Family, Recipes

Macaroni and cheese.

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This is the macaroni and cheese I grew up on.

It’s not like most people’s. There’s no sauce, per se, bechamel or otherwise. Nothing fancy. There’s barely anything to it I’d call a technique.

Cheese, pasta, milk, pepper. Sometimes bacon. But that’s basically it.

It comes from my great-grandmother, a small woman of large stature. Grammy. She was still around when I was little. I was 9 when she died at 93. My family still tells stories about her.

The time she was on the phone and my aunt Ginevra, a teenager then, harassed her thinking she couldn’t do anything about it and Grammy threw a plate like Frisbee and it broke on the wall over Ginevra’s head.

The way her husband, The Gebe, would say “Just a sliver, mother” when she offered pie, then she’d come back with basically a whole pie.

Gram and The Gebe were New Yorkers. Both grew up poor. When Grammy was little, she was taken away from her family when they went for a while to debtors prison. The Gebe shoveled coal into basements and delivered telegrams. He got his first job when he was 11. He was the first president of the Yonkers firefighters’ union when they organized in 1939.

His parents were Irish. Her father was English, her mother a New Yorker. From the 1930 Census, I know they paid $55 a month for rent in Yonkers that year for an apartment for the two of them and their three children. He was 40 then, she 35.

Grammy saw to it her own family didn’t know hardship the same way she did. They moved out to California to follow their children, temporarily at first, then full-time when the family grew. My mother is one of seven surviving children of Gram and Gebe’s only daughter. Each of them had at least two kids. And Grammy liked to provide for everybody at the table.

A lot of what she made I’ve never seen done the same way elsewhere. Her cheesecake in particular. But also her macaroni and cheese.

You don’t have to do this, but know that she would eat it with ketchup. The woman loved ketchup. Even put it in scrambled eggs. Sometimes when I eat the leftovers of this macaroni and cheese, I’ll add some in for her sake along with some hot sauce. For some reason that works better with what gets reheated.

I modify her recipe only slightly. And even then not all the time. But for a nice big batch of Grammy’s macaroni and cheese in my house, it’s this:

  • 2 pounds elbow macaroni, cooked most of the way and drained
  • 2 pounds medium-sharp or sharp Cheddar cheese, cubed
  • half-pound smoked Cheddar cheese, cubed
  • whole milk
  • butter
  • pepper
  • optional additions: grated Parmesan cheese, goat cheese, uncooked but sliced bacon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a large Dutch oven.

Combine about two-thirds of the sharp and smoked cheddar (and the goat cheese or bacon, if using) in a bowl with the pasta. Layer in to the Dutch oven a little at a time, adding Parmesan to each layer. (Make sure there isn’t too much cheese at the bottom or it will get more crusty than you planned.)

On the top, add the rest of the Cheddars — you should have enough to cover nearly the whole surface — and sprinkle with more Parmesan. Crack lots of fresh black pepper over the top. Pour the milk slowly but steadily around the edge of the whole pot.

Bake covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered for 30 minutes. If you’re one of the weirdos who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese crusty on top, take the lid off for only the last 10 or so minutes.

Take out of the oven, blot off some of the oils with a paper towel and let cool for at least five minutes.

Eat. And think fondly of Gram and Gebe.

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Family, holiday, Ingredients, Nontraditional, Recipes, Seasonal

Thanksgiving nachos. For realz.

So, this happened:

http://pgplate.com/how-to/99-bucking-tradition-with-thanksgiving-nachos

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It’s that time of year, y’all. Anything is possible. Even Thanksgiving nachos with smoked turkey, gravy, Monterey Jack and a cranberry-roasted tomatillo salsa.

A recipe for the salsa:

This is what I did. There are obviously a couple shortcuts for anyone could take if they wanted.
Ingredients:
— 2 pints fresh cranberries, stemmed and rinsed
— 8-10 good-sized tomatillos, paper removed, washed and halved
— 5-6 garlic cloves, fresh or roasted
— 1 orange, zested, halved and peeled (white pith also removed)
— 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
— 2 jalapenos, 1 stemmed and cut in chunks, the other stemmed and ribs and seeds removed (or leave them in for more heat)
— freshly ground spices: 1 tsp cumin, 1 dried guajillo chile, small knuckle-sized nub Mexican cinnamon
— 4 tbsp raw sugar
— 4-8 tbsp tequila
— healthy pinch coarse salt
— olive oil for drizzling
Directions:
— Freeze cranberries and orange flesh at least 1 hour spread out on a rimmed sheet pan. (The freezing helps a lot with the texture later.)
— Preheat oven to 425. On another rimmed sheet pan, drizzle tomatillos with oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss to coat and place tomatillos face-down. Roast until skins begin to blister and blacken, about 15-20 minutes. When done, leave to cool to room temperature.
— In a food processor, combine tomatillos, garlic and spices and blend until smooth.
— Add in zest, orange flesh, cranberries and jalapeno and pulse into small chunks.
— In a large bowl, place cranberry mixture and add sugar, salt, tequila and cilantro and stir gently to combine.
— Refrigerate overnight and let come up to room temperature. If it’s still a bit too tart, add in a little honey. Too thick: more tequila or more orange juice — I’ll trust you to make the right choice.
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Family, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Meta, Neighborhoods, North Side, Techniques and tools

