A trip to Vedge, a Vegan Restaurant in Philadelphia.

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Vedge- Carrots & Lentils Roasted Carrots_7366

Why would you seek out a Vegan restaurant during Winter, when you know that most of the peak produce available would be more plentiful in Summer?

Yet, here I was, on an speeding Acela train to Philly, meeting up with photographer Jason Varney to shoot a March Story for Cooking Light at Vedge restaurant, in December.

I didn’t have high hopes. As a person who prides herself on trying the medium-rare all-beef burger as my measure for how good a restaurant is, I was expecting to fake pleasure at a cold carrot or oooh phony praise at a curry flavored lentil. I really had no idea.

Photographer Jason Varney met me at the train station. He’s one of my favorite people to work with ever; not least because he is a master at capturing the beauty of natural light, but his foppish, red beard shrouds the endearing qualities of one of the kindest men I’ve ever known.

And how was the food? Vedge restaurant didn’t disappoint, from the first extra strong coffee poured for us kindly by Kate, the co-owner, to the final red-wine soaked mushroom, and you can see the results and get recipes to try at home, in the March Issue of Cooking Light magazine. (On newsstands now.)

Photos: Jason Varney
Art Direction/styling: Dimity Jones

To subscribe to Cooking Light, click here.



Ecuadorian Chicken Stew

Aguado de Gallina (Ecuadorian Chicken Soup)

The wind was howling and soft snowflakes were swirling from the sky when I arrived at the Jersey Shore last night to cook dinner at a friend’s new beach house. They’d just purchased the place, so understandably they hadn’t used the stove before, nor knew how the oven worked. The kitchen utensils, left in the mad dash by the previous owners were somewhat limited but after a small search we found a large skillet, and with another shallow pan, made a makeshift ‘lid’. Paper plates acted as a cutting board, and without a can opener, we pried open the tomato paste with a pair of industrial pliars. Luckily I’d bought most of the ingredients with me from New York, as a quick whip around in the car last minute, would only glean us a can of watery peas and a dusty box of ‘boiled rice in a bag’. Unfortunately the major supermarket is still closed there, shuttered sadly since Hurricane Sandy.

I decided to cook everyone Ecuadorian Chicken Stew, inspired from the recipe from Jose Garces’ cookbook, The Latin Road Home. Jose’s stew is intensely flavored and an easy weeknight option. After browning the chicken pieces you literally pop all the diced-up ingredients in the pan, and let it simmer for 40 minutes. The strength of the dish comes from the combination of Achiote Paste + Smoked Paprika, which gives a deep, slightly-smokey flavor that’s not at all spicy, so it’s ideal for a possibly-fickle crowd. As one guest said “It’s so comforting, almost like an Latin Chicken Cacciatore.”


Adapted from Chef Jose Garces recipe for Chicken and Rice Soup with Achiote (Aguado de Gallina) from his wonderful book “The Latin Road Home”. 

Season 3lb’s of bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and legs. Heat Vegetable Oil in a heavy cast iron skillet or Dutch Oven (that has a lid) and gently brown chicken till golden. Set aside. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add 1 chopped Spanish (Red) Onion, 5 or 6 minced cloves of Garlic and 1 diced Red Bell Pepper. Cook, stirring, until translucent. Add 1 tablespoon of ground Cumin, and 2 big heaped tablespoons of Achiote Paste and 2 big heaped tablespoons of Tomato Paste and 1 teaspoon of Smoked Spanish Paprika and cook, stirring for 3-5 minutes. Return chicken to the pan, and add 1 quart of Chicken Stock (or more if you like a soupier stew) and 2 fresh bay leaves and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Stir in 3 diced Plum tomatoes, 1 cup of Long-grain Rice, 3 large Russet Potatoes, peeled and cut into a small dice and 1 large Carrot, also peeled and cut into a small dice. Cook, uncovered until the stock begins to reduce and the dish begins to thicken. Then add the lid back on, and cook until the chicken is tender and falling off the bone and the rice and potatoes are cooked through. (About 30-40 minutes). Stir in 1 cup of frozen peas, a small handful of roughly chopped Flat-leaf Parsley, a small handful of fresh Cilantro and season to taste with Salt and Pepper



