We had a two night stay in this once decrepit-turned-hipster hot culinary mecca cum capital of Appalachia, and I blew it. Just like those erstwhile Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Pens did against Tampa Bay in the Friday the 13th Game 1 of the Eastern Conference hockey finals across from our boring but totally clean and congenial Marriott Hotel.
It’s just not that liberating to parachute into a new city anymore, with a baby in tow, now that we are world-weary parents of two. I crave routine. I want home (but is home Maine, where we had settled or Virginia, which felt like a homecoming this sabbatical year?). I need comfort, predictable home-cooked meals (with local produce) and kids that happily drift off to sleep at the anticipated hour. I hereby relinquish my pulse on our nation’s Millenials-driven food scene. I’m too tired to care.
Still, I was excited to go back to Pittsburgh with Dan for his Behavioral Models of Politics conference. Back in 2005, I’d had a memorable night out there at the Harris Grill in Shadyside, when, staring down my graduation from J-school, I interviewed for a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cub reporter job I didn’t get. (I forgot: neither the Harris Grill or still provincial, so hard up to be hipster Pittsburgh impressed me as much during our brief stop there as we crossed the country to our new life in Oregon in 2008.)
But since then, the Steel City-turned-wannabe Silicon Valley’s slick revival has been much (over?) hyped. The New York Times gushed about post-industrial Lawrenceville’s “Youth-Driven Food Boom.” Zagat recently proclaimed PGH the country’s top food town. Conde Nast Traveler just celebrated Pittsburgh’s old YMCA turned Ace Hotel (alongside the Quirk from my hometown of Richmond and The Ivy in our beloved Baltimore) in its 2016 list of hot new hotels). We’ve stayed at the Ace in PDX, and cool as it is, I didn’t come to Pittsburgh for facsimiled Portlandia culture, replete with that selfsame Stumptown coffee. I’d rather go to Baltimore import Zeke’s Coffee next to the Dollar General across the street from the new PGH Ace.
But I stopped in the lobby for a local Red Star kombucha while baby Emmet napped in the double-parked car the valet tolerated. I had to at least witness the familiar, yes reassuring and aesthetically on par downtempo yet somehow contrived vibe. We’re no longer in that hard cider and Bloody’s before 11am phase of life. I wanted something a little more real Pittsburgh, a little more sense of this French fries on sandwiches, Pierogies and milkshake loving place. (No wonder many Burghers I saw walking around downtown seemed unhealthy/overweight!) I didn’t think I wanted the greasy indulgence of Primanti Bros., but it’s the real deal reliable 24 hour joint on The Strip to taste true local flavor.
The Ace’s affable parking attendant, a young, black St. Joe’s graduate from Philadelphia, understood why the Whitfield’s sanitized menu, even with its nods t those ubiquitous hash browns and tots on its local duck confit sandwich, even though I espouse those ideals and lamented Pittsburgh’s lack of community gardens and overt farm-to-table scene, pandered. Wasn’t what I yearned for. This earnest valet said Philly loves (yes, parochial, provincial) Pittsburgh, but the Appalachian underdog doesn’t return the admiration East. He steered me to his favorite cozy neighborhood bistro Avenue B. Menu seemed solid with nods to “local greens” (yet I’m always, even before this Tampa Bay investigation, on high alert for farm-to-table food fraud). We just wanted something less fussy since traveling with a hungry baby.
So why not Primanti Bros.? Dan had only tried it once at the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium. My farm-to-table, practically Paleo preferences these days rarely let him indulge in such gut-busting cuisine. Why start eating healthy the day we left our two-night sojourn here, where I went to bed hungry, gobbling pomegranate glazed Sahadi cashews (I masticated out of desperation for baby) and Cheddar Chex Mix and a $5.50 Marriott lobby HagenDaz bar because room service is a rip-off and there aren’t good restaurants in walking distance of the Consol Energy Center, which was mobbed with the hockey playoff game the Penguins lost anyway. So what better time to indulge in one of those famous sandwiches?
