Primanti’s – A Pittsburgh Institution

They are synonymous. Pittsburgh and Primanti Brothers. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve been in Pittsburgh just shy of two years now and the famous Primanti Brothers sandwich has eluded me. There’s a Primanti Brothers in every neighborhood and I’ve walked past them hundreds of times but never stopped to sample their famous sandwich – until today. Primantis

The story of the famous Primanti Brothers sandwich starts in the 1930′s during the height of the depression. Joe Primanti had a sandwich cart in the Strip District, which was a major manufacturing hub in Pittsburgh. The Strip is set along the Allegheny River and lined by railroad tracks, making its location perfect for moving huge amounts of materials and products. It was home to many factories and mills and companies like U.S. Steel, Westinghouse and H.J. Heinz all had huge operations in the Strip. In the 1920′s, The Strip was the economic hot spot of Pittsburgh and given the number of workers in the area, it was only natural that purveyors showed up to serve their needs. Joe Primanti was selling sandwiches to the shift workers and truckers who were coming and going at all hours of the night. His sandwiches were filling, inexpensive and a huge hit with the locals. Joe decided to expand and he opened a small storefront with the help of his brothers. From there, Primanti’s became a Pittsburgh institution, serving good food for a good price to hungry workers.

primanti menuThe Primanti’s sandwich (or “sammich” as it is known in the Burgh) is unique in that it has coleslaw AND french fries right in there with the meat and cheese. That’s right, nothing is served on the side, its all on the sandwich. Absurd, you say? Not to Pittsburghers. Primanti Brothers has 17 locations in the city and suburbs and has opened 3 shops in Florida, just for those Pittsburgh expats who need their hometown comfort food. When I first learned of this singular sandwich, I was a little taken aback. Cole slaw is one thing, but french fries ON the sandwich? No way. But it truly is a Pittsburgh thing. You can also find any number of dishes, such as salads, served “Pittsburgh style”, which means they have french fries on them. So, I got to thinking about this local delicacy and decided it was high time for me to dive into the deep end. I decided to take a Pittsburgh native with me to guide me through my first Primanti’s experience. I took my coworker Joey, who ate his first Primanti’s sandwich at age 5.

The Primanti’s sammich is served according to the decades old tradition, always on thick, white Italian bread, always served with meat, provolone cheese, tomato slices, fresh cut fries and their own special coleslaw, which is dressed with a vinegar dressing and lots of ground pepper. They actually squeeze the extra liquid out of the slaw to keep it from making the sammich soggy. There is no mustard or mayo, no lettuce or pickles. It is what it is and that’s all that it is. I have been warned about special orders. Apparently, if you ask for your sammich without tomatoes, they will throw the tomato slices at you. The rule at Primanti’s is that you take your food how it is served. If you don’t want tomatoes, you can pick them off yourself. The Primanti’s sandwich does offer a few choices, however. You can choose what kind of meat you want and there is a wide selection of meats from salami to knockwurst to fried fish. You can choose provolone, swiss or American cheese. You can add fried onions or a fried egg to your sammich. They also serve wings, nachos and just fries at most locations. But if you want a sammich, those are your choices. Joey suggested that the capicola and egg was a good way to start, so I followed the advice and ordered the “cap and egg”.

sandwichThe sammich is tall and looks a little daunting. Surprisingly, though, it actually holds its shape quite nicely, considering the ungodly amount of french fries and coleslaw on this thing. The portion of meat is relatively small in relation to the rest of the stuff on this monster. And no matter how big your hands are, they look small wrapped around this sammich. Its huge. I surveyed it for a few minutes with an en engineer’s eye, trying to figure out just how I was going to get a bite out of this bad boy. But once I bit into it, the bread began to compact and it squished down enough to eat. The fries were piping hot and the slaw cooled off the roof of my mouth which suffered some burning from the scorching hot fries. The egg was fried hard, so there was no runny yolk, which was a little disappointing because I was craving some viscosity to help the whole thing go down a little easier. But all in all, it was quite delicious and satisfying.

No doubt about it, this is a major gut grenade. I made it through half the sandwich and had to stop. I did force a couple bites of the other half, but my pants were starting to cut me in half and I was uncomfortably full, so thought it best to quit eating. We walked back to the office and the fresh air and exercise helped a lot. But I was pretty much done for the day and my afternoon was not terribly productive. Now I can say that I’ve had my Primanti’s sammich, but it might be years before I travel down that culinary road again. After lunch

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Crunchy Granola

Well, it has finally happened. My thoughtless and cavalier approach to my diet has finally caught up with me. I have been informed by my doctor that I have got to lose some weight and I have six months to show significant progress. My health is on the line here and that is serious business. I have embarked on a plan to get myself to a reasonable level of fitness for my age. This includes watching my caloric intake like a hawk.

This is not the first time I’ve made this kind effort. And I know I’m not alone. Weight loss is a gazillion dollar industry as America faces an epidemic of diabetes. But everyone is different and what works for one person might not work for all. For me and my particular health situation, I have decided to cut out carbs, sugars and processed foods and stick to a very low fat diet. I’m eating a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, low fat proteins, fat free dairy and whole grains. Breakfast has always been a challenge for me. Unless its Sunday morning and there are pancakes and bacon involved, I’m not much of a breakfast person. For the past 5 or 6 years, my breakfast of choice has been toast with butter and jam, none of which is included in my current diet plan. So, my first big change starts with the first meal of the day, the one nutritionists say is the most important. And what better way to start the day than with whole grains. I decided to make granola my breakfast of choice.

granola ingredientsMost commercially made granola is heavily processed and loaded with sugar and preservatives. And the granola that isn’t highly processed costs a small fortune. When I priced the ingredients, I discovered that I could make my own granola for a fraction of the cost. In addition, making my own granola would allow me to control the amount of sugar and fat and I could make it exactly the way I like it. While there is sugar in this recipe, it is a much smaller amount per serving than you’d find in a store brand. I found a recipe, adjusted it according to my own taste and procured what I needed. The oats, sweetener and oil are the key ingredients, everything else up to your personal taste. You can use any kind of nuts you like, any kind of spices and you can even add things like coconut, flax seed or wheat germ. This recipe makes a lot of granola, but you can always cut it in half if you want.

