Archive for June, 2008

Cookie Night Recipes

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

If you read the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette this morning, maybe you saw a little piece in the Food section about cookie night at the Frick Park Lawn Bowling Club.  As promised, here are some of the recipes that wouldn’t fit into the newspaper:


Why There Aren’t Single-Origin Espressos

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

I raised the question in a recent post of why it is that you can go into most any coffee shop and know exactly where your cup of joe was sourced, but it’s never really clear where espressos come from. I had a chance yesterday to ask David Diorio of La Prima, and it turns out that it’s because of the nature of the drink.

There are two basic types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans are recognized to be of a higher quality, but they are more difficult to grow: the trees only grow at altitudes above 3,000 feet; and they are more disease-prone than Robusta trees are. As a result, Robusta beans are easy to find: they’re used in Maxwell House, Folgers, etc.: the types of coffee where quantity is more important than quality, and you’d better drink it hot because once it cools down, the flavor profile changes to nasty. Coincidentally, Robusta beans also have a higher caffeine level than Arabica.

In order to meet the definition of what it means to be a classic Italian espresso, the coffee that is used to make the drink should be a blend of at least five different beans, one of which must be a Robusta. The beans are blended in order to take advantage of their different qualities: the body of one, the acidity of another, the flavor of a third, etc. What the Robusta beans bring to the table in the mix is more than just the caffeine kick that an espresso offers: they are also in large part responsible for the crema, the frothy foam that is found atop a well-made espresso.

I can tell you from personal experience that freshness also has a big impact on the development of crema. An Arabica bean that has been roasted within the past 24-48 hours develops a beautiful head of crema; the same bean a week later won’t perform as well.

La Prima offers two espresso blends that fit into the traditional definition of an Italian Espresso. The one I’ve seen most often is La Prima Espresso, which they describe as “…a darker roast with a richer, fuller flavor. Consider this as more of an American style espresso.” If you want the real deal Italian espresso, seek out the Miscela Bar (which I don’t believe I’ve knowingly had), which La Prima describes as being “Roasted in the classic Italian style and sweeter than most American espressos with a smooth and rich crema.”

Their third espresso is an organic espresso blend, which contains only three beans, all of which are Arabica. I don’t believe I’ve tried this one either–but what I’d really like to do is to try all three in one sitting so I can really detect the differences for myself.

PGH Project to Help Whom Find Local Food?

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports today that Produce Grown Here (aka the PGH project) is going to begin a push to get more local foods into restaurants and consumers by focusing its efforts on Eat ‘N Park and Giant Eagle. Providing assistance to these two corporations in finding food seems akin to offering the Red Sox and the Yankees assistance in finding baseball prospects.

I, of course, fully support the idea behind the PGH Project: that everyone ought to be using as much locally-grown produce as possible. On the other hand, it seems to me that targeting their efforts at the big boys of the local food chain doesn’t make all that much sense. After all, both Eat ‘N park and Giant Eagle have massive amounts of resources at their disposal. Eat ‘N Park already has a Director of Sourcing and Sustainability on staff and Giant Eagle has a vertically integrated food supply chain and handles all of its own warehousing and distribution. Surely these corporations could use some of their muscle to get local foods without having a nonprofit give them assistance?

Why not target smaller operations that don’t have as many resources behind them? Really, I want to know. Anyone out there associated with this effort? I’d love to hear your reasoning.

I’d also love to see you throw a bone to the little guys.

Strawberry-Rhubarb-Oregano-Curry Pie Redux

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

Alright, so this isn’t so much of a post as a pointer at a year-old post—but once again this year I made a strawberry-rhubarb pie with oregano in a curry crust and once again it was fantastic.  Time is running out on both the strawberry season and the rhubarb season, so I highly encourage everyone to try this one ASAP!

Updated Cast Iron Care Tips

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Lots of talk about “properly seasoned” and “good care”. How would one do those things with cast iron, exactly?


I’ve got basic tips on caring for and seasoning your cast iron posted here and they’re all still valid, though I have an updated and somewhat easier suggestion for seasoning your cast iron.

The method I suggested in my previous post, rubbing it with oil and putting it in a low oven, works great—but it has a tendency to fill your house with a bit of smoke. You can get seasoning results that are about as good just by heating your skillet up on the stove top and rubbing its entire interior with oil, then letting it cool. Repeat a few times, then following the last heating, flip the skillet over and rub its exterior with oil (feel free to repeat a few times, but wipe away any excess oil between heatings or you wind up back at the problem of a smoky house).

See also: tips on cleaning cast iron and an index of all my cast iron posts.

New Twists on Old Cliches

Friday, June 20th, 2008

A Watched Pot Never Boils… Because It’s Not Supposed To.

It’s an exhortation, not a caution. Cooks, keep track of your stock (or sauce or soup or eggs or what have you) and make certain that they’re not being subjected to unnecessary heat. Bring it down to a simmer; it doesn’t need to boil.

(The exception that disproves the rule, of course, is pasta)

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As I was getting my lunch out of the fridge this morning, it crossed my mind that some of the goat cheese we got from our CSA last week might add in well with my salad. Then I thought, maybe I should wait to share it with Aurora. After all, she likes chevre, too.

An image of the cheese in its tub with a green film atop it occurred to me, and I decided…

If You Never Eat Your Cake, it’s Gonna Go Stale.

Garden Dreams

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I should’ve had my camera with me on Saturday when I went to visit Garden Dreams in Wilkinsburg, because it was tough to believe the thriving garden that was hidden there. Fortunately, Google Maps has streetview for Pittsburgh, so you can get a glimpse of a preview for yourself until such time as I can get back out there and take a couple of photos.

