Friday, May 27, 2011

NOLA on the Square -- a taste of N'awlins in the Burgh

As loyal readers of this blog know (all 6 of you), I'm a huge fan of the city of New Orleans and Cajun cooking. So it has een with a great deal of anticipation that I've been looking forward to the opening of NOLA on the Square in Market Square downtown.

NOLA on the Square is the latest entry from Yves Carreau (Sonoma Grille, Seviche) to the Pittsburgh dining scene. DB~ and I were originally supposed to go a couple of weeks ago when my parents, sister, and brother-in-law went before the Mozart/Beethoven concert. All four of them, especially my dad, raved about it. Secretly I was disappointed that we didn't go, but we were pushed for time that day as we were moving DB~ from her place into mine.

Of course The Squiggle realized this and filed it in her head that the two of us should go. She surprised me today by telling me that tonight's dinner was a surprise. As soon as she told me to dress up a little bit (from my engineering chic outfit), I guessed where we were going.

We got down there at 6:15 and the bar scene was packed. Looks like a lot of the people (mostly in their late 20's/early 30's) were there since work ended. The restaurant itself was probably half full. We were seated right near the open kitchen so we were keeping an eye of the line of cooks and chefs. No one seem stressed out or rushing around. Everyone had their job, did their job, and did it well. No arguments, collisions, or extraneous movements.

The decor of the restaurant is tastefully done to reflect New Orleans. There were some painting of jazz musicians, exposed red brick, some Mardi Gras masks placed in strategic spots, but the walls were a mellow shade of red and a soothing yellow.

We decided to splurge a little bit. Usually DB~ will have 1 glass of wine and I don't usually have a mixed drink, but tonight she had 2 and I had a well-made Sazerac (whiskey, rye, bitters, and absinthe).

*SIDE NOTE -- A few years ago, I had an Absinthe Phase. I was fascinated by the culture of it around the turn of the 20th century over in Europe. A bottle of real absinthe, not the diluted crap sold in the U.S., was given to me as a gift from someone who got it from France. I got into the whole scene...bought a slotted spoon, got the sugar cubes to strain ice cold water over to generate the louche effect in the absinthe...everything. I wanted to chase the Green Fairy, but not get too goofy to carve off my ear like Van Gogh did after an absinthe binge. Nothing. I had a bunch of it, too. Absinthe, distilled from fermented wormwood, has a licorice taste that eventually you find off-putting. Before tonight, I had not had it in 3 years.

We got an appetizer of "BBQ" shrimp, which was actually shrimp with the shells on sauteed in a stock with a large amount of paprika and red pepper for spice and scallions for flavor. They were excellent, especially using the French bread to soak up the broth at the bottom of the bowl.

We had a great waiter named Greg. Greg knew the menu back and forth, made suggestions to fit our tastes, and shied us away from certain items in favor of others. Enthusiastic without being fake. He also had a killer Rollie Fingers-esque mustache with mustache wax and everything. Good guy.

For our main courses, DB~ went with Shrimp and Grits (sans bacon -- she hates the stuff). The grits were smooth and creamy and the flavor base was the Trinity of Cajun cooking -- bell pepper, onion, and celery. There were some scallions as decorations that were curled up on themselves, which was a nice touch.

I had the Roasted Quail that was stuffed with oyster stuffing. The stuffing had a fantastic flavor, but I found the chunks of oyster too big. Maybe if they were chopped smaller or instead was stuffed with andouille sausage. The quail itself had fantastic flavor and had just a tiny bit of char on the crispy skin -- made me think of an outdoor barbeque.

NOLA on the Square, a bulky name that is probably in place so that Emeril doesn't file infringement against them, is a fantastic place that I would like to go back to check out for lunch. They have a nice selection of po' boys, muffalettas, paninis, and salads for lunch. And if you go, stop and observe the action in the kitchen. They don't mind.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Honey Mint Corn Meal-Crusted Shrimp

Last week I had a hankering for some shrimp and there was also some mint staring back at me from the fridge that was aching to wilt away, so it was time to get a little creative.

A couple of months ago, maybe for the Mardi Gras party we had, I needed to buy some corn meal for a recipe. I ended up being forced to buy a 5 lb bag and I needed maybe 1 cups worth. So I've been thinking of ways to use the yellow corn meal (I'm close to making my own tortillas, I think). Recently I bought some honey, as well, and short of putting it in tea for a sore throat I'm not liable to use it very frequently in cooking.

