December 31, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Bye-Bye '07 Style

OK, OK, I admit
it December doesn’t seem like the best time to be buying or eating avocados. That said, if Giant Eagle is going to sell avocados at this time of year, then maybe they should actually last a few days, eh? I bought one about a month ago as well and, when I cut it open and tasted it a little bit, it had the consistency and flavor of wax.

Last week, with the hope of putting some slices on a COBALT sandwich (Cheese, Onion, Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce, Tomato) – using some delicious bacon from Wil-Den Farms – I cut it open and you can see above what I found. Mind you, the avocado was by no means overly soft. Based on my experience over the past few years, it seemed to be plum for slicing. Shame the inside looked like a rotted out tree!

Even minus the avocado, the sandwich (pictured to the right) was still pretty good. And, admittedly, the “T” in the COBALT was a tomato from the same grocery chain (yes, meaning it came from pretty far away – I was weak and really in the mood for a BLT!) that was pretty good, even though it’s December.

Enough complaining A little bit late, some of my favorite things about the holiday season:
  • Holiday beers
  • Panettone from The Enrico Biscotti Company - where, by the way, on Christmas Eve, we received a present in the form of two free black and white people cookies for our two kids: “Little ones never pay for little people cookies,” the very nice woman behind the counter said.
  • My mother’s pizzelles
  • Watching It’s a Wonderful Life
  • My wife’s gingerbread men (and women)
  • Listening to the soundtrack from Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

‘Burgh food gems A food critic from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, China Millman, offers her top 10 food moments of the year and, I gotta say, it was inspiring. It really demonstrated to me that Pittsburgh has a better food scene than I give it credit for.

Gotta get me some of that Boscano Tartufo from Penn Mac.

And, after our recent trip to NYC and the other-worldly gnocchi with short rib bits appetizer I had, the braised pork ragu with gnocchi from Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar in Aspinwall sounds ultra appealing.

More local food… Two other local food items of interest – that is, two new local food-related businesses. First, Radicchio’s International Marketplace to the south of the city in McMurray sounds intriguing. What caught my eye:

But the nicest surprise may be its 15,000-square-foot produce section in the center of the store. It features precise piles of fruits and vegetables (including exotics such as Sharon fruit persimmon) in easy-to-navigate rows managed by clerks in black bow ties.

And then there’s the mega-environmentally friendly, Florida-based pizza chain, Pizza Fusion, which is opening a location far north of the city not far from Casa de Fillippelli. The menu seems almost too extensive, almost never a good thing in my view. But it’s an interesting concept in a pizza chain, that’s for sure:

We proudly serve up delicious, gourmet pizza in its purest form - untainted by artificial additives, like preservatives, growth hormones, pesticides, nitrates and trans fats (to name a few). ... Additionally, we proudly offer health conscious alternatives for our friends with selective diets and food allergies, such as our delicious gluten-free pizza, brownies and beer and our tasty vegan selections.

Born from a desire to make a difference, every detail of our operations is continuously evaluated from an environmental perspective in an effort to further minimize our ecological footprint. From delivering our food in company owned hybrid vehicles and offsetting 100% of our power consumption with the purchase of renewable wind energy certificates to building LEED certified restaurants, we are committed to being a leader in not only the pizza industry, but in a better quality of life.

December 27, 2007

Two Days in Manhattan

Last week, my wife and I had the rare opportunity – rare for us, that is – to spend not quite two days in New York City.

The trip, ostensibly to see the (still) undefeated Pitt men’s basketball team take on (the no longer!) undefeated Duke men’s basketball team (you da’ man, Levance) at Madison Square Garden, almost didn’t happen because of various familial illnesses. In the end, however, it did happen, although not quite as I had planned – said plan almost strictly revolving around food.

Most of the details of the trip are, as Dr. Evil once opined, inconsequential. One worth noting is that my intention to eat a Neapolitan-style coal- or wood-fired pizza never materialized, primarily because of my own stupidity and indecisiveness.

The other is that, of the two exemplary meals we did have, the stars were the appetizers. Here some details are necessary.

