Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chicken Cacciatore

I recently completed taking another Aprons cooking class at my local Publix supermarket - this time, it was the "Intermediate" course that follows the "Basics" one I attended last Spring. Although some of the recipes were repeated in this go-round (for example, handmade pasta and pizza dough), I was able to collect a few new ones for the Canteen, one of which (Chicken Cacciatore) has already been tried out for family consumption. My mom used to make a version of this during my childhood (her recipe came from my paternal grandmother) that featured olives in place of the mushrooms listed below. Since I'm not a fan of either olives or mushrooms, I omitted these two ingredients and threw in some capers instead. In place of jar tomato sauce, I was able to use leftover homemade sauce I'd had in the freezer since I made lasagna a few weeks back. The final result wasn't bad, hearty if not a bit heavy from all of the chicken fat that remains in the pot during the braise. If I were to do this again, I'd probably wait for one of our infrequent cool and dreary Florida winter days as the next occasion.

12 pieces of mixed white and dark meat chicken (since my cooking vessel was small, I used 4 thighs and 4 legs)
2 oz. olive oil
2 red bell peppers, seeded and julienned
2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and julienned
1 red onion, peeled and julienned
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
1 c. red wine
1 1/2 c. tomato sauce
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. fresh basil, picked from stem and torn
1 lb. penne pasta
Kosher salt and black pepper

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat a large saute pan or Dutch oven with a small amount of oil over medium-high heat until oil begins to smoke. Place chicken in pan and cook until golden brown on both sides. Add peppers, onions, garlic and mushrooms to the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes until vegetables soften slightly. Add red wine, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until liquid reduces by half. Add tomato sauce/dried herbs and simmer for approximately 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and lowering heat as needed to prevent burning.

While chicken is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in pasta and cook according to package instructions. Drain well and place on a serving platter. Remove chicken from pan, stir in fresh basil, and evenly distribute over pasta. Pour sauce from pot over chicken pieces and pasta.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

EPCOT Food & Wine Fest 2014

This past weekend marked our first-ever visit to the annual food and wine fest that the good folks at Disney put on every year at EPCOT, a two-month long fusion of international cuisine, abundant alcohol (provided by sponsors who are no doubt giddy over the prominent exposure), and mouse ears. Fortunately for us, having our annual resident passes meant we didn't have to pay the resort admission fee or parking charges, freeing up additional cash to be surrendered at the various event kiosks (of which there were many, ranging from Africa to South Korea and everything in between). Instead of toting around a large wad of bills or incurring multiple credit card swipes, the missus and I decided to follow the advice of another blogger and placed money on individual gift cards that were easily scanned whenever we chose to indulge in some country's tempting offerings. Although the lines were sometimes lengthy (often with entire groups of people in matching t-shirts exhibiting a variation on the "Disney Drinking Team" theme) and the sunlight intense (highs in the low 90s, warm in October even for Florida), the hard-working park staff kept things moving efficiently, making our experience a mostly-pleasant one (this would have likely been different had the kids been with us - I should note that we left them home with grandma). Below are some of the day's dining highlights:

The Patagonia kiosk was selling a nice, meaty slab of roasted salmon (courtesy of Verlasso, a sustainable farmed salmon provider based in Chile) topped with arugula chimichurri and garnished with a little quinoa salad.  We enjoyed this a bit better than the beef empanada from the stand and washed both down with a slightly-tart Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir Rose, a wine so nice that we picked up a couple of bottles from the festival center on our way out the next day (note - wine sales by the bottle at EPCOT are similar to duty-free in that you have to wait to pick up your wine package until you exit the park) .

A little further in, we came across the Farm Fresh kiosk and scored some Nueske's pepper bacon hash with sweet corn, potatoes, hollandaise sauce, and pickled jalapenos (which were a little on the potent side).  This dish was paired with a Key lime wine from St. Pete's own Florida Orange Groves Winery (this was just ok).

In honor of the now-shuttered Hot Doug's in Chicago, I had to try South Korea's kimchi dog with spicy mustard sauce. Although not a bargain at $4 for half a dog, this was a mighty tasty bite.

After reading that the Brazil kiosk (see above) was serving up crispy pork belly with black beans, tomato, and cilantro, I couldn't wait to get there. It was worth the long trek to the far reaches of the park (as was the Kaiser Xingu black beer we got with it).

