Gretchen McKay

At Notion, a sprint to the finish

(Second in an occasional series on the birth of Notion)

Chef Dave Racicot of Notion/ Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

 

A perfectionist chef doesn’t get much sleep in the days leading up to the opening of a new restaurant, thanks to the critical and time-consuming task of developing dishes that will delight the eye as much as they thrill the palate. He gets less still when he also happens to be the restaurant’s business owner, lead designer, project manager, human resource director and public relations specialist.

The recommended six or seven hours of shut-eye each night? More like two or three.

It’s understandable, then, that Dave Racicot looked a bit ragged about the edges late last week at Notion, his 38-seat restaurant opening Friday in Oakmont.

The masking tape that just two weeks ago marked where to place furniture has given way to actual tables and comfy, upholstered chairs. But there’s still the matter of finalizing purveyors. Equipment malfunctions. A headache-inducing stack of tax and payroll forms requiring signatures. And damn! Why doesn’t anyone want to take the pizza oven that’s monopolizing his undersized kitchen off his hands?

“Construction worker, electrician, painter, designer, CFO, CEO, logistics, dishwasher … I’ll make time for chef eventually!” he posted Dec. 16 on Notion’s Facebook page.

Add a commute from Uniontown that keeps the 31-year-old chef on the road three-plus hours a day and, well, you’d probably have a few circles under your eyes, too.

At least there were no worries about the food, images of which he’s been sketching in his head for months, if not his entire career.

People eat as much with their eyes as their mouths, Mr. Racicot explains. So, along with the exact amount of Terra Spice Company seasonings to enhance a food’s flavor — each measured to the 100th gram — he’s spent countless hours perfecting his garnishes and plating techniques. Most turn up as sketches in the black idea book that’s never far from his side.

“It’s all very calculated and on purpose,” says Mr. Racicot, who was chef de cuisine at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s flagship restaurant Lautrec until January. He adds, “Notion will be an emotional, multisensory experience.”

A working menu pried out of his reluctant hands on Dec. 22 (he wouldn’t actually kitchen-test any of the recipes until two days ago ) reads more like poetry than weird science: Elysian Fields lamb smoked in hay. Chicken dressed in textured hazelnut oil. Lobster “au natural” with textures and forms of coconut. Manchego with pistachio custard and poached quince.

It’s a far cry from the simple pastas and boxed tacos he cooks for his three kids for dinner, and further still from the foot-long hoagies he’s been wolfing down, late at night, during the two-month renovation of the former Boulevard Bistro. But it’s perfectly in keeping with the forward-thinking dishes the Indiana, Pa., native created at Lautrec.

Prices will run between $24 and $34 for an entree, with the chef also offering a 7-course tasting menu for $75 ($99 paired with wine). A sommelier will suggest wine pairings.

“Our goal isn’t to be an overly priced, pretentious place where you feel uncomfortable and have to save money for a year to go to,” he told his Facebook fans. “We will be serving my food, the food I am passionate about, but without obtrusive, stuffy, overbearing service.”

Pastry chef Josh Lind, sous chef Andrew Stump and cook Joshua Neeley will help with the cooking, but menu development is his alone; his creative persona, Mr. Racicot admitted on Tuesday, doesn’t mesh with “random ideas” being thrown around.

It’s a culinary doctrine that appeals to the faithful: Manager Jennifer Jin, who’s also working on a degree in computer science at the University of Pittsburgh, has taken more than 50 reservations for tomorrow’s grand opening. Customers have purchased gift certificates, too.

“So, even before we’re open, we’re actually making money,” he notes with a grin.

The road to Notion

Unlike some chefs, Mr. Racicot didn’t grow up in a rich culinary environment. There was no backyard garden from which to pick fresh veggies, no expansive grocery lists or relationship with a local butcher; food, he says, was more about subsistence than enjoyment. That said, he speaks fondly of going with younger brother Ryan, executive chef at Longue Vue Club in Verona, to their Italian maternal gram’s house in Homer City for fresh pasta on Sundays. He also remembers making crepes at age 6 with Memere, his French grandmother on his father’s side.

“I’d stand on a footstool in front of her stove,” he says.

Had he liked washing dishes at the Holiday Inn as a teen, Chef Racicot might never have tried his hand at cooking. But man, did he despise being a “dish pig,” and before long he was on the hotel’s line cooking omelets and French fries. By age 20, he’d been promoted to executive chef.

A job at Nemacolin’s Golden Trout soon followed and this, he says, is where he learned much of his craft, first by watching and then by doing. He read voraciously about food, devouring Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook” so many times that to this day he can recite entire passages.

“For me, it was very important to understand how chefs thought, and organized their kitchens,” he explains.

In 2003, Mr. Racicot turned in his chef’s coat at Nemacolin, packed up his wife, Kelly, and two children, and headed west to Las Vegas, where Julian Serrano was stretching the boundaries at Picasso, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant in the Bellagio. As he explained to Chef Serrano in the certified letter he sent him the same day he gave notice at Golden Trout, he needed to work for someone who was passionate about food if he was ever going to make a name for himself in the business. It took six long months, but eventually Mr. Serrano offered him a cook position.

Two years later, a more experienced Chef Racicot was back at Joe Hardy’s resort in Fayette County, the new chef de cuisine of Aqueous. In 2007, he took the reins at Lautrec and within a year steered it to its Five Diamond rating from AAA. He’d work there for the next three years.

The experience of maturing his craft in one of Western Pennsylvania’s top kitchens was unparalleled, which is why the split last January wasn’t exactly a happy one.

“I was given an opportunity to just cook,” says Mr. Racicot. “No one told me what I had to do or put on the menu.” A wistful smile creeps across his face.

