Friday, February 25, 2011

Gayety's Chocolates & Ice Cream

As I know I've previously stated somewhere in this blog, whenever a restaurant or food emporium located anywhere within a 30-mile radius of the Commissary gets some mainstream media attention, I usually take notice. This was the case a few months back when USA Today released its list of the top 50 ice cream parlors in the country and, to my amazement, one of them (Gayety's Chocolates and Ice Cream) was from Lansing, not the capital of Michigan in this case, but a semi-downtrodden suburb a short drive from here. I made a mental note to try it out at some future appropriate occasion and that appropriate occasion happened to be the day before Hackknifette's 2nd birthday party, when I realized that we needed ice cream to go with her cake (light bulb!). Rather than serve the average, run-of-the-mill corporate grocery ice cream tubs to our guests, why not treat them to a little premium, locally-made stuff? So, in spite of late Friday afternoon traffic risks on I-80, I loaded the progeny up in the family truckster and headed over to Lansing.

Despite being rush hour, it only took us about 20 minutes to make the journey, and (never having been there) I found downtown Lansing to be not nearly as dilapidated as I was expecting; in fact, it could have been mistaken for any number of northwest side suburbs I was used to (including Mt. Prospect, the one I grew up in). The ice cream parlor itself was practically empty when we arrived and really did look like something that time-warped out of the 1930s, with the old-time booths, brass fixtures, checkerboard floor tile, etc. According to their website, its original location used to be on the southeast side of Chicago (a neighborhood known as South Chicago) next to the now-demolished Gayety Theater on Commercial Avenue. Although it opened in 1920, it's not clear exactly when they made their way to the downtown Lansing; in any case, we live in the here and now, especially when it comes to matters involving sweets, so the kids and I took a close gander at the dizzying array of chocolates on display in the store. We ended up choosing a couple of milk chocolate peanut butter cups (for Hackknife Jr.), a few small mint meltaways (for Hackknifette), two dark chocolate almond nut clusters (for Mrs. and Hackknife and I to share), and two dark chocolate banana cremes (ditto). The chocolates weren't cheap (it set me back around $11 just for those few), but, my goodness, were they outstanding! We determined at the party the next day that the homemade ice cream was also excellent, having brought home a quart each of chocolate and vanilla, and pints of butter pecan, peppermint, and mint chocolate chip, some of which we are continuing to enjoy up to this very day.

We are fortunate to have some great ice cream shops really close by the Commissary (Sam & Jakes and the Creamery immediately come to mind), so I don't think we'll be making a lot of return trips to Lansing this summer for treats, but I suspect that one of these upcoming warm summer nights, we'll be trekking back over there for some top-shelf chocolates.....

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I shut down the Commissary this past Friday night to enjoy a well-deserved Valentine's Day dinner evening with Mrs. Hackknife. Given how hard she's been working the past few weeks, I wanted to choose someplace really special for us; after some careful contemplation, Spiaggia came to mind. For those of you unaware, Spiaggia is generally regarded as Chicago's finest Italian cuisine restaurant (some consider it among the country's best overall dining spots), yet I was only vaguely familiar with it, becoming more so after following Chef/Owner Tony Mantuano's recent stint on Top Chef Masters. Mrs. Hackknife had a work function there a few years back, but other than that, neither one of us had had the pleasure of experiencing its cuisine.

I did my best to keep our dinner location a secret from her and was able to do so pretty much up to about the time we got there. Its spot in the city is hard to conceal: right on the Magnificent Mile, with an elegant tiered dining room (lots of browns, low light) and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the intersection of Michigan and Oak, Lake Shore Drive (LSD), and a small park in-between the two across the street from the Drake. Although it was past twilight and we couldn't quite make out the lake beyond the brakelights on LSD, we could clearly see from our table a light snow falling over everything, including a gazebo in the park, making the whole thing seem very, well, fairytale-ish (as much as I hate to use that descriptor). Of course, the enchanted setting would mean very little if the food were not up to the rarefied address on the front door.

