Thursday, February 24, 2011

Food for Thought?

Life has a habit of simultaneously throwing you a curve ball and giving you exactly what you need. Today was the perfect example of that.

As a native Pittsburgher, no matter what your ethnic background, you are familiar with pierogies (or pyrohi, pirogy, etc. it all depends on who you ask.) These Eastern European pockets of carb-happy goodness are one of the major facets of Pittsburgh cuisine. A pasta shell, wrapped around a mashed potato filling, then boiled, then topped with melted butter and caramelized onions, there is no way that they are healthy. But, that is neither here nor there, it's all about flavor and tradition.

Here's the first part of the admission: Background wise, I'm mostly English, Scottish and Irish. Most people would say that then gives me no right to discuss ethnic food of another culture That is why I went to the source, first generation Ukrainians who know their food the best.

And once again, I was surprised to find that the food takes a backseat to the company. I met some amazing people today, such as Katherine, a grandmother, who constantly referred to me as "Strong Young Man" Other notables there were Andrew, who left his family behind in the Ukraine, and Gene, a former member of the Secret Service, who protected President Nixon.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Mary, a brassy grandmother who, when I was warned to stay away from her, responded with "Don't worry, he's a man, he likes the abuse"

Another thing I learned, is that I have nothing on a grandmother when it comes to cooking. I can try, with elaborate measurements and difficult techniques, but nothing is quite as surprising as after having cut out 120 or so pierogi shells, to turn around and have them ask where the next batch is. I was run ragged in a really good way by a bunch of sprightly grandmothers.

Of course, pierogies were not the only ethnic food I was exposed to today. I had my first experience with braunschwieger when it was offered to me. It is a very interestingly textured sausage, comprised of mostly pork liver and jowl meat. I appreciated the offer, but the texture and liver flavor together were just a little too much together.

The most surprising thing for me though, is what happened after the cooking. My friends know that I'm not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination. And if you read this, you know that I've been having some rough going. I stopped by the sanctuary today, because I've been feeling so lost, sat down, and started weeping, for a solid 20 minutes. I realized that I've been holding on to a lot of pain for a long while, and I was able to let it go. This is the best I've felt in a long time.

So, in the words of the philosopher Jagger: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try some times, you might find, you get what you need." Sometimes, the universe does take care of it's own.

By the way, for some amazing pierogies, visit and follow the directions to order. I guarantee they are some of the best pierogies in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ode to Man Food

Today, I woke up feeling miserable, no doubt about it. Stuffy, listless, and fatigued, complete with sore throat, I knew I had the cold I had escaped all winter long. I guess it was my time, I suppose.

When I feel like this, I know exactly the thing to help knock it out, a spicy omelet. The thing about an omelet is that it is incredibly simple to actually make, once you have the technique down. Granted, until you do, you end up making a lot of scrambled eggs. But the best part of an omelet? You can toss whatever you want into it, in my case cheese, and a ton of black pepper and green Tabasco sauce.

Guys: Here is a fact for you to think on. There is nothing that can generate more points with your significant other than breakfast in bed. Give it a try one time, it's well worth the effort. It shows her that you're thoughtful and caring, and have a domestic side. Don't think it makes you too domestic though. I maintain that cooking is a very manly thing to do. You get to play with spicy things, hot things, and sharp things, all at the same time. What is more manly than that? Besides, you aren't going to have your mother cook your breakfast until you're 30, are you? What do Cowboys, Pirates, and Firemen all have in common? They're some of the manliest men around, and they all cooked.

Anyway, today was very much a man-food day. After tossing together a quick omelet, I set down to work on a large batch of chili. Chili is very much man-food. First created in Texas, it was a food of choice for cowboys and outlaws alike. The Chili Appreciation Society International, Inc. proclaims in their rules "No chili contestant may discharge firearms or use any pyrotechnics or explosives at a chili cook off." I have no idea, what you would explosives for in chili making, but if it's in the rules, it means someone has probably done it. Like I said, chili is very much manly food.