“I was able to really define what I wanted to be as a chef.”

Crafting the menu

Chef Racicot’s goal at Notion is to create the same progressive, modern American food that made the folks at the James Beard Foundation take notice while he was at Nemacolin. For the most impact, the menu — to be previewed at an invitation-only soft opening this evening, with staff sampling it yesterday — includes just 12 extremely focused items; diners, he says, also can expect flawless service.

To err might be human but not in Chef Racicot’s kitchen, even on the first day of business: If you allow people an opportunity to make mistakes just because something is new, he notes, it changes the mindset.

“I don’t have the capacity to give myself any wiggle room,” he says on Tuesday afternoon, cool as a cucumber in his crisply starched chef whites — despite the fact that two days out, he was still writing recipes and compiling shopping lists.

It helps that most of Mr. Racicot’s staff has previously worked together, and enjoy the team mentality and easy camaraderie that keep a commercial kitchen functional.

“It’s like riding a bike, or dusting off the cobwebs,” says Mr. Lind, who worked with him at Lautrec. “He’s a great leader. He can lead me in any battle.”

Any butterflies are best left to apprentice Graham McCollum, an 18-year-old senior at Riverview High School who’s busy trimming a big bowl of brussels sprouts.

Back to the food. Some of Chef Racicot’s creations were as simple as blinking: To envision the dish, all he had to do was close his eyes. Others are elaborate, intellectual works of art with as many as 14 garnishes and a marriage of textures and flavors. A broccoli starter, for instance, combines a puree made from the very green tops and stems slow-cooked in butter with toasted barley and scalded milk froth. Lamb will be unveiled in a small cloud of smoke to tickle the olfactory receptors.

Many ingredients will be locally sourced, of course. Just don’t expect Chef Racicot to use Farm to Table as a marketing tool because rather than try to make people “feel good” about their food choices, his aim is to provide the freshest food from the best possible sources.

As he puts it, “If the best strawberries come from a local farmer, I’ll support him,” he says. “But if they taste better from California, I’ll use that.”

Nor will he allow diners to substitute.

“I think a lot about everything,” he says. “I don’t sit down and write a menu in 15 minutes.”

Some customers might not appreciate such artistic integrity. But if Chef Racicot accomplishes what he has set out to, he says everyone who dines at Notion will leave the table happy.

“If I do my job, it’s going to taste great to everyone.”

What’s for dinner: Cheater chicken curry

High Flavor, Low Labor

No one’s going to blame you if you don’t feel like cooking a big meal after the holidays. This easy recipe starts with a store-bought rotisserie chicken — God’s gift to the busy and/or weary home chef.

The original recipe calls for serving it with couscous, but I think it would taste even better with fragrant Basmati rice or scooped onto warm naan bread, which you can find in most large grocery stores. Don’t be afraid to add more curry powder or a dash of cayenne pepper if you prefer things a little spicy.

  • 1 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 large carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder, or more to taste
  • Meat from a 2 1/2-pound rotisserie chicken
  • 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

In a small saucepan, bring water and 1 tablespoon olive oil to a boil. Turn off heat. Add couscous, stir, then cover and set aside.

In a large deep skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, red bell pepper, garlic, carrots and raisins. Saute until onions and pepper are just tender, about 5 minutes.

Add curry powder and cook for 2 minutes. Add chicken and coconut milk. Bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the couscous to a serving bowl or platter. Spoon the chicken curry over couscous, then garnish with scallions and cilantro.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “High Flavor Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking” by J.M. Hirsch (Ballantine, 2010, $24)


Stracotto (Pot Roast) with Porcini Mushrooms

Crunched for time? Time to get two meals out of your recipes.

I served this delicious pot roast on day one, as Food Network cooking star Giada De Laurentiis suggests, with a cheesy polenta. The next day, I chopped up the leftovers and sprinkled them along with cheese, chopped fresh tomatoes, pickled jalapenos, onion and a little salsa on a bed of tortilla chips. Five minutes under the broiler and, voila, pot roast nachos!

  • 5-pound boneless beef chuck roast
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir
  • 15-ounce can beef broth, plus extra, as needed
  • 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary, leaves removed and chopped
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. In a heavy 6-quart pot or Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook until browned on all sides, about 12 minutes. Remove beef and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium. Add remaining oil and onions. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add wine and scrape up brown bits clinging to the bottom of the pan. Stir in broth and mushrooms. Return beef to pot and bring liquid to a boil. Cover pot and transfer to oven. Cook until meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours, turning beef over halfway through and adding more broth, as needed.

Transfer beef to cutting board, tent with foil and let stand 15 minutes. Meanwhile, spoon any excess fat off the top of the pan juices. Using an immersion blender, blend plan juices and vegetables until smooth. Add rosemary and thyme. Bring sauce to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut beef into 1-inch pieces and place on platter. Serve with sauce on top or on the side.

Serves 8 to 10.

— Giada De Laurentiis, “Giada at Home”


What’s For Dinner: Linguine al limone

Not loving the snow and below-freezing temps? There’s nothing like citrus to chase away the winter blues. This velvety, and super-quick, pasta dish is brightened with a liberal dose of lemon zest.

Cream-based sauces are supposed to be silky and just fluid enough to coat the pasta, so be sure to plate it immediately, or the sauce will coagulate and bind to the pasta, making it lumpy. Serve with hot, crusty bread and a simple green salad.

  • 1 pound linguine
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 2 lemons, divided
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, place egg yolks in a large bowl. Grate the zest of 1 lemon into the bowl. Add cheese and pepper, whisk to combine, then whisk in cream, milk, parsley, chives and generous pinch of salt.