FRUIT AND NUT GRANOLA
6 cups of rolled oats
half a cup of dark brown sugar, packed
half a cup of honey, maple syrup or a combination of the two (I used raw honey and local maple syrup combined)
half a cup of canola oil
1 cup of almonds (slivered, sliced or whole. i like mine whole)
1 cup of chopped walnuts (I like big chunks)
1 tbsp of vanilla
1 tbsp of cinnamon
The zest of one orange, grated
half a teaspoon of salt (it balances out the flavor)
1 1/2 cups of raisins, dried cranberries or dried cherries, or a combination of any dried fruit you like

granola in bowlGood granola is quite simple to make. Even though the oven temperature is relatively low, it does burn easily, so you really have to keep an eye on it while it’s baking. Set your oven to 250 degree, line two baking sheets with foil and spray them with non-stick cooking spray. In a big bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, nuts, seasonings and zest. In a small bowl, mix together the honey, maple syrup, vanilla and oil. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix everything very thoroughly to insure that all the oats and nuts are coated, making sure to break up any clumps of brown sugar as you mix. I found that my hands were the very best tools for this job.

Once your granola is thoroughly mixed, spread it out onto the baking pans in even layers and place them in the oven. Your granola will take an hour and a half to toast properly, but you will need to stir it up every 15 minutes or so to make sure its cooking evenly. granola in jarAnd it might take less time depending on your oven. The finished granola should be deep brown and crispy, but not burned or overly dark. Keep an eye on the nuts. If they look like they’re getting too browned, take the granola out and it will probably be done. When it’s still warm, sprinkle the dried fruit over the top and gently toss it it to warm slightly. Let the granola cool completely before putting it in airtight containers for storage. It should last for at least a month if not longer. Homemade granola is great mixed in with yogurt, added to your favorite fruit crumble topping or just by itself with ice cold milk. It also makes an excellent gift sealed in a decorative jar. And your house will smell fantastic for the next coupe of days. Granola isn’t just for hippies, its good for everyone! Give it a try.

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The Best Pasta I Ever Ate

About five years ago, I bought a pasta machine at a garage sale in Concord, NH for about $3.00. It had never been used and I had every intention of making fresh pasta. It just never happened. machineMy old kitchen was small and my storage space was so limited that my pasta machine spent a couple years sitting on a shelf in the hall closet. I guess I kind of forgot about it. My new kitchen is roomy with an abundance of storage and every time I open the cabinet, I see that virgin pasta machine staring up at me longingly. A little voice in my head has been nagging me lately about making pasta. I decided that my next quiet weekend would be dedicated to the task.

I’ve only made pasta once before. About 15 years ago I met a wonderful guy who was into food and cooking as much as I am and we hung out together for about five or six months. He came over on a Saturday afternoon and brought his pasta machine. He did most of the work, but I helped with kneading and I watched intently. We made spaghetti with shrimp and garlic and it was not very difficult or challenging. I knew I could pull this off by myself.

I started the project on Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and a little research. I scanned a few recipes, checked my pantry and made a grocery list. I settled on a recipe from my King Arthur Flour cookbook. I cleaned the kitchen while mulling over my options and I decided on pappardelle, my absolute favorite, with tomatoes and some kind of seafood. Off to the food stores!

At the grocery store, I found small brown mushrooms on sale. Prince Edward Island mussels were available for just $3.99 a pound, so I bought a two pound bag. I figured if I was making my own fresh pasta, I should have the very best ingredients for my sauce. There is a wonderful Italian market called Labriola’s not far from the grocery store, so I made a quick detour to get a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes, grown and canned in a small town near Naples. The flavor of the San Marzano is more intense and the fruit has less seeds than other varieties. They are prized for tomato paste because of their low moisture content and dense flesh. With all my ingredients procured, I was ready to head home and make amazing food.

oasta ingredientsMaking pasta requires proficiency in a variety of cooking techniques. But the dough is really so simple to make. Flour and eggs are mixed together with a pinch of salt and a dribble of olive oil, the dough rests briefly, then gets rolled out and cut into the desired shape. I decided to make a double batch of dough and put half of it in the freezer. I found the right place to clamp this pasta machine down and started the dough.

Ingredients:
3 cups all purpose flour
4 large eggs
2 tbsp good quality olive oil
1 tsp salt

flour and eggsI poured the flour onto my work surface and made a well in the center of the pile. I cracked the eggs into the well and added the olive oil and salt. Using a fork, I beat the eggs and started mixing in flour from the sides of the well a little bit at a time. Eventually, I put the fork aside and used my hands to bring the dough together. I kneaded the dough enough to bring it into a cohesive ball and let it rest for just a couple of minutes to allow the flour to fully absorb all the moisture. Then I started kneading. pasta dough 1The more I work with dough of various kinds, the more I realize that every kind of dough has a unique feel. A good cook learns from the feel and behavior of the dough when it has been kneaded enough. The recipe called for the dough to be kneaded until it was smooth and silky. I relied on my instinct and kneaded until the dough felt right to me, about 10 minutes, and set it under a moist towel to rest.

