food for thought

Post-Gazette Food Editor Bob Batz Jr. in the newsroom, surrounded by cookbooks. Photos by Martha Rial.





Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Food Editor Bob Batz Jr. was a teen working the griddle at Aunt Mary’s Restaurant in Brookville, Ohio, when he learned his most important cooking lesson. To set it up, he explains the $1 special—two eggs cooked your way, breakfast meat and toast—was a customer staple, but if those eggs weren’t cooked perfectly, with just as much or as little fluid as the customer wanted, back to the kitchen they would go. And it was a hot in there. “You have pock marks on your arms and face from the splattering of the grill.”

As he stared at 40 sets of sizzling egg pairs cooking in a million different ways, it hit him. “Timing is one of the most important things to be a good cook.”

Born in Michigan, the son of two feature writers/columnists (“We had a lot of newspapering around our house,”) Batz graduated from the University of Dayton with an English degree. After a job at the Dayton paper, he was hired at the Pittsburgh Press in 1986 as a feature writer until the PG bought it and Batz moved into new digs. Over the years, he has traveled to London to cover Princess Diana’s funeral and to Arizona to capture the mood of a Steelers Super Bowl, followed by award-winning work reporting on the Quecreek Mine miracle.

Five years ago, he learned he’d be the new interim food editor while a colleague was on maternity leave. That child may be ready for kindergarten now but Batz, 49, is still at the helm of the Thursday food section, scooping up such awards as several first place nods in the highly coveted Association of Food Journalists, Inc. “Best Newspaper Food Coverage” for its circulation size, beating papers with larger staffs and bigger budgets.

“The section has won a number of notable national awards during his tenure, a tribute to his wise and collaborative leadership,” says Mt. Lebanon resident Susan Smith, the PG’s managing editor. “Bob is creative, smart and organized, the perfect mix for someone in charge of food coverage for a major newspaper. His weekly print sections are bright, versatile and fun, yet also deceptively well-planned, down to every headline, caption and recipe ingredient. He understands the digital side of journalism and has helped build a lively online food presence for the PG.”

In the early ‘90s, Batz was among the group of staffers who write as “Munch,” a sarcastic, undercover diner who visits dive bars and casual restaurants and writes with an acerbic style. “A lot of those reviews are useful even beyond the critic’s opinion,” he says, noting the column is a narrative of the restaurant itself. But he’s quick to point out the skills of dining critic China Millman, who has been to culinary school. “She’s really good. Her opinion matters a lot more than some of the Munches.”

These days Batz not only writes and directs a staff and a cadre of freelancers including former Mt. Lebanon Magazine editor Virginia Phillips, he coordinates multimedia coverage by journalists Steve Mellon and Gretchen McKay, which also has its share of awards. “People across all PG departments—reporters, artists, photographers, videographers—you name it—like working with Bob and he in turn is a great advocate for the work they do,” Smith says

On a recent busy morning, Mellon and Batz mused how to keep a heartwarming piece about a Koppel, Pennsylvania, church on the “front page” of the paper’s online site where it would undoubtedly compete with video coverage of the Pirates’ opening day.

As expected, mountains of cookbooks dwarf his cubicle in a back corner of the newsroom. Titles about artichokes and knife skills peek out from behind columns and posters around his desk feature beer, another love of his.

As a single guy, he moved to a Spanish-style home in Mt. Lebanon in 1994, on the recommendation of PG film critic Barbara Vancheri, who lives on Catalpa Place.  “I really like that I landed in Mt. Lebanon for all sorts of reasons,” he says. “I don’t feel like I live in the suburbs. I’m five minutes away (from the city) on a train.”

Batz and his son, Jesse, 4, work in the strawberry patch at Southminster Child Care Center, where children are learning to plant healthy foods to better appreciate their origins and to be more likely to want to eat them.

In 2001, he married fellow journalist Anita Srikameswaran, who used her medical degree to write about health for the PG. She is now the senior manager of media relations for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Their 4-year-old son, Jesse, has developed a sophisticated palate from growing up in the PG’s test kitchen—the kitchen of their Jonquil Place home. “The other night, I was laughing because he was eating squid stew. He was happily slurping.”

While the paper’s food coverage has evolved over the years, from homespun farm-style writing to highbrow and back again, Batz’s plan for this year is his “This is Pittsburgh Food” project. “We’re not going to compete with Gourmet or Bon Appétit. People can get the New York Times online.” Pittsburgh food is “what works for us,” he says. Case in point, a recent article on the allure of Braunschweiger yielded 80 column inches of letters of readers’ own recollections of the stuff.

