So what is a restaurant critic to do now? Never mind that. What are we all to do now that the region’s restaurant dining rooms have been shut down for everything but take-out meals?

This is a scary time for everyone on multiple levels, and we have been moving fast to refocus our food coverage in the most relevant, useful ways. What to eat remains a fundamental human question — especially during a crisis.

I will continue patronizing restaurants that are able to remain open for take-out, perhaps the best way to continue supporting those businesses. We’ll also be following the government’s response to address the hospitality industry’s pain, which is urgent.

Meanwhile, I’ve already started to cook like a demon — provided I can find flour, meat, and yeast, which, judging by the ravaged market shelves this week, is no given. But I’m resourceful. Those chicken feet that were the last pack of any protein left at MOM’s Organic Market? That’s gold for stock, people!

Chicken feet are the last pack of any protein left on the shelf recently at MOM's Organic Market in Center City.
Craig LaBan
Chicken feet are the last pack of any protein left on the shelf recently at MOM's Organic Market in Center City.

Americans are now going to have to embrace cooking in a way they’ve not done in a long time. But for me, it’s an opportunity to dive into the cookbooks I’ve collected over the years. With so much time spent in restaurants for work, though, cooking through them has always been a “one day” proposition. Now that day has come. And one especially rewarding way to stay connected to Philly’s rich food scene is to explore the deep catalog of cookbooks old and new from local chefs.

Cookbooks from chefs of local restaurants past and present - Palizzi Social Club, the Frog Commissary, Pizzeria Beddia - inspire home-cooked meals.
Craig LaBan
Cookbooks from chefs of local restaurants past and present - Palizzi Social Club, the Frog Commissary, Pizzeria Beddia - inspire home-cooked meals.

The list of possibilities is long and diverse, including some recent offerings. Among the first I’ll get to and linger over is Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club (Running Press Books, 2019). Coauthored by owner-chef Joey Baldino and food writer Adam Erace, it has everything from Chinotto-braised ribs to stromboli, spumoni and spaghetti and crabs. But Baldino’s soulful escarole and bean soup is an invitingly easy place to start with a bowl of genuine South Philly comfort. Try it with the book’s lemon-roasted chicken.

Escarole and beans is one of the many dishes with genuine South Philly flavor served at the Palizzi Social Club.
Trevor Dixon
Escarole and beans is one of the many dishes with genuine South Philly flavor served at the Palizzi Social Club.

Speaking of comfort, pizza is also high on my list — and a great family activity. I decided to recreate the crusty magic of Pizzeria Beddia (my 2019 restaurant of the year) using owner Joe Beddia’s masterpiece book created with home cooks in mind, Pizza Camp: Recipes from Pizzeria Beddia (Abrams Books, 2017). I happened to have the right can of Jersey Fresh tomatoes used in Beddia’s book, so it was fate. The basic dough and sauce recipes are excellent, with clever little touches. Even the best home pizza recipes, though, inevitably result in crusts that leave me wishing for a better oven.

Pizza master Joe Beddia peeks out from the pages of his cookbook to offer inspiration to pizza-loving home cooks. Craig LaBan just happened to have the recommended brand of local tomatoes on hand.
Pizza master Joe Beddia peeks out from the pages of his cookbook to offer inspiration to pizza-loving home cooks. Craig LaBan just happened to have the recommended brand of local tomatoes on hand.

We have several notable pizza authors, including Marc Vetri, but I’ll be turning to him for Mastering Pasta (Ten Speed Press, 2015) — and dreams of my next meal at the counter of Fiorella’s. Veteran chef and author Aliza Green has a pasta book, too, but I’m going to be consulting her quarantine-friendly guide for Y2K-era “Legumaniacs,” The Bean Bible (Running Press, 2000).

In the spirit of stocking up the pantry, I’ll be canning along to Marisa McClellan’s Food in Jars oeuvre of books in order to preserve the bounty of spring produce about to arrive. My family’s recent commitment to Meatless Mondays should get a creative plant-based boost from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s V-Street: 100 Globe-Hopping Plates (William Morrow Books, 2016).

The kafta and tomato bake casserole is an easy and flavorful dish from the Palestinian Table by local author, Reem Kassis.
Dan Perez / Phaidon
The kafta and tomato bake casserole is an easy and flavorful dish from the Palestinian Table by local author, Reem Kassis.