Plus, I wanted to eat the first place native son accomplished chef Damian Sansonetti goes when back home. He has chef de cuisine at Bar Boulud in NYC and now runs Abruzzian Italian charmer Piccolo and Blue Rooster Co. gourmet hot dogs with his master pâtissière wife.
Primanti did hit the spot. The perfect stick to your ribs food on a rainy, grey, mid-May day with a high of 58 degrees. I got the Colossal fried fish and cheese sandwich to get Omega 3s into the baby, but it was no healthier than a Filet-o-Fish, with that fried Alaskan Pollock and cheese. At least the coleslaw was vinegar-based. We devoured Dan’s pastrami sandwich, the meat expertly cured and smoked next door at Jo-Mar Provisions and griddled with melted provolone. We did miss the bite of mustard that chases the fatty pastrami at a Jewish deli. Our only complaint: the sandwiches lacked sauce.
Sometimes, you’ve got to let yourself enjoy a little industrial meat. Good thing we had sautéed spinach and Swiss chard from our New Branch Farm CSA for lunch the day we left, with the garlic preschooler Theo and classmates harvested at our beloved Chancellor Street Cooperative Preschool.
Emmet and I spent most of Friday lolling around the Pittsburgh Children’s Theater Festival that took over Cultural District streets. But the booths of preschool hands-on crafts made me miss almost 5-year-old Theo, who stayed with his grandparents in Charlottesville. We’ll let Daddy go to conferences alone for now, and not disturb his sleep. I will have my time as adventurous trailing spouse again before I blink. When I’m not so laden with breastfeeding and baby care.
For now, I’ll rest my gaze on this quiet and so alert, calming baby “who is much more tuned in even than some 1-year-olds,” a kind woman remarked at the Adli German discount grocery chain I experienced for the first time near University of Pittsburgh in Shadyside. (We stopped in Aldi again on the drive home in Winchester, aka “Funchester”–even though it’s not that great, though the parent company owns Trader Joe’s.) Emmet’s stunning presence and constant happiness commands attention wherever we go. The Happiest Baby on the Block, indeed. That’s enough to keep his Mama happy for now, as we, awash in gratitude for all the joyous change of this year away but with that palpable hum of ever-present angst, transition back to our life in Maine.
As longtime readers of this blog will remember, luscious Italian panna cotta is one of my favorite desserts. I guess that reveals I’m not much of a baker, but I just love how unflavored gelatin coaxes this creamy dessert into an addictive, jiggly texture upon chilling. Still, years ago, when I posted my panna cotta recipe, a vegetarian friend had asked about a suitable non-animal substitute for gelatin that’s since haunted me. She wondered if pectin would work. I found a packet of seaweed-derived agar-agar at an Asian market about that time, but never used it. Its package indicated it would congeal juicy, sugary desserts just like gelatin.
Then I heard about a new (well actually very old-time) technique for congealing milk puddings at this revelatory, delicious seaweed cooking class I took through UMaine Extension in February. Several women in the class waxed nostalgic about how their Maine grandmothers gathered washed-up Irish moss seaweed on the coast to boil into the congealed dessert blancmange. Their enthusiasm inspired my latest The Farm-to-Table Family column for the Portland Press-Herald: “Who Needs Boxed Jell-O When Maine Seaweed Abounds?” (Heidi Swanson’s coconut milk panna cotta recipe is excerpted there.) In that article, I promised to give readers an Irish moss blanc-mange recipe on my blog. Here it is below the picture:
Irish Moss Blanc-Mange Dessert Pudding
This recipe come from Prannie Rhatigan’s esteemed “Irish Seaweed Kitchen” cookbook. Maine seaweed harvester Kelly Roth of VitaminSea in Buxton told me, “It’s pretty much our bible,” with wide-ranging recipes for incorporating seaweed into quotidian cuisine, from mashed potatoes to pot roast. Rhatigan’s recipe comes from the “hallowed kitchens” of the Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland. Hence the the metric system measurements. You can order dried Maine Irish moss from the websites of local harvesters Maine Coast Sea Vegetables out of Franklin, or VitaminSea from Buxton.
