Monthly Archives: August 2011

Good Morning, Breakfast Casserole!


The word “casserole” comes from the French meaning “sauce pan,” and as far as the dish may have come from its 18th century roots, there is no doubting that the basic idea remains the same: One dish, many ingredients. Everything cooked together, everything served together. The ingredients may have evolved over the years (I assume they didn’t have condensed soup in the 18th century), but alas, the basic concept remains the same.

But not the reputation. In the last few years, casseroles have taken on a kind of vogue for twenty and thirty -somethings,  especially among vegetarians and vegans who have made them a potluck staple. The casseroles of yesterday – the tuna salad, the green bean, the creamed chicken – maligned as they were when we were kids are now becoming objects of heightened significance, their kitsch value accentuating what we may have forgotten: That casseroles can be absolutely freaking delicious.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, casseroles can be eaten at any time of day for any meal. Their malleable serving size allows for portions both big and small, so coupled with their highly portable nature, they do make a rather good fit for a potluck. People my age seem to light up at the mention of a casserole. There’s something to the word itself, a promise of comfort, of satisfaction, of warmth.

When talking about casseroles, a lot of the same responses can be heard, usually said with a mix of fond memory and fond disgust. Here’s a random sampling of the responses I got when I asked friends about the casseroles in their past:

“My mom used to make this casserole with cream of mushroom soup and rice. Ugh. She made it every week.”

“I remember this Beef Stroganoff-casserole thing that they served to us at school. It was really gross but also kind of good. Actually, I wish I could get some right now.”

“Medium pasta shells layered with cheese, tomato sauce, and ground beef. It was my grandmother’s recipe. She had 6 kids to feed and it was a hearty dish. I liked it enough. We lived in a hamburgers, spaghetti, Hamburger Helper household, so any sort of variation from the bland and boxed norm was appreciated by me.”

Meatloaf became some kind of casserole. Leftover macaroni became some kind of casserole. Leftover rice became some kind of casserole. We ate everything twice.”

For this past Sunday, I broke out Vegan Brunch yet again and found that, of course, Isa’s got a breakfast casserole. I halved the recipe’s main ingredients, but kept a lot of the spices and minor ingredients at the same amount. Loads of flavor, but not as much leftovers to keep around after the fact.

It’s a little heavy on the soy products, so if you find that mixing tofu and tempeh doesn’t sit well on your stomach, try rice or beans (or both) on top instead of the crumbled tempeh mixture. It’s a casserole, so don’t feel like you need every ingredient in the list. Think like all those crafty home cooks and lunch ladies and use what you’ve got in your pantries.

Sunday Morning Breakfast Casserole

Ingredients

For potato layer:
– 1 large yellow potato
– 1 tbsp olive oil
– 1 tsp smoked paprika
– Salt and pepper

For tempeh layer:
– 8 oz. tempeh, crumbled
– 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
– 2 tsp garlic, minced
– 2 tbsp soy sauce
– 1 tsp olive oil
– 1/2 tsp lemon juice
– 1 tsp fennel seeds, chopped
– 1 tsp sage
– Black pepper

For tofu layer:
– 1 lb firm tofu
– 2 tsp garlic, minced
– 2 tbsp soy sauce
– 1 tsp olive oil
– 1/2 tsp lemon juice
– 1 tsp ground cumin
– 1 tsp dried rosemary
– 1/2 tsp tumeric
– 2 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
– Salt and pepper to taste

- Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut potato into slices 1/4 inch thick. Layer in a casserole dish, overlapping if necessary, then drizzle olive oil onto slices. Add paprika salt, and pepper, using your hands to toss the potatoes until all slices are well coated. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes, until slices are tender and easily pierced with a fork.

- Crumble the tempeh into a bowl, then add the rest of the layer ingredients. Mix together until tempeh is coated. Set aside.

- Squeeze out some of the water from the tofu, then place in a mixing bowl. Mash the tofu, then add the remaining layer ingredients. Mix well.

- Once the potatoes are done and tender, spread the tofu layer on top of the potatoes, pressing it into place firmly with a spatula. Place the tempeh layer on top and pat down as well.

