Gretchen McKay

Hop to it and make your own Easter basket treats

You don't have to shop the candy aisle to fill an Easter basket/Gretchen McKay

Most everyone hopes to find a few sweet treats tucked into their Easter basket along with the colored eggs and milk chocolate Easter bunny. In my house, for example, there’d be a whole lot of unhappy campers if the celebration didn’t include a whole lot of peanut butter cups and sugar-coated marshmallow Peeps.

Yet who says you have to shop the candy aisle to satisfy your family’s sweet tooth?

This year, why not surprise them with a few homemade Easter candies? It’s easier and faster than you might think. And it’ll taste better than the mass-produced goodies stacked high on grocery store shelves.

Maybe it’s asking too much to forgo Peeps, which have been an Easter basket favorite since the first one rolled off the assembly line in 1953. But with just a small amount of effort, you can make your own flavored marshmallows and creamy, homemade peanut butter cups. Easier still are butter mints — so easy, in fact, that even my teenagers, with virtually no help, whipped up four different colors.


 

Easter Marshmallows

PG tested

Peeps, schmeeps. These sweet, fluffy treats are just as good, and store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 weeks. We paired lemon extract with green and yellow food coloring.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar, divided
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
  • 1 cup cold water, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint or fruit-flavored extract (lemon, orange, strawberry, etc.)
  • 8 to 10 drops food color

    Homemade marshmallows/Gretchen McKay

Check the accuracy of your candy thermometer before starting. Generously grease bottom and sides of 11-by-7-inch glass baking dish with butter; dust with 1 tablespoon of powdered sugar. In bowl of stand mixer, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water to soften; set aside.

In 2-quart saucepan, heat granulated sugar, corn syrup, salt and remaining 1/2 cup water over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved. Heat to boiling; cook uncovered about 30 minutes without stirring, to 240 degrees on candy thermometer or until small amount of mixture dropped into cup of very cold water forms a soft ball that flattens between fingers; remove from heat.

Slowly pour syrup into softened gelatin while beating on low speed. Increase speed to high; beat 8 to 10 minutes or until mixture is white and has almost tripled in volume. Add extract; beat on high speed 1 minute. Pour into baking dish, patting lightly with wet hands. Drop food color randomly on top of marshmallow mixture. Pull table knife through food color to create swirl pattern over top. Let stand uncovered at least 8 hours or overnight.

Dust cutting board with 1 tablespoon powdered sugar. Place remaining powdered sugar in small bowl. To remove marshmallow mixture, loosen sides from dish and gently lift in 1 piece onto cutting board. Using sharp knife greased with butter, cut into 1-inch squares (11 rows by 7 rows). Dust bottom and sides of each marshmallow by dipping into bowl of powdered sugar.

Makes 77 marshmallows.

— “Betty Crocker Cookbook: 1500 Recipes for the Way You Cook Today”(Wiley, 2011, $29.99)


 

Peanut Butter Cups

PG tested

These are super easy, but you have to fill the mini muffin liners just so — too much chocolate and there won’t be room for peanut butter, and not enough and they may break when you peel the candy out of the wrapper.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 1 pound bittersweet or milk chocolate, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup creamy or chunky peanut butter, homemade or store-bought
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
Peanut butter + chocolate = a sweet Easter treat/Gretchen McKay

Lay out 30 mini muffin liners (petits fours papers) on a large plate or baking sheet. Set up double boiler over medium heat. Melt chocolate in double boiler over medium heat, stirring as it melts, and when it is entirely smooth, 7 to 10 minutes, remove it from heat.

Scoop up a bit of chocolate with a small spoon, pour it into a mini muffin liner and use the back of a spoon to spread the chocolate around the entire inside of the liner. You want the layer to be thin, but not so thin that it won’t hold up when it dries and gets peeled out of the paper. Repeat with remaining cups. Set them aside to harden a bit, 10 to 15 minutes, and wash spoon. Set aside the remaining melted chocolate.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Combine peanut butter, vanilla, salt and brown sugar in bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Process the mixture until it is smooth and uniform.

Even if chocolate is not yet hard, with a small spoon, fill each cup 3/4 of the way with the peanut butter mixture.

Return the double boiler to medium heat, and soften the remaining chocolate in the bowl. With a large spoon, cover peanut butter with melted chocolate to top of the cups to seal in filling. When all of the cups are filled, leave them to harden at room temperature for at least 3 hours. Cups will keep in a covered container at room temperature for 2 weeks or in the fridge for 1 month. You also can freeze them for up to 3 months in a freezer-safe container or bag.

Makes 30 11/2-inch peanut butter cups.

— “The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making” by Alana Chernila (Crown, April 3, 2012, $24.99)


 

Butter Mints

PG tested

Tint these melt-in-your-mouth mints in pastel shades, and they’ll look like teeny-tiny Easter eggs. They also look lovely sitting in a candy dish.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 7 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting
  • 2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 tablespoon peppermint extract
  • Liquid gel food coloring (choose 4 colors)

    Butter mints that melt in your mouth/Gretchen McKay

Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large mixing bowl, using a handheld mixer), cream the butter and salt together on medium speed for 2 minutes. Add confectioners’ sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and peppermint extract, turn the speed to low and mix until the mixture gathers into a ball.

Remove mixture from bowl, divide it into 4 portions and form each 1 into a ball. To color the mixture, add 1 drop food coloring to 1 portion, kneading to incorporate it evenly, then add more drops as necessary to darken the shade, kneading to incorporate the color thoroughly. Repeat with remaining 3 portions.

One at a time, lay each portion on a work surface lightly dusted with confectioners’ sugar and roll by hand into a 1-inch-thick rope. Using a paring knife, cut into 1-inch-thick pieces. Layer the mints between sheets of wax or parchment paper in prepared pan, separating layers with wax or parchment paper.

Cover mints with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Mints will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Makes 8 dozen mints.

— “The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook” by Cheryl Day & Griffith Day (Artisan, 2012, $24.95)

Cooking up a new kitchen

Paul Gould and Lori Boyles' Sewickley home, one of the big challenges in remodeling the kitchen was how to work around a chimney. The solution was to wrap the new custom cabinets and white Vermont granite countertops around it.

Old house lovers often find themselves in a quagmire when it comes to a major remodeling job. How do you stay true to the period of your home while also taking advantage of modern conveniences?

