Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jalapeno Poppers

As stated previously in this blog (I can't remember exactly when), one of the fun things about getting a weekly farmbox of produce is that you're not really sure what you're getting from one week to the next. Case in point - in our box a few weeks ago was a bag of 7 fresh jalapeno peppers (among other items). Now, I like jalapenos and even have a few recipes where I can use one or two (chili or salsa, for example), but 7 is a bit much. Not being culinary school-trained, the only applicable prep idea that my feeble mind could generate was jalapeno poppers. Not surprisingly, there are many, many recipes for poppers out there in a whole range of forms. I happened to choose one from a website called Jalapeno Cafe, in and of itself a treasure trove of recipes devoted to the humble jalapeno pepper (jalapeno ice cream? really?). Anyway, I chose this specific prep because 1) it's baked, not fried - having just deep-fried a whole chicken a few days earlier, I wasn't really in the mood for more egregious frying in the commissary and 2) it's pretty straightforward, at least on paper.

On cooking day, I bought 3 more peppers, giving me a total of 10 for the recipe (as directed). I sliced them in half and removed the seeds/membranes - this actually was the hardest part as it was a little time-consuming and (as I soon discovered) ultimately really hard on the hands. The funny thing about repeatedly dousing your fingers in spicy pepper juice is that it starts to sting after a little while and continues to do so intermittently for the next 12-18 hours, no matter how many times you wash them (I'm sure my kids thought me insane watching me shake my hands jazz-dancing style for the rest of the evening). Running them under cold water did bring relief, albeit temporary. Note to self: next time, wear gloves.

The popper filling was a mixture of crumbled bacon (real bacon, not the turkey stuff we often use here), cream cheese, Italian seasoning, and shredded cheddar. As my cream cheese wasn't soft enough to stir, I had to use my (tingling) hands to mix it up, but this proved to be a better technique anyway since I could shape/form the packets of filling by hand to better fit each jalapeno half. After that came dunking in flour, then egg, then dredging in bread crumbs. I didn't realize until I was in the weeds that the recipe left out a step, that is, the egg-dunking one (it mentions mixing up the egg and milk, but oddly omits it from the rest of the instructions), so I needed a little trial-and-error to figure out that egg-dunking went in-between the flour and bread crumbs.

Drum roll, please.......the finished poppers were very good, some even great, although the heat level varied significantly from popper to popper. Mrs. Hackknife and I enjoyed them with both carne asada one night and a potato skillet another night. Given the level of effort involved in making them and the spicy nature, however, I think we'll reserve these as an appetizer for the next fight night. Here's the recipe: popper recipe.

Fried Spaghetti

Now that summer is coming to a close and the kids are returning to school, the Hackknife Commissary is once again ramping up production after a few months of relative hiatus. This recipe is another in the pile that we received from Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Glen via his old-world Italian cooking instructor. I've read in a couple of different places that some Italian restaurants pan-fry the uncooked noodles prior to boiling them, presumably to add flavor depth just like you would anything else. The prep is very simple - I monkeyed with it a bit since I had a few ingredients I was trying to use up (an extra green pepper, yellow onion in lieu of green onions, and chicken broth instead of water - hey, if the Top Chef contestants can cook everything in broth, so can I). Overall, the final dish was ok, but it could have used a little pizazz (in fact, it was better reheated at lunchtime after a couple of days spent aging in the fridge), although Mrs. Hackknife noted that the pasta tasted "more like homemade" instead of coming out of a box (I'm guessing that the frying helped). Glen wrote in his recipe that he'll sometimes add a meat (like sausage) and some additional vegetables to spice it up, so we'll try that next time.

3 Tbsp. olive oil (I used extra virgin)
2 chopped green onions
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 lb. uncooked spaghetti
1 can (14 oz.) diced Italian style tomatoes
hot red pepper flakes
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil or 1 Tbsp. dry basil
grated Parmesan cheese

In large skillet, cook onions and garlic in 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium high heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove onion and garlic from pan. Add remaining 2 Tbsp. of olive oil to pan. Break spaghetti in half and add to pan, stirring constantly until golden brown (about 5 minutes). Add tomatoes and one can of water to pan. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in reserved onion and garlic, red pepper flakes, basil, and any other optional ingredients. Cover and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Usually, whenever we have an adult milestone to celebrate (in this case, Mrs. Hackknife's birthday), we opt to go out for a nice dinner in lieu of presents (of course, the Hackknife progeny still need to produce an actual gift for the occasion, further complicating the situation for me as they don't drive yet and have no credit cards). This year, she chose Japonais, a trendy, sushi/French-Asian fusion restaurant located in River North downtown that neither one of us had been to.