Market Table

The first meal was at a restaurant called Market Table in Greenwich Village, a well-regarded eatery that has ties to an even more highly regarded restaurant called The Little Owl where I tried, but failed, to get a reservation.

We arrived, amazingly, at 10:00 p.m., the exact time of our reservation, despite the basketball game running long because of overly intrusive referees and one (incredible) overtime period.

We had hardly eaten all day and, truth be told, neither my wife nor I were in ideal gastrointestinal condition for a meal at a fairly high-end restaurant. But we were in the Big Apple, and had no intention of letting a little GI distress interfere with well-researched plans to enjoy culinary delights.

My wife ordered the bacon-wrapped scallops, hardly a unique appetizer, but one that came highly recommended (via Chowhound's Manhattan board) nonetheless. I went with the gnocchi with short ribs. This read like a heavy appetizer and probably not the ideal choice given the situation. In the end, however, it was the best decision I have made in some time.

There is no picture to be had because our digital camera was resting idly in our valet-parked car at the hotel, which means it was, for all intensive purposes, out of reach until our departure on Saturday morning. And it was too dark for my camera phone to provide anything more than what resembled a pasta apparition.

In any case, a picture would not do this little plate of wonder any justice: light, perfectly chewy petite gnocchi, with little shreds of succulent short ribs and tender escarole chunks in a savory “parmesan broth” that I would have poured down my throat if I were sitting at my own dining room table.

My wife agreed that, although her scallops were excellent, the gnocchi were beyond exceptional. Which led me to actually vocalize the question:

Will this be a case in which the entrée will, for no fault of its own, be a letdown?

I had just eaten what was, in my estimation, one of the most wonderful things I have tasted in a long time. By that measure, how could it not?

As it turns out, the entrée, a mammoth braised lamb shank (accompanied by a gruyere gratin and some braised escarole), was quite good. Excellent, in fact. But it did not exceed the gnocchi.

In the lamb shank’s defense, I was already feeling full by the time it arrived. Remnants of a nasty, cruel flu-like illness were still lurking in my chest cavity, and, as a result, I had eaten so little over the past two weeks that I had lost two pounds without a lick of exercise. Also, we had already downed two-thirds of a bottle of red by the time the lamb arrived.

The lamb shank was incredibly flavorful and tender, pieces effortlessly dropping from the bone with only a slight prodding from my fork. The flavor, in fact, was too intense. The dish was so rich that I had to take each lamb bit with a little gratin and escarole to tame it. Even with this workaround, I ate not even a quarter of the lamb shank, apologizing to our waitress for letting so much food go to waste and cursing the fact that our hotel room had no refrigerator.


The next night we had 8:45 reservations at another well-regarded restaurant, August, run by an alumni of Mario Batali’s uber-famous Babbo (yet another place where 3 weeks was insufficient lead time to obtain a reservation!), Tony Liu.

The star of August is the wood-burning oven, which is where a majority of the dishes on the sparse, but intriguing, European menu are cooked. This includes, not surprisingly, the tarte flambé.

The flambé begins with a light, crisp, flavorful (dare I say perfect!) crust accented by just a little char. It was the perfect delivery vehicle for seriously luscious caramelized onions and bacon and red cabbage, all sitting on a bed of crème fraiche. Again, here we were, faced with a welcome dilemma, that the entrée could potentially be a disappointment following such a wonderful starter.

Our entrees were both well prepared. My wife had the whole oven-roasted orata and I had a really interesting (“interesting” in the best sense of the word, not the backhanded insult kind of way) baked farro pizzichi pasta, which had bits of speck, red cabbage, and a healthy dose of sage. These were new flavor combinations for me and were truly enjoyable. But my dish, at least, was not as good as the flambé. The orata was quite remarkable, but if I were forced to choose, I’d probably have another flambé.

I’m still kicking myself about the pizza. And I’m still dreaming about that gnocchi.

* Statue of Liberty image from Ellis Island Foundation Statue of Liberty picture page.

December 19, 2007

Looming Breakdowns?

Michael Pollan had an excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, discussing just what the term “sustainable” really means in the context of agriculture and food production.

