Pasta with Spinach & Dried-Tomato; a treatise on cooking by method over recipe

I spent the summer of 2001 studying Medieval Slavic manuscripts through an intensive summer institute at the Hilander Research Libary at Ohio State University that included coursework on paleography and recensions of Church Slavonic… but unforunately (fortunately?) for the forward trajectory of my career in academia, I did not end up incorporating much of what I learned into a later body of research.

I did, however, leave Columbus completely and utterly changed as a home chef.

My roommate for the Medieval Summer Slavic Institute, Ines, hailed from Madrid, had spent much time living in Naples, and produced the most amazing concoctions in our slender galley kitchen. I was no stranger to the kitchen, myself, at the time, but my culinary naivety is striking in retrospect.

Pasta with Spinach and TomatoThat summer was of such staggering importance to my future in the kitchen, because Ines taught me how to cook without a recipe. And not just in the sense that one becomes so familiar with a dish after cooking it several times, there is no need to look at the recipe. She taught me how to use instinct and experience to assemble random items at hand into delicious food.

Now, I’ve had to revert back to a more recipe-oriented standpoint in recent years. Recipe culture on the Internet is, perhaps necessarily, more precise. Submission to formalized recipe sites requires exact measurements of all ingredients, not only for consistency, but also so that submission software can calculate nutritional information. Oftentimes, I will publish recipes on this blog and elsewhere with ingredient measurements that work… but that I don’t necessarily follow when I make the dish. Or I’ll include instructions for fudging the amounts one way or the other.

This Saturday, however, I was reminded of my purely recipe-free summer with Ines. I was over at my parents’ house for my weekly dinner and Star Trek with Neilbert. It was a warm summer day; a couple of ice cold beers (literally, I left mine in the freezer too long) helped to cut the heat, but I couldn’t imagine cooking anything too heavy. A pasta dish in the tradition of recipe-less cooking from Ines seemed the perfect solution.


So, this is the recipe part of the blog, right? But in accordance with everything I said so far, it’s not going to have a list of exact ingredients. Cooking is supposed to be something of an art, so use your own tastes and judgement to figure out how much to use. Here are the items I used in this dish:

olive oil
minced garlic
diced onions
dried tomato (here’s one way to make them)

I started by sauteing the garlic and onion in olive oil; that’s pretty much how Ines started nearly every recipe I ever saw her make. When the onions were looking softened and a little crisp, I added the spinach. Now, I’m sure Ines would never settle for less than fresh spinach, but the only thing Neilbert and Saundra had around the house was a box of frozen spinach, so that’s what I used. I added more olive oil as the initial dose got absorbed.

Meanwhile I cooked some pasta. How much? I don’t know, I just eyed it up, and based on my vegetables cooking on the next burner over, I made a guess. I cooked it for about five minutes at most; another habit I took from Ines was cooking pasta very al dente. Before I met her I would have considered it under-done. Now, it’s just the way I eat.

While the pasta was boiling, I added my dried tomatoes to the spinach amalgam and added more oil (as that was my intended main medium of the “sauce”). I also included a healthy dose of paprika; something I’ve learned from Hungarian cooking is that there is really no such thing as too much paprika. Once the vegetables were heated through, I tossed them with the pasta. I didn’t add salt directly to the finished product because Neilbert has salt sensitivities, but for anyone not on a salt-restricted diet, it’s pretty important. There are so few seasonings in this dish that the salt goes a long way to bringing out the natural flavors in the vegetables.

This recipe is great on its own, of course, but it can also be dressed up in a number of different ways. Bacon is a great addition for meat lovers, as would be a number of crumbled cheeses like feta or goat.

The Golden Pig: Far-flung Korean Worth the Drive

Some things are worth traveling for.

Today I went on a little road trip adventure!  Everyone has been raving about Golden Pig, the tiniest Korean restaurant, clear out in Cecil.  When I say “clear out in Cecil”, I have to say, before I set out today in Marshall, my Honda Accord, I didn’t have the faintest idea where Cecil was.  Honestly.  I’d read and heard people going on about Golden Pig, and they’d be like, “It’s in Cecil,” and from that I figured out that Cecil was 1) within relatively reasonable driving distance of Pittsburgh, and 2) … *cricket cricket*.  It turns out that Cecil is south and west.  It’s actually easy to get to Golden Pig, it just takes a while.  The thing I find curious about Pittsburgh is that there’s the city, which is a city like any major urban center (except better), and then there’re the inner-ring suburbs, which could easily be mistaken for part of the city proper, and then — nothing.  Nothing whatsoever of interest.  Highways.  Trees.  The odd small town, but really, just nothing.  It’s instantly rural, like, 20 minutes outside the city in all directions.  It’s bizarre, frankly.  But so anyway, to get to Cecil, go through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, get on 79 South, get on 50 West, keep an eye out on your left after a few miles, and there you go.


