Author Archives: pittsburghspoon

Good Morning, Orange Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake!

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I’m gonna keep this brief (for me).

Some Saturdays, you wake up and just want to laze about. You don’t want to put on pants. You don’t want to shower. You don’t want to cook, and you barely have the patience or energy to make a pot of coffee. All that you want to do – and in this scenario, you have the same cultural tastes as I do – is sit around in your pajamas, eat a slice of leftover pizza, drink that coffee you just barely mustered the strength to make, and stream The Hunger Games on Netflix. Needless to say, you’re not likely to cook anything. You’re not really likely to contribute anything to the betterment of your world. That’s okay. That’s for Sunday.

Then, there are Saturdays when you wake up and the world is your oyster, an oyster that you’re prepared to go out, catch, bring home, wash, prepare, and eat. You leap out of bed, get into your workout clothes, run a few miles, make some coffee, cook breakfast, clean the house, do your laundry, go shopping, meet up with your friends for some frozen yogurt, put in some volunteer hours, bake a cake, make a few dinner courses, host a potluck dinner party, and spend the waining hours of your day sipping wine and chatting with your guests.

Okay, so I’ve never really had one of those latter Saturdays. But for weekend days that you’re feeling a tad more productive than the former kind of Saturday mentioned, this coffee cake is for you.

I adapted a recipe from one of my favorite go-to sources for breakfast and brunch foods, Vegan Brunch by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I was worried that the orange and coffee flavors of the loaf would contradict, but the key is to limit the amount of each so as to achieve a flavor balance. Plus, chocolate!

This is an incredibly simple coffee cake to make, so feel free to give it a try even on those mornings where you really can’t be bothered to change into real person clothes.

Ingredients
– 1 cup non-dairy milk
– 1 tablespoon instant coffee crystals
-1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
– 2 cups all purpose flour (or 1 cup all purpose, 1 cup whole grain for a healthier option)
– 1/2 cup sugar
– 1 tablespoon baking powder
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 1/2 cup canola oil
– 1/2 tsp orange extract
– 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
– 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a loaf pan OR 9X9 pie dish.

In a 1/2 cup of the milk, dissolve the coffee crystals. Stir in the rest of the milk and vinegar and set aside.

Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the milk mixture, oil, vanilla and orange extracts. Mix together until batter is just moistened, then fold in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into loaf pan or dish and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (Bake about 2-3 minutes longer for a crumblier cake.)

Allow to cool. Queue up your favorite series on Netflix, grab a cup of coffee, and enjoy the rest of your Saturday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ramen Bar

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Unlike the seeming many of my peers, I don’t have regretful notions of a college era spent subsisting off of a ramen. It was there, of course, those shiny plastic packets stocked next to the microwave-safe containers of Campbell’s, the boxes of Easy Mac (the best/worst thing to happen to college students since Stouffer’s frozen mac’n’cheese), and (always my mainstay, even to this day) the PBJ fixings.

But while I was not immune to the seductive allure of processed, easy and fast, microwaveable junk dinners, I had it better than a lot of other students because my campus was small, the dining options quick to get to, the selection of decent quality, and I was the proud owner of a complete meal pass for three out of four years. Even when I moved to a campus apartment, which was outfitted with a kitchen for the express purpose of self-feeding, I continued near daily visits to the dining hall. My ramen era would have to wait.

I am not so ignorant of the food traditions of various other cultures that the idea of a moderately upscale ramen place was surprising to me. Admittedly, I assumed such a thing was inevitable. Remodeling the street food of other cultures into destination dining is an easy sell in the contemporary culinary landscape. The Ramen Bar has a hook that is both international and innately familiar, making it a perfect complement to its fellow restaurants in the busy Forbes/Murray/Shady corridor of Squirrel Hill.

Ramen Bar on Urbanspoon

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Good Morning, Vegan Cinnamon Espresso Chocolate Chip Cookies!

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I am exceptionally lucky to have met my partner, James, but I am also incredibly lucky that, as part of the package of falling in love with this great guy, I get to spend occasional time with his terrific folks. Down-to-earth, witty, loving, and considerate, it’s no wonder great parents like them produced such a lovable kid.

James’s mom, Nancy, is an awesome cook (as well as a phenomenal knitter). A lot of moms, when confronted with a child’s decision to adopt a vegan diet, might freak out or panic about what to serve them. Any trepidation Nancy might have had about James’s vegan tendencies have long since been eschewed in favor of veganizing old favorites, as well as seeking out new recipes to throw into the mix. Her efforts have delivered delicious vegan dish after delicious vegan dish. (Just goes to show you that you don’t have to live a diet to cook for the diet. All you need is a willingness to try out new ingredients and adapt what you already know about cooking and baking into an unfamiliar realm. The basic skills still apply.)

On a recent visit, Nancy showed me a new addition to her cookbook collection: Chloe Coscarelli’s Chloe’s Kitchen. Don’t know who Chloe Coscarelli is? Neither did I, but apparently she took the top prize on the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars. Her stuff is all vegan, thus her success on a Food Network reality cooking competition has allowed her to leap-frog other established divas of the vegan cookbook scene.

Okay, I wasn’t exactly being fair-minded when I first started looking at the book. Cookbooks from TV stars tend to disappoint. Either the recipes are fairly simplistic dishes with exotic touches (usually hard to find or rare ingredients) or they’re extraordinarily complicated (more complicated than I suspect they even have to be). There’s also an incredibly annoying tendency to put the persona of the chef before the food itself – so instead of mouth-watering photographs of dishes you can’t wait to recreate, there are irritating shots of the smiling, doe-eyed cook laughing with friends, holding a cupcake or cookie, or standing near food that one presumes she has just whipped up, in between photo shoots and loving life.

