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Walking through South Philadelphia gives me a cozy feeling — like when you walk into your mother’s house and scents of butter, strawberry, and rhubarb greet you at the front door.

It begins with the houses.  Colorful doors smile at passersby.  I can’t help but stopping to take a picture.  Unfortunately, my camera cannot do the doors justice without the surrounding houses in view.Blue Trap DoorPurple South Philadelphia DoorVenturing to this area clears my mind of background noise.  While strolling down Ellsworth, then 9th street, my senses are reawakened from a week’s worth of dulling drugdery.  All the gray my eyes endured now feast on urban life.  I cannot smell stale copier paper or hear the incessant clicking of computer keys.  Phone calls cannot interrupt my every train of thought.

Sitting in an empty coffee bar, I can detect delicate scent of anise from a pizzelle, and the correct creaminess of a cappuccino.

Pizzel and Cappuccio from Anthony's

As I wandered further down 9th Street, I finally stopped at a store front that I’ve been passing for years.  I should learn from this recurring pattern — the businesses I merely pass by countless times are some of the most rewarding gems I uncover.  The afternoon was slightly overcast, so walking into the colorful studio of The Expressive Hand was a pleasant occurence.  The shop owner gave me a tour of the space, the tools, and the paints.  A young couple had an open bottle of wine at their craft table.

A modest soup bowl would be my creation for today.  I pulled up a chair, and preceded to stipple, swirl, and stroke paint unto the ceramic surface.  Before I realized the time, a few hours had passed by and I wasn’t finished with my piece.  I learned that day that pottery is my strong artistic medium, but photographing the paints and my lowly bowl was a fun part of my experience.Plenty of brushesBowl and Paint

My soup bowl

Before I digress too far, I should tell you about saffron.  I’ve searched in a few stores for this coveted spice.  I never cooked with it before, but I knew my risotto (which has been sub par, I will admit) needed a face lift.  I was pleased to find it at the Italian Market Spice Company on 9th street.  Ask for saffron at the counter, the owner doesn’t stock it on the shelf.

After making last night’s dinner, I agree with words the of Alice Waters when it comes to risotto.  To sum up, a successful result is from a few basic but crucial ingredients:

1. Good chicken stock.  If you just use what’s in the box, your risotto will taste like it’s from a box.  When I made this fatal flaw, my ending dish took on an unfortunate yellow color rather than maintaining arborio rice’s pearly white color.

But making my own chicken stock requires buying and cooking down an entire chicken you’re thinking.  It can, but not necessarily.  Julia Child includes a quick fix in Mastering the Art of French Cooking that merely calls for white wine, the aromatics (onion, celery, carrot, parsely, bay leaf), and thirty minutes.  This recipe is a permanent part of my repertoire.

2. Freshly-grated parmeggiano reggiano.  Please don’t degrade your risotto with the substance in the plastic shaker container.

3. Fresh butter.  Cut a slab from a block of local farm butter (15 grams in a tablespoon), and swirl with wooden spoon.

And what of the saffron?  Well, this will promote your risotto from peasant fare to an aristocrat’s first course (or an administrative assistant’s entire dinner).  Just fold a pinch into the pan, after your last bit of butter and parmeggiano is incorporated.  The delicately floral scent distributed throughout the risotto bianco invites the diner to forget about the week passed.  You can take off your shoes, pull your warmest blanket over your lap and conclude the evening with a ridiculously sentimental film like Moonstruck or Nodding Hill.