December 31, 2008

Ringing Out 2008 with a Recipe

It's been far too long since I've regaled my legions of readers (tee-hee) with a recipe. So why not end the year with one to which I can honestly claim authorship?

This recipe does have a specific inspiration: a recipe from the December '08 Food & Wine. While at the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for said salad -- which I was to take to my brother-in-law's house for Christmas Eve -- I couldn't find one or two of the specified ingredients.

So I started improvising, in my head at least, and came up with what turned out to be a pretty darn good salad, although one that is probably better suited for a more modest-sized gathering.

Mixed Greens Salad with Pears, Fennel, and Roasted Hazelnuts
  • 1 moderately ripe pear, cleaned and cut into thin matchsticks
  • Half of a fennel bulb (or more, if you like), cleaned and cut into thin matchsticks
  • Half cup of hazelnuts
  • Healthy quarter cup of shaved pecorino
  • Mixed greens (frisee, baby romaine, arugula, spring mix, etc.)
  • 2-3 tbs of sherry vinegar
  • 1 tbs of dijon mustard
  • Teaspoon or so of honey
  • 1/4 cup of good-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
Turn the oven to 400 degrees. Roast the hazelnuts on a pan for about 10-12 minutes, until the skins are dark brown. Remove, let cool for a minute, put in a dish towel and rub vigorously to remove the skins from most of the hazelnuts. Chop or smash up the hazelnuts into smaller chunks, but not to a powder.

Add the sherry vinegar, dijon, and honey to a medium bowl. Quickly whisk. Whisk in the olive oil, add salt and pepper. Taste: You want to taste the vinegar and a hint of sweetness. When the vinaigrette is where you like it, pour in most of the hazelnuts and give a good stir.

Put salad in a large bowl, top with fennel, pears, and pecorino shavings. Pour vinaigrette over top and give a good toss.
This would probably be a nice accompaniment to some beef or lamb or a hearty pasta.

Happy New Year!

* Image from HunnyBunnyLu on Flickr.

December 18, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Update style

Newsworthy items for your perusal, beginning with a few updates, courtesy of the PG:

Update #1 - Following in my footsteps, China Millman weighs in on Dinette.

If Dinette makes me this happy in the winter, I can only dream of the magic Finn will work in July. Right now, with many months of winter still ahead of us, I look forward to settling in for the long haul.
Think she liked it?

Update #2 - Some people are upset about the whole Penn Brewery thing. This letter-writer in particular makes a very good point...

Penn Brewery/The North Side is to Pittsburgh as Guinness/St. James Gate is to Dublin, Ireland. Think about it. Certainly, current ownership must appreciate the fact that far upstream in the Penn value-chain sits the historical and romantic appeal of Penn Brewery as an emotional "destination." Look at Guinness. Millions of people flock to St. James Gate to witness/experience Guinness, not just to buy a beer, and tens of millions more feel an attachment to the brand and choose it whenever they have the opportunity. Guinness has built a brand and distribution channel second to none, and Penn should focus on the same.

On to politics... So President-Elect Change picks as his nomination for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack from Iowa. Well, there was an outpouring from the sustainable ag community to pick a true progressive here, somebody who gets every angle of the importance of agriculture - protecting the environment, promoting organic and sustainable farming, stomping out the overbearing influence of agribusiness on agriculture policy.

And who gets named? A former Biotechnology Industry Organization's "Governor of the Year" awardee! The Ethicurean has a tidy little post that raises some of the concerns about Vilsack, but also highlights some of his more progressive leanings on ag policy.

I know President-Elect Change has said he sets the policy, that he's read Michael Pollan (who made his thoughts clear on the Vilsack pick on NPR today), yadda yadda, but this was an opportunity to put a real forward thinker in an extremely influential position and, well, he blew it. You know, pragmatism isn't always the best course of action, even if it's part of what won a presidential election.

Speaking of politics, particularly things like bailouts, how insane is this?

According to the [Wall Street Journal], the Italian government is planning a bailout for, of all things, the Parmigiano-Reggiano industry. The bottom line is that at current prices the cheese costs more to produce than it does to purchase; a cheesemaker cited in the article spends €8 to produce a kilogram of cheese that he then sells for €7.40.

As the post's author notes, this is definitely an industry for whom a bailout is essential. I mean, we're talking about the undisputed king of cheeses here...

And now, TWO recommendations:

First, for the gin martini drinkers out there, I highly recommend seeking out Bluecoat gin. Made in Philadelphia, it's produced from organic juniper berries. I almost hate to say it, I am starting to prefer it to Bombay Saphire.

I recently picked up a bottle on sale at a PA Wine & Spirits store. Think I'm gonna have to have me a Bluecoat Derby tonight.

Second, if you're looking for a place to go out to dinner, want to share your thoughts -- good or bad -- on a local dinery, etc., visit Urbanspoon Pittsburgh. Heck, you can even find little ol' me there.

Finally, as you're doing your holiday cookie baking -- which I strenuously try to avoid, leaving those duties to my wife, who is a far more skilled baker -- the New York Times offers some guidance on what most pastry chefs say is the single most important ingredient: butter.

December 15, 2008

One-Bite Review: Dinette is Awesome

It didn't take very long to get comfortable at Dinette, a very new restaurant in East Liberty. In fact, it took until the first sip of wine -- my first-ever, to my knowledge, of a Dolcetto di Dogliani (an Italian from Piedmont) -- to be perfectly cozy.

My wife's wine, a Toscana Zingari, was unlike any wine I've ever smelled or tasted. I'm fairly terrible at describing wines, and I also feel particularly pretentious trying to do so, so the most I'll say is that the Dogliani was a light red, fruity but not sweet in the least. I could have had 3 more. The Zingari had a dominant plum flavor, and wasn't something that could be consumed as quickly as the Dogliani. Aside from being astounded by the smell, my wife was initially unsure what to think about it, but by the last elbow tilt she pretty much loved it. Based on my two sips, I believe she was right.

Dinette on Urbanspoon

The reason I'm spending a paragraph on the wine is because it's apparent pretty quickly -- from a glance at the menu or the first bites of an appetizer -- that this eatery believes in the idea that every single drop or herb or bit of protein that goes into a customer's mouth is important. And considering that no bottle (all of which are available by the glass or bottle) is over $44, considerable effort must be expended looking for affordable but exceptional wines.

"Fresh" is also a key theme at Dinette. Our fritto misto -- a small plate of lightly fried veg, of which ours included onions, sweet potato, portabello mushroom, and sage leaves -- case in point. Thin, airy, and crisp, with no need for a dipping sauce or even a squeeze of lemon to improve the flavor. The beef carpaccio, delicate and super-thin layers of beef (top sirloin, is what I believe we were told) dressed with shaved fontina, little shreddlings of radicchio, hazelnuts, and a bare drizzle of a sherrye vinaigrette, was even better. Going back and forth between bites of appetizer and swigs of wine, my wife and I agreed that -- had we not another obligation -- we could have easily hunkered down for the evening.

[The second glasses of wine to accompany our entrees, see below, were (mine) a Nero d'Avola-Cabernet blend, and (wife) Cotes du Roussillon. Both excellent.]

The stars of the menu are the pizzas. And, as my daily checks of the menu for the last week or so suggest, while they appear to stay fairly consistent in terms of the theme ingredients for each pizza, each day can bring little variations.

We got two pizzas. Pizza 1: fontina, walnuts, carmelized onions (the sweetest I've ever tasted), and escarole. Pizza 2: brussel sprouts (sliced), grilled leeks, fresh mozzarella.

The crust was not as heavily charred as what you might get from a brick-oven pizza in Brooklyn, but with a little char on the nicely raised crust, a great chew, and a superb blend of toppings that elevated each pie. My wife preferred the brussel sprout pizza. I thought they were both great. However, if I had to eat just one of them -- that is, the entire thing -- the brussel sprout would probably be the choice, because I could see the sweetness of the onions on the fontina pie becoming a little overpowering after the third piece.