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

He cites two examples of looming breakdowns to illustrate a larger point about the unsustainable practices in agriculture today, including one about the extreme reliance on antibiotics on huge factory farms, where pigs and chickens and cattle are raised in such tight, and terribly filthy, quarters that infections, once unleashed, can race through inmate population like horses at the beginning of a Triple Crown race.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands.”

And, by the way, it’s not just the animals infected with these resistant bacteria. According to a new Johns Hopkins study, it’s the people who work with them.

Poultry workers in the United States are 32 times more likely to carry E. coli bacteria resistant to the commonly used antibiotic, gentamicin, than others outside the poultry industry, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Currently 16 different antimicrobial drugs are approved for use in U.S. poultry production, with gentamicin reported to be the most widely used.

This is a huge part of why we try our best to buy our chicken, pork, and beef from local farms. The chicken and pork, in particular, not only tastes much better, but I know that I’m supporting farms that are doing things the “right” way – not damaging the environment, treating their animals well, and not promoting potential public health nightmares like rampant antibiotic resistance.

We’re fortunate to have access to these local farms and their products and, when necessary, to purchase meat sourced from somewhat more sustainably raised animals at places like Whole Foods. I know that’s not the case for a lot of people and I would never say that those with limited means should make sacrifices to purchase more sustainably produced products.

However, when scientists like Dr. Terry Etherton at Penn State – part of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff’s infamous Food Labeling Advisory Committee -- claims that people like me, who are concerned about the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in the source animals for our food supply, are just snake oil salesmen who are “anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science … who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers,” I’d like to take information like this Hopkins study and smack him over the head with it.

There are unintended effects, Dr. Etherton, of the way the majority of animals for food productions are now raised in this country. And while you may see unlimited use of antibiotics and growth hormones as an important part of the solution, there are mounting data that say using them in such an irresponsible manner on massive factory farms may be creating more problems than they are solving.

At the moment, their use may make a T-bone or a pork tenderloin more affordable for Joe and Jane American, but in the not-so-distant future, it may mean increasing rates of infections with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria or maybe increased rates of cancer. So if we’re going to debate the facts – which is what Dr. Terry Etherton says is the purpose of his blog -- let’s talk about all of them, not just a carefully defined subset.

As one funny and wise blogger once wrote: Just. Friggin’. Sayin’.

* Image from University of California

December 15, 2007

Scrapin’ Up the Bits: Bah-Humbug Style

I can’t really do it any justice, because I’m just not as familiar with the ins and outs of the Farm Bill as I’d otherwise like to be. But, I believe I can sum up the recent activities surrounding the Farm Bill in one sentence:

The Democrats are a bunch of craven, corrupt pieces of rotten (overfished) tuna who turned their backs on family farms and sustainable agriculture practices.

The Democrats failed to:

  • Place a meaningful cap on subsidies paid to already rich individuals who happen to operate a farm
  • For that matter, enact any sort of meaningful subsidy reform whatsoever
  • Prevent big meat packers from manipulating cattle prices
  • For that matter, enact any sort of meaningful reform to reign in Big Meat

What was it Dianne Feinstein said on the floor at one point after Democrats took majorities in both chambers? "Elections have consequences." Yes, apparently they do. Meaningless ones.

Let’s see, what other good news is there to report. Well, gee, wild salmon are headed toward extinction, clearly a positive development. And bluefin tuna — the tuna sashimi and nigiri so many sushi-eaters, including myself, love — aren’t far behind.

Been meaning to get to this, but Unbossed has THE LIST, that is, the list of members of the heretofore mysterious Labeling Advisory Committee convened by Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff to support his already-decided decision to force certain dairies to remove helpful language from their milk labels.

At some point, I’d love to dig into this list a little more, but, with the holidays upon us, the time just isn’t there right now.

