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, Beer, Ingredients, Lawrenceville, Neighborhoods, Presentation, Service

Round Corner Cantina.

Hipster prices on street food. Runny tacos. Consistently inattentive, even combative, service.

Guacamole and tamales ain’t half bad. And some of the drinks – when you can actually order and successfully receive one.

Clearly I’m not a huge fan of Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville.

I wanted to like it. Each of the five or so times I’ve been there, I hoped my experience would be different. I have friends who like it. And I’ll still go in a group, but it’s not a place I’d choose to go on my own.

When it comes to the food, I have high standards for this kind of thing because I grew up with amazing versions of it, plentiful and cheap. Mediocre or good-for-around-here doesn’t cut it with me. The service – well, I do expect to be treated like a human who plans to spend a little money, which I don’t think is too much to ask.

Seven or eight bucks for generally slapped-together tacos that arrive in a puddle and continue dripping on the plate? After I had to shoot flares to get a server’s attention? No thanks.

The setting is nice. The large paved patio out back, some of which is covered, is a delightful urban refuge with room for a group of a dozen folks hanging out together. Self-service water stations are a fantastic idea to free up servers to, like, serve. Still don’t get the video surveillance cameras mounted near the sign out front, but whatever.

And the menu takes a shot at being something special. Huitlacoche tacos are why I went in the first place. They call it “corn truffle,” but it’s really a funky, mushroomy, earthy-tasting fungus more commonly called “corn smut,” which I agree is probably not a name appetizing to most people, unless you’re really into veggie porn in ways I don’t want to know about. Pennsylvania is one of two states the US Department of Agriculture allows to cultivate it, and I’ve seen it canned, but it rarely makes it on to many menus. If I remember right, Salt of the Earth used it as a component in one dish on its ever-changing blackboard menu.

It’s good. Which helps. Because it’s an ugly damn thing. The sort of thing anyone who demolishes abandoned, water-damaged houses might find familiar. Handled properly, it’s kind of wonderful, like an underappreciated, and therefore surprisingly good, wine you got for cheap.

But at Round Corner, they add more regular corn, cilantro and an avocado salsa that overwhelm the star ingredient and bury it under layers of bright, sweet fattiness. Makes it taste more like black beans or something more familiar. The potato in the huitlacoche tacos takes away from both the texture and flavor of the corn smut, which is the whole reason I ordered the thing. Add in a mediocre tortilla and it was, at the least, disappointing.

I give them points for the micheladas on the list. In Mexico – actual Mexico, not resort Mexico — they’re simple beer cocktails you can order cheap and huge and there’s no set recipe. Beer and lime juice over ice in a glass or even a Styrofoam cup with a salted rim is the most basic way. Some recipes add heat from chiles or glugs of Clamato or tomato juice or, or, or – sort of a Puttanesca at that point, in a weird way.

I make them a bunch at home and as much as I like craft beer, this is best with something cheap and Mexican. Not just cheap. Red Stripe, Heineken, Busch – not the same. I like Victoria if I can find it, which I never can, or Bohemia. Other Mexican beers work just fine.

They make one with a house bloody Mary mix and a spear of de-seeded, de-ribbed jalapeno that I like, especially when it’s hot out. They call it the Espana. Good way to lose six bucks.

So. Service. I just can’t get over the feeling that they hire people who don’t like people. Of the handful of times I’ve been there, I had one server who seemed to care at all. Worked her ass off for our table, even when the bar got backed up on orders.

She’s the exception. I wish I knew her name to credit her publicly. The others forget orders and don’t seem to care – “Oh, right. Well do you still want it or what?” is a favorite line I got one day — don’t come back by even a packed table dripping with money to spend often enough for new orders, toss plates on tables and generally seem like they’d rather be anywhere else. And getting a check can age you noticeably.

On one trip the mole sauce was burnt. Burnt. So we tried to send it back. The waitress went away, then came back and argued with us. Said the kitchen told her it’s supposed to be smoky, to taste a little charred. That’s all well and good. Those are even some of my favorite flavors. But this was B-U-R-N-T. So she argued some more and at first wouldn’t even take it off the table until I insisted. The hell is that?

I’m not a sultan. Not an emperor. I don’t need to be waited on hand and foot to feel taken care of. Just be attentive. Realize that I’m there. Try not to forget about me. If you’re backed up, tell me. If the kitchen got orders for a table of 13 people right before I ordered my thing of chips and salsa, let me know it’ll be a while. I’ll understand.

But don’t dismiss me. Don’t argue. Feel free to investigate a situation or a complaint and explain what you found out, but don’t pick a fight.

Or, rather, do. Then don’t be surprised when I tell the internet.

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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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Beer, Cheap eats, Lawrenceville, Neighborhoods, Service, Traditional

Frankie’s.

Places like this make me nervous.

Old-school like there are no newer schools, Frankie’s is where you can get a more-than-solid hot sausage sandwich and two bottled Yuenglings for less than seven bucks. But it’s just down the street from a place that hand-restores and tailors vintage T-shirts.

I’m nervous it will go away.

The old mill buildings to the west along the Allegheny are hard to see from Butler Street. Even in the memory of a changing neighborhood, what they represent and the people who worked there fade into the background.

Gentrification means less shots-fired calls, sure. But it also means more tax incentives and abatements. More outsiders. More idea cafes. More $50 scarves. More money. More young people. More white people. More pugs.

These are not all good things for a place like Frankie’s. These are things that often kills a place like Frankie’s.

Inside it’s dark and stained and Dr. Phil is on the TV a lot. No one’s jeans were “distressed” at purchase in there. No one in there would ever use the word “distressed” — about pants, certainly, but probably about anything.

There are four sandwiches on the menu, one of which is a foot-long hotdog. Vegetarian options — um, chips?

It’s an island of IC Light braced against a craft beer flood in this city. Most places will nod to that with something local — a little East End Brewing, perhaps, or something from Penn. At Frankie’s, screw off. Winter seasonal beer here just means the cans of Coors Light get colder. There are two types of malt liquor on the menu in case you want something with a higher ABV.

It feels a little weird talking about what’s authentic in a neighborhood in this case because nobody named Frankie ever ran the place. Dude’s name was Lou. He had a business partner named Frankie. I hear Lou still comes around every once in a while, but I’ve never seen him.

The brothers who own it now have had it since 1989. They own the building, so rent’s not a problem.

I love that it’s there. I hope it continues to be there. Because I can’t quite tell what type of neighborhood Lawrenceville is trying to be.

Almost every city I’ve lived in has a neighborhood like this, coping with this kind of transition. Is the momentum to invent and rebuild and take over going to destroy everything that was there before? That’s what seems to happen other places. What starts with a locally owned coffee shop, an art gallery and an architecture firm ends with Panera, Ulta and Starbucks.

Is there a magical balance that evens out only on a scale placed on the tip of a unicorn’s horn? Is Lawrenceville where that happens?

No idea. Let’s hope.

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