Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Xmas Eve Dishes

In case you haven't noticed, I've been on extended hiatus from the blog the past few weeks owing to a Disney World trip, holiday prep/obligations, and myriad illnesses affecting the residents of the Commissary. With all of that finally behind us, it's time to sneak in one more posting for 2010 before we flip the calendar and begin a new year of culinary escapades. I was hoping to bring back from Florida enough foodie material for a report; however, the trip was noteworthy only for its extreme cold temperatures (three straight days of record lows, probably not what the local Chamber of Commerce had in mind when they beckoned us) and relatively unremarkable cuisine (truth be told, we did have a couple of good meals while staying at the resort, but nothing that would really warrant mention here).

As a result, we're going to focus on the dishes I put together to take to the annual Xmas Eve gathering at Mrs. Hackknife's parents' place. This year, I volunteered to do 2 appetizers and 1 dessert. I've been making a seafood-based appetizer on Xmas Eve for the last few years to establish a little connection to my Italian heritage, that is, a very small nod to "La Festa di Sette Pesci" or "The Feast of the Seven Fishes", which is a tradition in some parts of Italy on Xmas Eve. Being a mostly Catholic country, good Italian Catholics would abstain from eating meat that night, instead opting for a series of fish dishes (7, or 9, or 11, depending on the family or region). Once I heard about this tradition (completely unaware that my Dad's relatives in Ohio had been doing just this same thing for many years), I thought I'd try to follow suit with at least one fish dish to bring to my in-laws. Anyway, for this year, I found a couple of good candidate recipes, namely taramasalata (carp roe dip) and anchovies in green sauce, the former being traditionally Greek, the latter more Northern Italian, or Occitan (sort of French-Italian Alpine) to be exact.

Mrs. Hackknife loves taramasalata - we get it almost every time we dine at a Greek restaurant. I discovered that it's basically peasant food, consisting of day-old bread, onion, olive oil, lemon juice, and whatever roe or fish eggs are left over from the local fisherman's haul. Maybe unsurprisingly, the trickiest part was finding the roe (I opted to use cod roe, not for any particular reason other than I misread the word "carp" in the recipe as "cod"). After coming away empty-handed from several ethnic grocery stores in the Southwest Suburbs, I gave up and bought it online from a Russian food products company in Manhattan called Moscow on the Hudson. Given the clipped-English emails I received confirming my order, I surmised that this was no doubt a front for the Russian mafia doing God knows what with the profits from my cod roe. In any case, I did receive a nice package with the requested merchandise ($3.99 for the jar of goods, $10.31 for the shipping), at least I think it's what I requested, although I can't really verify since the label is in Cyrillic. It certainly tastes like fish eggs.

Getting back to the matter at hand, once I got the roe, the rest was easy. Mix chopped up wet white bread into food processor along with chopped onion and cod roe, mix in olive oil and lemon juice, adjust seasonings (in our case, 2 extra Tbsp. of roe) and coloring (a wee bit of red food dye to give it the usual pinkish hue) and voila! We had a nice bread/cracker dip that went over well at the party and is still being enjoyed at the Commissary at the time of this writing. Here's the recipe: taramasalata recipe.

Moving on to the anchovies in green sauce, it was considerably easier to procure the necessary ingredients. The deli at my local ethnic grocery has large cans of salt-packed anchovies, which are recommended for this recipe. In order to remove the illness-inducing level of salt on them, Michael Ruhlman recommends soaking them in milk for 30 minutes before rinsing them under water - I did this and it seemed to work pretty well. To finish the anchovy prep, I simply had to butterfly them with a small paring knife and pull out the backbone, which came out relatively easily. The only other tricky step was creating the hard-boiled egg yolks. Before you raise a question mark, please know that other than Easter, I've never hard-boiled eggs before (not a big fan of the taste), so Mrs. Hackknife had to help me w/this part (it's ok to snicker now). Layer the anchovies with a mixture of olive oil, white wine vinegar, chili flakes, parsley, basil, salt, garlic, and the egg yolks, let it rest for an hour, and we're there. At first, it's a little aggressive, but mellows out once everything settles. Again, crackers or bread go with it: anchovies with green sauce.

Last but not least comes dessert. After considering various Xmas cookies and cakes, I settled on a very traditional English holiday dessert: the trifle. For those of you unfamiliar, a trifle involves the layering of cake, fruit, custard or pudding, and whipped cream, sometimes with liquor, sometimes not, but it can come in about a million different versions. My December issue of Saveur featured a nice one on the cover containing homemade ginger cake, custard, sherry, and kirsch (cherry liqueur) - it looked great (in fact, dramatic presentation is part of the trifle wow factor). This version, however, was a little ambitious for my liking. Surely there's an easier trifle recipe out there for the half-assed amongst us, no? Of course, the answer is yes, and I found it here: chocolate banana berry trifle, which included Cool Whip, packaged brownie mix, instant pudding, and toffee bars (we don't always have to be gourmet here, do we?). I'm sure that a fully-made-from-scratch one would taste better and I didn't exactly have the right serving dish for it (it came out a little lopsided), but the partygoers enjoyed it and it was perfectly adequate (if not a bit gloppy) for leftovers.

Happy holidays and New Year to you and yours.....

Thursday, December 9, 2010

End of Spring

Before I begin this latest posting, I received a shot across the bow from my doctor yesterday - apparently, having a food blog (or perhaps more specifically, the act of gathering suitable material for the food blog) may be somewhat hazardous to your health. After my annual physical earlier this week, the good doc informed me that I've experienced a sizable bump-up in my cholesterol from my last physical in 2009 - 183 to 200, which isn't necessarily a concern per se (200 is right at the borderline between good and marginal); however, he wasn't crazy about the trend, so moving forward I'll have to enact some basic austerity measures to make sure that I'll be around to annoy you with my culinary blogging for many years to come. This means more exercise (and fewer excuses), more vegetables, smaller portions, etc., but I've no intention whatsoever of completely curtailing my explorations of the food megasphere, just acting more monkish during those in-between times.

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's today's post. Last month, I got word that one of the more heralded restaurants in town over the past decade (by the name of Spring) was slated to close after New Year's Eve this year. Chef Shawn McClain opened the restaurant in 2001 and racked up a large number of accolades for his seafood-with-an-Asian-flair menu. He later went on to open Green Zebra (widely regarded as the best vegetarian joint in Chicago), Custom House (one of our many steakhouses), and Sage (a joint partnership in Las Vegas at the new Aria CityCenter). In the meantime, things began going south with his financial partners at Spring, and with the lease expiring at the close of 2010, he announced that the time was right to close up shop and move on. Fortunately for us (the diners), he decided to keep serving up through the end of the year a sort-of "greatest hits" selection of dishes from the past decade to end on a high note. Having never had the pleasure of dining there, it was an easy sell to Mrs. Hackknife to snag us a reservation a few short weeks before Spring disappeared from the local dining scene.

We arrived for our reservation at 6pm this past Sunday night and found the place nearly deserted except for the waitstaff - other than us, there was one guy at the bar and one couple seated in the restaurant. I remember sitting alone at our table (Mrs. Hackknife went to powder her nose) looking at the elegant, yet empty restaurant, listening to the somewhat-morose electronica on the soundsystem, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the setting was very funeral-ish (if that's not a word, I think I just invented it). Fortunately, other diners began to show and the place filled up rather rapidly (also livening up the vibe quite a bit). We decided to do the wine pairing with the greatest-hits prix fixe menu, putting the total price for the 4-course meal at $85/head (a pretty good deal for fine dining in Bucktown). The waiter brought our an amuse bouche to get us going - a ceramic spoon filled with tuna tartare and hazelnut in a parsley pesto sauce. This was very good; however, the crunchy flatbread with white bean/olive oil spread that appeared afterwards wasn't so great in my opinion. That would prove to be the only sour note of the meal as we then began to receive our main courses.

First up for me was a potato and seared scallop "ravioli" (in quotes because the ingredients were molded together in the shape of a ravioli filling without a pasta covering) with mushroom-black truffle reduction (yes, I did eat most of the mushrooms and no, I didn't grimace) paired with a glass of Cava (i.e., Spanish sparkling wine) - it was delicious, and so was Mrs. Hackknife's tuna sashimi. Our second course was also a big hit: kabocha squash and apple soup w/pickled ginger and croquettes (paired with a Pinot Gris) for me and lemongrass and coconut soup (paired with a St. Urban Hof off-dry Riesling) for my lovely wife. If it were socially acceptable for me to lick the bowl, I would have done so. Third up for me was an amazing black bean-glazed cod filet (see photo above) with a scallion and peekytoe crab pancake in a carrot-sesame sauce (paired with the same Riesling as Mrs. Hackknife's soup). My wife was also very happy with her Icelandic halibut on top of parmesan risotto with winter truffle and braised white asparagus. Starting to feel severe diner's remorse for not having eaten here earlier in the decade, we closed out the meal with a white chocolate dome on peppermint bark and chocolate creameux (I looked up "creameux" and it appears to be nothing more than a snooty dessert term) paired with a nice Moscato d'Asti from Italy and a five-spice panna cotta in an apple cider gelee with a spiced brioche doughnut paired with a Rhone red blend.

As this outstanding culinary journey concluded with the arrival of the check, there was no overcoming the steely glare across the table from Mrs. Hackknife, as in "Why did you bring me here for the first time only three weeks before they close?" and "How on Earth are we ever going to make arrangements to eat here 6 more times before Dec. 31?". Alas, our best (yeah, only) option might be to check out Mr. McClain's other restaurants before they vanish into the mists of time.....

