Monthly Archives: March 2011

Dear Denny’s Maple Bacon Sundae…

Dear Denny’s Maple Bacon Sundae,

Perhaps you weren’t expecting a letter so soon. Manners and mores would tell us that a proper 24 hours could pass before I were to follow-up on our first visit. But, as I lie awake in bed, tossing and turning, a stomach full of cream and greasy protein, I am struck by an overpowering need to get in contact with you. Call me rash, call me stupid, call me a fool… but please, please understand. You have bewitched me.

It was all a joke, at first. I saw you there, on the special bacon-theme menu, sandwiched in between bacon dishes of fairly ordinary variety: A pancake and bacon plate. An overloaded BLT. Strips of bacon over top other strips of bacon, other food items just peeking out of the corners here and there.

There you were, dead center of the trifold menu. So out of place even among your bacon brethren. A sundae. A sundae with maple syrup. A sundae with maple syrup and fried bacon. Wait… what? Seriously? But…. but how? But why? Denny’s is putting bacon on pancakes, bacon on eggs, bacon in sandwiches, bacon in burritos, bacon on fries, bacon on bacon. But this… this was over the line.

Or… was it? Was it really? Why should one limit themselves to pairing bacon with other purely savory meal items? Bacon and eggs are perfectly natural together, but why not another bacon-dairy combo? Couldn’t the salty, smokey quality of the bacon offset the smooth mildness of the ice cream, the sticky sweetness of the syrup? Could it be that this is the perfect combination of salty and sweet that people have been looking for? All that time wasted on chocolate-covered pretzels, each more elaborate than the last. Was this the true missing salty-sweet link?

Oh, bacon sundae, how I could not resist your potential charms. The waitress warned me off you. But, nay, I could not relent. I wanted, no, NEEDED to be with you. I needed to experience you through my senses, see you with my eyes, taste you with my tastebuds, smell your smokey baconness through my nostrils. I needed to know you.

The wait for you was agonizing, but then, there you were, standing before me, a goblet of off-white glory. Sprinkled on top were shiny crimson pieces of bacon. The syrup stayed incognito, all but obscured by the ostentatious show piece of this endeavor. I dipped a spoon into you. I tasted. I hesitated, then tasted again.

What glory! What tribute! What unexpected euphoria! Who knew it was possible to get a bigger rush if you simply added a ton of protein to your sugar content (and vice versa). Who knew that the bacon would compliment the cream, that the two would work so divinely swimming in the pool of syrup at the bottom of the mighty goblet? Who expected such a decadent pleasure to come from a Denny’s on Lebanon Church Road?

I consumed you, as a lion would devour a gazelle, as a sparrow a worm, as a teamster a donut. When you were gone and all that remained was drippy, gooey remains at the bottom of the cup, I mourned your absence.

Yet, you are not really absent, are you? You’re a part of me now. A part that has latched onto every internal surface it can stick its meaty claws into. I feel that I will live a day shorter because of you, perhaps several days shorter. The moment we were apart, I knew that to ever have laid eyes on you was to agree to an abbreviated life.

But, oh sweet temptress, I did not CARE! I could not care! If I am but a mortal than let me feast like a mortal! Let me not throw away my opportunities in the name of safety or healthy eating or fitness! Let me live, let me breathe, let me consume. Let me risk a few years of stale life for a few minutes of confounding heaven on a spoon.

Denny’s Maple Bacon Sundae, I beg of you, do not leave our world. Once the bacon theme has exhausted its welcome, they are bound to pack you away with the rest of the bacon specials, pack you away and never mention you again. Back with the cheesecake, the carrot cake, the vanilla milkshake. But my love…. will be gone….
Your devoted servant and customer,

Forked!


Good Morning, Strip District Saturday

I’ve written about it in the past, but I have to reiterate: One of my favorite ways to spend an early Saturday morning is strolling around the Strip District alone. I love company down there, I do. Going with other people is often the perfect way to try places and things yet to be encountered. Other people mean joyful, talkative breakfasts at DeLuca’s or Pamela’s or even Chicken Latino. Other people mean a more curious, rounded shopping experience. Other people give you someone to talk to when the line at Reyna’s is really long and you’re struggling to reach your phone while also trying to keep all your bags from falling to the floor.