Desolation.  Picturesque enough, though.


So wee.


Golden Pig is about the wee-est place I’ve ever eaten.  There are 11 seats inside.  The cooking happens in the same room as the eating, and everything is prepared fresh by two very nice Korean ladies.  Friend Mark J. joined me for lunch, and I don’t know about him, but I liked the atmosphere.  It was homey.


There’s a theme, you see.

I ordered us a “Korean pancake” to share.  I’m not sure what it was made of, though Mark surmised buckwheat flour.  It was crispy on the edges and had the particular glutinous consistency that I have only ever encountered in Chinese and Korean cooking.  It was filled with kimchi and quite tasty; we also got little dishes of kimchi and other pickled vegetables, which we nommed at with stainless steel chopsticks.  I mention the chopsticks because it occurred to me that I had never seen stainless steel chopsticks before — I’d eaten off very nice, lacquered wood chopsticks, but never stainless.  Well, there you go.


Pancake and various yummy pickled things.


For our entrees, both Mark and I ordered the daeji bulgogi, which was thinly sliced, stir fried pork in a super rich (but not thick), spicy, succulent, just fantastic sauce, plus a side of truly delicious sticky rice.  Good rice is easy to make and common — great rice is an art.


*Homer Simpson gargle*




Seriously.  And my half of the meal came to $12.57.  Plus whatever I spent on gas, but, whatever, I practically never leave the city, so it’s good to burn a little gas from time to time.  I listened (sang along to) Hot Hot Heat on the drive home and just generally was pleased as punch.


**I returned the Golden Pig just recently, with my mother.  I’m a little embarrassed to report that I ate exactly the same things I ate the first time I went there.  They were just so good!  The quality of everything was just as good as I’d remembered, and the owner was even friendlier.  Next time I’m there, I swear I’ll try something different.

Golden Pig Authentic Korean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Brasserie 33: What the Hell?

The silver lining is, it’s always more enjoyable to write — and read — blogs about things that suck.


Oh, Groupon.  There was a time when you were a wonderland of cheap, delicious meals.  I think restaurants caught on to what a bad deal that was for them, though, and now it may be the case that only embattled and benighted eateries like Brasserie 33 offer Groupons.  Alas.  Alas!


The wine was actually crisp and pleasant. And the label was adorable.

Our Brasserie Groupon was about to expire, so on Monday night, we made reservations for this French restaurant in Shadyside, on Ellsworth.  The space itself is quite well done, with a lovely marble bar and an open kitchen.  The food was OK – Good (though overpriced) even.  But the service.   Ay yi yi.


Problem one: the menu is printed on paper, which would be fine if they offered a new, seasonally inspired menu every day, but they don’t.  After being handled many times, the pathetic, wilting sheet I was handed was damp, wrinkled, and soiled — not particularly appetizing.  Nor were the wine and water glasses placed on our table, which had water marks and fingerprints all over them.


We were sat promptly, but then waited for many minutes before our server came over to greet us.  I was also given no wine list.  I finally hailed down the food runner to bring one to us, and he brought it over a moment before the server finally arrived.  Our server, it turned out, was actually French.  And friendly.  Too friendly.  Look, if I’m in some mom ‘n’ pop diner, and the sassy woman behind the counter wants to call me “Hon”, that all just makes sense.  But at a semi-fine dining establishment, I’m not there to make a new friend.  I expect the service to be courteous, competent, and efficient.  I don’t want to banter with the server.  I want him to have a good working knowledge of the wine list.  Ours didn’t.  He also — and I know I’m a dick for bringing this up — had truly terrible teeth, yellow and rotten, which, I’ve gotta tell you, is not the most appetizing thing to be faced with when choosing your appetizer.


So anyway, the server arrived a moment after the wine list, though after many minutes of waiting, and when I told him we needed another moment with the list, he disappeared again, after some more friendly prattle.  Great.  When he finally returned, he seemed unable to tell me much about the Cote du Rhone blanc I asked him about, and told us we should order all of our food at once, if we wanted it to come out of the kitchen in a timely fashion.  Right.  Right.  He also promised us bread was on the way.


The oysters tasted nice and fresh, though they got a bit overwhelmed by the butter.