3.5 to 4.5 grams Irish (carrageen) moss, depending on variety (Kelly Roth recommends using the dried seaweed, soaked in fresh water to remove ocean salt)
1 1/2 pints (850ml) milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean pod
1 1/2 ounce (50g) sugar
1 egg, separated
1. Soak the carrageen (Irish moss) in cold water for 10 minutes, then remove and put in saucepan with milk and a vanilla pod, if using.
2. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 15 minutes, semi-covered, taking care that it does not boil over.
3. The carrageen (Irish moss) will now be swollen and exuding jelly.
4. Pour through a strainer into a mixing bowl.
5. Rub the jelly through a strainer and beat it into the milk with the sugar, egg yolk and vanilla essence, if using.
6. Whisky egg white stiffly and fold it gently into the mixture; it will rise to make a fluffy top. Transfer to serving bowl.
7. Serve chilled with a fruit compote (strawberry-rhubarb would be ideal when the season comes late this spring), or a sweet sauce. I served the above coconut milk panna cotta with my Maine wild blueberry-maple syrup preserves.
Heidi Swanson’s Coconut Milk Panna Cotta congeals with seaweed-dervived (from a red algae source similar to Irish moss) agar-agar that I found at my local natural foods store. Use this if you don’t have access to Irish moss. Japanese native, Hiroko Meserve, a mom here in Brunswick, told me she uses agar-agar (called kanten in Japanese) to gel fresh grapefruit juice desserts and also to make the popular Japanese red bean paste sweet, yokan. Agar-agar also gels the popular Chinese almond milk (technically made with apricot kernel, traditionally) pudding know as annin tofu. It masquerades as tofu, when cut into white cubes before serving.
We all know kids love the color and taste of Jell-O. It’s inspiring to discover they love seaweed just as much, and desserts congealed with agar-agar instead of gelatin. I found this out when I went into my son’s preschool last week to read this “Aquaculture for ME” book put out by the Maine Agriculture in the Classroom program. Theo is now obsessed with this book and requests it most nights at bedtime. This program is funded by those Maine agriculture license plates we are proud to sport on our Subaru–get yours today!
I brought the preschoolers a snack of blueberry-kelp smoothies (made with dried Maine kelp I soaked and rinsed of salt) and 100 percent fruit juice vegan Jell-O, thickened with only agar-agar (follow the easy instructions on the package). They particularly gobbled the later up.
I’ve almost forgotten how to blog. It’s a muscle, like any other, that’s best exercised frequently. In lieu of blogging, I’ve been busy penning “The Farm-to-Table Family” column weekly for the Portland Press-Herald’s new Sunday food and sustainability SOURCE section. Now, I just need to learn how to dash off those columns as quickly as I once did midnight blog posts.
Recipe-wise, the cookbooks I’ve found most inspiring of late are those of former Chez Panisse chef, David Tanis. You might know him from his excellent weekly New York Times’s “City Kitchen” column. The man has impeccable taste. I’m particularly inspired by everything in his latest book, One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal, which I’m long-overdue to return to the library. I can’t let it go.
Before I do, I want to encourage you to try his “Mussels on the Half-Shell” (page 73). I skipped the breadcrumbed-hot version in favor of cold mussels on the half-shell with a tarragon-vinaigrette sauce drizzled atop. They’d make for dramatic presentation at your next cocktail party, or just a simple summer meal to enjoy alone. “Mussels on the Half-Shell” doesn’t mean they’re raw–you steam them open first in olive oil, then chill. You can’t go wrong. Especially when you find wild mussels from Stonington at Justin’s Seafood in Hallowell for only 99 cents a pound. I got three pounds a few weeks ago. Sure, one of those pounds had perished by the time I got them home, but I didn’t worry since they were so cheap. The remaining two pounds were sweet and delicious. Note to self: keep the bag open enough so mussels can breathe. The guy at the counter said wild mussels are sweeter. Is that true? They were small and more beige than orange.
