you use a whisk or a potato ricer, but what you don't want to use is a food processor.  When a potato is boiled, the starch molecules in the potato get bigger.  The more times you cut those molecules, the more starch comes out.  And starch is basically glue.  So if you have wallpaper to put up, then the food processor system is wonderful.  But if you're actually planning on eating the potatoes, then you're going to use a ricer or a whisk. Back to the pot.

BURT WOLF: The chives go in, followed by some salt and pepper, and the potatoes are ready.  Next we prepare the creamy Vidalia onion sauce.  Diced Vidalia, or other sweet onions, are sautéed in butter for 30 minutes until they're a golden brown.  A little flour is stirred in.  Five more minutes of cooking and stirring. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We're cooking out the flavor of the flour.  Try and say that ten times fast.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: No. You just have to cook. 

BURT WOLF: Chicken stock goes in.  More cooking. 

ANNE-MARIE LASHER ON CAMERA: I'm going to trade my spoon for a whisk so I make sure there's no lumps in the flour, in the sauce.  And it's starting to get thick at this


BURT WOLF: Some half-and-half.  A little more cooking ... at which point the onion sauce is seasoned with sage, salt and pepper. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You know, George Washington ate here.  Is that true?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Did he sleep here?

ANNE-MARIE LASHER ONCAMERA: I think that was down the street.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: He slept down the street but if the restaurant was open, he would have eaten here.  We'll put it over here on the side and we will go to the chicken.

BURT WOLF: The chicken is very easy.  A little butter and oil go into a skillet.  As soon as they're hot, in go chicken parts that have been salted and peppered.  Skin side down. Five minutes of cooking on each side.  



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We're laughing because I just gave those tongs to Anne-Marie.  I've been testing them in my home kitchen for a couple of months and wanted to see how they worked out with a professional chef in the restaurant.  They came up as best of class.  They're 12-inches long, which is a good size for the kitchen, but they're also long enough to use outside on a barbecue grill.  They're stainless steel so they won't interact with any of the food.  They have a nice rubber surface here, which makes it comfortable to hold.  And gives it sort of a non-slip grip.  They opened up to 12-inches which was the widest of any of the really good ones we've tested.  And give it a tight grip there.  It has a lock on the end so you can close it for easier storage. 

BURT WOLF: Then into a 450-degree oven for ten minutes.  When the chicken comes out, we're ready to plate.  The potatoes go on first.  Then the chicken, a few green beans, and finally, the Vidalia onion sauce.  During the 1800s and early 1900s, many great restaurants were in hotels.  But that changed and by the 1950s, good hotel restaurants had disappeared.  Fortunately, that trend is being reversed, especially in The Four Seasons group.  Here in Philadelphia, The Four Seasons Fountain Restaurant is considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the city.  Today the executive chef, Jean Marie La Croix is going to make a few jumbo lump crab cakes.  The mixing bowl is set into ice to keep its contents cool.  And in goes in a pound of clean jumbo lump crabmeat, some mayonnaise, a little salt and pepper, a hint of sesame oil, and some chopped chives.  All that is mixed together and formed into six-ounce patties. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Some of the best mixing bowls are made by a company in Germany called Rösle.  They're made of 1810 stainless steel, which is a very high grade.  They're deep.  They have a flat bottom so they sit in a stable way on your work surface.  They have a rolled edge up here, which makes it easier to grip, and helps prevent dripping.  They're excellent for mixing liquids.

BURT WOLF:  Next a little olive oil is heated in a sauté pan.  The crab cakes go in, and sauté on each side for a minute.  Then into a 350-degree oven for five minutes of baking.  When it's time to serve, a slice of tomato goes on to the center of a plate.  Some balsamic vinegar dressing goes on, and the crab cake.  A squeeze of lemon juice, a few baby greens, and a little warm vinaigrette dressing. For dessert, we headed off to the pastry kitchen.  It reminded me that for hundreds of years pastry making was considered part of art and architecture, not cooking.  Chef Eddie Hales presented a white chocolate lemon custard, an intense bitter chocolate tart, and a peach blueberry crumble with strawberry ice cream.  In terms of history, Philadelphia is the most important city in the United States.  And for most of its history, it has worked to preserve its important structures.  One unusual aspect of its desire to hold on to the old buildings is a series of restaurants that have been built into old banks.  It appears that once a structure develops the ability to attract cash, it continues to do so even when the business inside changes.  This is The Striped Bass Restaurant.  Built into a huge room, in a brokerage house that was originally constructed in 1927.  The marble columns, palm trees, and muslin-draped windows make an elegant setting for the 16-foot, forged steel sculpture of its signature dish. 

