Gretchen McKay

An Italian home-cooking cookbook that you better believe

Elsa DeChellis DiCicco is the quintessential Italian grandmother, a slip of a woman with a big hairdo and even bigger smile who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to her cooking.

“What, you’re not hungry?” she asks, pushing a plate of tea sandwiches across the dining room table, despite the fact that a half-dozen already have made their way into my stomach.

With the city in the midst of a heat wave, it’s too steamy to turn on the stove in her Coraopolis kitchen. Yet it’d be unthinkable for a woman from Abruzzo — or anywhere in Italy — to invite guests into her home without also feeding them. Hence, the late-afternoon lunch of chicken salad, fresh fruit and Italian cookies.

Mangia, mangia!

It’s tough to say no to someone who feels so passionately about food. The final count, then, is seven sandwiches, plus a handful of strawberries, a pizzelle and two cups of sweetened espresso because according to Mrs. DiCicco, it’s not Italian coffee without a little zucchero.

“We all defer to her,” says her daughter, Jayne Keffer, with a smile. She lives across the street and has stopped by to chat. “Whatever she says goes.”

If the topic is Italian cooking, you’d best pay attention because to have tasted Mrs. DiCicco’s cooking is to love it, say those who know her. The 95-year-old’s sauce di Pacentro, prepared with ground pancetta and minced hot pepper and served atop light-as-air homemade gnocchi, is the stuff of legend, her son Bob proudly points out. So, too, are her anise-infused pizzelles, made so often when she was younger that she sizzled her way through six of the Italian cookie irons.

“She’s truly a wonderful cook and takes great pride in cooking for family in friends,” says Irene Daily. She has sampled dozens of the cookies as director of volunteer and community services at Heritage Valley Sewickley, where Mrs. DiCicco has logged almost 19,000 volunteer hours since 1959.

No one could blame the petite great-grandmother of 10 if she kept close the family recipes, perfected over the years in the kitchen of the house she built in 1954 with husband, Italo. Yet all three she makes me that day are among the more than 200 in “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners,” a spiral-bound cookbook she self-published late last year ($25 at amazon.com).

Nearly a decade in the making, it contains more than a dozen complete meal menus arranged by season (Winter Wonderland) or event (Super Bowl Party). In a nod to her native Pacentro in the province of L’Aquila, where her parents Maria and Anthony DeChellis owned an estate with olive trees, orchards and a vineyard, there’s also a chapter devoted to pasta and Italian specialties: everything from crostini and lasagna campagnolo to “famous” tripe and a yummy-sounding sunburst eggs (cooked sunny side up in marinara spiked with hot sauce).

“Each dinner is a story,” Mrs. DiCicco says in a voice still tinged with a lilting Italian accent, “because in Europe, that’s how you eat. A complete meal.”

Lest you assume she only knows regional Italian cooking, the cookbook features other cuisines, including a recipe for chili that won her a blue ribbon — at age 90 — in a 2005 cook off co-sponsored by KDKA radio and Kuhn’s Market. It’s still occasionally served in the cafeteria at Heritage Valley Sewickley. Administrators were so delighted to see one of its own win a contest that they quickly put it on the menu.

Preparation ranges from easy to intermediate, and a few of the recipes aren’t recipes at all but instructions on how to prettily arrange items on a plate or bowl. But that’s what makes it so charming. Chatty and informal, it reads like a food diary your grandma added to over the years, with colorful snapshots grandpa took of his favorite dishes thrown in for good measure.

“The aroma of this coffee is irresistible,” she notes in a recipe for cafe espresso. With penne rigate, she advises serving salad “and good wine.”

As if Italians would do anything but.

Mrs. DiCicco started compiling the recipes at her son-in-law John Keffer’s urging. Introduced to her homemade cuisine on an Easter break from Penn State University, he quickly developed what would be a lifelong love affair with her cooking: in the early years of his marriage to Jayne, he’d stop by his mother-in-law’s house on his way home from work for a clandestine first dinner.

How do you do it? he asked again and again. Eventually, she decided to tell him, writing out a few of her favorites in longhand before switching to a typewriter.

After Italo’s death in 2002, she couldn’t bring herself to work on it for nearly two years. By 2004, though, she was once again plugging away, even if her 90-year-old eyes were having trouble seeing the keys, and finding new typewriter ribbons was next to impossible. To keep her motivated, Mr. Keffer, a one-time borough mayoral candidate and member of the local water and sewer authority, bought her a desk top computer on which she taught herself to use Microsoft Word.

“We told her to keep tapping, that she couldn’t break anything,” Mrs. Keffer recalls.

It wasn’t easy, mastering the new technology; early drafts tended to jump between fonts with varying margins. Yet Mrs. DiCicco proved herself a feisty and determined nonagenarian. Kind of like the guy who invented the software that made writing so much easier.

“That Bill Gates, he’s such a genius,” she tells me more than once during our visit.

A bigger challenge was turning something she did almost by instinct into a precise science of measurements, ingredients and step-by-step instructions. Like lots of good cooks, Mrs. DiCicco learned by watching her mother and grandmother prepare the family’s meals and so “never measured.”

Tragically, Mr. Keffer wouldn’t live to see the cookbook he inspired. In 2007, while driving home from a December wedding in New Jersey, he was killed in a car accident.

Once again, Mrs. DiCicco’s work slowed to a crawl. So to bring her out of her funk, her son Bob, an attorney who lives in Glen Arm, Md., suggested turning it from a memoir into a self-published cookbook they could share with others.

With other family members helping to edit, proof and organize the copy, Mrs. DiCicco regained her focus and in 2009, the book — with dozens of Mr. Keffer’s photographs — made its debut on amazon.com. It has since sold a couple hundred copies.

What people also seem to like, says Bob DiCicco, is the book’s authenticity and use of fresh ingredients.

“There’s that connection with the Old World, and how things used to be,” he says.

Mrs. DiCicco has another explanation.

“Italians are all good cooks because they like perfection,” she says. “They taste it, and if they don’t like it, they don’t serve it.”

Zucchini Puffs

Zucchini is almost too plentiful this time of year. This appetizer is a great way to put the veggie to good use. They fry up surprisingly light and have just enough cheese flavor that kids will gobble them up. They’re just as good at room temperature as hot from the frying pan.

  • 2 small zucchini, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano cheese
  • Salt and white pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Quality vegetable oil for frying

Place zucchini in colander. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand 15 minutes to drain excess liquid. Combine eggs, parsley and cheese in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Squeeze zucchini to remove excess moisture. Add zucchini to the egg mixture. Add flour and baking powder, and stir to mix.

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot. Drop the zucchini mixture by the tablespoonful into hot oil. Shape with spoon. Cook zucchini mixture until puffs are light golden.

Remove with a spoon to a paper towel to drain. Repeat until you have used all the batter. Serve hot or cold as hors d’oeuvres.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Elsa’s Famous Sauce di Pacentro

Peperoncino (hot red pepper) flavors many dishes in Abruzzo. My 16-year-old son called this sauce “incredible.”

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup ground pancetta
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, minced
  • 1 fresh hot pepper, minced
  • 2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes, crushed
  • 28 ounces tomato puree
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh basil
  • 3 whole McCormick cloves
  • 1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese

In a large sauce pot, heat oil and pancetta over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, bell pepper and hot pepper. Saute until tender. Stir in crushed stewed tomatoes, tomato puree, basil, cloves, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, salt and pepper. Lower heat and simmer for 35 minutes, stirring periodically. (Do not burn the sauce.) If sauce is too thick, add water. This sauce can be served in many ways. For meat flavor, add to sauce, cooked meat, cooked meat balls or cooked chicken. Simmer 15 minutes.

Stir in grated cheese just before serving.

Makes about 6 cups.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Crema Veneziano

This silky-smooth, Venetian-style custard is sometimes cut into squares and fried in bread crumbs. Mrs. DiCicco goes a bit sweeter, serving it with whipped cream and strawberries. We ate it for breakfast, chilled with raspberries and blackberries spooned on top.

  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 egg yolks, well beaten
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 cup dairy whipped cream
  • Sliced strawberries

In a sauce pan, combine corn starch and sugar. Stir in milk. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Take 1/4 cup of the hot mixture and stir into egg yolks, the stir egg yolk mixture back into saucepan with milk. Cook and stir mixture constantly for 2 minutes.

Mix in butter, vanilla and almond extract. Cool completely or refrigerate.

Stir in whipped cream and top with sliced strawberries. Or, if you prefer, pour into a 9-inch ready-baked pie shell and decorate with strawberries.

Serves 6 to 8.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Niagara on the Lake, Ontario: The quaint village is a real charmer during autumn

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario — Tell someone you’re heading to Niagara, and she’ll probably think of one thing: the fabulous falls straddling the Canadian and U.S. borders that draw more than 20 million visitors a year.

Been there, done that. Time for a new adventure.

Less than 10 miles north of the steel arch bridge that transports visitors over the Niagara Gorge and into Ontario lies a village so quaintly picturesque that if you saw it in the movies, you’d assume its perfectly landscaped streets and gracious Victorian architecture were the work of a set designer. In reality, this small town of 14,000 nestled between Lake Ontario and the limestone Niagara Escarpment — recognized as one of the world’s natural wonders — has been charming travelers for almost 200 years.

Cultural types have flocked here since the early 1960s for the unparalleled theater experience known as the Shaw Festival, held from the beginning of April to the end of October. But the town also appeals for its history. Settled by loyalists at the end of the American Revolution, it was a strategic hub for British soldiers during the War of 1812.

American troops burned the town to the ground after Fort George was captured in the spring of 1813. Yet it quickly reinvented itself as a shipping and ship-building center, and the elegant Georgian homes that line its streets speak to the prosperity of the enterprising souls who brought the town back from the dead.

This time of year, Niagara-on-the-Lake is especially appealing because it’s a great place to enjoy spectacular fall colors. Winston Churchill called the historic Niagara Parkway, which follows the gentle curves of the Niagara River, “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” It’s particularly lovely in autumn, when the leaves on the towering trees at the gorge’s edge turn brilliant shades of crimson and orange and local farms sell apples, pumpkins and other fall foods from roadside stands. (For a weekly fall foliage report, visit www.parkreports.com/fall/.)

Fall also marks the start of the abundant grape harvest. Thanks to its moderate climate, the town in the past 20 years has grown into a major viticultural region, with more than 20 wineries in four distinct growing areas in the Niagara Peninsula producing terrior wines. Of particular interest is its icewine, made from grapes that remain on the vine long after the harvest and are then picked by hand at night and pressed while still frozen. When grapes freeze and then thaw, the fruit dehydrates, concentrating its sugars, acids and extracts. The result is an intensely flavored wine that can cost $50 or more a bottle.