Having left the commissary early in anticipation of heavy Sat. night traffic into the Loop, we arrived about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, which ended up getting us sequestered in the lounge downstairs while waiting for our table. After overpriced drinks hanging out with the younger bar crowd (conversation overheard at our table - Mrs. Hackknife: "Everyone looks so juvenile", me: "Well, given our age now, I think the clientele at anyplace trendy that we go is going to look juvenile to us"), we were ushered back upstairs to our small table in the crowded, loud, and fashionably-decorated dining room (the couple seated next to us was pretty much in our laps - more on that later). The menu was somewhat complicated to navigate - sushi and rolls in one place, cold/hot appetizers in another, two sets of entrees, and a specials sheet to boot, but we settled on what they called an "unagi trio" (avocado and unagi roll topped with baked unagi and sweet unagi sauce) and "kani kani" (snow crab claws wrapped in shrimp/crab mousse with spicy passionfruit glaze) for our starters. The unagi roll (cooked eel for the uninitiated) was good, but not great, as was the kani kani, disappointing at the trendy downtown prices.

Our entrees fared a little better - I had "Le Quack Japonais" (maple-leaf smoked duck with hoisin sauce, mango chutney, shredded cucumber, and mushu wraps), while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed lobster teriyaki. Given the size of my plate (half a duck), I was surprised that I was able to polish it off without suffering any unpleasant after-effects (other than massive dehydration the next morning, which could have easily been caused by the 3 glasses of wine I had during the evening). Dessert included the Chicago Magazine-recommended "Coffee and Doughnuts" (green tea semi-freddo w/warm chocolate and chestnut-filled beignets) and a chocolate marscapone mousse cake with coconut ice cream, both of which were, again, just ok for the price.

We ended up finishing the meal at about the same time as the couple next to us, at which point we struck up a conversation with them about how we all probably didn't enjoy the experience enough to come back. Further discussion revealed that they 1) lived in the suburbs and frequently traveled to the city to try different restaurants (like us), 2) they are former city dwellers (like us), 3) they have two kids, with the husband having been a stay-at-home parent for a while (like us), 4) the wife works in the insurance industry (like us), and the best part 5) they are named Jeff and Karen (like us). The whole encounter was really quite strange and made me wonder if I hadn't perhaps enjoyed a little too much duck and wine that night.....

The Ultimate Fried Chicken

After four months or so of having whole chickens from the farm taking up a sizable portion of the commissary freezer, I finally managed to work my way down to the last one. I had been saving the final bird to try out one recipe and one recipe only: fried chicken. Earlier readers may recall my first homemade fried chicken experience a few months ago - that time involved a store-bought, already-disassembled chicken and my family's house recipe, cooked using a combo of electric frypan and oven. This time, I was determined to butcher the whole chicken myself into 10 pieces, then use a deep-fry only method as outlined by Tyler Florence in his "Ultimate" cookbook. Since I don't have a deep fryer (and even if I did, it probably wouldn't be large enough to hold 10 pieces of chicken), a large stock pot (8 quart, in my case) would serve as a surrogate. This required me to go out and purchase a clip-on candy/deep fry thermometer from Target (it was only about 10 bucks) so I could regulate the frying temperature, which I'd heard is very important as the oil temp fluctuates during cooking.

First up was cutting the chicken. Lucky for me, my ever-trusty Joy of Cooking had detailed instructions and diagrams for butchering the bird - as a result, this part went pretty smoothly (I had purchased a back-up chicken just in case). Most of my pieces, with the exception of one breast, actually looked like I thought they were supposed to. Next, I added a gallon of peanut oil to the stock pot and began heating it up to 350F (you'd be surprised how difficult it was to find a gallon of peanut oil - Large Corporate Grocery had it for $20, Target was out, my local ethnic grocery only had quart bottles, and Wal-Mart had it for about $12). This step took a lot longer than I had anticipated, about 40 minutes on medium-high in total. While waiting, I had time to prep the herbs/garlic, marinate the chicken in lemon juice, and coat the chicken pieces in flour, egg, olive oil. When the oil was finally ready, into the bubbling cauldron went the chicken, and down went my fry temperature (to about 290F, to be exact). My recipe told me to maintain the oil at 350F, but try as I might, I couldn't get it back up above 320F for the duration of the cooking (I now understand why people use electric fryers for this). Given my track record with undercooked chicken, I left it in there for an extra 5 minutes just to be safe.

