Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top Notch Beefburgers

A few weekends ago, Mrs. Hackknife and our lead babysitter (i.e., Mrs. Hackknife's mom) headed out West to Las Vegas for a much-needed ladies' weekend of r-and-r, leaving yours truly some overtime with the progeny. Often times, when faced with these situations, my preference is to hunker down at home and ride out the storm (usually by clearing out leftovers in the fridge - since my kids won't eat most everything, I can be a scavenger and it doesn't really make much difference to our meal routines), but my foodie urges led me to drag them out one evening to a place I'd been wanting to visit: Top Notch Beefburgers (2116 W. 95th St.), a dining institution in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood since 1954. I had never eaten at this location, which is the original - a few years back, Mrs. Hackknife and I went to another TNB in Oak Forest with her parents and had a fantastic burger (the OF location has since closed and morphed into a pancake house). Recently, one local food reporter (Steve Dolinsky, who goes by the moniker "Hungry Hound") proclaimed TNB as having his top burger in the Chicagoland area, so I was eager to see if his hype matched my experience.

Loading up the family truckster, the three of us made the half-hour trip up to Beverly. Tricky thing about TNB - they have no parking lot and all of the metered spots on the street were full, so we had to finagle a 1-hour spot on a nearby side street. Entering the building, it was pretty much exactly how I'd imagined: old-school diner setting, layer of grease that's been accumulating for years covering all surfaces, old newspaper clippings - all good signs for good food. I simply ordered the standard 1/3-lb beef burger with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and optional grilled onions, with a side of fries (I'd read somewhere that TNB cooks their fries in beef tallow, like McDonald's used to do). Hackknife Jr. wanted a hot dog with cheese on top (which he mostly devoured in its entirety, much to my surprise), while Hackknifette nibbled sparingly on her own plain burger, mostly eating the fries.

The verdict? It was a good burger, actually a very good burger; however, I'd be hesitant to vote it my best of Chicago (maybe top 10). I've had better recently (Triple XXX in W. Lafayette, IN immediately comes to mind) and my recollection was that the TNB burger I sampled at the Oak Forest location was superior. The beef tallow fries gave me about the same vibe - very good, but not as mindblowing as I'd hoped, especially given the health impact trade-off. If Mrs. Hackknife were to twist my arm, I'd gladly make a return visit to do some more research, but for now, I believe that the TNB itch has been well-scratched....

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken

No, Thomas Keller did not come to my commissary to cook a chicken (he would be outrageously expensive to hire, although that's not really deterring me from asking for that as one of my Xmas presents). I simply used his recipe, which happened to be documented (along with a gourmet BLT, bistro-style skirt steak, rack of lamb, and pork & beans) in a recent Men's Journal article featuring 5 of Thomas Keller's go-to dishes (TK Roast Chicken Recipe). Those of you who are regular readers are probably aware that I'm always looking for a very good, very simple, reasonably healthy prep for chicken. Thus far, most of them I've tried are a little too vanilla, with the tastiest one being a Gordon Hammersley recipe that involves butterflying the bird and stuffing discs of cold herbed butter under the skin before cooking (this turned out to be delicious, but sadly, not so healthy for obvious reasons). Oddly, I can't seem to find a blog posting on it, so apparently, I'll have to make it again.

Anyway, I believe that we've found our new house roast chicken recipe. Before I tried it, I had heard rumors about how good TK's chicken is at French Laundry and how he espouses simplicity in the preparation. The only wrinkle for an amateur like me was learning how to truss the bird - this just involves tying it up around the wings and legs with string to make a compact package for roasting (see above). Other little details included drying the bird with paper towels inside the cavity and out (dry skin helps improve the browning), covering it with a healthy dose of kosher salt, and no basting until it leaves the oven. You cook it at 450F, which is pretty hot for a chicken (most of my other recipes are in the 350-375F range), resulting in a lot of splattered, vaporized chicken fat as it renders out (you'll need to keep the EasyOff handy for oven cleanup later). Once finished, though, simply mix in some thyme with the juices (i.e., fat) in the bottom of the roasting pan, do some basting, and after 15 minutes, it's ready to go. Damn. Mighty simple and mighty tasty, from Day 1 all the way through Day 6 when I'm down to scraps for homemade chicken salad.....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stuffed Banana Peppers

Now that we've caught up on our travelogue postings, it's time to return to normalcy and actually document a few things that I've been cooking in the Commissary over the past month. Sometime in early September, a nice batch of yellow banana peppers arrived in the weekly farmbox - immediately, my mind went back to an appetizer that is offered off-menu at one of my dad's favorite local Italian trattorias (Rocco's): stuffed banana peppers. The peppers at Rocco's are filled with a ricotta mixture and baked w/cheese and red sauce on top. Although I didn't find the exact recipe on-line, I did locate a similar one that uses a sausage stuffing instead.