Amateur status.

I am not a professional. Don’t pretend to be one, no real aspirations to be one.

Those who cook for a living impress me. The hours, the conditions, the repetition — and the hazards.

About a year ago I came across this piece on nasty injuries in pro kitchens. Yikes.

I’ve nicked myself with knives, sliced off a wafer of finger here and there, gotten the occasional blister from popping oil or a light burn now and again from a hot oven rack. Some even left scars. Cool, right?

But nothing like those folks. I have health insurance, should the need arise. And perhaps more importantly, if I hurt myself, I can simply stop cooking.

Or so I thought.

I got up on Saturday a couple weeks ago determined at first to do nothing more adventurous than drive into Lawrenceville to pick up some pastries for breakfast. Joint was closed, so no dice.

I got home, looked around my kitchen and had a grand idea. Diced red peppers and Asian long peppers, onion, potatoes seared in duck fat, cheddar cheese, eggs. One big-ass pile o’ breakfast.

Something like this:

My folks had gotten me some new knives for Christmas. It was a solid if not world-changing set of Wusthofs. Which means, like everything else in my life, I can blame them for this. (Kidding.)

I started dicing the peppers and got lazy with my left thumb. I know where it was supposed to be to stay safe. Wasn’t.

Slice.

I felt the pinch of the knife and it took a second for the blood to start rushing where some of my fingernail and tip of my thumb had been.

First stop: sink. Cold running water, make sure no bits of food or anything else were in the wound. Then: pressure. Paper towels were close. Grabbed a few and squeezed. The throbbing moved all the way up my arm. And damn if those paper towels didn’t saturate quickly. That can’t be good. I secured some new paper towels with band-aids for a little extra absorbency.

My wife was a couple blocks away getting coffee. I texted her something like, “I just sliced of a hunk of my thumb. How you doin’?”

I tweeted something about it, too — I had to distract myself a little bit — which brought back notes of sympathy and advice and my friend Hart, who works in the business, calling me “cupcake” and telling me to suck it up.

My wife came home and checked on me, asked if I wanted to go to the hospital.

No, not really. Nothing for them to do. Clean cut, but broad, not deep, so stitches or even butterfly bandages wouldn’t do anything. The bleeding wouldn’t stop, but that was more a matter of pressure and time than anything else.

She went to a pharmacy nearby. Gauze, Neosporin, sterile pads, the whole nine.

While she was gone I looked around the kitchen. I found the bit of my thumb on the cutting board but it hadn’t gotten into the peppers. There was no blood there either.

And, man, was I still hungry.

Back to dicing. Which is really hard when you can’t use your thumb at all.

She got home and walked in the kitchen and just stared at me. A combination of No! and What the hell? and How stupid are you? and But doesn’t that hurt, baby?

I smiled and shrugged and asked her if she wanted to see the chunk of thumb I sliced off, because I kept it. No idea why, but I did. Not like I was proud of it. (She didn’t. It got thrown away.)

We wrapped up my thumb more appropriately. Something like this:

And I went back into the kitchen. She helped me peel the potatoes and I did the rest.

It didn’t make me feel like a pro. Please. I’m just an idiot who still wanted breakfast and figured continuing to cook it was the quickest way to make that happen. How do you think I got that first picture?

But it did make me think about those who feel like they cannot stop cooking when such a thing happens. There’s work to do, a shift to finish.

I respect the hell out of those people.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Homestead, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Service

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria.

Looks like I have tacos on my mind lately. Couldn’t resist another trip to Homestead this week.

Why — now that’s easy.

Ridiculous, right? Even in a photo taken in a hurry on my semi-crappy phone camera, that pork is tender and juicy but not dripping wet, the tortilla fresh, the sauce and accoutrements well-proportioned. That one there is pork with an apricot habanero sauce and caramelized onions.

Finding it the first time can be a minor pain, peeking out from a storefront on Eighth just east of the Homestead Grays Bridge, the A-frame sign on the sidewalk the best giveaway that they’re there and open. And it is cash-only, which in this iPad-and-a-Square world, I don’t quite understand.

