Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cranberry -- Protectorate of the North

Continuing in a counter-clockwise direction around the compass, the next population center outside the city to highlight is Cranberry to the north. Cranberry exploded in population all throughout the 1990's, to the point that it was one of the top 10 growth areas in the United States.

Cranberry is located just over the border from Allegheny County, in Butler County's southwest corner, which is part of the allure for its population growth thanks to a much lower tax rate. It also sits at the point where the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) passes over Interstate 79. This provides great access for trucks to service the large amount of commercial and industrial businesses here, while also providing fantastic access to major roads for normal motorists. And by the way, Route 19 (leading to McKnight Road) and Route 228 also come through here, too.

All of this traffic, coupled with the volcanic increase in population, led Cranberry to experience terrible traffic. Within the past 7 or 8 years, though, PENNDOT and the Turnpike Commission have done some major projects to try and alleviate the mess. The Turnpike Connector allows vehicles on I-79 to go straight to I-76 without having to clog up Cranberry's roads. Additionally, the Cranberry toll booth was eliminated and replaced with a mainline massively wide toll station 3 miles outside of the original exit.

The interesting part of Cranberry is that the vast majority of the commercial and residential developments are located in the southern sector of the Township. There are huge swathes of land in the north and eastern part that remain rural farms or woodlands. It is conceivable that if the City of Butler continues to struggle and rot away on the vine that Cranberry Township could become the County seat within 50 years. The drawback to that would be that it would be located in the southwest corner of the County and not be geographically centered for the other residents of the County.

Cranberry Township is well run, with a fantastic manager overseeing the growth and development in Jerry Andree. They have a robust staff of senior officials in the Public Works and Engineering departments as well. Cranberry received a huge shot in the arm when Westinghouse relocated their entire corporate headquarters from Monroeville to Cranberry a couple of years ago.

Cranberry has better planning than the previous post of Monroeville, but it is still a sprawled out community. They do have a very impressive array of parks and speciality parks, plus their own municipally-owned golf course. They also have a "neo-traditional" neighborhood that pushed the homes closer to the road and closer together to encourage communication between neighbors.

Similar to all four municipalities that I'll be discussing, Cranberry is the kind of place that you can live, work, shop, and play all without leaving the community. It's not a perfect place, but it is a good place to set up shop while still having access to Pittsburgh (about 12 miles north of the city via I-279/I-79).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Monroeville -- Protectorate of the East

Back in the days of the Roman and Greek empires, outlying cities would be the scouts for the main cities of Rome and Athens. If trouble was brewing, they would send scouts to the main city to report on it.

Fast forward to the 1980's and 90's and people were fleeing from the main cities to the suburbs, accelerating a trend started in the 1960's known as White Flight, when the white middle class abandoned the urban areas of America.

Due to better services and lower tax rates, Pittsburgh is no stranger to this phenomenon. As I was going to a seminar last week in Monroeville, it dawned on me that Pittsburgh has 4 major population/commercial nodes on each point of the compass surrounding the city. Today's post will be about Monroeville, our gateway to the East. Gateway is ironic in the usage there, as that is also the name of the school district that serves Monroeville.

As a child growing up in the North Hills during the 1980's, my parents frequently dragged me to the Monroeville Mall when they wanted to go to a "nice mall". This was pre-Ross Park Mall opening in 1987. Many a Sunday was spent in the back of my parents car driving Allegheny River Boulevard, Lime Hollow Road, Rodi Road, and then business 22.

I go to Monroeville on work related reasons about twice a year now and view it in a whole different prism, now from a land development/urban planning perspective. Monroeville is stuck. They're stuck between the "dying on the vine" big box mall complexes, rapidly becoming dinosaurs and the newer sleeker strip malls that serve a younger, tech-savvy population.

There was a pretty interesting looking new strip mall with a gym and an AT&T store on one end of Monroeville, replete with a lot of glass and aluminum cladding. But it was the exception and not the rule in this slip-shod of a design business district. A driver's eyes are visually raped as you move from the Turnpike down Business 22 and into Wilkens Township. There are practically no trees, tons of garish signs at varying heights, and strip malls stacked on big boxes intertwined in chain restaurants. And that doesn't even get into the abomination of the old Expo Mart and Monroeville Mall, both criminally underutilized at this point. I won't even start a rant about how pedestrian unfriendly Monroeville is, either.

Monroeville is trying, though. I did notice a small stretch of decorative street lights in front of one re-developed mall. The old Wickes Furniture is now a halfway-decent Convention Center with a Doubletree right next door. Monroeville is a by-product of the 60's and 70's, so it's change to at least the early 2000's will take some time.

