Conserving and Preserving, and duck and Goi An

I've had a busy morning.

Today is the last delivery of the season for our CSA.

As usually happens, there were leftover veggies, which, though we leave them out all night, technically become ours after 7 PM if not picked up.

For some reason, this week there were 4 additional boxes of veggies. That's a lot of veggies.

I'm going to bet (or hope) that our basement is cool enough to store all the apples, squash, potatoes, parsnips, and beets that I lugged down there this morning, rendering it a root cellar.

But nothing preserves food like cooking and freezing it, so I had at it this morning.

Knowing I was using the oven (to make duck confit, for cassoulet), I took the opportunity to prepare some beets as well.

I cleaned them and wrapped them in foil, threw in some oil, S and P, and a couple of cloves of garlic and placed two packages on a baking sheet.

I also roasted some potatoes.

I used the potatoes to make gnocchi.

I passed the peeled potatoes through a food mill, and mixed in just enough flour to make an easy-handling dough. I rolled the dough into snakes, and cut the snakes into 1" long gnocchi.

I froze the gnocchi on a baking sheet, then placed the frozen gnocchi into a freezer bag. I may make a gnocchi appetizer for Thanksgiving... we'll see. I know Susan's mother Elvira would greatly appreciate it. If I do, I'll either make a ragu or perhaps a sage cream sauce. Or perhaps I could make a sauce out of all the Kale that's now in my freezer, with bechamel maybe? Hmm... decisions.

I had pounds of Jurassic-looking kale. After cutting out the ribs and soaking it I cooked it in two big batches in our largest stockpot. It steamed mostly, with about a cup of water and some salt in the bottom of the pot. After it wilted I cooked it down a bit and now have 3 gallon bags in the freezer, joining corn, green beans, shredded beets (for rosti), sauteed greens....

The kale ribs joined the potato and beet skins in our composter. Next year they'll nourish the soil in our little backyard, perhaps helping us grow plump tomatoes and fragrant Thai basil, cilantro, and mint for my Goi An-- a Vietnamese cabbage salad that we've become addicted to. (Thankfully I have plenty of cabbage for that now!)

Goi An

For dressing, combine 1/4 cup of Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce with 1/4 cup of lime juice, a chopped shallot or two, a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar, and some grated ginger. Add some ground pepper and a teaspoon of sesame oil and mix. Add some chili flakes if you're feeling adventurous or out of control.

For salad, chop up a small head of cabbage. Add a grated carrot and some chopped cilantro, thai basil (or regular basil) and mint. Finish with some chopped roasted unsalted peanuts.

You can add shredded chicken meat if you like.

It's tasty. Addictive. And good for you.


Back in the Saddle

I have returned to serving food at one of the region's best restaurants.

I left this restaurant two years ago to take a position at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. There, I assisted both the Marketing and Development departments in raising funds for, and promoting, the renovation of old Dinosaur Hall into arguably the world's finest dinosaur exhibit, Dinosaurs in Their Time. This was a $36 million capital campaign project.

I raised funds via approaching corporations and arguing for their commitment to our region's cultural health via "sponsaurship" of individual dinosaurs within the exhibit.

Then, two months before the exhibit opened, I acted as project manager for the public portion of the campaign, called Adopt-A-Bone. This program allowed people to log on to our dinosaur Web site, select a favorite dinosaur, and adopt individual dinosaur bones, ranging from $25 to $10,000, on behalf of themselves or others. All designated "adoptees" received an artful Certificate of Adoption and a permanent listing of their names within the exhibit.

My position ended with the opening of the exhibit. I enjoyed a couple of months off, which enabled me to test retirement early. (I'm going to need projects when I retire.) The restaurant's GM graciously agreed to welcome me back a week ago, and I am happy to be back. I retrained for two nights and began work officially last Sunday.

Serving is a tiring job and not for everyone. It can be lucrative, and the hours are more appealing to some than others. Some, I feel, get trapped in the position and this can lead to bitterness. I have always enjoyed it, but have also been grateful for my time off from it.

I have found that I have easily slipped back into being a waiter. I really don't think I've lost a step. I'm relatively organized-- serving at a busy restaurant requires much juggling, multi-tasking, and prioritizing-- and I certainly enjoy discussing food, drink and other topics with guests.

Of course, it requires some adjustment on the home front. I feel guilty that I'm less able to prepare tasty dinners for us. On Sunday I had to leave a wonderful brunch to go to work. But it just requires a little more planning, is all.

It is servile work, but I have to admit, I'm quite good at it. I genuinely enjoy helping people select a good meal, and perhaps entertaining them a bit in the bargain.

See you at the restaurant. Ask me for a wine recommendation. Get the scallops, followed by the lamb.


Mussels and Sausage in Bed

Combining pork and mollusks is common in Mediterranean countries. I first enjoyed this at a Pittsburgh restaurant, the recently departed Baum Vivant, owned by a Portuguese chef, where I enjoyed pork loin with clams. More recently, a chef friend brought clams and ground pork to a dinner at a friend's house.

Yesterday I decided to explore this combination.

I purchased one "Spicy Sicilian" sausage from Parma and 18 mussels from Pittsburgh Fish Co, both in the Strip District. I bought a sheet of fresh pasta, about 1' x 3', from Groceria Italiana in Bloomfield.

(I pointedly ignored Wholey's Fish Market; I purchased mussels there a month ago and three-fourths of them were dead.)

I definitely wanted a tomato presence. Thanks to our CSA, we have plenty of ripe, sweet, plump, rosy tomatoes. (Our own garden tomatoes, but for one, have yet to ripen, and probably won't.) A cream sauce would have worked, but I wanted the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes playing off the richness of the sausage.

I cut the pasta into 7" square "blankets". Each plate would have two with sauce separating and covering them, essentially making deconstructed ravioli (or an unbaked lasagne).

I also wanted some cheese in the dish. I bought some fresh ricotta and used a half-cup measuring cup to cut rounds out of the pasta to make ravioli "pillows." (I'd never done this before. While they were fine, next time I'll buy "homemade" ravioli from Groceria Italia.)

It was a very delicious dish, one I will definitely recreate.

Mussels and Sausage in Bed

1/4 cup chopped shallot
chopped garlic
fresh basil
few leaves of arugula
4 large tomatoes, peeled, halved, seeded*, juices saved
1 spicy sausage (about 3 ounces), casing removed, meat finely chopped
1/2 cup of white wine
18 mussels
fresh pasta, cut into 5" sheets, and homemade or store-bought cheese ravioli

1. make the sauce
saute half the shallots and garlic in olive oil for one minute, careful not to burn. Add chopped meat and saute until no longer pink, about two minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, S and P, and fresh herbs and arugula and saute gently until the tomatoes give up their water.

2. cook the mussels
melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat in a stock pot. Add remaining shallots and garlic and saute for one minute, careful not to burn. Add mussels, then pour on accumulated tomato juice and white wine. Cover and bring to low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for two minutes, until mussels open. Using skimmer, remove cooked mussels to a bowl, and then bring juices back to a boil and reduce by half. Add this to the tomato sauce. Remove mussels from shell. Add any accumulated mussel juice to tomato sauce.

3. Assemble the dish

Boil an inch of salted water in two wide, shallow pans. Slide ravioli into one and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Slide two pasta "blankets" into the other and simmer gently for 2-3 minutes. Place one each on warm plate. (Slide remaining two blankets and simmer for 2-3 minutes while you begin assembling the dish.)

Place a few mussels on each blanket, then add a scoop of tomato sauce. Position the two "pillows" at the head of the blanket. When the second batch of blankets are cooked, cover the first blanket and sauce with the second blanket. Place a few more mussels on this blanket, then cover with more tomato sauce. Sprinkle with fresh basil. Depending on the spiciness of the sausage and the saltiness of the sauce, add black pepper or sprinkle with Parmesan cheese at your discretion.

This was a beautiful, delicious dish, something I'm genuinely proud of. The sauce was sweet from the shallots, but the tomatoes added a brisk, acidic twang. The pork was spicy, the mussels were briny, and the dish came together remarkably well.

Margaritas on the front porch

Arugula with vinaigrette
Slice of prosciutto from Parma
Shaved Parmesan
Sliced tomato, sea salt, olive oil

Music: Perfectly Frank: Tony Bennet sings Frank Sinatra

*After peeling tomatoes (by plunging into boiling water briefly), chop in half across the equator. Squeeze seeds from each half through a strainer set over a bowl, allowing juices to flow through. When finished with all 4 tomatoes, gently stir the seeds, encouraging the last of the juices to fall into the bowl. You should have 1/2 to 1 cup.


prepared foods/a damn fine sandwich

I think I eat more prepared/packaged foods than I'd care to confess too. Off the top of my head:

canned beans
orange juice
peanut or almond butter

And probably a few more.

On the other hand, I'm enjoying eating more real foods lately too. Off same head:


Here's a good sandwich that combines prepared food with fresh food:

Wheat bread/goat cheese/tapenade/proscuitto/tomato/mayonaisse

Spread bread with a little mayo and black olive tapenade, add some crumbled goat cheese and a sliced tomato, salt and pepper, and a thin slice of prosciutto. (The sandwich eats easier if you slice the meat up into little bits first.)

