Richmond, Ho!

Last week was Pitt’s Spring Break, and this occasioned a trip to the south. Virginia specifically, because I’m not quite a wild and crazy kid anymore. Ted came, as did friend Will; friend Will’s boyfriend was also supposed to come along, making it a foursome, but then he made different plans, because he is a poopy head (which is a technical term). Defiant of the absent boyfriend’s attempts to rain on our parade, on a rainy Sunday we headed south to warmer climes.

We had used to book ourselves into a room at the Richmond Omni. In the past, Ted and I have very successfully used Hotwire to get great deals on fantastic hotels in the DC area – we always go for the four or four-and-a-half star hotels, and while they’ll still be in the $100-$150 a night range, in the past they’ve always been outstanding: luxurious, amenity-filled, and at least $100 cheaper than booking through the hotel itself. Around DC, we’ve stayed in The Dupont, which was amazing, the St. Gregory, and two beautiful and comodious Westins.

The Richmond Omni … eh. Look, there was nothing wrong with it. It was clean and spacious and the staff was friendly. But the bed was too hard for my liking, and the lounge wasn’t open when the signs posted in the elevators said it would be. There wasn’t any bottled water in the room. And it turned out not to be in a very convenient location, though driving in the city proved easy, as did catching a cab. So … eh. I don’t have any particular complaints (beside the bed, though Ted found it fine), but I wouldn’t stay there again, either, since it still cost us $130 a night, even after Hotwire’s discount, and it just wasn’t worth that much.

The first night we were there we caught a cab and ended up yelling at a foreigner. We told the driver, who seemed to be of West African extraction, that we wanted to go to a bar called Comfort. He misinterpreted this to mean we wanted to go to the Comfort Inn. When we drove past the bar and told him to stop and turn around … he didn’t. At first we thought he was just looking for a convenient place to make a U-turn, but … nope, he was dead set on taking us to the Comfort Inn. So eventually we yelled at him. Which made us feel a little like jerks, but on the other hand, we were concerned that we might be being kidnapped. Which would totally have ruined Spring Break.

He eventually did return us to where we wanted to be, but then it turned out that Comfort was closed. We ducked into the nearest establishment to regroup, which turned out to be Bistro 27. After a round of drinks and some smartphone Googling, we resolved to strike off on foot to a different locale, but then it started to pour down rain, at which point Bistro 27 became a much more desirable locale. The whole place was being run by an old southern queen; he had plenty of sass and also informed us that he was Jewish, making him perhaps the most unlikely person ever. I sat next to a woman named … shit. Chanterelle? No, it just sounded like that. I remember thinking at the time that her name sounded like a mushroom, but wasn’t quite, and I should make a mental note to remember it, and now I just remember the damn mushroom. Anyway, she got drunk on martinis while Ted and Will got drunk on the local Legend ESB, and I failed to get drunk of some bourbon, for some reason, and the point is people are friendly in ‘Ginny. Ted’s osso bucco was amazing.

We hailed a cab back towards the hotel, but ended up in another bar, because I was hoping to catch up to my male companions. A little Scotch helped that along, but then Will and Ted decided to start stealing things (which is why I don’t mention the name of the establishment). Don’t worry, it wasn’t anything much; it was a weird night, point is. We went back to the hotel and started devouring Baby Cake with our hands, like animals.

Did I not previously mention the Baby Cake? It was a King Cake, for Mardi Gras, technically, which Will had ordered and brought along — Ted and I had also brought along some paczki for Fat Tuesday. All of this traveling pastry proved handy on the nights we returned to our room inebriated.

The next day Will woke early and went out and did stuff; I’ve no idea what. I am not an early riser on vacations. For one thing, I am not an early riser in general. For another, I am a poor sleeper — as a rule, but also extra and especially when traveling because I do not sleep well away from home, without my kittens, and I am usually in some degree of pain because my back and bum leg (herniated disks – neuropathy) do not respond well to long car rides (or plane rides, in the alternative). Point is, Will got up early and did stuff; I’ve no idea what. But by 11:00, everyone was regrouped and ready to head off for the day.

The interior of Garnett's Cafe

So wee and cute and tasty!

sssWe started with lunch at Garnett’s Cafe, which was unbelievably cute and also delicious. I had the “Croque Provencal – Black Forest Ham, gruyere cheese, tomato, and herb mayo on grilled Italian bread topped with mornay sauce” and it convinced me that all sammiches should come with cheese sauce. I also had as my side some delicious homemade pickles. They were crunchy, reminiscent of bread-and-butter pickles, but a little less sweet and more piquant, and just heartbreakingly good; I’d’ve bought a gallon jar of them to take home with me if I could have. These pickles were amazing.

Also Garnett’s served beer, even at 11:00 in the morning, which Ted and Will availed themselves of, while I opted for tea. Fortified, we set off for Charlottesville.

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Great dome.