Although I'm not normally a fan of escargot (its texture is too similar to mushrooms, in my humble opinion), we had to try France's tartlette aux escargots (escargot topped with garlic, spinach, and Parmesan in a crispy tart shell). One nibble reminded me why I steer clear of snails (luckily, I was able to cleanse my palate with some Kronenbourg beer, bringing me back to the days of my high school trip to France).

My experience at the Puerto Rico kiosk was much better as we snacked on yummy, chewy tostones (fried green plantain patties) with rosada sauce (mayo-ketchup) and a decadent flanchoco (vanilla caramel custard atop chocolate coffee cake) while listening to the rapid-fire sounds of live island percussion music.

Our final stop before we headed to the hotel for a pre-dinner respite was the Desserts & Champagne kiosk, featuring a trio of passion fruit coconut creamsicle, blueberry lime cheesecake roll, and chocolate espresso opera cake, plus a frozen s'mores slushy with toasted marshmallow syrup.

After wallowing in a shower and some air conditioning, Mrs. Hackknife and I made our way back over to EPCOT for the evening's dinner event, something called "Party for the Senses". This gala is held several times during the fest (always at the World Showplace Stage on Saturday night and almost always selling out) and features chefs from all over the country (many of whom are affiliated with Disney properties) preparing small plates of food in a carnival-like atmosphere. We arrived early enough to be herded into a holding pen with all of the other prompt patrons while the event staff finished prepping the room, during which time we saw the most distinguished of the guest chefs, Art Smith (of Table 52 and Top Chef Masters fame) mingling in the crowd with Chef Lorena Garcia (also of Top Chef Masters, but attending incognito rather than cooking). Once the curtain was lifted, there was an initial mad dash towards the stations that quickly spread out through the cavernous space - before long, everyone was able to comfortably approach all of the tables distributing nosh/drinks (although seating was hard to come by) and enjoy the musicians/acrobats of La Nouba Cirque de Soleil performing throughout the night.

How was the food, you ask? By and large, we were extremely satisfied with most of the offerings, which covered the gamut from soups (my favorite was the carrot bisque with ramps, anise hyssop, flax seed, watercress, and edible flowers from the Disney resort Golden Oak Club) to meats (the Berkshire pork belly with edamame hummus, smoked leek, blood orange, and cranberry marmalade from the Disney Grand Floridian put to shame the stuff we'd had earlier at the Brazil kiosk) to seafood (I especially liked the seared cobia with green papaya slaw and aji amarillo-mojo from Dominique's on Magazine in New Orleans) to killer desserts (the spumone tartufato, a creation of pistachio, toasted almond, and chocolate gelato with Italian meringue and Amarena cherries from Lincoln Ristorante in NYC was to die for). I sampled my first-ever Icelandic beer (Einstok Toasted Porter) and also sipped some wonderful sparkling apple ice wine (Neige Bubble) from Quebec. After about 2 hours of snacking and drinking, we had pretty much laid waste to the place and decided to call it a day so we could rest up for tomorrow morning's brunch event.

Although there were times on Sunday morning where I was pretty sure I'd never need to eat again, I managed to rally in time to enjoy the nice brunch provided to us courtesy of Chef Warren Brown, a former Food Network personality who now runs his own baking company in Washington, D.C. Chef Brown (see above) has degrees in law and public health, but eventually heeded the call of the kitchen and learned the pastry business (his venture, CakeLove, is well-known locally for its high-end desserts and is in the process of expanding into other regions of the country). Brunch guests dined on croissants, fruit, sun-dried tomato quiche, chicken breast in lobster cream sauce, and asparagus while the chef conducted a baking demo of some of his most heralded creations, like the salty caramel cake in a jar (which we'd had at the gala last night) and cake icing bite that you see below.

Chef B also makes delicious scones (we tried a ginger-pecan variety) and some of the best cookies I'd ever tasted, a black pepper and chocolate crinkle version that perfectly straddled the line between sweet, bitter, and spice (I now have the cookie recipe and, if I get brave enough, I may attempt to make these in the Canteen sometime).