Slice in half with a sharp knife. It'll drip a bit, so keep a paper towel handy.

All You Can Eat Sushi

Normally I'd pass an establishment that offers "All you can eat (x)." But I made an exception for the Wednesday sushi special at Pittsburgh Fish Market on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, because the fish there is always super good.

Open for lunch only, the PFM offers a varied selection of Nigiri and rolls with very fresh ingredients. Each course consists of two orders of Nigiri (for a total of 4 pieces) and 3 selections of rolls. When you finish your selection you can order again. I didn't quite manage two courses, but everything I ate was made and presented very well.

The cost for the special is $19-- about $9 more than I pay for the usual sushi plate of 4 pieces of Nigiri and a roll. The freshness of the fish makes this quite the bargain.

The decor is fairly plain, the seating basic, the music is dull rock and there's no liquor license, so no beer with your fish (unless you bring your own, I suppose). Paper napkins and plastic cups for the soy sauce. But you can peruse a great selection of cookbooks and books about fish while you eat.

For my first course I ordered salmon and tuna Nigiri and both were excellent. For my rolls I had spicy tuna (not particularly spicy), eel with cucumber and a roll that featured fried (tempura) shrimp and avocado, which I thought particularly good.

Course two was basic: more salmon and an order of eel, followed by just two rolls, salmon and tuna.

PFM is definitely not Umi-- in fact it's not even Chaya. But I think that even ordering one course-- 4 pieces of sushi and 18 pieces of roll-- is quite the bargain-- particularly when the fish is so fresh and of such high quality. I wouldn't hesitate to go back or recommend it to hungry, sushi-loving friends.


Paella and how to play Smoke on the Water and rescue mayo

With so few refreshingly mild nights left to us before the coolness of autumn descends, it seemed a shame not to indulge in an outdoor meal with friends.

I made fish stock and was considering fish soup, as one of our friends does not eat meat. However it seemed warm for soup, so instead I made a seafood paella, which is also much less work.

I've made paella once or twice before. There are limitless variations. But what they all have in common are few ingredients and ease of creation.

Basically, paella consists of sauteed aromatics (onions, red pepper, garlic), tomato, short grain rice, and stock. It could end here, though I'm sure most paella consumed around the world include the addition of chicken thighs and chorizo sausage. My fish one baked with sliced monkfish medallions nestled under the rice. When it came out of the oven 25 minutes later, I somewhat artfully (for me) arranged atop it barely cooked jumbo prawns, seared scallops, and mussels, then covered it all and let the residual heat and steam from the rice finish cooking the seafood.

I only wish I had enough mussels to include some raw ones atop the cooked dish, allowing them to cook and open up their black, shiney, goodness-filled shells to us dramatically. Of the two-pound bag I purchased from Wholey's in the Strip, only a dozen mussels were alive when I got home. I threw away at least two dozen. Though two days before the paella-fest, I feared for the worst, so cooked the living mussels in some shallot and white wine. I de-shelled (?) them and stored them in their cooking juices. It made for a less dramatic presentation, but the mussels were in fact quite tasty.

I also made some gazpacho to start. This batch was a little different. I had cooked two big bunches of beets along with a roasting chicken on Friday and added a little chopped beet to the soup, which gave it a deep purple, smoke-on-the-water kind of color. (Dun dun duuuun... dun dun dundun....) (Many guitarists misplay this riff, by the way. For the musically inclined, the 5th goes beneath the root here, which gives it its distinct melodic heaviness.)

Keeping the theme Spanish, dessert was orange flans. I added strips of candied orange peel to the caramel.

I had one egg leftover and decided to make mayonaisse for some grilled asparagus. I can't say it broke, because it was never unbroken. But it didn't set, so I was left with a thickened oil that wasn't saucy at all.

So, a quick way to rescue mayo:

Put a tablespoon of store-bought mayo in a bowl, and slowly whisk in your broken mayo (or hollondaise, etc.). The store-bought stuff has so many emulsifiers in it it'll bind anything. You could probably build a wall with it. While listening to Deep Purple.


Grilled pizza

Did I miss the grilled pizza trend? Was it even a trend? I remember friends of Susan's family grilling pizza ten years ago or more, thinking that it was kind of interesting.... then forgot all about it.

I began making focaccia over the last year. An easy yeast bread, it is essentially the same recipe as pizza dough. One loaf equals two pizzas.

We have many beautiful tomatoes now, and a large crop of basil. I've also been making fresh cheese-- a batch I made with raw milk was delicious-- so putting 4 and 4 together, I decided to try my luck.

A little research indicated that yes, you can plop raw pizza dough directly down on the hot grates, and it will neither stick nor fall between the grates. I can confirm this. After the dough is cooked on the bottom, it is easily flipped with the help of a spatula: at this point, the toppings are added. The lid goes back down and as the bottom of the dough cooks, the toppings cook (or at least warm). My fresh cheese did not melt but maintained distinct curds.

Batch one had sliced tomatoes (which fresh cheese and basil). Susan deemed it "not oily enough," so I poured a little olive oil on and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt, which perked things up immeasurably. I found that the tomatoe skins would detach from the pulp, however, and I found this distracting.

For batch two, I used some tomato confit. Earlier in the week I'd peeled and quatered tomatoes, and poached them gently in olive oil. Their flavor concentrates a little (though not as much as roasting them). You can then store them in their poaching liquid. They're very soft and, well, oily. In a good way.

This batch was much better.

The pizza smoky, crunchy but yeilding with a good chew, and rich from the oiled tomatoes.

It is definitely an experiment I would repeat.


Six Penn Kitchen Brunch

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding brunch we enjoyed on Sunday at Six Penn Kitchen.

The menu offers an intriguing variety of items and is very reasonable. In fact it's downright inexpensive.

We four split some appetizers: biscuits with corned beef, biscuits with delicious ham, and tempura bacon-- battered, deep fried bacon.

Susan had an updated croque madame for her mains-- it was topped with a mornay sauce and a fried egg and came with a large portion of shoestring fried potatoes.

I had their version of eggs benedict: a poached egg on grilled asparagus, ham, and a crab cake, with hollondaise sauce.

As we were with friends, one of whom was a manager at Six Penn, the chef sent out an extra dish, a plate of steak tacos. The tortillas were deep-fried and delicious.

I also had a damn fine bloody mary, made with smoked tomatoes.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

I made fresh cheese yesterday. I followed the instructions on Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It was easy and the results, paired with a sweet, robust, purple tomato from my friend Ron's garden, were quite tasty.

Essentially, one simmers a half gallon of milk, then, once it bubbles a little, adds a quart of buttermilk and a big pinch of salt. The milk solids quickly separate from the liquid whey to form curds. After a minute of stirring, the whole thing is poured through a cheesecloth-line sieve. You gather the corners of the cloth and start twisting the curds into something resembling a softball. You squeeze as much whey out of the ball as possible, then secure it with string and suspend it over a bowl for any remaining whey to find its "way" out. An hour later you have cheese.

(There's also lots of leftover whey. I'll use this for breakfast smoothies and to moisten my two dogs' dried food over the next few days.)

If the co-op sells raw milk I'd like to try it with this next.

The blog title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, as portrayed in the funniest movie ever.

Boxed Wine

A link to a popular essay on boxed wines in yesterday's NY Times:

I'm a big fan of Black Box wine. What you lose in romance you certainly gain back in taste, practicality, and certainly value. Twenty-three dollars per 3-litre box translates to roughly $6 per bottle. Not exactly European prices, but getting closer.

For whites I enjoy Black Box pinot grigio and chardonnay. For reds, I find their cabernet to be really very good. I do not like the shiraz, and I have not tried the merlot.

The article points out the environmental advantages of boxed wine. It costs (per carbon emmissions) half to ship the boxes. Four "bottles" in a box weigh half the equivolent in bottles. There's also less to discard when finished.

It was difficult to make the leap, but at the end of the day I gambled $23 and won.



Chef Greg Alauzen, who formerly helmed Steelhead Grill and Eleven, is back at Cioppino, near the new Cork Factory Lofts at 23rd and Railroad in the Strip District. We were invited to their soft opening on Wednesday, joined by Diane (girlfriend of the GM, Bob) and our friend Keri. It opens to the public tonight.
GM Bob Flood greets Susan

The restaurant features two bars. Their "cigar bar," a ridiculously out-of-fashion concept, cleverly gives cigarette smokers a place other than outside to go to light up. The cigar bar has a few tables (though why one would like to eat in a smoke-filled room eludes me) and a couple of leather couches, and a small bar for perhaps 6 or 8.

The main bar seats a couple of dozen . Behind a half-wall a long banquette and tables seat perhaps 3 dozen more. There appears to space for a small outdoor patio, but it was bereft of tables and chairs.

The main dining room apears to host about 80. A smaller dining room can be closed off for private parties or pharmaceutical rep dinners, with flat screens on the walls for presentations to wealthy doctors and/or their staffs on the benefits of the latest seratonin blockers.

