Monday, February 22, 2010

Birthday Party Debrief/Fruit Salsa Recipe

Well, we all managed to survive Hackknifette's first birthday party on Saturday without any major mishaps, injuries, or broken household goods in spite of the 40-odd people crammed into our family room (although whoever managed to get chocolate cake frosting on the powder room grout, I am sincerely puzzled about your eating habits). After careful consideration, we opted to go with Parmesan's in Frankfort for our catering over our old standby (Portillo's), not because we are unhappy with Italian beef/sausage, but because Mrs. Hackknife wanted to go a little more upscale this year. This was a good choice as we got many compliments on the food, which included Chicken Francaise (basically chicken in cream sauce), Roast Pork Calvados w/apples (also in cream sauce), mostaccioli, sausage/peppers, and rolls. Everybody seemed full and happy, plus we ended up with a ton of leftovers that I am now trying to distribute amongst friends/family.

As far as food made by us, there was very little outside of a few appetizers. The biggest hit was the fruit salsa and chips. This was a happy accident - I originally found a recipe for salmon burgers w/warm fruit salsa in a Delicious Living magazine while waiting in the doctor's office (I rarely pass up an opportunity to bring strange recipes home) and decided to try it. The salmon burgers were pretty bad, but the salsa was surprisingly good with tortilla chips, so we gave it a go. I'll include a link to the recipe here, just be sure to ignore the salmon burger part of it Fruit Salsa Recipe. If you do try it, make sure you get the frozen sweetened strawberries (I'm not sure if there is an "unsweetened" variety, but I think it would make a difference).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fried Chicken & Buttermilk Rolls

I'm not quite sure what compelled me to try this real live Sunday-style dinner for the family, but it seemed like as good a time as any. Let's start with the rolls (which I actually thought were biscuits until the finished product emerged from the oven - oh well, minor detail). Having recently read TheMidwestTexan's April '09 posting about using a breadmaker, I was inspired to dust off our own breadmaker that has more or less been decaying away in the furnace room downstairs since we moved in and see what it could do. I churned out a perfectly adequate 1-lb French bread as a test case on Friday (made mighty good toast & jam on Sat. morning), so I felt pretty good about attempting the back-of-the-yeast-package buttermilk roll recipe to go with my chicken Roll Recipe. By using the "dough" setting on the breadmaker, it was pretty painless to churn out a dozen rolls that were not bad, if not a little, well, doughy. Next time, I would like to do biscuits for real, even if it means bypassing the breadmaker altogether (although I'll use it if I can).

As far as the chicken (see Tupperware-encased result above), this was a little more involved. The recipe as relayed to me from my stepmom is one of Barefoot Contessa's; however, I've heard through the grapevine that it's also a variation on the chicken that my elderly Aunt Annie in Ohio used to make, in which you quick-fry the pieces, then finish them in the oven. First, I soaked the chicken (12 pieces in all) in a cold water-salt bath for about 30 minutes to brine, then dumped them in a big bowl, covered them with buttermilk, and let them tenderize overnight in the fridge. When Sunday afternoon arrived, I let the chicken pieces drain on wire racks for about 15 minutes to drip off the excess buttermilk, lightly breaded them with a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika, then threw them in the electric frypan for about 5 minutes each side. One unexpected hitch: my electric frypan wasn't deep enough to hold the 2 inches of oil that the recipe specified (about an inch was all I could get in there). I had planned on frying the pieces in 2 batches, but when I started adding them to the hot oil, I realized that the oil level was rising ever-so-closer to the top of the pan with each added piece, thus conjuring images of boiling-hot oil dumping all over the counter and down into the cabinets (I have already had an incident where I overflowed a few cups of semi-completed carrot soup from my food processor into my spice cabinet, so I am leery of repeat incidents, and as bad as that one was, this would have been much, much worse). As a result, I had to do more batches of fewer pieces to prevent spillage. And I have to admit, I'm not entirely comfortable yet working with 325F oil in close proximity to my body, as I felt the need to do the sign of the cross each time I lifted the pan lid and moved chicken in/out of the bubbling cauldron. Luckily, no skin grafts were needed this time.

After baking the quick-fried chicken for 45 minutes at 350F, everything was done. The end result was not the best I've ever had (hardly - most of my family that has made this dish seems to do it better), but it wasn't bad for a first-timer. Plus, we still have the leftovers to last us through the week.

Friday, February 12, 2010

House Chili

Now that we're in the dead of Winter and three of the four of us (well, two of the three of us not eating baby food in the household, that is) are suffering from colds, I decided to whip up a batch of Commissary Chili for dinner tonight. Our house recipe is my mother-in-law's with a few minor tweaks I made. I realize that just about everyone has a favorite chili recipe, so I'm not going to act like ours is cream of the crop, but it's hearty, satisfying, pretty healthy (especially since I usually use ground turkey instead of ground beef), and easy to make when you've got two young-uns vying for your constant attention (Hackknifette has now taken to head-butting my calves when she isn't getting picked up fast enough - I wonder if Emeril ever had to deal with THAT in his kitchen while cooking). I usually serve this with whatever accompaniments we have on hand (shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped green onions, oyster crackers, hot sauce, etc.) and a batch of Jiffy cornbread.

1 lb. ground beef or ground turkey
2 16 oz. cans dark red kidney beans (do not drain)
1 16 oz. can diced tomatoes (do not drain) - use the chili style if you can find it
1 green pepper, chopped
1 sm. onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1-2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin

Brown meat in a large skillet and drain off fat (if you use turkey, you can probably skip the drain part as there's little grease in the pan). Mix together remaining ingredients in a large pot. Add browned meat and mix well. Add one can of water and bring mixture to a boil. Simmer for at least 90 minutes (you can add a little more water during simmer if needed).

Stay tuned - on Sunday, I'm going to attempt for the first time the family fried chicken recipe and buttermilk biscuits....

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Special Report - Death Dip Declared Fabulous

Ok, I was expecting to write about making short ribs in this post, but I've had a culinary epiphany that booted the ribs to the back burner. Whilst searching for a interesting appetizer recipe to make for UFC fight night at Kurt B.'s house this past Saturday, I stumbled across this one for Disappearing Buffalo Chicken Dip in the coupon section of the Sunday paper Dip Recipe. Now, I don't usually poach recipes from the paper (let alone ones from the coupons, which tend to feature such gastronomical wonder products as Campbell's Soup and Ritz Crackers), but this one looked good, had serious man-fight night appeal, and was practically idiot-proof, so I clipped it. It turned out to be a minor hit at the get-together - 3/4 of it was consumed between 4 guys and one spouse who lingered downstairs to say hi. I brought the remainder of it at home and heated some up for a lunch accompaniment yesterday. WOW!! Even better after having a few days to gel/decay in my fridge!! I enjoyed it so much that I had to finish the rest at lunch today, thus violating my in-house rule of not repeating meals on consecutive days (What can I say? I'm only human).

Now, mind you, this is not exactly health food - in fact, I shudder to think about the amount of fat/calories/cholesterol/sodium I've taken in over the past week as a result of this death dip, what with the whole cup of mayo and the two kinds of cheese (shredded cheddar and crumbled blue) and the Tyson pre-fab diced chicken and the 1/4 cup of hot sauce and even the leftover single slice of turkey bacon that I just had to throw in there so I could use it up (I feel so dirty). However, the sheer enjoyment far outweighed the number of days/weeks that I probably shaved off my lifespan (you know what they's not the years in your life, etc.). I'm already concocting a more guilt-free version (canola or olive oil-based mayo? reduced fat-cheddar? less hot sauce?) for the next appropriate event. Sublime....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

ENO Bar - Wine, Cheese, & Chocolate

This past Friday night, the commissary closed early so that Mrs. Hackknife and I could spend an evening in the big city doing big city things. First, we attended a tour and reception at our local National Public Radio affiliate studio on Navy Pier (luckily, I had a few minutes before the event started to sneak across the hall to Billy Goat Tavern for a quick cheezborger and Billy Goat dark lager). Afterwards, we headed over to a swanky nearby club (the kind which on a normal Friday night would be hosting a demographic that is a full level younger than us) for a Starlight charity benefit to support a friend auctioning off a prize package. I was given strict instructions to drive up bidding on his basketball-themed package (which included 2 Final 4 tickets and dinner w/Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings, among other things) and I didn't disappoint - I told Mrs. Hackknife that I wouldn't bid higher than $1,200, then couldn't resist seeing her reaction when I made another unexpected bid at $2,000 (she was amazingly nonplussed for the most part). Luckily, we didn't end up having to pony up (the winning bid was $2,300), thus avoiding the dilemma of having to find someone to come with me to St. Louis to watch 9 games of the Missouri Valley Conference Post-Season Tournament (another part of the package, which would have included such stellar potential match-ups as Evansville vs. SW. Mo. St.).

Anyway, getting to the real reason for this post - before heading home empty handed, we stopped on Michigan Avenue at a place I've been wanting to check out since it arrived a few years back. In the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel is a small wine bar specializing in pairings with cheeses, cured meats, and chocolate (what's not to like, right?) called ENO Bar ENO Bar. It wasn't particularly crowded for a Friday night and may be slightly suffering from the effects of a new pork-and-wine type joint now open immediately across the street (Purple Pig, which will likely be the subject of a future posting when we get there). After perusing the menu, we settled on a combination platter of three different meats/cheeses that also included some nuts, bread slices, spicy mustard, some raspberry jam, and four small chocolates (the remnants of said platter can be seen in the photo above). The cheeses were a variety of hard sheep's milk, a triple cream (this means triple artery-clogging, but also triple tasty), and something else that wasn't bad (note to self: starting taking better notes if I'm going to be blogging about restaurant food). Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a glass of Spanish red blend wine, while I tried an off-dry (semi-sweet) white from Washington State that had marsanne, rousanne, and pinot gris in it. All in all, the food and wine were enjoyable, but not outstanding and definitely not as good of a value as our favorite wine bar in town (Randolph Street Wine Cellars) as they probably have to jack up the prices a couple of bucks to pay for the Magnificent Mile location.

In summary, decent place, not bad to stop by if you're in the neighborhood or looking for a low-key snack w/friends, but probably not a destination unto itself.

Friday, February 5, 2010

CSA Renewal

No, I'm not calling for a new Confederacy in the Southern US, it's time for us to re-up with our local Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) provider. If you're not familiar with this term, CSA is a concept by which you can receive naturally grown, farm-fresh produce from a farmer in your area for a monthly (or, in our case, seasonal) fee. I'm not sure where exactly I first heard about it, but I think I read about it in a magazine sometime around last Summer. Now, I don't profess to be a hard-core green living enthusiast or against large-scale, corporate farming (after all, we do enjoy a good Big Mac around here); I did, however, like the idea of getting really fresh fruit and veggies grown within 100 miles of the homestead, so (with approval from Mrs. Hackknife) I signed us up for the past Fall season. During the warmer months, I like to frequent the area farmer's markets in search of good produce, but making the time to get over there with (or without) the kids can definitely be challenging. With our CSA membership, I only have to trek once a week to a nearby drop point to pick up my box of stuff and bring it home.

