Monthly Archives: June 2014

EeeeeeHa, Texas Roadhouse!

We recently had the honor of joining our WCBIL (West Coast Brother-In-Law), David Ruttan, in his very special 62nd birthday celebration while on a family visit in Butler. Western PA had been experiencing about two months of almost-daily rain, and our trip there was no exception. But David’s birthday turned out to be an almost perfect summer day with temps in the low 80s, a gentle breeze, low humidity and soft high clouds. So with his wife (and Russ’ sister) Dee in tow, the four of us headed out to Moraine State Park for a pontoon boat ride on the lake, to pass some time before dinner.


For several days leading up to the special occasion, we Googled on our iPad for restaurant possibilities worthy of our high culinary standards—or more precisely, anything open on a Monday evening within a 20 mile radius! Let’s just say, there are slim pickens in that area on any given night, let alone a Monday…



But prevail we did, and the Texas Roadhouse, known for their “legendary experiences” was open and ready for our business—and an experience it was! Upon arrival, the five of us, which included Russ’ mother Mary, honed in on just the right table to satisfy everyone’s needs. Once settled, our perky waitress introduced herself and proceeded to rattle off a string of sentences so fast not a one of us could understand what she had just said, and it didn’t get much easier as the evening wore on.


A special of the house is there buckets—and barrels—of shelled peanuts which arrive at your table soon after settling in. And they were tasty!! (We mades sure to get a few bags worth on the way out.) And while we perused the menu, we ordered the FRIED PICKLES • Heaping basket of pickle chips hand-battered, golden-fried, and served with Ranch or Cajun Horseradish sauce for dipping—well we got a basket of each—tasty morsels, but WAY too much.


We like to brag about our Hand-Cut Steaks, Fall-Off-The-Bone Ribs, Made-From-Scratch Sides, and Fresh-Baked Bread. Everything we do goes into making our hearty meals stand out. We handcraft almost everything we serve. We provide larger portions so you get more food for your dollar.

Now about those entrees… Russ ordered the 16 oz. Ft. Worth Rib Eye, which when first served was too well-done for the requested medium-rare, so it was sent back. Lynn chose the Dallas Filet smothered with mushrooms, the baked sweet potato without the cinnamon butter and a side of green beans. Well I won the prize for best steak which was a delicious, perfectly-cooked lean filet that melted in my mouth. However, my sweet potato had probably been cooked hours ago and they added a big glob of the cinnamon butter which I specifically told our lightning-mouthed waitress I didn’t want, and the side of beans was all but inedible.



Dee and Mary loved their choice of salmon topped with lemon pepper butter; and Dave’s 16 oz. choice sirloin, their most popular steak, appeared as though it was originally an 8 oz. steak that was cut in half horizontally, along with a loaded potato. Everyone but me had ordered a salad as one of their two side choices, which they truly enjoyed, and I regretted because I ended up with those god-awful green beans.

salmon.dinner dave's.sirloin

The replacement steak for Russ finally arrived cooked to a medium-rare as ordered, however, there was as much fat as there was meat! Well, he wasn’t about to send it back again, so he enjoyed the edible portion and we continued the meal until full, asking for doggie bags of the uneaten portions, then headed back to Mary’s house for the birthday dessert.

The day prior, Mary had made a wonderful fresh strawberry pie, so we added some candles, sang Dave the requisite birthday song, and let him have at it with the presents and cards. Too full still from dinner, the pie would have to wait another day…

Thunderclap Chicken

Last week while driving out to Western PA for a family “oblication,” we were grooving to tunes on the Sirius XM “Classic Vinyl” radio station when the familiar sound of “Something in the Air” came blasting on. What was NOT familiar, was the band name “Thunderclap Newman;” neither one of us had ever heard that name before—but it stayed with us—more on that in a minute…

Then, later that week, after numerous pork and beef dinners with the in-laws, we all had a hankering for grilled chicken, so Russ started looking through recipes on our iPad and he found an appetizing “Grilled Chicken with Apricot-Balsamic Glaze” in his Fine Cooking recipe box (recipe follows.)

