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

Amazing Graze – The Fabulous Sustainable Pittsburgh Farm to Table Event…or why you should totally enter random Instagram contests!


Earlier this summer, I came across a promo on Instagram sponsored by Sustainable Pittsburgh (www.sustainablepittsburgh.org an organization that strives to improve economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality in our region). It sounded a little too good to be true: 1. Dine at one (or more) of 150 designated Sustainable Pittsburgh restaurants, 2. Post a photo to Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and include #GrazePGH, tag @SPRpgh and tag the restaurant, 3. Be entered to win a unique farm-to-table dinner experience prepared by four celebrity chefs.

What the heck. Rick and I frequent a lot of the restaurants on the list and how hard is it to snap a photo and post it? (Let’s not talk about the times we went out to eat and I forgot to do just that.) In any case, I remembered to post a handful of times and then I sort of forgot about it. Then last Friday, as I scrolled through Instagram, I noticed the little paper airplane on the banner had a number 3 on it. I’m still learning my way around Instagram so I wasn’t quite sure what it meant (please don’t judge me), but I clicked it and, lo and behold, three messages had been sitting out there – one from my daughter, one from a friend, and one from…drumroll…Sustainable Pittsburgh!

 Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!
Lots of screaming ensued! I’m so glad I discovered the Instagram message button before the deadline passed!

Monday evening, we drove to Churchview Farm at the appointed hour and joined the other promotion winners meandering up the twinkle-lit drive to the picturesque “farmette”. We were met at the top of the hill with a champagne and gin welcome cocktail by Events Coordinator Emeran Irby, who invited us to stroll around the grounds and explore Tara Rockacy’s third-generation sustainable family farm.

It was easy to become a part of the farm’s relaxed vibe – taking in the beautiful gardens and scenic outbuildings on the property while sipping our cocktails and listening to live music by local band, The Beagle Brothers. We mingled with the other guests until Tara and Rebecca Bykoski, the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program manager, introduced the chefs and welcomed us all to the table.

 Beautiful scenery in every direction.
Beautiful scenery in every direction.
 Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.
Bill Fuller of big Burrito describes one of the dishes he prepared.

As promised, celebrity chefs abounded! Jessica Lewis of Spirits and Tales www.spiritsandtales.com, Neil Blazin of Driftwood Oven www.driftwoodoven.com, Elsa Santos of Azorean Cafe www.azoreancafe.com, and Bill Fuller of big Burrito www.bigburrito.com worked all evening creating the amazing seven (!!!) course dinner that we enjoyed with wine, cider, or beer pairings selected to complement each. I’m going to post the full menu here rather than rambling on about each dish, but believe me, it was a meal like none other I’ve ever experienced. I imagine you might have gotten a similar meal on maybe the Titanic, but this one came without the terrifying iceburg incident after the dessert course.

 Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)
Chefs hard at work in the outdoor kitchen. (Yes, I know. My photography skills need a little work.)
 The Beagle Brothers
The Beagle Brothers

The Beagle Brothers entertained all night with their “Bloomfield Sound,” which they describe as a blend of honky tonk and classic country with an accelerated high-energy performance. It was the perfect accompaniment to the evening.


If you would like to experience an evening like this for yourself, there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news – you don’t need to win a contest to make it happen! Now, the bad news – the rest of this summer’s Farm Dinners, Pop Up Dinners, and Happy Hours are sold out. Tickets for the 2020 series of Farm Dinners go on sale on Thanksgiving Weekend and Happy Hour events become available in March 2020. To be on the safe side, you may want to add your name to their mailing list so you can be notified as soon as they are available. I believe they sell out quickly.

Also, there are still tickets available for Festa Della Porchetta on Saturday, August 17, 2019. This is one of the farm’s newer events and celebrates all things pork and porchetta.

For more information about Churchview Farms and the unique dinners and activities they offer, please visit: www.churchviewfarmpgh.com.

 I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.
I just have to end with this: Is this not the prettiest outhouse you’ve ever seen? It was adorable on the inside as well, clean and odor-free thanks to the amazing magic of the composting toilet.

