Monthly Archives: April 2011

Chicago: Day One

They could be playing "Stormy Weather" all night...

The weather on Friday was a dance between cold, wet, colder, and wetter. Every time we stepped outside the conditions seemed to have changed for the worse without somehow changing very much at all. We were colder with every new trip, or the rain struck us harder.

This did not make ideal weather conditions for taking photographs, but that’s alright with me. To tell the truth, I’m not much of a picture-taker when on vacation. I wish I was. I envy people who come back from long trips with a mile of photos glorifying their travels. They have pictures of everything they did, everywhere they went, everyone they saw. Drank a pint with friends? It’s in the pictures. Car got stuck in the mud? It’s in the pictures. Ate an amazing dinner at a famous four star restaurant?… Well, it would be in my pictures as well. But you get the idea.

As a result of the crappy weather and how it restrained us to our hosting neighborhood- Lincoln Park – and the surrounding territory, I don’t have much photographic record to share. The picture above was taken a few doors down from one of my favorite stores in Chicago, Shake Rattle and Read, on Broadway in Uptown. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Green Mill Jazz Club is a famous Chicago venue, opening in 1910 as a roadhouse complete with indoor and outdoor dining and dancing areas. In the twenties, Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn, henchman of Al Capone, took over a large percentage of the club’s ownership, and the place became a favorite mob hangout. The story of McGurn’s takeover is best described in the historical summary on the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge website:

“Manager Danny Cohen had given McGurn the 25% stake to “persuade” comedian/singer Joe E. Lewis from moving his act south to the New Rendezvous Café at Clark and Diversey. McGurn managed to convince Lewis by slitting his throat and cutting off his tongue. Miraculously, Lewis recovered, but his songs never regained their lush sound.”

Ah, isn’t history wonderful, kids? I’d love to be a school child on a walking tour of jazz clubs in the city. Way more blood, booze, and broads than an average Pittsburgh field trip to the zoo.

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This Week on the Dormont-Brookline Patch: Eat Your Way Through the Neighborhood!

My feature on the Dormont-Brookline Patch this week is on Sylvia McCoy’s Burgh Bits and Bites Food Tours, specifically the fairly new Brookline tour, as well as the Dormont tour that is currently being planned for a summer debut. I sat down on Monday with Sylvia and Cory VanHorn, her intern designing the tour – as well as the genius behind the fabulous Culinary Cory blog – and it was an invigorating experience.

Why? Well, as a food blogger, it can sometimes feel like you’re making a whole lot of fuss out of something fairly mundane. It’s easy to feel at home when you’re immersed in the world of food writing (both print and online), but it’s tougher when you find yourself going on and on about the history of pierogi in Western PA and you suddenly realize that your dining companions are bored stiff. Even worse than boring, it’s very easy to feel bad about the amount of time you talk about food. Talking and writing about food can come off as trivial to those who concern themselves with matters of seemingly much greater importance. To be honest, when comparing and contrasting the topics, it’s a fair enough assessment. Who cares which Pittsburgh neighborhood has the most pizza places when the city is enduring socioeconomic troubles that threaten every aspect of living in the region?

Sitting down with folks who are invested in food history and knowledge the way that you are can be such a relief. Having Sylvia really sell me on the meles at Colangelo’s in the Strip District, or finding out that Cory shares my high opinion of Square Cafe, or even just knowing that if I recommended a place that they should try sometime, they would actively consider the recommendation… knowing that we shared this very fundamental common interest made for a really easy-going, engaging conversation. This may have been one of the easiest stories I have written for the Patch.

I highly recommend checking out the Burgh Bits and Bites. Sylvia is an extremely intelligent, warm person who I bet leads a hell of tour, and if Cory is any indication of the quality of her tour guides, the rest of the people involved with the tours must be just as friendly and knowledgeable as she is. As Cory said in our interview, “It’s a great way to be a tourist in your own city.” I, for one, can’t wait to try one.

Chi-CA-go, My Kind of Town!

 

It would be awfully nice if history didn't repeat itself while we were in town.

 

Forked! is heading on the road this weekend. Starting tonight, I’ll be headed to beautiful, windy, and probably still unseasonably cold Chicago for a three-day trip that should include miles of walking their wondrously flat streets, admiring many items that I can’t afford in stores that I should not go into (ie, record stores), and generally going every which way that offers the most interest for the least dollars.

