My family and I are enjoying this holiday season, even if we are celebrating a little differently this year: our grandkids are visiting with Santa via Zoom, we’ll be doing Christmas Eve service remotely, and instead of scouring the stores for presents I’m ordering almost everything online. Since this Christmas will (like everything else in 2020) be unusual, we’re adding a few new activities like drive-through light displays and a socially-distanced neighborhood parade.
But as much as I concentrate on looking at the bright side – a cozy Christmas at home isn’t so terrible and the imminent coronavirus vaccine means life will get back to normal sooner or later – I realize that, for many, the past few months have done more than upset their social calendar.
I’ve shared a few photos of our holiday decorations on Instagram and then felt guilty at the thought that while I’m obsessing over the lights on my fireplace mantle, quite a few of my Pittsburgh neighbors are struggling to pay their rent or put food on the table. Rather than just feel badly, we’ve decided to donate to some charities here in the Steel City that are working to bring holiday cheer and a helping hand to people who have been severely impacted by the pandemic, especially those in the hospitality industry.
This year, we’re skipping the partridges and lords a leaping and doing Twelve Days of Christmas donations. Each day, we’re planning to donate to one of the organizations listed below and I’ll highlight them in my Instagram stories. Where possible, I’ll include a donation button so anyone who views it can easily help out as well. (It’s also possible to donate from this blog by clicking on the links below. All of the organizations have online donation options on their websites.) This would have a lot more impact if I had thousands of followers, but I’m hopeful that a “real” influencer might see it and do something similar.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to realize that there are only ten charities listed for the Twelve Days of Christmas. That’s because I came up with the theme before we researched the organizations and well, honestly, I can’t come up with another one I like as much. (The Ten Days of Winter Solstice? It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Rather than tack another two charities on the list, we’ve decided to stick with these ten because we feel confident that they will make the most difference here in Pittsburgh.
Starting Friday, December 11, we’ll highlight one charity per day for ten days on Instagram and then repeat Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid and the Pittsburgh Foodbank for days 11 and 12.
If you are aware of any other organizations that are making a difference this holiday season, please share them in the comments. Thank you!
(Also, for those of you who were expecting this blog post to be about chalk painting, that’s next. I promise!)
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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.
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.)
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.
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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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!
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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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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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!
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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
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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.
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.
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!
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!
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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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!
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.
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!
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.)
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
1 C all purpose flour
1/3 t salt
2 T sugar
4 oz unsalted butter, but into small pieces
3-4 T water
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
6 T sugar
6 T dark corn syrup
3/4 T butter, melted
1 t vanilla
pinch of salt
pinch of ground cinnamon
6 T pecan pieces or halves
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.
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.
Make the filling: Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Set aside.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.