Gretchen McKay

She’s happy to be vegan, and thinks you will be, too

Crispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Sharon Gregory’s home in Pine Township. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Sharon Gregory had what she considered a pretty good diet when she set off into the world after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in math education. Plenty of fruits and vegetables. Moderate amounts of protein. Always easy on the sweet treats.

Even when she was constantly traveling the world, first as a sales service technician for Whirlpool and later as a Lean Six Sigma trainer and consultant with the company she started in 2001, she ate as healthily as possible.

But then in January 2014 she had a routine mammogram that detected an abnormal lump. It was malignant. Four rounds of chemotherapy and 32 days of radiation followed, during which time the 44-year-old Butler County native did some serious soul searching about what might have caused her cancer.

“Have you ever considered your diet?” a friend asked one day, recommending she pick up a copy of  “Crazy Sexy Diet.” Written by cancer survivor and wellness warrior Kris Carr, it champions a “healing lifestyle” focused around a plant-based diet.

When she read the NYT bestseller, “my eyes were opened,” says Ms. Gregory, who lives with her husband, Dave, in Pine. “I was horrified.”

She was particularly upset by the fact that only five to 10 percent of cancers can be attributed to genetic defects; the rest, experts say, may be linked to the environment, drinking, diet and lack of exercise. On the spot, she decided to change her lifestyle.

Everything that wasn’t plant-based immediately got tossed from the fridge.  “Are you going vegan?” asked her husband, even though he knew the answer “and just basically stayed out of my way,” she says.

By June that year, she was so immersed in the vegan lifestyle that she started a second business in the Shaler office building she’d bought in 2007 and transformed into an event/training center. It’s called The Happy Vegan, and its goal is to make plant-based eating and lifestyle choices more accessible, simple and sustainable. It offers coaching along with cooking classes and other events.

Before going vegan and gluten-free, Ms. Gregory had never prepared a meal with tofu and couldn’t tell quinoa from birdseed. Yet her background in education and love of data analysis, she says, made it easy for her to dive into a lifestyle that’s not exactly intuitive. “I read every author,” she says, and spent hours retooling and refining recipes that would have included animal protein.

She also took the Certified Holistic Health Coaching course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a plant-based online culinary school.

Giving up animal products, she says, was easy enough, even if her husband chose to  remain a (mostly) happy carnivore. But her beloved cheese? “I had a mental and physical addiction,” she says laughing. To this day, she misses eating it even more than she misses good Italian bread or a crusty baguette.

While mozzarella- and Cheddar-style vegan cheeses aren’t difficult to find in better grocery stores, she kept striking out with creamy, dairy-free cheese spreads for dipping and slathering. Frustrated, she decided to create her own by mixing ground raw almonds, nutritional yeast, peppers, lemon juice, onions and sea salt in a Vitamix. It was an immediate hit.

“Every time she’d make it, we hit the bottom of the chip bag every time,” says Mr. Gregory. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

She started taking the dip to friends’ house and parties. Before long, people were asking to buy it, prompting her to install a home kitchen. But it wasn’t until Noreen Campbell of McGinnis Sisters tasted a spoonful and declared it great that she realized there was a larger market for the cheesy spread she dubbed Notcho Nocheez.

“She asked me, ‘Is it shelf stable? If so, I can put it on store shelves,’” recalls Ms. Gregory, who immediately began researching co-packers.

With the help of Stello Foods, a specialty food manufacturer in Punxsutawney, the first commercially prepared batch rolled onto store shelves in January 2016. It’s now sold next to the salsa in about 80 storesacross the mid-Atlantic region, including Naturally Soergel’sShenot’s Farm and Market, Shop ’n Save, Pennsylvania Macaroni and Whole Foods. It comes in three flavors (Classic, Hot and Tangy) and costs $9.99 for a 12-ounce jar.  You also can buy it online at

Sales are strong enough that she’s now working to make the spread available in to-go packets to be used as a condiment or snack. She’d love to see it for sale in airports, where it’s exceedingly difficult for gluten-free and vegan travelers to buy something to eat on the go. She’s also pondering a spinach-artichoke dip.

Ms. Gregory concedes going vegan is challenging and takes planning. “But it’s doable. You just have to think it through,” she says.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionCrispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crispy Peanut Tofu With Zucchini & Carrot Noodles

PG tested

The secret to crispy tofu is making sure you squeeze out the water and pat it dry after cutting it. 

1 package extra-firm tofu

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

¼ cup organic peanut butter

3 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon organic coconut or brown sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 to 3 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 zucchini, spiralized or cut into matchsticks

2 carrots, spiralized or cut  into thin strips by using your peeler

Juice from ½ lime; the other ½ cut into wedges

2  tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Open and drain tofu and press it gently between a few layers of paper towels between 2 pans or cutting boards (something solid) to help remove excess moisture. If you have time, continue adding pressure over about 30 minutes to get the tofu as dry as possible. Once drained, cut the tofu into ¾ – 1 inch cubes.

In a small mixing bowl, add garlic, ginger, peanut butter, Bragg’s, coconut sugar, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce and water.

In large non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil. Once hot, add the cubed tofu and cook until crispy in places, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add ½ of the peanut sauce and cook until the tofu is sticky and browned in places, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer the crispy peanut tofu to a plate.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the zucchini and carrots. Add the remaining peanut sauce and gently toss. Reduce heat to medium and cook until noodles are heated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the lime juice from half lime, and season with salt if needed.

Divide the veggie noodles between 2 bowls and top with the crispy peanut tofu. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and coconut flakes.

Serve with extra chili-garlic sauce (if desired), and garnish with lime wedges.

Serves 2.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township garnishes her vegan version of an almond joy bars with mint leaves and strawberries(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Almond Joy Mini Bars

These taste just like the Almond Joy bars of old. 

For the filling

1½ cups dried unsweetened coconut

2 tablespoons coconut oil

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

For the coating

⅓ cup melted cacao butter

⅓ cup raw cacao powder

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Pinch sea salt

⅛ cup of sliced almonds

In a food processor fitted with the “S” blade, process all filling ingredients until well mixed and uniform. The filling will be a little wet, but it should stick together well.

Shape the filling into 12 mini rectangles if you want bars, or roll into 1-inch balls (easier). Place them on a parchment lined shallow casserole or baking pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a double boiler, melt the cacao butter over medium high heat. It won’t take long for the cacao butter to melt (less than 5 minutes).

When the cacao butter is melted, whisk in the cacao powder, maple syrup and sea salt. Don’t overcook! When the chocolate is mixed together and of a smooth consistency, remove from heat.

Allow coating to cool slightly, then take each mini bar and dip it into the coating and quickly place it back on the parchment paper. Return them to the fridge for 10 minutes, or until one coating has set. Repeat the process, so that each bar/ball has a double coat.

Press a few slivered almonds on top of each mini bar/ball after the second coating of chocolate. Return them to the fridge for another 10 minutes (or more), to let them set. Any leftovers can be put in an air tight container and kept in the refrigerator for several days (or the freezer).

Makes 12 bars.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township as she describes her vegan, crab-less cakes, made with hearts of palm, garbanzo beans, Cajun seasoning, celery, jalapeno and lime juice.(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crabless Cajun Cakes

Garbanzo beans and hearts of palm replace crab in these vegan cakes.

For cakes

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno, seeds and membranes removed, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning or spice

½ cup gluten-free panko breadcrumbs, divided

1 (15-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and chopped, divided

¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For aioli and slaw

2 to 3 cloves of garlic, depending on taste, minced

1 cup Veganaisse mayo

¼ green apple, cut into thin matchsticks

4 large kale leaves, stems removed, and chopped into bite-size pieces

1 beet, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

1 carrot, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, add the drained garbanzo geans, jalapeno, celery, 1 teaspoon lime juice, hemp seeds, Cajun seasoning, and ¼ cup of the panko breadcrumbs. Pulse about 10 times. Don’t make it mush! It should be chunky.

Add ½ can of drained/​chopped hearts of palm, sea salt, and pepper. Pulse about 3 times to incorporate into the cake mixture.

Form the cake mixture into 6 to 8 patties, place on a plate, and put in the fridge.

Make the lime aioli in a small bowl by adding the minced garlic, 2 teaspoons of the lime juice (add more to taste), Veganaise, and a pinch of salt. Stir. Add more lime juice if needed.

Make the “slaw” in a large bowl. Add the remaining chopped hearts of palm, apple, kale, beets, 1 tablespoon lime aioli, remaining lime juice, and a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Toss the salad to evenly coat.

Sprinkle the remaining panko crumbs over the cake patties. Carefully turn them over and coat the other side (press the breadcrumbs lightly onto the cakes so that it sticks on).

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Once hot (a couple of minutes), add the cake patties and cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cakes to a paper towel-lined plate.

Put the slaw portions desired on a plate and top with the crabless cakes. Serve with lime aioli for dipping. Garnish with additional chopped lime, if desired.

Leftovers will keep overnight in an airtight container in the fridge for about 3 to 4 days.

Serves 2 to 3.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Finding God, and community, in a loaf of Easter bread

Slava Martyn never could have imagined that one day he’d find God, in Homestead, by baking bread.

With a pastry brush dipped in egg wash, he leans over the pan of uncooked dough in front of him. With the delicate yet precise hand of an artist, he paints the loaf’s bumpy surface until the entire top is slick and sticky with egg. Satisfied, he reaches for the next of the 20 or so pans lined up on the table.

It’s methodical work, making the rich and eggy Easter bread known as paska for St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church in Homestead, and he does it without talking. But you can tell it suits the Russian-born Dr. Martyn. He gets plenty of practice paying attention to small details in his day job as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Just around the corner in the church’s brightly lit kitchen, laughter rings out. They’re a happy bunch, this small posse of women gathered around a stainless steel table with their Bulgarian priest, wearing the same pink hairnets as Dr. Martyn. They trade stories and laugh as Helen Sucevic dips her hand into a large container of dough. Grabbing a handful, the 69-year-old places the mixture on a kitchen scale and when satisfied it’s the perfect size, tosses the small ball onto the middle of the table. Another woman picks it up, rolls it into a skinny log, then slides it down the table to Dr. Martyn’s wife, Valentina.