rolling pastaMy next step was to roll out the dough. The pasta machine was practically crying out to perform and I had the rollers open to the widest setting. I cut my piece of dough and pressed it down enough to get it into the rollers of the machine. It went in after just a couple of cranks and a long sheet of pasta came out of the other side. I continued rolling, lightly flouring the dough as I went, adjusting the setting of the rollers each time to get my pasta gradually thinner and thinner. When the sheet of pasta became too long for my work surface, I’d cut it in half. I ended up with four sheets of very thin pasta.pasta pilesI dusted them with flour, and rolled up the pasta sheets and cut them into wide pappardelle noodles. The pasta machine actually came with a cutting attachment, but since I was making wide noodles, I decided to do that step by hand. I unraveled each piece of pasta, dusted them again with a tiny bit of flour and dropped them loosely onto a lightly floured towel. While the pasta dried out a little bit, I made the sauce.

First, I steamed the mussels in a big pot with just a splash of clam juice and a splash of liquid from the tomatoes. In a separate pan, I cooked onions and garlic until they were soft and starting to brown, seasoning as I went. Into the browned onions I added the slices mushrooms and let them brown slightly. I deglazed the pan with the steaming liquid from the mussels. Using my hands, I crushed the tomatoes into a bowl and added them to the pan next, allowing some of their liquid to cook off, but just enough to concentrate the flavor. sauceSince the goal is to have the noodles absorb the sauce, I wanted a somewhat loose consistency. My sauce was staring to come together. I removed the mussels from their shells, added them the sauce and moved it off the heat, then added just a small splash of half and half to give the sauce body. Finally, I sprinkled freshly chopped basil and thyme all over the top.

Fresh pasta cooks very quickly. In most cases, it takes less than a minute to achieve an al dente texture. I didn’t put the pasta into the water until the sauce was completely done. Into a huge pot of boiling salted water I dropped handfuls of my fresh pasta. About a minute later, my pasta was done and I pulled it out and put it immediately into the hot sauce. finished pastaI tossed it all together and gave the whole thing about five minutes to get acquainted and allow the noodles to absorb some of the sauce.

My pasta was perfect, tender but slightly toothsome, having absorbed just enough sauce to impart flavor. Each bite had a little of everything. It was without a doubt the best pasta I ever ate. And now I have another piece of dough in the freezer, waiting for my next pasta dinner. I think I hear some ravioli calling my name…..

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Cedar Fever

In all my grilling experiments, I’ve never tried plank cooking. This is a technique that involves cooking food directly on a wood plank that gently smokes the food as it cooks. This style of cooking has been around for more than a century. It is most commonly attributed to Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, who would catch as much running salmon as they could and attach the cleaned fish to wooden planks for smoking. Smoking the salmon would allow them to preserve the fish, which would sustain them during the harsh winter months, but it also imparts wonderful flavor. Cedar plank salmon has been popular in restaurants for about the last fifteen years and wood planks are now readily available at kitchen and grocery stores.

foodLast spring my mother-in-law gave me a package of cedar paper. These are thin sheets of cedar used to wrap around the food, slowly burning as the food cooks thus imparting the same smoky flavor as a cedar plank. Copper River salmon is just reaching the end of its season. I’ve been buying it on sale for the past few weeks and putting it in the freezer for future smoking. This weekend, I thought I’d give the cedar paper a try. I also found beautiful asparaus at the grocery store and so my menu was born.

salmonThe package of cedar paper has suggested recipes, especially for salmon, but I decided to try just a little seasoning and lemon so we could get the full benefit of the cedar flavor. The cedar paper is thin and it needs to be soaked in water before using. The instructions also indicated that adding bourbon, wine or brandy to the soaking liquid would add flavor to the final dish. I dribbled a little brandy in the water and dropped four sheets of cedar in to soak. While the cedar paper soaked, I cleaned the salmon, making sure to remove all the pin bones. The asparagus was somewhat thick, so I ran a vegetable peeler down the stalks to remove the tough skin, then broke off the ends. The cedar paper only needs about 10 minutes of soaking before it’s ready to use. For the salmon, bundlesI put salt, pepper, thinly sliced ginger and slices of lemon over the top before sealing the bundles with kitchen twine. For the asparagus, I smeared each sheet of paper with a dab of butter and added some salt and pepper. I bundled and tied everything up and was ready to go to the grill.

The bundles go right over the hottest part of the grill so the paper can start to smoke and add flavor to the food. As the paper began to burn, I turned the bundles over to cook everything evently. Cooking is a sensory practice where all your senses are required to get the best results. grilledFor me, seeing, smelling and touching the food is the best way to know when its done. But my salmon was hidden inside these little bundles, making it impossible for me to see or touch it. I have to admit, I felt a little disoriented not being able to see or touch the salmon, but when the paper was beginning to blacken, I figured the food had to be done.

Opening the bundles was kind of like a big unveiling. The salmon was delicious, but it didn’t really pick up much flavor from the cedar paper. And one of the best parts of cooking salmon is crispy skin. But since the skin was not exposed to the heat, it was flabby. The asparaus picked up much more flavor from the cedar than the salmon did. And because they were thick, they stayed a little crunchy. I could have eaten four pounds of that smokey asparagus. They were very tasty! And the brandy in the soaking water added no flavor whatsoever.

I still have four sheets of cedar paper left and I was thinking about using them for pork or beef tenderloin. And now I’m curious about using the full cedar planks for cooking salmon. Any tips would be helpful.