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Step Up Your Culinary Game with Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh

Tired of cooking and eating the same old things every week? Or are your cooking skills such that you opt to eat out and let someone else do the cooking? Maybe it’s time to schedule a class at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in Pittsburgh’s Southside neighborhood!

My son, Jordan, and I recently took a class in Cajun Soul Cooking and had a fantastic time while learning some new cooking techniques. We then recreated a few of the dishes at home for the whole family!

 Our team for the evening!
Our team for the evening!

Class started at 6 p.m. with 12 people milling around, but our instructor, Josh (a baker at Oakmont Bakery, previously a chef at Altius), quickly organized us into two teams of six. I had my doubts that we would finish in the allotted four hours of class after Josh handed out our menu and recipes for the night. Each team would be making a six-course dinner consisting of Chicken & Sausage File Gumbo, New Orleans Stuffed Mushrooms, Shrimp Étouffée, Cajun Blackened Fish, Smothered Okra, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie!

Our team divided the dishes and got to work chopping, weighing, and measuring.  Josh helped each team debone their chicken and then circled the room offering tips. I worked on the pastry for the pie, Jordan chopped veggies and started the roux for the étouffée. With 12 people crisscrossing the room looking for ingredients and cooking equipment, it looked like a very busy ant hill. 

 Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée
Jordan attends to the Shrimp Étouffée

I learned to use a food scale (The pastry called for 4 ounces of butter, which had to be taken from a two pound block. No cutting through the stick using the guidelines on the wax paper.) and I also learned that even when you don’t have exactly what the recipe calls for, things usually work out fine. The industrial-sized bottle of vanilla extract was empty by the time I needed it for the pie filling and I expected the pie to be bland, but it was delicious!

 Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations
Josh, pictured right, oversees final dinner preparations

By some miracle, every dish was cooked and ready to eat by 8:30 (I want Josh to come to my house next Thanksgiving and keep things moving on time:)). At that point, everyone worked together to convert the counter-height work stations to a long dining table and we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  


The next weekend, Jordan and I made the Shrimp Étouffée, Stuffed Mushrooms, and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. Daughter-in-law Silvan made Southern Collard greens and Cajun Rice and Rick rounded out the meal with The Barefoot Contessa’s Tuscan Chicken on the grill. Also our next door neighbors joined us and brought an appetizer of homemade gazpacho! OMG! I’m making myself hungry just writing about this meal. Is it dinnertime yet? (Checks watch.)

Do any of you have experience with other cooking classes in the Burgh? Please leave us a note in the comments section! We’re always looking for new places to try and foods to sample. I’d love to find a foolproof technique for baking bread. Or maybe we’d even attempt croissants or pain au chocolate! (Who am I kidding? For French pastry, I’m just going to head over to La Gourmandine.)

For more information about Gaynor’s School of Cooking, visit http://gaynorsschoolofcooking.com.  

 Shrimp Étouffée
Shrimp Étouffée
 Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
Putting the Sweet Potato Pecan Pie in the oven. Using a cookie sheet prevents spillover messes in the oven.
 Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.
Our at-home recreation of the Gaynor’s Cajun meal.

Below is the recipe for Sweet Potato Pecan Pie.  IMHO, it’s better than either pastry on its own.  The sweet potato tones down the sweetness of the pecan pie filling and the pecan pie elevates the sweet potato filling. This is definitely going to join the rotation of Thanksgiving desserts at our house (even if Josh won’t be there to run the clock.)

 Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

Pie Dough

1 C all purpose flour

1/3 t salt

2 T sugar

4 oz unsalted butter, but into small pieces

3-4 T water

Filling 

1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, baked (enough to yield 1 C cooked pulp)

2 T light brown sugar

1 T sugar

1 lightly beaten egg with 1/2 t heavy cream

1/2 T butter, softened

1 1/2 t vanilla

1/8 t salt

1/8 t allspice

1/8 t ground nutmeg

Syrup

6 T sugar

6 T dark corn syrup

1 egg

3/4 T butter, melted

1 t vanilla

pinch of salt

pinch of ground cinnamon

6 T pecan pieces or halves

  1. Make the dough: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 1-2 times. Add the butter pieces and pulse 4-5 times or until the butter is the size of lima beans. Add the water a little at a time and pulse just to incorporate. The dough should just hold together when squeezed in the palm of your hand. Do not process to a ball. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and “frisage” or blend it together with your hands, then form a flat disk, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

  2. Once the dough has rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it our to approx. 1/4 inch thick disk large enough to line a 7-8” quiche pan. Line the pan and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

  3. Make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Set aside.

  4. To make the syrup: Combine all ingredients, except pecans, in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat a slow speed until the syrup is opaque. Stir in the pecans.

