Monthly Archives: March 2011

Porcine Spring Grill

While the thermometer does not agree, spring has finally sprung.  The sun has taken a slightly more respectable position in the sky, the robins are back and the chives have burst forth to announce the new season (most people probably notice crocuses first, but I’m always more excited about the chives).   Now with this comes the annual ritual de-winterfication of my outside living space.  I started the process today but quickly lost my interest as I realized that the various leaves and other debris on my deck were in fact frozen to its surface still.  The grill, however, was not, and was eager for its return to service.

And what better way to commemorate opening day than to grill a decent portion of a pig’s front shoulder for pulled pork  sandwich’s for my father’s birthday dinner?  I usually do this later in the summer, must notably, every year on July 3rd, but I welcomed my mom’s suggestion that I make it this weekend as I could use some extra practice.  Not that pulled pork is particularly hard to make, it is more that I am ever evolving the way that I make it and make changes and improvements each time.

Now that I mention it, this allows me to mention some of my hesitancy in writing about a specific cooking process.  I guess the main source of my reluctance  stems from the one sheer simple fact that I have NO IDEA of what I am doing in virtually everything I do cooking-wise.  OK, I have an “idea” of what I am doing, but writing about having an “idea” of what you are doing  generally does not lend to helpful informative reading. I am fearful, I guess, that someone wise and more experienced will read what I write and pick it apart for the hack job that it is and point out the technical flaws in my cooking.  I now recognize that that criticism will ultimately help me be a better cook, after all, it is my own criticism of other people’s cooking that has in some ways driven me to cook in the first place.  Lets get started, and where I usually start, is in front of the computer, comparing recipe’s in order to fine tune and refine what I plan on doing.

Googling a recipe for pulled pork will most likely steer you toward putting a no name boneless pork roast in your slow cooker for a day.  One recipe I saw boasted that it started out on your stove top and THEN ended up in your slow cooker.  Woo!  I guess with that one at least the Maillard reaction will impart some flavor that the slow cooker alone will miss, but seriously (no pun intended) all of those recipes are going to create that same predictable slop that you might as well just buy in tub form at the grocery store.   I have done these recipes before, and if mind blowing tenderness is your only goal, then the slow cooker pulled pork is for you.  With a good bit of sauce, you can seriously use a chip to dip the pork straight out of the crock pot, and that actually is not a bad thing if dressed up nicely with additional ingredients, i.e.,  barbecue pork nachos.  For pulled pork sandwiches though, we want the meat to shine on a higher level that should not be the same consistency of something that could be made out of beans.

As you get into more serious recipes you begin to see some divergence on the proper way to prepare this dish, somewhat reminiscent of the East Coast and West Coast hip hop wars,  but one thing becomes clear: the cut of meat is important, and unlike those simple Google recipes, very specific.  You need a pork shoulder or, at least, part of one.  The shoulders are generally available cut and sold as Pork Shoulder, Boston Butt,  Picnic Shoulder, or Pork Shoulder Blade Roast.  They are all different parts of a whole shoulder and each have their minor differences from the others, but they will all work well, just make sure that they are not already cured or smoked.  There is another debate about bone-in versus boneless, which to me is silly, but I suppose there are some people put off by bones or are willing to trade in a bone for shorter cooking time.  The meat next to the bone is always sweetest and to me, that is the end of the discussion.  If you continue to have an inkling that you can go without the bone, you may want to reconsider your motivations to make pulled pork in the first place.

Once you have your choice cut, give it a night or a day to relax in a flavorful bath.  There are many different homemade options between marinades and brines, try them out, find what you like.  I generally end up with a vinegar based marinade that includes several near empty sauces and mustards from the fridge that need used up, it is different every time, but through trial and error I now have a fairly standard base recipe that I work with.

On the big day, you will want to give ample time for cooking as it is somewhat difficult to plan for  a precise time due to a number of variables with outdoor cooking.  Grill time alone will be between 6-8 hours so you will need to start early if you plan on eating it the same day.  A day long cooking process may cause some people to shudder but it is really almost no work, as the the only thing you are concerned about is temperature control while the meat is on the grill.  Your stress level will also go down with ample preparation and a schedule that allows for some extra time.  Any fans of Anthony Bourdain  already know the importance of mise en place, but if you are not or have not heard the phrase, mise en place is about having everything you need for your recipe on hand and available before you start.  Typically it is taught to young chefs as an everyday professional practice to always be organized and prepared at your job, but it translates nicely to home as well.

