Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fun With Rhubarb

We've had a strange item in our farm box the last 4 weeks or so: rhubarb stalks. Having grown up in a household that never, ever once consumed rhubarb in any form, I can honestly say that I hadn't a clue what to do with it, other than not eat the leafy parts (somehow, I had heard they were mildly toxic - this is true, actually). Flipping through my ever-trusty Joy of Cooking, I found an easy recipe for rhubarb compote, which is essentially chopped-up rhubarb heated up in a pot with a lot of sugar until it turns into a jam-like spread. This ended up being a tasty concoction on toast at breakfast and also a good change-of-pace condiment for a turkey sandwich.

The following week came more rhubarb, and this time I opted to attempt a more conventional prep: rhubarb pie. Having never before made pie dough from scratch, I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I wimped out and bought the Pillsbury pre-fab dough (I know, I'm sorry, a pox on me), so essentially all that I created was the pie filling. You can see the end result above - a bit ghastly looking, but very scrumptious (Mrs. Hackknife loved it, but threatened me with bodily harm if I did fake dough again, Hackknife progeny as always wouldn't touch it). The worst part was cleanup as I needed an SOS pad (and practically a blowtorch) to get all of the baked-on parts off the glass pie dish. Note to self: use Pam next time.

I had told myself that cobbler would be the next rhubarb dish, and, lo and behold, here comes more rhubarb in the farmbox. My Joy of Cooking lists a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler recipe - presumably, the strawberries add a little sweetness to the tart rhubarb, so they match well together. I have to say I enjoyed making the cobbler more than the pie - the dough was easy to make from scratch (no pre-fab needed here) and you have the option of just laying it in pieces on top of the fruit filling, so it's like a pie w/no bottom crust. I didn't do a great job of flattening the dough enough since some of the cobbler slices were a little crustier than others, but overall, the feedback on the final product was very positive.

One more round of rhubarb and this last time, I wanted to make something a little more decadent. lists a recipe for custard rhubarb crisp, which I found to be similar to that for the cobbler; however, it also includes eggs, cream, and butter, would expect that it might taste a bit more luxurious (and you'd be right). This prep got the ravest reviews of the 4 rhubarb dishes, but also falls into the category of "eat only once a year or so lest you take up residence in an early grave". Thankfully, we have now gone a couple of weeks with no rhubarb in the farmbox, thus giving me a brief respite from continuing to watch the needle on the bathroom scale inch slowly upward with each passing week of dessert-topia.

I'm including the recipe for rhubarb compote below. If you'd like either the pie or cobblers recipes, please drop me a note and I'll send them to you.

Combine in a medium saucepan:

4 c. 1/2-inch pieces rhubarb
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar

Let stand at room temp until the rhubarb exudes some juice, at least 15 minutes. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is tender and the liquid thickened, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool without stirring. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or for up to 2 days. The compote will thicken when chilled.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tartar of Marinated Trout

About 2 years ago, the commissary shut down for a few days so that we could all travel to Quebec City for one of Mrs. Hackknife's conferences. During the trip, she and her fellow co-workers attended a teambuilding event at a local cooking school - out of this, we returned home with a number of French-Canadian recipes, all of which sat on the cookbook shelf until such a time as yours truly felt competent enough in the kitchen to attempt some of them. Whilst flipping through the recipe file the other day seeking something to throw together for a nice mid-week meal, I stumbled across this recipe collection and homed in on the trout tartar.

We like fish. We also like raw fish (at least the missus and I do). I have never prepped a raw fish dish before, but the recipe sounded so ridiculously easy that I had no qualms about trying it, up until the point at which I had to actually find a pound of trout fillets. Now, I have no regular seafood purveyor (there are none within about a 30-mile radius of here) and the local Large Corporate Supermarket told me that they rarely carry trout (odd, I thought, seeing as we live in a state bordering one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and trout is a freshwater species). Our local specialty grocery did have some, but only the whole fish. Had a fishmonger been working at the seafood counter either time I showed up (the butcher was the only one around), I probably could have gotten him (or her) to fillet it for me, but after the second time, I basically said "$#^&% it, I'll figure out how to fillet the stupid thing myself" and high-tailed it out of there with a fish (see photo of our victim above).