  5. To assemble: Spoon the sweet potato filling into the dough, smooth out, then pour on the pecan syrup. Bake in a 325 oven for about 1 and 3/4 hours or until a knife inserted into the pie comes out clean. Serve with whipped cream.

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park
 Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

We checked another item off the summer bucket list! Allegheny County’s free summer concert series is just awesome! We went to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes Friday night at South Park Amphitheater and it could not have been better: Perfect weather, great company (we took a little crew of friends and family with us), Jersey-style rock and roll, and a lovely venue!

We’ve been to Hartwood Acres in prior years – also a great time – but I have to say, I liked the “ambience” at South Park Amphitheater a bit more. Also, for those with mobility issues, the handicapped parking at South Park is super convenient – maybe fifty yards from a good space on the lawn and adjacent the food trucks. (Random side note – when you google South Park your first results will probably be the Trey Parker/Matt Stone cartoon series, which you may or may not enjoy;))

We got to the park at 6 p.m. (we were planning to get there at 5:30, but those of you who know us know we never get anywhere promptly <insert eye-roll emoji>.)  We still had plenty of time to find good parking spaces and set up our picnic blankets and soccer chairs. (The kids are grown and long out of soccer, but the chairs are still going strong!)

 Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.
Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.

We packed our own food, wine and beer so we didn’t partake in the evening’s food truck offerings, but they looked delicious and the lines never seemed overly long. Food trucks and craft beer from Hop Farm Brewing are available starting at 6 p.m. at all of the Allegheny County summer concerts in both South Park and Hartwood Acres. 

 Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.
Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.

Although no warm up act was scheduled, Bill Deasy from the local Pittsburgh band, The Gathering Field, started the evening at 7:30 with an acoustic guitar and some easy-to-listen-to music of his own.  Deasy happens to work for Allegheny County in some capacity (sorry, I wasn’t listening that closely) so he also acted as MC for the evening. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes took the stage around 8 and got the crowd rocking. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the band, the sound is similar to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – and for good reason: Southside’s biggest hits (among them “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “The Fever,” and “Talk to Me”) were written by or in collaboration with Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt. Also, at various times in the band’s 40-plus year history, Van Zandt has been a member and Springsteen and other members of the E Street Band have performed with them. And Jon Bon Jovi has toured with them and points to Southside as a strong influence on his music. Lots of good Jersey sound there, folks:)

Feel free to bring your furry friends…and your knitting. Both South Park and Hartwood Acres boast a very chill vibe and pretty much anything goes. Allegheny County’s concert website lists just three prohibited items: charcoal grills, fire lanterns, and drones.

Bottom line – Allegheny County’s Summer Concert Series is an amazing asset for Pittsburgh residents and one you should definitely check out. There are five remaining Friday night concerts at South Park this summer, and another five Sunday night concerts at Hartwood Acres. For more information about upcoming shows (including the food trucks scheduled for each show) visit:  https://www.alleghenycounty.us/special-events/summer-concert-series.aspx.

Van Gogh in Bloom – The Hottest Show in Town!

Van Gogh in Bloom – The Hottest Show in Town!

Last week, I met a friend at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to check out their summer show, Van Gogh in Bloom. (One of our Summer Bucket List items.) After we both enjoyed delicious and healthy lunches of salad with salmon in the cafe (named one of the nation’s top museum restaurants by Food & Wine magazine), we took in the show. The creative team at Phipps did a a beautiful job of interpreting the artist’s work. 

