Ambience, Family, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Service, Squirrel Hill, Traditional

How Lee.

Never been to China. Rural, urban – nope. Not even Hong Kong. And when it comes to the language, Wayne Campbell outdoes me.

I am clearly not the person to tell anybody what authentic Chinese food is. So grab yourself a grain of salt as large as you can carry.

How Lee in Squirrel Hill feels like the real thing. Can’t say “tastes.” So “feels.”

It doesn’t look like much. Which is to say it looks like most decent Chinese restaurants I’ve been in. Walk in at the right time and it might be busy, but I get the feeling a lot of people get take-out. There’s usually a table or two open in the back — I’ve seen them breaking down green beans by hand there when it’s slow.

The times I’ve been in there, I only once glanced at the inside of the menu. The fried rices and lo meins and beef with broccolis. They have their place, but no thanks in a place like this.

The back page of the menu is the only place I look. It’s where the descriptions sound like food the owners would make for themselves. For their own families.

Tea-smoked duck. Absolutely.

Dumplings in capsicum with sesame seeds. No doubt.

Pork kidney with pickled peppers – yes. Hell yes.

Twice-cooked pork belly. You tell me:

I might be wrong about this, but it also seems like I get a different level of service when that’s where I look on a menu. They’re happy to help me understand what something is, how it’s prepared. They’ve answered every question I’ve asked and been friendly about it.

There are some things on the menu that are possibly out of even my comfort zone.

The spicy pork blood, for example. Haven’t ordered it. Probably won’t. But I kind of want to.

I don’t have textural problems with jellied or congealed food, nor an issue with thick, irony, minerally blood. I love blood sausage and offal.

I like exploring things I don’t see often on menus. The evident care they take with their food, too, means I’m comfortable that even if I don’t like it, it won’t be because they prepared it poorly. For some reason, this just doesn’t sound like my thing.

Now, I love knowing that they have it. I almost didn’t go the first time I wound up there. I had a hard time looking at the name and not thinking it was a Hawai’ian joke on me.

How Lee. Haole. Funny, funny.

But I broke down and went. And now it’s becoming my go-to place for Chinese food in the city. Or at least what I’m pretty sure is Chinese food. Y’know, without going there to make sure.

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Cheap eats, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Nontraditional, Recipes, Seasonal, Techniques and tools

Berries in white-wine syrup with mint and jalapeño.

One of the most versatile things I tend to make in the summer goes as well with cheesecake or ice cream as it does with grilled or roasted meat like lamb or chicken or turkey.

The warm syrup macerates the berries which then infuse the liquid after it sits a while. Fresh mint punches it up and balances the sweetness.

When I made it bring to our friends’ place in Lawrenceville this weekend, I added a little twist — a jalapeño. Hadn’t done it that way before, but it seemed right.

I write for a living, and with more practice and experience, the words just come together in my head. As ideas, as phrases, as paragraphs. It’s not even that I have to work to organize information or structure or the individual words. Often it kind of happens on its own. The right way to begin, then how to progress from there, with some idea of where ultimately I want readers to arrive.

But to do that requires that I know what story I’m telling.

The more I cook, the more that happens with food. With flavors. I’ve sort of mentioned this before. But it happens with greater frequency now. The more I taste, the more I cook, the more I smell things together, the more improvisational I get. As long as I have in my head how the flavors are supposed to work and what I want it to be when I’m done, the organizing and experimenting comes somewhat easily.

The finished food is the story I’m trying to tell. Something like that, anyway.

On Saturday, that meant jalapeño. The sweet syrup, the cool mint, the tart berries — they needed a little heat.

I’d never made it this way before and didn’t want to serve anything I hadn’t tasted and gotten a second opinion on. I made the syrup as usual, using a dry, light vinho verde for the wine in it, tore up a little mint and chopped part of a jalapeño, then sacrificed a few berries by combining everything together and setting it aside for a few minutes to come together.

I tasted it. Good. Better than I expected, even. Sweet up front, then a melding of the mint and the heat. Not overpowering with either. Just a balance.

Then for the real test: AmyJo. She’s my bestest taste-tester, in part because we like a lot of the same things but have rather different palates and preferences at times.

Once I saw the look on her face, I didn’t have to wait for the verbal confirmation. We had a winner.

Ingredients:
— Four pints berries; I like a mix, but blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries — they all work fine on their own, too.
— One cup sugar
— Two cups white wine; I prefer a vinho verde, young and dry and light and a little bubbly
— Handful of mint leaves, torn
— One jalapeño, halved and sliced. I left in the seeds and ribs, but if you want less heat, remove them.

Directions:
Make the syrup. In a saucepan, combine sugar and wine and stir, kicking the heat to medium. Stir occasionally until the sugar dissolves fully into the wine and it just comes to a boil. Let it simmer a minute or two, or longer to let it reduce, still stirring every minute or two. Kill the heat and set aside.

Drop the berries into a large bowl with the mint and jalapeño. Pour over the syrup and stir. Set aside. This can be chilled or left at room temperature — depends on what you like. Good both ways.

Eat.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, North Side, Recipes, Techniques and tools, Traditional

Wilson’s.

Publishing can be a strange beast. I wrote a piece on the North Side barbecue joint Wilson’s in January for a magazine in Arkansas. It finally hit print — yesterday. (Flip to page 17 and zoom in if you’re so curious you can’t stand it.)

It was the first bit of paid food writing I’d ever sold. I had this charming little site, sure, but most of my writing experience has been, well, other. There have been other things since, but this was el primero.

And as simple a piece as it seems as I read it again, it wasn’t. I don’t think George Wilson trusted me. Not at first. Some dude walking in his place with a notebook and a camera asking him all about his business. I wrote it freelance. Not like I could show him an official-looking press pass or a business card with the name of a real publication on it.

He doesn’t have time for anybody else’s crap. He only takes cash. And he works when he wants, as much as he wants. His place. His rules. You don’t have to like it.

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He’d tell me to show up and then say he was busy or didn’t want to talk that day. Maybe later. Come back again.

So I did. Again and again. He lives upstairs and so was usually around, even if he wasn’t open. If he was open, I always ordered food and sat a while. After a few times, I let him talk to me first. Didn’t initiate any kind of conversation at all. Just ordered and waited. And usually, he’d want to talk a little bit.

I think the only reason he went with it at first is that he grew up in Arkansas and he liked the idea of people there seeing how he turned out after he left in 1945. When I get a hard copy of the story, I’ll walk one over to him. I happen to live a few blocks away.

I found him fascinating. Hell of a storyteller. And — oh yeah — the food is seriously good. True Southern barbecue, the likes of which don’t seem to exist much in Pittsburgh.

Just remember to bring cash and a smile. Otherwise this octegenarian just might beat you down.

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