The thing about cooking chili is that it has a tendency to "grow" in size as you cook and add ingredients. Another part is every person who makes chili has their own recipe. I know it's less than helpful, but one you have a few basic ingredients, then you can start improvising.

The best way to begin is with a good quality ground beef, I use my usual 80/20 grind. That means the meat is 80% lean, 20% fat. To put that in perspective, if I use 10 pounds of meat, 2 of those pounds would be fat. It seems like a lot of fat, but a large amount of it is going to be eliminated during cooking. I use a half-pound for a medium sized pot of chili.
Where's the beef? Nevermind, here it is.

First of all, you need to brown the ground beef. At this time, it's all about adding flavor. I add salt, pepper, garlic, and onion powders to the meat before cooking, as it allows all the flavors to combine. After the meat is browned, you can drain out the excess fat.
Next to the pot, add a can of stewed tomatoes, a can of diced tomatoes, and two cans of tomato soup. Mix it all up, and add a half cup of so of chili powder. Simmer, and you have a basic chili.

I take things further. While that is simmering, I also add a cup and a half of fire-roasted sweet peppers, originally intended as topping for hot sausage. Stirring to combine, I then get to do my favorite part, the spicy and sharp parts.

Fun fact: That little bit of green in the up left corner is about 20X hotter than the vegetation on the bottom of the photo.

The thing about jalapeno peppers, is that all of the heat of the pepper is inside of the membranes and the seeds. If you can eliminate that, most of the heat is gone, but you still retain a really great fruity flavor. So, dispatch 1 jalapeno pepper, by cutting out the membrane, and then giving it a very fine dice. While you're cutting, also cut up 2 small onions. Here is a very important point: after you cut up the jalapeno, and your eyes are watering from the onion, DO NOT rub your eyes, you will be VERY sorry. Trust me.

Mmmmm...delicious Maillard reaction.

Next, take about half of the cut up jalapeno, and the onions, and give them a quick sweat in a small saute pan. This will add even more flavor. Once the onions are lightly caramelized, add them with the remainder of the jalapeno to the chili. Finally, and here is the family secret (don't knock it until you've tried it) add 1 heaping tablespoon of creamy peanut butter to cut the acid a little bit. Stir to combine, and allow to heat through. It can be eaten immediately, or allow to simmer for a few hours, and it will be even better.

Delicious, and absolutely worth the work.

Thus ends the ode to man-food.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bonding with Strangers

Nothing pairs as well with good friends as good food. It's also funny how often the two are found together, and in the most unexpected places.

A sudden upsurge to spring-like temperatures (which unfortunately did not last) led me outside to congregate with a few friends from Slackline Pittsburgh over in Oakland. After hanging out (I could not stop the pun) for a few hours, we noticed a group dressed similarly to us setting up shop about 50 yards down the sidewalk. Being the curious group we are, we went to say hello, and were faced with a large amount of food.

The group turned out to be the Pittsburgh chapter of Food Not Bombs, a protest group. The vegetarian/ vegan group collects unmarketable produce from supermarkets and then distributes it out to the community. According to their website:

"Food not Bombs shares free vegan and vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world to protest war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment. With over a billion people going hungry each day how can we spent another dollar on war?"

Personally, I'm not that political (I think politics just gets in the way of things.) so I have a tendency to just go with the flow and deal with people. The people with the Pittsburgh chapter seem very friendly and giving. As we were shivering from the cold, someone dished up bowls of home cooking to feed and warm us up a bit.

The food? It was very good, a spicy Spanish rice served on top of an assortment of green vegetables. The green peppers, lightly done, added a nice brightness and crispness to the dish. Of course, in a situation like this, the food takes second place to the people. It's about custom, and the finding of common ground. With the food in front of us, even though we all had different outlooks, and came from different situations, we all had something in common. The moral of the story? Well, I guess there isn't one, but there is a point, that nothing bonds people as much as food.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Close To Home

For those of you who actually know me, you know the past few months have been...well, let's just say difficult would be putting it lightly. Things have not been going well professionally, personally, or romantically for that matter. Not that it's really any one's business, you can care if you do or not, it truly doesn't matter to me. I'm just saying that as a preface to the rest of the entry.

