Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Our Adorable Deer-proof Backyard Veggie Garden

Until this year, our attempts to grow a few tomatoes and peppers in our Pittsburgh backyard have been less than successful. The first year we moved in, Rick popped a couple of beefsteak tomato plants in a sunny corner of the yard and we watched them grow in giddy anticipation of the sandwiches we would make with the fresh-picked fruit. That was before we realized we moved into an area whose deer population rivals that of humans.  (We should have been suspicious when we noticed our neighbors had yard signs reading, “Eat More Venison!”) Just as our tomatoes approached peak ripeness, Bambi came for a visit and ate every last one.

We then tried a motion-activated sprinkler guaranteed to chase the deer from our backyard. We succeeded in inadvertently squirting ourselves numerous times (and a few unsuspecting guests), but did not deter the deer. Perhaps they appreciated the cooling showers as they devoured our garden once again.

Our next attempt at deer-proofing was a pop-up net contraption that I found in a catalogue. It fit nicely over the raised bed garden Rick constructed, and it did keep the deer away. Unfortunately, our plants out-grew the net and before we’d harvested many tomatoes, a windy summer storm blew everything sideways and damaged most of the plants.

Our garden outgrew last year’s pop-up net so Rick cut the top away. This is before the wind blew the whole thing sideways.

So this spring, in the midst of the pandemic quarantine, we decided to build a truly deer-proof and sturdy garden area. I found a kit online that we liked the looks of, but it wasn’t quite the size we wanted and it cost $1,600. Luckily, our son and daughter-in-law are experienced urban gardeners and were willing to help us design and build exactly what we wanted. 

We put the new garden in the same location as the previous one, but we expanded the footprint to eight by ten feet. The growing space is u-shaped with room in the center to attend to the plants, so our actual usable area is 60 square feet. We did lots of sketches on graph paper and then drew full-scale chalk outlines in the driveway to make sure our design gave us access to all of the planting area. Jordan brought his woodworking tools over, including his mitre saw, which made for a really professional looking finish on all of the cuts.

We like to grow our vegetables organically, so we chose to pay more for cedar in place of chemically treated lumber that could potentially leach unhealthy substances into the soil. Altogether, our new garden cost around $900. We spent $600 for the cedar, $100 for wire fencing and hardware, and $225 for three cubic yards of organic soil for the raised beds. The sweat equity of Jordan, Silvan, and Rick was huge. They worked all day and finished up just as the sun was beginning to set.

Since we were doing construction in the beginning of the COVID outbreak, I made us all masks to wear and barked at Rick and Jordan to stay six feet apart throughout the day. (Doesn’t that sound fun? I’m a laugh a minute, especially during a pandemic.)

Rick demonstrating with a tape measure that he is, indeed, six feet away from Jordan.

We planted the garden out with seeds that Jordan and Silvan shared with us and seedlings purchased from Grow Pittsburgh (a great source for heirloom and organic vegetable plants in the Pittsburgh area) and we sat back to watch it grow. If I’m being honest, I’m the only one sitting back watching it grow. Rick is out there multiple times daily babying his plants and texting pictures to Jordan and Silvan to ensure that everything is developing as it should be.

Now here we are at the end of July beginning to reap the rewards of all that work. Earlier this summer, we had a bumper crop of salad greens and radishes and now we’re harvesting cherry tomatoes and peppers, as well as some yellow squash and zucchini that Rick is growing in a local community garden. We have a variety of tomatoes growing, including Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, San Marzano and Big Boys; two varieties of peppers, Jimmy Nardellos and Lunchbox, Yukon gold potatoes, basil, and all around the perimeter of the garden we have climbing plants- Kentucky wonder beans, Cannellini beans, Good Mother Stollard beans, and climbing cucumbers. With any luck, sometime in August we’ll be researching canning recipes and filling the new chest freezer waiting in the basement.

We dug the air fryer out of the basement to make a healthier, but every bit as delicious, batch of fried squash! (These were actually grown in the community garden, but I neglected to take photos of the tabouleh we made using tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, and mint from the backyard. Or the pepper sandwiches made with our Lunch box peppers. Or the two batches of pesto made from our basil. I think my blogging skills need a little work.)

If you have any tips for putting up vegetables, or foolproof recipes for pickling vegetables, please share them with us in the comments! Also, if you have any questions about our garden construction, feel free to reach out!

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Ten Things To Do While You’re Stuck At Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Ten Things To Do While You’re Stuck At Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak

First of all, this is a crazy time we are living through right now. I’m an optimist, so I’m really looking forward to that day in the future when we can look back and say, “Wow. I’m glad that’s over with.” And I can roll my eyes at the people who say, “See, it wasn’t as bad as they said. They should never have cancelled all those things.” (Duh. That will mean the preventive measures worked.)

If you are following the social distancing recommendations of health experts (Rick and I are), in addition to feeling disappointed at cancelled events and anxious about the news, you may be feeling…bored. 