The design is staid and a little clubby. It is not over-the-top ambitious, like Eleven, and the food overall reflects this. The food is very good, carefully assembled, though (with a couple of exceptions) not earth-shattering. However, the whole place seems to have been constructed in order not to challenge tastebuds, and certainly not to offend. It is comfortable, and I predict it will be embraced.

Susan's signature cioppino featured two large prawns, clams and mussels, a scallop, two pieces of firm white fish, and a langoustine tail. A whiff of the grill rose from the toasted bread, and the rich, fennel-infused soup-- clearly the result of much cooking down of fish bits and aromatics, in the manner of bouillabaise (rather than a standard catch-as-catch-can traditional cioppino)-- was poured tableside over the fish (martinis and mocktinis were also poured tableside from small glass pitchers, which added nothing to the drink-- in fact, this contributes to their warming). I predict tableside pouring will go the way of the Dodo soon.

After a week of vegetables, I opted for the restaurant's other claim: steak. I had a large porterhouse, grilled perfectly mid-rare. It was very good, all agreed, probably prime (I should have asked), and Susan loved the sandwich it made the next day. Diane's grilled salmon came with a fresh corn and tomato broth, and Keri's grilled rare tuna was, refreshinly, in one piece instead of being sliced and fanned out across something.

Starters were hit and miss. The winner was the sliced fluke, raw with EVO and lemon (though it could have used more acid). I was happy to see frisee on the menu with bacon and goat cheese dressing. I wonder if he'd do one for me with a poached egg instead of the cheese? Anyway, it was strong and salty and I loved it. Pepper was not offered, which was fine; the salads were well-seasoned.

Desserts were a reasonable size, and perhaps the weak point of the meal (though in their defense I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, unless there are Florentines or good ice cream involved).

The service erred on the side of trying to be helpful. A drink order, despite being written down, was mixed up, but my Peroni, instead of my negroni, was fine. Susan was salivating at the thought of the lamb chops, though it wasn't until we ordered them that we were told that they were off the menu that night-- a rather large oversight. We enjoyed a bottle of Ponzi pinot noir, which was quite round and balanced. I was surprised when we got our bill to see my glass of Remy XO cost $35. I mean, it's only $110 a bottle.... bit of gouging there, I think.

I think next time I go I'll sit in the bar and try some more appetizers, or perhaps, as at Eleven, they'll have a "tavern" menu for the bar.

Cioppino offers a pleasant view of downtown-- from the ground up, like at another good steakhouse, Pittsburgh Rare. With Greg involved, they're certain to tighten up and cross all t's and dot all i's. If they'd introduce a couple of more unique dishes, I'd appreciate it, but even so it's a good, clean crisp restaurant with really nothing at all to complain about (unless it's $35 for a glass of cognac).

Veggie options

Lots of cilantro, basil, corn, zucchini, chard, carrots, and tomatoes around lately. I’ve been enjoying putting them together in various ways. I have made gazpacho twice, and both times it has turned out well. On Saturday last I made a (for me) fairly ambitious vegetarian meal, culled from the pages of Mark Bitman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” Flush with corn, we had Thai Corn Pancakes; pan-grilled corn kernels with chopped jalapeno; a couple of “sauces”—a cilantro-mint chutney, similar to one often dispensed at Indian restaurants, and a coconut-ginger raita, a yogurt-based condiment; and gazpacho.

I also made a Swish Chard Tarte: short crust, layered with tomato sauce, sautéed onions, grated swiss cheese, and sautéed chard, finished with more cheese and baked. It ate almost like a pizza, but resembled a quiche, and was very good.

Finally I also recently made a Vietnamese chicken salad, Goi An. Traditionally the base is chopped cabbage; I had none, so substituted blanched, crispy green beans from my CSA. The rest was shredded chicken (one leg and thigh, leftover from the previous week’s roast), julienned carrots, lots of cilantro and mint from our garden, and a dressing made from fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, ginger, garlic and shallot. It’s finished with finely chopped unsalted dry-roasted peanuts—and it was pretty yummy. We got cabbage in this week's CSA delivery, so after I grill our final local free-range chicken, I'll make this again the "proper" way.


Oh what a gluttonous weekend...

Quite a gluttonous weekend. Not that I’m complaining.

We hosted friends for dinner on Friday. Great Nate is in the process of beating cancer into submission. As he’d been receiving treatment in New York for six months, it had been some time since we’d seen him. While he was not permitted a glass of his beloved bourbon (but that time will come), I was happy to serve him a largely local organic dinner.

Our backyard is splashed with color from Black-Eyed Susans, lilies, Columbine, and the odd rose and daisy. We sat there for our antipasti of roasted beets, sautéed zucchini, goat cheese with olive oil, and prosciutto (both from trusty Trader Joe’s).

We moved inside for gazpacho, which was very cold, crunchy and refreshing. I made it with tomatoes from the local farmers market (not organic, but big and flavorful) and cucumbers and onion from our weekly CSA delivery. I used just the “meat” portion of the fruit; to the juice that was a byproduct of my butchering I added some sugar, salt, lemon and gelatin to this and made tomato jelly. I poured it into little cups, and when it was set I placed the wobbly gel in the base of each chilled soup bowl, and ladled the gazpacho around it. All but Laura's then got a sprinkle of cilantro from our garden. Laura won't eat it because it smells like soap.

Dinner was roasted organic chicken (delivered via our CSA) and CSA green beans, which I parboiled, then sautéed in EVO with some lemon rind and juice. By then we were fairly full and had small portions. It was a big bird, but the four of us managed only one breast side. Of course I gnawed the wings and “oysters” when I was cleaning up, my favorite parts. Lots of leftover meat for sandwiches and soups.

Saturday, Keri and David hosted us and friends Jeff and Rebecca in their beautiful, historic North Side home. The house is turreted, and the living room has a curved wall and windows. Lots of wainscoting reminds you of the details that went into building back in the day.

Keri made a salad of sliced watermelon on which she shaved cheese and added chopped olives, a refreshing and delicious combination. Dinner was pasta with lemon and fresh herbs, and a big-ass bowl of barbecued shrimp (some of which made their way into leftover gazpacho for lunch the next day). Again, first rate— as was the syllabub served dramatically in black cocktail glasses for dessert, with crunchy amaretti cookie crumbs providing contrast and support.

It doesn’t end. Rod and Donna, two gourmands if I ever met any, hosted us and a dozen or so others for a late afternoon dinner on Sunday, created by another friend who just happens to be a truly great professional chef, Derek Stevens of Eleven. We were greeted with Wellfleet oysters and Negronis. The main courses were ambitious. He’d smoked pork butt and ribs in his garden a few days previously and turned them into unctuous pulled pork and barbecued ribs. The pork went into corn tortillas, the ribs were gnawed to the bone. They were the best ribs I’ve ever eaten.

There were large prawns, served scampi style, too, and steamed clams with ground pork, which was Portuguese in origin, I think. The kicker were little hamburger "sliders," each topped off with a little sautéed foie gras.

It was an honor to assist Derek a little, grilling the burger buns and heating the tortillas and so on.

But it was way, way better to eat his food, in the garden, during the tail end of a perfectly blue summer day.

Don’t get old. You forget things—like bringing your digital camera.


Udipi Cafe

When I briefly reviewed restaurants for the short-live Pulp in Pittsburgh, I made sure that Udipi Cafe would be the first.

A southern Indian vegetarian restaurant, I was dragged there by a friend who insisted I'd love it. The flavors were so bright and exotic, the preparations so varied and unique, I scarcely missed my mutton and chicken. One small quibble: with no tandoori chicken to prepare, there's no tandoor, or clay oven, to cook it-- hence, no nann. But the other breads, particularly the fat, puffy, deep-fried poori, well make up for its absence.

David coming to grips with the puffy bread

Udipi Cafe is well off the beaten track in Penn Hills, but well worth seeking (Sikhing?) out. Dinner for four will be less than $40. It is BYOB, and a couple of cold, light beers, like Straub, compliment the flavorful, mildly spicy food. Plastic eating utensils. And apparently well-loved by Penn Hill's sizeable Indian community.
We love turning friends on to it.

Keri's happy food face


I had an extraordinary mango recently. It was perfectly ripe, juicy and flavorable. I came to me in rather a roundabout way.

First, we don't buy mangos (mangoes?) as Susan isn't fond of them, and I certainly don't crave them. When visiting my dad and step-mother in Ivory Coast 10 years ago, sliced mango was offered after every meal. They are everywhere in the Ivory Coast. Susan just didn't take to them. I was more partial to the other offering, paypaya. It was less perfumey and milder.

On Friday morning, around 8:30, I heard a wailing outside our house. I looked outside and thought I could see a neighbor, an elderly Indian woman, confused and crying in the street. She was walking to the front of the house, so I retrieved my eyeglasses and opened the blinds and asked Susan to confirm that this was our neighbor. Our next door neighbor, hearing the noise, had already stepped outside to investigate. By the time I threw on some clothes, Kristin had already called the police to report what turned out to be a mugging.

