Thursday, September 30, 2010

London Trip - Day 1

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently abandoned the Commissary to the progeny and their sitters (i.e., the 2 grandmas) while we traveled to merry old England for a few days. The trip was half-business, half-pleasure for the missus (having been asked to present at a global conference in London), but was pure entertainment for yours truly, leaving me largely on the loose in a city well-known (at least within the last 10 years or so) for the vast diversity of its food culture. For those of you that associate English cuisine with fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, puddings, etc., there are still mediocre oceans of that stuff available (although even those old standbys are getting a better reputation at some of the more-progressive restaurants in the country); however, there may be no better place outside of their own nations to sample several types of Southeast Asian and Indian Subcontinent food, a few of which I took it upon myself to track down. Of course, I couldn't just eat the whole time I was there (although I can sense a few of you rolling your eyes in doubt). I did, in fact, visit many of the important tourist sites, just with a little more of a foodie angle than my previous visit to London in 2004. So, without further ado....

Day 1 found me full English breakfasting at the hotel - for the uninitiated, this includes beans, stewed tomatoes, bacon (although leaner and more ham-like than what we're used to here in the States), sausages, potatoes, and eggs, leaving me pleasantly full as I cruised through the National Art Gallery and Westminster Abbey. Around 2:30 that afternoon, I finally felt hungry enough to attempt lunch - taking the Tube to Covent Garden, I headed over to Rock and Sole Plaice (47 Endell St.), a fish-and-chips emporium recommended by my guidebook and seconded by many reviewers on-line. The place was pretty tiny, with about 6 tables inside and a few more on the sidewalk in front. One could pick from 4 different fishes (cod, sole, plaice, and haddock, if I recall correctly), with or without chips, and you paid a little bit more if you wanted to stay there to eat (i.e., table service). I chose plaice (a fish I'd vaguely heard of before, but had never eaten) with chips and was served the golden beauty see above in Picture 1. I have to say, if there is a more Platonic ideal of fish-and-chips out there somewhere, I would be surprised. The fillet was large, crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy or "fishy". The chips were pretty much just the way I like them - chunky, crisp on the outside, but a little soft on the inside. Sublime. I get the chills just thinking about it even now.

Basking in lunch's afterglow, I was able to do a little more touring before clocking out and heading over to Rasa Samudra (5 Charlotte St.) near the Tottenham Court Tube station, another guidebook-recommended restaurant. I did a little research beforehand and determined that this place specializes in Southern Indian (specifically, the Kerala region of Southern India) food, which features a lot of seafood and ingredients normally associated with the tropics (think coconuts, mangoes, bananas, etc.). The menu was a mind-spinning 10 pages of choices, in which case I usually seek out some kind of combo option (this typically gives you the best opportunity to sample many different items, often at a pretty good price). I picked the "vegetarian feast" featured on the front of the menu and was assured by the waitress that the amount of food included would be manageable (of course, I knew better and fully expected to be stuffed by the time the 3rd course showed up). For starters (called the "pre-meal snack"), I was brought out a basket of various crunchy treats (made primarily out of rice flour, cumin, and sesame seeds) along with three different pickles (lemon, mango, and mixed vegetable) and a couple of savory chutneys for dipping. Next came the "starters", which were three different dumplings (fried potato balls, fried plantains, and my personal favorite, medhu vadai, a spongy dumpling inside a crunchy shell) with three more chutneys (tomato, coconut, and mango) for dipping. Feeling full yet inspired, along came my entree (see Picture 2 above, starting at lower left and going counterclockwise) consisting of moru kachiathu (mango/banana cooked in yogurt), cheera parippu curry (spinach and chickpeas in curry sauce), rasa kayi (spicy mixed vegetables, and savory cabbage thoran (sort of like an Indian cole slaw), plus delicious coconut rice and flatbread. After this feast, I was presented with a small dessert (pal payasam, a sweet rice milk dish) that I must have eaten, although I'm not quite sure how. Anthony Bourdain waxed poetically about Keralan cuisine in a recent No Reservations episode and I can clearly see why. Rolling back to my hotel, I tried to recover for Day 2.....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chicago Mini-Food Tour

