Still Cooking

by Nola Garrett

I live in downtown Pittsburgh alone. And, the two questions I’m asked nearly every day are “Where do you grocery shop?” & “What do you eat?” Always in that order. I don’t know if Manhattan or Tampa Bay single residents get these questions often, but I do know that Pittsburghers believe eating, family, and neighborhood are so intertwined that one might starve to death without all three—sort of like a toothless Eskimo widow on an ice floe drifting out to sea. I feel my questioners’ imagined pain, but I’m still eating balanced, home-cooked meals. Probably helps that I’m an introverted writer who loves to cook.

Cooking for one has posed for me an interesting challenge. While I do admit my first couple of weeks alone consisted of bowls of Cheerios and Stouffer’s mac & cheese, both salted with my tears. Restaurants are plentiful downtown, but eating out was too expensive in many, many ways. Parts of my new lone life soon dragged me all over the Pittsburgh area into The Strip District and out past lots of grocery stores. Out of curiosity I stopped in, discovered something new each time: smaller grocery carts, smaller stores, small cans of whole artichoke hearts, fresher spices, Mrs. T’s potato, spinach & feta pierogies, pints of coconut ice cream, ethnic bakeries, lower priced fresh vegetables and fruits, white Stilton with mango and candied ginger, frozen fish filets individually wrapped. I could do that! I could buy a pack of boneless pork chops, put each chop into a sandwich-sized zip bag and freeze it. I also bought Shake ‘n Bake for Pork.

While a chop thaws in cold water, I turn on the oven to 425 F, clean and thick-slice a few fresh veggies—carrots, parsnips, squashes of all sorts, new potatoes, small turnips, egg plants, fennel bulbs, Brussels sprouts, or sweet onions—place them on a foil wrapped pizza pan sprayed with olive oil. I toss the now thawed chop in a baggie with a couple of tablespoons worth of Shake ‘n Bake, then re-spray the veggies, and put the pan in the oven. Twenty minutes later I am eating supper with NBC’s Brian Williams wry humor and his shameless love for all good dogs.

Next, I got hungry for pasta with homemade sauce, but I didn’t want to make a regular big batch of tomato sauce, even though I knew I could freeze it in small batches. Frozen tomato sauce takes a long time to thaw, and it discolors most plastic containers. What I craved was a freshly made small sauce. I happened upon a copy of Real Simple Magazine, featuring quick meals that included a recipe for tomato sauce made from canned whole tomatoes. As I read I realized that I could easily cut the size of that sauce by using only one 14.5 oz. can of tomatoes, but what pot did I own that was small enough and heavy enough to make a good cooked down sauce? None.

That same week Macy’s had a sale on 2 ½ quart Bella enameled cast iron pots. Quickly, I cut from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a Wow! Pass, walked up to Macy’s, took the escalator to the 6th floor, and that evening I had the best tasting pasta I’ve had in more than 20 years.

All you need is enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your pot, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic roughly chopped then sautéed in the oil, a 14.5 oz can of Giant Eagle tomatoes, drained into the hot garlic oil mixture. Next, you smush the tomatoes with your hands over your sauce pot. (I know it’s messy but it gets the best results—trust me on this one.) After you’ve washed your hands, add a shake of salt and several grinds of black pepper. While you heat your salted pasta water, occasionally stir your slowly simmering sauce. When your pasta is cooked—I like angel hair because it cooks fast, if you use larger sized pasta start it cooking sooner—drain the pasta and stir it into your lovely sauce. Serve it with a generous dollop of part-skim ricotta cheese, a handful of grated Romano, and fresh chopped basil or parsley. If you want a more hearty meal, throw a couple of store-bought frozen meatballs into the sauce a few minutes before you add the pasta.

Since those two transforming meals I’ve expanded my home cooked menus though not my waist. I’ve added fish, both fresh and frozen, quickly sautéed or baked; crab cakes and salmon cakes made from the small canned variety. I’ve found that a pound of lean hamburger browned with taco mix will make me two or three taco salads, because the cooked meat mixture keeps well in the refrigerator for a week. An omelet and a salad is another good meal. In my new Bella pot, I’ve made small lamb stews using a couple of leg of lamb slices, also small batches of chili and soup.

I’ve never been much into desserts, but I’ve found that a few dried apricots or a couple store-bought pizzelles go well with the NBC News. And then there’s that coconut ice cream….

Concerning the question of where I shop: around. I have a car, so really grocery shopping for me is no different than it is for those who ask me that question. They think nothing of driving five or ten miles to grocery shop. Neither do I. I enjoy driving, so I’ve given up the idea of loyal shopping. I shop about every ten days, drive to the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle, or Water Works Giant Eagle, or the Lawrenceville Shop ‘n Save, or Aldi’s, or The Strip.

If the roads are bad or if I have a basic ingredient emergency, I drive across the Rachel Carson bridge to the North Shore Giant Eagle which is only a mile away. Some hardy residents living in my building walk to that store. Sadly, The Bird’s executives have deemed the North Shore unworthy of small sizes, low fat foods, variety, their fresh baked Tuscan Multi-grain bread that makes such great toast, and their house brand Triple Vanilla ice cream. In fact, almost always that store’s ice cream cases resemble an empty tundra. Maybe that’s where Pittsburgh’s depressed Eskimos launch their ice floes? Also, that’s the only store from which I’ve unwittingly brought home spoiled food: coffee creamer, avocados, and raspberries. That Giant Eagle is the only store in Pittsburgh where I have always encountered shoppers reading labels for calories and fat content. I suspect that if the North Shore executives looked around the immediate neighborhood they would see how close Heinz Lofts, Allegheny General’s hundreds of employees, and the condos looming just across the Three Sister bridges are to that store, and there might be less hue and cry for a downtown grocery store.

I walk to buy my skim milk at the Rite Aid on Penn Ave and bread sticks or French bread near Market Square. During the summer I buy fresh flowers, a few fruits, and veggies at the Square’s Thursday farmer’s market. Though the prices are high, everything is local and very crisp. Apparently, in a few months a downtown high end grocery store near Market Square will emerge where I can easily walk; however, I probably won’t do the bulk of my shopping there. It’s that “high end” label that lets me know there will be variety, but also there still won’t be many grocery bargains to be had near Market Square.

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