When pasta is al dente, drain and return to pot. Immediately add egg mixture and toss together to combine well, then divide among serving bowls. Grate fresh lemon zest (from remaining lemon) and cheese over the top. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— “La Cucina Italiana,” October 2010


Easier holiday entertaining: Yes, it can be done

Sheila's Roasted Pumpkin Soup Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

It just wouldn’t be the season without some sort of festive gathering of family and friends. Usually, bless their generous souls, some brave couple in my neck of the woods takes on the task of hosting a holiday party.

This year, it was me who took the reins and ran with it — and very happily so.

You see, the love of my life turned the big 5-0 earlier this month and to celebrate, I decided to throw him a surprise party with 50 of his closest friends. And guess what? It actually worked, with Peter not suspecting a thing until he walked in the door to shouts of “Surprise!” and smelled all the goodies laid out on the dining room table.

That’s not to say keeping the biggest secret in recent McKay history wasn’t without its challenges, namely how to keep invitees — and five children — from accidentally blabbing. But because I went with a buffet composed of easy-to-prepare appetizers and a couple of main dishes, the food part ended up being a breeze.

Special occasions such as birthdays and the holidays, naturally, call for special dishes. But that doesn’t mean you have to drive yourself crazy with a menu that takes hours, if not days, to prepare. Remember, you’re a guest, too; the best way to prove it is to plan good eats that require little more than heating and assembling once guests arrive, limiting your time in the kitchen.

My goal was to pick dishes that could be made and/or assembled in less than 15 minutes, didn’t have to be served piping hot and offered a variety of tastes: salty, sweet, savory and spicy.

Every party requires at least one gee-whiz dish, and for Peter’s I was lucky to have two: a horseradish-and-potato-chip-crusted beef tenderloin I roasted early in the afternoon, and beer-batter crepes with ricotta and marinara hand-rolled by my good friend and neighbor Josephine Coletti. (You should be so lucky to have an Italian cook live nearby, but if you’re not, you can always substitute boxed cannelloni.) Josephine also whipped up a delicious pumpkin soup, served in small coffee cups with a roasted pepper garnish.

Rounding out the menu was a half-dozen appetizers, including an absolutely terrific Asian-style pesto served on a wonton crisp with a sliver of shrimp. Each took no more than 10 minutes to prepare, save for a savory caramelized onion tart that required 25 minutes of baking. But even that, with the filling made the day before, was simply waiting to be popped in the oven once the party got rolling.

And roll it did once the group wished my husband a “Happy Birthday!” with a bubbly cranberry-champagne punch.


Sheila’s Pumpkin and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

Serve this classic holiday soup in small cups or mugs with handles. If you can’t find fresh pumpkin, substitute any variety of winter squash such as acorn, butternut, banana or hubbard.

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups chicken stock or broth
  • 3 cups pumpkin puree (to make, cut pumpkin in half, remove seeds and microwave until soft, not mushy. Puree flesh in a food processor or blender)
  • 1 each medium red and yellow bell pepper, roasted and peeled, deveined and seeded, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • Pinch hot red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half or heavy cream

In a large sauce pot, melt butter and saute the onion until soft. Sprinkle mixture with flour and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring until thick and smooth. Add pumpkin, peppers, seasonings and half-and-half or cream. Stir the soup to warm through without boiling. Serve garnished with additional chopped pepper.

Serves 6.

— “Peppers Hot & Sweet” by Beth Dooley (Garden Way, 1990)


Shrimp Wonton Crisps with Asian Pesto

  • 1 medium garlic clove
  • 3 tablespoons honey-roasted peanuts, plus 2 tablespoons chopped for garnish
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 cups packed fresh cilantro leaves
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus 1 cup for frying
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 9 wonton wrappers, quartered
  • 18 cooked, peeled shrimp (31 to 35 count), halved lengthwise

Mince garlic, 3 tablespoons peanuts and pepper flakes in a food processor. Add cilantro, 3 tablespoons oil, sugar and soy sauce and process to pesto consistency.

Heat remaining 1 cup oil over medium heat in a medium skillet. When oil starts to shimmer, add 12 wonton quarters; fry, turning once, until golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer to a wire rack. Repeat twice with remaining wontons.

Just before serving, place a shrimp half on each wonton crisp. Top with a generous 1/4 teaspoon pesto, and garnish with a sprinkling of chopped peanuts.

Makes 3 dozen.

— “Perfect One-Dish Dinners” by Pam Anderson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, $32)


Smoked Salmon and Dill Mascarpone Toasts

Grated fennel gives this seafood appetizer the tiniest bit of crunch, while creamy mascarpone, an Italian triple-cream cheese, dresses up the toast. Use the best salmon you can afford.

  • 4 slices country white bread
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces mascarpone
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus 16 small fronds for garnish
  • Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 medium fennel bulb (about 8 ounces), cut in half through the core and cored
  • 4 ounces sliced cold-smoked salmon, cut into 16 even pieces

Position a rack 6 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler on high. Set the bread on a baking sheet, brush 1 side with the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Broil the bread until golden brown and crisp on top, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden, about 1 minute. While the bread is still hot, slice off the edges. Let cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, mix mascarpone, chopped dill, 1 teaspoon lemon zest and 2 teaspoons lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper and more lemon juice or zest to taste. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the fennel into long, thin strips by pressing firmly against it; season the strips with salt. (You can do all this ahead and refrigerate; bring to room temperature before assembling.)

To assemble, spread the toasts with some of the mascarpone and then cut each toast into 4 even rectangles. Top each square with a couple pieces of the fennel, a curl of salmon, a dill frond and a few grinds of pepper.