This past weekend, Mrs. Hackknife took the progeny up north to a girlfriend's house in Wisconsin (Hackknife Jr. returned home with a raging case of Star Wars-itis and has now watched the original movie almost 3 times in the last 4 days). As a result, I had a full 48 hours of alone time at the commissary to ponder my existence and take care of some outstanding chores, namely finding places amongst the landscaping for a ton of lava rock (Friday) and sorting through about 70 years of accumulated tools, nuts/bolts, etc. in my late grandfather's garage (Saturday). Of course, alone time also means some me-food time, kicked off Friday evening with the assemblage of a zucchini cheddar bread that was so unremarkable as to almost completely avoid mention in this blog and a trip to the South Suburbs best gyro outlet, Perros Bros. Gyros in Olympia Fields, for dinner. The food press around here lately has been spouting off about how hardly any gyro outlet in the greater metropolitan area uses a non-frozen meat cone (i.e., the slab from which the gyro meat is roasted and carved) anymore; however, I can't find a single fault with whatever Freres Perros are doing with their cone before cooking. All I know is that the gyro is outstanding and the fries are pretty top shelf as well. Saturday night found me stopping at Las Asadas in downtown Des Plaines, a tiny, highly-recommended taqueria for some lengua tacos (if anyone out there has a complex about eating beef tongue, it might help to consider that this is one of many unattractive, yet intensely flavorful cuts of meat that most likely ends up in your finer hot dogs).

Then came Sunday. I had about 8 hours of nothing to do except enjoy the beautiful late-summer weather. What better way to spend it than walking around my city and stuffing my face (Hackknife's new motto: "We eat ourselves sick so you don't have to")? About 2 weeks ago, in anticipation of my free weekend, I mapped out a route of about 7 miles that would take me through various parts of the North side, stopping at dining establishments that I've wanted to try, but hadn't yet gotten around to. So, having consumed nothing except a bottled water, I left the commissary and proceeded straight to my first destination: Macondo, near Lincoln and Barry (2965 N. Lincoln). I had read about the empanadas here, a casual Colombian coffee-and-pastry joint that's the little sister of Las Tablas, a South American steakhouse chain that we used to frequent when we still lived in the city. When I walked in around 8:45, the place was empty save for the clerk and the cook working in the back. I ordered an egg-and-cheese empanada, which was accompanied by two little containers of chimmichuri sauce and a green salsa, plus a homemade hot chocolate that was hotter than the surface of the sun (the clerk told me that the cook "makes it on the stove by hand"). The empanada was fantastic - light, yet crispy and oh-so-good with the chimmichurri. Even the hot chocolate was good, that is, after 10 minutes of feverish stirring with a coffee stick to try to cool it down. The whole experience set me back less than $6.

With most of my taste buds unscalded, I proceeded south and a bit east to the maternal Hackknife ancestral neighborhood to visit Floriole (1220 W. Webster), which turned out to be a high-falutin Lincoln Park bakery heavily populated by yuppies getting their Sunday morning fix. The bakery case was crammed with awesome-looking goodies, such as a milk chocolate hazelnut tart ($5.95) and several exotic flavors of macarons ($1.50 each!). I had to get the tart and loaded up on extra macarons (6 total - 2 chocolate/earl grey, 2 passionfruit, and 2 lemon/lavender) to bring home to the family. As it turns out, I ended up eating 5 of the 6 macarons as I discovered the next day that they don't keep for very long (too chewy for the kids, but not for me).

Backtracking a bit west and some more south, Franks N' Dawgs was up next (1863 N. Clybourn). This new hot dog stand has garnered much press in the past few months and is taking our other local gourmet hot dog outlet, Hot Doug's (much beloved by this blogger, I might add), head-on. After my experience, I have to reluctantly admit that there may be a new sheriff in town. As their first diner of they day (doors open at 11 on Sundays), the girl behind the counter convinced me to get a Pig Latin (one of their daily specials), consisting of a Catalan smoked sausage, topped by a slab of braised pork belly, apple slaw, mustard creme fraiche, and chopped sweet red pepper. This heavenly creation was accompanied by a side order of waffle truffle fries, available only on weekends (a clear imitation of Hot Doug's duck fat fries, which you can only get on Fridays and Saturdays). You can see the top picture above (the dog is half-eaten by this point) to get a better idea of what I'm describing and, yes, it did taste as good as it looked, as did the fries, which beat just about all others I've had hands-down. Only downside - it was all on the pricey side (about $18 for a dog, fries, and bottled water), but I will definitely be returning, and with reinforcements next time.

Starting to get a little full, I walked the longest portion of my journey to Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (2423 N. Clark), recently listed among the top 25 pizza joints by Chicago Magazine. I was hoping to be able to get just a single slice; however, this was not possible as they cook their pizzas one-by-one in a wood-burning oven, just like Stop 50 (see recent posting). As a result, I order just the simplest, cheapest ($8.95) pizza on the menu, a marinara with a little sauce, basil, and garlic. It was good, but certainly not among my favorites, and I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about the restaurant's vibe, which was much clubbier and upscale than I was expecting (no Italian grandma cooking in the kitchen back here). More than half the pizza was boxed up to bring home and I actually enjoyed it more upon re-heating the next day for lunch.