Speaking of food, we perused Spiaggia's winter menu while I sipped a Jack Daniels and Coke (a drink I have about every 10 years or so when the spirit moves me) and Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her usual martini. Our server explained to us that the restaurant received a shipment of black truffles from Piedmont within the last couple of weeks, so they were offering a special tasting menu showcasing that ingredient (at a special higher price, of course). I can't say that we've had much occasion to try black truffles in the past, but we are definitely aware of their reputation as a luxury, almost ethereal food item, so we both decided to invoke our go-big-or-go-home dining rule and forsook many delectable-sounding dishes on the a la carte menu in favor of the tasting menu.

Feeling giddy with anticipation, the first plate arrived at our table: a small, "Italian-style" doughnut (not sure what exactly made it "Italian-style" as it could have passed for a Munchkin to me) dusted in Parmigiano Reggiano cheese with a few shavings of black truffle on top. It was savory, not sweet as one might expect a doughnut to be, and the truffle added a little earthiness to round out the flavor. Course #2 (my favorite) consisted of a foie gras torchon (basically a disk of the sinful stuff slow-cooked in a hot water bath), a slice of pork testa (head cheese) terrine, and a grilled crostini, all of which were dusted with fennel pollen, drizzled with Meili Thun honey (a high-end honey from Italy), and covered in black truffle shavings. The luxury quotient of this assemblage was through the roof and it tasted that way, eyes-rolling-backwards rich. By this time, we had finished our cocktails and had moved on to a nice glass of Italian Sauvignon Blanc, very tangy and herbal, a perfect match for this course and the next, which was a small grilled Maine lobster tail, topped with a quail egg and perched on a smearing of squid ink potato puree. I have to say I wasn't quite as enamored with this plate as I have a little bit of a tough time with uncooked eggs (this one wasn't as bad as the quail egg I choked down at Noma in Copenhagen a few years back), plus the puree underneath was very hard to scoop up without a spoon. The experience took another slight detour off the yellow brick road when the runner then brought us out an identical lobster plate instead of the next course (and then seemed confused about it when we tried to explain that we'd just had this) - normally not a big deal, but definitely a black mark when you're trying to distinguish yourself as a world-class establishment.

Order was quickly restored with the arrival of our primi (pasta) course, three ricotta and black truffle-filled ravioli with brown butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. These were delicious, although I needed about 10 more of them. Next up to go with our Montigl Pinot Noir from Alto Adige was a wonderful guinea hen, stuffed with prosciutto di parma, wrapped in guanciale, drizzled in saba (a grape syrup), and plated with lentils. You photographic memory readers will recall my difficulty last year in locating guanciale for some earlier pasta dishes cooked at the Commissary and our server also conveyed her regrets that, due to the city's archaic food regulations, Spiaggia has to look out of state to supply much of its cured meat needs (this knowledge came about since I had to quiz her on it). With appetites rapidly diminishing, we moved on to the cheese course (not just for the French anymore), which included primo sale pistachio pecorino and Accasciato bufala cheeses (our clear favorite), both drizzled in more Mieli Thun honey. The meal ended on a high note with a traditional dessert plate of dark chocolate custard with Piedmontese hazelnuts and a caramelized banana drizzled with olive oil and dusted with sea salt (topped with black truffle, of course). I have included a picture of this course above, although with the dim lighting, no flash on my iPhone, and the black truffle shavings scattered about, I'm fully aware that it basically looks like dirt piles on a plate (not representative at all of its taste, I might add). Our server also gave us a small dish of candied blood orange and a salted caramel chocolate bite, as well as a complementary glass of brachetto d'acqui (a sparkling sweet red wine from Piedmont) to wash everything down.

When the final tally was presented to us, it was pretty steep (probably one of the top 5 most expensive we'd ever had). All in all, the food was excellent and the service was very good; unfortunately, we left feeling a little like we'd just paid 5-star prices (no doubt helped along by the ubiquity of the black truffles) for what amounted to a 4-star experience. Regardless, it was a wonderful evening out with my wonderful wife. As for the truffles, I'm glad we tried them, but I probably won't be in a great hurry to seek them out again (unless they were to magically pop up under the crabapple tree in the back yard - black truffle meatloaf, anyone?).....