Naturally, a subject that has come up has been comfort food. It's the kind of food you have when the chips are down. It's the culinary equivalent of a good friend, it's easy and there when there is trouble. It's largely a visceral thing, you just feel good eating it. This might be because they taste good, (for as bad as it is for you, fat just tastes delicious, c.f. bacon) they are easy to prepare, (out-of-the box macaroni and cheese) or have some sort of nostalgia attached (personally, I have my great-great-aunt's recipe for mashed potatoes memorized.) Everyone has a certain food or two that trigger that response. It's human nature.

The kitchen for me also offers an escape of sorts. Cooking is something that can be done precisely, or it can be done with a lot of improvisation and experimentation. It's very freeing. I woke up this morning feeling rather miserable and headed to the kitchen. Here is where my thought process and the nature of a kitchen combine to take a bit of a left turn. I knew I wanted to cook, but I honestly didn't have a clue what to make, so I decided to start at the beginning of the day and go for breakfast. Scrambled eggs sounded good, but an omelet sounded better. I opened up the carton and was disappointed to find only one egg. However, I also found a pound of ground beef and a jar of pasta sauce, so I decided to go with one of my comfort foods instead, a meatball hoagie.

Now, a little thing about the hoagie, is it is very much a regional item. Well, it is, and it isn't. A true hoagie has it's roots in the American Northeast, usually around a shipyard, depending on which origin story you read for it. Now, do to restaurants like Subway, it's an internationally known item. It satisfies all three requirements for a comfort food, it tastes great, has a lot of significance for me in my childhood, (spaghetti and meatballs was one of my favorite meals growing up) and it's actually easy to prepare. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't share my recipe.

To start off with, it's a very intuitive recipe. There is not a lot of measurement involved outside of the basics, most of the recipe is spices, which are subject to individual tastes. I use a pound of 80/20 ground beef for my basis, as I feel it adds a lot of beef flavor to use as a base. In a large mixing bowl, combine the beef with a single egg, and one cup of breadcrumbs. (just think 1:1:1, and you have the recipe down) It's then time to add spices. I used for this time today several large pinches of kosher salt, about 10 grinds of black pepper (I always use salt and pepper in seasoning) and then the specialty spices; in this case a teaspoon each of minced dried onion, and garlic powder, and two tablespoons of Italian seasoning (a mixture of thyme, sage, and parsley) and my personal favorite, two tablespoons of Brady Street seasoning. This is an amazing spice, available from Penzey's Spices, made with Romano cheese, sweet basil, minced parsley, and green peppercorn, and it is one of my favorites. Knead all of the meat, egg, breadcrumbs, and seasoning together, until you have a uniform mixture.

Then time to partition. In this situation, uniform size is key in order to make sure that everything gets done at the same time. Different sizes mean different cooking times, and that is the last thing you want. I used a tablespoon measuring cup as a partitioning device, and one batch of the meatball mixture yielded 38 meatballs, or one large cookie sheet. Place this into a preheated oven at 350 degrees, for ten minutes, then rotate the tray and bake for another ten minutes. 20 minutes total for the meatballs.

Please note the uniformity of the size, if not the placement.

While the meatballs are baking, prepare a basic tomato based red sauce, I would love to be able to give you a recipe, but I honestly can't. Let's just say it involved a jar of store bought sauce, a can of tomato soup, a can of tomato paste, and the contents of whatever fell out of the spice rack into the sauce as I was preparing it. I learned a few things during this part of the day. First of all, don't overload your spice rack. Bad things will happen. Second, and arguably more important, heated red sauce is like napalm when it splashes. Please practice burn safety. Fortunately, I was able to escape fairly well this time. Somehow it also turned out to be one of the best sauces I've made.

Mmmm...Saucy. Please note the remainder of the crash on the right hand side.