Now significantly dragging both feet and intestines, I plodded north up towards my final stop, Cloud 9 (604 W. Belmont), one of a recently-popped up crop of new gelato establishments, but in a class of its own as they are the only place in town serving snow ice. For the uninitiated, snow ice is a cross between ice cream and shaved ice (known as "xue-hua-bing" in Taiwan, where it originated) and is supposed to be very refreshing and light. Hoping for just a tidbit, I ordered the "snack" size portion of mango snow ice w/a blueberry drizzle, at which point the server presented me with the behemoth that you see in Picture #2 above. It was light and it was very tasty, but of course, there was no way I could polish the whole thing off. Regardless, this was a good place to end the mini-food tour and I made a mental note to bring the kids back sometime next summer (we can all share a snack size)....

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bison Dining at the Friendly Confines

I have been a partial season ticket holder to the Chicago Cubs going on 10 years now and, I can say with utmost certainty, that although Wrigley Field is a magical place to watch a baseball game and experience the grander moments in one's life (Mrs. Hackknife and I had our first date there, for example), the food there basically sucks lemons. With few exceptions (only the kosher hot dogs with grilled onions available at a couple of obscure stands on the main concourse immediately come to mind), I can go across town to a rival American League team's field that shall remain nameless and find a much wider and better array of ballpark dining options. With the recent sale of the Cubs to the Ricketts family, however, I must admit that the dining gap has narrowed ever-so-slightly. Case in point: bison meat.

Among other businesses, the Ricketts family owns a company called High Plains Bison, offering ranch-raised bison in many forms. As one might have guessed, the 2010 season arrived with a new offering of High Plains Bison menu items at many of the park's concession stands (I can imagine the Rickettses sitting around the table sometime in 2009 going "Why should we buy the Cubs? Because of their proud winning tradition? Why, no, but we'd have someplace to shill all that damn bison!"). To the best of my knowledge, the bison hot dogs are the HPB product most widely available throughout Wrigley Field (and I've heard rumors that they do, in fact, taste like hot dogs), but if one were to search a little deeper, one could find more interesting bison fare. I discovered a month or so back that, if you go into the Sheffield Grill (formerly a private dining room for season ticket holders, but now open to the public before and during games) located in the right field corner of the park, you'll find a bison-entree-of-the-week available for purchase.

The first time I went in there, they were offering a bison meatloaf sandwich with grilled onions/chipotle bbq sauce, chips, and a pickle for $9.25 - a little pricey, but worth it to try. It took about 15 minutes for my order to come up (there was a head chef, sous chef, and about 4 assistants all crammed into a little space feverishly trying to cook and serve), but when it finally did, it was worth the wait. The sandwich was LARGE and very satisfying, pretty much the best thing I've ever had at Wrigley. The chips and pickle were ok, providing a nice, if simple, accompaniment. After that experience, I made a mental note to go down there for dinner again once I had the chance. The second time, there was a bison pastrami sandwich on the menu, served with a horseradish mayo and chips/pickle again (also for $9.25). This one was good (not as good as the meatloaf, though), but probably not a repeat.

Now that the 2010 season is over for me (two games left on our schedule, but we'll be missing both of them for....future blog entry alert.....our upcoming trip to London), I'll have to wait until Spring to see what bison entrees are popping up next at the Friendly Confines.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Stop 50

This past Sunday, the Hackknives made their annual summer pilgrimage to Stone Lake, a small, sandy bottom lake near Laporte, IN that Mrs. Hackknife fondly remembers visiting throughout her childhood. There's not much there other than a beach, small beachhouse, and playground, but it's good for small kids and we've enjoyed bringing ours there for a few hours each summer. This year, one of Mrs. Hackknife's colleagues at work highly recommended a pizza joint (called Stop 50) in nearby Michiana Shores, so we decided to make a detour there for dinner before heading home from the lake.

The place was a little hard to find. Our GPS was confused enough to have us turn across some railroad tracks where there was no crossing to be found. Luckily, a local gas station employee was able to point us in the right direction (she told me it was "back there in the trees"). Once we arrived, it was not exactly what I had expected. For those of you not familiar with Michiana Shores (it was my first visit, too), it appears to be a tiny Lake Michigan resort town perched on the Indiana side of the Michigan border catering mostly to moneyed Chicagoans (I noticed most of the license plates in the parking lot were from Illinois). The restaurant reflected this setting - instead of some roadhouse biker bar, it was small and actually quite upscale, clearly having been built within the last few years. If aliens were to transport the building to the middle of Lincoln Park, it would not look out of place.