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Totopo Mexican Grill

Being obsessed with food, I tend to do things that people obsessed with food do, including (among other things) frequent perusal of local foodie sources such as Chicago Magazine's Dish dining newsletter. This is an easy way to keep tabs on openings/closings and makes you eminently qualified to annoy (er, I mean, impress) your friends with enlightened statements like "Hey, I just read about a new Irish-Bolivian fusion joint that's going to be in Mudtown Square - I can't wait to check it out!". Anyway, it is through this newsletter that I heard about a casual Mexican grill opening close to my old office in Oak Brook by the name of Totopo (it seems like a proliferation of good restaurants appeared in the area immediately after my hiatus from the professional work force began). I found myself with a little precious free time on a Wed. afternoon last week and I decided to stop in for a midday snack.

The restaurant is located in a pretty new, upscale shopping development called Oak Brook Promenade (there's also a McCormick & Schmick's seafood restaurant there). Upon first entering the place, my impression was that of a high-falutin Chipotle, with a much wider selection of dishes on the menu. There was a table of different chips and salsas to sample right next to the counter - I tried a little "Tres Chiles" red salsa and found it to be tasty with a little bite to it. For the entree, I ordered some fish tacos, which were prepared very simply - it entailed whatever the fish of the day was, marinated and grilled (not fried), served on flour tortillas with some Mexican slaw on top, a little queso, and a lime garnish (see photo above). They were delicious and not really in need of any extra seasoning (the salsa I got with it pretty much remained untouched), but at $8, I found it to be a little expensive, especially since the sides of black beans and rice were not included. The beans also had queso on top and were very good, the rice only so-so. I ordered a mango horchata to drink, thinking it would be a flavored horchata; however, it ended up being a traditional version with pieces of mango floating on top (not that I cared so much - it was also very good).

In summary, I'll be back sometime to sample other menu items (such as the pork or vegetarian tortas), maybe with the progeny, maybe with an ex-co-worker or two. Unless I'm willing to make the 30-minute drive, though, I'll have to settle for Chipotle to satisfy my Mexican grill cravings....

Shepherd's Pie

Our last posting in the latest cooking series is shepherd's pie (at this point, after having the Commissary be active for several straight days, I felt the need to head out and let someone else prepare a few meals for us). My first experience with shepherd's pie goes back to watching my Canadian friend Darcy throw a basic version together in his (very) bachelor pad in Dallas about 15 years ago - instant potatoes, ground beef, canned vegetables, and the like, probably comfort food from his hometown on the prairies of Saskatchewan (it didn't look very appetizing). The original version can be traced back to the 19th Century British Isles, a stick-to-your-ribs, toiling-in-the-fields food made from whatever leftovers might be on hand.

My recipe comes straight out of Men's Journal and is slightly more upscale, but still maintains the rustic nature of the original. Lamb is the stand-in for beef - the roast cut is the meatiest if you can find it, but I discovered by accident that slightly fatter cuts such as the breast rib meat (which is heavily marbled) adds quite a bit of flavor to it (makes it less healthy, however). I also threw in a little extra fresh rosemary I had on hand from making spare ribs and that helped spice it up a bit as well. All in all, it's not the house's favorite recipe, but it will warm you up on a cold day and it keeps great in the refrigerator for leftovers.

1. Chop 2 lbs. of lamb into bite-size chunks. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, brown the lamb in 2 oz. of extra-virgin olive oil. Remove lamb from the pot.

2. Peel and dice 1 onion, 2 carrots, 2 parsnips, and 1 turnip. Put them in the pot and cook until they start to soften. Stir in 1 Tbsp. tomato paste, scraping the lamb drippings from the bottom of the pot.

3. Return the lamb to the pot. Pour in 2 Tbsp. of Worcestershire sauce and 1 cup beer, then reduce the liquid by a quarter.