Although the menu says the pizzas are for one, they are a good size. Two appetizers (I'm really hoping the romesco grilled wings happen to be on the menu the next time we go -- they were not on the next day's menu!), one pizza, and a bottle would be a sumptious meal for many couples.

The interior: The entire front is composed of huge windows. Lots of stainless steel, including the tables, with orange chairs and accents. An L-shaped bar hugs the petite kitchen, meaning bar sitters can pretty much see everything being prepared.

It felt like the Jetsons meet Ikea, and it works very well. And right in the heart of the reviving East Liberty -- just around the corner from Whole Foods, next to a huge Borders, and with the Red Room twin bill, cafe and lounge, visible from the large windows on the restaurant's back side -- the foot traffic should be helpful.

A few other side notes. The chef/owner, Pittsburgh-native Sonja Finn, did a stint at the fairly famous Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Based on my limited forays with recipes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, the influence is pretty strong. Fresh ingredients, the frequent use of nuts, the focus on simplicity, among other things, really stand out.

Also, we had the pleasure of sitting next to the chef/owner's boyfriend (I coveted his romesco wings before we began talking to him!), and the decision to open Dinette in Pittsburgh, he said, was actually a competition between our beloved city, Raleigh/Durham, and San Francisco. Glad we won!

Finally, Dinette is also notable because of its focus on eco-friendly, sustainable practices, such as energy efficient equipment, lots of recycling and composting, and a heavy reliance on local/organic ingredients.

All in all, a great addition to the Pittsburgh dining scene. May it flourish for years to come.

NOTE: Image taken from Dinette Web site... because the pictures from my cell look like they're shot through night-vision goggles.

December 12, 2008

Penn Brewery - Is This Really Happening? Yes

I am surprised that this hasn't received more attention. The Post-Gazette has been on it. Based on my limited viewing, the local TV news folks are ignoring it, both on camera and on their Web sites. A search of that other Pittsburgh newspaper turns up one story.

In case you missed it, though, here's the terrible news:

The fate of the historic home of the Penn Brewery, Pittsburgh's first and largest craft beer maker, appears sealed this week as the owners prepare to leave the 19th-century structure with its custom brewhouse and restaurant for new quarters somewhere in Pittsburgh.

The last batch of Penn beer was being brewed there this week, while beer production starts at a contract brewery in Wilkes-Barre. Most of the brewery staff has been told it will be laid off by year's end. The restaurant is to close at the end of February when its lease expires.

The move is being forced, according to the new CEO of Penn Brewing, Len Caric -- who took over when Tom Pastorius, who founded the company more than 20 years ago -- by the property landlord's decision to raise the rent by 360%. In the current economic climate, I don't know who in the forseeable future is going to cough up serious dough for that location on the Northside, particularly because it seems impossible that it could be retrofitted to anything other than a restaurant. In that light, this move makes no sense.

After the last batches are finished on site, beer will be brewed under contract at Lion Brewing in Wilkes-Barre. Meanwhile, Penn will hunt for a new location in Pittsburgh.

Maintaining both the quality and unique taste of Penn's beers will be difficult, say brewmasters Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing in Downingtown and Chris Trogner of Troegs Brewing Co. in Harrisburg.

"Penn Brewery has a real identity in its beers, and it's just not in their best interests to contract it out," said Mr. Covaleski. "I've always admired Tom Pastorius and his beer, and I'm sad to see this happen."

I have seen hints on the intertubes of conspiracy theorists saying that this is all Mr. Caric's doing. But I find that hard to believe, based on the plans he announced for Penn Brewery earlier this year.

After Penn’s Kaiser Pils won a gold medal and its Octoberfest won a bronze at the Great American Beer Festival last week, Caric is poised to help led the brewery through some major changes.

“My goal is to make it (Penn’s brands) Pittsburgh’s beer,” Caric said. “We need to get western Pennsylvania as excited about it as we are."


Caric vowed to maintain Penn’s commitment to quality that led to its recent awards and many others.

But he also sees important changes that need to be made.

After convening with many of the brewery’s distributors, Caric’s first big decision is to redesign the packaging for Penn’s brands, updating its look and logo, as well as redesigning its 24-bottle cases into a two twelve-pack configuration to cater better to sales in grocery stores and convenience marts in other states. He has hired North Side-based Smith Brothers to undergo a full packaging redesign for Penn’s brands, including its main flagships, Penn Pilsner and Penn Dark, with the expectation of relaunching the brands in the next few months.

In snippets I could pick up here and there on the intertubes, there is speculation that this will be the end of an actual Penn Brewery in Pittsburgh, and that Penn beers will simply be contract brewed with the Penn Brewery only being a memory of some physical entity that once was but really no longer is.

The idea of no more Oktoberfest celebrations at that great facility, my kids' heads sopping wet under plastic green hats as they dance to German music and cover their ears as we hold up our 1/2 gallons chanting "oi, oi, oi" every half hour is truly sickening to contemplate.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, but some things should last for a mighty long time. And Penn Brewery is one of those things.

December 8, 2008

Talk to Obama About Ag

I'll keep this simple.

Talk to President-Elect Obama about food. And do it, well, like, now. Sign a petition heralded by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and others to pick a Secretary of Agriculture nominee who is a true champion of more sustainable farming and food policies that promote environmentally friendly practices, local food systems, and energy independence, among other little things.

Why? Well, 'cause the alleged shortlist -- of which there have been several bandied about -- for the Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama cabinet has been, well, a little lacking. Included among that list -- and something that still astounds me, even the fact that he was ever under consideration -- is Pennsylvania Ag Secretary Dennis Wolff.

You know, the one that last year LIED about all of the consumer confusion over hormone-free labels on milk. The one that aided Monsanto in using Pennsylvania as a test bed to push the regulatory argument that putting words along the lines of "hormone-free" on a milk label was a form of so-called "absence labeling" and thus should be outlawed, because consumers were SO confused that they were willing to pay more for milk from cows not treated with a poorly tested synthetic hormone. Yeah, that Dennis Wolff. Seriously, WTF?! How could this man be considered for anything other than a poster boy for somebody who should be on the short list to never be considered for Secretary of Agriculture?

The others on the shortlist, according to those who have been following this closely, is definitely not inspiring. Recognizing that this is a critical time if we're going to make the changes needed to bring some semblance of balance and safety back to our food production system, an Iowa-based organization calling itself Food Democracy Now! has put up the aforementioned petition, to be delivered to President-Elect Obama, for all who care about their food to sign.

So, again, please do.

November 26, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... 'Pity the Fool' Style

Perhaps I should spend more time tackling some of the interesting tidbits I come across as individual posts, but that's not always possible, which is where these neat little digests come in so handy...

To start with, two local items:

First, La Prima Espresso, that bastion of all that is good and delicious about sustainably produced coffee, has opened a new location in the Strip District. It's on Penn Avenue, right around the corner from the current location on 21st street. It's been open approximately a week at this point. In addition to continuing to produce the best espresso-based drinks in town, the new location features freshly made crepes, both savory and sweet.

Second, a new, organic-focused grocery store has opened in the Strip. Right by Nature is its name and organic and affordable is its game.

The store balances a mix of organic, natural and convention foods, a challenge that must meet the demands of available supply, and the needs of customers. ...

He said the store will be supplied directly by the farmers with whom he’s built long-time relationships, cutting out the cost of buying from distributors, which he estimated could reduce costs by 20 percent. To better establish his distribution system for Right By Nature, Stone expects to hire a few independent truckers, offering them a 1.5 percent equity stake in the business after they’ve worked a year. ...

“The people that need to eat healthy are the ones that some times can’t afford it,” he said, expecting the store to serve nearby urban neighborhoods such as the Strip District, Lawrenceville and the North Side. “We want to be an affordable grocery store.”

