Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Xmas Eve Dishes

In case you haven't noticed, I've been on extended hiatus from the blog the past few weeks owing to a Disney World trip, holiday prep/obligations, and myriad illnesses affecting the residents of the Commissary. With all of that finally behind us, it's time to sneak in one more posting for 2010 before we flip the calendar and begin a new year of culinary escapades. I was hoping to bring back from Florida enough foodie material for a report; however, the trip was noteworthy only for its extreme cold temperatures (three straight days of record lows, probably not what the local Chamber of Commerce had in mind when they beckoned us) and relatively unremarkable cuisine (truth be told, we did have a couple of good meals while staying at the resort, but nothing that would really warrant mention here).

As a result, we're going to focus on the dishes I put together to take to the annual Xmas Eve gathering at Mrs. Hackknife's parents' place. This year, I volunteered to do 2 appetizers and 1 dessert. I've been making a seafood-based appetizer on Xmas Eve for the last few years to establish a little connection to my Italian heritage, that is, a very small nod to "La Festa di Sette Pesci" or "The Feast of the Seven Fishes", which is a tradition in some parts of Italy on Xmas Eve. Being a mostly Catholic country, good Italian Catholics would abstain from eating meat that night, instead opting for a series of fish dishes (7, or 9, or 11, depending on the family or region). Once I heard about this tradition (completely unaware that my Dad's relatives in Ohio had been doing just this same thing for many years), I thought I'd try to follow suit with at least one fish dish to bring to my in-laws. Anyway, for this year, I found a couple of good candidate recipes, namely taramasalata (carp roe dip) and anchovies in green sauce, the former being traditionally Greek, the latter more Northern Italian, or Occitan (sort of French-Italian Alpine) to be exact.

Mrs. Hackknife loves taramasalata - we get it almost every time we dine at a Greek restaurant. I discovered that it's basically peasant food, consisting of day-old bread, onion, olive oil, lemon juice, and whatever roe or fish eggs are left over from the local fisherman's haul. Maybe unsurprisingly, the trickiest part was finding the roe (I opted to use cod roe, not for any particular reason other than I misread the word "carp" in the recipe as "cod"). After coming away empty-handed from several ethnic grocery stores in the Southwest Suburbs, I gave up and bought it online from a Russian food products company in Manhattan called Moscow on the Hudson. Given the clipped-English emails I received confirming my order, I surmised that this was no doubt a front for the Russian mafia doing God knows what with the profits from my cod roe. In any case, I did receive a nice package with the requested merchandise ($3.99 for the jar of goods, $10.31 for the shipping), at least I think it's what I requested, although I can't really verify since the label is in Cyrillic. It certainly tastes like fish eggs.

Getting back to the matter at hand, once I got the roe, the rest was easy. Mix chopped up wet white bread into food processor along with chopped onion and cod roe, mix in olive oil and lemon juice, adjust seasonings (in our case, 2 extra Tbsp. of roe) and coloring (a wee bit of red food dye to give it the usual pinkish hue) and voila! We had a nice bread/cracker dip that went over well at the party and is still being enjoyed at the Commissary at the time of this writing. Here's the recipe: taramasalata recipe.

Moving on to the anchovies in green sauce, it was considerably easier to procure the necessary ingredients. The deli at my local ethnic grocery has large cans of salt-packed anchovies, which are recommended for this recipe. In order to remove the illness-inducing level of salt on them, Michael Ruhlman recommends soaking them in milk for 30 minutes before rinsing them under water - I did this and it seemed to work pretty well. To finish the anchovy prep, I simply had to butterfly them with a small paring knife and pull out the backbone, which came out relatively easily. The only other tricky step was creating the hard-boiled egg yolks. Before you raise a question mark, please know that other than Easter, I've never hard-boiled eggs before (not a big fan of the taste), so Mrs. Hackknife had to help me w/this part (it's ok to snicker now). Layer the anchovies with a mixture of olive oil, white wine vinegar, chili flakes, parsley, basil, salt, garlic, and the egg yolks, let it rest for an hour, and we're there. At first, it's a little aggressive, but mellows out once everything settles. Again, crackers or bread go with it: anchovies with green sauce.