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Trial Thanksgiving Dishes - Part 2

I was perfectly content to make your usual, bland, industrial crescents-in-a-tube as my dinner roll for the in-law's Thanksgiving meal. Then my latest issue of Saveur showed up (featuring Thanksgiving dishes, bless their little hearts), and in it I find an article on Tom Colicchio's Parker House dinner rolls (as a Top Chef fan, I must admit I can hardly resist anything with Chef C's brand attached to it). Of course, the article makes the rolls sound so sexy and irresistible (as magazine articles are designed to do), that I decide, what the heck, I'll try them.

Lucky for me, I had the foresight to do a dress rehearsal batch on Monday before unleashing them on the unsuspecting relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. My first challenge was finding one of the ingredients: barley malt syrup. According to TC, this sweetener lends "caramel and molasses undertones to the flavor of the bread". Unfortunately, unless you happen to have a brewery in your basement, it's a little hard to find, and mail order 3 days before the holiday simply wasn't an option. I did find dark corn syrup, which is listed in the recipe as an alternative, so that would have to do.

The next challenge was heating up milk to 115F, which is the activation temperature of active dry yeast. I was able to use my deep fry thermometer in a saucepan to get the milk temp as close as I could, then dumped it in to the yeast-corn syrup mixture. After about 10 minutes, it was supposed to get "foamy", although my starter didn't get more than just remotely effervescent (I should have taken this to be the first sign of potential trouble). The next tripping point came during dough kneading as the article states to mix the dough only "until it's tacky to the touch but not sticking to your fingers", lest you generate too much gluten from rough handling (this is desirable when making pasta, but not for soft dinner rolls). My dough became smooth after only about 2-3 minutes of kneading, much less than the 5-6 minutes cited in the recipe. To stay on recipe, I went for an extra minute or two, but this may have been detrimental to the final product as we'll see soon.

After letting the dough rise for the instructed time period (about 1 hour and 45 minutes), I rolled out the balls and put them in a greased 9" metal round baking pan (I didn't have an 8" cast iron skillet, nor an 8"x8" baking pan). I didn't think that dish size/shape would make much difference; however, once put in the oven, the dough balls neither rose much nor browned much, ending up mostly lumpen in appearance (hardtack, anyone?). So where did I go wrong? Milk temp? Too much kneading? Wrong pan? Any combo of the above? We'll probably never know, although my money is probably on #1 and #3. I'll forever be more careful in selecting the right equipment for baking recipes, especially after reading a recent Wall Street Journal article demonstrating how little variations in pan size and even the type of salt used can have drastically different results when cooking or baking.

For the adventurous among you, here's a link to the recipe: Parker House Rolls (Editor's note: after reading several reviews posted to the recipe site, apparently almost everyone had trouble making this work, so perhaps the recipe is wrong to begin with. I feel so less dopey.....)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trial Thanksgiving Dishes - Part 1

With Thanksgiving looming on the horizon and an invite from Mrs. Hackknife's parents to partake in holiday dinner at their place, I wanted to prepare a few dishes to help ease the effort on my mother-in-law. I decided on the traditional green bean casserole (so traditional, in fact, it barely rates mentioning in this post), plus a chocolate pecan chunk pie (which we've made here in the Commissary a few times before and will eventually describe in a posting) and some kind of dinner rolls. Then the infamous farm box arrived with (among other things) a large bag of fresh whole cranberries and 6 large sweet potatoes. Now, I'd already been warned not to bother with making either sweet potato casserole or cranberry sauce as my father-in-law prefers the canned kind of both, but without really any other options for this fine produce, I posited that the dinner guests could always use more cranberry sauce and possibly another pie, perhaps sweet potato (recognizing, of course, that Thanksgiving is nothing if not the holiday of culinary excess).

First up was the cranberry sauce, following a recipe found in Joy of Cooking (they call it "relish"). This was actually remarkably simple, not unlike making compote in the respect that you're basically heating up fruit in a pan on the stove with sugar and liquid. Here's the recipe:

Combine in a large skillet:

1 lb. cranberries, picked over (I took this to mean take out the crappy-looking ones)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tsp. grated orange zest

Cook uncovered over medium heat until most of the cranberries pop open (yes, they do actually pop, perhaps not as violently as popcorn) and the mixture is somewhat thickened (sort of a subjective measure here), 7 to 10 minutes (I think I did closer to 15). If desired, add 1/2 cup of slivered blanched almonds (I did not desire). Let cool and serve or refrigerate for up to 1 day.

That's it, and it was a big hit with everyone at dinner (except my father-in-law, who poignantly declined to have any). Plus, we found that the sauce also works well as a sweet topping on toast, vanilla ice cream, etc., although if you're partial to acid reflux (which I am becoming increasing so as I plod along through middle age), you may want to enjoy in small doses since the berries are pretty acidic.

Next up was the sweet potato pie (allegedly a Southern delicacy). Again, the Joy of Cooking recipe is pretty straightforward, similar to pumpkin with pureed sweet potato in place of the pureed pumpkin:

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 400F. Make a pie crust (or wimp out like me and use a Keebler pre-fab crust). Take 2 lb. of sweet potatoes and peel deeply, removing both the skin and the pale, fibrous layer beneath it. Cut crosswise into 1-inch chunks and steam in a basket over boiling water until very tender, about 20 minutes. Puree in a food processor.

Whisk together thoroughly in a medium bowl:

4 large eggs
1/2 c. sugar.

Whisk in 1 1/2 c. of sweet potato puree, then whisk in:

1 c. light cream or evaporated milk, or 1/2 milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
4 tsp. strained lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. freshly grated or ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt

Warm pie crust in the oven until hot to the touch (about 3 min.). Pour in the filling and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325F and bake until the center of the filling seems set, but quivery, like gelatin, when the pan is nudged, about 20 minutes more. Let cool completely on a rack, then refrigerate for up to 1 day. Serve at room temperature or warm w/whipped cream.

Again, the final product was a hit without a whole heck of a lot of effort. There was, however, one dish attempted that didn't do so well, that is, the dinner rolls. More on that in Part 2.....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beer & Bacon Day

Back when we attended our underground dinner this past June (see earlier posting), Mrs. Hackknife and I were clued in to a little foodie secret: there's a bar in town (Paddy Long's, 1028 W. Diversey) conducting a beer and bacon tasting. Yes, that's can actually pay someone to give you five different bacons paired with five different beers. What's more, we were able to get a discount on the tasting via a Living Social deal (only $20 per person versus $35 at full price). Having secured our discounted date w/pork and barley, we anxiously awaited the evening of our reservation, which finally arrived a week ago Saturday. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself as there were other noteworthy encounters with the two products of honor that day. Let me explain....

Those of you who are frequent readers may recall that I've got a side initiative going on this year where my brother-in-law Dan, cousin-in-law Bobby, and I have been trying to tour and sample the wares of as many local breweries as possible. Having already visited Three Floyds' in Munster and Two Brothers in Warrenville, we scheduled sort of an impromptu tour to Revolution Brewing (a relatively new microbrewery located at 2323 N. Milwaukee) the same afternoon as the tasting at Paddy Long's. With our tour starting at noon and the beer/bacon tasting at 7, I somehow managed to convince Mrs. Hackknife that it would make the most sense for me to simply stay in the city until our tasting and just meet up with her later. Seeing before me a long day of alcohol/bar food consumption, I felt the need to fortify myself with a good breakfast, including homemade pancakes and turkey bacon ("Are you insane? We're having bacon for dinner!" Mrs. Hackknife helpfully noted, but turkey bacon doesn't really count, right?). After meeting up with the boys and with a cold Cross of Gold golden ale in hand, we received the grand tour of Revolution Brewing's operations. The production area itself was pretty small and the tour pretty laid back, but what they lack in space/pretension, they make up for in beer quality. All 3 beers I sampled there that afternoon (the Scottish ale and a Belgian dubbel fermented w/unrefined Mexican sugar by the name of El Clavo y La Cruz were the other two) were mighty tasty, as was the pepper and egg pizza (poblano cream sauce, baby red potato, red pepper, jalapeno, mozzarella cheese, and scrambled egg, with bacon added for a buck, of course) they helped me wash down. The only black mark on the visit was having to watch my beloved Boilermakers cough up a 28-13 4th quarter lead in E. Lansing to No. 11 Michigan State, eventually succumbing 35-31, but I suppose I can't hold the brewery responsible for the football team's shortcomings this season (sigh).

Feeling the need for a venue change and a twinge of nostalgia, we headed into Bucktown towards Dan's old condo and a favorite nearby watering hole from days past: Piece (1927 W. North), a great microbrew joint and New Haven-style-thin-crust pizzeria where we have spent many good times (including Dan's bachelor party). The restaurant is part owned by the guys from Cheap Trick, which might help explain the emphasis on beer/pizza. I decided to stick with a strict liquid diet this time, choosing a rye ale called Worryin' Ale. It was good, but Bobby's Wingnut IPA was definitely better (and this from someone who doesn't generally like IPAs). Vowing to also get pizza on our next return visit and bidding Bobby adieu, Dan and I opted to refuel at a much lauded BBQ place just up the block called Lillie's Q (1856 W. North), part of the city's healthy (I mean size, not, um, medically beneficial) crop of new BBQ restaurants to open in 2010. Lillie Q's bills itself as "Southern-style", which can mean a few different things; regardless, the meat was outstanding no matter how you classify it. We both chose the tri-tip beef sandwich, served without sauce on a buttered brioche roll, with me adding cole slaw on the sandwich and a side of beans for my order (see Photo 1 above). The combo of smoked beef, crunchy slaw, and rich buttery bread was nothing short of sublime. The beans were a little sweet for my liking, but the main course clearly didn't disappoint and I can't wait for the opportunity to try the pulled pork there.