Me and my partner are doing this on a shoestring, so this trip is strictly no-frills. We’re limiting ourselves to eating out once a day, so we’re bringing dry goods and any groceries that will last a seven hour car trip. I also saw that our hostel offers a free pasta dinner on Saturday for visiting guests, so as long as the sauce is not cheese or meat based, we’re going to get our grub on for free. Otherwise, I’m envisioning a weekend of peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, and whatever else is tasty and road-worthy.

Of course, there’s a limit to my thriftiness. I will be dining out in Chicago. Cheaply, yes, but dining out nonetheless. A trip to the Chicago Diner is already planned, so I ask you, my fellow eaters: If you’re from Chicago or have been there, what are some great places to try out?

I will try to post a bit on my travels this weekend. I look forward to sharing the experience with all of you. I promise that it won’t just be pictures of us eating out of a dumpster behind Whole Foods or stealing ketchup and mustard packets from hot dog stands. Although that isn’t a terribly bad idea….

It’s Springtime: Time for Hot Dogs!

We have a lot of treasures here in Dormont, some of them barely known (Mekong), some of them highly celebrated (Dor-Stop), but many of them rankable among the city’s best dining choices. In a contest among the city’s hot dog joints, Dormont Dogs would be tough competition.

Part of the appeal is the simplicity of the establishment. Located just off of Potomac Avenue on Glenmore Avenue, the restaurant is about the size of an efficiency apartment. It’s long enough, but skinny, and visitors are almost immediately greeted by a tall counter and board of hot dog options. Seating is fairly limited – a few tables squeezed inside, plus a larger picnic bench outside for – so it’s not the ideal place for a large group to dine in. But while the cramped design may emphasize basic function over comfort and accommodation, the menu is a perfect example of maximizing the options within a limited realm of cuisine.

As far as the actual hot dogs go, there are at least fifteen different variations on the menu. Dogs are available in meat or vegetarian form. The buns are fresh from Potomac Bakery just around the corner. In addition to the dogs, there are chips, homemade sides like potato salad and coleslaw, and even a thrifty Po’ Bo, this one a handy snack of tomato sauce and mozzarella piled on a crunchy baked hot dog bun. Candy and pop are also available. So yes, lots and lots of options. But obviously, the hot dogs are the stars here.

And take the spotlight they do. You can opt for a Plain Jane or a classic Chili Dog, but you can also take a walk around town via the many street-named hot dog choices. Pictured above is my choice from my last visit: A Louisiana Avenue veggie dog, complete with hot sauce and Cajun coleslaw. The veggie dogs that Dormont Dogs use are far better than your average tofu dog. While many veggie dogs can be mushy and unsubstantial, these have a casing that allow for an extra crunch and even mimic the folds of a meat hot dog. Coupled with the spicy, crunchy slaw and added heat from the hot sauce, the dog still maintained a definite flavor. The bun was crispy on the outside, soft inside, and soaked up the extra juice from the coleslaw. As a device for wiping up extras, it served its role perfectly.

My dining companions both opted for the Texas Avenue Dog, heavily adorned with chili sauce, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and Fritos for an extra salty crunch. The chili was laid a bit thinner than on a normal chili dog and for good reason. This was not a dog that needed a whole heaping of each topping, but rather compromised amounts of each. The sour cream was maybe a bit heavier than I would have personally preferred, but I bet it was absolutely delicious when taken in with the sharp cheese.

You might already have your hot dog joint of choice, but if you’re looking to try something new, you should take a visit to Dormont and try out the neighborhood in hot dog form, or you can forgo the local theme and opt instead for a Dog Father – pepperoni, salami, mozzarella, romaine, banana peppers, and Italian vinaigrette – or try out a classy Bruschetta Dog, with olive oil- marinated tomatoes, creamy pesto, and Parmesan. Whether meat-eating or veg-loving, you’re bound to get a good dog for your buck.

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Good Morning, Apricot Coffee Cake!

I used to make a killer sour cream coffee cake. The original basis came from AllRecipes.com, but as I returned again and again to the dish, I put my own tweaks on it. I toyed around with extra flavors, zests, extracts, fresh and frozen fruits. I got the cooking time just right. I knew when to use icing and when to use a crumb topping, and I knew exactly how much to use.

And they always came out perfect. Soft, but substantial, sweet but not overpowering, absolutely great for either breakfast or dessert. Provided there were any leftovers, they even stored well and could keep for up to three days if packed properly. I ran through every idea I had and the best turnouts- chocolate chips and cocoa powder, cardamom and orange zest, cream cheese and blueberry preserves – more than made up for the few failures. I never got tired of making them and no one seemed to be tired of eating them.

