Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Two Brothers Brewing Co.

This past Saturday afternoon, instead of doing yardwork outside the commissary or hanging out with the Hackknife family like I should be, I attended the second meeting of the newly-formed local beer enthusiast society, whose members consist of myself, my brother-in-law Dan, my cousin-in-law Bobby, and anyone else seeking enlightenment from hops and barley-based beverages. Our first get-together took us to the much-feted Three Floyds Brewery/Brewpub in Munster, IN last February and was deemed so successful by the attendees that we decided to make this event a semi-regular occurrence.

We kept our latest trip on the Illinois side of the border this time, traveling up to Warrenville, the home of Two Brothers Brewing Company. As with Three Floyds, Two Brothers is located in a nondescript area of a industrial park, making it somewhat challenging to find. Once there, however, the taps flowed and much enjoyment was, well, enjoyed. Leading our (free!) tour through the factory was restaurant GM Gabe, who may very well have a future career as a stand-up comedian someday. We received the full story of how the two brothers (Jim and Jason Ebel) got the business started and how it has evolved into the well-respected microbrew operation that it is today. Overall, I'd say the tour was more laid-back than the one we took at Three Floyds, with much humor, knowledge, and encouragement of beer consumption during the tour.

One attendee commented on how having a Two Brothers beer in Minnesota "changed his life", thus compelling him to visit the source. Although I'm not willing to go that far, I felt like the beers were very good, good enough for me to pick up a 24-bottle sample pack at Costco today (a crazy-ass good deal at $23.99, just like Gabe said) for drinking around the commissary after dinner service has concluded and the progeny are sound asleep. As I write this posting, I'm sipping a Bitter End pale ale, which is quite nice and mellow. I'm looking forward to cracking open a Cane and Ebel red rye ale (my personal favorite) and a Domaine Dupage French country ale at some later blogging date.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lamb Ragu

According to Bill Buford (the author of one of my culinary touchstone books, "Heat"), a ragu bolognese sauce is supposed to be "more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce, or, as Mario [Batali] describes it, a "condiment"". I'm quite sure (although I can't find the exact reference) that I've also seen Mario Batali describe the proper ragu bolognese as having the consistency of "gravely dirt". These heavenly concoctions, of course, are a far cry from the tomato-based plonk that shows up in the Italian aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly sporting the "Ragu" label on its jar. I think it was last year that one of my Wine Spectator issues had a feature on Mario that included his classic ragu bolognese recipe. Being adventurous and naive, I attempted this same recipe in the commissary, which turned out, well, just ok. The resulting ragu was really dried out, more so than I expected it would, and I fear that I either didn't get the right ingredients and/or just plain screwed something up along the way (after adding a little Mexican seasoning, it didn't make bad tacos, though).

Fast forward to last Sunday. I am now armed with another ragu recipe from Wine Spectator, this one completely lamb-based (instead of a beef/veal/pork combo like Mario's). How'd it go? Much, much better. The end product wow'ed both me and Mrs. Hackknife, with the Hackknife progeny happy to just eat the cooked pappardelle noodles with a little butter and grated Pecorino. Here's the full recipe:

Pappardelle with Lamb Ragu, Mint, and Pecorino

1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 lbs ground lamb (preferably shoulder, but take what you can find)
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced onions
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry red wine (I used a Chianti)
1 cup imported canned cherry tomatoes
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground fennel
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp salt
1 lb pappardelle noodles
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese

1. Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large stewpot over high heat. Break the lamb into small bits, add it to the pot, and brown. If the lamb gives off a lot of liquid, drain it off and continue to brown.

2. Add the carrots, onions, and celery, and stir together. Cook until the vegetables start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste, stirring, and cook for another minute. Add the red wine, stirring, and cook until it evaporates completely. Scrape off any bits that are sticking to the pot to prevent them from burning.

3. Add the canned tomatoes, broth, and all of the seasonings. Reduce heat to medium-low to cook at a simmer. Continue scraping the sides and bottom of the pot at regular intervals to avoid burning. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, or until most of the liquid evaporates. The meat should turn dark brown. The liquid should turn dark orange in color first, then thicken into a dark brown, textured sauce.

Happy eating.....

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Des Moines & Other Heartland Locales

Occasionally, the entire Hackknife family will pack up the family truckster and head to wherever Mrs. Hackknife happens to be working on a project that week. This particular time, we made a visit to Des Moines for a short 4-day trip into the nation's agricultural heartland. Little did I realize when we were leaving home that I'd end up with enough fodder to generate a foodie blog posting.