Overall, I'd say our inaugural experience with the EPCOT Food and Wine Fest was pretty positive and, although it was on the expensive side (it would be even more so in future years without our annual passes), we'll have to strongly consider return visits every year as long as we're living in Florida...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cuban Breezes

In Chicago, we're used to being able to find a hot dog stand or Italian beef joint on just about every other corner.  The nearest Tampa equivalent is the Cuban restaurant, which, while not exactly ubiquitous, is frequent enough down here that you can eat ropa vieja (shredded skirt steak in tomato sauce) or lechon asado (pulled pork in mojo sauce) every meal if that's your jam.  There happens to be such a restaurant called Cuban Breezes located within a 10-minute drive of the Canteen - I first saw it when stopping in for halo halo ice cream at my favorite local Philippine grocery (it's in the same strip mall) and made a mental note to stop in for lunch one day.  Several months passed and I finally got the chance to drop in on a random Friday.  I was initially surprised to see that it wasn't simply a take-out counter, rather a small restaurant masquerading as a Florida State sports bar.  They seem to get a healthy lunchtime crowd from nearby businesses - I was fortunate enough to get a booth before most of the seating filled up.  The menu contains an enticing mix of traditional Cuban standbys (such as the frita cubana, a burger made from both beef and chorizo) and a few odder-looking items (such as a turkey cuban sandwich, something I suspect you'd have trouble finding in Cuba).  I ended up ordering a papa rellena (a deep-fried potato ball stuffed with seasoned ground beef) for starters and a pan con lechon (roast pork sandwich with onions and guava bbq sauce) with black beans/rice to go with it.  My opinion of both dishes was similar - the papa rellena alternated between tasty bites and those that seemed a bit freezer-burned (the house "Havana sauce", a sort-of cross between mayo and ranch dressing that gets provided with just about every dish, didn't really help much), while the sandwich had a Sloppy Joe quality to it that wasn't entirely pleasant.  I had the chance to make a return visit the following week when I met up with some Cub Scout leaders for a planning lunch and opted for the traditional Cuban sandwich this time.  While decent, the house Cuban somewhat paled in comparison to my favorite version in town (the one from El Truck Del Rincon Criollo) and was actually diminished by the side plate of tostones (smashed fried plantain patties with garlic) I tried, which were on the dry side.  Clearly, there's enough other quality Cuban food in the Tampa Bay area that I can pass over Cuban Breezes next time unless I'm watching a Seminoles game...

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Chattaway

Yesterday was apparently National Cheeseburger Day - that seems appropriate since I was planning to post about one of the better cheeseburgers I've had to date in the Greater Tampa Bay area, recently devoured at an historic diner in St. Petersburg called The Chattaway.  First, a little background - TC showed up on my radar screen last year during one of my regular good eats research excursions on the web.  Being both casual and offering burgers/hot dogs (i.e., kid friendly), I nearly made the 40-minute drive over there from the Canteen with the progeny a number of times this past summer, but for one reason or another, plans never materialized.  Then, I got word just last month that Garden and Gun Magazine (my favorite publication name in the whole universe) named TC as one of two places in town (El Cap in St. Pete being the other) on its Best Burgers in the South list.  With upcoming Sunday tickets to an early afternoon Rays game in hand, I now had a preponderance of reasons to show up for lunch with the whole family.  Conveniently located in South St. Pete (328 22nd Ave. S, to be exact) a mere 5 minutes from Tropicana Field, TC certainly looks like it's been there a long time, which it definitely has (since 1921).  The building began as a corner grocery also selling gasoline to local Model T drivers, eventually morphing into a drive-in sometime around the Depression.  The property has changed hands a number of times, but it's still a neighborhood favorite (although the neighborhood has changed a bit - old bathtubs filled with cement now provide a barrier between reckless/impaired drivers careening down 4th Avenue and the sidewalk) and still family-owned.  As you walk from the dusty parking lot through the tiki bar-like patio, you'll be shocked to enter a quiet and semi-dignified dining room, unexpectedly decorated in the manner of an English tea salon (the owner's daughter told us that her homesick British mum decided about 5 years ago that a makeover was needed, trading beer signs for portraits of the queen).  While you might be able to get crumpets and cake on occasion, the main reason for driving here across town is for the burgers - the original CheeseChattaburger features a nice grilled slab of beef topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, relish, ketchup, mustard, and mayo, all atop a bakery roll.  My vote on sides goes to the golden fried onion rings as opposed to the run-of-the-mill french fries, but, in either case, the house burger is worthy alone to justify your journey (leave your gun and garden at home)...