There, we went to tour Monticello. I hadn’t been since I was a child, and since then the foundation that runs the place has built a really lovely visitor’s center with cafe, small museum of archaeological artifacts, theater, and gift shop — I regret not seeing the film. A shuttle takes you up the very large hill to see Thomas Jefferson’s house, and a tour guide takes you through the first floor; after that, you’re free to roam the grounds and outbuildings on your own, including a walk down to the family cemetery, if you’re inclined, where Thomas Jefferson and his descendants are buried.

Me: “All of his descendants? The Hemmingses?”
Ted: “One might more properly say that all of Martha Jefferson’s descendants are buried there.”

To be fair, the tour and exhibits make no bones about admitting that President Jefferson fathered children with the enslaved Sally Hemmings. They do point out, however, that his relationship with Sally did not begin until many years after his wife Martha’s death, a relationship Jefferson described as ten years of uninterrupted happiness (she died in childbirth). Fair enough. It’s a tough subject, of course; on one hand, Thomas Jefferson was unbelievably amazing. This is someone who just woke up and invented shit: copying machines, farming techniques, American republican democracy. He was not just smart — I’m smart. He was a genius of once-a-generation proportions, and by most accounts a loving husband, father, and grandfather, a grand and loyal friend, and even a “good” slave owner, relative to how these things go. But of course, there’s no such thing as a good slave owner — the man who wrote “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” kept some of his fellow human beings as chattel to do his bidding and based his claim to the right to do so on the color of their skin.

I don’t know how you reconcile these things; I don’t know how he did. I don’t know that our country ever has or will or can.

After we toured Jefferson’s lovely home, we hit the Jefferson Vineyards for a wine tasting. At $10, it was a little pricey, but we ended up buying a few bottles anyway. East coast wine isn’t necessarily good, but I always enjoy having a bottle of vacation wine to open later at home and reminisce about the trip over. We then moved on to Blenheim Vineyards, where the tasting was only $5 and the wine was better — plus, the guy pouring the tastes was awkwardly cute. A week later at home, Will cracked open his rose and felt moved to remark again how good it was, so. Sidebar: Dave Matthews owns a part of Blenheim Vineyards. I’ve got nowhere to go with that, just sharing.

Driving away from the setting sun, we returned to Richmond and headed to dinner, with a mind to really get the full southern food experience: we were headed to a bar-b-que joint. Buz and Ned’s became known to us thanks to Man vs. Food, the Travel Channel television shows that features Adam Richman traveling about America, eating vast quantities of food, some of it masochistically spicy; I love this show. He had done an episode on Richmond (he’s also been to Pittsburgh, which needs more food challenges, by the by), and so we found our way to Buz and Ned’s BBQ. Adam’s not the only TV food guy who’s been through the place, either. Bobby Flay’s Throwdown! had also been, and apparently, Bobby lost – the episode is on repeat on one of the TVs in Buz and Ned’s.

It’s not the sort of place where one expects there to be luxurious seating and service: you order your food at the window, take a seat at a table you wipe off yourself, and wait for your name to be called over the tinny microphone. Ted and I split an order of pulled pork sandwiches and an order of a half-rack of pork spare ribs. These came with sides: bourbon apples, hushpuppies, mac and cheese.

The pulled pork sammiches were great, tender with a touch of vinegar and spice but mellowed with a little coleslaw. The ribs were sweet and smokey and everything fell apart in your mouth. The quantity was ridiculous, the hushpuppies, though long and skinny unlike any I’d seen before, didn’t disappoint, and the mac and cheese had a lot of crust, which is what makes mac and cheese great. It was a daunting amount of meat, and I don’t know that I’d want to eat that much of it routinely; but as a vacation treat I thought the meal was phenomenal.

From there, we retired to our hotel, too stuffed to do anything except watch a movie on cable. (She’s Out of My League. I like Jay Baruchel [his movie The Trotsky is great], but this “romantic” “comedy” was pretty dreadful. Except! It is shot in Pittsburgh and is like a tourism video handcrafted for our fair city — sweeping shots of the skyline, cozy shots of our little shops and cafes … seriously, it was like a valentine to Pittsburgh. We watched for that, and ignored the plot, which was close to nonexistent.)

The next morning both Will and Ted got up early and did something; again, I’ve no idea what. Then we all went together to another restaurant featured on the Man v. Food Richmond episode, The Black Sheep.

Breakfast at The Black Sheep


Outstanding. We shared biscuits with sausage gravy. I had a mango mimosa that would have been delicious if it hadn’t been watered down with ice, which the waiter called serving it “Richmond Style” and which I call “a bad idea.” I also had the Bayou Breakfast, which was a fried catfish filet and two fried covered with crawfish hollandaise and served with cheesy grits and a slice of andouille sausage and a biscuit. Seriously, again, outstanding. And also eleventy billion tons of food – I almost died. I have no regrets. If I lived in Richmond I would eat at this place once a week at least. Will and Ted ate things too: Will had a Cuban sandwich, I believe, and Ted had some sort of breakfast, but I was too preoccupied with the deliciousness of my own meal to take careful notice. Both of my boys said their meals were excellent, though, so.