The big thing for using a grill to make pulled pork is having a way to have the piece of meat on the grill for that long without it burning up.  This means “indirect grilling” which is one of the main reasons that I prefer a charcoal grill over a gas grill.  It is so much easier to create an even, indirect cooking environment in a round container with a flexible heat source than it is in a rectangle with fixed burners.  About an hour before I’m ready to start cooking, I start my coals.  In the center of my grill I set a brick with a disposable pie plate set in top.  In the pie plate I usually put some liquid and some aromatics, in this case, a can of cooking beer with sage and rosemary.  Fancy.  The coals get arranged evenly around the center well, the brick gives some nice elevation that just makes coal arrangement easier.  Next I put my full smoker box of mesquite wood chips on the coals.  Place the cooking grate, replace the lid, and everything will be all set for the arrival of the pork.

Usually while the coals are initially starting up I create the rub that I am going to use, and here again, your available options of viable pork rubs are limitless.  Buy one at the store or find a recipe that you can rely on to make your own.  Again, experiment, use what you have on hand and find what works for you.  Since the pork will cook over indirect heat, you do not have to worry about what you put in the rub that may otherwise char instantly over direct heat.  With this in mind, I sometimes use diced shallot or garlic in my pork rubs.  Once the grill is all set up and coming up to temperature, I apply the rub to the pork.  This step is a time to not be shy about working with a piece of raw meat.  Take time to work your rub into all the little creases and crevices of the meat.  When you are satisfied, take a deep breath, take the roast to the now smoking grill, and set it over the water pan.  Now it is just about temperature control.  Try to keep the grill at a medium low temperature during the rest of the cooking time, which, as I said before, will be as long as needed, but plan on at least 6 hours.

Now, what to do, what to do?  Read a book, do some yard work, make the other dishes for a meal.  The grill is doing the work for you here, make the most of your time.  One nice option that I like is to make an event around the barbecuing of the meat.  Have some friends over, crack open a few cold beers and put on some old blues music.  To me, that is a summer party atmosphere like no other.  The smells, sounds and anticipation all come together and seem to be just right hand in hand, all to the point that I can not help but think of good barbecue when I hear a good blues track (John Lee Hooker, B.B. King,  The Black Keys) and vice versa.   The nice thing about this is that everything for a good pulled pork meal can be made ahead of time.  Cole slaw, baked beans, and some sort of cheesy baked potato dish can all be prepared  and ready to go with little advanced warning.  The beans can cook all day and potatoes can be thrown in the oven with ample time before dinner and everyone can plate up and sit down when the pork is ready for them.

This has always been the most difficult part for me.  The pork is done when your thermometer reads 170°, but it never fails that when I think I have reached the desired state of doneness, there is still a little bit of pink juice near the center.  I have been able to overcome this with a little patience and proper thermometer placement.  When I think it is done, I go ahead and wrap the roast and foil and let it rest on the grill another half hour or so, and then take it into the house to rest another half hour before I tear into it.  This generally ensures that the meat is thoroughly done and also prevents me from burning myself by being over eager with sampling it.  It is also nice to have a few extra hands to help pull the pork, and by now you should have no shortage of volunteers.  Do yourselves a favor though, have some bread nearby to handle and juices that may try and get away, and also maybe a little sauce for dipping.

Now that it is done and pulled, it is time to serve.  As you have already found out, it is good enough to serve alone and that certainly an option to you and your guests, but I always go for serving it in a sandwich.  Purists leave it as is and provide sauce to be added as a condiment but I usually pride myself on the sauce that I use and toss a little of it with the meat before hand just to enhance the meat’s flavor, but in no way overpower it.  A whole day of effort piled high on one bun and eaten in five minutes, but oh so worth it.  Just to make sure though, you better have a second.