Fully sated, I waddled back to the car and did everything in my power to summon the intestinal fortitude to psyche myself up for the beer/bacon tasting yet to come. After picking up Mrs. Hackknife at the train station, we arrived at Paddy Long's early and were directed to spots at the bar. The tasting started about 20 minutes late and we had repeated issues with the bacon girl passing us over in favor of the tables behind us (inevitably, she would run out before getting to us, then forget that we never received any, causing a bartender to head frantically back to the kitchen to have the chef cook up some more - this happened to us no less than 3 times). Service issues aside, we sampled the following beer/bacon pairings: Metropolitan Krankshaft with Irish bacon, Trumer Pils with peppercorn bacon (see Photo #2 above), Lagunitas IPA with Danish bacon, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale with hickory smoked bacon, and Stone Smoked Porter with maple brown sugar bacon. Of these combos, we liked the 2nd and 5th the best, although most of the bacon seemed especially fatty (even for bacon). We received a few extra pours of beer as compensation for the extended waiting, but all in all, I'd have to say that it wasn't quite the great experience we'd hoped for (i.e., if you don't get a discounted deal like we did, don't bother).

After all of this excessive consumption, you might think that I'd suffer some consequences, and you'd be right as Beer & Bacon Day was followed by Soothe-Stomach-with-Oatmeal-and-Stay-Close-to-Restroom Day on Sunday (alas, I'm not as young as I used to be)....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Passport To France

Last week, Mrs. Hackknife dragged me along (ok, "dragged" probably isn't the accurate word to use here as free food was involved) to a social event co-sponsored by her employer (Deloitte Consulting) at the Union League Club of Chicago (65 W. Jackson Blvd. for those of you playing along at home). This event, entitled "Passport to France" is held every year in Chicago by something called the French-American Chamber of Commerce and is intended to celebrate the release of the latest Beaujolais Nouveau wines during the third week of November. Since we here at the Commissary are very enthusiastic about all things France (despite the fact that I personally have no direct lineage to the French people and my wife's family, being part Alsatian, have a tenuous connection at best), I was more than happy to accompany her as she used the opportunity to do a little client schmoozing with her co-workers.

We arrived at the club around six in the evening and headed up to the Grand Ballroom on the 6th floor, suddenly realizing that we'd been here once before for a Catholic Charities wine tasting festival in January 2005 (given that we hadn't yet learned the fine art of bucket spitting when sampling many, many wines in a short time period, the event aftermath went badly for both of us due to, say, excessive refreshment fatigue). Food sampling started out with a table of very French cheeses, such as Roquefort, Camembert, and Brie along with baguette slices. We also at this point opted to try some of the Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, which, truth be told, wasn't particularly good (for those of you unfamiliar, Beaujolais Nouveau is made to be a very fruity, only slightly dry red wine and it's something of an acquired taste, if not mostly a marketing gimmick). This was followed by a brief photo session with an event photographer, who promptly generated a long sequence of digital pictures of me and the missus in front of various Frenchy-related backgrounds (vineyard, barrel cellar, Eiffel Tower, fountain, etc.), posting them on his video screen for all to watch ad nauseum. After about 5 minutes of this, it began to creep me out for some reason; fortunately, new people came to take photos and they soon replaced us as the display victims.

By now, the 5 restaurants operating tables at the event had started serving their food to the guests. We stopped by LM Restaurant first, which was serving an organic tomato soup (good) and a duck rillette (very good, although the bread underlying the duck spread was exceedingly crunchy). Next was Beef Bourguignon from L'Eiffel Bistrot & Creperie (good broth and veggies, but not particularly tender beef - since this dish is bistro food at its most classic, you would think it should be a slam dunk for these guys, mais non). The house chef at Union League Club provided a nice beef short rib with butternut squash risotto, while Bistro 110's roasted suckling pig w/mashed potatoes was nothing out of the ordinary. Last, but certainly not least, came my most anticipated table: Mexique, a new Mexican-French fusion restaurant that's been generating some buzz of late (for example, their pan-seared skate wing was recently cited by Chicago Magazine as one of the top 25 Mexican dishes in town). At first glance, one might be surprised to find such a restaurant at a soiree celebrating French culture; however, those of you who are world history buffs out there might remember that the French actually occupied Mexico for about a decade in the 1860s in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a sympathetic monarchy there (i.e., in the hopes of countering US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere). Whether or not there was any substantial co-mingling of Mexican ingredients with French cooking techniques during this period is a little hard to verify. Myth or no myth, Chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique has built his restaurant around this concept, which I found to be intriguing at the very least. He and his assistants were passing out little cups containing dried cranberries at the bottom, topped with butternut squash soup, a few pieces of spicy pork belly carnitas, and a dollop of apple cinnamon foam to finish. It was nice to look at and very tasty to eat, with a great balance of sweet-spicy-tart flavors all in one gulp. Clearly the standout in the room, it was the only item I went back for a second time (Mrs. Hackknife found it to be a bit too spicy for her tastes).

After two glasses of white wine (Chablis and Pouilly-Fuisse) and a couple of nice desserts (raspberry citrus lavender sorbet and Bailey's ice cream sandwich) from Ruth and Phil's Gourmet Ice Cream, we bid "Adieu" to the evening's festivities (Mrs. Hackknife had an early flight to catch and I was hankering to catch the end of the Bears-Dolphins game)....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Roasted Cauliflower with Yogurt and Mint/Cabbage Gratin

The farmbox strikes again! Last week, among other things, we ended up with a large head of cauliflower and a semi-large head of cabbage. We did a corned beef w/cabbage here at the Commissary a few weeks ago, but I don't think that any of us were ready for another round of it yet. And as for the cauliflower, I wanted to....well, I had no idea what to do with it as this vegetable doesn't really have the sexiness of, say, turnips, or the cachet of, say, kale when you think of it. Amazingly, while meal planning for the week, I came across the "Off Duty" section (as it's now described) in the new-look Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal, and what should I see but a recipe involving cauliflower - a relatively easy recipe that actually sounds good. The recipe was contributed by New York chef Andrew Carmellini, who specializes in Italian food, although the cauliflower dish is Indian-inspired, with curry/cumin/coriander/fennel and a mint/lemon/yogurt sauce. I've found that side dishes with yogurt tend to pair well with spicier foods (the yogurt is cooling), so I decided to make it with our house tacos one night as I'm always seeking good veggies (and refried beans don't really count) to go with it. As it turns out, the pairing was successful and Mrs. Hackknife was very pleased (swooning, in fact - had I simply left the pan of roasted cauliflower out on the counter for a while, it probably would have disappeared).

Two nights later, I made a pork roast and decided to attempt a cabbage gratin as a vegetable side for it (pork and cabbage tend to work well together - just ask the Germans). This recipe comes courtesy of my trusty Joy of Cooking, which usually doesn't fail me and didn't this time, either. I was pleasantly surprised how well the flavors of Gruyere cheese, milk/cream, and breadcrumbs integrated with the cabbage, which you boil separately before baking it with the other ingredients. I had a little bit of Vidalia onion left over that I chopped up and threw into the mix as well (surprisingly, it seemed to enhance things, not destroy it). Mrs. Hackknife was even more impressed with this dish, as was I (mmmmm).....

Cabbage Gratin

Preheat oven to 375F. Butter or Pam a 2-quart baking dish. Dust the dish with 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese or breadcrumbs. Bring 4 quarts of water and 1 1/2 Tbsp. salt to a boil in a stockpot. Add 6 c. (about 1 lb.) shredded cabbage and cook for 5 minutes. Drain cabbage and press out as much water as possible. In a large bowl, whisk together 2 large eggs, 1 c. milk or light cream (ed. note - I used a mixture of 1/2 c. skim milk and 1/2 c. heavy cream), 1/2 c. grated Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, 1/4 c. all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 teaspoon caraway seed, and 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom. Add the drained cabbage (and chopped onion, if you include it), mix well, and add to the baking dish. Cover top with 1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese. Bake until golden on top, about 40-50 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Publican

"Gimme oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year and I'll be fine", Tin Cup Chalice, Jimmy Buffett, 1974

This past Saturday evening, Mrs. Hackknife and I joined a number of her coworkers/spouses for a fun evening at The Publican, a self-described "beer/pork/shellfish" emporium located on a once-desolate, now-heating up stretch of Fulton Market Street (especially with the pending arrival of Grant Achatz's new restaurant/bar a few doors down) on the Near North Side. This was our 3rd visit here since it first opened in early 2009 and we have yet to encounter a bad plate of food; in fact, we were so impressed after our first trip that we jointly decided, should we ever opt to practice restaurant monogamy (unlikely as that seems), The Publican would be a strong candidate for our eternal dining affections.