Our elderly neighbor, Bibi, walking back from a shop, had been pushed down to the street and her purse taken from her. She had bruised knees and shoulders and was obviously in shock.

The police soon arrived. We got Bibi some water. Bibi's English is not so good, and the police officer, frankly, could have been more patient; I'm glad we and Kristin were there.

Bibi's two sons live on the other side of the country, and so with no spare key, I had to break into Bibi's house and open her door to let her in.

We three sat with her for a while, and she offered us each a mango by way of thanks. She seemed to be out of her shock, and had realized that while this awful event had occured, she was going to be fine.

While I'll gladly have foregone the mango for this not to have happened, it sure taught me that a good mango can be great. Remembering my time in Africa, I squeezed a little lime juice on it and that tempered the sweetness and brought the flavor around.

Mangoes are hard to eat, as they have a large, oblong pit. After I peeled it and ran my knife around it like lines of longitude and latitiude and did my best to cut the resulting chunks off the pit and onto the plate. It looked like hell but tasted delicious.

This morning I whizzed my other mango with some yogurt, OJ and squeeze of lime. What we'd call a smoothie the Indians would call a lhassee. It too was delicious.


Bona Terra anniversary dinner

To celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary, we dined at a favorite restaurant, Bona Terra, in Sharpsburg.

Sharpsburg is off Route 28, just east of Pittsburgh, and across the river from Lawrenceville. It's a 15 minute drive for us.
Chef Douglas Dick shops daily for local, largely organic food and presents it fairly simply, allowing the natural flavors to shine.
Despite it being a busy Friday night, we were granted a tasting menu, allowing Douglas to send us whatever he wanted to. The only thing I requested was lamb, Susan's favorite. Chef Douglas knows us well, and we've never had a bad bite at his restaurant. It was a delightful meal from start to finish.
Bona Terra is BYOB. I brought a split of Mumm's for the first course, and a bottle of American claret (Ramey) for the rest of the meal. Fortunately we skipped the usual cocktail before leaving the house. We don't bounce back like we used to.
First course: Foie gras, onion relish, cherry gastrique

Second course: Seared Dayboat scallop, sweet white corn, lobster meat, tomato broth, atop truffled mashed potatoes

Third course: Duck breast, seared rare, with crisply skin and strawberry reduction (yum):

Fourth course: Blackened swordfish, locally foraged wild mushrooms, risotto:

Fifth course: Where's the lamb? In our bellies. I "forgot" to photograph the lamb chops, which were very tender. I once read that it is socially acceptable to gnaw bones in public, which we did. The crispy bits along the bone are so delicious.

Susan had wonderful sorbet for dessert. Douglas has a magical sorbet machine that whips in air, giving it a very smooth texture, like ice cream. Strawberry, mango-champagne, and melon. I had a chocolate-toffee tort with chocolate ice cream.

Six courses. One for each happy year of marriage!

Healthy lunches

I'm trying to lose some weight-- fat, specifically. I'm not large, but I'm out of shape, and I've got a belly. I'm realistic; I'll never be Daniel Craig. But with high cholesterol, and a relatively sedentary life over the last couple of years, it's time to excercise and make different food choices.

I've been running for 30 minutes five time a week for the last three weeks, and stretching (which I loathe) a bit, and doing some push-ups.

I've also been enjoying our CSA-- Community Supported Agriculture. As I wrote recently, we get a weekly delivery. It's a lot of food, too much for just dinner, so it's found its way into my lunches too: sauteed zuchini and potatoes, salads-- yup, salads for lunch. I'm such a girl.

On the bright side, I still enjoy cocktails (Muddled Limeys, Margaritas, Sazeracs), beer and wine, and bits of meat here and there.

Dinner last night was a whole 2# sea bass (from off shore Virginia, I'm told) grilled over fennel fronds on our gas grill, per recent Minimalist post. (Very good, too, though I'd hoped to get nicer looking fish fillets than the mess I ended up with.) We still have the CSA fennel bulbs, which Susan will turn into a salad with oil-cured olives and orange segments.

Lunches have been salads with whatever happens to be delivered. Recently, boiled beets, sauteed zuchini, and cucumber. The goat cheese and sprouts came from our 'fridge.

I've lost 4 or 5 pounds, and hope to lose 5 more. After that, we'll see.

It's easier in the summer. It's too hot to eat too much, and easier to be outside, active.

Being unemployed really helps a lot too.


The Sazerac was just named New Orleans' official cocktail.

Originally made with cognac, it's now commonly made with rye whiskey.


Chill a cocktail glass (or, more traditionally, a rocks glass) with ice

To shaker of ice add a glug of cognac or rye (I use cognac), 1/2 tspn of sugar syrup (or to taste), and a dash or two of bitters-- Peychaud if you can find it, or Angostura if not.

To chilled cocktail glass add a tspn of pastis, such as Ricard. Herbsaint, Pernod, or Sambuca are aceptable subsitutes. Twirl glass to coat inside with pastis, and expel extra.

Strain flavored cognac or rye into pastis-line glass.

Twist a freshly-cut piece of lemon peel over the cocktail, spraying the top with refreshing lemon peel oil. Add twist to glass, or not.

One is usually enough.
Here's rock and rolling songwriter/novelist Gad-About-Town Steve Morrison, ex-New Orlean, about to dig in.


Today's farm-fresh delivery

We buy a share in a local organic farm each year. We're also a drop-off point in our neighborhood, so the produce comes right to our door, stacked on our porch. (You Can't Always Get What You Want: for some reason, our box is always at the bottom of a stack.)

Today's delivery: lettuce, kale, fennel, carrots, basil, potatoes, blueberries, tomatoes, zuchini and cucumbers.

Rosemary lamb

For once I may have beaten the Minimalist to a delicious idea.

In todays NY Times Dining Section, a video shows Mr. Bittman skwering chunks of lamb with rosemary sprigs-- something I trumpeted last fall in our local Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after a trip to Tuscany.

Tuscany is famous for its huge grilled porterhouse steaks. I went the other way and grilled tiny ones-- lamb loins, which are are the same cut. (Bittman grills shoulder, but cubes of leg meat would work equally well.)

Trader Joe's stocks frozen Australian lamb loins-- usually 3 to a pack, running about $7. They're easy to debone-- you end up with two pieces from each (though the smaller of the two is quite small). If you don't feel like grilling them you can saute them as little lamb medallions. You can make a little lamb stock from the bones.

I worked in a Pittsburgh restaurant once, featuring a two-time "Chef of the Year," and they'd purchase whole legs of lamb from local Elysian Fields-- same lamb used by Keller at French Laundry and Per Se.

I was stunned to see the kitchen discard the leg bones after boning the legs out! No kitchen worth its weight should ever waste such potential flavor and nutrition.

I asked for, and received, the bones, which made lots of stock at home. So much that it moistened Toby and Django's dry food for some time to come.



Blueberry flavored coffee

In today's Minimalist column, Bitten writes about blueberry flavored coffee.

Curiously, we were given a box of this as part of a Red, White and Blue-themed July 4th present.

It's Gevalia brand, which is usually pretty good-- but blueberry?

I generally don't like flavored coffee, and I often chide friends (I'm a big chider) for drinking it. My friend Steve likes vanilla-flavored creamer, or caramel maybe, and my pal Bernie would sometimes bring flavored coffee (hazlenut?) into the office. Despite me not paying for it, I'd chide away.... I once chided my wife and friend Allyson for ordering a white pizza with spinach, tomato, and bacon, as I was eating two pieces of their pie. Yeah, I'm kind of an asshole. But loveable too. I think. Maybe.

Anyway, in the interest of scientific research, I tore open the package and brewed a cup.

Thank you Mario and Alice for the thoughtful gift, but I have to admit I still don't like flavored coffee. This cup tastes a bit soapy.

My brother works for Starbucks, and dropped off 10 # of medium to dark roast over the July 4 holiday-- I think I'll stick to that.

Vegetable tagine

We've been trying to eat more vegetables lately. At first it was a bit of a chore, frankly. Now it's less so.

We signed up for a weekly delivery of organic produce, which does make getting an adequate supply much easier; we're guaranteed lettuces and leafy greens, and this time of year lots of zuchini. Recently we've had broccoli, beets, collards, green onions, herbs...

I enjoy beans and greens with a glug of olive oil and spritz of lemon, particularly with a piece of homemade focaccia.

I'd run out of canned beans though but had a can of sturdy chick peas on hand, so I thought of doing a tagine instead.

I usually make these with lamb, usually a nice fatty shoulder chop, cut into little pieces, or cut up leg, or shank, which braises so beautifully; it'll usually have some prunes and/or dates as well. No doubt I'll return to this when the weather cools.

A tagine is a conical pot that steams the dish as it roasts, keeping it moist. I have one but tend to cook my tagines (the dish, not the pot) on the stove top.

1. Sautee some base vegetables until colored. I used a roughly chopped onion, some finely diced stem from some collard greens and beet greens (which add a wonderful sweet element) and a chopped green onion for about 20 minutes. I then added some diced garlic and shredded ginger and cooked off the rawness for about 2 minutes.