The question can be particularly vexing when you’re not exactly sure what the room you’re re-doing looked like when it was built, as was the case with Paul Gould and Lori Boyles’ 1920s kitchen in Sewickley.

Today, this inviting space is a shining example of good kitchen design: functional, cohesive and oh-so-pretty to look at. It was chosen as one of two runners-up, small project category, in the 2011-2012 Renovation Inspiration Contest co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh. Small projects cost $50,000 or less.

The kitchen was a far cry from its modern beauty back when the couple bought the two-story Colonial-style home in 1999. Remodeled — poorly — sometime in the 1970s by a previous owner, the kitchen had been stripped clean of most of its early 20th-century charm and character. “Remuddled” is how Mr. Gould, a senior designer at MAYA, a human-centered-design consultancy and technology research lab, described it in his entry.

“It was kind of sad because the rest of the house is all original,” he said. “But here, it had just disappeared.”

The chief offenders were cheap particleboard cabinets that had been glued to the wall and an awkwardly placed peninsula that made it virtually impossible for more than one person to cook at a time without a lot of shuffling and side stepping.

“And you had to stand aside at the cooktop just to open the fridge,” recalled Ms. Boyles.

Adding to the kitchen’s woes was a dated vinyl floor, which was disintegrating under their feet, and four doorways that broke up the flow and cut down on wall space.

By January 2010, it had gotten so bad the couple decided they couldn’t put the project off any longer. It was time to bite the renovation bullet.

As it so happened, some close friends not only had a few good ideas about how to transform the space but also were champing at the bit to put those thoughts into action. Artie Reitmeyer, a master furniture designer, and his architectural designer wife, Junko Higashibeppu, had spent many happy hours over the years socializing in the room. They were just waiting (and waiting) to be asked to help.

It would take the two couples close to a year to develop a layout (open) and design (fresh, but not locked into the aesthetic of any particular era) that made everyone happy, with many of their informal planning sessions held during regular casual dinners and get-togethers and play dates for their youngest children, who have been friends nearly all their lives.

Granite countertops and white subway tile were used in the redesign of Lori Boyles and Paul Gould's kitchen in their Sewickley home/Post-Gazette

“This kitchen kind of ate and drank itself into existence,” said Mr. Gould. “Maybe that’s why nothing about it feels forced.”

“It wasn’t always active thinking time — months would slip by without any headway,” agreed Ms. Boyles, adding, “I think we were well on our way after deciding that we could not brick up any windows to gain wall space.”

Given the couple’s budget, the year-long project, which started with gutting the room to the studs in January 2011, would require many more concessions than keeping the old window openings along with the many doorways. (Although they did end up enlarging a window above the sink.)

A bigger challenge was how to work around a chimney on the far wall. The solution was to wrap the new custom cabinets — handcrafted by Mr. Reitmeyer out of rift-sawn red oak — and white Vermont granite countertops around the chimney. The Sewickley-based furniture designer also made the floating shelves above that so beautifully display the family’s dishes along with the Japanese-style sliding cabinet to the left of the fridge, under the microwave, that neatly stores the family’s shoes. (To see more of his work, visit www.reitmeyerdesign.com.)

To allow for better flow and also to make the room feel bigger, Ms. Higashibeppu placed all of the stainless-steel Bosch appliances, which include an induction cooktop over an electric oven, around the perimeter of the room. The bright-white subway tile backsplash hints, ever so subtly, at the home’s birth in the 1920s. More contemporary is the sleek stainless-steel hood, centered between a pair of glass-door wall cabinets.

“We didn’t want to take away from the countertops,” which were chosen because they had the look and feel of marble, explained Ms. Boyles.

Early on, the couple thought they might like cork flooring because it’s so foot-friendly. But in the end, they went with porcelain tile on electric radiant-heat pads from Costco because it’s more forgiving to the clickety-clack of dog paws and salt-covered winter boots. Recessed lighting with simple, screw-in CREE LEED fixtures from Home Depot replaced a ceiling fan with candelabra bulbs.

A cabinet by the back door stores shoes/Post-Gazette

Because this simple-but-elegant gathering space functions as more than just a kitchen, no detail was too small to be considered. Sometimes ad nauseum. But in Mr. Reitmeyer’s opinion, that’s a good thing.

“That’s the secret to keeping costs down — legwork,” he said. “There’s so much information out there if someone’s willing to put the time in. ”

That, and friends who are willing to lend a hand.

Said Mr. Gould, “We didn’t have the luxury of money, but we had the luxury of time and friends who know us thoroughly.”

Roll into spring with . . . spring rolls

It”s officially spring, but other than asparagus and early-bird spinach, it’s still too early for the tender vegetables we’re so hungry for this time of year. So instead, we’re going to celebrate the change of season by focusing on spring rolls, whose name evokes the fresh, leafy veggies on the horizon.

Fried Spring Rolls with Sweet-Hot Garlic Sauce/Gretchen McKay

 

However you like them — fresh or fried — they’re a great way to experiment with a variety of meats, seafood and raw or cooked vegetables; as one of the vegan recipes we tested below so beautifully demonstrates, you can even build a decent spring roll around fruit and nuts.

Even better, spring rolls are fast and easy to make. We had them on the table in less time than it would have taken to order take-out from our favorite Chinese restaurant.


 

Turkey Spring Rolls with Spicy Mayo

PG tested

The original recipe calls for ground beef, which my kids only will eat when it’s shaped into a patty and thrown on the grill. So I substituted lean ground turkey, with great results. The spicy mayo is similar to the tangy pink sauce sometimes served with sushi. For a little dunking variety, I also made a soy-ginger dipping sauce.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha
  • 12-ounce bag bean sprouts
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 6 scallions, white parts minced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound 85-percent-lean ground beef (or turkey)
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 12 rice paper wrappers
Fresh Turkey Spring Rolls with Spicy Mayo/Gretchen McKay

 

 

 

Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add beef and remaining 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce and cook until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in scallion whites and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer beef to bowl with sprouts mixture. Add 1/4 cup mayonnaise mixture and toss to combine.

Spread clean, damp kitchen towel on counter. Soak 4 wrappers in bowl of warm water until just pliable, about 10 seconds, then spread out on towel. Place 1/2 cup filling on each wrapper, leaving 2-inch border at bottom. Fold in sides, then carefully but tightly wrap up, starting at bottom. Transfer finished roll to platter and cover with second clean, damp towel. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Serve, passing remaining mayonnaise mixture separately.

Serves 4.

