Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NYC Food - Momofuku Ssam Bar/Milk Bar

Now that we're back in town and I've finally turned 38 after thinking for about two months that I was already 38, I wanted to begin a series of postings dedicated to the meals that we ate in NYC over the weekend. Overall, the trip met or exceeded all expectations from a culinary standpoint, with the additional weight from consumed calories offset by the mass of currency that disappeared from my wallet to pay for the extravaganza.

Let's start with the first stop on our foodie tour, which was Friday afternoon at Momofuku Ssam Bar. This restaurant is located in an unremarkable neighborhood in Manhattan's Bowery district and is a pretty small place. I had read stories of long waits for tables; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I were fortunate enough to get immediately seated at the bar. We struck up a conversation with an older couple next to us - they were also out-of-towners (lawyers from Dallas) that happened to be visiting New York on mainly food pretexts (it's reassuring to know that we're not the only mentally-unstable ones out there). Anyway, the wife and I opted for a plate of David Chang's famous steamed pork buns (w/hoisin sauce, cucumbers, and scallions) along with a bowl of Sichuan beef tendon (mixed with green mango and peanuts) and a side of Fuji apple kimchi (included jowl bacon, maple labne cheese, and arugula). The steamed buns were sublime, especially with a little of the house hot sauce on it. This was our first encounter with beef tendon and I have to say that I wasn't terribly impressed with it, but would be willing to give it another try elsewhere. The kimchi was sweet, tasty, and refreshing on a warm Spring day (as it was in NYC that Friday). I washed all of this down with a bottle of Korea's version of Bud (OB, which is just barely visible in the upper corner of the picture along with the bowl of tendon and the kimchi plate).

After polishing off our dishes, we inquired about how to best access the house bakery, called Momofuku Milk Bar. It turns out that you simply walk down a narrow passage from Ssam Bar past the kitchen and into the bakery, which is not big at all. Small operation, but BIG-TIME treats. The menu is loaded with cakes, cookies, breads, and pies, all of which looked and sounded decadent. The missus and I split a slice of crack pie (toasted oat crust, sweet butter/egg filling) and a large slice of chocolate malt cake (malted fudge, malted milk crumbs, charred marshmallows). Words fail to adequately describe the endorphins released into my system upon consuming these gifts from God. The bakery also serves up the steamed pork buns from next door (they do share a kitchen, you know), which means you could pretty much take up residence in Milk Bar and be free from want of anything except for maybe a Tums every now and then.

Up next....Friday night's visit to Peter Luger....

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Pat's Day Mini Feast

I am not Irish. Not even a little bit. During my childhood for reasons unbeknownst to me, my mom (God bless her) used to sing us some traditional Irish songs around St. Patrick's day. I have no idea where amongst her Italian/German heritage she would have learned them, but that doesn't matter right now. Anyway, until I married my wife, that was my only exposure to Irish culture. Mrs. Hackknife is part Irish on her mom's side and her family maintains a strong connection back to the Motherland, so I have learned out of necessity to cook a corned beef as part of our St. Pat's festivities (although my mother-in-law shared with me just today that HER mother never even cooked corned beef, so I'm starting to get this bamboozled feeling over here). It's a crock-pot recipe, which makes it extremely simple and pretty much idiot-proof: Corned Beef Recipe.

A few months ago, I became the proud owner of a secondhand Irish cookbook entitled "Ireland - Grand Places, Glorious Food" that mostly contained old-school, French-inspired dishes such as Sauteed Lamb Kidneys with Bacon and Mange-Trout (read: too complex for me to attempt at this point in my foodie education). One of them, however, is for a simple soda bread (Granny O'Sullivan's Brown Bread) that is actually amazingly easy and not particularly bad:

1 1/2 cups coarse brown (I use whole wheat) flour
1/2 cup white (I use bread) flour
2 heaping tablespoons oatmeal
2 heaping tablespoons bran flakes (or raisin bran if you want raisins in it)
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 pint buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400F. Mix all dry ingredients together and blend in butter (I use a pastry cutter for this). Make a hollow in the center and pour in buttermilk. Mix until dough is fairly moist. Pour into a greased/floured round baking pan and bake for 45 minutes.