In just a few seconds, she braids the log like a little girl’s hair into a thick, doughy plait, tucks the ends under, and then plops it into  a metal baking pan. Another plait goes on top.  After Dr. Martyn works his magic with the egg wash, he transfers the loaves into a revolving pizza oven to cook, 25 at a time.

As the bread bakes,  the egg wash will also, creating the Easter bread’s distinctive glossy sheen and deep chestnut color. 

Dr. Martyn, 52,  didn’t grow up religious. He didn’t even go to church until he, his wife and their baby son immigrated to Pittsburgh from Ukraine in 1996 through the green card lottery.  In the 1970s and 80s, the Russian Orthodox Church was severely repressed both in Siberia, where he grew up, and St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine.  While he believed in God, he wasn’t allowed to show it.

Then they settled in Greenfield. And Dr. Martyn’s mother, who’d immigrated with them, decided they needed to go to church. A friend told them about St. Gregory’s. The great influx of Slavic immigrants who came to work in the steel mills that once lined the riverbanks of the Monongahela saved their pennies to convert a Protestant church  below the train tracks into an Orthodox structure in 1913. They scrimped again when the new Homestead Mills claimed their land, and they had to build a new church up the hill on East 15th Street.  Something about the tiny parish just felt … right.

Within three years, Mrs. Martyn was singing in the choir. She says,  “God brings you to him.”

The couple joined the church’s paska-making crew a few years ago. They like how the word-of-mouth bread sales raise much-needed dollars for the church’s coffers, and upholds a cultural and religious tradition.

You have to give something back to God, and help a church survive, Dr. Martyn says.  “Tradition will disappear if you don’t support it.”

The pair had ready teachers in old-timers like Mrs. Sucevic of Baldwin Borough.  She’s been a member her entire life and has been paska-making the week before Easter longer than she can remember. She learned from her mother and namesake bubba, who immigrated in 1918 from the former Czechoslovakia to Colver, a small mining town in Cambria County.

She recalls how St. Gregory’s started its paska fundraiser 30 years ago with a member’s 100-year-old recipe, to complement the church’s annual nut horn cookie and nut bread sales at Christmas. Then the ladies got older, and making paska went by the wayside.

They’d start it up again about 10 years ago, when parishioners decided they weren’t raising enough money with their holiday bake sale.  They now sell about 150 loaves in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Recipes can vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker.  Back in Ukraine, says Mrs. Martyn,  the bread is made with ricotta. But some ingredients are the golden standard: lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. It’s a treat after the Lenten fast.

The bread itself is not terribly difficult to make. But it does take time. The dough has to raise before it can be divided into balls, and raise again after the logs have been braided into loaves. Then the loaves have to be constantly basted with butter as they go round and round in the rotating oven. It takes about four hours to complete the process.

The three parts of the braid symbolize the Holy Trinity, and there’s symbolism in the bread’s color, too, says Father Evgeni Peykov, who became priest last fall. The white interior represents the Holy Spirit, and raisins symbolize the blood of Christ and the wine taken during Holy Communion.

Many of the parishioners who buy the bread will bring it in a basket with other traditional foods to the church on Holy Saturday. That’s when Father Peykov celebrates Osvyashcheniye, or the traditional blessing of the meal to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

When your life is drastically upended, like theirs was when they left Ukraine for the promise of the U.S., it’s easy to feel cut off and alone, says Mr. Martyn. The church opened up their doors to them, and made them feel like they belonged.

In making paska, and keeping the Russian Orthodox traditions alive, he says, they’ve found a way to give back.

Chinese New Year: Soul food is filled with comfort and symbolism

Stir-fried rice cakes/Gretchen McKay

Food has been central to Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou’s life almost since the day she was born, and it’s not just because her parents ran a Chinese restaurant while she was growing up in Columbia, Mo.

Gathering around a table with family to savor a simple stir-fry or plate of chicken-stuffed wontons ( which she first learned to fold at age 8) was the glue that kept everybody together, she says, as well as a way to pass on important family traditions.

“It’s just woven into our culture,” she says.

As a newspaper food writer and editor and later a food blogger who’s been featured on national radio and TV shows, she introduced many of the comforting recipes she ate as a child to an audience hungry for authentic Chinese food, and sometimes a little scared to tread into foreign waters.

Yet as she writes in her new cookbook, “Chinese Soul Food” (Sasquatch Books; $24.95) that hit store shelves last month, any kitchen can be a Chinese kitchen. Because at its heart, Chinese home cooking is all about being resourceful and adaptable. Many dishes, in fact, start not with a recipe but a quick survey of what ingredients one has on hand and what flavors one wants to emphasize.Chinese food can be daunting for many home chefs, Ms. Chou says, because so many ingredients and cooking methods are unfamiliar to American sensibilities.  This can be especially frustrating on Chinese New Year, which is on Feb. 16, which you might want to celebrate with one of the “lucky” foods served during the 15-day festival.

For beginners, that can prove vexing. Which is why when she set out to write her cookbook two years ago, she decided to walk her readers through each step of the process, from ingredients to equipment to techniques, in a super-friendly way. She takes the same approach in the cooking classes she offers at Hot Stove Society, an avocational school in Seattle.

On Chinese New Year, the focus is on foods with auspicious qualities: extra-long noodles  and rice cakes for longevity, whole fish for family unity, dumplings for wealth, softball-sized pork meatballs braised with heads of Chinese cabbage to symbolize power, strength and family reunion.

Growing up, Ms. Chou’s New Year meal always was shared with her surrogate family — her parents’ restaurant staff, many of whom were students from China or Taiwan. The food was simple, but there was plenty of it. It was a delicious reminder of home.

Now that she’s married with two children, her Seattle home is the gathering place for the celebration, with her mother, Ellen, presiding over the table. There’s a giant feast with a variety of dishes, and red envelopes filled with money for the many nieces, nephews and grandkids.

It’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all wrapped into one. “It’s a really great meal, and delicious, and takes a lot of work,” she says, “but I love having all those dishes you wouldn’t normally make for one meal or only cook on occasion.” One favorite is a stir-fry made with sliced sticky rice cake, chicken and Chinese broccoli

Ms. Chou’s intention in writing “Chinese Soul Food,” she says, was to bridge the gap between what many Americans know as Chinese food and the traditional dishes you would actually enjoy in China. If you don’t own a wok, for example, that shouldn’t be a barrier to making a simple stir fry. A saute pan will work almost as well.

At a time when cultural appropriation is part of a national discussion about food, you may wonder if it’s appropriate to celebrate Chinese New Year if you’re not Chinese. Ms. Chou says yes.

“The more we can understand another culture, the more empathetic we can be,” she says.

Gretchen McKay:, 412026301419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Stir-Fried Rice Cake

PG tested

This dish is one of the many comforting recipes Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou ate growing up. “Serving rice cake for Chinese New Year is symbolic because the words for “sticky” and “year” are homophones,” she writes in “Chinese Soul Food,” her cookbook that grew out her blog of the same name. “Serving rice cake represents a wish for many happy new years to come.”

You can find Shaoxing wine, Chinese broccoli and rice cakes (in the refrigerated aisle) at Asian markets. 

6 ounces chicken breast, cut into 1½-inch-long slivers (about ¾ cup)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce, divided

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

3 cups chopped Chinese broccoli leaves, with a few thinly sliced stems mixed in

2 cups water

2 cups sliced rice cake

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry Marsula wine

¼ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

½ teaspoon sesame oil

In small bowl, combine chicken and 1 teaspoon soy sauce and mix well. Add cornstarch and mix well again.

Preheat wok over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from surface. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat for 5 seconds. Spread chicken in thin layer in wok. Sear slivers for about 30 seconds, then stir-fry chicken for about 1 minute until cooked through. Remove wok from heat, transfer chicken to a small bowl and set aside. Rinse the wok and dry with towel.

Return wok to stove over high heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil and heat for 5 seconds. Add broccoli and stir-fry for about 1 minute.

Add water and rice cake, and stir to combine. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for about 2 minutes, or until rice cake becomes reconstituted and has softened.

Add hoisin, remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce, and the wine, and stir-fry to combine. If it looks soupy, increase heat to high to reduce sauce, but keep stir-frying so that rice cake doesn’t stick to the bottom of wok. Add pepper and sesame oil, and give it one last stir before removing the wok from heat.

Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

— “Chinese Soul Food: A Friendly Guide for Homemade Dumplings, Stir-Fries, Soups, and More” by Hsiao-Ching Chou (Sasquatch Books; January 2018; $24.95)

Fueling a football team, the Steelers way

Fans line up for hours to see their favorite players at the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

During the Steelers’ summer training camp, the Community Center Dining Hall at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is the stuff big eaters dream of.

Indecisive souls feeling ravenously hungry could go crazy mulling its many menu choices, which features a cornucopia of lean meats and fish, garden-fresh vegetables, orb after orb of plump seasonal fruit. There also are five Oster blenders waiting to whirl fruit, peanut butter and protein power into liquid meals at a DIY smoothie bar. On the opposite corner of the room, a wood-burning pizza oven pumps out a cheesy 16-inch pie every 10 minutes. The dough is made fresh each morning in the kitchen, and most days there are at least three varieties to choose from.

There’s even a cookie table that would bring a Pittsburgh bride to tears with its tempting display. Last week, it included platters of peanut blossoms, Oreo cookies, chocolate-peanut butter gobs, gingersnaps and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small saucers.

Not that the players attending the 52nd annual camp, which continues through Aug. 18, indulge in those guilty pleasures.

Food is fuel, after all, and a football player’s body is his temple. As such, it’s all about clean eating for today’s training camp attendees, who are better educated than ever before about the cause and effect of diet and nutrition.

So the cookies, notes executive chef Daniel Keeley, who oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall operated by Parkhurst Dining Services, are really there for the coaches and ball boys.

A daily menu outside the cafeteria at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

“The players walk over and say, ‘Ooh,’ and then walk away,”  he says.

That said, a certain long-time veteran was spied licking a vanilla ice cream cone after lunch as he sped away from the cafeteria on the back of a golf cart.