Starting in the lobby with Vincent’s self-portrait in a framed garden wall and continuing throughout the facility with room-filling interpretations, the show achieves its goal of bringing Van Gogh’s work to life. I highly recommend you check it out. I also highly recommend you choose a day when the temperature is not hovering around 90. Phipps’ lobby, gift shop, and cafe are air conditioned, but the rest of the rooms are designed to keep the plants happy! Let’s just say we got a little bit wilted at Van Gogh in Bloom.

Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat starts the show in the lobby.  I love how the garden wall mimics the style of impressionist painting with plants standing in for palette knife daubs of paint.  Further back, the form of the “painting” is clear, while close up you notice the individual plants.

 Wheat Fields with Cypresses
Wheat Fields with Cypresses

This scene in the Serpentine Room might be my favorite. The painting is Wheat Fields with Cypresses and I love the way the gardeners covered the far wall with plants that look like the distant hills.

 The Starry Night
The Starry Night

The Starry Night is another home run.  Hanging orbs of flowers stand in for the stars and the moon and swaths of white flowers on the far wall appear to be the swirling clouds of the painting.

 House at Auvers
House at Auvers

House at Auvers fills the South Conservatory and allows you to imagine that you are walking about the property Van Gogh captured in his painting.

You can visit these little fellows in the Butterfly Forest. 

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens are open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Fridays) and Van Gogh in Bloom continues through October 6. If you visit with children, be sure to ask for the free activity book, “On the Go with Van Gogh,” which will keep little ones entertained with a scavenger hunt through the displays. Tickets are $17.95 for adults, $16.95 for students and seniors, and $11.95 for children ages 2-18.  For more information, visit phippsconservatory.org

Five Reasons Why We Love Wholey’s!

Five Reasons Why We Love Wholey’s!

Wholey’s has been selling fish in Pittsburgh’s Strip District since 1912, so you know they’ve been doing something right. Here are the top five reasons we love coming to the Strip to shop here:

  1. Cheerful and knowledgeable employees. Wholey’s is a family-owned business and I get the feeling that they treat their employees like family. From the friendly woman serving lobster bisque samples, to the guy who inexplicably bagged a pound of shrimp to the ounce in one scoop, to Sam Wholey himself handing out freshly squeezed orange juice samples, everyone seems determined to make sure you have a good experience shopping there.

  2. Free parking while you shop. If you’ve ever been to the Strip District, you know what a perk this is. Wholey’s lot is directly across the street and you don’t need to wait long for a space to open up.

  3. The widest variety of fresh seafood in the area: gulf shrimp and imported shrimp in multiple sizes, walleye, Spanish mackerel, bronzini, ocean perch, red snapper, king crab, rainbow trout, striped bass, fresh and cooked whole lobster…actually too many to list. And some are still swimming!

  4. It’s not just fish! Wholey’s is a full-service market with fresh produce, meats and poultry, and a great selection of gourmet foods all at reasonable prices.

  5. Free ice! Just beyond the checkout counter is a huge ice cart where you can scoop ice into a bag to keep your fish from getting too fishy:) Planning to do more shopping at the Strip before heading home? Put a cooler in your car to keep everything chilled until you leave.

Five Things on Our Summer Bucket List!

Five Things on Our Summer Bucket List!
 Nooooooooo!
Nooooooooo!

Is it just me, or does it seem like summer is nearly over once the Fourth of July is past? Maybe it’s all of the stores pushing back-to-school supplies and Halloween items? Forget it, retailers! Rick and I refuse to let this summer get away from us! Here are our five must do Pittsburgh activities for the Summer of 2019.

1. Visit Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Phipps seems like summer year-round with its gorgeous Victorian arched conservatory filled with flowers and greenery, but this summer it features a show we do not want to miss – Van Gogh in Bloom. I’ve loved Van Gogh and his fellow impressionists ever since my parents pulled me out of school for the day to visit a temporary Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now, some of those paintings have been brought to life by Phipps talented botanical creative team. The overall effect is intended to give visitors the impression (see what I did there;) of walking through the scenes the artist painted. Phipps is open from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. daily and until 10 p.m. Fridays. For more information, visit https://phippsconservatory.org/vangogh.com

 The Allegheny Observatory
The Allegheny Observatory

2. Stargaze at the Allegheny Observatory.  From April until October, the University of Pittsburgh’s Observatory offers free walking tours of the building ending at the 13” Fitz-Clark refractor. On clear nights you can take a peek at whatever celestial objects are in range of the telescope.  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.  We will probably save this activity for early August when the Perseid meteor shower occurs.

