It's National Guacamole Day!

Written by Gretchen McKay on . In the kitchen


Today's a happy day for all us avocado lovers. 

It's National Guacamole Day. Ole!

Actually, make that National Spicy Guacamole Day -- the official holiday for Mexico's favorite dip, condiment and salad ingredient is Sept. 16. 

But whatever.

Any reason to celebrate and eat avocados is a good one.

My daughters and I love the fruit so much, we make guacamole at least three times a week. Oftentimes it's with avocados that aren't quite ripe enough because 1) you can never seem to find a soft, ready-to-eat avocado in the grocery store when you need it and 2) if we have one or two sitting the kitchen counter, no way we're not going to eat it. 

Guac is that addicting.

Just ask my daughter Catherine, who always licks the bowl clean. 

Below, I offer my easy, go-to recipe to help celebrate this joyful day. It includes Piment d'Espelette, a spicy-hot powder made from dried red peppers grown in Southern France. My editor, Bob Batz, gave me a jar a few months ago and I put a  pinch or two in almost everything. You can find it at Savvy Spices, 3015 Banksville Road, Pittsburgh.  Enoy!

Easy Guacamole

* 2 ripe avocados
* 1/4 red or sweet onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)
* 1 clove garlic, minced
* 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (leaves and stems)
* 1/2 teaspoon cumin
* 1/2 serrano chile, stem and seeds removed, minced 
* Juice 1/2 lime or more to taste
* Generous pinch kosher salt
* Generous pinch freshly ground black pepper
* Generous pinch Piment d'Espelette
* 1/2 small tomato, seeds and pulp removed, chopped
* Tortilla chips for serving

Cut avocados in half and remove seeds. Scoop flesh into a bowl, and roughly mash with a fork. (You want a few small chunks.)

Add onion, garlic, cilantro, cumin, chile and lime juice; stir to combine. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Piment d'Espelette. Add more lime juice, if desired.

Just before serving, stir in chopped tomato. 

Serve with tortilla chips. 

Serves 4, or 2 hungry teenagers.

Gretchen McKay photo


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Poached pears, please

Written by Veronica Milner on . In the kitchen


A fresh day blossoms, birds are singing and the rising sun emits rays of life into plants after an evening of slumber. The skies are blue and summer heat is in full swing. Schedules are filled with plans for picnics, parks and outdoor adventures. Unless of course the sweet sound of mourning doves accompanying your morning coffee are drowned out by the sniffles, wheezing and coughing.

Allergies stink and you would know that if you could smell. The runny nose, the itchy throat, the watery eyes at times is enough to wish for cooler temperatures. Instead of reaching for costly allergy medicine as a reactive measure, consider taking an inexpensive proactive approach. It’s time to turn to your fruit bowl and reach for apple's neglected cousin, the pear.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, pears hold medicinal qualities when poached. Allergies can be treated through dietary therapy by eating foods that nourish lung qi. Qi (pronounced chee) is energy that flows throughout our bodies. Whenever there is a blockage or disruption of qi, commonly brought on by stress and diet, illnesses and imbalances arise.)

So says local acupuncturist Emily Andrews, 29, of True Health and Fitness in Greensburg:  "Certain foods have particular effects on the body at the level of the organs. Foods that nourish the lungs are cooling and moistening in nature, energetically speaking. Pears, almonds and honey are considered lung-nourishing foods. Pears lubricate the throat and lungs and help dissolve phlegm and cough. When a pear is gently poached it is considered to be easier for the digestive system to process and therefore more readily beneficial to the lungs."

Next time your lung qi makes your allergies attack, remember this recipe and make sure you are stocked with local honey (from, say, Maple Valley Farms). You may find a new appreciation for just how sweet Western Pennsylvania’s summer weather and poached pears can be.

2 to 3 ripe organic pears (Chinese, Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc pears work well)

2-inch slice of fresh ginger

1 cinnamon stick

Spring or filtered water

2 to 6 tablespoons of almond butter

1 to 2 tablespoons of honey

Cut pears in half long ways and remove core. Peel if desired.

Place pears in a large flat saucepan. Fill pot so that there is around 2 to 3 inches of water in the bottom. Add the cinnamon stick and slice of fresh ginger and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and add the pears and cover.

