Friday, December 30, 2011

EL Ideas

Although my new immersion blender provided an early Xmas for denizens of the Commissary, I didn't want my stomach to feel left out of the proceedings. Luckily, a chance email arrived mid-month giving me the opportunity to treat my digestive tract to a pre-present as well. Back in October, I placed my name on an email list requesting a reservation at EL Ideas, a 10-table restaurant created by Chefs Phillip Foss (of MeatyBalls sandwich truck fame, chronicled in this blog last January) and Andrew Brochu (formerly with Alinea and the now-defunct Kith and Kin, which we visited in July 2010) in the catering space that had been used for Foss's food truck. With everyone falling all over themselves this year about such new local sweetheart ventures as Next and Girl & The Goat, EL Ideas has operated largely under the mainstream foodie radar, quietly turning out amazing, Trotter-esque plates of food without the fine-dining pretense (evidenced by its location in a completely un-trendy neighborhood, an industrial park near 14th and Western, next to the freight train tracks). Given its diminutive size and reservation backlog, I didn't expect to dine there before 2012, yet here was an email from the EL Ideas hostess, offering us a mid-week table right before Xmas, which I enthusiastically snapped up.

For a refreshing change from usual city visits, street parking wasn't an issue on this dilapidated side of town, where the skyscrapers of the Loop glow off in the distance. Mrs. Hackknife and I were met at the door by Bill, the maitre'd, who took our coats (since the staff just about outnumbers the diners, everyone's pretty much on a first-name basis here). When you first walk inside, you immediately notice that, other than a waist-high partition, there's little separation between the kitchen and the dining area (see Photo #2 above); in fact, Bill encouraged us a couple of times to get up and walk back to food prep, take pictures, interact with the chefs, etc. Despite his reputation of having an outsized ego, Chef Foss made himself accessible a number of times, patiently answering questions about bee pollen and shellfish while clearly focused on the task of creating eye-popping plates. For each of the 13 courses, a cadre of cooks emerged from the kitchen to deliver the dishes, with one of them providing a detailed explanation of the ingredients and the presentation. Our first course included a small pile of orange fish roe laid atop a bed of round cucumber, with small globes of mustard and passionfruit gelee on the side (think of it as an exercise in circles). This was followed by one of my favorites of the evening, a beautiful and delicious plate of raw tuna slab with bottarga (a cured Mediterranean fish roe), anchovy, and saffron accents (see Photo #1 above). Not to be outdone, next appeared a charred piece of curried cauliflower, propping up what appeared to be a kale chip, both accompanied by a small scoop of popcorn ice cream with a cheddar powder - potent and rich in flavor, everything melded well together. Course #4 was hearty chunks of lobster meat surrounded by 4 different preparations of choke (artichoke, sun choke, and other chokes that escape my memory), topped with a pinkish puree of brandade (salt cod) and dusted with the aforementioned bee pollen, which added a floral characteristic.

Things began to lag a bit through the subsequent four dishes, which included (#5) grilled octopus with potatoes, mint, and drops of blood orange gelee, (#6) mushrooms with lemon, tomato, and Parmesan cheese (I managed to force this one down despite my aversion to mushrooms), (#7) scallop with radish, chanterelles, and black garlic, served in a giant scallop shell (ditto), and (#8) a tiny saddle of hare with chestnut, prosciutto, and cocoa nibs, the latter being quite tasty, but minuscule in size. The next three courses were all meat and all wonderful: (#9) a succulent jidori chicken breast served with sweetbreads, celery root, and raisins (the chicken reminiscent of the juicy slab received during the Paris 1906 menu at Next), (#10) an amazing lamb medallion, medium rare, with merguez, couscous, and harissa (immediately conjuring up images of Morocco - see Photo #3 above), and (#11) a venison chop drizzled in sassafras syrup and adorned with dates and pecans. Last, but not least, came 2 dessert plates, the first being a sort of deconstructed eggnog, featuring a sweetened egg yolk, rum sauce, and vanilla ice cream (again, I choked down the egg against my better judgment), followed by a smear of chocolate infused with espresso and Forbidden Rose (which, near as I can tell, is a perfume developed by pop singer Avril Lavigne - I am not making this up) and a small portion of framboisine (white almond cake with raspberry mousse).

Because the restaurant has no liquor license, guests are encouraged to bring their own wine (no corkage fee), which we did. I wanted to bring a single vino that would pair well with a diverse selection of foods and I opted for pinot noir, although the only one I could find in the Commissary cellar was a bottle featuring a smiling Chef Shawn McClain from the Cooper's Hawk dinner we attended back in May (see earlier posting). Once Bill opened it for us, he glanced at the bottle's label and immediately walked it back to the kitchen to show Chef Foss. For a moment, I thought that may have resulted in our ticket out of the joint (is it gauche to bring wine with another cook's picture on it to dinner?) and I don't know exactly what conversation ensued; however, I did see Bill save the empty bottle on the back counter after service was over, possibly for the staff to vandalize at some point in the future (I should note that they were kind enough to offer Mrs. Hackknife and me each a complimentary pouring of some house wine when ours had been exhausted, so it couldn't have been a major faux pas). In any case, to summarize, the missus and I received all of this great cuisine and unique ambiance (which included, but was not limited to, the ultra-attentive service, interaction with the chefs, access to the kitchen, and surprisingly whimsical house soundtrack of Carpenters covers, Sesame Street jingles, and the like) for the low, low price of $135 a person (prior to tip). We left EL Ideas with full bellies and the feeling that we'd indulged in one of Chicago's best-kept culinary secrets. Kudos to the chefs and continued success...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Kabocha Squash Soup/Carrot-Ginger Soup

I bought myself an early Xmas present this year, that being an immersion (hand) blender from Costco. Why would I commit such an act a mere week or two before the holiday? One word - soup. Cold weather is here, our last 2 farmboxes of the season are laden with squash and carrots, and I'll go batty if I have to consume another version of stuffed gourd in 2011. Soup is the solution to all of these issues since 1) it's hearty, 2) it can include mass quantities of vegetables, 3) it's usually tasty and generally healthy depending on the prep, and 4) it's pretty easy to make provided you have the correct tools on hand (hence the new appliance). With an immersion blender in the Commissary, we no longer have to pour hot, chunky liquids into a stand blender or food processor in order to puree them into a smooth soup (thereby putting the cook at risk for unsightly burns, or, worse, spillage onto the nice counters and wood cabinets while critical eyes watch) - now we just slurry everything out right in the pot.

Trusty tool in hand, I set off to make the first soup, this one featuring kabocha squash (fairly similar in look and flavor to the red kuri from my last posting), pancetta, and fried sage leaves (recipe courtesy of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine via Epicurious). Most portions of the process were very straightforward (e.g., roasting the squash in the oven and scooping out the pulp), with the exception of the sage leaves, which had to be flash-fried in a large saucepan containing a little canola oil heated to 365F. Having never attempted to fry herbs before, I was a little taken aback by the mist of hot oil that erupted as I dropped the sage leaves into the pot; fortunately, the cauldron settled down quickly enough for me to fish them out in a few seconds without requiring a skin graft. It turns out that the fried sage and the crumbled fried pancetta (cooked separately) are key ingredients, adding rich savory notes when sprinkled atop the finished broth (which contains squash, onion, garlic, and chicken stock). Served up with a crusty bread and a light protein (like roasted chicken), this soup makes a fine meal to satisfy even the pickiest eaters (except my kids).

Soup #2 is a carrot base with "ginger essence" (whatever that means), the brainchild of one Chef Carl Schroeder, formerly of Restaurant Arterra in the San Diego Marriott (and who now owns his own well-regarded place, Market, in that same city). This recipe stretched my cooking chops a little more than the first, requiring me to do a little legwork on how to properly use a stalk of lemongrass (discard all but the bottom 6 to 8 inches and remove the tough outer layer before chopping). Another hurdle came when trying to complete the finished soup - once pureed with the hand blender, I was instructed to filter the cooked liquid through a fine-mesh sieve, retaining only the juice to be served tableside; however, there was so little juice leftover and so much pulp left behind in the sieve that I opted to incorporate some of the pulp into the final product (maybe half of it?) to add volume. This ended up not being a bad idea, as the pulp added a nice texture and a little heft to the carrot and ginger liquid. Light sour cream and black pepper were added to the bowls to further deepen the flavor profile (I decided to forgo the chopped chives). Although a little odd-looking (it wasn't orange like you might expect, but more burgundy since I used a couple of purple carrots in the mix), this soup tasted good and (like the first one) made a great side dish at dinner.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Red Kuri Squash Pie

In that ever-shrinking period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we received a red kuri squash in the farmbox during one of our last shipments of the year. It's not a bad looking thing as far as squashes go (see photo above) and has a bit of sweetness to it that other varieties lack. With that in mind, I set out to find a dessert-type recipe for it on the Internet and came up with one (red kuri squash pie recipe) pretty quickly from another blog called Healthy Green Kitchen. At first glance, the end product looks similar to pumpkin pie (and God knows we've had enough of that lately), but has a fluffier consistency to it (more like a custard), probably due to the cream in the batter instead of evaporated milk (which we use in the Commissary pumpkin pie). Other ingredients listed in the recipe are mostly natural/organic; however, I used whatever mega-corporation stuff I had on hand here (including a pre-fab crust) and it seemed to work out just fine (future health impacts notwithstanding). If you're looking for a change-of-pace fall dessert this holiday season, I encourage you to give this one a try.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Short Cuts

Although few posts have made it onto the blog lately, we've been busy collecting material to add over the past month. Here's a snapshot writeup of several places where we've dined during this time (Ed. note - the brevity is not to suggest that these eateries are not each worthy of a full posting; rather, I've just reached the point where I can't catch up anymore and need to do a brain dump for sanity's sake as we approach the end of the year):

Reel Club - Oakbrook, IL

Reel Club is a relatively new venture for the folks at Lettuce Entertain You, popping up in the old Papagus space at Oakbrook Court Mall. My old friend Chad (who works across the street at McDonald's HQ) and I met up for a rare midweek lunch not too long ago and I suggested that we try it out. The focus here is on seafood and they seem to do it fairly well - I had a cup of the house gumbo to start, followed by a lobster roll (lobster salad served on a buttered brioche sandwich-style) that's probably among the better versions that you'll find west of the Adirondacks (it was served with tasty fried potato strings on the side). My friend's entree (pan-roasted tilapia in a creamy Shrimp Bienville sauce) was just ok according to him; however, we ate well enough to consider a return visit at some point.