— “Simple Weeknight Favorites” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, March 2012, $26.95)


 

Soy Dipping Sauce

PG tested

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar or sherry
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Add all ingredients to a small mixing bowl, and whisk together. Serve as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, egg rolls or tempura.

Makes about 1 cup sauce.

— Adapted from Alton Brown


 

Boh Diah Toe (Fried Spring Rolls)

PG tested

These are a bit more time-consuming to prepare than fresh spring rolls, but so worth the effort. To speed things along, make the filling and dipping sauce a day ahead of time.

  • 4 ounces bean thread noodles
  • 1 tablespoon tiny dried cloud ear mushrooms
  • Vegetable oil for sauteeing and deep-frying
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Sweet-Hot Garlic Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped shallot or onion
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and coarsely chopped
  • 1 package spring roll wrappers
  • Handful fresh cilantro leaves

Place bean thread noodles in large bowl, cover with warm water and soak until softened, about 30 minutes. Place dried mushrooms in a medium bowl, cover with warm water and soak until softened, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, coat a small skillet with oil and warm for 1 minute over medium heat. Pour in one-fourth of the eggs, tip pan so egg covers the bottom in a thin sheet, and cook until set and opaque, less than 1 minute. Turn egg sheet out onto a plate and repeat with remaining eggs in 3 batches. When sheets are cool, stack and slice into long, thin shreds. Set aside in a large bowl.

Make the Sweet-Hot Garlic Sauce and set aside to cool to room temperature.

Drain noodles well and dump the tangle onto a cutting board. Shape noodles into a log and cut into 2-inch lengths. Add noodles to bowl containing the egg shreds.

Drain mushrooms and place on cutting board. Cut off any hard little navels you may find. Slice mushrooms into long, thin shreds. Add to bowl with noodles and egg and set aside near the stove. Combine fish sauce, pepper and sugar in a small bowl and place next to the stove along with garlic, shallot, pork and shrimp.

Heat wok or medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat surface. When oil is very hot, add garlic and stir-fry until golden, about 15 seconds. Add shallot and stir-fry until wilted. Add pork and stir-fry until no longer pink. Add shrimp and stir-fry until pink and opaque, about 1 minute. Add fish sauce mixture and toss well.

Add noodles, mushrooms and egg strips and stir-fry, tumbling and turning the ingredients over and over, for 1 to 2 minutes. Notice how noodles change from stiff, white and wiry to clear, soft and curly. As soon as they’re transformed and all the ingredients are well combined, turn filling out into a large bowl and let cool to room temperature.

Gently separate spring roll wrappers. Place 1 wrapper, smooth side down, on work surface (cover remaining wrappers with dampened paper towel while you work). Position wrapper with a point toward you. Place heaping spoonful of filling in the center of the half of the diamond that’s closest to you. Use fingers to shape filling into a log about 3 inches long.

Fold wrapper point closest to you up, over and around the filling. Begin to roll the wrapper and, when you’ve rolled halfway to the top point, fold sides in toward the middle. Then keep rolling. When you reach the top, moisten it with water and seal roll like an envelope. Set roll aside on tray or baking sheet, seam side down, and continue with remaining wrappers and filling, spacing so they don’t touch each other.

Pour oil into wok or deep, wide saucepan to a depth of 3 inches. Heat over medium heat to 350 to 375 degrees. Prepare a drain basket for fried rolls by lining a colander with paper towels, with something under it to catch drips. Drop a tiny piece of wrapper into the wok. If it sizzle immediately, oil is ready.

Carefully add spring roll by sliding it gently down the curved side of wok and into oil, where it should sizzle and bubble at once. Add 2 more spring rolls and cook 3 at a time, turning occasionally and frying until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Remove rolls with a mesh scoop or slotted spoon, hold over oil to drain for a few moments, then transfer to prepared colander to drain. Place spring rolls on serving platter, garnish with cilantro and serve with small saucers of dipping sauce. Makes about 32 spring rolls.

— “Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking” by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, $17.95).


 

Nahm Jeem Gratiem (Sweet-Hot Garlic Sauce)

PG tested

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon chili-garlic sauce or coarsely ground dried red chili

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine sugar, water, vinegar, garlic and salt. Bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Stir to dissolve sugar and salt and reduce heat to low. Simmer unitl liquid reduces and thickens to a light syrup, 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in chili-garlic sauce. Cool to room temperature. Transfer to a tightly sealed jar and store at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Makes about 11/2 cups.

— “Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking” by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, $17.95).


 

Green Apple and Cashew Spring Rolls

PG tested

Wow. Were these good. And good for you, too.

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons palm sugar
  • 1 tablespoon peeled minced fresh ginger
  • 2 teaspoons dark miso (I used soy sauce)
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 pound Granny Smith apples
  • 3 ounces rice vermicelli, cooked
  • 1 medium carrot, shredded
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh Asian basil, torn (I used cilantro)
  • 1 large red Fresno chile, chopped
  • 1/2 cup cashews, toasted and chopped
  • 6 rice-paper rounds

In a large bowl, mix together lime juice, palm sugar, ginger, miso and salt.

Peel, core and grate apples and add them to bowl. (I finely chopped them.)

Add vermicelli, carrot, scallions, basil, chile and cashews. Toss to combine everything.

To make rolls, put 1 inch of hot water in a pan (I used a 12-inch skillet). Lay out a thick towel next to it and get all your ingredients together. Submerge 2 sheets of rice paper at a time, if your pan is large enough to do it without them sticking to each other, and when they start to soften, transfer them to the towel without touching. (I dabbed the top dry with a paper towels.) On each round, place 1/2 cup filling. Fold up the bottom, then fold in the edges and roll up the wrapper.

Move finished rolls to a platter, seam-side down, positioning them so they don’t touch (or they’ll stick together). Serve immediately, or cover the platter with a damp towel and plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 hours.

Makes 6 spring rolls.

— Adapted from “Big Vegan: More Than 350 Recipes, No Meat/No Dairy, All Delicious” by Robin Asbell (Chronicle Books, 2011, $29.95)

‘Pioneer Woman’ brings the frontier to Pittsburgh

'Pioneer Woman' Ree Drummond and her family on the ranch/Photo courtesy of Ree Drummond

 

Ree Drummond wasn’t looking for celebrity when she sat down at the computer five years ago, created a blog on Blogger and started typing. Blessed with a few quiet hours free of children, she simply thought it might be fun to tell a few stories from the Oklahoma homefront — and as a cowboy wife and mother of four, she had some pretty good ones.