Roaming around town

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a small enough town that you can easily explore all of its nooks and crannies by foot, so long as you remember to pack a pair of comfortable shoes and, if you plan on patronizing the chichi shops on Queen Street, a handful of cash; most are pretty precious. (The exchange rate for the Canadian against the U.S. dollar is almost even, so you don’t really have to worry about changing money.) I spent an entire morning wandering from one quaint store to the next, stopping along the way to peer in the window of the Niagara Apothecary (an authentic museum restoration of a 1869 pharmacy, open weekends only in fall), and to watch kids splash their hands in a fountain bearing a statue of the playwright Shaw.

I also wandered down Regent Street for a closer look at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Lawn Bowling Club, whose iron gates and manicured lawn I’d passed during a pre-breakfast run. It was established in 1877, making it the oldest still operating in Canada. After watching a pair of bowlers take some shots, I continued my stroll through Queen’s Royal Park, where from the gazebo you have a fabulous view of Fort Niagara across the blue-green waters of the Niagara River.

If you’re looking for a more structured walkabout, Old Town Tours offers a 90-minute guided tour through the historic district at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily through October ($20 adults/$10 children). It’s also possible to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through town and along the waterfront; tours start from in front of the Prince of Wales hotel (prices range from $70 for a 30-minute ride to $130 for 60 minutes for up to four adults and two children).

Or, rent a bike and pedal the seven mostly flat miles along the picturesque Niagara River Parkway, past the lovely brick McFarland House (built in 1800, it’s one of the oldest surviving structures in the Niagara district), to the historic village of Queenston. Here, the Riverbrink Art Museum ($5 adults) through Oct. 17 is exhibiting a collection of Canadian landscapes and winter scenes that have been featured on Hallmark greeting cards. Here’s where you also can view historical artworks depicting the falls and Terrapin Tower, a 40-foot stone tower that was built as a feat of daring over the river in 1829, just beyond the lip of the Horseshoe Falls. (It was dismantled in 1872.)

If my teenaged girls had been along, I probably would have splurged on the elaborate ritual of English high tea at the luxurious Prince of Wales. (The hotel offers four options, ranging in price from $32 to $45 per person.) Flying solo and wearing jeans, though, I was too intimidated by the opulence of its Victorian drawing room. I satisfied my afternoon munchies with a croissant from Niagara Home Bakery.

Towns ravaged by war often have spirits associated with them, so rather than do a regular tour of the rebuilt Fort George ($11.70 adults/$5.80 youth), I decided to take an evening Ghost Tour ($12 adults, $6 kids under 12). It was one of the most fun historical walks I’ve ever done. And yes, it was pretty darn scary. Not that anyone in our group of about 30 would have dared admit it.

“We have a loose, no freakin’ out rule,” guide Peter Mitchell warned us as he led us through the fort’s giant wooden gate, with only a lantern to brighten the way.

(The weekend tours quickly sell out in October, so it’s smart to make a reservation. Call 1-905-468-6621 or visit www.friendsoffortgeorge.ca/ghost.htm).

During the two-hour tour under the stars, Mr. Mitchell related stories of footsteps where none should be heard, images of dead people in mirrors and whispery soldiers who still keep guard at the gate. We also traveled into a spooky, 70-foot-long tunnel that connects to two lookout towers just outside the garrison walls, and sat in total darkness in the barracks. Can you feel the hairs rising on the back of your neck? Thank goodness for the pint of Harp I enjoyed with my fish and chips at Irish Harp beforehand.

By now, though, I had ghosts on the brain. So before heading back to my B&B, I stopped by the Olde Angel Inn on Regent Street, the oldest operating inn in Ontario, for a mug of Moosehead Pale Ale (I was in Canada, after all).

Legend holds that the ghost of Capt. Colin Swayze, who was killed in the basement of the inn — either accidentally or on purpose, depending on who’s telling the story — during the American invasion of 1813, haunts the yellow frame building. I looked hard for a shadow on the hand-hewn exposed beams in the bar, and trained an ear for any footless footsteps on the 200-year-old plank floors. I even ventured downstairs to the ladies room, where Capt. Swayze reportedly has been spotted.

But nothing. Guess I’d have to get my jollies the next day with a different kind of spirit: wine.

Exploring the wineries

With so many wineries within a 15 minutes drive of the historic district, a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake isn’t complete without a wine tasting (or two). Wineries range from boutique-small (Lailey Vineyard’s tasting room isn’t much larger than the bar on which wine is served) to grand estates with on-site restaurants, such as the Peller Estates Winery. I was lucky to have a guided tour of one of the town’s founding-family wineries, Reif Estate Winery, which opened in 1982 and now grows more than 20 varieties on 125 lush acres. Being September, the sweet aroma of grapes, just starting to be harvested, greeted me at the door.

Grapes don’t like wet feet, PR director Andrea Kaiser explained as she led me past the vineyards and into rooms where the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and then pressed. But when the soil is full of red shale, like it is in this region, the fruit thrives. The fruit also doesn’t like cold air, which is why giant windmills loom in the distance. They keep warm air circulating over the grapes when there’s danger of frost.

Grapes used in making Reif’s award-winning ice­wines, conversely, welcome the cold air, so long as the temperature doesn’t fall below about 6 degrees Fahrenheit. The winery presses this delicate dessert wine in a wooden screw press brought over from Germany.

Wine goes perfectly with cheese, so my tour ended with a tasting of four wines paired with artisanal Canadian cheeses and some dense Niagara raisins for nibbling ($10/flight without cheese, $25/flight with). The Ermite Bleu served with the signature Vidal Icewine — made by monks in caves under the Abbaye St-Benoit Monastery in Quebec — provided the perfect tangy finish.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Getting there:Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is on the south shore of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River, or 14 miles north of Niagara Falls. It’s about a 41/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh (Interstate 79 north to Interstate 90 east to Interstate 190 north) You also can fly into Buffalo and rent a car, though keep in mind there are no direct flights.

U.S. citizens returning from a trip to Canada by car have to show both proof of citizenship and proof of identity. So don’t forget either your passport, or a valid driver’s license and birth certificate. (Children under 16 only have to provide proof of U.S. citizenship.) You need a valid passport if you’re traveling by air .

Where to stay: The Prince of Wales at the corner of Picton and King streets (www.vintage-hotels.com; 1-888-669-5566), established in 1864 and now part of Vintage Hotel Properties, is the town’s landmark hotel. But you’ll pay a pretty price for its Victorian-style luxury: traditional queen rooms start at about $275/night. Other choices include B&Bs, private vacation homes, boutique suites, small inns (the Olde Angel Inn on Market Street is said to be haunted) and budget motels like the Niagara Residence & Conference Center, where you can get a room for less than $99. The Chamber of Commerce makes it easy to find a room, offering a free accommodation booking service on its website. I tend to like historic properties so booked the Lace Room at the charming Skyehaven B&B ($130/night including breakfast), built in 1787 on the historic side of the lake and just a 10-minute walk from town.

Where to eat: Depends on what you’re hungry for. One of the more elegant choices is the English high tea at The Prince of Wales, served daily from noon to 6 p.m., with sandwiches, pastries and scones ($32/person, $17 for children 12 and under). Or, treat yourself to a waffle cone filled with one of more than 30 flavors of ice cream at Cow’s Store on Queen Street. For dinner, don’t miss the fried haddock and chips ($11.95) at Irish Harp on King Street; it’s fantastic, especially if you wash it down with a pint of Harp ($6.73).

What to do: The annual Shaw Festival, which includes George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” and Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” through Oct. 30 at the Festival Theatre, is an obvious draw, along with sightseeing at Niagara Falls (the Maid of the Mist boat ride near the falls is open through Oct. 24). But there’s also shopping in the Heritage District, golf, biking along the Niagara Parkway and more than 20 wineries at which to sample Ontario wines. History buffs also can get a taste of living history at Fort George, which served as a British headquarters during the War of 1812 (there’s a ghost tour Sunday nights through October) or the Niagara Historical Museum.

A note of caution: If you’re driving, be sure to bring plenty of change for parking. Metered parking is required seven days a week between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and ticket machines don’t take bills.

Info: www.niagaraonthelake.com or 1-905-468-1950.

Habitat to host foodie, Mark Bittman

An avid home cook since the late 1960s, Mark Bittman has authored more than 10 best-selling cookbooks, including his “How to Cook Everything” series and 2008’s “Food Matters,” a no-nonsense volume promoting agricultural sustainability and slow food. But he’s probably just as well known for his weekly dispatches for “The Minimalist,” the New York Times food column focused on simple, seasonal home cooking.

He also regularly rubs shoulders with celebs, appearing with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali on the PBS series “Spain … On the Road Again,” and does regular cooking demonstrations on NBC’s Today show.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bittman brings his star power to Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh, where he and executive chef Andrew Morrison — a longtime friend who cooked with him at his wedding — will prepare a tasting menu for a sold-out crowd based on his latest book, “The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living” (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2010, $35).

The evening also will include a discussion of how to choose and cook ingredients, as well as the two cooks’ philosophies for better living.

In a phone interview from his apartment in New York’s Upper West Side, Mr. Bittman gave a taste of his thoughts on responsible eating. They essentially boil down to this: Eat more fruits and veggies and whole grains, and fewer animal products and processed foods. He’s also a big believer in buying locally raised foods whenever possible and reading labels.

Q: The latest report from the USDA shows Americans still aren’t eating as healthily as they could, with more than 67 percent of adults eating fewer than two servings of fruit and three vegetables daily. Seems like a good time for this book.

A: Just about every study and survey show that people want to eat more fruits and vegetables and are aware of the benefits of eating less meat. They just don’t know how to do it. But it’s very clear that the answer is less animal product and processed food, and much, much less junk food.

A conservative estimate is that 80 percent of what we eat should come from unprocessed plants, which is such a big turnaround that we won’t be able to achieve it in our lifetimes. To say everyone needs to be a vegan is a nice idea, but that’s kind of like saying everyone should ride a bicycle. It’s simply not going to happen. The challenge then is, how do we move in that direction of eating less of A and more of B?

Q: How do you suggest getting started?

A: You can try going “vegan before 6” like I do, which means avoiding all animal and processed foods until dinner time, and then eat whatever you want in moderation. I have another friend who only eats meat five times a month, and another one who has sworn off processed food but not meat. Or just eat a salad instead of a hamburger every once in a while. The point is making small, gradual changes that you’ll stick to. If people changed just 10 to 20 percent of what they’re eating — that’s two meals a week — that would be amazing movement for the country.