Moving outside of Pittsburgh
to danger on the nation's roads and highways, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered a unique method for the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria: being stuck in a car behind a chicken truck!

A study by the Hopkins researchers found increased levels of pathogenic bacteria, both susceptible and drug-resistant, on surfaces and in the air inside cars traveling behind trucks that carry broiler chickens. ...

Typically, broiler chickens are transported in open crates on the back of flatbed trucks with no effective barrier to prevent release of pathogens into the environment. Previous studies have reported that these crates become contaminated with feces and bacteria.

Brings a whole new meaning to safe driving, eh?

On a completely different topic, Men's Health magazine rounds up the "20 worst drinks," not by flavor, but by calories and sugar content, among other things. Why bother doing such a thing?

[A] study from the University of North Carolina found that we consume 450 calories a day from beverages, nearly twice as many as 30 years ago! This increase amounts to an extra 23 pounds a year that we're forced to work off—or carry around with us.

One of the liquid offenders was VitaminWater, which I don't drink often, but which I totally love. It clocks in at 130 calories, same as a 12 oz. can of Coke, which, BTW, happens to make VitaminWater. Oy.

Other offenders include:

  • Sunkist (worst soda)
  • Minute Maid Lemonade (worst lemonade)
  • Starbucks Venti White Hot Chocolate (worst coffee alternative)
  • And the Worst of the Worst, the Worst Drink in America according to Men's Health magazine, clocking in at 2,300 calories, 108 grams of fat... Baskin Robbins' Large Health Bar Shake.

Speaking of drinks that are likely chock full of calories, don't forget to purchase your compliment of holiday-themed beers. I recently spent a ridiculous amount of money on six packs of the following:

I highly recommend them all, in addition to Penn Brewery's St. Nikolaus Bock, which I really enjoyed last year.

And, finally, the inspiration for this particular digest, the one, the only, Miisssssterrrrr TEEEEEE! That's right, while flipping through the channels late Friday night, I learned that Mr. T has ventured into the world of cooking-related devices with his one and only... wait for it... FlavorWave Turbo Oven.

Now I understand that George Foreman -- also black, also still somewhat fit and muscular for his age -- has had tremendous success with his portfolio of grills. [Clarification: I understand that he has, in fact, sold a bazillion of these grills. I don't, however, understand why. Please continue reading.] But, aside from those with approximately $120 burning in their pocket for a potentially funny gag gift, who the heck would buy this thing?

The infomerical, of which I caught approximately 30 seconds, does include Mr. T's signature line, though, something along the lines of, "I pity the fool that try to cook that frozen piece of salmon."

November 12, 2008

Delicious and Dreadful

These stories really have nothing to do with much of anything other than I have some sort of connection to both.

First, from the New York Times, an audio review by restaurant critic Frank Bruni of Market Table in Greenwich Village in New York City. As the legion of long-time Lusty Bit readers will recall (cough, cough, snort, cough, chuckle, deep breath), my wife and I dined at Market Table last December on the first night of our whirlwind, two-day NYC visit.

I still remember the gnocci with bits of braised short ribs in a parmesan broth. To this day I can still say it's one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.

Listen to the review and take in the pictures. If you happen to make it to NYC any time soon, Market Table is well worth a visit, not only because of the quality of the food, but because of the relaxed atmosphere and the top-notch service.

Second, and last, what can only be qualified as a scathing critique: Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsma reviews the restaurant Redwood in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C. I lived in and/or worked in Bethesda for nearly our entire 12 years in the great swampland of Washington, and there was a time when not a weekend went by where we didn't eat out at some restaurant in Bethesda. There are tons of them, and more seem to open every time I go back for work.

Several months ago I walked by Redwood. With its mammoth windows and sheer size, from the outside it is something to behold. But according to Mr. Sietsma -- in whose taste I have unquestioning trust after many years of reading and taking action based on his reviews -- the food on the inside is just not very good.
A cake of diced beets and yogurt cheese isn't bad; it's just nothing I haven't seen or tasted in 100 other restaurants across the country. Mussels heaped in a heavy skillet are dried out and flavorless, an unpleasantness magnified by crostini that weren't so much toasted as scorched. Baked, stuffed clams, another way to start a meal, are smothered in a near-sarcophagus of breading. Although I'm not listening for them, complaints from nearby diners ("This isn't what I was expecting") reveal that I'm not the only unhappy camper at Redwood.
I'm somewhat fascinated by the restaurant industry. And I find myself not only thinking about whether I enjoyed the food at a given restaurant, but whether it has the right business model to succeed. Because of the sheer volume, Bethesda is a microcosm of the cutthroat, but often unexplainable nature of the restaurant business. Good restaurants that did all of the right things, at least from the consumer's perspective, would fail, while other restaurants that had mediocre food and service would survive, sometimes even thrive.

Sietsma touches on this in his review:
Now that I've eaten here several times, it's hard to explain the crowds. Maybe it's just a matter of location and good design.
In a place like Bethesda, which has become an epicenter of luxury living, it does appear that some restaurants can succeed, at least for a time, based solely on "location and good design." Places where, as the cliche goes, diners can see and be seen.

In Pittsburgh, from my limited experience, it's a mostly different situation. There are, from what I can tell, places where one can see and be seen, but there typically aren't epicenters of uber-activity where location and design alone are enough to draw in enough new diners to generate success in the face of mediocre food.

If anything, my concern is with the number of restaurants that have opened that aren't what the average person would consider to be affordable. Mio, in Aspinwall, for example, was Pittsburgh magazine's best new restaurant. But it's really expensive. It's not BYOB and I don't know if there is a bottle under $70. We had one fantastic meal there, but we don't get out very often, and there are now enough other quality restaurants to try that I don't see us returning there any time soon, in large part because of the cost.

And I don't think we're alone. On Chowhound, when "hounders" from other cities are coming to Pittsburgh and looking for recommendations, Mio is almost never mentioned by local "hounders." I have to chock a portion of that up to price, because the food was too good otherwise.

My hope is that, as new restaurants do open in Pittsburgh, more will pursue a business model based on affordable food. Provide a limited menu that changes enough to keep things fresh, and with a honest focus on doing everything well, instead of just a few stellar dishes and then other options that may be no great shakes, but at least they're what people expect. In a city like this, it seems, for nonchain restaurants to ensure long-term success in what will likely be a prolonged economic downturn, quality food at a good price seems to almost be a prerequisite.

Oh, oh! Time to go. The Top Chef premiere is on! God, some times I hate being a food dork!

November 6, 2008

Hope in the Hill District

On Nov. 4, I served as a volunteer poll watcher. I was assigned to a polling precinct along Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. This post has nothing to do with food. It’s just a recounting, not even in chronological order, of an interesting experience on what by many measures was a historic day.

It’s almost like a family reunion. The hugs flow. You’d never guess that many of these people see each other on at least a weekly basis. The mood is celebratory before anybody can be sure a celebration is even in order.

They’ve come to help Barack. Because that’s how the people here refer to Sen. Obama. He’s not a last name. He’s hope. He’s a friend. He’s what they’ve been waiting for.

“How you doin’, honey?”

“Today is a blessed day.”

“Mmm. Yes it is.”

There are other, almost alarmingly redundant, exchanges.

“Where’s the baby, sugar?” A question posed by the election officials – that is, the five 60-something women who might be more accurately described as the electoral matrons of this particular 5- to 6-block precinct in one of the poorest sections of Pittsburgh -- to numerous young women who, without a doubt, have only recently gained the legal right to vote.

“I just got off work. She’s with my mom.”

Others have their babies with them, often slung on a hip or waddling along beside them, boys in jeans and miniature knock-off Timberland hiking boots and pleather bomber jackets, girls with brightly colored pants and shirts and beads blooming from their hair. From the conversations, it’s apparent that many of these young voters have grown up in the Hill District. And now they have their own children. And all I can think: Do they have any hope of leaving, ever?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“I’m not going in there if she’s in there, that nasty woman. No, no, no, I’m not!”