Instead, let’s see this as an opportunity! How many times have you looked around your house and said, “If I had more free time, I’d do ___?” Well, here it is. Lots and lots of free time at your disposal. If you need some ideas, here are ten activities to keep you busy while we ride out the storm:

1. Read! “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are,” said Mason Cooley. I’ve always loved that quote, and it is especially true in this situation. For me, reading is a better escape than even television or movies. If a book is well-written, the real world falls away and I find myself consumed by the story. If you don’t have anything you feel like reading on hand, borrow a book from the library using a Kindle or Nook (if you have one) or order from an online bookstore.

2. Catch up on the shows you like on streaming services like Netflix, Apple, Amazon etc. I’m currently making my way through Mrs. Maisel and looking for new faves. Any suggestions?

3. Spring clean! Seriously, cleaning and organizing is a great way to burn off nervous energy and when you finish, you’ve got a sparkling fresh space to relax. 

4. Catch up on home and garden projects. We picked up this outdoor furniture restorer a few weeks ago at Home Depot and Rick put it to work today. Look around your garage and basement and see what you might have on hand to prep your flower beds or complete a chore you’ve been putting off.

5. Iron. Does anybody besides me do that anymore? I currently have a pile of clothes on a chair in the guest room that will take at least a couple of hours. ~sigh~

6. Put together spring outfits to go out in once things calm down! I like to arrange the clothes along with accessories that match and snap it on my phone as a reminder of what items I plan to wear together. There’s probably a word for that behavior and I probably don’t want to hear it.

7. Try some new recipes! Dig out those underused cookbooks and whip something up! If you’re missing ingredients, take advantage of the grocery delivery services widely available now or try to visit the supermarket when there are fewer customers, early in the morning or late at night. Conversely, you can download the SuperCook app and enter the ingredients you have on hand to see what recipe options there are!

Using the Duolingo app. Does it look like I’m washing my hands frequently enough?

8. Speaking of apps, download Duolingo and use some of your downtime to start learning a new language. I used it religiously before our trip to France, but I haven’t kept up with the lessons since we got home. I’m committing to spending at least 15 minutes a day on it now. It’s free and fun and a lot better use of my time than solitaire.

9. Learn to make sourdough bread! Yes, it takes a bit of time, but it’s easier than you think, it makes your house smell delicious, and what is more comforting than fresh bread warm from the oven? If you have flour, salt, and water, you are good to go. We got our sourdough starter from our daughter-in-law and we keep it in the refrigerator until we’re ready to make a batch, but you can make your own using the directions at www.thekitchn.com. For the bread, we follow the recipe for No-Knead Sourdough Bread from https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1018028-sourdough-no-knead-bread

10. If you normally have seasonal allergies, talk to your doctor about starting your usual springtime meds now. The trees are beginning to bud and bulbs are coming up, so why risk worrying that your sneezes are something other than run-of-the-mill hay fever?

I’m confident that our world will make it through this and learn from it, hopefully improving and strengthening our healthcare systems and our ability to fight the next pandemic to come along. 

Let’s support one another, stay calm, and…wash our hands. If you have additional ways to pass the time at home, please share them in the comments section!

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Beating the Winter Blues…Without leaving the Steel City!

I don’t know about you, but around this time every year, I am done with winter. Through December and January, I’m all about that Hygge life – candles burning, fireplace glowing, cozy throws across my lap – but enough is enough. I’m ready for long warm days, bicycle rides by the rivers, and twilight dinners on the deck. 

Let’s hope that Punxsutawney Phil got it right last weekend with his prediction that we are in for an early spring, but just in case, here are some ways to get a spring-like attitude right here and now:

Escape to the Islands at the National Aviary

It may be going too far to say that a visit to the National Aviary will make you feel like you’ve left wintry Pittsburgh behind for an “Escape to the Islands,” but I’m willing to play along.  The balmy temperatures inside make it easy to imagine yourself strolling in a Caribbean garden – especially while visiting the Tropical Rainforest exhibit with its 15-foot high waterfall and 400 tropical plants including coffee and cacao trees. The beautiful habitat houses an endangered Palm Cockatoo, Great Argus Pheasants, Victoria Crowned Pigeons, and many other birds, as well as a Linnaeus’s Two-toed Sloth.

I’m also a big fan of the Wetlands Exhibit, which features gorgeous pink American Flamingos, Roseate Spoonbills, and Brown Pelicans, as well as many other free-flying wetland birds. The pelicans and spoonbills especially remind me of the gulf coast of Florida (definitely one of my “happy places”).  

Flamingos in the foreground, spoonbills in the back, and a pelican in the tree above.

There are lots of interactive exhibits at the aviary as well. On a previous visit with Jordan and Silvan, they hand fed some of the wetlands inhabitants. Birds flying up to me for a snack is a little out of my comfort level – I blame Hitchcock – but adventurous sorts like our kids will love it.

The National Aviary (and, yes, it’s America’s only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated exclusively to birds) is located in Allegheny Commons Park on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side.

https://www.aviary.org

Get Out of this (cold) World at Phipps Conservatory

Another way to get that tropical feeling is to pay a visit to Phipps Conservatory. What’s not to love about this beautiful Victorian structure filled with flowers and plants? This season features the “Out of this World Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show,” which begins in the Palm Court with an enormous plant covered Saturn-like sphere hanging in the center. Other planetary shaped topiaries are scattered throughout the room along with a collection of slipper orchids. 