Achiote Paste (Recado rojo) is crucial to this dish. Achiote is a Mexican spice blend of Annatto seeds, All spice, Garlic, Oregano, Cloves, Cumin, Cinnamon and Salt, and will give the dish flavor, as well as a rich mahogany hue. It’s available at any Mexican grocery store. In New York I found it at Kalustyan’s. Click here to get directions and store opening times.


To make your own Achiote Paste, click here. 

Because the dish has peas, potatoes and carrot already in it, we saved time and money by skipping side dishes and just served our chicken stew with plain boiled rice. You could also serve it with grains, or even pasta. We drank a nice Spanish Grenache with it, and as you would expect, the stew tasted even better heated up the next day.


Photograph by Jason Varney
Prop Styling: Heather Chontos

Photograph ©Jason Varney from Jose Garces cookbook “The Latin Road Home”
To purchase this book, which contains the original version of this recipe as well as other great weeknight options, click here.


Books I recommend: Jose Garces “The Latin Road Home”

Cookbooks pile up around my room, were they wafers, taunt and crackling, there would be enough to feed several large extended families.

Some of the books are solid, heavy, and affirming. Some are paperbacks, flimsy with pages lost. “Curl up with a good book” has long been my ointment, my medicine cabinet cure-all, for life’s daily maladies, like the departing of seasons, endless thumping rain, a dark grey Sunday. The feel of the paper, the weight of the book, the photos. Nothing destroys the crush for a new beau more than finding out he owns a Kindle.

Chef/restauranteur Jose Garces has a new cookbook, The Latin Road Home and it’s on the top of my book pile right now. Part food tour, part memoir, it’s informative, but accessible, and it reads like a travelogue with recipes. The more you read, the more you can’t put it down. I took it home on the subway, and by East Broadway, I had 3 strangers asking me what was the book, where could they get it, and the man in front of me who was carrying 2 lbs of shrimp asked me if I could give him a recipe from the book, for something he could possibly make at home that very night. (Shrimp Ceviche!)

The book centers around 5 Latin food cultures that influenced the course of Chef Jose’s life, and these 5 countries make up the chapters: Equador, his ancestral home. (While Jose was raised in North-West Chicago, his parents were both born in Equador). The second chapter is Spain, where he worked, then Cuba, where his wife is from, and finally Mexico and Peru, that was the inspiration for some of his restaurants.

Each of these chapters offers 4 complete dinner menus.
Some of the dishes included in the book are…

Equador: Equdorian Hot Sauce, Fried Pork, Avocado Salad, and Figs in Honey Syrup with Goats Cheese. Spain: Almond Gazpacho with Smoked Trout, Saffron Aioli, Canapes with Duck Confit and Serrano Ham. Cuba: Lobster in Spicy Tomato Sauce, Fried Stuffed Chiles, Guava and Cream Cheese turnovers. Mexico: Spicy Margarita, Octopus ceviché with Avocado, Chipotle Chicken Nachos. Peru: Red Chile Butter, Rosemary Mint Chimichurri, stewed Duck with Potatoes Peas and Chiles, Peruvian Doughnuts.


Jose’s book is beautifully shot by photographer Jason Varney and prop styled by Heather Chontos.

Jason got to travel to Ecuador with Jose and his wife and children. They spent the first few days shooting in the Quito markets, and Jose reunited with many of his family members at a dinner he hosted in Quito, where Jason had the pleasure of shooting portraits of Jose’s family tree. Next they traveled a few hours into the Andes and stayed at an eco-touism site called Hacienda Zuleta (on the book’s cover). They shot all the recipes a few weeks later at Jose’s Cira Centre restaurant JG Domestic while it was still under construction, they set up a make-shift studio and shot the nearly 100 recipe/process images over 8 days. In terms of propping, Heather decided to keep the palette muted but introducing pops of Latin colors- aquas, pinks, yellows. She hand-painted surfaces, and hand-tore linens. They wanted things to feel distressed and rustic to play up the history and rustic vibe of the food. The wrinkles in the fabric were important, they felt it gave a texture and movement that was needed to convey the rustic Latin feel.