Eleven years before, she’d abandoned a plan to go to law school to marry the handsome rancher she’d met in a bar near her childhood home in a suburb north of Tulsa. And while the sprawling ranch on which her husband, Ladd, raises some 5,000 head of cattle had become home, she still sometimes felt like a fish out of water in the country, 20 miles from the nearest small town.

“It definitely was a transition,” recalls Ms. Drummond, chuckling about the unplanned rural life she’s shared with millions via her popular website The Pioneer Woman (thepioneerwoman.com). “In fact, that’s where the name came from. It was sort of tongue and cheek. Like, excuse me?”

Today, it might seem like any Tom, Dick or Harriet with an Internet connection and an urge to confess runs a personal blog. But back in 2006, Ms. Drummond — who at 4 p.m. on Monday will be signing copies of her new cookbook at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, her first visit to Pittsburgh — was very much on the frontier of the emerging medium.

Having briefly studied broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, she was comfortable with an audience. So blogging, she says, “clicked” with her from the get-go.

Almost immediately, she had readers, lots of them, who delighted in her funny, self-deprecating posts on everything from homeschooling her children to wearing Pajama Pants to doing laundry and other household chores. The site, which includes sections on Entertainment, Home & Garden and Photography, also playfully explores the ins and outs of living on a working cattle ranch — “confessions” that allow readers — who wish they also could ditch the city rat race for the peace of the country — to dream of a life a little less hectic or ordinary.

Yet it wasn’t until Ms. Drummond started posting step-by-step cooking tutorials — how to cook a perfect steak, bake cornbread, layer a lasagna — that her site really took off. Something about the straightforwardness of her cooking, and the humor and patience with which the dimpled redhead went about it, struck an immediate chord. And the mouth-watering pictures she shot of the recipes weren’t too bad, either.

Maybe readers just liked the fact that unlike many food bloggers, Ms. Drummond didn’t take herself too seriously. As she puts it, “People know when the come to my site that they’re not going to get agitated. There’s no political subjects or debate. It’s a light, harmless place to stop by.”

A runaway hit on the blogosphere, Confessions of a Pioneer Woman took the top prize at the 2009 Bloggie awards, besting heavyweights such as the Huffington Post and PerezHilton.com. Eight months later, her first cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl” (William Morrow, $27.50), debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, followed by a top-selling children’s book about the family’s basset hound, Charlie, in 2011. Today, her site — it also won Bloggies for best weblog in 2010 and 2011 — gets almost 24 million page views per month, and more than 4 million unique visitors.

Naturally, producers for both the big and small screen have come knocking.

The movie rights to last year’s third book, “Black Heels to Tractor Wheels — A Love Story,” about her romance with Ladd, who she affectionately refers to in print as Marlboro Man, was optioned by Sony Pictures. (Reese Witherspoon is rumored to have signed on to star.) And in August, Ms. Drummond filmed her first season of “Pioneer Woman,” a cooking show on The Food Network, in her well-appointed guest house on the ranch.

“I know, it seems like it all happened so fast,” she says from the ranch near Pawhuska during a phone interview that started 10 minutes late because she was finishing up a project with her teenaged daughter. “But from my perspective, it’s been such a gradual thing, because one thing built to the next.”

Ms. Drummond admits it can get crazy, juggling so many different balls on a daily basis. Which is why every activity has to be put through the filter of, “Can I do this from home?”

But honestly, she kind of likes the chaos.

“I’m OK with going to bed at night with a hundred loose ends, because I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything done, because I can’t,” she says.

Besides, it’s not like she’s swamped with adoring fans anywhere but at book signings (Penguin Bookshop expects one of their biggest crowds this year, according to manager Kate Weiss-Duncan, so get there early). Internet notoriety is “a lot different” from mainstream notoriety, she insists.

“It’s hard to live where I live and get too lost in anything that’s going on,” she says. “If I’m noticed in town, it’s because I’m Alex and Paige’s mom.”

If anything, she has the same struggles as any working woman with children and a husband.

“We’re the nurturers and caregivers,” she says. “The thing I always have to work on is my family life and making sure that machine is running. That’s my most important role.”

That said, celebrity does come with a few perks. A quick tour of her Oklahoma home on Food Network’s website reveals a blond-wood kitchen most can only dream of: Along with two Bosch dishwashers and a ginormous Viking range and cooktop, it features long, continuous concrete countertops and a removable butcher block sink cover. Then again, she’s far from the average cook, with her blog generating an estimated $1 million in yearly ad revenue.

More relatable are her cookbooks, which feature the simple, family-style recipes you’d expect to see served on a ranch. Many are down-home family favorites passed down from both sides of the family, and she also serves up plenty of Tex-Mex dishes, as well as the occasional fancy dish for parties.

“If I lived alone, I would make a lot more foods with Asian flavors and fresh ginger and a lot of spice,” she says. “But my family loves Americanized dishes like lasagna and chicken Alfredo and vegetarian pastas. So I rock those dishes.”

She also loves braising meat and slow cooking in the oven, which helps explain her current love affair with short ribs.

For her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier,” just released this week (William Morrow, $29.99), Ms. Drummond has upped the ante a bit, including recipes that are slightly more fancy and have a “bit of an edge to them” — Thai Chicken Pizza, Peach-Whiskey Chicken and Bananas Foster. What hasn’t changed is the format: the collection of soup, suppers, sides and sweets include her signature, easy-to-follow photographic instructions.

Accomplished cooks could argue some of the recipes aren’t recipes at all as much as good ideas put to paper. Her Tangy Tomato Brisket, for instance, calls for little more than mixing a bottle of ketchup or chili sauce with a package of dry onion soup mix, and a recipe for French Onion Soup was so simple that my teenaged daughter made it on her own while I was at work. But “gourmet” isn’t really the Pioneer Woman’s shtick.

Rather, her cookbooks appeal those who aren’t exactly where they want to be with cooking, and can benefit from seeing the process of how things are made.

“They give everyone confidence,” she says.

 

Ree Drummond will be at the Penguin Bookshop, 420 Beaver St., Sewickley, from 4 to 6 p.m. Mon., March 19, to sign copies of her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier.” The store will start passing out complimentary signing tickets at 3:30 p.m., and books will be signed in the order in which you arrive at the store. For more information, call 412-741-3838 or visit penguinbookshop.com.