Out in Butler they had been experiencing on-and-off rain for weeks, and during our visit, it was no different. This particular day called for showers and every time we did a check on, the precipitation percentage changed, making it real hard to determine if we should go ahead and grill or not. Consensus was, yes we would light the charcoal and hope for the best. Within about 15 minutes of putting the chicken parts on the grill, the skies darkened, thunder started booming, and a huge deluge came raining down.

As we heard the thunder approaching, someone turned the oven to 400 degrees in anticipation of rushing the partially grilled meat into the house, which is exactly what happened. What do you do in a case like this? Why, extend happy hour of course! So while the chicken continued to get happy, so did we!


After about 40 minutes in the oven, the chicken and all the fixin’s were ready. The storm continued to assault the outside, and just as the platter of chicken was placed on the table, a loud crack of thunder boomed, and so I renamed the recipe “Thunderclap Chicken” — and all agreed it was probably one of the most flavorful and moist chicken any of us ever had!

This simple lick-your-fingers, glaze-y chicken is perfect for a small cookout. The glaze has just the right amount of sweetness and can be made ahead. You can buy two whole chickens and cut them into parts yourself, or you can look in your butcher’s display case for bone-in parts that are about the same size—legs about 5 oz. each, thighs about 6 oz., and breast halves a little more than a pound each.

  • 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves (preferably without corn syrup)
  • 3 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • Kosher salt
  • Vegetable oil for the grill
  • Two 4-lb. chickens, each cut into 8 pieces, or 5 to 6 lb. good-quality bone-in skin-on chicken thighs, drumsticks, and breasts, each breast half cut into two pieces
  • Freshly ground black pepper

PS- Thunderclap Newman was a British one-hit wonder band that Pete Townshend of The Who and Kit Lambert formed circa December 1968 – January 1969 in a bid to showcase the talents of John “Speedy” Keen, Andy “Thunderclap” Newman and Jimmy McCulloch. Their single “Something in the Air” was a 1969 UK Number One hit.


Hamilton’s Grill Room

Timeless. Rustic. Elegant…
…so says their website…

A hidden gem, Hamilton’s Grill Room, a BYO, is located in The Porkyard off Coryell Street, between Lambert Lane and North Union Streets in Lambertville, NJ. Their hand-written menu changes daily and reflects seasonal, local foods, with generous portions and a reverence for satisfying simplicity. An eclectic mix of indoor and outdoor spaces define the eating areas, and while we have enjoyed an al fresco meal here in the past, on our most current visit, it was a bit nippy so we were glad to be seated inside.


“Mediterranean cooking is a marriage of respect, integrity, enthusiasm, and shear joy.”
–Jim Hamilton

Seasonal fresh, local foods can make all the difference in your dining pleasure, especially when expertly prepared on their open kitchen grill over Royal Oak hardwood charcoal.

watercress.salad clams

After some deliberation and feedback from our waiter, for starters, Lynn chose the Watercress Salad with prosciutto, bleu cheese, figs and walnuts with a balsamic vinaigrette served on an aged plank of wood, while Russ enjoyed Clams Posilippo (a Frank Sinatra favorite!)… and the basket of crusty bread was the perfect foil to mop up the savory clam broth!

veal.chop salmon

Our entree choices were the Copper River Salmon with a rum chipotle sauce served over a bed of herbed rice for Lynn; and as almost every male patron in the place seemed to order that night, Russ opted for the Veal Chop with bleu cheese butter on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes—both dishes with a side of sautéed green beans.


At the meal’s end, a dessert tray was presented upon request, with each homemade item explained in detail. Not on the tray, but given as an option, Russ chose a melange of homemade chocolate, vanilla and coffee ice cream with biscotti and a side of hot fudge sauce—not too shabby!

About the Chef

Hamilton’s Grill Room Executive Chef, Mark Miller takes pride in supporting and showcasing community agriculture. Inspired by a French baker he worked for as a young boy, Miller immersed himself into the restaurant business. Mark has experienced every station of the trade from dishwasher to Chef, notably for the James Beard Foundation before coming to The Grill Room.

NOTE: If you forget to bring your wine, it can be purchased at the Boat House directly across the courtyard.