After breakfast, Will had to participate in a “webinar” for his job; Ted and I took a nap. It was the eleventy billion tons of food – we couldn’t help it. Upon waking, it was time to drink.

So many whiskeys!

*choirs of angels singing*

We went to McCormack’s Whisky Grill and Smokehouse. It had the biggest whiskey, whisky, Scotch, and bourbon selection I’ve ever seen — hundreds of bottles on the shelves. We sampled a variety of amazing things that I’ve never seen in PA, heard from the owner about how his other establishment wasn’t faring well in the face of a growing number of “urban” clubs in its area, and no,he insisted, he wasn’t a racist; and heard a hard-luck story from the bartendress, who’d been hit by a car in Cleveland, thus reinforcing the fact that Cleveland is, in fact, the worst place on Earth. Here’s what I took from the visit: if you ever get the chance to drink Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish Whiskey, do it. No matter the circumstance: drink that shit. You will thank me.

From there we took the bartendress’s advice and had dinner at a place called Avalon, which was disappointing in a number of ways, I don’t care what the website says about it winning some “fine dining” award. For one thing, it was a bar/restaurant, and they’d done nothing to sonically shield the dining room from the noise of the bar. For another thing, the service was poor: Ted never got his water refilled, and though we asked for it, we never got more bread. It’s a tapas place, and several of the dishes were good: Ted’s garlic soup and Will’s lentil soup were both very good, as was my grilled romaine ceasar with anchovies; Will said his lamb carpaccio was good, and the aforementioned bread was a very tasty garlic and rosemary foccacio. But Ted’s empanadas were so-so, and my sherry mussels with fried leeks were extremely disappointing: several of them hadn’t opened, meaning they likely weren’t very fresh, and the whole dish was so salty that I couldn’t finish it. Considering the price, the noise, the poor service, and the hit-or-miss nature of the food quality, I would definitely recommend avoiding Avalon if you’re ever in Richmond.

We headed back to our hotel, stopping along the way to buy a six dollar of bottle of wine at a gas station that turned out to be pretty good, considering. Will and I drank wine and ate Baby Cake while watching TV; Ted got sick and threw up. No kidding: he dozed off, woke up, and vomited. We’re not sure who or what to blame, but it was kind of a downer. Luckily, he felt fine by the morning.

We departed Richmond and after a couple of hours on I-95, we stopped in Frederick, Maryland for lunch. Frederick is an adorable little town, and our lunch at The Orchard was very good – it reminded me of Pittsburgh’s The Quiet Storm in its homemade vegetarian friendliness, except it was a bit more upscale. I had a salad and a veggie sammich to try to cleanse myself of all the pork, and the coffee was delicious.

In a slight drizzle we hopped across the street to The Candy Kitchen where we bought a few delicious little chocolates. Will ventured in to a little shop selling designer eye glasses, and overall we decided that Frederick would make a delightful place to spend a weekend. Our last errand on the way out of town was to stop in a liquor store to pick up a gift; my friend David has a lifetime goal to drink as many different gins as possible, so he gave me his “drank so far” list and asked me to be on the lookout for new gins. I found three, actually, but could only afford to bring back one, so he’ll be getting a bottle of handcrafted-in-Virginia, organic, Contoctin Creek gin. Which I hope he plans to share.

Finally we wended our way back home, laden with wines and memories. Richmond was pretty delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed our side trip to Charlottesville and Monticello. I think I would have enjoyed a trip to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum or the Museum of the Confederacy, but I tend to prefer to take my vacations pretty light (the bad back doesn’t help), so alas, the chance was missed. I’m not sure I’d go back to Richmond on purpose, but if I was passing through, I’d definitely stop and eat at The Black Sheep again. Yum.

Adventures in Sushi

One culinary challenge that has long seemed overly daunting to me is the making of sushi. There just seemed to be so many things to contemplate and figure out that I had, up until now, simply decided that sushi would be perpetually worth the price of paying other people to make it for me. But as sushi cravings have hit me with increasing frequency, I resolved (as recently detailed in another article) to attempt making sushi myself.

I started by ordering some books from the library and checking out various sushi making kits on Amazon to see what all they entailed. With some further research on the internet, I was ready to get started. A visit to the Giant Eagle proved that the required implements would be easy, if not super cheap (I suspect an Asian grocery in the Strip would be an improvement in that regard), to come by. I already had some wasabi powder and pickled ginger on hand. Nori at Giant Eagle is $2.99 for 10 sheets; while it can be obtained cheaper in bulk online, this was a reasonable start-up cost considering the convenience. Sushi rice was actually cheaper than what I’d found online, though rice vinegar was a little steep for my liking. Bamboo sushi mats are actually quite a deal at the Giant Eagle at under $2, since most of those I found online rang in at $5 to $6.