Losing Westinghouse's massive operation to Cranberry (an upcoming Protectorate post) probably stung Monroeville a bit in terms of income taxes and business taxes. Hopefully Monroeville has heard of this new thing called "green design" and incorporates that into any potential re-designs.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sifting Through the Discarded Memories of Others

DB~ and I like to watch Storage Wars on A&E, as does most of her family. While watching an episode a month or so ago, we used the Google machine to see if there were any storage auctions in the Pittsburgh area. Sure enough, there's a circuit of auctions throughout the region.

We found one today that started in Robinson at 8 am and went to Etna at 11 am, with a stop in Forest Hills afterwards. We went to just the Etna one and took DB~'s parents and met her brother there. There were 7 units for auction at the Etna facility under the 62nd Street Bridge, but unlike the show the auction itself was held all in one place, so you had to take notes to remember what was in each unit.

The one unit had some interesting furniture that could appeal to a restorer, but it wasn't for any of us. That one sold for about $200. Five of the other six units had mostly junk and all went for under $100. The real prize unit, compared to the others, had an interesting shuffleboard/bowling type of game. It seemed old, perhaps 40-50 years old, and we overheard another buyer saying it could be worth $1500 by itself. There were also some interesting furniture pieces and a plate tamper for construction. This locker went for $1800, so those buyers may have been right about that bowling shuffleboard game.

After that auction, we headed to Burgatory for lunch. It was fantastic, as always, but the best part was we got there at noon and didn't have to wait at all. As soon as we got seated, the waiting area started to fill up. By the time we left, they were waiting out the door.

After we left Burgatory, DB~ and I still felt like poking around, so we drove into Lawrenceville. DB~ heard about this cool store called Divertido (Spanish for "fun") so we checked that out. We came away with a Pizza "Pi" cutter in the shape of the mathematical symbol for pi.

When we left there, we stopped in an antique store called Scavengers. Its owner, a gentleman named Al, was quite interesting to take to about his love of Pittsburgh beer brewery collectibles. None of the stuff behind the counter was for sale, as it was part of his personal collection, which was a shame as there was some cool stuff from a brewery I never heard of before called E&O Brewery at the site of the current Penn Brewery.

Aside from the brand-new Pizza Pi cutter, we didn't buy anything today. But we met some saw some interesting folk at the storage auction and got to meet a quirky antique dealer and hear his stories. That alone made this snowy January day a good day. Getting to see DB~'s dad elated to go to a storage auction was the icing on the cake.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Devil in the White Kitchen

On Thursday, DB~ hosted Book Club at our house to discuss The Devil In the White City. I imagine that the night goes like this:
Talk about work and/or kids for 30 minutes
Discuss the book for 30 minutes
Complain about husbands/boyfriends the remaining 2 hours
Eat and drink wine throughout all these things above

Of course, I'm just guessing about this because --- The First Rule of Book Club....You don't talk about Book Club.

So I got scarce and hung out at my buddy's house for the night, watching old episodes of G.I. Joe that he DVR'ed and then the premiere of Archer. But before I left, I got a picture of DB~ in the kitchen.

Since the book is set at the Chicago's World Fair in the 1890's, DB~ wanted to make Fair Food. She had Cracker Jacks (invented for the Fair), Kettle Corn, and made Funnel Cakes from scratch. Here's the recipe she used:

3 eggs
2 cups of milk
4 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
1T baking powder

Beat eggs with milk and gradually beat in the flour, sugar, salt and making powder. Beat until very smooth. While holding the opening of the funnel closed, pour the batter in the funnel. Open end of funnel over hot oil swirling to make patterns…starting at the center and working outward. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until brown. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Makes about 30 funnel cakes (depending on size).

The snowfall scared a few girls off, but the 5 that were there enjoyed the funnel cakes she said.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shrimp Stir Fry with Daikon

On Tuesday, I cooked an Asian meal for us. I wanted to do some different textures and cuts on the vegetables to make it interesting. I peeled the skin off of 2 carrots and then continued peeling them into thin slices in the bowl. I then julienned a handful of celery sticks, diced some red peppers, and diced some white onions. I added some canned baby corns, as well. I put 1/2 tsp of white pepper into the bowl for some spice and mixed it all up.

I bought daikon, which is a Japanese radish, but didn't want to put it in the stir fry and overpower the rest of the veggies. I read up about daikon and saw that it is popular shredded and mixed in a ponzu sauce (citrus flavored soy sauce). So I got out the shredder and did a medium shred on the peeled daikon. I squeezed all the water out of the daikon and put in a small bowl. On the side, I mixed 2/3 cup of orange juice and splashed in some soy sauce. Once I was happy with the taste, sweet yet salty, I poured the faux-ponzu sauce on the daikon and let it soak in to it.

