Sunday, January 30, 2011

An English girl, an American man (and an American woman, too)

On Friday, DB~ and I were down at the Convention Center for Piratefest 2011. It seemed like just yesterday that we were there for the semi-bust of the Home Remodeling Show, but it was actually 3 weeks ago. And like that last time, we decided to go out for drinks afterwards.

Originally, we both wanted to go to Seviche. But by the time we got down there around 9:30 p.m., the place was packed to the gills. We wanted a drink, but we were also hoping to get an appetizer or tapas at our destination, so we didn't feel like jamming into the crowded bar. DB~ was also put off by the fact that every other girl there or standing outside was wearing 7 inch heels and cocktail napkins masquerading as skirts.

Undaunted, we walked across the street to Seviche's sister restaurant, Sonoma Grille. We were able to find a good spot on the corner of the bar. DB~ ordered a sauvignon blanc and I had a 7 and 7. All was right in the world.

To my left was a middle-aged woman speaking with a British accent to the bartender. I enjoy eavesdropping on conversations, as I'm easily distracted. I observed that she was drinking a Gin and Tonic (and I guessed it wasn't her first of the evening). I forget exactly how it happened, but after the bartender left she made a comment out loud about getting a cognac, preferably a French one, to which I responded "If it's not French cognac, aren't you just wasting your time?"

Well, that was the polar bear heavy enough to break the ice and for the next hour, DB~ and I enjoyed chatting with our friend Anne from the west side of London. It turns out that Anne is a data management specialist for a major Pittsburgh-based company (I'll keep the name private) who comes over to Pittsburgh twice a year for 4 weeks at a clip. Anne was quite the foodie, so naturally that carried the conversation for most of the time. We gave her all sorts of recommendations for restaurants, both within the Golden Triangle and within a cab ride of the area, too.

DB~ asked all sorts of great questions about London, as we both have an interest in visiting there one day. We got the name for "the jazz club in London" known as Richard Scott's. Visiting the changing of the guard is a must, as well. We talked restaurants and how cosmopolitan London was in terms of food. We talked cooking with tagines (you may remember them from the Kous Kous Cafe review) and places that she has traveled as a consultant. We talked American football, English rugby, and Anne's love of Manchester United football.

Anne said that life on the road was wearing on her, especially as she was nearing retirement age. Anymore, all she wanted to do was be in her London home. Living out of hotels gets old after a while.

I don't have many regrets, OK maybe a few, but chief among them is that I never lived in a different city other than Pittsburgh. I went away for college, but that doesn't really count. I mean live and work in a new metro area. Figure out the shortcuts, the good restaurants, places to go, places to avoid, and get engrossed in all the problems and windfalls of that new place. Anne gave both DB~ and I some things to think about, as she was stunned that neither of us had lived in another city, but I also realized that I liked my life here. My job and my immediate family are Pittsburgh-based. My close friends all live here and, of course, DB~ is here and Pittsburgh-based, too.

But a tiny sliver of me was envious of Anne. She was able to travel and see the world, even if it had become somewhat of a chore to her. That's something I may not be able to do until I retire.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A little Cajun/Creole learnin'

I'm a home cook. I'm not a chef. I'm not trained at all. Some of the things I make are restaurant quality and some are....not.

What I'm trying to say is that I always relish the chance to learn about cooking and expand my skill set. DB~ got me and my brother-in-law a cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu for Christmas. The one she got us was Cajun Cooking. What a perfect way to spend a January morning (3 degrees when I left the house).

With Le Cordon Bleu announcing that they will be closing after the last batch of students graduates, approximately this time next year, it was the perfect time to squeeze a lesson in from a master chef before they close. My brother-in-law is married to my sister, who is a chef (different from me being a cook). Chef is not her actual job, but it very well could be. She has a mastery of what goes with what, what tastes good, and the ability to invent and replicate recipes on the fly. And her husband is right behind her in terms of ability.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the lesson. But it far exceeded my expectations. There were about 12 of us in one of the kitchens there, complete with multiple burners for range cooking, multiple ovens, every spice you could want, and any utensil you need. Chef Snyder had pre-printed recipes for 10 different things waiting for us and he read through each of them. All of the ingredients were pre-cut (for safety and liability reasons). An added bonus was that 6 Le Cordon Bleu students were there to assist us. They would answer questions, help cut stuff, deep fry things for you, basically another set of hands.