Filling Up at The Empty Pint

The first thing I anticipate as I approach the little corner pub at the Southern Tier Brewery, which is literally a little pub occupying a corner of the brewery itself, is the smell.   I know that this detail may not appeal to most people, even some beer drinkers, but it truly is one of the most unique smells I have ever encountered.  Most breweries I know emit a smell that tells of the malted grains that are being used in the process, not unlike putting a soggy bowl of Grape Nuts in the microwave.  Not exactly mind blowing.  The smell here though lets you know, that beyond any doubt, the hop flower reigns supreme within.

You can catch whiffs of it outside, faint citrus wood, but once within the front door, it hits you full force.  This moment of entry is also nice due to the fact that once you are in the front door of the brewery, you still have to pass through a small, quiet foyer with just a large wooden brewery logo on the wall, and the smell of hops in the air between you and the door to the empty pint.  It gives you a moment to pause and reflect upon what you are about to enjoy.  Very Zen.

The Empty Pint is clearly designed for optimum enjoyment of Southern Tier’s fine products.  The architecture of The Pint boasts an amazing mortise and tenon exposed timber framework and is finished in rich golden hard wood and dark tiles.  One wall features the ubiquitous large windows that look in on the tanks of the brewery, and gives the patron the faint sensation that they are indeed, a part of the process.  In summer months, one can enjoy an open-air atmosphere as the frame of The Empty Pint juts out of the back the brewery and creates the stoutest pavilion I have ever seen.

On tap, one can expect to find an array of beers that will never disappoint an enthusiast and may perhaps (just maybe) open the eyes of, and excite a novice.  Southern Tier specializes in big, bold innovative ales such as Unearthly and Iniquity, a monstrous, golden, hoppy beast and its antithesis.   The beers of their main, year round line up, are all intensely well done.  Meaning, that they are not just “meets expectations, that was good” kind of beers, but instead each one tends to blow you away and cause you to want to step up on a near by soap box and pontificate the awesomeness of the particular brew you are drinking.  I’ve preached this sermon (despite lack of soap box and audience that was not the choir) on more than one occasion.


Half-full pints at The Empty Pint.

Southern Tier is obviously confident in their beers but remain humble, and pay homage to their roots by offering an impressive list of Belgian trappist ales and some other odds and ends such as lambics and a “guest” beer on tap.  They also have a selection of wine that usually goes beyond your staple bar offerings of White Zin and Lambrusco, nothing earth shattering, but at least a wine drinker doesn’t need to wait out in the car.

Hungry?  Well good, order whatever you’d like as long as it is a pulled pork sandwich and coleslaw.  Seriously, that and a soup of the day or a bag of chips rounds out the menu.  Which I love!  The Empty Pint is not trying to be a brew pub that all too often lose track of what got them started in the first place, beer.  Here, they recognize that you may get hungry, and they are not going claim to do anything more than make you a delicious sandwich that consists of one part something from a day-or-longer-simmering-roaster and one part something that’s been marinating-a-day-or-longer in the fridge.  That’s what makes those things good, and no one gets distracted from the main showcase of beer.  (My apologies if someone from Southern Tier reads this and informs me that someone daily slaves over a barbecue pit, smoking a pork shoulder, I had just assumed that a slow roaster was all the effort applied to the task.  Now if someone at Southern Tier reads this and decides that someone should be barbecuing a pork shoulder every day…that just may be my dream job.)

The Empty Pint also has a nice selection of quality Southern Tier gear such as t-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, and decent looking glassware for those looking to be visually identified by what they drink.  More importantly, you can also peruse a selection of six packs and cases as well as the popular 22oz imperial line of beers.  It is also the staging point for the three weekend tours that occur that give a detailed look at the main guts of the place.  While all these things make up a great experience at The Pint, I am still stuck on that initial smell….bright, sweet, citrusy…if only I could drink it…ah! There it is!  The smell I love, all embodied in the 2XIPA, my favorite draught there, and probably my favorite beer to date.  I am apparently not alone in this as I was told over the weekend that the 2X is about to surpass IPA as Southern Tier’s best seller.

Southern Tier is located at  2072 Stoneman Circle, Lakewood, New York.  Not really in Lakewood, but near it, just like it is also near Lake Chautauqua and the Chautauqua Institution and a whole array of other things I did not realize were in such close proximity to one another until I just now looked at this promotional website for Chautauqua County.