When we visited with our grandsons, they absolutely loved the Garden Railroad: Farms, Food, and Family Exhibit. This interactive display has lots of buttons for little ones to push. There are buttons to make the trains run, make the goats bleat, make a tractor circle a hay field, and more! Most importantly, for any little engineers you may know, there are So. Many. Trains!

To get an island feeling, head back to Tropical Forest Cuba for a multi-level tour of the 12,000 square-foot, 60-foot high conservatory filled with lush palm trees, Cuban orchids, unique ferns and rare cycads, as well as gurgling streams and cascading waterfalls. 

Phipps Conservatory is located in Oakland, adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

https://www.phipps.conservatory.org

Drink rum. Lots and lots of rum. Preferably in a coconut.

Another way to attempt to forget about winter: Visit a restaurant with a tropical theme. Believe it or not, we’ve visited two right here in Pittsburgh! Kaya is in the Strip District and Hidden Harbor is in Squirrel Hill. While Kaya’s seasonal menu gives a nod to winter with cocktails like the Red Mittens Mojito and the Frosted Flannel, Hidden Harbor is all about denial. Their cocktails are heavy on the rum with names like Josie’s Faraway Vacation, Golden Girl, and Tropical Itch garnished with beautiful exotic fruits and flowers. Adding to the fun, many of the drinks are made for two (or more) to share and all are served in themed drink ware. We visited Kaya back in the fall, so I can’t really speak to its ability to help beat the winter blues. As for Hidden Harbor, the fun atmosphere will definitely help you shake the blues, but it would have taken a lot more rum to make me forget the sleet and freezing temps just outside the door on the night we visited.

http://www.hiddenharborpgh.com

Endorphins Make You Happy!

Perhaps the best way to fight the winter blues? Get to the gym! As Elle Woods said in Legally Blonde, “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people don’t shoot their husbands!”  Whether you’re walking on a treadmill, stepping on an elliptical machine, pumping iron, or taking a cross fit class, anything that has you breaking a sweat for an hour can make a huge difference in your mental outlook.

My absolute favorite gym of all time is Mecka Fitness in Mt. Lebanon (they have a second location opening in the Strip District soon). I take their Body Lab class, which is a mix of cardio and weights set to music, and I am obsessed with it! Through the years I’ve tried just about every exercise regimen known to man, from Jane Fonda and Billy Blanks videos to hot yoga and Zumba classes and while I was always happy to have worked out (and the endorphins kept me non-homicidal!) I never really loved it. Mecka Body Lab, I love.

https://www.meckafitness.com

Hope these tips help you navigate the next few weeks with a sunny attitude! What are your favorite ways to beat the winter blues?

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Christmas Cookies: Baking up Memories


So many things about the holidays make me nostalgic – decorating the tree with ornaments that were gifted to us from friends and family members over the past 30 years, listening to Johnny Mathis’s Merry Christmas (the album we played every Christmas morning while the kids opened their presents), sending and receiving holiday cards with faraway friends, and baking Christmas cookies.

 Everyone’s favorite - Graham Cracker Delights, aka Peanut Butter Balls!
Everyone’s favorite – Graham Cracker Delights, aka Peanut Butter Balls!

My cookie baking tradition has shifted through the years. When our now-adult children were small, we made lots of cut-out sugar cookies. They were fun for the kids to make and decorate and they looked festive, but they were usually the ones left on the plate. I’ve also gotten away from magic bars (the ones with a layer of butter and graham cracker crumbs, coconut, chopped nuts and chocolate chips smothered with a can of sweetened condensed milk), Santa’s Whiskers (a rolled cookie with lots of candied cherries, nuts, and coconut), Russian tea cookies, and pecan thins.

Years ago, I needed the equivalent of a Pittsburgh-wedding cookie table because we gave so many away as gifts – a cookie tray for Rick to take to the office, cookie trays to take to holiday parties, and cookie tins for all of the children’s teachers, bus drivers and Sunday school teachers. Nowadays, I’m just concentrating on making the cookies my family enjoys the most. And taking a couple bottles of wine to holiday parties.

 Ready to scarf down a peanut butter ball in Mom’s kitchen.
Ready to scarf down a peanut butter ball in Mom’s kitchen.

First on the list is a cookie we simply call a Peanut Butter Ball. This is not to be confused with a Buckeye Ball, even though the outside appearance may be similar. Not to disparage Buckeye Balls…never mind, I am going to disparage them. Buckeyes are overly sweet and gross. Our Peanut Butter Balls are from a recipe my mother cut out of a magazine long ago. Probably Good Housekeeping or Better Homes. The magazine version was called Graham Cracker Delights, maybe because it was sponsored by a graham cracker company. Our kids christened them peanut butter balls and it’s a much more descriptive name. They do contain graham cracker crumbs, along with peanut butter (which I’ve doubled over the years), walnuts, coconut, butter and confectioner’s sugar. And then you dip the whole delicious morsel into a double boiler full of melted chocolate. Making these cookies brings back all the years of making them with my mom, who is now gone. It makes me happy in a sad kind of way. Is there a word for that? There should be.