I stir-fried the vegetables in a bottled stir-fry sauce and at the end put 12 shrimp in to the wok to cook for 2-3 minutes. I kept the daikon on the side and it complemented the spicy stir fry quite well. On the side I had some store-bought egg rolls as well.

I served the dinner with chopsticks to give DB~ and I a challenge, too. Everything turned out quite well.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pork Chops with Quinoa

On Tuesday night, I wanted to go a little outside the normal zone. I'm pretty comfortable making pork tenderloins, but I haven't really done much with pork chops. This past weekend I purchased some butterflied boneless pork chops, but didn't have anything specific in mind.

I did have some leftover butternut squash that I tossed in nutmeg from a few days ago. To the squash, I added some half-and-half cream, and a few leaves of tarragon and pureed it all to a smooth slightly-runny consistency.

For the pork chops,I put a touch of salt and pepper on both sides and I ran them through an egg wash on both sides and coated them in bread crumbs. Once coated in the bread crumbs, I added some sprigs of rosemary to the chops. Over medium heat I melted 4 tablespoons of butter and cooked the chops 7 minutes per side. Once I flipped them over, I added some leftover champagne from New Year's Eve as a deglazing agent in the pan. This added an excellent touch of flavor to the chops as the finished product.

I used the butternut squash puree as an accent splash on the plate and a small portion of dipping sauce for the chops. As a side dish, I made some quinoa in lieu of rice. Quinoa is a Peruvian grain that is considered a "superfood" due to its high quantity of vitamins and grain. It was a package that was garden vegetable flavored, not the pure quinoa in its raw state, but it was still tasty. It has a slightly crunchy texture to it. I also made some broccoli and just melted some butter on it and sprinkled some garlic salt.

I still prefer tenderloin (and was intrigued by the pork belly), but the pork chops were quite tasty.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What's In A Name?

One of my favorite prospects in the Pirates' system (along with many other people who follow the system) is Starling Marte. Starling is a cool name. Can't think of anyone else that I've ever heard with that name. There was a Wardell Starling for the Pirates' minor league system a while back. There's a Starlin (no adverb) Castro for the Cubs. But no Starling.

The Pirates have some players with other cool sounding names, like Colton Cain, Stetson Allie, and Zack Von Rosenberg. As fellow prospector 5'ish Finkle says "They sound like gunfighter names". Each of these guys is regarded as a high end prospect, even though for some of them their stats don't regard them as such.

This brings to mind a thought I have periodically:
"Do we think more of a player based on his name?"

What if Starling Marte was Sam Martin -- white guy from Indiana? What if Stetson Allie was Steve Adams from Virginia? If Colton Cain was Charlie Jones from Kansas? Would they lose some of their luster?

There's also the inverse of this theory -- I sometimes feel that sites like Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and the like overrate Latin players. Even though most Latin players are better than age-appropriate for their respective leagues, it seems like American players consistently rate behind them. I wonder if Wilmer Flores was Wilbur Smith if he would have been (way) overrated all these years?

On some level, it's only human nature that we think differently about people based on their perceived "coolness" of a name. It's why actors and singers change their names. Paul Hewlitt doesn't have the same ring as "Bono" now, does it?

Next time you think about a prospect with a cool name, take a step back and think how much of it has to do with his name.

Friday, January 6, 2012

New Year's Eve 2011 - We Were Crabby

As mentioned previously on this blog, DB~ and I are not huge fans of New Year's Eve. Each year that we've been together, we have just stayed in by ourselves and I've cooked us a nice dinner. In 2009, it was grilled quail and in 2010 it was steak for me and salmon for DB~. Last week, we went down to the Strip District on New Year's Eve Day and shopped around.

I tried in vain to convince her to let me cook rabbit for dinner from Jo-Mar Meats. As soon as we walked into Wholey's, to our right was a huge display case of crab legs. The King Crab Legs were $17.95/lb so we got 1.5 pounds of them. That was about 7 or 8 legs, which the fishmonger assured us was a good portion for 2 people.

The legs in most places, if red/pinkish, are already cooked so for dinner I just put them in a large stock pot of water for 6 minutes to heat them up. I seasoned the water in the pot with Old Bay, plus I melted some butter in a saucepan and combined that with some Old Bay for a dipping sauce.

I get frustrated with things very easily, so cracking crab legs for me was a recipe for frustration. Eventually, I just started smashing them and extracting little chunks of meat. All the while, DB~ was patiently cracking the legs at the knuckle and pulling out the whole segment of beautiful meat.

I served the crab legs with some hush puppies we bought at Wholey's and a roasted Eggplant dish I created that was not one of my finer creations. All in all, it was another very good New Year's Eve dinner and we didn't have to pay inflated prices, be rushed at dinner, or deal with a bunch of drunks on the road or in bars.