- Return the pan to the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the tempeh is browned. Allow to cool, then cut and serve.

(Recipe adapted from “Mom’s Morning Casserole” – Vegan Brunch by Isa Chandra Moskowitz)

Smoke Barbecue Taqueria


There are a lot of reasons a Pittsburgher like me might envy Chicago. The flat landscape makes biking the entire city a cinch. They’ve got a public transportation system that, in my limited opinion, rivals that of any other city. There are beaches. There is a vibrant music scene punctuated by visits from notable bands from all over the world. There are more veg-friendly establishments in one or two neighborhoods than in the entirety of Pittsburgh (although this is rapidly becoming less true).

But the real point of jealousy, for me, is the Mexican food. The glorious, glorious array of offerings all over the city, from the high-end cuisine of Rick Bayless to the lowest of the lowly late-night burrito joints. In this regard, it’s not just the level of quality, but the sheer quantity available. Every neighborhood, every business area, seemingly every street, many open 24 hours, seven days a week. That’s an absurd amount of riches for one city and I, for one, am sick of Pittsburgh getting the short shrift on Mexican dining.

I guess I’m not alone, because in the last year or so, half a dozen openings have given local fans of Mexican, Latin American, and similarly minded cuisine a reason to stop envying our Midwest cousin city and start sampling the scattered options around town. If this gives locals a good reason to visit Brookline Boulevard or the area of Homestead that is not the Waterfront, then so be it.

While the taco stand at Las Palmas in Brookline still holds my affection as “Best Sign That Pittsburgh is Finally Getting Some Decent Mexican Food” as well as “Best Damn Lunch You Can Get for $5,” a recent contender has approached and made a powerful first strike in the war for my love: Smoke Barbecue Taqueria. A blend of traditional Mexican food and American barbecue, this little restaurant gives people like me a lot to get excited about.

Located just around the corner from the Waterfront on Eighth Avenue, Smoke is about as tiny as you can get without being a strictly takeout joint. The name of the game is house-made, from the tortillas to the beverages. The menu is an efficient affair of a few breakfast items, the small but mighty list of tacos, and some classic side options to complement the main course. The food can be ordered to-go or eaten inside the small and funky dining area that is comprised of three sets of mismatched tables and chairs and a little counter seating area.

I wouldn’t suggest going to Smoke on an empty stomach. When me and my dining companions made our first visit, we were surprised by a sign on the door that read “Ran out. Temporarily closed until 7:00 pm.” Luckily for us, it was about quarter till. We were invited in and waited at one of the tables until they were ready to start serving again. And by “they” I mean the skeleton staff of two, maybe three people preparing and serving the food and handling transactions. Because of this, the service was slow, but amicable. As the restaurant started to fill up with patrons, we couldn’t really blame the staff for the long wait for our food. They were beyond busy.

Smoke Barbecue and Taqueria on Urbanspoon

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Pusadee’s Garden


Right now, we’re experiencing some of the most beautiful weather one could ask for, so I ask you all this: Where have you been dining outdoors this season? At home? By the waterside? On the top of a mountain? At an upper Lawrenceville Thai restaurant dominated by its pastoral picture book of a garden?

If you answered the last option, than you have most likely made a recent visit to Pusadee’s Garden, a family owned Thai restaurant boasting an outdoor seating area as beautiful as its food is delicious. Time and time again, talk of Pusadee’s comes back to the garden – how lovely it is, how big, how lush – and it’s true that the restaurant’s major asset lies in its backyard (or, rather, side-yard). That’s not to say it’s not exceptional in other ways, however, especially considering how well it fares against its competition just up the hill in Bloomfield…

But oh, that garden. That garden!


There’s a special feeling when eating amidst such verdant beauty. You’re outside, but you feel tucked away in your own private garden. There are diners all around, yet somehow it feels sublimely intimate. All around you there is distraction – a cluster of interesting flowers, an imposing thrust of green leaves as thick as the napkins on the table, a scattering of herbs all around, and of course, the frame and trellis providing a modest barrier with only the barest of woodwork. It’s rustic, elegant, sophisticated gardening gone just wild enough on the edges to make one feel like you could get lost without the tables to guide your way.