Then I moved.

The new apartment had a rented stove that was about fifteen years older than the one I had during my coffee cake renaissance. When I cooked my first coffee cake in my new kitchen, I was shocked by the way it had turned out. Where was the fluffy, moist cake? Why was the crumb topping so dry and flavorless? Why was everything so flat? And how did it get burned?!?

I was dispirited. Even my failed experiments had never been this bad. This was barely edible (in fact, after bravely eating a piece, most of the remains did find their way into the trash). I tried to learn from my potential mistakes: I must have been careless about the amounts of flour, baking powder, and sugar. It must have baked too long. I must not have greased the pan enough.

So I tried again. But even with the tweaking of cooking time, the careful attentiveness to ingredients and prep, and a watchful eye while the cake sat in the oven, it still failed. It wasn’t the horror show that the prior failure had been, but it was still a failure. I had to face facts.

The magic was gone.

So, flash forward to the present. Since my coffee cake heartbreak, I have made a total of zero coffee cakes. Like any jilted lover, I moved onto other culinary distractions. I had brief flings with cupcakes, dabbled casually with muffins, and settled into a nice routine with the dependable and delightful cookie, a relationship that satisfies me to this day. But sometimes, when I’m craving something that I can’t quite name, I know what I’m actually yearning for.

I was tempted by the coffee cake recipes in Sarah Kramer’s books, as well as the sure-to-be delicious recipe in The Joy of Vegan Baking, but I was always afraid to attempt them. For one, I didn’t want to come back to coffee cake baking after such a long absence just to fail once more. In addition, I had never tried a vegan coffee cake recipe, so I was worried about botching not only my comeback cake, but my first attempt at a vegan one at that.

Sunday, however, after a week that was rich in both pain and healing (a story that I will come back to another time), I was looking for a distraction and picked up my recently purchased copy of Vegan Brunch by Isa Chandra Mokowitz. Thumbing through the recipes, I was about to try out the tomato-rosemary scones when one last courtesy flip through the pages landed me on her recipe for “East Coast Coffee Cake.” And I thought, well, why the hell not?

For my first time back to coffee cakes, I stayed fairly true to Isa’s recipe, tweaking just a few ingredients to match my own tastes. Her basic recipe does include fruit preserves, but she includes handy directions on including any number of ingredients. The recipe turned out to be a cinch to make, and while the results weren’t perfect, they were far from the disasters of my last coffee cake attempts. I’m not sure we’ll ever be as close as we once were, but it looks like me and coffee cake are on the redemption road to a casual friendship.

Apricot Coffee Cake

Ingredients

For the topping
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 cup veg oil

For the cake
- 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup veg oil
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking pwoder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup apricot jam

- Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8×8 square pan. Add the apple cider vinegar to the milk and set aside to allow for curdling.

- For the topping: Mix together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the oil by tablespoons, mixing it into the dry ingredients with your fingers. Keep mixing until you’ve got a mixture of large and small crumbs. Set aside.

- For the cake, mix together the milk-vinegar mixture, sugar, vegetable oil, and extracts. Sift in flour, baking powder, and salt and mix until smooth.

- Pour the batter into the pan. Pour the 1/2 cup of apricot jam over the batter, then swirl it with a knife or fork. Sprinkle topping over the batter and lightly pat down.

- Bake for 35 – 40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool, add powdered sugar if desired, then slice and serve!

Combining My Two Favorite Spaces: Public Libraries and Public Markets


(PITTSBURGH, PA – April 6, 2011) Strip District shoppers and residents will have a new place to access free books and information.  Starting Friday, April 15, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will extend services to the Strip District’s
Pittsburgh Public Market, becoming a part of the public market’s “fresh and delicious combination” of local artisans, farmers and bakers. The extended service pilot is part of the Library’s LYNCS (Libraries in Your Neighborhood
Community and School) initiative.

Forgive me for lack of eloquence, but this development is FREAKING AWESOME. As public libraries suffer severe budget cuts that lead to shorter operating hours, staff reductions, and locations closing entirely, the Carnegie Library is continually figuring out how not to just sustain itself on its modified resources, but thrive. That’s librarians for you: You cut their budget by half and they’ll figure out how to accomplish everything with 50% the expected funds. I’m not advocating the challenge – it damn near criminal how public libraries are under appreciated – but they are up to it.

