Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Homemade Pizza

Upon discovering a very doable recipe for pizza dough (No. 1 in this recipe link) and pizza sauce in a recent Saveur magazine issue, I decided to give it a go the other day. The key to getting a Neapolitan-style pizza crust at home (if you don't have a 700F oven at your disposal) is to take an average pizza stone and heat it for an hour at 500F, which gets it good and red-hot (over 550F according to Saveur, who apparently did some sort of experiment in their kitchen lab - now that's the kind of science I can get into). Since I wasn't interested in making 4 pizzas, I cut the dough recipe in half and made 2 of them, one for me (w/leeks, spinach, fontina and mozzarella cheeses) and one for the kids (just pepperoni and cheese).

You need to knead the raw dough for about 8-10 minutes in order to get it to "give up the gluten" as Mario Batali likes to say - this gives your wrists/hands a decent workout (I'll bet that a baker is hard to beat in a thumb-wrestling contest). With hot stone in oven, I slid the first pizza creation onto it using our commissary pizza paddle and waited. After about 5 minutes, I noticed that some of the sauce had dripped from the pie to the stone, followed about 1 minute later by a sharp snap as my pizza stone suddenly became two pizza shards. I found out later that this cracking of pizza stones apparently is a common problem out there amongst the home pizza cognoscenti when cool toppings come into contact with hot rock, thus creating a destructive temperature gradient ( again). The best solution according to food bloggers is to either buy a very high-quality (i.e., expensive) stone that will still probably crack eventually or go to your local big box hardware retailer and find some large unglazed floor tiles to use as stones instead (apparently, the "unglazed" part is key as the chemicals from using a glazed tile in your oven will, let's just say, cause you worse health problems than eating pizza too frequently). There are many humorous postings of devoted foodies going to Home Depot and getting weird reactions from employees when asking about unglazed tiles, which always seem to only be found buried deep below shelves after laborious, 30-minute searches.

Anyway, getting back to the matter at hand, I overcame the mangling of my pizza stone to still produce two decent-looking pies. The crust of the kids' pizza even had some decent charring and bubbling to it (which would have been photo-worthy had I remembered to take a picture before carving it up and consuming it), probably aided by the lack of toppings (the Neapolitans believe that simpler pizza is better pizza). I felt like the taste of the finished product was good, but not necessarily so good that it justified the effort involved (Mrs. Hackknife found the pies to be "too doughy" for her liking, but she's a thin-crust girl at heart, and Hackknife Jr. as usual turned his nose up). At the end of the day, we may be returning to Boboli as our crust provider when home pizza urges come a-calling.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Roast Chicken Provencale

Those of you who have been reading my blog since the beginning (a vast 3 months ago) probably recall seeing a posting about our weekly subscription to a local farm's produce supply (called community-supported agriculture, or CSA for short). This season, in addition to fruits and vegetables, we opted to sign up for farm-fresh chickens a few times as well. We were supposed to get two chickens in April and two in May, but due to an unforeseen mishap at the farm (unplugged freezer), I ended up bringing four whole chickens home this month. I had no idea what condition the chickens would be in when I received them (e.g., Will the head and feet still be attached? Should I invest in a blowtorch to burn off the feathers?), so you can imagine my relative relief when they arrived pretty much ready to throw in the oven, much like you would expect to see in shrink-wrap at Large Corporate Grocery Store.

The recipe I saved up for the first chicken was Tyler Florence's Ultimate Roast Chicken Provencal. The prep for the recipe basically consists of an herb paste slathered all over the bird while surrounding it with large quantities of sliced lemon and vegetables in the roasting pan. At the end of cooking, it came out of the oven looking great and didn't taste half-bad, either (although I think it looked a little better than what my mouth actually experienced). Here are a few things that I learned this time around:

1. No matter how long I try to completely thaw a frozen chicken (almost 48 hours in this case, a combo of refrigerator and thawing at room temp), I still can't seem to get the damn thing to cook all the way through in places - this time was no exception as it was pink/a little red deep in the thigh area. Fortunately, no one in the Hackknife household has been food poisoned by undercooked chicken as yet; however, I remain perplexed as to how to completely roast bone-in chicken without drying it out. Any suggestions/tips from you dear readers would be greatly appreciated.