Last but not least comes dessert. After considering various Xmas cookies and cakes, I settled on a very traditional English holiday dessert: the trifle. For those of you unfamiliar, a trifle involves the layering of cake, fruit, custard or pudding, and whipped cream, sometimes with liquor, sometimes not, but it can come in about a million different versions. My December issue of Saveur featured a nice one on the cover containing homemade ginger cake, custard, sherry, and kirsch (cherry liqueur) - it looked great (in fact, dramatic presentation is part of the trifle wow factor). This version, however, was a little ambitious for my liking. Surely there's an easier trifle recipe out there for the half-assed amongst us, no? Of course, the answer is yes, and I found it here: chocolate banana berry trifle, which included Cool Whip, packaged brownie mix, instant pudding, and toffee bars (we don't always have to be gourmet here, do we?). I'm sure that a fully-made-from-scratch one would taste better and I didn't exactly have the right serving dish for it (it came out a little lopsided), but the partygoers enjoyed it and it was perfectly adequate (if not a bit gloppy) for leftovers.

Happy holidays and New Year to you and yours.....

Thursday, December 9, 2010

End of Spring

Before I begin this latest posting, I received a shot across the bow from my doctor yesterday - apparently, having a food blog (or perhaps more specifically, the act of gathering suitable material for the food blog) may be somewhat hazardous to your health. After my annual physical earlier this week, the good doc informed me that I've experienced a sizable bump-up in my cholesterol from my last physical in 2009 - 183 to 200, which isn't necessarily a concern per se (200 is right at the borderline between good and marginal); however, he wasn't crazy about the trend, so moving forward I'll have to enact some basic austerity measures to make sure that I'll be around to annoy you with my culinary blogging for many years to come. This means more exercise (and fewer excuses), more vegetables, smaller portions, etc., but I've no intention whatsoever of completely curtailing my explorations of the food megasphere, just acting more monkish during those in-between times.

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's today's post. Last month, I got word that one of the more heralded restaurants in town over the past decade (by the name of Spring) was slated to close after New Year's Eve this year. Chef Shawn McClain opened the restaurant in 2001 and racked up a large number of accolades for his seafood-with-an-Asian-flair menu. He later went on to open Green Zebra (widely regarded as the best vegetarian joint in Chicago), Custom House (one of our many steakhouses), and Sage (a joint partnership in Las Vegas at the new Aria CityCenter). In the meantime, things began going south with his financial partners at Spring, and with the lease expiring at the close of 2010, he announced that the time was right to close up shop and move on. Fortunately for us (the diners), he decided to keep serving up through the end of the year a sort-of "greatest hits" selection of dishes from the past decade to end on a high note. Having never had the pleasure of dining there, it was an easy sell to Mrs. Hackknife to snag us a reservation a few short weeks before Spring disappeared from the local dining scene.

We arrived for our reservation at 6pm this past Sunday night and found the place nearly deserted except for the waitstaff - other than us, there was one guy at the bar and one couple seated in the restaurant. I remember sitting alone at our table (Mrs. Hackknife went to powder her nose) looking at the elegant, yet empty restaurant, listening to the somewhat-morose electronica on the soundsystem, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the setting was very funeral-ish (if that's not a word, I think I just invented it). Fortunately, other diners began to show and the place filled up rather rapidly (also livening up the vibe quite a bit). We decided to do the wine pairing with the greatest-hits prix fixe menu, putting the total price for the 4-course meal at $85/head (a pretty good deal for fine dining in Bucktown). The waiter brought our an amuse bouche to get us going - a ceramic spoon filled with tuna tartare and hazelnut in a parsley pesto sauce. This was very good; however, the crunchy flatbread with white bean/olive oil spread that appeared afterwards wasn't so great in my opinion. That would prove to be the only sour note of the meal as we then began to receive our main courses.