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Down The Hatch

It’s August and that has special meaning to folks who love Southwestern cuisine – Hatch chili season. Hatch chilies are from a region in New Mexico where the hot, sunny days and cool nights produce distinctively flavorful chilies. The Hatch chili is meaty and somewhat mild and has amazing flavor when it’s roasted. It also has a short shelf life, so when Hatch chili season rolls around at the end of the summer, people stock up. There are special festivals, grocery store promotions and a boom in shipping at the end of August when the Hatch chilies are in season. They are also highly perishable, so the further away you are from New Mexico the less likely you are to encounter Hatch chilies.

ChiliesWhen I lived in Texas, I had easy access to these fabulous green chilies, but when I moved to New Hampshire about seven years ago, I said goodbye to this regional delicacy and did without. One year, my wonderful mother-in-law sent me three frozen Hatch chilies that she’d stockpiled in the freezer and I made Hatch chili meatloaf. It was incredible. Last year, we moved to Pittsburgh and I now have much greater access to food products from all over the world. A co-worker told me she’d seen Hatch chilies in her local grocery store and she picked me up a dozen. A few days later, I found them in Whole Foods. I’m a happy girl!! Armed with a big basket of lovely green chilies, I decided to roast them all, eat some and commit the rest to the freezer. Back in Texas, my friend Barb and I tried a delicious recipe of Hatch chilies stuffed with goat cheese, raisins and pine nuts. I’ve made them multiple times with great success. So I commenced to roasting the chilies first.

Roasting chiliesRoasting serves an important purpose and does a couple of things to the chili. Obviously, it adds flavor, but it also cooks the chili and makes it possible to remove the skin easily. Just like any pepper, the skins are difficult to digest, are sometimes thick and can taste unpleasant. Normally, I would have done the roasting on the grill, imparting smoky flavor to the chilies. But it was raining like hell that day, so I was forced to use my oven. This can also be done over a gas stove by holding the chili directly over the flame with tongs and turning it around until it is charred on all sides. It can also be done in a pan on the stove. I don’t have a gas stove and the pan method is labor intensive. So, I cranked my oven to broil at 500 degrees, lined a baking pan with foil and lined my chilies up on the pan. I actually moved the oven rack down one slot so that the chilies were not too close to the broiler. I wanted them to get soft as the skin blistered but not get burned. I slid the pan into the oven and gave it about 10 minutes before taking a look. When the chilies looked completely browned on one side, I flipped them over to roast on the other side. You want all sides of the chili to get browned and the skin to look blistered all over.

chili bowlWhen the chilies were browned on all sides, I removed them and placed them in a large plastic container and immediately popped the lid on. This allows steam to develop between the charred skin and the flesh of the pepper, making it very easy to remove the skin. You can also put your peppers in a paper bag for steaming, but I find that they put off a little juice that will seep through the bag. I prefer the bowl method. I let the peppers steam for a good half-hour before I started cleaning them. In the meantime, I mixed up the filling.

When I was shopping for the ingredients for this dish, I found the pine nuts I wanted and they were incredibly expensive. I was going to just suck it up and buy them when I noticed a bag of roasted and salted pumpkin seeds for a fraction of the price. That just sounded delicious, so I made a call on the line of scrimmage and put the pine nuts back on the shelf. I also found a large log of locally made goat cheese. While the chilies were steaming, I combined the entire log of goat cheese, about half a cup of toasted pumpkin seeds and about half a cup of raisins. I added a drizzle of good olive oil, salt, pepper and a the zest of one lemon. I also added about two tablespoons of plain cream cheese, just to make everything a little easier to work with and to cut the sharpness of the goat cheese.

open chilisOnce the peppers had cooled for about 30 minutes, I began cleaning them. This can be a tedious task and you have to be patient. I like to do this over a bowl of water so I can dip the pepper in to rise off the seeds and skin as I go along. After roasting, the skin should be pretty loose and should come off easily. But sometimes you have to delicately peel the skin away from the flesh. Once the skin is off the pepper, I cut off the stem end with a paring knife and split the chili open by creating a tear in the flesh and running my finger down the length of the pepper. Then I dip the pepper in water to rinse off the seeds. Sometimes you have to carefully pull the ribs off the inside of the pepper to get the seeds to come loose. But if a few stray seeds remain, it’s not the end of the world.

Chili dinnerTo stuff the peppers, I laid them out flat on a cutting board with the inside facing up. I wet my hands a little bit, scooped some of the goat cheese mixture and roll it into a log, placing it in the middle of the pepper and rolling the sides around it. <a I put them on the plate seam side down so it looked like they'd been injected with the filling. I had a beautiful heirloom tomato that was perfectly ripe, so I served these stuffed Hatch chilies on a bed of greens with thick slices of tomato and dressed the whole thing in homemade vinaigrette. This was a light dinner packed with big flavors. The chilies had some heat, but it was soothed by the creamy goat cheese and the tomato was the perfect compliment. The rest of the chilies went into the freezer for a future dish – maybe another meatloaf. If you can find Hatch chilies, I highly recommend giving them a try.

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Choux Pastry

While trolling through Pinterest recently, I came across a blog about chocolate éclairs that included some mouthwatering photos and I felt myself being pulled by the magnetism of this lucious treat. The blog made it sound so easy and I realized as I read that I’d never made choux pastry, the basic pastry for éclairs, cream puffs and profiteroles. I remember my mother making this pastry and I’ve seen it done on television hundreds of times. I started looking up various recipes and thought I’d give it a whirl.

Éclairs were my goal and they are typically filled with pastry cream, which I’d also never made before. I decided to do this up right by making everything from scratch and since the pastry cream has to cool completely before it can be injected into the éclairs, that is where this project began.