Makes 16 canapes.

— “Fine Cooking Appetizers” (Taunton, 2010, $19.95)


Sun-dried Tomato Dip

This easy dip will give your vegan guests something to cheer about. Serve with crudites or spread the dip on a flour tortilla with some watercress and grated daikon radish, roll and cut into pinwheels. The vegan ingredients are available at Whole Foods.

  • 1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
  • 1 cup vegan cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup vegan sour cream
  • 1/4 cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Baby carrots, jicama sticks and broccoli florets, for dipping

Put the tomatoes, cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise, cayenne, onion powder, garlic powder and salt into a food processor and process until smooth. Serve with the vegetables.

Makes 2 cups.

— “Quick and Easy Vegan Celebrations” by Alicia C. Simpson (The Experiment, 2010, $18.95)

Horseradish-crusted beef tenderloin

PG tested

Every holiday party calls for at least one fancy-pants dish. I like beef tenderloin because it’s so easy: simply smear on some sort of coating and roast it. This recipe intrigued because it calls for rolling the roast in potato chips, my all-time favorite snack food. I was feeding a crowd, so doubled the ingredients for my 7-pound roast.

The original recipe calls for making potato chips from scratch but lazy me substituted store-bought kettle-style chips. Be careful not to add the gelatin until the last moment or the mixture will become unspreadable.

  • 2-pound beef tenderloin, trimmed of fat and silver skin
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons panko bread crumbs
  • 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • Handful potato chips, crushed
  • 1 small shallot, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
  • 1/4 cup well-drained prepared horseradish, divided
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered gelatin

Sprinkle roast with 1 tablespoon salt, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour or refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss bread crumbs with 2 teaspoons oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a 10-inch nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and cool to room temperature. Once cooled, toss the bread crumbs with potato chips, shallots, garlic, 2 tablespoons horseradish, parsley and thyme.

Pat exterior of the tenderloin dry with paper towels and sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon pepper. Heat reserved tablespoon oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Sear the tenderloin until well browned on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and let rest 10 minutes.

Combine remaining 2 tablespoons horseradish, mayonnaise and mustard in a small bowl. Just before coating the tenderloin, add gelatin and stir to combine. Spread horseradish paste on the top and sides of the meat, leaving the bottom and ends bare. Roll the coated sides of the tenderloin in the bread-crumb mixture, pressing gently so the crumbs adhere in an even layer that just covers the paste. Pat off any excess.

Return the tenderloin to the wire rack. Roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the roast registers 120 to 125 degrees for medium-rare, 25 to 30 minutes.

Transfer the roast to a carving board and let rest 20 minutes. Carefully cut the meat crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Adapted from “The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook” (Nov. 2010, $39.95)

Cranberry Champagne Cocktail

  • 8 tablespoons Cointreau, chilled
  • 12 teaspoons frozen cranberry juice cocktail concentrate, thawed
  • 750-ml bottle Champagne or sparkling wine, chilled
  • 8 fresh or frozen cranberries

Place 1 tablespoon Cointreau and 11/2 teaspoons cranberry juice concentrate in each of 8 Champagne flutes. Top with Champagne. Drop 1 cranberry into each cocktail and serve.

Serves 8.

— Bon Appetit, Dec. 2010


Beer Batter Crepes with Ricotta and Marinara

Thank goodness for neighbors like Josephine Coletti, who prepared this delectable pasta dish (one of three) from scratch. With just three ingredients and two minutes of cooking, the crepes are easier to make than you might think. But you also can substitute boxed cannelloni pasta (try to find De Cecco; it’s delicious).

For crepes
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup light beer
  • 2 tablespoons flour

Beat eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper. In another bowl, mix flour with beer, making sure to pour carefully so the beer doesn’t froth. When flour mixture is smooth, carefully fold in the beaten eggs.

Heat a lightly oiled 6-inch frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour 2 tablespoons batter into the hot pan. Tilt the pan with a circular motion so that the batter coats the surface evenly. Cook the crepe for about 2 minutes, until the bottom is a light, golden brown. Loosen with a spatula onto a plate (no need to flip). Repeat with remaining batter.

Don’t be afraid to stack the crepes; they won’t stick.

Makes 12 crepes.

For ricotta filling
  • 1 pound ricotta
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for sprinkling
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley or 1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • 2 slices of prosciutto, hard salami or sopressata, chopped into fine pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Dried hot pepper flakes, optional
  • 3 cups bottled or homemade marinara sauce

Beat ricotta with egg in a large bowl. Add parmesan, parsley and prosciutto; salt and pepper to taste. If using prosciutto or salami, add a pinch of hot red pepper flakes.

Makes about 2 cups of filling.

To assemble: Place about 2 tablespoons of ricotta filling in the middle of a crepe, and spread evenly over the surface. Loosely roll the crepe several times, then place in a lightly sauced baking dish. Be sure to keep the seam down so the crepe doesn’t unravel. Repeat with remaining crepes.

Spoon marinara on top of crepes and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until Parmesan starts to turn golden and the sauce bubbles. Or, cover and bake the following day.

Serves 6.

— Josephine Coletti, Ben Avon


Priest and his dad bond in the family tradition of hunting

The sun had barely started its creep toward the heavens when the Rev. Father Mike Zavage positioned himself against a tree, his .284 Winchester hanging at the ready on his right shoulder. Gusty winds made the 18-degree air feel more like an ungodly 2 degrees, but the 28-year-old priest was smiling, happy to finally be in the woods on this, the ninth day of deer season.