Zahav is a modern Israeli restaurant that opened in May 2008 at the foot of the Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia. The name Zahav means “Gold” in Hebrew and is a reference to Jerusalem, with the design of the restaurant mimicing the hidden courtyards of Jerusalem with golden limestone floors and walls, hand-carved tables and soaring ceilings.

A tradition of ours has been to take each other out to the restaurant of choice on our birthdays. With Russ’ birthday being in mid-May, it is often impossible to get a reservation at a top-notch establishment that time of year due to all of the graduation, wedding, and Mother’s Day celebrations. End result: we usually bag a res several weeks later and continue the celebration; and this year was no different. Russ had heard great things about the food at Zahav and he was determined to have his feast there.

Chef/Owner Michael Solomonov was born in G’nei Yehudah, Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of 19, Michael returned to Israel. With no Hebrew language skills, he took the only job he could get — working in a  bakery — and a culinary career was born!

The soul of Zahav lies in the laffa bread, baked to order in their wood-burning Taboon; in the creamy and nutty humus; and the sizzling skewers of meat grilled over hardwood charcoal. Their small plate offerings are ideal for allowing guests to sample the large variety of cultural influences on the cuisine of Israel, from Eastern Europe to North Africa to Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean. And the best way to do this is take advantage of the Tayim, at $39 per person, so that’s what we did…

We were blown away with the abundant wait staff all of whom were extremely efficient and courteous. Never having dined here before, we did have a few questions for our attentive waitress, always ready with a beaming smile, and she gave us satisfactory details about all of our concerns. And if you have any food allergies, don’t worry, they ask you up front if anyone in your party does.

They have an extensive wine list of boutique Israeli wine from one of the largest selections outside Israel, but with the least-expensive bottle starting at $48, we opted to try one of their award-winning cocktails instead. Our choice was the same, we each ordered a “Lemonnana” made up of Jim Beam, muddled mint, fresh lemon and verbena, similar to a Mojito we thought.


What arrives at your table first is six small dishes of various veggies and grains — all perfectly seasoned; a side of laffa bread and the most heavenly humus you have ever tasted! All half-dozen dishes were described to us in detail, although, truth be told, I can’t remember the details, but I can tell you that the dishes of carrots, eggplant, roasted beets, green beans and tomato, quinoa and crushed walnuts, and zucchini were delicious and a good omen of what was to come.






Our four “Mezzes” started arriving next: Roasted Potatoes with kashkaval cheese, anchovy, spring onion and shifka peppers; Crispy Grape Leaves with beef, pine nuts and paprika; Fried Cauliflower in labaneh with chives, dill, mint and garlic; and Pastilla which is spiced chicken, apricot and almond. While the portions of these incredible small plates were not huge, I was starting to feel full and wondered if I’d be able to continue with the “Al Ha’esh” items grilled over coals.


On the house they delivered two small, but heavenly, radish slices with an absolutely divine smoked salmon!



Well they were just too tempting to resist. The Duck Kebab with dirty rice, rhubarb and English peas was not really a skewered item at all, but rather two plump, round patties so tantalizingly tasty we just oohed and aahed with every bite. Our second Al Ha’esh was the Ribeye Cap, perfectly tender filet mignon pieces in lovage pilaf, tomato and green beans.


As an extra treat to Russ’ dessert, they added a birthday candle; and since dessert is not my thing, they wrapped up my choice to go–for Russ to enjoy later in the week…

NOTE: In May 2009, Philadelphia Magazine selected Zahav as the #1 restaurant in Philadelphia; and in 2011, Michael was recognized for his achievements with the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award from the James beard Foundation.


Italian-Style Gas-Grilled Chicken


There are times when it is a good thing not to have a backbone —
And this mouth-watering chicken recipe proves it!

Want an Italian-style grilled chicken recipe with evenly cooked, juicy meat, crackly skin, and bold Mediterranean flavor? Then here’s the recipe for you! We have made it a few times now and each time we marvel over how flavorful and succulent the chicken turns out. The key? Removing the backbone of course!

The instructions call for two standard-sized bricks for this recipe. Placing the bricks on the chicken while it cooks ensures that the skin will be evenly browned and well-rendered—don’t skip this step. Lacking bricks, we used a large cast-iron skillet.