Yes, I’m simply not a fan of this type of cookbook. Chloe’s Kitchen, however, offers more than a cursory glance at its contents might suggest. Yes, there’s the requisite ‘wholesome girl-next-door chef’ shots, plus a pretty grating introduction and bland writing throughout…

BUT I am always willing to overcome my prejudices to try out a promising recipe. Having long searched for an appropriate vegan replacement for my favorite meatloaf recipe, Chloe’s tempeh loaf recipe was too tempting not to attempt.

I’m a fan of the policy that one good recipe can make a cookbook worthwhile. If that policy holds, then Chloe’s Kitchen should be on every vegan’s cookbook shelf, based off that tempeh meatloaf alone. The result was so delicious, it warranted another round with the cookbook. Because Chloe is first and foremost known as a vegan baker, I decided to give one of her desserts a try.

I changed some of the proportions on this cookie recipe. Most notably, I was not able to easily locate instant espresso powder, so I used instant coffee instead. It worked just as well and added a little extra buzz to a sugar-packed, delicious cookie. Plus, when a baked good has coffee in it, you can practically call it breakfast. At least I did.

Cinnamon Espresso Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients- 2 cups all-purpose flour
– 1/2 tsp baking powder
– 1 tsp ground cinnamon
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 1 cup vegan margarine
– 2 tbsp instant coffee (Finely ground, if possible. Cheap is OK – I used Taster’s Choice packets from Family Dollar)
– 1 cup powdered sugar
– 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
– 1 1/2 cups vegan chocolate chips
– Granulated sugar for sprinkling

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper or foil. (Note: aluminum foil will brown the bottoms of the cookies faster.)

- Whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

- Using a mixer, beat together margarine and instant coffee until well combined, then add powdered and brown sugars. Beat until blended thoroughly. Mix in flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time.

- Stir in chocolate chips.

- Scoop dough by the tablespoon and roll into semi-round disks. Roll each disk in granulated sugar. Place on baking sheet 2-3 inches apart.

- Bake cookies about 12-14 minutes or until edges are browned.

Cheeky Chickpea Falafel

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One way that I knew I was becoming an adult was that my method of making falafel evolved past using the boxed, pre-made falafel mix produced by Manischewitz. Upon producing my first batch of from-scratch, homemade falafel, I felt something akin to what people must feel when they make their first batch of homemade chicken noodle soup or their first non-frozen, non-Stouffer’s lasagna. Heck, I felt that way when I made my first from-scratch pancakes, and pancakes are one of the simplest (and cheapest) things to produce from scratch.

Why do we rely on pre-made goods to deliver the foods we enjoy? I think it’s a combination of the following things: Over-reliance on the food experiences we are used to, fear of screwing up our favorites, and limited time, patience, energy, and equipment. Also, for years I prepared food mainly for myself and most recipes, whether it’s a pot of soup or a plate of falafel, produce too much for one person to consume in a short period of time. Short of dinner parties and potlucks, a can of soup made more sense for my lifestyle.

I cook for two (sometimes three, if our roommate is home) now, so the amount of food is no question. But I have a long commute to and from work, so when I come home to prepare dinner, fast and simple is usually the rule. One of the defining factors of my adult life is when I decided fast and simple did not have to mean pre-made or processed.

Thanks, adulthood!

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Goodies from the PGH Taco Truck!

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Hello, My Friend, Hello

Hello, friends! Miss me?

(*crickets*)

Okay, well, you all have probably moved on. And for good reason! What kind of big jerk blogs loyally for a year, then drops everything just as she’s getting a small following, not to mention getting to know the fantastic food blogging community of Western Pennsylvania? What kind of big jerk would abandon ship like that?

Well… this big jerk.

There will be oh so much time to reconnect over the next several posts, but I won’t bore you with too many details. Suffice to say, I went to grad school and that became my days and nights. I found out that getting your Masters degree in one year is an incredible time suck (yeah, haha, who would have thunk it, but seriously, I don’t think I had one single day off from school or school-related working from September 2011 to August 2012). The time not dedicated to school work was almost exclusively devoted to sleeping.

But that’s all in the past. The ever-growing past, as it seems. I graduated in August, got a full-time job by the end of the month, and have been adjusting to and enjoying that new postition ever since….

Except something has been missing from my life. It started off as a twinge of heartache whenever I’d come across a new local food blog, or when in the infrequent moments I was able to catch up with the bloggers I’ve been following for years.

Then, I’d be at some breakfast or lunch or dinner or potluck and I’d come across some delicious dish, some delectable goodie, and I’d have the instantaneous desire to grab my camera. But I’m no Instagram afficiando and I don’t really believe that taking pictures of amazing food does amazing food justice. That’s just my humble opinion, and it probably stems from the fact that I’ve never failed to use 1000 words when 500 would suffice.

But I could never be satisfied with just keeping visual records of the food I’ve made/consumed. Really good food writing can be as good as any top quality non-fiction. It can be as riveting as a bestselling mystery, as enticing and seductive as any of the three Fifty Shades of Gray installments (which, for the record, do not contain any recipes that I can think of).

Long story short (“TOO LATE!”), here I am. I hope we can get to know each other again.

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 (!)