But other people come with a set of shopping demands all their own. Choosing to take the trip alone is lonesome, but liberating. You can move at whatever speed you want, visit the places you want to visit, come and go at your own leisure. You can invoke the zen state of being among those in very active states of mind and become a bit more passive in doing so. Gone is the necessity for distraction in that big line. That big line becomes its own distraction.


As for the rounded shopping experience, being alone can limit you to what you already know to be available, but between the flexibility of a lone person’s schedule and the comparative ease of moving one person through a dense crowd, it can also be the best way to find the little spots and corners and crannies missed on other ventures. Feeling free to do as one likes can often lead to people performing the same patterns of behavior over and over again, but it can occasionally lead to happy surprises.


I don’t like to have a big breakfast when I’m in the Strip alone. Instead, I tend to pick up things here and there: A small pastry at Lotus, a little fried dough pocket of spicy jerk chicken, a good cup of really strong coffee, a marshmallow.


I like to eat these things while perched somewhere, preferably outside, preferably perched on a concrete wall or sitting on steps or somewhere else I can simply blend into the scenery and enjoy the passing traffic. I never eat anything that needs a fork or spoon or plate. I eat with my hands, picking apart the marshmallow that has nearly melted while resting on my coffee. I keep the brown envelope around the pocket pastry, catching the little crumbs that escape with each bite. My bag and my camera are balanced on my lap. I stop to take a picture.


The Strip District alone is a world of other people’s adventures. The things that excite them, the things that tire them out, the energy and lack thereof is all externalized to anyone bothering to watch. I am watchful and therefore, while I may be alone, I am not lonely. I am entertained, I am heartened, and, of course, I’m fed.

Good Morning, Cauliflower Cheese Soup!


Mollie Katzen, Mollie Katzen. Is there anything you can’t make delicious?

Some of you out there might know of my current quest to conquer cauliflower. I’ve long held the albino broccoli in disregard. Its pure whiteness, its bland nothing flavor, its weird not-quite-crunchy-enough texture… All I’ve ever known of cauliflower is that people tend to avoid it on vegetable trays. While their fellow tray-mates, the robustly orange carrots, the crunchy, stringy celery, the vibrant and tree-like broccoli, find better homes on small plates and napkins (to eventually be devoured and rest inside various digestive tracts), the cauliflower is left to an uncertain fate.

All that changed with a little dish from Tamarind Savoring India: Gobi Manchurian, dry, fried, crunchy, a little spicy. The cauliflower was more like Korean spareribs than that pale, lonely little vegetable left alone on the party tray. This cauliflower was savory, vibrantly colored, and extremely flavorful. I was completely turned around.

So I’ve made a little mission of coming to terms with  cauliflower. Considering the benefits of the vegetable itself – low in fat, high in fiber and Vitamin C – and the expanding possibilities of its taste capabilities, this seems like a fairly easy challenge.

But one cannot subsist on Gobi Manchurian and only Gobi Manchurian. So it’s up to other cooks to show me how to best utilize this former enemy. Enter lover of all things veggie and culinary genius, Mollie Katzen, whose Moosewood Cookbook has become a formidable weapon in this delectable battle of will, wit, and tastebuds.

My pal, Jackie, had a great recent find at Beyond Bedtime Books on Potomac Avenue. Seemingly moments after saying that she needed to pick up the Moosewood at some point, she found a used copy right there on the shelf. Flash to weeks later and she’s cooking us up a version of Katzen’s “Cauliflower and Cheese Soup.”

Recommended for this recipe: Do not over puree. A little texture keeps the soup from being to gruel-like. We also threw in some steamed asparagus, optional, of course, but it was the perfect crunchy counterpart to the creamy, mildly cheesy soup.

Cauliflower Cheese Soup

Ingredients
– 1 medium potato, peeled and diced
– 1 medium to large cauliflower, cut or broken into florets
– 3 garlic cloves, minced
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 2 to 3 tsp salt
– 4 cups water
– 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
– 1 cup shredded Colby Jack
– 3/4 cup milk
– 1 tbsp fresh dill
– Black pepper to taste

– Set the water to boil and add the potato, cauliflower, garlic, onion, dill, and salt. Bring to boil, then simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Add milk.