PASTRY CREAM:
2 cups of whole milk
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1/4 cup of cornstarch
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract or 1 whole vanilla bean, split down the middle

Again, looking up recipes, I found that this is just custard with the addition of corn starch to thicken it. I’ve made custard dozens of times, so this was not a big leap for me. I started with two cups of whole milk in a saucepan over medium heat, to which I added 1/4 cup of sugar. vanillaMost of the recipes I found called for vanilla extract, but I decided to use a whole vanilla bean to make this pastry cream extra flavorful and beautiful. During a recent move, I’d discovered a stockpile of vanilla beans in my pantry. These babies can be expensive, so this is the kind of thing I buy when I see them on sale. Apparently, I must have found quite a sale because I had half a dozen vanilla beans in my spice cabinet. I cut the vanilla bean in half which makes it a little easier to work with. With a sharp paring knife, I split the vanilla bean long ways down the middle and with the tip of the knife and scraped out the black paste from the center. These are the actual seeds of the orchid from which the vanilla bean is harvested and there is no deeper vanilla flavor. I scooped out all the vanilla goodness from the inside of the pod and dropped it into the milk, along with the empty vanilla bean itself to steep and add more flavor.

I separated three extra-large eggs and dropped the yolks into a separate bowl. To the egg yolks, I added another 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 of corn starch and whisked them all together to form a thick paste. When the milk was on the verge of simmering, I slowly added a half cup of it to the egg yolk mixture, whisking frantically as I dribbled the hot milk into the bowl to insure that I didn’t end up with scrambled eggs. pastry creamThis technique is called tempering, the concept of slowly bringing up the temperature of delicate products so as not to break, scramble or burn them. Once I was sure my eggs weren’t scrambled, I pulled the vanilla pods out of the hot milk and added the egg yolk/milk mixture to the pot on the stove. Any thickener such as flour or corn starch reaches its maximum thickening power when it comes to the boil. But again, milk and sugar burn very easily and must be stirred constantly to avoid scorching. Over medium heat, I stirred my custard constantly until it thickened up, and then ran it through a strainer into a bowl to catch any noodly bits or slightly scrambled egg that might have run amok during cooking. I covered the surface of custard with plastic wrap so it wouldn’t form a skin and put it in the fridge to cool.

Next, I turned my attention to the hard part – the choux pastry or as the French pronounce it pâte à choux. It’s a somewhat sticky dough that rises in the oven from the steam generated inside each pastry. It therefore requires a relatively high moisture content to generate enough steam to lift the pastry up. I referenced a number of different recipes for the right proportions and techniques. Here is what I came up with:

CHOUX PASTRY
1 stick of butter
1 cup of water
1 cup of all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 tbsp of sugar
a pinch of salt

The trick to getting this recipe right is all in the technique. I set my oven to preheat at 425, lined a cookie sheet with parchment paper and started working on the dough. All the recipes I found suggested that the butter be mostly melted before the water goes in. This will help cut down on evaporation as the water and butter heat up together. So I put a heavy pot on the stove and melted one stick of butter over low heat. When it was melted I added the water, sugar and salt and turned up the heat to medium high. Once the water and butter started to boil, I took it off the heat, dumped the cup of flour in and stirred like mad with a wodden spoon, moving the pot on and off the heat, until the flour/water/butter mixture formed a ball. I stirred this stiff dough as it heated up and when it was coming away from the sides of the pot with ease, it was ready. It took about 5 minutes over medium high heat to get it just right. At this point the dough had a pasty texture, but that was just the first step.

Dough 1Next, I transferred the dough into the bowl of my standing mixer that was outfitted with the paddle attachment and I let it cool off for about 10 minutes. In all the recipes I found, it was suggested that the dough cool off for a bit before adding the eggs. Several recipes also called for leaving the dough in the pot and stirring the eggs in one by one off the heat. But I opted for the mixer just to give my arms a break. I remember watching my mother add the eggs one at a time, stirring like crazy to get each egg incorporated before adding the next one. I figured I’d let the miracle of modern technology save me some of the labor. It is important to add the eggs one at a time, which I did with the mixer at low speed. The dough looks pretty gross as the eggs get added. It actually looks ruined and broken, but keep mixing and you’ll see how the egg becomes incorporated. dough 2 I did have to stop frequently to scrape down the sides of the bowl, but I got all four eggs mixed in and my dough was looking just as I remember my mom’s dough looking, kind of sticky and gluey. I scraped all this sticky dough into a large Ziploc bag and cut a hole in the corner about the size of a quarter. Using the corner of the bag, I piped the dough onto the parchment paper, some shaped like long tubes for éclairs and some in rounded mounds that I was hoping to turn into cream puffs. I used one of the leftover egg whites to glaze my little creations, scrambling it up and smearing a little over the top of each dollop of dough with my fingers. I put the cookie sheet in the oven and hoped for the best.

Now, I know what you’re thinking right now. You’ve got the vision of a Hollywood happy ending in your head, another “Abby’s Perfect Kitchen Adventure” mental image of Jason and I lustfully devouring my flawless creations. You’re expecting to see my final pastries, all puffed up and perfect. Well, I’m sorry to rain on your little parade, but my pastries didn’t exactly hit perfection this time. You see, when I was researching recipes, some suggested baking the pastries at 425 for 10 minutes, then turning the oven down to 350 and baking them for another 20 minutes. Some recipes suggested baking them at 450 for 15 minutes, then turning the oven down to 325 and baking them for another 20 minutes. Some said bake them for 20 minutes at 400 and another 15 minutes at 350. To be honest, I got a little confused. I think I baked them for 10 minutes on 425 and another 15 minutes at 350. When I took them out, they looked all browned and puffed, but within seconds, then began to flatten out. I popped them back in the oven and tried giving them another 10 minutes and they puffed up again, but they sunk again when I took them out. After one of my flat éclairs had cooled a little bit, I sliced it open to see what inside looked like. Alas, they were spongy and I just didn’t bake them long enough at the higher temperature. So, I know what I did wrong and I know how to fix it next time I make this recipe. And in the meantime, I have a big bowl of delicious vanilla pastry cream that can pretty much go with anything. Instead of éclairs, we had vanilla pastry cream with angel food cake (store bought) and strawberry/blueberry compote that I just happened to have in the fridge. It was yummy.