Rudy's Hot Dog - Toledo, OH

The photo on top says it all - Hackknife Jr. is happily noshing on an original Rudy's Hot Dog (he rarely happily eats anything) while chili dogs await consumption on the tray in front of me. When we travel to eastern Ohio for Thanksgiving, the missus and I like to plan our meal stops at non-chain restaurants when time (and the progeny) allows. This year, we were passing through the greater Toledo area near dinnertime and decided to give Rudy's a go. The original location (not the one we stopped at, which wasn't far from the Ohio Turnpike) opened in 1971 and had the distinction of hosting the Commander-in-Chief earlier this year as he passed through town (this is how I first got wind of their existence). House specialties are the chili dogs and chili mac (chili served on a bed of noodles, like they do in Cincinnati). Our restaurant was pretty much empty (not surprising for 7:30 pm on a Tuesday night) when we arrived, so we had the run of the place, a good thing considering we needed to change Hackknifette's pull-up in the middle of our booth. Rudy's environs can be described as blue-collar casual with a lunch counter vibe, right down to the cafeteria trays and the rotating dessert case containing jello and pudding. My apologies to my Toledo peeps (sorry, Rob D., Mr. & Mrs. G, Tony J., etc.), but I have to play the Chicago hot dog snob card and say that I was disappointed in the hot dog itself, which appeared to be steamed instead of grilled and pork-based (we're spoiled with the prevailing Vienna Beef and kosher beef dogs around here). The fries were also somewhat mediocre, but props go out to the chili - if we come back next time through, I'll be sure to sample a plate of chili mac.

Howe Restaurant - Howe, IN

Our return trip from Ohio found us careening off of the Indiana Toll Road to the quaint hamlet of Howe (best known for a 19th-Century military academy with its doors still open) a few miles south of Exit 121. Mrs. Hackknife found online a potential lunch spot for us that was simply called "Howe Restaurant", yet had some surprisingly good reviews. The unpaved parking lot was jammed as we walked in to find a place even more blue-collar than Rudy's with a curtained-off smoking section to the left (I wasn't aware that such things even existed anymore). The food offerings were diner-esque, simple and American traditional. I tried the meatloaf platter, which consisted of a large slab of mediocre meatloaf atop a slice of white bread, drowning in a pool of gravy the color of espresso. Much better was Mrs. Hackknife's plate, swapping a gargantuan fried pork tenderloin (delicious, I might add) for the meatloaf on the same bread and gravy. Also happy were the elderly diners at the table next to us, all of whom seemed to be enjoying sinful-looking burgers. While the kids were making a pit stop, I had an interesting conversation with the owner, who was an ingratiating fellow channeling Robert DeNiro in both appearance and speaking manner. He told me he used to own Hollywood Grill (corner of North and Ashland) in Chicago, but got fed up with the crime/big-city headaches and decided to relocate to Howe in hopes of achieving a more laid-back lifestyle (he confided that he had been an "informant" for the government at one point and might have been joking, although after a minute or two of talking with him, I got the impression that this might actually be plausible). DeNiro's alter ego wished us well, thanked us profusely for stopping in, and sent us on our way with lollipops for the progeny.

Sprecher's Restaurant - Lake Geneva, WI

The kids, missus, and I recently took a weekend getaway trip to the water park (indoor water park, that is - we're talking about December in Wisconsin) at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, only about a 2-hour drive from the Commissary. The food onsite was what you'd expect from a place that caters primarily to children, namely mediocre pizza, burgers, and the like. On Saturday evening, for a change of pace, we ventured into town and had dinner at Sprecher's Restaurant and Pub, a dining outpost of the well-respected microbrewery of the same name in Milwaukee. Of course, we were able to sample some of their fine beers, including the El Rey Mexican, Octoberfest, and the Pub Ale. Mrs. Hackknife quite enjoyed her wienerschnitzel and spaetzle, served Holstein-style with a fried egg on top (ick), while I tried the drunken chicken, marinated in hefe weiss beer and accompanied by beer cheese potatoes with roasted vegetables (it was a little difficult to carve up a roast chicken with one hand occupied by a cranky and tired Hackknifette in my lap). We skipped dessert at the restaurant in favor of Snickers ice cream bars and local cheeses back at the resort following progeny bedtime.

Grand Geneva Brunch - Lake Geneva, WI

Our last meal before skipping town was brunch with Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Grand Geneva's steakhouse, a very classy operation in a very classy setting (as long as you overlook the fact that the resort used to be a Playboy Club back in the day). The spread offered here was impressive, with a food selection rivaling the better brunches I've had in Vegas. Some standouts that I recall were Chicken Cordon Bleu, a waffle station, crab cakes, prime rib, lots of fresh seafood, a bouche de noel (Xmas chocolate cake shaped like a Yule log), and a giant chocolate fountain with lots of dipping options, including pretzel rods (perfect for Hackknife Jr.) and pieces of Twinkie (perfect for me).

Roka Akor - Chicago, IL

A holiday cocktail party for Mrs. Hackknife's department on Friday night happened to deposit us right in the heart of the River North dining district with a few hours to kill before heading home to the babysitter (cue "Ode to Joy" here). Appetizers and a few drinks were not enough to take the edge off our appetites, so we mulled over a plethora of outstanding restaurant options within a short walk (Cafe Iberico, Frontera Grill, Naha, G&T Oyster Bar, Cyrano, and Crofton on Wells just to name a few) before settling on Roka Akor for dinner. Roka is a new place that bills itself as a "steak and sushi" parlor (although, up until recently, I believe it was "sushi and steak". Hmmm.) and it's been generating significant buzz since it opened the doors this past summer. Unquestionably trendy and filled with attractive-looking sorts (somehow, they decided to let me in), the main draw is the kitchen's robata grill that cooks food over imported Japanese wood (not unlike what we experienced at Raku in Vegas earlier this year). Given the waiting crowd, it appeared unlikely that we'd sit down anytime soon when we checked in, but the hostess managed to wedge us into a small table in the lounge almost immediately. Over a carafe of sake, we ordered a bunch of small plates per the server's recommendations, including wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings (very good), butterfish tataki with white asparagus and yuzu (extremely good, clean and citrusy and unlike anything you'd find at run-of-the-mill sushi bars), robata-grilled pork belly with marinated beet roots (sinfully good), crispy fried squid with chili and lime (just ok, pretty standard kalamari), and a tasty bowl of seasonal vegetables served tempura-style with a complex dipping sauce that Mrs. Hackknife said she hadn't had outside of Tokyo before. All told, the great food made us forget about the cramped quarters, ear-splitting din, and show ponies (and I'm conveniently ignoring the fact that I woke up very nauseous later that night, not sure which food item(s) to pin it on).

Monday, December 12, 2011

LM Restaurant/Paciugo Gelato

With the holidays closing in and Mrs. Hackknife traveling for work more than usual, we here at the Commissary have had little opportunity to post updates during the month of December. As a result, I've got a backlog of material waiting to be hashed out for your reading pleasure. In an attempt to catch up, I'm planning soon to do a multi-restaurant dump where I write maybe a paragraph or two about each in a single posting (I know, it's crude and a bit lazy on my part, but I don't see any other way to crawl out from beneath the ever-growing pile). Until then, I sit down this evening to pen a regular report that's been waiting for its due for almost a month.

As we are frequent diners and, by extension, frequent users of Open Table (OT), earlier this year Mrs. Hackknife earned a dining certificate from the good folks at OT entitling us to $20 off dinner at LM Restaurant, located in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Square. During 2011, we tried a number of times to cash in said certificate, but we were never quite able to find an evening where we were both available and could get a reservation. With the expiration date looming in early January, I finally took the liberty of reserving a table for us on a Saturday night in November just so we could use it up. I'd heard decent things about LM, which bills itself as a "gasto bistro", a term that I'm not sure I fully understand (although it seems to involve fine French-inspired dining without the stuffiness - I'm ok with this). In my mind, I had images of steak frites and other good things that one can get at your average Parisian bistro; however, that perception wasn't entirely accurate as I'll get to in a minute. The restaurant itself is located on a busy stretch of Lincoln Avenue and isn't very big, at least not in the front dining room where we were seated. The decor is bright (yellow walls, orange booths) and modern, with tables close together and a relatively high level of background noise (not surprising given the small space). After settling in, we ordered our starters - I chose the salt cod brandade (garnished with piquillo pepper puree, olive oil, and brioche) and Mrs. Hackknife picked the foie gras torchon (served with red onion confit, strawberry, basil, and toasted brioche), both of which were very good. For the entrees, my lovely bride swooned over the prime tenderloin (she's a steak girl through and through), which was accompanied by pont neuf potatoes, wild mushrooms, and a bearnaise sauce; I opted for the Amish chicken, served atop sweet potatoes, chestnut and ham ragout, candied pecans, and topped with a few Brussels sprout leaves (see photo above). The bite of tenderloin that Mrs. Hackknife graciously shared with me was good (I'm not as much of a steak enthusiast as she is), but my chicken was absolutely fantastic (I commented to our server that I wished I could cook chicken like this at home - he agreed). In lieu of dessert, we did the French thing and ordered the cheese plate. We were presented with 3 varieties of cheese (Brie, Hook's Blue from Wisconsin, and Tarentaise from Vermont) with date/banana compote, more candied pecans, and nice bread. All told, with our certificate, it was a very affordable meal that certainly met our expectations on quality (I sense we'll be back).