“The Food Matters Cookbook” is another good step. I actually think in five years it will seem primitive, but today it’s a radical departure from what cuisine has looked like over the last 100 years. It doesn’t leave anything out — there are still meat and poultry, and traditional methods of cooking — but by emphasizing fruits and plants and de-emphasizing animal products, it turns things around. For example, there is a reinvented beef stew recipe that turns its profile on its head by using mushrooms as the main ingredient.

The cookbook has 500 recipes like that: legitimate, unusual and really, really good.

Q: How tough was it to make the changes in your own life?

A: I saw the handwriting on the wall in the early 2000s, though it wasn’t until I wrote “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” [2007] and I became familiar with that world that I made the change. That’s roughly the same time I hit my 57th birthday, and all my health indicators started going in the wrong direction. I had high cholesterol and high blood sugar, and was 30 pounds overweight. I basically decided it was time to eat differently.

Also, after writing “Food Matters” in 2009, it became clear that “less meat, more plants” was a different style of eating that needed a cookbook. Because you’re no longer centering your meals around meat, you need to think about proportions differently.

Q: Are the recipes difficult?

A: I am incapable of producing complicated food because I don’t know how to cook it. So, no. They’re not fussy.

Q: Why is it so difficult for Americans to change their diets, with everything they could possibly want in the grocery store?

A: It has to do with the industry, not with how people want to eat. It’s more ‘How are we going to get this food to the rest of the country and make it convenient?’ than ‘What’s the best food and the best way to cook it?’ It’s a notorious word, convenient.

Also, even though the media is addressing the issue, that’s nothing against the billions spent marketing crap each year. Every time a study says we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, big food companies are going to say, ‘Here’s soda with fruits and vegetables in it.’ Well, not quite, but almost.

Q: Isn’t it expensive to eat a healthier diet?

A: I would argue that it costs more to eat bad food because of the health concerns and negative effect on the environment. And fast food isn’t really faster, so I don’t buy that argument.

Q: So do you ever indulge?

A: Of course. I eat pizza, stop at McDonald’s a few times a year, and drink Diet Coke with regularity. I think the better question is: how bad do you feel about those things? You know, just because you skip a day of exercise doesn’t mean you’re not exercising. So you can eat junk food on occasion and not be a junk food junkie.

Mushroom Stew with Beef Chunks

PG tested

  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 ounces beef chunk or round, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 pound fresh shiitake, cremini, portobello, or button mushroooms, stemmed if necessary and roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 leeks, trimmed, well rinsed and chopped
  • 3 carrots or parsnips, chopped
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 3 cups mushroom or beef stock or water
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary, or a pinch of each dried
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 small celery root, peeled, or 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or chives, for garnish

Put the dried porcinis in a bowl and cover with the boiling water. Soak until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, put oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the beef and brown it on one side before stirring it. Cook until deeply browned on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes total, removing pieces as they are done.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan. Porcinis should be soft. Lift mushrooms out of the water, leaving behind the soaking liquid and sediment. Roughly chop the porcinis and reserve liquid. Add chopped porcinis to pan along with fresh mushrooms, garlic, leeks and carrots. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Add red wine and cook, stirring to loosen the bits of vegetable that have stuck to the bottom of the pan, for about a minute.

Add stock, reserved porcini soaking liquid, and beef along with the herb and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so that soup bubbles gently. Cover and cook undisturbed for 30 minutes. Stir in the celery root, cover and continue cooking until the meat and vegetables are tender, another 20 to 30 minutes. Add more liquid if mixture seems too dry. (Mine was more like a soup than a stew.)

Remove herb sprigs and bay leaf, taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately (or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days).

Serves 4.

“The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman

(Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)

Whole Wheat Carrot Gnocchi

PG tested

Bugs Bunny isn’t the only one who will love this flavorful pasta dish. Used to veggies being served as a side, my 14-year-old daughters initially balked at eating an entree made primarily from carrots. But one taste, and they were sold. Said a Olivia, “Hey, this is actually good!”

  • 1 pound carrots, cut into large chunks
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
  • Black pepper
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or several fresh sage leaves
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Put the carrots in a pot with water to cover and a pinch of salt. Bring the water to a gentle bubble and cook until the carrots are quite tender, about 45 minutes. Drain well. Return the carrots to the dry pan, cover and dry them over the lowest possible heat, for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flours in a small bowl. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil (for testing the dough) and salt it.

Use a fork, potato masher, ricer or food mill to puree the carrots until smooth; sprinkle with salt and pepper and the nutmeg and stir. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes. Sprinkle the carrots with 3/4 cup of the flour mixture and stir gently until it is just incorporated. Pinch off a piece of the dough and boil it to make sure it will hold its shape. If it does not, knead in a bit more flour and try again; repeat as necessary. (The idea is to make the dough with as little additional flour and kneading as possible.)

When enough flour has been added, sprinkle a little all-purpose flour on a clean, smooth work surface and roll a piece of the dough into a rope about 1/2-inch thick, then cut rope into 1-inch lengths. Score lightly with the tines of a fork. Put each on a baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper; do not allow to touch. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. (You can freeze for up to 3 months in an airtight container or bag).

Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Put oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. (If using sage instead of parsley, add it now and cook until they sizzle.) A few at a time, add gnocchi to boiling water and gently stir. A minute after they rise to the surface, the gnocchi are done; remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to skillet. When all are done, sprinkle with the parsley, more salt and pepper and some gnocchi cooking water if the mixture seems too dry. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve, passing cheese at the table.

Adapted from “The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)

Oktoberfest isn’t just about beer. It’s also about the food

I appreciate a nice pilsner or dunkel-style dark beer as much as the next frau. My ancestors on my mom’s side hail from the tiny village of Frommern in southern Germany, and to pay homage, I’ve nursed many a stein of this most delicious liquid while waiting for my daughters to finish their weekly dance practice with the Alpen Schuhplattlers at Teutonia Mannerchor in the North Side neighborhood of Deutschtown. (Isn’t that what rathskellers are for?)

But to suggest Oktoberfest is all about the drinking?

Du scherzst mich! You’ve gotta be kidding me!

I’d argue this most famous of German festivals, first held in Munich in 1810, is as much about the food — and we’re not just talking the giant soft pretzels revelers enjoy with tangy mustard or lebkuchenherzen, heart-shaped gingerbread cookies strung on ribbons and decorated with icing messages of love.

What’s Oktoberfest without a crispy wiener schnitzel or juicy bratwurst on a crusty roll? Or spaetzle sauteed in butter, or cooked red cabbage? And sauerkraut. Can’t forget the sauerkraut if you want to be authentic.

Unless, of course, you don’t.

Traditional sometimes equals boring. So to make the food as merry as the oompah music at your Oktoberfest celebration, we’ve decided to offer a non-traditional take on some favorite German dishes.

That’s what you’ll find at the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville, where Chef Jason Marrone says, “For Oktoberfest, we try to stay true to German cuisine and flavors, but still maintain some of the nuances that make the Church Brew Works special.” His Oktoberfest pierogies are filled with bratwurst and sauerkraut and served with a gherkin-mustard sauce.

Pretzel-Dusted Schnitzel with Sweet Onion Caraway Noodles

PG tested

Who says schnitzel has to be made with veal or pork? This tasty recipe uses beef shoulder tender, a juicy (and affordable) cut that’s similar in taste to tenderloin. What really sets it apart, though, is the crunchy pretzel coating. I used Pittsburgh Pretzels Super Thins, but any variety would do. I also doubled the amount of caraway seeds.

2 cups crushed pretzels

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped fine

2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped fine, divided

Salt and pepper to taste

8 3- to 4-ounce beef shoulder tender medallions

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

Oil for pan frying

2 tablespoons butter, unsalted

1 large yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted and chopped

8 ounces egg noodles, cooked al dente

1/4 cup beef stock

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a shallow bowl, combine pretzels (I crushed them in a plastic freezer bag with a rolling pin), thyme, 1 tablespoon parsley, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Brush medallions lightly with mustard and coat heavily with pretzel mixture. Heat oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Saute medallions for 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and place on baking tray; place in oven for 10 minutes or until outside is crisp.

Melt butter in a large saute pan, add onion and cook until translucent. Add caraway, cooked noodles, stock and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring continuously.

Add remaining parsley to noodles, season to taste and serve with schnitzel.

Serves 4.

— certifiedangusbeef.com

Sauerbraten Chicken Wings

PG tested

Pot roast, schmot-roast. Chicken wings get marinated in vinegar and spices in this updated “sauerbraten” recipe.

3 cups water

3/4 cup red wine vinegar

3/4 cup cider vinegar

2 bay leaves

9 peppercorns

5 whole cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 medium onions, diced

1 lemon, cut into 8 wedges

4 pounds chicken wings, tips removed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

1/2 cup chicken stock

4 tablespoons crushed ginger snaps

Combine water, vinegars, bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves, salt, onion and lemon in saucepan. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.

Remove 1 cup marinade liquid (try not to get any solid pieces), cover and reserve in refrigerator. Place wings in a glass dish and pour remaining marinade over. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray, or cover with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Remove wings from marinade (discard marinade), shaking a bit to remove any excess liquid. Place wings on baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and roast in oven for 40 minutes. Turn wings after 40 minutes. Return to oven and continue to roast for another 10 to 15 minutes or until wings are crispy and brown.

Toward the end of cooking, melt butter over medium heat in a saucepan. Add flour to butter, stirring until flour begins to brown (should be golden brown in color), about 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly add the reserved 1 cup marinade and stock, whisking until smooth and slightly thickened, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add gingersnaps, whisking until dissolved.

When wings are cooked, remove from oven to a bowl or serving platter. Pour 1 cup of sauce over wings and toss. If desired, add remaining sauce (about 2/3 cup) or serve passed as dipping sauce with wings.

Serves 4.

— chickeneverymonth.com

The Genuine Sauerkraut with Five Spices

PG tested

Sauerkraut is usually that — sour. This recipe, from “The Hofbrauhaus Cookbook,” has a delicious depth of flavor, thanks to long simmering in wine and consomme and the addition of sweet, aromatic spices.

