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.