 

Barbecue Chicken and Pineapple Quesadillas

PG tested

Barbecue Chicken and Pineapple Quesadillas/Gretchen McKay

Maybe it’s because they’re twins, but both of my daughters picked this recipe as the one we just HAD to try. The family liked it so much, we ended up making it twice — first with fresh pineapple and then with canned pineapple chunks (equally delicious).

— Gretchen McKay

  • 1/2 pineapple
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to uniform thickness with a mallet or rolling pin
  • 1/3 cup barbecue sauce
  • 4 tablespoons butter, for frying
  • 8 small flour or corn tortillas
  • 1 jalapeno, sliced (I used jarred picked jalapenos)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • Sour cream, for serving
  • Pico de gallos or salsa, for serving

Soak 8 wooden skewers in water for at least an hour. Preheat grill.

Cut pineapple into 8 wedges. Cut off hard core and outer skin. Thread pieces of pineapple onto the skewers and grill over medium-high heat (I used an oven-top grill pan), turning once or twice during the grilling process. Remove pineapple from grill and slice into chunks. Set aside.

Salt and pepper the flattened chicken breasts, then grill over medium-high heat until done, about 4 minutes per side. Brush both sides generously with barbecue sauce. Remove from grill and slice thinly.

To assemble quesadillas: On top of 1 tortilla, place some chicken, some pineapple chunks, and some sliced jalapeno. Drizzle barbecue sauce over all the ingredients, then cover it all with grated cheese.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet. Top quesadilla with a second tortilla. Brown on one side, then carefully flip the quesadilla and brown the other side. Make sure all the cheese is melted! Repeat to make the rest of the quesadillas.

To serve, slice quesadillas into wedges. Serve with sour cream, pico de gallo and a wedge of grilled pinapple on top.

Serves 4.

— “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

Roasted Cauliflower/Gretchen McKay

Roasted Cauliflower

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“Cauliflower is delicious raw, wonderful steamed . . . but miraculous roasted,” writes Ree Drummond in her latest cookbook, “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier.” Having never tried the vegetable (“It looks like brains!” one child told me), my kids were skeptical. Then it came out of the oven and they gobbled up the entire bowl.

 

 

 

  • 1 cauliflower head, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Spread cauliflower on a large sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Toss cauliflower to coat evenly. Add salt and pepper.

Roast cauliflower for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown with some darker parts. Add bread crumbs to bowl. Pour in melted butter and toss to combine.

Place cauliflower in a medium baking dish, then mound the bread crumbs on top. Roast for 5 minutes, or until bread crumbs are golden brown on top.

Variations: Sprinkle with a little curry powder or cumin seeds before roasting. You also can add fresh herbs or grated cheese to the bread crumbs. Makes 4 servings.

— “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

Coffee Cream Cake

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I substituted really strong brewed coffee for instant, which made for a lighter-colored cake.

— Gretchen McKay

For cake
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  • 3 tablespoons instant coffee crystals
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk (or 1/2 cup milk mixed with 1/2 teaspoon white vinegar)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For creamy filling
  • 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
For coffee icing
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
  • 2 tablespoons instant coffee crystals
  • 4 tablespoons half-and-half
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Thoroughly grease and flour 2 round 8- or 9-inch cake pans.

Coffee Cream Cake/Gretchen McKay

To make cake: Melt butter in a saucepan. Sprinkle in instant coffee and add boiling water. Let mixture bubble up for a few seconds, then turn off heat.

Add flour, sugar and salt to a large bowl. Pour hot butter/coffee mixture over the top and stir to combine.

Mix together buttermilk, eggs, baking soda and vanilla and pour into the bowl. Pour batter evenly into cake pans and bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until set. Remove pans from oven and allow cakes to cool inside the pans for 10 minutes, then invert the cake layers onto a work surface and allow to cool completely.

To make creamy filling: Add cream cheese to mixing bowl. Add powdered sugar and heavy cream. Beat until light and fluffy, then set aside.

To make coffee icing: Melt butter in saucepan and add instant coffee. Stir together, then add half-and-half and whisk to combine. Turn off heat. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Whisk well to make icing perfectly smooth, then let cool for 5 minutes.

When cake layers are completely cool, spread the creamy mixture on the bottom layer. Transfer to cake stand, then gently lay second layer on top. Drizzle coffee icing on top, allowing it to drip down the side. Swirl the icing around on the sides, then count how many seconds it takes you to cut a very enormous wedge and serve it to yourself. Makes a 2-layer cake.

— “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)


 

French Onion Soup

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Super easy, and super delicious. But you’re probably going to want to season it with a little salt before serving.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 4 large onions
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 4 cups low-sodium beef broth
  • 4 to 5 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Several thick slices French bread or baguette, drizzled with olive oil and toasted
  • 8 ounces Gruyere or Swiss cheese, sliced thick

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice onions in half from root to tip, then slice them up. Melt the butter in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add onions, stir to coat, and then cook them, covered, for 20 minutes, or until translucent and soft. Place the pot into the oven with the lid slightly ajar.

Roast the onions for 1 hour, stirring twice to keep them from burning. (Some dark parts are fine.)

Return the pot to stovetop over medium heat and pour in the wine. Stir, scraping the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the wine reduces. Next, add chicken and beef broth, Worcestershire sauce and garlic.

Reduce heat to low and let soup simmer for 45 minutes.

To serve, turn on broiler. Ladle soup into ovenproof bowls. Place 1 or 2 pieces of toasted bread on top of soup, depending on size of bowl. Place a thick slice of cheese on top of each bowl, then place bowls on a cookie sheet and broil just long enough for the cheese to become melted, bubbly and slightly toasted on top.

Close your eyes. Savor the moment. Grab your spoon. Dig in!

Makes 8 servings.

— “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier” by Ree Drummond (Morrow, March 2012, $29.99)

What’s for dinner: Wednesday Night Cream of Potato Soup

Cream of Potato Soup/Gretchen McKay

 

My daughter Olivia is obsessed with three things in life: Harry Potter, anything to do with the Titanic and Eat’n Park’s Cream of Potato Soup … and not necessarily in that order. Every Sunday and Wednesday — Potato!Soup!Day!, as it’s known in Livvy Land — the drumbeat starts about an hour before dinner: “Don’t you feel like potato soup, Mom?” “Boy, wouldn’t some potato soup taste good right now?” “Hey, you know what day it is, right?”

A day to find a good recipe I can approximate at home, that’s what.