Oh, if you decide to make this recipe, there are a number of different chocolate frosting recipes. The one that looked the most traditional to me consists of 1/2 cup of semisweet or bitter chocolate, 2 tbsp of butter, 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar, 1 tsp of vanilla extract and 3 tbsp of hot water. The butter and chocolate are melted together over low heat, the sugar and vanilla get stirred in and the water is added one tablespoon at a time until the frosting is smooth and reaches the right consistency, which is thick but slightly runny so you can drizzle or spread it across the top of the éclairs. Next time, I’m going to try that.

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An Ancient Grain

During a recent business trip, I was reading an article in the in-flight magazine about food trends, specifically ancient grains. Just as heirloom varieties of produce and meats have experienced a rebirth, there is a growing interest in ancient grains such as quinoa and spelt, grains that were consumed centuries ago in ancient civilations. Unlike corn, rice and wheat, which have all been bred selectively over thousands of years, the ancient grains remain unchanged from the way they were cultivated in the days of yore. And some are still staples in far flung parts of the world.

photo 3A few days later, my husband and I were wandering around the grocery store when he spotted a bag of farro on the shelf. Farro is an Italian grain grown in Tuscany that is said to have fed the Roman legion while they were on campaigns. Its a wheat berry, the whole grain of a certain variety of wheat that is native to that region. We stood there looking at the bag and discussing what we’d do with the stuff. And mostly out of curiosity, it landed in the shopping cart.

farroI had a pound of shrimp in the freezer and a few tomatoes that were starting to get a little wrinkled on the counter. This was my starting point for a dish that featured farro. Jason read the directions for cooking this grain, which recommended cooking it separately in salted water and adding it to the sauce once it was tender. He got the farro on the stove while I started working on the sauce. I cleaned the shrimp and set the shells aside. My prep began with a classic mirepoix of celery, carrots and onions, all diced finely. I just happened to have a few garlic scapes in the fridge, so I diced one up and added it to the mix. I sautéed the shrimp shells until they turned bright red, resulting in a thin layer of fond on the bottom of the pan. Next I sautéed the shrimp very quickly, just to partially cook them and again, add flavor to the pan. Next came the mirepoix, which I cooked until it was lightly browned. While the mirepoix was cooking, I diced up three medium sized tomatoes and they went into the pan when the mirepoix was browned. I sautéed all these ingredients together for about 5 minutes to let the tomatoes break down a bit, adding salt and pepper at every step. Finally, I added about a cup and a half of chicken stock to deglaze and create an abundant sauce. White wine would have worked just as well, but chicken stock was what I had on hand. I let that reduce just a bit, boiling vigorously, before I drained the farro and added it to the sauce. It had been simmering gently for about 30 minutes and the berries had cracked, but the farro still had a wonderful toothsome texture and a nutty flavor.

photo 2Finally, I turned off the heat and added the partially cooked shrimp to the pan, pushing them down into the sauce to let the heat finish cooking them. I dotted the top of the dish with a few small chunks of butter and covered it with a healthy handful of freshly chopped basil. I called Jason to the dinner table.

We sat across the table from each other admiring the beautiful dish of saucy farro and shrimp before us. With great anticipation, we tucked in. It was completely delicious, the al dente farro had an earthy flavor and it had started absorbing the sauce. I flashed on a mental image of ancient Rome with members of the senate sitting down to big bowls of farro, fresh vegetables and jugs of wine. I am now a farro fan and I’m already thinking about my next farro experiment.

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Crepes

One of my favorite things to make for breakfast on a Sunday morning is a big pile of crepes. Crepes are super-thin pancakes that can be sweet or savory and are filled with all kinds of delicious things. Sweet crepes can be filled with fruit, jam, Nutella, Greek yogurt, whipped cream, even ice cream as a dessert. Savory crepes are served with sautéed ham, mushrooms, onions, cheese, scrambled eggs or seafood. They’re also wonderful simply folded or rolled up and topped with honey, maple syrup or cinnamon sugar. If you substitute buckwheat flour for all purpose white flour, your crepes will be gluten free! You can do just about anything you like with crepes. And despite what you might think, they’re easy to make. With the right equipment and a little technique, you can become an expert crepe maker in no time.

In order to make crepes, you need to have a small non-stick skillet. You could spend a lot of money on a crepe pan specifically made for this task. But it’s not necessary, a regular old 6 or 8 inch non-stick skillet will work beautifully. And it must be non-stick for this preparation. You’ll also need a small wooden or plastic spatula to free the crepes from the pan and flip them.

