Gretchen McKay

Memorable recipes for Memorial Day

Burgers with homemade slaw, pickles and BBQ sauce. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette


Burgers and potato salad are traditional fare at Memorial Day picnics, but it’s also fun to shake things up every now and again with an unexpected new flavor. And if the recipe for said dish is as easy as it is lip-smacking? So much the better for the cook, who would much rather be relaxing in the sunshine with his or her guests than fretting over complicated details.


Here, we offer two burgers — one made with beef chuck and another built on a bun topped with portobello mushroom and a garlicky spinach pesto — that are sure to make your guests flip. They’re paired with a grilled potato salad that my husband declared is one of the best he’s ever had, not to mention a good deal healthier than the standard made-with-mayo version.

So burger lovers can enjoy her recipes all year long, celebrity chef Rachael Ray suggests the indoor method of cooking them in a cast-iron skillet or grill pan on top of the stove. But I had no problem making either on my grill, and you shouldn’t either. Plus, the smell of them sizzling over the hot coals will drive you (and your neighbors) crazy.

For the beef burger, be sure to bring the meat to room temperature and pat off excess liquid using a paper towel. Also, make sure the center of the patty is thinner than the edges when you form it with your hand, because patties plump when you cook them and “as of yet they do not make Spanx for burger bulge,” Ms. Ray writes.

Because no cookout is a good one without some kind of dessert, we’ve also included a recipe for an easy blueberry tart that will have you kicking summer off on the right foot.


Portobello Mushroom Burger with Spinach Pesto. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette


Portobello Burgers with Spinach Pesto

PG tested

Not everyone eats red meat, so it’s smart to have at least one vegetarian dish on your Memorial Day menu.

This recipe features portobello mushroom caps, sometimes called the “steak of the vegetarian world” because of their hearty beef-like flavor and meaty texture. I substituted pine nuts in the pesto, because no one in my family is too crazy about walnuts.

Look for caps that are smooth and firm, without any slimy patches. Store, unwashed, in a brown paper bag in the fridge until you’re ready to use them (they’ll stay fresh for up to a week).

  • 2 cups packed baby spinach, plus a few leaves for garnish
  • 1/4 cup toasted walnut pieces
  • 1/4 cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1 clove garlic, grated or pasted
  • A few grates of nutmeg
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 large portobello mushroom caps
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary
  • 1/2 pound fresh mozzarella or smoked fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • 4 crusty rolls, split
  • Thinly sliced red onion

Make pesto by placing spinach in a food processor with walnuts, grated cheese, garlic and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.

Turn on the processor and stream in 1/4 cup olive oil to form a thick pesto.

Make burgers by brushing portobello caps with a damp towel to clean them. In a large plastic food storage bag, combine the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar and rosemary. Add mushroom caps and slush around to coat with seasonings.

Heat a grill pan or large skillet over medium-high heat. Shake the marinade off the mushrooms and cook the caps, turning once, 10 to 12 minutes, or until well browned on both sides. Season with salt and pepper. Top the caps with the mozzarella, remove pan from heat, and tent loosely with aluminum foil. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes to melt the cheese.

Place mushrooms on the roll bottoms and top with pesto, a few spinach leaves and a few slices of red onion. Set the top rolls in place.

Serves 4.

— “The Book of Burger” by Rachael Ray (Atria, June 5, 2012, $24.99)


Brooklyn Beer Chili Sliders

PG tested

Make the pickles and barbecue sauce ahead of time, and all you’ll have to do the day of the picnic is assemble these taste-tacular burgers, which I patted into regular-sized patties instead of sliders.