With the tomato sauce ready and heated, the meatballs should be done. Simply remove the meatballs to the sauce and allow to simmer. At this point, time doesn't really matter, but I like to go for at least 20 minutes to allow all of the flavors to integrate. Then serve and enjoy.

A side note for the health conscious: By baking the meatballs instead of frying or braising them, not only was I able to keep them from drying out, I was able to render out a significant portion of the fat. Bon Appetit!


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reflections on a Memorial

On the way back from Lancaster, we made a detour from the usual route to go visit the Flight 93 Memorial in Somerset, Pennsylvania.I was originally planning on writing a post about the tourism of death, but I think I'll plan that for another time.

As I'm writing, I'm actually holed up from the cold in the temporary exhibit near the crash site. It's even more desolate with no one else around.

This exhibit has also provoked no end of discussion and to some extent argument in our group. In the almost ten years that have passed since the events of September 11th, and in that intervening time, I've come into my political own. In an area like this, political argument is bound to happen. To make this even more poignant, I'm writing this in the wake of the revolutions taking place in the Middle East.

History is an ever-changing story. In a situation like this, it's even more difficult to write the history, as it's being written as we speak. The September 11th attacks were not an isolated event in Middle East relations. It's part of a system that has it's roots in centuries of religious and ideological conflict. While I agree the site should be commemorated, it should not be a jingoistic monument, as I am afraid it is going to be. Instead, this could provide a place of understanding, which would show how the conflict developed, and hopefully, allow for reflections on how it can be resolved.

In a case like this, where the event being commemorated is still a fresh wound, emotions are going to naturally run extremely high. It is also going to be difficult to write this history, as the United States situation in the Middle East is on a constantly changing footing. In a situation like this, we need to be careful in what manner we commemorate things like this. International diplomacy is a tricky business, and there is no conceivable end, especially with the need for oil, for the United States involvement in the Middle East. This means the next generation is going to inherit the situation that we give them. We need to teach the next generation to be politically involved, and to think for themselves. If they learn only jingoism, that will never happen, and we will have no one to blame for it but ourselves.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

No Amish Country for Old Men

Here it is, February, and the first audition road trip of the year. Some where glamorous? Not exactly, but unique in it's own way. I'm here in the (relative) heart of Amish Country, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. To be truly specific, I'm in Lititz, a smaller town about 8 miles away from Lancaster. Why would I be here, you may ask. Simple, about 10 miles or so from here is the home of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, one of the largest Faires in the U.S. I decided to audition this year.

There truly isn't that much to do here, I fully admit it. But what makes this area unique is the people. They are some of the nicest people you will ever meet, right there on the street. As much as I hate to say it, it's almost stereotypically small town. There is rarely a stranger, and you're an old friend within five minutes. Being raised in a city where the outsiders are never trusted, this is a new approach to life.

Not having much to do, and being hungry, as I usually am, I decided to try to investigate the local foods, and try for some regional specialties. In this situation, Lancaster County does not disappoint. The wide variety of food is fairly astounding, and generally pretty good. Some things truly stood out though.

First stop of the day turned out to be for desert, with a visit to the Wilbur Chocolate Factory. For those of you who don't know Wilbur, it's a smaller chocolate company in Downtown Lititz. What makes it notable is that it's been in operation for over 127 years. Due to the size, I think they offer a superior product than a larger company, such as Hershey's. Of special note are the Buds (Think something similar to a Hershey's Kiss, but not quite) which are delicious in the semisweet chocolate. (Granted it's chocolate, so of course it's delicious, but make sure to go for the semisweet, as it has a much more complex flavor profile than the cloying sweetness of the milk chocolate.)

Next up, craving something salty, as one is bound to do after something sweet, I headed to the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, the first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S., according to their marketing materials. Also in downtown Lititz, the building is hard to miss with the large pretzel in front of it. I must say, they do make a good pretzel. But it's just that, a good pretzel, not a great one. Still, if you find yourself in the area, stop by, it's always fun to see how they are made.