To put it another way, although you’re seconds away from Butler Street, you feel as if you could be dining in a garden in the middle of nowhere. It’s a pastoral entrancement that translates into the meal itself.

More than uplifting the normal dining experience, the garden setting somehow accentuates the flavors of the meal. The psychic effect of so much fresh-grown flora is a heightened concentration on the fresh flavors of the food. When not distracted by the scenery, me and my dining companion, Jackie, focused in on the menu, a straightforward mix of Thai classics, including soups, curries, noodle and rice dishes, and “garden” specialties.

Pusadee's Garden on Urbanspoon

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CSA #11 and the Pursuit of Purslane

Because I’m still getting settled into the new place and into a new routine (or lack thereof), it’s difficult to say that this past week was back to normal, but it was about as normal a week as I could ask for. There was some cooking, some cleaning, some errand-running. There was a pleasant and inclement-weather-free evening trip to Kennywood. Some bike riding, some strolling. A couple of notable restaurant trips which I will write about in coming entries.

Two not-so-mundane things this week: On Friday, there was a giant storm that flooded various regions of the area, sweeping away cars on the street and knocking out power in many neighborhoods. I know this is a food blog and I don’t pull too much focus on local news, but I would like to extend my sincerest sympathies to all those affected by storm, especially the families and friends of the four people who lost their lives in the flash flood that occurred near the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Allegheny River Boulevard.

The lesser news was that this week was another pick up for our CSA through Garfield Community Farm. The bounties have been consistently solid throughout the past few weeks, and if volunteering on Thursday evening was any indication, there is still a lot in store for both the subscribers to the CSA and the many other people and organizations the farm benefits.

I’m not exactly known for my gardening skills. My one gardening claim to fame was when a giant pot of basil that I had been tending all the sudden disappeared from the front steps of my Dormont apartment building. I come home one day and it’s gone. Just vanished completely. I mean, I get that stuff that isn’t locked down is ripe for theft, but basil? A big planter full of it? Was someone just strolling through the neighborhood with a hankering for pesto and criminal activity?

The truth was both more complicated and far more plausible. Our across the street neighbor, Val, had come by to visit our neighbor in her first-floor apartment, noticed that the basil was looking a little beat, and took it back to her place to nurse it back to health. She had rectified my gardening negligence by adopting the plant as her own, for which I can only be thankful. I’m sure that the plant and planter live happily over at Val’s place to this day, booming and blooming for the adoptive parent that rescued them from their former desperate station.

Over the years, I have tried my hand at quite a few herbs, with mixed results. Seemingly unable to grow even my own chives, I have stayed away from larger gardening experiments, like growing actual vegetables, even though the process has not seemed that difficult when I have observed other gardeners at work. This hesitancy led me to believe that I might not be such a great volunteer for the Garfield Community Farm, but as is usually the case in these matters, I was wrong.

Let me say very simply that farming is hard work. Anyone involved in a moderate-scale agricultural project could tell you that there are infinite tasks to complete on any given day, much of the tasks being something that a trained monkey or diligent child could perform, let alone an adult with some capabilities toward rational and reasonable thinking. While there are many, many farming skills that must be honed over time, a lot of farm work is grunt labor. So my concerns were completely for naught, because though I feared accidentally destroying an entire crop of one thing or another, I was set to work on basic tasks that fairly insured my potential damage to the far would be slight. I watered crops, picked several containers worth of little orange tomatoes, and carefully weeded, trying to avoid any unpleasant surprises like unearthing a share’s worth of onions.

And I became better acquainted with that incredible edible weed, purslane. As noted in previous weeks, purslane is an edible weed that is both cultivated and wild-growing. Its little leafy greens offer substantial texture and flavor, a little sour, a little salty, and with the right amount of crunch to the lighter ends of the stem.

And it wouldn’t be my typical endorsement if I didn’t tell you how ridiculously nutritional purslane is. Namely, it contains a higher count of omega-3s than any other leafy vegetable, in addition to its high levels of potassium, iron, calcium, and vitamins. It can be cultivated but is also, as stated before, a weed, so look for it growing wild on the side of the road, in the cracks of sidewalks, and verdant vacant lots.