First up for me was a potato and seared scallop "ravioli" (in quotes because the ingredients were molded together in the shape of a ravioli filling without a pasta covering) with mushroom-black truffle reduction (yes, I did eat most of the mushrooms and no, I didn't grimace) paired with a glass of Cava (i.e., Spanish sparkling wine) - it was delicious, and so was Mrs. Hackknife's tuna sashimi. Our second course was also a big hit: kabocha squash and apple soup w/pickled ginger and croquettes (paired with a Pinot Gris) for me and lemongrass and coconut soup (paired with a St. Urban Hof off-dry Riesling) for my lovely wife. If it were socially acceptable for me to lick the bowl, I would have done so. Third up for me was an amazing black bean-glazed cod filet (see photo above) with a scallion and peekytoe crab pancake in a carrot-sesame sauce (paired with the same Riesling as Mrs. Hackknife's soup). My wife was also very happy with her Icelandic halibut on top of parmesan risotto with winter truffle and braised white asparagus. Starting to feel severe diner's remorse for not having eaten here earlier in the decade, we closed out the meal with a white chocolate dome on peppermint bark and chocolate creameux (I looked up "creameux" and it appears to be nothing more than a snooty dessert term) paired with a nice Moscato d'Asti from Italy and a five-spice panna cotta in an apple cider gelee with a spiced brioche doughnut paired with a Rhone red blend.

As this outstanding culinary journey concluded with the arrival of the check, there was no overcoming the steely glare across the table from Mrs. Hackknife, as in "Why did you bring me here for the first time only three weeks before they close?" and "How on Earth are we ever going to make arrangements to eat here 6 more times before Dec. 31?". Alas, our best (yeah, only) option might be to check out Mr. McClain's other restaurants before they vanish into the mists of time.....

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Trial Thanksgiving Dishes - Part 2

I was perfectly content to make your usual, bland, industrial crescents-in-a-tube as my dinner roll for the in-law's Thanksgiving meal. Then my latest issue of Saveur showed up (featuring Thanksgiving dishes, bless their little hearts), and in it I find an article on Tom Colicchio's Parker House dinner rolls (as a Top Chef fan, I must admit I can hardly resist anything with Chef C's brand attached to it). Of course, the article makes the rolls sound so sexy and irresistible (as magazine articles are designed to do), that I decide, what the heck, I'll try them.

Lucky for me, I had the foresight to do a dress rehearsal batch on Monday before unleashing them on the unsuspecting relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. My first challenge was finding one of the ingredients: barley malt syrup. According to TC, this sweetener lends "caramel and molasses undertones to the flavor of the bread". Unfortunately, unless you happen to have a brewery in your basement, it's a little hard to find, and mail order 3 days before the holiday simply wasn't an option. I did find dark corn syrup, which is listed in the recipe as an alternative, so that would have to do.

The next challenge was heating up milk to 115F, which is the activation temperature of active dry yeast. I was able to use my deep fry thermometer in a saucepan to get the milk temp as close as I could, then dumped it in to the yeast-corn syrup mixture. After about 10 minutes, it was supposed to get "foamy", although my starter didn't get more than just remotely effervescent (I should have taken this to be the first sign of potential trouble). The next tripping point came during dough kneading as the article states to mix the dough only "until it's tacky to the touch but not sticking to your fingers", lest you generate too much gluten from rough handling (this is desirable when making pasta, but not for soft dinner rolls). My dough became smooth after only about 2-3 minutes of kneading, much less than the 5-6 minutes cited in the recipe. To stay on recipe, I went for an extra minute or two, but this may have been detrimental to the final product as we'll see soon.