I tried this when I first got the book and rolled it out again to go with our corned beef. For dessert, I found a tasty-looking recipe for a Murphy's and Bailey's no-bake cheesecake that I couldn't resist trying. As this was my first-ever cheesecake, I ran into a few problems. First, I couldn't find Murphy's at my local grocery and didn't have time to run around town looking for it, so I had to settle on Guinness Extra Stout. Second, the crust part of the recipe calls for using a 9" round springform pan (I don't know what this is and certainly don't have one in the Hackknife Commissary), so I wimped out and bought a pre-made Keebler crust. Last but not least, I was unable to successfully produce a thick syrup for the mixture as specified in the recipe by cooking the beer with brown sugar in a saucepan. No matter how long I cooked it, my "syrup" basically ended up being runny beer mixed with sugar. After an hour and 15 minutes (the recipe estimated 20 minutes), I had to give up and assemble the thing since it needed 4 hours in the fridge to set before serving. Surprisingly, the end result wasn't completely inedible, although it could have used a chaser to help get it down the throat (VERY potent). Unlike most cheesecakes, which are fluffy, this one was more custard-y. It did actually get better upon aging in the fridge for a few days. Here's the recipe if you're willing to attempt it: Cheesecake Recipe.

Erin Go Brah! Please take care driving home from your seder (whoops, wrong holiday)....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

(Food) Trip to NYC

After considerable whining on my part to Mrs. Hackknife about how we were overdue to take an adults-only trip (our last voyage without the kids goes back to Sept. 2008 when I tagged along to Paris on one of my wife's business trips), we made the decision back in January to visit New York City next weekend (3/19-3/21). Although Mrs. Hackknife frequently goes there for work, I have only been there three times, all of the trips predating my current unhealthy obsession with all things culinary (my earlier goals consisted of seeing Yankee Stadium, excessive drinking, and avoiding muggings to the best of my abilities). As it's generally accepted that NYC is the Mecca of fine dining in America, you can imagine the wild, hare-brained, poverty-inducing ideas that first popped into my skull about what we could potentially eat on this fantastic voyage, a veritable 48-hour orgy of food porn. After lying down with a cold compress and letting my blood pressure return to AMA-recommended levels, I scaled back my ambitions somewhat to prevent us from becoming, well, overwhelmed by the cornucopia at our feet. Here is a summary of my more-modest dining itinerary for the trip:

Friday afternoon - Arrive at LaGuardia and check into hotel near Times Square. Proceed immediately to Momofuku Ssam Bar/Momofuku Milk Bar in East Village and get in line with other hungry hopefuls hoping to eat lunch before 3 pm. These two food joints are David Chang's lowbrow eateries specializing in Korean-inspired street cuisine (such as steamed pork buns) and unpretentious desserts (such as a butter-filled, toasted-oat crust monstrosity called "crack pie"), respectively. Sit on curb following meal and attempt to convince bloated frame to cab up to Met for some art viewing before dinner.

Friday evening - Meet up with friends/local fixers Adam and Ellen for drinks, preferably in a historic watering hole such as McSorley's Old Ale House (open since 1854, proudly admitting women since forced by Supreme Court in 1970) or White Horse Tavern. Proceed via any means necessary to Brooklyn for dinner at Peter Luger Steakhouse (established 1887). Luger's has a reputation for being customer-unfriendly (no credit cards, limited menu) and has been pegged by no less an expert than Anthony Bourdain as being overrated, however, neither Mrs. Hackknife or I have ever been there and we can't resist trying it ourselves.

Saturday morning - No idea. Can't possibly fathom eating breakfast even this far in advance of trip. Granola bar? Cup of water?

Saturday afternoon - Don sport coat and proceed via cab to Columbus Circle for noon reservation at celebrated Thomas Keller temple of fine dining Per Se. I attempted to get us in here on a total whim (one blogger I read mentioned needing "divine intervention" to secure a table), calling exactly 2 months before our desired reservation when the phone lines opened at 10 am EST. I sat on hold for 30 minutes before giving up on a Friday table, then attempted again the next day and was rewarded 28 minutes into my call (2 minutes from hanging up again) with an actual person answering this time and an open lunchtime slot. Remember to bring AmEx and credit report.

Saturday evening - Stop by Parker-Meridian hotel for a burger in NYC's top burger joint (a place called "Burger Joint" as luck would have it). It comes highly recommended by Adam and would seem to be the perfect counterpoint to the highly-stylized, impeccably-prepared meal enjoyed earlier at Per Se. Plus, it's probably about $165/person cheaper. Backup plan - Gray's Papaya for hot dogs.

Sunday morning - Again ponder how breakfast would even be possible. Meet up with Adam and Ellen one more time for dim sum in Chinatown at 11 am.

Sunday afternoon - Waddle towards flight check-in desk at LaGuardia. Laugh when agent suggests purchasing a second seat for newfound girth, then stop laughing when I realize that she's not kidding.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tinley Park VFW Fish Fry

For those of you not Catholic or from the Midwest (actually, I don't think any of my 3 blog followers meet that description, but read on anyway), Lent is fish fry season around here. Our local fish fry is held every Friday night at the Tinley Park VFW hall during Lent. My in-laws are big enough fans that they don't usually miss it; with the kids, however, we're fortunately to make it there once or twice a year. This past Friday night (3/5), everyone was healthy enough to meet up with Opa and Grandma for a little fried goodness.