All in all, despite my temperature issues, the end result was pretty good. Mrs. Hackknife declared this fried chicken recipe superior to the first one (shhh....don't tell my dad) and even Hackknifette managed to gobble down some chicken pieces (as usual, Hackknife Jr. poignantly declined). After some on-line sleuthing, I determined that the peanut oil could be re-used a few times instead of just dumping it down the drain, so I made good use of my gravy separator to filter the solids out of the oil and put it back in the jug for next time (this ended up being a little messy w/o a funnel - I'll have to look for a cheap one at the giant convent garage sale down the street in a few weeks).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Las Vegas Trip

In honor of mi amigo Jaime's pending nuptials in November, I recently joined a group of guys from all over the country for a bachelor weekend in Las Vegas. I've been to Vegas around 10 times in the past 15 years, but really only twice since coming down with foodie-itis. Now Sin City has a much different allure to me than blackjack and scantily-clad dancers, that is, enough fine dining venues to make my eyes glaze over (laugh if you will, but I'm sure I was the only partygoer who woke up at 6:30 and walked a mile to the Strip to have breakfast at Bouchon at a different bachelor party last year). I think I can truthfully say that I'd have no problem eating my way up and down Las Vegas Blvd. without so much as gambling a dime on my next trip out there.

Anyway, I touched down in Vegas on a mid-afternoon Thursday all ready to do some epicurial damage. My initial plan of going to Border Grill at the Mandalay Bay for lunch had been thwarted by a 3-hour mechanical delay at O'Hare, leaving me with only about 2 hours before the guest of honor's arrival. I opted to do an abbreviated liquid lunch at Sin City Brewing, which has an outpost near the food court in the Venetian. After getting a sample taste of five different beers, I slurped down a pint of my two favorites, the Weiss beer and the Amber. In hindsight, I probably should have eaten something first and should have skipped the second pint because, by the time I joined the groom-to-be and the best man for kickoff drinks at Gilley's in Treasure Island, I was already feeling pretty mellow. We downed a plate of nachos (which ended up being my lunch AND dinner, as luck would have it) and each drank a giant souvenir boot of cheap beer (Coors Light, I think) before retiring to our rooms. The plan was to meet up again around 8 for dinner. 8 o'clock found me fast asleep in bed, fully clothed, room spinning, with no intention or capability of getting up for further festivities that evening (never having been someone that's been able to hold his liquor, this should have come as no surprise to anyone, least of whom Mrs. Hackknife, who labeled it as an "amateur move").

So, over-refreshed, hungover, jet-lagged, and dehydrated, I awoke around 5 the next morning try to decide if I had the intestinal fortitude to make it across the street to the 24-hour Walgreens to get some bottled water and maybe a muffin-in-a-baggie (the answer was no). Luckily, the Starbucks downstairs opened at 6, and I was there at 6:10 practically begging for a juice and a plain bagel to help me right the ship. Back on course by 9 am, I got the call from the group for our first meal stop of the day: Hash House a Go Go. This breakfast outpost in the Imperial Palace originally started in San Diego and specializes in tasty plates of shock-value sizes (I'm not quite sure what it is about breakfast that makes some places want to serve gargantuan meals - I'm reminded of a pancake I had in a Banff diner once that was the size of a hubcap). The chicken and waffle tower (see photo from their website above - due to a groom-imposed media blackout on the weekend, I have no pictures of my own to share) with a basic Bloody Mary was just the thing I needed, although instead of the maple reduction, I think I'd prefer just plain maple syrup on the waffles next time, along with some guidance on how to safely deconstruct the tower. Lunch found us at Carnevino in the Palazzo, Mario Batali's Italian steakhouse, where most of the table enjoyed the house burger while I had the steak w/Tuscan fries, followed by a visit to my favorite gelatoria (Jean-Phillipe, in the Bellagio) for a tiramisu gelato. Last but not least, dinner took place at Diablo's Cantina in the Monte Carlo, scarfing down guacamole, margaritas, and crispy rock shrimp tacos. There had also been that day some handgun shooting, a little gambling, extensive listening to a mediocre 80s hair-metal cover band, many more drinks consumed, and collection of Mardi Gras beads (which were promptly given to Hackknifette upon my arrival home) from a pole dancer in the casino, but none of that is relevant here in this blog.