I decided to jam all these variables into the DBS Processor and see what shoots out. Typically when I coat a piece of chicken, I'll use an egg yolk or even some cornstarch. I decided to roll the shrimp around in the honey as the base.

Then I took the shrimp and sprinkled some finely chopped mint on them. The honey, of course, caused it to stick perfectly. Next I coated the shrimp in a blend of yellow corn meal and Penzey's Old World Spice (paprika and celery salt, primarily). A whole box of unopened Penzey spices have arrived at my house now that DB~ has moved in -- what she never used will be used anew!

I got some vegetable oil nice and hot in a skillet and fried the shrimp for 2-3 minutes a side. The shrimp were served with standard corn niblets and a rice/lentil mixture. Not too shabby, but not "restaurant quality" either.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trying to culture this pearl

When you're an engineer, there's not a lot of room in the toolbox for the fine arts. But I greatly appreciate those who are part of the fine arts because they have creativity that I can only fantasize about having. My favorite modern-day artist is Michael Flohr and I had the chance to meet him last year and observe him painting in real-time. To take an idea from your head and translate it to a canvas via the medium of gessoed oil paints is a gift that I will never possess.

Even more of a distance away on the spectrum of "things DBS can never do" is being a musician in a classical orchestra. Last night my brother-in-law got DB~, myself, and my parents tickets to join he and my sister at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performance. They were performing three separate pieces: one was a modern piece called Stroke by a composer named Joan Tower, the second was a series of four pieces from Mozart, and the third act was three pieces by Beethoven.

Joan Tower was wrapping up her year in residency at PSO with Stroke, which was a piece about her brother having a stroke three years and his life changing due to his paralysis. It had tympanies and bass providing a slow heartbeat, with periodic rapid crescendos symbolizing the rapid flow of blood, then downbeat solos to represent the actual stroke. It was a very personal and moving piece for her and it must have been a thrill to hear an orchestra perform it in front of an audience.

I'm not a classical music afficianado at all, but the skill level of the PSO was outstanding. I found myself just watching individual musicians and then watching entire sections of instruments, like the 12 violinists in the first chair section on the left, then the 10 violinists in the second chair section on the right. I wondered about the group dynamics and how much professional jealousy must exist among the prima donna position of violin. I watched the percussion section play 10 notes and then sit back with rapt attention the rest of the piece.

Especially during the Mozart and Beethoven pieces, you really appreciate how the string sections all move their bows in unison. Everyone has to be on the same page or it doesn't work at all. You can't say that about most professions. Most people will approach a problem in different ways and still be able to solve it correctly. But when you play a piece of classical music that is over 200 plus years old, there is only way to do it or it will be noticeably wrong.

I found myself wondering about how much the first chair violinist makes and then wondering how much the "lowest" violinist in the 2nd chair makes. Their lives are 180 degrees different than mine in terms of their work day, but we still both eat out at great restaurants, have families we share time with, people we love, and go shopping at grocery stores. It seems as if they live glamorous lives, but I'm sure they get burned out at times, too.

I respect anyone who is at the top of their game. I'm sure there are orchestras performing at an even higher level than the PSO, but to my untrained ear they sure are great. Tip of the cap to being in the presence of an art form that I usually don't talk about or get a chance to enjoy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

French Silk Chocolate Pie

This past Sunday was Mother's Day and my sister and I decided to split the menu duties for the Mother's Day dinner for our Mom. My sister, who I've remarked before is CHEF-quality in the kitchen (while I am COOK-quality), was going to do the main dish and a vegetable. I would do a vegetable also, plus a salad, and a dessert.

For all of my interest in food and in cooking, I'm not much of a dessert guy. I enjoy eating a good chocolate mousse and I'll emotionally-eat 3/4 of a Dutch Crumb Apple Pie on occasion, sure, but for the most part I don't like sweets and don't really make them when I do a dinner.

But I volunteered to do it after a magazine randomly showed up in my mailbox called Cook's Country. I have no idea where it came from. As a gift I was given Chef's Illustrated, but this was totally different. I was paging through the magazine and found two great recipes that I wanted to try for Mother's Day. The first was a recipe for Honey-Goat Cheese Sugar Snap Peas and the second was for French Chocolate Silk Pie. Most likely it was the "food porn" style picture of the pie that drew me in. I can't resist good food porn pics. Watching too much Food Network in HD makes me want to take a shower sometimes.