Some of our most inspired Philadelphia chefs bring an international flavor. Most everyone knows the treasure trove of modern Israeli recipes from the team behind Zahav (Rux Martin, 2015) and Israeli Soul (Rux Martin, 2018). Lesser-known but equally inspired is the award-winning book from one of Michael Solomonov’s best friends, Reem Kassis. I want to cook through all of The Palestinian Table (Phaidon, 2017), but will start with her relatively easy lamb kafta and tomato bake casserole.

Meanwhile, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, whose restaurant empire began on Chestnut Street, has my go-to recipes for dashi, miso fish marinades, hand-cut udon, and genuine chicken teriyaki in Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking (Ecco, 2016).

Cookbooks from of Philadelphia-based food writers and chefs - Reem Kassis, Marisa McClellan, Masaharu Morimoto - inspire home-cooked meals.
Craig LaBan
Cookbooks from of Philadelphia-based food writers and chefs - Reem Kassis, Marisa McClellan, Masaharu Morimoto - inspire home-cooked meals.

For modern French cuisine with a seasonal Philly twist and lofty inspirations, it’s worth browsing Erace’s collaboration last year with Nicholas Elmi, the Top Chef-winning owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie. Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia (Running Press Books, 2019) is a coffee table gastro-dream considerably heavier on haute techniques and high-end ingredients. But my xanthan gum-averse colleague Allison Steele’s successful hands-on attempt at Laurel’s truffled ricotta gnocchi gave me hope: One day, when we can start thinking of such luxuries again, I’ll be ready to roll.

For dessert, I’ll rely on two sweet emissaries of Philly past. The flaky crust and rich filling of Holly Ricciardi’s butterscotch bourbon pie from Magpie (Running Press, 2015) still inspires me. Of much older vintage is the Frog Commissary Cookbook (Camino Books, 2002), a compendium of recipes from the two legendary restaurants that helped define Philly’s Restaurant Renaissance in the 1970s and ’80s. Among its retro treasures is the carrot cake that launched the nationwide craze. This irresistible cream cheese-frosted indulgence has endured this long. It can carry us through with Philly-style comfort to whatever’s next.

Palizzi Social Club's Escarole and Beans

Serves six

CANNELLINI BEANS

2 1⁄2 cups (500 g) dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight

1 1⁄2 quarts (1.4 L) water

1⁄2 yellow onion

2 garlic cloves

1 carrot

1 celery rib

1 bay leaf

4 sprigs sage

2 sprigs rosemary

4 sprigs parsley

1 sprig oregano

1 tablespoon salt

30 grinds of black pepper

1 Arbol chile

Drain the beans from the soaking water and place them in a large pot with the remaining ingredients, including the fresh water. Cover the pot and simmer the beans over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 2 hours. Remove the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, bay leaf, herbs, and chile. Set the beans aside at room temperature.

ESCAROLE

2 heads escarole, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 Arbol chile

1 bay leaf

1⁄4 cup (59 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

15 grinds of black pepper

1 quart water

Wash the escarole well in cold water. If it’s very dirty, fill a large container with the water and wash several times, lifting out the escarole and changing the water each time until absolutely no sand or dirt is left. Drain the escarole in a colander. Combine the sliced garlic, chile, bay leaf, and olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Cook over low heat until the garlic is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the washed greens, salt, black pepper, and water. Cover the pot and increase the heat to medium. Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the greens are very tender, keeping an eye on the level of water as the greens cook. By the end of the cooking time, there should still be enough liquid in the pot to just cover the greens. Remove the chile and bay leaf.

TO SERVE

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Sesame Semolina Bread, grilled

Combine the olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and parsley in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the beans and escarole along with 1 cup each of their cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Cook until creamy and soupy, about 5 minutes. Garnish with grated Parmigiano and serve with grilled bread. – From Dining at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club by Joey Baldino and Adam Erace
 

Reem Kassis' Kafta and Tomato Bake

Makes four servings

1 pound 2 ounces coarsely ground meat (beef, lamb, veal, or a combination)

Small bunch chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 small onion, finely grated

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground allspice (pimento)

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon black pepper, plus extra for grinding

1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

5 potatoes, sliced into rounds

5 tomatoes, sliced into rounds

1 green bell pepper, sliced into rounds

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the meat, parsley, onion, spices, and salt into a large bowl and mix gently with your hands until just combined, taking care not to over mix the meat. In a separate bowl, mix together the crushed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and ½ teaspoon of salt.

Pour into an ovenproof baking dish, about 12 × 8 inches.

Shape the meat mixture into mini hamburger shapes. Arrange in rows in the baking dish, alternating with slices of potato, tomato, and green bell pepper. Grind over some black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 20–30 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden brown on top. Remove from the oven, let stand for 5 minutes, then serve with vermicelli rice or pita bread.