After the culinary excess of Friday, Saturday was scaled back a little. We ate breakfast at the coffee shop in the Treasure Island. Later, I was able to convince a small posse to cab it over with me to Mandalay Bay for burgers at Burger Bar, Hubert Keller's homage to cow-on-a-bun. I had my favorite - medium-rare American Kobe beef on ciabatta roll with blue cheese and carmelized onions, accompanied by fat fries (note to self: do onion rings next time) and a Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale. Our dinner was supposed to be at Bartolotta Di Mare in the Wynn Resort; however, I was overruled by the groom, who wanted pasta, so we ventured over to B&B Ristorante in the Venetian, another Mario Batali venture. To start the meal, the table all enjoyed a large plate of house-cured salumi (about 6 different varieties, some of which melted in the mouth) accompanied with little fried dough crostini that were about as good as the meat itself. I opted for an earthy pasta plate of beef cheek ravioli with black truffles and crushed duck liver; others at the table had veal, lamb, or steak, all washed down with a 2007 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino. Despite his best efforts, our waiter was unable to convince anyone in our party that we needed to each order a pasta plate and a meat plate (believe me, I would if I could have, but I was stuffed), so our service suffered a bit as a result. Regardless, the meal was great and the company was even better.

Sunday morning saw the band break up and head home. I had delusions of trying to get into the Wynn champagne brunch before heading to the airport, but cooler heads prevailed and I settled for a bagel and fruit plate (oh, and one last indulgence - a banana tart from an Italian bakery in the Venetian). Thanks, gentlemen, for a very successful weekend.....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Adventures in Deep South

One of the reasons that we made the somewhat-puzzling decision to drive the Hackknife progeny (now 4 yrs. old and 17 months old, respectively) to the Carolina Coast instead of flying (about 1,000 miles each way) was the opportunity to sample some regional American cuisine that we don't normally get around here. After stalking several on-line foodie blogs/websites before the trip, we left the commissary a few weeks ago armed with a long list of recommended down-home eateries from Muncie to Myrtle Beach.

Our first culinary stop (not counting the Bob Evans on the south side of Indianapolis) was basically a shack next to a gas station on a bluff overlooking I-75 in Mt. Vernon, KY - Jean's Restaurant, known worldwide (or at least in one blog) for its fried chicken. Mrs. Hackknife and I both got the fried chicken platter with mashed potatoes/gravy and what the waitress called fried cornbread, which came out like a cornbread pancake. The chicken was very good, the gravy on the potatoes probably the best I've ever had (no gravy master used here), and the corn cakes were delicious as well.

Continuing along, we survived all the way through lunch the next day without killing either the children or ourselves (God was clearly with us) as we rolled to a stop in the parking lot at Roger's Bar-B-Que in Florence, SC. $10 a head (cheaper for the kids) bought us all of the Southern BBQ delicacies (maybe "stuff" would be more appropriate - nothing delicate about this joint) we could eat, some of which included the standard Carolina pulled pork in a mustard/vinegar sauce, hush puppies, ribs, fried okra, chicken & rice, biscuits, and cole slaw, plus some more-obscure pig parts such as deep-fried pig's ear (really good), fried pork cracklings (skin), and something that resembled an oversized french fry, but was actually some type of pig meat/fat fried on the bone (tail? backbone? I have no earthly idea. Please clue me in if you know what this might be). We managed to get Hackknife Jr. to try and even admit liking the pig's ear (although I don't think we actually told him what it was). Dessert in the form of peach cobbler and banana pudding was also included in the buffet price. Had we turned around at this point and headed 14 hours straight back home, I would have deemed this whole endeavor a successful trip.