Joining up with the Public Market is an incredible way to bring more resources to an area that is steadfastly maturing into a desirable, livable place to take residence, but it is also an amazing way to bring books, media, and information to the thousands of working folks that come in and out of the Strip District every day. It’ll provide weekend resources to those who lose their access to a public library when the Downtown and Lawrenceville branches close on the weekend.

The press release – quoted above – goes on to mention that this is an innovation in the public market category. Despite the large wave of public markets opening up in cities and towns across the nation, no one has thought to include a space for public library access. It makes perfect sense to me: Eating, shopping, living, learning.

LYNCS: PPM will offer an on-site collection of materials for checkout, return services, media, and computer services, as well as a small staff to run services and see to visitors’ needs. The proximity to the Public Market will lend itself to a specialization in food and agricultural writings and events. I, for one, am excited to see what sort of food and book related events they will have lined up in the next few months, as well as the potential book collection they will have accessible to all those with a Carnegie Library card. (Looks I’ve got some fines to pay off…)

For now, if you’ve got Friday, April 15th free, think about stopping by the opening celebration for the new library. The schedule is as follows:

Friday, April 15 / 10 am
Grand Opening Ribbon Cutting

Friday, April 15 / 12 pm – 12:30 pm
30 Books in 30 Minutes
Librarians will share 30 great titles in just 30 minutes.

Friday, April 15 / 5 pm
Timbeleza
Timbeleza is a Brazilian percussion ensemble based out of Pittsburgh, PA that has been performing since 2005.  Their
goal is to expose people to samba as well as invigorate the community with music and performance.

Saturday, April 16 / 9 – 11:30 am
Drop-In Story Telling
Storytellers will intrigue and inspire audiences with their stories for young and old.

Sunday, April 17 / 12 – 2 pm
Gadget Lab
Staff will demonstrate how to use the Library’s downloadable services with eReaders and MP3 players.

Osteria 2350


Following the local food scene can skew your perspective. Read enough about a new restaurant, hear enough buzz, see enough tantalizing photographs, and suddenly, what was a normal quality eatery starts to carry the immense weight of importance. The hype raises expectations as it draws in more customers, but it can also make the first experience with a restaurant oddly dissonant, like there is a difference between trying out this hotly buzzed restaurant and the actual experience of eating and socializing in said restaurant’s environment.

I find myself most wary of this disconnect when it comes to Italian restaurants. It doesn’t help that I have in-built dismissal of them. Maybe it’s leftover hard feelings from places like Olive Garden or even the “beloved” Bloomfield fixture that is Del’s on Liberty Avenue, but I always feel like I’m getting ripped off. Noodles, sauce, maybe meat, maybe some veggies. Add a crappy glass of wine and some bread. Great, now pay $30. Congratulations. You spent three times the amount of money you would have if you had made the same dish – and you could have, believe me – at home. No matter how much a place is hyped to me, if it’s an Italian restaurant, I’m unlikely to follow-up on the praise. And if I do, it’s hardly ever an experience that turns me around on Italian dining. It sounds harsh – and please, devoted consumers of Italian food, do not misunderstand me, as I do not mean to disparage the cuisine itself – but I’d rather be in the kitchen with pasta than in a restaurant or cafe. At least I know exactly where my money is going and the quality it has been spent on.

Still, my prejudice against Italian restaurants and my normal underlying hesitancy of hype did not dissuade me from visiting Osteria 2350, a fairly new  restaurant in the style of a casual tavern, less upscale than the norm of the cuisine, and thereby somehow less intimidating and more promising. A quick scan of the menu online affirmed how casual the dining experience was sure to be – not a dish over $12, with most of the small plates $3 or $4 – not to mention inexpensive. This combined with the highly favorable buzz practically made up our minds for us.

Expecting a Friday night crowd, we were pleasantly surprised at how low-key the surroundings were. Behind the Right By Nature market, across the street from the Cork Factory apartments, Osteria is remarkably inconspicuous, offering an attractive environmental mix of tavern and cafeteria. The lighting is soft and golden, the tables are mix of small two-seaters and large wooden fixtures with long benches to match. There’s a counter/bar area and a little television in the corner for sporting events. We were seated in front of the dessert display case and the large chalkboard advertising what was available. A little kid played amongst our coats hanging on a coat rack. It was all very calm, very pleasant, even sedate.

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