A few years ago (prior to the arrival of Hackknifette), we made another trip to Des Moines, stopping for lunch in the Amana Colonies. Having gotten a later start this time around and with Hackknife Jr. agitating to use the hotel pool as soon as possible, we decided to make a briefer Amana Colonies lunch stop right off I-80 at Ox Yoke Inn's expressway location. Featuring family-style, traditional German food, Ox Yoke Inn was a tasty alternative to the usual fast-food joints lining the highways. I tried the "Bavari-Inn" sandwich (ham, roast beef, and swiss on marble rye with grilled onions and creamy horseradish sauce), while Mrs. Hackknife had a darned good Wiener Schnitzel plate. Definitely a good omen for the next few days of our trip.

Monday saw me and the kids head over to Valley Junction, a historic shopping district not far from our hotel in West Des Moines. Our first stop was recommended to us by one of Mrs. Hackknife's coworkers as an excellent place to get sweets - Nan's Nummies. An old-fashioned candy shop with glass cases full of delectable sweets, Nan's was clearly the place to bring children (and adults) right before lunch for appetite-stoking. Hackknife Jr. got some jellybeans and a Spongebob Squarepants cookie, while I bagged up to go a chocolate-caramel oatmeal brownie, an almond paste-stuffed Dutch letter, and some sort of cream puff-filled pastry whose name eludes me at the moment. All were delicious and it was all I could do to save a couple of crumbs for Mrs. Hackknife to try after work (sorry, dear). Before heading back to the hotel for lunch, I wandered into a small diner seeking a sandwich for myself and happened to stumble across a gentleman selling loose-meat sandwiches called Maid-Rites (forgive me, Iowans, for being ignorant of this concept, but I had to ask for further details). Apparently, there is an entire franchise of fast-food restaurants in the Plains states serving this type of dish (seasoned ground beef presented on a bun - like Sloppy Joe without the sauce - with pickles, onions, and mustard), with this particular diner (Paula's Maid Rite) selling their version of the sandwich somewhat illicitly. The owner and I had a nice conversation that concluded with him asking us to put a pin in his wall map showing the hometowns of all out-of-state visitors to the diner, which Hackknife Jr. much enjoyed. Next time I'm in Iowa, I plan on having another Maid-Rite, imitation or not.

That evening for dinner, Mrs. Hackknife made reservations for us at the local French bistro in downtown Des Moines called Django. She had been raving about how good this place was and, I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the likelihood of getting decent French food in the middle of Iowa. Boy, was I wrong. The charcuterie plate we shared at the start of the meal was much better than the one I had at a sidewalk cafe in Paris (and I told the waitress as much, who thankfully declined to report me to security as some kind of nut) and the duck confit I had for the entree was mind-blowing. Even now, I dream about the crispy, perfectly-seared duck breast and the lardons (bacon pieces) mixed in with the demi-glace. I spent much of the remainder of our trip trying to figure out how we could potentially eat every remaining meal here (alas, there was no return visit this time).

Moving on to Tues. night, I tried to take us to an old-fashioned soda fountain in town for ice cream, not realizing that they close up shop at 3 pm on weekdays. Luckily, a mall near our hotel had a Blue Sky Creamery in it, which had very good ice cream. I was completely happy with my scoop of banana and all other Hackknife family members were pleased as well.

Last but not least, we were stumped for dinner ideas on our ride home Wednesday night. Hackknifette had slept from Des Moines all the way to the Mississippi River, but now, she was hungry and very ornery, so we were desperate to locate quick sustenance. Unfortunately, northwestern Illinois does not have much to offer - we nearly had to settle for a gas station Subway, but held off just a brief time longer to investigate a couple of eateries just off I-80 in a small town called Sheffield. According to the almightly GPS, three restaurants were located in town, including pizza, a tavern, and a small diner. We gambled on the diner and you can imagine our surprise when we entered the place, finding not a greasy spoon with a bunch of grizzled farmers drinking coffee, but a bright, tidy cafe that would not have looked out of place in Lincoln Park. ZBest Cafe is run by a chef who grew up nearby and, after having worked in numerous kitchens in far-flung locales, came home to open up his own high-end small town place. We were there on fried chicken night, so we chowed down on delectable fried chicken, fresh greens salad, cheese corn, and mashed potatoes, all of which were fantastic. If this restaurant were located in Chicago proper, it wouldn't be a secret for very long. Leave it to Mrs. Hackknife and me to find probably the only culinary school-trained chef in a 50-mile radius by absolute dumb luck.

