Gretchen McKay

Pie Crust Demo has her going from ‘duh’ to dough

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Every home cook has her Achilles heel, the one dish or technique that she simply cannot master. For me, it’s homemade pie crust. Or as it’s referred to in my kitchen: stinking $#• &%@ pie crust!

To say I’m dough-phobic is something of an understatement; the mere thought of trying to combine flour, shortening and water into something that’s supposed to melt in your mouth is enough to make me cry. Just ask my husband, who’s counseled me through many a pie-related meltdown.

This is apple season, though, when my kids start whining for pie. Which is how I ended up in an apple pie crust demonstration at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in the South Side after work this past Monday.

“You know, you do kind of have a thing about crust,” my editor reminded me, when he suggested — ever so nicely — that I take the workshop, co-sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh and the upcoming fifth Urban Applefest and Apple Pie Baking Contest Oct. 23 at the Union Project in Highland Park.

Hmmm. Guess he was tired of hearing me complain, too.

Here’s the problem with my pie crust dough. It’s either too dry, which causes it to crack in the pan and stick instead of flake in the mouth when baked, or it’s too wet, which makes it impossible to peel off the rolling pin. So then I add more flour, which makes it too dry, which makes it tough instead of soft and elastic, and well, you get the picture. Of me cursing.

But I’m not the only one.

“I think you either get the crust gene or you don’t,” noted an equally clueless woman sitting next to me at the demo, with a wistful sigh.

More likely is that some other family member (in my case, my mom) always supplies the holiday pies so you never have to make one yourself and master what my accomplished baker of a boss assures me is a very easy process.

Adding to the confusion is that everyone has his or her own recipe for dough. Applefest organizer Don Gibbon likes a mixture of oil, milk and flour, while PG food contributor Marlene Parrish, one of the workshop’s two instructors, prefers an old-fashioned crust made from flour, Crisco and water and blended by hand.

“You don’t need no fancy, dancy French pastry,” she told us, sensing our apprehension. “A basic, old-fashioned crust will never let you down!”

I’m guessing Barrie Mars of Slow Food Pittsburgh might disagree. After Marlene left the stage, Barrie demonstrated a pie crust made in a Cuisinart with chunks of chilled butter and kneaded together using the French fraisage technique.

See what I mean? As many recipes as there are chefs.

After serving as Marlene’s guinea pig, and then watching Barrie work her magic on the cooking school’s butcher block counter, though, I realized it really isn’t as difficult as I’d always thought.

Turns out, one of the biggest mistakes I was making was not letting my dough rest in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling it. I also didn’t know I had to fluff my flour with a fork before spooning it into a measuring cup (it compresses in the bag) and that instead of wildly rolling across the entire surface of the dough, I should start at the center and gently roll out to the edge, rotating the crust like a clock’s hand.

Also, always start with a disc of dough instead of a ball, and don’t be afraid to gently reshape it as you go along with the edge of your hand. Perhaps most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Being pie, it’s all good.

What else I learned over the course of the two-hour workshop:

• Lard makes for a great pie crust, but it’s a little “fussy” to work with. So it’s probably not for beginners.

• Don’t have a pastry blender? You can cut butter or shortening into flour with a pair of knives.

• Moisten your flour mixture with ice water; shortening turns oily when it gets warm. And add it slowly, because the temperature of your kitchen and ingredients can affect moisture levels.

• If you roll crust between two pieces of wax paper, it won’t stick to the pin. You’ll also have an easier time plopping it to the pan.

• Rolling right on the countertop? Fold the crust into quarters before transferring.

• The crust should be 1/2 to 1 inch larger than the pan; turn the pan over on top of it to measure.

• A little bit of water brushed on the edges will glue the top and bottom crusts together. A dusting of raw sugar on top (first brush the crust with cream or milk) will make it sparkle.

Double Pie Crust

PG tested

Remember to add water slowly and make sure it’s ice cold or you could end up with a crust that sticks to the rolling pin.

  • 9-inch Pyrex glass pie plate
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into a measuring cup and leveled
  • 1 teaspoon salt, such as Morton’s table salt
  • 2/3 cup Crisco
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons ice water

Measure flour and salt into a medium bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender or 2 knives until it looks like coarse meal.