A few years ago, Parkhurst added signs on the buffet tables that spell out the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories included in each dish. Players not only took note but also took it to heart.

“It’s extremely important to put the right fuel in your body,” says veteran linebacker Arthur Moats as he waited outside the locker room for a golf cart to ferry him to lunch. “What you put in is going to dictate what you get out over there,” pointing his thumb toward the practice field.

Mr. Moats, 29, sticks to what he calls the “healthy stuff” — salads, fruits and broiled or baked fish. “And I’m big on hydration,” he says. “You gotta have your waters and Gatorades, especially this time of year when you’re sweating so much and getting banged every day.”

On a day when it is a sweltering 92 degrees on the Westmoreland County campus, he also quaffs Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes and avoid dehydration.

Alejandro Villanueva adheres to a similar diet. “I hate to be this boring, but I eat a lot of fruit, carbs, chocolate milk for fast protein … and a lot of water.” That translates to at least four glasses at each meal. He also piles his plate high with his favorite vegetable — raw spinach. Lunch might include a couple of grilled chicken breasts; dinner is usually some type of fish, plus more chocolate milk. Also, he has bagels as a snack for quick energy.

At 6 feet 9 inches and 320 pounds, the 28-year-old offensive tackle and former Army Ranger can certainly pack it away. While diets and conditioning goals vary among players — some are trying to gain weight and strength after the off-season while others are attempting to lose it to keep light on their feet — NFL players typically consume between 4,000 to 10,000+ calories per day, or about twice as many  (and sometimes more) as the average sedentary adult’s requirement of 1,800 to 2,400 daily calories. For breakfast, for example, Mr. Villanueva eats not just fruit and oatmeal but also a three-egg omelet.

“If I feel hungry, I eat,” he says.

Players, especially the rookies, get guidance from team nutritionist Matt Darnell. But even with that expert advice, fueling their bodies properly can be just as much of a task as memorizing the playbook.

“You have to think about everything that goes into your body because at the end of the day, my body is what helps me perform,” Mr. Moats says. “So I have to treat it with extreme care.”

Linebacker L.J. Fort typically starts the day with an omelet stuffed with sausage, ham, peppers and mushrooms. A sushi lover, he’s especially fond of the salmon and other broiled fishes. But sometimes the best eat also is the simplest.

He gets his carbs up before practice with every elementary school kid’s favorite comfort food: the humble PB&J.

“I just want healthful foods,” he says.

Mr. Villaneuva says it gets a little harder to maintain weight as the season unfolds, which is why he considers himself lucky that his wife,  Madelyn, is such a great cook. Spaghetti carbonara is one of her specialties, and he also eats a lot of red sauce and tuna steak, along with the occasional Fat Heads IPA if he’s out with friends. “It’s pretty balanced,” he says.

The same could be said of the training camp menu as a whole, which Mr. Keeley and executive sous chef Brian Cable start planning in May, soon after graduation. Even though they’re responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, they take great care to keep it as interesting as it is nutritious by offering a rotating menu. For instance, potatoes are always a given but sometimes they’re sweet and shredded, other times they’re Idaho and diced. That way, players don’t get bored over the three weeks of camp.

The chefs typically build their menu off what’s proved popular at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. But it’s never completely set in stone. Offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests.

Some food items haven’t changed much in the 10 years Mr. Keeley has cooked for the players, such as the burger bar at lunch (with every imaginable topping and a choice of four proteins) and the massive salad bar that anchors the room. But the entrees have generally gotten more “clean.” with a focus on whole foods and quality ingredients. Today’s camp includes lots of whole grains and deep-dark greens such as kale and chard, and the kitchen no longer cooks food in butter. “If we use any fat, it’s extra-virgin olive oil in minimal amounts,” Mr. Keeley said.

Fried food also is a thing of the past, and meat choices now include bison and turkey along with beef and chicken. Fish is broiled, or ground into patties. There’s also a push to use as many local and organic products as possible from producers such as Rivendale Farms in Robinson, which provides maple syrup and honey to sweeten oatmeal and yogurt.

Mr. Keeley estimates the Steelers will go through 40 cases of 24-count Buffalo burgers alone during camp. And that’s just for lunch. Every night for dinner, the kitchen staff cooks some 150 pounds of beef tenderloin or hanger or flank steaks for the team on giant charcoal grills outside the cafeteria.

“They don’t go hungry,” Mr. Cable says.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Pasta Parmesan With Tomatoes

PG tested

This is quick, easy, totally delicious and has 287 calories per 4-ounce serving. 

1 pound penne

1/4 cup margarine or butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Chopped fresh basil for serving, optional

Red pepper flakes for serving, optional

Cook pasta in 4-quart saucepan according to package directions. Drain, and return to large bowl.

Melt margarine or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes burst and release their juices to form a sauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. Spoon into serving dish. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired, and garnish with basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Serves 4.

— Executive chef Daniel Keeley, Saint Vincent College

Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza most of his adult life. And not just your average slice, but the lightly charred Neapolitan-style pies crafted from a slow-rising dough and baked in a 950-degree brick oven at his Il Pizzaiolo restaurants.

It started when he was about 19 and visiting friends in New York. College wasn’t a great fit for the Whitehall native. But pizza? That was something a young man of Italian heritage could put his heart and soul into.

During that sojourn, he put the city’s reputation for great pizza to the test by eating as many imaginable styles of pizza as possible. When he hit Patsy’s Pizza in Brooklyn, something clicked.

He’d read about the shop’s signature thin-crust pizza months before in an in-flight magazine but had forgotten about it. But with one bite of Patsy’s classic pizza margherita, he discovered his destiny.

Made the Italian way in a coal-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sprigs of basil, it was nothing short of heaven. Mr. Molinaro just knew he had to bring the concept back to Pittsburgh.

Over the next several years, he read everything he could find on pizza and pizza-making, and also he picked the brains of expert pizza makers from across the country. In 1994, he and his father, Ron Sr., built a brick oven in his parents’ backyard in Whitehall. There, next to the swimming pool, he practiced, pie after crispy pie. 

It would be two years before he felt he was good enough to open Il Pizzaiolo (translates to pizza maker in Italian) in Mt. Lebanon in  September 1996.  It’d be a family affair, with his dad becoming the manager after he retired from the postal service in 1997.

In a city accustomed to the thicker crust Pittsburgh-style pies served at Mineo’s, Aiello’s and Fiori’s, there were plenty of naysayers. But Mr. Molinaro knew he was setting a new bar with the neo-Neapolitan pies he made with high-quality ingredients imported from Italy. Plus, he had optimism of youth: He was just 25 when Il Pizzaiolo opened with its giant brick oven crafted in Delaware.

“I never thought for one second I’d fail,” says Mr. Molinaro, now 46.

He wouldn’t really hit his stride until six months later, after a  trip to Naples, Italy. “It changed my focus to  true Neapolitan pizza,” he says. That’s also when he added his signature pastas to the menu, drawing inspiration from foods his grandmother, mother and aunts made when he was growing up. His mother, Mazie, made the desserts.

From the get go, he says, there were lines out the door. It’s only grown in popularity, with Mr. Molinaro opening three more locations over the decades, along with the “fast-casual” Pizzuvio off Market Square.

“The quality and authenticity speaks for itself,” he says.

Easy to shape because the flour used to make it has less gluten, a Neapolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot — about 90 seconds in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven. But it’s the toppings, says Mr. Molinaro, that truly make the pies special. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday, and he uses canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s famed San Marzano region. The dry faella pasta, artisanally produced in a town just south of Naples, also is imported, and basil arrives still on the stem, ready to be picked.

Gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, conversely, are made every day in house by hand.

The key, he says, is simplicity. “You have to let the ingredients do their thing.”

He’s also a stickler to authenticity. In 2006, he knocked down the original brick oven in Mt. Lebanon so two guys from Naples could build him a new one over the course of a week. And he’s never stopped trying to make his pizzas and pastas better.

“I’m still perfecting it,” he says, sometimes working with his 10-year-old son, Roman, by his side. “I go to sleep reading ragu recipes, and wake up thinking about pizza. It’s not a casual thing. I eat, sleep and breathe it.”

A519 Chocolate turns into a sweet career

Some of the hand-crafted chocolates created by Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

With dual degrees in neuroscience and psychology, Amanda Wright possesses both a knack for problem-solving and the patience of a saint. Two skills that served her well as a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet, ever since she was little, the soul of an artist burned inside.

When she decided in 2012, to put her science career on a back burner to study baking and pastry arts at one of the country’s premier culinary schools, no one was surprised. Least of all herself.

While the 28-year-old loved her job at Pitt, and the fact that it complemented her husband’s doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “I had that slight dread of not doing exactly what I wanted to do to be happy,” she says.

So back to West Coast the couple went, where during her first semester at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the San Diego native figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: to create one-of-a-kind confectionery from chocolate. Serving as an assistant to CIA instructor and Team USA member Stephen Durfee at the 2013 La Coupe de Monde de la Patisserie competition in Lyon, France, only cemented that goal — and not just because the aromas that come with the job of chocolatier are so intoxicating.

“It’s one medium, but you can be creative and express yourself in so many ways,” she says of the intricate process of turning high-quality chocolate into delectable treats like truffles and hand-dipped candies.

Flash forward to April 2015. With stints as a pastry cook and sous chef and creative director at an artisan chocolate shop in tony Yountville in the Napa Valley under her toque, Ms. Wright and her husband, Andy Rape, boomeranged back to Pittsburgh to open A519 Chocolate in Greenfield.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Talk about a well-laid plan: The business launched just four days after the couple arrived in Lawrenceville. And her hand-painted chocolates were such that they quickly found fans not just at local farmers markets and boutique shops but also with clients such as Stage AE, Carnegie Mellon, Hotel Monaco and Coterie, a co-working space for women in the Frick Building.

Ms. Wright concedes the move was risky. But at the same time, the couple felt certain there was a growing market for hand-crafted artisan chocolates, even at the princely sum of $30 for a 16-piece box. At least there would be once people saw what bold, gorgeous works of art her truffles were and came to understand the precision, care and artistry that goes into making them.