Out of the poll stomps a prospective female voter, maybe late 40s or early 50s, a pinky peach sweatshirt with something about God on it, a sheer black headkerchief, wide-set eyes with pin-point pupils, and a scowl that practically drops off her face.

Back in through the double doors, and back out, more shouting, more insults. One of the electoral matrons is a nemesis, a long-held revulsion of apparently uncertain origins.

If there were going to be confrontations, my poll watcher manual explained, they were supposed to be between some outsider, somebody “challenging” another’s right to vote or trying to intimidate them into a voting a certain way or not voting at all.

Instead, the confrontation is between two insiders, one of whom is torn between her disdain for another and her desire to vote for Barack. Her perceived enemy, one of the election matrons, is paying her little mind. She’s got other voters to process.

After some more raised voices and stomping and scowling -- and some tag-team diplomacy involving myself and another poll worker volunteer whose lived along Bedford for 40 years and knows or at least recognizes nearly every person who has come in to the polls -- the aggrieved party signs her voter card, gets her stub, and casts her vote. Outside, a picture is taken on a disposable camera, the scowl transformed into a crescent-moon smile, to commemorate the day she voted for Barack, nasty woman or no.

The young voters have come today. Babies or not. Jobs or not. Some times with their moms.

It doesn’t take much to recognize that this is not a typical election day on Bedford Avenue. One young voter. Another. Another. Finally, a quiet young black man with a jacket that says “New Orleans Voodoo” across the back shuffles to the check-in table, yet another first-timer. Without being asked, he presents his identification. He is, not surprisingly, known to the matrons.

Before he can move to the machines to vote, the suggestion is made to give a round of applause for the young voters.

“It’s so nice to see these babies,” one of the matrons says.

“They ain’t babies today,” another replies.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The voting machines are both feared and embraced.

When the polls opened at 7:00 a.m., they were not functioning (“Why it always in the black communities the machines don’t work?”). With about 10 people in line, nearly half say they don’t want to use an emergency paper ballot. In black communities, they say, paper ballots get mysteriously thrown away.

Even so, the machines are typically approached with trepidation. Some voters are almost reluctant to touch them, scared they might accidentally vote for the wrong candidate and even more fearful that, if they do, they won’t be able to remedy the situation.

One woman is convinced something went wrong and her vote for Barack won’t count. The distress is very real.

“He needs that vote!”

After a few minutes of reassurance, of walking through the story several times, she’s satisfied that everything is all right.

The occasional neighborhood feuds aside, the mood is resiliently festive. Voters are smiling, lingering among the sunlit trees outside the community center that have been dispensing golden leaves throughout the day, gabbing with friends after they’ve finished voting, even escorting back others who have yet to vote.

But fear quickly disrupts joy. Two police cars are circling. The children and adults in the projects across the street stop. Breathing gets slower. Eyes locked on the black and white. Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, the same two cruisers move through the streets in and around the community center with intent, like hyenas waiting for an injured wildebeest to fall.

The manager of the community center -- another long-time Hill resident who has been joking and catching up with acquaintances as they come in and out of the polls throughout the day -- yells to somebody across the street, although who is not clear.

“Where my kids at?”

Are they young kids who she doesn’t want to get caught in any potential crossfire? Or are they older kids who she fears might be the hyenas’ target?

The same woman has been handing out goody bags to the children of some voters as they exit the polls.

“I got something for ya’. Go into my office and get a bag.” Halloween extras and a t-shirt in a brown lunch bag.

Soon the police are gone.

Late in the afternoon, voters trickle in to the poll in small bunches, coinciding with the arrival of Port Authority buses. By 7:00, the poll is quiet. The matrons are tired. I’m tired. Adam, an entertainment lawyer from New York and a poll volunteer who has been manning the sidewalk outside all day, is tired.

The quiet also reflects a growing sense of tension. Is it going to happen? Will the impossible actually occur?

The minutes wind down to the poll closing. The TV in the center manager’s office is reporting the first results.

I keep coming back to something I heard earlier, one of the matrons outside on a cigarette break talking to an anxious friend.

“We’re going to have a truly blessed day, so don’t let nobody steal your joy.”

November 1, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Spooktacular Style

A little bit 'o everything here. No need to mince words. I'll just get to it.

First, and this is not the first study to reach this conclusion, but a new study from the United Nations concludes that, in Africa at least, yields on farms that are organic or "near-organic" have superior yields compared to large industrial farms.
The study found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming. It also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought.
Next, and this is very late in coming, but if you didn't read Michael Pollan's latest in the New York Times -- a letter to the next president -- please do so now. It's quite long, but well worth the read. At the heart of this letter is a central proposal, to return to a food system based on the power of sunshine.
Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
More locally, Cafe Allegro, a Pittsburgh dining standard bearer for the better part of the last two decades, is closing. I never ate there, and had heard its better days were behind it. Nevertheless, it's sad to see.

Meanwhile, the Passport Cafe, a restaurant where I have only eaten lunch, gets raves from the City Paper.
The subtitle of Passport Café, a year-old restaurant in an upscale strip mall on Perrysville Highway, is "Global cuisine, local harvest." Worthy, to be sure, but ... not to put too fine a point on it, but lately every other restaurant we visit seems to tout a variation on this theme. What then, we wondered, would distinguish Passport Café? Let us count the ways.
That's a long way from this Post-Gazette review from nearly a year ago, not long after the restaurant opened.
With all this effort, I expected to be impressed. Instead, I found myself perplexed and disappointed.
When we eat steaks anymore, I've given up on the grill. Instead, I opt for the cast-iron, seared first on the stove top, and finished in the oven. While I enjoy a burger, the ones I make at home are just never that great. I place part of that blame on the grill and its lack of temperature control. I know it sounds like heresy, but I've been thinking if, for burgers, we should likewise abandon the grill altogether.

This, however, convinces me that a combination approach, may be worth at least one try. Now if I could only find those brioche buns!

October 29, 2008

Legume Meets (High!) Expectations

We had been in Legume Bistro in Regent Square -- aka, downtown Edgewood -- for a matter of 10 minutes, and already I felt like I had left western Pennsylvania. I won't say I had been "transported to a glorious place" or any nonsense like that, because then I'd have to slice off a pinky or something as punishment. But, at that moment, I did have a feeling of having escaped the boundaries of Pittsburgh.

And by the time I had chomped my first bite of a crisp crostini with chicken liver mousse and a sweet apple sliver, chasing it with a sip of a staggeringly good Spanish red wine, that feeling was completely substantiated.

I'm sure many people would recoil just reading "chicken liver mousse," and, to be honest, its color wasn't something that would instill lust in even more adventurous eaters. And I know that "chicken liver mousse" is a loaded term, conjuring up images of tacky chandeliers, funereal silence, musty odors, and waif-like waiters in black vests and skinny ties with slicked back hair and a built-in sneer for anybody who dares ask to split an appetizer.

But Legume is not that kind of restaurant, at all. It has simple food with obviously quality ingredients --much of it obtained locally -- prepared by what our experience there indicates is a skilled kitchen staff. It seats, by my guesstimation, about 40, in a rectangular room sparingly decorated with small prints of herbs and veg along the wall and diminutive lights and small, white round "platforms" hanging from the ceiling.

It's BYOB. And you'll drink your beverage from small, plain tumblers. The service is professional and friendly. The menu has a brief choice of appetizers and entrees, and an even more austere list of "sides" and desserts. The customers are not concerned with being quiet, nor should they be.

My wife's appetizer, just as delicious as my mousse, was warmed goat cheese and roasted pears, coupled with a single pickled sour cherry and bean. Again, very simple, but really enjoyable.

I had -- and still have, in fact -- a hankering for red meat, so chose for my entree the lamb shank with roasted carrots, radishes, salsify, on a bed of spaetzle. My wife had monkfish and mussels in a creamy and rich, yet light, broth with potatoes and leeks.

