Wednesday, June 29, 2016

3 Nights! A Justin Severino Pittsburgh Tour de Force

We've had quite a depth of Beard nominees here in the 'Burgh for the last several years.  Justin Severino has been nominated three times for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Justin's newest restaurant, Morcilla, received a nomination this year for Best New Restaurant in the country. Jamilka Borges, now of Spoon, and Sonja Finn of Dinette have both been nominated for Rising Star of the Year, as well as Trevett Hooper, of Legume, having been nominated for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2013. 

And when it comes to local restaurants and restaurant groups, James Beard accolades have been sprinkled across the local landscape pretty liberally as well. The Big Burrito Group's Bill Fuller and Tom Baron have been nominated for Outstanding Restrauteur and Butcher and the Rye was nominated for Outstanding Bar Program in 2014. Pittsburgh represents!

As a result of Pittsburgh's wealth of food and cocktail professionals and programs, last week saw the second James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour dinner to be held right here in Pittsburgh. My friend Marti (from Maryland) and I were there last year for the inaugural event, and she made the trip again this year to make it two in a row for us both.

How did we make this year's James Beard Dinner even more memorable than last? By turning it into a three-day-Justin-Severino-tour-de-force. That's right, we constructed a sort of Justin-Severino-themed-dining-sandwich consisting of a Monday at Morcilla, a Tuesday filling of James Beard, and a Wednesday finale of Cure. Three days, man! This is how it went...first up, Monday at Morcilla.

What better way to begin than some of the best Gin & Tonics in town?!

Foreground: Edwards Surryano ham with pecans and pecan oil. A true find! Background: Manchego with Seville sour orange, olive oil, and roasted garlic. There were Patatas Bravas with a divine pimenton aioli to round out the feast, too, that didn't make the pic.

Tuesday. The BIG day of our second James Beard Foundation Celebrity Chef Tour dinner in Pittsburgh...the meat of this dining tour sandwich you might say. We couldn't wait to see what awaited this year.  

The Chefs

Last year's venue was the Heinz History Museum in the Strip District. This year the event was held at the Mattress Factory on the North Side. Justin's and his wife Hilary's choice to hold the events at Pittsburgh museums is spot on. The food itself is art.

Outdoors under grand tents, the evening started with lovely and tasty bites provided by Sonja Finn, Kate Romaine of E2, Trevett Hooper, Bill Fuller, and Curtis Gamble of Station. Cocktails created and provided by Morcilla, Cure, and Aldine were a refreshing start given the heat of the evening. Alas, there is but one lone, but beautiful, pic!

Grilled Pacific Oysters with ramp butter and hot sauce by Sonja Finn of Dinette.

On to the main event under the big tent!

The beet appetizer by George Sabatino of Aldine - Beets, whipped yogurt, pickled garlic, chili jam, and puffed beet crackers
Cobia by Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink - Cobia, pickled corn, burnt vegetable salsa, cilantro cream

Unfortunately, the photos were less than stellar from that point on due to the onset of darkness and the blue lighting under the tent. Although the lighting faded, the food continued to shine. Justin's Foie Blonde dazzled! With strawberry rhubarb jam, candied pistachios, dehydrated black olives and lovage, the flavors burst! 

The aroma of roasting duck wound it's way throughout the anxiously awaiting throngs of diners, tempting us before Scott Drewno (Executive Chef from The Source by Wolfgang Puck) presented his Roast Pekin Duck with crushed peanut curry and candied lemongrass. One word. Wow!

Not to be outdone, next up was Squirrel Hill native son Michael Solomonov with succulent roasted beef short ribs, green chickpeas, tehina and matbucha that seriously simply melted away on your tongue. 

Dessert? Of course it lived up to the excellence and deliciousness of the courses that preceded. We were each presented with an individual cardboard pint ice cream container containing the classic Neopolitan flavors of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla creams interpreted to a whole new level. We were all sent out with not only memories of the sweetness of dessert, but of the magnificence of the evening.

Then came Wednesday. Our final celebration of Severino Days ending at Cure. And we hated to see our Pittsburgh ultra fine dining adventure come to a close.

Naturally, we started with a toast!