I did notice that one committee member, Dr. Terry Etherton, has a blog on agriculture and biotechnology (he's clearly an unabashed proponent of the latter). His most recent post discusses the milk labeling issue. I wanted to leave a comment, but, alas, the “comment” function is disabled. This could be a Penn State-wide policy, since the blog appears to be hosted on the university’s Web site. But it isn’t real conducive to providing a forum for a discussion of the issues Dr. Etherton raises, including his criticisms of “countless [advocacy] groups who don’t care about the facts” because “[t]heir first priority is their agenda and raising funds to continue their campaigns of propaganda and false attacks.” Nice ad hominem attack there, Dr. Etherton.

Well, after all of this pleasant talk, the very least that can be done is to imagine something delicious, like chocolate truffles!

December 10, 2007

Hammin' It Up with the Ibericos

Courtesy of the New York Times, I saw last week that those living in the United States can now -- for the first time -- get their mitts on one of Spain’s most exquisite delicacies, Iberico hams.

These prized hams, which take more than two years to cure, are lush, almost mahogany-colored and deeply flavorful, streaked with creamy fat from the famous black-footed (pata negra) pigs of western Spain. Such luxury comes at a price. The ham will retail for more than $50 a pound.

In addition to being sold at high-end food shops, whole hams (boneless, about nine pounds; bone in, about 15 pounds) can be ordered from, with a deposit of $199.

The arrival of such a luscious-sounding style of cured pork product on American soil is true reason for celebration. But, as the Times article suggests, it may be a delicacy few will get to enjoy. In fact, the price for the whole 8.5-9 pound ham will be about $800. For those prices, it’s safe to presume that these hams will mostly end up in the kitchens of Spanish tapas restaurants, where a few paper-thin slices will probably run the price of an entrée. Why? Supply and demand, I suppose.

In the next few weeks, some restaurants and shops will serve and sell their allotments of the initial shipment of 300 hams from Embutidos Fermín, in La Alberca, Spain, the only producer that is authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture to export the hams here.

If the imports proceed without problems, more hams will arrive in coming months through Fermín USA, a partnership among Mr. Andrés, Embutidos Fermín and the Rogers Collection, a distributor.

Now, I happen to know one of the two fellows who run the Rogers Collection, and talked with him last year about these very hams. Getting all of the paperwork in order and coming into compliance with USDA regulations sounded like a formidable undertaking. I'm hoping to get some more details from him in the next few days about just how good these hams are and what restaurants or specialty stores will be offering it.

In a brief email exchange earlier this week, he didn’t comment on whether he thinks it's superior to Prosciutto de Parma. So, darn it, that’s something I guess I’ll have to investigate for myself next time I’m in D.C., probably in February. I can only hope that Jaleo, owned by famous D.C. chef José Andrés -- without whose help these delectable hams probably would not be available in the States -- will have some in stock so that I may gladly grossly overpay for some cured pork nirvana.

Or, even better, maybe the local -- and quite good -- Spanish restaurant Mallorca, or its adjoining tapas sister, Ibiza, will decide to hop on the Iberico wagon train. That's a call I suspect I'll be making very soon.

* Image from

Never Too Chilly for Chimichurri

Prior to this year, I had only had a true chimichurri — the famous Argentinean “sauce” for the country’s legendary grass-fed steaks and other meats -- once, at an Argentinean restaurant in Washington, D.C. It was good, but, to be honest, far from memorable.

Well, when we got some grass-fed beef earlier this summer, I wanted to try my hand at a chimichurri to accompany it. A quick Google brought me to a recipe by renowned Miami chef – and occasional guest on Top Chef – Michelle Bernstein. I made some modifications, which I included in brackets next to each ingredient. The results, given how simple the recipe is, were excellent. I made it again on Sunday to put on top of some small New York strip steaks from So’Journey Farms.

Nothing against the steaks, because they were very tender and quite delicious, but grass-fed is definitely a different taste than most Americans are used to. So some sort of sauce to tame the beef’s aggressive flavor is almost necessary, and this chimichurri is ideally suited to that purpose.

Traditional chimichurri

  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced [2 large garlic cloves; 4 just seems like WAY too much]
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper [1 heaping teaspoon]
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup of top-quality extra-virgin olive oil [Start with one-third cup and, if it seems to cover most of what you’ve got, you can stick with that]

Blend the parsley, vinegar, garlic, oregano, and crushed red pepper in a food processor until until smooth and then season with salt and pepper. Transfer the sauce to a bowl, pour in the olive oil, and let stand for at least 20 minutes.