The recipe seemed complicated to me, but it was worth it for my Mom. The first step was to double boil 8 oz of bittersweet chocolate. I bought some 50% cocoa bars and broke them up into chunks. I didn't buy 70% cocoa because I used that a few months ago for a recipe and it is very dark and bitter. Double boiling involve getting a saucepan of water boiling on the stove then reducing it to a strong simmer. Place the broken chocolate chunks into a metal mixing boil and set it atop the saucepan so that the bottom isn't in the boiling water. The chocolate melts by the steam heating the bowl gently. Once the chocolate is melted, take it off the stove (keep the water going) and let it cool.

Next I took 1 cup of heavy cream and whipped it with a hand mixer on medium speed for 4 minutes until the peaks were stiff and fluffy. Put that in the fridge to chill.

In a second metal mixing bowl, crack 3 eggs, add 2 tablespoons of water, and 3/4 cup of sugar and mix well for 5 minutes on medium speed. Once this is mixed, take it to the stove and double boil it until the mixture is 160 degrees (note - I don't do temps, I guesstimate with the finger test). Once it was heated up, I mixed it on medium again until fluffy for another 6-7 minutes.

Add the melted chocolate into the sugar-egg-water mix, plus 1 tablespoon of vanilla (I used extract -- my chef-like sister said I should have used pure. Ehh.) and mix for 2-3 minutes. Take the whipped cream out of the fridge and fold by hand with a spatula into the mixture until no white streaks remain.

I used a pre-baked graham cracker crust and poured the French Chocolate Silk Pie mix into this crust. Chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours. It is a rich dessert and kind of a pain to make, but it's worth it. Note -- I didn't take a picture of it...the picture above is a stock Internet photo. I didn't slather additional whipped cream over it like in the picture.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

DBS, Dave Littlefield, and a Pastrami Sandwich

As I watch the Pirates today with a strange feeling (I think people call it "optimism"), my mind wondered if Dave Littlefield looks in on this team at all. For those that don't know, Dave Littlefield was the GM before Neal Huntington and is widely considered to be one of the 10 worst GM's of modern times.

His list of sins that he committed on this franchise are too numerous, but well-documented, to go into here but suffice it to say that Huntington had his work cut out for him when he arrived in October 2007.

Littlefield was all about minimizing risk. He would routinely take "major league ready" players back in trades, who would subsequently show they weren't ready for the major leagues. DL would avoid dealing with difficult agents (Scott Boras) at all costs. Draft picks were made with signability in mind. What brought me to thinking about DL was when I started to think about the Pirates current bullpen. Hanrahan, Meek, Veras, and Resop all routinely gas it in to the plate at 94 mph at a minimum. That was a trait unheard of with a DL-constructed bullpen. Sure, Mike Gonzalez was a flamethrower for a few years, but he was the exception not the rule. And there sure as heck weren't multiple guys like that in the pen. Huntington, especially in recent years, has targeted players that bring the heat but may have needed some delivery tweaks to fully harness it. For the most part, it has been a successful strategy in recent seasons.

All of this reminiscing about Littlefield made me think about the time I got to meet the man. Well, substitute "meet" for "accost while eating". It was 2004 and I had just finished reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It was a game-changing book for baseball and for me, as well. The surface takeaway from the book is that Billy Beane, the GM of the Athletics, found guys with bad bodies but could get on base a lot. The deeper message in the book is that Beane found market inefficiencies in free agent costs and draft picks and exploited them to the A's advantage.

As a newly energized stat-dork, with a nascent interest in minor league prospects, I was quite taken with the lessons learned in Moneyball. It was early in season in 2004 and it was quite obvious that Kris Benson was going to be traded by the Pirates at some point that season. At the time, there were three high-end 3B prospects in the minors (Dallas McPherson from the Angels, Andy Marte from the Indians, and David Wright from the Mets) and I hoped that the Pirates could get one for Benson.

So on one sunny May day, the previous IT guy at my job and I went to lunch at the Smallman Street Deli. We're just finishing up our fantastic sandwiches when in walks in the hair gelled-one himself, Dave Littlefield, and a small entourage of other front-office types.

"That's Dave Littlefield," I said to the redneck-tinged IT guy.
"Who's that?" said the IT guy. If he was a NASCAR driver, he would have known.
"He's the GM of the Pirates. I'm going to talk to him."