What’s it take to create her edible treasures? Ms. Wright this month started offering private truffle-making courses at A519’s expanded year-old kitchen in Millvale. The interactive class — which starts with a tasting — costs $85 and takes about 2½ hours, during which attendees try their hand at everything from tempering chocolate on a marble slab (it’s harder than it looks) and creating chocolate shells to painting an acrylic mold with colored cocoa butter. Guests also learn how chocolate is made, from the growth of the cacao bean to its harvest, processing and preparation. The price includes a six-piece box of truffles.

Ms. Wright describes her work as “magical,” but it’s really a fragrant labor of love. She starts early each morning at 6 and often toils late into the night in her 68-degree, 400-square-foot industrial kitchen. Quality is key; each piece starts with milk or dark chocolate from Valrhona, a premier French chocolate maker, and most of the fillings, infusions and flavorings are sourced locally —  cream from Penn Hills’ Turner Dairy Farms, coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, nuts and other dry goods from Pennsylvania Macaroni.

While the holidays are the busiest, every season is chocolate season. Ms. Wright hand-crafts thousands of truffles each week. It’s as taxing as it sounds, but make no mistake, she never gets tired of it.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate fills molds with chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

“Every day I get to go back to my childhood,” she says, recalling how when her teenaged self was grumpy, her father got her to chill out by slipping her a Dove chocolate heart.

She also loves the fact she still gets to use the left side of her brain. Truffle-making involves so many rules and incredible precision, and there’s also a science to creating a killer ganache or soft caramel. Also she gets to put the cooking techniques she learned in culinary school to good use, such as when she makes pralines or nougat from scratch for fillings.

Her colorful, abstract designs, she says, are usually the result of a conversation with her husband, who is in charge of marketing and packaging. But sometimes she just has fun and lets go with the splatters and swirls. She also can customize the chocolates with a client’s desired colors or logo, using an innovative three-dimensional printing process.

The most popular truffle is her signature black-and-gold salted caramel, crafted with gray salt, but there’s always 10 rotating flavors to choose from. Depending on the season, the chocolates might be filled with fresh strawberries, pumpkin or apple cinnamon caramel, or a gourmet take on s’mores; two new spring flavors are mandarin honeysuckle (dark chocolate infused with fresh mandarin and honeysuckle tea) and bananas foster (blond Dulcey chocolate with bananas and Maggie’s Farm Rum). For Valentine’s Day, the shop will feature a special line of single-origin dark chocolates, including Illanka (Peru), Manjari  (Madagascar), Nyangbo  (Ghana) and Alpaco (Ecuador).

While the idea of opening a stand-alone store is perpetually on the table, the couple has no concrete plans to make that move just yet; they’re  too busy keeping pace with current demand. For the immediate future, it’s just about creating a product she’s proud of, and having fun.

“I’m following my heart and allowing myself to express my creativity,” she says.

To sign up for one of A519’s truffle-making classes. go to or  call 412-475-9519.

Raise your spirits this winter with toasty cocktails

Nothing may be more pleasurable at day’s end than a well-crafted cocktail. The clink of ice on glass, the magical mix of sweet, sour and alcoholic — it’s a great way to unwind and be merry, especially during the holiday season.

But who says a great drink has to be cold?

This time of year, when Jack Frost nips at more than just your toes, warm cocktails just might be the thing to heat you back up from the inside.

But don’t just take this mulled cider lover’s word for it; take it from a professional.

“When you come in from the cold chill you get here in Pittsburgh, there’s nothing better than a hot toddy, Irish coffee or mulled wine,” says bartender extraordinaire Sean Enright of the South Side’s Tiki Lounge and the after-hours Carrick Literary and Social Association in Carrick.

Warm mugs of boozy coffee or citrus-spiced wine are not just the stuff of a ski vacation. They can be had during staycations, too. You don’t have to be a mixologist to create a winning winter cocktail or haul out any special equipment. In fact, some of the best winter sippers can be done in three steps: pour, stir, enjoy.

While warm-weather cocktails are often thirst quenchers (a good margarita goes down way too fast and easy), winter cocktails are meant to be lingered over, savored. Mr. Enright likes to warm the body and soul during cold snaps with concoctions that feature richer, darker spirits — think whiskey, rum, brandy and cognac — and the dessert-style spices — cinnamon, cloves, allspice and ginger.

“They go hand in hand with the other things you’re eating,” he says.

One of his favorite winter cocktail is Irish coffee — spiked with Jameson’s. He’s also a huge fan of the hot toddy, a simple drink of a brown liquor such as brandy, whiskey or rum mixed with honey, lemon juice and boiling water, and, when the mood strikes, also a tea bag. (See, we told you this wasn’t brain surgery.)

“It couldn’t be easier, and you can mix it however you want,” he says.

At Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion, bartenders use another seasonal drink — a mug of hot apple cider — as a base for the signature Moonshine Cider. A shot of caramel moonshine from Tall Pines Distillery in nearby Salisbury, Somerset County, gives the hot cocktail its adult kick.

Former Pittsburgher-turned-New York cookbook author and “Today” show contributor Casey Barber suggests cocoa spiked with bourbon and hazelnut-flavored liqueur if you want something hot, sweet and chocolatey.

“I love hot chocolate so much that I can down a whole mug in four big glugs, so I need something that makes me drink it more slowly and enjoy it,” she says. Enter bourbon, “which makes everything better, and turns it into more of a sipping drink.” The marshmallow on top is completely optional, but definitely makes it more of a luxury.

For larger gatherings, where making many individual drinks could be a drag, nothing beats a large pot of red wine mulled with a few ounces of cognac, slices of citrus, cinnamon sticks and dash of peppercorn. It’s easy, relatively inexpensive and ladles up a dose of antioxidants.

While you want a winter cocktail to warm you up on the inside, you don’t want the drink’s heat to beat you over the head or burn your lips. So think “really, really warm” instead of “scalding hot.” Mr. Enright, whose book “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition,” with co-author Cody McDevitt, arriving on store shelves in March, also suggests reaching for the good stuff when making individual cocktails.

“The cheaper the alcohol, the less impressive it will be,” he says.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

O’Halloran’s Blarney Buster

PG tested

This cocktail was the first-place winner of the Jameson Irish Cocktail Contest held in Monroeville in March 1983, the whiskey maker’s first event in the Pittsburgh market. It’s a boozier version of the warm drink made famous in the winter of 1943 by Limerick chef Joe Sheridan.

Preheat the mug by pouring scalding hot water into it to prep it, then pour it out.

1½ ounces Jameson Irish Whiskey

1/2 ounce Bailey’s Irish Cream

1/2 ounce Kahlua

1/2 ounce Grand Marnier

Hot coffee

Whipped cream and creme de menthe, for garnish

“Build” the drink by pouring the whiskey, Irish cream, Kahlua and Grand Marnier directly into the pre-warmed mug. Give a quick a stir to integrate flavors and add black coffee to fill. Top with whipped cream and color with a little bit of green crème de menthe.

— “Pittsburgh Drinks: A History of Cocktails, Nightlife & Bartending Tradition” by Cody McDevitt and Sean Enright (The History Press; March 20, 2017: $21.99)

The Spotted Pig’s Mulled Wine

PG tested

This classic mulled wine from New York’s Spotted Pig is a spicy, citrusy way to warm up your loved ones. Avoid boiling the mixture – not only will it burn off the alcohol but also can alter the flavor.

4 bottles of red wine

1 orange, sliced into wheels

1/2 lemon, sliced into wheels

4 cinnamon sticks

4 bay leaves

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

3/4 teaspoon whole allspice berries

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 cups superfine sugar

3 ounces cognac

Combine wine, orange and lemon wheels, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, vanilla bean pod and seeds, peppercorns, allspice, red pepper flakes and sugar in a large pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cognac. Ladle into warmed punch cups. Garnish with orange wheels.

Serves 12 to 14.

— “Cocktails for the Holidays: Festive Drinks to Celebrate the Season” by editors of Imbibe Magazine (Chronicle, September 2014)

Seven Springs Moonshine Cider

PG tested

This spicy cocktail is a signature apres-ski drink at Seven Springs Mountain Resort. It features Tall Pines Distillery Caramel Moonshine from Tall Pines Distillery in Salisbury, Somerset County. 

Cinnamon sugar (1/2 cup sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons cinnamon)

1 ounce moonshine

Hot apple cider

Cinnamon stick, for garnish

Rim a glass mug with cinnamon sugar. Add 1 ounce moonshine. Fill mug with hot apple cider, then stir ingredients with a cinnamon stick. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 drink.

— Seven Springs

Hot Metal Toddy

PG tested

Warm and toasty, a hot toddy requires just a handful of ingredients: a base liquor, honey, lemon, and tea or boiling water. Revel + Roost’s version features rum and brandy sweetened with allspice honey syrup.  

1½ ounces spiced rum

1/4 ounce apricot brandy

1/4 ounce allspice honey syrup (recipe follows)

Hot water

Lemon zest for garnish

Into a footed mug, pour rum, brandy and allspice honey syrup. Top off with hot water, and garnish with a lemon zest.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Revel + Roost, Downtown

Allspice Honey Syrup

1 cup water

1 cup honey

1 ounce fresh allspice berries, ground

Combine honey and water in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Add allspice and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for another 10 minutes. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth into a clean glass jar. Cover and keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Spiced Hazelnut Bourbon Hot Chocolate

PG tested

This grown-up hot chocolate from “Pierogi Love” author and former Pittsburgher Casey Barber is spiked with hazelnut liqueur and bourbon. Perfect for warming up after sledding, skating or shoveling the sidewalk.

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional for garnish if desired

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

4 cups (1 quart) whole or reduced-fat milk

3 tablespoons bourbon

1/4 cup hazelnut liqueur, such as Frangelico

Whipped cream and marshmallows (optional)

Whisk sugar, cocoa powder, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and cloves together in a small saucepan set over medium heat.

Pour in 1/4 cup milk and whisk until a paste forms, then slowly whisk in the remaining milk. As soon as the milk comes to a simmer, remove from the heat and whisk in the bourbon and hazelnut liqueur.