On to the family portion of the trip - 6 days spent with the Hackknife extended family in a beachhouse on Ocean Isle Beach. As one would expect during an ocean vacation, there was much seafood consumed. Local blue crabs, red snapper, grouper, grouper cheeks (i.e., jaw muscle), and shrimp were all expertly prepared by my aunts and downed in large quantities by the 30-odd relatives in attendance (of course, hardly any of it was downed by my kids, who continued to prefer peanut butter and hot dogs for the duration). One afternoon we ventured out on our own to find lunch at a local restaurant - Suzanne's Southern Cafe. Mrs. Hackknife had the sausage dog, while I had a lunch platter of chicken bog (chicken and rice w/sausage pieces mixed in, apparently a low country specialty), fried green tomatoes (mmmmmm), and butter beans. I was hoping to venture further afield at some point during the trip to find a nice restaurant serving upscale low country food, but with the kids antsy for sun and surf most days, it wasn't in the cards this time.

Last but not least on our culinary tour is a place that barely qualifies as Southern due to its location just on the Dixie side of the Ohio River in Louisville - Lynn's Paradise Cafe. This was easily the most kid-friendly, casual, and colorful (think John Waters-garage sale decor wacky) venue we visited, but the food alone qualifies for a side trip. We enjoyed a special appetizer of fried cheese/red pepper (sort of like a jalapeno popper) before the entrees: hot brown for me (an unholy pairing of open-faced turkey sandwich on sourdough bread smothered in cheesy mornay sauce and topped with tomato and bacon - this is a Kentucky specialty started at the Brown Hotel in Louisville in 1926 and it tastes better than it looks in the photo above) and pan-fried pecan chicken in a bourbon-mustard maple cream sauce for the missus, both of which were outstanding and, um, amply-sized. Being in Kentucky, I had to wash mine down with a local beer (Bluegrass Brewing Co. altbier) in a probably-futile attempt to keep my arteries flowing normally.

Will we drive next year? Who knows? There are still many other restaurants on the list to visit.....

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rick Bayless Dinner @ Cooper's Hawk

The Hackknife travelpalooza has continued into the first week of August as we are now in-between the North Carolina trip (which ended this past Sunday - full posting of foodie notes soon to follow) and my good friend Jaime's bachelor party in Vegas (which begins tomorrow morning). To avoid REALLY falling behind, I wanted to throw up a quick post chronicling our recent dinner event with local celebrity chef Rick Bayless, which took place two weeks ago.

Mrs. Hackknife and I belong to the wine club at a local winery restaurant, Cooper's Hawk. For those of you unawares (and I don't think anyone in my meager list of regular readers falls into this category), I was previously employed in the tasting room at Cooper's Hawk flagship restaurant in Orland Park from July 2007 through December 2008, so I have extensive experience serving customers at their associated wine club events. This, however, was my first club event as an ex-employee - I must confess, it's much nicer to be on the other side of the bar for a change. Anyway, Cooper's has started a "guest chef" series where different well-known chefs come in to do a cooking demonstration/meet and greet for club members and Rick Bayless was their inaugural guest chef. Having just won the Top Chef Masters competition on Bravo last season and having cooked at a White House State dinner in April, this was a pretty significant score for them (of course, the event sold out very quickly).

Inconveniently for us, the event took place at the CH S. Barrington location, which is a good 75-minute drive from the commissary. Once arrived, though, it was well worth the hassle. The demo was in a large party tent outside the restaurant - luckily, it wasn't too hot by the time everything got underway (and the sangria helped take the edge off of the ambient warmth). Rick and his assistant cooked up a roasted poblano gazpacho and a crispy shredded flank steak dish with golden onions and red chile salsa, both of which we got an opportunity to sample and both of which were delicious (I probably could have had about 6 of the steak shreds instead of the 1 that was served). Throughout the demo, the chef was talkative, self-effacing, kept things very light and casual, and seemed to genuinely enjoy being there, which made it nice for everyone attending. After the demo concluded (it took about 45 minutes), additional food was served buffet-style and the chef stuck around to sign copies of his new cookbook (as well as our old menu from Topolobampo). In addition to getting a cool photo with the guest of honor (see above), I also greatly enjoyed visiting with a few of the higher-ups from the Orland Park restaurant (i.e., my ex-bosses) that were in attendance and helped organize the event.

Unfortunately, we're going to have to skip the next Guest Chef wine club event (featuring pastry chef Gale Gand from Tru) in late Sept. as we'll have just returned from London earlier in the week, probably broke from spending too much on high-falutin English food (like fish and chips). We very much, however, look forward to subsequent ones after that.