Purslane, peppers, salad mix.


Cauliflower, summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes.


Kale and beets (!)

Summertime, Sweet Summertime: Custard Crossing and Mercurio’s

It was a hellish July, but that gave way to a remarkably lovely August, filled with 80 degree days and 68 degree nights. Still, it’s the Dog Days, and like any good summertime citizen, I’ve been spending the warm weather months enjoying some of the various iced sweet treats available in our fair burgh.

I now live a mere five-minute walk to Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee Co., and while it’s a little pricey for my day-to-day sweet tooth, it’s an incredible little place that has lived up to every bit of praise thrown its way. The selection of ice cream base flavors is limited, but well-chosen and includes several vegan options. Then there’s the mix-ins, which number somewhere beyond fifty and include fruits, spices, chocolates, candies, meats, and intangibles, like “magic.” In addition, there are waffles, coffee, milkshakes, cookies, sodas, penny candy, and, my favorite extra sweetness, wireless internet. It’s the kind of place that one dreams of owning and operating.

When I haven’t been actively resisting the urge to run down South Highland into the gooey, lovely arms of Oh Yeah!, I’ve been gradually sampling other kinds of local iced offerings. And I have to sing their praises:


On a hazy midweek afternoon, I made a visit to the Waterfront Barnes and Noble, where I rewarded myself for errands achieved by making a stop at Custard Crossing, a frozen custard stand across the way from Panera Bread. City Paper featured a nice little blurb about the shop, notice that it deserved not just because of the deliciousness offered up there, but also due to its intriguing backstory (without spoiling the article, owner Tom Crankovic might have the most admirably one-track mind that ever opened a custard stand).

Custard Crossing also serves Italian ice, smoothies, hot dogs, etc., but the draw here is the sweet, dense custard. Egg-based and whipped with less air than conventional ice cream, the custard is smooth, silky but heavy and absolutely packed with flavor. On my visit to the counter, I bounced between tempting basics like vanilla and chocolate and conventional favorite mint chocolate chip, but settled on maple walnut. It was fantastic, deliciously rich to an absurdity. Every tiny taste boasted a ton of flavor, with the maple and walnut playing well against each other and the innate flavor of the custard. I could have done with slightly more walnut pieces in the mix, but my complaints vanish every time I think about the smooth finish of maple flavor.

I want a scoop of it on a stack of pancakes. Because you can get pints to go, that might just be what I have to do.

Custard Crossing on Urbanspoon


From the Waterfront back to Shadyside. Like Oh Yeah!, Mercurio’s is in the neighborhood, about a ten minute walk over to the main business district on Walnut Street. Their specialty is gelato and Neopolitan pizza, a kind of perfect pairing if you think about it. First the salty, savory pie, then enjoy a little extra indulgence with the gelato.

Like custard, gelato is a low-fat ice cream alternative. It’s lighter than custard, heavier than standard ice cream, and silkier than both, with a lovely, velvety finish to each taste. Mercurio’s boasts thirty standard flavors and a smaller menu of special daily flavors. The organization at the shop was not top-notch (almost none of the display cases were marked correctly and some of the flavors labeled to be available were not in stock), but there’s no denying that the variety gives a customer a lot to play around with.


My companion on this visit, Kate, went for a match-up of dark chocolate gelato and mint chocolate chip. The result was heavy on the chocolate, light on the mint, and perfectly divine. I especially liked the dark chocolate which when slightly melted, had a texture and flavor like that of an uncooked, fudgey brownie.


After some ordering confusion, I got a blend of hazelnut and vanilla caramel cashew. The hazelnut was perfect with the decadent caramel, but it was short on the expected cashew crunch. Didn’t stop me from scooping up every bit I could with the little shovel-like plastic spoons.

Mercurio's on Urbanspoon

I’m still working through my summer iced treat to-do list, but I’m curious as to your suggestions. Any summertime sweet treats that I have to try?