Both were excellent. The lamb was very tender and not overwrought with herbs, particularly rosemary, as is often the tendency even in better restaurants. The vegetables were cooked to perfection. I particularly enjoyed the salsify. The spaetzle was a neat touch. The monkfish melted in your mouth, and the mussels were as delicate as any I've had.

The lone disappointment was the dessert. A warm gingerbread with poached quince and whipped cream. It was adequate, but forgettable.

I'd been meaning to go to Legume for quite some time, and hope to return soon. Having been in operation less than two years, based on my limited experience, it's clearly among the elite class of Pittsburgh restaurants, without making you cringe when the check comes.

October 26, 2008

Seeds of the Pumpkin

It's always fun to jam a knife into a pumpkin, get your hands all dreadfully sticky with pumpkin goo, create some facial features that, once illuminated in the dark, look enticingly creepy. Yeah, that's fun, particularly if there are young kids spewing "groooss" and "ewww" as they bury their arms into a freshly decapitated pumpkin.

But let's face it. Cutting up a pumpkin is just a convenient excuse to make roasted pumpkin seeds. But I'm always surprised at the lack of creativity in the pumpkin seed recipes on the Web. Oil, salt, and pepper. Oooh. Should I dip them in ketchup, too?

It's not like it's very difficult to make roasted pumpkin seeds a little more exciting. Howsabout some butter, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and a few dashes of cayenne.

See, it's not that hard...

You MUST Buy "Last Known Position"

I'm not just asking this nicely. I'm telling you, sternly. I'm strongly advising you. If you know what's good for you, right now, use your mouse, click here, and buy the exciting, the riveting, the hilarious, the life-changing Last Known Position.

"What is Last Known Position?" you ask. Well, I suppose I can allow one question before you, right now, use your mouse, click here, and buy the exciting, the riveting, the hilarious, the life-changing Last Known Position.
These stories portray desperate characters driven to make desperate choices. Always on the edge of a dark and unpleasant reality, [James] Mathews' characters survive by embracing fantasy, humor, violence, and sometimes redemption. Each story bears its own brandof hopeless quirkiness. Four teenagers on an army base steal a grenade and are stalked by a parade horse. A drifter returns home to rob the grandparents who raised him. A national guardsman faces a homicidal superior officer in Iraq on the eve of war. An elderly man worries that his wife's new house guests are unrepentant cannibals.
Sounds intriguing, no? "Who is James Mathews?" you dare to ask. Hmmm. Well, I'm in a forgiving mood this evening, likely due to the hearty bowl of minestrone and glass of Malbec I enjoyed earlier this storm-swept evening, so I'll entertain one additional question. But please, my friend, I must insist that you not pose another query. Even the thought of it causes me to recoil with ... Mr. Mathews? Oh, yes, that's right. Your pesky question.

He's a friend.

So, before you draw your next breath, right now, use your mouse, click here, and buy the exciting, the riveting, the hilarious, the life-changing Last Known Position.

October 21, 2008

It Made Me Laugh, Cry, Want to Make Fondue... IMPORTANT Butter Update

10/26: Please see the "dairy section" comments for a vitally important update...

I don't know how common grocery store reviews are. Perhaps I'm breaking some type of new terra firma here -- I doubt it, but I got to use "terra firma" in a sentence, which is always a literary thrill.

But given 1) that I work out of my home and am fairly captive in the northern 'burbs of the city, and 2) my bordering-on-disorder obsession with food, it's probably not so terribly unusual to review the new McGinnis Sisters grocery store.

Located on Rt. 228, the store sits somewhat uncomfortably in the middle of a new plaza, surrounded by a mishmash of businesses, including a Pizza Hut, a Gilded Lily gift shop, and the unfortunately named Cribs to Teens (which I at first mistook as a place to donate your gently-used baby gear for purchase by expectant 16-year-olds). It also sits directly across the street from a Giant Eagle.

Around the Rim

With a nicely apportioned produce section to greet you upon arrival, this third store in the growing McGinnis Sisters' empire cannot help but evoke comparisons with Whole Foods. A good bit of the produce is either local or organic. The selection, not as extensive as Whole Foods by any measure, is nevertheless respectable.

I've already purchased baby artichokes (from which I sadly did not peel enough of the outer leaves before using in what would have otherwise been a really good pasta dish) and organic black mission figs, among other hard-to-find items. From what I can tell, very little of the produce comes from outside the United States.

The seafood department resides immediately to the right of the produce section, a brave move considering the potential for off odors to put off suburban soccer moms buying organic baby carrots. Much of the seafood comes from along the eastern U.S. coastline, and appears to be quite fresh. I don't believe I've seen any "previously frozen" labels on anything. We had an excellent piece of salmon one evening, but also had a mostly whole trout that bordered on "fishy." In the trout's defense, though, because of a change in plans the weekend we bought it, it had to spend two weeks in the freezer, which obviously doesn't do favors for any piece of fish.

Given that there are few other options in this neck of the woods for what can even remotely be considered "fresh" fish, the seafood counter at McGinnis Sisters is indispensable.

Just around the corner from the produce/seafood area is the meat department. Here you can choose from a wide variety of chicken cuts, all from chickens raised on Amish farms in Pennsylvania. We used (bone-in) chicken thighs from McGinnis for the fantastic braised chicken dish I mentioned in a previous post.

We have yet to purchase any beef or pork (except for some apple sausages I bought but have yet to make). Considering that I have most of a Wil-Den Farms' quarter-pig in the freezer and a decent-sized parcel of grass-fed goodness arriving from So'Journey Farm later this month, I suspect I will only occasionally need to procure any non-poultry items from McGinnis Sisters. Beyond these basic meats, there is a nice-looking assortment of lamb and buffalo available in the meat department, as well as processed pork products in the cheese/bakery area.

The dairy section has some unique surprises. The yogurt selection, disappointing at first, is getting better. Among the surprises are the half-gallon glass bottles from Brunton's Dairy in Aliquippa. When they're empty, you bring 'em on back to the store and get 50-cents back per bottle (actually, just taken off of your grocery bill at check-out). I really like that option and, according to one of the checkers, it's quite popular.

UPDATE: And, now, for the vitally important butter update... Geez. I totally forgot about another important surprise in the dairy section: Amish butter. Big, round hunks of bright yellow, tasty butter, pictured to the right, next to some milk, in a glass bottle. This has been a service of the emergency dairy service.

Around to the far side of the store now and you arrive at the bakery/deli/cheese section/prepared foods counter. The bakery has a nice selection of breads made in-house (the "Portuguese bread" is quite tasty), as well as from other local bakeries like Mancini and BreadWorkS. Nice to have a fresh ciabatta that has nothing more than flour, yeast, salt, water, olive oil, etc. and not a long, unwieldy list of preservatives like the allegedly "artisan" breads offered at certain grocery chains and big-box stores.

The cheese section is particularly noteworthy. Fairly substantial in size, the quality is slowing approaching exceptional. In addition to an excellent selection of cheeses produced in or around western Pa., it also has quality parmesan and romano, and a growing selection of top-notch cheeses, including several Beemster varieties and Maytag and Point Reyes blue cheeses. For the true cheese addict, this is dangerous territory.

I'll skip any significant discussion of the center of the store or the deli counter. This is not the kind of place where you're going to buy a lot of processed foods or typical, everyday groceries (e.g., juice boxes or snack crackers or household cleaners), although there is an acceptable selection of such items, including environmentally friendly cleaning items. The deli meats appear to be a notch above what's available at most grocery stores.

Watcha' Got Cookin'?

Where the grocery store succeeds on freshness, quality, and selection, the prepared foods section fails on culinary acumen. To be fair, I've only had a few items, including a pizza and an (Amish) rotisserie chicken. Both were disappointing.

Before this review turns decidedly negative, though, I have to mention the nice little cafe in the front of the store, complete with a flat-screen TV running Evil Food Channel programming. The paninis on offer look good. I'm looking forward to trying one.

