So many variations. All intensely satisfying. Time consuming: yes. Difficult: I don't think so.


Onion, carrot, celery

Skirt steak, chicken thighs

Tomato paste, garlic

Wine (white, red, or both)



1. Chop up two or three strips of bacon and sauté to render out the fat, 5 minutes or so. Remove bacon with slotted spoon, leaving fat in the pan. While that's happening:

2. Finely dice an onion, a stalk of celery and a carrot. Saute these in the bacon fat over medium heat-- lowering it as they give up their water-- for about 10 minutes. Remove from pan. While that's happening:

3. Take your pound, pound and a half, of skirt steak and chop it as finely as possible. Cut the meat into matchsticks first, then line a few of them up and cut them across into a dice of about 1/4 inch. Do the same with two chicken thighs. (Or substitute some veal, or some pork shoulder or belly.) Salt and pepper the meat, then:

4. In same pan, add 3 tbls of olive oil and add the chopped meat and sauté until cooked through, about 3 minutes.

5. Add two tbls of tomato paste and stir it around the meat, cooking for about 1 minute.

6. Add 1/2 cup wine to pan and let it sizzle up, give up steam. Stir it until it evaporates, about 2 minutes.

7. Add 1/2 cup milk to the pan and do same.

8. Add a couple of finely chopped garlic cloves, a bit more salt and some freshly ground black pepper, and if you have it, a fine scraping of nutmeg-- but very, very little. Put the cooked bacon and vegetables back in.

9. I add more tomato here-- a can of good tomatoes, or, as I had some in the freezer, some homemade tomato sauce. About two cups. Let it cook down.

10. Start adding stock by the ladleful. I used chicken. But any would work. Also water would work.

11. Keep cooking, simmering, allowing the liquid to evaporate, building it back up. It'll thicken and richen. After about an hour, you'll have a thick, meaty delicious sauce.

Some people will finish this with a little heavy cream. I don't think it needs it. But a tablespoon or two of butter is nice.

Put this on fresh tagliatelle or papparadelle pasta. You don't need a lot. Fresh Parmesan is a must.


Eleven, and a little dining history

Pittsburgh dining was pretty grim for a very long time, comprised of tried and true Italian-American restaurants, average Chinese, and Eat 'N Parks. Even the well-off were limited to the stuffy, predictable charms of Christopher's on Mt. Washington, Top of the Triangle downtown, or the Park Schenley (where I worked as a waiter one summer in 1984, just before it wheezed its last gasp and expired) in Oakland.

But slowly appearing where real dining gems: Le Petit Cafe in Shadyside; the Carlton downtown; and Cafe Allegro and Le Pommier in the South Side, restaurants that offered items that were unlike any many of us had seen before. The grilled octopus at Cafe Allegro was a particular standout.
After reading that Chi-Chi's had been voted "Best Mexican Restaurant" in Pittsburgh Magazine, a couple of local entrepreneurs decided they could do better and opened Mad Mex. It was loud, crowded, colorful, and it had personality-- a funny, unique identity created by marketing geniuses Bernard Uy and James Nesbitt of Wall-to-Wall Studios (where I eventually also worked, in business development).

Mad Mex flourished and eventually led to Kaya, Vertigo (since closed), Soba, Casbah, and Eleven, the restaurants that comprise the big Burrito Restaurant Group. Suddenly, Pittsburgh was a viable dining town-- or at least leaning towards becoming one.

Pittsburgh's always been a good eating town: bacon cheeseburgers at Squirrel Hill Cafe; Lucy's banh mi in the Strip; Aiello's pizza in Squirrel Hill... but I would argue that until the arrival of this second wave group of restaurants in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was not a good dining town-- a place where you could relax over a meal you'd be unlikely to recreate at home, courses properly coursed, unrushed, delicious, a temporary reprieve from life's stresses... a small vacation that left you refreshed.

Now, the third wave of great dining opportunities has arrived: Salt of the Earth; Legume; Stagioni; Sienna; Cure; Root 174-- and the greatly missed Bona Terra.

But at the top of the list, for my money, is Eleven, where wifey and I enjoyed a superb meal last Saturday. Everything about the meal was perfect, from the greeting to the good-bye.

Our oysters were small yet plump, sweet yet briny, perfect with a glass of Carneros blanc de noir. Each were delicious on their own or dressed with the classic mignonette sauce or the habanero-based cocktail sauce (of which a little goes a long way).

Susan started with lamb Carpaccio, delicate, scented with coriander, dressed with miso-- it was toothsome but light, the earthy richness an easy foil for our Roussillon white wine. My tuna tartar was cool and refreshing, with hints of preserved lemon and occasional shards of shallot which added a bright line of treble to the finely diced flesh; a bass note came courtesy of briny white anchovies that formed an "X" on top of the perfect circle of tartar.

Susan's halibut swam in a sea of roasted seasonal vegetables: peas, grilled radicchio, beets and radishes... my two lamb loin chops were a perfect medium rare, served atop buttery polenta with roasted Brussel sprouts, dark olives, and a rich, deep demi-glace.

The sorbets refreshed, the cannoli comforted.

Our table was dimly lit and romantic. The service was gracious, attentive without being intrusive, the server informed and possessed of perfect timing.
Eleven may not be the newest, but it is a place where everything comes together with perfect execution.
And did I mention the dollar oysters in the bar during happy hour?