Naturally, I went right to the source. But you know how these things go. Both Chef Regis Holden and Kevin O’Connell, senior VP of marketing, declined — very politely — to share the recipe for it, which is made fresh several times a day when it’s on the menu, and is Eat’n Park’s most popular soup, selling twice the amount as the other varieties.

“It’s like the Smiley Cookie and Super Burger. A phenomenon,” said Mr. O’Connell. “People plan their week around it.”

At least Chef Holden graciously shared some thoughts on what makes the restaurant’s Cream of Potato Soup so darn great, so I could come up with a recipe on my own: Start with a chicken-based broth, thicken the soup with a liaison made from roux and hot cream, and use a “good starchy potato, like a russet,” he advised. He also spilled the beans on the soup’s “secret” ingredient: Bacon.

Here’s my version of their popular masterpiece, just in time for your St. Patty’s Day celebration.

Wednesday Night Cream of Potato Soup

PG tested

  • 3 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup finely diced carrot
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 5 cups chopped peeled potatoes
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 4 slices crisp-cooked bacon, crumbled
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat 1 tablespoon butter and oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until butter melts. Add onion, celery and carrot; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 4 to 6 minutes. Add parsley; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Stir in potatoes. Add water and broth; bring to a lively simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to maintain simmer and cook until very tender, about 15 minutes. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a blender, until smooth.

In a separate saucepan, make a roux by melting remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add flour, and cook over low heat, whisking constantly, just until flour has lost its raw smell, about 5 minutes. Warm half and half until hot in the microwave and then slowly add a little into the hot roux, whisking until smooth. Add roux to remaining hot cream, whisk to combine, and then stir mixture into the simmering soup. Stir in crumbled bacon bits, and season with salt and pepper.

Simmer soup for an additional 10 to 20 minutes, to allow the flour to soften and absorb the liquid. (If the simmering time is too short, the flour in the roux will remain grainy.)

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

— Adapted from “The Simple Art of Eating Well Cookbook” by Jessie Price and the EATINGWELL Test Kitchen (Countryman, $35)

Old hospital cabinets play integral role in revamped kitchen

Salvaged cabinets once held supplies in a hospital. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

 

 

 

One-of-a-kind homes often have gathering spaces that turn heads. And indeed, until very recently, Kevin and Alana Kulesa did a double take every time they stepped into the kitchen of the house they bought in Ross 10 years ago.

Actually, “winced” might be more like it.

Remodeled on the cheap by a previous owner sometime in the 1980s, the kitchen was ugly and not very functional when the couple came up with a plan to completely reimagine it last year.

“When we cooked, smoke would come down the hall to the bedrooms,” recalls Mr. Kulesa, a graphic designer with Production Masters Inc.

Today, the only thing that’s smokin’ is the kitchen’s red-hot design.

Built — literally — around a baker’s dozen of vintage laboratory cabinets, the project is so visually appealing that it was chosen as the winner of the 2011-12 Renovation Inspiration Contest, small category (less than $50,000).

Now in its sixth year, the competition co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh is judged on a variety of criteria, including appropriateness of construction and materials, functionality and imagination.

That Mr. Kulesa would incorporate repurposed materials into the yearlong project isn’t so unusual; not only was the budget tight (the entire project cost less than $20,000) but also he and his wife were determined to make sure the updates fit the home’s modern personality and style, along with the era it was built in. Builder Don Owens, who studied at Taliesin and was a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, designed the house with a mock cantilever in 1962.

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

What’s surprising is the amount of work it took to fit the metal cabinets, salvaged from a hospital in Aliquippa, into the new design, which included a pantry and an office area, new floors and a hand-painted backsplash.

The cabinets were cheap enough — none cost more than $75 at Construction Junction — as well as heavy and durable. Yet they also were a bit taller and more shallow than standard kitchen cupboards. “So we had to work everything around them,” says Mr. Kulesa.

And by “everything,” he means … everything.

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

During construction, walls, electrical lines, plumbing and ductwork had to be moved to accommodate the odd-size cabinets; the walls that remained had to be stripped to the studs and resurfaced with thinner materials. The cabinets themselves, blue and battered when he hauled them home from Point Breeze, took nine months to make over into the sleek cream-colored ones that wow visitors today.

Shuffling the heavy steel boxes to and from his friendBeppo’s auto body shop in Bridgeville was the easy part: the men sanded, primed, painted and clear-coated the equivalent of three cars by the time they had finished. “And he never asked for anything in return,” says Mr. Kulesa.

All the hinges and handles also had to be buffed clean, and a few of the cabinets required welding. Two had to be cut to fit the stainless-steel double wall ovens and refrigerator, which they bought at bargain prices at various stages of the project, along with the Bosch stovetop and hood, from various scratch-and-dent stores across the country.

“We knew what we wanted and waited for them to become available,” he says.

One cabinet found its way into a small office area the couple designed off the pantry. Outfitted with new glass doors, it hangs above a desk crafted from a half-inch-thick piece of “floating” tempered glass. A 30-inch piece of stainless-steel magnetic wallboard mounted underneath allows for easy tacking up of important desk items.

The menu board in the Kulesa kitchen. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Sheets of steel from Frank Custom Stainless in Etna also found their way onto the top and sides of the new center island — chosen because it’s impenetrable to shoes and boots and easy to keep clean — as well as onto the bottom of the cabinets in the form of kick plates. A pair of retro LEM Piston swivel stools, a gift from Mrs. Kulesa’s mother, adjust from bar to counter height with the push of a lever.

pair of retro LEM Piston swivel stools adjust from bar to counter height with the push of a lever. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Gorgeous as the cabinets were with their new car shine, the kitchen needed a few splashes of color to bring it alive. Hence, the simple but oh-so-beautiful deep-red backsplash over the cooking area.

Colored glass tile is one of the most sought-after looks in today’s kitchens, but it’s also expensive. So Mr. Kulesa took big pieces of glass he got from H.B. Reynolds on Babcock Boulveard in McCandless, hand-painted them on the underside and thin-set them right up against the studs.

“I actually called PPG to ask, ‘What kind of paint sticks to glass?’ ” says Mr. Kulesa. The answer was enamel, and so that’s Rustoleum he rolled on the backs of the tile.

Other design elements that help bring the room to life are Eco by Consentino counter tops, made from recycled glass, under-cabinet LED lighting and 24-inch Yura porcelain floor tiles from Architectural Clay Products on the North Side, which he laid on top of the old asbestos floor so he wouldn’t have the headache of removing it. A domed skylight over the island floods the room with natural light, and there are a half-dozen box lights built into the open rafters.