For pickles
  • 2 cups white balsamic or cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 large clove garlic, halved
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 small fresh red chile, such as Fresno, sliced
  • 4 Kirby (seedless) cucumbers, sliced 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick
  • 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • A few sprigs fresh dill
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
For slaw
  • 1/2 pound shredded red cabbage
  • 1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Celery salt
  • Kosher salt and pepper
For BBQ sauce
  • 1 cup good-quality ketchup, such as Heinz Organic
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons dark amber maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • Coarsely ground pepper
For sliders
  • 2 pounds ground beef chuck
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
  • 1/2 cup Brooklyn Ale or other beer of choice (I used Guinness Stout)
  • Grill seasoning, such as McCormick Montreal Steak Seasoning, or kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper
  • Vegetable or olive oil, for drizzling
  • 12 slider rolls

Make the pickles: Bring vinegar, 1/3 cup water, sugar, salt, peppercorns, garlic and bay leaves to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes.

Put chile, cucumbers, onion and dill in a small food storage container and sprinkle in mustard and coriander seeds. Pour hot brine over pickles. Cool, cover and chill overnight, shaking every once in a while.

When you are ready to make the sliders, make slaw: In a bowl, combine cabbage, onion, vinegar and oil. Season with celery salt and salt and pepper. Toss until cabbage is coated.

Make the BBQ sauce: In a small saucepan, combine all sauce ingredients and cook over medium-low heat to thicken and combine flavors, 15 to 20 minutes.

Make sliders: Heat a large cast-iron pan, griddle or grill pan over medium-high to high heat. In a large bowl, combine beef, Worcestershire sauce, marjoram, thyme, chile powder and beer; season with grill seasoning or with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4 equal portions, then form each portion into 3 equal patties thinner at the center than at the edges for even cooking and to ensure a flat surface (burgers plump as they cook). Drizzle the patties with oil. Cook sliders a few minutes on each side, or until done to your taste. Baste liberally with barbecue sauce during the last minute of cooking.

Place sliders on roll bottoms and top with a little slaw and slices of pickle. Set roll tops in place. Pass the rest of the pickles and sauce at the table.

Makes 12 sliders.

— “The Book of Burger” by Rachael Ray (Atria, June 5, 2012, $24.99)


Grilled Potato Salad. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette


Grilled Potato Salad

PG tested

You won’t miss the mayo in this terrific potato salad. It’s so good, in fact, that I made it twice in one weekend, the second time with some lovely fingerling potatoes I picked up at Butler Farm Market in Renfrew.

  • 2 pounds medium Yukon gold potatoes
  • 2 medium yellow onions, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rings and skewered with toothpicks
  • 1/4 cup white or red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for coating the potatoes and onions
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 4 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 1/2 cup crumbled bleu cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Place potatoes in a large saucepan of water and season with a few pinches of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender. Drain and slice into 1/4-inch-thick disks.

Preheat a grill over medium-high heat. Drizzle potatoes and onion slices with enough olive oil to coat. Grill potatoes for about 5 minutes per side, until the surface is browned and crisp. At the same time, grill onions for about 4 minutes per side, until lightly caramelized and soft.

Combine vinegar, mustard and sugar. Whisk in 1/4 cup olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Combine potatoes, onions, bacon, bleu cheese and parsley in a large mixing bowl. Toss with dressing. Makes 6 servings.

— “Grill This, Not That” by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding (Rodale, May 2012, $19.99)


Blueberry Tart. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Blueberry Tart

PG tested

The best picnic desserts not only use whatever ripe, juicy fruit is in season, but also can be made in advance so you don’t get stuck in the kitchen when everyone else is out in the sun. In the case of this easy (and crowd-pleasing) tart, it’s blueberries.

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
  • 2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut up
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 5 cups blueberries
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat 9-inch square or round tart pan with removable bottom with nonstick cooking spray.

To food processor, add 1 cup flour, 2 tablespoons sugar and salt; pulse until blended. Add butter; pulse just until coarse crumbs form. Sprinkle with vinegar; pulse just until blended. Turn out dough and bring together with fingers.

Press dough into bottom of tart pan. Top with 3 cups berries. In medium bowl, mix remaining 2 tablespoons flour, 2/3 cup sugar and cinnamon. Evenly sprinkle over berries; drizzle with almond extract.

Bake tart 50 to 60 minutes or until bubbly. Remove from oven and top with remaining 2 cups blueberries. Cool in pan on wire rack. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 12 servings.