Monday, April 12, 2010

NYC Food - Jing Fong/Doughnut Plant

This is my final posting on food eaten while on our NYC trip. After the decadence of Luger's and the sheer ginormity of Per Se, you can imagine that Saturday night was mostly anticlimactic. Mrs. Hackknife and I were supposed to visit the Burger Bar in the Parker-Meridian Hotel; however, a 20-minute line and a bit of nausea at the thought of eating more beef forced us to reconsider. We ended up simply having a cold drink in the hotel bar while watching a cadre of freakishly-tall guys wander around in the lobby (it turns out that the Houston Rockets were staying there before playing the Knicks on Sunday). Later, we did manage to find the intestinal fortitude to gulp down a bit of sushi before heading to our Broadway play, and I myself had even recovered to the point where by 11 pm, I was ready to seek out a kabob cart before settling for a New York-style pizza slice.

Sunday arrived and it was time to head home. Before departure, Adam met up with us for one more meal - dim sum at a cavernous restaurant called Jing Fong in Chinatown. I had been to Jing Fong once before on New Year's Day in 1999 and it was pretty much the same as I remembered (which was easy since you have to take an escalator to get up to the dining room on the 2nd floor). We sat at a communal table with a group of 3 people that were already well into their nosh; luckily, they were able to give us some recommendations based on their choices. Around came the ladies pushing the large carts of bowls/baskets and we started sampling away: steamed pork buns, fish balls, shrimp rolls, bbq chicken feet, other dumplings of an indeterminate nature, and several other things that I never identified. All in all, it was tasty, but a little overwhelming as Sunday is their busiest day and they were packed to the gills.

After leaving Jing Fong, Adam suggested one last stop on our way out of town. Off we went dragging our luggage down the chaotic streets of Chinatown, passing market after Asian market of curious-looking foodstuffs (I made a mental note to spend some time down here on our next trip just wandering around this neighborhood taking it all in), eventually reaching a newcomer mainstay in the Lower East Side, a gourmet doughnut shop called Doughnut Plant. It's about the size of a small dry cleaners, but what they lack in space they make up for in quality and originality (imagine if you will doughnut flavors such as tres leches, sunflower, and Valrhona Chocolate). Now, I wouldn't exactly call myself a doughnut connoisseur (again, Mrs. Hackknife wins that title), but the coconut cream/glazed beauty that I had was nothing short of amazing (I also had a bit of the chocolate-on-chocolate "Blackout" variety that was fantastic). Given the crowd there, they've already built up a loyal following and I can see why. I fully expect to be seeing more press about these guys in the future.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NYC Food - Per Se

I was pleasantly surprised to go to the mailbox on the day before we left on our little sojourn to New York and find Thomas Keller on the cover of my latest Wine Spectator magazine issue. The good folks at WS did a multi-story feature on the celebrated American chef - his career, restaurants, staff profiles, and a couple of recipes that were well beyond my skill level to attempt. Anyway, this was particularly apt since we were scheduled to dine at Per Se, Thomas Keller's hard-to-score-a-table NYC outpost for lunch on Saturday at noon. Profile in hand, I was able to do some foodie scouting on the plane ride over in preparation for our visit.

Late Saturday morning, Mrs. Hackknife and I walked the 15 blocks from our hotel in Times Square to the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle (all the better to work off some of the debauchery of the night before), where Per Se diners have a commanding view of the southwest corner of Central Park from the 4th floor. With rumpled, ill-fitting sport coat in tow, we were seated in the minimalist but elegant dining room and began perusing the menu. Having done my homework, I was fully prepared to choose one of the 5-course tastings available at lunch ($100/person cheaper than the 9-course behemoth served at dinner), but was intrigued to see the 9-course dinner tasting also available for lunch customers. Given the extra cost, I hesitated to consider this at first; however, Mrs. Hackknife made the comment something to the effect of "When's the next time we're going to be here? Go big or go home", and off we went on our Mega-course, Mega-$$$ meal.

First up (see Photo #2 above) was a sabayon (a foamy, egg-yolk based medium - don't worry, I had to look it up, too) of oysters, tapioca, and caviar pearls, a dish first made famous by Thomas Keller at French Laundry in Napa Valley (his first hit restaurant). This was followed up for me by a heart of peach palm salad (see Photo #1 above) while Mrs. Hackknife opted for the fois gras torchon ($40 extra and worth every penny, I might add). Moving on, we enjoyed a presentation of lightly-seared bluefin tuna with radishes, potato confit, nicoise olives, and hen-egg (as opposed to rooster egg) emulsion. By this time, we had also been served our choice of several freshly-made breads w/house butters and a half-bottle of Chablis, poured at our table by the Head Sommelier himself, Michel Couvreux (I recognized him from the WS article - yes, I'm a geek).