After letting the dough rise for the instructed time period (about 1 hour and 45 minutes), I rolled out the balls and put them in a greased 9" metal round baking pan (I didn't have an 8" cast iron skillet, nor an 8"x8" baking pan). I didn't think that dish size/shape would make much difference; however, once put in the oven, the dough balls neither rose much nor browned much, ending up mostly lumpen in appearance (hardtack, anyone?). So where did I go wrong? Milk temp? Too much kneading? Wrong pan? Any combo of the above? We'll probably never know, although my money is probably on #1 and #3. I'll forever be more careful in selecting the right equipment for baking recipes, especially after reading a recent Wall Street Journal article demonstrating how little variations in pan size and even the type of salt used can have drastically different results when cooking or baking.

For the adventurous among you, here's a link to the recipe: Parker House Rolls (Editor's note: after reading several reviews posted to the recipe site, apparently almost everyone had trouble making this work, so perhaps the recipe is wrong to begin with. I feel so less dopey.....)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trial Thanksgiving Dishes - Part 1

With Thanksgiving looming on the horizon and an invite from Mrs. Hackknife's parents to partake in holiday dinner at their place, I wanted to prepare a few dishes to help ease the effort on my mother-in-law. I decided on the traditional green bean casserole (so traditional, in fact, it barely rates mentioning in this post), plus a chocolate pecan chunk pie (which we've made here in the Commissary a few times before and will eventually describe in a posting) and some kind of dinner rolls. Then the infamous farm box arrived with (among other things) a large bag of fresh whole cranberries and 6 large sweet potatoes. Now, I'd already been warned not to bother with making either sweet potato casserole or cranberry sauce as my father-in-law prefers the canned kind of both, but without really any other options for this fine produce, I posited that the dinner guests could always use more cranberry sauce and possibly another pie, perhaps sweet potato (recognizing, of course, that Thanksgiving is nothing if not the holiday of culinary excess).

First up was the cranberry sauce, following a recipe found in Joy of Cooking (they call it "relish"). This was actually remarkably simple, not unlike making compote in the respect that you're basically heating up fruit in a pan on the stove with sugar and liquid. Here's the recipe:

Combine in a large skillet:

1 lb. cranberries, picked over (I took this to mean take out the crappy-looking ones)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tsp. grated orange zest

Cook uncovered over medium heat until most of the cranberries pop open (yes, they do actually pop, perhaps not as violently as popcorn) and the mixture is somewhat thickened (sort of a subjective measure here), 7 to 10 minutes (I think I did closer to 15). If desired, add 1/2 cup of slivered blanched almonds (I did not desire). Let cool and serve or refrigerate for up to 1 day.

That's it, and it was a big hit with everyone at dinner (except my father-in-law, who poignantly declined to have any). Plus, we found that the sauce also works well as a sweet topping on toast, vanilla ice cream, etc., although if you're partial to acid reflux (which I am becoming increasing so as I plod along through middle age), you may want to enjoy in small doses since the berries are pretty acidic.

Next up was the sweet potato pie (allegedly a Southern delicacy). Again, the Joy of Cooking recipe is pretty straightforward, similar to pumpkin with pureed sweet potato in place of the pureed pumpkin:

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 400F. Make a pie crust (or wimp out like me and use a Keebler pre-fab crust). Take 2 lb. of sweet potatoes and peel deeply, removing both the skin and the pale, fibrous layer beneath it. Cut crosswise into 1-inch chunks and steam in a basket over boiling water until very tender, about 20 minutes. Puree in a food processor.

Whisk together thoroughly in a medium bowl:

4 large eggs
1/2 c. sugar.

Whisk in 1 1/2 c. of sweet potato puree, then whisk in:

1 c. light cream or evaporated milk, or 1/2 milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
4 tsp. strained lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp. freshly grated or ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt

Warm pie crust in the oven until hot to the touch (about 3 min.). Pour in the filling and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325F and bake until the center of the filling seems set, but quivery, like gelatin, when the pan is nudged, about 20 minutes more. Let cool completely on a rack, then refrigerate for up to 1 day. Serve at room temperature or warm w/whipped cream.

Again, the final product was a hit without a whole heck of a lot of effort. There was, however, one dish attempted that didn't do so well, that is, the dinner rolls. More on that in Part 2.....