– Puree about half of the mixture in a blender or food processor, then transfer back into the pot. Keeping on low heat, add cheese, then stir until cheese has melted completely. Season with black pepper to taste.

Optional: Take a pound of asparagus and chop off about two inches of the stem from the bottom. Steam asparagus and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook until asparagus is bright green and tender, but still crunchy. Add a few stalks to the soup as a delicious garnish.

(Recipe adapted from “Cauliflower Cheese Soup” from The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen)

Loving Hut


It’s like fate keeps conspiring to get me to eat out in Robinson area. First it was the Bocktown Beer and Grill, a neighborhood bar in an area filled out with suburban chains. Now it’s Loving Hut, perhaps the oddest restaurant to ever occupy a storefront between the main Robinson shopping area and the still fairly new Settlers Ridge.

Loving Hut is an international chain of vegan restaurants. Not vegetarian. Not vegan-friendly. Not just “green” or eco-conscious or focused on “healthy-eating.” Vegan. 100% without animal products. It’s one thing to have those two or three local eateries which cater to veg folks, but it’s another thing entirely to have an international chain of hundreds of restaurants, a kind of globe-spanning vegan McDonalds. And now we have one, tucked away about a mile up the road from Settler’s Ridge, a  little zen hideaway in the middle of a territory dominated by burgers, fried cheese sticks, and other various offerings of places like TGI Fridays.


Loving Hut on Urbanspoon

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Good Morning, Salted Caramel Bread Pudding!


Behold last week’s treat from Sugar Cafe. Some people like to get their sweet fix early in the day, some like to get it following dinner. Me, I’ll take my sweet fix any how and any time I can get it, which is how someone like me ends us eating a donut and bread pudding in the same day (and probably some Girl Scout cookies too). It is also how someone like me will never, ever be a super slender person.

Whatever. If you and I were playing a game of “Would You Rather…” and your question was, “Would you rather be super fit and perfect looking but you could never eat any unnecessary calories, meaning no desserts, no snacks, no extras OR would your rather eat anything you like, but have to work out at least four hours a week and maintain a fairly active lifestyle to maintain even the slightest hold over your fitness?”

I’d go for the latter. In a heartbeat. What is the worth of living if I can’t eat something like salted caramel bread pudding? Isn’t this why we make and share and eat these things? Because they, in some way, contain the love that we feel for ourselves, feel for others? If cooking is an act of love that you perform for others, couldn’t eating something purely for taste and desire be considered an act of love for yourself?

Good Morning, Irish Stew!

I could talk about St. Patrick’s Day, but in regards to this stew, what I really want to briefly touch on is how fantastic Martha Stewart’s recipes are.

Look, I know she’s not a popular lady. She’ll never be thought of as warm and likeable and the gal everyone wants to be around. I can’t stand most of the folksy crafty stuff she does, I don’t care for a much of her line of interior decor, and I never have and never will watch her program. But the woman knows her recipes. Her cookbooks are some of the better name-branded cookbooks out there. Don’t know the first thing about basic kitchen skills? Check out Martha Stewart’s Cooking School and Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook. Not only are the tips comprehensive, the instructions clearly written and simply broken down, but the instructive visuals are also top-notch. How do you fold something into a batter? What’s the correct way to whip something? What’s reduction and when is it appropriate?

These aren’t just great books for novices, however. Anyone from beginner to experienced cooks can utilize these resources. Although, being a little high-end for my tastes, I do not own them. (Yet.) What I do have is access to Martha Stewart online and its wondrous bounty of recipes and cooking tips. Chances are if you Google search for a recipe, you’ll pull up something from this website. They’re definitely worth a look.

In the past, I’ve made a few Martha recipes. Those Mini Almond Tarts were an adaptation of her Almond Tart recipe. This veganized version of her “Irish Beef and Stout Stew” is what I served up for St. Patrick’s Day, but it was so delicious, I’m ready to make another pot any day of the year.

