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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Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Recipes, South Side, Strip District, Techniques and tools

Oven ribs with chocolate rosemary sauce.

Unexpected inspiration is often a good thing. A chocolate party is a perfect example.

My friends Gwen and Derrick have a chocolate party every year at their place on the South Side. Chocolate beer, chocolate chili, chocolate cookies, chocolate ice cream — everything. And I always look at it as a challenge: How to make something a little different and maybe by combining ingredients that are a little out of my comfort zone.

I don’t don’t work a lot with chocolate. Not much of a sweet tooth. And I think it’s fun and the best kind of surprising to play with people’s expectations — in a good way. Chocolate need not equal powerfully sweet.

This popped up the first time when my wife wanted a chocolate party for her birthday a few years ago.

Another friend whose wife’s birthday was the same day also likes to cook. He tried a pasta with cocoa powder in the dough that didn’t turn out and a chocolate chipotle salsa that did.

My offerings: grilled chicken wings with cocoa powder in the dry rub, crostini with goat cheese, caramelized onions and a chocolate vinaigrette and roasted pork tenderloins in a chocolate and sherry glaze with shallots.

All of those turned out nicely, though the tenderloins were a needed lesson in anticipating presentation. If you’ve seen pork tenderloins and can imagine a dark brown sauce — well, there you go. They each looked irretrievably like a giant poo. I sliced them up before serving for obvious reasons.

Last year for Gwen and Derrick’s party I made those crostini again, mainly because I couldn’t remember how I made the vinaigrette and wanted to force myself to recreate it.

This year I started from scratch.

It would have to be savory — that was a must. And it would have to be a little nontraditional.

I settled rather quickly on pork because the easy richness of the meat holds up to the chocolate. The chocolate can overwhelm it but it isn’t too fine a line.

But what kind of pork? I became the Bubba Blue of pig parts. Pulled pork, roast pork, pork sandwiches. Belly, shoulder, shank.

And then. Oh yes. Ribs.

I got two gorgeous racks of babybacks at Strip District Meats. Made a rub, grinding up ancho and New Mexico chiles, pink peppercorns, cumin and fennel seeds and Chinese five spice and mixing it with a fresh-made garlic paste. Added that into a bowl of brown sugar and gray salt — maybe a 7-to-1 sugar-to-salt ratio.

Rubbed that all over the ribs, top and bottom, and wrapped each rack separately in two casings of tented foil with one end left open. Poured into that open end: a little malty beer.

Heated the oven to 250, sealed up the ribs entirely and let them cook about two and a half hours. Longer would have been better, but by then I was running late for the party.

While the ribs cooked, I made the sauce. Some stock and ruby port whisked together and reduced in a pan to a little looser than I wanted it, then I killed the heat and added a pinch of salt, chopped fresh rosemary and chopped dark chocolate, roughly 80 percent cacao.

Sauce done and set aside, it was time for the ribs to come out. I took them out of the foil and put them on baking racks on top of a rimmed baking sheet. Cranked the heat in the oven to 500 degrees — tossing them under the broiler would also work — and hard-roasted them to finish the outside. This part can be a little tricky with all the sugar and even the garlic in the rub because if it burns, you have to start over. No saving it then.

Ribs done and rested for at least five or 10 minutes, it was time to slice and pour over the sauce.

My friend Burgh Gourmand took this shot of them at the party:

Success.

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Ambience, Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Service, Traditional

Golden Pig.

Yes, Korean food. In li’l ol’ Cecil on Route 50.

The whole restaurant has just 10 seats and is subtle enough to drive by twice before pulling in. Even shares a building with a used-car dealership. Like you do.

This is it. All of it. Seriously.

I only found out about it because a friend knew someone who thought highly of it, enough so that it sounded like it was worth a little drive. It was.

Owner Yong Kwon might just be hand-rubbing a vinegary spice slurry on cabbages to ferment her own kimchee or pickling mu radishes when you walk in. A native of Korea, she chose the out-of-the-way spot because she wanted to live close to her grandson — her “golden piggie,” hence the restaurant’s name.

Among her favorites is a classic beef bulgogi, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, wine, garlic, black pepper and sugar and flash-cooked to keep it tender.

Don’t go in expecting a wide array of banchan, the traditional Korean side dishes. There are a few and she keeps them simple and on the vinegary side. But paired with the bulgogi or a Korean pancake appetizer big enough for two made with sweet potatoes and onion, their sharp pungency accents and elevates what’s on the plate.

Not everything is homemade. The ramen — broth and noodles — are of the instant variety, which she explains by saying no one in Korea eats anything else. Spending a day making the broth and noodles isn’t worth it, she said, when doing it this way is almost as good.

She seems to know everyone who walks through the door, and well enough to give them endless crap if she’s in a fun mood. The better she knows folks, the more merciless she is.

“You finally brought your wife,” she told one dude who came in with his equally trucker-capped buddy. “Hurry up and eat and get out.”

All in good fun.

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Ambience, Beer, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Service, Techniques and tools

Homebrew.

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If you see one of these bad boys, pick it up. Read it. Check out the advertisers.

Sure, I have a piece in it on the TRASH homebrew competition and what goes into entering these things and the long slog of a day spent judging beer. (There were Schwarzenegger impressions at one point. Also something about rose hips. I don’t even know.)

But support the magazine because it’s worth supporting. The guy behind it is Tim Russell, a dude who just wants to educate folks about good local beer.

He hasn’t gotten this edition up online yet, which is why I haven’t posted my story here. But seek it out — a Sharp Edge, East End Brewing’s growler shop in the Strip, maybe Bocktown and Fat Head’s and Piper’s and a bunch of other places by now, too — and give it a thorough read.

Chances are it will be worth the effort.

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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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