My brother-in-law and I looked over the recipes for Seafood Gumbo and Shrimp Creole and said "We could do those in our sleep" so we decided to tackle some interesting side dishes: Arroz Verde (Green Rice) and Charred Corn and Black Bean Salad. The Green Rice, more Mexican than Cajun, was a Pilaf style rice with cilantro/spinach/garlic/green onions pureed and added to the rice. The first half was added on the stove top to the rice and chicken stock. This sauce pan was then put in the oven for 20 minutes to bake and absorb the liquid. When it came out the other half of the green puree was mixed in for added color.

The Corn and Black Bean salad was very easy to make. First we charred the corn, canned because of the weather, in a heavy iron skillet (very heavy, couldn't lift it with one hand) until it browned just a little bit. Then we sauted the Holy Trinity (bell pepper, onion, and celery) in the skillet with some oil. This was added in a large bowl to the reserved charred corn and then mixed with black beans, lime juice, lemon juice, lemon and lime zest, olive oil, salt and pepper. The piece de resistance was some roasted garlic cloves that we squeezed out into the salad mix.

The picture above is only about 3/4 of what the class made. We ate for nearly an hour, sampling the treats we crafted:

Seafood Gumbo
Shrimp Creole
Marinated Beef Tenderloin
Margarita Chicken
Green Rice
Corn and Bean Salad
Fried Hush Puppies
Asparagus Salad
Pecan Pie

If anyone wants to know of the specific recipes for any of these, let me know in the comments

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mexican Casserole

It's not all exotic ingredients and involved dinner preparations around the DBS household. Sometimes, especially mid-week, I just want something relatively easy to make. As bone-chilling as it has been this month, I was in need of something warm and comforting and I was in the mood for Mexican.

Selma Hayek fits those three requirements, but unfortunately she was nowhere to be found. Instead I made this Mexican casserole for dinner tonight:

2 cups of macaroni (I used a squiggly kind to keep it interesting)
1/3 lb of ground meat
1/2 can of green chiles (4.5 oz size)
1 15 oz of Salsa Con Queso (or just regular nacho cheese)
Taco Seasoning (I used a blend from Penzey's)
1/2 medium tomato, diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Cook the macaroni as you normally would. While that's going, brown the ground meat and add the dry taco seasoning to the meat.

Drain both the macaroni and the oils from the ground meat off. Then add both to a mixing bowl. Add the Salsa Con Queso, green chiles, and tomato the bowl and blend together.

Put into an 8" x 8" baking dish and bake in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

This recipe should easily serve 3 people, so adjust as necessary.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You'll need some more Fuelperks for this price

A few weeks ago, I lamented about the serious lack of discussion in this country and mass transit (in general) and high-speed rail (in particular). A week and a half ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an article about an author named Christopher Steiner and his wordily titled book "$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives For the Better".

As you can see from the title, Mr. Steiner is actually HOPING that gasoline climbs higher and higher so that society will be spurred on to innovation in technologies, a return to simpler lives, and a re-examination on mass transit. Each chapter is titled "Chapter $5" or "Chapter $8" detailing what will happen when gas reaches that specific price per gallon.

For instance, in Chapter $6, Mr. Steiner says the SUV will disappear from usage. Chapter $10 will bring the electric car into discussion prominently along with other cutting-edge vehicle types such as compressed air. Chapter $20 brings about the death of Wal-Mart (too much money in shipping costs), the triumph of downtowns over the suburbs and full high-speed rail usage in this country.

It's an interesting concept of a book and one that I may pick up to read, but ultimately it is unrealistic. The "hidden forces" that moderate the world's economy will simply not allow oil prices to climb that sharply in a short period of time. The interconnected web of our geo-economy is tied to shipping costs and platforms (air, land, sea) that run on oil.

I'm all for a national network of high-speed rail and even more developed local forms of mass transit, but it is inconcievable that the world's leaders would stand by without somehow artificially controlling the growth in price of oil.

Oil and gas companies are exploring every square inch of the globe for heretofore unknown or otherwise difficult-to-reach pockets of oil and natural gas. In fact, whether this makes me a hypocrite or not, I'm banking on just such a company striking oil off the coast of Guinea later this year.