New cocktail, needs a name

Wifey bought some cherry juice from Trader Joe's but didn't fancy it. I put on my cocktail hat and thought about putting it to good use.

First it would need to be reduced, otherwise it might as well be cranberry. So I boiled a cup of it down to 1/4 cup, along with a dozen black pepper seeds.

Being winter I thought whiskey base. I scanned the bar and saw sweet vermouth, bitters, Grand Marnier... for some reason I thought of maple syrup for the sweetener. To build it, I was thinking Sazerac. Here's what happened:

  • Chill a tumbler with ice.

  • Over ice combine: 
- Measure of whiskey (I used Canadian)

- 1/4 measure sweet vermouth
- Bar spoon of reduced cherry juice
- Bar spoon of maple syrup
- Big dash orange bitters (or Angostura, if you want more spice)

  • Stir.

  • Empty tumbler, rinse the chilled glass with a bar spoon of Grand Marnier, coating the sides of the glass well. 

  • Strain in the drink. Garnish with a wide swath of orange peel, first twisting it over the cocktail.

It's very tasty, and you can enjoy the interplay of cherry and whiskey. Perhaps bourbon might work better than Canadian... and perhaps a hint of lemon might brighten it a little. But I love orange twists on cold nights, and this is mos' def' a cold night warmer.

Suggestions to improve?

Suggestions for a name?



Short Rib Chili

I rely on the New York Times for sage food advice, especially from Melissa Clark and Mark Bitman (whose "How to Cook Everything" is disintegrating in my kitchen from use). Recently Ms. Clark posted a vid/recipe for short rib chili. I love chili, including the basic ground beef and pinto beans version, but this particularly meaty, bean-free recipe caught my attention.

My friend Chef Bill Fuller once dubbed chili "America's curry," meaning it is both endlessly adaptable and has developed unique regional differences over time, like India's curries. (According to the author David Burton, of the excellent The Raj at Table, "chili powder"-- the mix of cumin, dried peppers, and onion powder, which your mom bought in small plastic jars to season ground beef-- was invented by an Indian-raised Englishman in Mexico who was homesick for the flavors of his youth.)

An inveterate tinkerer, I had to adapt Ms. Clark's recipe, chiefly by adding a puree of toasted whole dried chilis, and adding about a cup of cooked cranberry beans. The result was earthy, meaty, smoky, spicy, and entirely satisfying.

Here's her recipe, my additions in bold:


4 pounds bone-in beef short ribs, patted dry (I used about 2 pounds, which was ample; I also very lightly floured the beef prior to browning them)

5 teaspoons coarse kosher salt, more to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper

5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

2 jalapeño or serrano peppers, halved lengthwise, seeded if desired (I used one)

1 onion, peeled and quartered lengthwise

1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro stems, and 1/4 cup chopped leaves

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons chile powder, to taste

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander (I left this out, but added a tablespoon of tumeric)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (12-ounce) bottle Mexican lager, like Negra Modelo (I used Great Lakes Brewing lager)

A dried Chipotle pepper

A dried Poblano pepper

A Chipotle pepper from a can of Chipotles in Adobo sauce

1.Heat oven to 325 degrees. Season short ribs with 3 teaspoons salt and the black pepper. Let rest while you prepare sauce.

2.Place a large, dry Dutch oven over high heat. Add garlic, peppers and onion to the dry pan. Cook, turning occasionally, until lightly charred all over, about 10 minutes. I added a dried poblano and a dried chipotle pepper to the pan.

3.Transfer garlic, peppers and onion to a blender. Add tomatoes with juice, cilantro stems, oregano and 1 teaspoon salt. Purée until smooth. Place the toasted dried peppers in a bowl and cover with about a cup of boiling water and let soften for 10-15 minutes. Deseed and devein the soaked peppers (or leave seeds and veins in for more heat). Puree the peppers with two cloves of smashed garlic, half a canned chipotle with some of its adobo sauce, some oregano, salt and pepper and some of the soaking liquid to make a paste. Set aside.

4.Return Dutch oven to medium-high heat. Add olive oil. Sear short ribs in batches, until well-browned all over, about 20 minutes. Transfer browned ribs to a bowl. Finely chop a medium onion, stalk of celery and carrot and sautee in Dutch oven til soft, about 10 minutes.

5.Stir dried spices into pot and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and cook until it begins to caramelize, 1 to 2 minutes. Add purreed dried peppers to taste to the vegetable puree; I used about half. Stir for about a minute. Stir in tomato-pepper purée and beer and bring to a simmer. Return short ribs to pot, cover and transfer to oven. Bake for 1 1/2 hours, then uncover pot, give meat a stir, and continue baking until ribs are fork tender and falling off bone, 30 to 45 minutes longer, for a total cooking time of 2 to 2 1/4 hours. (If you have time, let short ribs mixture cool, refrigerate overnight, then remove fat before proceeding.)

6.Once ribs are cool enough to handle, remove from pot, reserving sauce. Shred meat and discard bones and gristle. If sauce seems thin, simmer on stove until it thickens enough to coat a wooden spoon. Return meat to pot.

Ms Clark severed them atop tortilla chips with melted cheese, salsa, sour cream and guacamole-- nachos. I'm sure they'd be excellent, but I served it as a hot dog topping one night and just as stand alone chili the next-- on rice, with a little grated cheddar. It was superb, especially on a cold, snowy evening.