Irish “Beef” and Guinness Stew

Ingredients
– About two pounds of beef-flavored seitan
– 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
– 2 tomato paste (6 oz.)
– 2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and chopped in large chunks
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 2 cups vegetable stock
– 1 bottle (12 oz) Guinness
– Several garlic cloves, thinly sliced (amount is to taste – I used six cloves)
– Salt and black pepper to taste
– 2 boxes frozen baby peas, thawed

– In a Dutch oven, saute the “beef” and onion in oil, then add the flour and tomato paste. Stir until well combined, then add potatoes, stock, beer, and garlic. Season generously with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, then cover, leaving to simmer for two hours. Check in frequently, stirring to prevent sticking.

– After two hours, stir in the peas, add more salt and pepper (if desired), and cover again, leaving to simmer for thirty minutes.

– Serve hot with soda bread and a cold pint of stout.

(Recipe adapted from “Irish Beef and Stout Stew” from Martha Stewart Online)

Bocktown Beer and Grill

You get spoiled living in the city. Everywhere you turn there is another decent-to-great restaurant to try, each its own singular culinary voice in a crowded eater’s paradise. Consider each city neighborhood and their busiest streets. How many good restaurants, for example, are on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill? And not all of Murray Avenue, just the stretch between Forbes Avenue and where Murray hits Forward Avenue.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my mind, the answer is somewhere around ten. Ten. In the span of a few blocks. And yes, that’s a Pittsburgh perspective. Someone coming out of a city like New York would laugh at that number.

“Ten decent restaurants in a few blocks?” they’d repeat. “My block alone has nearly a dozen places to eat, and that’s not counting the street vendors! That seems downright… suburban!” They would go on, but I have either tuned them out or punched them in the face, cause while they may be right that urban Pittsburgh doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) pack in the businesses like urban New York, they seem to have forgotten what being out in the suburbs is like, especially for diners.

That’s not to disparage suburban eating. Dormont is quasi-suburban, and I go on and on about how terrific it is for diners. I’m not thinking suburban neighborhoods so much as those areas that are, for lack of a better term, vacant of “charm” and abundant with “commercial.” I’m thinking of places like Robinson.

Robinson, with its myriad of big chain stores, its endless strip-mall-esque sections of businesses, it’s gigantic and labyrinth-like parking lots. When I think of Robinson the visual that pops out most readily in my mind is IKEA, emerging from the highway like a monolith tribute to shopping. Its vibrant blue and yellow call the eye’s attention like a shopping siren bringing cars into its parking harbor.

It may say something about my own particular Robinson experiences that the only place I recall eating in the area is the cafeteria at IKEA. (Oh, I could totally go for some Lingonberry soda right about now. I’ll pass on the Swedish meatballs, however.) Most of the nearby restaurants don’t really offer much competition. For most people in and out of Robinson, food is a secondary notion, to be eaten immediately before or immediately following the grander purpose of shopping. Why do malls have food courts and only a few full-restaurant options? Because most shoppers are in a retail-heavy area to shop.

Fortunately, someone was bound to challenge the status quo of the eateries in Robinson. Before the newly formed Settlers Ridge started bringing in restaurants that would be unique to the immediate area, Bocktown Beer and Grill was the first strike against the mediocre and mundane that comprised most of the Robinson dining options.

Bocktown’s Robinson location is in a strip mall segment across a vast lot from the Target. Its long, narrow interior is brightly lit and lined on one side by a bar area and the other side by booth and table seating, eventually leading back to an outside beer garden area. The inside is a surprise – warmly painted and lit, tasteful decor, and comfortable seating – compared to its mostly staid exterior, although the hand-drawn chalkboards advertising specials, events, and the various online locations for Bocktown was a nice touch, livening up a dimly lit concrete sidewalk.

The staff is dressed supremely casual, but move with quickness and efficiency. We were assured of a short wait, then quickly sat in a corner near the front,  slightly isolated from the rest of the dining area. A few moments to peruse the beer list, then our server, James, introduced himself and took our drink and appetizer order.

Bocktown Beer and Grill on Urbanspoon

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