Insulated boots and gloves kept his extremities from turning to Popsicles while he stood, silent and still, for hour upon hour in the hillside hunting spot he’d scouted months before, when these state game lands in Greene County were still green with leaves. Warming his soul was the fact that his father, also named Mike, was trekking through the snow somewhere nearby.

Mr. Zavage had already bagged an 8-point buck the day before in the same stretch of woods, so his job this wintry day was to drive deer out of the brush toward his son and fellow hunter Mike Venesky, 25, of Baldwin Township.

“You want to try to create a shooting lane,” Mr. Zavage explained in the pre-dawn darkness, as the hunting party tuned their walkie-talkies to the same channel. It would be two long and chilly hours before they’d actually use them, and then only to agree that it was time to change locations.

Deer hunting for many is a solitary sport, but in the Zavage household it has always been a shared experience. Father Zavage, parochial vicar at St. Anne Catholic Church in Castle Shannon, was born on the first day of buck season in 1982 and has been hunting with his dad since he was 12. His father, in turn, learned the sport at the same age from his father, Andy, who owned a grocery store near Uniontown.

“In Fayette and Greene counties, that’s what all the young men did,” said Mr. Zavage, 55, a coal miner-turned-mechanic who for the past 34 years has worked for Cumberland Coal Resources. “It’s a tradition for the area. You turn 12 and take hunter’s safety.”

Back when he was a kid in the ’60s, the group typically included a half-dozen or more dads, uncles and brothers all going out together, Mr. Zavage remembered. All but one of his brothers is now deceased. So the fact his only son is out here with him, well, “it’s good you can pass it on,” he said.

Deer hunting is popular enough in this corner of the state that countless boys (and some girls) take off school on the opening day of buck season, which this year fell on Nov. 29, the same day doe season began. But a priest who hunts? Some might find that upsetting; St. Frances of Assisi, after all, is the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals.

Father Zavage understands he’s more the exception than the rule; he knows of only one other priest who shares his passion for deer season, and this year he had to pass up the chance to join Father Zavage because of a funeral. Yet when you grow up in Greene County — God’s country, as he likes to tell his parishioners — hunting isn’t so much a hobby as a way of life.

Hunting is also a way for men who find it difficult to tell one another how much they care to demonstrate it. In his Father’s Day homily this past June, Father Zavage recounted for his congregation how last year, his father couldn’t hold a gun because he’d had shoulder surgery. Instead, he spent many hours over several days trying to drive deer toward his son. On the last day of hunting season, with his help, his son bagged a button buck.

“My dad is not a man of many words, but his actions definitely speak louder than words,” he said in his sermon. “Not only did he not get to hunt, but he had to walk miles every day to push the deer to me.”

If that’s not love, what is?

Father Zavage argues there are two kinds of hunters: those looking to get the biggest trophy buck they can and those who do it only for the venison. He and his father fall into the latter category.

“I feel that if you kill a deer, you’re obligated to eat it,” he said. “I am insulted when someone throws the meat away.”

To that end, anything they kill ends up on the kitchen table in form of chili, steaks, stews, roasts and a jerky so delicious that all three of his sisters fight over it.

True hunters, Father Zavage added, should be viewed as stewards of the environment in that they’re helping to thin overpopulated deer herds in a humane and controlled fashion. If people didn’t hunt, many of those deer would end up starving to death, he said.

Truth be told, he said with a laugh, vehicles are probably more dangerous to the deer population than his rifle, which was passed down from his grandfather. “My mom hit an 8-point buck in a parking lot,” he said.

To wit: Neither he nor Mr. Venesky got a single shot off during more than eight hours of hunting, despite changing locations several times and Mr. Zavage’s tireless deer drives. But that, he noted with a sigh, is just the nature of the sport.

“It’s hit or miss every time,” he said.

No hunter likes to get “skunked,” of course, so it helps that the Zavages view hunting as a team sport; whoever gets the first deer then has to push. They also share in each other’s victories. Father Zavage wasn’t there to help his father drag the 140-pound buck he bagged out of the woods, but he still considers it a notch in his hunting belt.

“It’s kind of like hockey,” he said. “My dad got the goal and I got the assist. We’re supporting each other in the woods.”

Even when both come home empty-handed, Father Zavage said he and his dad can’t help but have a good time. The experience of being out in the woods, with nothing but your thoughts and prayers to keep you occupied, is as spiritual as being in church.

“There’s a lot of solitude I find very calming,” he said. “It’s my time with God and nature.”

Five Diamond chef, Dave Racicot, confident he’ll sparkle in new setting

First in an occasional series on the birth of Notion

It’s tough to pigeon-hole Dave Racicot, the self-taught chef who earned Nemacolin Woodlands Resort’s Lautrec restaurant its coveted AAA Five Diamond rating in 2007, when he was but 29 years old.

Chef Dave Racicot - Larry Roberts/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

He’s extremely talented, of course. But also cocky. Outspoken. Kind of pig-headed. Almost too self-confident.

Oh, and sexy, too, what with that scruffy beard and network of tatts running up one arm and down the other.

Mostly, he’s determined.

On Dec. 31, if everything stays on schedule, the doors will swing open at Notion, his new restaurant in what used to be Boulevard Bistro in Oakmont. It’s the end result of a year-long journey fraught with angst, rejection, frustration and — after he finally signed the papers on the Allegheny River Boulevard building two months ago — buckets of sweat and elbow grease.

This past January, Mr. Racicot was let go from his job as Lautrec’s chef du cuisine for what he calls, in a voice tinged with irritation, “creative differences.” He tried hard to land another job that would keep his young family in the area, and to woo dollars, with business consultant Tom Dickson’s help, out of would-be restaurateurs’ pockets with fancy investor dinners. But nothing panned out.

