Nicole’s journey from veggie-fearing candy-chomper to kitchen-savvy grown-up takes a sweet and savory turn in South Philly.
Even though I realize it’s a big dietary no-no, I do most of my eating past 8 p.m., as that’s typically when I make the transition from my laptop (work mode) to my TV (sleep mode). Earlier in the day, should I happen to snap out of my zombie-like state long enough to notice a craving, I’ll probably just grab whatever “healthy” snack I have stashed away—peanuts, say, or crackers.
But being the generous Italian that he is, Chef Kristian Leuzzi, owner of both Kris and Stogie Joe’s in South Philly, most certainly wasn’t going to let me leave my personalized cooking lesson, or his restaurant, without a solid lunch in my stomach: a braised veal short-rib sandwich with a side of gnocchi.
I don’t know what this man puts in his coffee, but by 11 a.m., boy was Kristian pumped about this sandwich. Talking a mile a minute as we stood in the kitchen and strapped on our aprons, he explained that you can easily substitute veal short ribs with veal shank, beef short ribs or even ox tail—and, like any good braised meat, it can be added to pretty much whatever your heart desires: tacos, soups, pasta, omelets, etc. He then proceeded to stress the importance of being able to “pull the meat right off the bone” at least a dozen times. Eventually, I couldn’t decide whether this was endearing or disturbing.
Since veal normally takes three hours to cook, Kristian, having decided to feature the sandwich as a lunch special that day, had started the process before I arrived, so the batch I’d be working on would be more of a practice run. First, though, he gave me a tour of the restaurant’s exceptionally spacious and orderly kitchen. Everything at Kris is fresh, never frozen, so they have a fridge that’s roughly the size of my bedroom. Inside, all their secret sauces are neatly contained, labeled and dated. It’s a lot like what I’d imagine Martha Stewart’s fridge looks like.
By the time we got the vegetables and herbs frying, Kristian realized he needed to backtrack a bit to help me process the million different culinary terms he’d already rattled off. Here’s what I was able to take away: “Caramelizing” and “browning” are the same thing.* “Deglazing” is not, in fact, the opposite of “glazing”; it basically just means adding a cold liquid—in this case chicken broth—to a hot pan. I’m still a little confused exactly how “braising” is different from “glazing,”** but I know that we braised the veal with a fancy Italian craft beer, one of five varieties patrons can find behind the bar at Kris. Like wine, this particular brew was unfiltered, perhaps explaining why it didn’t really taste like beer. Or wine. Actually, it was one of the most ambiguous liquids I’ve ever imbibed.
But the beer’s flavor or lack thereof was irrelevant, since ultimately, the main attraction of this dish is Kristian’s Brussels sprout slaw: Brussels sprouts, mayo, apple cider vinegar, garlic, pomegranate, salt and pepper.
As a lifelong believer that sweet and savory never belong in the same sentence, everything about this concoction sounded toxic to me. Apples and Brussels sprouts? Barf. Pomegranate and veal? Barf. Vinegar, cider and mayo? Double barf. I was already secretly mourning the loss of a perfectly tender slab of veal when I took my first bite. And before I knew it, I had a mouth full of crow: That slaw was delightful. Instead of assaulting my feeble taste buds, the tart pomegranate and sweet cider tickled them. More importantly, none of the additional toppings or sauces masked the finger-licking meat. As for the gnocchi Kristian insisted on whipping up last minute, it was a perfect way to cap off the meal.
While I devoured my lunch like a wild hog, Kristian got to boasting about his sons—specifically, the amazing dinner they made him recently. That’s right, at just 12 and 15 years of age, apparently these kids could already slaughter me in a cooking competition. Making the sting even worse: It was only about 10 minutes prior to that I’d learned people eat the seeds of a pomegranate, not the entire rind.
Fortunately, I left the restaurant really contemplating my immature and foolishly picky eating habits. I also think Kristian’s Italian gusto may have started to rub off on me, as I felt the sudden urge to go home and make an elaborate feast full of all sorts of unfamiliar ingredients.
I mean, I never actually followed through, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
* Editor’s note: Well, sort of.
** Editor’s note: Like body lotion is different from sunscreen.
As a first-time customer, I was naturally a teeny bit skeptical whether their treats could stack up to the traditional dairy-based desserts I love so dearly. This worry was squelched the second I got a whiff of the bakery’s heavenly cake-in-the-oven aroma.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014