As you might imagine, we were pretty full after all that indulgence, but not too full to have a little gelato on the way back to the car. It turns out that one of the better gelato chains around (Paciugo, currently 38 locations with one probably coming soon to a place near you) happened to be just up the street, so we ducked in for a little sweet refreshment. Paciugo started in Dallas in 2000, a scant 2 years after I left the Lone Star State (figures), and they offer a plethora of unique gelato flavors. I tried a sample of the triple chocolate and I was immediately blown away by it, while Mrs. Hackknife happily noshed on a Mediterranean sea salt caramel. While we've already designated Black Dog as our favorite downtown gelato stand and Zarlengo's as our close-to-home gelato fix, I'm pretty sure Paciugo will get our business anytime we're seeking dessert on the North Side...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cushaw Squash-Apple Butter

The easiest way to tell that we're in the death throes of another farmbox season is that the squashes are showing up fast and furious. This year so far, we've received acorn, butternut, buttercup, and, just this past week, a lesser-known variety like the one seen in the photo above known as a green-striped Cushaw. At first, I hadn't the slightest clue what this monster gourd (about the size of a canned ham and weighing in around 8 lb) in my garage was nor did I have any idea what to do with it. After a bit of investigation, I determined that it's actually an heirloom (i.e., once popular, but now rarely found) squash variety that's now mostly favored in Southern locales like Tennessee, New Mexico, and Louisiana, primarily as a substitute for pumpkin (in fact, you might be able to find a Cushaw pie somewhere in Cajun country if you look hard enough). Some more digging turned up a recipe for pumpkin (or other winter squash) apple butter on a vegan cooking blog. I'm not normally in the practice of seeking out vegan recipes, but it looked appetizing/not terribly challenging and was a change of pace from the usual stuffed squash or roasted squash that are my fallback preps.

Like many squash dishes, the hardest part involves reducing the squash into a usable pulp for cooking. With this one, I simply chopped off the long neck, (carefully) sliced open the body and dug the seeds/guts out of the cavity, and roasted the halves face-down in a glass baking dish at 350F until tender (about 45 minutes). Once it cooled a bit, I peeled off the skin using a vegetable peeler, then sliced the meat into roughly 1-inch cubes. After plumping the raisins (which didn't really plump much) in apple juice, I threw the squash pieces along with the juice and raisins into a food processor and turned it on, praying that the liquid in the bowl wouldn't overflow onto my counter and cabinets (the mixture was above the danger level marked on the side, giving me a bit of pause - I had a bad experience once that started out like this). Luckily, no leakage occurred and I completed the recipe without incident.

When finished, the resulting mish-mash of applesauce, heirloom squash, sweeteners, and spices resembled not so much a butter as a spread or a slurry, if you will. Despite its appearance, it was actually quite tasty. I tried it on wheat toast, English muffin, and even straight up as a sweet side along with dinner. My favorite use ended up being as a topping for vanilla ice cream, echoed by Mrs. Hackknife. Tastewise, you couldn't tell that there was squash in there instead of pumpkin, and I think that the squash bits gave it a nice texture, almost comparable to coconut flakes. A week after the fact, I'm still enjoying the remnants (viva la vegan!)....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Once Upon a Bagel/Arriva Dolce

It's become clear to me that Highland Park (an upper-class suburb located on the lakefront north of Chicago, if you're an out-of-towner) has emerged in 2011 as the epicenter of foodie culture outside of the city limits. About every other week, I'm seemingly reading snippets about new cupcake shops, pizzerias, barbecue joints, diners, ice cream parlors, and farm-to-table bistros opening up in Highland Park, which already had a decent concentration of well-respected restaurants even before this flurry of activity. Fortunately for us here at the Commissary, Mrs. Hackknife's brother Dan and his family (including wife Michelle, friend of the blog) reside in Highland Park, providing us with convenient access to the nearby culinary delights. It was with that in mind that the progeny and I stopped by the house a few Fridays ago for a lunch date with Michelle and cousin Connor. The 5 of us trucked over in the minivan to a local delicatessen called Once Upon A Bagel (OUAB), which was recently cited in a Chicago Tribune article by food writer Kevin Pang as having some of the best bagels in town. When we walked in the front door, my first impression was that this was simply a bakery, with racks upon racks of fresh bagels lining the narrow walkway behind the counter (the aroma was, well, striking). Towards the back of the restaurant, however, were many tables for patrons stopping by for a meal, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner - the menu is extensive enough that you could probably eat here daily for a month and not repeat a food selection. The portions were huge and were very reasonably priced, even taking into account the North Shore address. I opted for what is described on the menu as a grilled boat sandwich, that is, a meat (or tuna salad, in my case) topped with melted cheese and toasted on a fresh bialy (like a bagel, but longer), served with a pickle wrapped in butcher paper. The tuna salad was great, not gloppy with mayo like so many other places serve it, loaded with chunks of tuna. Hackknife Jr. dove into a large platter of chicken tenders with fries, while Hackknifette consumed an adult-sized hot dog in its entirety (that's my girl). Michelle was kind enough to let me sample both her matzo ball soup and her pastrami sandwich, both of which were delicious. On our way out, it was everything I could do to prevent myself from ordering a dozen bagels to go. I'm filled with sorrow that we have no comparable deli option within a 30-mile radius of the Commissary (support for moving north, I guess).

Although the day was gray, cool, and breezy, the kids had been good enough in a crowded restaurant during Friday lunchtime rush that us parents promised them a treat within walking distance of OUAB. About 4 blocks away is the newly-opened Arriva Dolce, a gelato and coffee bar that we were pleased to find open on a Friday afternoon in the middle of November (not exactly peak consumption time for gelato). Although they don't make their gelato in-house (according to their website, Palazzolo's in Fernville, MI provides the goods), what we sampled was excellent, including chocolate hazelnut, mint chocolate chip, and pumpkin cheesecake (my ultimate choice) for Fall. All told, this was a terrific way to cap off a terrific lunch date with the family. Now we only need to make about 16 more trips to Highland Park to visit the rest of the dining establishments....

Carolina Barbecued Pork/Cabbage-Kohlrabi Slaw with Salsa Verde

The dog days of summer mean 2 things (well, more than 2 things, really, but let's just assume that's true for the sake of this posting): last-ditch cookout recipes start appearing in the food publications and the humble kohlrabi starts showing up in my farmbox. Not content to simply chop it, boil it, and combine it with butter/Parmesan cheese (not a bad way to go, by the way), Wall Street Journal was kind enough back in July to publish a collection of cookout recipes that included a novel use for kohlrabi; that is, in a spicy cole slaw with salsa verde (see recipe here). This prep calls for combining shredded cabbage (also from my farmbox), grated kohlrabi, red onion, sea salt, mint leaves, parsley, thyme, extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, garlic, lemon juice, and shallot soaked in champagne vinegar. As far as cole slaws go, it's not creamy, but it packs quite a zing and marries well with barbecued meats, especially the pulled pork I made with it. The pulled pork recipe (see here) is provided courtesy of the folks at Crock-Pot and is the 2nd version I've tried. It's pretty much idiot-proof and requires no overnight marinading like the other recipe I attempted a while back. The Crock-Pot does all of the work and the meat is doubly enhanced by the Carolina-style bbq sauce, which is a mixture of cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, sugar, dry mustard, garlic salt, and a touch of cayenne pepper. Some of the sauce goes over the pork while cooking, with the rest reserved for mealtime. For an added flavor boost, I tried making a couple of pulled pork sandwiches with the slaw on the sandwich like they do in the South and it was mighty delicious (which is good, since, with a 4-to-6 pound shoulder, you'll be eating pork for a long time).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chilled Beet Gazpacho

Way back in August (which seems a long time ago - it was 43F outside the Commissary today), Wall Street Journal published a one-page article on cold summer soups, including a chilled corn soup with fresh nutmeg, asparagus vichyssoise, chilled sake cucumber honeydew soup, chilled almond soup, and a chilled beet gazpacho. I don't have much experience doing soups (there was that basil-zucchini one not so long ago, which, oddly enough, didn't show up in this article), but we do get a lot of beets from the farm, so I made a mental note to try the gazpacho the next time we got some. Lo and behold, less than a month went by before some red beauties showed up - I decided to throw together our house meatloaf and pair it with gazpacho for a little change of pace at the dinner table.