However, one of the cafe's main attractions, the pizzas, need some help.

The pizza I ordered was supposed to be a margherita. It was not, at least by the classic definition, which is fresh mozzarella (in some cases, buffalo), a modest application of sauce, and some fresh basil. Mine was loaded with sauce and cheese and... pesto.

Yes, pesto (often) has basil in it. But that does not mean you can rightfully call the pizza a margherita. Call it something else, but don't call it a margherita.

Beyond what some might say are pure semantics, though, was the pizza's texture and flavor. First, if you're going to invest in a wood-burning oven, learn how produce a crisp crust. I want to feel the crust with my teeth. I don't want it to disintegrate the moment it hits my mouth. The bready part of the pizza is important. It should taste good and not just be a delivery vehicle for toppings, the equivalent of a paper plate. Of course, this is something nearly every restaurant or store or pizza joint in this country fails to understand -- or, rather, may very well understand, but has come to realize that, sadly, most people don't really seem to care. Just make something resembling a pizza and sell it for $10, with a chance to maybe get some lousy bread sticks or every tenth pizza free, and, voila, you've got a successful business.

Second, they obviously used corn meal to slide the dough in and out of the oven. Why? A little flour is sufficient. I don't want my pizza to taste of corn meal. If I want corn meal, I'll make some freakin' grits (well, not really, but it sounds far more dramatic that way, no?). So in every bite, competing witih the sauce and cheese and pesto (which, to be honest, wasn't too bad) and crust are little crunchy bits of corn meal. Ugh!

As for the rotisserie chicken. It was of a good size and was tender. But I can only assume that not one speck of salt, pepper, yet alone any other herb or spice, was applied to this otherwise fine bird. Now, I'm not expecting a Peruvian chicken, but a little strategic use of some flavoring elements would make a world of difference.

The Final Word

Overall, this is a really nice grocery store. For meat, produce, and cheese, it seems to compare favorably on price with its larger competitor across the way. But particularly in these hard economic times, that discount on gas consumers get for buying their groceries across the street may prove even more attractive, drawing away potential customers.

The prepared foods are -- at this point at least -- lacking. But I already find myself making at least two trips a week here: one for produce, milk, bread, etc. to supplement the trip to Big Chain Store across the street, and typically a second to pick up whatever else we might need for dinners during the latter half of the week.

In short, I hope this new McGinnis Sisters thrives. It has already raised the bar for other grocery stores, and is an extremely welcome addition to the Burgh's northern 'burbs.

October 9, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Overabundance Edition

So many things that have been worth discussing, so little time. This will be truly rapid fire.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, via The Ethicurean, an organization helping combat veterans become farmers.

We made this braised chicken recipe from Food & Wine. Mamma Mia. It was incredible!

Speaking of cooking, Harold McGee -- aka, the Curious Cook -- looks at how various types of pans perform with heat dispersion, among other things. Interesting stuff.

I recently pronounced my addiction to the Clif Kids Organic Z Bars. Grist provides an interesting Q&A (conducted by the Ethicurean's Bonnie) with the couple that started and still runs Clif Bar.

At Bloomfield's Little Italy Days several weekends ago, I had my first-ever "Italian Egg Roll." It as some rolled, fried zucchini stuffed with, as I recall, prosciutto, fontina, and some hot pepper. Unfortunately, it was a little soggy inside. A for concept, B- for execution.

I usually wait 'til just before Thanksgiving to cheer the arrival of holiday seasonal beers. But that's just not fair. There are some wonderfully executed (and some not so) pumpkin-inspired beers. I've really been enjoying Michigan Brewing Company's Screaming Pumpkin Spiced Ale. And, trust me, it is definitely spiced! Need to pick up one four-pack of Dogfish Head's Punkin' Ale before it's all gone. If it's not already.

And, lastly, coming soon: A review of McGinnis Sisters new location in Cranberry/Adams Township.

September 30, 2008

Where Did That Burger Come From?

Monday afternoon.

Man and wife in kitchen. Man slapping some ground beef into patties.


“Yes, dear.”

“Where did that beef come from?”

Jabs hand into plastic bag littered with tomato and lettuce bits. Pulls out black styrofoam with crinkled plastic wrap attached.

“Huh. It doesn’t say.”

This afternoon.

Wife and husband in kitchen. Wife, just done finely dicing some ginger, moves to put some chicken thighs into a hot pan.


“Yes, dear.”

“Where did that chicken come from?”

Jabs hand into plastic bag littered with cilantro stems, coconut milk can top. Pulls out white styrofoam with crinkled plastic wrap attached.


“It’s aboot time.”

Country of origin labeling on many, but by no means all, food is here. It has some glitches, however.

That’s because the regulations exclude a variety of foods that fall under the labeling requirement but are considered to be processed, including roasted peanuts, breaded chicken and bacon. The exemption for processed food also means that certain foods that are mixed together don’t have to be labeled, such as a bag of lettuce that includes both Romaine and iceberg, or a package of frozen peas and carrots.

Consumer and food safety advocates say they are generally happy with the rules, and relieved that the regulations are finally going into effect at all after so many delays. Still, they expect the guidelines will be puzzling to some consumers.

Frozen peas are a “processed food”? Technically, I guess they aren’t fresh out of the ground, so freezing and bagging required some sort of, well, process. But I don’t think frozen peas are what most people think of when they think of processed food.

It seems like where a food comes from should be a pretty straightforward question, eh? Me thinks me smells a regulatory nightmare.

The nearly final rules are now scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, and retailers will then have six months to make sure they understand the regulations correctly and come into compliance. The next step will be for the government to come out with a final set of rules, incorporating separate seafood and shellfish regulations, but there is no date set yet for that to happen.

Me thinks me also smells the wretched scent of industry lobbyists.

That’s one of the great things about this time of year. Much of the food we’ve been eating comes from Pennsylvania.

From within 60 miles of our house.

Often within 10 miles of our house.

Very often from our yard.

Maybe I should make my own label:

“Poblano pepper from garden 10 yards from back patio.”

September 23, 2008

Where's the Beef, Updated!

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to run an op-ed I penned on the safety of beef sold in the United States entitled “Where’s the Beef?

Figured I’d share some of the sources I used in developing it. First, though, is a correction to the next to last paragraph in the op-ed.

"I'm not holding my breath, though. In the past few months alone, federal regulators have proposed a rule that would effectively bar small family farms from providing their pastured or grass-fed beef to the school lunch program, as well as a second rule seemingly intent on pushing out of business the state-licensed, small-scale meat processors who service small, family farms."

Actually, the first proposed rule should have read “introduced legislation,” because it refers to a provision in appropriations legislation that covers the USDA introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), which I believe is, at the moment, going nowhere. The provision is this:

Beginning with the 2010 school year (that starts in July 2009), the bill includes language that requires USDA to purchase for the School Lunch Program meat products that are derived from livestock premises registered with National Animal Identification System.

Because AMS is a major purchaser of meat products through the School Lunch Program, this proposal would generate significant market-based incentives to strengthen the department’s voluntary animal ID system and support livestock producers and other premises that signup for USDA’s system.

I wrote about this potential travesty in July.

As for the second proposed rule, Elanor at the Ethicurean recently reported the lurid details.

Other sources that came in handy in developing the article:

Whole Foods recall - the Marler Blog.

Factory farms - in addition to books like Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, PBS’s Frontline did an excellent series called “Industrial Meat.”

More on factory farms (including the burden they place on tax payers) - a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs Uncovered.

As for the related news...

First, a new study out of Johns Hopkins that demonstrates how the media has effectively ignored the global warming impact of our global food system, including all of that methane from the cows on those factory farms.

Ironically, for space purposes, I cut this line from an early draft of my op-ed:

Funny, though, that even the most ardent proponents of taking actions to limit the emission of greenhouse gases choose to ignore this inconvenient truth.

