Family, holiday, Ingredients, Nontraditional, Recipes, Seasonal

Thanksgiving nachos. For realz.

So, this happened:


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.
— 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
— 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.
Ambience, Cheap eats, Downtown, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Oakland, Presentation, Seasonal, South Side, Traditional

The Franktuary truck.

Sure, it’s a hotdog. That’s its heart, its essence. Even hyphenated it remains simple. Call it all-beef or all-beef and grass-fed and remains a humble thing. A Pittsburgh thing, even. As much as wings and fries-and-slaw are stereotypes around this town, I have not seen so many hotdog shops anywhere else I’ve lived.

Then there’s the truck, the mobile arm of the downtown joint Franktuary. Order said hotdog in Oakland, downtown, on the South Side from an actual moving vehicle, a rarity and a worthwhile summer indulgence in this city.

I’ve been most often when it’s parked behind a church at 27th and Jane. I won’t pretend it’s a religious experience or anything, but it’s a fantastic excuse to get out of an office or off a couch. Sitting outside, maybe under the church awning or a parade tent, on plastic chairs trying not to dribble on myself is a successful afternoon.

It’s an informal setting for an informal food, even when the little tubes of meat get dressed up. A Bankok dog with rich, peanutty Thai satay sauce, the Memphis with a bourbon barbecue sauce and slaw, the carbohydrate-bomb Brasil with – oh yes – mashed potatoes and crisp, skinny fries, bacon, and a tomato-corn relish.

There’s also a vegetarian dog, but I, uh, I wouldn’t know anything about that.

All this is without mentioning the vegetarian poutine. Which I have tried a few times. Arsenal cheese curds and a veggie gravy over thick, hot fries. They buy the fries already cut — it’s a truck; they can’t do everything themselves — but make their own gravy. It’s not the silky animal-fat variety because it can’t be. But while it may not get all the way to unctuous, it is rich, thick and rather tasty, especially once that cheese begins to melt all over everything. Warm, gooey, a little sticky. In a good way.

Even without those descriptions, it would still be food porn.

Ambience, Garfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Seasonal, Service

Salt of the Earth, Part II.

Pork baguette. Doesn’t sound like much, maybe just menu filler or something to get along a fancy takeout pizza someplace, a pimped-out hoagie.

But no.

This take on Vietnamese bahn mi the best thing I’ve put in my mouth at Salt of the Earth, which is saying something. The bread has to be good. That’s a given. Crusty on the outside, light and soft on the inside, but still dense enough that it doesn’t get soggy. Never soggy. A thin smear of pate made from chicken livers sourced nearby. Pork. Glorious pork. A lumberjack’s fistful of it cooked once then roasted under the salamander just long enough. Pickled carrot, pickled daikon, jalapeno – briny, tart, crunchy, a whisper of heat. And then cilantro, leafy and clean. Each ingredient works separately, but these simple soloists join in harmony to become something greater.

Of course, I think it’s off the menu now.

In a year, the place no one ever calls by its whole name — unless you’re being proper and writing it out on first reference — has gotten itself a reputation as the best restaurant in Pittsburgh. Yeah, yeah, right? You know that. Ain’t no thang.

Its opening coincided roughly with my arrival in town. In some ways, it’s been the joint to compare other restaurants to since I started eating my way around this city trying to learn it from the streets up. First time I went was New Year’s, when they tossed out their whole menu and served only pork and sauerkraut.

Been a handful of times since. Always been good. Often been far better than that.

Not always the most amazingest thing ever, but I can’t see ever turning down a trip there. It can be a weird place. The green gazpacho and short ribs leap immediately to mind as things that were delicious but didn’t blow me away. Which is not a criticism, just a tiny explanation. I mean weird in the sense that it’s built to give you the best meal of your life every night. And that’s an impossibly high bar.

Not just good. Not only wonderful. The best, most creative food possible that masses of people in this town will trade money for. I’m in awe of ambition like that. I don’t know Kevin Sousa in the least but I find it fascinating that someone with what clearly are his standards cannot allow himself to meet them, except perhaps fleetingly.

At the same time, one of my first impressions of the place was a lack of pretension. Sitting on stools watching the line cooks is the best spot in the place. When it slows down toward the end of the night, they’ll happily answer questions directly or make time to chat a little as they get ready for prep for the next night.

And that extends to the bar, too. There as much care put into every drink as there is to each plate. A rare and delightful thing, that. But have a question about a specific ingredient, an obscure kind of alcohol or technique, and they’re accessible.

This is a place to not just consume but to appreciate and to learn. Which might be why they could charge a lot more for what they do and yet don’t. Price shouldn’t be the main barrier to getting you in the door. Ain’t cheap, but it hasn’t yet meant I can’t make rent.