Mr. Kulesa also is quick to point out the many electric outlets that allow the couple to plug in what and whenever they want: 24 above the counters alone.

“Every time we opened a wall, we added insulation and outlets,” he says.

Most every renovation project goes down to the wire, and this winning entry is no exception: Mr. Kulesa says he literally finished putting on the final touches 15 minutes before the judges showed up at his door last month.

“I’m surprised that no one smelled the paint.”

What’s for Dinner: Pat’s (Updated) Pot Roast

Comfort food at its best: Mom's Pot Roast

Pat’s (Updated) Pot Roast

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Culinary historian Michael Twitty hopes to bring a greater awareness of African-American contributions to the development of Southern cuisine during his upcoming “Southern Discomfort Tour” through the Deep South. But the D.C. native also has a deep appreciation for, and love for, the simple comfort foods he grew up on.

“There are things that came down to us through slavery and there are things that we perfected as a family in freedom,” he writes on his blog, thecookinggene.com. “This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and it was a mainstay of our Sunday Dinners growing up.”

He’s not exaggerating. Even with overcooked potatoes (I cut them a bit too small), it was one of the most tender and tastiest roasts I’ve ever put on the table, thanks to its rich, fragrant gravy.

Mr. Twitty suggests serving the pot roast with a fresh warm baguette or sweet corn muffins and a dark green, leafy salad. If you’ve got any, shred the leftovers for sandwiches.

  • 3 1/2- to 4- pound beef chuck roast
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil or clear bacon fat
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cups white mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup of green bell pepper, diced (optional)
  • 1 bouquet garni (herbs tied in a bundle) of fresh basil, thyme, parsley and a bay leaf
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • 2 cups carrots sliced diagonally
  • 4 large russet potatoes, skinned and cut into chunks, or a small bag of baby potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian leaf parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Wash and pat dry roast. Season liberally with kosher salt and coarse ground pepper, covering surface. Heat oil or fat in cast iron skillet and brown roast on all sides. Saute onion, mushroom and green pepper (if using) in pan drippings and place on and around roast in a Dutch oven. Season with bouquet garni.

Add wine and stock. Cook for 90 minutes, checking to see if the meat is getting tender. Cook for another 20 minutes after basting with the juices in the Dutch oven. Add the carrots and potatoes and cook another 35 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest.

Remove roast and vegetables, keeping them separate. Skim all the fat you can from the surface of the remaining stock and discard, along with the herbs. Drain resultant stock into a saucepan, and bring to a simmer.

To make gravy, mix flour and margarine or butter in a small bowl (this is called kneaded butter in Southern cooking). Stir mixture into the pot of simmering stock, and allow to thicken. Add a pinch of kosher salt and pepper to taste. Keep stirring until well combined. Sweeten just a little with honey.

To serve: Slice roast into 1-inch-thick slices and place on a ceramic platter surrounded by the onions and carrots. Spoon mushrooms and onions remaining over the meat, and then top off with the gravy. Add the parsley and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Michael Twitty, thecookinggene.com

Casting call: Try Spanish mackerel

Spanish Mackerel with Meyer Lemon Escabeche/Gretchen McKay

 

 

People can be funny when it comes to eating fish.

You want a fillet to taste vaguely of the ocean so as to distinguish it from meat or chicken. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be too . . . fishy.

No wonder, then, that mackerel doesn’t much figure in when people are figuring out what to cook during the six-week Lenten season.

Blessed (or some may say cursed) with rich, full-bodied meat, mackerel is one of your oilier fishes. That translates into a fillet that’s more assertive tasting than Alaskan salmon or Icelandic cod. That is, if you’re eating small Atlantic (Boston) mackerel, or the giant king mackerel, which can reach 100 pounds and is such a voracious eater that the fish sometimes can be seen leaping out of the water in pursuit of prey.

Not so with the mid-sized Spanish mackerel, a species that can be found from Cape Cod to North Carolina to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s got the same razor-sharp teeth and silvery skin as its larger brethren, along with beautiful yellow spots on its iridescent blue-green skin, but the taste is much, much milder. So much so that even those who normally only will take a chance on fish that is white, flaky and delicate-tasting might ask for seconds and maybe even thirds after they sample it for the first time.

That’s right: I liked the Spanish mackerel escabeche that Penn Avenue Fish Co. owner/chef Henry Dewey prepared for me in hopes of changing my mind about fishier-tasting fish. So much so that I made it again for my husband that same night — and had the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

I also really enjoyed a piece of roasted Spanish mackerel dipped in ponzu sauce, and discovered I could eat a raw slice of it on top of rice as nigiri without, you know, gagging. It was surprisingly clean and pleasant-tasting for raw fish.

“I can’t believe the bad rap it gets,” says Chef Dewey, who remembers fishing for it on the Gulf of Mexico as a child. “But once people taste it, it’s like, ‘Ooooh, mackerel!'”

“It’s a solid, all-around good fish,” agrees Tim Reynolds, one of the Strip District store’s fishmongers. “Any time we get it in, all of us get really excited.”

Spanish mackerel is one of the most commonly caught species off the Southeast coast, yet it still accounts for just a small percentage of total mackerel landings in the United States. That may explain why it’s difficult to find the fish on local menus, other than as an occasional daily special, and why it’s not often included in mainstream cookbooks.

Still, Penn Avenue sells about 65 pounds of the fish each week, and the amount is slowly increasing as more people become acquainted with all it has to offer, says Chef Dewey.

One of the biggest pluses is its health benefits. High in protein and low in calories, Spanish mackerel is extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to protect against heart disease and possibly stroke.

Chef Dewey says, “It’s super, super good for you” so long as you keep it to just a few servings a month.

Because of its elevated mercury level, Spanish mackerel is under a consumption advisory for pregnant women and children issued by the Environmental Defense Fund. When you do enjoy it, though, it can be with a clear conscience: Spanish mackerel gets a “best choice” recommendation on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list because its fisheries are well managed, and the year-round catches are plentiful and healthy.