2. Grate a small zuchini and add to the sauteed vegetables and saute for a few minutes.

3. Add a can of drained chickpeas.

4. Add your exotic Moroccan spices: I used a good tablespoon of cumin as the base, then added two kinds of paprika, ground cardomom (you could use a few pods if you have them, remove before eating. I ground seeds in a mortar and pestle), tumeric, S & P, then a little cinnamon, ground clove, cayenne and grated nutmeg.

5. Add enough water to moisten, and cook slowly for an hour, adding more water as necessary to keep it wet. The spices will thicken the water somewhat.

This could make a comfortable home for spinach or other greens too.

I'd serve this with chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lemon or lime.

We're keen on quinoa, a whole grain, which makes a tasty base for a saucy dish like this. It couldn't be easier to cook: like rice, two parts water to one part grain. Cooks in about 10 minutes.



Sometimes I forget how beautiful Pennsylvania is.

We drove over the July 4 weekend to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, home of my step-father’s Italian American family. The drive north from Pittsburgh through glorious sunshine was spectacular, first through rolling farmland, then into the mountains, with splendid views across rich green valleys. We shunned the Turnpike and drove on the slower, less crowded Route 80 most of the way, stopping for a picnic lunch en route.
My cousins Denise and Sandra were throwing their Dad, my Great Uncle Ralph, a 90th birthday celebration. My grandfather, Enso, had just turned 85, too; he’d be there, along with his second son, Mario, Mario’s wife Alice, and my brother Michael and his partner Janel.

Ralph was one of eleven children (one of whom remarkabkly also had eleven children), so the large church hall was filled with nieces and nephews. A widower now (he was married to my grandmother’s sister), he still works, but “not on Fridays anymore.” I guess he’s slowing down a little.

Ralph is an enormously friendly man. He’s always driving somewhere, selling something or other, and I’m sure he has no shortage of great friends all over the North East.

Michael insisted we visit Victory Pig Pizza for a quick slice before the party.

Open forever, when they announced their closing a decade or two ago, the community rallied and insisted they remain open. Mike and Janel, self-confessed pizza connoisseurs, had always wanted to try it. His dad and uncle have fond memories of dinner there back in the 1960’s! They’re open only 3 days a week and we got lucky.

Scranton pizza consists of thick, fococcia-like dough, with a thin, sweet, oniony tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. Knowing we’d be eating a real dinner shortly thereafter, we had just one slice each, which has probably never happened in the entire history of the establishment. Susan and I washed ours down with bottles of Stegmaier beer, a light, refreshing local brew. Perhaps one day I’ll return for a slice with toppings, or perhaps their other offering, BBQ.

Michael tucking in.
Mmmmm.... Stegmeier. I picked up a case to bring home to Pittsburgh.
Ralph’s dinner was good. It was catered by Villa Real—one of the few local Italian restaurants to pass muster with this choosy crowd.

Basic, well-prepared, Italian-American food is a treat.

Of course there were various pork products—capricola and salami as an anti-pasti.

Dinner was pasta with tomato and meatballs, with a healthy showering of cheese; peppers and sausage; roast chicken; over-steamed vegetables (so soft)… yum.
Susan and I were in Italy last year and ate incredibly well. We’ve also been fortunate to visit Babbo a couple of times in New York, which is outstanding. Locally, we have a chef at Eleven who makes fantastic sausage and cured meats. But it was wonderful to revisit good, basic family-style Italian food again. Made me wonder why I don’t eat it more often.
More photos:

A pleasant surprise: I was guest of the day at the Courtyard Whatever Hotel. I got a chocolate for this, and my name in lights. OK, not lights: cheap plastic lettering.
About to enjoy the Victory Pig.
Me, Grandpa, Susan, birthday boy Ralph, Michael and Janel

Me and cousin SandraSusan, cousin Denise and moi.

No, cousin Joe isn't about to have Michael whacked. They're getting passionate over a comic book, I think. Sandra's husband Keith's band, self-confessed "Pocono ponies," provided the entertainment. Excellent, they really got the crowd dancing. Hey, is that a '79 Ibanez? Pretty sweet. Fetch a fortune on E-Bay....

The Muddled Limey

Cocktails. Mixed drinks. Whatever you call them—I've heard them referred to as "boat drinks"—I love them.

Which is why I almost never order them in a bar.

Isn't that odd? Isn't that where drinks live? In bars?

In theory, yes. Cocktail-makin's live in bars. Alcohol. Carbonated beverages. Fruit juices.

The problem is that cocktails need to be created quickly to satisfy demand. Few bartenders take the time mix one well. Another problem is with the ingredients.

Consider the simple gin and tonic. It has 4 ingredients: gin, tonic, ice and lime wedge. Cocktails don’t come any simpler.

Maybe the bar has a nice selection of gin.

But look at the tonic. Ninety-nine per-cent of the time the tonic will come out of a “gun.” It will consist of tonic concentrate mixed with carbonated water. The gun will also dispense cola, soda, ginger ale, lemon soda, and reconstructed fruit juices—not to mention to bane of a good margarita, “sours mix,” a syrupy lemon/lime artificial abomination. The gun is the primary reason I stick to good beer or wine in bars.

Garnishes are also problematic. Maraschino cherries? Ugh. Go to an Italian market and get real cherries preserved in alcohol. Your Old Fashioned will thank you.

Lemon twists were cut en masse before the dinner rush, drying and curling sadly in a rocks glass for the server to garnish their own drinks (because most bartenders garnish only their own customers’ drinks, not those destined for servers). All the other fruit was cut ahead of time. Fresh juices (if they have them) may have been produced a day or more in advance.

Luckily there's a cure.

A number of years ago I read in the NY Times magazine a reminiscence about a father’s gin and tonic technique which essentially changed my life. After tasting one made this way it ruined all other g/t’s for me.

Friends soon became converted, and started referring to it as a “Daryl Cross G and T” to differentiate it from the more standard recipe. However, this was cumbersome, so a new name was sought. Someone came up with “Muddled Limey”—just about perfect, given the technique and the fact that I was born in England.

The Muddled Limey

Pour a good slug of gin into a glass.

Add fresh juice from ½ a lime (I have hand-held, clamp-like juicer for this purpose).

Add squeezed lime rind to glass of gin and juice.

Muddle rind with gin and juice for one minute. This releases the oil from the rind, which has a distinct character. You cannot skip this step.

Allow this mixture to sit for at least two minutes, allowing the flavors to commingle and soften. You cannot skip this step.

Add dash of bitters (optional).

Add ice to glass

Slowly pour in tonic from a freshly opened small bottle of tonic, such as Schweppes. Discard leftover tonic to remove temptation of using flat tonic for your next round of drinks.

Add fresh squeeze of lime (optional).

Few bartenders would take the time to make a drink like this.

Just about any cocktail could be improved by this technique. Rum and coke with lime. Vodka and soda with lemon. Margaritas.

Or as I call them all, “Happiness in a glass.”


'Fridge Fixin'

Our 2002 stainless steel Amana refrigerator warmed up to 50 degrees over the weekend, the freezer hovering around freezing (though refusing to fully freeze some recently added chicken breasts).

When this happened once before, we removed the kick plate from the bottom of the unit and stuck the vacuum cleaner house up there to remove the startling amount of pet hair that had accumulated on the front of the condenser. Problem fixed.

However, this strategy did not solve the problem two nights ago. The unit refused to cool below 50.

Yesterday, we pulled it further out from the wall and tilted it back and did our best to vacuum the rest of the hard-to-reach condenser.

They don’t make it easy.

Earlier I’d placed a call to Sears to arrange for a service. The cost, upfront, was $250 plus tax—which would cover all parts and labor.

It felt good to cancel it for a full refund today.

Susan and I aren’t the handiest of people. I just don’t know a lot about how stuff works. When things break down, I get anxious. I either have to: a) live without it; b) fix-it; or c) pay someone to fix it. All three choices are awful. Thankfully, my hatred of paying just outweighs my anxiety about my lack of skills. This led me to find a decent resource for home repairs:

It confirmed that by vacuuming the condenser we were on the right track—but just didn’t go in deep enough.

It’s good to have the ‘fridge back.

We took the opportunity to throw some things out.

I threw out two quart-sized Dannon Yogurt containers of duck fat (our default storage containers, we generate a lot of empty ones). I know, duck fat lasts forever: but I don’t do much cassoulet or fried potatoes or confit in the warmer months. Frozen pot stickers. Some cooked chicken from Sunday’s roast, which was probably still fine, but why risk it. A bag of frozen pearl onions—very handy for stews. Half a bag of frozen peas—very handy for risotto. Some miso glaze—see an earlier blog.

My frozen blueberries, for my morning smoothie, were transferred to the ‘fridge.

Susan pointed out that I should no longer use sandwich bags for storing things in the freezer.