Being wary of hot peppers since my recent unpleasantness w/jalapenos a few months ago, I gingerly removed the seeds and membranes from the banana peppers - it turns out that they're pretty benign to work with (no tingling fingers this time). The recipe calls for 2 pounds of sausage, one hot and one mild. Given our delicate palates in the Hackknife household, I opted to sub out the hot sausage with a roll of plain breakfast sausage instead. After mixing up the filling and stuffing the peppers (the recipes tells you to use a pastry bag or sausage stuffer, but I found that hand-rolling the filling to fit the pepper shape like I did with my jalapenos worked pretty well), I realized that I had WAY too much sausage (like a single pound would have done the trick). Rather than toss the excess, I rolled up a bunch of sausage meatballs and threw them in the baking dish along with the peppers. After an hour of bake time, out came a nicely-scented, good-looking Amer-Italian supper. The peppers were tender and only a tiny bit spicy, while the sauce (a mixture of canned crushed tomatoes, can tomato sauce, onion, celery, garlic, basil, and oregano) was pretty tasty. Here's the recipe if you're interested: Stuffed Banana Peppers

Friday, October 15, 2010

Waterside Inn (London Trip - Day 4)

The eating exploits of our last full day in London are almost exclusively focused on our visit to Waterside Inn, a 3-Michelin star temple of culinary renown located in the small town of Bray, about a 35-minute train ride west of London. Amazingly, Bray has a 2nd 3-Michelin star restaurant, Heston Blumenthal's well-chronicled molecular gastronomy joint Fat Duck, just around the corner from Waterside Inn. Before our trip, I attempted to secure a reservation to Fat Duck; however, unlike Per Se in New York, it would have been a much more expensive endeavor to sit on the phone for 30 minutes at a time trying to reach a live body at the reservation stand (not to mention physically challenging as the reservation line opens up at 10 am London time, or 4 am Central for those of you keeping track at home - I'll do a lot for food, but I have to draw the line at lost sleep). Although Waterside Inn was our second choice, I'm told we were fortunate to get a table as they often fill up throughout the summer months well in advance.

Joining Mrs. Hackknife and I on our dinner excursion was our New York City fixer and FOH (Friend of Hackknife) Adam, whom you'll recall from earlier posts helped us navigate the finer points of NYC dining during our trip there in March. His London visit for a business trip happened to overlap with ours on the day of our reservation and we were able to snag a seat for him at the table. Meeting up at Paddington Station, the 3 of us traveled British Rail to Maidenhead, then took about a 5-minute cab ride through lovely countryside to our initial destination: the Hinds Head Pub for pre-dinner drinks. The Hinds Head is about 25 feet from the front door of Fat Duck and also happens to be owned by Heston Blumenthal (apparently, he's been able to colonize half the town with his take from the restaurant). We settled in for a pint in the charming, 15th-Century pub and wondered what it would be like to eat there (they specialize in traditional British dishes, that is, the non-shitty kind); alas, the kitchen is closed on Sundays, so there would be no Devil on Horseback (cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon) for us this evening.

We were able to walk to Waterside Inn from the bar, taking a moment to photograph the menu and stare longingly inside the windows of Fat Duck (probably the closest we'll get to dining there for a long time). Upon our arrival at the restaurant, we were directed to the sitting lounge while our table was prepared (a second group shortly joined us and was given a bottle of cognac "on the house" by the General Manager - apparently, they were some sort of VIPs). During our wait, we were able to read a little more about the place's history: it was opened in 1972 by the Roux brothers as a follow-on to their celebrated London restaurant, Le Gavroche (at the time, no one was really doing fine French-influenced dining in the UK) and is now run by Alain Roux, one of the original owner's sons. The Rouxs are well known for launching the careers of many great chefs throughout the world and also for their exacting demands in the kitchen (having spawned the term "Roux Robots" as Marco Pierre White put it). As we experienced during our meal, it's hard to quibble with the results of their efforts.

