First reaction? Second? Third?
Right. Thought so. It's not Paris. Bear with me?
If you are in any small way like me, you might not place Pittsburgh on your Top 10 Must-Visit List. In fact, near as I can tell, Pittsburgh didn't make the Top 1,000. And really, what chance does old Steel City stand, alongside slam dunks like, oh, the San Juan's?
Since we landed in Ohio, two years ago now, there's been a quiet, steady chatter over Pittsburgh's finer points. We didn't believe it, the first twelve months. We didn't pay much mind, the second twelve. And then, when we decided to drive to Philadelphia for Spring Break, we actually tuned in and began taking notes.
I'm rather delighted that we did.
We'd driven through, once before, returning from D.C., but five minutes doing sixty doesn't really do a place justice. Three days doesn't either, as it turns out, but at least we achieved acquaintance-ship status. And confirmed all that chatter was spot-on.
In all honesty, Pittsburgh had me at topography, shot through with water and rumpled with hills. Once you hit Ohio's Eastern-most edge, the pancake-flat terrain starts to ripple a bit. West Virginia's pan-handle continues the trend, and by the time you hit Pitt, you are squarely in bumps-ville. To enter the city, you drive through a mountain, a long, dark, massive tunnel that leaves breath-holders blue. And when you emerge, well, hello, hills and valleys!
There are falling-down retaining walls in every front yard, all pitched just past the angle of repose. There are dozens of bridges to traverse three rivers, and spectacular forms of public transportation, and zig-zagged streets that to grid-minded sorts must look as though laid out by spirograph.
And grade signs. Grade signs! Those bright yellow diamonds with semi-trucks on black triangles, barreling down the hypotenuse? In Seattle, we had one up the street from our house that read, "Warning: 17% grade." I don't recall seeing any since we've moved (speed bumps don't demand much caution, you know?). Pittsburgh had several. I even spotted 4%! It's the little things, I guess. Reminded me of home.
As did the climate, all rainy and gray and apart from hail golf-balls, pretty much ideal. I'm sure the city's going green as we speak, leafing out and pepping up and ambling toward spring. I'm also sure I must sound half-mad, waxing over soggy skies at a time like this. Approximately every one else we know headed south, for sunshine, beaches, bronzed arms and cheeks. I can't say we came back with much of a tan. But my soul is full of all kinds of warm fuzzies, thanks to those hazy-pale tissue paper hills. Like a little postcard, postmarked: The Cascades. I do love a good rain-shrouded mountain range.
Not that Pittsburgh's all crooked streets and wet weather. We spent most days tucked inside its museums, which reminds me I owe Andrew Carnegie a thank you note. His name graces no fewer than four museums in the city, two of which we spent no fewer than every day visiting. We floated boats and blasted rockets and made movies and hoisted pulleys and generally moved in to the river-side Science Center. (If you've not yet tried the You-Yo? Highly recommended. Six thumbs up. Six feet, also.)
We wiled away another long morning with dinosaurs and mummies, precious stones and fossil bones, and the most magnificent hallway of expertly-mounted stuffed birds. We left (many) finger-prints on the glass and echoed a little (too) loudly and issued a few (dozen) reminders about walking feet. Still, it was a bit magical to see three digitally-savvy kids fall under ornithology's spell. Rock on, old-school natural history.
And there was no small quantity of beauty to be had, steely skies or otherwise. Like Cleveland and Cincinnati, all these old Midwest hubs, jaw-dropping architecture lurks everywhere. Education buildings, government offices, museums, utilitarian whatevers, are block-wide spectacles, straight out of Athens.
We lured the kids into The Cathedral of Learning, a 42-story tower at the University of Pittsburgh, built, incredibly, during the Depression. My goal was to see the Nationality Rooms, and we made it to two of these twenty-seven jewel boxes. The kids weren't so keen (too much hush, not enough vroom!). I could have moved in and secured a Ph.D. or three. I'd never heard of them before our trip. Pittsburgh is like that, modest, gem-filled. Now that I've been, I'll never forget.
(Kids being kids, I suspect what they'll never forget is the infinite thrill of a hotel room. Sometimes I think, given the choice, they'd be happy just renting a room here in town. It is hard to underestimate the pure unbridled glee of jumping bed to bed and blasting the room fan. The parents, however, get a bit dodgy after four hours in a 10 x 12' box.)
Oh, and Philadelphia? Pretty neat, also. It helped that the drive from West to East Penn is so lovely, all bucolic and silo-studded. It also helped that the Hershey factory was conveniently located along the way. (We aim to strike a nice balance between history and hokey.)