The recipe (see here) was pretty much a snap. I roasted the beets in the oven (my usual prep for them) rather than steam them, with the end result being the same. The trickiest part was finding sherry vinegar (which, to this day, I still haven't located after checking numerous food stores) - I was able to determine via Internet search that red wine vinegar is a suitable substitute in its absence. The author states in the article that the gazpacho "has a pickled quality that is not for the faint of heart" and they're not just whistling Dixie. It does, in fact, have a pretty good bite to it if you prep it according to the instructions (Mrs. Hackknife was a bit turned off by this, but I soldiered on and was able to eat several servings of it over the next few days). Given the onion and garlic content, you'll be assured of keeping most people a safe distance away for a while following consumption....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Burt's Place

There is little dispute that Chicago is a pizza town. As a kid, I ate a lot of frozen pizza (Tombstone or Tony's were our mainstays) and a fair amount of delivered thin crust (from a place in Mt. Prospect called Rosati's), especially on Saturday nights when Mom was getting ready to go out with the girls and didn't want to fuss in the kitchen. Every other month or so, as a special treat, we'd pick up our favorite - deep-dish sausage from Geno's East, which conveniently opened a restaurant in Rolling Meadows not more than 10 minutes from the house (prior to that, if you wanted Geno's, you had to go to the original Superior St. location). This was the pizza I dreamed about when I was away at college or living in Dallas, where the best pie one could get (not to mention afford) was Pizza Hut or Domino's (shudder). Now back in Chicago, as a middle-aged adult with deeper pockets, I've had the pleasure of branching out a little beyond Geno's to try other great pizzas that the city has to offer, several of which I've written about in this blog (Louisa's, Pequod's, Stop 50, and Apart, to name a few).

A recent (September 29, 2011) article in the Tribune, however, reminded me that there are still plenty of untried options out there, for example, Burt's Place in Morton Grove. Burt's first appeared on my radar screen almost 3 years ago when watching a No Reservations episode filmed in Chicago. In the segment, Burt Katz (owner and head chef) comes off as something of a cranky crackpot, moody and seemingly unconcerned with small details such as consistent operating hours for the restaurant or even bothering to answer the phone for orders. In spite of these rough edges, Anthony Bourdain loved the pizza, speaking about it in hushed, reverential tones. I'd lived here almost my whole life and fancied myself something of a pizza expert - how had I not heard of this place, in the Northwest Suburbs (my neck of the woods), no less? Needless to say, I was intrigued and I filed the notion away for future reference that we needed to eat there sometime. Fast forward to September 29. The Tribune article is released and I get the vibe from reading it that Burt, now 74, may be starting to get the retirement itch. If this local elder statesman of the pizza arts (who opened his first place, Gulliver's, way back in 1965, and the original Pequod's, around the corner from his current place, in 1971) were to hang up his apron before I'd had the chance to try his food, would I be able to live with myself? Absolutely not. Would my readers ever forgive me? Don't answer that. Thus, I made the executive decision that Mrs. Hackknife and I would be going to Burt's for pizza as soon as possible, writing down Friday, October 21 as the date.

Burt's has no website, so I trolled the foodie boards looking for advice on how to secure a reservation. Since Burt does everything himself, you can't simply show up and demand to be fed, you need to call ahead a day or two in advance with your order. Many people posted that the line was always busy or just rang continuously. I tried getting through on the Tuesday before the 21st and got a recorded message that the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Undaunted, I tried again on Wednesday at about 11:30a - Burt himself answered the phone (apparently, they run a lean operation). He wasn't cranky. He wasn't moody. He didn't spout off gibberish about how Kraft is controlling the world's population by dispensing inferior Mozzarella. He was cordial, polite, and patient, even as I hemmed and hawed over how many jalapeno poppers to get as an appetizer (2 or 4? No pizza for me?). I gave him my pizza order (pan style, sausage, bell peppers, and onions, extra large) and he told me to arrive 15 minutes before my requested reservation time of 7 pm so he could "get your drinks and get you drunk". I hung up the phone feeling relieved. It was almost charming to talk with him. I couldn't wait until Friday.

Friday night arrived and I drove to Morton Grove (about 45 minutes from the Commissary) to meet Mrs. Hackknife. I was early, so I made a little detour into a large Asian marketplace (much like Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights) in Niles that I happened to pass, stopping just long enough to pick up an 8-pack of little ping pong ball-sized walnut cakes from a food stand inside (dessert, you know). Burt's is located in an old blacksmith's shop (circa 1880) near downtown Morton Grove on a relatively-quiet residential street - it could be a neighborhood bar in any town anywhere. Upon entering, you can see why they want you to call ahead. It's small. The dining room fits about 10 mismatched tables that are pretty much on top of one another. There's a coat rack, a table to hold finished pizza pans (no room for them on the dining tables), and a plethora of clutter (old radios, model trains, autographed pictures) conjuring images of a long-departed elderly relative's basement. Some bloggers have complained that the place isn't clean, but I thought of it more as dusty character, no different than a hundred taverns/pizzerias that I visited as a kid all throughout the Midwest.

Burt's wife (who waits tables) came by to get my drink order. Not wanting to come off as elitist in this homage to lowbrow dining, I ordered a Miller Lite - she chuckled a little, explaining that they only offered better beers, like North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner (which I was happy to take in its place - the dining may be lowbrow, but the beer selection isn't). Out came the poppers and they weren't bad, but clearly this isn't why you come here. By this time, Mrs. Hackknife had arrived (she was about 10 minutes late) and a relieved waitstaff brought out our pizza. I think they were starting to get nervous and I suspect I know why - I had read in the Tribune article that Burt's kitchen is about as big as one might find on a submarine, so I suspect that they were taking up valuable oven space keeping our pizza warm. In any case, it arrived at our table fresh, hot, and, pardon my French, f^&*%#g delicious (see photo above). Most accounts I've seen regarding the characteristics of a Burt pie say that it's somewhere between thin and deep dish (sort of a "medium" dish) and I would call that accurate. The peppers were bright and flavorful, as was the sausage, which was randomly scattered atop the crust in large chunks. The sauce had a bit of sweetness to it and the cheese was well-distributed, not overly thick like you'd find in the typical deep-dish variety. The crust was rich, but not cloyingly so, and the signature band of burnt caramelized cheese was there, encircling the rim of the pie (subtly, I might add, not as prominent as Pequod's version). Every bite was perfectly harmonious - if there ever were a pizza that was precisely balanced between the crust, cheese, sauce, and toppings, this was it. It was so harmonious that I didn't think twice about downing two gigantic slices, behavior that would normally keep me close to a restroom the next day after eating deep-dish (no gastrointestinal distress here). Lucky for us, we had ordered the extra large, so there were precious leftovers to bring home.

Towards the end of the meal, I happened to glance towards the kitchen door and saw Burt standing there, briefly surveying his dominion before retreating back to the galley. Did it matter that he resembled an indigent Santa Claus? Did it matter that his pizza was served on plates bearing the IHOP logo? Did it matter that I had to jump through a few minor hoops to get this experience? Heavens, no. My only regret is that I can't eat this amazing pizza every week and I might only be fortunate enough to have it a time or two more before the ovens go cold and Burt wanders off into the sunset. Do yourself a favor, dear readers - get this pizza, get it now, don't wait. There may not be another chance....

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Overnight French Toast Casserole

Many thanks to Texan-by-way-of-Trinidad Deb Boopsingh for cluing me in to this recipe. Apparently, someone discovered that when you have a lot of leftover bread of just about any variety (in my case, French bread cut into 3" segments for Italian beef sandwiches, procured for Hackknife Jr.'s birthday party), it can make a tasty French toast casserole for breakfast the next day. During the week, we don't do extravagant breakfasts, but every once in a while, we get a little crazy on the weekend and this recipe clearly fits the bill. It's adapted from a website called and I found it posted on fellow blogger Mommy's Kitchen page here: Overnight French Toast Casserole.

As always, I made a few adjustments when making the dish to address various limitations. The 12 pieces of roll I had didn't fill up a 9"x13" glass pan, so I used a smaller one and cut down a bit on the butter (6 Tbsp. instead of a full stick). I followed the "alternative" method of arranging the bread; that is, instead of cutting it into strips and making two layers (with 1/2 of cinnamon-sugar mixture in between), I opted for one layer, although I didn't add flour to the batter or individually dip each piece before placing it in the dish (I did sort of roll them around in the batter after pouring it over them). Since my kids are not fans of nuts, I left the pecans out.

When I removed the casserole from the oven and gave it a try, it was good, but I wasn't exactly blown away by it. Mrs. Hackknife, however, who happens to be a French toast connoisseur (and also holds the unofficial title of "Bacon Ambassador") thought it was delicious, the keys being the caramelized brown sugar topping and the maple syrup (real stuff, not that Aunt Jemima crud) drizzled over the slices about 5 minutes before taking them out. The progeny, as expected, offered little to no attempt. Regardless, this recipe appears to have become our go-to French toast moving forward.

Short Ribs Braised in Chimay Red

This is the second short rib recipe I've attempted at the Commissary. For this one, Daniel Duane of Men's Journal is the recipe source - I cribbed it from a "Cooking with Beer" article in the March 2011 issue. It's a little bit simpler than the Wine Spectator version I tried last year. The gimmick is that you use a Belgian beer (Chimay Red, in this case, although any beer will do as long as it's not too bitter) as the braising liquid, the idea being that the beer helps tenderize the tough cut of meat (i.e., the short ribs) and adds flavor to the whole melange. Here's the recipe:

Approx. 2 cups Chimay Red (can be found at better liquor stores)
1-2 Tbsp. canola oil
2.5 lb beef short ribs
kosher salt
3 medium onions (about 1.5 lb), sliced 1/4" thick
2 bay leaves
1 tsp white peppercorns
a few dried porcini mushrooms
Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 300F. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet or dutch oven on high heat. Dry ribs with a paper towel, salt generously, and sear on all sides. Add onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, and dried porcini. Pour in enough ale to bring the liquid to about 3/4 of the way up the meat. Cover the skillet partway with a lid, place in the oven, and cook at the barest of simmers for 2 hours or until the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a pair of forks. Use a gravy separator to remove fat from the braising liquid. Divide the meat and onions among bowls, then pour some liquid in each. Serve with mustard on the side.