Worthy of being painted, next was the Coho Salmon Crudo on foccaccia toast, avocado, black garlic, preserved lemon, dehydrated red onion and dill. 

Some of the staff remembered us from the previous night's bash and we shared it was our third night in a row of celebrating Justin Severino. Who knew a little surprise would arrive at our table?!

A delicate puff of green cardamom, black olive, and a sprinkling of crisp catnip awaits.
Strawberry gazpacho is poured over the foam to create a symphony of texture and flavor!

The finale? Salumi. Yes, our dessert this night was MEAT! 
There couldn't be a more suitable ending to our Severino Celebration than ending where it all began for Chef Severino...with meat. 

What will next year bring? Can't wait to find out - not just for next year's James Beard dinner, but to see what is on the horizon for Pittsburgh's culinary and cocktail world. Look for exciting things, people! 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jamaica Mon Coffee Rum & Tonic

Imagine your favorite iced coffee and an ice cold Coke had a baby...a Caribbean baby, baby! There's no doubt my Jamaica Mon Coffee Rum & Tonic was partially inspired by Hidden Harbor's new icy, slushy, frozen coffee/banana/rum and spice delight, the Oka Kope's my current tiki crush at Squirrel Hill's hot spot. 

Hidden Harbor's Oka Kope Kooler 

Then, too, Alton Brown recently posted a recipe for his cola syrup; I whipped up a batch of AB's syrup and got down to some serious testing.

What resulted was a tall, crisp, little-bit-sparkly summertime refresher with a good buzz of caffeine (via the coffee and cola), and a light kiss of chocolate courtesy of the bitters. Notes of cola spices, a wee touch of coconut, a little tartness of lime and a finish of summery not-just-for-gin tonic might lift your weary spirit from the shores of the Mon to the soothing turquoise waters and white sands of a beach somewhere in faraway Jamaica. 

Why Jamaica Mon? Because Jamaican rum. And Pittsburgh's own MON-ongahela!

Jamaica Mon Coffee Rum & Tonic

  • 2 oz Appleton Estate Reserve Blended rum
  • 1 oz St. George NOLA Coffee Liqueur (this isn't easy to find, so feel free to use your favorite coffee liqueur)
  • 3/4 oz Mexican Coca Cola syrup (see recipe below)
  • 1 barspoon cream of coconut - or 1/2 t.
  • 7 drops Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters
  • Fever Tree Lite Tonic
  • lime wedge
  • lime peel garnish
  • a grating of nutmeg

In a cocktail shaker, combine rum, coffee liqueur, coca cola syrup and cream of coconut. Dry shake. Add ice and shake again until tin is frosted. Strain into an ice filled glass, add the bitters, stir gently, then top with tonic and a squeeze of lime. Stir gently again.

Garnish with lime peel and a grating of nutmeg.

Alton Brown's Cola Syrup

  • 12 oz bottle Mexican Coca Cola - find it at Reyna's in the Strip District
  • 1 C demerara sugar - believe it or not, Giant Eagle carries it
In a small saucepan, bring the Coke to a boil. Add the demerara sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. 

Cool and store in a covered container (I use a Mason jar) in the fridge.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Grilled Chicken, Feta, Spinach Slider Skewers

Looking for something just a little different on the grill the other day, I put together this Greek-inspired dinner. It was almost a complete dinner-on-the-grill meal with the veggie skewers I grilled at the same time. Well, I did have to make classic Greek tzatziki to spoon over the sliders. Because tzatziki!

What makes these sliders a little bit Greek? Feta cheese for starters...and the classic Greek flavors of lemon, oregano, and garlic with some fresh spinach for color and juiciness. In fact, if you think of ground chicken as lacking in moisture, this is just the mixture to dispell that thought. Tangy feta, tart lemon, earthy oregano, zippy garlic and green spinach make these sliders a burger mixture you and your guests will really enjoy!

If you can find long, flat bamboo skewers, they are the best! Burgers, sliders, meatballs or whatever you skewer and grill stays put instead of rolling around a round skewer making it a pain to easily get nice grill marks on both sides. Look at the grill marks in the pic! These are so easy to turn and flip, I'm picking up a new supply when I get to World Market in Michigan next month. 