And finally, and not surprising in the least, is that a new law that was supposed to let consumers know the country of origin of the beef they are buying has a massive loophole in it that benefits the, you guessed it, big-a#% meat packers.

Shocking, I know.

September 20, 2008

Vino & Vittles at Enrico

My wife and I had the pleasure last Friday to join some friends for the first-ever wine dinner at Enrico Biscotti Company using Enrico’s recently launched Carlo’s Garage Winery line of vino.

The wines, Enrico’s very personable and very verbal – in a very good way – founder Larry Lagattuta explained, are made in the basement of Enrico’s, which used to be, you guessed it, part of Carlo’s Garage, where Carlo fixed cars and, you guessed it again, made wine.

If I heard correctly, the grapes for the Vidal Blanc, the lone white, come from Erie of all places, while the grapes for the three reds come from California. But don’t quote me on that.

Overall, it was a really nice event, the kind of night out you can’t get in many cities. Sitting back in the Enrico café, an assortment of small and large tables with simple white coverings, some slices of bread and small white bowls of olive oil and olives resting on them, the smell of the cracking brick oven: A very cozy, comfortable kind of place to eat a little food, drink a little wine, snicker and giggle and chomp your way through a relaxed evening.

The food was simple and, on the whole, well executed. The wines were very enjoyable, really exceeding my expectations, and, I think it can be safely said, those of our little group. And our hosts just kept pouring it!

My wife and I both felt that the star wine of the evening was the Vidal Blanc, which was very refreshing and had a welcome fruitiness without being sweet in the least. [Note: it’s against my personal beliefs, religion, etc. to describe a wine in any more detail.]

The menu:

First course – Fire-roasted jumbo shrimp in a citrus-hot pepper marinade accompanied by some napa cabbage slaw, paired with the Vidal Blanc.

Second course – Pork tenderloin with a blackberry compote (at least that’s what I’m calling it), paired with the Strip Blend Red Table Wine.

Third course – St. Andre triple cream cheese (from Penn Mac) with a honey laced fig on top of lavash (that is, a large cracker), paired with the Petit Sirah.

Fourth course – Lamb ragout over fresh parpadelle, paired with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Desert – Flourless chocolate cake and pistachio ice cream, paired with whatever wine you requested.
The best courses were the lamb ragout and the triple cream cheese/honey/fig. Both paired very well with their respective wines… well, after 4 or 5 glasses, plus an earlier drink at Kaya, at least I think they did.

In any case, I highly recommend contacting Enrico to get on the list for future wine dinners, as well as their usual “First Friday” dinners, which, as you may have guessed, are held the first Friday of every month.

September 19, 2008

Celebrating Local Food

The line up of events the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has pulled together for its Local Food Week is pretty impressive.

There are tasting dinners at Eleven and Soba of Big Burrito Group fame, a dining event centered around honey at Enrico in the Strip, "Green Drinks" at Bossa Nova downtown, and a bunch of events at various farms. Heck, there are even some attractive dinner events at Pines Tavern and Passport Cafe out here in the northern 'burbs.

Just hoping to make it to one of them.

September 12, 2008

What to Think in a Situation Like This?

I have professed my undying love for Lucy's banh mi. But I'm not sure how to react to this?

Mr. Cole said county health inspectors can post a yellow "Consumer Alert" decal for repeated, uncorrected critical food safety violations. Restaurants have 10 days to solve the problems or they could be shut down, he said.

Last year, three such alerts were issued among some 7,500 food facilities in the county, which includes establishments such as caterers, mobile vendors and grocery store deli counters. So far this year, there have been four alerts: at The New Oriental Wok in Lawrenceville; Plum Convenience Store in Plum; My Ngoc, Strip District; and Moby Fish and Chicken, Downtown. All four alerts have been lifted.

The restaurant highlighted in bold text above is the restaurant outside of which Lucy makes and sells her delectable banh mi. Now, in a sense, I could be reassured, because Lucy does most of her work outside of the restaurant: the chicken is on the grill, the jalapenos and red onions and cilantro and carrots are in small plastic containers, the baguettes come out of a small plastic bag just behind her, etc.

How much of the prep work goes on in the inside kitchen that had the little problem with the "uncorrected critical safety violations" I don't know. For now, I'm going to give Lucy the benefit of the doubt, because those sandwiches are one of the great joys in my life (whether that's a sad statement, I'll leave others to judge). But, if for some reason that ever changes, at least I've got Reyna's and Chicken Latino to always fall back on.

September 4, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Slow Food Nation Style

But first, though, it wasn’t your traditional Labor Day sorta meal, but it was quite delicious, and made ample use of the bounty from our CSA and our own little garden.

It included roasted red pepper soup, roasted cauliflower in an anchovy vinaigrette, and grilled branzino fillets topped with an almond picada.

Slow Food Nation was held this past weekend in San Francisco. I’ve been critical of Slow Food – well, in comments on other food blogs, at least – but I’ve read some good things about this event in the last day or so, including this post from Iowa chef Kurt Michael Friese, which has made me soften my position somewhat.

The same said post includes what sounds like a wonderful tomato pesto recipe, and some details about the roots of pesto about which I was not aware. As good as it sounds, Elanor’s recipe for pasta topped with pan-roasted tomatoes, pesto, and fresh ricotta sounds even better!

Something else that emerged from Slow Food Nation: the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture. It is, in essence, a Ten Commandments of how our food and agricultural system should function -- except that it has 12 principles or commandments, etc.

And it’s a draft, with comments being accepted for the next 90 days.

And I think I’m finally going to have break down and try some of these artisan, sustainable spirits. Or as the Washington Post’s Jason Wilson calls them, “slow spirits.”

Finally, to end with something about what can be the slowest of foods, fungi. The take-home message is this: warnings about making sure you go mushroom hunting with people who know what they’re doing are important for a reason

August 27, 2008

Statement of Grave Concern

Below is the text of a recent letter to the dean of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. It was also posted to a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture message board. The “statement of grave concern” is both intriguing and disturbing, and for those who aren’t immediate members of the local agriculture community but who, like me, just like to eat what those guys produce, is a real eye opener.

I’ve bolded some sentences to add emphasis, and I have some further commentary after the letter, but be sure to read the whole thing. Also, let me apologize in advance for being such a techno-idiot that I cannot figure out how to do that “read the rest of the entry” thing. I’ve tried a few times, but failed. In either case, happy reading.

Statement of Grave Concern

August 19, 2008

To: Robert D. Steele, Dean, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

From: Timothy LaSalle, CEO, Rodale Institute
Leslie Zuck, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO)
Kim Seeley, President, Board of Directors, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA)

Pennsylvania Ag Progress Days is one of the state's premiere annual events to showcase the best of Pennsylvania agriculture. The 2008 edition of this event comes after a year when food costs, food safety, food v. fuel use and even food sufficiency have been major news items.

It is therefore deeply disappointing and frankly shocking that members of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences have announced a departmental slate of workshops that attack a number of approaches to farming that are benefiting hundreds of family farmers across the Commonwealth. Many of these feature human, environmental or animal advantages documented by research -- some by research at Penn State.

A July 28 press release titled "See agricultural myths busted during Ag Progress Days," promises "we will investigate and analyze some widely believed agricultural misconceptions and scientifically show why they are false." Some of the myths promised to be "debunked" include:

  • "High Milk Production Burns Out cows"
  • "Organic Therapies are Better than Conventional Antibiotic Treatments"
  • "Grass-fed and Organic Beef is better for Consumers" and
  • "rBST-Free Milk is Better for Consumers"

The "myth-buster" topics listed in the release are simplistic and sweeping statements about organic animal-health therapies, grass-fed and organic beef, rBST-free milk and agriculture's impact on the environment. This format reduces complex issues of animal, human and environmental well-being to a true-or-false treatment of selected facts. There is no indication that the workshops will be careful examinations of how Pennsylvania agriculture can become more ecologically sound or produce food that is more healthful through many different agricultural approaches.