We spent just two days in the city itself, but managed to hit the higher points. The Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, The Franklin Institute (both days), the first Presidents' home, the famed Independence Hall. There is something unsettling, in all the right ways, about standing in the room where the (our) constitution was worked out. Or endlessly debated, hopelessly compromised, and narrowly, finally, remarkably arrived at. If we're still being honest, here.
It brought me back to Chartres Cathedral, ca. 1994, soaked by a drencher of a French summer rainstorm. I'd seen it, studied it, knew it's every anthropomorphic capital. But nothing—nothing—prepared me to stand under its arches. That was the moment I learned, absolutely, that history's no dry, dusty ode to the dead. It's the electric thrum of old air and new atoms, a palpable thread, from way back through tomorrow. Certain walls speak, and Philadelphia has its share. We adults walked away a tiny bit wiser, aware that our storied democracy is dynamic. And flexible. And fragile. And took a generous decade to achieve. Take your time, Egypt. We certainly did.
The kids got groovy founding fathers' trading cards. And a Junior National Park Ranger badge. Also, some serious brand awareness. It took a three year-old to bring it to my attention, but I learned, when we returned, that our big bell pops up often. On our stamps, even! I owe you one, Zoë.
So yes, Philadelphia was very nice. But Pittsburgh left me curiously smitten, probably because it so surprised. It's the underdog effect, I think, low expectations exceeded, and then some.
Which brings me to tofu. Can we talk tofu? I've been wrestling with the topic of tofu for days, wondering where to begin, or even whether. Tofu is arguably the underest dog of them all, at least in this country's (crazy) hierarchy of foodstuffs. Reputation-challenged, to put it kindly. But you stood by when I exulted over anchovies (okay, twice), so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it: tofu is all kinds of lovely.
I could tell you that although we are not vegetarian, we're rarely without a few blocks in the fridge. I could tell you how dreamy the silken sort is, bobbling along in steaming miso. Or how more-ish a batch of seared, salted firm cubes are, plain as jane, addictive as anything. I could lament the silliness of our cultural either/or divide, this meat/tofu dichotomy we omnivores adopt. I understand, absolutely, opting out of animal protein. What baffles me is carnivores black-listing tofu. (Meanwhile, I routinely baffle grocery store clerks, piling bean curd and ground pork on the conveyor. More than once I've been asked if I've made a mistake. Apparently, protein segregation still runs deep.)
I could tell you last Monday we made "Peanutella" (and could quote my harshest critic: "Oh. Wow."). And that we'd grilled our first burgers this Sunday, good pasture-fed, local, well-marbled beef. Seasoned just right. Heady with smoke. Tucked under a blanket of smoldering extra-sharp. Those were some fine burgers. And that, still? Forced to choose? I'd go with great tofu, over either.
I was going to tell you that when I eat great tofu, I think to myself, "Like foie gras. Only better." Crisp and golden without, softly melting within, seared plumped goose liver's some excellent eating. Almost as good as great tofu (almost). I was going to tell you this, then thought better of it. Foie gras and tofu, in the same sentence? I could already hear my credibility shattering.
Then yesterday, Daniel Boulud himself beat me to it. So I'll let it stand. Take it up with him.
Or I could just tell you how to avoid botching it utterly, and trust that you'll maybe someday re-consider. I once was vegetarian, and I made tofu often, and all those years, it was perfectly awful. Awful because I cooked it wet, without oil, or salt, or, come to think of it, the slightest care. That tofu was almost as bad as boneless, skinless chicken, bland and rubbery and devoid of all flavor. Purgatory on a plate, I came to call it. When we recently ordered tofu in a restaurant, Henry automatically grabbed a bite, then promptly wrinkled his face. "I didn't know tofu could be bad," he said. We've come a long way, baby. He only knows great.
By great, I don't at all mean to puff up. I'm no Boulud, with tofu, or anything. Thing is, great tofu's entirely within reach, no harder to achieve than the truly terrible kind. The difference lies only in proper preparation, a small handful of simple, easily accomplished steps. It took me years to find good tofu guidance. Seems like a shame not to pass it on.
Set a block to drain, cubed and salted, for a spell. Fry patiently and confidently in one small, vital splash of oil. Resist the urge to push them about, allowing them time to get a good sear. Just like stew beef, if you're into beef stew. When the bottom is shaded deep caramel and bronze, they are ready to flip; repeat on the reverse. Once they finish, dust lightly with salt, again. And I dare you not to eat five before they exit the pan. Cooked this way, tofu takes on a golden, crisp crust, while the insides go creamy, almost custard-like. You might need to prepare two batches (we do), just to have one left for dinner.