Let cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the pears are tender but not falling apart.

Remove saucepan from heat and mix almond butter and honey to taste. Set aside.

Scoop pears gently with slotted spoon and place on serving dish; discard ginger slice and cinnamon stick. Let cool slightly and smear a spoonful of almond butter and honey to each pear half. Serve warm, room temperature, or cooled.

Yields 2 to 3 servings.

-- Emily Andrews

Veronica Milner is a family and consumer sciences teacher currently enrolled in the food studies master's program at Chatham University.

Veronica Milner photo

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Bug out!

Written by Gretchen McKay on . In the kitchen

With this week's temperatures soaring in the high 80s, it shouldn't be long now before billions -- that's billion with a "b" --  of cicada nymps emerge from the ground en mass, scaring the bejesus out of insect phobics with their bulging red eyes, and threatening to ruin June brides' outdoor weddings with their deafening daytime singing, which can hit a buzz of 90 decibels (the sound of a motorcycle at 25 feet).

If you're adventurous, and can get past the ick factor, we have a solution.

Eat them.

Considered a delicacy in ancient Greece and Rome, the stick-legged bugs were staples for Australian Aborigines and American Indians. In modern-day Asia, fried cicadas still are enjoyed as a crunchy summer snack. 

Here in the U.S., TV personality Andrew Zimmern, who's in town next week to film a Pittsburgh episode of "Bizarre Foods," likes to stir-fry the shrimp-sized bugs (de-winged, of course) in peanut oil with a little minced garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chile. "My go-to #cicada #recipe," he tweeted on Wednesday. But regular folks are fans, too.

Bun Lai, chef/owner of Miya's Sushi in New Haven, Conn., plans on steaming this year's crop, Maryland crab-style, with ground spices and herbs. And in D.C., mixologist Dan Searing has concocted the Brood 2 Rickey for his customers at Room 11: Dancing Pines bourbon infused with cicadas (females taste best, he says), lime juice and soda water. 

bug dishFeeling queasy? You're not alone. Bugs tend to have that affect on people's appetites. (What if their tiny legs get caught in the back of your throat? Or -- my particular fear -- they squish juice when you bite into them?) 

But it may be time to get over your aversion to eating creepy-crawlies.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization last week released a 171-page study arguing that everyone -- not just the food insecure -- should have more bugs in their diet. Here's why: 

One, insects are a surprisingly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and mineral content. Two, farming them is kinder to the environment (and cheaper) than raising animals. And three, they're really easy to mass produce, so raising/harvesting them can provide a livelihood for even the poorest segments of society, including women and the landless.05232013eatabug

Bug aficianodos (they're called entomophagists) say cicadas have a green, asparagus-like flavor that lends itself to any number of dishes -- in "Cicada-Licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas," a free digital cookbook by scientist Jenna Jadin, you'll find recipes for everything from dumplings to pizza to tacos to (gulp!) cicada-rhubarb pie. But you better act quick: After crawling from the ground, cicadas only live for about a month, which means they'll all be dead by the Fourth of July. (Though you always could collect and freeze them.)

The insects also can be candied, pickled or covered in chocolate. 

Rather test your mettle on bugs you can find year-round?  "Bug Chef" David George Gordon's upcoming release, "The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" (Ten Speed, July 2013, $12.45), cooks up 40 ways to turn grasshoppers, waterbugs, spiders, centipedes and other wigglies that make (some) girls scream into dinner.  You can find his recipe for grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs (above left) in the July/August issue of Sierra magazine. Marinating the orthoptera overnight, notes the tester, "helps reduce the chitinous crunch."  (The dish has not been PG tested.)

chapul-cricket-barFinally, for sporty types, there's two new all-natural energy bars from the Kickstarter-funded Chapul. Inspired by the flavors of the American Southwest and Thailand, both derive their protein from crickets ground into a fine powder. The Chaco is made with dates, peanut butter and dark chocolate sweetened with agave nectar; the tropical Thai Bar boasts a mix of coconut, ginger and "a tangy hint of lime." A sampler pack of six costs $16.99. plus tax and shipping. 