My First Sushi PlateAccording to my research, the first major hurdle of sushi making is the recipe for sushi rice. As I’ve gathered, there are many ritualistic methods surrounding the making of sushi rice. Apparently, the important ingredient is rice vinegar (so that’s why they call it rice vinegar), though it must be prepared in a dressing with sugar and salt to temper it. I picked up some rice vinegar that already had sugar and salt in it (I presume for precisely this reason), but I also saw in one of my sushi cookbooks that some recipes called for plain white rice, and so wondered whether the rice vinegar would really make that much of a difference. In the interest of making a simplified first attempt, I decided to forego the vinegar and just concentrate on the rice, since it seemed like a big enough to do in itself!

Many of the recipes I found for sushi rice included elaborate and detailed preparations. Several called for the rice to be rinsed many times to release all excess starch, rinsing devotedly until the water runs clear. Thereafter the rice must then be soaked in water for a prescribed period of time before it is then cooked in a precise rice to water ratio (recipes differ in precisely what that ratio is). Many recipes recommend that the rice be cooked uncovered for a period of time, and then covered on low or no flame for the remaining time. After that the rice must be transferred carefully to a non-metal bowl so not to break the grains and then spread carefully with non-metal utensils.

Spicy Salmon Salad RollI decided it was all a little too elaborate for my purposes. I did listen to the advice that one ought to use proper sushi rice (medium or short grain), and not ordinary long-grain rice, but otherwise, I decided to make up my own rules. After all, I’m from the “put all ingredients in food processor and puree” school of making curry sauce. I decided that I would combine the first two steps by soaking the rice in water for about 30 minutes and then drained the water and considered it rinsed. I then used one and a half times the amount of water as I had rice to cook. I simmered it covered on a low fire while I did other things around the kitchen and turned it off when the water had been nearly absorbed. By the time I had finished up my kitchen chores and sushi ingredients preparation, the rice looked about like cooked rice should. I spooned the rice directly out of my stainless steel cooking pan and onto my nori, and it seemed to work out just time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m staying away from raw fish until I read up on it more and until I get the hang of making vegetable and cooked fish rolls. One recipe I found online suggested making spicy mayo (i.e. mayo plus sriracha sauce), which is used to make “Spicy” rolls of whatever type, and putting in on tuna from a can to practice. I decided to upgrade a notch in fish and so got canned salmon instead. I used this spicy salmon salad in my first attempt, which was an inside out roll.

The inside out roll is probably more commonly seen at sushi restaurants and delis than the “right side in” roll. It’s the one where the rice is on the outside of the nori. It involves simply spreading the nori with rice, as one would do otherwise, and then flipping it, so that the ingredients are put directly onto the nori and the sushi is rolled with the rice side down, thus ending up with rice on the outside. My rolls looked a little small, so I imagined I went a little light on the rice, but otherwise appeared relatively successful.

Right Side In RollI continued on to make a more traditional roll. Again, I spread the nori (non-shiny side) with rice, added the dregs of the salmon salad and some avocado slices directly onto the rice, then rolled it up. By this time I realized that I wasn’t so much using the bamboo mat to roll the sushi, but rather the plastic freezer bag on top of it. Many sushi-making guides I read recommended covering the bamboo mat in plastic wrap before using it; I was out of plastic wrap so I used a freezer bag instead. Turns out, I found the freezer bag easier to manipulate than the bamboo. I guess all I needed was a freezer bag all along… but I suppose it gives me better street cred to have the bamboo mat underneath it as I roll.

Finally, I found myself out of rice, but with avocado leftover. Apparently one of the most difficult things about making sushi is matching the amount of filler ingredients you prepare with the amount of rice you prepare. I had made my rolls in the morning, so I spent the day considering what else I could do with the remaining half an avocado without having to make a new batch of rice. I researched substitutes for sushi rice, or recipes for no-rice sushi. It would be useful to find a good substitution, not only because I happened to be out of rice at the time, but for making sushi compliant with a low-carb diet (as I often cook for low-carbers).

My research yielded little of interest in terms of low-carb sushi recipes, but after researching sushi rolls in general, I came up with a viable idea. I found many sushi roll recipes containing avocado, crab stick and cream cheese. Such cream cheese is generally cut in strips from a block so that it can fit lengthwise into the center of a roll. I wondered what would happen if I used a spreadable cream cheese in lieu of rice as the sticky medium to keep the roll together. I stopped at the store on my way home and picked up the crab sticks and a tub of whipped cream cheese.

Low Carb RollAfter spreading the cheese on a sheet of nori, I added the avocado and crab stick. I attempted to make a small roll, but it looked like it might end up being rather insubstantial, so I unrolled my nori and set more crab stick and avocado along the entire sheet leaving about an inch free at the end. I then rolled my nori pin-wheel style until the whole sheet of ingredients was wrapped all the way around itself a couple times to the end. I chilled it while I finished dinner preparations and while I sliced and prepared the chilled rolls from earlier in the day.

As it turned out, the low-carb roll was one of my favorites of these first experiments. The other rolls turned out to be quite pleasing. The rice did taste slightly unlike the rice I’m used to in store-bought sushi (probably due to the omission of the vinegar), but after being soaked in soy sauce and wasabi, I barely knew the difference.