We also enjoyed a smidge of seared Atlantic yellow tail tuna tataki, with avocado, black sesame, scallions and cilantro, with a soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, Korean gochujang, maple syrup and ume plum vinegar dressing. Seafood delight!
Meyer lemons in the store are often tinged with a mildewy flavor. The problem is the rare lemon-orange hybrid citrus ripens quickly and, since it isn’t so self-stable, doesn’t travel easily. They’re a formerly disease-prone hybrid that actually originated in China. So most of the Meyer lemons I’ve had have been a disappointment. Until now.
I was surprised this week with eight perfectly ripe Meyer lemons from a new colleague of Dan’s who hails from Salida, California, and studied at UC-Santa Cruz. They were a gift in exchange for our offer to dog-sit his sweet Julia, a brindled former Mexican street dog Marcos adopted while doing field work there about five years ago. While Theo loved our friend‘s pit-bull Baba, he appears to have developed a new-found fear of canines that I’m hoping to nip in the bud, through aversion therapy:) The gift of the Meyer lemons this week only sweetened the deal.
Marcos relayed that the Meyer lemons come from the backyard of the house where he grew up. His dad passed away last September and since his mom no longer lives there, the tree was loaded with almost overripe fruit. The tree was one of his dad’s prized possessions, in addition to his key lime tree. This detail made me all the more honored to have this fruit, which I approached with reverence. It was tangy-sweet just squeezed into the mouth and into seltzer water.
But a quick search of the web made me realize that when life gives you ripe Meyer lemons, one should turn to limoncello before they go south. I’ve never made limoncello before but have long wanted to. Dan feel in love with it and other fruit liqueurs traveling with his cousin in Italy that summer 2003 just weeks before we met. Most limoncellos only call for the rind but I had golden orbs bursting with juice. I did squeeze a little into my now-famous scallop ceviche. The rest are quartered and bathing in vodka for Meyer Lemon Limoncello, as instructed by the excellent Oregon food blog Voodoo & Sauce (I once interviewed blogger Heather about foraging for stinging netttles). Zester Daily seconded her approach. Next time, I’ll try Meyer lemon mayonnaise.
It’s my second September living year-round in Maine, and the access to fresh, affordable seafood is one of the things I’m most grateful for after more than a year here. Of course the produce is incredibly bountiful now, though a chill is setting in. I can barely keep up with our C.S.A. and my neglected community garden plot’s bounty. I’m actually a member of three C.S.A.s at the moment–incredibly indulgent I know, though I believe they are saving us money on food costs if you pencil everything out. In addition to the vegetable C.S.A., I just started John Bunker’s incredible bi-weekly “Out on a Limb” heritage apple C.S.A. program. And on and off for almost a year now I’ve had the privilege of being one of the inaugural members of the Salt & Sea Community-Supported Fishery, which does a weekly drop of fresh-from-the-boat fish and shellfish in Brunswick. I’ve had a chance to cook with some of the freshest fillets of pollock, Acadian redfish (my new favorite…especially pan-fried for fish tacos), haddock, dabs and monkfish you can imagine. Every week, owner Justine Simon emails us a suggested recipe for that week’s fish, which can usually be assembled with ingredients you have on hand. It takes all the guesswork out of coming up with dinner and then procuring those items. Effortless, delicious fish dinner!
Unfortunately, Justine says last week’s share caught many members off-guard. I was delighted to get her announcement of whole fish for the first time: “some lovely little whiting (silver hake) tonight from Jerry and crew on the Teresa Mare IV. They caught them close to shore as they were coming in from their trip,” Justine wrote. It’s also GMRI’s fish of the month in their excellent Out of the Blue Campaign.
