Homegrown Philly in Milwaukee

When I was contacted at the end of March by Marisa (from Food in Jars) and Caroline at the Philadelphia Tourism department about checking out some local foods from Philadelphia, I was very excited. With the current state of the postal service and the ever upward rise in electronic communication, I rarely get any personal mail. I even more rarely get mail that is any fun at all. I was really looking forward to getting a box of mystery foodstuffs to sample, and the chance to travel just a bit without leaving home.

If I am honest, I have been hugely influenced by Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. When I started my blog two years ago, I started reading more blogs and being influenced by great blogs like Food in Jars. What I didn't expect from the experience of sharing a bit of myself with the world was that I would find inspiration to do that which I always had in me to do: home preservation.

Growing up in a canning household, I rested comfortably on the laurels of my family, while only doing a batch of jam here and there myself for something to do. I could have had a pantry full of things for each time I told someone "My Mom cans that" or "My Gram used to can that". In the past 2 years, I've seen myself change completely. There are more homemade (and fermented!) foods in my diet than ever before and I have to thank Marisa for making home preservation look so attainable. If she could do it in her tiny apartment kitchen (and with a full-time job), then I could do it in my larger-by-comparison kitchen (in my current state of "unemployent"), right?

I have made many of her recipes, and even enlisted my Mom to make the ones that I ran out of time or ingredients for. While I come nowhere close to putting by the food that she does, I feel like I have become a competent preserver, and for that I thank her sincerely.

Since I have spent a lot of time reading about Philadelphia through Marisa's food, I think my anticipation of my box of Philly food included added dimension of excitement. Philadelphia always seemed like an interesting city through her eyes, even though I've never been. I immediately began my usual method of obsession, of future plans to include traveling to Pennsylvania. Then, my box came:

Click the picture to read more about the contents on Flickr...

I know we are in a time of Green everything, and that's not really a bad thing. It is certainly uncool to want excess waste, but I am still the biggest appreciator of great packaging. This box was no exception. It was great packaging that I saved every bit of to reuse. It was actually packed in a sturdy styrofoam cooler; this will have new life for years, since my Parents do a fair amount of traveling with food and are in need of such means of keeping things cool for short periods of time. The With Love packing paper that cushioned all the goods (pictured at top) got smoothed out and folded, most likely to reuse as wrapping things to send in the mail. I was even happy that the glass jars were of canning size - I have seen canning lids at the Amish bulk store that are the screw on type, and maybe this will be the summer I will experiment with that. Once I got past all the packaging, I laid everything out on the table. I had mail, great looking, edible mail. Isn't that the best kind?

The best part about a box like this is that these were all things that were unique to an area. I am proud of my state, and I got to peek just a little into another and see that same pride. I waited until the next morning to try the biscotti which was grainy and delicious, cut much thicker than the stuff I make myself. (And, studded with orange peel. So good.)

And I tried that tiny, darling jar of honey on a sourdough English muffin... and honey is so much one of my favorite things. All the nuance of place can be tasted in good honey.

And cheese. I am in Wisconsin, and still I am in no way a cheese expert (although I do eat my fair share). This raw cheddar was very good, stiff and buttery. I still have some left - and will try it with apple as suggested. I had some with the gluten free crackers and the sprouted grain crackers I had stashed in the freezer. (If you freeze crackers, it's marvelous. Fresh crackers whenever you demand them. I have my Mom to thank for that tip!)

So after a week or so of tastes, I thought I'd like to make up some kind of dinner using things I rarely have on hand like jarred tomato sauce. I opened the sauce and had a spoonful to see what I was working with. I have to preface that I don't buy jarred sauce, and I was surprised that this one tasted like summer tomatoes. Bright, tangy, delicious.

I had a half pound of crimini mushrooms that I knew I should use when they were still in optimum form, so I figured I'd make pasta with two types of "sauce". My pickiest eater, the Boy-O, has just recently started branching out. Slightly. If I pair something he likes with something unfamiliar on the side, chances are if I'm looking the other way he'll combine the two. The Stepped in What sauce lay in wait in a bright red pool... and mysteriously disappeared completely, sopped up by those delicious noodles.

It was actually difficult for me to open this package of pasta. It felt heavy and beautiful, and well cared for. It had two ingredients on the label and was a luxury item - if pasta can be considered luxury (and I'm pretty sure it can). I felt like I would be perfectly happy eating it with butter, salt and pepper only, but instead I sauteed an inch and a half of the cubed salame with some onion and garlic in a little olive oil and added some quartered mushrooms. Simple, but was it good! The salame is rich, and flavored everything for using such a small amount.

On the sourdough front: I haven't made a loaf of bread in more than a week due to the English muffin mayhem. For the past 2 weeks, I've been feeding the starter more (by more I mean half it's weight each in water and flour every morning), and can I ever tell the difference. It is much more active, and has much more rising power. I also folded the dough during the first fermentation, which incorporates air into the loaf. It could also be that we've had a string of gorgeous, warmish days as well, but my bread was perfect. I half suspected it to be hollow in the center it was so uniformly round and risen, but no - just perfect with small airy holes.

So, my dinner was maybe a little unconventional. I layered the oily salame sauce over the pasta then added a bit of tomato sauce on the side. When mixed, the assertive tomato sauce took over, but when eaten segregated, both were very delicious. I made a salad dressing reminiscent of a Caesar by boiling an egg for 45 seconds (oh, those Cook's Illustrated people!), then whisking it with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Sopping up the plate with bread was one of my favorite ways to end the day.

I'm not lying when I say that if I have a bit of money and a weekend to spare this Summer or early Fall, I want to go to Philadelphia. It's a place I never considered, and neither is a "foodie vacation". I know just the person I'll invite to meet me there, too. Thank you to Marisa and Caroline for sending me such a fun box, and no doubt hooking me on the food culture of Philadelphia just a little bit.