2 onions

1/4 cup clarified butter

1 pound uncooked sauerkraut

3/4 cup dry white wine

3/4 cup beef consomme

Salt

Pinch of sugar

1 bay leaf

Pinch each of whole allspice, peppercorns, whole cloves and whole cumin seed

1 mealy potato

Peel the onions and cut into half. Then cut into fine half-moon shapes. Melt the clarified butter in a pan over medium heat and fry the onions until they are transparent. Rinse the sauerkraut under running water, drain and add to the pan. Pour the wine and beef consomme on top. Season with salt and 1 pinch of sugar. Put the bay leaf, allspice, peppercorns, cloves and cumin seeds into an empty (unused) tea bag. Tie it up and add to the sauerkraut. Wash and peel the potato. Grate finely and add to the sauerkraut. Cover the sauerkraut, lower heat and allow to simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the tea bag before serving. Serves 4. — “The Hofbrauhaus Cookbook” (Zabert Sandmann Verlag, 2007, $30), available in the gift shop of Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh

Green Peppercorn Spaetzle

PG tested

Cracked green peppercorn gives this traditional side dish — typically served with meat dishes prepared with gravy — an unexpected punch of flavor. Church Brew Works Chef Jason Marrone says he inherited this recipe from his predecessor.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/4 ounce cracked green peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 large eggs

1/3 cup milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 clove crushed garlic

In a large stainless steel bowl, combine flour, salt, both peppers and nutmeg. In a mixing bowl, whisk eggs and milk together on low speed using paddle attachment. Gradually add flour a little at a time until dough is smooth and slightly thicker than pancake batter; if too thick, add a bit more milk. Let the dough rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Bring 1 gallon of salted water to a boil in a large pot, then reduce to a simmer. To form spaetzle, use a spaetzle maker or a large-holed colander. Hold over the simmering water and push the dough through the holes with a spatula or spoon. Do a little at a time to avoid overcrowding. Cook for a few minutes or until the spaetzle floats to the surface, stirring gently to prevent sticking. Dump the spaetzle into a colander and give it a quick rinse with cool water. Melt the butter and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Add spaetzle and toss to coat. Cook the spaetzle for a couple of minutes to brown the dumplings. Check to make sure seasoning is correct before service. Serves 6. — Jason Marrone, executive chef, Church Brew Works

German Chocolate Cake

PG tested

It’s often served at Oktoberfest celebrations, but German chocolate cake has nothing to do with the famous party in Munich, or even Germany; the first published recipe appeared in a Dallas newspaper in 1957 and got its name from the signature ingredient, Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

Despite that (non) pedigree, it’s the perfect dessert for revelers with a sweet tooth, thanks to a gooey caramel-flavored icing studded with toasted coconut and chopped pecans. The addition in this recipe of Jagermeister, a German digestif made with herbs and spice, adds a hint of anise flavor. My mom called it “scrumptious.”

For the cake

1 1/2 cups plus 4 teaspoons unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups sugar

3 eggs

3 teaspoons Jagermeister

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/4 cups cake flour

For the icing

12-ounce can evaporated milk

1 1/2 cups sugar

3/4 cup butter

4 egg yolks

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 tablespoons Jagermeister, plus a shot for the cook

2 cups shredded coconut, toasted

1 1/2 cups pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 8-inch round cake pans.

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar 3 to 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs. Add Jagermeister and vanilla. Heat 1 cup water until warm. Combine cocoa, baking powder, salt, baking soda and flour; mix it and the water into the butter mixture in 3 alternating additions. Pour batter into pans and bake 30 to 35 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool.

For the frosting: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine evaporated milk, sugar, butter, egg yolks, vanilla and Jagermeister. Stir 15 to 20 minutes, or until thick and golden brown. (This may be when you’ll want to have yourself that shot of Jager!) Remove from heat. Stir in coconut and pecans. (To toast coconut, spread in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently until coconut is golden brown.) Cool to room temperature for spreading consistency.

To assemble: Frost 1 layer, stack the other layer on top and frost again. This frosting won’t stick to the sides, so don’t even try. And no, you better not have another shot of Jagermeister before the guests arrive.

Makes 10 servings.

— “Booze Cakes: Confections Spiked with Spirits, Wine and Beer” by Krystina Castella and Terry Lee Stone (Quirk, 2010, $16.95)

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10259/1087745-34.stm#ixzz0zt8tAB3V

Gretchen McKay’s ‘Cooking with Gretchen’ wins big

From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

The Post-Gazette’s “Cooking with Gretchen” video series has won a national award in the Association of Food Journalists’ Awards Competition 2010.

To see the winning video, click on Cooking with Gretchen

Gretchen McKay and videographer Steve Mellon and their “Plank-grilled fish” video (see PG video below) won a first-place award — and $300 — for Best Food Multimedia Presentation. Second place went to features reporter Kevin Pang of chicagotribune.com; third went to food editor Deborah Pankey of the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill.

The awards banquet was held Thursday night at the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe, where about 60 members of the group (including Ms. McKay, fellow PG writer Marlene Parrish and food editor Bob Batz Jr.) met last week. A total of $4,500 was awarded in 15 categories in the competition, which recognizes excellence in reporting and writing in all media, newspaper food section design and content, food illustration and food photography. There were 229 entries. Read about all the other categories and the organization at afjonline.com.

What’s for Dinner: Reuben sandwich

By now you’ve probably adjusted to a new school year. (Isn’t it great being back on a schedule?) But I bet that also means you’re as busy as I am, juggling sports practices with homework and helping the kids study for tests, all the while doing endless piles of laundry. I say give yourself a break and make this easy Reuben sandwich for supper one night.

Make the dressing the night before, and you can get a delicious meal on the table in less than 15 minutes. Round it out with a dill pickle spear and a scoop of potato salad or baked french fries. Chocolate milkshake optional.

  • 8 thick slices caraway rye bread (homemade or store-bought)
  • 8 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing (recipe follows)
  • 8 thick slices Swiss cheese
  • 1 3/4 pounds shaved corned beef
  • 1 pound sauerkraut, rinsed and well-drained
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided

Lay slices of caraway rye on a large flat work surface. Spread each slice with 1 tablespoon Thousand Island dressing. Lay 1 slice of Swiss cheese on each slice of bread. Divide shaved corned beef among 4 slices of the bread. Divide sauerkraut among the other 4 slices.

Heat 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Place 2 sauerkraut sandwich halves and 2 corned beef sandwich halves in skillet and cook until bread is crusty and golden brown, about 7 to 9 minutes. Remove sandwich halves from the skillet and place sauerkraut halves on top of corned beef halves. Gently press together. Wipe skillet, and repeat with remaining butter and 4 sandwich halves.

Cut sandwiches in half and serve immediately.

Makes 4 sandwiches.

— “Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes From Hell’s Kitchen” by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer (Borealis, 2010, $27.95)

Thousand Island Dressing

PG tested

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup chili sauce
  • 1 large hard-cooked egg, minced
  • 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
  • 2 tablespoons minced white onion
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Add all ingredients to a large stainless, ceramic or glass bowl, and whisk vigorously with a wire whip. Place dressing in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Will keep refrigerated for 1 week.

Makes about 2 cups.

— “Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes From Hell’s Kitchen” by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer (Borealis, 2010, $27.95)

Find an archive of What’s for Dinner recipes at post-gazette.com/food.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10258/1087516-483.stm#ixzz0zcpFaXhp

Ben Avon family turns home over to film crew; Proves to be insane yet exhilarating

steve mellon/post-gazette

A movie production crew set up shop inside the Ben Avon home of PG reporter Gretchen McKay (center) for the filming of “Riddle,”

As someone who writes about homes, I’m usually the one knocking on front doors, trying to sweet-talk homeowners into letting me tell the world about the architectural delights beyond the threshold. Sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say no. Having once had my house (and decorating) subjected to hundreds of inquiring eyes on a holiday house tour, I can’t say I blame homeowners who shun the limelight.

When Hollywood comes knocking, though, it takes an iron will to slam the door in its glamorous face. (The lights! The cameras! The action!) That explains how two movie directors and a crew of 40 ended up at our house last week to shoot scenes for “Riddle,” a psychological thriller being filmed here. Val Kilmer stars as a sheriff with a dark side.

Normally, my lawyer husband and I are pretty good at thinking things through. But we have our weaknesses, one of which just happens to be the way houses look in movies. Actors frequently disappoint, but we always can wallow in the set designs. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve painted (and repainted) our walls to replicate a room we saw in, say, “Father of the Bride” or “What Lies Beneath.”

So when a location scout from Smithfield Street Productions, working out of McKees Rocks, appeared on our doorstep in Ben Avon a few weeks ago and asked if we would allow our house be used as a set, it wasn’t just good luck. It was destiny.

Friends and family cautioned us against it, offering up horrid tales of homes being torn apart during filming, crew running amok in the landscaping, and neighbors complaining to the police about noise, lights and parking. But we (me) had stars in our eyes. Even after we found out the star of “Batman Returns” wouldn’t be coming (he wasn’t part of our “location shoot”).

We didn’t really think about the consequences much beyond the fact that the day of the filming would take a long time (it stretched from 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next morning), would involve some equipment being loaded into our house (more than you can possibly imagine) and require a set dresser to spruce things up (actually a plus — maybe a real movie person would paint our house in real movie colors for free!).

It wasn’t until a long line of white trucks groaned onto our street, and the crew started unloading an endless collection of lights, booms, cables, dollies and camera equipment into the yard that the uh-ohs started fluttering like butterflies in my chest. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Though we had a general idea of when directors John Hartman and Nick Mross planned on filming, we didn’t nail down the date until 11 the night before. Luckily, we’d cleaned up over the weekend, so the only question was where the kids would do their homework and sleep (the girls next door, our son in the basement) and what to do with the dog (ship him off to Grandma’s).

Come to think of it, where would we sleep, if sleep was even possible? Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Just too many darn people in the house, many of whom spent their time moving cumbersome pieces of equipment from place to place, knocking pictures off the wall or hushing us to keep quiet when the cameras were rolling.

As our son would post on Facebook at 10:37 p.m., some eight hours after the novelty of having a movie crew at our house wore off, “So being locked in the basement not allowed to make noise kind of sucks.” Crouched on the steps in the third floor or squeezed in a corner, trying my best to stay out of the way, I had to agree.

No time for painting

The day-long shoot started easy enough, with the team responsible for transforming our home into the “Teller” abode arriving on our stoop not long after the kids left for school. In big movies, there’s lots of time for decorators to come up with a design plan based on pictures taken by location staffers. In our case, production designer Lendie Lee got the official call the same time we did, late the night before.

“Sometimes it’s on a wing and a prayer,” she said, laughing, completely nonplussed. Sadly, there’d be no time for painting.

In 16-year-old Jack’s room, Ms. Lee and decorator Smith Harper Hutchings swapped Jimi Hendrix and Anti-Flag posters for baseball memorabilia and pictures of cars; across the hall in Catherine’s room, Justin Bieber pics and middle school knicknacks got the boot.