I’ve had a fascination with whiting ever since living in Baltimore, where filets of the cheap fish are fried and known as the local delicacy, Lake Trout (not from a lake nor a trout). As Justine went on, “Whiting is considered a delicacy in many different types of cuisine, and is more often than not prepared whole.” I’m not sure if you can call young whiting “scrod,” but seems to be similar to young cod, haddock and other whitefish.
The whole fish thankfully came gutted and cleaned. Justine said folks most often remove the head, fins and tail, then dredge the fish in egg and flour and either fry or bake them. But my in-laws had just arrived, so we opted for take-out (something we rarely do) to avoid the mess of frying fish.
So I gladly opted for Justine’s latter suggestion that whiting are perfect for fish stock for those who “don’t want to wrestle with small fish.” I’d never made fish stock before, but this was the perfect alternative, since we weren’t eating the fish right away. Plus, I’ve always been disappointed by the canned version. Doesn’t seem worth paying for doctored water when you have time to make your own. Justine goes on: “I was talking to an Italian woman while the boats were unloading and she gave me a simple recipe that we made last night, and it was delicious:
Fry some onion and garlic in olive oil, cook on low heat until onions are caramelized. Add plenty of water, some salt and the fish. Bring to a boil and let simmer for an hour or so. Strain, so all you are left with is clear stock. Put back in pot, and add more water, finely diced potato and carrot, orzo, parsley, salt and pepper. Yum!”
We simmered potatoes, carrots, celery, fennel, onions and tomatoes from our CSA and/or my garden in the stock, which made for a delicious meal. I just used a mesh ladle strainer to remove the fish bodies, picking off the sweet delicate meat that gave right away from the bone. It would also be perfect for bouillabaisse, cioppino or my grandmother’s Manhattan-style clam chowder.
Surprisingly, Justine reported “overall the whiting didn’t get great reviews from the CSF.” How I often forget my tastes are more exotic and adventurous than my average fellow American. Fortunately, several members rallied to tell Salt & Sea they liked it! So they’ll at least offer it again as a preference that people of which people can opt out. Count me in! I’m ready to continue to get my hands dirty with fresh fish. If only I could have smoked these small fish as a stand-in for whole smoked whitefish at our lovely Yom Kippur break-fast we had with friends this year. I brought the bagels, local Maine lox and cream cheese instead.
The taste-buds of toddlers, even the most omnivorous of ones, seem to grow pickier near the age of two. That’s certainly been the case with Theo. We depend upon green smoothies, fortified with kale and carrots, to get vegetables into him now. He tends to favor plain starches, bananas and peanut butter, granola and other sweet items these days. So we were delighted to discover he had a taste for lamb kidneys and liver, and tripe soup, at a recent special Greek diner menu at our beloved Trattoria Athena here in Brunswick. I was also happy to discover I had a taste for kidneys, after my unpleasant experience with rabbit ones a while back. And pleased to discover Apple Creek Farm in Bowdoinham sold delicate lamb and goat kidneys at my Brunswick farmers’ market for an affordable $3 a pound. Apple Creek farmers Jake and Abby said the only other customers who ask for them are mothers inspired by Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.
I’ve bought lamb and goat kidneys twice from them now and found them delicious. I think the goat ones had a more off-putting barnyard aroma, but by eating time, I got confused which was which. To remove the kidneys’ urine flavor (hey, urine is sterile anyway:)), I soaked them in heavily salted water and then some beer the first time and sweet vermouth the second time I made them. For a recipe, I adapted Mark Bittman’s one for breaded veal kidneys sauteed with shallots and sherry, from his How to Cook Everything. I drained the kidneys and discarded their liquid, removed tough white membranes, sliced them into tender medallions, salted and peppered them, then dredged in flour and pan-fried in butter. I kept them warm in a 200 degree oven while I sauteed shallots with more butter in the pan, and then deglazed it with sherry and sweet vermouth and a touch a maple syrup for sweetness. That sauce goes over the kidneys. Serve warm with crusty bread.