December 5, 2007

Crostini for the Holidays

While laying in bed this afternoon, hoping that I just might be turning the corner on whatever this body-beating illness I have is, I caught the tail end of an old episode of “Molto Mario.” He was recreating a meal you would get at the Hotel Lancelloti in the Emilia-Romagna region, in northern Italy. Part of the meal included an array of crostini, or, as MM called them, crostini misti.

Occasionally we make what I guess would fall into the crostini category, a combination of a number of strongly flavored ingredients, but with roasted red peppers as the star. It has holiday-themed colors, and is really easy to make [Wish I had a picture. Made this just a few weeks ago and forgot to snap one. Doh!], so it's an ideal appetizer if you’ve got some friends coming over or as part of a small dinner party.

One important note: The measurements here are guesstimations of the highest order. The roasted red pepper, again, is the star, so should be the predominant component.

Roasted Red Pepper Crostini

  • 1 cup of roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup of large, tender green olive, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of red onion, finely diced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of capers, rinsed, drained, and roughly chopped
  • Two big swirls of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • A little salt and pepper
  • 1 fresh baguette, cut on the diagonal into half-inch slices

Preheat the oven to 325.

Combine the peppers through capers, swirl on the olive oil, add the salt and pepper, and lightly stir together with a spoon. Again, I typically wing this, so taste at this point and see what you think. Might need a little more of something or another. This is an easy preparation to remedy.

Put the bread slices on a baking pan, and toast in the oven for about 2-3 minutes, just enough to get lightly toasted, and then remove. Put a healthy spoonful of the red pepper mixture on each bread slice You don’t want to do this too early, or the bread will become soggy and fall apart while people try to eat.

December 3, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Bed-ridden style

Ahh, the holidays, time to decorate your house, buy some gifts, make merry, and, of course, come down with some dreaded sickness that leaves you flat on your back. So, a longer update on the milk label ordeal will be just a brief note, combined with some other odds and ends.

First, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to print an op-ed I submitted on this subject in its Sunday “Forum” section. Aw, shucks. Considering that I usually write slightly more technical stuff, I was just honored to be considered.

Over at Chewswise, a post written before Gov. Rendell stepped in to put these regulations on hold, has some interesting tidbits, including this one comparing organic producers, which undergo formal inspections, and those who aren’t organic but are synthetic hormone free:

Conventional milk producers can issue legal affidavits about their practices under penalty of fraud. But Pennsylvania closed off this avenue by saying that such affidavits were now unacceptable as a basis for label claims.

Next, it’s been a little while, but we have two very deserving candidates for Fast Food Abomination of the Month. The winners are Wendy’s Jalapeno Cheddar Double Melt, which the chain reintroduced this week for a “limited time only.” Ah, yes, two beef patties, lots of gooey cheese, bacon, and a heaping helping of (undoubtedly canned) jalapenos. What is it the kids say, these days? Oh, yeah. OMG! Not to be outdone, Pizza Hut has introduced the Double Deep pizza, which has double the toppings and 50% more cheese.” This is not pizza. It’s acid reflux in a cardboard box.

And, lastly, because I think it’s time to go get horizontal again, the other night I made a favorite of ours, pan-roasted pork chops. Although they are fantastic on their own, decided to make a quick sauce. So after I pulled the chops from the oven, I

  • removed them from the pan and put the pan on a burner
  • added half cup each of white wine and chicken stock (yes, it was store bought! Sue me!)
  • cranked the heat up to high
  • Scraped up the bits on the pan
  • And let it reduce, about in half, which took about 5 minutes, stirring it here and there.
You want a sauce here, so be patient and let it reduce and thicken. It was excellent. Highly recommend this little bit of extra work. UPDATE: Ooops. Totally forgot. When the consistency was where I liked it, removed it from the heat and added about half-tablespoon of somewhat softened butter, lightly stirred it in, and then poured it over our wonderful pork chops from Wil-Den Farms.