 

Masaharu Morimoto’s Chicken Teriyaki (Tori No Teriyaki)

Makes four servings

TERIYAKI SAUCE

½ cup Japanese soy sauce (gluten-free if needed)

½ cup mirin (sweet rice wine)

½ cup sake

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup rough-chopped yellow onion

5 thin round slices peeled ginger

2 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

FOR THE DISH

2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, breasts, or a mixture of the two

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1½ teaspoons cornstarch

½ cup teriyaki sauce


Make the sauce: Combine the ingredients in a small pot, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 8 minutes so the aromatics have a chance to infuse their flavors into the liquid. Strain, discarding the solids. (The sauce keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.)

Prepare the dish: If you are using chicken breasts, place a breast between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound it out to an even 1/2-inch thickness. Repeat with the remaining breasts. Lightly season both sides of the chicken with salt and black pepper.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat until it shimmers. To avoid crowding the skillet, cook the chicken in 2 batches until deep golden brown on one side, about 6 minutes. Flip the chicken, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until just cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes more. Transfer the chicken to a plate as it’s cooked.

In a small container, stir together the cornstarch and 1 1/2 teaspoons water until smooth. Return half the chicken to the skillet and reduce the heat to medium. Pour in half of the teriyaki sauce, let it bubble, and drizzle in 1 teaspoon of the cornstarch mixture. Cook, flipping over the chicken often, until the sauce thickens and coats the chicken well, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and repeat with remaining chicken.

Let the chicken rest for a few minutes, then cut into bite-size pieces. Serve right away or keep refrigerated in an airtight container and serve it in your bento box the following day.

–From Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto
 

 

Commissary Carrot Cake

Makes 16-20 servings Pecan Cream Filling

1 ½ cups sugar

¼ cup flour

¾ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups heavy cream

6 ounces unsalted butter

1 ¾ cups chopped pecans

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Carrot Cake

1¼ cups corn oil

2 cups sugar

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

4 cups grated carrots

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup raisins

Cream Cheese Frosting

½ pound soft unsalted butter

8 ounces soft cream cheese

1-pound box of powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces shredded, sweetened coconut (1½ cups)

1. To prepare the pecan cream filling, in a heavy saucepan, blend well the sugar, flour and salt. Gradually stir in the cream. Add the butter. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat until the butter has melted, then let simmer 20-30 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally. Cool to lukewarm. Stir in the nuts and vanilla. Let cool completely and then refrigerate, preferably overnight. If too thick to spread, bring to room temperature before using.

2. To make the carrot cake, preheat the oven to 350°F. Have ready a greased and floured 10-inch tube cake pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the corn oil and sugar. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Sift half the dry ingredients into the sugar-oil mixture and blend. Alternately sift in the rest of the dry ingredients while adding the eggs, one by one. Combine well. Add the carrots, raisins, and pecans. Pour into the prepared tube pan and bake for 70 minutes. Cool upright in the pan on a cooling rack. If you are not using the cake that day, it can be removed from the pan, wrapped well in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature.

3. To prepare the cream cheese frosting, cream the butter well. Add the cream cheese and beat until blended. Sift in the sugar and add the vanilla. If too soft to spread, chill a bit. Refrigerate if not using immediately, but bring to a spreadable temperature before using.

4. To assemble, preheat the oven to 300°F. Spread the coconut on a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes until it colors lightly. Toss the coconut occasionally while it is baking so that it browns evenly. Cool completely. Have the filling and frosting at a spreadable consistency.

Loosen the cake in its pan and invert onto a plate. With a long serrated knife, carefully split the cake into 3 horizontal layers. Spread the filling between the layers. Spread the frosting over the top and sides. Pat the toasted coconut onto the sides of the cake. If desired, reserve 1/2 cup of frosting and color half with green and half with orange food coloring. Then decorate the top of the cake with green and orange icing piped through a 1/16-inch-wide, plain pastry tube to resemble little carrots. Serve the cake at room temperature.

— From the Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses, Anne Clark and Becky Roller

Note: This cake is most easily made if you start it at least a day ahead, since the filling is best left to chill overnight. In fact, the different components can all be made even several days in advance and stored separately until you are ready to assemble the cake. The assembled cake can be refrigerated for up to 28 hours. It also freezes very well.

Per serving (based on 20): 773 calories, 5 grams protein, 80 grams carbohydrates, 65 grams sugar, 50 grams fat, 110 milligrams cholesterol, 345 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.