2. We need a bigger roasting pan in the commissary. The vegetables were practically spilling out of the pan and I don't think they had enough space to all roast well enough.

3. Even the best-sounding, non-fried chicken recipe still results in, well, not-so-exciting chicken. I have a couple of bistro-style chicken recipes that are slated for the next ones, so we'll see if they're any more vibrant flavor-wise.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Osteria Ottimo

Being someone who likes to make life as easy as possible, whenever Hackknife Jr. (and just recently Hackknifette) need a hair trimming, we caravan over to our local kids clips franchise. They have videos to watch, cool cars to sit in, a train set that Hackknife Jr. loves, etc., all things to make cutting kids hair most pleasurable for the parents. Anyway, a few visits ago while Buzz Lightyear droned away on the TV screens, I noticed a new restaurant that had popped up where a falafel stand used to be in the same strip mall complex. Of course, my initial feeling was one of regret for not having sampled Middle Eastern cuisine before the falafel stand went belly-up; however, the next thought involved making a mental note of the new restaurant, named Osteria Ottimo. Not long after, I was further intrigued when seeing the same restaurant pop up in the Chicago Magazine monthly list of hot eateries to visit (Southwest suburban dining locales don't frequently get mentioned in the big city publications, so we take notice when one does). A $50 gift certificate to the place from the in-laws for Xmas cinched the deal - we would soon be eating new Italian in the 'hood.

We used the occasion of my brother and sister-in-law's impending move to Cincinnati as a pretext for a going-away dinner at Osteria Ottimo this past Saturday evening. I felt relieved that we were finally eating there as its location off the beaten path in a nondescript strip mall made me concerned that it would soon be going the route of its predecessor (thus rendering our gift card worthless). As it turns out, I needn't have worried - the place was packed. After an initial round of cocktails and prosecco (which was mine, by the way - it's not wrong for a grown man to drink sweet sparkling wine at dinner as long as there's no umbrella in it), we ordered up a plate of fried calamari and one of the appetizer specials, prosciutto w/melon slices. I found the calamari to be soggy (not crisp) and therefore not so great, but the prosciutto/melon was delicious (it included shaved Parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar). Our entrees included soft-shell crab w/cherry tomatoes and arugula, sauteed skatewing w/the same prep as the crab, spicy shrimp diablo w/spinach fettuccine, and cannelloni stuffed with chicken, four cheeses, spinach, and tomato-cream sauce. All parties at the table were quite happy with their entrees. We also managed to choke down a bit of dessert, namely cheesecake and chocolate brownie w/chocolate gelato.

The verdict? We'll definitely be back as soon as we can, next time to sample the house specialty antipasto tray. Mamma mia.....

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bucatini All'Amatriciana/Broccoli Strascinati

Given the success of my two earlier forays into cooking with Saveur recipes (one of which was chronicled in the last posting), I decided to dive into the cover feature of the April issue (focusing on classic Roman dishes) this past Friday night. On the commissary menu was Bucatini Alla'Amatriciana (bucatini in spicy tomato sauce) and Broccoli Strascinati (broccoli with garlic and hot pepper).

Now, you may ask, what exactly is bucatini? That's a fine question. I wasn't sure myself until I visited my local Italian market and perused some of the more obscure pasta types imported from the Motherland. There it was right next to the plain spaghetti. The best way to describe it is that it looks like straws that have a very small hollow center (slightly larger than a pinhole). If they're using bucatini in Rome, I suppose it would be a breeze to slurp up the sauce in the bottom of the bowl once you get to the end of the plate. Ingenious. I also sought out some guanciale at the market, which is described as "cured pork jowl". I didn't know how to pronounce it when I asked the deli counter man if they had it, he didn't know what I was talking about, and it turns out that they had nothing of the sort anyway. Luckily, the recipe allows you to substitute pancetta for the guanciale (it's much easier to find - even Large Corporate Grocery store has some).