To serve, tuck a slider into a wedge of toasted pita or onto a slider bun, garnish with grilled veggies and slather with a healthy helping of cucumber-y, minty tzatziki. Eat. Repeat!

Grilled Chicken, Feta, Spinach Slider Skewers

  • 1 lb ground chicken breast
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 C fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • 1 slice firm white bread (like Pepperidge Farm), made into fine crumbs - I used Whole Foods Light White bread to make this gluten free
  • 3/4 C feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 1/2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 t dried oregano
  • 2 t Jane's Crazy Mixed Up salt (or other seasoned salt)
  • lots of freshly ground black pepper

Mix all together well, but lightly. Form into 6 flat patties. Refrigerate at least an hour before inserting skewers - or skip the skewers and just make burgers. Grill until cooked thoroughly - no pink chicken, please!

Serve with your favorite grilled veggies - I served zucchini, red onions, red and yellow peppers. And tzatziki!


  • 1 seedless English cucumber, grated - don't peel an English cucumber, the color in the tzatziki is gorgeous! (if you use regular cucumbers, peel them because the ones from the grocery store are usually waxed)
  • 2 C plain, low fat yogurt (I use Fage 0% Greek yogurt)
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 T red wine vinegar
  • Jane's Crazy Mixed Up Salt, to taste
  • lots of fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 t fresh mint leaves, finely minced
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
Drain the liquid from the grated cucumber, then mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Chill until serving time.

NOTE: I usually buy the yogurt in quart sized containers and use the whole container to make a double batch of tzatziki. Nighttime snack attacks become healthy and low long as you're not dipping potato chips into it!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

R(h)um And Rhubarb Cocktails - By The Batch

Deck drinks time is here! FINALLY. Holy hell, what's the point of enduring months of cold, snow, freezing rain and just plain miserably gray days if it isn't time to get our butts out into sun and warm, gentle breezes? 

And as long as we're out there, why not celebrate the occasion with a cocktail that is simply, perfectly in season? Better yet, make a batch of this cocktail base ahead of time. Why? More time in the sun instead of in the kitchen!

Right now, rhubarb is fresh from the fields and you'll find it all over local farmers markets and grocery stores. If you're lucky, you have some growing in your own backyard or even in a generous neighbor's backyard. In my old neighborhood, right around the corner, a neighbor used to heap piles of beautiful ruby red stalks on a picnic table by the road. We customers picked up fresh from the garden bundles of the spring delight and left our money in the box provided. Couldn't get any fresher than that!

Since the season is so short, I buy and use rhubarb as soon as I see it. This year, a big batch of rhubarb simple syrup for richly tart, sweet and sparkly cocktails was on the top of the list. Next I made a refreshing rhubarb shrub...also for cocktails. Finally, there will be a rhubarb upsidedown cake and maybe even strawberry rhubarb shortcake to round out my rhubarb list for this year. 

But first, let's just pull up a comfy lounge chair on the deck or the balcony and simply enjoy a damned fine cocktail. Cheers!

Rhum and Rhubarb Cocktails - By The Batch

Cocktail base:

  • 3/4 C rhubarb simple syrup (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 C fresh lemon juice
  • 1/3 C Barbancourt Rhum from Haiti 
  • 1/3 C Koloa dark rum from Hawaii

In a glass pitcher, mix the above ingredients. Chill.

When it's cocktail time, fill a glass with ice, pour the cocktail base halfway up the glass and top with Sanpellegrino limonata and 6-8 drops of Bittermens Elemakule tiki bitters. Pretty it up with a decorative paper straw and a fun stirrer, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Rhubarb Simple Syrup 

  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 C water
  • 3 C thinly sliced fresh rhubarb (be sure NOT to use any leaves - they are poisonous!) 

In a medium heavy bottomed pot, bring the water and sugar to a boil. Once all the sugar is dissolved, slowly add rhubarb to the liquid. Stir until the rhubarb wilts down, then simmer 20-30 minutes. Cool. 

When cool, strain the mixture into a large container, then carefully pour the pretty pink liquid into a quart Mason jar and cover. 

Don't throw the solids out! Use those to top ice cream. Yum!

NOTE: Store any leftover cocktail base in a covered jar in the fridge. You can double the base recipe easily, just be sure to use a bigger pot!