3. Enjoy live music at Narcisi Winery.  Narcisi Winery in Gibsonia is just outside of town, but you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Tuscany when you step onto their patio shaded by grape arbors.  We visited a couple of years ago to celebrate my birthday on the patio and I’ve wanted to go back ever since to picnic and listen to live music on their adjacent outdoor stage.  The free shows take place every Saturday from 2 – 5 p.m. until mid-October. Visit http://narcisiwinery.com for more information.

4. Spend a Sunday morning relaxing with classical music in Mellon Park.  Sunday mornings from June 16 until August 11, WQED presents Bach, Beethoven, and Brunch from 10:30 a.m. until 12:00 p.m. Coffee Tree Roasters sells food and beverages on site, or you can bring your own picnic. Visit https://www.wqed.org/fm/brunch for more information.

 Bill Toms and Hard Rain a few years back in Hartwood Acres.
Bill Toms and Hard Rain a few years back in Hartwood Acres.

5. Attend at least one free outdoor concert at Hartwood Acres or South Park Amphitheater. The Allegheny County Summer Concert Series features some seriously eclectic musical variety. This summer’s line up includes acts from symphony to rock, funk to country, opera, blues, jazz, and reggae Check out the schedule here: https://www.alleghenycounty.us/special-events/summer-concert-series.aspx. Food trucks and Hop Farm Brewing Company craft beer are at all concerts.

That’s our summer to-do list as it stands right now. What else should we be checking out? I’ve got to admit, this Jersey girl is seriously missing the beach right about now. Please hit the comments section with any and all suggestions that will bring a summertime feel to the land-locked Burgh:)

Making Peach Jam – With Peaches Fresh Off The Peach Truck!

Making Peach Jam – With Peaches Fresh Off The Peach Truck!
 Too many peaches for the fruit bowl!
Too many peaches for the fruit bowl!

Are you familiar with The Peach Truck? Neither was I until Rick showed up with a 25-pound box of peaches after going to the hardware store for a garden hose. The Peach Truck Tour travels through Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and Florida, stopping at select locations (usually hardware stores and garden centers) to sell half-bushel cases of fresh Georgia peaches. The truck stops at each location for just two hours, and then they are off to the next stop.

Why not just get peaches at the grocery store, you say? (Or I might have said, to Rick, as I looked at the massive amount of fruit on the kitchen counter.) One juice-dribbling-down-the-chin bite later, I doubted no more. These peaches are amazing!! After we shared some of the bounty with our kids, both our son and son-in-law raved that they were the best peaches they’d ever eaten.

After doing our own little peach tour to our kid’s homes, we still had 15 pounds of fruit left to make jam and a pie!

 A dozen jars of fresh peach jam. Bring on the toast!
A dozen jars of fresh peach jam. Bring on the toast!

We found a recipe and canning tips on YouTube (thanks Cog Hill Farm!) and got down to work.

Fresh Peach Jam (Recipe courtesy of “Saving the Season” by Kevin West: http://amzn.to/2wdzAQP

5 pounds ripe peaches

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 1/2 cups sugar

  1. To peel the peaches, slash a shallow X in the end of each fruit. Working with a few at a time, blanch the peaches for 60 to 90 seconds in boiling water. Lift the peaches out of the water using a slotted spoon and set them in a bowl of ice water to cool. Remove the skins and pits from the peaches. Chop peaches and combine with the lemon juice and sugar. Leave to macerate for 30 minutes.