He was baffled and humbled.

“My credentials are great, especially in this area, where there’s a lot of people who understand good restaurants,” Mr. Racicot said back in June over coffee at Bruegger’s in Market Square. Then the idea for Notion was exactly that: a notion of what could be if he could just get his hands on some dough. He laughed. “But restaurants are a popularity contest, where some chefs can’t cook. It’s more about being well known.”

Resigned to starting over somewhere else, the Indiana, Pa., native was seriously considering a job at Woodlands Inn in Charleston, S.C., when his cell phone rang in late September. It was his brother, Ryan, also a chef, telling him to check out an ad on craigslist:

Are you an executive chef ready to own your own business?

“Probably a bunch of BS,” Mr. Racicot remembers thinking as he shot off an e-mail. Or not. The very next day he was face-to-face with seller Meg Burkardt, an attorney who’s part-owner of the Oaks Theater next door to the restaurant space. And flash, boom, bam. The indecision and frustration marking the past eight months of his life was history.

When Ms. Burkardt opened Boulevard Bistro five years ago to give moviegoers a place to eat pre- or post-show, she never dreamed she’d be running it herself, and for so long; the plan always was to “pass it off.”

When her son, the bistro’s sous chef, took a job in Los Angeles, it prompted her finally to do just that, and within two days after posting on craigslist she received nearly 30 responses. What narrowed the field to Mr. Racicot was his passion and work ethic.

“I liked his dedication and sincerity,” she said. “He’s just so committed to the idea.”

He also has the goods: In addition to steering Lautrec to its five-star status, Mr. Racicot in 2009 was named a semi-finalist in the “Rising Star Chef of the Year Category” by the James Beard Foundation. The nomination earned him a chance to prepare a seven-course meal at the famed James Beard House in New York’s historic Greenwich Village.

“He’s competent, and has an ongoing interest in it staying successful,” Ms. Burkardt said.

For Mr. Racicot, the situation was a dream come true. Not only was it a nice space in a great neighborhood that needed little renovation, but Ms. Burkardt’s sweetheart turnkey deal included financing, eliminating the need for pesky investors or huge loans. Sweeter still: the first payment would be deferred for six months to allow cash flow while Notion got up and running. And a liquor license was included. He’d be crazy not to jump at the chance, even though to do it, he’d have to cash in every dime of his 401K savings.

Twelve hours after Boulevard Bistro closed on Oct. 9, its windows facing Allegheny River Boulevard were covered in brown paper and Chef Racicot was inside cleaning, a signed “gentlemen’s agreement” under his baseball cap.

“Looks like I will officially own my own restaurant later this week,” he crowed in an e-mail on Oct. 12.

Then, the real work began.

A leap of faith

All new restaurants require a leap of faith, with about 60 percent closing or changing hands within three years of opening, according to a recent study by Ohio State University. Chef Racicot’s odds of success are arguably more tenuous, in that Notion won’t be a neighborhood joint like its predecessor but a high-end “destination” restaurant, pairing fine food with fine wine.

Pittsburgh’s dining scene has never been hotter, with more than two dozen food establishments opening in the past two years. But upscale restaurants such as Elements Contemporary Cuisine in Gateway Center and Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh are the exception rather than the rule.

“High-end has seen its time of day in the Pittsburgh scene,” said Terri Sokoloff, president of Specialty Bar & Restaurant Brokers, which helps to arrange the sale of existing restaurant space and the transfer of liquor licenses. “People want a good meal, but they also want value.”

Also worrisome is that Notion is small, seating just 38. Ten years ago, chef-driven boutique restaurants were rare enough to be sought out; Pittsburgh’s food scene has progressed to where today, there’s “tons” of great little finds, says Ms. Sokoloff. Chef Racicot’s success, then, will require a dedicated following.

As she puts it, “You’re only as good as your last meal.”

On that end, Chef Racicot isn’t worried. Even though Notion’s menu still hasn’t been committed to paper — as of Monday, he’d only written 10 or so things down — he knows it will feature the same modern, high-quality food that earned him the James Beard nod, both a la carte and as a tasting dinner. Diners also will enjoy exquisite presentation and the “best service of any restaurant in the city.

“My expectation is that everything will be perfect, every single time,” he said. “No restaurant in Pittsburgh will do what we do.”

Translation: If you’re the type of diner who’s looking for a quick four courses for $18 before a show, or think dinner has to involve a T-bone, it’s probably not for you.

What does give the 32-year-old chef pause is that he’s starting in an existing restaurant. Nine months ago when he was first wooing investors (early contenders included Kevin McClatchy), the goal was to build his culinary mecca from scratch to avoid fighting diners’ memories.

Or as he put it on Nov. 4, in the midst of one of his marathon cleaning sessions with manager Jennifer Jin, “You don’t want somebody driving by in five years and saying, ‘Remember Boulevard Bistro?’ ”

One early possibility involved renovating Bondstreet Shoes on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. When that proved too expensive, he turned his sights down the street to Enrico’s Ristorante.

“Well, that didn’t go as planned, which is a kick to the stomach,” he complained in an email on June 22, when Enrico’s building owner took an offer from another buyer. “But I’m going to stay positive and think that it didn’t happen for a good reason. . . . Right now I feel like I’m starting over.”

A few days later, he was working on yet another deal, Mark’s Grille on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District, buoyed by the possibility of a group of investors with “more money than Joe Hardy.” But that, too, eventually would go bust.

“Talking to a few other chefs, and this is about how long it took them to get things going,” he wrote on June 28, his frustration mounting. “So I don’t feel like I’m not accomplishing anything anymore. It’s just taking longer than expected.”