Transforming our living room into a “video village” where producers could watch live feed of the filming was a different story. Rugs had to be rolled away and furniture pushed in the corner to make room for the computers, TV monitors and a row of directors chairs for the Big Guns. (And yes, they really do have their names stitched on the back.) I must have looked anxious, because John the location guy pulled me aside with a sympathetic smile.

“You know, something’s probably going to get broken,” he warned, as a crew member rolled a giant camera dolly that weighed as much as our Subaru into our dining room. “You need to put away anything that’s valuable.” A short time later, men were carrying my dining room table to my garage-turned-home office.

Later on, when three lighting techs scrambled across our sagging porch roof with huge sunlamps to provide the illusion of sunlight pouring in my son’s bedroom window, we wondered what the limits were on our homeowner’s policy.

Adding to the stress was the fact I’d fractured my baby toe on my way to vote that morning and was hobbling around the set hunched over like a pirate. Unable to run up and down stairs, it was tough to keep track of the controlled chaos swirling around me.

Some advantages

On the plus side, in moving heavy furniture, we discovered things we hadn’t seen in years. Under the couch we found a remote control, a key to my parents’ house and several earrings. Behind our ridiculously heavy sideboard, we discovered kids’ artwork we’d forgotten existed. The crew also managed to pry open a kitchen window that had been painted shut years ago and had to clean the glass twice (twice!) before it stopped showing streaks.

Also, being the homeowner granted us special status with the crew, who were friendly, happy to answer questions and respectful of our belongings. Neighbors might have been stopped at the curb, but we had the run of the set and snack-filled craft truck. We even were allowed to hang out within the “village” during filming and got a personal introduction to the film’s young co-star, Ryan Malgarini of “Gary Unmarried” fame. He cheerfully posed for pictures and signed autographs for neighbor kids who lined up at our fence.

The only problem with filming is that it went on and on and on. Long after the last light went off in our neighbors’ houses, our home was ablaze with megawatts of artificial sunlight, packed with so many young, hip people it felt like the pit at a rock concert.

Then suddenly, at 1:30, word went out over the vast network of wireless headsets that shooting was wrapping up for the night (something about triple overtime) and the entire crowd sprang into action like the Cat in the Hat just before the parents come home, snapping off lights, unplugging wires, wheeling out carts and stuffing trash in garbage bags. Within an hour, every bit of equipment had been loaded into the trucks, all the furniture was back in place and it was as if it never happened.

The only reminder that Hollywood came calling, in fact, is a large patch of trampled grass in our front yard, a date with a professional house cleaner and a pair of sunglasses Mr. Malgarini, to my daughters’ delight, left on the sideboard. Oh, and $500 in our pocket.

Would we do it again? Probably not, out of deference to our neighbors, but we don’t regret it. God knows what will end up on the cutting room floor, but I can already see us in the theater, looking up at the screen and thinking: What a great house!

Adventure just around the bend on overnight kayak-canoe trip

gretchen mckay/post-gazette

BELLTOWN, Pa. — Every paddler has her moment when the only thing on her mind is placing her water shoes on dry land. For me, it came about five hours into the overnight kayaking trip my husband and I took a few weeks ago on the Clarion River.

We’d slid our boats into the water under sunny, late-morning skies about 12 miles upriver under the bridge at Arroyo, Pa. Having kayaked the family-friendly Clarion on a number of occasions, we figured we’d travel at least 4 mph — maybe 5 mph if we put some muscle behind the paddling — a pace that would take us through this tiny crossroads in Elk County not long after we’d eaten our picnic lunch on one of the many giant rocks at the river’s edge. From there, it’s be an easy 5 miles to camp at Clear Creek State Park, leaving us plenty of time for a walk through the woods before a grilled steak dinner.

Talk about miscalculations. We wouldn’t pull our boats to shore at Clear Creek until well after 6 p.m., more than three shoulder-aching hours off schedule.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a gorgeous, meandering ride as the Clarion zigzags through narrow valleys of old-growth hardwood forests bustling with wildlife. (We spied several hawks and a blue heron.) Virtually alone on the water, with nothing but the occasional ripple of whitewater or a jumping fish to break the solitude, we were totally immersed in its natural beauty.

It just took a bit longer than we expected.

Slowed by a strong headwind and stretches of shallow water, a GPS we’d carefully packed in plastic in a life vest revealed we were only traveling a little more than 2 mph. Thank goodness, then, I’d taken my father’s advice and thrown a pair of paddling gloves into my kayak, and remembered to pack plenty of water along with the Pringles.

Tired as we were, when we finally pulled our kayaks out of the water and carried-dragged them to the rustic log cabin we’d rented at Clear Creek, we also were pretty darn happy. If you’re looking to commune with nature while getting a little exercise and fresh air, an overnight paddling trip is the way to do it.

Luckily, you don’t have to own your own boat to take an overnight paddling trip. Several paddling outfitters rent canoes and kayaks for overnight adventures of varying lengths on western Pennsylvanian rivers, often with a shuttle service that eliminates worries about how to get back to your car when the trip is over.

Indian Waters Canoe and Kayak in Tidioute, Warren County, for instance, offers several two- and three-day trips on the Upper Allegheny (15 to 45 miles, $55 to $100 per canoe), with overnight tent camping at developed campgrounds or on public lands along the river. For more enthusiastic paddlers, there’s also a seven-day, 107-mile excursion from Kinzua Dam to Tionesta ($300 per canoe, with a three-canoe minimum).

Generally, two adults and two small children can fit in a canoe, while kayaks can have single or double cockpits.

All trips are self-guided. But that’s not as scary as it might sound to beginners because the Upper Allegheny, a Class 1 river like the Clarion, is fairly calm and slow; some spots are shallow enough that you can wade across without getting your shorts wet.

Heading south, Westmoreland County’s Youghiogheny Canoe Outfitters can arrange a two-day paddle on the Youghiogheny River ($66.50 per boat, three boat minimum). The 28-mile trip starts in Connellsville, with most boaters over-nighting in tents on Layton Island, and ends at its livery in West Newton.

Securing a kayak or canoe, though, is only one part of the equation. You’re also going to figure out what equipment and gear to bring on the paddling trip, what will work best for meals and how to best prepare for any emergencies that might pop up.

Obviously, it’s a bad idea to set off for a weekend trip without at least some basic paddling skills — say, how to get in and out of the boat without falling in the water and how to properly hold a paddle. (If you’re traveling in a group, it’s important to know every paddler’s limitations.) Keystone Sojourns in Ellwood City offers a two-hour class in paddling Tuesdays and Thursdays ($25) at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park. You can also try your hand at paddling through Kayak Pittsburgh, which offers free kayaking 4 p.m. to dusk Monday-Friday in Lake Elizabeth on Pittsburgh’s North Side, near the National Aviary (10 a.m.-dusk Saturday and Sunday, $5 per boat).

You’ll also want to make sure no bad storms are brewing and that the river you’re paddling isn’t too swift or high for your ability (searchable at www.rivergages.com).

Piper Lindell, who with husband Josh runs Allegheny Outfitters in Warren, Pa., maintains packing for a paddling trip is no different that car camping or backpacking in the woods, especially if you’re traveling by canoe, most of which can hold upward of 800 pounds.

“You just need to rethink the space,” she says. Kayaks are a bit tricker, thanks to an enclosed cargo area. Her advice: Figure out what you want, and then “cut it in half.”

How much is too much? There should be a minimum 6 inches of freeboard (the distance between the water line and the top of the boat).

Must-haves include a life vest for each paddler, and a throw bag and rope that can be used for water rescues and to retrieve a boat pinned by the current. You’ll also need a sleeping bag and tent, unless like we did, you rent a cabin. Bring a flashlight, an adequate water supply and bungee chords for strapping everything down. That way if you flip, all your supplies won’t go astray.

Speaking of unintended dips in the water, you’ll want to make sure you dress properly in quick-drying synthetic fabrics that wick perspiration away from the skin, instead of cotton and wool, which have no insulating ability when wet, notes Dave McQuaid of Keystone Sojourn, a Western Pennsylvania guide service. Don’t forget rain gear.

McQuaid also suggests including a tube of topical aloe vera in your first aid kit to soothe mild burns, sunburn and insect bites, along with bug spray and non-water based sunscreen. To keep items like cell phones, toilet paper and iPods safe and dry, invest in a good dry bag (or two) because “plastic bags don’t work.” Except for gathering garbage, that is, so be sure to bring at least one along for your trash.

Other essentials include waterproof matches or lighter and a small ax or saw for cutting firewood. If you have room, a starter log also is a smart idea.

In planning your menu, it helps to make a list of ingredients for each snack or meal. Remember, there are no mini-marts in the middle of the river, so you’re out of luck if you forget sugar for your coffee or ketchup for your hot dog.

Remember, too, that in Pennsylvania it’s illegal to drink or be under the influence of alcohol while operating a boat. So wait until you’ve pulled to shore to enjoy happy hours.

The difference between a boat that stays on shore and one that disappears downstream can be a matter of inches. Be sure to pull your canoe or kayak onto higher ground when you’re setting up camp or secure it with rope. Also, don’t tempt critters by leaving food out in the open or tempt fate by pitching your tent under a dangerous dead branch.

Perhaps most important of all, let someone know where you’re going to be paddling, and when you plan to return because your cell phone may not work on the water.

Meet the ‘Blonde Elvis’ of Mount Oliver: Tribute artists are alive and well

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Dan Casne makes his living redesigning and rewinding electromagnets used on overhead cranes in steel mills. It’s a technical job, and not a bad-paying one. But his true calling just might be singing.

He discovered this when he was well into his 50s. Watching karaoke one night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Mount Oliver about eight years ago, a member cajoled him to take his turn on stage.

“Sing some Elvis,” he remembers the guy telling him.

An affable man with a personality as outsized as his biceps — Mr. Casne is a former amateur weightlifter who could bench 350 pounds — he good-naturedly complied.

He can’t remember what song, exactly, came out of his mouth, just that it was good enough that partygoers asked if he’d do another Elvis number at an upcoming event. The one song he promised stretched into a set of seven or eight.

“I thought it would be the first time I ever did something like that, and the last,” he recalls chuckling. “But they loved it.”

Before he knew it, Mr. Casne, 61, who lives in Allentown, was not just getting all shook up in front of crowds, but became part of the Rat Pack-inspired musical act, The Legends. In the process, he was making many a middle-aged heart go aflutter with the swiveling hips and spangly costumes that marked Elvis Presley’s Vegas years.

