Habitat at Fairmont Pittsburgh


Just because Cinco de Mayo is over, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some Mexican favorites. Besides, margaritas are best all year long.

On May 5, for my niece’s birthday, we took a cooking class at Habitat restaurant located at 510 Market Street, Pittsburgh, PA in the Fairmont Hotel. The hotel is only two years old, and absolutely lovely. I’ve never stayed here, but from the great attention we received for just an afternoon, I can tell it’s a fine venue to lay your head.

At the Habitat, the food is internationally inspired, but uses “locally sourced, organic and sustainable items wherever possible.” The atmosphere is contemporary and very relaxing.

Each month the Habitat hosts a different cooking class where you get an apron, a hat, recipes, and enjoy the meal you helped prepare. The class is a low-hands on approach. – They didn’t let us use knives. Thank goodness! Chef Luis Jimenez knife cut everything as though it were butter. Very. Sharp.

photo by Jenny MacBethThis is by far the best experience at a restaurant I ever had. I highly recommend other restaurants to do this. Not only do you get to enjoy a meal, you get to hangout with the chefs and help prepare it. How cool is that? As you will see in my photos, it is well worth $65 per person. We spend that much eating out at The Cheese Cake Factory with no fun times in the kitchen. Just so cool.

We were greeted by Sous Chef, Paula Smagacz, our host for the afternoon. She was super sweet, very talented and funny. Thanks Paula for an enjoyable day.

First things first…

photo by Jenny MacBethChef Paula, took us on a tour of their two-story kitchen filled with different types of chefs. The kitchen was immaculate. When eating out, do you ever wonder what the kitchen looks like? Pretty neat to see it, and know it’s spotless.

Here you see a statue made of chocolate. I’m not sure I could eat it. Hell! Who am I kidding. It took much discipline not to reach out and snap a piece off…

photo by Jenny MacBethEspecially, the bunny ears. Look how cute!

photo by Jenny MacBethAfter the kitchen tour, they made us Skinny Margaritas. Can I get a Hell Yeah?

Here is their recipe.

2 oz. Patron, or any tequila

1 oz. Cointreau

2 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice

1 oz. agave nectar

Put rim of glass in lime juice, then roll in coarse salt. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake. Pour into glass and enjoy.

photo by Nicole AustinThis was spectacular. I think I asked, “May I have another?” about three times.

photo by Jenny MacBethLet’s get cooking…

Season whole chicken breasts with salt and black pepper. Coat a saute pan with oil and sear chicken on both sides over medium high heat. Chef Luis said it’s better if you use the grill.

Toss in one tablespoon of each of the dried spices of sweet paprika, smoked paprika, cumin seeds, and dried oregano. Cook in pan for a few seconds then add chicken stock enough to cover the meat. Lower the heat to medium low. Simmer mixture for about 20 minutes until chicken is thoroughly cooked.

photo by Jenny MacBethRemove chicken from broth and pull apart. If you are going to store it in the refrigerator, pure some broth over it to keep it moist.


Chicken breasts

Salt and Pepper


1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Chicken stock

photo by Jenny MacBethI did not know this, but using radishes in your steak marinade helps tenderize the meat. Chef Luis used Skirt Steak. He also said you could use Flank Steak. I always have a problem with it even using processed tenderizers. He simply poked the steak with his fork on both sides and used a radish in the marinade. He also said the best method is use a pizza docker and roll it over the meat to help tender it.

Marinade recipe for the steak tacos:

Skirt Steak

Salt and pepper

Oil (enough to cover the meat)

1 bunch parsley, chopped

2 sprigs thyme, chopped

2 springs rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 whole daikon radish, peeled and sliced

photo by Jenny MacBethNext up is Chimmichurri. Yum. Yum. I could make this and use it on my sandwiches. Just divine.