Brookline Pub


Bar-and-restaurants are not created equal. For every notable, really decent place to grab a brew and some food, there are at least a dozen that are notable only in their place-less, generic nature. These sub-par establishments usually serve the same blend of tasteless, mediocre (and below) food at junk prices to complement whatever beer special is attracting the local population. This isn’t meant as an insult to these places. A perfectly fine watering hole does not guarantee a decent place to eat, but that does not negate the positives of visiting. You just have to keep your expectations in line with where you are.

The problem with setting expectations, however, is that it’s often difficult to discern the good from the bad upon initial glance. Some sparkly, polished, pre-fab pubs offer dismal food offerings, while some of the dingiest, grimiest hole-in-the-walls conceal culinary treasures worthy of frequent visits with or without drinking.

Situated in the middle of the business district on Brookline Boulevard, Brookline Pub certainly has its location going for it. Also to its favor: The multi-room set-up, including a sheltered patio area and an enclosed dedicated non-smoking room. The main area is taken up by a smattering of tables and chairs, with the bar dead center.

As far as general environment, this is the type of place to go drinking, not eating. The main area is large, loud, and smokey, and the non-smoking section is small and rundown. Also, because it is tucked away off to the side, the non-smoking section is seemingly forgettable from a service standpoint. (Although, I will admit, this is more of a service matter than an issue with the layout, which I will get to eventually.)

Given its size, location, and agreeable price-point, it excels as a place to grab a cold one, but as a spot to get some grub, it proved less desirable.

Anyone who has watched a considerable amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares can tell you that one of the main problems found in most mid-level restaurants is that the menu is too large. While a laminated double-sided menu doesn’t seem like it would be huge, Brookline Pub manages to pack a lot of stuff onto both ends, including a list of wing flavors numbering somewhere around twenty. Quantity and variety seem like positives, but so many options give the kitchen little time to specialize and strengthen specific meals. Everything ends up mediocre, and because there is so much of it, that’s a whole lot of mediocre.

Worse still, the mediocre offerings were on classic bar menu items, proving that even something as simple as a chicken wing or pierogi can be undone by lackluster preparation.

Brookline Pub on Urbanspoon

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CSA #10 and the Wonderful World of Tempeh

It was a hectic Thursday of CSA pick-up and more sad goodbyes. Everyone is leaving town and I’m swimming in beautiful farm-fresh vegetables, not a terribly opportune moment to have a kitchen so plentiful, but so be it. James and I have somehow managed to get the stuff eaten, even if a few items end up sacrificed.

And I’m getting better and better at using what we have on hand. Just a quick (and unfortunately photo-less) recap:
– The Swiss chard ended up in another vegan frittata
– The carrots and summer squash went into a salad of shredded red cabbage
– The beans and broccoli were steamed and eaten as a late-night snack
– One tomato was used in the production of TLTs. The others were diced up and served on pasta, along with fried zucchini and summer squash.
– The Chinese eggplant was sliced, sauteed, and eaten over rice.
– The array of small tomatoes made their way into various pastas and salads
– The onion and garlic were used throughout the week, portioned out over various dishes.

We’ve eaten pretty darn well thanks to the CSA subscription. I’ve been holding onto the beets, but I’m thinking a beet and spinach salad might be in order for later on today. With the fair amount of cooking done over the weekend, the simpler the better for this rainy Monday afternoon.

I didn’t get time to take pictures of the entire CSA bounty for this past week, but among the highlights:
– Another robust eggplant
– Kale
– A beautiful assortment of tomatoes
– Braising greens
– Carrots
– Potatoes (all were promptly eaten the next morning)
– Purple beans
– Zucchini
– Garlic
– Onion

Last week also marked a transition for me as I went from casual to utterly devoted fan of tempeh. While I eat tofu at least five out of seven days a week and have even tried my hand at making my own seitan more than a few times, I have only worked sparingly with tempeh. The earthy, slightly nutty, slightly mushroom-y flavor has always been something I was hesitant to work with, not so much in regards to my own palate as others. No matter what you do with tempeh, it’s always going to have those underlying flavors. The trick to working with it is to use it in dishes where its primary qualities play into the overall flavors of the dish. Tempeh doesn’t change, it changes you.