Sprinkle water, a tablespoon at a time, on the flour-shortening mixture. Mix and toss gently with the tines of a fork. Use only enough water to make the dough stick together and “clean” the sides of the bowl. Give the dough a small squeeze and if it holds together, add no more water.

Tear off 2 sheets of wax paper. Divide the dough into 2 piles, 1 on each sheet of paper with 1 pile slightly larger than the other. The dough will be a little crumbly, but not dry. Cover each pile of dough with a second sheet of wax paper. Lightly press into a disc shape using the sides of your hands. Allow the dough to “rest” in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Resting is important. The dough can also be frozen at this stage.

Remove the dough from the fridge, and allow to stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Starting in the center of the dough and rolling to the edge, roll dough part-way out. The sides will look cracked and uneven. To correct this, lift the edge of the top paper and, using the “pinky-edge” side of your hand, push edges of dough back in towards the center to make a neat round edge.

Replace the paper and continue rolling until the circle of dough is 1 inch larger than the inverted pie plate. If dough edge gets cracked again, repeat the pushing of the dough with the side of your hand.

Gently peel off the top sheet of wax paper and discard. Using the under sheet to help pick up pastry (it will adhere and not slip), invert the dough over the pie plate, paper side up. Center the pastry.

Carefully peel off paper. If dough sticks, start peeling in a different place. (When dough sticks, it means you probably used too much water. Remember the “feel” and adjust next time.)

Ease pastry down into pie plate, pressing lightly on the sides and bottom. Do not stretch. Trim pastry edge evenly with scissors leaving a 1-inch overhang.

For the top crust: Roll out the remaining dough between 2 sheets of wax paper to a circle about 1 inch larger than the inverted pie plate. It will be slightly thinner than the bottom crust.

Peel off the top sheet of wax paper and discard. Place the filling that you are using in the pie shell. Moisten the pie shell edge with water using your finger or a soft brush.

Using the bottom sheet of wax paper as support, invert and center pastry over pie. Peel off top sheet of paper. Make several gashes in the center of the pastry with a knife to allow steam to escape while baking.

The crust should extend about 1/2 inch all around the pie plate. Tuck overhanging crust under the bottom crust and flute the edge.

If you like, brush the top pastry with milk or cream and sprinkle it with sugar to add sparkle and crunch. Bake as your recipe directs.

Makes 1 double crust.

Marlene Parrish

Fast, ‘takeout’ breakfast choices can get your kids to eat

Got teenagers? Bet you have trouble getting something decent in their stomachs before they run to the bus on weekday mornings.

Here’s how the school day unfolds in my house. My 16-year-old rolls out of bed, bleary-eyed and this side of grouchy, about 20 minutes before his teenaged chauffeur shows up at 7 a.m., affording him barely enough time to drain our water heater and pull on a rumpled T-shirt, let alone sit down to a bowl of cereal. My reluctantly curly-haired 14-year-old daughters, meanwhile, have a standing 6:30 a.m. date with their flat irons. So by the time they join me and my husband at the kitchen table, they’re also counting the seconds to blast off.

Breakfast? No time, Mom!

No kidding. According to the American Dietetic Association, more than two-thirds of teenaged girls and half of teenaged boys regularly skip breakfast.

Yet even when they do make it downstairs with minutes to spare, eating isn’t a priority.

“Kids our age just aren’t hungry in the morning,” Catherine informs me. (I didn’t actually see her eyes roll when she imparted this little bit of teenaged wisdom, but I sure felt them.)

Having gone to bed too late and then gotten up too early myself, I don’t have a hard time relating: When you’re tired, the mere thought of eating can make you nauseous. Countless studies have shown, though, that kids who enjoy breakfast are more alert and perform better in school. A protein-rich breakfast also can reduce the number of calories they take in during the day, helping your child maintain a healthy weight, and perhaps — a recent study funded by Japan’s health ministry suggests — even help them keep their virginity longer.

My job, then, is to get something tasty into my teens’ bellies before the head out the door.

Of course I want it to be as (deceptively) healthy as possible: in other words, no processed foods that are overly high in fat and carbohydrates, or sugary cereals that will give them a mid-morning hypoglycemic crash. (Cereals with 7 grams or less of sugar per serving usually are a good bet; if they balk at eating your whole-grain “good” choice, allow them to go halfsies.) With five kids, I’m enough of a realist to also understand that beggars can’t be choosers and that something, anything — even a half a bagel or a toaster pastry — is better than nothing.