 Since we don’t have any coffee cans, we have to rely on an old movie theater popcorn bucket!
Since we don’t have any coffee cans, we have to rely on an old movie theater popcorn bucket!

Our second favorite cookie is the Pizzelle. These remind me of growing up in a primarily Italian-American neighborhood and my friend’s mothers cranking out cookies on the exotic-looking (to me, at the time) pizzelle iron. They used to store them in empty coffee cans, which were the perfect size. Too bad the Starbucks Veranda blend we use comes in a bag. 

Our third cookie is a Holiday Biscotti from Bon Appetit magazine. I love this one because the combination of the red dried cranberries and the green pistachios make it look so Christmassy. And it tastes as good as it looks!

 Ma’amul, or Date Domes
Ma’amul, or Date Domes

New to our cookie rotation this year is the Ma’amul, or Date Dome. It’s taken me a long time to get around to making this cookie. Probably 20 years ago, we were visiting Rick’s cousin in Maryland and she gave me a tabi, one of the molds used to make the cookie. Finally, this past spring, my son wanted to make a special cookie to contribute to a friend’s wedding cookie table. So we dug out the tabi, sourced some of the unusual ingredients (orange blossom water and a spice called mahlab) and were bowled over by the results. Making this cookie brings up that happy/sad feeling too because Madelyn, who gave me the tabi, is also gone. She was a lovely generous woman and a great cook who made intricate dishes like Ma’amul all the time.

So, that’s my cookie story. What’s yours? Do you make the same cookies every year? 

If you would like a copy of any cookie recipe, let me know and I’ll happily share it!

Strike that:) I’ve had a few requests, so I’m going to post all of the recipes here! I thought about retyping them and making them look cute, but I’ve got presents to wrap and more cookies to make (the peanut butter balls are gone already!) and, you know, making merry for the holidays! So here are my recipes in their smudged, well-loved, unadulterated state:

 I make the Traditional Italian Pizzelles. Though the Orange Rum version sounds pretty good too.  Oooh! Maybe I’ll try them dipped in chocolate!
I make the Traditional Italian Pizzelles. Though the Orange Rum version sounds pretty good too. Oooh! Maybe I’ll try them dipped in chocolate!
 Our family’s fave - Graham Cracker Delights - aka Peanut Butter Balls!
Our family’s fave – Graham Cracker Delights – aka Peanut Butter Balls!
 Holiday Biscotti - with a bonus recipe for peanut butter icing from the Barefoot Contessa. Lol.
Holiday Biscotti – with a bonus recipe for peanut butter icing from the Barefoot Contessa. Lol.
 And our newest fave - Ma’amul, or Date Domes. (This recipe is from a cookbook I bought decades ago when Rick and I were dating. You know the old saying,  “the way to a man’s heart…”)
And our newest fave – Ma’amul, or Date Domes. (This recipe is from a cookbook I bought decades ago when Rick and I were dating. You know the old saying, “the way to a man’s heart…”)

Ten Things On Our Pittsburgh Holiday Bucket List!


I love this time of year! Everything about it – shopping for gifts, wrapping said gifts, baking my family’s favorite cookies, preparing special holiday meals, listening to Mariah Carey sing about what she wants for Christmas for the 98th time – all of it.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, or some other wintry holiday, the idea of gathering around the hearth with the ones you love is, to me, the definition of cozy. And happy.

There’s just one problem: there are so many fun things to do during the holidays, especially here in Pittsburgh, it can be hard to find time for all of them! So, this year I’m making a list of all the just-at-the-holidays Burgh activities that we want to do. I’m a little obsessed with my lists. To the point where I’ll add an unplanned chore to the tally after I’ve accomplished it just so I can cross it out. Crazy, I know. My point being, creating this “Pittsburgh Holiday Bucket List” makes it much more likely that we will actually get around to having all this seasonal fun! 

 In front of the tree and ice rink at PPG Place on Light Up Night
In front of the tree and ice rink at PPG Place on Light Up Night

1. Light Up Night! Okay, so right off the bat I’m cheating with my list because this took place on November 22 and we already did it. I’m counting it anyway because it was awesome and we are totally adding it to our annual holiday traditions. Beautiful lights and decorations in all directions, live music, and people wearing Santa hats everywhere. We missed Adam Lambert, but we caught Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, the Kaufmans tree, the ice skating rink, free hot chocolate, and a guy creating ice sculptures with a chain saw – so, you know, your typical Friday night in the Burgh;). Pittsburgh’s Light Up Night takes place every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving. Be sure to put it on your 2020 calendar – you’ll thank me next year!

 Bob’s Garage
Bob’s Garage

2. Go to a holiday-themed bar – or three!  Miracle on Liberty and Miracle on Carson are part of a nationwide series of seasonal pop-up bars that serve holiday-themed cocktails in specialty glassware and donate a portion of the proceeds to local food banks. A friend who went last year described the decor as “looking like Christmas exploded inside.” I’ve heard there are long lines to get in on the weekends, so maybe we’ll try this midweek. 

