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, 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.

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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, 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.

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