So what works?

Given most teens’ mad rush out the door, a school-day breakfast first of all should to be fast. That means items that can be prepared a couple days or the night before, such as homemade oatmeal breakfast cookies, or thrown quickly together in the morning — say, a whole-wheat waffle or apple slices spread with peanut butter and drizzled with honey, or a cup of low-fat yogurt mixed with fresh fruit and granola.

Even better is a breakfast your kid can wrap in a paper napkin and take with him. Instead of serving scrambled eggs with toast, for instance, consider wrapping them inside a whole-wheat tortilla with some veggies and a bit of shredded cheese.

Here, we offer some grab-‘n’-go dishes that will entice your teenager to not only think about breakfast, but also actually eat it. Many of them also will make a nutritious after-school snack for kids who go from the classroom to the sports field or other activity.

My guess is that even mom and dad will find them tasty.

Homemade Pop Tarts

PG tested

OK, so breakfast pastries aren’t exactly on most nutritionists’ lists for healthy breakfast. But are these delicious — and that means your kid might actually grab one on his way out.

Whereas store-bought ones smack of cardboard, these flaky pastries will melt in your mouth. I suggest making 2 batches at a time, so you have extras in the freezer.

I’m not the best baker so it took me a few tries to get the dough not to stick to the rolling pin and to roll it to the proper size (I traced a rectangle on the back of a piece of parchment with a Sharpie). But all in all, these are fairly simple to prepare.

You might want to add a bit more jam and experiment with other fillings. For breakfast after a Saturday night sleepover, we made them with marshmallows and chocolate chips. Additional filling ideas: cinnamon sugar, Nutella, dulce de leche.

For the filling

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

3/4 cup strawberry jam (or whatever flavor you’d like)

For the crust

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and cubed

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk

Prepare strawberry filling by whisking together the cornstarch and water, and then combine with the jam in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool.

To make crust: Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work in the butter until it is the size of peas and the mixture holds together when you squeeze it. Whisk together the egg and milk and add to dough. Mix together with a fork until everything is evenly moistened. Knead briefly on a floured surface, if necessary, until dough comes together.

Divide dough in half. (If using later, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days; let come to room temperature for about 15 minutes before rolling out.) Roll out one piece of dough to about 1/8-inch thick, in a 91/2-by-12 1/2-inch rectangle. (If your kitchen is warm, you will need to refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out so that the butter doesn’t start to melt.)

Using a sharp knife, pastry wheel or bench scraper, trim rectangle to 9-by-12 inches. Cut the sheet of dough into 9 3-by-4-inch rectangles. Using a spatula, transfer rectangles to a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Brush the lightly beaten egg on each of the rectangles. Spoon a tablespoon of filling in the center of each rectangle, leaving 1/2-inch of space around the edges.

Roll out and cut the second piece of dough in the exact same manner as you did the first. One at a time, place a second rectangle of dough on top of the 9 assembled ones. Using your fingers, press around the seams of the dough to make sure they are sealed. Press the tines of a fork around edges of the rectangles. Prick the tops in multiple spots to allow steam to escape

Refrigerate pan with the pastries, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before serving. Store pastries in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

Makes 9 pastries.

— Michelle Norris of West Deer, who blogs as the Brown Eyed Baker (browneyedbaker.com)

Peanutty Caramel Apple “Gramwiches”

PG tested

Wrapped in aluminum foil, these protein-rich after-school snacks will give your kid a boost before sports practices.

1/4 cup peanut butter

2 tablespoons fat-free caramel topping

3 low-fat graham crackers (3 rectangle flats), each broken into 2 squares

1 large apple, cut into 6 lengthwise slices

In a small bowl, stir together the peanut butter and caramel topping. Spread on the graham crackers. Place 1 apple slice on each graham cracker square.

Serves 6.

— “The New American Heart Association Cookbook, 8th Edition” (Clarkson Potter, 2010, $35)

Eye-Opener Breakfast Cookies

PG tested

Some kids might find these a little “healthy” tasting. (Or as my colleague Kate put it, “You need a little coffee to help wash ’em down.”) I say just add a few more dried cranberries, or maybe a handful of chocolate chips, and your kids won’t know they’re eating something that’s good for them.