But within that field, he does see trends. “I think the local, sustainable, organic thing is going to get bigger and bigger,” he says. He also has more reader requests for vegan and vegetarian recipes. People are eating a bit less meat, he says, and the meat they are buying is higher quality. We are lucky in Mt. Lebanon, he says, because of a great selection of markets and specialty grocers, with nearby Market District, Trader Joe’s and the forthcoming Fresh Market, in addition to two great farmers markets. (He is partial to the Lions Market on Wednesdays from 4 to dusk. He and Jesse walk there every week.)

And while he enjoys cooking at home and testing all those recipes, he also likes to eat out. “I think the general quality of food has gotten better (since his Munch days),” he says. Even dive bars have craft beers available. “We used to have to eat a lot of bad food at those places.”

Batz says Pittsburgh as a whole has better restaurants than it used to, noting the talents of such chefs as Kevin Sousa and the hip dining spots in the East End. “We’re not as backward as we like to make ourselves.” And, he says there are plenty of great places to be found in Mt. Lebanon. “There’s a lot more and better food here now,” he says, noting the diversity of styles and ethnicities. “Il Pizzaiolo is quite a sophisticated place.”

But for the all the time he spends cooking and dining and reading recipes looking for that one typo, “Sometimes I’m amazed at how big food is. Sometimes I think it’s too big. It’s been fetish-ized. Sometimes I like to think of it as just food. I like to keep it simple. Keep it good.”

Laura Pace Lilley worked for the Post-Gazette from 1998 through 2007 and was on Batz’s Storytellers news team.

Bob Batz Jr., Mt. Lebanon resident and Food Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, tries new recipes constantly as part of his job. But we asked him for a couple of his favorites—ones that stand above others. Here’s what he shared:

Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas

This is a recipe that I saved from a 2002 edition of Saveur, my favorite food magazine, and that I have made many times since, experimenting with various dried chilis that are readily available at area Mexican and specialty stores and supermarkets. Look for dried Mexican oregano, which is a revelation. If you can get to Reyna’s in the Strip District, get its housemade tortillas –they are the best. You  could experiment with different enchilada fillings, too.
4 cups chicken stock
4 large ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
1¾ cups corn oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons flour
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 corn tortillas
¾ pound Monterey Jack cheese, grated

Put stock and chiles into a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chiles are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat.
Add two-thirds of the onion and cook, stirring often, until the onions begin to soften; 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a blender, add chiles, 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and garlic, puree to a smooth paste and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for 3 to 5 minutes. Add chile paste, cumin, oregano and the remaining cooking liquid and season to taste with salt and pepper (I go easy on the salt, because of all the cheese, and if the chiles are especially bitter, might even add a little sugar). Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Keep warm over lowest heat.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat the remaining 1½ cups oil in a deep medium skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Quickly fry tortillas 1 at a time, turning once, for about 2 seconds per side, then dip them into chile sauce to coat well. Transfer tortillas to a large plate as done, scatter bottom third of each with about ¼ cup of the cheese, then roll to completely encase cheese, Arrange rolled tortillas, seam side down, in a large baking dish, into a single layer, Spoon the remaining chile sauce over tortillas and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and onions. Bake until cheese melts, about 10 minutes.
Serves 4 to 6 (but has been eaten by 2).

—Adapted from Saveur

Umbrian Pear Tart

This is one of my “secret” recipes. I got it from my late Mom and keep a hand-written copy with my other keeper recipes. I believe it came from one my mom’s women’s magazines, and I have no idea what makes it Umbrian. But it’s easy and quick and delicious, with all kinds of pears, even if not perfectly ripe.
1 large pear (or two small ones)
Juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoons plus ½ cup sugar, divided
4 tablespoons softened butter
4 tablespoons softened cream cheese
½ cup flour
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line baking sheet with parchment paper.
Slice pear, putting slices into a bowl with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons sugar.
Cream together butter and cream cheese. Add flour, pinch of salt and ½ cup sugar.
Pat out this sticky dough onto the paper in a round shape, fan the pear slices in the middle of that, spooning on a little of the juice.
Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until edges are golden brown.
Serve at room temperature with whipped cream.
Serves 4 (and has been eaten by 2).

—Bob Batz Jr.