For the best flavor, use a high-quality chicken, such as Bell & Evans.

In Step 2, the directions call for refrigerating the prepared bird for 1-2 hours. This last time, we refrigerated it for seven hours because we were gone most of the day — and from now on, that’s what we’ll do because the extra time made the chicken skin even crispier.


  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 1/2 tablespoons)
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated zest from 1 lemon, plus 2 tablespoons juice
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • Kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 1 (3 3/4- to 4 1/4-pound) whole chicken
  • Vegetable oil for cooking grate


  1. Combine oil, garlic, lemon zest, and pepper flakes in small saucepan. Bring to simmer, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat, about 3 minutes. Once simmering, add 3 teaspoons thyme and 2 teaspoons rosemary and cook 30 seconds longer. Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer set over small bowl, pushing on solids to extract oil. Transfer solids to small bowl and cool; set oil and solids aside.
  2. Following step-by-step instructions below, butterfly chicken, flatten breastbone, and tuck wings behind back. Using hands or handle of wooden spoon, loosen skin over breast and thighs and remove any excess fat. Combine 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in small bowl. Mix 3 teaspoons salt mixture with cooled garlic solids. Spread salt-garlic mixture evenly under skin over chicken breast and thighs. Sprinkle remaining teaspoon salt mixture on exposed meat of bone side. Place chicken skin-side up on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
  3. Turn all burners to high. Wrap 2 bricks tightly in aluminum foil and place bricks on cooking grate. Heat with lid down until very hot, about 15 minutes. Scrape cooking grate clean. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s).
  4. Place chicken skin-side down over cooler side of grill with legs facing fire, place hot bricks lengthwise over each breast half, cover grill, and cook until skin is lightly browned and faint grill marks appear, 22 to 25 minutes. Remove bricks from chicken. Using tongs or towel, grip legs and flip chicken (chicken should release freely from grill; use thin metal spatula to loosen if stuck), skin-side up, with breast facing the cool part of the grill. Place bricks over breast, cover grill, and cook until chicken is well browned, 12 to 15 minutes.
  5. Remove bricks, flip chicken skin-side down over hot grates, and cook until chicken skin is well crisped and instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees, 5 to 10 minutes, moving chicken as necessary to prevent flare-ups. Transfer chicken to cutting board and let rest 10 minutes. Whisk lemon juice and remaining thyme and rosemary into reserved oil; season with salt and pepper. Carve chicken and serve, passing sauce separately.





1. BUTTERFLY Cut through bones on either side of backbone, then discard backbone. 

2. PRESS Flip chicken over, then flatten breastbone and tuck wings behind back. 

3. SEPARATE Loosen skin over breast and thighs and remove any excess fat. 

4. SALT Spread salt-garlic mixture under skin of breast and thighs. Spread salt mixture on meat of bone side. 

Published in the May 2009 issue of Cook’s Illustrated.

Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Cilantro Pesto

Another BHG recipe that caught our fancy was this simple, yet flavorful pork chop dinner. Whenever buying steaks or pork chops, we tend to go thick, and while this recipe calls for 1/2″ thin chops, the ones we had on hand were nearly 2″ so the cooking time was about 3-4 times longer than the five minutes suggested here. And the title is a bit of a misnomer because the directions indicate cooking in a skillet, but since it was a gorgeous late-spring evening, we decided grilling was the only way to go.
About an hour and a half before you start cooking, rub the blend over both sides of each chop. This allows for the spices to penetrate the meat for a more intense flavor. And “note-to-self,” next time we make this recipe, I’m going to up the savory quotient and double the chili powder/brown sugar seasoning mix.

An innovative cilantro pesto not only adds vibrant color, but also gives another dimension to the chops. Our supply of on-hand cilantro didn’t quite measure a packed full cup, so I personally thought it was a tad thin.

Add to that a couple of baked potatoes with your choice of butter and/or sour cream, sprinkle on some freshly-cut minced chives, and a side of steamed broccoli, and voila, a fast, easy satisfying weeknight dinner.