DL had ordered and was waiting in line so I approached him cautiously. He was way bigger than I thought, at least 6'-3" or 6'-4". He had on a well-cut navy blue pinstriped suit with a gray shirt. And, of course, the hair was perfect.

"Mr. Littlefield?"
He turned with a pleasant enough look on his face. It wasn't the countenance of a person you would expect to be synonymous with "incompetance" by the end of his tenure.
"I wanted to know if you had read Moneyball and, if so, what you thought of it?"

He seemed amused.
"Yeah, I read it. It sure is easier to run a franchise and have a book written about you when you have Mulder, Zito, and Hudson in the rotation."
Wow. I guess DL was going to wash his sandwich down with a warm glass of sour grapes.

"OK, but are there any philosophies in there that you found interesting enough to adopt?" I asked.
"There's some things in there that we already do," he answered. No you don't, I thought.

I decided to change tack, like an expert sailor on the high seas.

"I know you're going to trade Benson. The Angels need a pitcher. You should ask them for McPherson."
He sort of chuckled.
"There's no way the Angels will give him up."
"They should if they want a chance to win the AL," I answered. "Look, the Pirates desperately need a 3B after you traded Ramirez and there are 3 guys...Wright, Marte, and McPherson...who are going to be stars." I didn't mention "after you traded Ramirez in one of the worst trades in Pirates history".

We went back and forth for a minute or two until his sandwich was ready and I bid adieu. At that time, I didn't quite realize how awful of a GM he was. He was still riding the Jason Bay-Oliver Perez trade which looked like a huge coup for the Pirates. That was the last time I ever had a chance to speak person-to-person with Littlefield, but that day made quite an impression on me.

History would show that of those 3 high-end prospects, only David Wright would succeed. McPherson had debilitating back problems and strikeout issues, while Andy Marte (ironically currently the AAA starting 3B for the Pirates farm team) just never amounted to anything in the majors.

The Scourge of the Pirates would last for 3 additional seasons until the end of the 2007 season, which was one of the worst single GM'ing displays in a single year. It's only now in May 2011 that I feel good days are ahead for this franchise.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Giving Route 28 an upgrade -- 25 years past due

Last week I was driving down Route 28 on my way to a meeting at the Department of Environmental Protection on Washington's Landing below the 31st Street Bridge. Washington's Landing (on an Island named Herr's Island) was once the site of a massive series of animal rendering factories. The uber-steep hill, Rialto Street, was known as Pig Hill because they would herd the swine down the hill and on to Herr's Island to meet their bacon-flavored makers.

There are many times when I go to a meeting at DEP feeling just like those pigs.

But my post is not about my intense dislike of DEP, but rather the better days that in the medium-term future will occur for regular motorists of Route 28. This important arterial links the City of Pittsburgh to the northern riverfront communities. It draws daily commuters from Millvale up to New Kensington and over the river to Oakmont and Plum, plus some points beyond.

For years, motorists have had to deal with narrow lanes, bridges that inexplicably narrowed from 2 lanes of thru traffic to one lane, and traffic lights at the 40th and 31st Bridges that would snarl traffic while they completed their convoluted cycles. Route 28 became the forgotten major transportation link in the region. I-279 and I-79 are the most important, everyone jumped on re-branding I-376, and Onorato only funneled money to roads that would directly service the Airport Corridor.

But in recent years, PENNDOT has upgraded bridges and ramps at the Route 28/Route 8 junction to take out the 1 lane bottlenecks and sub-standard infrastructure. They are now in the grand finale...the act of removing the traffic lights from the equation all together by lowering and relocating Route 28 so that in order to get on the bridges you will take an offramp.

After the project is done (in 2015) you will be able to travel traffic light free along Route 28 all the way into the city. Having traffic lights on a road that services nearly 100,000 vehicles a day is silliness. The widths of the travel lanes won't get wider, so it will still be a "cozy" drive in with your neighbors, but at least it won't be stop-go-stop-go-stop.

I like to think of a roadway system like our blood vessels. The City of Pittsburgh is the heart, with I-79/I-279/I-376/Route 28/and Route 60 as the arteries. Route 28 has had a major cholestorol problem for many years and now it is getting a much needed angioplasty. The construction headaches will stretch for probably 4 more years, but in the long run it will be well worth it.