I made a couple of minor revisions out of necessity. First, I had some difficulty finding dried porcini mushrooms, or at least identifying them. My local ethnic grocery store had a small rack of dried mushroom packets from somewhere Slavic (Poland? Belarus?); unfortunately, they were poorly labeled, not to mention expensive. Rather than guess at whether or not the puzzling mushrooms inside were porcini, I opted to leave out this ingredient (possibly robbing my dish of some precious umami as a result). I also couldn't find white peppercorns, so I used some black ones I had at home. We had some carrots left over from Hackknife Jr.'s party that I threw into the pot for a little variety.

Other than making a mess with the gravy separator (it either doesn't work so well or I need some instruction on it), I didn't have any trouble pulling the recipe together. The final result was, well, not bad, but a little fatty again (apparently, finding decent short ribs is not so easy) and somewhat potent owing to the black peppercorns (which, I think, are more robust than the white ones). I'll keep this one around for future consideration in the event I can find better ribs or a different meat cut (brisket? oxtail?) to try....

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chicago Mini-Food Tour #2

I was granted a rare weekend off recently as Mrs. Hackknife headed north with the progeny for the annual girls' trip to Appleton. Any sane husband/father would probably spend such a free Saturday watching sports, doing handyman tasks, or catching up on late sleep - of course, in my twisted world, any free time of an extended nature usually turns into much-anticipated me-food time and this was no exception. In fact, I didn't even bother to wait for Saturday to begin before making my first culinary stop, which occurred on the way home from dropping the kids off Friday afternoon. My initial target: Fattoush, a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant located in Worth (10700 S. Harlem Ave.) where Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky (who has quickly become one of my touchstones for all things gastronomical) recently recommended the house vegetable appetizer plate (perfect for a mid-afternoon snack). As I pulled into the small parking lot, I realized that the family and I had been here before, just last year when it used to be a not-half-bad Greek diner called Dionysus, I think. Anyway, the decor had been spiffed up and serving stations were situated on one side of the restaurant for the once-weekly buffet, offered only on Friday afternoons (presumably for Muslims stopping by after Friday religious services). Tempting as it was, I passed on the buffet and stuck with my original quarry, ordering the vegetable platter and a fresh mango juice. The restaurant manager (who couldn't have been more hospitable, by the way - he checked on me several times to make sure everything was good, thoroughly explained the various dishes I received, etc.) brought my food and I dug in. For $6.95, I got a veritable feast of goodies - 3 big pieces of falafel, hummus, baba ghanooj (similar to hummus, just with eggplant instead of chickpeas), tabbouleh salad (bulgur wheat, parsley, tomato, cucumber, mint, onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt), another dip that was garlic and yogurt-based, and pita bread for dipping. All of it was delicious - I was barely able to finish half of the platter and happily wrapped up the remainder to bring home for Mrs. Hackknife to try. Chalk another one up in the win column for the Hungry Hound.

After my snack and a little long-overdue yardwork, I headed over to Ambrosino's, a nearby Italian market for some takeout. I had shopped at Ambrosino's for recipe ingredients many times, but had never purchased any of their food to-go from the deli in the back before. On a recent visit there to pick up some pancetta, I noticed that the folks from Chicago's Best (a local interest TV program) had come by and proclaimed good things about the house meatball sandwich and Godfather sub. For my dinner, I decided to give the meatball sandwich a test drive. What I ended up bringing home (only $4.95, mind you, cheese and peppers extra) could have probably fed a family of 4 (or, at a minimum, two people who are used to first world-sized portions). It consisted of a half-loaf of fresh Italian bread, sliced and stuffed with 4 large meatballs (they were a mixture of beef and pork, if my palate was correct) slathered with tomato sauce. Pretty good stuff, in my estimation, and again I had to stop halfway lest I feel like a glutton (the leftovers made a fine lunch on Sunday afternoon).

My full belly allowed me to doze off relatively early so I could start on a fresh crop of food adventures the next morning. Instead of sleeping in, I was up and out of the house by 7:30 to hit Stop #1 on the day's mini-food tour. A family friend noted on Facebook not too long ago that a small bakery in her neighborhood (Tuzik's, 4955 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn) had started selling their famous pumpkin doughnuts for the season, which tended to sell out early. I was hoping that 8 am wasn't too late to arrive to score some; however, when I walked in, the best bunch (the pumpkin glazed) was already gone (apparently, you do have to get up pretty early - they open at 5). I did manage to snag the last two pumpkin cinnamon doughnuts, along with two of the decadent-looking Black Forest variety, and guiltily noshed on a few bites while sitting in the car. Tuzik's was a fine pre-breakfast before my main breakfast event of the morning - Xoco, Rick Bayless's casual/street food diner (449 N. Clark) that has been well-populated (read: lines) since its opening in 2009. Knowing that I was going to be on walkabout in the city for most of the day, I bit the bullet and ponied up a hefty sum ($26) to park in one of the River North garages down the street from the restaurant. As it turns out, my food from Xoco was cheaper (only $12) and infinitely more satisfying than an off-street parking spot. I was surprised to see hardly anyone ahead of me at the register (timing is everything - by the time I sat down and got my food 10 minutes later, the line was at least 10 deep) and had a nice conversation with the cashier, who was from Sitka, Alaska (she noticed my Holland America jacket from an Alaskan criuse) and was kind enough to explain to me the difference between a chorizo-egg torta and an open-face torta. I selected the chorizo-egg torta (scrambled egg, avocado, and chorizo served on a wonderful, crunchy bread, with tasty green chile salsa) and a cup of the famous house hot chocolate. The torta was terrific and even better with the green salsa, but the hot chocolate (how can I put this delicately?), this was simply heaven in a glass, rich and sweet, not the least bit bitter or cloying or chalky (and not even piping hot so you can't drink it for an hour), like a liquid chocolate bar. The reason (as I learned recently in Michael Ruhlman's blog) for the exquisite hot chocolate at Xoco is that they roast and grind the cacao beans in house, an unusual process for a restaurant to undertake. I will gladly return many, many times to this place just for a nip of this glorious elixir.

Feeling fortified and refreshed, I headed back out into the brisk morning (sunny, breezy, and 52F, maybe?) and proceeded on foot about 2 miles north on LaSalle Street, past the touristy environs of River North, through the Moody Bible Institute campus, along the condo canyons of Sandburg Village, up to the southern edge of the Lincoln Park Zoo to find Green City Market, the city's largest and most renowned farmers market. I'd been wanting to check this out for quite a while, having read that many local chefs come here to get fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, even flowers and herbs. There was a couple from Wisconsin selling grass-fed beef (I think we've bought their stuff before closer to home) and at least two different tables for fresh pasta. If you wanted hot doughnuts or apple cider, you came to the right place. Not only did I stumble across Mick Klug, a Michigan farmer who often provides the fruit that ends up in our weekly farmbox (we had just eaten some of his amazing pears, so I bought another box from him), I also finally met Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers, our hardworking CSA provider who gives us the great veggies every week - she has a large plot of tables at the market every week (in fact, Picture #1 above is her pepper display, some of which I'm sure ended up in our refrigerator that week). I have to say that it's a unique experience to be able to shake the hands of the people that are growing your food (Michael Pollan would be proud). It's even better when you can get some goods from said people that you can't easily find in your neighborhood megagrocery stores, like a very nice Pecorino (sheep's milk) Romano cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL (aged for a year in a mixture of black clay, olive oil, and black currant paste, according to the website - don't worry, it didn't taste like clay, oil, or currant) or a pear/apple/cranberry mini-pie from Hoosier Mama Pie Co. (1618 1/2 W. Chicago Ave. - more on these folks later in the posting).

Cheese, mini-pie, and pears in tow, I mulled over ideas in my head to determine my next move. Goose Island brwepub (1800 N. Clybourn) was due to open for the day at 11, promising cold beer, college football, and a sedate place to read a newspaper. After about 1.5 miles of further jaunting, I arrived ready to take a load off of my angry feet for a bit. The bartender was able to find the Purdue-Penn St. game for me on one of the screens and I spent the next hour and a half glancing at the game, blissfully reading through the weekend Wall Street Journal, and sipping a Red Felt red ale (a little hoppy for my tastes - I would have been better off trying Goose's collaboration on a plum beer with Mick Klug, yes, the very same farmer who I just saw at the market). I decided to forgo further food and skipped out at halftime to head over to Goose Island Shrimp House (GISH) for lunch. GISH is located at 1013 W. Division, less than a mile from the brewpub, albeit in a slightly different environment than the snooty retail area I just came from. To get there, I headed southeast on Kingsbury St., which used to feature mostly dilapidated buildings, dive bars, a lone gentlemen's club, and vacant lots along the river. It's gentrified since my last visit about 6 years ago - now there's a Whole Foods and several new businesses in loft settings (even the strip club went upscale). Once you reach Division and cross the river, though, there are still plenty of lonely places to stash a body. GISH appears pretty much out of nowhere on an industrial stretch between the river and the Kennedy, about the most non-descript eatery you'll ever find. Inside are a couple of stand-up video games and a simple counter from where you can place your order for fried seafood, crackers, cocktail sauce, drinks, and slaw. That's pretty much it. No tables or anywhere to sit. I ordered a half-pound of fried shrimp and some fries to go, and started walking in the general direction of the nearest El stop (on the far side of the Kennedy, near Division and Milwaukee), stopping to rest on a log in an unpaved parking lot to eat my lunch. The food was, well, just ok. The shrimp were big, but overbreaded, and not really anything notable. Fries were nominal. I have to admit I had higher hopes for GISH, being a hole-in-the-wall and all. Next time I have a hankering for fried shrimp, I'll head over to Calumet Fisheries on 95th St. for better stuff that's closer to the Commissary.