Armed with instructions/pictures from my Joy of Cooking and a sharp knife, I proceeded to slash the magnificent creature to shreds, yielding 9 ounces of meat from a 2-pound fish (I don't know where exactly that ranks as compared to a skilled fish prep cook, but I suspect it's somewhere in the neighborhood of "shameful"). On the upside, I did manage to pull out all of the bones, leaving me with a minor moral victory to build on for next time.

1 lb. trout fillets
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. capers, chopped
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
bitter greens (endive, escarole, or radicchio)

Remove skin from trout fillets. Cut fillets into small dice and place in a non-reactive dish. In a small bowl, combine all remaining ingredients except greens. Pour over trout, cover, and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Serve on greens (I also threw a tostada underneath to add a little texture and make it portable).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Poor Man's Cassoulet

One constant of being in charge of vittles for the Hackknife family is the continuing need to menu plan. Just when you think you're done for a bit, you realize that the next meal is just around the corner (it's not like we're skipping dinner, say, every Tuesday) and you've got to come up with your new dog-and-pony show (which often times resembles a meatloaf). This past Saturday night, I was faced with the option of punting (i.e., take-out pizza) or finding a reasonably simple dish to assemble for dinner and I found it in a pile of recipes from Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Glen (you'll recall that he's the source of the pork chop recipe from an earlier posting). Cassoulet is a dish consisting of meat, beans, and vegetables - essentially, a fancy French term for stew. The beauty (as is the case with most stews) is that you can throw in just about whatever you have left over in the fridge. We already had bacon, carrots, chicken, and fresh basil, so it was a pretty simple matter to get the other ingredients and cook it up.

(Editor's note: my bistro cookbook contains a cassoulet recipe that has, among other delicacies, duck confit in it, which is a multi-day undertaking in and of itself to prepare, so I don't believe we'll be attempting that one anytime soon).

6 slices bacon, chopped
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup carrots, sliced
1 pound smoked sausage, cubed
1/2 pound chicken, cubed
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cans (16 oz. each) white beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup beef broth or bullion
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp basil, chopped
1/4 tsp thyme

In a large skillet or dutch oven, cook bacon pieces over medium high heat. Remove bacon and add carrots/onions to drippings. Saute until onions are golden. Remove and add sausage/chicken, cooking until browned. Remove meat and add wine to deglaze the pan. Heat wine to boiling and return bacon, onions, carrots, and meat to pan. Add beans, tomatoes, beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, basil, and thyme. Stir well and let simmer uncovered for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Saint's Alp/Clandestino Dinner

At some point during my perpetual quest to read about all things food, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune describing a local underground supper club that goes by the name of Clandestino. What is a supper club, you may ask? This is a fairly new (i.e., within the last 10 years) dining concept by which a chef (or group of chefs) cooks for patrons outside of the standard restaurant environment, usually in a private residence. Typically, you need to be on the club's email list in order to receive information about when/where the next event is being held, hence the "underground" label. The concept allows chefs without a restaurant to continue to hone their skills and try out new dishes, while allowing the diner to have a unique culinary experience.

Feeling intrigued and a bit adventurous, I signed Mrs. Hackknife and I up for the group's June dinner, which took place this past Saturday evening. After ponying up the fee ($125 each, not a paltry sum), I received an email 3 days beforehand listing the dinner's location (a loft near the intersection of Chinatown, Bridgeport, and Pilsen on the near southwest side of the city), menu (6 courses with a strawberry theme), and instructions on where to park, etc. Upon learning that we would be in the vicinity of Chinatown, what is the first thought that pops into my demented skull? Why, wouldn't it be lovely if we could stop in Chinatown for a brief snack prior to consuming a 6-course meal? I just happened to have in my possession a copy of the May 13, 2010 Tribune Play section containing the insider's guide to dining in Chinatown, being saved in the Hackknife archives for this very purpose.

With great gustatory anticipation, we rolled into Chinatown at around 6, leaving plenty of time before our Clandestino dinner at 7, located only about 10 blocks away. Our destination: Saint's Alp, a Hong Kong-based chain of Asian teahouses serving small plates of tasty food as well. My guide tells me to order deep-fried tako balls (octopus fritters); alas, they are out (no doubt picked clean en masse by intrepid Chicago foodies clued in by the Tribune article), so we settle for deep-fried shrimp balls and crispy-fried bead curd cubes instead, both of which are delicious. Wash everything down with the taro (a flavor not unlike coconut and buttered popcorn combined) bubble tea, says my guide, and I do, and it rocks, with chewy black tapioca pearls lining the bottom of the glass, adding a wicked texture (note to self: next time, order the jumbo, not the regular).