(Pictured above, second from top). Recipe courtesy of Jose Garces, from his new cookbook “The Latin Road Home”. Cooking Note: To approximate the Cubano at home, follow the recipe to make the absolute key ingredient: the marinated, moist, and deeply flavorful roast pork. Note: plan for several hours of marinating time; you’ll end up with enough pork for a second round of sandwiches or the main component of another meal. Makes 4 sandwiches. 

2 tablespoons  + 1 tablespoon of Kosher Salt
2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
1 tablespoon of ground mustard
2 lb boneless pork shoulder, tied in an even roll
1/2 cup of Dijon Mustard
1 teaspoon of Ground Mace
2 tablespoons freshly ground Pepper
1 tablespoon Spanish Smoked Sweet Paprika

4 (6-inch) light crisp-crusted bakery rolls
2 tablespoons of Dijon Mustard
3/4 lb best quality domestic Ham (unglazed), thinly sliced
1/4 lb Swisss or Gruyere Cheese, thinly sliced
1 large Dill Pickle, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 tablespoons of Unsalted Butter

TO CURE THE PORK: Combine 2 tablespoons of the salt with the sugar and ground mustard. Rub the mixture all over the meat, cover, and set it in the refrigerator to cure for 6 hours. Place a rack in the middle position and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

TO ROAST THE PORK: Rinse it under cold running water to remove the seasoning. Pat dry with paper towels. Combine the Dijon mustard, mace, black pepper, paprika, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt. Rub the mixture all over the meat. Set the pork in a roasting pan, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and roast in center rack at 325 degrees. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 175 degrees, about 45 minutes. Allow the meat to cool completely before slicing.

TO MAKE THE SANDWICHES: Neat a sandwich press or griddle to medium-high. Split the bread lengthwise and pull it open. Spread the mustard on 1 side of each roll and layer on the roast pork, ham, cheese, and pickles. Spread the butter all over the outside of the sandwiches and griddle until the cheese is melted and the meats are warmed through, 3 to 4 minutes. (Alternatively, wrap the sandwich in foil and toast in a 350 degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes.) Slice each in half on the diagonal and serve.


To purchase the book, Jose Garces The Latin Road Home: Savoring the foods of Equador, Mexico and Peru, click here.

To read the NPR interview where Garces discusses his latest cookbook. Click here.

Photos from top: Chiles for his recipe for Equadorian Hot Sauce, Cuban Sandwich (Cubano), Spanish Octopus with Potato Confit, (Bottom) Chef Jose Garces eating a Warm Hominy Salad.

Note about my blog: Did you know there are more pictures that are showing on this post? To see entire galley, click on one picture and it will take you to the galley. From there you can keep tapping on the photo to work your way through the galley.


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON VARNEY: Jason is a food & travel photographer that grew up in the woods, but now calls The City of Brotherly Love home. When he’s not taming his Welsh Terrier pup, Jase appreciates stiff drinks & long exposures. He is based in New York, and Philadelphia. Check out his work here. And his blog here.

STYLED BY HEATHER CHONTOS: Heather is an artist, prop stylist and wannabe cowgirl, who lives in Bozeman, Montana with her two daughters, a giant St. Bernard, four chickens, and three ducks. Heather travels between both coasts for work, but when at home, hosts big dinner parties in Bozeman where they draw all over the table together and make crazy art whilst eating. Heather now works mainly through her little design consultancy Milk Farm RoadCheck out her work hereAnd her blog here. 