The recipe:

2 bunches parsley, rough chopped

1 bunch cilantro, rough chopped

1 garlic clove

Lemon, juiced to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

In a blender or food processor, pulse the fresh herbs and garlic. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper and blend. Slowly drizzle in enough olive oil to create a sauce. Taste and season as needed.

photo by Jenny MacBethGuacamole. The recipe is simple. I didn’t get a recipe card for this one. However, it was pretty close to mine, but he added in red onion and green onions. For guac, you don’t need a recipe. Put whatever you want in it. It’s easy.

photo by Jenny MacBethGuess what I’m getting at the Mexican grocer this weekend? For the tortillas, simply follow the recipe on the back of the bag. Smoosh it together in a bowl with your hands. Fun! Create golf ball sized balls…

photo by Jenny MacBethAnd, smash it in this handy tortilla maker. You can use a rolling pin, but that’s no fun. I’m picking up this handy tool. It’s under $10. Why not?

photo by Jenny MacBethSpray your pan over medium heat and cook on both sides until slightly golden.

photo by Jenny MacBethRoasted Tomato Salsa. Best salsa EVER.

3 tomatoes

3 onions

3 jalapenos

3 red bell peppers


1 tablespoon orange juice

Salt and pepper

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

Wash all vegetables and toss with a small portion of oil to coat. Place the vegetables in a roasting pan and bake at 325 degrees for approximately 45 minutes until everything is charred well. Allow to cool until able to handle. Remove seeds from both peppers. Blend vegetables and orange juice. Season with salt and pepper then fold in the chopped cilantro.

photo by Jenny MacBethAre you a sushi fan? Well, this is not sushi, but it’s raw fish cooked by juices. Ceviche.

White fish (bass, snapper, or yellow tail), sliced sashimi style

Jalapeno, brunoise

Shaved garlic




Green onions

Shaved red onions

Red pepper, brunoise

1 tablespoon each of fresh lemon, lime and orange juice

photo by Jenny MacBethMix in all ingredients and add the citrus juices a few minutes prior to serving.

photo by Jenny MacBethThe juices will start to cook the meat. You will see the pink fish turn white.

photo by Jenny MacBethSprinkle with fresh cilantro.

photo by Jenny MacBethFor dessert, Flan. As much as I love custard and caramel, I’m not a fan of flan. However, I have to say that this was good.

photo by Jenny MacBethSpanish Cinnamon Flan:

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons water

1/2 lemon, juiced

2 cups heavy cream

1 cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

3 large eggs + 2 large egg yolks

Pinch of salt

To make the caramel: Have ready a 2-quart round flan mold and a large roasting pan. Combine 1 cup of the sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy-bottomed pot.

Place over medium-high heat and cook until the sugar begins to melt. Swirl the pan over the heat until the syrup darkens to a medium amber color, about 10 minutes. Do not stir with a spoon.

Remove from the heat and immediately add the lemon juice, swirl the pan again to combine, and then pour into the flan mold.

Tilt the mold so that the caramel evenly coats the bottom and a bit up the sides. Place mold in the roasting pan and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Bring a kettle of water to boil for the water bath and keep it hot.

Combine the cream, cinnamon and vanilla in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring the cream to a brief simmer, stirring occasionally. Take care not to let the cream come to a full boil to prevent it from spilling over.

In a large bowl, cream together the whole eggs and yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and salt. Whisk until the mixture is pale yellow and thick.

Temper the egg mixture by gradually whisking in the hot cream mixture (don’t add it too quickly or the eggs will cook).

Pass the mixture through a strainer into a large measuring cup to ensure that the flan will be perfectly smooth. Pour the custard into the caramel-coated mold.

To create the water bath: Pour the hot (not boiling) water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the side of the mold; be careful not to get water into the custard.

Carefully transfer to the middle oven rack, and back for 30 to 45 minutes, until the custard is barely set and just jiggles slightly.

Let the flan cool in the water bath, then refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

When you are ready to serve, run a knife around the inside of the mold to loosen the flan. Place a dessert plate on top of the flan and invert to pop it out. Done!

photo by Jenny MacBethMy finished plate.

Time to eat. In the center of the dining room, they have, what they call, a “communal table.” We all took a seat and started to enjoy our meal. May I have another Margarita?

photo by Jenny MacBethIn this picture from left to right: Nicole, Chef Luis, Chef Jenny <wink>, and Chef Paula.

We had a blast. Not only did we get to enjoy a delicious dinner, we met many wonderful people from the chefs to the lovely ladies at our table. How fun!