So, Southern Tier Brewery and the Empty Pint make for the perfect addition to your weekend getaway to a great looking part of New York to visit.  But, if you are more like me, the Chautauqua County tourism website has given you a couple options to augment your weekend getaway to The Empty Pint! Let’s get cooking!


All packed up after a trip to The Empty Pint.

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler!

Some NOLA street in July 1997. Not at all comparative to what it looks like during Mardi Gras, but the spirit is there.

Mardi Gras is here, so make like New Orleans, and let the good times roll!  According to the first thing I looked at, “laissez les bons temps rouler” is a Cajun phrase that translates to just that.

To most citizens of the United States though, I believe Mardi Gras, compared with other days of the year,  is just a day that it is easier to procure cheap plastic beads.  The day to many Christians is Shrove Tuesday, and it is the end of the Season of Epiphany.  To others, it is simply Fat Tuesday, and due to a combination of all of the history that makes it up, it is basically is a day to unload the pantry and have a party.  It is the day to cut loose before the season of Lent, during which, you have to pay for all the cutting loose you do at all other times of the year.

Regardless of the reason, if you are like me, you enjoy a day that gives you cause to do things differently and mark a day of the year as unique…especially if it can involve food.  Everyone has their heavy hitters: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are easy.  Halloween and Valentines Day have their thing going.  How about a bit o’ corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?  Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, and Labor Day have the grill tied up.   If you try hard enough, you can have a celebratory menu for just about every day of the year: Caesar salad on March 15th anyone?  Tacos May 5th?  Bonus points to anyone dedicating pints of stout and shots of Jameson to June 16th.  Even birthdays are a cause to eat differently.   Mardi Gras should be in there too but i don’t know many who acknowledge it.   In its most basic form, Fat Tuesday is the last chance to cook up the things that some forgo as self sacrifice during Lent.  Personally, my church has an all day pancake, egg and sausage breakfast to commemorate the day and prepare for the somber Lenten season.

For me though, the day always turns to the penultimate American source of Mardi Gras: New Orleans.  And if you are, again , like me, this day gives you an opportunity to mix it up for your ears as well as your palette and play music that is fitting to the season.   So, oddly enough both Professor Longhair and Blind Melon are appropriate, but really, there is a lot of jazz out there to be enjoyed .  The food is where it is really at though.

In my teens, I had a great opportunity to visit New Orleans.  This was my first real experience in a  city outside of Pennsylvania and although I was mostly oblivious to everything around me, I started to grasp the gastronomic potential of other cultures outside of my own.  While there, we went to Emeril  Lagasse’s, toned down and more accessible NOLA.  I had some sort of gumbo and it was one of those shaping moments in your life where you can say, “That is where it all started.”  As evidence of my future tendencies, I even took a crappy Kodak Advanced picture:

Gumbo at NOLA in 1997.

I can honestly remember the taste just from looking at that…mmmm…..


Enough with my nostalgic blathering.  Empty out the pantry!  Cook some bacon!  Use the internet, find something new!  I think the King Cake would be a great tradition to start.  Take one to the office, whoever gets the baby Jesus brings in the cake next year.  As for me though, this year I see a po’ boy in my future.   I got to get cooking…

Strip The Strip?

The Pennsylvania Produce Terminal, at left, creates a long wall that isolates a 35 acre riverfront plot of land that developers want access to.

If I could, I would do all of my grocery shopping exclusively in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.  There is something truly unique about it that is the direct result of the history of the city and its people.  Every time I am in the city I try to make a walk through The Strip as if it were an art museum.  The sights, smells, and sounds all combine to make, for me at least, an exhilarating experience.  Judging from the crowd on any given Saturday, my statement here is in no way unprecedented.  All the same, it apparently needs to be said.

Once I knew I was starting this blog I was looking forward to going to the strip to shop and take pictures, and then, with Primanti’s still on my breath and Wholey’s on my nose, I would sit down and write a kick-ass post.  Not yet, an article published today in the Tribune Review led me to change my mind and write a Strip District post now,  sans sandwich.  If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and click on that link now.