Two weeks ago I’d made pesto from our arugula leaves and some walnuts and froze it into ice cubes, then transferred the pesto cubes to sandwich bags. It’s an old trick. It’s easy to grab one and throw in into the soup. I also used to put leftover dribbles of wine into sandwich bags and secure them with twist ties—this is handy when you need just a little wine for soups or stocks, but don’t wish to open a bottle. Handy until one spills, I mean.

Anyway, in addition to having our working ‘fridge back, we now have a clean, nearly empty one, too. Until later today, when our delivery of organic vegetables shows up.

Susan made me a tasty sandwich for my lunch today. It had goats cheese, chopped up red pepper, some olive tapenade, some homegrown sprouts from seeds we'd mail-ordered, and some lettuce. Probably some olive oil and black pepper too.

Breakfast smoothie:
whirl a banana with a little buttermilk, orange juice, non-fat plain yogurt and some blueberries.


Fish Dumplings

In the words of hard rocking stoner Jim Anchower, “Hola amigos, long time since I rapped at ya.”

I don’t cook a lot when it’s hot. For breakfast I’ve moved from oatmeal to smoothies (banana, yogurt, splashes of O.J. and buttermilk, handful of frozen blueberries). Lunch is the usual sandwich or leftovers; dinner is now a salad, bit of cheese, an orange—very easy now that we get a weekly delivery of produce from a local farm. Once a week I’ll throw a chicken on the grill. Eat out on the weekend. Twice last week I was the lucky recipient of free food. A friend who manages a local East End restaurant bought me dinner last week when I’d stopped in for a glass of wine—a very pleasant surprise. On Saturday, following a play in Pittsburgh's "Cultural District" (please) we visited the fine Six Penn for a drink. I struck up a conversation with the chef about some of his items, and he sent us out a plate of charcuterie and a crab sandwich.

(My brother Michael, a comic fan, referenced the X-Men when he told me that obtaining these gifts is obviously my “mutant power:” some guys have long wolf claws; some have destructive laser vision. Some take an earnest interest in chefs and are rewarded with free food.)

It wasn’t miserably humid on Sunday so I decided to cook a little. As I had some frozen sole fillets in the freezer—a reasonable $5/# at Trader Joe’s—I decided to make quenelles, or fish dumplings.

Quenelles are the sort of thing people no longer cook at home in France anymore. Like cassoulet, or foie gras, or soupe au poisson, or choucroute garni, you can buy decent pre-made quenelles in supermarkets. They’re also a readily available starter in bistros. Certainly, before food processors, they were time-consuming—if I ever see the words “mortar” or “pestle” anywhere in a recipe I flee—but they come together in seconds in a processor. I checked a couple of recipes (Julia Child and the recent large Gourmet tome) and saw the basic recipes were similar and easy: whiz together a pound of fish, an egg, salt, pepper, a little grated nutmeg and enough cream (about ½ a cup) to bind it all together. (Bread crumbs or choux paste—the basis for éclairs—can be added to thicken, but I passed on this extra step.) Pike is the fish of choice in France, but any light white fish will do.

I prepared them as we once ate them in Paris with friends Anne and Bill ten years ago, with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of cheese, run under the broiler. (Unlike the Italians, the French do not cringe at the thought of combining fish and cheese.)

Quenelle refers to an oval shape, by the way—formed by shaping the ingredient between two soup spoons. Hence the full name for this dish:

Quenelle du Poisson

In bowl of food processor, mix one pound of chopped fish fillets with one egg, ½ teaspoon of salt, grinding of pepper, and a dash of nutmeg in one-second spurts until just combined; with motor running add up to half a cup of cream in thin line until combined. The mixture should be a little fluffy and should hold together in a light lump. Chill the mousse mixture until ready to use.

In a wide pan, bring 2” of water to a light simmer. Add 2 teaspoons of salt.

Using a spoon, scoop up about 1/3 cup of fish paste. Smooth it with a second spoon and slide this second spoon under the fish mixture, then repeat the smoothing and sliding with the original spoon. Confusing? You’re trying to shape a somewhat tight oval torpedo of mousse.

As you form each quenelle, drop it gently into the barely simmering water. They’ll cook through in less than five minutes.

Earlier, I had made tomato sauce. I reheated this, then I nestled half a dozen (of the dozen I’d made) quenelles into the (oven-proof!) pan of sauce and topped each with a sprinkling of grated Jarlsberger (wishing I had some Gruyere here), then ran that under the broiler for a couple of minutes. The cheese melted and browned and formed a delicious crispy crust.

I served these on roasted eggplant slices, with sautéed kale on the side. I chopped a couple of olives and some chives from the garden and sprinkled this on the fish, and dribbled a little olive oil over everything, and served with a couple of lemon wedges.

Great dish—lighter than it sounds. Though perhaps when it cools off I’ll make them with the mushroom cream sauce suggested by Gourmet.

(Leftover quenelle can be stored in the fridge for a day or two, or frozen. Thaw and reheat in simmering water for a couple of minutes.)

Adissan wines

In addition to being fortunate in gaining an Italian-American family in the 1970’s, I also got a French one. My father’s second wife, Marianne, was from Normandy’s Caen in northern France.

They lived in an old mill in the country, surrounded by farms. They kept an apartment in Caen, and a small efficiency in Paris. Her father, Francois, would stay there when lecturing on the classics in Paris. I stayed there once or twice. By craning your neck out of a small kitchen window you could just catch the Eiffel Tower.

With the exception of Marianne, who is fluent in English, there was a bit of a language barrier with the rest of her family, unfortunately. But they always welcomed my brother and me to their house and treated us well.

I don’t really remember much about the food. I would have still been a fickle eater through my late teens, and wouldn’t have found much of it to my liking, probably. There would have been cheese—the soft, potent Camembert is produced locally. And wine, which I had no taste for until my early twenties.

My dad and Marianne live in France now, in the region of Languedoc. They avail themselves of local foods and always put out a delightful table, which Susan and I happily consume on semi-regular visits to the little village of Adissan.

Adissan wines are quite good. Like the better known wines of the nearby Rhone valley, the reds are primarily blends of grapes that flourish in hot, sunny, flinty stone: Syrah, Grenache and the like. However Adissan is also well known in France for its distinctive Clairette, a sweet white wine which, like Sauternes, pairs well with Roquefort and foie gras.

Locals repair to the local wine cooperative and purchase wine by the 5-litre jug. It is dispensed into these by a gas pump-like appendage. It is not romantic. But then wine is such a part of everyday life that this is not considered odd. My dad then takes this jug home and decants the wine into bottles and corks them to keep the wine fresh. It is meant to be consumed quickly. It’s decent drinking, nothing fancy, and helps the food down. It costs about a dollar a bottle when purchased in bulk.

Traditionally, Languedoc wines were inferior, inexpensive wines sold in bulk as plonk, the sort of wine included in a $10 prix fix dinner in cafes all over the country. Then they were undercut by the Algerians, who offered even cheaper wines. As their markets dropped out, the locals began making better wines and charging more for them. To me, most Languedoc wines are indistinguishable from those of the better known Rhone Valley now. A really good bottle will set you back $10-$15 there. And they are delicious, ripe, fruity, bold wines.

When we last visited in May of 2007 we walked through the village on a Friday evening. The locals had gathered to play bocce (it’s called petanque in France). They’d built a fire from old grape vine wood to grill sausages over and it seemed much of the village was there to play or observe the excitement. According to locals, old vines are fantastic for grilling. There are few things better than some good sausage grilled over hardwood and slapped into a piece of baguette. Merguez, the spicy north African lamb sausage, is particularly good.


More Finicky Memories

I have a vague memory of a 5-year old picking individual grains of rice out of a dish of food in Venice in 1968. It was probably a chilled salad with some seafood element, like canned tuna, and perhaps some peas mixed in. But only the rice would have been deemed edible by me.

The memory is 40 years old now, and I can no longer taste the disturbing elements of the dish that I objected to. I suppose they were mild in flavor. But it didn’t take a lot then. I would have turned my nose up at so many things, based on appearance alone, never mind smell. If I suspected too much flavor in a dish, I wouldn’t go near it.

I was finicky. Picky. Probably obnoxiously so, and most likely a burden to my parents. They must have been thankful for bread, one of the few things I would eat.

(What were we doing in Venice? The family was driving around Europe in an old Zephyr on holiday, staying in B & Bs. Europe was affordable enough back then for even families like ours. All-inclusive chartered holidays to places like Spain’s Costa del Sol were still a little while off. I’m eternally grateful that my parents had an interest in travel. Most did not.)

I wrote in my spaghetti al burro blog about my particular young eating habits recently. Moving to America with my mother, step-father and two brothers in late December 1973 exposed me to a whole New World of food to dislike. It would still be some years before I shed my choosy ways.

My first American food memory occurred not long after we arrived one cold, post-Christmas evening.

No, that’s not right.

My step-father Gene was in the American Air Force, stationed in Upper Heyford Air Force Base, near Oxford. A year before moving to the US, we moved near this base, following their marriage, which took place in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

We visited the base frequently to shop at the Base Exchange. There was much new candy to explore (a foreign word to me; we called them sweets). I was not finicky when it came to sweets. Although I quite liked American candy, I realized even then that they were inferior to our English sweets. American chocolate was waxy and tame, and Milk duds were very, very odd—though I still managed to choke down my share.