I know I’ve said before that some of the street-style tacos around are overpriced for what they actually give you. But at $3.50 that sucker is a bargain. I liked the chicken one as well — pickled onions, Fresno hot sauce and just a lick of avocado cream. The standout on the short, sweet regular menu for me has been the taco with meat from pork ribs. Barbecue sauce made with porter beer and pickles and onions. Simple but not easy and worth savoring. You’ll want to rip through it in three bits or less, but I beg you: chew your food. Live a little.

I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to order the vegetarian taco. I just like the others too much. And the breakfast taco — I haven’t been there early enough yet. I usually stay pretty local in the mornings. It’ll happen at some point.

Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco run the place. He’s from Meadville. She’s not. They met in Austin — the fun one in Texas — and talked about opening a barbecue-style taqueria there. Two things that simply belong together.

Rents here were right and no one was doing anything like this. They put a lot of themselves into the place. It’s small but not cramped. Comfortable. Service was a bit slow at first because it was just the two of them. Hours were a little inconsistent. They’ve hired a couple folks and that’s pretty much a thing of the past.

They make everything themselves. Tortillas — if they run out, that’s it for the day — agua fresca, all the sauces and the meats.

And they make their own horchata. This is one of my favorite things on this planet. Not that I’ve been to others, I’m just saying. Horchata’s a sweet-spiced rice milk with cinnamon, some nutmeg. A little dust of lime zest on the top when it’s served over ice. Light. Smoothly refreshing.

I went in once on an abominably hot day. Fans blowing, dehumidifier running. There was no air-conditioning. And if you’ve been paying attention, I’m a large mammal. Heat, um, impacts me. That horchata was bliss. It’s plenty delicious other times. But that day there was nothing more perfect.

If I ever feel the need to spend money on food anywhere near that sprawling Waterfront development, I’ll make this my first choice.

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Ambience, Beer, Family, Neighborhoods, North Side, Service, Traditional

Caruso Beer Distributor.

Sam Caruso started out as a teacher. Grew up on the North Side in Mexican War Streets, where his Sicilian father opened a beer store in 1933, right after the end of Prohibition. Maybe the first one in Pittsburgh after repeal. He’d worked in the store since 1944, when he was 4 years old. But he was something else with an accordion.

That's him on the left.

So he went to Duquesne. Bachelor’s, then master’s. All in music. Taught first in Sharpsburg then up in Clarion County.

“I had one class that was girls’ chorus,” he said. “Finally I figured out that if I didn’t want the girls to talk all the time I had to get my accompaniest to go straight from one song into another without a break. I had those girls singing more than 40 minutes in a row, but no chattering.”

He didn’t make much money teaching — $6,000 a year at first — and he still worked for his dad in the summers delivering beer for a couple hundred bucks a week under the table. Time came in 1968 to open a new place a couple blocks from the one on Resaca where it had been since 1940.

“My dad asked me if I’d like to come in and work selling beer full-time,” Caruso, 71, said. “So there I was and here I am.”

The younger Sam Caruso, 1986.

The place has been around. Inside, it looks almost untouched, let along unchanged, since 1968. Back then, he used to sell almost 10 times as much Iron City as anything else, with Fort Pitt in the top five. Sometimes people offer him more money for his old beer signs than they spend on actual beer.

Seems like a lot of those old, family-owned beer distributors around Pittsburgh don’t change much. They still bank on Busch, Yuengling, High Life, Bud Light, Duquesne — often in cans — to keep their old regulars coming in but have no interest in the newer stuff.

This is where Sam’s a bit different. He carries those, but also gets in cases from Rogue, Great Lakes, Smuttynose, Troegs and others. In his office he keeps bottles from distributors’ samples he’s gotten to remind him what he’s had and liked. If a customer wants something he doesn’t carry, he’ll order it and call them when it comes in. He keeps a handwritten list of certain customers’ names, phone numbers and beer preferences by the cash register.

“Things change,” he said. “Tastes change. Some of those newer microbrews are really good beers. I’ll sell whatever people want, but beer’s come a long way.”

So has his family’s place. He’s not sure whether one of his children will take it over.

“They say they want to, but there’s no action on it,” he said. “I’m not going to be here forever.”

Even if it seems the business has been around that long. He collects old photos of his family and the beer distributorship — 19,000 in all, all of which he scanned in to keep digital copies.

Their first storefront:

A delivery truck:

He moved out of the neighborhood long ago, but he’d like to see the business remain.

“I hope it can,” he said. “I’ve always felt we had a real connection to this place.”

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