To start with, we ordered the oysters rockefeller, which was good, if perhaps a bit greasy.  The arrival of this appetizer, by the way, took probably 25 minutes.  No small plates were given to us, so we used our bread plates — naturally, the bread arrived after the oysters, and by then our plates had been overwhelmed by shellfish drippings, making them useless as bread plates.  We were so hungry at that point we just spread our butter and ate our bread without putting it down; it was a good thing the bread was warm, because the butter was ice cold and hard as a rock.  Our server finally reappeared, bent down towards the plate with the oyster shells on it, real close like, stood up, made a “cuckoo” finger-rotating hand motion against his forehead at Ted, and walked away, without taking the plate.  I shit you not.  I said to Ted, “I think there’s a bit of oyster left in one shell.”  I was just trying to guess what action would result in my plates being cleared.  Ted ate the wee morsel, and when the server returned, he took the plate — but not the wee soiled bread plates, nor did he offer us more bread.  Those soiled bread plates remained on the table for an hour.


More waiting, more waiting, more nursing of our bottle of wine.  Another server came over and refilled our water, and began to tell us, apropos of nothing, about how the air conditioner broke last week, and all the trouble that caused.  What the fuck, people?  I want my goddamn entree, not to chat.


Our main courses finally arrived.  I ordered the half a roast chicken with frites.  The thigh was perfect, moist and tender, with a nice crispy skin covered in a peppery pan jus.  Naturally, therefore, the drumstick and breast were hopelessly dried out and overcooked.  I appreciate that this is the great problem of chicken roasting: since the breast meat finishes cooking before the thigh meat is safely up to temperature, how do you keep the breast from drying out while you wait on the thigh?  This has plagued home cooks since time immemorial, so it’s not that I don’t understand the problem.  But for $22, I expect a restaurant to have had this problem solved.  The frites were fine, but nowhere near as good as Point Brugge’s.  (Or Park Bruges’s, for that matter.)  Ted ordered the coq au van, and he liked his meal a great deal. I tasted it, and it was good, though I thought it was a bit heavily seasoned and a bit too rich for a hot June night.  There was absolutely nothing seasonal on the menu, and many of the offerings, like lamb shank, beef bourguinon, and the coq au van, were heavy, wintertime dishes.  I realize that these are staples of French cooking, but I don’t believe for a moment that the French don’t eat lighter fare in the summer.


Tasty in the center, dried out at the edges. Meh.

Anyway, we finished our meals, all of our plates were finally cleared, and then … we sat.  No appearance from our server.  Ted was determined to order the chocolate mousse, so eventually we flagged down the chatty water woman to put our order in.  The food runner brought the mousse out, and at that point, we hadn’t seen our own server for almost an hour.  Ted finished his dessert, and still no appearance.  We waited another 20 minutes for our French waiter to reappear.  He took my Groupon information, and came back with our check … which he hadn’t deducted our Groupon from.  He had also, natch, disappeared again.  So again we flagged down the woman, who acted confused by what she was seeing on the check, even though I spelled it out for her quite clearly.  “Here is our appetizer, here are our entrees, he didn’t charge us for our dessert, here is our bottle of wine.”  She took the check, and finally our waiter reemerged, to chastise me.

“I was trying to give you a free dessert.  You don’t want a free dessert?”

“I want my Groupon deducted.”

“But you turned down a free dessert.”

Are you fucking serious?  Fuck your $7 dessert, I want my $40 discount removed from the check.  He goes, “But you’re religious, I respect that.”  You see, our priest had stopped into the restaurant, quite by happenstance, and been assigned the table next to ours.  When we told him about the service, he decided not to order anything, though he did chat with us for a while.  When the server had looked at me quizzically, I had volunteered, “That’s our priest.”


Look, Buddy.  Monsieur.  Too familiar, and way unprofessional.  What the fuck?  In the end, he charged us for the dessert, but did subtract the $40.  We still ended up paying, with tip, a hundred bucks, and with that money could have gone down the street to Soba or up the street to Casbah and had an infinity better experience, both food- and (especially) service-wise.  I will not be returning to Brasserie 33, and you shouldn’t go there, either.  I honestly don’t know what the hell whoever owns that place is thinking.  There are reviews all over Yelp and Urbanspoon about how bad the service is, and how the food is overpriced for the quality, as it turns out.  (Here’s one by my friend, Carley, for example.) You’d think eventually a restauranteur would take action to remedy such imminently remediable problems, but nope!


Ugh.  Just ugh.

Brasserie 33 on Urbanspoon