Pour the hot chocolate into 4 12- to 16-ounce mugs. Top with whipped cream or marshmallows and sprinkle with cocoa powder, if desired. Drink immediately.

Makes 4 large or 8 small servings.

— Casey Barber, Good.Food.Stories

The scoop on vegetable ice cream

Roasted Beet Ice Cream/Gretchen McKay

Ice cream is a sweet treat that is easy to fall in love with, and it tastes all the more heavenly in summer, when hot days and humid nights beg for something cool on the tongue. And if you churn it yourself, that’s really something to scream about. You don’t even need fancy ingredients — just eggs, cream, milk and sugar and whatever flavorings and mix-ins you might have a yen for.

Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry are the favorites, and cool treats made with other flavorings and fruits also are common. What’s more unusual are vegetable ice creams. At last month’s Picklesburgh bonanza on the Rachel Carson Bridge, Pittsburgh Ice Cream Co. scooped up dill pickle-flavored ice cream made from milk from Family Farm Creameries along with a cream cheese ice cream studded with capers and (gulp!) salmon.

We know — they are for the adventurous. But owner Nathan Holmes is pretty sure you’d love his roasted beet ice cream, and he’s right. Extra creamy with the addition of goat cheese and yogurt, the jewel-toned dessert tastes so fresh and healthful — just the right amount of sweet balanced with the exact amount of earthy. And the color is gorgeous.

Vegetables as a flavor base for ice cream might seem strange to some, “but we’re trying to use what’s in season, and people before us have done stranger things,” says Mr. Holmes, who has been churning his specialty ice creams and sorbets since 2014. He offers Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams as an example. The artisan ice-cream company based in Columbus, Ohio, lists sweet corn and fennel among its flavors.

There’s also Haagen-Dazs, which in 2014 introduced its Spoon Veg lines of vegetable ice cream in Japan with a Tomato Cherry flavor (a combination of cherry juice and tomato paste) and Carrot Orange (a blend of concentrated carrot juice, orange juice concentrate, orange pulp, and orange peel).

Locally, Katie Heldstab, co-founder of Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches, is another artisan ice cream maker pushing the envelope with flavor. Several of the hand-crafted creations by Ms. Heldstab and her wife, Christa Puskarich, are enhanced with balsamic vinegar or alcohol, and while the majority feature whatever fresh fruits they can get their hands on, the couple also have embraced the garden veggie.

Rhubarb is a favorite, and last year they made a cucumber ice cream for The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co.’s summer garden party. It proved such a hit that a couple who attended asked to have it at their wedding. They’ve also had success with ube, a purple tuber that’s a popular ice cream flavor in the Philippines.

“We like to try new things as much as we can, and are open to experimentation,” Ms. Heldstab says, “If one of us gets a good idea, we roll with it and riff off of each other. We see where tradition leads us.”

Not that they’re weird for weird’s sake: Ingredients must work well with cream and have flavors that meld together. “You have to figure out what makes it its best self,” she adds.

Ms. Heldstab’s cucumber recipe was inspired by her love for cucumber water. “The fresh flavor from a cuke is the best, so I thought, why not cold-seep it in cream,” she says. She adds a little vodka to keep it from freezing super-hard in the freezer.

With local produce now arriving in spades, you, too, might want to explore vegetable ice cream. But first:

Homemade ice cream is not a whim dessert. Both the liquid base and freezer container have to be extremely cold for the best results (chill at least four hours for the base, 24 hours for the container). It’s also key to start with the freshest ingredients.

Ms. Heldstab likes to begin with fresh pasteurized milk and fresh eggs for the best flavor, and regardless of whether she adds fruits or vegetables, she thinks carefully about water content. Water freezes into ice, so you want to get rid of as much of it as possible, she explains, either by cooking the fruit or veggie down on the stove or oven-roasting it. Otherwise, “it will freeze into a rock,” she says.

Mr. Holmes stresses the necessity of having a good blender or immersion mixer for a smooth and velvety base. Also, because home machines have a limited cooling ability, make sure any add-ins are completely cool, and wait until the very end to fold them in so that they don’t stick to the bottom and get evenly distributed.

If you’re using a custard base, be careful not to overcook it or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. On the flip side, avoid overmixing the ice cream.Fresh out of the churning step, ice cream has a Dairy Queen consistency; it needs several hours in the freezer to harden into something that scoops well but still is creamy.

Ms. Heldstab likes to add a shot of vodka to the base to make it softer and easier to scoop (alcohol doesn’t freeze), but be careful not to go overboard, or you’ll end up with a gloppy mess.

Lastly, once your ice cream is spun, quickly get it out of the bowl and into a freezer-safe container to keep it from turning crunchy. Never freeze it in the container — it could end up damaging it when it sticks to the sides. Plus, you need it clean and properly chilled for the next time.

To serve, always let your ice cream sit on the counter for a few minutes to soften. Not only will that save you from bent spoons, but it’ll be kinder on the taste buds. The colder the ice cream, the less sweet it tastes.

If you don’t have an ice cream maker, or it malfunctions half-way through churning like mine, don’t fret. Make it the low-tech way using two zip-top bags. Place the chilled base in a quart-size bag, add four cups of ice and ½ cup of salt to a gallon-size bag, place the base bag inside and shake, shake, shake. You’ll need oven mitts or a dish towel to keep your hands from freezing, but it works. Ice cream!

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Sweet Corn and Thyme Ice Cream

Sweet Corn and Thyme Ice Cream/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This tastes like a cold, creamier version of creamed corn (no chunks), and the pale yellow color screams “summer.” 

4 ears of corn, shucked

2 cups milk

3 sprigs thyme, plus few leaves for churning

2 tablespoons heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

9 egg yolks

Cut corn from cob and then combine the corn (including the cobs) in a pot with the milk, thyme and cream. Bring to a simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Remove it from the heat and let it steep for 1 to 2 hours. Then, remove the cobs and thyme; discard them.

Blend corn and milk in a blender well until smooth. Then, return the corn cream to the sauce pot and bring to a simmer again over medium heat.

Whisk sugar and yolks together in a large bowl (vigorously), until light and fluffy. Then, slowly add hot milk mixture to eggs, whisking constantly. Once all of the milk has been beaten into the eggs, pour the contents of the bowl back into same sauce pan and return it to medium heat; cook until slightly thickened, stirring constantly. (The corn and egg mixture should be slightly thicker than maple syrup).

Strain ice cream base through a fine mesh strainer and chill overnight.

Freeze/churn the ice cream base in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturers directions. Fold in a few thyme leaves toward the end of churning cycle and then place the ice cream in the freezer until you’re ready to use it.

—  Root ‘n Bone, New York City, via

Cool Cucumber Ice Cream

Cucumber Ice Cream/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Katie Heldstab, co-founder of Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches, suggests pairing this cucumber-flavored ice cream with a vanilla shortbread cookie, or one scented with lavender or rosewater. 

1 medium-size cucumber, scrubbed

2 cups heavy cream

1¼ cups whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

6 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 ounce vodka (or any other spirit that may complement the flavor)

Turn your home freezer to the coldest setting.

Slice cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds, cut in half inch slices and pat dry with paper towel. This gets rid of any additional water. Set aside.

Pour cream into large bowl and refrigerate (I like to use a large glass measuring cup).

Heat milk, sugar and a pinch of salt in a sauce pan. Mix with a wooden spoon or spatula and heat until simmering. Simmer for 1 minute. Take off heat and let cool for 2 to 3 minutes while you prepare your eggs.

In a medium bowl, gently whisk egg yolks to break them up but don’t whip.

Temper egg yolks: Take about a cup of the hot milk mixture and gently whisk egg yolks as you slowly pour the hot milk into the yolks. This raises the temperature of the eggs so they don’t scramble when mixed with the remaining hot milk.

Once warmed up, pour the yolk mixture in back into the sauce pan with the remaining milk. Stir constantly over medium/low heat for a few minutes until the mixture thickens into a custard. Test by dragging your finger across the back of the mixing spoon through the custard. If the line you’ve made holds, it’s ready.

Remove bowl of cream from the refrigerator and set a mesh strainer on top. Pour the custard through the strainer to catch any bits of cooked egg. Add cream to custard and mix gently until combined. Add vanilla and vodka or other spirit. (This will keep the ice cream from freezing too hard.)

Place chopped cucumbers in a zip-top plastic bag and pour the liquid base over it, seal and refrigerate. Or, simply add the cucumber to the bowl, stir and cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Let the mix cure 24 to 48 hours.

Strain cucumber out of the mix and discard. Process per your ice cream maker instructions.

Once the ice cream is ready, scoop into a shallow container that has a tight fitting lid. Before sealing the lid, place a piece of plastic wrap on the top of the ice cream to prevent air from touching it. Put it in the freezer for 6 to 12 hours.

Serves 8.

— Katie Heldstab, Leona’s Ice Cream

Beet Ice Cream

PG tested

Nathan Holmes of Family Farm Creameries, a cooperative that helps farmstead dairy producers of Western Pennsylvania to get their milk, yogurt and cheeses to market in Pittsburgh, suggests farm-fresh beets and goat cheese for this colorful ice cream recipe. “This is a great time of year for young, tender beets; golden, red, or chioggia will all work,” he says. 

1 cup beets

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 ounces goat cheese

2 cups full-fat yogurt

Cut beets in half and roast, face down, covered in foil, in a 450-degree oven until very soft, about 1 hour. It should be easy to remove the outer skin of the beet with your hands at this point.

Cool slightly, then blend beets with sugar and olive oil. You want a very fine beet smoothie consistency, if you feel you have too much water at this point just cook it off in a sauce pan.

Incorporate goat cheese into the warm beet syrup.  When it reaches room temperature, add yogurt. (My choice is goat yogurt from Riverview Dairy.)

Let cool, and then run through your home ice cream machine as directed.

If you like, add orange or lemon zest in the end, or steep beet juice with rosemary or sage for more of an earthy flavor.

Serves 6.

— Nathan Holmes, Family Farm Creameries

Refreshing cocktails for summer

Mint mojito/Gretchen McKay

When it comes to a cold adult beverage, I almost always opt for a hop-heavy pour of India pale ale. It’s a learned taste, to be sure, but one that never seems to disappoint.