A new pop-up this year is located in Bakery Square – Chrismukkah Galley is the brainchild of the bartenders at Federal Galley and Smallman Galley. This bar is super charitable – they’ll be serving drinks with both Christmas and Hanukkah themes served in holiday glassware purchased at local Goodwill stores and half of the proceeds from drink sales will be donated to the Tree of Life Synagogue and East Liberty Presbyterian charities.  

Lastly, we want to check out Bob’s Garage in Blawnox. Though not a pop-up bar, Bob’s Garage is apparently the original Pittsburgh holiday bar.  Mostly, we have to go because a friend who lives in the area once jokingly asked when we were going to blog about Blawnox. Here you go, Brian! 

3.  Take a cookie tour in Lawrenceville! The Joy of Cookies: Cookie Tour 2019 takes place this year from December 6-8. This event started in 1997 at Jay Design Soaps and Gifts and has grown in scope each year. Judging from the map on their website, it looks like over 40 shops are taking part this year. I’m hoping if I find a new favorite cookie, I’ll be able to finagle the recipe out of the shop owner!

 Phipps Conservatory’s Holiday Magic! Winter Flower Show and Light Garden
Phipps Conservatory’s Holiday Magic! Winter Flower Show and Light Garden

4.  Make a trip to Phipps Conservatory’s Holiday Magic! Winter Flower Show and Light Garden. We’ve done this before, but the show is different every year thanks to Phipps talented garden designers. This is another activity that promises to have long lines on weekend nights, so if possible, plan to visit mid-week and book tickets ahead of time.

https://www.phipps.conservatory.org

5.  Attend the Messiah sing-along at Calvary United Methodist Church in the Northside. This is the ninth year a full orchestra and community choir have performed Handel’s Messiah at Calvary, a Victorian-era cathedral featuring Tiffany stained glass windows. The event is so popular, they’ve added a second show for the past two years. The 9th Annual Handel’s Messiah Sing-Along takes place on Saturday, December 7 and Sunday, December 8. Both shows start at 4 p.m. http://calvarypgh.com/music/messiah-choir.php

 About to head into “I Made It! Market last weekend.
About to head into “I Made It! Market last weekend.

6.  Shop Local! There are so many opportunities to buy unique gifts from local shops and vendors this time of year. I visited the “I Made It! Market” in Bethel Park last weekend and got some great stuff. Additional “I Made It! Markets” are being held December 14th At The Block Northway and every weekend until January 4 at Lumaze in the strip. There’s also some great shopping downtown at Market Square’s alpine-themed Holiday Market. There’s something about shopping outdoors in the cold surrounded by Christmas lights and live holiday music that really makes me a seasonally jolly consumer.

 Lumaze in the Strip
Lumaze in the Strip

7.  Check out Lumaze Lights in the Strip. Along with the “I Made It! Market,” Lumaze Lights Pittsburgh features an immense indoor holiday light display, live music, food and beverages. 

https://www.lumazelights.com/pittsburgh-christmas/

 Randyland
Randyland

8. Take a trip to Randyland to see what Randy Wilson does to transform his always quirky, colorful property for the holidays. https://randy.land.com

 Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum
Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum

9. Take our grandsons to the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum in Gibsonia. This isn’t necessarily a holiday-themed activity. Rather than featuring Santa, elves, reindeer, and snowmen, the museum recreates the railroad that runs from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Cumberland, Maryland in minute detail. But, there is something about model trains themselves that just evoke the feeling of an old-fashioned holiday with an engine chugging around a Christmas tree. And the museum itself is only open annually for holiday showings on weekends from November 9 until January 12. https://wpmrm.org

 One of the homes on the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour
One of the homes on the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour

10. Go on a holiday house tour! There are a few options you can consider for a Victorian-themed house tour in the Pittsburgh area. We’re considering Hartwood Acres Mansion, which has multiple dates available for candlelight tours, the Old Allegheny Victorian Christmas House Tour, which takes place Friday, December 13 and Saturday, December 14, or the Clayton Mansion’s A Gilded Age Christmas tour with multiple dates available from November 21 until January 5. https://www.alleghenycounty.us/parks/hartwood/index.aspx

https://www.thefrickpittsburgh.org/tours


So that’s our list for 2019. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get to everything, but it will be fun trying! We’ll be posting about each place we visit on Instagram, so follow @steelcitysecondact (just click on the Instagram icon below) if you want to keep up with our progress:)

What are your favorite holiday things-to-do here in the Burgh? Shoot us a line in the comments section and let us know if we’re missing out on something!

Preserving Fall Leaves with Glycerin – the Good, the Bad, and the Crumbly


 These were the colors I hoped to preserve to be scattered across our Thanksgiving table.
These were the colors I hoped to preserve to be scattered across our Thanksgiving table.

Years ago, I read about preserving fall leaves in a book on Victorian pastimes. Although it intrigued me at the time, I never actually got around to trying it. The kids and I would sometimes collect leaves and press them between wax paper with a warm iron, but the results were far from elegant. Fast forward to this year when I decided real local autumn leaves would be the perfect accent for our Thanksgiving table.