Overall, I was quite pleased with my first attempt. Despite the lack of vinegar, raw fish and copious rice cooking rituals, I came up with three rolls that scratched the itch of my sushi craving. Maybe next time I’ll venture to try the vinegar. Watch out for more Adventures in Sushi.

Gorgonzola Fondue & Black Russians, plus sushi cravings drive me to Giant Eagle

Gorgonzola Fondue & Black RussianAs I’ve mentioned before in my previous musings on the wonders and pitfalls of fondue, I find the use of traditional French cheese in fondue to be problematic for a variety of reasons. Difficulty melting, expense… who needs it? Besides, breaking away from tradition is a great way to let creativity take flight. One of my favorite experimental fondues has been gorgonzola, but since it is such a strongly flavored cheese, arriving at the best recipe has required a bit more trial and error.

The challenge in refining this recipe was in bringing out the true gorgonzola flavor. I’ve tried this recipe with a blend of gorgonzola and blue cheese, but found the results disappointing. I’ve also made the mistake of using a bit too much garlic, which makes the gorgonzola flavor much too intense, bringing out an unwanted salty quality in the fondue. The use of sherry wine is also problematic in this regard, causing too strong a clash of flavors. This past weekend, I made a batch that, I believe, finally struck a perfect balance.


a scant pinch of minced garlic
1 to 1 1/2 cups half n’ half or light cream
1 (8oz) package of cream cheese
8oz of crumbled gorgonzola cheese
4oz shredded sharp white cheddar
dash or two of white pepper
1 to 1 1/2 cups light white wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
bread cubes or vegetables for dipping

Combine the garlic, cream, cream cheese, gorgonzola, cheddar and the pepper in a medium saucepan. Melt over low heat, whisking frequently until the cheeses are melted and well combined. If cheese does not melt smoothly, use an immersion blender to smooth is out. Whisk in the white wine until combined. If the fondue is too runny for your taste, then mix the cornstarch with a bit of additional wine (just enough to dissolve it) and then whisk it into the fondue, heating until it thickens. Serve with bread and/or vegetables.

I find that cultivating the true gorgonzola flavor is so important, not only because it is one of my favorite cheeses, but because one of my favorite flavor complements is gorgonzola cheese accompanied by a Black Russian. This discovery was a happy accident back from the days shortly after I turned 21 when I did crazy things like ordering Black Russians with dinner at restaurants (i.e. before I had a driver’s license or had to pay my own rent). Dinner was a gourmet pizza rife with melted gorgonzola, and I discovered that, just as a Cabernet enhances the flavor of a rare filet mignon, and a pinot grigio lends a welcome harmony to lemon-squeezed crab, so does a Black Russian play subtly on the flavors of gorgonzola cheese.

BLACK RUSSIAN: vodka, Kahlua, ice. Mix.

I won’t post a recipe for a Black Russian cocktail, per se, since it’s just two boozes over ice, but I will give some tips and advice. Traditionally a Black Russian is two thirds vodka and one third Kahlua (try Kamora as an excellent, inexpensive substitute), but I usually prefer half and half. A Black Russian is mixed, quite straightforwardly, over ice in a double old-fashioned glass. These are the short, squat cocktail glasses, sometimes also called rocks glasses. Before pouring in the booze, fill the glass with ice, and I mean that literally. The ice should reach the top rim of the glass. This is true of any mix-over-ice drink. People think it will water down your drink (with a Black Russian, such a result would not be the worse eventuality), but it’s actually to help you get the right proportions and to keep your drink chilled at roughly the rate you drink it. Provided you keep your drink within arm’s reach and nurse it at a moderate pace, you will still have ice at the end. If you put two cubes in the glass, they’re going to be gone before your drink is, leaving your cocktail to get lukewarm from the temperature of the room and the heat of your hand. As for mixing, if your ice cubes fill the entire glass, you can pour vodka halfway, then Kahlua halfway for an even mix. If you have ice cubes only halfway up you’re going to end up with a lot more of whatever you pour second.

Giant Eagle SushiFondue plus cocktail makes a great snack or appetizer but does not, unfortunately, a meal make. After not gorging myself nearly as much as I should have at Coriander’s India Buffet at lunch, I was in the mood for something light. My cravings turned, as they have rather often of late, to thoughts of sushi.

While there are several convenient options for take out sushi, I have developed a habit for relying on the easiest solution: Giant Eagle. There is a large GE grocery within short driving distance of my apartment, their sushi is less expensive than Whole Foods, but includes a full selection of nigri and maki rolls, raw, cooked and vegetarian, unlike Trader Joes which only offers a few varieties of fully cooked fish rolls in the deli section.