Since we had a relatively large group, we ordered a bunch of dishes for everyone to share, including a platter of 6 West Coast/6 East Coast oysters (not exactly being an oyster connoisseur, I couldn't discern much difference between the two I ate, although they were both delicious), fried sardines, a Catalan fish stew (it could have used more broth, perhaps the only slight misstep of the night), La Quercia cured ham (from Iowa), a paper cone of spicy pork rinds, a potted rillette (basically leftover pork pieces mixed with fat and cooled), pork belly, a whole roasted chicken with frites, and (whew) a couple of vegetable sides, including brussels sprouts and roasted squash. As you can imagine, this was a sizable amount of nosh, made more difficult by the fact that I had foolishly stuffed my face at Cousin Bobby and Gwen's housewarming party before we had even arrived, leaving me in an uncomfortable position of distended gluttony by the time the last dish emerged from the kitchen. I was only able to consume a single beer (Blanche de Bruxelles, a witbier from Brasserie Lefebvre in Belgium) during the whole meal, although Mrs. Hackknife let me sample one of her Two Brothers Heavy Handed IPA (she had 3 of these altogether, emptying out the restaurant's remaining stash).

There are still several items on the menu that I'm itching to try (some of the more exotic offerings that don't really play well in a group setting, such as blood sausage and sweetbreads), so a return visit is inevitable.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Los Angeles Dining Notes

Ah, Los Angeles.....the sun, the movie stars, the traffic,'s all there. I had November 6 circled on my calendar for quite some time as the date of my good friend (and blog follower) Jaime's marriage to his lovely fiancee, Lydia. As the big day approached, I came to the realization that LA happens to be arguably the best city in the country for mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, especially for Asian and Latin American cuisines. This knowledge came about mostly from reading reviews by Jonathan Gold, the LA Metro area's pre-eminent food critic and from Saveur magazine, which devoted an entire issue earlier this year to the virtues of Los Angeles eating. Now amply fueled with bravado and exuberance, I compiled a hit list of potential restaurants to visit while in Southern California: Bazaar, Campanile/Tar Pit, Animal, El Parian, Phillipe's (which claims to have invented the original French dip sandwich), plus the ever-present food trucks (which are still illegal in Chicago). The reality, of course, proved to be much less glamorous as Mrs. Hackknife and I had the progeny in tow on this trip: Jack-in-the-Box, Johnny Rockets, and two visits to McDonald's, to be precise (I admit that I may have had overreaching ambitions).

All was not lost in an avalanche of fast food mediocrity, however. There were still several high points on the trip for foodie fanatics like myself, beginning with the rehearsal dinner two days before the wedding, graciously hosted by the groom's parents at their home in Pacoima. Apparently, one custom in the local Mexican community is to hire a taco cook when hosting a large dinner gathering. The taco man at our gathering prepared a scrumptious array of taco choices, including carne asada, al pastor (i.e., pork cooked on a spit with pineapple juice for tenderizing), and pollo (chicken), along with salsas and sauteed jalapenos/onions for garnish. I was able to indulge in all three of these varieties (see Photo #1 above), but not as much as I would have liked due to child management responsibilities. Also sadly missed was the homemade nopales (cactus salad) prepared by the groom's mother, which I'm told by FOH Adam (who is becoming a regular fixture in these postings) was delicious (so much so that he expressed his admiration to Senora Quevedo, who then prepared another entire container of nopales for him to bring home to NYC - I trust that this fed him well on the 6-hour flight back).

The day before the wedding found me running errands with the groom in-between some food stops. I mentioned that I thought a pupusa sounded good to tide us over until lunch, and within mere seconds, here we are stopping at a small, nondescript restaurant serving pupusas (which are small fried corn tortillas stuffed with meat/cheese, native to El Salvador). Unless you're dreaming of hot dogs or Italian beef, this kind of imagine-it-then-immediately-see-it food trick is just not possible in Chicago, even in its most-Latino neighborhoods. Anyway, we both enjoyed a pupusa revuelta (a mixture of cheese, beans, and chicharron, which in this context is not fried pork rind, but ground pork meat paste) with a smattering of curtido (like cole slaw, but with red chile and vinegar) and a horchata, which was less sweet and a bit spicier than those I've had back home.

After picking up fellow groomsman Adam, we made an attempt to get lunch at a famous food truck: Grill Em' All, the winner of the recent Great Food Truck Race competition on the Food Network, who features among other things such insane creations as a "Dee Snider" burger (with peanut butter, jelly, sriracha, and bacon). Funny thing about fame when you're a food truck - it turns out that lots of people want to eat your food. Even at 20 minutes to 2 (which is the end of the truck's lunch service), there are 15 people in line waiting to order and another 15 waiting for their orders to come out. With stomachs growling and considerable envy at watching happy diners acting like they've just won the burger lottery, we instead proceeded a few miles away to Fab's Hot Dogs, reputedly the best hot dogs in LA. Having scanned their offerings (reminding me a bit of a slightly downscale Hot Doug's), I settled on the most local of choices, the LA Street Dog, a bacon-wrapped all-beef wiener with jalapenos, mayo, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, and grilled onions/peppers (see Photo #2 above). Although I don't typically favor tater tots over fries, the groom recommended the tots and I must admit they were very good, nicely browned and crunchy with a soft interior (nothing like the cement lumps I remember from my freshman year dorm in college). I will hand it to LA: if they want to designate the bacon-wrapped dog as the "official" local variety (as one local hot dog chain is proposing), I enthusiastically embrace this initiative.

Errands completed, some of the other members of the wedding party and spouses met up with us at Katsuya in Glendale for dinner, an upscale sushi restaurant, where we enjoyed many tasty dishes, including a creamy rock shrimp (so nice it was ordered twice), rainbow roll, sunset roll (with grilled eel), blue crab roll, and crispy rice/spicy tuna. My only complaint with the evening's proceedings had nothing to do with the food - although the Phillipe Starck-designed decor throughout the building was very nice to admire, apparently, I'm too stupid to figure out how to activate the Phillipe Starck-designed sink in the men's room, with which I did everything except stand on top of to try to wash my hands.

Finally, the wedding was upon us and all went well as the ceremony was elegant yet humble. With a few hours to spare until the reception and with Adam's resounding endorsement, us two tuxedo-clad fools joined the throngs of humanity down the street from the banquet hall at the perpetually-crowded Porto's Bakery, a local institution for Cuban delicacies. Not only is Porto's known for its cakes (they happened to be providing the wedding cake for our bride and groom) and pastries, they also offer a number of hot dishes. Following recommendations, we ordered some meat pies, potato balls, pork tamales, and cheese rolls and proceeded back to the hotel, where we encountered many famished wedding guests (mostly MIT engineers) camped out in the lobby bar who were more than happy to descend upon our tasty treats like vultures disassembling roadkill. I was lucky to get a couple of cheese rolls (which were like danishes stuffed with melted cheese - delicious) and a few bites of a tamale before only the packaging remained (and I fear some of that might have been consumed as well).

We had a great trip to Southern California, but from a culinary standpoint, we've only just barely scratched the surface of what LA can be to a determined foodie armed with a box of Prilosec OTC. I welcome future challenges in this great dining town, yea verily.....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top Notch Beefburgers

A few weekends ago, Mrs. Hackknife and our lead babysitter (i.e., Mrs. Hackknife's mom) headed out West to Las Vegas for a much-needed ladies' weekend of r-and-r, leaving yours truly some overtime with the progeny. Often times, when faced with these situations, my preference is to hunker down at home and ride out the storm (usually by clearing out leftovers in the fridge - since my kids won't eat most everything, I can be a scavenger and it doesn't really make much difference to our meal routines), but my foodie urges led me to drag them out one evening to a place I'd been wanting to visit: Top Notch Beefburgers (2116 W. 95th St.), a dining institution in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood since 1954. I had never eaten at this location, which is the original - a few years back, Mrs. Hackknife and I went to another TNB in Oak Forest with her parents and had a fantastic burger (the OF location has since closed and morphed into a pancake house). Recently, one local food reporter (Steve Dolinsky, who goes by the moniker "Hungry Hound") proclaimed TNB as having his top burger in the Chicagoland area, so I was eager to see if his hype matched my experience.

Loading up the family truckster, the three of us made the half-hour trip up to Beverly. Tricky thing about TNB - they have no parking lot and all of the metered spots on the street were full, so we had to finagle a 1-hour spot on a nearby side street. Entering the building, it was pretty much exactly how I'd imagined: old-school diner setting, layer of grease that's been accumulating for years covering all surfaces, old newspaper clippings - all good signs for good food. I simply ordered the standard 1/3-lb beef burger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and optional grilled onions, with a side of fries (I'd read somewhere that TNB cooks their fries in beef tallow, like McDonald's used to do). Hackknife Jr. wanted a hot dog with cheese on top (which he mostly devoured in its entirety, much to my surprise), while Hackknifette nibbled sparingly on her own plain burger, mostly eating the fries.

The verdict? It was a good burger, actually a very good burger; however, I'd be hesitant to vote it my best of Chicago (maybe top 10). I've had better recently (Triple XXX in W. Lafayette, IN immediately comes to mind) and my recollection was that the TNB burger I sampled at the Oak Forest location was superior. The beef tallow fries gave me about the same vibe - very good, but not as mindblowing as I'd hoped, especially given the health impact trade-off. If Mrs. Hackknife were to twist my arm, I'd gladly make a return visit to do some more research, but for now, I believe that the TNB itch has been well-scratched....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken

No, Thomas Keller did not come to my commissary to cook a chicken (he would be outrageously expensive to hire, although that's not really deterring me from asking for that as one of my Xmas presents). I simply used his recipe, which happened to be documented (along with a gourmet BLT, bistro-style skirt steak, rack of lamb, and pork & beans) in a recent Men's Journal article featuring 5 of Thomas Keller's go-to dishes (TK Roast Chicken Recipe). Those of you who are regular readers are probably aware that I'm always looking for a very good, very simple, reasonably healthy prep for chicken. Thus far, most of them I've tried are a little too vanilla, with the tastiest one being a Gordon Hammersley recipe that involves butterflying the bird and stuffing discs of cold herbed butter under the skin before cooking (this turned out to be delicious, but sadly, not so healthy for obvious reasons). Oddly, I can't seem to find a blog posting on it, so apparently, I'll have to make it again.

Anyway, I believe that we've found our new house roast chicken recipe. Before I tried it, I had heard rumors about how good TK's chicken is at French Laundry and how he espouses simplicity in the preparation. The only wrinkle for an amateur like me was learning how to truss the bird - this just involves tying it up around the wings and legs with string to make a compact package for roasting (see above). Other little details included drying the bird with paper towels inside the cavity and out (dry skin helps improve the browning), covering it with a healthy dose of kosher salt, and no basting until it leaves the oven. You cook it at 450F, which is pretty hot for a chicken (most of my other recipes are in the 350-375F range), resulting in a lot of splattered, vaporized chicken fat as it renders out (you'll need to keep the EasyOff handy for oven cleanup later). Once finished, though, simply mix in some thyme with the juices (i.e., fat) in the bottom of the roasting pan, do some basting, and after 15 minutes, it's ready to go. Damn. Mighty simple and mighty tasty, from Day 1 all the way through Day 6 when I'm down to scraps for homemade chicken salad.....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stuffed Banana Peppers

Now that we've caught up on our travelogue postings, it's time to return to normalcy and actually document a few things that I've been cooking in the Commissary over the past month. Sometime in early September, a nice batch of yellow banana peppers arrived in the weekly farmbox - immediately, my mind went back to an appetizer that is offered off-menu at one of my dad's favorite local Italian trattorias (Rocco's): stuffed banana peppers. The peppers at Rocco's are filled with a ricotta mixture and baked w/cheese and red sauce on top. Although I didn't find the exact recipe on-line, I did locate a similar one that uses a sausage stuffing instead.

Being wary of hot peppers since my recent unpleasantness w/jalapenos a few months ago, I gingerly removed the seeds and membranes from the banana peppers - it turns out that they're pretty benign to work with (no tingling fingers this time). The recipe calls for 2 pounds of sausage, one hot and one mild. Given our delicate palates in the Hackknife household, I opted to sub out the hot sausage with a roll of plain breakfast sausage instead. After mixing up the filling and stuffing the peppers (the recipes tells you to use a pastry bag or sausage stuffer, but I found that hand-rolling the filling to fit the pepper shape like I did with my jalapenos worked pretty well), I realized that I had WAY too much sausage (like a single pound would have done the trick). Rather than toss the excess, I rolled up a bunch of sausage meatballs and threw them in the baking dish along with the peppers. After an hour of bake time, out came a nicely-scented, good-looking Amer-Italian supper. The peppers were tender and only a tiny bit spicy, while the sauce (a mixture of canned crushed tomatoes, can tomato sauce, onion, celery, garlic, basil, and oregano) was pretty tasty. Here's the recipe if you're interested: Stuffed Banana Peppers

Friday, October 15, 2010

Waterside Inn (London Trip - Day 4)

The eating exploits of our last full day in London are almost exclusively focused on our visit to Waterside Inn, a 3-Michelin star temple of culinary renown located in the small town of Bray, about a 35-minute train ride west of London. Amazingly, Bray has a 2nd 3-Michelin star restaurant, Heston Blumenthal's well-chronicled molecular gastronomy joint Fat Duck, just around the corner from Waterside Inn. Before our trip, I attempted to secure a reservation to Fat Duck; however, unlike Per Se in New York, it would have been a much more expensive endeavor to sit on the phone for 30 minutes at a time trying to reach a live body at the reservation stand (not to mention physically challenging as the reservation line opens up at 10 am London time, or 4 am Central for those of you keeping track at home - I'll do a lot for food, but I have to draw the line at lost sleep). Although Waterside Inn was our second choice, I'm told we were fortunate to get a table as they often fill up throughout the summer months well in advance.

Joining Mrs. Hackknife and I on our dinner excursion was our New York City fixer and FOH (Friend of Hackknife) Adam, whom you'll recall from earlier posts helped us navigate the finer points of NYC dining during our trip there in March. His London visit for a business trip happened to overlap with ours on the day of our reservation and we were able to snag a seat for him at the table. Meeting up at Paddington Station, the 3 of us traveled British Rail to Maidenhead, then took about a 5-minute cab ride through lovely countryside to our initial destination: the Hinds Head Pub for pre-dinner drinks. The Hinds Head is about 25 feet from the front door of Fat Duck and also happens to be owned by Heston Blumenthal (apparently, he's been able to colonize half the town with his take from the restaurant). We settled in for a pint in the charming, 15th-Century pub and wondered what it would be like to eat there (they specialize in traditional British dishes, that is, the non-shitty kind); alas, the kitchen is closed on Sundays, so there would be no Devil on Horseback (cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon) for us this evening.

We were able to walk to Waterside Inn from the bar, taking a moment to photograph the menu and stare longingly inside the windows of Fat Duck (probably the closest we'll get to dining there for a long time). Upon our arrival at the restaurant, we were directed to the sitting lounge while our table was prepared (a second group shortly joined us and was given a bottle of cognac "on the house" by the General Manager - apparently, they were some sort of VIPs). During our wait, we were able to read a little more about the place's history: it was opened in 1972 by the Roux brothers as a follow-on to their celebrated London restaurant, Le Gavroche (at the time, no one was really doing fine French-influenced dining in the UK) and is now run by Alain Roux, one of the original owner's sons. The Rouxs are well known for launching the careers of many great chefs throughout the world and also for their exacting demands in the kitchen (having spawned the term "Roux Robots" as Marco Pierre White put it). As we experienced during our meal, it's hard to quibble with the results of their efforts.

We were soon brought into the dining room, which sits overlooking the Thames River pretty much right outside the window (it was a little hard to see in the darkening Fall evening, but I'll bet it's amazing in the sunlight). Oddly enough, there was a glass vase on the table with a pattern that nearly exactly matches the one on a set of decorative martini glasses we have in our downstairs bar at home (other people might think they spent a fortune on those vases, but I think I can now safely out them as having got them at, like, Target for $12.99 each). Anyway, there was nothing big box-ish about the meal. We all chose the house tasting menu (140 pounds per person, cost that is, not quantity - good thing we were out of the country since I couldn't really calculate exactly how much that was in dollars until we got home) and conferred with the sommelier to order a couple of glasses of wine that would pair well with most of the meal (a white Burgundy and a red Rhone). Starting off, we got a platter of 3 amuse bouches, one a prawn w/wasabi, another a delicate cheese puff, and lastly, a small escargot preparation. This was followed by a small sphere of crab salad, another amuse bouche. Now, the fun begins. First course was a scallop ceviche in olive oil and yuzu juice (a Japanese citrus sauce), followed by a lovely foie gras terrine embedded with peas (Picture #1 above).

The next course was our fish, a delicious turbot baked in a grape leaf. The leaf became the subject of much discussion at the table as I thought it was almost better than the fish (and I mean that as a complement since the fish was fantastic) - it was crispy and smoky, almost like a bacon. I puzzled over how they were able to get such a flavor in the leaf (having previously made kale chips in the oven by simply coating them in olive oil and roasting them, I was able to achieve something of similar consistency, but not the smoky flavor) and asked the GM when he came over about it. He told a funny anecdote about how Chef Roux clandestinely brought two suitcases full of the leaves (taken from a vineyard at his family estate in Southern France) through British customs, but that didn't really answer my question, and I didn't have the stones to ask the chef himself when he visited our table later in the evening. I did, however, find a clue on the flight back home - I was re-reading Jim Harrison's culinary memoirs "The Raw and The Cooked" and he makes mention of roasting meat wrapped in grape leaves over a woodsmoke grill (a-ha!), which I think might do the trick. Anyway, next came the most amazing venison loin (ordered medium rare per the chef's recommendation) prepared en croute, with a duxelle-like layer of mushrooms stuffed between the meat and the pastry (Picture #2). Now, those of you who know me well know that I usually won't go near a mushroom, but I will occasionally make exceptions and I'm certainly glad I did in this case - it was UNBELIEVABLY, melt-in-the-mouth good, almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Having reached the meal's apex, the desserts that followed were pretty much anticlimactic. There was an extra first dessert that escapes my memory (again, the dreaded curse of no notes and too much elapsed time to a food blogger - Adam/Mrs. Hackknife, can you help me out here?), a small prep of pear, blueberries, shortbread cookies, and red fruit coulis that wasn't bad, and a golden plum souffle (Picture #3) that photographed well, followed by the ever-present mignardises. Dear Reader, please don't get the wrong idea about the desserts - they were very good, but I am more of a chocolate enthusiast when it comes to sweets, and after the turbot/bacon leaf and venison, plum souffle was going to be a tough sell. In any case, it was a wonderful meal and a wonderful experience - a great way to conclude our trip.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

London Trip - Day 3

Day 3 of our London trip started much as the first one did - with full English breakfast at the hotel. During breakfast, I got up the nerve to have a little bit of Marmite, which I've always wanted to try and happened to be conveniently sitting in little packets (like jelly) at the table. It was very salty, very yeasty, and let's just say that's I found it to be an acquired taste (sorry all you Aussies, but I don't get it just yet). Anyway, since Mrs. Hackknife was finished with her work obligations, we pretty much had the day to ourselves as far as scheduling. Her one request was that she wanted to visit a pub for a pint, something she hadn't yet done as she had been working, plus under the weather to boot. Incredibly, we apparently picked the wrong portion of town to get a beer around Saturday noon since none of the pubs we encountered were open (maybe the business district wasn't a good idea). Eventually, we did find one open bar that was next to a Catholic church and was populated mostly by a wedding party that was getting a little refreshment before the ceremony (had we been better dressed, we probably could have fit right in without notice).