The Habitat is the second restaurant to make my Pittsburgh Favorite list. Outstanding. “The experience is one to share.”


Indian Cooking Class 1 – Khichari

My friend Margaret and I attended a free Indian cooking class at Northland Public Library. I highly recommend it.

The Indian cook, Ann Manchella, prepared Kichidi (that’s the way she spells it. Most common is Khichari), a rice dish widely known in India as a comfort food. Ann demonstrated the preparation of the dish and served us tasty samples. – Reward without the effort. The only thing that would have stepped up this class is some Indian beer <wink>.

Here is the recipe and a few photos from the evening.

split moong, photo by Jenny MacBethSplit moong dal. This can be used in place of split red lentils. Either work well.

kichidi photo by Jenny MacBethDone!

sauces photo by Jenny MacBethAnn and her team (husband), served the dish with plain yogurt and two spicy sauces. Love the spices in Indian food. I must get this.

The audience moaned when they were eating it.

We are headed back where Ann will make Puri, an unleavened Indian bread, to accompany Aloo Sabji, a potato curry; which I absolutely love.

Here is Ann’s recipe…


1/3 cup of split red lentils, or split moong dal

1 cup basmati or other long-grain rice or brown rice

3 tablespoons of ghee or oil (ghee is easy to make. Click link for recipe)

1/3 cup of unsalted cashews

3 teaspoons of cumin seeds

1 tablespoon of fresh hot green chili, minced

2 tablespoons of minced fresh ginger

2 teaspoons of turmeric

1 teaspoon of yellow asafetida powder

3 cups of mixed vegetables: Chopped green beans, carrots, cauliflower, spinach (Ann says that you can use whatever veges you like)

5-6 cups of water (if needed)

1 1/2 teaspoons of salt

1 tablespoon of butter

1 cup of tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup of chopped coriander leaves

1 bunch of curry leaves


  1. Boil water and add lentils or dal. After they are half-cooked, add rice and vegetables.
  2. In a separate saucepan, heat the ghee over medium heat. When the ghee is hot, put asafetida followed by cumin seeds. Then add curry leaves, chilies and ginger. Add cashews and saute till they turn slight brown. Add tomatoes and spinach and cook them till the water from the tomatoes is gone.
  3. Stir in the lentils and rice to they curry (once lentils and rice is 90% cooked). If the Kichidi dries out too much, add up to 1 cup warm water.
  4. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve hot with yogurt, Lime Pickle and Bedekar Mango Chili sauces (pictured above).

All this was free, so click to register for upcoming programs or by calling the adult services reference desk at 412-366-8100, ext.113.

Thanks Ann! I really enjoyed your class.



Giant Eagle’s Market District

Market District Logo, Photo from podcamppittsburgh.com
Photo from podcamppittsburgh.com

Pittsburgh’s Big Bird (aka Giant Eagle) made national news on CBS Sunday Morning News. The morning commentary was about Taste Test Markets. Now, there’s my calling – Official Taste Tester.

Columbus, OH is considered the nations central test market. Several restaurants in the area test their new food ideas in the area. Who knew Columbus had great taste? Sorry Columbus, I don’t mean to knock you, but I’m from Pittsburgh. A little rivalry doesn’t hurt anyone.

Anyway, Giant Eagle’s Market District was mentioned using the Columbus location “as a lab for things like nutrition labeling and frequent shopper perks.” I haven’t been to the Columbus location, but I have frequent Market District’s. I love it. Especially, since I do a lot of cooking, and I’m always looking for unique ingredients. Giant Eagle senior vice president Brett Merrell said, “You can find cactus in the endless produce section. The butcher shop has every kind of

Market District, Photo from columbusfoodie.com
Market District, Photo from columbusfoodie.com

meat, including rattlesnake and python.” I have not had to go to a specialty store, trying to find an odd spice, now having a Market District near me.

After watching the morning show, I did a little research on Market District in Robinson. Looks like they have cooking classes run by Chef Keira, on the second floor of this store. You can participate in hands-on courses, or sit back and watch the show. This is something that I’m going to try with my friends.

In the end, CBS Sunday Morning News dubbed Giant Eagle Market District, “the mother of all grocery stores.”, but you’ll always be Big Bird to me.