Am I proud of being a Giant Eagle sushi consumer? No. Is it top quality? No. But it’s cheap and it satisfies my cravings. Six or seven dollars will get you a good twelve or sixteen pieces of maki, if it’s not a specialty roll, often with a variety of tuna, salmon, eel and shellfish within one package. Last weekend, in a moment of weakness, and faced with a dwindling Saturday night selection, I sprung for two packages, a Chef’s selection nigri and roll plate, as well as a spicy mango tuna roll. The total came to about $17, but I justified it for myself by digging seven dollars worth of change out of the bottom of my purse.

And that’s when I got to thinking… why am I spending nearly twenty dollars a pop on mediocre sushi, when I could probably make it just as easily myself? Now, if I were deluding myself with pretensions of competing with Tamari, that would be one thing, but Giant Eagle? I think that’s within my wheelhouse. I imagine it might take a good bit of research on the handling of raw fish, but there are plenty of sushi rolls that do not use raw fish as an ingredient, I’m just never inclined to buy them at a deli section or restaurant when I can get salmon or tuna for a dollar or two more.

So, as a result of Giant Eagle sushi guilt, it’s off to the library for more culinary research!

The Great India Buffet Tour: Coriander India Grill

After a long cold winter (well, January and February at least) of struggling to summon the ambition to venture out for any reason, let alone for India Buffet, we finally made a date to check out our next stop on the tour, Coriander India Grill in Squirrel Hill. It was a day only a Pittsburgher could love, 50’s and drizzling, it even inspired two guest critics to come along for the ride: Nik, an India Buffet aficionado and Millvillian, and Jay, an Asian food enthusiast and Squirrel Hill denizen.

Coriander India GrillCoriander Grill is exactly what you would expect, in terms of decor, and then some. The outside and inside plaster wall surfaces are smothered in a lime green color (perhaps “cilantro green” would be more appropriate), which is, perhaps, overkill, but the booths were clean and comfortable, and water served in heavy faux-cut crystal goblets. The lunch buffet at Coriander is offered every day, and a dinner buffet is served on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. The cost is reasonable, being $7.99 during the week, and jumping only to $8.55 on the weekends.

Taking in the scope of the buffet, it became apparent that Coriander’s offerings were more extensive than most, but not quite so gargantuan as the buffet at Taj Mahal. The salad/dessert bar section had a wide variety of chutneys and pickles, including the expected tamarind and mint, as well as the not terribly common coconut. Rice and naan provided the standard starches. Onion pakoras proved to be a crispy appetizer. The meat selections were just as standard as the starch: chicken curry, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala. The vegetarian selection, though, came as a pleasant surprise in its extensiveness. There was mattar paneer, chana saag, an inviting dal, vegetable korma, spiced mixed vegetables and cauliflower. The highlight of of the curry selection was a dish off to the side of red chili paste, very useful for raising the heat level on mild buffet offerings.

Coriander GrillAs we dove into our teeming plates of buffet gleanings, we quickly reached a consensus that the taste quality of coriander’s food was a cut above. There was something intriguing about the taste of each dish. Flavors bespoke fresh ingredients and well-tuned spice mixes. So often buffets rely on over-salting to lend taste to food that does not arrive immediately at the table, but in every dish at Coriander, the salt flavor was low and the spices rang at a good pitch. The pakoras were crispy, but the coconut chutney, while tasty, was uninspired. The saag was one of my favorites, as I am a particular fan of saag, and Nik agreed that it exceeded ordinary Indian restaurant saag. The spinach was still quite green, not too dark and overcooked. The chicken tikka masala was definitely a few flavor levels above typical, a danger that faces any buffet vat of tikka masala since it is practically a requirement. I was even impressed by the mattar paneer, which I didn’t get until my second trip, since mattar paneer is among of my least favorite curries. Sabrina detected a pleasantly sour whisper of vinegar in many dishes, and happily attributed it to the Goan influence that she has noticed on the regular menu, as she frequents Coriander for non-buffet dinner. The dal was a favorite among all the guests at our table, and everyone agreed its appeal lay in its likeness to an Indian-style chili.

Coriander SpecialtiesThe biggest controversy of the day came from the vegetable korma. I enjoyed the flavor of this dish and I was happy to taste a highlight spice—my guess was cardamom—which set it apart in good contrast to the other dishes. However, the korma did suffer one pitfall; it’s a common danger that plagues the preparation of korma, that because of the nut pastes used in its preparation the curry sauce dries out easily, and so water or milk must be added frequently as long as it stews over the fire. Sabrina and Jay agreed that the flavor of the korma sauce was not enough to outweigh their distaste at the pudding-like consistency.

After eating, the table discussed our selections; Sabrina and I compared the experience to our previous buffet stops and we solicited the input of our fellow lunchers that day. Coriander got points for variety, being larger than any other buffet we visited, save the Taj Mahal (what is the appeal of the buffet, after all, if not to sample a plethora of dishes), but it also got points for taste quality. We easily agreed that the flavor of Coriander’s food was second only to the buffet at Tamarind. In the end, we decided that taste trumps size, and so we placed Coriander second to Tamarind in the scheme of buffets we’ve visited so far.