And you can find a good chunk of the staff on Twitter where they’ll often engage in conversation outside the physical restaurant — something else that makes Salt approachable even when they serve weeds that perplex my wife because they grow wild in our garden. (Purslane, I’m looking at you.) Go find @Chad687 or @BaconBra or any of the others. Good folks.

All of which is to say its reputation is earned. Keep churning, keep improvising, keep surprising. Keep working. I’m grateful for it.

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.

— 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.

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.


Cheap eats, Family, Ingredients, Presentation, Recipes, Seasonal, Techniques and tools

Roasted-corn and tomato summer salad.

I forget what the inspiration was the first time I made this. I know I took it to someone’s house for a summer party, but the rest is lost to me.

The last few years, it’s become a summer staple in my house. Or the house of anyone who had a little more room on their table and was kind enough to have me over. I made it again on Monday to take to a picnic. I like it well enough that the one time I tried putting meat in it was the last time. And I’m one of those people who thinks meat makes most things better.

Couple folks saw me mention it and asked for a recipe. So.

Getting a little char on the corn is important, and use the best tomatoes and olive oil you can tolerate — because of budget or snobbiness-aversion reasons. Either is totally acceptable.

What really made this work when I lived in the South were the tomatoes. The heat does something to them there. Meaty, firm, uncutous tomatoes. I usually use a red or black variety, like Paul Robeson, but yellow zebras do something cool to this, too.

Winds up looking roughly like this:

So make it. Eat it. And if you remember, tell me what you thought.


Roasted corn salad

— Six ears corn, husked
— Six or seven plum-sized tomatoes, diced; heirlooms if possible
— Three shallots, halved and sliced paper thin
— Handful or two fresh basil, torn or sliced into chiffonade
— 1/3 cup cider vinegar
— extra-virgin olive oil and Kosher or sea salt and fresh-cracked black pepper to taste
(Optional: a sliced jalapeno, couple roasted poblano peppers, chopped fresh oregano)

Rub the corn with olive oil and roast in a 425-degree oven or grill until fully cooked. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, toss together gently shallots, diced tomatoes, salt and pepper, vinegar (and poblano/jalapeno if using).

When the corn cools, stand it on end on a cutting board and cut the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Add the corn to the bowl and toss.

Add in olive oil slowly, stirring gently. When it tastes like the right mix of acidity and fruity olive oil, you’re good. Add in the basil (and oregano, if you like) and toss.

Let sit about 15 minutes, toss and eat.

Ambience, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Seasonal, Service, South Side

The Milk Shake Factory.

This is probably one of the many ways in which I’m broken.

I don’t want a milk shake in the summer. When it’s hot, the idea of all that thick dairyness sliding down my throat and sitting heavy in my belly is not precisely appetizing.

Fitting, then, that I first stopped in at the Milk Shake Factory on the South Side on a snowy, blustery day not unlike today, with the air thin and sharp.

This is where I would usually link to the place’s website. Skipping that this time. There’s music. It’s annoying. Better to just follow on Twitter: @MShakeFactory.

I didn’t know I wanted anything when I walked in the door. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But I was curious.

Walked past the Edward Marc chocolates — more on that little bit of funny in a bit — and spent a couple minutes looking at the giant board of 55 different kinds of milk shakes.

I’d been walking a while outside in a giant coat. I’m not small. I was plenty warm. And they had my favorite: pistachio. I sat down on a painfully uncomfortable metal stool — clearly not built for, like, large people — at the back counter and ordered.

Yum. More than a little bit. They don’t use any special kind of milk, just good ice cream, a good recipe and good technique. Delightful.

It was slow in there — weather-related, I’m sure — and the folks working were happy to chat. I looked over their chocolates and decided I sort of wanted a salted caramel. Hell, I had 85 cents. Most people buy the milk chocolate one, one of them told me, but the dark chocolate’s better. So I went for the dark chocolate.

Here is where I pause to laugh. The name on all the chocolates is Edward Marc, which sounds totally fake. Possibly a Canadian first and middle name, but probably made up. So I asked if there was actually an “Edward Marc.”

Yes, they told me. Well, sort of.

Apparently his name is either Mark Edwards or Mark Edward Something. They weren’t sure. And the Mark’s with a K. I suppose I could look it up, but I like it better this way, not knowing for sure and relying only on the way his employees tell it. Far more amusing.

Even if he’s confused about his name, the man knows his chocolate. The salted caramel was delightful. Soft, melting, light. The dark chocolate didn’t overwhelm what was a far more delicate caramel than I’d expected.

Maybe the next time the snow and the wind pick up, I’ll be back in for more.