Unfortunately, now-finicky Theo refused the kidneys both times at home. Mama sure enjoyed them as an appetizer, but their richness, like liver but with a sweeter, less metallic flavor, meant I couldn’t make a meal of them. A little goes a long way with offal. Let’s hope this kid becomes omnivorous again when he turns two in June. What happened to my keen sardine eater?
I’m totally spent, after appearing on local TV for the first time, and banging out a cover story for The Portland Phoenix’s pig issue, plus my side column take on Jews and pork. I attended a whole hog butchery workshop (lung was delicious, spleen was gross) and have tracked down numerous chefs, pig farmers and butchers. I remain indebted to Oregon for teaching me how to cure my own guanciale and to seek out meat CSAs and heritage Red Wattle hogs. Now, for some recipes (previously discussed on our latest WBOR radio show on food waste).
First, pig ears, normally considered dog food/dog chew toy. Perhaps they should stay that way. I’m all for crispy pig ears at restaurants, but I found them a bit gross and not worth the effort to do at home. I worried about ear wax and hating shaving the ears of hair. For a recipe, I consulted the trusted Michael Ruhlman, a charcuterie guru with a new book out (with co-author chef Brian Polcyn, whom I interviewed) on the porky art of Italian dry-cured Salumi. He recommended prepping pig ears confit-style.
So I rubbed the ears with salt, pepper, garlic and Chinese five spice powder and let them cure overnight (well, ok, they were left in the fridge for a few nights). I was thinking crispy pig ear banh mi. That never happened. I confited them in a super-low oven in grapeseed oil (didn’t have lard). But when I tried to fry them up, they were chewy and gummy and not that crisp. I now see I ignored Ruhlman’s advice to roast them, weighed down between pieces of parchment in a 425 to 450˚ oven. My bad. I missed his note that “a serious issue with frying is that water remaining in the skin can cause them to pop and splatter in hot fat.” Splatter they did.
The pork roast, really an uncured bone-in ham, recipe I tried from Tamar Adler‘s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace proved far more satisfying. I got to taste a little roasted bone marrow, which tasted just like that fancy restaurant appetizer. The next day, I made a good ole New England pot of baked beans, flavored with the bone and pork scraps, inspired by a recipe in a recipe from the revamped classic Cooking Down East. Here’s Adler’s recipe…you definitely want to try to brine the ham first, to tenderize the dense muscle. I added molasses and liquid smoke to the brine, to make the meat, well, more ham-like.
Meat brine (from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal; roast follows)
1/4 cup salt
1/2 tablespoon sugar (I used molasses too)
2 bay leaves
2 whole dried chiles
1 teaspoon juniper berries
4 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Combine the salt and sugar over low heat with 1/4 cup water. As soon as the salt and sugar have dissolved, take it off the heat. In the container in which you’re going to brine the pork leg roast, combine everything with a few ice cubes. Mix it all well. Once it is cool, add the meat and water to cover. Brine, before meat is added, stays good forever.
Brine a three-pound pork leg roast (preferably bone-in for flavor) overnight in the refrigerator. Cover the meat with a plate that fits inside the container and weigh it down so that it doesn’t float. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the pork from the brine and pat it dry. Heat a cast-iron pan or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Brown each side of the meat over medium-high heat. Let each side turn caramel brown. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.
Once the pork is browned, put the pan or pot directly in the oven. Cook the meat, untouched, until it’s medium-rare. In an oven, this will take about 20 minutes per pound. Pork will need an internal temperature of 165 degrees when you pull it out of the oven, and will go on cooking once you remove it. Err on the side of under-cooking the meat. Check it with a meat thermometer at its thickest part until you get good at telling doneness by pressing on the meat.
Remove the meat from the pan and let it sit on a cutting board. It needs to rest for at least 20 minutes. Sliced earlier, the outside of the pork may taste salty; if there is still a bone in the cut, the meat along it will still be bloody.
Slice the meat thinly with a sharp knife. If you can avoid it, leave the serrated knife for bread and use the sharpest straight blade you have.
Serve with a big green salad.