Both the pasta dish and the broccoli dish were pretty simple to assemble. The hardest part seemed to be prepping the pancetta, which has a tendency to stick together when cold (it's on the fatty side). The bucatini had a bit of a kick to it, owing to the red chili flakes. Mrs. Hackknife proclaimed the broccoli "the best she's ever had", not surprising as it's essentially fried in garlic and olive oil (what's not to like, right?). There were no broccoli leftovers (note to self: make a larger batch next time), but the pasta has re-heated nicely a couple of times for lunch.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fried Catfish/Creamed Cabbage

Until my relationship w/Mrs. Hackknife, my idea of fried fish was pretty much limited to Mrs. Paul's and the Gorton's fisherman. My mother-in-law cooks a tasty fried fish using a cracker crumb breading that I've tried to duplicate a couple of times here in the commissary with marginal success. Fast forward to last month when my latest issue of Saveur had a recipe listed for Creole-style whole fried fish that sounded good and appeared to be pretty simple Creole-style Fried Fish. So, with fresh cabbage, red potatoes, and white cornmeal on hand (courtesy of the weekly farmbox), I set out to prepare a little fish fry. The recipe calls for whole, head-on fish, but since I don't have a trusted seafood purveyor nearby and don't have the intestinal fortitude to consume bluegills gathered from the retention pond back yonder, I picked up some catfish fillets from Dominick's (on special at $5.99/pound) instead.

A couple of optional bacon grease dollops are supposed to impart smokiness to the final product; as we usually just eat turkey bacon around here, I was only able to scrounge up about a teaspoon of turkey bacon grease to add to my cooking oil (don't know if it really did anything or not, but it was fun to have a little glass bowl of congealed bacon grease in the fridge for a few days - I felt so Paula Deen-ish). My electric frypan was able to hold 4 fillets at a time, so I cooked the fish up in 2 batches and, boy, did it turn out good and light, with very little greasiness. This exercise was simple enough that I think it will be our go-to fried fish for the duration.

For the side dishes, I just boiled the red potatoes (no added seasonings other than salt) and threw together a creamed cabbage using a recipe from Joy of Cooking. The cabbage was also really easy and really tasty (see recipe below).

Boil in a large stockpot:

4 quarts water
1 1/2 Tbsp salt

Remove the outer leaves from:

1 lb. green cabbage, preferably Savoy

Cut cabbage into quarters, remove core, and cut crosswise into thin slices. Cook uncovered for 3 minutes, then drain and press out the excess water. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a large skillet. Add the cabbage along with:

1/2 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
1 Tbsp. snipped fresh dill, 1 tsp. caraway seeds, or 10 juniper berries
1 tsp. salt
ground black pepper to taste

Toss well, then simmer until cabbage is tender but not mushy, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with several drops of dry sherry or red wine vinegar and salt to taste.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pork Alla Valdostana

Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Glenn was kind enough to provide us with a stack of his favorite recipes earlier this year, and this is this first of the bunch that I've tried - it was delicious. He told me that he was given this Pork Alla Valdostana recipe (which originates from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, a place well known for outstanding wines and cuisine) from a local Italian woman that was (possibly clandestinely) teaching cooking classes out of her house. Glenn took one of her classes about 20 years ago and ended up with a decent haul of good, traditional Italian dishes to prepare at home.

(editor's note: if she discovers that I reproduced this recipe on the Internet, I may be in grave danger, but we are nothing if not risk-takers here at the Hackknife commissary)

4 boneless pork chops
8 slices prosciutto
4 slices Fontina cheese
1/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup flour
1 egg
2 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Pound pork chops until they are about 1/2 inch thick, then butterfly (i.e., cut them in the middle so that they fold open like a book).

2. Place one slice of cheese between two pieces of prosciutto, then fold inside pork chop halves. Repeat for remaining three chops.

3. Mix together bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Fold each pork chop closed, then dredge in flour, followed by egg, then bread crumb/cheese mixture.

4. Heat butter and 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in a skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat. When butter has melted, add stuffed breaded pork chops and brown (about 3 minutes per side).

5. Place skillet in preheated oven and bake chops for 20 minutes.

6. In another skillet, heat remaining 2 Tbsp. of olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook peppers/onions until they start to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar, stir, and serve on top of pork chops.