I know the finely ground flour doesn't include any hair-like cricket legs. But I still suggest a cold Singha to wash those puppies down. 

Photos (from top): Post-Gazette, Sierra magazine, Ten Speed Press, Chapul

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Is your guy a gastrosexual?

Written by Gretchen McKay on . In the kitchen

tony pais

If you're lucky, the man in your life doesn't mind pitching in every once in a while with dinner. And no, I don't mean by calling for reservations or volunteering to pick up the pizza.

But is he a gastrosexual?

You gotta hope so.

Because if he is, you're probably getting a pretty decent homecooked meal on a fairly regular basis -- maybe even nearly every day, if you believe a report cooked up by the Future Foundation, a consumer trends think tank with offices in London and New York City.

According to a recent study by the foundation, not only are more men than ever before cooking on a regular basis, but also they're "confidentally claiming a stake in the kitchen." And contrary to popular myth, it's not just at barbecues and dinner parties. Gastrosexuals cook just for the heck of it because it's a form of "self actualization."

Men being men, they also cook for praise ("Good job, honey!"), which goes hand in hand with another motivation for honing their culinary skills: to impress and/or seduce potential partners.

"Gastrosexuals are all about experimenting with new food not only for themselves but also for loves ones," reads a press release from a Canadian firm promoting the study. "What better way to impress a date than a fancy home-cooked meal?"

Canadian chef/BBQ king Ted Reader recently came out of the kitchen as a proud gastrosexual, according to the release, and I'm guessing a certain executive chef with big Burrito Restaurant Group might not mind being called one, too, or a certain newspaper food editor, either,  since it denotes a passion about cooking, as well as technical skill wrapped in undeniable manliness. 

Says Chef Reader: "The gastrosexuals are the guys that love food and look at cooking as more of a hobby than a chore. For me, there isn't much better than firing up the BBQ and grilling dinner for my family and that's how many of my fellow gastrosexuals feel."

Also revealed in the report, which manages to go on (and on) for an entire 29 pages:
• Gastrosexuals tend to be upwardly mobile men between the ages of 25 and 44

• They're especially likely to travel, and are aware of and passionate about cuisines from all over the world, especially Asian food

• When they cook, they do so with "separate ingredients"

Um, news flash, guys --  isn't that the very definition of "cooking'"?

The study also pointed out this sad fact: While a display of cooking skill makes gastrosexuals attractive to their females partners, cleaning does not. (Or at least not in the men's minds.) As a result, "many still rely on women to contribute to less flashy but still necessarily domestic work."

In other words, don't expect the gastrosexual in your life to do the dishes. 

Post-Gazette photo 

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It's National Grilled Cheese Day!

Written by Gretchen McKay on . In the kitchen

grilled cheese bacon

A well-constructed grilled cheese sandwich is a beautiful thing.

Crispy, gooey and just flat-out delicious, the sandwich never fails to disappoint, even when it's made, elementary school cafeteria-style, with cheap white bread and processed yellow American cheese. 

No wonder, then, America's favorite comfort food gets its very own food holiday.

Today is National Grilled Cheese Day, and we think you should celebrate by making one (or two or three .... ) for dinner.

Here's a recipe we recently tested for a story on grilled cheese. If you're feeling adventurous, you could pair it with one of the accompanying recipes for tomato soup. 

Apple Pie-Bacon Grilled Cheese

PG tested

  • 4 thick slices of sourdough bread (or any bread you'd like)

  • Butter

  • 6 slices of sharp cheddar cheese

  • 16-ounce package Orville's Apple-Pie Bacon (I used apple-smoked bacon)

  • 1 Granny Smith apple

Line a baking sheet with foil, then lay out the bacon on the sheet. Place in the oven and then heat the oven to 400 degrees. Set the time for 17 to 20 minutes. Once your bacon is cooked, pat the excess grease off with some paper towels.

Lay out your pieces of bread and butter each piece. Cover each piece of bread with your cheese slices. Feel free to use more or less if you'd like.

Core your apple then slice it into thin pieces. Layer your apple slices on 1 side of the bread for each sandwich. On top of the apples, layer your bacon! (Bacon strips will fit better on the bread if you cut them in half. Use as much bacon as you would like.) Place the other piece of bread and 3 slices of cheese on top of the bacon for each sandwich.

