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.


Last Meals

A friend gave me a great book last week… My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals / Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes.

My friend Keri works for Borders and actually got a visiting Tony Bourdain to sign a copy for me… well, for “Darly.” (His last meal? Roasted bone marrow on toast, with sea salt and parsley, prepared by Fergus Henderson, a London chef famous for “nose to tail” eating. Nothing wasted.)

Needless to say, it was a very thoughtful gift.

Most chefs picked fairly simple meals to go out on.

Got me thinking of course….

I wouldn’t mind a little rillette, a slice of pate and some good bread… a roast chicken with jus and roasted vegetables…. Some Morbiere and Roquefort cheese… and a modest dessert—perhaps a little flan.

I’d be fine with Black Box wines, perhaps a pinot grigio for the starters and chicken, morphing to their cabernet for the cheese course. A glass of Remy XO would be most welcome to settle my digestion, and nerves.

I’d eat it on a balcony overlooking some French countryside. Susan would be there, of course, and we’d have a little Django Reinhardt and some Louis Armstrong on in the background.

Wait, skip the Black Box. Fine though it is, if I’m eating in France I’m drinking whatever is local.

Fish Soup

I enjoy spending a few hours cooking on the weekends. I often make enought food to get us through the bulk of the week. It often involves a drive to the Strip District to stock up on necessities like ground pork, fresh tofu, and Chinese mustard greens. Being an early riser, I used to go early, but our local NPR station changed the comedy news quiz What Do You Know in its Saturday rotation, moving it up to 11 AM, so unless I get a really early start, I miss it. (I was a contestant on this show about a year ago.) Last Saturday I went after lunch instead of early (bacon, egg, arugula sandwich on toasted whole wheat), and it was fine. Surprise: no store had run out of anything.

In fact, I was momentarily elated to see odd-looking eggs at one Asian market. They were decidedly not from a hen. I approached someone, asking gingerly, “Are those duck eggs?” Yes, I was told. $.99 each. Ever had a fried duck egg? It’s the most delicious thing on the planet. I eagerly grabbed a couple and approached the check out. “These have duck in them,” I was told. They’d been fertilized. I’d read somewhere that this was a delicacy in Vietnam, but one that I didn’t know how to, or care to, prepare. My dreams of fresh duck eggs will have to wait.

I did buy frozen duck legs from Lotus Foods for $4.10/#. Got 4 of them for $6 or $7. On Sunday I poached them, along with some pork belly, in some duck fat in a 285-degree oven for about 2 hours. Confit. A piece of the bacon went into a bean soup I had simmering simultaneously. The legs are now safely ensconced in the ‘fridge, tenderizing and gathering flavor while sealed under a layer of the duck fat that they poached in. Later I'll crisp them up in the oven and serve them with potatoes I'll fry in the duck fat. Or maybe some of the meat will find its way into a stir fry.

Lotus also sells fresh tofu for $.33 per piece (about 4 oz.). I usually buy two and stir fry it along with some ground pork ($1.69/#), ginger, shallot, green onion…. I pair this with sautéed Chinese mustard greens and some rice.

They also sell inexpensive whole fish, like croakers, for less than $3/#. It’s definitely cheaper than Wholey’s or Benkowitz. I bought frozen tilapia for less than $2/#. This made a classic southern French fish soup (soup au poisson) on Saturday night. Paired with a salad with goat cheese and walnuts, and followed by a little fruit salad and coconut butter cookies (yup, from Lotus), this and my two glasses of white Cotes du Rhone made a memorable supper.

Then: Battlestar Gallactica: Season 3. Bad Cylons! Lee really put on some weight. Also, I don’t like Starbuck with long hair.

Fish Soup au Poisson

Sauté a chopped carrot, onion and stalk of celery in olive oil until softened. Add some orange peel, chopped shallot, chopped garlic, S & P and basil. Sauté an additional minute. Add a couple of tablespoons of anise liqueur (I use Ricard Pastis- a fine aperitif on a warm day), stand back, and ignite. The alcohol will evaporate.

Add a small can of tomatoes and juice, some fish stock (I had made and frozen some from the cartilage of some skate I’d cooked recently) and a couple of scaled, gutted fish. Yup, the whole things. Inexpensive croakers work just as well as Black Sea Bass here. Conversely you could remove the fillets from the raw fish and add those (saving the skeletons for more stock).