I found directions (by googling, of course) on the Home Science Tools website. They suggested three ways to preserve leaves. One was my old method of ironing them between wax paper, but second-grade-science-project is not quite the look we are going for with our holiday centerpiece. Another method involved using the microwave one leaf at a time and stopping frequently to ensure nothing caught fire.  Umm, no thanks. The third method, and the one I tried, entailed soaking the leaves in a solution of one part glycerin and two parts water for 2-6 days.

First, the good news: I have enough leaves that, in my judgement anyway, are good enough to grace the center of our Thanksgiving table.  Also in the positive column, Rick and I had a good time walking around our neighborhood collecting the most colorful leaves we could find.

 The colors are a little more muted than I hoped, but I think they look pretty anyway.
The colors are a little more muted than I hoped, but I think they look pretty anyway.

Now for the not-so-good news: It was a pretty time-consuming project for the results we achieved. Only about half of the leaves were usable. The others either faded to a muddy color or somehow got crumbly at the edges (in spite of being submerged in the solution for three days.)

 Natural colors…
Natural colors…
 Vs. craft store silks.
Vs. craft store silks.

Would I try this craft again? I’m not sure. I do still have half a bottle of glycerin left (It was $14 and showed up at my door two days after I ordered it – thanks, Amazon:)  My lackluster results could be due to user error. Maybe I tried to treat too many leaves at once or maybe they needed to soak longer. Has anyone else ever tried preserving leaves in this way? Or do you have a better method? Please share your secrets in the comments section if you do!

Why You Should Eat at Apteka in Pittsburgh…Even If You’re Not Vegan!


 Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.
Apteka’s backyard garden is open from 5-10 p.m., weather permitting.

Apteka in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh has been on Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant list every year since its opening in 2016, and for good reason! It serves truly unique, lovingly crafted Eastern European food that just happens to be vegan. Plus, it’s really fun to say the name – Apteka, Apteka, Apteka – see what I mean? It’s also fun to try to pronounce the dishes on the menu, but probably safer to just point to what you want:)

Upon entering the restaurant, you place your order at the bar for both your meal and drinks, carry your drinks and a numbered placard to an open table, and then wait as the food is brought to the table. Since we never really know what we’re getting (we’re neither Eastern European nor vegan) we usually order a few items and share them.  That’s always worked out well for us. Many of the dishes feature pickled or fermented items, some things are a little spicy, and others are smoked. That was a real eye-opener for me. I had no idea it was even possible to smoke veggies, but it obviously is and the results are delicious!

I believe Apteka also gets recognition for their cocktail menu, which features house-infused tonics and alcohol, but Rick usually orders a Polish beer and I stick with wine. When I’m being adventurous with my food choices, I like to stay with a sure thing on my drink;)

Prices are very reasonable – small plates are $6 and $7, big plates (main courses) range from $10-$12, sandwiches $8 or $9, and Koktajle (cocktails:)) are all less than $10.

Apteka doesn’t take reservations unless you have a party of 6 or more, in which case you can email them to place your request. (I’m not even sure they have a phone.)  There is almost always a line to get in.  We’ve had our best luck coming mid-week or getting there unfashionably early – as in a few minutes before they open. And even then, there will be a line, albeit a small one. For more information about Apteka, a link to make a reservation, or to view the menu, visit: https://aptekapgh.com

8 Little-Known Things to do on a Visit to Denver!


 The view from Sapphire Ridge in Frisco, CO The view from Sapphire Ridge in Frisco, CO

Denver was the second stop on our “Follow the Pirates on the Road” tour and I have to say, we absolutely loved visiting the Mile High City! Unlike in California, where we blew off the Pirates vs. the Angels because of traffic, this time we actually went to the game! Most surprising of all, the Pirates won!

  1. Visit South Pearl Street. We discovered this gem of a neighborhood because it just happened to be the location of our AirBnB, but it is worth checking out even if you stay elsewhere. (Though you should absolutely stay at the AirBnB we rented if you have the chance. More on that later.) South Pearl is a mostly residential area with a few blocks of super nice boutiques, coffee shops, high-end consignment shops, an adorable independently-owned children’s bookstore, and restaurants. https://www.southpearlstreet.com

2. Eat at Sushi Den! https://www.sushiden.net (Another reason to visit South Pearl. It was just down the street from our rental.) I can hardly believe I’m writing this, but thanks to the marvelously skilled chefs at this establishment, I’ve grown to love sushi! Rick and I ate there twice (in a four day stay!), both times sitting at the sushi bar and watching the chefs create edible art with flown-in-daily fresh-from-all-over-the-world fish. Denver’s city magazine, 5280, named Sushi Den the reader’s choice best Japanese restaurant. I guess I’m going to have to see what restaurant Pittsburgh Magazine recommends here at home and stop picking up bland California Roll at Fresh Market:)

3. Walk around older neighborhoods and gawk at the beautiful Craftsman bungalows. Newer housing in Denver seems to lean heavily towards mixed-use residential/retail construction like some of the recent additions here in Pittsburgh (Bakery Square, Lawrenceville, and the Strip District come to mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say!) But the bungalows in the older established neighborhoods just pull at my heartstrings.