Heat a griddle or skillet pan to medium heat. Butter the top of your sandwiches liberally with butter. Be sure to cover the whole piece of bread. Once your griddle is warm, place the sandwiches butter side down onto it. Lower your heat to medium-low and cover it with a lid if you have one large enough.

After a few minutes, go ahead and flip the sandwiches. Cover again and grill for a few more minutes, until brown and toasty. Serve hot.

Makes 2 sandwiches.


Gretchen McKay photo 

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Chef Alex McGroarty takes a Pittsburgh work ethic to L.A.

Written by Ali Trachta on . In the kitchen

Alex McGroarty photoAlex McGroarty makes his own ketchup. "It's not like Heinz," he says, smiling, maybe with a twinge of guilt.

He is the chef at Storefront Deli in Los Angeles -- the restaurant lovechild of Zak Walters and Chris Phelps, who also own Salt's Cure in West Hollywood. But Mr. McGroarty is from Sewickley, so he knows good ketchup is important.

It's made of heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market, several vinegars, seasonings, salt and a little brown sugar.
It's one of many items created in-house at Storefront. "We do our own sausage," he says, "we grind our own burger meat, we make our own hot dogs, we do our own bacon. It's great."

These are skills he's picked up from Mr. Walters and Mr. Phelps, who he says have taught him a great deal about nose-to-tail cooking. "They bring in a lot of really, really good meat that I get to see and to play with sometimes. They bring in whole animals -- the whole cow, the whole pig, the whole goat, the whole lamb. It's a lot of fun."

Working the line at Salt's Cure was his first job in L.A. after he and his now wife moved to town from Connecticut "jobless and homeless." Salt's Cure fit with his culinary sensibility, it seems, as he was raised on cooking from scratch. "My mom cooked basically six nights a week," he says, "and then one night we had leftovers. That's where I got [my love of cooking] from -- seeing her cook and always being so enthusiastic about it."

He showed a knack for cooking early on. "I remember cooking for my mom when I was 9 or 10 years old," he recalls. "I cooked a whole dinner for her and my family and I remember her saying, 'Alex that was so good! How did you get everything to come out all at the same time?'"

Now 32, he began working at The Sewickley Cafe as a dishwasher starting at age 15 or 16. When both the chef and the sous chef went on vacation, they needed someone to work lunch. "I wasn't washing dishes much after that."

He continued working at the Cafe off and on until he was 19, ending up second in charge of the line by the time he went to college at the University of Delaware. After that, he moved to New Haven, where he lived for nine years, working in various restaurants and up the line. He never went to culinary school, but believes learning on the job was the right route for him.

"I think growing up in Pittsburgh affected my work ethic," he says. The son of a psychologist, he watched his father work six days a week, often 10 to 12 hour days. By age 13, he was delivering papers. His parents told him that if he wanted to buy something, he'd have to go out and earn money.

But he didn't mind. "I've always found work pleasurable, in a way," he says. "I wasn't the best paperboy, but it was fun biking around."

He finds work at Storefront pleasurable too. He enjoys the process of continually shaping the menu, which wears its badge of blue collar inspiration proudly. It's sandwich-heavy -- there's a ham and Swiss laced with the sweetness of peach jam, as well as a hoagie called The Mousa with pickled cayenne peppers that will leave your mouth burning for hours. The burger has made waves -- impressive in burger-obsessed Los Angeles -- and the BLT (along with the whole restaurant) got a rave from the city's most respected critic. There are breakfast sandwiches, too, as well as a good dozen or so deli sides all created from scratch by Mr. McGroarty.

He'd love to put a Primanti's-style sandwich on the menu, but the restaurant doesn't have a fryer. "Maybe I could get a tabletop fryer and do it that way," he says, brainstorming on the spot.

He plans to continue working for Mr. Walters and Mr. Phelps for the foreseeable future as they "take over the world," he says. He's proud to be their disciple, though he jokes he is not sure if he could take the job since Mr. Phelps is from Baltimore.

Despite a hometown rivalry with his boss, McGroarty wears a Pittsburgh Penguins cap every single day.

Ali Trachta photo
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife

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