The car and mass transit can co-exist peacefully. Not everything in our world needs to be This or That.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Pirates just treaded water this offseason

Three and a half months ago, I wrote about how I felt this offseason was an Inflection Point for the Pirates and their front office. The crux of the post was that the Pirates had a talent deficiency at the major league level and could infuse additional talent by trading for it my teams in financial straits this offseason.

Aside from adding a reliever or two, I would say that this offseason's shopping trip is done. Neal Huntington added Matt Diaz, Lyle Overbay, Kevin Correia, and Scott Olsen on major league deals, plus selected Josh Rodriguez in the Rule 5 draft as a possible utility middle infielder.

Considering that Diaz, Overbay, and Correia may be replacing Milledge, Clement, and Duke, respectively, that is an improvement. But it is simply an improvement from "stop my eyes are bleeding" to "my stomach doesn't feel too good". There are some folks that think it's the same old, same old method of doing business for the Pirates by offering these veteran stopgaps decent money while potentially blocking younger guys from seeing what they can do. Well, last year we saw what some of these players can do and it was painful to watch. There are no players blocking any of these three guys (I'm not admitting to myself that Olsen will be on this team, yet) -- Steve Pearce can't stay healthy, John Bowker is a Quad A player, and Correia should at least stabilize the rotation and not force McCutchen/Karstens/Morton to fail so spectacularly. Besides, none of those guys are "young" per se, anymore.

It would have been nice to get Jorge de la Rosa, even though I'm not a huge, huge fan. I would have loved to have traded for Matt Garza, as that was exactly the type of trade I proposed for his team mate James Shields (and others) a few months ago.

But instead, I can only hope that the Pirates will be mediocre in 2011 (an improvement from god-awful) and some of our pitching prospects come up at mid-year. There's always next offseason....

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sharp Edge - makes up for the Remodeling Show bust

DB~ and I got two free tickets to the Remodeling Show at the Convention Center as a stocking stuffer for Christmas. We're kind of tied up on Saturday and Sunday, so we decided to venture into Pittsburgh after work to check this scene out.

blah. Not even a blah with a capital B.

It's like a scaled down version of the Home Show, due in February I believe, which itself can get repetitive. I many hot tubs, paving stone for an outdoor patio, and deck suppliers do you REALLY need to see? I was hoping to make the Remodeling Show the crux of the post tonight, but it sucked, so I was already mentally composing a post about a different topic.

After the show, DB~ and I went on hunter/gatherer mode for food. We knew we wanted to eat on Penn Avenue close to the Convention Center, but didn't want to spend a lot of money (Seviche and Sonoma Grille were out). We were intrigued by the August Henry Saloon, but The Squiggle had a hankering for a Hoegarten so we walked a few more feet to the new Sharp Edge Bistro downtown.

Their beer selection is nearly unparalled in Pittsburgh. DB~ got her Hoegarten and I had some type of raspberry-flavored beer that started with a W. It was pretty good to have just one of them, but it was a touch too sweet.

As for our food, DB~ had the Chicken Avacado Club Panini with frites. She found it messy and hard to hold, but tasty. I'm pretty sure you could crack open a barrel of radioactive waste from Chernobyl, put some avacados on it, and she would say it was "delightful, with a tad bit too much of an aftertaste".

I went with a ground chicken burger with pepper jack cheese, red onion strands, some guac, and a fantastic cilantro-poblano pesto smear on the bun (with frites as well). We both really liked mine.

Overall, Sharp Edge on Penn Avenue is an outstanding place to have a drink (or 5) after work, but the food was so-so. The frites are nothing compared to Point Brugge in Regent Square, Sharp Edge also is going for the Belgian angle of food. In fact, this Sharp Edge had 4 mussel dishes on the menu and neither of us thought the other ones had them.

Speaking (typing) of people there after work, there was a table of dirty hippie environmental-type people jammed into a corner near the bar. We were wondering what type of non-profit, outdoorsy organization they worked for. We were both fascinated, me a little bit more, by the one girl's curly and bushy hair. The crazy was just spiraling out of her skull and all over the place. DB~ was pretty sure that no brush had visited that hair this week. There were also a couple of young mid-20's investment banker/lawyer types staking out a prime spot by the bar to mentally undress every woman that passed within a 20 foot radius of them. I can only imagine what lucky lady gets to spend the night with one of them.