Coriander India Grill on Urbanspoon

Smorgasbord of Randomness, Part 2

When last we met, the menu was well-appropriated with low-carb, but often meat-ridden selections. The other major dietary contingent in my dinner party was vegetarian, and it was for these guests that I originally planned the meal around Indian curries.

SaagI cooked two of my very favorite curries; both are also relatively easy to make. The first is a recipe I have developed over the course of a few years with much trial and error. It is a recipe for saag (Indian creamed spinach), and it makes no claims to authenticity, but it’s the closest I’ve come to capturing the flavor and texture of saags I’ve had in restaurants. The second is a quick korma recipe I found online many years ago. It was originally formulated to use as a sauce over baked chicken. I use it for any good curry medium, be it chicken, chickpeas, vegetables, paneer, etc. On this occasion, I wanted to make a double dose for the larger group (having leftovers never hurts!), and since I had one can of chickpeas and one brick of paneer already in my kitchen stores, I decided to use both.


1 lb. spinach
8 oz. other green vegetable (e.g. broccoli, mustard greens, collards, cabbage, peas, etc.)
1-2 tablespoons oil or butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped
6 cloves of garlic (3 teaspoons minced)
2 inches fresh ginger root, minced; or 1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon dried methi leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup cream, coconut milk or plain beaten yogurt
1/2 cup (or more to taste) fresh cilantro leaves, or a couple tablespoons of cilantro chutney
8 oz package of cream cheese

Combine all but the last ingredient in a food processor until well pureed; or, in the alternative, simmer all ingredients and then puree with an immersion blender. Cook until spinach is darker in color. Add cream cheese and cook until melted, whisking often. Consistency should be thick and not runny.

When I made it this last weekend, it turned out to be a little runnier than I usually like; I credit that to the fact that I used coconut milk instead of cream (no particular reason, just because I had a lot of coconut milk around). If going that route, you might want to leave extra cooking time to let the liquid steam off. I also used dried cilantro instead of fresh, since I didn’t have any on hand at Saundra’s house. I missed the fresh cilantro flavor, and so when I reheated some of the leftovers this week, I tried mixing in some store-bought cilantro (coriander) chutney, and it effectively brought in some of that flavor I know and love.


1 (8oz) brick of paneer, cubed
1 can chickpeas
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup cream or plain beaten yogurt
2 cloves garlic (1 teaspoon minced)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper or paprika
1 teaspoon garam masala
2 tablespoons blanched almonds or other shelled nuts
1 tablespoon mango chutney

Sauté the onion in the melted butter. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients (except chickpeas and paneer) in a food processor until smooth; or in the alternative add these ingredients to the pan, simmer a minute, and then puree with an immersion blender. Add the chickpeas and paneer and reduce heat. Heat until cooked through and thickened. If sauce gets too thick, add more cream (or milk) or yogurt, or even water if you feel like you’ve added enough cream already.

Garam MasalaThis dish turned out well enough last weekend, as the recipe is fairly predictable. The only difference was that I used a new Garam Masala, and as I’ve discovered, not all garam masalas are created equal. As a traditional spice mix, garam masala has some inherent traditional properties to distinguish it from other spice mixes, such as Chaat Masala, Madras Curry Powder or Bafat Masala, but otherwise, recipes differ. This blend had a bit too much… something. Clove, perhaps? Anise? Nothing terrible, but just not exactly what I expected. For the sake of regularity, here is my own garam masala recipe, based on garam masalas I have enjoyed in the past:


3 tablespoons powdered coriander seed
2 tablespoons powdered cumin
1 tablespoon powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves

Combine all ingredients. Store in a spice jar and use in recipes where garam masala is called for.

Shepherd’s Pie

Since Sarah is always posting recipes, I decided to include one as well, which it just so happens I made last night.

Be forewarned: my recipes do not follow exact measurements. If this is troublesome for you … tough.

Also: I make this as a vegetarian recipe, but of course traditionally, it’s not. An easy modification.

You’ll need (to serve four):
Leeks (white and light green sections only), 3-4, chopped
Carrots, 1-2 cups, chopped
A turnip and/or parsnips, 1-2 cups, chopped
Protein if desired, 1-2 cups
Fresh thyme if possible, half a little package (strip off the leaves, discard the tougher stems) or 1-2 teaspoons dried
Worcestershire sauce 2-3 tablespoons
Tomato paste, 1-2 tablespoons
Red wine, 0.5-1 cup
Stock, 2 cups
Dried rosemary, 0.5-1 teaspoons
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Butter, 3-4 tablespoons
Flour, 1-2 tablespoons
Potatoes, 4-5 peeled (I like Yukon gold, but whatever you prefer is fine)
Cheddar cheese, 1 cup

Cut the bottoms and tops off the leeks, slice them in half longways, and then slice them into half-inch sections. Soak to get the dirt off: leeks are dirty little fuckers.

Peel and chop the root veggies into approximately 1-inch pieces.

Now, if you’re using actual animal meat, at this point, you should brown that, ground beef and/or lamb, or ground turkey, I’d imagine. (Or, heck, use chunks, whatever.) Cook through, set aside, drain the excess fat. If you’re going veggie, skip this.