Simmer gently, occasionally turning the fish, for 20 minutes, until the fish is cooked through.

Remove the fish, and remove the cooked meat from the fish and return this to the pan. Discard trimmings or use them to make a little quick fish stock.

Allow the soup to cool a bit, and then work the soup through a food mill to create a smooth fish broth. It’ll be rusty red.

Serve the soup with freshly toasted baguette croutons, some rouille (a garlicky homemade mayonnaise), and shredded gruyere cheese.

Rouille recipe

Blend together some roasted peeled red pepper with an egg yolk and a couple cloves of chopped garlic, some S & P, and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. Slowly incorporate some olive oil, until a mayonnaise-like consistency is reached.

Rub the croutons with raw garlic, smear them with the rouille, and put these in the base of your bowls. Ladle hot soup over them, and then sprinkle the whole thing with the cheese.


Easy Thai

Last night I made a Thai vegetable curry. The bulk of the flavor came from a can of red curry paste which I’d picked up at my handy local Asian market. It’s less “spicy hot” than the green variety. A couple of tablespoons of coconut cream, a splash of fish sauce, a bit of ginger and some cilantro rounded out the flavors. I served it on jasmine rice from Trader Joes.

Recipe for Thai red curry vegetable curry

Steam a small head of broccoli for 2-3 minutes. Separate florets and set aside.

Saute some diced carrot, celery and onion. Add, if you like, some diced red and green pepper, and sauté until they give up their moisture and reduce, about 10-15 minutes. Add some chopped garlic, chopped shallot and grated ginger and sauté for an additional minute.

Add a couple of tablespoons of coconut cream and stir. Add a tablespoon of red curry paste and stir. Add a cup of chicken stock and stir to combine flavors. Add a tablespoon of fish sauce and some chopped cilantro.

Add to this any vegetables or meat. I used broccoli, frozen peas and baby bok choy leaves—but you could just as easily use spinach, eggplant and snow peas.

Simmer for 15 minutes to blend flavors.

Serve over rice.

One of these days I'll get around to making my own red and green curry pastes. But I found the flavor of the canned variety to be quite fresh and vibrant.


Persimmon and Goat Cheese

A very ripe persimmon, peeled and diced, paired beautifully with some generic goats cheese from Trader Joe's for a late evening snack recently.

Persimmon is very sweet and juicy when ripe. They're delicious when underripe too, though drier. At a young age, they're a great addition to fruit salad, as they hold their cut shape well.

They're often square in shape. To prepare them I cut off the skin in four pieces, running my knife down each side. The resulting naked cube is easy to dice, or, if very ripe, cut into manageable pieces.

My snack was fine. Toasted whole wheat bread, onto which I'd smeal a little goats cheese which I'd dribbled with olive oil and pepper. Then I'd add a small piece of persimmon to it. I added a few olives, which I'd rinsed then marinated in olive oil, lemon zest, a sprinkle of thyme and pepper flakes, and a handful of walnuts.

This would make a fine updated "brushetta" or appetizer plate for guests.



Though I’m currently out of the restaurant business, I am pretty sure I have not waited on my last table yet. I have always maintained that of all my jobs—waiter, teacher, salesman, account rep, development person at a museum—waiting is the one that came most naturally to me. It allowed me to combine my love of food and wine with my love of entertaining.

I was a very good waiter, in most areas; I had my weaknesses too.

What makes a good waiter?

A good waiter knows the menu inside and out. He knows the ingredients of a dish and can, if asked, help a customer plan a fine meal. He knows enough about wine to ask for help from appropriate managers, if needed, or make good recommendations based on table interaction.

A successful waiter will also up sell a little. Not a lot. Trying to move someone from a $28 bottle of wine to an $89 bottle of wine is not only difficult, but folly. But getting a table to add a $13 appetizer to their salads and entrees is relatively easy:

“The chef has a gift with scallops. Our scallop appetizer has two sweet, fat scallops, served with a crispy potato crust and a little smoked ham shank and wilted greens—a great southern-inspired dish. We could easily split these onto two plates for you. Would you care for an order?”

By making good suggestions, you show your knowledge and concern, and build a trust with your customers.

