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Imagine cooking for 10 to 60 people three times a day in a kitchen the size of a small closet. Then imagine that sometimes your closet is tilted about 15 degrees and bucking large waves on the Great Lakes or the ocean.
That's just a taste of the challenges of cooking on tall ships that still ply the world's waterways. If you'd like to learn more, you'll have a chance to talk to cooks and other crew members when their traditional sailing vessels arrive for Tall Ships Erie 2010, Sept. 9 to 12 on Erie's bayfront. You might even get a peek at their galleys.
With the cooks, pleasing the crew is their biggest satisfaction whether they're aboard for a sailing season or only part of a voyage.
"You can't ignore how important the cook and good food is," says Beau Churchill of Santa Rosa, Calif., who cooked on Lynx this summer. "You inadvertently become the morale officer."
Mr. Churchill studied in a culinary program at Santa Rosa Community College and has been cooking for four and a half years. He sounds like a gourmet chef when he talks of liking rustic French recipes, roasts "that you can pump full of flavor using classic French mirepoix" (a combination of onion, carrot and celery), white wine and different salts. He also likes to try tricks with rice and other ingredients that he learned from four years spent in Thailand.
"When I've worked hard to cook a meal, the food comes out well, the crew is in a 'food coma' and they tell you it's the best meal they've ever had, that's the best," he says.
Having learned to cook from her mother, who was a high school cooking teacher, Hannah Higgins of Pullman, Wash., is cooking for the all-female crew of Unicorn. Her well-designed galley has a propane stove, two refrigerators and a freezer. Because the generator is small, she needs to plan carefully. "I can't use more than two methods of cooking at the same time.".
But she says she appreciates the "ease" of preparing meals within the confines of the ship. "I always have a mental inventory of what's onboard and make a list, so provisioning in a port only takes two hours. Meal planning is my favorite part."
The all-female crew provides a different experience, too. Not only do smaller quantities mean she can do a meal in an hour and a half, or half the time as on other ships, "I find women complain less, are more willing to try something new and different, and they are more considerate about the size of portions they take. They like lots of salads, too," she says.
"I've also worked on deck so I think about what might taste good when it's hot and try to have cold drinks available," she explains on a recent 90-plus-degree day. "Greek foods, pasta salads, kebabs, falafel -- anything in pita bread. I make sure every meal has fruit, vegetables, starch, protein, and I always have beef jerky and snacks out if people want more protein. The best thing is when the crew appreciates what you've cooked."
Flagship Niagara offers a bit of a twist to cooking for its crew of 40: It has a wood stove from the late 19th century. As with some other tall ships' stoves, there's a rail around the edge to keep pots and pans from sliding off and a bar that can be moved to section off pots and pans.
One of Niagara's cooks, Isaiah Young of Greenville, Ohio, grew up on a farm where they butchered their own meats. His mother cooks with fresh vegetables and uses lots of fresh herbs so it's not a surprise that the "greatest pleasure in life is good food." He cooks with one assistant, and crew members who rotate through the galley doing cleanup and washing dishes.
Mr. Young makes a chart of dietary restrictions or food allergies of the crew and posts it on the mast that bisects the tiny galley. He also creates a spreadsheet with each day's menus.
"I try to do everything from scratch," he says. "We buy staples in bulk, have a full shelf of seasonings and flavorings, so there really isn't anything that can't be cooked."
He buys hardly any prepared food, even making his own pancake batter, but says there are times when a mix comes in handy. "I had a cornbread mix that saved me once when starting the fire in the stove took too long."
He continues, "The cardinal rule of cooks is: Make meals on time and don't run out of food. ... Sailing tall ships is hard work, and the crew and officers need to be fed properly and on time. It's not unusual for me, when I'm sailing and not working as cook, to consume 5,000 calories a day. You don't want an officer passing up a meal if he or she thinks there might not be enough and what's available needs to go to the crew."
But cooking on a ship is no easy task, either.
Lynx's galley measures about 4 by 10 feet. Niagara's galley is about 15 feet wide and 18 feet "fore and aft," but walking space is much tighter.
Baking on historically accurate Niagara presents special problems. The cast-iron wood stove gets very hot and there's no way to regulate the temperature. As Mr. Young says, "You have to cover everything that's baked -- cakes, casseroles, meats, anything." The oven has two levels, but one side is always hotter because of being closer to the fire. Pans -- cast iron is best -- have to be turned every few minutes to cook all sides.
He still has fun with it. "We can do things for special occasions like bake a favorite carrot cake for a vegetarian crew member's birthday when we are at anchor," he says. "Sometimes the female crew members will bake a cake on their own if they want. I make cookies. Desserts are harder."