4. Go to a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater! Okay, so this is one we didn’t technically do. It seems the more places we go, the longer our bucket list gets! Because we have to get back here someday for a show. We walked around and admired this amazing venue, but we weren’t interested in seeing Josh Groban who was performing while we were in town. If only we’d been there on August 22 when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were there! We’ve been wanting to see them for two years! https://www.redrocksonline.com

5. Walk like a dinosaur! Or at least, walk where they walked! Dinosaur Ridge is on the way to Red Rocks Amphitheater and is one of the best places in the world to view dinosaur fossils in their original habitat. Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus (arguably some of the most recognizable dinos) were originally discovered here in 1877. Rick and I hiked around the two-mile site and it was really cool to see the evidence of these pre-historic creatures out in the open as opposed to in a museum. http://dinoridge.org

6. Take a hike! We drove to Frisco, CO for the day (about an hour’s drive) and hiked the North Tenmile Trail along a mountain stream. I’m not sure why it’s called the “Tenmile trail” because it’s actually 6.8 miles round-trip. Maybe it’s because with the altitude, you’ll feel like you hiked ten miles after you’ve walked ten minutes! And, I shouldn’t even admit to this because it’s such a rookie mistake, we forgot to take water with us. No matter. It was one of the prettiest hikes we’ve ever taken. We then drove up to Sapphire Point Overlook and walked around enjoying the dramatic views of the Dillon Reservoir and surrounding mountains.

7. Eat at Jovavina’s Broken Italian Restaurant. This was another recommendation from 5280, which recognized it as the best Italian restaurant in the area. It’s a charming space with lanterns hanging from the ceiling, drippy candelabras on the tables, and an Italian motorbike as the base of the reception table. The food’s what really counts though, and we got a great crispy thin-crust pizza along with two amazing roasted veggie sides. https://jovanina.com

8. Stay at South Pearl Alley AirBnB! This is, hands down, the nicest AirBnB we’ve ever rented! Everywhere you look, there’s another thoughtful detail. From the antique sewing machine base of the marble bathroom sink to the stylish Smeg refrigerator and toaster in the kitchen, every inch of this place is begging to be posted on Instagram! A comfortable bed, yummy snacks and beverages, convenient washer/dryer so you don’t have to overpack, adorable outdoor patio, and a seamless check-in system make this place a winner! If you search South Pearl Street on the AirBnB app, it’s the listing headed “Chill in the Bamboo Orb Seat.”

 Another perk of traveling is getting to catch up with out-of-town friends! Over dinner at Kona Grill (more sushi!) Rick and his buddy George Crunkleton reminisced about their glory days while his wife Versella and I definitely didn’t hear any stories we’d heard before. LOL. Another perk of traveling is getting to catch up with out-of-town friends! Over dinner at Kona Grill (more sushi!) Rick and his buddy George Crunkleton reminisced about their glory days while his wife Versella and I definitely didn’t hear any stories we’d heard before. LOL.

Following the Pirates to Southern California…or not

Following the Pirates to Southern California…or not

Earlier this summer, when the Pirates were just two and a half games out of first place in their division, Rick and I had the bright idea to go watch them play in a couple of cities we wanted to visit.  Then we sat down one night with our calendars and the laptop to book flights and find AirBnBs in Santa Monica, CA and Denver, CO.  If you follow the Pirates at all, you know that their competitive streak came to its inevitable end almost immediately.  But, what the heck, we have family in southern California and neither of us have ever been to Denver, so off we went.

Originally, we had non-stop flights to and from Los Angeles, but that turned into a layover in Phoenix on our way out and Chicago on the way home since the airlines had to remove all of the 727s from service.  Fine by me. I’d rather have a layover than fly on a faulty plane.

Once we arrived at LAX we picked up our rental car and ventured out onto the crazy busy highways.  Let me just say that if you have ever complained about traffic in Pittsburgh, fifteen minutes on Southern California’s eight-lane bumper-to-bumper roads will have you nostalgic for the Burgh’s hills, bridges and tunnel back ups.  

Our Santa Monica AirBnB was in a great location, just half a block to the beach and walking distance to shops and restaurants. It was a cute little place that included a kitchen stocked with snacks, a comfortable bed, fluffy towels and nice bath amenities. Unfortunately, there were some unwanted visitors on the roof.  Picture the movie Caddy Shack with squirrels instead of groundhogs and me as Bill Murray.  After the third night of them doing God-knows-what in the ceiling, our host kindly refunded our remaining two days rent and we finished the trip at a Hampton Inn.

Now, about that Pirates game.  We’d planned to watch them play the Angels in Anaheim, but we wanted to stay closer to the beach and our California family members.  Looking at the map before we left, it didn’t look so bad -just 42 miles from our AirBnB to the stadium. Then reality hit. The game was scheduled for 5:07 p.m., which would put us on the road at the peak of rush hour and turn the 42 mile drive into a two and a half hour nightmare.  With the Buccos hovering around the bottom of major league standings, we decided to skip it. (There’s a reason my fantasy football name is “Fair Weather Fan.”) 