I substituted 1 real egg for the egg substitute and left out the pecans.

Cooking spray

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons egg substitute

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon canola or corn oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups uncooked rolled oats

1/2 cup fat-free dry milk

1/2 cup toasted wheat germ

1/2 cup chopped sweetened dried cranberries

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray 2 large baking sheets with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the applesauce, honey, egg substitute, orange zest and juice, brown sugar, oil and vanilla for 1 to 2 minutes, or until smooth.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder and baking soda. Add to the applesauce mixture, stirring just enough to combine. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, or until completely combined.

Add the remaining ingredients. Beat on low speed just until combined. The dough will be slightly sticky.

Using a tablespoon, drop by slightly heaping tablespoons onto the baking sheets, allowing about 1 inch between cookies. Using fingers, slightly flatten. You should have about 30 cookies.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Immediately transfer the cookies from the baking sheets to cooling racks. Let cool for about 30 minutes. Store any leftover cookies in an airtight container, such as a cookie tin, for up to 4 days. If you prefer softer cookies, store in a resealable plastic bag.

Serves 15.

— “The New American Heart Association Cookbook, 8th Edition” (Clarkson Potter, 2010, $35)

Bacon, Egg and Toast Cups

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I watched Martha Stewart prepare these on “Today” and they looked so good (and easy) that I had to try them myself. Put them in the oven when you start the coffee, and by the time your kids get out of the shower, they’re ready for on-the-run noshing.

If your kids don’t eat breakfast meats, make a vegetarian version with sauteed spinach and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

8 slices white or whole-wheat sandwich bread

6 slices bacon (or other breakfast meat)

6 large eggs

Coarse salt and ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Lightly butter 6 standard muffin cups. With a rolling pin, flatten bread and, with a 41/2-inch cookie cutter, cut into 8 rounds. Cut each round in half, then press 2 halves into each muffin cup, overlapping slightly and making sure bread comes up to edge of cup. Use extra bread to patch any gaps. Brush bread with remaining butter.

In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until almost crisp, about 4 minutes. Lay 1 bacon slice in each bread cup. Crack 1 egg over each cup. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until egg whites are just set, about 20 minutes. Run a small knife around cups to loosen toasts. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 cups.

— marthastewart.com

Fruit and Cereal Bites

PG tested

I used cherry-flavored prunes in these bars and, to further tempt my daughter to eat before cross-country practice, dusted them with cocoa.

1 1/2 cups dried fruit

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

Fruit juice or water as needed

1 cup ready-to-eat breakfast cereal (I used cornflakes)

Shredded, unsweetened coconut, finely ground nuts or cocoa for rolling, optional

Put the dried fruit, oil and honey in a food processor and puree until smooth, adding fruit juice a little at a time to keep the machine running. You’ll need to stop once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Fold in cereal until evenly distributed.

Take a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. If you like, roll ball around in the coconut, nuts or cocoa. Put balls between layers of wax paper in a tightly covered container and refrigerate until set, about 45 minutes. Eat immediately, or store in the fridge for up to several days. You also can wrap the balls individually in wax paper, like candies.

To make bars, line an 8- or 9-inch square or round pan with foil. Follow recipe through Step 1. Spread mixture in the pan, pushing it into the corners and evening the top. If you like, dust the top with coconut, nuts or cocoa. Refrigerate until set, then cut into squares.

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

An Italian home-cooking cookbook that you better believe

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

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

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

Mangia, mangia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if Italians would do anything but.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. DiCicco has another explanation.

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

Zucchini Puffs

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 4 to 6.

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

Elsa’s Famous Sauce di Pacentro

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

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

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

Stir in grated cheese just before serving.

Makes about 6 cups.

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

Crema Veneziano

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 6 to 8.

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

Habitat to host foodie, Mark Bittman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How do you suggest getting started?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Are the recipes difficult?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: So do you ever indulge?

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

Mushroom Stew with Beef Chunks

PG tested

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

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

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

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

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

Serves 4.

“The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman

(Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)

Whole Wheat Carrot Gnocchi

PG tested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gretchen McKay’s ‘Cooking with Gretchen’ wins big

From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:

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

To see the winning video, click on Cooking with Gretchen

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

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

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

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

The famed lamb purveyor isn’t exactly reassuring.

Next on the Menu: Chicken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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