An old Victorian house sits at the corner of Center and Holland. Anyone looking at it can tell that it used to be quite stately; it’s plain to see by the many boarded windows that the building has known better times. The yard behind it is another matter altogether. I’d not hesitate to gamble that it has never known such care and cultivation as it knows now: kale, tomatoes, leeks, fennel, peppers, and more…. and that’s just what they’re growing in their small ‘farm.’ On top of that, there are plants aplenty for the home gardener to purchase and transplant—and expert advice to go with it.

When Aurora and I were buying our tomatoes (two plants that we chose from 80+ varieties in their catalog), we were advised not to be afraid to plant them deeply. We hadn’t even known that most gardeners plant their young plants up to their first set of branches, but the helpful attendant (who recounted his winter spending 80 hours a week caring for seedlings in the basement to get ready for the summer) advised us that if we cared to, we could go even deeper. “When we plant, we use a post hole digger and put them down to about here,” he said, gesturing towards a spot just a few inches below the plant’s top. “They’ll grow roots the whole way down the stem and it gives them a much sturdier base.”

Pittsburgh continues to astound me with the breadth of resources available here—every time I think I have a good handle in what the city has to offer, I discover something ‘new.’ If you’ve been accustomed to getting your plants from the big box retailer, swing by Garden Dreams and experience what a wide selection, knowledgeable help, and attentive customer service are like. Anyone who’s been buying their plants from outside the Co-Op (as Aurora and I have done) should visit to find out where those plants actually come from. Anyone interested in finding out the best way to care for their tomato plants might stop in periodically over the summer and keep track of their experiment in progress: three rows of tomatoes to be staked three different ways: with stakes, with cages, and with a bamboo cone. Really, it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to garden better.

Garden Dreams is located at 810-812 Holland Street in Wilkinsburg; and can be reached by phone at 412-638-3333.

Pittsburgh Rare

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

I have an odd random question for you. My dad was from Pittsburgh, and he always wanted his steak “Pittsburghed” (meaning it was pink/red in the center but blackened on the outside). Is this a real thing, or is it just something my dad made up? I never thought to ask while he was alive, but my husband and I were talking about him the other night which made me think of this.



Pittsburgh rare is indeed an actual way of serving a steak: burnt on the outside, raw in the center.  In recent years, some people have taken to asking for their steaks ‘Pittsburgh medium’ or even, I recall, ‘Pittsburgh well’ (overcook it and then burn it to a crisp, please!).

The story behind this phenomenon dates back to the steel mills where, as I understand it, workers would often take raw steaks with them for their lunches and then slap them on the mill’s furnace to cook them.  Problem is, the furnaces were so hot (they were designed to melt steel, after all) that the outside of the steak would singe before the inside even cooked.

Funny thing about food is how you can develop a taste for something (I think of the story Larry Lagatutta [Enrico Biscotti's owner/ head baker] tells about the old Italian woman who would go into the bakery asking if they had any burnt bread because it was what she ate as a child and she really enjoyed it).  Stranger still is how you can pass that taste along.  The end result is that while not exactly a popular way to eat steak, restaurants will have occasional requests even from people who never set foot in a steel mill to serve their steaks Pittsburgh Rare.

Do you have a question about the world of food?  Email me and I’ll do my best to provide an answer.

Strawberry Shortcake!

Friday, June 13th, 2008

It’s strawberry season in southwestern PA, and after just plucking them out of the quart and eating them raw, shortcake is one of my favorite treatments of this fruit.

I made the shortcake according to a standard biscuit recipe (3 cups flour, 3/4 tsp salt, 1.5 tablespoons baking powder, a stick of butter, and a cup plus two tablespoons milk/cream mixed together) with a few alterations: I added the zest of an orange, a square half inch of grated dark chocolate, a teaspoon or so of sugar, shake of cinnamon, a bit of nutmeg, and a pinch of cloves into the dry ingredients.

I rolled the biscuit dough out, trimmed the edges, then sliced it down into twelve large biscuits. The scraps from trimming the edges were enough to shape into two more biscuits. After I transferred the biscuits to an ungreased baking sheet, brushed their tops with cream to help the browning process, and sprinkled them with coarse turbinado sugar for decoration and a bit of sweetness, I baked them in a 450F oven for 15 minutes.

Once the biscuits had cooled slightly, I split them and spooned several strawberries onto the bottom half, followed by a small dollop of whipped cream.  This extra bit of cream helps out with the crucial cream: biscuit ration on the final few bites, and it also helps keep the top in place for presentation (instead of having it slide off to the side).  I spooned more berries around the edges and topped the biscuit with a full dollop of cream and a strawberry on top.

The results? Tasty.

‘Local Challenge’ to the Co-Op: Remove Fiji H2O

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Pittsburgh’s East End Food Co-Op has issued a challenge to Pittsburghers: eat as local as possible for one month, from July 15–August 15. “It’s an honor system-based [challenge]; those wishing to participate will simply sign a large poster at the Co-Op and try their best.” For the purpose of the challenge, they define local as being within 100 miles. To encourage participation and help participants along, the Co-Op is inviting people to enjoy a potluck recipe swap and celebration of local fare every Wednesday during the challenge, starting at 7:00 PM. The first event will be on July 16.

I doubt the Co-Op will be distributing Fiji at these events, but should a local food challenge participant wish to, he or she could quite easily wash down their spinach salad, sauteed kale, local-beef loaf, and berry cobbler with a bottle of Fiji water purchased from the Co-Op’s shelf. In other words, you could wash down a 100-mile meal with a 7600-mile beverage.

I have complained to the Co-Op about the presence of this non-local product on the shelf of our local food co-op, and how the very idea of a substance as basic as water being shipped halfway around the world is in violation of the concepts upon which the co-op is built. I received a reply on the topic in October from Mark D. Perry, the Co-Op’s merchandising manager: