Thursday, July 24, 2008

Girls' Night Out: Pangea

736 Bellafonte St
Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Last night, the ladies and I went out on the town. Since I'm moving next week and am feeling the stress of packing, I voted we have dinner out instead of cooking. Ariel suggested we check out Pangea, a new tapas restaurant in Shadyside.

The ambience of the restaurant is incredible: soft and yellow, helping me feel very relaxed, as though I were dining outdoors during a lazy sunset. Also, though there may have been some music playing softly, I don't remember it, which means that it was at the perfect volume. I prefer to focus on the company and conversation when I'm out with the girls! The picture of the interior here is from the Pangea website, and the lighting in the photo does some justice to the lighting in the restaurant.

We each ordered a glass of wine from the menu. Pangea offers wine flights of three 2-oz. servings each, each with a theme ($12-14). I decided just to have a glass, as I'm operating under a rather tight budget. I probably should have foregone the wine completely, but I drink wine so seldom these days that I decided to splurge. The least expensive wine by the glass is $9 and ranges up to $14. I opted for a Viognier ($9), which turned out to be delicious. It was sweet, with no acidity at all, but remained uncloying with hints of honey and apricot and the classic oily mouthfeel of a Viognier.

The girls and I decided to share the Hummus tapas flight ($11), which consisted of three tasty hummuses (Gorgonzola and chive with toasted pine nuts, artichoke and feta with Kalamata olives, and Sweet Red Pepper with roasted shallot) served with warm, seasoned pita wedges. I wasn't wild about the pita wedges paired with the hummus, since the seasonings clashed with the intense flavors of two of the hummuses. However, the hummus was excellent. There weren't enough pita wedges to go around, however, and sadly, the remaining hummus was cleared from our table before we could lick the platters clean.

I ordered a Scallop Trio flight ($16), consisting of a tempura-style fried scallop, a scallop ceviche, and a seared scallop. In other words, I paid $16 for 3 scallops. While the scallop dishes were very tasty and left me wanting more (especially of the ceviche), I do have a complaint about the price for obvious reasons.

Though the restaurant claims to be a tapas restaurant, I felt that perhaps they missed the mark. Yes, tapas are generally smaller portions; but they are also supposed to be shared. The tapas flights, for the most part, consisted of three very different items following a theme (e.g., my scallop trio), and could not easily be shared without divvying up those individual items.

I have almost nothing negative to say about anything else at Pangea. I truly enjoyed my dining experience. The food was delicious, if a bit scant in amount for the price; our server was charming without being overbearing (he even brought us a complementary dish of Potatoes Lyonaisse, which was quite tasty), and didn't even raise an eyebrow when we asked to split the check four ways; and, of course, the conversation was colorful, with nary a dull moment.

However, I probably will not go back to Pangea because I know I can get even more excellent tapas and wines at Ibiza. I could have eaten (and drunk) twice as much for the price I paid at Pangea. (By the way, I have just realized I never reviewed Ibiza on my blog, though I have reviewed its sister restaurant, Mallorca; this is a situation which I must soon remedy because the whole world needs to know about Ibiza!).

So, the verdict on Pangea is really based on your mind-over-money mentality, I suppose. If your eating experience is based solely on the quality of the food and money is not a concern, give Pangea a try: you probably won't be disappointed. However, if you are value-driven and pinching your pennies, you'd be better off eating somewhere else.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Trying New Things: Scrapple

Karl and I decided to throw our worries about future heart disease to the wind this weekend and made a sumptuous breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and scrapple. Originally, Karl had wanted corned beef hash, but can you believe it: not only is scrapple less expensive than corned beef hash (a 1 lb. block of scrapple at Shur-Save was $1.99, while a 14 oz. can of hash was $2.19), but it also boasts less fat and calories per serving (compare scrapple's 90 calories per serving to corned beef hash's 475!!). The fact that scrapple is pork-based was also a point in its favor, since Karl and I have been strictly limiting our beef intake for ethical reasons.
So, the scrapple won, much to my chagrin.

blithely describes scrapple as "typically made of hog offal, such as the head, heart, liver, and other scraps, which are boiled with any bones attached (often the entire head), to make a broth. Once cooked, bones and fat are discarded, the meat is reserved, and (dry) cornmeal is boiled in the broth to make a mush. The meat, finely minced, is returned, and seasonings, typically sage, thyme, savory, and others are added. The mush is cast into loaves and allowed to cool thoroughly until gelled."

Who wants a piece?

I never thought I would try scrapple, but I suppose the liberation of summer (and Karl's contagious reckless abandon) has made me bold. After we had some bacon going in the pan, I thought I would just add a couple of 1/2 inch slices of scrapple to the pan. This turned out to be not such a great way to fry scrapple. Because the scrapple contains some grains (ours had some wheat flour and cornmeal in it), the scrapple didn't hold its shape once all those grains soaked up a bunch of bacon grease.

However, the scrapple, though it lost its square mystery-meat look, was actually quite tasty (suprise!). With the bacon grease addition, it really just tastes like extra-salty sausage gravy (country style) that you would eat with some fluffy buttermilk biscuits.

This morning before work, I tried frying up some scrapple sans bacon grease (or any type of fat, actually), and met with a similar problem: the scrapple just doesn't hold together once it's being heated. I speculate that this is because what is holding the scrapple together is the congealed fat, which doesn't stay congealed long at higher temperatures, obviously. No big deal, the scrapple still tastes great. Without the bacon grease, you can definitely taste the liver content (liver has such a distinctive taste). If I could get a less salty version of scrapple, I would call it the poor man's pâté!

Honestly, in a time of my life when I am actually attempting to eat ethically, the idea of scrapple is somewhat pleasing because the product is made of the leftovers that would otherwise be wasted. While you could say that when one eats scrapple, one is eating "offal," I think you could also say that when one eats scrapple, one is avoiding unnecessary waste. Maybe I'm being a little too optimistic, but really, try it out and see for yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What To Do With Too Many Limes

Karl and I bought a ton of limes at Shur-Save in Bloomfield because they were 6 for $1. I suppose you can probably get them even cheaper if you buy them by the 5- or 10-lb bag at CostCo or some other similar store, but we don't have a membership to anything like that.

So, what to do with all these limes?

Well, I decided to keep it simple. I had contemplated trying my hand at lime curd, since lemon curd is so amazing, but I am attempting to watch it with the calories if you know what I mean. (For those of you who don't know, lemon or lime curd traditionally uses quite a few egg yolks and quite a bit of butter....and is absolutely heavenly on a scone with some clotted cream!).

But enough drooling. Instead of slaving over a hot stove making curd, I decided to make limeade.

After reading about a few techniques I discovered through various recipe search engines (check these out! They're great: FoodieView and ProjectFoodie), I decided I'd use the simple syrup method.

The benefits of creating a lime simple syrup are twofold. First, the sugar gets completely dissolved when it goes into solution as the water boils, which means no more sludge at the bottom of your glass (sad news for some, I guess?). Second, you can control how "watered down" each glass of limeade is (to accommodate for varying tastes).

I like my limeade to be much more tart than sweet, so I adapted a recipe for limeade that I saw on many sites which called for 3 cups simple syrup for every 1 cup of lime juice. I cut that ratio to 2 cups simple syrup to 1 cup of lime juice, and it turned out great! There is just no more refreshing way to cool off after a 90˚F day than by sipping on a tall, frosty glass of limeade.

Stay cool everyone!

Limeade Simple Syrup
Yields 3 cups syrup

1 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice, seeds removed (it took me about 7 limes to yield one cup of juice)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Place the sugar and water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves completely. Pour the hot mixture into a heat-resistant container with the lime juice and stir. Allow to cool, then refrigerate.

That's it! When you are ready for a frosty glass of limeade, put a couple of of ice cubes in a tall glass and fill 3/4 of the way with the lime simple syrup. Top it off with cold water.

Alternatively, you could top off your limeade simple syrup with some sparkling water or club soda. Or add some gin, vodka, tequila, or rum for an adult twist. Use your imagination!

I Read the News, Too!

Sorry ahead of time for no visually stimulating pictures...Blogger is acting up!

Some time in the last few weeks, I stumbled across this article on my New York Times newsfeed Called "The 11 Best Foods that You Aren't Eating." The author had compiled a list of nutritious, easy to find, cheap to purchase foods that most people don't even think about keeping around the house even semi-regularly. You can go read the list for yourself for a few more days, but I will list them here also, without the explanations and suggestions for preparation given in the article:
1) Beets
2) Cabbage
3) Swiss chard
4) Cinnamon
5) Pomegranate Juice
6) Dried Plums (Prunes, but doesn't it sound better this way? Seriously)
7) Pumpkin Seeds
8) Sardines
9) Turmeric
10) Frozen Blueberries
11) Canned Pumpkin

It's a good list! I personally will not be stocking up on beets or sardines (for matters of taste) or pomegranate juice (for matters of economics).

Karl and I actually decided to grab a big ol' can of pumpkin puree at the store the other day, and have been enjoying mixing things in to see what we can come up with. The pumpkin puree we got was about 28 oz for $1.79 (ridiculous price for the store brand!), and magically had NO salt added. This is wonderful news for all people who think that unsalted canned vegetables are amazing (that would be me, by the way). I just like to control the amount of salt in my food, that's all!

So, the first time around, we just tasted the pumpkin puree alone. BLAND. I think that was when I realized that pumpkin is probably more versatile than sweet potato, though the two are used interchangeably for many things (like soups and pies). Pumpkin is almost tasteless without some help, especially unsalted, canned pumpkin puree.

So the first time we made poor man's pumpkin pie by heating up about a cup of puree in the microwave, melting some SmartBalance in it, and adding a tablespoon of brown sugar, 1/4 tsp of cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg, and a dash of allspice. It was absolutely delicious!

Tonight, we decided to piggyback off of our recent windfall of limes, and we whipped up some chili-lime pumpkin puree. This was pretty tasty, despite what I can imagine you are thinking!

I'm looking forward to some more adventures with pumpkin, which is apparently low-calorie, high-fiber, and packed to the gills (or gourds, I guess...) with vitamin A. Eat up!

Chili-Lime Pumpkin Puree
Yields two 1/2 cup servings

1 cup canned pumpkin puree (unsalted)
1/2 TBSP Smart Balance (or butter, let's be honest!)
1/2 tsp lime zest
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/2 TBSP lime juice or lime simple syrup (recipe coming shortly!)

In a microwave-safe bowl, heat up the pumpkin puree in the microwave until it's steamy. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to incorporate. Taste a few times and add more of anything that you think it missing until you like what you taste. I kept adding chili powder, until I figured out to add cinnamon (which makes the spice pop in the absence of sugar!). I also added a bit more lime zest to make it good and limey.

This is great on a spoon, or for dipping tortilla chips or pita wedges.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Fresh Blueberry Pie

Apparently, my unconscious goal for the summer has been to make a pie per week. I indulged Karl the week before July 4th by making another strawberry rhubarb pie, then he requested that I make an apple pie for a July 4th picnic (very American, right)? Last week was the week of trying something new: blueberry pie made without opening a can of pie filling.

Blueberries were on sale at Giant Eagle for 2 pints for $5 (a pretty good deal considering that they usually run at least $4 per pint), so I figured it was a good time to experiment. I dusted off my trusty pie cookbook, 365 Great Pies You Can Bake (which was only dusty from having recently been floured for rolling out pie dough along with the rest of the kitchen table), and set to work.

I learned something about blueberry pie: blueberries, when cooked, don't taste like much. I kept wondering why the recipe called for lemon juice, lemon zest, and mace (I substituted allspice). Fresh blueberries are so delightful, but you will notice that they are not very acidic like most berries and fruits. I hypothesize that this lack of acidity is what causes the flavor of blueberries to diminish instead of increase when intense heat is applied.

I would certainly be interested to know if there is a trick to "brightening" the flavor of blueberry, or intensifying it. Usually lemon does the trick, but I honestly felt the lemon just blanketed the blueberries and hid their flavor.

Anyway, I obviously wasn't wild about the blueberry pie, because it just tasted far to lemon-y to me. Karl did not agree. I'm pretty sure that he has never met a [fruit] pie he wouldn't eat or rave about, so all's well that ends well.

Next time, I also intend to add a little more flour (I've reflected this in the recipe below) because the juices didn't quite thicken enough.

Any suggestions for my next pie?

Blueberry Pie
Yields 1 9-inch pie

Your favorite double-crust recipe
3/4 cup sugar, plus 1/2 to 1 TBSP for dusting
4 TBSP flour
1 tsp allspice
1 TBSP lemon juice
1/2 TBSP lemon zest
2 pints fresh blueberries, stems removed
2 TBSP butter, cut up in small pieces

Preheat the oven to 425˚F.

Roll out the bottom crust.

Mix the sugar, flour and allspice together. Add the lemon juice, zest, and blueberries, and gently mix (without crushing the berries) to completely coat the berries. Pour the blueberry mixture into the pie shell.

Dot the top of the blueberry mixture with the cut up butter.

Roll out the top crust. I cut mine into strips to make a lattice-top pie, but you could just cover the top if you like. If you do, remember to poke some holes in the top to vent. Sprinkle the top crust with 1/2 to 1 TBSP of sugar

Bake for 10 minutes at 425˚F, then lower the heat to 350˚F and bake for 30 minutes more.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Red Drum Tap House

Red Drum Grille and Tap House
2412 S. Virginia Dare Trl (The Beach Road, Mile Post 10.5)
Nags Head, NC 27959

While Karl and I were on the Outer Banks last week with my entire family, we managed to slip out for lunch one more time (after the Outer Banks Brewing Station). Karl was really craving some good local seafood, which is surprisingly hard to find on the Outer Banks. Most of the restaurants' supply of crab, at least, is imported from places like Alaska (Snow crab, King crab legs), despite the abundance of delectable blue crab on the Outer Banks.

After scouring a few OBX restaurant guides and finding out that seafood lunch buffets are hard to come by, we settled on the Red Drum Tap House, which turned to be a fortuitous choice. Not only does this place have about 18 beers on tap (most of which are craft beers instead of the usual array of Anheuser-Busch selections), but they also were featuring a soft shell crab sandwich special.

I must admit, though, that the menu at first seemed a bit disappointing. Most of the seafood selections were fried, and the non-fried (i.e., steamed) seafood choices were non-local (i.e., from Alaska). I chose the most local thing I could find for my lunch, a "Game Fish Burrito" ($10.95) with the Monterrey Jack Cheese on the side (I don't think that most fish is improved by cheese...). I'm still not sure what kind of fish it was, but it might have been blue fish. The burrito was delicious! Packed with grilled fish, it was well-balanced by the refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and sufficiently spicy salsa.

Karl fared even better. He had originally considered getting the Combination Seafood Platter ($21.95) (we would have split that), which would have included three of his choice of steamed spicy shrimp, snow crab legs, middleneck claims, and oysters. Then, feeling disappointed by the lack of local seafood, he considered risking the crab cake sandwich ($10.95), but was dissuaded when the waitress informed him that the cakes contained breading and green peppers. She recommended he try the special, a soft shell crab sandwich ($9.95), though it took some convincing. She insisted that the batter they fried the crabs in was a light one, and that the crabs were fresh off the boats on the Outer Banks.

If you have ever had soft shell crabs, you probably know that the crabs tend to be less than six inches long and are not so tasty unless fresh. You generally eat the entire thing (because the shell is edible). When the waitress brought Karl's sandwich out, I thought there must be some mistake: the crab sitting on the bun was much, much bigger than any soft shell I had ever seen! At least 8 or 9 inches across and 2 or 3 inches thick, this crab was more than substantial enough for a full meal. Karl didn't even bother with the sandwich roll. The waitress had been right about the batter, too: it was light and crispy, and the crab was perfectly cooked. Karl let me have a few bites. Yum!

Karl enjoyed it so much that, even though he was stuffed, he seriously contemplated purchasing another for takeout so he could eat it later. The waitress informed him kindly that he could simply buy his own raw soft shells down the street at local seafood market (Austin Fish Company). We stopped there on the way back and discovered those humongous soft shells were only $3! We didn't buy any, though, and I am sad that we didn't.

If you are going to the Outer Banks for vacation this year, and you enjoy crab, please do yourself a favor and seek out some of the local soft shell crabs! They are simply out of this world.