The recipe for the batter varies based on how you plan to serve your crepes. If its savory crepes you desire leave out the sugar and if you’d like a little spice, add a dash of cayenne pepper. For sweet crepes, you can add vanilla and I also like to grate a little lemon or orange zest into the batter.

batterRECIPE:

3 large eggs
2 cups of whole milk
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of white sugar
a pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of melted butter

The batter can be made in a blender, but I use my hand mixer. This can also be done by hand with a whisk. Wisk the eggs and milk together until they’re well blended, then sift in the flour, sugar and salt. The batter should be thin and pourable, but have some body, similar to the consistency of heavy cream. It’s also good to let the batter rest for at least an hour, even overnight, before proceeding. The melted butter is the last thing that goes in before you start making crepes. When you’re ready to begin, put your skillet on the stove over medium heat and start melting your butter.
pre-crepeAs soon as it’s melted, pour it into the batter and mix it in. The butter that’s left in the pan will create the perfect non-stick surface to start making crepes. This is where technique comes into play.

swirly 2Now, keep in mind that the first crepe or two will come out funky. These are your test crepes and until the pan is the perfect temperature, your crepes may be a little limp and floppy. swirlWhen the remaining butter in the pan begins to bubble, pour a little batter into the pan and tilt the pan around so that the batter covers the entire surface of the pan in a relatively thin layer. If you don’t have enough batter to cover the surface of the pan, dribble a little bit of batter over the exposed surface. brown crepeThe batter begins to set up quickly when it hits the hot pan, so you have to act fast. Set the pan back on the stove until you see the edges of the crepe begin to brown slightly. Using the edge of your spatula, gently lift the crepe up and flip it over in the pan. The crepe should be lightly golden brown. Cook it briefly on the other side until it browns slightly, and then turn the crepe out onto a plate. It should not be necessary to butter the pan between each crepe, but every third or fourth crepe, slip a small knob of butter into the pan. If you have too much butter in the pan, you can pour the excess back into the batter. Because they are buttery, you can stack the crepes up as you go and they shouldn’t stick together.

I like my crepes with fresh fruit and a little maple syrup. crepesIf you want to get fancy, melt a couple tablespoons of butter in the pan, then put in a couple tablespoons of honey and a dash of cinnamon and let them all melt together for a couple of minutes. Drizzle this cinnamon honey butter over the warm crepes and enjoy. This recipe makes a lot of crepes, at least two dozen, but they freeze very well. Wrap whatever you don’t eat in plastic wrap and put it in a freezer bag and they’ll keep in the freezer for several months. This is a great recipe to impress your house guests. Make these crepes and they’ll talk about it like you’re a five star chef for years to come. Give them a try; it’s a lot easier than you think.

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Pamela’s Pancakes

abbyeats_600pxAfter two months of living in temporary housing while my husband packed up our house in New Hampshire, we have finally made the big move to Pittsburgh. I haven’t cooked more than a couple of fried eggs since November and that’s been one of the most difficult things about this transition. However, there are some amazing restaurants and intriguing local delicacies here and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the great dining this city has to offer. After a week of packing, moving, cleaning, selling our house, driving and stressing out about all of it, we woke up on our first morning in our new home surrounded by boxes with no food in the fridge. I hadn’t even unpacked the coffee pot yet. It was Saturday and it was early, but we were hungry and in dire need of a hot cup of joe. We rubbed the sleep from our eyes, got dressed and ventured out.

Breakfast can be a deceivingly difficult meal to get right. Most people are very particular about how they like their eggs prepared and they are easy to mess up. Twenty seconds too long on the heat and over easy eggs become hard cooked. It takes a deft hand to make perfecly fluffy pancakes and moist french toast. Finding a great breakfast place is like striking gold. We were never happy with our breakfast choices in Concord, NH so I’ve been particularly excited about finding a few good diners and coffee shops here in our new hometown. During my first couple of weeks here, someone took me to lunch at a place called Pamela’s down in the Strip District. They had excellent sandwiches and salads and the decor was kind of 50′s retro with a diner-like atmosphere. I also noticed that they serve breakfast all day. I thought I might have struck that illusive breakfast gold. Pamela’s has a couple of other locations, including one in Squirrel Hill, which is very close to where we live. That’s where we headed on our first Saturday morning in Pittsburgh.

Apparently, this location is almost impossible to get into for Sunday brunch. But on Saturday morning, we walked right in and found a cozy booth in the back. Almost immediately, large cups of hot coffee arrived at our table and we examined the menu. They had excellent looking egg dishes, pancakes with fruit and whipped cream, omelets, french toast and most of the usual things you’d see on a breakfast menu. They also had some interesting variations, like french toast made with a croissant, malted waffles and something called Lyonnaise potatoes. Jason ordered scrambled eggs mixed with cream cheese and scallions served with the Lyonnaise potatoes. I ordered crepe hotcakes with a side of bacon.

pancakesIt only took a few minutes for our breakfast to arrive. Our eyes bugged slightly when the plates went down on the table. My crepe hotcakes occupied the entire plate! Jason’s breakfast looked delicious, the eggs decorated with small dollops of cream cheese and sprinkled with scallions. The Lyonnaise potatoes were soft homefries in some kind of creamy sauce, sort of like chunky mashed potatoes au gratin. It all looked delicious and we gratefully tucked in. The crepe hotcakes were sublime. They were thin yet fluffy and the butter and syrup kind of floated on top and barely soaked in without making the hotcakes soggy.
pancakes 2The most remarkable thing was the crispy edge that surrounded each hotcake, creating a halo of crunchy texture that was absolutely irresistable. I ate half the plate of hotcakes and was stuffed, but I could not leave those crispy bits behind. Jason had a few bites and together we almost finished the whole plate of hotcakes.

We went straight home after breakfast, climbed right back into bed and took a mid morning nap. I dreamed that I was sleeping under a blanket made from Pamela’s crepe hotcakes, warm and comforting with delicate pools of melted butter and syrup glistening on the surface, pulled up to my chin so I could nibble on the crispy edges when I awoke. We’ll most certainly return to Pamela’s for breakfast, for more crepe hotcakes and some of their other offerings. It was truly KILLER DELICIOUS.