Anyway, let's get to the food. While waiting in line for the men's room, I was quite surprised to see framed clippings from a March 2010 Rachael Ray magazine article listing this establishment (along with the likes of Great Lake and Burt's Pizza, two now-famous Chicago pizzerias known for their high-quality product and cantankerous owners) among the 4 top pizzerias in the Midwest. Normally, I would have picked up on this a long time ago via the local foodie media (well, maybe not since Rachael Ray is not exactly my idea of a respected food publication), but I missed this one somehow. In my humble opinion, the food lived up to the hype. We started with a platter of homemade breadsticks, charred to perfection in the wood-burning oven and served with house marinara sauce. Given that we were starving from having been out in the sun all afternoon, we probably would have eaten cardboard, but this was much better. Following that, the missus and I split a huge house salad, also very good. We ordered a margherita pizza (no basil) for the kids and a prosciutto, pistachio, mozzarella, and rosemary pizza for us, both of which were outstanding. Hackknife Jr. had been promised a dessert and he chose the Stop 50 S'mores, a giant marshmallow-and-chocolate platter melted in the wood-burning oven, which he promptly declared that he didn't like, leaving the remainder for Mrs. Hackknife, Hackknifette, and I to scarf up like vultures.

My sole word of caution is that you should be prepared for a table wait (again, it's a small, but popular place) and a decent wait for your pizza (they can only cook them one at a time in the wood-burning oven), which can be trouble if you're with hungry, tired kids (I speak from experience here). However, if you are in the area and are not in a terrible hurry, you must stop for pizza here. Don't argue with me. ...

Rolled Stuffed Eggplant/Tomato, Corn, & Lime Risotto

Our first-ever farmbox eggplant showed up the other day. I'd worked with eggplant only once before when I tried a simple recipe I found in a big pasta cookbook from the commissary library. My recollection is that I had to salt the eggplant slices, let them sit for half an hour, and press out the moisture so that any bitterness was removed. Given the level of prep involved, the resulting dish was not really worth it.

Fast forward to now. While looking for eggplant recipes in Joy of Cooking, I learn that you only have to do the whole salting-and-sitting routine if the eggplant is old. Ok, I thought, farmbox eggplant is probably a lot fresher than what I can get at Large Corporate Supermarket, so I can skip that step. Amazingly, it (or not doing it, rather) worked! The eggplant in my dish (rolled stuffed eggplant) was good and not the least bit bitter. Here's the recipe in case you're interested:

3/4 c. shredded provolone or mozzarella cheese
3/4 c. ricotta cheese
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh marjoram or basil
1 sm. clove garlic, minced
1 lg. eggplant (about 1 1/4 lb)
extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400F. Lightly oil a glass baking dish. Combine all of the above ingredients (other than eggplant and olive oil) in a bowl until well mixed. Cut eggplant lengthwise into 1/4" thick slices. Brush both sides of slices with olive oil and cook in a skillet until golden, about 5 minutes per side. Remove slices to a platter until cool. Spread a mound of cheese mixture at the base of each eggplant slice, then roll it up. Arrange the rolls in the baking dish seam side down. Cover the dish with foil and bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Serve w/your favorite tomato sauce.

At the end of the day, the eggplant rolls taste a lot like lasagna, with the noodle part being replaced by the eggplant (obviously). For a side dish, I found this great risotto recipe, also in Joy of Cooking. It jumped out at me since it involves sweet corn and basil, two things I had on hand and was looking to use up. For those of you unfamiliar w/risotto, it mostly requires standing at the stove and stirring for about an hour, but the extra effort is worth it. Molto bene....

1 c. diced seeded peeled ripe tomatoes (I used canned w/liquid drained)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp. salt or to taste
5 c. chicken stock or broth
2 c. corn kernels
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 c. finely chopped scallions (white part only)
1 1/2 c. arborio rice
1/2 c. dry white wine
grated Parmesan cheese

Combine tomatoes, basil, lime juice, and salt in a bowl. Bring chicken stock to a simmer in a saucepan. Puree 1 c. of corn kernels in a food processor. Heat butter in a large, heavy saucepan or dutch oven until the foam subsides. Add scallions and cook, stirring until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat with butter. Add white wine and stir constantly until absorbed. Add 1 c. of the simmering stock and stir constantly over medium-low heat until absorbed. Add remaining stock, 1/2 c. at a time, stirring constantly until the liquid is almost absorbed before adding more. After 15 minutes, stir in pureed corn and another 1/2 c. stock. Continue cooking, stirring, and adding stock in 1/2 c. intervals until all stock has been added. Once rice is tender, but slightly firm in the center, add remaining corn and tomato mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

I have to mention that the risotto got better and better upon sitting in the fridge for a couple of days. Ahh...the magic of decay.....