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

Homebrew.

image

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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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

Ingredients:
— 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)

Directions:
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.

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Ambience, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Service, Techniques and tools

Winghart’s.

Brie, white-truffle aioli, arugula, caramelized onions and bacon. On a burger.

In case you were wondering:

And the fries were good. Seasoned, crispy — I think I liked them better than the ones at D’s in Regent Square. Maybe that’s heresy.

Anyway — Winghart’s. Market Square. You should go there.

I’m finding I don’t spend a ton of time downtown. Not that there isn’t anything to do. More like it’s a place I rarely wind up.

Which is a little silly. I can walk there. It’s a mile or so from my apartment. From the right spot at the end of my block, I can see the giant ’80s fantasy castle that is PPG Place.

Then two days last week found me downtown around lunchtime. And starving. And three blocks from Market Square.

It’s a place I find perplexing. The city clearly wants attention there but it’s mostly chains, national and local — Starbucks, Primanti Bros. — and not a whole lot of character. A couple blocks either way, sure, I know where I am. But standing down there I might as well be in Seattle or something. No sense of place.

But I’d heard of Winghart’s, perplexing in its own way because it promises whiskey yet does not yet have a liquor license. No matter. And to say I’d heard of it doesn’t quite do it justice. I’d heard universally good things.

That’s sort of odd. To have everyone I know who’d been there say glowingly how absurdly good it is. People have different palates. Everyone doesn’t have to like something for it to be good to me. Almost makes me nervous to have consensus on a place — especially something like a burger joint.

AmyJo happened to be downtown, too, so we met there.

It’s a tight little place, cash register by the door, not too many seats inside. You can smell what they cook there. It’s obvious, though not overwhelmingly so.

And damn. Just damn.

She stayed more basic than I did, just bacon and cheddar. And that, too, was something special, even for a combination of ingredients I’d had a thousand times before.

They do pretty much everything right. Open kitchen but without ambient grease sticking to everything. Buns that are good bread on their own. Simple syrup on countertops because granular sugar doesn’t dissolve properly into cold things like iced tea. And I asked for my burger medium — to be a little safe in a new place — but the quality of the meat and their skill cooking it means medium-rare at least next time.

And friendly. As long as you’re not getting in the way of their being busy — and the do get busy — the folks there will answer any question you’ve got or even just chat a little.

Also of note: It’s not what I’d call cheap but the prices are more than fair for what you get, volume and quality.

Maybe I’ll have to find my way downtown a little more often.

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