I had one stop remaining on my walkabout, which was good since my feet were about ready to go on strike (hence my need for the subway). The last stop, Eleven City Diner, was recently cited by Hungry Hound as having one of the best chocolate milkshakes in the city. I figured this would be the perfect way to conclude the mini-food tour. The El shaved off about 2 miles additional wear on my legs and deposited me at Roosevelt and Michigan, only a block from my destination (1112 S. Wabash). When I arrived, I was shocked to see how crowded the place was for 2pm on a Saturday - lots of people waiting for tables. In order to get a milkshake to go, I was directed to the souvenir counter rather than the bar. It easily took 10 minutes to put my order in and another 10 for it to appear (good thing I wasn't there for lunch). While I waited, I had plenty of time to peruse the decor, which featured numerous quotes from famous Jewish personalities (even in the men's room), candy from Israel (see Photo #2 above), and a huge wall-mounted menu showing traditional deli fare liked corned beef sandwiches, brisket, and knishes. My milkshake appeared in a large plastic cup, lidded to hold the cookie wafer and crown of whipped cream ("hat" as they call it) perched on top, and it was the perfect accompaniment on my 1.7-mile walk back to the car.

One last thing - that mini-pie I bought? I busted it out for dessert at Mom's house later that evening and it was exquisite, possibly the best pie I'd ever eaten, and I'm not even a huge fan of fruit pies (I prefer cream pies). Clearly, the folks at Hoosier Mama have been touched by God in some way. When I bought it, I was ruing the $8 price tag and now found myself loaded with regret that I hadn't ponied up $22 for the full-size version. This oversight has been rectified, however, as two Hoosier Mama pies (pear/apple/cranberry and chocolate chess) will be joining the Hackknife extended family at the Thanksgiving table in Ohio later this month. My order has already been placed.....

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sedano e Pomodori Brasati (Braised Celery and Tomato)

In the almost 2 years since we started receiving a weekly farmbox of fresh produce, I've stumbled across two vegetable recipes (one for broccoli, the other for peppers) that are simple, amazingly tasty, and have become go-to side dishes for the Hackknife household. I think I may have found a third one to add to that list. We had a bunch of cut-up celery hearts left over from Hackknife Jr.'s 6th birthday party that I didn't want to waste. Coincidentally, there was an article in the October 2011 issue of Saveur on long-cooked vegetables, and in the article was a recipe for braised celery and tomatoes (or sedano e pomodori brasati, for those of you who are Italian speakers) provided courtesy of Marcella Hazan, one of the pioneers of Italian-American cooking. I tried a Joy of Cooking braised celery dish a while back that turned out, shall we say, less than stellar, so I was a bit skeptical about this one, although the fact that it contained pancetta (Italian bacon) certainly helped brighten my outlook.

I picked up about 1/4 lb. of sliced pancetta from the local Italian grocery and needed a little more celery to round out my ingredients. After about 2 hours total cook time (most of which was simple, low-maintenance braising), I had a pot of reduced, high-concentrated celery to go with some simple pasta. Wow! I will never figure out how essentially 5 ingredients (celery, pancetta, onions, tomatoes, and olive oil, not counting salt and pepper) can make such a kick-ass, life-affirming vegetable side dish (or a great topping for plain pasta, as I discovered). It was everything I could do not to eat the whole pot, including the share I set aside for Mrs. Hackknife, who was out of town on business. I suspect that the jacked-up flavor profile came from the smoky, salty pancetta and its rendered fat, which you use as the cooking base for the onions (although I must say that there really wasn't much fat left in the pot - it was mostly the olive oil doing the cooking). Regardless, I'll never look at celery the same way again. Molto bene....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cashew Shrimp Curry

I like Twitter. I don't really know how to do much on Twitter other than subscribe to tweeters and read postings (if any of you readers would be willing to give me a brief tutorial on how to actually post something and/or directly contact other tweeters, I would be greatly appreciative, maybe even enough to make you a pie), but I've found that it's a handy tool for monitoring goings-on in the foodie world. Many famous chefs (and some not-so-famous ones) are using it to post restaurant news, menus, recipes, gossip, etc. A few weeks ago, I attempted to make my first-ever recipe gleaned from a Twitter posting: a cashew shrimp curry, courtesy of Chef Marnely Rodriguez (who specializes in Caribbean dishes) via Chef Marcus Samuelsson's website/Twitter account (you know, Marcus Samuelsson....the Ethiopian/Swedish cook who won Top Chef Masters #2). This recipe stood out to me from others I've seen on Twitter because 1) it looked relatively good, 2) it looked relatively easy, and 3) I had most of the ingredients on hand (come to think of it, that's pretty much the criteria I use to pick just about every recipe regardless of origin), including an eggplant from the farmbox.

One ingredient I didn't have was cashew butter. After scouring the local grocery stores and coming up empty (even at Trader Joe's, which I erroneously thought was just quirky enough to carry it), I figured out that it's actually not hard to make on your own (thanks, Emeril) - cashew butter recipe. You basically just throw cashews, oil, and a little salt into a food processor and Voila! Once that mountain was scaled, the rest was easy. My local ethnic grocery had two versions of coconut oil, which I learned is solid and congealed at room temperature (hopefully not like my arteries) - I opted for the cheaper version ($3.99) as opposed to the fancy-pants all-organic one (which clocked in at $11.99). Instead of raw shrimp, I used cooked, tail-off shrimp from the freezer section. The only other substitution was brown basmati rice in place of jasmine rice listed in the recipe.

How'd it turn out? Not bad, but a little underwhelming and in need of some pizazz. You'd think that a curry dish would be in danger of being overspiced, but not this one, apparently. In fact, the best part was the homemade cashew butter, the leftovers of which I enjoyed on English muffins for a couple of weeks after the fact. Mrs. Hackknife noted that I'd made better curries before, so I might just have to put this recipe at the bottom of the pile.

Friday, October 14, 2011

South Florida Trip

Two weeks ago, the promotion wining and dining extravaganza reached its apex with a congratulatory trip for new partners and their spouses to the Waldorf-Astoria Resort in Boca Raton, Florida. Not only did this little junket allow Mrs. Hackknife and I to enjoy a few days of tropical sunshine, but also provided us the opportunity to meet up with my dad/stepmom (who live about 1.5 hours north of Boca) for dinner and do a bit of sightseeing in Miami, a city that neither of us has spent much time in. As you might expect, seafood is heavily represented on the dinner menus of many South Floridians, but there is a substantial focus on Latin (especially Cuban) cuisine as well.

So, with that tasty tidbit in mind, we packed our bags and headed to the airport, arriving in Ft. Lauderdale early on a Saturday afternoon. Our first meal was at the resort itself, a sprawling, pink labyrinth of passages and breezeways constructed in a combination of Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial styles by Addison Mizner, the architect who created the city plan for Boca Raton in the 1920s. Inside the resort were several restaurants, some of which were not open for lunch. Lucky for us, the sushi restaurant on the premises, Morimoto, welcomed us with open tables. Those of you who are Iron Chef fans will recognize Chef Morimoto's name from the show - he has sushi restaurants scattered in various spots around the globe, but none in Chicago, so we were excited to have the chance to try his wares. Boca's Morimoto is sleek and modern with a wall of video screens behind the sushi bar projecting schools of fish, giving one the impression of being on a submarine. Since it was already past 2pm local time and we had upcoming dinner reservations with my parents in just a few hours, Mrs. Hackknife and I opted to try a couple of appetizers: a delicious tuna "pizza" (tuna sashimi on a tortilla with red onion, jalapenos, tomatoes, and anchovy sauce - see photo above) and a locally-caught soft-shell crab platter with soy dipping sauces. The second dish arrived at the table by accident - we had actually ordered a soft-shell crab maki roll, but our server mistakenly brought us the platter, which was one of the daily specials. This ended up being a good thing as the crabs were fantastic, huge and crispy and luscious when soaked in the sauces.

Dinnertime saw us heading north about 30 minutes to West Palm Beach to a place I found online last Xmas season. Marcello's La Sirena is an old-school Italian joint catering to the retired masses in this part of the state, just the type of food that my old man loves. I bought he and my stepmom a Marcello's gift card for Xmas and they hadn't yet gotten around to spending it, so we were happy to provide the excuse. At first the restaurant was pretty empty (was it even open?), but it filled in quickly with Saturday night diners. At our table, we passed around a plate of baked little neck clams to sample, along with a wonderful buffala mozzarella/tomato, washed down with a nice Chianti. For the main course, Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed veal canneloni while I scarfed down a pan-fried branzino (sea bass) that was perfectly browned on the skin, served with the house specialty "vegatale del giorno" (vegetables of the day), namely carrots, zucchini, and fennel sauteed in butter. By the time our desserts arrived (tiramisu, of course, but also chocolate-almond flourless cake and panna cotta), my pants were busting at the seams.