About that dinner. You could go countless directions. Once you've got a mess of caramelized cubes, you have all (stir-fries) kinds (salads) of (curries) options. But my longstanding, hands-down favorite is this braise of seared tofu and fragrant, tender minced pork. It hails from Grace Young's The Breath of A Wok, easily my most sauce-splattered cookbook. Mapo doufu fans will recognize this as a second cousin to that chili-laced classic. In place of brash heat, Grace builds up big, bold flavor, with a one-two punch of minced garlic and fermented black beans. This jumbles with the pork, which sidles up to the tofu, which simmer briefly together in a soy- and oyster-sauced bath.
You wind up with one fantastic romp of a meal, toothsome nibs of sauced pork napping tender bites of tofu, umami running every which way. Tumbled over steamed rice, with a heap of bok choy, this tofu has left carnivores asking for seconds. As for me, for what it's worth, I long ago reserved a permanent position for this tofu on my Must-Eat Top Ten List. (Honestly.)
Cousin Judy's Tofu with Black Bean Sauce
adapted from Grace Young, The Breath of a Wok
Serves 4, with sides
My two tweaks to Grace Young's outstanding original are minor, but essential, to our family. The first is to cut the tofu into 1" blocks, which make perfect bite-size bits for the little people (and offers up more golden crust to the big ones). Also, I substitute pork for Cousin Judy's turkey. Choose a good, fatty pork, if you've the option. Occasionally, I'll double the pork, using a full pound. If you do the same, dial up the sauces and seasonings by measuring generously, just until your spoons spilleth over. Just as often, I'll double the tofu, setting aside a plain batch for snacking and plain-leaning sorts.
Fermented black beans, oyster sauce, and Shao Hsing rice wine are inexpensive, excellent, and widely available at any Asian grocery, as well as at well-stocked supermarkets. Draining and pre-salting the tofu (step one) takes a wee bit of forethought, but makes a huge difference. You can set out it for as few as twenty minutes, while you prepare your ingredients, or set it to drain on a plate in the fridge, the night before. I often lay it as I make an after-school snack, then don't think about it again until dinner time.
1 14 oz. package firm tofu
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chicken broth or water
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
several fresh grinds black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 - 1 pound ground pork (see notes above; if using full pound, measure sauces and seasonings generously)
2 scallions, white and pale green parts thinly sliced
extra salt and pepper, for seasoning
Prep tofu: Lay a newspaper section on the counter, and cover with a double-layer of paper towel. Cut tofu into 1" cubes, spread in a single layer on the paper towel, sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon of salt over all, and cover with another doubled paper towel. Let drain 30 minutes (or longer, even overnight, in the refrigerator).
Prep seasonings for stir-fry: In a medium bowl, combine broth or water, oyster sauce, sugar and cornstarch, mixing briefly with spoon to combine. Set aside. In a shallow, rimmed dish, mash black beans and garlic with a fork. Stir in rice wine, soy sauce, and freshly ground pepper.
Just before dinner, get a good crust on your tofu: Heat a wok over high heat, 1-2 minutes, until water evaporates almost instantly, then add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until shimmering. (Alternatively, with a large non-stick skillet, skip the pre-heating of the pan, and proceed directly to the heating of the oil.) Reduce heat to medium-high, gently add tofu (to avoid splattering), and DO NOT TOUCH for 3-4 minutes. With a metal spatula, check a square: if it is golden, go ahead and flip tofu upside down, to sear tops. (Another clue: if tofu sticks, it's not yet done; let it be. If tofu releases easily, a good crust is underway; hold steady until you get good color.) Center cubes usually brown first. Repeat on reverse side, until two "cheeks" are bronzed. At this point, I generally give the whole mess a good toss and another few minutes, to fancy up a few of the sides, though this is optional. The whole affair takes 10-12 minutes. Remove caramelized tofu to a paper-towel lined plate, and set aside.
To finish dish: Wipe out wok or skillet, and return to high heat, adding remaining tablespoon of oil and heating until shimmering. Reduce heat to medium, add pork, and spread out in single layer. Cook without stirring, 30 seconds, to brown slightly, then stir-fry quickly for 1-2 minutes, until pork is no longer pink but not yet cooked through. Add black bean-garlic mixture to pork, and stir-fry 30 seconds, until fragrant. Give broth mixture a quick stir to re-distribute cornstarch, and add to pork mixture, swirling and stirring to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring often, until sauce thickens slightly, 1-2 minutes. Add fried tofu to sauced pork, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 2-3 minutes. Remove cover, add scallions, and cook 1 more minute. (Alternatively, reserve scallions to top individual servings, as desired—my children don't desire them.) Serve immediately, with rice and veg.