Finally, after an exhausting audition, on the way back to the hotel, I happened to find a deli, S. Clyde Weaver, Smoked Meats and Cheeses, in the middle of Manheim. Curious to find out about what would be considered "traditional" Pennsylvania Dutch fare, I inquired about it to a rather knowledgeable fellow behind the counter, and he led me to three very disparate items that are unique to the Lancaster region.

The first of these items was Lebanon Bologna. As first glance, it's like no bologna I've ever seen before. Made of all beef, and with sugar, it is almost akin to salami, but even sweeter. I tried a sample, and it is delicious. Also in the case were rolls of the bologna, rolled with a vegetable cream cheese. The two together complement each other perfectly, and fortunately there are still a half dozen waiting for me in the refrigerator.

Next up, an item that 1) took me by surprise on a few counts, and 2) took some mental preparation to try. That item would be the tongue souse. Souse is a type of head cheese, which it turns out is not a cheese at all. It's actually a type of pressed meat (think homemade Spam) and the tongue part, well, you can figure it out for yourself. It's another all beef product. After a minute or five of looking at it, I decided, "What the hell, why not?" and gave it a try. Honestly, once you get past what it is that you're eating, and that mental block, it's actually really good. Full of spice, it has a full body, and the tongue is one of the most tender cuts of meat I've had. It's not something I'm going to dine on regularly, but for something different, it does not disappoint.

Finally, at the end of the day, desert once again, and the final item, shoofly pie. This is the culinary item most people think of when they hear Pennsylvania Dutch. The best way to think of this is as a marriage of a custard and a fruit pie. The notable exception is that in this case, it is a molasses based custard, with a thinner raisin based fruit layer. It is very good, but also extremely sweet, almost too much so. I could only handle a small piece personally. The crust to pie ratio however, is absolutely perfect. Now that is an item I will be dining on again, just in small doses, if only for my health.

I started this talking about travel, but then I ended up discussing the food. But doesn't this make a lot of sense? The best way to get to know a people is by experiencing the way they live. Food is something that unites all of us. The people of Lancaster are a welcoming, kind, down-to-earth group, and it's reflected in the food; simple, but filling, humble, but delicious and prepared with care. So, all in all, what I thought would be an inauspicious start has turned out to be a learning experience worth more than I ever thought it would be.
Until next time,

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Pittsburgh Underground presents Tech Week Blues

As I write this, we just finished up day three of tech week on the latest show I'm working on. Fr those of you who aren't in the theatre industry, please allow me to explain. Tech week is the week before a play or musical opens, when all of the technical elements (set, costumes, sound, props, lights, etc.) are all supposed to come together to create a whole show. The operative word in that previous sentence is "supposed." Many theatre professionals also refer to this time period as "Hell Week," and with good reason. During this time, you can virtually be assured that whatever can go wrong, will.

As a result, much of my adventuring has been curtailed temporarily. So naturally, I've turned to find the underside of Pittsburgh, the underground, as it were. I ended up finding much more of the underground than I expected, on two different ends of the spectrum.

The first mini-adventure turned out to be a perfect example of seeing something unexpected. If you travel through the break room of a well known sandwich chain, you can find a staircase going down. This is intriguing, as the restaurant is on the ground floor. Four friends and I decided to investigate what was there. After going down the staircase, we found ourselves in an interesting maze of passages. Here are some of the interesting sights. Total exploration time: 2.5 Hours.
There were several blackboards throughout the building, and most of them had the phrase "Ouroboros Choked" on them.
A wall of what we think was a recording studio.

An abandoned escalator
An absolutely gorgeous vintage radio.
A few days later, I found myself underground in quite a different manner. One of the benefits, at least for me, of working with museums is that I have access to some absolutely fascinating things that very rarely ever see the light of day. In this case, I had a chance to check out this document:
That is a hundred year old hand written document of personal sketches from the American Civil War. In it, the soldiers wrote of their experiences during the War. I had a few hours to investigate this first-hand. A resource like this is literally one of a kind.

As it is now a little after 2 A.M., and I have work tomorrow, I do believe I will get some sleep. Good night all.