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....