Spanish mackerel also is comparatively inexpensive — in addition to Penn Avenue Fish, where it sells for $9.99 per pound whole, it can be found locally at Giant Eagle Market District, Wholey’s in the Strip District and Whole Foods for between $5.99 and $6.99 per pound. Wherever you buy, make certain the fish is extremely fresh, as the oil that makes its off-white flesh so flavorful also makes it spoil very quickly. Improperly stored (it has to be kept cold), mackerel is susceptible to scombroid poisoning, a foodborne illness with symptoms ranging from an upset stomach, headache and diarrhea.

How to tell if a mackerel is good to go? The flesh should be shiny and firm but not spongy (it shouldn’t stay sunken when you poke it), its eyes clear and the gills a rich pink color. Also, it should smell clean and briny instead of fishy. Take a pass if it’s beat up around the edges: that means it’s been bruised on its journey from the ocean to the store.

A Spanish mackerel at Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District /Post-Gazette

Spanish mackerel average between 2 and 4 pounds, and because their silver scales are extremely tiny, they don’t have to be scaled, unless you plan to eat the skin, which you probably should leave on while cooking to help keep the fish intact. Some will cut the dark, central “blood line” at the top of the fillets before putting them into a pan (I pulled the brownish meat off with the skin after cooking it) but otherwise, it’s pretty easy to clean.

The meat is firm enough that it can be cooked in a variety of methods — grilled, fried, barbecued, broiled or roasted — and it pairs exceptionally well with Asian and Mediterranean spices, standing up to spicy curries and vinegary sauces. Remember: It’s best when cooked within a short time of being caught, so don’t let it languish in the refrigerate.

Spanish mackerel also can be eaten raw in sushi or sashimi, or marinated in lemon or lime juice with chiles and salt for ceviche. And it’s wonderful smoked, says Chef Dewey, who likes to stuff the fish with fresh herbs and roast it after drizzling it with melted butter and a dusting of paprika.

“If you try it,” he says, “you’ll come back again and again for it.”


Grilled Mackerel with horseradish, lemon and mustard

This is a good recipe for those who believe mackerel is too oily; the hot-and-sour marinade cuts through the fatty richness of the fish beautifully.

  • 2 tablespoons creamed horseradish
  • 9 ounces Greek-style yogurt
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon hot English mustard, such as Colman’s
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 3 sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 to 6 mackerel fillets

Combine horseradish and yogurt in a bowl. Season the mixture with salt and black pepper. Mix the mustard with the lemon juice and vinegar, and stir in the lemon zest. Add this mixture to the yogurt.

Coarsely chop the parsley and stir into yogurt mixture. Taste the sauce: the mustard and horseradish make it hot (it will lose some heat when cooked), the vinegar and lemon juice make it sour, and it should also be a little salty.

Preheat broiler. Lay mackerel fillets skin-side down on a baking sheet and spread with horseradish, lemon and mustard sauce. Place fish under the broiler for 4 to 5 minutes, until sauce is caramelized on top and the fish is cooked through. Serve as a starter with a mixed leaf salad. Serves 4 to 6.

— “Fish Tales: Stories & Recipes from Sustainable Fisheries Around the World” by Bart van Olphen and Tom Kime (Kyle, $29.95)


 

Spanish Mackerel with Meyer Lemon Escabeche

PG tested

  • 1 pound boneless Spanish mackerel fillets, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon blackened seasoning, such as Paul Prudhommes’ Blackened Redfish Magic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup julienned carrots
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced very thin
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons toasted, ground coriander seeds
  • 1 Meyer lemon, sliced thin
  • Handful fresh cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place boneless mackerel fillets skin down on a roasting pan covered with aluminum foil. Season generously with the blackened seasoning. Place in hot oven and roast for 8 minutes, or until just barely cooked through. Make sure not to overcook.

In a medium skillet, heat olive oil. Add carrots and red onions and heat gently until veggies are soft. Remove from heat. Add apple cider vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add toasted, ground coriander seeds. Add sliced Meyer lemon with some rough chopped cilantro and toss to mix.

Place the cooked fillets in a decorative dish and pour the dressing over the top of the fish.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 3 hours, spooning the dressing over the fish occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature with crackers or on top of cooked angel-hair pasta. Serves 4.

— Henry Dewey, chef/owner Penn Avenue Fish Co.


 

BAKED MACKEREL WITH HARISSA AND LIME

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Having spent many hours as a kid and teenager pier- and surf fishing for mackerel on the Atlantic coast of Florida, I was tickled to get my hands on a beautiful whole (already gutted) fish from Penn Avenue Fish Co. It was too big for any of my pans, so I roasted it with its tail sticking out one side and its toothy head hanging out the other. But it cooked up perfectly using this recipe, meant for smaller mackerel; it also can be used on herring and trout, though as the cookbook notes, mackerel “takes assertive flavors well.” Don’t fear cooking whole fish. To me, there’s something almost sacred, and certainly special, about experiencing food this way. And it tastes good, too.

Harissa paste is a condiment of hot peppers that you can find at specialty stores, or you can whip up your own blend; I made some with piment d’Espelett pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander and olive oil.

— Bob Batz Jr.

  • 4 large or 8 small mackerel, scaled, gutted and washed (I used my one big fish)
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons harissa paste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 limes quartered
  • 2 1/2 pounds baby new potatoes, halved if large
  • Handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the mackerel in a roasting pan, then mix the harissa paste with half the oil. Drizzle this over the fish, making sure the mackerel are covered inside and out. Add the limes to the pan, then toss the potatoes with the remaining oil and add them to the pan, too.

Roast in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the potatoes and fish are cooked through. Scatter with the cilantro, and serve with a crisp salad.

— “Seafood: How to Buy, Prepare, and Cook the Best Sustainable Fish and Seafood from Around the World,” edited by C.J. Jackson (DK, 2011, $35)


 

Whole roasted Spanish mackerel with lemon and paprika

  • 2 to 4 pound Spanish mackerel, gills removed and fins clipped (tell your fish monger to prepare it to cook whole)
  • 1 bunch scallions, rinsed and trimmed
  • Handful fresh herbs (thyme, tarragon or rosemary)
  • 2 slices lemon, halved
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Paprika
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Stuff the belly cavity of the mackerel with scallions and fresh herbs. Score the sides of the fish 3 times and place a medium half-slice of lemon in each score.

Place fish on an aluminum foil-covered sheet pan. Rub the outside of the fish with extra-virgin olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a generous amount of paprika. Then drizzle with melted butter. Place in oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. Serve with steamed vegetables and brown rice. Serves 4.

— Henry Dewey, chef/owner, Penn Avenue Fish Co.