— “Best of Summer” (Hearst Publications, 2012, $9.99)


Chia seeds go from sand to goo, but they’re oh-so-good for you

Chia seeds are super tiny, but super good for you. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette



My kids usually are pretty good sports about trying unfamiliar food. Yet no amount of cajoling, begging or double-dog-daring could get my daughters to taste chia, a protein-packed member of the mint family that’s best known for its pee-wee sprouts kids have been growing in animal-shaped planters for more than 30 years.

“You mean the stuff on a Chia Pet? No way!” Olivia declared, when I mentioned there was a bowl of chocolate pudding made with it chilling in the fridge. “That’s gross.”

Chia seeds aren’t the most appetizing of ingredients (they look like sand, or possibly fleas), and that’s before I learned the seeds turn into a slimy goo when you mix them with a liquid. (More on that later.) Or saw that the cookbook that got me thinking I should explore this latest “superfood” included recipes for cat food, bunny drink, horse chow and livestock feed.

Then again, as Christopher McDougall makes the case in his 2009 nonfiction bestseller “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” chia (pronounced chee-ah) is one of those recently “rediscovered” foods with which we all should be better acquainted, teenagers included.

Easy to grow and super nutritious, chia was an essential supplement in the ancient Mayan and Aztec diets, and the seeds also enjoy a long culinary history in northern Mexico’s Copper Canyon. To fuel the extraordinary endurance runs they’re famous for — 50 to 100 miles at a time, in huarache sandals — its reclusive Tarahumara tribe for centuries has made a “home-brewed Red Bull” out of chia seeds mixed with water, citrus juice and honey (they call it iskiate.) Hopi Indians are believed to have eaten the seed before embarking on epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean.

“If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia,” writes Mr. McDougall, “at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”

That’s because gram per gram, chia has almost three times more iron than spinach, twice as much potassium as banana and five times as much calcium as milk. It’s also superpacked with protein, omega-3s, omega-6s, iron, zinc and antioxidants. It’s got fiber, too, enough that it’ll clean out your innards like a miniature push broom. And did we mention it’s vegan, and gluten-free?

There is a slight hitch: Because chia aborbs up to 12 times its weight in water, it turns into a gel as soon as it hits the liquid in your stomach. But that’s actually a plus, once you get used to it, because that slows the conversion of carbs into sugar, improving your endurance during exercise. Chia also helps keep you steadily hydrated and maintain your electrolyte balance.

To a runner who’s always looking to go faster and longer, it all adds up to a pretty good reason to give the seeds a try. Hence, the pudding my daughter turned her nose up at but which I’m happy to report was pretty tasty, once I got past its gloppy, tapioca-like texture.

Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Native to north central Mexico and south to Guatemala, chia was pretty much lost to the world after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, who valued the crop so much it was used as currency and offered to the gods; the Spanish had no time for plants they couldn’t grow back in Europe. Chia’s rediscovery in the last two decades is due mostly to the Northwestern Argentina Regional Project, a project begun in 1991 with the goal of reintroducing lesser-known crops that once energized so many in Latin America for commercial production. In the U.S., chia is found mainly in specialty markets and health-food stores, where a small but growing group of fans is happy to extol its virtues.

Uncommon Market in Bethel Park has carried the seed for about two years, and while shoppers sometimes are reluctant to try it, once they do they can’t seem to get enough of the stuff, says owner Janet Gralka. And it’s not just women over 50 who are buying it for their husbands’ colonic health.

“It’s people in their 20s — health conscious,” she says. Her daughter is but one example: she stirs it into yogurt and makes smoothies with the seed.