As always, the menu consists of soups (tomato and vegetable), salad, unlimited amounts of fries, cod, ocean perch, catfish, fried chicken, bread, and a couple of different kinds of pound cake for dessert. Your dining dollar goes pretty far here as it costs only $10 for adults and kids under 5 eat free. This year, I opted to try the vegetable soup, which was extremely hot (I think I removed about 3 layers of my tongue with the first spoonful), but ultimately very tasty once it had about 15 minutes to cool down. I managed to shake off my injury to get down some salad, fries, and one each of the three fish types, with the perch being my slight favorite over the catfish. After a little blueberry pound cake, I was stuffed to the gills and ready to sit back and take in the rest of the scene.

The crowd mostly consists of families and elderly veterans with their elderly spouses - real salt-of-the-Earth folks that we don't often get the opportunity to mingle with. There's always a gentleman with a table in the corner selling military clothing, POW paraphernalia, etc. and beer-and-shot drinkers wandering in from the attached bar to reload their plates. The scene is one of patriotic America, the likes of which have been slowly disappearing for many years. I, for one, am glad that we can still be a part of this little piece of local tradition, even if it only comes around 6 weeks out of every year, and I hope that it endures long enough for my kids to eventually be old enough to appreciate it a little.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Garden-Variety Turkey

About once a year, Deacon MacFarland and his wife Theresa ask several of us volunteers from church to cook up turkeys for the local homeless shelter. When we agreed to do this last year for the first time, I was a little hesitant, but upon reflection, I thought "Hey, what better way to practice turkey cooking than on people who are not family/friends and when there's no holiday meal on the line to screw up"? I got the call for our second go-round this past week. Based on last year's success, I felt much better about things this time. You can see the end result above.

Yes, it strikes me too that the wings are albino pale, while the rest of the bird is nicely browned, but we carve up the bird before bringing it to the shelter, so the recipients won't see that (and probably wouldn't care anyway, God bless 'em). I actually feel good enough about cooking turkeys now that I'd be willing to attempt a holiday one when the stakes are much higher. For those of you interested, I used my mom's turkey recipe as follows:

1. Remove innards from cavity and rinse/dry bird inside and out (note: this was the most challenging part of my prep today as Hackknifette decided she needed to be picked up at the exact moment I was elbow-deep in salmonella-ridden flesh).

2. Place turkey on roasting rack in roasting pan (I used a large disposable foil one you get at the store for about 4 bucks). For ease of maneuverability, I put the foil pan on a cookie sheet.

3. Season bird w/salt and pepper. Brush outer skin w/a half-stick of melted butter.

4. Pour basting liquid into bottom of pan. My mom's basting liquid consists of 3/4 cup EACH white wine, 7-Up, and water, which works for about a 15-lb bird.

5. Cover bird w/foil and poke a couple of holes in it to let steam escape.

6. Roast for 2 hours at 325F. Remove foil and baste w/liquid in bottom of pan about every 20-30 minutes until bird is browned and done (in my case, about another 1.5 hr after removing the foil).

7. Let sit for 1 hour after taking it out of the oven. Carve up and try to resist eating large quantities while bagging up, all the while chanting "you ingrate, this is for hungry people, not you".

That's all. Stayed tuned for a full report from the local VFW Lenten fish fry tomorrow night......

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bobby Flay's Chicken and Peppers in Vinegar Sauce

After a week spent dealing with household illnesses (Hackknife Jr. had a fever virus for 4 days and I had a lousy head cold until yesterday) and moping over massive athletic misfortune (Team USA's hockey loss, my Boilers losing Robbie Hummel for the season with a torn ACL, thus torpedoing their best chance in 20 years for a Final 4 run, and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey suffering a gruesome double-broken leg in a victory at Stoke City), it was time to dust off my apron and head back to the kitchen. Tomorrow, we will be attempting Bobby Flay's Chicken and Peppers in Vinegar Sauce at the commissaryBobby Flay Recipe. This is yet another potential low-brow recipe found in this past Sunday's Parade Magazine insert that caught my attention, mostly because I have a bunch of Costco chicken thighs in the freezer just waiting for the right vehicle of expression. I'm going to pair it with a low-brow side dish, the ever-present Betty Crocker box of cheesy scalloped potatoes.

Later in the week, we'll be trying TheMidwestTexan's hawaiian bread recipe in the official commissary breadmaker. After reading several of her recent food-related postings, she's clearly set the bar pretty high for farm-to-table food prep skill, both for game and garden ingredients. I aspire to someday reach similar heights in that regard, although it might be a little challenging given that we don't have many deer or pheasants running through the subdivision like they do in rural Iowa. In any case, I believe I've found an additional source of culinary inspiration.....