We were soon brought into the dining room, which sits overlooking the Thames River pretty much right outside the window (it was a little hard to see in the darkening Fall evening, but I'll bet it's amazing in the sunlight). Oddly enough, there was a glass vase on the table with a pattern that nearly exactly matches the one on a set of decorative martini glasses we have in our downstairs bar at home (other people might think they spent a fortune on those vases, but I think I can now safely out them as having got them at, like, Target for $12.99 each). Anyway, there was nothing big box-ish about the meal. We all chose the house tasting menu (140 pounds per person, cost that is, not quantity - good thing we were out of the country since I couldn't really calculate exactly how much that was in dollars until we got home) and conferred with the sommelier to order a couple of glasses of wine that would pair well with most of the meal (a white Burgundy and a red Rhone). Starting off, we got a platter of 3 amuse bouches, one a prawn w/wasabi, another a delicate cheese puff, and lastly, a small escargot preparation. This was followed by a small sphere of crab salad, another amuse bouche. Now, the fun begins. First course was a scallop ceviche in olive oil and yuzu juice (a Japanese citrus sauce), followed by a lovely foie gras terrine embedded with peas (Picture #1 above).

The next course was our fish, a delicious turbot baked in a grape leaf. The leaf became the subject of much discussion at the table as I thought it was almost better than the fish (and I mean that as a complement since the fish was fantastic) - it was crispy and smoky, almost like a bacon. I puzzled over how they were able to get such a flavor in the leaf (having previously made kale chips in the oven by simply coating them in olive oil and roasting them, I was able to achieve something of similar consistency, but not the smoky flavor) and asked the GM when he came over about it. He told a funny anecdote about how Chef Roux clandestinely brought two suitcases full of the leaves (taken from a vineyard at his family estate in Southern France) through British customs, but that didn't really answer my question, and I didn't have the stones to ask the chef himself when he visited our table later in the evening. I did, however, find a clue on the flight back home - I was re-reading Jim Harrison's culinary memoirs "The Raw and The Cooked" and he makes mention of roasting meat wrapped in grape leaves over a woodsmoke grill (a-ha!), which I think might do the trick. Anyway, next came the most amazing venison loin (ordered medium rare per the chef's recommendation) prepared en croute, with a duxelle-like layer of mushrooms stuffed between the meat and the pastry (Picture #2). Now, those of you who know me well know that I usually won't go near a mushroom, but I will occasionally make exceptions and I'm certainly glad I did in this case - it was UNBELIEVABLY, melt-in-the-mouth good, almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Having reached the meal's apex, the desserts that followed were pretty much anticlimactic. There was an extra first dessert that escapes my memory (again, the dreaded curse of no notes and too much elapsed time to a food blogger - Adam/Mrs. Hackknife, can you help me out here?), a small prep of pear, blueberries, shortbread cookies, and red fruit coulis that wasn't bad, and a golden plum souffle (Picture #3) that photographed well, followed by the ever-present mignardises. Dear Reader, please don't get the wrong idea about the desserts - they were very good, but I am more of a chocolate enthusiast when it comes to sweets, and after the turbot/bacon leaf and venison, plum souffle was going to be a tough sell. In any case, it was a wonderful meal and a wonderful experience - a great way to conclude our trip.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

London Trip - Day 3

Day 3 of our London trip started much as the first one did - with full English breakfast at the hotel. During breakfast, I got up the nerve to have a little bit of Marmite, which I've always wanted to try and happened to be conveniently sitting in little packets (like jelly) at the table. It was very salty, very yeasty, and let's just say that's I found it to be an acquired taste (sorry all you Aussies, but I don't get it just yet). Anyway, since Mrs. Hackknife was finished with her work obligations, we pretty much had the day to ourselves as far as scheduling. Her one request was that she wanted to visit a pub for a pint, something she hadn't yet done as she had been working, plus under the weather to boot. Incredibly, we apparently picked the wrong portion of town to get a beer around Saturday noon since none of the pubs we encountered were open (maybe the business district wasn't a good idea). Eventually, we did find one open bar that was next to a Catholic church and was populated mostly by a wedding party that was getting a little refreshment before the ceremony (had we been better dressed, we probably could have fit right in without notice).