Terence Feury, the executive chef, came to Striped Bass from Le Bernardin which is considered to be one of the finest fish restaurants in New York.  He has a simple style that starts with the best seasonal ingredients, and let's them stand as the stars of the recipe.  Today, the first course was a goat-cheese gratin with garlic crustini.  The entree was a wild stripped bass with zucchini charlotte and a shrimp reduction. Dessert was a semolina custard.  The recipe we cooked through was for ... surprise! ... the striped bass.  Terence started by making a sauce.  A little olive oil goes into a large saucepan.  As soon as it's hot, in goes a pound of shrimp.  They sauté for about two minutes, at which point, Terence adds some sliced shallots, garlic, a touch of salt, star anise, bay leaves, saffron, and cayenne pepper. That cooks for a few minutes.  Then some tomato paste is added.  Next a hit of brandy.  A few more minutes of cooking.  A little water.  Ten more minutes of simmering.  The bay leaves and star anise come out and it's time for the immersion blender.  (Whistles "Twilight Zone" theme here.)

Consider this: 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: First thing you have to do when you are picking out an immersion blender is decide whether you are going to get a model with a cord, or a cordless model.  The cordless model offers you the most flexibility in terms of movement.  You can move it anywhere.  The fact that it doesn't have a cord means there's no cord to drag over an ingredient and spill it, or to drop into a hot pot. The problem with it is you're going to have to charge it between uses, and it may not give you all the power of a model with a cord.  The model with the cord has the problem of the cord dragging over things, but it will always be ready to use and most of the time it will give you more power. 

BURT WOLF: An immersion blender is a hand-held wand with an electric motor at the top, and rotating blade at the bottom.  With its attachments, it will do almost everything that a countertop blender will do, plus you get to choose the container.  With either model, it's good to have a detachable shaft so it can go into the dishwater.  They also make storage easier.  It's nice to have a container with a tapered base for emulsifying sauces and dressings.  And a whip for aerating cream or egg whites.  And a mini-chopper for mincing leafy herbs. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One of the blenders that tested out quite well was the Cuisinart cordless rechargeable hand blender.  It was strong enough to puree soups as well as the blenders with cords and was very easy to clean.  But bare in mind, if you're going to crush ice, or do some of the really tough jobs, you're going to need a countertop blender.  Nevertheless, most home cooks and professional chefs find an immersion blender very helpful. 

BURT WOLF: The fish is very easy.  Filet of striped bass gets a little salt and pepper, a little Canola oil gets heated in a sauté pan.  The bass filet goes in skin side down, and browns for a few minutes. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Terence was holding the fish down with what we call a fish spatula.  Very thin, very flexible, lots of open space there.  His had a wooden handle.  My personal preference is for one that is made completely out of one piece of stainless steel.  So I don't have to worry about the handle working loose, and I can drop the whole thing into the dishwasher.  This one is made by Global and it has a series of dots in there that are recessed and give it kind of a non-slip grip.  I am going to give this to Terence at the end of the recipe in exchange for the fish. 

BURT WOLF: The ingredients for the sauce are processed into a coarse puree and passed through a strainer.  The sauce goes back on the range, comes to a boil, and is finished off with a little butter.  As soon as this skin is crisp, the filet goes into a 450-degree oven for five minutes.  When it comes out, we're ready to plate. A selection of sautéed vegetables go on, the fish, the sauce, some fresh thyme, and a few rounds of toasted brioche bread. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Well, that's a quick taste of Philadelphia. 

I hope you've enjoyed it.  And I hope you will join us next time on Local Flavors.  I'm Burt Wolf. 

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.