Entering the meat section of our tasting menu with a full head of steam, appearing before us next were the chef's interpretation of a lobster roll (Nova Scotia lobster, pain perdu, cornichon lamelles, and celery branch salad), pekin duck breast, and rare Wagyu beef from Idaho (which, incidentally, was substantially tastier than the slabs of steak devoured by us at Peter Luger's, butter sauce or no butter sauce). Rinsed down with another half-bottle of wine (this time a red Bordeaux), these 3 dishes constituted what was probably the best sequence of 3 courses we've ever been privileged to eat, and I was practically giddy with endorphins when it was over.

As we hit the 2-hour mark of the meal, the missus and I were starting to fade. Of course, there was more. On came a cheese course (gardunha, a raw goat's milk cheese from Portugal), a dish titled "Popcorn and Peanuts" (popcorn sherbet with salt and peppered Virginia peanuts and hibiscus pate of fruit - in my mind, this was the one weak link in the whole experience as I found it to be just ok), and our choice of two desserts, a chocolate swiss roll or a lemon gingersnap dish (we opted for one of each). By this time, we were practically begging for mercy, but we had to find room for house-made truffles and other little sweets thrown in just because they liked us so much (and we helped to pay the electric bill). The carnage finally ceased about 3:15 when they presented us with two small gift-wrapped stacks of chocolate-stuffed shortbread cookies and I presented them my Amex with shaky hands.

So it was over. What a meal. While waiting for Mrs. Hackknife to depart the ladies room and making small talk with the hostess, I happened to glance towards the back office, when who should stride out but the chef himself, Thomas Keller (recognized from my WS issue, of course). For a moment, I thought he was walking right towards me and a flash of panic ensued as I rushed to think of something admiring and profound, yet not idiotic to say to him ("good stuff, dude" was about all I could come up with in my food-addled condition). Luckily, he turned off into a side dining room before I could at best embarrass myself and at worst possibly receive a lifetime ban from ever returning.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

NYC Food - Peter Luger's Steakhouse

It's been a busy 10 days since the last post from the commissary - we just got back from a 4-day visit to Des Moines camping out with Mrs. Hackknife on one of her project trips. Somewhat unexpectedly, this little sojourn has resulted in enough foodie material for another future posting, thus adding to my already-overflowing topic backlog. Time to get back to business....

On Friday night of our NYC vacation (some two weeks ago now), we joined up with our Manhattan friends Adam and Ellen for a little plate of steak at the legendary Peter Luger's in Brooklyn, located near the Williamsburg Bridge (which didn't open until 1903, a full 16 YEARS after the restaurant). Luger's is not your grandma's highfalutin steakhouse - the decor is plain (lots of wood, short on ornamentation), the menu is sparse (if you want steak, you will be receiving a Porterhouse), and credit cards are not welcome here. One can almost imagine the late 19th-century patrons dining in mostly the same environment, a slightly-casual-but-not-relaxing vibe (this is still New York, after all).

For starters, Adam insisted that we try the bacon appetizer (of course, minimal arm twisting was required). Our Eastern European-waiter presented each of us with a single, 6-inch long, thick-cut bacon slice on a white saucer. Chewy, fatty, and oh-so-gooood. At that point, I could have easily traded my impending steak for another 4 or so of these beauties, but alas, we're not dining at the "baconhouse" (future venture, anyone?), so on comes the steak. Adam assured us that the steak platter for 3 would be more than enough for all of us and he wasn't off-base. Served to us on a large plate pooled in warm butter were maybe two (I wasn't really sure how many there were since they were sliced up in the kitchen beforehand) giant Porterhouses cooked rare per our instructions. How much meat was it? I don't know and I don't want to know. Now, I'm not the biggest steak lover around, nor even the biggest one in the Hackknife household (Mrs. Hackknife has that distinction), but these were very delicious and very guilt-inducing. The heavenly slabs were accompanied down our gullets with German fried potatoes (in keeping with the heritage of the neighborhood), creamed spinach, and a bottle of Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon. For dessert (yes, somehow we were able to do this after the prior carnage), the missus and I sipped small glasses of Port while our dinner companions split a chocolate mousse. Completely sated, we returned to our hotel in Times Square and proceeded to sleep in until 9:30 for the first time since the kids were born (nothing like copious amounts of butter-covered steak and red wine to act as a sleep aid).

After this feast, you'd expect that we would have eaten light the next day (you'd be wrong). Coming up a mere 14 hours after leaving Brooklyn in a fog of cow goodness was our impossible-to-obtain reservation at Per Se and what very well may have been the meal of our lives (stay tuned).....