Because of benefits to their health, well-being and profitability, hundreds of Pennsylvania farmers have chosen to farm organically. With the even greater numbers who have adopted grass-based dairy or beef production, these farm families have experienced greater profit potential and seen empirical evidence of changed conditions in their fields and herds.

It is profoundly troubling, then, that the Penn State planners of these workshops would so recklessly disparage the value of products being marketed by Pennsylvania farmers. In the case of certified organic farmers, these individuals have complied with precise process rules listed in federal regulation sanctioned by the USDA. It is further troubling to have the animal science department at Penn State take a propaganda-like approach for a narrow special interest group.

Innovative farmers and farm organizations in Pennsylvania expect our Land-Grant university to be a leader in improving the sustainability of agriculture in a period when fossil-fuel based inputs are more expensive and scarce and it's increasingly imperative to remove farm chemicals from our waterways. At the same time consumers are demanding more local food produced with less energy-intensive methods and toxic chemicals in more transparent processes.

Timothy J. LaSalle, Ph.D., is CEO of the Rodale Institute. … For 12 years he was a full professor at Cal Poly, where he taught dairy science classes and served as the president and CEO of California's Agriculture Education Foundation. While at Cal Poly, LaSalle started and operated a conventional dairy near Templeton, California. He issued this statement on the release:

"As a dairy scientist, I find Penn State's treatment of organic dairy management unobjective, unscientific, unprofessional and deleterious to many livestock farmers in Pennsylvania who are making extra efforts to farm well. Replicated research shows that there are nutritional benefits in organic milk that are beneficial to human health. This approach also dismisses the legitimate concerns of tens of thousands of Pennsylvania consumers who are benefiting from the documented health benefits from organic foods, especially animal products."

Leslie Zuck is a co-founder and Executive Director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a graduate of Penn State University (1980). She owns and operates Common Ground Organic Farm in Centre County and served on the advisory board for Penn State's Organic Transition Project, which can be viewed on the bus tour at Ag Progress Days. She issued this statement on the release:

"Scientific, peer-reviewed studies published by reputable universities and research organizations show the health and environmental benefits of organic, pasture-based and rBGH-free food and farming systems. It is irresponsible for Penn State researchers to use the Ag Progress Days venue to "scientifically show why they are false" (quote from Brad Hilty, Penn State senior extension associate). It is exceedingly unprofessional for an institution of Penn State's caliber to stoop to sensationalizing an important and controversial topic rather than approaching it directly with fair, accurate and well-balanced discourse. This event perpetuates the myth that there is only one way to farm - big, industrialized, highly capitalized, resource intensive - Penn State's way.

"It is a mystery to me why Penn State is unwilling to support organic farming, which is the only sector of agriculture that continues to grow in our state. While farms are going out of business due to lack of profits or lack of interest by future generations, organic production provides an opportunity for families to stay on the farm, produce healthy food, protect the environment and receive a stable income. While we appreciate Penn State College of Agricultural Science's offering several courses in organic production for the first time this year, we are certainly mystified by this unwarranted attempt to steer consumers and farmers away from organic food and production methods.

"We suggest Penn State issue an apology to the thousands of organic and sustainable farmers of Pennsylvania who are working hard to produce high-quality, nutritious and healthy food for our Commonwealth."

Kim Seeley is president of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), co-owner of Milky Way Dairy Farm and co-founder of Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op. Both farm enterprises supply Penn State's sister school, The Pennsylvania College of Technology food service, with all of their fluid milk and a majority of their ground beef requirements. He issued this statement on the release:

"Unfortunately this is what I have come to expect, since graduating from Penn State 30 years ago. I realized then how research money was having a growing influence in the Land Grant university system. Regrettably for Pennsylvania dairy and beef farmers, the Department of Animal and Dairy Science has been infiltrated the most with an unparalleled lack of respect for the basics of animal husbandry and denial of the intricate differences in nutritional content of animal byproducts from those produced on pasture or by organic methods.

"Recently the Northern Tier Sustainable Meats Co-op funded research at Penn State (not via dairy/animal science) looking at fat-soluble vitamin levels in ground beef samples from cows fed on pasture and stored feeds. The results of this research tell the story clearly, production methods create very different end results. Each of the past 5 years, I have guest lectured at Penn State for a course entitled "Morality and Ethics in Agriculture," and when I show butter and cheese samples from grass-based cows, compared to our winter samples, the students are wide eyed and openly admit they are only studying an industrial approach to dairy/animal science."

Now, admittedly, this is a one-sided argument. But I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to these letter writers.

Having written about medical research for more than a decade, I know that universities get money from industry and industry front groups for all sorts of things, including funding research, supporting educational programs, etc. And it’s clear that some times this funding can create bias, some times unintentional, toward products produced or positions taken by those industries.

But reading this letter, one gets a clear impression that these folks believe the Penn State Ag program is lock, stock, and barrel in industry’s back pocket. And there is some evidence to support that.

When, for example, I was doing research for the op-ed on the milk labeling controversy I had published in December in the Post-Gazette, I came across the blog of Terry Etherton (although this blog doesn’t allow comments, which, IMO, means it really isn’t a blog).

Dr. Etherton is head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State University. The following is some of the text from the “about this blog” section of his blog:

There are many anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science activist groups who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers. This is done to hinder adoption and use of the products of biotechnology for agriculture. These attacks are slanderous and falsely imprecate the scientific method and many reputable scientists in the United States and throughout the World who are striving to move society ahead. One objective of this blog site is to champion science and scientists who are pursuing the greater good, to help society move forward.

To begin with, it is hard to fathom that any respected scientist could produce such… well, let’s be honest about it, drivel. I have spoken with some of the country’s most well-respected researchers on topics like infectious disease, cardiology, and cancer, and I’m fairly certain none of them – or at least 99 percent of them -- would ever post/publish such a generalized ad hominem attack.

I must wonder if, in Dr. Etherton’s mind, this paragraph describes people like the writers of the above “Statement of Grave Concern.” They may be, in many respects, anti-biotech, but I think one would be hard-pressed to say they are anti-ag or even anti-science.

According to Dr. Etherton, those who don’t think pumping cows full of hormones to squeeze a little more milk out of ‘em -- damn the cow’s health or any potential threat to the public health (threats that people like Dr. Etherton argue do not exist, based on little data in actual humans) -- doesn’t want “to move society ahead.”

Personally, I would consider things like promoting organic methods for producing crops and milk and meat (which protects the environment and improves soil quality, among other things), and reducing the use of chemicals and pesticides that can infiltrate and destroy water ways and harm people and animals the ideal example of “moving society ahead.” But I’m just silly that way.

Reading through some recent posts from Dr. Etherton’s blog also demonstrates, well, should we call it a disdain for any sort of agricultural practice that doesn’t involve inputs that line the pockets of biotech companies like Monsanto. For example, one recent post highlight a study published in the “prestigious” Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The study, he explains, “found that there were ‘no meaningful differences’ in the composition of milk with the three different label claims,” those claims being “conventional,” “hormone/rBST-free,” or “organic.”

I’m in no position to judge the quality of this research. I freely admit that. Although I could point out that the objections to milk from rBST cows aren’t strictly relegated to human health concerns (not that this study in any way alleviates those concerns – you need to take an exhaustive look at actual humans to do that!).

But given the theme of the “Statement of Grave Concern” that prompted this post, I’ll just end with something very simple, from the “authors” box of the paper: the affiliation of the lead author and the majority of the others listed as co-authors…

J. Vicini is a senior research fellow, J. Ballam is lead for biostatistics and data services, R. Staub is lead for molecular and cellular biochemistry, D. Goldstein is director of medical toxicology, R. Cady is technical product manager, and M. McGrath is senior lactation physiologist, all at Monsanto Company LC, St Louis, MO.