Chia isn’t cheap: a 10-ounce container of white Salba chia seeds grown in Peru costs $5.99 at the South Hills store, while the bulk price at East End Co-op in Point Breeze is $9 per pound; at Whole Foods Market, it’s $6.99 per pound for bulk or $16 for a 15-ounce bag of its organic 365 brand. But as Wayne Coates demonstrates in “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” (Sterling, May 1, 2012, $14.95), a little bit of Slavia hispanica goes a really long way. Most of the book’s recipes call only for a teaspoon or two of raw seeds, or a cup or less of chia “gel,” made by whisking 13/4 tablespoons of chia seed into 1 cup of cool water. Too much chia, in fact, can lead to digestive distress if you don’t already eat a lot of fiber, so you may want to slowly introduce it into your diet: there are 5 grams in one tablespoon.

Probably the easiest way to sneak chia into meals is to simply sprinkle the seeds — raw or toasted — on top of your favorite foods like eggs, yogurt, rice, salad, oatmeal, etc. You also can stir the tiny seeds into a smoothie, shake, slushie or fruit drink, but be prepared — if you don’t guzzle it fairly quickly, you may have trouble swallowing after the seeds start trapping liquid (chia gets slimy when it gets wet). Or, slip a few teaspoons into your favorite cookie, cake or muffin recipe. Your kids will never know the difference, other than a slight crunch.

Chia Strawberry-Banana Sorbet. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Because chia is mucilaginous — gluey — it also can be used like flour or cornstarch to thicken soups and gravies.

To incorporate chia into baked foods, grind seeds in a clean coffee mill, high-speed blender or food processor until they resemble sand. Then substitute the milled chia for one-quarter of the flour called for in a recipe. But don’t feel as if you have to; unlike tough-shelled flax seed, which has to be ground, chia seeds are just as nutritious when ingested whole. Easier still is to buy it already ground. For vegan baking, 1/4 cup of chia gel acts as an egg replacer.

Don’t cook much? Chia also can be purchased as an oil capsule and in prepared products such as cereal, drinks, bread and energy bars.

The new Whole Foods Market Wexford carries the organic Greens Plus Omega 3 Chia Energy Bar ($2.29).

For those who’d rather slurp the seed, there’s the Mamma Chia Pomegranate Mint Vitality Beverage ($2.19).

You can find even more chia products on the Internet., for instance, has more than a dozen snack foods made with the seed, including fruit bars, crackers and tortilla chips. GT’s, which helped introduce the U.S. to a fizzy, organic fermented tea known as kombucha, offers three flavors of chia-spiked Synergy, a juice variety of the tea: cherry, grape and raspberry.

You can find the ProBar Fruition Strawberry, which earlier this month won one of Prevention Magazine’s 26 “healthiest food award” at


Moroccan Carrot Salad

PG tested

This easy side dish goes just as well with roasted chicken as it does with grilled meat or fish.

  • 1/4 cup chia gel (recipe below)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper, or 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 8 carrots, grated
  • Salt to taste
  • Crushed red pepper to taste
  • White sesame seeds for garnish (optional)

In a large bowl, whisk together the chia gel, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and pepper. Add shredded carrots and gently mix to combine and evenly coat carrots.

Season with salt and crushed red pepper. Garnish with sesame seeds, if using.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood” by Wayne Coates (Sterling, 2012, $14.95)


Chia Gel

This gel won’t affect flavor, but it will increase the nutrient profile of your favorite foods. Stir into salad dressings, condiments, even peanut butter and jelly.

  • 1 cup cool water
  • 1 3/4 tablespoons chia seeds

Pour water into a sealable plastic or glass container. Slowly pour chia seeds into water while briskly mixing with wire whisk. Wait 3 or 4 minutes and whisk again.

Let mixture stand for 10 minutes before whisking again. Seal the container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks and use as needed. Whisk before using.


Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding

PG tested

My kids wouldn’t touch this tapioca-like pudding, which looks like it’s full of itsy bitsy frog eggs. (I know — gross!) It actually ended up being pretty tasty.

  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee powder (optional)
  • 1/4 cup chia seeds
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons honey, or to taste

Mix cocoa powder, brown sugar and instant coffee (if using) in a bowl; stir until no lumps remain. Fold chia seeds into mixture. Pour milk into bowl and stir to incorporate; let mixture sit a few minutes before stirring again. Repeat resting and stirring a few times over the course of 20 minutes.