  • 1 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems (1 ounce)
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp.salt
  • few dashes bottled green hot pepper sauce
  • 4, 1/2-inch thick bone-in pork chops (ours were 2″)
  • 1 tsp.chili powder
  • 1 tsp.packed brown sugar


  1. For Cilantro Pesto, place cilantro, orange juice, 3 tablespoons oil, salt, and hot pepper sauce in a blender or food processor. Cover and blend or process until smooth.
  2. Sprinkle chops with chili powder and brown sugar; rub in with your fingers. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork. Cook for 5 minutes or until no longer pink, turning once.
  3. Serve chops with cilantro mixture.

Getting the Party Started!

A recent backyard barbecue started with an accidental splatter and an unexpected explosion… Ed Mortka sure knows how to get the party started!

Within minutes of serving everyone their choice of libations, Ed accidentally knocked over Karen’s wine glass — luckily it was white and the spill mostly contained to the island countertop. But not more than a few more minutes went by and as Karen started unpacking her appetizer of a goat cheese spread, salsa and baguette rounds, an ear-shattering explosion pierced the air and glass went flying everywhere! The culprit? Ed simply removed the Misto spritzer and “BOOM” it exploded in his hand and glass shards littered the island and the floors, but luckily, no one was hit with any shrapnel… it was time to move the party outdoors…

Our backyard patio.
Our backyard patio.
Karen and Russ discussing the merits of grilling the baguette rounds.
Karen and Russ discussing the merits of grilling the baguette rounds.
Karen Mortkas appetizer of a goat cheese spread, salsa and grilled baguette rounds.
Karen Mortkas appetizer of a goat cheese spread, salsa and grilled baguette rounds.

It had been nearly a year since Karen and Ed visited and we cooked a paella outside on our new paella grill. This time Russ chose to make homemade baked beans (where he cobbled together two different recipes) and his infamous BBQd baby back ribs. The Mortkas contributed (other than the earlier unplanned audio/visual effects) the hors d’oeuvres and a homemade cole slaw.

Raw, spice-rubbed baby back ribs awaiting the oven.
Raw, spice-rubbed baby back ribs awaiting the oven.
Baby Back Ribs after coming out of the oven, before grilling.
Baby Back Ribs after coming out of the oven, before grilling.

Since the beans are time-intensive, he actually started the process the weekend prior. The ribs are also a several-step process, so while Russ was caught in his usual Friday nightmare-of-a-commute home, I put his famous spice rub over the rib racks, wrapped them well in tinfoil and refrigerated them overnight. On Saturday morning, on racks in rimmed cooking sheets, the ribs were placed in a 250-degree oven for two hours. Once cooled, the juices are defatted and saved to mix with Stubbs BBQ sauce for basting purposes while grilling. The wrapped ribs go back into the refrigerator until about an hour before grilling.

Basting the ribs as they grill with a mix of rib drippings and Stubb's BBQ sauce.
Basting the ribs as they grill with a mix of rib drippings and Stubb’s BBQ sauce.
Platter of grilled baby back ribs.
Platter of grilled baby back ribs.
Heirloom tomato from Shady Brook Farms with fresh purple basil from our garden.
Heirloom tomato from Shady Brook Farms with fresh purple basil from our garden.

As the sun was setting and candles were lit, we feasted on a fabulous dinner with good friends. And being primo strawberry season, Russ concocted his often-asked for homemade strawberry ice cream, served on slabs of pound cake with sliced fresh strawberries from Shady Brook Farms — which would sure give their “Dave’s” ice cream a run for the money!

Russ' homemade strawberry ice cream.
Russ’ homemade strawberry ice cream.

I guess we’ll have to think of an encore next time we visit the Mortka’s, but it might be hard to top Ed’s attention-getting display 😉


Here A Tweak, There a Tweak

It dawned on me that we do a LOT of ethnic dining and not necessarily with the group of 6 that I dubbed “The Ethnic Dining Group” so I shortened the name of the tab to just “Ethnic Dining.” My latest blog under this tab describes a recent experience at Mt. Fuji, an asian-fusion restaurant in Newtown, PA on the Bypass at Rt. 413 in the Summit Square Shopping Center. I give it a 2-thumbs up!

Interior view of Mt. Fuji.
Interior view of Mt. Fuji.