My last English Christmas was 1973. We spent it with my father and step-mother in South Norwood, far south in the greater London metropolitan region. I was 10, David had just turned twelve. I remember it as being particularly gift-filled that year. Good lord, how to get them all to America two days hence? I am sad that I have not had a British Christmas since. I’m not even sure how they were different. But they felt more Christmassy than the American kind to me. While I was teaching with a sizeable British expat population in Saudi Arabia in the mid-90’s it came close; we went to a pantomime produced by a local British school, and later went to a party where we sang carols like the very English “Jerusalem.” I suspect that the Christmassy feelings there were heightened by the fact that we were living in a strict fundamentalist Muslim nation.

Perhaps to soften the blow of moving to a new country, we had two Christmases in 1973.

We were met by Gene’s father Enso and brother Mario at JFK and driven about two hours to their house in West Wyoming, near Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The tree was still up, surrounded by unopened presents (yes!), and the house was filled with new uncles, aunts, and cousins—even great grandparents, as Gene’s parents’ mothers were still alive. They spoke Italian and little English.

The house was also filled with an unpleasant smell. Kind of sour.

Lydia, Gene’s mother, was preparing the family specialty, something for which they were held in some esteem locally, their parents having run a small restaurant in the distant past.

Tripe was boiling away on the stove.

Thankfully, during the two weeks we spent there, prior to our long drive in our new station wagon to Gene’s next Air Force posting in Alamogordo, New Mexico, his brother Mario introduced us to McDonalds.

What else did I turn my nose up at in cold, snowy Pennsylvania on the cusp of 1974?

Capicola and prosciutto*, which hung rawly in Enso’s basement, waiting to be carved thinly. Olives (which I only recently learned to like). Pumpkin pie. Pizza (its tomato sauce would have been deemed too acidic). I’m sure I was an object of some bemusement by my new Italian family.

Lydia passed a few years ago, and I never did eat her tripe, though I came to love everything else she was kind enough to feed me. Chicken cacciatore. Porcetta. Ravioli, yes, from scratch. Gnocchi. A fantastic meat sauce.

About two years ago I was in New York with friends. Rod, our primary fun-monger, had secured us reservations at Babbo. Tripe was offered as an appetizer. As a nod towards Lydia’s wonderful memory, I ordered it. Like Lydia’s, it came with a tomato sauce.

It was a large portion and all took a bite. No one loved it. But that smell was there, and I was glad to finally get a belly full of cow belly, and a reminder of how grateful I am to be able to embrace food and travel, and to think again about the odd places where life sends you. From London, to New Mexico, to Pittsburgh, Saudi Arabia, Oman… eating all the way, with new family members to enjoy. Life's a trip.

* The first time I saw the word “capricola” written I wasn’t sure what it meant. It was only later that I learned it was how “gabagool” was really spelled. I figured that “prosciutto” had to be “prashoot.”


Coming up short

I wish I could say that every night is a feast at stately Cross Manor, but that’s far from the truth. I blew a couple of dishes recently—broiled scallops with a miso glaze and a pate.

I like to think of recipes as guideposts rather than instructions. I have a good enough grasp of basic cooking techniques that I’ll look at a recipe, close the book, adapt it (to whatever I want to eat, or to what I have available in the house), turn on the stove and go.

But I don’t really know a lot about Japanese cooking, and I have only made a miso glaze once (carefully following a recipe). It was easy (or so I thought)—mix some miso with some soy sauce, sugar… was there some water in there? Yeah, I think so…give it a stir....

I also attempted to broil, rather than sear, the scallops, and they both failed to brown sufficiently and cooked all the way through, rather than the “medium” I was hoping for. The dish tasted weak, and it seemed a shame to not get the best out of some decent scallops.

I was also disappointed with a pate, a simple pork one with pistachios and prunes.

I have made a few pates over the years, and felt confident to proceed without reviewing my recipes. I knew to use lots of salt—as chilling the cooked pate deadens the flavors, a healthy salting compensates.

Fortunately, some spicy Grey Poupon Dijon mustard helps mask the salty flavor of my over-seasoned pate—but I still wake up parched.

Next time I won’t forget a step. Prior to baking the pate, pinch some off and fry it up in a pan, and taste for seasoning. When it tastes correct, add a little more salt and bake away.


Spaghetti al Burro

Mark Bitten's blog today contains a recipe for pasta dressed with butter, sage, and cheese, the sort of dish I greatly enjoyed when I was a finicky boy back in swinging 1960's London.

Back then, food was about texture. It had to be soft, rather than hard. I didn't care for assertive, salty, acidic flavors—though oddly I loved the pickled onions you could get from the fish and chip shop, and of course I doused my chips in Sarson's malt vinegar. (English chips are usually of the soggy variety, unfortunately). I enjoyed bread and butter. I liked my mother’s coddle—an Irish (only Dublin, some insist) stew of bangers (sausages), rashers (bacon), potato and onion, simmered in water. (That is the entire dish, and it is still sensational.) I liked the goopy, saccharine sweet and sour chicken from the local Chinese place. I liked hamburgers when I could get them; often, they came from Wimpy, England’s answer to McDonald’s (named for a character from the Popeye cartoons). I loved them, in all their thin, greasy, fried onion-topped and sweet, non-Heinz ketchup glory . I liked my mother’s boiled onions—peeled onions, boiled for half an hour or so, tossed in melted butter. I liked fish fingers and beans on toast, but not cheese on toast. Something about that sharp, acidic kick that Cheddar gives the back of your throat frightened me. Pork pies were right out.

Occasionally we’d find ourselves in an Italian café near Cambridge Circus, near enough the heart of London, not far from Leicester Square, Piccadilly, Soho, and Oxford Street.

Back then, these cafes were the only place to get decent coffee in Britain, a nation of tea drinkers. Not that I cared then, because I didn’t drink it. But they all had beautiful espresso machines, and I learned to love cappuccino in Italian cafes a couple of decades on.

We didn’t have money. My dad worked the markets, and my mom (I suppose mum, for this reminiscence, would be more appropriate) cleaned houses. Italian cafes would have been an inexpensive meal out for us.

My older brother David, with is enormous, catholic appetite would tuck into his plate of flavorful spaghetti Bolognese. Not so me. Too much flavor. Too strong. For me there was only spaghetti al burro: spaghetti, butter and downy parmesan cheese.

The butter was sweetly spectacular, artfully carved, pulled into rolls from the top of a log of butter so that it sat as gentle scrolls atop the pasta. The cheese was light and sweet too, not forceful like our Cheddar.

When we moved to the States in 1974, I was almost eleven. My tastes started to change, and though still picky I began to eat dishes I’d earlier have shunned. This was helped along by my stepfather’s mother, Lydia, an accomplished Italian-American cook. My mother became a better cook (partly with some tutelage from Lydia). Food being more abundant here than in the UK, I took to pot roasts, meaty, ragu/bolognese-type dishes, chili con carne…

Summer vacation visits to London also brought new tastes—Dad, always an adventurous eater, married a French woman. Not that I was ready to embrace the salty, royal Roquefort just yet, or wine.

But I never returned to the Italian Café until some years later, when I was 19 or 20, contemplating a move back to London (to do what, I don’t know. Oh yes, I remember, I was going to be a rock star).

I’d meet a new friend, Michael Lock there, for a still cheap dinner before a night in the pubs. And I’d have Bolognese, not butter, on my spaghetti. And a great cappuccino, prior to a few pints of Abbot Ale, most likely at the Glassblowers off Piccadilly, or the Sherlock Holmes, nearer Trafalgar Square. Followed by a long train ride back to London’s edge, where most nights I’d manage to keep my dinner down.

I eat less pasta today, but I managed to melt some butter and toss some pasta in it one chilly evening a few months ago, showering it with some parmesan, and because I’m at least chronologically a grown up, a sprinkle of pepper. It’s still good.


Chawan mushi

I wrote in my Vietnam travel blog that we were fortunate to have a long enough layover in Japan to explore Narita, the delicate, spotless town that serves Tokyo. We witnessed a Buddhist ceremony in a beautiful old temple. And then we got to eat.

We had lunch twice in Narita, grilled eel with white rice, followed by sushi.

The sushi was accompanied by a few pickled items, common enough, but also a savory custard, something I've not yet experienced in the US.
Reading Frank Bruni's review of Momofuku Ko in today's New York Times, I've learned that the custard is called chawan mushi. I browsed for online recipes and reviewed a couple.

The gently beaten eggs are thinned with chicken, fish, or dashi stock and flavored with soy sauce. They might contain small pieces of cooked chicken or vegetables. The mixture is placed in small bowls or tea cups, covered, and steamed for 12-18 minutes. The goal is a smooth, creamy, light, runny custard, with no bubbles (hence the gentle mixing earlier).

It was an odd, but appreciated addition to a fine sushi lunch-- which was a reasonable $10-$12.