Tempeh has been a staple of Indonesia for thousands of years. Soy beans are plentiful, the production method is fairly simple, and the result is a versatile substance that is a protein powerhouse. Seriously, in a nutritional battle between tempeh and its Southeast Asian soybean brother, tofu, tempeh wins every round. The traditional starter for the fermentation process even boosted the B12 levels of the tempeh to ridiculously high proportions, although production stateside tends to be without this property.

While tofu is available in nearly every supermarket now, tempeh is still mostly relegated to specific larger groceries (Whole Foods) and specialty food stores. Its stunted availability is probably one of the reasons why many vegetarians and vegans don’t acquaint themselves with tempeh right away. Getting to know tempeh allows one to adjust to its unique flavor properties. Learning the intricacies of the food allows you to better utilize its strong points in the dishes where it is incorporated.

Unlike tofu, which is a veritable flavor sponge, tempeh has restrictions, but not as many as you might think. The nutty flavors play well against most basic sauces and its texture makes it easy to use for sandwiches, stir fry, pasta, etc. The best way to get to know tempeh early on is to grill it. Grilled tempeh toughens up the texture to a chewy, meaty consistency, and accentuates the smokey qualities. It also takes to a marinade really well, so there’s no excuse for lack of flavor.

Because most of my cookbooks are still packed, I’ve been steadily working my way through the indispensable Vegan Brunch. For months, I have been eyeing up “Tempeh Sausage Pastry Puffs,” thinking two things: 1) “What a great way to use tempeh!” and 2) “Holy shit, puff pastry!” When I had my family over for brunch to break in my new residence, I figured now was the time to shoot for something a bit more advanced than pancakes and scramble and potatoes.

Given all the skills I have developed over the past few years, surely I could make something as simple but sophisticated as these lovely little puffed squares. Surely something this manageable was within my purview. I could even make a decent vegan gravy to match. It was all going to be so simple.

Of course I screw it up. Not having ever worked with puff pastry, I didn’t exactly interpret the instructions correctly. Or maybe I did but became convinced that I hadn’t. Not really sure, but either way, I had to abruptly alter plans. That’s how square pastry puffs turned into pastry puff pinwheels. The rest is quickly devoured history.

Note on the recipe: The original called for at least an hour of marinading the tempeh, but I suggest overnight for full flavor. And don’t skip the fennel. It really brings together the sausage flavor of the filling mix.

Tempeh Sausage Puff Pinwheels

Ingredients
- 8 oz. tempeh, crumbled
– 1 package puff pastry (as recommended by Vegan Brunch, Pepperidge Farm puff pastry is vegan)

For the marinade:
– 1 cup vegetable broth
– 3 tbsp soy sauce
– 2 tbsp lemon juice

For the tempeh filling:
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– 1 red  bell pepper, finely chopped
– 1 small onion, finely chopped
– 2-4 garlic cloves, minced
– 2 tsp fennel seeds, chopped
– 2 tsp dried basil
– 2 tsp dried rosemary
– 1 tsp red pepper flakes
– Salt and black pepper to taste
– Extra olive oil

- Combine the ingredients for the marinade in an airtight container. Toss in the crumbled tempeh and seal. Keep in the fridge overnight.

- Prepare the a large pan over medium heat. Saute pepper and onion until the onion is translucent, then add garlic and spices and saute until garlic is slightly browned. Add drained tempeh and turn the heat to medium high. Cook for up to 15 minutes, stirring often to prevent burning.

- Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Apply a fine layer of olive oil to a large baking sheet.

- You should have two sheets of puff pastry. Cut each sheet into nine squares. You should have a total of eighteen rectangles.

- To assemble the pinwheel, take a rectangle and unfold it so that it is a single layer. Brush a little olive oil on the inside, then apply some of the tempeh filling. Gently roll up the dough around the filling. Whatever falls out can be stuffed back in once the edges are sealed. It does not have to look perfect, but the edge should be sealed with your fingers or a fork so that it does not fall apart while baking.

- Repeat steps until you have all eighteen filled or have run out of filling. Line the finished pastries on the baking sheet about an inch apart.

- Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the pastries are puffed and golden. Serve warm.

(Recipe adapted from Vegan Brunch by Isa Chandra Moskowitz)