Getting on to this day's food highlights - Mrs. Hackknife had found an advert in one of those tourist magazines that they leave in the hotel room about an "experimental food expo" going on that afternoon in an exhibition space on Brick Lane (only a few blocks down from last night's stellar dinner). Having piqued our interest, we decided to try crashing the party and encountered a very long line for entry as we arrived at the hall. While waiting a good 15 minutes or so to get to the front of the queue, we noticed a separate, semi-open air portion of the exhibition space that seemed to include a bunch of street food vendors (this, apparently, goes on every weekend there and was completely removed from the formal event upstairs). When we heard from the door clerk that they stopped letting people into the expo due to lack of space, we jumped ship and headed to the street food fair. As it turns out, this was a good move. We found about 10 vendors, each specializing in a different ethnic cuisine (including Burmese, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Thai, Jamaican, Japanese, and, oddly, Italian - the Italian booth wasn't getting much foot traffic amongst the more exotic choices). We started with some steamed pork dumplings from the Chinese dumpling stand (really tasty) and I followed that up with a large dish of Sri Lankan delicacies (see photo above). Of the food available, I picked some of the roasted lamb in dark curry (lower left pan), green curried prawns (2nd pan from top on left), and curry chicken (top left pan), along with some rice. I'd say the prawns were my favorite (the lamb was a little tough and the chicken a little chewy), but after it all mixed together in the container, it was pretty delicious - a warm, satisfying, and cheap way to spend a cool fall afternoon.

Worn out from negotiating the large crowds in the Covent Garden shopping district (including Harrod's food hall, which is amazing, but much more crowded on weekends than our malls at Xmastime - Mrs. Hackknife had to eventually prevent me from starting to knock tourists out of the way), we settled in to a small Spanish restaurant for dinner near our new hotel, located in a blessedly secluded neighborhood not far from the famous Abbey Road studios. Some of the details of this humble meal are lost to the ages (I know we had appetizers, but I can't remember what exactly), but I do recall that I had a nice veal chop and Mrs. Hackknife had a nice veal cutlet dish, and we left very satisfied in anticipation of our marquee dinner tomorrow evening at Waterside Inn.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

London Trip - Day 2

I had every intention of getting out of bed really early (like around 5:45 am) on the morning of Day 2 to check out the action at London's historic Smithfield Market, which has been the city's main wholesale site for butchered meat for about 800 years. Similar to Tsukiji (the giant fish market) in Tokyo, tourists are advised to get there at the crack of dawn, when business is at its peak. Unfortunately, jet jag intervened, waking up both me and Mrs. Hackknife in the middle of the night and rendering me pretty much useless until around 7:30. By the time I managed to haul my bedraggled carcass to the market complex, the place was nearly deserted (I did see a few hanging pigs, though). Discouraged, but not surprised, I stopped in at Smith of Smithfield restaurant, a hip meat-focused eatery across the street from the market to grab a quick breakfast before heading out on my main sightseeing junket. I was lucky to get a table as it was packed with young, mostly professional-looking Londoners having a bite to eat prior to the Friday workday. I ordered what was called a "bacon butty", really just a couple of pieces of English bacon (leaner, not so crispy) between two slices of thick, crusty white bread, plus a banana smoothie and an orange juice. All three of these items were mediocre at best and didn't really provide me much other than basic sustenance to help climb the 500-odd steps to the very top of St. Paul's Cathedral later that morning. Equally uninspiring was the cottage pie lunch special I had at the historic Lamb and Flag pub, which apparently is a better place to drink than eat.

So, by the time that Friday evening rolled around, I was in major need of culinary redemption. Mrs. Hackknife and I headed over to Brick Lane, ground zero for London's Indian and Bangladeshi communities, seeking a good place for dinner. The neighborhood was definitely a little rougher around the edges than most of the places we'd visited thus far. The street was lined with hawkers trying to entice visitors into their restaurants with promises of the best Indian meal in town. My guidebook (which had yet to steer me wrong) recommended The Shampan (79 Brick Lane), which was hawker-free (a good sign) and practically empty (not a good sign) when we arrived. As with the night before, I ordered a combo meal to get a good sampling of several dishes, this time with a focus on Bangladeshi food. After our starter plate of samosas (which were very good), I was presented with the behemoth that you see on a platter in Picture 1 above. All of it (with the exception of the yogurt, easily identifiable at about 2 o'clock on the plate) was delicious. Alas, the restaurant has no website for me to reference a menu after the fact and I did not take any notes about what I was eating (probably taboo for someone who has a food blog - my sincerest apologies), so I'm afraid I can't provide anything but a vague description of the dishes (note - if it makes you feel better, I'm not sure that I could really tell you what they were even while I was in the middle of the meal). There was a roasted, mostly whole fish with crispy onions (lower left), a bowl of tasty rice (middle), the ubiquitous flatbread, the aforementioned yogurt, a spicy lamb dish, chicken dish, and vegetable dish, washed down with a Cobra beer. No dessert necessary, my friends, as Mrs. Hackknife returned to the hotel and I headed out to catch some bad League 1 soccer (Leyton Orient hosting Brentford), belly full enough to avoid the ever-present meat pies and pasties on the menu at the game.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

London Trip - Day 1

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently abandoned the Commissary to the progeny and their sitters (i.e., the 2 grandmas) while we traveled to merry old England for a few days. The trip was half-business, half-pleasure for the missus (having been asked to present at a global conference in London), but was pure entertainment for yours truly, leaving me largely on the loose in a city well-known (at least within the last 10 years or so) for the vast diversity of its food culture. For those of you that associate English cuisine with fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, puddings, etc., there are still mediocre oceans of that stuff available (although even those old standbys are getting a better reputation at some of the more-progressive restaurants in the country); however, there may be no better place outside of their own nations to sample several types of Southeast Asian and Indian Subcontinent food, a few of which I took it upon myself to track down. Of course, I couldn't just eat the whole time I was there (although I can sense a few of you rolling your eyes in doubt). I did, in fact, visit many of the important tourist sites, just with a little more of a foodie angle than my previous visit to London in 2004. So, without further ado....

Day 1 found me full English breakfasting at the hotel - for the uninitiated, this includes beans, stewed tomatoes, bacon (although leaner and more ham-like than what we're used to here in the States), sausages, potatoes, and eggs, leaving me pleasantly full as I cruised through the National Art Gallery and Westminster Abbey. Around 2:30 that afternoon, I finally felt hungry enough to attempt lunch - taking the Tube to Covent Garden, I headed over to Rock and Sole Plaice (47 Endell St.), a fish-and-chips emporium recommended by my guidebook and seconded by many reviewers on-line. The place was pretty tiny, with about 6 tables inside and a few more on the sidewalk in front. One could pick from 4 different fishes (cod, sole, plaice, and haddock, if I recall correctly), with or without chips, and you paid a little bit more if you wanted to stay there to eat (i.e., table service). I chose plaice (a fish I'd vaguely heard of before, but had never eaten) with chips and was served the golden beauty see above in Picture 1. I have to say, if there is a more Platonic ideal of fish-and-chips out there somewhere, I would be surprised. The fillet was large, crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy or "fishy". The chips were pretty much just the way I like them - chunky, crisp on the outside, but a little soft on the inside. Sublime. I get the chills just thinking about it even now.

Basking in lunch's afterglow, I was able to do a little more touring before clocking out and heading over to Rasa Samudra (5 Charlotte St.) near the Tottenham Court Tube station, another guidebook-recommended restaurant. I did a little research beforehand and determined that this place specializes in Southern Indian (specifically, the Kerala region of Southern India) food, which features a lot of seafood and ingredients normally associated with the tropics (think coconuts, mangoes, bananas, etc.). The menu was a mind-spinning 10 pages of choices, in which case I usually seek out some kind of combo option (this typically gives you the best opportunity to sample many different items, often at a pretty good price). I picked the "vegetarian feast" featured on the front of the menu and was assured by the waitress that the amount of food included would be manageable (of course, I knew better and fully expected to be stuffed by the time the 3rd course showed up). For starters (called the "pre-meal snack"), I was brought out a basket of various crunchy treats (made primarily out of rice flour, cumin, and sesame seeds) along with three different pickles (lemon, mango, and mixed vegetable) and a couple of savory chutneys for dipping. Next came the "starters", which were three different dumplings (fried potato balls, fried plantains, and my personal favorite, medhu vadai, a spongy dumpling inside a crunchy shell) with three more chutneys (tomato, coconut, and mango) for dipping. Feeling full yet inspired, along came my entree (see Picture 2 above, starting at lower left and going counterclockwise) consisting of moru kachiathu (mango/banana cooked in yogurt), cheera parippu curry (spinach and chickpeas in curry sauce), rasa kayi (spicy mixed vegetables, and savory cabbage thoran (sort of like an Indian cole slaw), plus delicious coconut rice and flatbread. After this feast, I was presented with a small dessert (pal payasam, a sweet rice milk dish) that I must have eaten, although I'm not quite sure how. Anthony Bourdain waxed poetically about Keralan cuisine in a recent No Reservations episode and I can clearly see why. Rolling back to my hotel, I tried to recover for Day 2.....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chicago Mini-Food Tour

