I’ve decided on my fallback career should this whole writing thing fall through: competitive eating. Not only has my insatiable appetite earned me such endearing (and enduring) nicknames as “Mini Fridge” and “The Garbage Disposal,” I also recall coming in either first or second place in a pie-eating contest back in the day when I possessed the metabolism of a humming bird.
But devouring the core of a blueberry pie in less than a minute was child’s play compared with the gastrointestinal feat I pulled off a few weeks ago. It all started when I accepted an invitation to a media dinner at Square 1682 (inside the Hotel Palomar on 17th and Sansom streets) to show off the restaurant’s newly renovated interior and revamped menu.
With several no-shows, the night’s feast was shared between a table of five, and from the time we sat down to the time we got up, the food never stopped coming. After trying at least six different appetizers, I ordered the New York strip as my main course, housing every last bite of the one-pound slab. Finally, we capped it all off with a buffet of heavenly desserts.
Despite the various side effects that I continued to endure for the next 48 hours, I do look back on the experience fondly. I knew I had to be reunited with the woman responsible, Chef de Cuisine Caitlin Mateo, to both thank her and possibly learn a thing or two about making good food.
Thankfully, both of us practiced some restraint this time around. In fact, Caitlin’s chosen dish—chilled pea soup—proved to be the easiest, quickest and most versatile dish I’ve made for this column so far. Consisting of just raw veggies, water, olive oil and seasonings blended together, it may also be the healthiest.
“It’s like a superfood soup,” Caitlin says.
Technically, the soup is 100 percent vegan, but because it’s simply a base, you’re free to build upon it however you choose. The ingredient combinations are endless. Caitlin recommends a combination of seafood (shellfish, lobster, crabmeat, grilled shrimp, oysters), various vegetables (frisee lettuce, poached baby potatoes, celeriac) and/or a type of fruit (peaches, golden raisins, apples). Personally, I recommend getting some crackers or Italian bread and calling it a day.
You even have a little leeway with the base ingredients. If, like Caitlin, you like your soup a little sweeter, add a teaspoon of honey (or sugar or agave if you’re vegan). If you like it a little spicy but don’t have time to go to an Asian market to pick up some Togarashi spice, add a pinch of cayenne to the blender. If the ingredients seem insufficient compared with the amount of water you’re using, don’t worry—the avocado and olive oil are what create a smooth, thick body.
As for the peas, Caitlin says the taste of fresh versus frozen peas isn’t worth the time and hassle of shucking them. And she would know. “At a restaurant that I worked at before, we would have a pea or fava bean shucking party,” she laughs. “We would go back to my apartment, buy a case of beer and bring everybody back just to shuck.”
Man, I’ve heard you chefs can get pretty wild afterhours, but I didn’t know you were that wild.
After only about 10 minutes in the kitchen, Caitlin was ushering me out to go get situated at a table while she “plated up” the soup. Knowing full well what that meant (like she was going to serve me plain old pea soup), I wasn’t too surprised when the soup returned to me with chucks of poached lobster, apples and scallions, along with a dash of chili oil, a pinch of Togarashi spice, a sprinkling of shaved fennel and a dollop of crème fraiche (a less sour version of sour cream). Even if I were starving in the dead of August, I most likely would have never dared to order a chilled soup combining peas, poached lobster and Fuji apples. And I would have missed out on quite an experience. A little sweet, a little spicy; it all made sense when it hit my tongue.
Even more surprising was just how filling the soup was. I swear it took me longer to reach the bottom of that bowl than it did to devour that entire pound of steak a few weeks ago. Perhaps Caitlin’s health-consciousness had suddenly inspired me to start thinking of my body as a temple, not as a bottomless pit. Or maybe being at the restaurant again brought back memories of that dinner and the subsequent digestive horrors I endured.
Whatever the reason, I think it’s probably best that I stick to my day job for the time being.
Find all the recipes Nicole has learned from Philly chefs so far online at forkingstupid.com.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014