Monday, September 15, 2014


If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you may recall seeing my dispatches from New Orleans back in May 2011; if so, you'll probably remember that we spent most of the weekend in a po-boy and oyster-fueled digestive stupor. You can understand, then, how excited I was when I heard that the Datz for Foodies (already one of our favorite eateries in town) people were planning to open a second restaurant in South Tampa, this one entirely focused on what they describe as "creole nouvelle" or New Creole cuisine. Setting up shop in the old Wimauma space at 4205 S. MacDill, Roux is a celebration of all things New Orleans gastronomy, with a dash of modern fusion thrown in (for example, the menu includes a ramen dish and a Southern take on the now-ubiquitous charcuterie plate). When the missus and I secured a sitter at the last minute to celebrate our anniversary, I was able to get us a table at Roux despite the fact that they'd just opened two weeks before and were still awash in the resulting buzz. After scrutinizing the menu while sipping pre-meal drinks (an Old Fashioned for Mrs. Hackknife and a rather stiff Sazerac for me) and discovering that we simply wanted just one of everything, we winnowed it down to a half-dozen hay-smoked oysters (served with provencal butter and slabs of grilled Leidenheimer french bread straight from the bakery on Simon Bolivar Ave. in New Orleans) that would have made Rene Redzepi (a hay smoke pioneer) proud. Things got even better when the entrees arrived at the table - Mrs. Hackknife ordered a spectacular Crawfish Monique a la Roux (angel hair pasta topped with tasso ham, Louisiana crawfish meat, a creamy Sauce Monique, and shaved botargo, a nice little Floridian flourish), while I settled in to my two crispy beer-battered quail, each split in half and plopped onto a sweet potato waffle with a Barq's Root Beer reduction (standing in for maple syrup), spicy praline pecans, and a mayhaw coulis (mayhaw is a Southern swamp fruit often used to make jelly). Even though it's often difficult to get much meat off of the small birds (and this was no exception), Roux's version of chicken-and-waffles filtered through a New Orleans lens really hit the mark. Although we were stuffed by now, our waiter managed to convince us that we'd be sinning if we passed on the house bread pudding (served in a cast iron skillet with a small carafe of caramel sauce - I'm sure there was no butter in that), and he was absolutely right. By the looks of it, Datz Inc. has another hit on their hands (by the time we left, the restaurant was overflowing with Saturday evening revelers) and Tampa is starting to embrace a wonderful place where les bons temps rouler all the time...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

California Tacos To Go

I've lived in Florida for about 18 months now, and I've met people who relocated here from the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, Texas, Cuba, even England, but not so many from California (why move from a sunshine state to another sunshine state, unless you want to trade earthquakes for hurricanes?). Still, someone felt there was a market for San Diego-style fish tacos that was being underserved in the Tampa Bay area; this is the enigma that is California Tacos To Go. Tucked away on a busy and utilitarian curve of Bearss Road just east of I-275 (where it intersects with Skipper Road), I would have never even known to seek this place out had it not been for Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives show stopped in a couple of years back so he could indulge in the house specialty, fried grouper tacos. I happened to be in the neighborhood running errands one day and decided to stop in for lunch, ordering two grouper tacos, a set of 3 San Diego "rolled tacos" filled with chicken, and a horchata to wash it all down. Each fish taco comes with a double corn tortilla (better to hold all the fillings, I suppose) and includes a healthy helping of tasty tempura-battered grouper, crunchy fresh cabbage, a tangy white sauce (mayo, yogurt, lime juice, salt, Mexican oregano, cumin, dill, capers, and arbol chiles), and pico de gallo, plus sour cream, guacamole, and shredded cheese as add-ons (I asked the girl to hold these last three, but she included them anyway - guess she liked my charm).  Sitting outside (there is no indoor dining room) on a warm Florida morning indulging in these beautiful tacos and listening to the surf (or was that the whoosh of a garbage truck?), I almost felt like I was on a California beach.  The rolled tacos weren't much to speak of (they were deep-fried, almost like flautas, and piled sloppy high with guac and cheese) and there are other intriguing items on the menu (like burritos with fries inside in lieu of rice/beans, deemed "California-style"), but I'm quite sure it's the fish tacos that will bring me back (you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave...)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