One of the key things that I love about the strip is that it feels “real”.  Real people, real architecture, real product, real Pittsburgh.  Grocery stores nowadays strive to create an atmosphere that the strip comes by naturally.  Ever been to a “Market District” Giant Eagle?  They are awesome! Why? Because they try to make it look like they convinced some old world village’s baker, butcher, farmer, and fish monger to open up shop under their roof.  As convincing as those stores are, they stall fall short of the real deal.  I have a hard time believing that that the charcuterie in a Giant Eagle is anything more than a false storefront in an amusement park designed to make you feel like you are in a different world and different time and therefore making you spend freely, because, Hey! you don’t see this everyday.  I am willing to wager though, that the guy who has been employed at Wholey’s for the shortest amount of time will be more knowledgeable in the realm of seafood than the Senior Fish Unpacker at your grocery store.  People who care about this sort of thing already know this all to be true and are part of the reason that The Strip is the Pittsburgh icon that it is.

That being said, why does the developer and the City feel the need for change?  My first reaction to the article, which happened two paragraphs in, was “No, no , NO! Dear God no!”  Next, I got all sullen and angry as I thought about somebody coming in, bulldozing the produce terminal and then building a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and one of those giant strip mall style Primanti’s that have a physical hand-out menu with staff that is nice to you and let you order a sandwich with the fries on the side.   Grrr.

And then, as I read on, I was reminded that the planned razing would affect the newly created Pittsburgh Public Market.  Which, if you have not been there yet, I highly recommend that you make a visit.  It basically is for businesses that have product to offer, that are being successful elsewhere in the Pittsburgh area, but now can have a location in the strip to sell their product.  Sort of like a farmer’s market for more than just farmers.  People who specialize in cheesecake, potato chips, candy, barbecue, Steeler art, pierogi, Greek food, you name it, they have access to space there.  East End Brewery even has a spot for tasting and growler purchases (again, highly recommended).  So, a busy, presumably successful area of the city needs a historic part of it chopped out so that a revitalization can sweep up the shoreline?  Ehh, again, why?

So, I read on, and about 3/4 of the way through the article the developer starts to convince me.  Apartments along the river, large public spaces with access to the tranquility of the river, it all starts to sound kinda nice.  Oh alright, you are right,  the Public Market could move.  What’s that you say, you’ll build with the area’s aesthetics in mind? Use bricks? Oh, well, that will be nice.  Yes, yes, that area IS a bit rough looking in places, who am I to stand in the way of progress?  I could live there.  A Strip District apartment on the river would be heaven, really.

But large public spaces don’t pay taxes or rent.  I skipped over the “office and retail building” part.  What is that going to look like?  The project will bring more people to the strip?  Isn’t it already packed shop-wall to automobile-traffic with people at busy times?  I frequently have had to use Penn Avenue as part of the sidewalk as the tide of people inexplicably, no matter what, moves in the direction I am not going.  Also, it is not as though the buildings that occupy The Strip now are full and there is no room to expand. I see empty storefronts there, I see signs of struggle and economic woe.  If there truly were “pent-up demand” I think it has plenty of room to vent.

Looking at the Google Maps satellite image of the area clearly shows an empty riverfront tract of land that is indeed begging to be more than just an ever-reliable parking lot (seriously, don’t even look anywhere else, just take $5 and save your time by going there first).  I can see it.  Lovely boardwalk shops and restaurants, bright, clean and shiny.  There will be an ice cream  shop where you can create your own scoop with any number of their near endless ingredients.  There will be a Starbucks, and a high end martini bar thing with a 47-martini-menu.  There will be a glass and steel riverfront restaurant with an open deck overlooking the barge traffic where you can get organic sustainable surf and turf dinner.  Maybe they can get one of those “Premier Collection” State stores to open a shop there, or maybe a winery?   But you know what won’t be there? There won’t be soul.  The Strip has a soul that, like a lot of Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the people there carved out for themselves.  What the developer has in mind is a…a, I don’t know… a “Market District” in the actual market district of the city.  A soulless artificial false storefront designed to make you think you are somewhere else.  Maybe I am wrong, maybe it will be awesome.  But, isn’t it already genuinely awesome?