The Steelers won't be on the field at Superbowl XLVII in New Orleans on Sunday, Feb. 3, but that's not to say the Steeler Nation won't be well represented. Chef Anthony Zallo of Downtown's Bigelow Grille once again will give Pittsburgh props at the 22nd annual "Taste of the NFL" party on the eve of the big game.
This is the Bethel Park native's fifth consecutive appearance at the annual fundraiser, which pairs chefs from each of the 32 NFL cities with fine food and wine to raise money for hunger-related charities. With former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell once again at his side, he'll dish up a spiffed-up version of not-your-usual Pittsburgh tailgate food: Grilled Western Pennsylvania Rabbit Sausage with Heirloom Apples and Crispy Spaetzle. In coming up with the regional dish, a version of which is served at his restaurant, he looked to the culinary traditions of the host city along with his hometown. He decided on a non-traditional meat sausage, he says, because "New Orleanians are a lot like Pittsburghers in that they enjoy wild game and hunting."
Not that he took to the fields himself with a rifle in search of cottontails: The rabbits came from Pecan Meadows Farm in Butler via Wild Purveyors, who also procured the heirloom apples, some of which were cooked with sugar and spices into a savory apple butter.
Isn't he afraid some people might be reluctant to eat, you know, cute little bunnies?
"No, not at all," Chef Zallo says, noting that he initially considering building a dish around venison but decided milder-tasting rabbit would please more palates. He'll pair the grilled sausage with spaetzle crisped in butter, sauteed spinach and a schmere of the cooked-down apples. "People who go to these things are willing to try new things. I bet they'll come back for seconds."
Just in case, though, he has a backup plan that should also please any vegetarians in the crowd: plain pierogies.
"I want everyone to take a bite and say, 'This is really good. I like this.'"
If cooking on-site for some 2,000 people sounds daunting, that's only half the story: On Jan. 19, Chef Zallo spent about 11 hours cleaning, grinding and stuffing 344 pounds of rabbit and pork shoulder into casings for sausage. He brought about 250 pounds of it with him when he set off by car to New Orleans this past Tuesday, along with 100 pounds of homemade spaetzle, 40 pounds of heirloom apples and 2 gallons of apple butter.
Chef Zallo says the Steelers are so popular that his station generally serves many more than the 1,600 to 1,900 portions recommended by organizers. "Our lines are longer," he says. "So I always add 500 to it."
If you happen to be in town for the game, there still are tickets available for the dinner, which begins at 7 p.m. at the New Orleans Convention Center in Hall J. But you better have deep pockets because they cost $600 a piece. But hey, all proceeds go to charity, and the evening includes a live performance by Soul Asylum, as well as a welcome from Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan.
You also can catch Andy Russell and other NFL alums, along with Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods," and 2012 NFL Man of the Year Matt Birk, at the Earl Morrell Legends Breakfast on Feb. 1. It's also in the Convention Center, at 8 a.m., and costs $125 per person. Purchase tickets to either online at tasteofthenfl.com.
Since 1992, Taste of the NFL has raised more than $14 million for local food banks, including $50,000 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
And if you won't be in the Big Easy this weekend, you can try making Chef Zallo's menu at home. Below, we offer the recipes. At my kids' request, I substituted bratwurst for the rabbit sausage.
It's tough, but try not to think of rabbit as bunny meat. Instead, view it as a lean, high-protein alternative to chicken. "It's very neutral-tasting and not heavy at all," says Chef Anthony Zallo, who will be serving it, in sausage-form, at this year's Taste of the NFL fundraiser dinner the day before the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
If you don't want to make your own, Crested Duck Charcuterie in Beechview and the Pittsburgh Public Market often has it on the menu for $14 a pound.
You can find farm-raised rabbit meat at Strip District Meats ($3.99/pound), J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand at the Farmers Cooperative of East Liberty ($7 to $8/pound pre-ordered; call 724-898-2316), Wholey's Market ($4.99/pound) in the Strip District, and occasionally at Giant Eagle Market District stores.
1 1/2 pounds shoulder of pork
1 rabbit, about 2 1/2 pounds cleaned weight
1/4 teaspoon fresh finely chopped rosemary
1/4 teaspoon fresh finely chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt to taste (2 percent of the total weight of the meat)
1 length 24 millimeter casing
Cut the pork into cubes. Add the pork to the rabbit meat and grind fine. After grinding, add seasonings and mix thoroughly. Cook a small piece and taste for salt; adjust if necessary.
Stuff mixture into casing, making sure to fill evenly. If you prefer patties to links, form sausage mixture into small patties.
To cook: You can either grill the sausages over low heat until well browned on the outside and moist on the inside; saute them in a pan over medium heat in a little oil; or roast sausages in a 350-degree oven, turning occasionally, for around 20 minutes.
Raw, fresh sausage links will keep in the refrigerator for 3 days or will freeze for 3 months.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- Chef Anthony Zallo, Bigelow Grille
Spaetzle are mini German dumplings. Paired here with brown butter, they also make a great stand-in for rice or pasta in a sauce.
If you don't have a potato ricer, you can make the dumplings by forcing the batter with a rubber spatula through a colander or cheese grater with large holes (about 1/4 inch) into the boiling water.
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning
4 tablespoons of butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
Beat eggs and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, milk and salt and mix well. Add the eggs and continue to mix until the dough/batter is smooth. If needed, you can add more milk. (I ended up using about 11/2 cups.) The consistency should be like a very thick pancake batter and not too runny. Let rest for 1 hour.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and using the spaetzle maker or potato ricer, pour the batter a little at a time (in batches) through the holes and into the water. The spaetzle will cook quickly and is done after about 5 to 6 minutes, or when they float to the top of the water. As you remove them from the water, dip them in cool water to keep them from sticking.
Brown some butter in the pan and saute the spaetzle until the edges are crispy and a nice golden brown color. Finish with the parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- Chef Anthony Zallo, Bigelow Grille
Roasted Heirloom Apples
Quick and easy. Also good on top of pork. "It tastes like apple pie," said one daughter.
6 heirloom apples (sweet or tart)
3 tablespoons of butter
1/4 teaspoon chopped sage
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup apple cider
Wash, core and cut apples in to 4 wedges. Heat a heavy sauté pan and add butter and apples. Roast on high heat for approximately 4 minutes.
Add chopped sage, cider vinegar and apple cider. Cook for an additional 3minutes.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- Chef Anthony Zallo, Bigelow Grillefood - recipes
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.