Sunday was our big day in Miami. We slept a little later than usual (no kids to provide a wake-up call, you know) and left the hotel a bit tardy for the hour-long drive southward. After a quick climb up the lighthouse at Key Biscayne, we made a stop for brunch at Sra. Martinez, a tapas-style restaurant inside of an old post office in the city's Design District. Sra. Martinez is one of Chef Michelle Bernstein's two eateries in Miami, this being the more casual of the two. Starving from the lighthouse climb, we started out with a cheese plate (Manchego and a pungent Valdeon blue) alongside some Spanish serrano ham and raisin bread with fig marmalade. Next up were some tapas plates recommended by our server, amazing bacon-wrapped dates (stuffed with Marcona almonds and more Valdeon blue cheese) and ham/cheese croquettes. Slowing down, we concluded with huevos rancheros (mostly Mrs. Hackknife's choice since I'm not a fan of fried eggs, but I managed to choke down most of my portion) and a small platter of churros with chocolate sauce. The churros were spectacular and probably the best I've ever had, with a crisp exterior and a warm, soft interior like the best doughnut. After our experience here, we made a pledge to visit Michy's, Chef Bernstein's flagship fine dining restaurant here on our next Miami trip. With only a few short hours until we were required to return to the resort for a scheduled work event, we drove over to the Lincoln Street Pedestrian Mall in South Beach for a little people watching. I was blown away by the number of restaurants on this street and marveled at the many food vendors, who were mostly selling empanadas and fresh-squeezed juices. Had we shown up at South Beach with empty stomachs, I would have been happy to fill up on this street food (alas, it was not to be).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Yet another of the promotion dinners for Mrs. Hackknife came and went a few Saturday nights ago, this one taking place at Sunda in the River North neighborhood just a stone's throw away from the Bayless empire (Xoco, Topolobampo, and Frontera Grill) at Clark and Illinois. I had vague knowledge of this restaurant, which bills itself as a specialist of "New Asian" cuisine (a combination of Southeast Asian and Eastern Asian, according to the website). Sunda is a recent addition to the Rockit Ranch group of trendy eateries/nightclubs established by local entertainment impresario Billy Dec (who's claim to fame is that he's famous) and boasts celebrity chef Rodelio Aglibot at the helm. Messr. Aglibot has acquired the nickname "the Food Buddha" due to his resemblance to a certain deity (although he's not actually Buddhist) and had a short-lived cooking show on TLC that my dad raved about, but it disappeared before I could watch it.

Anyway, Mrs. Hackknife and I arrived at 7pm to a dining room packed with attractive, nattily-dressed 20- and 30-somethings. There was a long sushi bar on the ground floor; however, we were escorted upstairs to a private party room for our function. Given the trendy decor and vibe of the place, my fear was that the food would exhibit more style than substance - these concerns were quickly laid to rest upon sampling one of several very good sushi pieces and an amazing seared Kobe beef tartare bite atop pan-fried crispy rice, which were circulated during the cocktail hour. Once seated, we proceeded with the main menu served family style. First up was an appetizer course consisting of warm spinach and mushroom (sigh) salad, grilled salmon salad (excellent), a tasty dish called loompya (crispy pork and shrimp egg rolls), and one of the house specialties, rock shrimp tempura (served with glazed walnuts and creamy honey aioli). A collection of main course dishes followed: what they call "shaking" beef (wok-seared beef filet, greens, and lime-pepper dipping sauce), steamed ginger salmon filet, and veggie lo mein, all of which were good, except I only managed to secure one small chunk of the beef (these are the hazards of family style dining). Two sides were presented with the main courses, white jasmine rice and grilled asparagus. Last up, for dessert, we were given some different flavors of Japanese mochi ice cream, which we had coincidentally just discovered at home (courtesy of Trader Joe's). Mochi consists of a small dome of ice cream (green tea, for example) encased in a thin layer of sticky rice dough covered in powdered sugar. Sunda serves their version with chocolate, caramel, and fruit dipping sauces.

I left the table feeling pretty satisfied, if not overstuffed (not a bad thing), and was generally pleased with our evening's food offerings. Mrs. Hackknife and I agreed that we'd be willing to make a return visit, although maybe not as much if we had to pick up the tab next time. We'll see...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elim Dutch Festival

Those of you who are Chicagoland residents are well aware that we're a pretty diverse crowd around here. During the summer months, you can find a festival for pretty much every ethnicity that you can possibly imagine (and some that you probably can't). Just this year, we here at the Commissary have managed to make it to an Irish fest, Polish fest, celebration of all things Americana (aka the Will County Fair), and now a Dutch festival. Mrs. Hackknife's family on her father's side is 100% Dutch and is quite proud of their culture, so every year, several of the relatives get together in September for the annual Elim Dutch Festival, held to benefit a local Christian education facility for mentally-challenged individuals. This year, we opted to tag along and drag the progeny with us. As you might imagine, my primary interest in going revolved around getting to try Dutch cuisine (surprise), which up to this point had been limited to Amstel Light, Gouda cheese, those little windmill cookies you find in the junk food aisle, and a potent homemade alcoholic concoction called boerenjongens (a jar of which showed up in my wife's refrigerator every New Year's, courtesy of her dad, and must have doubled as paint thinner back in the old country).

Stiff drinks aside (the festival was actually a dry event - Dutch Reformed Protestants, you know), the food we sampled was quite tasty for a carnival environment. First up was a saucijzebroodjes, or pig-in-a-blanket, normally encountered as a breakfast dish in my culture. It was reminiscent of an Irish sausage roll, but much less greasy and with more of a solid dough breading than phyllo. Very nice. Next came a container of hutspot, or roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes - also tasty, but not particularly Dutch in my mind. We then dove into the desserts, which seemed to be very popular as they generated the longest lines at the booths. Poffertjes are little (and I mean little, like quarter-sized) pancakes dusted with powdered sugar - rich and buttery and making me jealous that I can't make such good pancakes at home (could it be lard?). We also tried some oliebollen (literally, oil balls), which were fritter-like donuts stuffed with a few raisins for added complexity, also dusted with powdered sugar. Mrs. Hackknife and I quite enjoyed them; amazingly (or at least in keeping with their character), Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette turned them down in favor of hot dogs, a decidedly non-Dutch food item (weirdos). There was a unique white-trashy dining option of taco-in-a-bag (consisting of Doritos with taco meat and toppings thrown inside) available, but I decided to hold off on that one until next year.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Next (Thai Menu)

In the midst of all these amazing dinners over the past month, Mrs. Hackknife managed to work her magic again and score us a table at the still-unbelievably-coveted Next Restaurant, this time featuring Thai food as the establishment's second menu (after all of the futzing around I did attempting to get tickets via the overburdened Next website, we discovered that she was in an ideal position to barter for re-sale tickets on Facebook, seeing as she's constantly online during the day). After the elegance and tradition of the first menu (Paris 1906), most of the critics seem to agree that the choice of Thai food for Act 2 was a riskier venture for Achatz and Co., especially since there are many good Thai restaurants in Chicago serving similar food at much more modest prices. Regardless, my experience eating there in June was so ridiculously good that I couldn't wait to have another go (and was anxious to have my guilt over dining there without my lovely wife last time slightly assuaged). I can't say that I'm a Thai food expert (hardly, in fact - I can only recall having it about a dozen times in my life), but I was comfortable putting myself in the more-than-capable hands of the Next culinary staff to churn out a menu that represents the best grub that Thailand has to offer.

On the evening of our late reservation (10:15p), we arrived an hour early hoping to have a pre-meal cocktail next door at Aviary. Unfortunately, I failed to verify that they'd be open, and, as it was a Sunday night, it turns out they were not (oops - not exactly the start I'd been envisioning). The hostess at Next steered us in the direction of the Publican (one of our favorite places) down the street to wait it out and we were happy to oblige (although the desolate 1.5 block-stretch of Fulton Market St. we had to negotiate to get there was a little sketchy this time of night, with random meat truck drivers loitering in some of the darkened doorways). The good folks at Publican sat us down at the bar and set us up with the chef's selection of a half-dozen oysters to tide us over (I kept the tiny cheat sheet they use to identify which oyster varieties are served that night - ours included Coromandel (New Zealand), Kusshi (Vancouver, BC), Marin Miyagi (Tomales Bay, CA), Island Creek (Duxbury, MA), Pemaquid (ME), and Wianno (Cape Cod, MA), some briny, some minerally, all good). Bellies primed, we headed back past the warehouses to our awaiting table at Next and settled in for some Thai goodies.

We opted to do one alcoholic drink pairing and one non-alcoholic pairing (this was a direct result of our, shall we say, overindulgence while dining at Trotter's a few weeks back) to spread out the booze between us and off we went. First up was a street food course consisting of 5 different bites (not all that dissimilar to the start of the Paris menu - see Photo #1 above) artfully presented on actual Thai newspaper (Where did they get it? And aren't they going through s%&tloads of it?), including a roasted banana, prawn cake, sweet shrimp, fermented sausage (my favorite of the group - I wished for a platter of these), and a steamed bun stuffed with mushrooms (yes, I ate it) and green curry. The drinks that came with the street bites had a base of guava, mango, and papaya, with mine also containing some Batavia arrack (a spirit distilled from coconut sap) and Szigeti Sekt Gruner Veltliner from Austria. Course #2 was a Tom Yum soup, a traditional Thai dish containing hot and sour broth, pork belly, tomato, and ginger - incredibly tasty, layered, and rich, I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it better than the turtle soup from the Paris menu (probably heresy to most of the other diners). I preferred the non-alcoholic drink this time, a nice blend of chrysanthemum, lemongrass, and lychee (the gin version of this was a little too amped up for my tastes). We each received a bowl of jasmine rice after this and were presented with small dishes of various condiments (including a popular Thai chili/shallot/garlic sauce known as Nam Prik, salted duck egg, green mango, white radish, and pickled vegetables), not only to complement the rice, but also some of the subsequent entrees. It was tempting to fill up on the rice/condiment combos alone as the Nam Prik and salted duck egg were standouts in my mind.