Donuts + Fried Chicken = Federal Donuts, Philadephia. (With Recipe!)

The streets are deserted. This is South Philly, not the Italian part, but Pennsport. Way down on South 2nd street, there’s a bit of heaven on earth, but in a blue collar, real, kind of way. They sell hot donuts and fried chicken, all on the same plate, with the most exquisite deep green pickles. The place is called Federal Donuts and, along with the fried chicken and donuts, you can also get real coffee, a custom blend, made the classic drip method and poured into glass science-lab vessels from a fair trade roaster in Kansas.

The donut recipe comes from sous-chef Zach Engel, who spent a long time testing it, to get just the right taste. They’re cake batter donuts (not yeast donuts) so they’re denser.  Less airy, but no less delicious. He developed the donut recipe to taste great by itself, unadorned, and it is—but personally I like it better with the sweet stuff on it.

There are 9 donuts in all, 6 fancies… that are either glazed or have toppings, and 3 fried ones made fresh to order. The 3 hot ones are your classic sugared donuts, Appollonia, Indian Cinnamon, and Vanilla Lavander. (What’s Appollonia? Turns out it’s a spice blend of bitter cocoa powder and dried orange blossoms from La Boite a Epice.) The glazes and toppings on the fancies change often; on the day I was there, the offerings were Choc-Banana, Pina Colada, Raspberry-Balsamic, Grape-fruit-Brown Sugar, Halva-Pistachio and S’mores. The Choc-Banana had sold out in an hour and half and the most popular ones that day were S’mores, and the Halva-Pistachio. The “fancies” donuts are made fresh in the morning. They can make anywhere between 250 to 1000 in a day. But once they’re sold out, they’re out.

The fried chicken was created by chef/owner Michael Solomonov, (one of the 5 owners), who was inspired when he fell in love with the Korean Fried Chicken at Cafe Soho in Cheltenham. They’re twice fried (in the Korean method) in a cornflour batter, making for a supremely crunchy crust. The chicken is juicy and well-seasoned with something they cheekily call “OMG”, (Onion, Mustard, Garlic). There’s a choice of 2 dry seasonings in shakers you can cover your chicken with: Harissa and Za’atar (a middle eastern seasoning inspired by the other restaurant Mike, and Steven Cook own—Zahav). There are 2 wet glazes that can be smothered on the chicken: Chile-Garlic (a traditional Korean Fried Chicken glaze) and Honey-Ginger. The chicken is served with hot donuts and Asian-style pickles that aren’t made in house but are nonetheless amazing. They are deep emerald green in a brine of Japanese rice vinegar, ginger, sesame and seaweed.  Sweet, salty, acidic and perfect with the crispy richness of the fried chicken.


Recipe courtesy of Chef Michael Solomonov

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 bone-in pieces (two thighs, two drumsticks, each breast cut in half)
2 cups cornstarch
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup water
1 tbsp. kosher salt plus additional
Vegetable oil for frying

The night before cooking the chicken, liberally season the pieces with kosher salt and arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.  Refrigerate overnight, loosely covered with parchment paper.

Heat vegetable oil for frying to 300 degrees.  Mix together the cornstarch, flour and 1 tbsp. salt and whisk in the water to make a thin batter.  Dip the chicken pieces in the batter and fry for 10 minutes.  Remove the chicken to a drain rack and increase the oil temperature to 350 degrees.  Fry the chicken for an additional 5 minutes and drain well.

Serve as is or coat liberally in sauce.

1/4 cup garlic and chili sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup kecap manis (an Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce)
3 tbsp. apple cider vinegar


Federal Donuts 
1219 S.2nd Street,
Philadephia. PA




JASON VARNEY is a food & travel photographer that grew up in the woods, but now calls The City of Brotherly Love home. When he’s not taming his Welsh Terrier pup, Jase appreciates stiff drinks & long exposures. He is based in New York, and Philadelphia. Check out his work here. And his blog here.

(Text and Art Direction; Dimity Jones)