This fall, just as he was sure his dreams would have to come to an end, he stumbled upon The Deal.

“It all sounds way too good to be true, but I’m close to signing a deal,” he wrote on Sept. 27. Praise the Lord and pass the coffee.

Whipping up the buzz

Even before the loan documents were signed on Nov. 1, Chef Racicot was busy making lists. At the top was developing a budget, opening a checking account and applying for credit from vendors; he also had to design logos, set up a website, www.notionrestaurant.com, and start blogging and tweeting to get a buzz going.

Also looming were countless decisions on how to configure and decorate the space. Banquettes or chairs? Carpeting or hardwood? Eight-ounce cocktail glasses or 10? What to do with that huge pizza oven? That problem was solved just this week: Through Green Apple Network, he was able to barter it for a concrete countertop from Stone Passion Northeast in Harrison City.

Architect Jen Bee of Jen Bee Design in Allison Park has been helping design a floor plan and suggesting vendors and products. But Mr. Racicot, who’s commuting daily from Uniontown, admitted he’s not the best listener.

“I’m a little OCD and ADD,” he said.

While shopping with Ms. Bee on Nov. 13 at IKEA for furniture and wall garnishes, for instance, he didn’t want to hear pedestal tables will work best. He’d already settled on the BJURSTA dining table, which has four legs. Until he decided, a week later, that what he really wanted was to put custom maple tabletops on top of the existing pedestals.

What they did agree on is that the colors and design should be as minimalist as possible so the food and presentation shine.

At least he has his core team in place, all former co-workers at Lautrec. That includes Ms. Jin, 30, who was dining room manager during his tenure, and ran the Pittsburgh Marathon with him this past May; sous chef Andrew Stump; and pastry chef Joshua Lind, a fresh off a tour of duty with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan.

“Now I’m doing it for me and the people who worked hard for me and have been loyal friends,” he said.

On Monday, Chef Racicot was headed back to IKEA to buy several storage pieces for the dining room. He also was sketching out the wall art — he is going to paint the canvases in shades of red and gray and hang them on 79-inch curtain rods himself — and deciding on fabric for the banquettes.

With just three weeks to blast off, you’d think he’d be sweating bullets. But no, his only real concern is getting a fridge in the small storage room repaired.

“Nervous? I have no reason to be,” he said. “I’m organized and feel focused and in control of the situation.”

The restaurant biz is a tenuous one, but Ms. Burkardt, who enjoyed five successful years with Boulevard Bistro, is fairly confident this one will fly. Yet she wonders if both sides might have to “stretch” their expectations to reach a happy medium: diners up and the chef down.

“When you’re young, you feel you have to take a tougher line and do exactly what you want to do,” she said. It’s not until you go into business for yourself for the first time that you “learn the lessons you need to learn.”

Chef Racicot insists he’s going into the venture with his eyes wide open. Even though he’ll face 100-hour work weeks, he knows he won’t get rich; after covering payroll, buying food, paper supplies, flowers and uniforms and paying rent and credit-card fees — the list goes on and on– he’ll be lucky if he grosses 8 cents on the dollar.

But it’s really not about the money, he says.

“When people walk in the door, I want them to feel the energy and passion and love I put into every single dish.”

White Bean Puree

PG tested

When Dave Racicot made this tasty appetizer for his Beard House dinner in August 2009, he gave it the five-star treatment with molasses and bay leaf gelees, roasted garlic, raw apple jam, chorizo chips and maple cream. For your holiday party, it’ll be just as delicious served with crusty bread, crackers or roasted vegetables.

Tip: To keep the veggies separate from the beans, you might want to wrap them in a piece of cheesecloth before cooking.

  • 2 cups dried navy beans, soaked overnight
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 1/3 cups heavy cream, warmed
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Salt and white pepper, to taste

Drain the beans and rinse well. Pick through the beans for any debris. Place the beans, carrots, celery, onion, baking soda and bay leaf in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim away any impurities that come to the surface. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Drain and remove the vegetables and bay leaf.

In small batches, place the beans in a food processor and process at a low speed, slowly adding the cream (only add enough cream to make a smooth puree). Add the butter a little at a time until incorporated. Season with salt and white pepper. Press the puree through a sieve before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

– Chef Dave Racicot

Nonna Lidia Bastianich tells an endearing holiday story

Tradition plays a huge role in most Italian homes during the holidays, both in the family activities that define the season, such as decorating the tree, and the favorite foods that show up without fail on the Christmas Eve and day dining room tables.

Natale con I tuoi; Pasqua conchi vuoi,” goes the popular Italian expression. As in: “Christmas with your family; Easter with whomever you wish.”

Lidia Bastianich, for one, can’t imagine Christmas dinner without at least a few of her five grandchildren in tow and a roasted loin of pork stuffed with prunes in the oven, along with a side dish of brovada, a sort of turnip kraut made with shredded pickled turnips sauteed in a pan.

“And we always have capon soup,” said Ms. Bastianich at a lunch last month in her Strip District restaurant, “and lots and lots of vegetables,” a testament to her childhood in Istria, a peninsula in the northern Adriatic that once was part of Italy but today is Croatia.

As recounted in her charming new children’s book “Nonna Tell Me a Story” (Running Press, Oct. 2010, $15.95), it also wouldn’t be the holidays in the Bastianich household without the intoxicating scent of roasting nuts in the air, or homemade sugar cookies hanging from pretty ribbons on the tree. Both culinary traditions are among her most vivid memories of the simple but oh-so-wonderful Christmases she experienced at her grandparents’ farm in the rural Adriatic countryside, where Nonna Rosa was such a good organic cook that even the pigs got a daily hot meal (potato peels and other table scraps).