A good waiter can read a table. While not always correct—it certainly pays to keep an open mind and not be too judgmental—a good waiter does have this skill and almost innate sense of what a table expects in waiter interaction and food and wine choices. A good waiter anticipates diners' needs.

Timing. Pacing the meal. Keeping glasses and cups filled. Keeping guests moving without them feeling rushed.

Not saying too much (but being earnest and confident when you say it). Not using “waiter talk:” “A pleasure.” “But of course.” Waiter talk sounds so phony. In some ways, talking when spoken to, when asked a question. But definitely not bombarding your guests with your deep knowledge of food and drink.

Sidework. Not one of my strengths. But pitching in and doing the dirty work—polishing glasses and silverware, keeping the place neat and tidy.

The job itself is not all glamour. The timing—especially if you have a family—is awkward: you work when others (including your family, usually) don’t. A shift often starts at 4:00 PM but doesn't really get going until 7:00 PM.

While the money can be very good, occasionally intoxicating, waiters do not get benefits that many of us take for granted, like health insurance or paid vacations. Some waiters work for restaurants or restaurant groups that are large enough to offer them the opportunity to buy-in to a health plan. But taking time off to enjoy your family, who you often don’t see because of your schedule, can be painful and a real hit to the wallet.

In better restaurants, where the majority of tips are on credit cards, wait staff often pay a percentage of these back to the employer to cover the fees charged the restaurant. Since these tips are on paper, the wise waiter declares them to the IRS. He also makes quarterly estimated payments to the IRS, because, being paid $2-something per hour, he can’t cover his contributions to our nation’s government out of his paycheck. He’ll almost certainly owe quite a bit come April 15th.

Waiters love cash tips.

Waiters tip anywhere from 20-30% to their colleagues—bartenders who make their drinks, busboys who clear their tables and assist in the dining room, and hosts who seat their guests.

I generally went straight home after shifts. Many colleagues, with tips burning holes in pockets, blew off steam in bars. I was more prone to do this when younger, with fewer responsibilities. But falling into that lifestyle (of a sort) is a vocational danger.

I enjoyed interacting with the “back of the house.” I took a genuine interest in some of the more interesting cooks. As a result, they were more likely to offer me a couple of pints of duck fat for my own confit, or perhaps a dabble of demi-glace for my Christmas roast.

I was fortunate to work in restaurants that either had great reputations, offered a high earning potential, or both. Here in Pittsburgh, that included:

Chi-Chi’s (1982-1984)
The Carlton (1984)
The Park Schenley (1984-1985)
Le Petit Café (1985-1986; 1988-1989)
Café Giovanni (1990-1991)
Hotlicks (bartender) (1992-1993)

Here I finished my Master’s degree and departed to travel and teach in the Arabian Gulf for four years. Following that I entered the world of graphic design and advertising for six years. Then:

Eleven (2005-2007)
Café Zao (2005)
Pittsburgh Rare (2004-2005)

Chi-Chi’s had a very strict order of drilled service steps which actually stood me in good stead, and gave me a good foundation.

Thankfully, the Carlton was hiring based on personality, not experience. Though I had a lot to learn, and was ultimately released after about six months there, my experience there helped me stay at that level of fine-dining restaurant.

The Park Schenley, a Pittsburgh icon, was on its last, long legs by the time I arrived there. Very old school—tuxedo’d waiters, many with thick European accents; tableside food preparation—it was fascinating.

Dollar for dollar, the steak house at the Sheraton Hotel, Pittsburgh Rare, is where I made more money than any other restaurant. There was very little tip-out, and a captive audience of diners for a damn fine $30 steak. It wasn’t the most creative restaurant I worked in, but the manager liked me and darn if I wasn’t pulling in up to a grand a week—more at times. That goes a long way in Pittsburgh.
But Eleven remains the pinnacle. It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking. It’s very large but served consistently excellent modern American Cuisine.

I suppose the main drawback of service for me is, having had somewhat responsible positions in the community, and knowing lots of well-educated, connective movers and shakers, I always felt a little awkward seeing my peers in the restaurant while I was working, with me in a clearly servile position. I sense they feel—heck, I feel it myself—that I’ve taken a huge step back.

Still, there are better ways to make a living, but much worse ones too.