It’s a good week.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this week for the past six months, and I am glad to say that after all of my (im)patient waiting — baseball is back, specifically Pirates baseball.

There’s nothing like baseball. It’s the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the cloud of dust that erupts with every slide, and last, but certainly not least in my mind, ballpark food.

Ballpark food is such an exciting mystery for me. What I mean by that is if I were to get that food practically anywhere else in the world, I most assuredly would not be impressed. However, put me in the stands of a Major League ballpark, and there’s no food that I would rather have dancing on my palate.

So what is this magical ballpark food that I speak of? Buckle up, here’s my list of essential stadium food: hot dogs, nachos, pizza, chicken wings, peanuts, pretzels, Cracker Jack, cotton candy, ice cream, and of course a soda and/or a beer.

I know that’s quite a list, but let me be clear by saying that most people will not have the stomach space or the fortitude to eat that entire list during one baseball game. The key is to prioritize the above list so that you make sure you get your favorite treats in before you are either too full for more or the nine innings are up.

On “Just Cook It Radio” this past Saturday, I made my version of the stadium hot dog, and I would like to discuss it further for a couple of reasons.

First, I am excited to say that I received a lot of positive feedback and emails from last week’s column where I discussed how I eat and gave a couple tips on how to eat a bit healthier without sacrificing the foods you love. That being said, I think it is appropriate to discuss my fun version of the stadium hot dog, which also happens to be a bit healthier than your average stadium dog.

Second, I feel that everyone (whether you make it to a ballpark or not) deserves to enjoy a delicious and wonderful hot dog during baseball’s Opening Week. To not do so would almost be un-American in my mind.

Obviously the most important part of a delicious stadium hot dog is the hot dog itself. Just to cover all my bases (pun intended), I’m going to define what a hot dog is for everyone. A hot dog is a cooked sausage, traditionally grilled or steamed and served in a sliced bun as a sandwich.

I know that we are all very familiar with hot dogs, but I’ll bet you never thought of a hot dog as technically being a sausage sandwich.

Hot dogs were culturally imported from Germany and popularized in the United States as a working class street food sold at hot dog stands. Hot dogs eventually came to be most commonly associated with America and baseball.

When you order a dog at the ballpark, you really have no choice over what actual brand/type of hot dog you get to enjoy. Let me state for the record that I’m fine with this. Unfortunately, I don’t make it to the ballpark every day, so a regular ballpark dog here and there shouldn’t cause any serious health issues.

The hot dogs that you enjoy at the ballpark or at a backyard barbecue are most likely cured hot dogs. Cured hot dogs are the norm and most likely what you are used to eating.

A cured hot dog is preserved with nitrates and nitrites. The artifical nitrates and nitrites are used to prevent the meat from spoiling and also to enhance the flavor, color and smell of the hot dog.

The issue here is that, according to many health sources, artificial nitrates and nitrites can be detrimental to our health. The Mayo Clinic tells us that sodium nitrate may damage blood vessels making arteries harden and more likely to narrow leading to heart disease. They also tell us that nitrates may also affect the way the human body uses sugar making it more likely to develop diabetes. Various other studies also show that artificial nitrates and nitrites can be become carcinogenic when being digested.

So what should you do? You’ve probably been eating hot dogs your entire life, and yes I know that in certain situations you may think that ignorance is bliss. Don’t fret, I have a hot dog solution.

When I make hot dogs at home I always opt for the uncured variety. You can actually find uncured hot dogs at most local supermarkets if you know to look for them.

Uncured hot dogs do not contain artificial nitrates or nitrites. The meat in an uncured hot dog is preserved with celery juice or celery powder, which happen to be a naturally occurring source of nitrates.

Uncured hot dogs, like cured hot dogs, are fully cooked and should be prepared the same way. The one thing to remember with uncured hot dogs is to keep them refrigerated until you are ready to use them since they contain no artificial preservatives.

I know what you’re thinking and allow me to put this question to rest right now – uncured hot dogs taste identical to the cured variety that you have come to know and love. In a blind taste test, trust me, you would have no idea if either or any of them were cured or uncured hot dogs. The difference is in the way they are preserved, whether it is with natural or artificial ingredients.

My tip of the day: when a natural or artificial ingredient is the difference, ALWAYS go the natural route.

Keep in mind that even though it is generally healthier to use uncured hot dogs, it’s still a hot dog that you’re eating. That means that it is still most likely the higher end of the scale when it comes to fat and sodium. That being said, I recommend thoroughly enjoying hot dogs – just not on a consistent or regular basis. Allow them to be the game day or special occasion treat that they are meant to be.

Now back to my stadium hot dog. I like to butterfly my hot dog before either grilling or butter roasting on a griddle. You butterfly a hot dog by cutting each wiener lengthwise from top to bottom and being sure not to cut all the way through. The hot dog will then open up or lay flat slightly resembling the shape of butterfly wings.

I do this because it not only helps the hot dog to cook faster but it also creates more surface area, which allows for more delicious char or caramelization. I love the flavor and texture that some char adds to my hot dog.

As far as toppings go, you pretty much use anything on your hot dog. The key is to make it a combination that you personally enjoy. I always recommend trying new and even odd sounding toppings and combinations and maybe you’ll discover the next big thing.

You can see what I top my stadium hot dog with and get the full recipe at my website: www.JustCookIt.net.

Watch some Bucco baseball and enjoy a hot dog and cold soda or beer while you root on the home team. Isn’t great seeing spring back and to – Just Cook It!

Mario J. Porreca of Belle Vernon is a food personality, author, and the host of Just Cook It on WMBS Radio 590 AM. His website is www.JustCookIt.net. Twitter: @MarioPorreca

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