But when Pittsburgh’s steamy, sticky weather rolls around, making T-shirts stick to your ribs like a damp shower curtain, I thirst for a drink that’s a bit crisper, more refreshing, and lends itself to slow sipping while hiding from the sun under the shade of an umbrella.

Nothing hits the spot when it’s hot outside like a summer cocktail. Often effervescent and almost always fruity, these alcoholic-mixed drinks cool you down like nobody’s business. Plus, they’re prettier than a pint of beer and feel more celebratory, too, not to mention an art form if you’ve ever watched a really good bartender prepare one of the specialty artisanal cocktails that are all the rage now. Composed of fresh ingredients such as citrus juice, fruits and herbs, housemade syrups and small-batch bitters, hand-crafted cocktails have flair.

Best when shared, cocktails are pretty easy to make at home so long as you’ve got the basics: alcohol, simple syrup (bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil in a small pan, stir until sugar has dissolved, then cool) and plenty of ice. This time of year, you’ll also want to introduce some sort of fresh fruit for flavor.

The best summer cocktail is one where the flavors blend well, and it goes down smooth — so smooth, you could sit with friends and drink one after the other and not even realize it.

“When you’re outside in the sun, you want a drink that’s refreshing on a hot day,” says Scott Schaffer, general manager at Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District, which this month opened a new outdoor lounge featuring a small plate menu and signature cocktails.

Cooling bourbon-based drinks are always popular in summer, along with mules, a light and fizzy hot-weather cocktail made with ginger beer, citrus juice and a jigger or two of alcohol. Lidia’s version, dubbed the Smallman Mule, pairs chamomile-infused vodka with limoncello, pomegranate liqueur and ginger beer.

Below, we offer recipes for five easy cocktails to cool you down during the dogs days of August. They’re perfect for entertaining, or when you just feel like chillin’ on the back porch. Cheers!

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Sorry Not Sorry

Sorry so Sorry cocktail/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Light and refreshing, this whiskey-based cocktail goes down so easy. To make honey syrup, bring equal parts honey and water to boil in a small saucepan, turn down to a simmer and stir until the honey is completely dissolved.

2 ounces Canadian whiskey

3/4 ounce honey syrup

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce peach liquor

2 dashes peach bitters

Soda water

Lemon peel, for garnish

Fill cocktail shaker tin with ice. Add whiskey, honey syrup, lemon juice, peach liquor and peach bitters, and shake.

Strain onto fresh ice in Collins glass. Top with soda water and garnish with lemon peel.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Alison Hilard, Butcher and the Rye

Blackberry-Thyme Margarita

Blackberry Margarita/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Margaritas lend themselves to all different kinds of fruit. Here, inspired by a drink on the menu at Big Burrito’s Mad Mex restaurant, I dress up the classic tequila cocktail with fresh blackberries and thyme simple syrup. 

For thyme simple syrup

1 cup water

Small bundle of fresh thyme

1 cup sugar

For cocktail

Lime wedge

Coarse salt for glass rim

2 ounces 100 percent agave tequila

2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

1 ounce thyme simple syrup

1 ounce orange liqueur

1/3 cup fresh blackberries

Make simple syrup: Add water and thyme to a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Add sugar, and stir until it dissolves. Remove from heat.  Cool, then strain out the leaves, transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Rub rim of glass with the lime wedge.  then dip the rim of the glass into a plate that’s been coated with salt. Combine tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, orange liqueur and blackberries in a blender and process until smooth. If you’re fussy, strain mixture over cheesecloth into an ice-filled glass; if not, pour directly over ice.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Gretchen McKay

Smallman Mule

Smallman Mule/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This is an Italian twist on a classic mule cocktail. To make chamomile-infused vodka, soak 10 chamomile tea bags in one 750-milliliter bottle of vodka for 24 hours, then remove the bags. 

1 ounce infused chamomile tea-infused vodka

1/2 ounce limoncello

1/2 ounce pomegranate liqueur

Ginger beer

Lime slice, for garnish

In a highball glass, add tea-infused vodka, limoncello and pomegranate liqueur. Top with ice and pour in ginger beer to top. Stir cocktail and garnish with a lime.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Lidia’s Pittsburgh

Strawberry-Peach Sangria 

Strawberry-Peach Sangria/Gretchen McKay

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White wine sangria is a perfect summer drink because it’s so light and refreshing. It’s important the sangria sits overnight in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to meld.

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup peach brandy

2½ cups sliced strawberries

750-milliliter bottle albarino wine, or other crisp white wine, chilled

1 cup chilled club soda

1 peach, thinly sliced

3 thyme sprigs

1 purple basil sprig, optional

1 sweet basil sprig, optional

Combine sugar and brandy in a pitcher; stir until sugar dissolves. Add strawberries and wine; chill 8 hours or overnight. Just before serving, stir in club soda, peach slices, thyme and basil, if desired.

Serves 8.

— “Amazing Recipe Makeovers” by the Editors of Cooking Light (Oxmoor House; May 2016; $21.95)

Mint Mojito

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It’s hard to beat the simplicity of this classic Cuban highball made of lime juice, muddled mint, sugar, rum, and a hit of soda. This recipe gets an added kick with mint simple syrup. Be careful not to over-muddle the fresh mint, or it will become bitter. 

For mint simple syrup

1 cup mint leaves

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

For cocktail

7 to 8 mint leaves, rinsed and patted dry

1 lime, rinsed, dried, and cut into quarters

1 ounce mint syrup

2 ounces white rum

3 to 4 ounces club soda

1 sprig fresh mint, for garnish

Prepare mint syrup: Drop mint leaves into a saucepot. Briefly muddle them, pressing on leaves until they begin to break down slightly. Add sugar and water, and simmer over medium heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Cool, then strain out the leaves, transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Prepare mojito: Drop mint leaves and lime quarters into a Collins glass, and gently muddle. Fill glass with crushed ice. Add mint syrup, rum and club soda. Stir and garnish with a mint sprig.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Adapted form “Forager’s Cocktails” by Amy Zavatto (Sterling Epicure; 2015)

Jazz up corn on the cob

Mexican-style corn/Gretchen McKay

Lots of sweet butter and a sprinkle, or two, of salt. Maybe some freshly ground black pepper, if a shaker’s within easy reach on the picnic table. That’s how so many of us enjoy fresh-picked corn on the cob.

It’s hard to go wrong with tradition, but simple isn’t necessarily better when it comes to summer’s hallmark vegetable. It’s just … simpler.

Sweet and tender, corn on the cob lends itself to any number of toppings.

Mexican-style corn, topped with spicy sriracha- or chipotle-flavored mayonnaise and crumbly cotija cheese, is particularly hot right now, showing up in any number of this season’s grilling cookbooks and also making a welcome appearance in local Pittsburgh restaurants such as Tako, Downtown, and Big Burritos’ Max Mex.

But that’s just the start. It turns out corn can be made even tastier when you brush it with a tangy basil vinaigrette and dust it with salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, or slather it with a homemade herb butter. And how about wrapping it in thick slices of bacon before you throw it on the grill. While it’s cooking, brush it with a peppery chipotle-honey glaze. Talk about savory treats that will get kids and veggie-adverse grownups to eat their vegetables.

Local corn soon will be available in spades, so why not start thinking about some ways to jazz it up a bit with color, flavor and texture after you’ve tired of plain and simple cobs?

The traditional method of cooking corn on the cob, after it is husked and the silky threads pulled away from the kernels, is to boil it: Drop the corn into a large pot filled with boiling salted water, cover, let the water return to a boil, and then turn off the heat and keep the pot covered. After about five minutes, remove what you’ll eat during a first round; remaining corn can be kept warm in the water for another 10 minutes or so. But it also can be broiled (four to six inches from the heat, for 10 to 15 minutes), roasted in the oven (at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes), or cooked on the grill.

Grilling adds a hint of smoke and char to the vegetable. Throw the naked cobs over a hot fire and grill them, turning occasionally, until the kernels are tender and charred, about 10 minutes total. Or, wrap ears in aluminum foil, with or without butter or oil inside, and cook over a hot grate or directly on hot coals, until is done, about 15 to 20 minutes.

My favorite way to grill corn is the easiest way, in the husk. Soak the unshucked ears in water to cover for at least 15 to 20 minutes, remove corn from water and shake off excess. Place corn on the hot grill grates (heat should be medium-high), close cover and grill for 20 minutes, turning every five minutes or so until the corn is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Pull the husks back before serving (the silks will come right off). The husks will get black, but no worries! The corn inside will stay moist.

If you like, you can get fancy and pull the husks off during the last five minutes of cooking, remove the silks and grill the ears until they’re lightly browned all over.

When choosing corn, look for the freshest cobs possible — preferably corn that’s been picked that morning; the longer it’s off the stalk, the more the corn is past its prime. The debate over whether to go with tiny kernels or plump ones is endless. Ditto with whether to choose yellow, white or bi-color butter and sugar corn (no matter what your parents told you when you were a kid, there’s no correlation between the color of corn and its sweetness). What is important is that the kernels, when you gently peel back the top of the cob or feel them through the husk, are closely spaced and even.

Fresh corn will keep for a day or so in the refrigerator, unshucked in a bag. But really, who can wait that long for the quintessential taste of summer?

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Basil-Parmesan Corn

Basil-Parmesan Corn/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Fresh and zesty basil vinaigrette doesn’t just dress up tomatoes, grilled chicken and pasta salad — it also makes a great topping for grilled corn. 

For basil vinaigrette

1 small shallot, roughly chopped

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, stems removed (about 4 ounces)

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For corn

8 ears fresh corn

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Blend all the ingredients for the basil vinaigrette for 1 minute, until very smooth. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Serve immediately, or refrigerate the vinaigrette for up to 3 days.

Prepare corn: Preheat an indoor or outdoor grill to high heat. Pull the husk down and keep it on to use for holding the corn later. Grill the corn over high heat until it starts to char. Remove from grill.