Cover the bowl with plastic, and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. Drizzle honey over the pudding to serve.

Serves 1 to 2.



Chia Strawberry-Banana Sorbet

PG tested

This is an easy and absolutely delicious dessert, and your kids (or spouse) will never know they’re eating something so healthy. It also will hit the spot after a long run.

If you’re feeling adventurous, substitute different frozen fruits and juices; next time I’ll try it with mango and orange juice.

  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 16-ounce bag frozen strawberries
  • 1 ripe banana

Combine seeds and juice and let them soak for a half-hour. Whirl soaked seeds and juice with berries and banana in a blender until well mixed and smooth. Serve immediately. To make this a smoothie, add more juice. Serves 4 to 6.

— Adapted from Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture (


Chia Limeade

PG tested

This is a variation of chia fresca, the all-natural energy drink that sustains the Tarahumara tribe of Northern Mexico on their epic long runs. It’s refreshing, but it will get gelatinous if you let it sit too long (think of a half-set bowl of lime Jell-O). So, bottoms up!

  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 5 cups cold water, divided
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, loosely packed

In bowl, mix chia seeds with 1 cup water. Let stand 15 minutes. Drain, and rinse the seeds.

Mix remaining 4 cups cold water and the sugar in a medium pitcher, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and stir to combine. Mix in the chia seeds. Garnish with mint leaves and serve over ice. Serves 4.

— Marcella Valladolid, Food Network


Three ways to refuel after a marathon

Gluten-free Banana-Nutella Muffins/Gretchen McKay


So you’re among the thousands of Runners of Steel who participated in the Pittsburgh (or another city’s) Marathon. Or maybe you’re one of the many spectators who got up at the crack of dawn to cheer the record-breaking number of entrants on. Bet you’re hungry.

The average runner burns about 100 calories per mile, which when you’re talking an endurance event like a full marathon amounts to an entire day’s worth of calories over just a few hours. No one’s going to blame you, then, if the bagel and banana provided at the finish don’t suffice. Racing works up an appetite. You need a real food, and plenty of it.

Here, we offer a few athlete-tested recipes, including one that’s gluten-free, from this year’s field of world-class elites. All are easy to make, with delicious results.


Gluten-Free Banana Nutella Muffins

PG tested

Nutella and bananas. Need we say more?

This recipe comes from ultrarunner Devon Crosby-Helms, who came in 37th in the women’s marathon in the 2012 Olympic Trials. A personal chef who earned a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh, the San Francisco resident is gluten-intolerant, so she devised the muffins using gluten-free flour mix.

If you’ve never enjoyed a bakery product made without “regular” flour, you may be in for a pleasant surprise — samples brought into the newsroom disappeared from the food table in about 30 seconds.

I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour, available at Giant Eagle Market District stores. If you like your muffins on the sweet side, use the ripest bananas you can find, as the only sugar in this recipe comes from the Nutella.

  • 2 cups gluten-free flour mix
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 ripe bananas, plus banana slices for topping
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup Nutella


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place paper liners in 12 muffin tins.

Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl or stand mixer. In food processor, combine ripe bananas with butter, egg, almond milk and vanilla and process into a smooth paste. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients and stir to combine. Add chocolate-hazelnut spread and stir until incorporated.

Pour batter evenly into muffin cups and top with banana slices. Bake for 26 to 28 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack and store in a plastic container. Enjoy with more Nutella.

Makes 12 muffins.

— Devon Crosby-Helms



PG tested

This crunchy granola is a favorite with marathoner/personal chef Devon Crosby-Helm’s clients. “They call it ‘crack,’ ” she says, because it’s so addictive. Spoon it on top of yogurt or ice cream for a nice post-race treat, or do as I did and simply eat it by the handful.

I substituted almonds for the walnuts and honey for the agave nectar, and also threw in some chopped dried pineapple; next time, I might add a handful of chocolate chips after the mixture has cooled. “Good for you” never tasted so, well, good for you.