Boil water. Add peeled potatoes, and boil until tender. Drain.

In your big ass skillet, melt your butter, and add the leeks and root veggies, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat until everything starts to soften and brown – deglaze the pan with the wine. Add the flour and whisk briskly until it dissolves. Add the stock (veggie if you’re veggie, beef if your doing beef/lamb, chicken if you’re doing turkey), the Worcestershire sauce (If you’re an actual honest vegetarian, Worcestershire sauce is off limits – it’s made with oysters; I’d add some horseradish in its place if I were you), the tomato paste, the thyme and rosemary. Simmer all together until the sauce thickens and reduces. Now, if you’re adding either some fake wheat gluten ground or some pre-cooked brown lentils as your protein, add those now. Or, now is when to add back in your cooked meat.

Preheat oven to 425.

In a baking pan, pour in the protein-veggie-gravy tastiness. Mash the cheddar cheese into your potatoes, and pipe or spread those onto the top of the casserole.

Bake for 20 minutes.

I like to serve this with Brussels sprouts. My easy Brussels sprouts recipe of deliciousness is as follows:

Brussels sprouts, a baggie full, stems trimmed off and cut in half
Shallots, 3-4 peeled and sliced
Butter, 3-4 tablespoons
Apple Cider Vinegar, 2 tablespoons
Salt and pepper to taste

Over medium heat, brown the halved sprouts and sliced shallots in butter until they get golden and roasty-looking. Cover to steam for a final two or three minutes. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and apple cider vinegar, stir.

I was thinking about making this a diabetic-friendly recipe, and I think it’s eminently doable. You can reduce or eliminate the flour in the sauce (cook the sauce down a bit longer, as Sarah mentioned in her beef stroganoff post) (or, the internet tells me arrowroot flour is a gluten-free thickener), and in lieu of potatoes, use mashed cauliflower (again as Sarah mentioned in the stroganoff post).

I was thinking also about how to make it vegan, and I think you could happily elect to replace the butter with a neutral-tasting oil like canola, but seriously, I cannot imagine this dish without the cheddar. Vegans, if you don’t need the cheese, more power to you, though.

Late Night Bites: Harris Grill

If you are a grad student or older undergrad in Pittsburgh, chances are you have been to the Harris Grill. This Ellsworth Avenue house, converted to a bar and restaurant, is headquarters for many a casual Pitt and CMU social gathering with its hip beer selection and creative pub food line-up.

Harris GrillAs it turns out, the Harris Grill kitchen is also open late, until 1am, perfect for hungry second shift professionals like me. That means I have more than enough time to get there and more than enough time to peruse the menu and place my order… just like a real restaurant.

This was not my first visit to the Harris Grill, and despite my trepidation to the contrary, I found parking pretty easily on a residential side street nearby. The inside of the Harris Grill has an eclectic dark and lounge-y decor. Some tables are appointed with couches and leather chairs, playing on the converted house theme. The menu is filled with jokey and colloquial item names and descriptions, many steeped in pop culture references. Even the prices are pitched toward the menu’s funky feel, with items costing $5.81 or $9.03, rather than the usual $-.99.

I ordered a vodka tonic and made a selection from the appetizer menu, as Harris Grill makes the effort to pitch many of its menu items to the meat-eater hungry man (and, on balance, some to the white meat eater, and even to the vegetarian hungry man), and so I guessed that an entree or sandwich would be perhaps too filling and assuredly too caloric.

The two items I got to sample that night were the spinach artichoke dip and the black bean cakes; both were tasty and the black bean cakes struck me as something I ought to try making at home. While I had no complaints about the quality of the dip, I found the service of this dip a bit strange. Usually spinach artichoke dip comes—logically, one supposes—with stuff to dip into it. Perhaps pita wedges, crackers or tortilla chips. This spinach dip came in a bread bowl, like soup does at Panera. The only dip-ables were the top crust and bread pieces that had been removed when the bread bowl was hollowed out. After using up those scant few pieces of bread, one then had to tear the bread bowl apart in effort to consume the remainder of the dip. I probably would have done so at the end of the dip anyway, but I wish I had had more bread or some crackers to extend the actual dipping portion of the appetizer, rather than having to hasten to the tearing portion when there was still a lot of dip in the bowl.

This peculiar method of dip service, plus a nearly eight dollar price tag for the spinach artichoke dip left me lukewarm. The bean cakes, which were more in the neighborhood of six dollars, seemed fairly priced. My vodka tonic ended up being close to five dollars, and while that’s not uproariously expensive, it makes me feel like I would have been better off going to a different restaurant. I also could have easily gotten the same experience, much more cheaply, by making it all at home.

Overall, Harris has a pleasant atmosphere, good food and gets extra points for being open until 1am. The peculiar bread bowl dip service and the slight over-pricing makes me unenthusiastic about a return trip, and so my quest for the best late night bites in Pittsburgh continues.