All in all, for a bitter cold night in my least favorite month of the year, it was a pretty decent Friday. Nothing spectacular, but we got out of the house and did a little urban exploring of sorts.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Time to give up the ghost, Kilbuck

Originally tonight, I was going to write about Detroit shrinking their city footprint, but I read something in the Post-Gazette tonight that I needed to comment on first.

Last year, I wrote about my pie-in-the-sky idea to consolidate Allegheny County's 130 muncipalities into 20-some municipalities. One of the best examples of a municipality to consolidate has always been Kilbuck Township. I have long been fascinated with Kilbuck and hoped to see it be consolidated into one of its neighbors by now. A few years back, a guy named Russ Hardiman ran for the elected position of Supervisor with the express purpose of working to consolidate/dissolve Kilbuck Township. As one man on a committee of 3, that was going to be an uphill fight. Multiple times I was very close to sending Mr. Hardiman a letter of support for his efforts, but instead I chose to just observe quietly from a distance.

In today's P-G North section, there was an article detailing how Kilbuck and Avalon are sharing services to cut costs. And by "sharing", the article shows how Kilbuck is leeching off of Avalon and Ohio Township due to their financial hardships. Kilbuck, with a robust population of 710, disbanded their police force a few years back and contract those services with Ohio Township. Three years ago, Kilbuck chose not to replace their part-time secretary and started contracting those services with Avalon, using their full-time manager, Harry Dilmore.

Kilbuck is in dire financial straits due to a loan of $1.25M that was taken out to pave EVERY street in the Township a few years back. Kilbuck took the 12 year loan out thinking that the $108,000 loan repayment wouldn't be a problem once the Walmart development was up and running and pumping money into their coffers.

Until that day during the initial site prep for Walmart when the entire site came sliding down on Route 65, blocking nearly the entire width of Ohio River Boulevard. I'm not going to get into the engineering ethics issues with this project, as the methods employed by the engineering companies to create shell companies to minimize liabilities is professionally repulsive to me. And that's just for starters.

The sad part is that Kilbuck allowed this Walmart development on a steep slope with poor soils because they were greedily chasing tax revenue development dollars. They saw Walmart as the means to solve their financial problems. If there was county-wide land development and planning (real planning, not the farce that exists right now with Allegheny County Economic Development), someone would have disallowed this money-grab of a development. Not every piece of green grass or woods needs to have development. You need to be smart about it.

So with no Walmart to whore off of, Kilbuck now has to repay $108,000 out of their $500,000 budget each year for the road paving loan. Brilliant. To raise cash, Kilbuck is now considering selling their municipal building and fire department building.

And did I mention that Avalon plows the snow on Kilbuck's roads? And that Kilbuck has no public works department?

To recap --
No police department
No manager
No snow plowing
No public works
May sell their buildings

What's the point of even being a community, Kilbuck? There are no municipal services that you provide your residents. Everything is shared or contracted. You have 710 people.

The last word in the article is from a retired tax collector and councilman of Avalon (read: old guy) who stresses that Avalon and Kilbuck are not merging. "With the shared services we already have, what do you gain by merging?"

I don't know...the municipal equivalent of pulling the plug on a brain-dead patient? At this point, it's just academic. Kilbuck should give up the ghost of being a named muncipality. Currently, they are a ghost. The Ghost of Western Pennsylvania's Outdated Past.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Urbanspoon App - you feelin' lucky?

DB~ is a diehard iPhone user. She lives and breathes all things Apple, especially her Mac. I'm secretly resisting the iPhone, trying to soldier on with my Samsung Omnia. But it's tough sometimes with all the great apps she has for the iPhone.

One of them is the Urbanspoon app. Many of you probably know about the website Urbanspoon, an online site that allows users to rate and review restaurants. The site also allows the user to find restaurants by ethnicity, price range, and location.

This handiness has been captured by the Urbanspoon app. One of the best features is the "slot machine" aspect of the app. There are three columns that can spin independently. There's "location", "food ethnicity", and "price". You can click the button and it will spin each column to randomly select a restaurant for you. We have done this twice in the year-plus she has had the app and been very pleased both times. If you are feeling less apt to leave things to chance, you can lock in columns as well. Say you wanted to stay in East Liberty. You just lock East Liberty in the column. You can lock in the price range and/or the food ethnicity, as well.

If you are a slave to the iPhone or a closet foodie, this app is a must-get. Or you can just leech off your more techno-savvy significant other. Like me.