The musical phenomenon known as Pittsburgh’s Blonde Elvis — he wears long yellow locks instead of a coal-black pompadour — was born.

It’s not as outlandish as it sounds: Elvis actually was a dishwater blond who dyed his hair black, thinking it looked better on film.

Given that Pittsburgh’s population is the oldest among large metropolitan areas outside of Florida, and that people tend to like the music they grew up with, it’s no surprise a tribute act to one of America’s greatest cultural icons — even one with the wrong hair color — would strike a chord.

“Oh, it brings back the memories,” says retired Port Authority bus driver Jerry Contristano of Baldwin Borough, who’s been attending Mr. Casne’s shows for five years.

Oldies are popular enough that tribute acts — it’s a diss to call them impersonators — abound in local venues. Gateway Clipper Fleet recently started offering Friday lunch cruises with rotating headliner “stars”: Chris Denem singing Neil Diamond, Cathi Rhodes as country music singer Patsy Cline, Randy Galioto as Elvis and Bo Wagner, who does a Frank (Sinatra) & Dean (Martin) revue.

Mr. Casne’s success is ironic because he paid no mind to The King while growing up and is married to someone who’d rather listen to anything but.

“I prefer Hank,” admits his wife, Jo Anne. As in country legend Hank Williams Jr., who Mr. Casne also imitates on occasion at the theater he built five years ago expressly for that purpose.

He’s not an impersonator per se. He sings Elvis “his” way and has his own moves.

“I just get up and do what I do.”

‘Little Vegas’

If the sight of a blond Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in a studded bell-bottomed jumpsuit and yellow aviators is a hoot, Casne World is a verified howler.

Needing a place where he and his buddies could perform, Mr. Casne in 2005 ended up buying the 20,000-square-foot VFW building on Hays Avenue in which he got his start and, working nights and weekends with the help of Charles Krebs, Elaine Mitts and Gail Mervosh, transformed its 22 rooms into a mini-Graceland.

Actually, it’s friends who’ve likened the 1929 hall to Presley’s famed mansion in Memphis: Mr. Casne prefers the term “Little Vegas.” Whatever its name, it can only be described as over-the-top.

Up top, there’s a performance hall with space for 275 guests (150, if you want people to dance), tiki hut-like bars and twin dressing rooms for the talent (his has the bigger star). Elvis posters and a display of sequined jumpsuits brighten the walls.

The hall’s original 25-foot bar is downstairs in the game room, along with a pool table, leather sofas and projection-screen TV. Still to come is a 20-by-50-foot movie theater, a library, a full gym, bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.

Then there’s the lush private living quarters, the centerpiece of which is Mr. Casne’s cathedral-ceilinged bedroom and Egyptian-themed office. The fruit of 16 years of collecting, it has 8-foot replicas of the columns of Luxor Temple mounted on the walls, shelves full of reproduction statuary and miniature obelisks etched with hieroglyphics. Wondering what a full-sized replica of King Tut’s throne looks like? He’s got one of them, along with an 8-foot sculpture of the jackal-headed god Anubis.

His performances are more down to earth, what longtime fan Nancy Stabryla of North Baldwin describes as “personable.”

“He comes to your table and welcomes you, and you almost feel like family,” she says. The singing, she adds, “is excellent.”

“He’s phenomenal,” agrees her husband, Ed, retired from Neville Chemical Co. “If we’ve been there 10 times, we’ve seen 10 different shows. I’m serious, you’d be shocked.”

“I just put on a costume, jump on stage and have a good time,” Mr. Casne says.

Other tribute acts

Singer/songwriter Chris Denem wins similar praise for his Neil Diamond performances. He did his first tribute show to the pop singer in 1976 at age 19, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn with a seven-piece band.

Raised in a musical household in Penn Hills — his father, Ralph Scherder, is a classical pianist — Mr. Denem was an early fan of Mr. Diamond’s work.

“When he first came onto the scene, I thought, ‘That’s me. I can do that,’ ” recalls Mr. Denim, who also plays and records his own music. “So I started picking up his songs, and everything else just happened.”

In the 30 years since, the Butler resident has done hundreds more for crowds who sometimes confuse him for the real thing.

“When he does ‘America,’ you get chills,” says Mr. Stabryla, who has seen him perform numerous times.

Like Mr. Casne, he shies away from the word “impersonator.” He prefers to think of his work more as a tribute than a copy.

“It was just a natural fit for my voice and personality,” he says.

The fact he just happens to also look like the guy and has many of the same mannerisms? Pure happenstance, he insists, the result of genetics rather than wigs and makeup.

Many of his fans are older, but not all.

“The young girls like him because he’s cute,” says Barb Tanski, owner of Buttercup Woodlands Campground in Renfrew, Butler County, where he entertains campers at least twice a year.

Nor are they disproportionately female. Jerry Harrison of Butler estimates he’s seen him perform more than 40 times over the years with his wife, Kathy, including a couple of times in his own backyard for private parties.

Mr. Denem’s take on Diamond is so good, there are certain times when, if you turned your back to him, you’d think the “real” Neil was behind you, he says.

“He puts his heart and soul into it,” Mr. Harrison says.

Cathi Rhodes’ tribute to Patsy Cline is similarly heartfelt and dead-on, which is why Barb Ragen traveled all the way from Latrobe to see her aboard the Gateway Clipper’s Majestic on a recent Friday and made sure she was the second one on the ship.

“I follow her around to all the county fairs, too,” says Ms. Ragen, who works for Excella Health at Latrobe Hospital. “She’s so friendly to everyone, and her show is outstanding.”

The host of “Polka Carousel Show” and “CrossRhodes’ Bluegrass/Folk Music” on WBCW and WHJB radio stations for almost 10 years, Ms. Rhodes, 58, has countless acting and dancing gigs under her white rhinestone belt. The South Greensburg native also can sing. Really well.

It’s tough, walking in the cowboy boots of such a country icon. (Ms. Cline was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Her interaction with the crowd, though, eases the way.

“I don’t want to have this big expanse between us,” she tells the crowd when she takes her place at the microphone, giving her red-and-white fringed shirt a little shake. “So shake a leg.”

Long before she reaches “Crazy” on the set list, people are dancing.

Other oldies but goodies

The Blonde Elvis performs with the Rat Pack at Casne World, 325 Hays Ave., Mount Oliver, on Aug. 21. Tickets ($25) include dinner and beer but must be purchased in advance by calling 412-481-3121; doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Info: blondeelvis.com.

The Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Golden Triangle Lunch Cruise will feature Mr. Wagner’s Frank & Dean revue on Aug. 29 and select Mondays through December, and A Portrait of Patsy Cline by Ms. Rhodes on Aug. 27.

Tickets cost $36.37. Information: gatewayclipper.com. For additional Patsy Cline performances, visit cathirhodes.com.

Upcoming performances by Mr. Denem include free concerts at the Robin Hill Park gazebo, 1000 Beaver Grade Road, Moon, at noon Aug. 18, and at Leo & Sons Grill 31, corner of Diamond and Main streets in Mount Pleasant at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Info: http://chrisdenem.com.

New River Gorge offers scenic outdoor challenges

West Virginia’s New River offers some of the best white water in America. On the Lower New, rafters can expect to crash through giant waves but still float through calm sections with spectacular scenery.

NEW RIVER GORGE, W.Va. — Teenagers can be hard to entertain, especially when the event is a no-texting, try-to-keep-the-iPod-to-a-minimum-so-we-can-actually-have-a-conversation family vacation.

If the kids don’t have fun after being loaded into the car with the suitcases, well, let’s just say it’s going to be a long and quiet ride back home.

Thank goodness, then, that there are so many recreational activities to choose from in this rugged, scenic corner of West Virginia. They include a world-class canopy tour that has you zipping and soaring through the treetops via a network of platforms and rope bridges, 120 feet above Mill Creek canyon, at speeds reaching 30 mph.

Plenty of people still travel to this neck of the “wild and wonderful” woods to raft the rapids on the Upper New (relatively calm), Lower New (moderate to raging) and Gauley rivers (famous for its annual fall releases from Summersville Dam, creating some of the biggest and baddest white water on the East Coast). Increasingly though, they’re rounding out their trips with adventure sports on dry land: guided rock climbing and rappelling, mountain biking and ambush paint ball, an extreme — and usually messy — version of the kids’ game Capture the Flag.

Adventures on the Gorge, an all-inclusive adventure resort on 1,000 acres on the rim of New River Gorge, offers all of the above, plus horseback riding, caving, guided hiking and disk golf, in which players use Frisbee-like disks instead of balls and clubs and throw for “par” at above-ground targets instead of into holes in the ground.

One of the most popular activities, though, is the aforementioned zip line, custom-designed by Bonzai Design in a hemlock forest to the tune of $500,000.

“People like the perception of risk,” says Dave Arnold, one of the founders and partners in Class VI River Runners, which was purchased by investors in 2008 and merged with Mountain River and Rivermen outfitters to create AOTG.

The Gauley and New rivers have long been considered among the best whitewater playgrounds in the United States. Yet as boomers have aged, the numbers paying to strap on PFDs and whitewater helmets while on vacation have tapered; the rafting industry last year attracted less than two-thirds of the number of visitors it did during its peak in 1995.

Resorts such as AOTG, then, are diversifying with activities that, while exciting, are a little kinder to middle-aged body parts. They can be purchased singly (rafting prices start at $104 for a rapid run on the New River, $79 for a half-day of rappelling and climbing and $79 for guided mountain biking) or packaged with lodging options that include the Paddle House, a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot rental home built to green standards. It’s tricked out with reclaimed heart-pine flooring, a cherry-and-granite kitchen, two fireplaces and a wrap-around deck overlooking the New River.

In other words, so long to ending a day in the woods or on the water with hot dogs cooked over a camp fire and bunking down in a pop-up tent. Unless you want to, that is.

While my daughters and I were lucky to overnight in a private house in Wild Rock — a new sustainable vacation community uniquely situated on the gorge — we could have slept in sleeping bags under the stars. Geared to families of all budget levels, AOTG offers traditional tent camping ($15/person) along with platform tents ($69/night) that sleep up to eight in bunks on its Millcreek campus. Vacationers also can choose among six styles of cabins, the most luxurious of which include hot tubs, glossy hardwood floors and fully equipped kitchens ($59 to $449/night May through October, and dramatically less during the “secret season” that runs Nov. 1 through April 30).