This past weekend, Mrs. Hackknife took the progeny up north to a girlfriend's house in Wisconsin (Hackknife Jr. returned home with a raging case of Star Wars-itis and has now watched the original movie almost 3 times in the last 4 days). As a result, I had a full 48 hours of alone time at the commissary to ponder my existence and take care of some outstanding chores, namely finding places amongst the landscaping for a ton of lava rock (Friday) and sorting through about 70 years of accumulated tools, nuts/bolts, etc. in my late grandfather's garage (Saturday). Of course, alone time also means some me-food time, kicked off Friday evening with the assemblage of a zucchini cheddar bread that was so unremarkable as to almost completely avoid mention in this blog and a trip to the South Suburbs best gyro outlet, Perros Bros. Gyros in Olympia Fields, for dinner. The food press around here lately has been spouting off about how hardly any gyro outlet in the greater metropolitan area uses a non-frozen meat cone (i.e., the slab from which the gyro meat is roasted and carved) anymore; however, I can't find a single fault with whatever Freres Perros are doing with their cone before cooking. All I know is that the gyro is outstanding and the fries are pretty top shelf as well. Saturday night found me stopping at Las Asadas in downtown Des Plaines, a tiny, highly-recommended taqueria for some lengua tacos (if anyone out there has a complex about eating beef tongue, it might help to consider that this is one of many unattractive, yet intensely flavorful cuts of meat that most likely ends up in your finer hot dogs).

Then came Sunday. I had about 8 hours of nothing to do except enjoy the beautiful late-summer weather. What better way to spend it than walking around my city and stuffing my face (Hackknife's new motto: "We eat ourselves sick so you don't have to")? About 2 weeks ago, in anticipation of my free weekend, I mapped out a route of about 7 miles that would take me through various parts of the North side, stopping at dining establishments that I've wanted to try, but hadn't yet gotten around to. So, having consumed nothing except a bottled water, I left the commissary and proceeded straight to my first destination: Macondo, near Lincoln and Barry (2965 N. Lincoln). I had read about the empanadas here, a casual Colombian coffee-and-pastry joint that's the little sister of Las Tablas, a South American steakhouse chain that we used to frequent when we still lived in the city. When I walked in around 8:45, the place was empty save for the clerk and the cook working in the back. I ordered an egg-and-cheese empanada, which was accompanied by two little containers of chimmichuri sauce and a green salsa, plus a homemade hot chocolate that was hotter than the surface of the sun (the clerk told me that the cook "makes it on the stove by hand"). The empanada was fantastic - light, yet crispy and oh-so-good with the chimmichurri. Even the hot chocolate was good, that is, after 10 minutes of feverish stirring with a coffee stick to try to cool it down. The whole experience set me back less than $6.

With most of my taste buds unscalded, I proceeded south and a bit east to the maternal Hackknife ancestral neighborhood to visit Floriole (1220 W. Webster), which turned out to be a high-falutin Lincoln Park bakery heavily populated by yuppies getting their Sunday morning fix. The bakery case was crammed with awesome-looking goodies, such as a milk chocolate hazelnut tart ($5.95) and several exotic flavors of macarons ($1.50 each!). I had to get the tart and loaded up on extra macarons (6 total - 2 chocolate/earl grey, 2 passionfruit, and 2 lemon/lavender) to bring home to the family. As it turns out, I ended up eating 5 of the 6 macarons as I discovered the next day that they don't keep for very long (too chewy for the kids, but not for me).

Backtracking a bit west and some more south, Franks N' Dawgs was up next (1863 N. Clybourn). This new hot dog stand has garnered much press in the past few months and is taking our other local gourmet hot dog outlet, Hot Doug's (much beloved by this blogger, I might add), head-on. After my experience, I have to reluctantly admit that there may be a new sheriff in town. As their first diner of they day (doors open at 11 on Sundays), the girl behind the counter convinced me to get a Pig Latin (one of their daily specials), consisting of a Catalan smoked sausage, topped by a slab of braised pork belly, apple slaw, mustard creme fraiche, and chopped sweet red pepper. This heavenly creation was accompanied by a side order of waffle truffle fries, available only on weekends (a clear imitation of Hot Doug's duck fat fries, which you can only get on Fridays and Saturdays). You can see the top picture above (the dog is half-eaten by this point) to get a better idea of what I'm describing and, yes, it did taste as good as it looked, as did the fries, which beat just about all others I've had hands-down. Only downside - it was all on the pricey side (about $18 for a dog, fries, and bottled water), but I will definitely be returning, and with reinforcements next time.

Starting to get a little full, I walked the longest portion of my journey to Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (2423 N. Clark), recently listed among the top 25 pizza joints by Chicago Magazine. I was hoping to be able to get just a single slice; however, this was not possible as they cook their pizzas one-by-one in a wood-burning oven, just like Stop 50 (see recent posting). As a result, I order just the simplest, cheapest ($8.95) pizza on the menu, a marinara with a little sauce, basil, and garlic. It was good, but certainly not among my favorites, and I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about the restaurant's vibe, which was much clubbier and upscale than I was expecting (no Italian grandma cooking in the kitchen back here). More than half the pizza was boxed up to bring home and I actually enjoyed it more upon re-heating the next day for lunch.

Now significantly dragging both feet and intestines, I plodded north up towards my final stop, Cloud 9 (604 W. Belmont), one of a recently-popped up crop of new gelato establishments, but in a class of its own as they are the only place in town serving snow ice. For the uninitiated, snow ice is a cross between ice cream and shaved ice (known as "xue-hua-bing" in Taiwan, where it originated) and is supposed to be very refreshing and light. Hoping for just a tidbit, I ordered the "snack" size portion of mango snow ice w/a blueberry drizzle, at which point the server presented me with the behemoth that you see in Picture #2 above. It was light and it was very tasty, but of course, there was no way I could polish the whole thing off. Regardless, this was a good place to end the mini-food tour and I made a mental note to bring the kids back sometime next summer (we can all share a snack size)....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bison Dining at the Friendly Confines

I have been a partial season ticket holder to the Chicago Cubs going on 10 years now and, I can say with utmost certainty, that although Wrigley Field is a magical place to watch a baseball game and experience the grander moments in one's life (Mrs. Hackknife and I had our first date there, for example), the food there basically sucks lemons. With few exceptions (only the kosher hot dogs with grilled onions available at a couple of obscure stands on the main concourse immediately come to mind), I can go across town to a rival American League team's field that shall remain nameless and find a much wider and better array of ballpark dining options. With the recent sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts family, however, I must admit that the dining gap has narrowed ever-so-slightly. Case in point: bison meat.

Among other businesses, the Ricketts family owns a company called High Plains Bison, offering ranch-raised bison in many forms. As one might have guessed, the 2010 season arrived with a new offering of High Plains Bison menu items at many of the park's concession stands (I can imagine the Rickettses sitting around the table sometime in 2009 going "Why should we buy the Cubs? Because of their proud winning tradition? Why, no, but we'd have someplace to shill all that damn bison!"). To the best of my knowledge, the bison hot dogs are the HPB product most widely available throughout Wrigley Field (and I've heard rumors that they do, in fact, taste like hot dogs), but if one were to search a little deeper, one could find more interesting bison fare. I discovered a month or so back that, if you go into the Sheffield Grill (formerly a private dining room for season ticket holders, but now open to the public before and during games) located in the right field corner of the park, you'll find a bison-entree-of-the-week available for purchase.

The first time I went in there, they were offering a bison meatloaf sandwich with grilled onions/chipotle bbq sauce, chips, and a pickle for $9.25 - a little pricey, but worth it to try. It took about 15 minutes for my order to come up (there was a head chef, sous chef, and about 4 assistants all crammed into a little space feverishly trying to cook and serve), but when it finally did, it was worth the wait. The sandwich was LARGE and very satisfying, pretty much the best thing I've ever had at Wrigley. The chips and pickle were ok, providing a nice, if simple, accompaniment. After that experience, I made a mental note to go down there for dinner again once I had the chance. The second time, there was a bison pastrami sandwich on the menu, served with a horseradish mayo and chips/pickle again (also for $9.25). This one was good (not as good as the meatloaf, though), but probably not a repeat.

Now that the 2010 season is over for me (two games left on our schedule, but we'll be missing both of them for....future blog entry alert.....our upcoming trip to London), I'll have to wait until Spring to see what bison entrees are popping up next at the Friendly Confines.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stop 50

This past Sunday, the Hackknives made their annual summer pilgrimage to Stone Lake, a small, sandy bottom lake near Laporte, IN that Mrs. Hackknife fondly remembers visiting throughout her childhood. There's not much there other than a beach, small beachhouse, and playground, but it's good for small kids and we've enjoyed bringing ours there for a few hours each summer. This year, one of Mrs. Hackknife's colleagues at work highly recommended a pizza joint (called Stop 50) in nearby Michiana Shores, so we decided to make a detour there for dinner before heading home from the lake.