The Sushi lunch:

The "odd" accompaniments. The charan mushi has the red spoon protruding from it.


Oatmeal and Yanni

Steel cut oats taste better than rolled oats, which themselves taste better than “instant” oats, which themselves taste better than the little packets of flavored instant oats.

Steel cut oats take much longer to cook—but large batches can be cooked and then stored for use over the next few days. If you can boil water, you can make a steel cut oats. The stove does all the work while you read the paper.

I store it in Tupperware-like containers and scoop out portions as needed. I add 3 chopped prunes, a little brown sugar, and heat it in the microwave. A splash of milk rounds it out. It could easily be greatly improved by adding butter or cream, waistline allowing.

It is a quick, inexpensive, healthy, filling, and, most importantly, tasty way to “greet the day” as a freakish ex co-worker of mine used to say. He was from California. While this is itself not enough to condemn him, nor is it enough to redeem him. He sealed his fate when he confessed to liking Yanni. It’s not that he liked Yanni, but that he didn’t have the sense to keep this to himself.

Birthday meals

I ate out a lot recently. It's been my birthday week so I've been treating myself.

I had a delicious piece of wild bass at Eleven in the Strip District. It had wonderfully crispy skin, which is difficult to produce on a home stove owing to the necessary heat, which precious few home ranges produce. This had a delicate sauce of reduced fresh grape juice (ver jus in restaurant parlance), some sauteed greens, and gnocchi made with polenta. I had a glass of chardonnay with this, from Chardonnay, the town in France which names the grape. I love American chards, but not with food. They're often aged in Oak barrels, imbuing it with an unctuous, rich, mouth-feel that interferes with my ability to taste the food. French chardonnay-based wines from Burgundy are aged in stainless steel. It gives a cleaner taste and allows the rich quality of the grape to shine, but not overpower.

I also ate at Harris Grill on Ellsworth. Thankfully non-smoking now, the food is still mediocre (and strikes me as a little overpriced). Still, it was late: my band had just finished rehearsing sans our singer Lexi, who was tending bar at Harrises. I had a "salmon BLT," which came with soggy fries. As my mother says, "Hunger is good sauce," so I managed to choke it down.

Note to cooks. French fries should be crisp. To achieve this they are fried twice: once at 325 degrees, then drained. They can then be "crisped" in oil that's heated to 375 degrees. Drain, toss with in a paper bag or with some paper towels, salt liberally, and serve. Yes, ketchup is great with them, but so is malt vinegar and so is homemade mayonaisse.

(If you wish to have perfect fries, go to Pointe Brugge Cafe in Point Breeze. That is where I'm eating tomorrow, and I will have some mussels in a Thai Curry sauce to accompany them.)

On Thursday, the day after my birthday, Susan took me to Chaya in Squirrel Hill for wonderful sushi. Chaya is the only local sushi restaurant to use real wasabi, not generic horseradish that is mixed with mustard powder for pungency. Even the lofty Umi fails to use real wasabi, which has a shorter, more potent punch than the fake stuff. Real wasabi is never mixed with soy sauce to make a dipping sauce. It never blends in as nicely as the fake wasabi anyway. It's in shorter supply in the US as it's difficult to grow outside of Japan.

Chaya is a tiny restaurant, very charming, BYOB, and reasonably priced. Our two dinners, which came with miso soup, salad, and a piece of fried chicken (which I find odd but endearing), came to $50. Unless you intend to order the chef's tasting menu (Omkasse), they do not take reservations. The staff is Japanese, but for one waiter, who has spent time in Japan, and speaks the language. It is one of my favorite Pittsburgh restaurants, and though I'd love to try the cooked food, I keep coming back to the fish. The sushi chef is great to watch, and the restaurant features a small, 4-seat sushi bar.

On Friday our friends Robin and Chuck hosted us for dinner in their charming new arts and craft cottage in McCandless, about 10 miles north of the city. It's so quiet out there! We planned on getting good and toasty and spending the night, so we brought our two dogs along. They greatly enjoyed running around the huge back yard, Toby pausing once to roll in a little deer shit. Both Robin and Chuck are talented remodellers (to the point of replacing all the plumbing themselves), and have made a lovely home. This being her birthday, Robin's father was in town, staying with her sister Dawn nearby. An old friend, it had been a few years since we'd seen each other when he stopped by with Robin's charming young niece Julia.

Chuck's new 3-burner grill made me envious. Boy do they heat up fast, and they can generate much more heat than my 2-burner. Perfect for searing a steak, which you want to cook good and fast for a nice char on the outside, just warming the inside.

I brought over my last block of foie gras- a note here how France is better than the US, as you can buy foie gras pretty much anywhere- which we had on croutons with a little salad. We drank champagne and sipped a wonderful Bordeaux with the steaks. Wonderful night.

Interestingly, friends Keri and David's party the next night also featured the dessert Robin and Chuck served on Friday- burnt almond torte.

One of these days I'll have to get back to cooking.

DC's vinaigrette

Chop one large shallot finely and place in large bowl set on a damp kitchen cloth. Add a little salt, some freshly ground pepper (is there any other kind? Do people still buy ground pepper?) and a teaspoon of good Dijon mustard. Mix.

Add 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar and mix. Allow to sit for a few minutes to soften the shallot.

Very slowly whisk in up to one cup of extra virgin olive oil. Seriously slowly. Like, a few drops at a time at first. As the sauce emulsifies you can increase the speed. But expect to take five minutes doing this, at which point you'll have a deeper appreciation for kitchen professionals. Taste as you go for your preferred balance of acid. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.

This'll keep a long time in a sealed jar. Don't refrigerate it.

Dressing salads

Salads do not require a lot of dressing. There should be a thin film clinging to the leaves. There should be no sauce pooling on the plate. In addition to crappy french fries, most Pittsburgh restaurants overdress their salads.

We have a huge Italian American population- but just about every Italian restaurant in the city serves crappy Italian food. The portions are huge, and of course they have to include a house salad, overdressed, with mealy tomatoes, chick peas and optional gorgonzola. Sheesh.


Lamb Shanks

Braised lamb shanks are a delicious, fork tender meat that take well to a variety of seasonings. My batch on Saturday had a Moroccan flavor, as I braised them in red wine, orange juice and a spice packet consisting of ground cardamom seeds, cumin, and smoked paprika. An orange gremolata completed the dish. I served it with quinoa. For once I was grateful for a cold spell.

While they take about two hours to cook, actual prep time is about 20-30 minutes. I had some leftover cooking broth that went into the best batch of harira yet...\

Allow a shank per person.

Braised Lamb Shanks Recipe:

Heavily salt and pepper two shanks and set aside. Preheat oven to 300.

Heat olive oil in an oven-proof pan that can be covered and brown shanks on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove shanks.

In same pan, saute a chopped onion, diced carrot, and chopped celery stalk, about 5 minutes. Add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic and some chopped ginger.

Deglaze pan with some red wine, then return shanks to pan. Add enough wine, stock or water, and orange juice to cover (or almost cover) the shanks. Cover and place in oven, turning the shanks every 30 minutes for two hours, at which point the lamb will be fork tender.

Remove cooked shanks from pan and strain the juice, discarding the solids. I put half this rich stock aside, and reduced the rest to about a cup, whisking in a tablespoon of cold butter before serving.

I served each shank on a bed of quinoa, though rice or couscous would work, and drizzled it with sauce and finished it with an orange gremolata:

Finely chop a bunch of parsley. Add a clove of finely chopped garlic, and the finely diced rind of half an orange.

Miso Glaze

I bought a package of light-colored miso recently and made miso soup, which tasted like the miso soup you get in restaurants. A little miso goes a long way, so I've been looking for ways to use it besides in soup.

At Philadelphia's Morimoto, and here at Pittsburgh's Umi, I've had delicious miso-glazed black cod, also called sable, or sablefish. A little web research found that the glaze is easy to produce:

You blend miso with sugar, rice vinegar and sake. Heat it, and stir to melt the sugar and cook off the alcohol in the wine. I skipped the sake (since I didn’t have it on hand), and the finished dish was very good.

The goal is to produce a sweet, slightly smoky, sticky glaze on whatever you’re cooking. I used wild salmon from Trader Joe’s.

Miso glazed salmon

Mix ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup miso, ¼ cup rice vinegar, and ¼ cup sake in pan and heat, stirring to dissolve ingredients. Let cool to room temperature.

Marinate salmon (or any firm fish or crustacean) in miso mixture for a minimum of a few hours.

Pre-heat broiler to high. Remove salmon from miso mix and scrape off excess marinade.

Broil under a high heat until fish is cooked to medium and glaze has melted onto the fish, two-to-three minutes, depending on the strength of your broiler. No need to turn the fish.

I failed to get my broiler hot enough. While the glaze eventually melted, the fish had cooked through by the time this had occured. It tasted fine, though missed the tender juiciness of a nice medium rare or medium piece of salmon.

Next up: miso glazed scallops, with some sesame snow peas would be pretty tasty, no? I may even spring for some sake.