Using a pastry brush, brush some of the basil vinaigrette onto the corn and then heavily sprinkle with the grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

— Adapted from

Bacon-Wrapped Corn with Chipotle Glaze

Bacon-Wrapped Corn with Chipotle Glaze/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

If they can make bacon ice cream, why not bacon-wrapped corn on the cob? It’s delicious! Be sure to secure the bacon strips with toothpicks; I didn’t and it fell off the cob when I turned it. For an even easier preparation, wrap the cobs in aluminum foil.

4 corn ears, husked

4 bacon slices

1/4 cup canned chipotle peppers

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup butter, melted

Going from one end to the other, wrap bacon around each ear and secure with toothpicks. Set aside.

In a food processor or blender, pulse chipotle peppers until smooth. In a bowl, combine pureed peppers, honey and butter.

Spray grates of grill with cooking spray and set over medium-hot coals. Liberally brush bacon-wrapped corn with chipotle-honey glaze and arrange on grill. Grill corn, turning every 2 to 3 minutes and basting regularly with glaze, for about 20 to 25 minutes or until corn is cooked and bacon is crisp.

Serves 4.


Mexican-Style Grilled Street Corn

PG tested

This spicy corn dish is a typical street food in Mexico. You can adjust the level of spiciness by adding more, or less, sriracha. If you can’t find cotija cheese, substitute parmesan. 

8 ears corn, husked

For sriracha aioli

½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sriracha, or more to taste

Juice ½ lime

Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste

For toppings

Crumbled cotija cheese

Red pepper flakes

Chopped scallions

Chopped fresh cilantro

Lime wedges, for squeezing

Prepare corn: Preheat an indoor or outdoor grill to high heat. Pull the husk down and keep it on to use for holding the corn later. Brush grill grate and coat with oil.

Make aiolil: Combine mayonnaise, sriracha, and lime juice in a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Put corn on grate and cook, turning every 5 minutes or so, until it starts to char. Remove from grill.

Drizzle corn with sriracha aioli, then spinkle with crumbled cotija cheese, red pepper flakes, chopped scallions and and chopped cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

Serves 8.

— Jack McKay, Gretchen McKay’s son

Grilled Corn With Herb Butter

Grilled Corn with Herbed Butter/Gretchen McKay

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Compound (flavored) butters are ridiculously easy to make at home, and add so much flavor to meats, vegetables and roasted fish. All you need is a fork, full-flavored ingredients such as fresh herbs and garlic, and some plastic wrap. Use the ingredients below as a jumping off point; you can also use rosemary, sage and thyme. 

8 ears corn

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh chervil

1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1 small clove garlic, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare butter: In bowl, using a fork, stir together butter, herbs, garlic, anchovy paste, salt and pepper. Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and using a rubber spatula and the plastic wrap, shape the butter into a log about 1½ inches in diameter. Wrap the log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes, before using, or store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Prepare corn: Heat a charcoal or gas grill to medium-high. If you plan to grill the corn naked (out of the husk), peel back the husk and remove the silks. Keep the peeled-back husk on the cob, using it as a handle. Lube the corn with a little oil or butter. If you slip some foil under the husks during grilling, you will prevent them from burning.

If you prefer to grill the corn in the husk, simply toss the ears of corn over a medium-high fire — husk, silks and all.

Place corn on hot grill and cook. For unhusked corn, grill corn 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes.

Serve corn with herbed butter.

Makes 8 servings.

— Adapted from “Williams-Sonoma Grill School” by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim (Weldon Owen, June 2016, $29.95)

Serve afternoon tea, the “Downton Abbey” way

Sweet Butter Scones with Lemon Curd/Gretchen McKay

If you’re a fan of “Downton Abbey,” chances are you’re soon to be in a funk.

After six seasons, PBS’s “Masterpiece” series will air its series finale March 6, leaving scores of Anglophiles crying in their crumpets.

It’s been a long, slow ride where — admit it — it sometimes feels like nothing ever happens at the Crawley family’s Yorkshire country estate. Lord Grantham, in particular, is so stuffy and boring that I wasn’t even sure he had warm blood running through his veins until he spit up a ton of it, all over the dining room table, no less, in a recent episode. Finally, he showed some signs of life.

But at least the family seems to eat well, thanks to the culinary prowess of Mrs. Patmore and her kitchen maid-turned- assistant cook Daisy Mason. As related by Emily Ansara Baines in ”The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook,” one of several cookbooks and blogs devoted to the food from the Edwardian days. For its evening meal, the family could expect anywhere from eight to 13 courses, depending on the occasion and time period. (The show kicked off in 1912 and ends in 1925.) And that’s not counting the “removes” served between the heavier courses.

It wasn’t so grand in the downstairs kitchen, of course, but like their moneyed employers, the servants at least got to enjoy a nice spot of tea whenever they weren’t polishing shoes or helping the ladies undress after service, or standing at rapt attention in the dining room during those hours-long meals.

Hmm, tea. Is there anything more warming when it’s bitterly cold outside, and you need a quick pick-me-up? Or anything more British than the mini-meal known as afternoon tea that goes with it?

In that spirit, we thought it would be fun to offer a do-it-yourself afternoon tea  (sometimes known as high tea), for your final episode viewing party. Even though at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, when the show airs on WQED-TV, it’s more likely Mary, Edith and the rest of the clan would just be sitting down to a gut-busting, sumptuous dinner.

Typically served between 3 and 5 p.m., Ms. Baines writes, afternoon teas was ”not nearly as low-key as it sounds.” Along with the title beverage, the menu would include an array of dainty, crustless finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream or fruit jam, biscuits, pastries, cakes and maybe even meat dishes, along with bread and cheese.

In homes such as the Crawleys, it was always served in the drawing room on fine china, with Earl Grey flowing from a silver tea service. This is where life events such as marriage were proposed, after all. We think it’s perfectly fine to set it up on your living room coffee table, within easy viewing distance of the TV, so long as you keep in mind that a proper cup of tea is NEVER served in paper or plastic.

Margaret’s Fine Imports on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill is among Pittsburgh tea shops that have everything you need to host a British tea at home, from demitasse teaspoons and tiered tea trays to hold your  savory sandwiches and biscuit-like scones, to jars of clotted cream and lemon curd to spoon on top of them. Of course, the shop also carries a selection of traditional British teas.

You’ll also find a huge selection of loose-leaf teas and tea bags at Nicholas Coffee in Market Square, Downtown (plus helpful people to tell you how to properly brew it), Te Cafe on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, Prestogeorge Coffee and Tea on Penn Avenue in the Strip District, and Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, also in the Strip (formerly known as Fortune’s Coffee) among others.

Now, back to the series. With Netflix, it’s possible to get your “Downton Abbey” fix whenever you want. But also keep in mind that executive producer Gareth Neame hasn’t ruled out a “Downton” movie for the big screen.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Sweet Cream Scones

Sweet Cream Scones/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

These are so easy to make, and not just for tea — they make a wonderful breakfast, too. Serve scones with clotted cream, marmalade or lemon curd. I drizzled half my batch with melted chocolate just because. 

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups all-purpose flour

1½ cups sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces

1 egg, at room temperature

Heavy cream, for brushing

Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Blend sour cream, vanilla and baking soda together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large baking sheet.

In large bowl, blend together flour, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Stir in sour-cream mixture and egg until just barely moistened.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, kneading briefly. Pat dough out into 2 ¾-inch-thick rounds. Cut each round into 12 wedges and place them 2 to 3 inches apart on the greased baking sheet. Lightly brush with cream, then sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom.

Makes 24.

— ”The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)

The Countess’ Lemon Curd

Lemon Curd/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

A popular spread for bread and scones served at afternoon tea, lemon curd also makes a great filling for cakes and pastries. Don’t worry if it’s not completely smooth like pudding — the zest gives the curd a bit of texture.

4 unwaxed lemons, zest and juice

7 ounces sugar (about 1 cup)

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes

3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk

Combine lemon zest, juice, sugar and butter in a small pan set over simmering water. (Do not allow the mixture to touch the water.) Stir to help butter and sugar melt properly.

Lightly whisk eggs and yolk, then whisk them thoroughly into the mixture. As eggs cook, the mixture will thicken. When it is completely cooked through, you will be able to coat the back of a spoon, and then draw a clear line through it with your finger, 10 to 15 minutes.

Spoon into hot, sterilized jars. Cool thoroughly before putting on the lid. This will keep for up to 3 months in the refrigerator.

Makes about 10 ounces.

— “Tea at Downton: Afternoon Tea Recipes from the Unofficial Guide to Downton Abbey” by Elizabeth Fellow (CreateSpace)

Asparagus Tart

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Not everything served at high tea has to be sweet. This simple-yet-elegant asparagus tart adds a savory flair to your spread. This recipe calls for one large pastry but you can make several smaller tarts if you prefer. I substituted Martha Stewart’s recipe for pate brisee for the crust because it’s fail-safe. 

2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) chilled butter, cut into chunks

¼ to ½ cup iced water

1 bunch asparagus spears

4 eggs

1¼ cup light cream

4 tablespoons parmesan, finely grated

Salt and pepper

Pinch of grated nutmeg

1 to 2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift flour into mixing bowl with salt and sugar. Crumble in butter and rub into flour to give crumb texture. Add iced water, a little bit at a time — you only need enough to bring the mixture into a ball of dough with your hands.

Dust worktop and a rolling pin with flour. Roll dough out thinly in a circle that is large enough to fill an 8-inch tart pan. Carefully lift dough circle into place and press it into the tin. Trim edges with a knife. Prick base all over with a fork, fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake in oven for 20 minutes.

Snap off hard part at end of asparagus spears and trim ends to neaten. Wash spears well and place in a pot of water that will hold them horizontally. Bring to boil, simmer for a few minutes until half-cooked and drain.

Remove tart from oven, remove beans or weights and return pastry to oven for a further 5 minutes. Set pastry shell aside while you prepare filling.

Beat eggs in bowl. Stir in cream and parmesan until well combined. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Dry asparagus spears with paper towels. Arrange spears in a fan in pastry shell, tips facing in. Carefully pour egg mixture around asparagus until tart shell is almost full. Sprinkle thyme leaves over top. Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden.