The place was a little hard to find. Our GPS was confused enough to have us turn across some railroad tracks where there was no crossing to be found. Luckily, a local gas station employee was able to point us in the right direction (she told me it was "back there in the trees"). Once we arrived, it was not exactly what I had expected. For those of you not familiar with Michiana Shores (it was my first visit, too), it appears to be a tiny Lake Michigan resort town perched on the Indiana side of the Michigan border catering mostly to moneyed Chicagoans (I noticed most of the license plates in the parking lot were from Illinois). The restaurant reflected this setting - instead of some roadhouse biker bar, it was small and actually quite upscale, clearly having been built within the last few years. If aliens were to transport the building to the middle of Lincoln Park, it would not look out of place.

Anyway, let's get to the food. While waiting in line for the men's room, I was quite surprised to see framed clippings from a March 2010 Rachael Ray magazine article listing this establishment (along with the likes of Great Lake and Burt's Pizza, two now-famous Chicago pizzerias known for their high-quality product and cantankerous owners) among the 4 top pizzerias in the Midwest. Normally, I would have picked up on this a long time ago via the local foodie media (well, maybe not since Rachael Ray is not exactly my idea of a respected food publication), but I missed this one somehow. In my humble opinion, the food lived up to the hype. We started with a platter of homemade breadsticks, charred to perfection in the wood-burning oven and served with house marinara sauce. Given that we were starving from having been out in the sun all afternoon, we probably would have eaten cardboard, but this was much better. Following that, the missus and I split a huge house salad, also very good. We ordered a margherita pizza (no basil) for the kids and a prosciutto, pistachio, mozzarella, and rosemary pizza for us, both of which were outstanding. Hackknife Jr. had been promised a dessert and he chose the Stop 50 S'mores, a giant marshmallow-and-chocolate platter melted in the wood-burning oven, which he promptly declared that he didn't like, leaving the remainder for Mrs. Hackknife, Hackknifette, and I to scarf up like vultures.

My sole word of caution is that you should be prepared for a table wait (again, it's a small, but popular place) and a decent wait for your pizza (they can only cook them one at a time in the wood-burning oven), which can be trouble if you're with hungry, tired kids (I speak from experience here). However, if you are in the area and are not in a terrible hurry, you must stop for pizza here. Don't argue with me. ...

Rolled Stuffed Eggplant/Tomato, Corn, & Lime Risotto

Our first-ever farmbox eggplant showed up the other day. I'd worked with eggplant only once before when I tried a simple recipe I found in a big pasta cookbook from the commissary library. My recollection is that I had to salt the eggplant slices, let them sit for half an hour, and press out the moisture so that any bitterness was removed. Given the level of prep involved, the resulting dish was not really worth it.

Fast forward to now. While looking for eggplant recipes in Joy of Cooking, I learn that you only have to do the whole salting-and-sitting routine if the eggplant is old. Ok, I thought, farmbox eggplant is probably a lot fresher than what I can get at Large Corporate Supermarket, so I can skip that step. Amazingly, it (or not doing it, rather) worked! The eggplant in my dish (rolled stuffed eggplant) was good and not the least bit bitter. Here's the recipe in case you're interested:

3/4 c. shredded provolone or mozzarella cheese
3/4 c. ricotta cheese
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh marjoram or basil
1 sm. clove garlic, minced
1 lg. eggplant (about 1 1/4 lb)
extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F. Lightly oil a glass baking dish. Combine all of the above ingredients (other than eggplant and olive oil) in a bowl until well mixed. Cut eggplant lengthwise into 1/4" thick slices. Brush both sides of slices with olive oil and cook in a skillet until golden, about 5 minutes per side. Remove slices to a platter until cool. Spread a mound of cheese mixture at the base of each eggplant slice, then roll it up. Arrange the rolls in the baking dish seam side down. Cover the dish with foil and bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Serve w/your favorite tomato sauce.

At the end of the day, the eggplant rolls taste a lot like lasagna, with the noodle part being replaced by the eggplant (obviously). For a side dish, I found this great risotto recipe, also in Joy of Cooking. It jumped out at me since it involves sweet corn and basil, two things I had on hand and was looking to use up. For those of you unfamiliar w/risotto, it mostly requires standing at the stove and stirring for about an hour, but the extra effort is worth it. Molto bene....

1 c. diced seeded peeled ripe tomatoes (I used canned w/liquid drained)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp. salt or to taste
5 c. chicken stock or broth
2 c. corn kernels
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 c. finely chopped scallions (white part only)
1 1/2 c. arborio rice
1/2 c. dry white wine
grated Parmesan cheese

Combine tomatoes, basil, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Bring chicken stock to a simmer in a saucepan. Puree 1 c. of corn kernels in a food processor. Heat butter in a large, heavy saucepan or dutch oven until the foam subsides. Add scallions and cook, stirring until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat with butter. Add white wine and stir constantly until absorbed. Add 1 c. of the simmering stock and stir constantly over medium-low heat until absorbed. Add remaining stock, 1/2 c. at a time, stirring constantly until the liquid is almost absorbed before adding more. After 15 minutes, stir in pureed corn and another 1/2 c. stock. Continue cooking, stirring, and adding stock in 1/2 c. intervals until all stock has been added. Once rice is tender, but slightly firm in the center, add remaining corn and tomato mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

I have to mention that the risotto got better and better upon sitting in the fridge for a couple of days. Ahh...the magic of decay.....

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jalapeno Poppers

As stated previously in this blog (I can't remember exactly when), one of the fun things about getting a weekly farmbox of produce is that you're not really sure what you're getting from one week to the next. Case in point - in our box a few weeks ago was a bag of 7 fresh jalapeno peppers (among other items). Now, I like jalapenos and even have a few recipes where I can use one or two (chili or salsa, for example), but 7 is a bit much. Not being culinary school-trained, the only applicable prep idea that my feeble mind could generate was jalapeno poppers. Not surprisingly, there are many, many recipes for poppers out there in a whole range of forms. I happened to choose one from a website called Jalapeno Cafe, in and of itself a treasure trove of recipes devoted to the humble jalapeno pepper (jalapeno ice cream? really?). Anyway, I chose this specific prep because 1) it's baked, not fried - having just deep-fried a whole chicken a few days earlier, I wasn't really in the mood for more egregious frying in the commissary and 2) it's pretty straightforward, at least on paper.

On cooking day, I bought 3 more peppers, giving me a total of 10 for the recipe (as directed). I sliced them in half and removed the seeds/membranes - this actually was the hardest part as it was a little time-consuming and (as I soon discovered) ultimately really hard on the hands. The funny thing about repeatedly dousing your fingers in spicy pepper juice is that it starts to sting after a little while and continues to do so intermittently for the next 12-18 hours, no matter how many times you wash them (I'm sure my kids thought me insane watching me shake my hands jazz-dancing style for the rest of the evening). Running them under cold water did bring relief, albeit temporary. Note to self: next time, wear gloves.

The popper filling was a mixture of crumbled bacon (real bacon, not the turkey stuff we often use here), cream cheese, Italian seasoning, and shredded cheddar. As my cream cheese wasn't soft enough to stir, I had to use my (tingling) hands to mix it up, but this proved to be a better technique anyway since I could shape/form the packets of filling by hand to better fit each jalapeno half. After that came dunking in flour, then egg, then dredging in bread crumbs. I didn't realize until I was in the weeds that the recipe left out a step, that is, the egg-dunking one (it mentions mixing up the egg and milk, but oddly omits it from the rest of the instructions), so I needed a little trial-and-error to figure out that egg-dunking went in-between the flour and bread crumbs.

Drum roll, please.......the finished poppers were very good, some even great, although the heat level varied significantly from popper to popper. Mrs. Hackknife and I enjoyed them with both carne asada one night and a potato skillet another night. Given the level of effort involved in making them and the spicy nature, however, I think we'll reserve these as an appetizer for the next fight night. Here's the recipe: popper recipe.

Fried Spaghetti

Now that summer is coming to a close and the kids are returning to school, the Hackknife Commissary is once again ramping up production after a few months of relative hiatus. This recipe is another in the pile that we received from Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Glen via his old-world Italian cooking instructor. I've read in a couple of different places that some Italian restaurants pan-fry the uncooked noodles prior to boiling them, presumably to add flavor depth just like you would anything else. The prep is very simple - I monkeyed with it a bit since I had a few ingredients I was trying to use up (an extra green pepper, yellow onion in lieu of green onions, and chicken broth instead of water - hey, if the Top Chef contestants can cook everything in broth, so can I). Overall, the final dish was ok, but it could have used a little pizazz (in fact, it was better reheated at lunchtime after a couple of days spent aging in the fridge), although Mrs. Hackknife noted that the pasta tasted "more like homemade" instead of coming out of a box (I'm guessing that the frying helped). Glen wrote in his recipe that he'll sometimes add a meat (like sausage) and some additional vegetables to spice it up, so we'll try that next time.

3 Tbsp. olive oil (I used extra virgin)
2 chopped green onions
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 lb. uncooked spaghetti
1 can (14 oz.) diced Italian style tomatoes
hot red pepper flakes
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil or 1 Tbsp. dry basil
grated Parmesan cheese

In large skillet, cook onions and garlic in 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium high heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove onion and garlic from pan. Add remaining 2 Tbsp. of olive oil to pan. Break spaghetti in half and add to pan, stirring constantly until golden brown (about 5 minutes). Add tomatoes and one can of water to pan. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in reserved onion and garlic, red pepper flakes, basil, and any other optional ingredients. Cover and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.