  2. Turn the fruit mixture into a large heavy bottomed pot and bring to a full boil. Reduce over high heat to the gel point, 8-10 minutes, at a full rolling boil, while stirring constantly. If the jam is too chunky for your liking, turn off the heat and stir with a whisk to break down the chunks. Ladle the hot jam into six prepared half-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Seal the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

 Scoring the peaches
Scoring the peaches
 Blanching…
Blanching…
 Ice water bath
Ice water bath

 Add sugar and lemon juice.
Add sugar and lemon juice.
 Boil while stirring until your arm falls off.
Boil while stirring until your arm falls off.
 Ladle hot jam into clean pre-warmed canning jars. (We placed our jars in a warm oven for 5 minutes.) Using a funnel makes the process less messy. Place lids and rings on jars and hand tighten before placing them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Ladle hot jam into clean pre-warmed canning jars. (We placed our jars in a warm oven for 5 minutes.) Using a funnel makes the process less messy. Place lids and rings on jars and hand tighten before placing them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
 Make sure your jars are covered by an inch of boiling water. After boiling for 10 minutes, remove to drain and cool. Don’t be alarmed by the popping sounds the lids make as they cool. That means they are properly sealed. All of the lids should be indented when sealed and there should be no movement when you press down on them. If any of your jars don’t seal, just refrigerate the contents and use them first.
Make sure your jars are covered by an inch of boiling water. After boiling for 10 minutes, remove to drain and cool. Don’t be alarmed by the popping sounds the lids make as they cool. That means they are properly sealed. All of the lids should be indented when sealed and there should be no movement when you press down on them. If any of your jars don’t seal, just refrigerate the contents and use them first.

I think I’m supposed to add a disclaimer here stating the fact that I am not a professional canner or chef, so don’t rely on this recipe or my instructions alone to safely make preserves. For the latest guidelines on canning and processing, visit http://nchfp.uga.edu/ .

Interested in getting your own bushel of the Peach Truck’s peaches? They’ll be rolling back into the Pittsburgh area on Sunday, July 21 with stops at Ambridge Do It Best, Rural King in Washington, Hampton Do It Best in Allison Park, Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse in McDonald, Tractor Supply Co. in Natrona Heights, and Rollier’s Hardware in Mt. Lebanon. For more information, visit https://thepeachtruck.com/pages/tour.

OpenStreetsPGH in the Strip District

OpenStreetsPGH in the Strip District

We were headed to the Strip District early this afternoon to visit Wholey’s Fish Market for some jumbo shrimp and swordfish- this perfect weather makes grilling dinner on the deck almost mandatory – when we stumbled upon our first Open Streets event. I follow @bikepgh on Instagram, so I was vaguely familiar with the concept, but wow! what a fun time! Penn Ave. and a number of the side streets were closed to traffic and hundreds of people were riding bikes, walking, walking dogs, and just hanging out socializing throughout the Strip. We had to park the car over by the Cork Factory, but it was a quick walk and super entertaining. We encountered a drum line next to Mon Aimee Chocolat, a bluegrass quartet further down Penn and and guy playing an accordion outside of Wholey’s! With our shrimp and swordfish in hand, we weren’t able to check out the entire route, which extended 4 miles from downtown to Lawrenceville, but we will plan ahead in the future.

The next Open Streets event is scheduled to take place Sunday, July 28 and will encompass a four-mile route through Downtown, Uptown, and Southside. I think we may have to load our bikes on the SUV and make a day of it! Visit https://openstreetspgh.org for more information.

 Volunteers were blocking bike traffic, not automobiles!
Volunteers were blocking bike traffic, not automobiles!

In addition to Wholey’s, some of our favorite Strip District establishments are Pennsylvania Macaroni Company (or, as it is affectionately referred to in our household and many others, PennMac), Peppi’s Old Tyme Sandwich Shoppe (where we once ran into a young couple who had come to town for a Steeler’s game and were filling a cooler with Roethlis”burgers” to take home to Kentucky), and In the Kitchen, where you can find every imaginable culinary gadget. I could spend hours in this store.

Since we still have some smoked cheddar and imported brie from our last visit, we bypassed PennMac this time. And since we had the aforementioned shrimp and fish in hand, we skipped In the Kitchen.

 Street-side musicians
Street-side musicians
 More music!
More music!
 Penn Mac!
Penn Mac!