Getting on to this day's food highlights - Mrs. Hackknife had found an advert in one of those tourist magazines that they leave in the hotel room about an "experimental food expo" going on that afternoon in an exhibition space on Brick Lane (only a few blocks down from last night's stellar dinner). Having piqued our interest, we decided to try crashing the party and encountered a very long line for entry as we arrived at the hall. While waiting a good 15 minutes or so to get to the front of the queue, we noticed a separate, semi-open air portion of the exhibition space that seemed to include a bunch of street food vendors (this, apparently, goes on every weekend there and was completely removed from the formal event upstairs). When we heard from the door clerk that they stopped letting people into the expo due to lack of space, we jumped ship and headed to the street food fair. As it turns out, this was a good move. We found about 10 vendors, each specializing in a different ethnic cuisine (including Burmese, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Ethiopian, Thai, Jamaican, Japanese, and, oddly, Italian - the Italian booth wasn't getting much foot traffic amongst the more exotic choices). We started with some steamed pork dumplings from the Chinese dumpling stand (really tasty) and I followed that up with a large dish of Sri Lankan delicacies (see photo above). Of the food available, I picked some of the roasted lamb in dark curry (lower left pan), green curried prawns (2nd pan from top on left), and curry chicken (top left pan), along with some rice. I'd say the prawns were my favorite (the lamb was a little tough and the chicken a little chewy), but after it all mixed together in the container, it was pretty delicious - a warm, satisfying, and cheap way to spend a cool fall afternoon.

Worn out from negotiating the large crowds in the Covent Garden shopping district (including Harrod's food hall, which is amazing, but much more crowded on weekends than our malls at Xmastime - Mrs. Hackknife had to eventually prevent me from starting to knock tourists out of the way), we settled in to a small Spanish restaurant for dinner near our new hotel, located in a blessedly secluded neighborhood not far from the famous Abbey Road studios. Some of the details of this humble meal are lost to the ages (I know we had appetizers, but I can't remember what exactly), but I do recall that I had a nice veal chop and Mrs. Hackknife had a nice veal cutlet dish, and we left very satisfied in anticipation of our marquee dinner tomorrow evening at Waterside Inn.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

London Trip - Day 2

I had every intention of getting out of bed really early (like around 5:45 am) on the morning of Day 2 to check out the action at London's historic Smithfield Market, which has been the city's main wholesale site for butchered meat for about 800 years. Similar to Tsukiji (the giant fish market) in Tokyo, tourists are advised to get there at the crack of dawn, when business is at its peak. Unfortunately, jet jag intervened, waking up both me and Mrs. Hackknife in the middle of the night and rendering me pretty much useless until around 7:30. By the time I managed to haul my bedraggled carcass to the market complex, the place was nearly deserted (I did see a few hanging pigs, though). Discouraged, but not surprised, I stopped in at Smith of Smithfield restaurant, a hip meat-focused eatery across the street from the market to grab a quick breakfast before heading out on my main sightseeing junket. I was lucky to get a table as it was packed with young, mostly professional-looking Londoners having a bite to eat prior to the Friday workday. I ordered what was called a "bacon butty", really just a couple of pieces of English bacon (leaner, not so crispy) between two slices of thick, crusty white bread, plus a banana smoothie and an orange juice. All three of these items were mediocre at best and didn't really provide me much other than basic sustenance to help climb the 500-odd steps to the very top of St. Paul's Cathedral later that morning. Equally uninspiring was the cottage pie lunch special I had at the historic Lamb and Flag pub, which apparently is a better place to drink than eat.

So, by the time that Friday evening rolled around, I was in major need of culinary redemption. Mrs. Hackknife and I headed over to Brick Lane, ground zero for London's Indian and Bangladeshi communities, seeking a good place for dinner. The neighborhood was definitely a little rougher around the edges than most of the places we'd visited thus far. The street was lined with hawkers trying to entice visitors into their restaurants with promises of the best Indian meal in town. My guidebook (which had yet to steer me wrong) recommended The Shampan (79 Brick Lane), which was hawker-free (a good sign) and practically empty (not a good sign) when we arrived. As with the night before, I ordered a combo meal to get a good sampling of several dishes, this time with a focus on Bangladeshi food. After our starter plate of samosas (which were very good), I was presented with the behemoth that you see on a platter in Picture 1 above. All of it (with the exception of the yogurt, easily identifiable at about 2 o'clock on the plate) was delicious. Alas, the restaurant has no website for me to reference a menu after the fact and I did not take any notes about what I was eating (probably taboo for someone who has a food blog - my sincerest apologies), so I'm afraid I can't provide anything but a vague description of the dishes (note - if it makes you feel better, I'm not sure that I could really tell you what they were even while I was in the middle of the meal). There was a roasted, mostly whole fish with crispy onions (lower left), a bowl of tasty rice (middle), the ubiquitous flatbread, the aforementioned yogurt, a spicy lamb dish, chicken dish, and vegetable dish, washed down with a Cobra beer. No dessert necessary, my friends, as Mrs. Hackknife returned to the hotel and I headed out to catch some bad League 1 soccer (Leyton Orient hosting Brentford), belly full enough to avoid the ever-present meat pies and pasties on the menu at the game.