  • 4 cups old-fashioned oats or gluten-free oats (to make the recipe gluten free)
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup peanut or neutral oil
  • 1/2 cup agave nectar
  • 1 cup diced dried apricots
  • 1 cup roasted unsalted cashews
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 cup dried berries
  • 1 cup dried cherries


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss oats, shredded coconut and walnuts together in a large bowl. Mix oil and agave together and stir into oat mixture. Spread out evenly on a sheet pan and bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until golden, stirring occasionally. (My granola mix got crispy in about 30 minutes.)

Remove mixture from oven and mix in remaining ingredients and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 24 servings.

— Devon Crosby-Helms



Chili is always a good way to refuel after a long race, says Jeffrey Eggleston, who won the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon and is in town this weekend to defend his title. This vegetarian version, made with three different kinds of beans, is one of his favorite recipes. He says the addition of dark beer (he likes home-brewed dunkelweisen) is essential, as it’s a good source of B vitamins.

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 zucchini squash, chopped
  • 2 red, orange or yellow bell peppers
  • 2 jalapenos, chopped
  • 1 to 2 Hatch chile peppers, seeded and diced, if you can find them
  • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 12-ounce bottle of your favorite dark beer
  • 15-ounce can kidney beans
  • 15-ounce can black beans
  • 15-ounce can pinto beans
  • Sea salt and crushed black pepper, to taste


Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute garlic and onion until they become translucent. Season with bay leaves and spices; stir for about 1 minute, until spices become fragrant. Add zucchini and peppers (plus any other vegetables you wish).

Once vegetables are cooked through, add the diced tomatoes, beer and stir in the cans of beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer (covered) for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve chili in bowls with cornbread and a cold brew.

Serves 6 to 8, depending on appetite.

— Jeffrey Eggleston


Soldier’s Story: A year in Afghanistan changes Lt. Col Chris Cieslak, and her family

This is the last in a series on Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak’s deployment to Afghanistan:

Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is welcomed home by neighbors. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette


A bunch of red, white and blue balloons danced at the front door when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak came home earlier this month after a year in Afghanistan. But the rest of her homecoming didn’t exactly go as expected.

The Ben Avon Army reservist ended up returning to the United States the same week her husband, Jeff, had planned a spring break getaway for the kids to a water park in Ohio. So instead of one of those teary reunions at the airport, she was picked up by a friend and dropped off at a house that was as silent as it was empty.

Missing that storybook ending would drive more than a few soldiers crazy. Col. Cieslak isn’t one of them. Chalk it up to an engineer’s way of thinking, but to her, the fact her family waited until the next day to rush home so they could finish their vacation was an example of them continuing to live life to the fullest while she completed her service.

“At first, I was upset they wouldn’t be there to greet me,” she acknowledged earlier this month, just two weeks back into civilian life. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a sec … They didn’t sit on the sidelines when I was in Afghanistan and watch life pass by.’ ”

Col. Cieslak is the first to admit the 43-year-old woman who walked into that empty house on April 4 was not the same suburban mom who had left it a year earlier. That’s because during her deployment with the 412th Theater Engineer Command out of Mississippi, she learned something important: It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone and confront challenges that you can truly grow as a person.

Life lessons

Civilians like to think of military service as the ultimate sacrifice. To be sure, more than 6,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and many thousands more have been injured, some seriously, according to Defense Department figures. But there’s also a gift that comes back to you by serving, Col. Cieslak points out, often in the most unexpected ways.

When you live with 1,200 people in a space that’s smaller than the footprint of the old Civic Arena, you can’t let bad feelings fester, she said. One of the most valuable life lessons she learned during her yearlong stint in the Afghan capital of Kabul was how to work through conflicts quickly, even with people you don’t like. Her time overseas also revealed, in a very concrete way, how others will support you during tough times if you simply reach out.

It was a challenging year for the Army mother of two, and not just because she lived in a walled-in compound that felt very much like a prison, or that it took a good five months for the civil engineer to find her voice on the job. She also worried whether the engineering consulting firm she’d spent countless hours growing into a successful business with several employees would survive her deployment. Then, in January, her 71-year-old mother, Lois, died from a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. The loss was devastating.