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Welcome to Pittsburgh

I firmly believe that a life well lived is full of adventures and that it all begins at the end of your comfort zone. Earlier this fall, I accepted a new position in Pittsburgh, PA. This is my first week in a new city with a new job and new culinary frontiers to explore. I am ready to belly right up to this buffet and fill my plate with Pittsburgh goodness. Since accepting this position, I have been reading up on the Pittsburgh food scene and there seems to be a lot going on here. The cultural melting pot in this city offers a lot of culinary diversity and my curiosity is piqued.

On my second day here, I was invited to attend an evening meeting. One of the people at this meeting showed up with a cake box and there was a significant discussion about the unique qualities of its contents. The box was opened to reveal a lovely, nutty cake sprinkled with powdered sugar. What is this thing of beauty, I wondered. I soon found out that it was a burnt almond torte from Prantl’s Bakery, apparently one of the most famous foods in Pittsburgh. Prantl’s has been open for 40 years and its current location in the Shadyside neighborhood has been in continuous operation as a bakery for 100 years, although under different names. They specialize in German baked goods and their burnt almond torte is their most prized creation. A generous slice was placed in front of me and the earthy aroma of toasted almonds wafted up into my face. I took a bite. The white cake was a fluffy, ethereal wonder. It was topped with a thick layer of sugary frosting and coated with sliced almonds roasted to a deep, dark brown, then dusted with powdered sugar. I gratefully gobbled the whole thing and I ended up taking a huge piece home with me.

The following evening, there was a Welcome to Pittsburgh party in my honor. Knowing that I’m a bit of a foodie, they arranged to have some local specialties brought in for our snacking pleasure. When the trays were uncovered, I was delighted to see a vat of pierogi taking a bath in hot butter. If you’ve never heard of a pierogi, don’t feel embarrassed. This Polish specialty is not a widely consumed product, but one that Pittsburgh has embraced as its own. Apparently, the fine folks in Pittsburgh eat more than 10 times the amount of pierogi than any other city in America. There is even a pierogi race in the middle of the 5th inning of Pittsburgh Pirates home games. It’s a dumpling filled with potatoes, cheese, sauerkraut, meat or fruit, typically boiled, then fried in butter and sometimes topped with sautéed onions. I’ve only eaten them frozen, so this was my first time to taste freshly made, locally crafted pierogi. The only words I could find to describe them were “little pillows of love”. The dough was thin and delicate and their fluffy potato filling was perfectly seasoned and of course, they were annointed with copious ammounts of butter. Nothing wrong with that!!

During my first weekend in Pittsburgh, I decided to do a little exploring. People have been telling me about a placed called The Strip District where local food purveyors are in great abundance. This area of downtown is right on the railroad tracks and at the turn of the century it became the central transportation hub for wholesale produce coming into the city. The adjacent railroad lines and riverfront made it a natural fit for merchants. When I was here to interview for the job, someone drove me through the area to show me what the Strip Discrict was all about. So, I thought I might see if I could find this place on my own. I got in the car and started driving in the general direction of the disctict…and lo and behold, guess what I found? As I drove down the middle of the main drag, I saw Italian bakeries, Asian markets, produce stands and butcher shops. I found a parking spot, got out and started wandering from shop to shop. My first stop was Lotus Food Market, a very nicely appointed Asian market, resplendant with condiments, produce, meats, frozen items and many Asian delicacies. This is the kind of market that I used to drive an hour to visit and I was so delighted to find it just a few short miles from my apartment. I wandered the aisles, inspecting the canned goods, trying to figure out what was in them, marveling at the produce and examining the frozen dumplings. I made a mental note to head back down to Lotus for frozen items when I wasn’t planning to spend time wandering around.

My next stop was one of the most notorious places in the Strip District, Wholey’s Market. For almost a hundred years, Wholey’s has been supplying Pittsburgh with fresh chicken, meat, seafood, produce and specialty foods. I stepped into the doors of Wholey’s and almost wept tears of joy to see the dizzying variety of fish, all beautiful and fresh, all reasonably priced. They had a live lobster tank as well as frozen lobster tails from all over the world. I couldn’t count the different varieties of fresh fish beautifully displayed at their fish counter. I wandered through their spotless butcher area looking at the amazing array of different cuts of beef, pork, chicken and turkey. I found the refridgerator case filled with unique imported butter and locally crafted soft drinks. I tasted a sample of rich and succulent crab and lobster bisque made in house and sold in the refridgerator section. They even had a bin of crushed ice by the check-out counter so shoppers could pack their fresh fish on ice before making their way home. I wandered through the produce and bakery before finally finding the exit, floating back onto the street in a haze of foodie ecstacy.

I thought I’d found the ultimate place for a food lover like me, until I found Penzeys Spices on the next block. A couple years ago, my friend Debbie came to visit me and she brought me a small package of Penzeys spices, including the most pungent and flavorful cinnamon I’d ever come in contact with. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for Penzey’s spices and my brain almost exploded when I saw their shop in the Strip District. I thought, can this really be happening right now? I plunged through the front door and inhaled deeply through my nose to take in the warm aroma. Penzeys has everything you could ever want or need…a massive variety of dried herbs, spices, extracts and gift boxes. There was an entire section of shelves dedicated just to vanilla. Chili powder and cinnamon had their own sections. I could visit Penzeys every day and never tire of browsing.

I stopped into a couple more places and looked at kitchen gadgets, wine, Middle Eastern foods, cheeses and baked goods before hitting the wall. My senses assaulted, I made my way back to the car and drove home on a cloud. Strip District, you are my new friend and I will be back to see you very soon. And I’ll be on the lookout for more interesting culinary adventures here in Pittsburgh.

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