NYC Day #4 - Russ & Daughters Cafe/Shake Shack

On the final day of my trip to New York City, I deliberately scheduled my return flight to Tampa for later in the afternoon so that I'd have time work in two meals (ok, three maybe) before heading to the airport. With Mrs. Hackknife now attending to work obligations, I was free to wander the city on my own a bit in the hopes of crossing a few more food items off my hit list. My plan was to leave our hotel early and take the subway over to Brooklyn for breakfast at Pok Pok, Chef Andy Richer's interpretation of Thai street cuisine that's taken both coasts of America by storm. I'd read that Pok Pok had begun serving light breakfast items in May of this year, however, I'd somehow missed the subsequent news that this morning service was discontinued shortly thereafter (presumably due to insufficient customer traffic), a fact I didn't discover until I'd hauled myself all the way over to Brooklyn and found the shop locked up tight, chairs on tables and sous chefs moving product from the curb into the basement storeroom. Disappointed yet undaunted, I headed back past the quiet brownstones to the subway stop and returned to the lower east side of Manhattan, where my original second stop (now my first) awaited - Russ & Daughters Cafe, located at 127 Orchard Street smack in the middle of the historic former tenement community that housed so many Jewish immigrants back around the turn of the 20th Century.  When I swung down Orchard, most of the storefronts were still dark and closed (did I screw up again?), but I soon found the cafe's inviting blue awning and headed inside.

The famous Russ & Daughters deli opened in 1914 and is still in operation a few blocks away from here, but while the deli is usually barely controlled chaos of order shouters and takers, the newly-open cafe is a calm oasis where diners can leisurely sample R&D's finest smoked fish. Given that I'd missed my first breakfast, I compensated by ordering two dishes, namely the Shtetl (smoked sable, goat cream cheese, fresh bagel, sliced tomato, red onion, and capers) and a side of their famous whitefish salad (topped with dill, celery, and capers), all of which was phenomenal and making me pine for any kind of Jewish immigrant food in west-central Florida (now if we lived in Miami...).

Feeling re-energized, I mulled over a possible visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before settling instead on a side trip to the new Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island (which, I determined, is largely devoid of any kind of distinctive food). By this time, I needed to start making my way back towards Midtown to meet Mrs. Hackknife for lunch at the one remaining NYC fast food joint I'd been itching to try, Shake Shack. Started by restaurant impresario Danny Meyer, SS is a high-quality take on the casual cheeseburger, created with love and paired with things like crinkle cut fries (my personal favorite) and homemade frozen custard. The lines at the original Madison Square Park location became legendarily long; since then, Mr. Meyer has expanded SS across Manhattan, into other states (we recently got one as close as Orlando), and even internationally with no apparent end in sight to the demand. I can now speak from experience that the line at noon on a Monday in the Theater District (8th and 44th) is pretty bad, but the restaurant staff moves everyone along quickly and I had my order within 15 minutes. I decided to dispense with the fancy options and kept it very simple: the single ShackBurger (cheese, bright green leaf lettuce, tomato, and Shake Sauce, a blend of mayo, ketchup, mustard, chopped pickles, and a few unnamed spices), plain fries, and traditional chocolate shake.

Immediately after Bite #1, I realized this was not your average fast food burger - the beef was the perfect mix of lean and fat, the toppings all fresh, and the bun (a Martin's Potato Roll, I later found out, the very same as we eat here in the Canteen) nicely toasted. With the possible exception of In N' Out Burger on the West Coast, I can safely say that you'll have a hard time identifying a better cheeseburger out there (in case you're wondering, both the fries and the shake were also tough to beat). I'm now strategizing my campaign to get a Shake Shack to open in the greater Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater region and am seeking volunteers to help stuff envelopes.

One last item of note before I wrap up this 4-day posting extravaganza - after our Sunday dessert stop at Momofuku Milk Bar, our local friends brought us by Zabar's, one of NYC's most famous gourmet grocery stores that just happened to be in their neighborhood at Broadway and 80th. Zabar's has been supplying the masses on the upper west side since 1934 and is known for many things, including this wall of cheese that confronts you as soon as you walk in the front door (and nearly made me break out in tears):

Our primary interest in stopping by was to find some traditional black and white cookies for the progeny - according to Adam, Zabar's makes some of the best.  They were a little pricey at $7.98 a dozen, but we found them to be quite worth it.  These cookies (which are actually more like little frosted cakes, soft instead of crunchy) are unique to NYC (they even figure prominently in an episode of Seinfeld) and have something of an unknown provenance; however, all I know is that when my kids actually like a food item we bring home from a trip, it has to be pretty special...