Mom was the one who encouraged her to consider ROTC while attending Penn State and was one of her most ardent supporters when she enlisted in 1991 in the Army Reserve. Had she not been able to lean on her community of fellow soldiers when that bad news made its way 7,000 miles across the globe, the last few months would have been unbearable. From figuring out how to get her on the first flight out of Kabul, to rallying around her when she returned from emergency leave, to recognizing the restorative power of work, they offered a comforting, collective shoulder to cry on.

“We were each other’s families,” she said, “so we tried to reach out to care for and watch over others.”

Value of teamwork

Working as a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine provided her with another insight into her own life: how much she missed being part of a high-achieving team. So much so, that by the time she returned to Pittsburgh, she’d decided she no longer wanted to run her own business, and she is in the process of shutting it down. On Tuesday, she’ll take a job as a project director with Oxford Development Co.’s sports and entertainment division, working on projects that include the redevelopment of the Civic Arena site.

“It was still afloat, and my baby, so it was depressing to let it go,” said Col. Cieslak of Chronicle Consulting, whose four employees included her husband, who served as office manager. Yet at the same time, the decision was liberating.

Everything falls on your shoulders when you own a business, and that can make you feel trapped and smothered, she said. So one of her goals while she was in Afghanistan was to look ahead and figure out where she wanted to be in 10 years. The answer was something that would make her feel “alive.”

“Before I left, I’d been in the same job for a very long time, and I think I was stuck in a rut,” she said. The change in attitude didn’t go unnoticed.

As impressed as he was with the way his wife ran her company and projects before being deployed last spring, the “old” Chris doesn’t hold a candle to the “new” Chris.

“She made this quantum leap of fearlessness, where nothing is going to stop her,” Mr. Cieslak said.

The family grew closer during Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak's year-long deployment in Afghanistan. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Her family grew in positive ways, too. Her children, now 9 and 11, appear more self-reliant than they were a year ago, and their relationship is much closer. For her engineer husband, who’s been a stay-home dad since their son, Johnny, was born in 2003, he became even closer to this children. To her surprise, he even took on her job as the family “initiator,” planning several vacations and countless activities with the kids.

“It’s been very gratifying,” she said.

One disappointment over the past year, she said, was that she was exposed to almost no Afghan culture because her duties didn’t require working with locals.

“There was only so much you could step out of your responsibility, and do what you wanted to do,” she said.

It was also hard for her to regain her momentum after returning to Afghanistan after her mother’s funeral. With fewer than two months left, there was barely enough time to train her replacement, let alone finish her projects.

Also weighing heavy on her mind was her job with the 412th. To retire at her current rank of lieutenant colonel, she needs an additional 18 to 24 months in the Reserve. Unless she wants to keep traveling to Mississippi, that means finding a new unit — no easy task in a military that’s drawing down.

Hard to say goodbye

Having been previously deployed in 2003 to Kuwait, Col. Cieslak knew that most of the close friendships she’d form in Afghanistan wouldn’t last: forged in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a war zone, they’re just too intense to continue in the relative calm of civilian life. So as early as last fall, separation anxiety was setting in. She couldn’t help but feel melancholy.

By March, she was so sad at the thought of leaving her surrogate family that it started to overshadow her return to Pittsburgh.

“It’s like postpartum depression,” she said.

Three weeks into civilian life, Col. Cieslak is still adjusting. Facebook has allowed her to stay in touch with a few of her closest military friends, but most of those relationships have already started to fade. Now, the focus is on reconnecting with friends and neighbors and her husband and children.

She thinks it will take about six months to fully readjust — but it’s also kind of exciting.

“You go away, and come back, and it’s like falling in love all over again,” she said.

Many soldiers, herself included, thrive on the excitement of deployment. So the real challenge, she said, will be figuring out how to reap the benefits of military service — the intense relationships, opportunity to lead, the ability to effect change — as a civilian.