Feeling pretty happy and not the least bit gluttonous, we pulled up to the loft space for our underground dinner right before 7. Inside was a sparsely decorated room with bright geometric paintings lining the white walls (very much like an art gallery). It turns out that the space is owned and lived in by, surprise, an artist. Joining us at our table were, well, mostly artistic, creative types: a young stagehand and his wife (who manages a framing store), a 50-ish woman who performs in a band that plays children's music and her husband insurance executive (people in the insurance industry are drawn to Mrs. Hackknife like moths to a flame), and the young female artist whose paintings were being exhibited in the room (accompanied by a young hip beau who seemed mostly disinterested in the evening's hoopla). I can only hope that they were all pleased to have us polar opposite folks (mathematician/consultant and scientist/former consultant/homemaker) in their immediate presence to break up the conversation a bit. All in all, about 40-50 people total (mostly young, stylish, urbanites) were poised to enjoy an underground feast.

And feast away we did - bacon-wrapped strawberry for Course #1, a cured slice of lake trout perched on a tostada-like flatbread (my personal favorite of the evening's menu) paired with a rhubarb tequila shot for #2, a small plate of fettuccine noodles in a mild garlic pesto with vodka lemonade (#3), a spinach/strawberry salad with a bacon-thyme vinaigrette and a strawberry mint mimosa (#4), a grilled walleye fillet with pistachio-oregano butter, english peas, tendrils, grilled mashed potatoes, and a bottle of Two Brothers Domaine Du Page beer (see photo above of Course #5), and last, but not least, a strawberry shortcake ice cream sundae with homemade strawberry beer (think non-alcoholic, like root beer).

All sounds delicious, right? How was it? Well, good in my opinion, but I wouldn't call it great, at least not for what it cost. The pesto was a little on the bland side (granted we make our pesto supercharged here at the commissary), the walleye could have used more of the pistachio-oregano butter, and the strawberry mint mimosa had too much, let's call it particulate floating in the liquid. The quality of the ingredients appeared to be good (and we should know as the chef told everyone he gets much of his produce from Genesis Growers, who also provides us w/vegetables at home each week), the cooking techniques appeared to be sound, and certainly the amount of booze included was ample. This may simply be what to expect when skilled people are prepping dinner in a environment that lacks the quality control/support system of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. That being said, Mrs. Hackknife and I agreed that the experience was very worthwhile and we'd be interested in participating again at some point.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Spaghetti Carbonara

In case we weren't already sick of pasta dishes here at the commissary lately, I opted to pull one more out of the recent Roman food issue of Saveur before tossing it on the pile in the cookbook cabinet: spaghetti carbonara. This dish is arguably my favorite pasta prep, one that I enjoy sparingly (like once every 2 years) due to its artery-killing trilogy of bacon, eggs, and cheese. This recipe, however, looked much too simple not to attempt, so attempt I did. The only tricky part was deciding what to do with the pancetta grease after frying up the pancetta. Usually, as a small concession to cardiac sanity, one drains off the rendered bacon fat before using the meat in most recipes, but this time, it seemed a little unclear. I chose epicurial valor over healthy discretion - into the pasta went the pork grease (which I later determined was actually the correct thing to do, although my gp might argue otherwise). The finished pasta was just a tiny bit blander than the version I've had at finer trattorias, but Mrs. Hackknife noted that adding more grated Parmesan sparked it up a notch higher towards sublimity.

4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 oz. thinly sliced guanciale or pancetta (cut into 1/2" pieces)
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 3/4 c. finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg plus 3 yolks
kosher salt
1 lb. spaghetti

1. Heat oil in a 10" skillet over medium heat. Add guanciale/pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 6-8 minutes. Add pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, 2 more minutes. Transfer mixture (yes, including the grease) to a large bowl and let cool slightly. Stir in 1 1/2 c. of Parmesan and egg/yolks. Stir well to combine and set aside.

2. Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta, cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes. Reserve 3/4 c. of pasta water; drain pasta and transfer to guanciale/pancetta mixture. Toss, adding pasta water gradually to make a creamy sauce. Season w/salt and pepper, serve w/remaining Parmesan.