Serve tart hot, cut into wedges.

Serves 8.

— Adapted from  ”A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions and Recipes” by Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin’s Press)

Classic Egg Salad and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches

Classic Egg Salad and Cucumber Tea Sandwiches/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

These finger sandwiches are a must at any English tea, and about as easy to make as a cup of tea.

For egg salad

6 large hardcooked eggs

4 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

20 slices soft white bread

For cucumber filling

8-ounce package of cream cheese, softened

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

20 slices soft white bread

Make egg salad: Cut eggs into cubes. In medium bowl, mix together eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, cayenne pepper and salt.

Make cucumber filling: Combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, cucumber, garlic salt, pepper and dill.

Make sandwiches: Spread egg salad over 10 slices of bread. Cover with another slice. Remove crusts.

Spread cucumber mixture over 10 slices of bread. Cover with another slice. Remove crusts.

Place sandwiches on a large baking sheet and cover in plastic wrap; chill in refrigerator for 35 minutes. Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes, or use a knife to quarter sandwiches.

Each filling makes 40 finger sandwiches.

— ”The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)


Chocolate Digestive Cookies

Chocolate DIgestive Biscuits/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

A sweet treat that Brits believe wouldl also help with digestion.

3⁄4 cup whole-wheat flour

1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon rolled oats

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons whole milk

6 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease medium to large baking sheets. Sift together whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl, then mix in oats. Set aside. In a medium-sized bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar. Add to dry mixture, then stir in milk until mixture forms a thick (and quite sticky) paste. Cover and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour.

Knead dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Dough will be sticky; wet your hands to combat stickiness. Roll out dough to approximately 1⁄8-inch thickness. Using a biscuit or cookie cutter, cut into 2- to 21⁄2-inch rounds. Transfer to cookie sheets, impressing patterns on biscuits with a fork. Bake cookies for 20– 25 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack before coating with melted chocolate, then let cool again. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 2 dozen cookies.

— ”The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook” by Emily Ansara Baines (Adams Media)


Lidia Bastianich gives a lesson in Italian cooking

Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce/Gretchen McKay

Lidia Bastianich has written a dozen cookbooks since arriving in America more than 40 years ago, introducing at least two generations of Americans to the delights and intricacies of regional Italian cooking.

Rather than simply dazzle like so many celebrity chefs, she keeps it simple. Ms. Bastianich’s persona on TV and in print has always been that of teacher, from how to choose the right ingredients, to the need to taste as you go to the importance of technique in certain recipes. In “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50), she offers aspiring cooks what she calls her “master class.”

Nearly 2 inches thick, the soups-to-nuts primer is a handsome companion piece to the third season of “Lidia’s Kitchen,” her 26-part series on PBS. Its 400-plus recipes run the gamut from appetizers, salads and sauces to pizza, pasta and seafood, and she also includes an extensive guide to the ingredients and techniques essential to Italian cooking. Near the end, there’s a 46-page glossary of words that tend to pop up in Italian kitchens.

She also includes some tasty insights to Italian culture (there’s a reason it’s called “wedding soup”) along with a handful of phrases that would come in handy at her ristorante in the Strip District, where on Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. she’ll feature some favorites at a dinner to promote the cookbook. Cost is $55 (plus tax and gratuity), with an optional Bastianich wine pairing for an additional $30.

“This book provides the forum for me to collect everything I want to communicate to you in one place,” she writes in the foreword. “Here I have gathered my life’s memories, my philosophy, my passion, my art. These are the ingredients I love to cook with, and the cooking techniques I have learned and developed through my 40-plus years in the kitchen.”

Italian food at its best is simple, made with seasonal items. Many of Ms. Bastianich’s recipes require just a handful of ingredients, many of which are pantry-friendly. All you need for her tomato sauce, for instance, is olive oil, garlic, a can of Italian plum tomatoes, crushed red pepper and basil; for gnocchi, it’s simply potatoes, eggs, flour, salt and pepper.

One dish that immediately caught my eye, and one that will be offered on Sunday at her restaurant, was her mother, Erminia’s, recipe for Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives. Ms. Bastianich ate the dish often growing up, and when she became a mother, she served it to her kids, too. Salty, succulent, crispy and tender, it might be one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever made. And it was easy to prepare, requiring only my large cast-iron skillet, a handful of ingredients and the resolve not to polish off the bottle of white wine used for cooking while the dish simmered oh-so-fragrantly on the stovetop, whetting my appetite.

Previous incarnations of the dish called for bacon slices rolled into little bundles and pickled cherry peppers to imbue the dish with a mellow heat. The recipe in this book swaps that slow burn for the bite and brine of olives and tang of red wine vinegar.

I also very much enjoyed her recipe for Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce, which was included in the chapter on appetizers but made a lovely dinner when paired with crusty Italian bread and a salad.

With winter marathon-training season underway, I’m looking forward to trying the book’s many soups and pasta dishes and vow to perfect my risotto-making with her detailed instructions. (Stir, cook and stir some more.)  And the Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake, which involves an entire jar of Nutella, is on my menu for Valentine’s Day.

Readers might lament the book’s lack of glossy pictures to tempt them (it’s illustrated with black-and-white drawings), but “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” would be a great addition to any kitchen library, for novices and seasoned cooks alike.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


Chicken Thighs with Potatoes and Olives

Chicken with Olives and Potatoes/Gretchen McKay

(Cosce di Pollo con Patate ed Olive)

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“This might be the best chicken you’ve ever made,” my husband told me after eating it, and his portion had been frozen and reheated. But it’s true. This poultry dish is absolutely terrific, fancy enough for a dinner party but also so simple that you can make it for the family midweek.

12 medium chicken thighs

1½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning

All-purpose flour for dredging

Vegetable oil for browning

2½ pounds medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½-inch chunks

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

1½ cups pitted large green olives

4 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

½ cup dry white wine

Season chicken thighs with 1½ teaspoons salt. Spread flour on rimmed plate, and lightly dredge chicken thighs on all sides, tapping off excess. Heat large shallow Dutch oven or large skillet over medium-high heat with ½ inch vegetable oil. When oil is hot, add chicken, skin side down. Brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate.

To same oil add potatoes. Brown them on all sides, about 10 minutes, and remove to plate with chicken. Dump out oil and wipe pot clean.

Return pot to medium-high heat and add olive oil. Add garlic. Once garlic begins to sizzle, add olives and rosemary. Once they are sizzling nicely in pot, let cook for 1 minute or 2 to bring flavors together, then add vinegar. Boil until vinegar has reduced away, then add back chicken and potatoes. Pour in wine, adjust heat to simmer and cover. Cook until chicken is almost tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Uncover and simmer rapidly, turning chicken occasionally, until it is tender and glazed in sauce, about 15 minutes. Remove garlic cloves and rosemary sprigs and serve hot.

Serves 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)


Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce

(Cozze al Pomodoro Piccant)

PG tested

I’ve been obsessed lately with mussels, and this recipe, which cooks them in a spicy tomato sauce, shines. Be sure to rinse and scrub mussels clean before using, discarding any that remain open after tapping or are chipped or broken. (Mussels must be alive when you cook them.) If there are any that don’t open after cooking, toss those, too.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

8 garlic cloves, sliced

28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, crushed by hand

½ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably on the branch

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon peperoncino flakes

3 pounds mussels, scrubbed, debearded and drained

10 large basil leaves, shredded

Heat 5 tablespoons olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add sliced garlic, and cook until garlic sizzles and is gold around the edges, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, rinse can out with ¼ cup water, and add to pot. Season with oregano, salt and peperoncino. Bring to boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Once sauce has thickened, add mussels, stir and adjust heat so sauce is simmering. Cover, and simmer until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Discard any that do not open.

Once mussels are open, stir in basil and drizzle with remaining tablespoon olive oil. Transfer to serving bowl, and pour juices over them. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)


Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Butter and Sage Sauce

(Gnocchi di Zucca)

PG tested

Nothing beats fresh pasta, and gnocchi (the Italian version of dumplings) are easier to make than you might think if you follow this simple rule: Once the potatoes have been cooked, peeled and riced, allow them to completely cool before adding the flour. If you don’t have a ricer, push the potatoes through a sieve or the holes of a colander.

For gnocchi

1-pound chunk butternut squash

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium russet potatoes

½ cup freshly grated Grana Padano

1 large egg

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1½ cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more as needed

For sauce

1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter

10 fresh sage leaves

1 cup very hot water from cooking pot of pasta

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup freshly gated Grana Padano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scoop seeds from squash and place cut side up in pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let cool slightly.

When cool, scrape flesh from squash, set in cheesecloth and let hang or set in a strainer in refrigerator overnight to drain. You should have about ¾ cup squash.

Cook potatoes in medium saucepan with water to cover until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, let cool, then peel and press through a ricer into an even layer on sheet pan. You should have 2 cups potatoes. Pass drained squash through ricer as well.

In large bowl, combine squash, potatoes, cheese, egg, salt and nutmeg; mix until smooth. Sprinkle in 1¼ cups flour and mix to combine. Dump dough onto your work surface and knead until it comes together. If dough is still sticky, add remaining ¼ cup flour, and knead just until smooth. Do not overknead dough or gnocchi will be heavy.

Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment and sprinkle with flour. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll dough onto floured surface to ½-inch-thick rope. Cut rope crosswise into ¾-inch pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time, roll gnocchi along the back of fork tines dipped in flour, making ridges on 1 side and a dimple on the other. Transfer gnocchi to floured baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. While water is heating, make sauce. Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat until melted and just foaming. Gently lay sage leaves in pan and heat until they crisp up, about 1 minute.

Ladle in 1 cup boiling pasta water, stir sauce and simmer for about 2 minutes, to reduce liquid by half. Grind black pepper directly into sauce.

Keep sauce hot over very low heat while you cook gnocchi.

Cook gnocchi in two batches in boiling water, giving them just a couple of minutes more after they all float to surface. Remove with slotted spoon and transfer to awaiting sauce. Toss until well coated. Remove from heat and toss in the cheese just before serving.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, October 2015, $37.50)