So what did we do out in sunny California? As pictured above, Rick became an overnight beach volleyball pro. I’m still not sure how it all went down. He was supposed to be meeting me for a walk on the beach and called my cellphone to ask if I could wait until he finished a volleyball game. I walked back to find him and three 20-somethings in a death-match on the sand. Despite never having played beach volleyball, Rick and his partner Pascal (pictured above) managed to beat Trash-talking Ted (pictured with the ball) and his partner. (Unlike the Pirates, Rick is nothing if not competitive.)

We also had a wonderful time visiting with all of our beautiful west coast family (who we don’t get to see nearly often enough) and we visited the fabulous Getty Center, a $1.3 billion museum complex nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the city of Los Angeles.

 Getty Center
Getty Center

The Getty Center’s permanent collection includes pre-20th century European paintings, drawings, sculpture and decorative arts, as well as 19th and 20th century photographs, and contemporary and modern sculpture. Our favorites, of course, were the Impressionists. Especially, Van Gogh’s Irises and Monet’s Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light, pictured below.

As impressive as the art was, the setting and architecture of the museum itself rivals its contents.  Undulating walls of travertine stone soar above the hilltop and strategically placed balconies allow you to view for miles in every direction. Also from the balconies, you get a bird’s eye view of the Central Garden, a formal design of water features, over 500 plant varieties, and a floating maze of azaleas.  A thoughtful touch – the Getty Center provides umbrellas for strolling around the grounds, not for the threat of rain (It Never Rains in Southern California – there’s even a song about it:)), but to protect you from the ever-present sun.

 The Central Garden
The Central Garden

If you ever find yourself in LA with a few hours to fill, you should definitely check this place out.  The art is amazing, the setting is beautiful, the price is right – parking in the garage is $20, but museum entrance is free, there’s a pleasant little scenic tram ride from the parking garage up the hill to the museum, even lunch at the cafe was impressive.

For more information about the Getty Center, visit https://www.getty.edu/visit/center/

The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!

We checked yet another item off our summer bucket list! But this one comes with a caveat: If you want to be specific about things, I said we were going to stargaze at the Allegheny Observatory.  Turns out, that is not what you do at an observatory. In fact, our tour guide, (and the facility’s Electronics Specialist and sole full-time employee) Louis Coban, informed me that Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill might be one of the worst places to look at the stars due to light pollution (this is true of any city).

So enough about what we didn’t see! Here’s what we did see – planets! Jupiter and Saturn were in range on the night we visited and it was a pretty cool experience mounting the stairs to peer through the eye-piece and view another part of our solar system.  Of the two, I would have to say that Saturn was the most impressive since you could actually see the rings around it. Jupiter, on the other hand, looked like a giant full moon.

 The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park
The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park

We took the tour on a beautiful Thursday evening and we enjoyed walking around the peaceful grounds of the observatory beforehand.  The current building dates to 1912 and the names of influential astronomers are inscribed at the roofline. 

 These may be the reason the observatory still exists.
These may be the reason the observatory still exists.

The tour began with a short lecture about the history of the observatory. Here’s my favorite bit – the telescopes and astronomy may be the soul of the observatory, but if it weren’t for the shrewd business sense of Professor S.P. Langley back in 1867, the whole venture would have gone bankrupt. Using a small transit telescope, he was able to obtain accurate time by observing the position of the stars as they crossed the celestial median. Big deal, you might say, as you glance at the current (absolutely accurate) time on your iPhone or laptop. But back in the 19th century, the era of pocket watches, sundials, and grandfather clocks, the concept was a little more fluid.  Not a problem if it made you five minutes late for a tea party, but a big problem if you were a railroad executive scheduling trains. Langley devised a system to sell time to subscribers through the telegraph, industrialists of the age clamored for the service, and the Allegheny Observatory was made financially sound!

 The 30” Thaw Telescope
The 30” Thaw Telescope

After the lecture we toured the building, starting in the largest dome with the 30” Thaw telescope, the third largest refractor in the United States.  This massive telescope’s primary mission has been to study the distance to nearby stars.  It’s so large that the floor of the dome moves up and down with a pulley system in order to position it! 

 Rick peeks at Saturn
Rick peeks at Saturn

We next moved on to the smallest dome, which houses the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor.  Constructed in 1861, it was the primary telescope of the original Allegheny Observatory.  After Coban opened the dome and got first Jupiter and then Saturn in view, our group took turns climbing the narrow stairway to look at the planets.  

We ended the tour with a trip to the crypt. I’m not kidding.  In the basement of the observatory, a few of its most ardent supporters are spending eternity. Early observatory directors, John Brashear and James Keeler, along with their wives Phoebe and Cora and Keeler’s son Henry, are all laid to rest here. (If you’re a fan of Halloween creepiness, you might want to schedule your tour on the last week of October, which is also the last week that tours are available.)


Tours take place Thursday and Friday evenings from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 412-321-2400 between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The observatory also has an open house coming up on October 4 featuring an expanded tour of the building, additional tour guides and telescopes on the lawn.  For more information, visit https://www.pitt.edu/~aobsvtry/tours.html