Our CSA provider is Genesis Growers near St. Anne (not far from Kankakee) Genesis Growers. There weren't a whole lot of options to choose from in the immediate area, but apparently I picked a well-regarded one since I later found out they also supply produce to a number of good restaurants in town (including Great Lakes Pizza, a Hackknife favorite). Once we signed up, on Wednesdays I would get an email from Genesis talking about what was happening at the farm, listing the fruit/veggies that we would be receiving in our box that week, and even a recipe or serving suggestion sometimes. On Thursdays after 1 pm, I would drive to a nearby carpet store (only 5 minutes from the house) to pick up the shipment. Why a carpet store? Well, they have an attached, marginally temp-controlled warehouse that Genesis identified as a good drop point, so they became a participating partner in this whole endeavor (and probably are getting a cut of the action - either $$$ or onions).

(Side note - I always imagine the hipsters working in the carpet store making snide comments about the tree huggers, health nuts, conspiracy theorists, etc. passing through their showroom on Thursdays to get their produce boxes. Since I'm usually in my grungy, unshaven stay-at-home parent persona when I go there, I wonder if they think I just live in my minivan or something. I'd love to be a fly on the wall.)

Once I got the box home, it was time to figure out what to do with the newfound bounty on my counter (believe me, $225 for 6 weeks buys you A LOT of farm veggies, usually more than we could comfortably use). I had to get creative with those items (carrots, squash, and onions, mostly) that we typically received in large quantities (carrot muffins, anyone?) and got a chance to work with several items that I'd never tried before (kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, beets, various strange greens). Luckily, my Joy of Cooking book has recipes for just about every vegetable that's ever been invented. I found that I kind of enjoyed planning dishes around the ingredients that were provided to me as opposed to the other way around, which, at the end of the day, will probably make me a better home cook.

We should only be a month or so away from our first shipment of Spring produce, so I'll definitely be posting about it when the time comes. Cheers....

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Oven Fry Wars

We here at the Hackknife Commissary are always looking for new ways to showcase the humble yet satisfying Russet potato. I'll often nuke a couple of them to get a quick-and-dirty baked potato on the plate or throw together some garlic mashed (which, unfortunately, is a little high-maintenance for a weeknight), but the family tends to prefer something with a little more pizazz. At the moment, my go-to oven fries recipe can be found on the back of the Lipton onion soup mix box Lipton Onion Roasted Potatoes - it's quick (you mix the ingredients in a Ziploc and throw it on a baking sheet), tasty, and relatively healthy except for the high sodium content of the soup mix. As of tonight, however, I think I may have a worthy challenger....

Santa was kind enough to bring me a Tyler Florence cookbook for Xmas this year (most of my gifts were food-themed, actually, but that's probably material for another slow day). This particular cookbook (entitled "The Ultimate") claims to contain simple recipes that turn out amazingly well (my dad and stepmom in Florida, who are very accomplished home cooks, swear by anything with TF's imprint on it). I've now attempted 4 recipes from this book and have found that 3 of the 4 live up to the published billing (and I'm willing to concede that the 4th one might have come up short due to, um, operator error). This evening seemed the perfect time to audition Tyler's oven fries recipe Parmesan Oven Fries, as I was looking for a starch to go with our standby house roasted chicken. It's about as easy as Lipton's: cut your potatoes into thick wedges, mix them with olive oil and salt, roast at 425F for 35 minutes, then add fresh parsley and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. That's it. Getting the cheese can be a little tricky - PR is somewhat expensive (about $12/pound) and you'll likely need to locate your friendly neighborhood Italian market or cheese shop to find it, but it's well worth the trouble (because, hey, extra cheese for snacking). Anyway, other than the fine aromatic haze permeating the Hackkife household due to the high-temp use of olive oil (another future topic), I was pleased with the final product. Even the notoriously-fussy Hackknife Jr. ate a whole potato wedge, which really should be my ultimate (no pun intended) seal of approval. I also found an extra bonus while cleaning up - the mixed-up conglomeration of parsley, grated cheese, and olive oil that remained in the mixing bowl was ever-so-tasty (no, I don't feel any shame over that).

