Food Column: Cook and learn at pop-up dinner


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The very last event to be held in Pittsburgh Public Market's original space in the Strip District's Produce Terminal at 1700 Smallman St. is coming up on Sept. 27. Chef Mya Zeronis, who operates the "Zest Wishes" stand in the market, will stage the second in a monthly series of Around the World Pop-Up Dinners.

By October, her dinners, her stand and the rest of Pittsburgh Public Market will have deserted the old building to move to the market's new, larger Strip location at 2401 Penn Ave.

Ms. Zeronis' monthly dinner series, which blends dining with culinary instruction and nutritional consciousness, is aptly titled. A citizen of the world, she has learned to cook and fuse a variety of different cuisines.

She grew up in Burma, now called Myanmar. She came to the United States in 2000 to study print journalism at Point Park University -- and worked in the college cafeteria on the side, her initial foray into the culinary world. She didn't even particularly like the job; she just did it to earn money for school.

Although financial and family considerations prevented her from completing her degree, she instead discovered the type of culinary work she really liked -- the creative aspect beyond line cooking.

She worked for a while in chain restaurants, but her first job in a "real" restaurant was as an entry-level cook at Six Penn Kitchen in the Cultural District, where she first observed cooking and plating as art forms.

She moved up the ladder in the restaurant world, working as sous chef and executive chef for several establishments in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., while refining her own blend of American and Asian-inspired cuisine.

But as much as she enjoyed the creativity, working in restaurants "became so much like a job," she said. She was frustrated with creating dishes for which restaurant owners later took credit, and she worked long hours that left her little time with her young daughter. She wanted to work for herself, but she didn't have the capital to open her own restaurant.

So she has cobbled together a multifaceted, entrepreneurial food business. A micro-loan from CEED Pittsburgh ("CEED" stands for "Christian Evangelistic Economic Development") allowed her to open a stand in Pittsburgh Public Market, where she sells her artisan sauces, condiments, marinades and pickles as well as juices and lunch dishes. She also offers personalized meal subscriptions with twice-weekly delivery. She gives in-home cooking lessons and does catering, occasionally traveling back to D.C. to cater larger events. She rents space in the kitchen of Burma Tokyo in Oakland on Sundays, the restaurant's off day, to do her prep work, and she meets with catering clients at her market stand. And she's even writing cookbooks that she plans to release in electronic and print form. (See her recipe for Citrus Organic Millet with Fresh Local Vegetables, one of the dishes she sells at her stand.)

And she has begun offering the monthly pop-up dinners, through which she is raising money in hopes of one day opening her own restaurant.

She conceived the pop-up dinner idea when reading about chefs in New York, Chicago and other cities holding similar events to raise funds.

Her second dinner, which will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 27, will include workshops, interaction and a four-course feed featuring flavors of Louisiana, South America and Asia. She will demonstrate cooking techniques using a mortar and pestle, and diners will be able to mix it up in the kitchen alongside her.

Her dinner will feature local, non-genetically modified foods. Menu items will include pan-seared tofu bites, slow-smoked chicken wings with Cajun herb glaze, berry and fennel salad with greens and quail's egg, choice of vegan burrito or Pacific cod "meatball" with brown rice spaghetti, and wine-poached peaches.

The dinner is BYOB, and seating is limited. Cost is $40 per person, and menu items can be tailored for specific dietary restrictions. For more information or to buy tickets, go to zestwishes.co and click "Events."

Classes/demos

30-Minute Italian Meal: Nicky D. Cooks, a Community College of Allegheny County instructor and food blogger, demonstrates garlic bread, Caprese salad, pasta and ceci bean soup with pork in a red sauce, and Italian ice cream sandwiches. 6:30 tonight at Heinz History Center, Strip District. $15 includes food samples and a pass for a future History Center visit. Reservations: 412-454-6426.

Sunny Anderson: The Food Network chef, who has a new book out, visits Giant Eagle Market District stores on Monday. 2 p.m. in Robinson; 5 p.m. in Pine.

Charitable events

A Taste of Grow Pittsburgh: Fresh, local, organic foods from area restaurants. 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Shadyside. $75 ($60 for Grow Pittsburgh members); proceeds benefit Grow Pittsburgh. growpittsburgh.org.

No Kid Hungry: Through Oct. 31, visit Denny's restaurants and make a $3 donation to Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign. Donors will receive $9 worth of Denny's coupons in exchange for the donations. dineoutfornokidhungry.org.

Wine festivals

Art Craft Wine Festival of Southwestern Pennsylvania: Wines from more than 20 regional wineries, food, crafts and live music. Noon to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday at the Fayette County Fairgrounds in Dunbar. artcraftwinefest.com.

Wines Under Glass: Fine wines, specialty foods, live entertainment and fall flower show. 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland. 412-651-5281.

Contest

Win Ina Garten Tickets: In the Kitchen, the Strip District kitchen store, will give away two tickets to Ina Garten's Oct. 17 show at the Benedum. For a chance to win, click "Like" on the store's Facebook page. Then, re-create your favorite Ina Garten dish, photograph it and share it on the Facebook page. In the Kitchen staff will judge photos based on presentation, and the winner will be selected Oct. 1. shopinthekitchen.com.



Citrus Organic Millet with Fresh Local Vegetables

  • 1 quart organic vegetable broth

  • 1 pound organic millet

  • 2 small cucumbers, unpeeled (if organic), seeded and diced

  • 1/2 red onion, diced

  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped

  • 3 ribs celery, diced

  • 2 medium carrots, shredded

  • 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced

  • Juice of 2 lemons (and zest, if organic)

  • 1 ounce extra-virgin olive oil

  • Sea salt to taste

  • Pepper to taste

In a large skillet, bring broth to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Add millet and cover with a lid.

Cook millet over medium-low heat until liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork; then let cool in fridge for 5 minutes or longer while other ingredients are being prepared.

In a large mixing bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly. Adjust seasoning. Serve cold.

Serves 8.

-- Mya Zeronis

recipes - foodcolumn

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


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