On came the fish course, a silky, incredibly-textured catfish filet served with a caramel sauce, celery, and coriander root (who knew catfish could be so sublime?). This dish was well-paired with both a carrot, ginger, and orange drink (non-alcoholic) and Txakolina, a sparkling, dry white wine from Basque country. This was followed by a slab of ethereal, meltingly-tender beef cheek served Panang curry style with peanuts, nutmeg, and kaffir lime (see Photo #2 above), probably my overall choice for dish of the night and most likely the one that set me on the path towards food coma (the hibiscus, mangosteen, and Thai pepper drink, along with the limited edition Half Acre Horizon Ale, brewed with hibiscus and created solely for this menu, also helped nudge me in that direction). The frozen watermelon and lemongrass palate cleanser was greatly appreciated at this point prior to the arrival of our two desserts. First up was a coconut shell that we were instructed to open at the table, with one half filled with frozen coconut juice (think sorbet) and the other containing an amazing amalgamation of coconut "noodles", corn, sweet egg, and licorice tapioca (see Photo #3 above), washed down with a corn/pineapple juice combination and a sweet Planeta Moscato from Sicily (although by now, I was so stuffed that not much alcohol was making its way down the gullet). Next came a dragon fruit slice, served au naturel with simply a splash of rosewater for enhancement (and a real pink rose to help boost the aroma), paired with a cool cucumber/mineral water drink and a stiff shot of Banks rum (which I sipped once and gladly passed on the rest). To conclude our Thai culinary tour, we were given little plastic baggies filled with chilled rooibos tea, palm sugar, and milk, a light, sweet drink to help with digestion and, in my case, prolong consciousness for the drive home (it was after midnight, you know).

I'd have to say that my second visit was about as good as my first and I know Mrs. Hackknife also enjoyed it very much. Not everything was perfect (most notably one of our servers, who strainingly tried to be funny nearly to the point of obnoxiousness, left us wondering at times if he was being serious or joking), but I'm still in awe of the concept at Next and the skill being demonstrated by the cooking staff in pulling it off tremendously well (in a kitchen that appears to be clean enough to eat off the floors, to boot). I have heard rumors of a future Sicilian menu, Japanese menu, childhood experiences menu, and even an El Bulli-inspired menu, all of which get our juices flowing in anticipation. If we can only somehow snag a place on the ticket subscription list if/when it ever comes out....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Baked Cabbage with Bacon

A head of cabbage and some leeks (among other things) showed up in the farmbox last week. I have a pretty good set of recipes for cabbage, but the leek can be a bit confounding. A quick search on my Epicurious iPhone app turned up a dish containing both of these underappreciated veggies, plus bacon, touting it as a traditional Irish dish (baked cabbage with bacon). We're part Irish and all bacon here at the Commissary, so I tackled this recipe with relish (so to speak) one evening as a main course to go with some prefab biscuits. There isn't much to the recipe, really - you basically fry the bacon, add the cabbage/leek, saute, steam, throw it in a pie dish with some browned breadcrumbs on top and bake for a bit. Vegetables, bacon, bacon grease - what's not to like? It's not exactly heart-healthy, but it is tasty and gets better with age (the breadcrumbs seems to soak up grease over time, acting a bit like kitty litter). Next time I make it, I'll probably cut down on the breadcrumbs from 1.5 c. to 1 c. or less.

Haymarket Pub & Brewery

Another Bears season started up a week ago Sunday (9/11/11) and, as the football sailed off the tee for the opening kickoff, I found myself stuck in traffic on the Dan Ryan, inching my way towards Haymarket Pub & Brewery for a game-watching rendezvous with my brother-in-law Dan and cousin-in-law Bobby. Haymarket is one of the newest additions to our local microbrew scene, lauded by Dan and Bobby as the ideal venue for sampling small portions (4 oz. each, to be exact) of house-made brews and highly-regarded beers from other respected producers (they both made their inaugural visit to Haymarket while Mrs. Hackknife and I were on our recent trip to Las Vegas and, by all accounts, did sufficient 4-oz. sampling to result in fuzzily-recalled trips home and refreshment fatigue the morning after - who would have thought that I'd actually be safer in Vegas than out with those 2?). The pub is located at the corner of Halsted and Randolph, just a stone's throw away from the city's historic square of the same name, the site of a famous labor dispute and alleged anarchist bombing back in 1886. The decor of the room reflects this connection to organized labor, with reprints of old union rally posters and a real workingman's feel to the room. Seated in front of the wide-open patio doors to let in the amazing weather outside (72F, sunny, light breeze), we watched the Bears pound on the Atlanta Falcons while noshing on a bacon and blue cheese pizza (nice) and downing several sampler glasses, which included for me Stillwater (MN) Bertram's Pale Ale, the house Mojo Belgian-style Abbey Dubbel, a Speakerswagon Pilsner (also house-brewed), and possibly a few others that got lost in the shuffle (darned 4 oz.ers). Had I been able to simply sit there for another 6 hours resting in the warm wind, sipping tremendous beers in advance of our 10:15pm dinner reservation that evening at Next (posting soon to follow) only a few blocks from the pub, I would have happily done so (of course, Mrs. Hackknife might have had an issue with that, not to mention the fact that I'd be too incoherent to eat high-end Thai food)...


As part of the festivities surrounding Mrs. Hackknife's recent promotion at work, she hosted a happy hour for her co-workers on a Friday evening not too long ago (yours truly got to tag along). Since my urbanite cousin P.J. and his lovely wife Megan expressed an interest in getting together with us for dinner to celebrate the promotion (and we were already in the city with some free time after the happy hour wound down), we made arrangements to meet up with them at a nearby restaurant that all of us had been wanting to try, Province, on Jefferson just north of Randolph Street. Province is the 2nd restaurant in town for chef/owner Randy Zweiban, who made a splash locally with his first place, Nacional 27, when it opened several years ago. Unlike Nacional (which touts itself as "Nuevo Latino"), this venture is trying to capitalize on the current farm-to-table culinary trend that's pretty much swept the continent (and may actually be reaching overdone status, IMHO).

We showed up a few minutes late for our reservation, but were seated pretty much immediately. The dining room is not particularly big (maybe 20 tables?) and the space is very modern/clean, with lots of straight lines and black/white decor interspersed with pink walls to liven things up a bit (as if to say, "we're serious, but still a little whimsical, you know"). The restaurant happened to be offering a special 3-course menu for a set price ($35, I think) that week in the run-up for the Chicago Gourmet Fest and this is what I opted to go with. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking notes and I can't seem to find said menu posted anywhere in the Great Ether, so I'm having a difficult time regurgitating the details of my meal. I can tell you that I badly misread the menu (something about how the ingredients were punctuated with each dish description led me to believe that they were separate options), so much so that it was a bit of a surprise when my first dish was brought to the table (it included pickled veggies, which I was expecting, plus smoked salmon, which I WASN'T expecting - fortunately, I liked what was there). I can also tell you that my 2nd course had some pork belly as a garnish (I thought I had ordered it as the primary component of the dish), plus a different protein (beef?) that stood in as the main attraction; again, it was better than good. My dessert was spot-on: a coffee and "donuts" parfait, consisting of mocha crema, chocolate ganache, coffee ice cream, and cinnamon churros (no, I didn't suddenly have a flash of insight - I was able to locate this on the Province website's menu, the one course of mine that's still out there). For libation, a Pimlico Grid (Pimm's No. 1, Hendrick's Gin, lemon-lime juice, ginger beer, and cucumber) sounded interesting enough to try, but wasn't all that great (I wouldn't get it again). Despite my mediocre cocktail, though, the remainder of our experience was enjoyable enough that we'd consider a return visit sometime.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caponata (Eggplant Relish)

Late Summer is here and the veggie harvest is in full swing. Unlike last year, the inconsistent weather we've had over the past 3 months (cool, heat, drought, and rain, about 3 uninterrupted weeks of each, in that order) made it a crummy season for tomatoes (no salsa or bruchetta to speak of), but a banner crop for others like peppers and eggplant. Unfortunately, 75% of the Hackknife household doesn't much enjoy either of those two vegetables, so I've had to get creative when preparing them as the farmbox has been chock-full of more peppers and eggplant than I know what to do with lately. I can at least turn peppers into pepperonata (stewed peppers in olive oil and vinegar) or throw some on a salad anytime we're doing Italian (which is quite often here in the Commissary), but the eggplant, now that's a bit more of a challenge. I've tried Eggplant Parmesan (mediocre results), rolled stuffed eggplants (better), and sauteing them with a little oil (just ok); however, one recent recipe stands out among the others.

Caponata, or eggplant relish, shows up in Italy (primarily Sicily) as a condiment or accompaniment to pasta, fresh bread, or other dishes. I know I've had it somewhere before, but don't recall exactly where. Luckily, when the idea popped into my head, I was able to find a recipe for it in my trusty Joy of Cooking volume. The only substitutions I made while prepping were 1) using Kalamata olives instead of green olives (Kalamatas are about the only olives I'll eat) and 2) dried herbs instead of fresh herbs, following the rule of thumb that 1/3 of the dried amount is approximately equivalent to the full fresh amount. The resulting dish is a great combination of flavors, sweet with salty and a little tang, perfect on plain noodles with a little grated Parmesan, plus, hey, I use up eggplant.

Peel and cut 1 medium eggplant into 1/2-inch cubes. Heat 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add 1 cup finely chopped celery and cook, stirring often, until softened (about 4 minutes). Add 1 medium onion, finely chopped, and 1 clove of garlic, minced. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is soft and lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Add to the skillet 2 more Tbsp. of olive oil along with the eggplant and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly browned (5 to 7 minutes). Add celery mixture along with 1 1/2 c. canned plum tomatoes (drained and coarsely chopped), 12 green or Kalamata olives (pitted and coarsely chopped), 1 1/2 Tbsp. drained capers, 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. tomato paste, 2 tsp. sugar, 1 tsp. minced fresh oregano, 1 tsp. salt, and ground black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings with additional salt, pepper, and vinegar, if needed. Remove to a serving bowl and garnish with 2 Tbsp. fresh minced parsley.