Next step: showcase the new oven fries recipe for Mrs. Hackknife when she returns from Iowa and let her weigh in. Until then....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Homemade Bread Recipe

As I sit down to write my first non-introductory posting, I try to draw upon all of the food-related thoughts and ideas I had for postings before I actually started this blog, the things that got me so excited in the first place to do this, and I finally come up with.....nothing. This crucial posting that is supposed to lure new readers in with sparkling commentary and entice them to follow along in the future instead of dismissing this whole venture as cat feces is, sadly, ridiculously underwhelming. To be frank, there really just wasn't anything culinary happening in the household today. We're stuck inside eating leftovers while Hackknife Jr. (my 4-year old) suffers through another cold (his 3rd already in 2010). No cooking, no new recipes, no new dining out plans, etc. Hopefully, I won't encounter a lot of these days; otherwise, this blog will be 6 feet under before the bagged salad in my crisper drawer turns brown.

Anyway, as a substitute for real commentary, I've decided to thrown in a link to my favorite (and, well, only) recipe for fresh bread, which I cribbed from a Men's Journal magazine: Bread Recipe. I've made this 4 times now and it's turned out to be pretty good and laughably simple, two things that are important when you're used to Wonder doing most of the bread making in the household. One item of note - scanning the reader comments on the MJ website, someone states that the amount of yeast listed in the recipe is actually a misprint (it should be 1/4 oz. or a whole yeast packet instead of 1/4 teaspoon), which, of course, completely escaped my baking-challenged mind. Could it be that this change will actually make the final product even better? I'll have to see next time...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Greetings and Salutations

This is the inaugural posting in what I hope to be a somewhat-amusing look at the notable minutiae of my life from a strictly culinary point of view. Why am I doing this? And why should anyone care? Admittedly, those are fair questions. If nothing else, the blog will give me a handy record of the recipes attempted here at the Hackknife Commissary (i.e., our kitchen), successes and failures of said recipes, foods tried, restaurants visited, and general thoughts about that which physically sustains our bodies 3 (or more) times daily. If someone out there reads what's here and picks up a useful bit of information, has a chuckle, or otherwise feels like their time wasn't completely wasted by checking it out, all the better (and if it was a waste of time, I apologize in advance). I would like food to be the main topic of focus, but there will probably also be related musings on drink, travel, soccerwatching (my other hobby/unhealthy obsession), and, of course, parenting, as that is my full-time job when I'm not burning something in the oven.

So what are my qualifications? Well, first and foremost, I love to eat and am fortunate to be among people that also love to eat, so I have ample opportunity to have many good (and sometimes great) meals. Since we started dating, my lovely wife (Mrs. Hackknife) and I have developed a passion for trying all different types of cuisines and restaurants (from white tablecloth to White Castle) and we have mostly enjoyed all of them. About 5 years ago, I picked up a sudden interest in wine and made that something of a hobby, which then became the gateway drug to wine/food pairing and eventually, attempts at home cooking. Since I am mostly self-taught, I have had to rely on the many experienced home cooks in my extended family to help me achieve a very basic (hopefully improving over time) competency in the kitchen. Other than noodling around in the Commissary, my formal work experience in the food service industry is limited to 6 months at a deli and about a year and a half part-time in a local winery-restaurant tasting room, so no Cordon Bleu certificate here.

But I like to experiment, I like to write, and I like to share, and as much as I love my kids, I can't very well wax poetically about foie gras with a 4-year old who won't touch mashed potatoes - thus, here I am. Although cooking is something I will probably never master (can anyone?), I want to at least be able to consistently turn out meals under a variety of circumstances that make people (mostly Mrs. Hackknife and kids) happy. That's my aspiration - as far as inspiration, I look to Anthony Bourdain, Jim Harrison, and Bill Buford, all of whom showcase food and its prominent place in our culture/everyday lives via culinary journalism.

So with no further delay (consider this posting an amuse bouche), let's get started. My hope is to post something every day, but given daily parenting responsibilities, that may not happen. I'll do the best that I can under the circumstances.