Because you might not have the energy to drive the three miles to historic Fayetteville after a hard day of playing (word to the wise: Don’t speed on Route 19), AOTG also boasts four “destination” restaurants serving everything from brisket and ribs smoked over applewood to gourmet pasta and grilled fresh seafood. Situated in a timber-frame pavilion with open-air views of the spectacular gorge that dissects the Appalachian Mountains, Smokey’s on the Gorge offers the fanciest fare, not to mention the best place from which to watch a Mountain State sunset. Plus, there’s a Pittsburgh connection: Food and beverage director Larry Poli ran the legendary Poli restaurant in Squirrel Hill before it closed in 2005.

Vacationers can dine a la carte or pair accommodations with a meal plan; adding breakfast runs $10 to $12 (kids 11 and under half price) and dinner, $19 to $25 (kids $10 to $14).

With everything in one place, saving you time and money, little surprise AOTG was named in 2009 as one of the “best adventure travel companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure.

Joe and Christina Barry of Ross ended up paying about $1,500 for an all-inclusive package that included four nights in a cabin, meals, two guided rock climbing sessions, a half-day rafting trip, the canopy tour, mountain biking and guided hike. They liked it so much, they’re considering returning in the fall with their two children, ages 25 and 22.

“We used to do the family week at the Outer Banks,” says Mrs. Barry, 49, a training manager for SilverSneakers, a fitness program for older folks. “But as we get older, we’re less and less interested in the beach.”

Summer is fast disappearing, but no worries, as fall is actually a great time to visit the New River Gorge. Cooler temperatures lend themselves to sweat-inducing activities such as hiking and climbing and biking, and the guided canopy tour, which has drawn tens of thousands of zip-liners since it opened last summer, might actually be more scenic when the old-growth eastern hemlocks have dropped their leaves and the terrain 85 feet below is dusted with snow. (It’s open weekends and by appointment Nov. 1 through April 28.)

Autumn also ushers in the state’s largest festival, the annual Bridge Day in Fayetteville on the third Saturday of October. That’s when up to 200,000 people are expected to crowd into town for a chance to watch hundreds of BASE jumpers leap off the New River Gorge Bridge in rat-a-tat, parachuted succession. The festival, which this year runs Oct. 15 to 17, also features teams of rappellers chosen by lottery who will ascend and descend from a rope fixed on the bridge’s catwalk.

Nearly as heart-racing is the opportunity for us regular folk to walk legally and safely across the steel structure, the second-highest bridge in the United States, and the longest single-arch steel span bridge in the Western Hemisphere. (This is the only day of the year traffic is shut down.) Still, you’d better not look down if you have acrophobia, because this 70-foot-wide state highway sits a whopping 876 feet above the water. It’s also spectacularly, oh-my-God-how-fast-can-I-get-across-it long, spanning 3,030 feet.

Possessed with nerves of steel? When the much-anticipated BridgeWalk tour ($69; bridgewalk.com; 1-304-574-1037) opens at the end of the month, you’ll be able to ratchet it up a notch with a guided walk over the gorge on a 24-inch-wide catwalk. You’ll be strapped into a safety harness, of course, so there’s no chance of falling. And the traffic on Route 19 will be safely over your head. (The catwalk is part of the bridge’s existing structure.) But still. We’re talking almost three football fields above the rocks and water.

“Some people will do it to conquer their fear of heights,” notes BridgeWalk manager Benjy Simpson, adding, without a touch of irony, “The views are outstanding.”

Whether I’ll have the courage to take that soaring walk above the New River remains to be seen. But my daughters and I certainly had a great time rafting the Lower New River with veteran guide Tom Wagner. And the canopy tour? An adrenaline rush like no other, it’s thrilling, scary and just plain fun all at the same time, and not just for me.

The girls gabbed the entire way back to Pittsburgh.

If you go

Adventures on the Gorge, Lansing, W.Va.

Getting there: The New River Gorge region is about 220 miles south of Pittsburgh, or an easy 3 1/2-hour drive on Interstate 79 south to U.S. Route 19 south, just north of Fayetteville. To get to AOTG’s canyon rim facility, take the Ames Heights Road exit (if you cross the New River Gorge Bridge heading south, you’ve passed it) and go about 1 mile.

Where to stay: AOTG offers a variety of lodging, from luxury vacation homes with gourmet kitchens and hot tubs to rustic cabins, platform tents and old-fashioned campsites. The most luxurious accommodation is Paddle House in Wild Rock (starts at $500/night; www.paddlehousewv.com), a new ecological 725-acre community on the New River. Outfitted with three master bedroom suites and a bunk room, it sleeps 12 and boasts a great room with a fireplace, hot tub and two decks overlooking the gorge.

Other area options include bed and breakfasts, chain motels and hotels and rustic cabin rentals.

Where to eat: In historic Fayetteville, you can’t beat the hand-stretched gourmet pizza at Pies & Pints (there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays) or whole-grain pancakes at Cathedral Cafe, near the Fayette County courthouse on South Court Street. It’s in a turn-of-the-century church with cathedral ceilings and stained-glass windows. Locals also swear by the pulled pork barbecue at Dirty Ernie’s Rib Pit on Keller Avenue and authentic tacos at Diogi’s Mexican Grill & Cantina on North Court Street, just off Route 19.

For more upscale dining, try the dinner buffet at Smokey’s on the Gorge, an open-air restaurant overlooking the gorge on AOTG’s campus. Rendezvous Lodge on the Millcreek campus features bison and chicken sliders on Thursday evenings and live music several nights a week.

What to do: It all depends on how you spell “adventure.” Activities include whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley rivers, all-terrain vehicle tours, paintball, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and caving. The area is also renowned for its smallmouth bass and trout fishing and whitewater kayaking. Treetop’s half-day canopy tour ($99, must be 10 years old and weigh at least 90 pounds) includes 10 ziplines, five sky bridges, one rappel and three short hikes. If you prefer a birds-eye view of the gorge, take a ride in a Bell 47-G2 helicopter ($60 person, www.wvhelicopters.com; 1-800-277-7727) or WWII era Stearman bi-plane ($135/person, www.wildblueadventurecompany.com; 1-304-574-1150).

Upcoming seasonal events include the 12th annual Oak Leaf Festival on Aug. 28 through Sept. 5 in Oak Hill, W. Va. (www.oakleaffestival.org) and the 31st annual Bridge Day Festival on Oct. 15 – 17 in Fayetteville, W. Va. (www.officialbridgeday.com). That’s when up to 200,000 converge near the New River Gorge Bridge to party while hundreds of BASE jumpers from across the globe parachute off the side.

Info: adventurewestvirginia.com; 1-800-252-7784 or newrivercvb.com.

— Gretchen McKay

Mall tattoo studio finds acceptance

Grace Patuwo/Post-Gazette

Getting a little ink etched into the dermis layer of the skin has become so mainstream that Pittsburghers can now get a tattoo at one of the most homogenized of American venues: the mall.

Two months ago, Get Inked … In the Flesh, a 1,500-square-foot tattoo and body piercing studio, opened its doors a few steps from Macy’s in the Mall at Robinson. And as co-owner Stephanie Vegoda expected, business has been brisk.

Many of its customers, evenly split between men and women, are Gen Y-ers who shop at Get Inked, the tattoo-related apparel store Ms. Vegoda opened last year on the mall’s lower level and recently relocated upstairs. But the studio also is finding an audience among aging baby boomers and 40-something professionals. Just the other day, Ms. Vegoda reports with a smile, they got a call from a woman who wanted to buy her mother her first tattoo. For her 70th birthday.

In other words, the studio draws the same clientele as most other stores at the mall.

More information

Get Inked … In the Flesh (store 60) is on the upper level of the Mall at Robinson. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Information: 412-787-2800.

“Tattoos have gone from something you cover up to something you expect,” says Ms. Vegoda, 32. “So the time is right for the concept. It’s a lifestyle.”

This isn’t the first tattoo studio in a suburban shopping center: Tattoo Nation paved the way in 2006 when it opened a studio near Bloomingdales in the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, N.J. (it has since opened a second store in a mall in Queens, N.Y.).

There are also a pair of tattoo and piercing studios in malls in Florida, with two more in the works. But it’s a relatively new concept for Western Pennsylvania. So new, in fact, that when Ms. Vegoda approached mall management, they didn’t exactly jump up and down with excitement.

“We were hesitant,” admits Beth Edwards, manager of the 150-store Robinson complex.

Needless worry, says lead needle artist Mike Anderson, who brought 20-plus years of experience when he relocated from West Virginia to Sewickley with his wife, Gina, a piercing artist. Since opening on May 7, the business has received nothing but praise from shoppers and other tenants, he says.

“We think it’s turned out great,” Ms. Edwards agrees. “It’s a good addition to the mall.”

Much of that can be attributed to the studio’s design. (Call it a parlor and you’ll quickly be corrected.) Ms. Vegoda and business partner Chuck Hornsby of New York clearly did their homework. With brightly colored faux-finished walls (she did the work herself), glossy wood floors and tasteful lighting, it’s more Miami Beach than Miami Ink, a Vespa instead of a Harley.

Hard-core tattoo fans may be put off by its mall-ness, and indeed, some competitors have dismissed the studio as too corporate. But they’re missing the point. A lot of people are intimidated by a traditional tattoo parlor, says Ms. Vegoda.

“We’re not trying to compete,” she says. “We’re trying to open up a new community to the art of tattoos in a place they feel comfortable. We offer good, clean work in a safe environment.”

Besides, she adds, anything that helps legitimize tattoos is good for the industry.

You have to be at least 18 years old to get inked, and there’s a minimum charge of $50, though prices can quickly climb depending on the intricacy of the design, size and use of color. A pair of screens offer privacy for the rare customer who doesn’t want to be on display, or is getting a tattoo on a body part no one but a significant other should see.

Recognizing that many first-timers don’t know what they want — 90 percent of its customers are walk-ins — Get Inked encourages them to page through large books of tattoo flash, or illustrations, at the front of the store. But it’s always best, says Mr. Anderson, to work with the artist to create a custom tattoo that has special meaning. (Word to the wise: “Tramp stamps” on the lower back are out; tatts on the side, rib cage and arms are in. )

Speaking of which, Ms. Vegoda has yet to get a tattoo of her own. She says there’s nothing she can think of that she’d want “for the rest of my life.” But body art is clearly in her blood. Six years ago, the Brownsville native started a company that provides face art, henna and airbrush tattoos for amusement parks across the country. Although her clothing store opened first, it was really just a clever way of getting the public used to an idea she’s had for a long time.

“We’re trying to change the mind of the public that a tattoo is a beautiful piece of artwork,” Ms. Vegoda says, “not something that you should try to hide or be ashamed of.”