For him, compliments from the crew are the best part of being a cook.
The Roald Amundsen from Germany offers a look at European tall-ship cooking. Eva Soennichsen hails from a landlocked town near Cologne. She joined the Roald after growing bored with sailing yachts "where you just press a button and the sails are unfurled." Her cooking experience is for her family, and she is used to cooking for large numbers of people.
A favorite meal on that ship is spaghetti Bolognese, which can be made with meat or without for vegetarians. She uses regional German recipes such as North Sea fish dishes, incorporates dumplings or spaetzel from the southern part of the country, potato knoedel from Bavaria, and beef, sauerbraten or sausages of beef and pork, from Westphalia.
But she lightens things up in warmer climes. When they're sailing in the Canary Islands, the food skews Mediterranean -- grilled foods, fresh fruit and salads.
She plans and provisions for 10 days, using two refrigerators and three freezers. The midday meal is the largest and is warm. There is no hot supper; the meal is lighter. Breakfast is coffee, tea, cheeses, ham and sausage, pancakes or cereal and fruit, and bread and rolls from scratch. "At night, the watch from 12 to 4 a.m. starts the dough so that it has time to rise. Then it's ready to bake for breakfast."
She cautions, "You need to be ready to catch the pans if the ship is rolling. There's a rail on the stove, but one storm was so bad that the rail came loose."
Sometimes people are seasick, and there's a need for tea and soda crackers. She agrees with other cooks that "the best experience is if you are all laughing and you get compliments on your food."
Amanda Doren of Chicago joined Pride of Baltimore II early in the 2010 sailing season. She had cooked briefly on Bounty, loves to sail and saw cooking as a way to be on a tall ship.
The Pride II has a relatively big galley -- roughly 10 by 20 feet -- and two stoves: one propane and one diesel. The diesel stove makes the galley hot and takes a long time to come to temperature, so it's used more often during cold weather. But not without checking and turning the pans.
"There's no such thing as baking something for X number of minutes," she says.
"Our galley is big for a ship of its size," Ms. Doren says. There's a place for everything, too, with handsome cabinets and a wide countertop separating the mess area from the galley. The ship has a refrigerator, a cooling cabinet and a freezer, and she keeps tofu and veggie burgers on hand.
"Sometimes we get crew requests," she says. "Favorites are tacos and meatloaf. They love desserts -- any sweet. I usually do a cake and ice cream for a special occasion. We also have a deckhand who likes to bake and makes cakes from scratch, so she will bake.
"The best part of cooking onboard is feeding people who've had a hard day. They're excited to eat, especially when it's cold. They get a break and can relax in the warmth of the galley. I like being part of that."
Each ship's galley is configured differently. On Niagara, wood for the stove as well as a chopping block for making kindling take up precious space. Some food storage is on or beneath the berth deck and not easy to reach when crew members are asleep in hammocks above the hatches, so cooks must think ahead.
On the Roald, the electric stove is available for use from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 to 7 p.m. The rest of the time, the generator is used for other purposes. Refrigerated storage is below the galley and is reached by ladder.
Now and then, a stove will give a cook a problem. Pride II cook Doren's worst experience was with a propane stove, over a couple of months. "I had a turkey roasting, but didn't know the oven wouldn't stay on. When it should have been done, I checked. The oven was cold. The meal was a half an hour late and ended up being macaroni and cheese from a box."
Lynx encountered bad weather in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it was impossible to cook the fresh pasta Beau Churchill had planned to make. "I ended up having chicken and rice. Even then I had to tie down the pots and pans."
Rensje Furst, from Amsterdam, is the cook on the Dutch tall ship Europa (it visited Cleveland in July but isn't able to appear in Erie). She has a "store" aboard: Because the 99-year-old ship sails long ocean voyages, Ms. Furst must provision for up to seven and a half weeks at a time. Beneath the galley, the hold where food is stowed is full of bins of fresh potatoes, fruits, cartons upon cartons of eggs, dozens of bakery-sized bags of flour, rows of canned goods and spices from every corner of the world.
Up to 65 people can sail on Europa, so that means its kitchen cranks out breakfast, coffee and rolls or sweets at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., coffee and treats at 4 p.m., a snack at 5:30 p.m., and dinner at 7 p.m. She has a large electric stove and ovens, a microwave used only to warm milk for coffee, a bread dough kneading mixer, a dishwasher, two big freezers and one refrigerator.
Ms. Furst has been cooking at sea since 1994. "The worst was my first voyage when I was seasick. I peeled potatoes for five minutes, threw up, peeled more potatoes, threw up, peeled more potatoes, then would lie down for a bit, get up and start over. I never get seasick now."
Paulette Dininny is a freelance writer.