With a half dozen cookbooks and as many restaurant openings under her belt, Ms. Bastianich has proven herself a pretty darn good cook, too. When there’s grandchildren in the house, though, even the most delicious batch of cookies will only get you so far. Kids also tend to like grandma’s stories. Told over and over and over again.

“Every sleep-over, it’s the same thing,” she said, laughing. ” ‘Nonna, tell me a story!’ ”

This year, she decided to commit those memories to paper, and with winning results. Written in a voice that perfectly captures Ms. Bastianich’s down-to-earth personality and always-present smile, it pairs sweet illustrations by Laura Logan with the heartwarming tale of what Christmas in Italy’s old country was like: in a nutshell, more about family togetherness than presents under the tree. To that end, the author and her brother scout the best juniper bush for a Christmas tree, make cookies for decorations and string wreaths with fruit, dried figs and bay leaves.

The tale Ms. Bastianich tells is so endearing that her grandchildren, who in real life consulted on the illustrations, decide they want the same kind of Christmas celebration at the end of the book.

Meant to be read aloud, “Nonna Tell Me a Story” is best suited to young children. Most of its 16 holiday recipes (primarily cookies), however, will require an adult helper in the kitchen. But that’s the point of the holidays: to create memories by doing things together.

Ms. Bastianich said she hopes the book will encourage readers to pass down their own family traditions to the next generation.

“If you communicate those ideas early,” she said, “kids will get it.”

Palacinkes

PG tested

These stuffed crepes are just as good for dessert as they are for breakfast. We made them with frozen strawberries (thawed, of course) and fresh whipped cream. Yum!

  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup club soda
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) melted butter, cooled slightly
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, for frying

For serving: melted semisweet chocolate, apricot jam, confectioners’ sugar, whipped cream, berries, chopped walnuts

In a bowl, whisk the eggs. Add milk, club soda, sugar, salt and vanilla. Whisk well until the sugar has dissolved. Gradually sift in the flour to form a batter about the thickness of heavy cream. Stir in the melted butter and the citrus zest.

In a 6- or 7-inch nonstick pan, heat 1 tablespoon oil over a moderately high flame, pouring off the excess. Tilt the heated and oiled pan at a 45-degree angle to the floor and pour in a scant 1/4 cup batter at the top. Twist your wrist in a circle and allow the batter to cover the bottom of the pan in an even layer.

Return the pan to the heat, reduce heat to medium and cook the crepe until lightly browned, 45 seconds to 1 minute. Flip it carefully with a spatula and cook the second side until brown spots appear, another 30 seconds or so. Flip the crepe onto a plate and repeat with the remaining batter, lightly brushing the pan with oil as needed.

Fill crepes with desired filling, then roll or fold into quarters. Top with confectioners’ sugar, whipped cream, berries or nuts.

Makes about 2 dozen small crepes.

— “Nonna Tell Me a Story” by Lidia Bastianich Running Press, Oct. 2010, $15.95)

Chocolate Star cookies

PG tested

If you want to hang these chocolate butter cookies on the tree, use a drinking straw to punch a hole on the cut cookies before baking. If you prefer a dusting of confectioner’s sugar to royal icing, be sure to sprinkle it on while the cookies are still warm.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2- or 3-inch fluted star or snowflake cookie cutter

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in yolk and vanilla. On low speed, mix in flour mixture just until a dough forms. Divide the dough in half, flatten each piece into a disc and then chill them, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, for 2 to 3 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with racks in top and bottom thirds. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out 1 piece of dough between the sheets of parchment paper into a 14-by-10-inch rectangle (1/8 inch thick). Cut out as many stars as possible, reserving and chilling scraps, then quickly transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, arranging them 1/2 inch apart. (If dough becomes too soft, return it to the freezer until it is firm.)

Bake cookies until firm and slightly puffed, about 10 minutes. Cool cookies on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. (The cookies will crisp as they cool.) Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps, rerolling scraps only once.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

— “Nonna Tell Me a Story” by Lidia Bastianich (Running Press, October 2010, $15.95)

What’s for dinner: Sichuan eggplant in garlic sauce

Eggplant is often served as a side dish, but it also makes for a great vegetarian entree. It’s especially delicious when smothered in a flavorful sauce, such as this sweet/hot Sichuan-style garlic sauce. Scallion pancakes or take-out spring rolls round out the meal.

Sichuan food is meant to be spicy, so for the proper sting, be sure to add the chili oil. Remember also that eggplant can be bitter, so salt and then press the sliced fruit between paper towels before frying to draw out bitter juices.

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • 4 Japanese eggplants (about 1 pound total), trimmed and cut into bite-size chunks
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts, trimmed and minced
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon hot bean paste, or more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed in 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili oil, optional
  • 1 tablespoon dark
  • sesame oil

Make sauce by mixing soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, rice wine and white pepper in a small bowl. Set aside.

Heat a large wok over high heat. Add enough oil to come about 11/2 inches up the sides of the wok, and heat to 325 degrees. Add the eggplant and stir-fry just until it softens but still holds its shape, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon or strainer.

Return wok to high heat. Add scallion, ginger and garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add hot bean paste and soy sauce mixture, and stir-fry for 15 seconds. Add eggplant and stir-fry until the sauce is boiling and the eggplant is hot, about 1 minute. Add cornstarch mixture and stir until the sauce thickens, about 10 seconds. Add chili oil, if using, and stir-fry for 10 seconds. Add the sesame oil and serve immediately, alone or over white or brown rice.

Makes 4 servings.

— Adapted from “The Shun Lee Cookbook” by Michael Tong (William Morrow, 2007)