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Pines Tavern grows own produce for menu

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 5:15 a.m.

Chefs have been known to change restaurants frequently, so the fact that Jason Culp has been with The Pines Tavern for 16 years is an accomplishment in itself.

The 38-year-old, who lives in Slippery Rock, has earned numerous awards and accolades during his tenure at the Pine Township restaurant. But his greatest achievement, he says, has been the establishment of a two-and-a-half-acre farm across the street that he tends daily.

"We grow arugula, field greens, spinach, beets, carrots, garlic, onions," says Culp, who graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 1990. "Next week, we're planting tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. I can supply myself with 65 percent of what I need."

Surrounded by stately pine trees, the aptly named Pines Tavern, located on 13 acres off Bakerstown Road on the Red Belt, looks more like a cozy country inn from the outside. Inside, diners are greeted with elegance. White-linen tablecloths, blue carpeting, blue upholstered wooden chairs and subdued lighting create a benign ambience in both dining rooms. The restaurant seats 227 patrons, including the more causal bar area and patio. The culinary staff includes Culp, a sous chef and a line cook.

"We easily do 235 meals on a busy weekend night," Culp says, bustling about the large kitchen. "One thing for us, compared to Downtown restaurants, is that people are more finicky in the suburbs. The hardest part about being a chef is not getting complacent. You have to be insightful about what the consumer wants."

Culp says he is proud that the 30-year-old Pines Tavern was buying and growing locally before it was a trend -- since 2000. A greenhouse grows herbs and baby lettuces year-round.

"When we first started the gardens, we found other chefs with small kitchen gardens, but nothing like ours," Culp says. "Now, it's so chic and neat. But I believe there are only two other restaurants in our area that do this. The big reward is that customers love it."

It's only natural that Culp is so into farming the gardens, seeing that he grew up on a farm in Southington, Ohio, outside of Warren. His love of cooking began as a child.

"We always had fresh meat, chicken and eggs," he says. "My baby sitter used to supply the homemade pies to Perkins Restaurants. I managed a pizza shop in Warren for a few years, then my sister dragged me off to culinary school."

Culp worked at Montour Country Club, Shannopin Country Club and the Duquesne Club before landing at The Pines Tavern. He has been a partner in the restaurant for five years.

"Cooking has to be in your blood," Culp says. "It's a mindset. I'm a control freak, which makes some days very stressful. A lot of chefs get into a routine when they haven't been busy. Their style becomes sloppy. The customer can feel that lack of control.

"I used to take constructive criticism hard," he admits with a smile. "But the best part of this job is watching people enjoy their food."

The menu, which changes every season, is as varied as the herbs grown in the garden. The appetizers include grilled fresh dough flatbread; Chesapeake crab dip with spinach, sherry, crab and cheddar served with pita bread; crispy angel-hair onion rings with parmesan garnish and peppercorn dip; and lobster bisque with sherry whipped cream.

It's not surprising that the restaurant features several popular salads, made with produce grown on site and locally. There are 13 mouthwatering entrees to choose from, such as the best-selling crab cakes, Elysian Fields lamb, jumbo sea scallops on lobster risotto, filet mignon, hickory-smoked citrus salmon, balsamic glazed chicken, and boneless local pork loin on beet and syrah risotto with gorgonzola cheese and parsley-walnut pesto.

Grilled Local Pork Chops, Roasted Beet and Syrah Risotto with a Parsley Walnut Pesto

Chef Jason Culp chose to share the pork loin dish with cooking class.

Culp buys his pork locally, raised in Butler County and processed at Thoma's in Saxonburg.

"It's pretty -- it's the quintessential spring dish," he says. "The pesto is always better when made the day before you serve it. I'm not a big over-seasoner. I prefer to let the flavors of the food speak for themselves."

The risotto needs to be sauteed first for 3 minutes to help the grains crack open. Culp uses a Syrah wine from New Zealand to add a little oomph to the dish.

"Syrah is more robust than a Zinfandel," he says. "You need to add the liquid in parts to the risotto so the risotto can absorb it all. And the beets are best when roasted, but they're really messy. They'll dye your hands purple. That's why I use gloves to peel them and dice them."

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• 4 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary and chives

• Salt

• Cracked black pepper

• 12 (6-ounce) boneless pork chops, preferably local

• Roasted Beet and Syrah Risotto ( see recipe )

• Parsley Walnut Pesto ( see recipe )

• Fresh chopped green onions or small diced yellow sweet peppers, for garnish

Heat the grill to medium-high. Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl, mix the olive oil, herbs, salt and cracked black pepper. Rub the mixture into the pork chops ( see Photo 1 ).

Place the pork chops on the grill for 3 to 4 minutes; rotate them 45 degrees, and grill for another 3 minutes. Flip the pork chops over and repeat. This should yield medium-well pork chops with beautiful grill marks ( Photo 2 ). Cook for 3 to 5 minutes longer if you want the pork well done.

To plate: Set out 6 dinner plates. Divide the risotto into 6 equal portions and place each portion in the center of a plate. Add 3 small piles of Parsley Walnut Pesto to each plate ( Photo 3 ), and top each plate with 2 pork chops. Garnish the plates with fresh chopped green onions or small diced yellow sweet peppers.

Enjoy with a great glass of syrah or other dry red wine.

Makes 6 servings.

Roasted Beet and Syrah Risotto

• 3 medium-size beets, scrubbed

• 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

• Salt and cracked black pepper

• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 1 cup leeks, chopped

• 1 cup onions, chopped

• 2 large shallots, minced

• 1 1/2 cups arborio rice

• 1 cup syrah or other dry red wine

• 4 1/2 to 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

• 3/4 cup crumbled gorgonzola

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Coat the beets with 1/2 tablespoon oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake until tender enough to pierce with a knife, for 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Peel and dice the beets ( Photo 4 ), and set them aside. (This step can be done 1 to 2 days in advance.)

In a large skillet or saute pan, melt the butter with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat.

Add the leeks, onions and shallots, and saute until they begin to soften, for 7 to 8 minutes.

Add the arborio rice to the leek mixture and saute till opaque.

Add the wine ( Photo 5 ) and simmer, stirring consistently, until all of the liquid is absorbed. Add 2 cups of stock and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock in 1/2-cup increments and stirring until the rice is al dente.

Stir in the gorgonzola and the beets.

Season with salt and cracked black pepper. Cover with foil and keep warm.

Parsley Walnut Pesto

• 4 tablespoons toasted walnuts

• 1 1/4 cups loosely packed parsley

• 1 tablespoon roasted garlic puree

• 1/4 cup vegetable or soy bean oil

• Salt and cracked black pepper

In a food processor, combine the walnuts, parsley and roasted garlic puree ( Photo 6 ), and pulse until coarsely chopped.

Drizzle in the oil until the sauce emulsifies. Season with salt and black pepper.

Transfer to a small bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Additional Information:

The Pines Tavern

Cuisine: American

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; dinner, 5-9 or 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays

Entree price range: $17-$29

Notes: Live jazz on the patio every Saturday night. Handicapped accessible. A wine dinner and a beer dinner offered each month. Suggested wine pairings with each entree. Major credit cards accepted.

Address: 5018 Bakerstown Road, Pine

Details: 724-625-3252 or Web site

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