Gretchen McKay explores her relationship with beef — the grass-fed kind — at the first MeatTHINK event

John Jamison is smiling as he prepares to open the door to his U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat slaughter and processing plant in Bradenville, near Latrobe. Our group of 15 is about to enter what’s known as the “kill floor,” and I’ll admit it, I’m kind of unnerved. Images of bloody beef carcasses flash through my head, sending my stomach into somersaults.

The famed lamb purveyor isn’t exactly reassuring.

Next on the Menu: Chicken

Lots of people like meat. But do you know why it matters if it’s locally pastured or killed humanely and cleanly? And how, exactly, is it butchered?

Slow Food Pittsburgh is offering a series of lunchtime classes aimed at giving consumers a better appreciation for the chicken, pork and lamb they put on their table. Taught by old-school and “new wave” butchers, chefs, farmers and meat purveyors, the “MeatTHINK” demos also will help consumers become more skilled in their home kitchens.

Last weekend’s on grass-fed beef was the first. The second, on chicken, will be held Aug. 29 at The Farmer’s Wife organic farm in Bessemer, just south of New Castle on the Pennsylvania/Ohio border. Students will explore plucking, cleaning and preparing chicken. Cost is $35 ($45 for non-members), and includes an organic picnic.

On Oct. 30, Ray Turkas Jr. of Strip District Meats on Penn Avenue in the Strip will break down a half hog from Heilman’s Hogwash Farm in Sarver, Butler County. Lunch follows at Ray’s Cafe next door; price and time to be determined.

Slow Food also will hold a class on halal and kosher lamb butchering at Salem’s Market in the Strip District. All details yet to come, but it’s sure to be a great party — a lamb roast follows at the market.

Each class is limited to 30 students, and pre-registration is required by getting on Slow Food Pittsburgh’s mailing list at slowfoodpgh.com. You also can send an e-mail to vredpath@aol.com for more information.

“The smell is not a great thing,” Mr. Jamison cautions as we pull on long white butcher coats and tuck hair under baseball caps.

Ugh. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t eat breakfast.

We’re at the Westmoreland County plant, one of just a handful of small, independently owned USDA facilities in the area, for a grass-fed beef butchery class sponsored by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Using hand tools, a team of expert butchers will break down a side of beef into the major cuts, in the process explaining how grass-fed cattle differ from conventional beef, and the benefits of mom-and-pop butchering to commercial. Afterwards, the group will gather at Mr. Jamison’s bucolic sheep farm outside of Latrobe for PASA’s third-annual grass-fed beef cook-off (medium-rare Delmonico steaks, seasoned only with salt) and picnic.

Previous events were held in the eastern part of the state and focused on farmers’ methods and techniques for raising grass-fed cattle. Yet natural beef is still new enough, notes southeast regional director Marilyn Anthony, that many cooks aren’t sure what to ask for at the butcher’s shop or how to prepare it. So this year, PASA decided to make the Aug. 7 cook-off — also one of Slow Food Pittsburgh’s four meatTHINK classes offered this season to demonstrate why locally pastured meat and humane killing are important — a regional event with a focus on processing.

For me, the only slaughterhouse newbie among chefs, farmers and other food professionals, it was quite an education.

The smell’s not as bad as Mr. Jamison predicted in the concrete-floored kill room, just slightly … funky. But there are giant hooks hanging on chain hoists attached to the ceiling, as well as a scary-looking “splitter saw” above our heads used to cut the beef in half, butt to neck, after it’s been bled out, skinned and eviscerated.

Butcher Bill Marshall, 31, also points out in a far corner a “knock box,” or the pen in which the animal is contained while it’s stunned. Some things you just don’t want to think about, though if you’re going to eat beef, it’s important to understand how it arrived on your table.

Since the processed beef is sold, an inspector is always on site on kill days, both to verify the animal has been humanly stunned and bled and to make sure the carcass is free of disease and parasites. (If the animal is 30 months or older, its spinal cord must be removed as a precaution against mad cow disease.) The plant also must adhere to strict sanitation.

It’s tiring work, what with the endless lifting, sawing and slicing. But Mr. Marshall and fellow meat cutters Jon Hollick, 34, and younger brother Tom Marshall, 29, are hugely enthusiastic. Trained by staff at Ohio and Penn state universities’ meat labs and by old-time butchers, they’re also extremely skilled. On a good day, the team processes up to eight animals, or roughly one cow/steer every 90 minutes.

When Mr. Hollick opens the walk-in cooler behind the long work table and we’re invited inside, a blast of 38-degree air hits our faces. Nearly as chilling — at least to a city gal who’s watched way too many horror movies — is the sight of more than a dozen sides of beef dangling on stainless steel hooks from the 111/2-foot ceiling. They’re massive hunks of raw meat, covered in a thin layer of fat; the animal we’ll see get broken down hit the scales at 205 pounds per half.

Aging improves the tenderness and flavor of meat, so our side of beef — slaughtered on July 22 — has been hanging for 16 days, during which the temperature in the cooler was slowly lowered from 55 degrees. Chill it too quickly, notes Mr. Jamison, and you chance a phenomenon known as “cold shortening,” where the muscles shrink and the meat toughens.

Stocky and obviously strong, Mr. Hollick is the brawn of the operation, holding the beef as Mr. Marshall cuts between the 12th and 13th ribs, separating it into two pieces. Placing the 100-pound forequarter on the poly-top work table, Tom Marshall grabs a curved boning knife from his white plastic holster and, working with the natural seam of the meat, quickly separates the rib from the chuck.

Over the course of the next hour, it’s hard to keep up with the Marshalls’ knives, wielded with incredible accuracy, or the terminology of the primal, sub-primal and other cuts; to my untrained eye, much of the meat looks alike, even though PASA science adviser/veterinarian Susan Beal does her best to help us visualize the body parts. My head is spinning.

From the forequarter we get chuck eye and blade roasts, brisket, short ribs and flatiron steak, which until a few years ago was thought of as a waste cut of meat because of a thick tendon that runs through the middle. The hindquarter is equally bountiful. The short loin is broken down into porterhouse, T-bone and strip steaks, the sirloin and round sections into various roasts and steaks.

As they work, less desirable pieces are tossed into a large “chop meat” bin for grinding while scraps, fat and bones go into a garbage can destined for Valley Protein in Mifflintown, which specializes in the recycling of animal by-products. Unfortunately, I’m standing close enough to the blood-stained table that when tiny bits of red stuff spray into the air, they land on my coat.

Icky, but not as much as when Mr. Hollick cuts into the beef’s patella and it oozes some sort of pale, slick liquid. I must have made a face because Ms. Beal quickly points out slime is “appropriate.”

The class ends with a quick tour of the processing room and discussion of cleaning and sanitation. Gone are the days when a 16-year-old swept up after school; today’s clean-up guy is an expert in microbiology. As Mr. Jamison puts it, “There’s no way it isn’t perfect when it goes out because so many people are watching.”

That’s the processing side. But what about the reason we’re here in the first place?

To a nation accustomed to corn-fed meat, beef raised solely on mother’s milk, grass and sunshine might seem like a new idea. But virtually all cattle before World War II enjoyed a natural grass diet, notes Ms. Beal; it was only post-war, when — aided by federal subsidies — agribusiness produced large surpluses of soybeans and corn, and farmers realized it was not only cheaper to feed cattle grain but it also made them fatter, quicker. (Grass-fed cattle take between two to three years to bring to plate, while grain-fed are ready for slaughter in 16 to 18 months.)

The best breeds are the big, square cows on skinny legs depicted in early American pastoral landscapes: squatty Herefords, Scottish Highlands, Devons. Horizon View Farms in the Laurel Highlands, which won this year’s cook-off among 13 farms, raises Salers, a breed that originated in France. Cressbrook Farm, last year’s champion and this year’s Farmer’s Choice winner, raises on 60 acres in Lancaster Irish Blacks, a pure, thick-bodied breed that traces back to three sires imported from Ireland.

Grass-fed beef comes at a premium — Horizon charges $14.95 per pound for New York strip — but advocates say the health benefits are worth it. Lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than grain-fed beef, it also has three times more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Because grass-fed cows typically are individually butchered by skilled craftsmen, there’s also less chance of E. coli contamination. Also, grass-fed beef doesn’t receive growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.

What’s not so good for the consumer is that the taste, which is gamier than conventional steak, varies from farm to farm, season to season, and even cow to cow. It all depends on the type of grass the cows are eating, and whether they’re “finished” in the summer or winter, when their diet includes hay. The texture, too, is a bit less tender.

Sounds crazy, but I wasn’t sure if my first taste of grass-fed beef at the cook-off was beef or lamb, it was so different — in a good way — from what I was used to. But Big Burrito Restaurant Group’s Bill Fuller — one of 10 food professionals who judged the steaks based on appearance, aroma, texture, flavor and aftertaste — knew what to expect.

“Man, that’s beautiful,” he declares after tasting a particularly juicy-looking entry.

“It’s a taste that jumps out at you,” Larry Herr of Cressbrook Farm tells me afterwards. “When you eat it, you say, ‘That’s good beef!’ ”

The USDA has yet to adopt a definition of “grass-fed” for labeling, which complicates things. Some producers market their beef as raised on grass but actually “polish” them with grain in the last weeks to fatten them up.

“The words can be greenwashed a little,” Ms. Beal concedes, “because everyone is looking for something to make their product unique.”

To assure they’re getting a 100-percent grass-fed product, then, consumers need to develop a relationship with the individual farmers or suppliers. Which may be easier said than done: grass-fed beef still accounts for a tiny part of the $73 billion U.S. beef industry, so finding it at your local grocery store could be a challenge. (You may have better luck at a farmers market.)

Grass-fed beef also doesn’t abound on local menus. As Mr. Fuller and fellow cook-off judge Trevett Hooper, chef and co-owner of Legume Bistro in Regent Square, lamented while sitting under a tent, grass-fed beef often is sold by the quarter or half carcass, so you can’t easily order up 50 steaks for Saturday night’s crowd. Plus, because it’s lean, cooking cuts other than steak takes some know-how.

“I haven’t really figured it out yet,” admits Mr. Hooper.

Before the PASA butchery class and cook-off, I never cared too much where I bought my beef or how it was processed; afterwards, I started to reconsider. Grass-fed beef is better for the body, kinder to the animal, gentler on the land and just plain tasty.

With three teenagers and a husband who aren’t afraid to ask for seconds in the house, it’s unrealistic to think I’ll spend $30 or $40 on steak for a school-night dinner. But special occasions, or when it’s just me and my husband? Definitely a possibility.