4. Add 1 cup lamb stock or low-sodium chicken broth, 2 sprigs of thyme, 2 sprigs of rosemary, and a bay leaf. Simmer for 45 minutes. Top with your favorite mashed potatoes and bake in a preheated 375F oven until golden brown (about 20 minutes).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gnocchi - Recipe 1

Something about dumplings masquerading as pasta noodles (i.e., gnocchi) screams cold-weather food to me, not so much because they're sometimes eaten in Italy (most of which, to the best of my pent-up meteorological knowledge, doesn't experience anything remotely resembling our winter weather outside of the Alps), but mostly since you'll find them in Central/Eastern Europe locales as well, many of which are poster children for dreary, snow-and-ice laden hinterlands (think Dr. Zhivago). Anyway, I stumbled across a gnocchi recipe in the Saturday issue of Wall Street Journal (WSJ) a few weeks back and decided to whip it out this past Monday while we all (the progeny and I) were stranded indoors on a bracingly-cold afternoon. With a little help from the Disney Channel, I was able to keep the kids at bay for an hour or so to assemble the gnocchi.

Now for those of you who are gnocchi cognoscenti (I'm not counting myself amongst this group), you're aware that they can be potato-based or semolina flour-based (and potentially others, I suppose). My WSJ recipe is a potato one, so the first step involved nuking the potatoes in the microwave, something that we frequently do here in the Commissary (this half-ass technique actually makes very good baked potatoes - I highly recommend it). After waiting a few minutes for the potatoes to cool, I needed to remove the skin (Ouch! Don't the damn things ever cool off?), then pass them through a ricer, which is a tool that I bought at Target expressly for this occasion and will probably never use again (except for possibly child discipline). After adding flour, salt, and egg, I was ready to knead, and I suspect this is where having some experience comes in handy since there's no good description of how long you're actually supposed to knead (somewhere between not too short and not too long). I stole an idea from my Joy of Cooking book and decided to do a test batch of gnocchi first to see if I got the texture right, namely cut up about 10 pieces or so from the dough and boil them to see if they fall apart or hold their shape. Amazingly, they seemed to stay together well, so I must have done something right. I finished cutting up the remaining pieces (see photo above) and boiled them up, followed by making the brown butter/sage sauce recommended in the recipe to accompany the pasta/dumplings.

Loaded with anticipation, the 3 of us sat down (Mrs. Hackknife was working late) for dinner. Hackknife Jr. had to be prodded to try the gnocchi and didn't care for it. Hackknifette needed no prodding, but simply spat out (daintily, I might add) the one bite she took. I sprinkled a little Parmesan cheese on my gnocchi, took a bite, and....was really quite underwhelmed. They were, well, bland, not very flavorful at all, even with the sauce. Upon reflection, I suppose I could have covered them with tomato sauce and that may have saved them. Maybe I didn't cook them right. Or maybe they're just not meant to be that flavorful (I think of other dumplings I've had in German or Polish restaurants and, yes, most of them aren't that great, either, unless they're swimming in gravy). I mean, come on, be realistic, what did you expect when you put mashed potatoes, flour, egg, and salt together, and BOILED it? Why, when you put it that way, it sounds about as appetizing as shoe leather.

Not wanting to be completely discouraged, I do have a second gnocchi recipe in the archives to try, one that is made with semolina flour and baked in the oven (which is more of a traditional Italian preparation from what I understand). I think we'll be attempting this one sometime in the near future in place of our stoic potato alternative.....

Short Ribs

With winter raging in its full fury outside the Commissary windows over the past week, we've hunkered down with some good comfort food dishes lately to warm up the insides. On Super Bowl Sunday, instead of watching the ad naseum pregame festivities, I spent the afternoon in the kitchen whipping up a batch of short ribs. This was my first attempt at a short rib recipe that I cut out of the Feb. 2009 issue of Wine Spectator. I'd waited this long mostly due to the fact that the ribs are a little hard to find around here - luckily, my local ethnic food specialty supermarket (which is starting to garner more and more of my grocery business) had a few packages of them in the meat cooler, so I scooped up about 3.75 lb worth.

The recipe itself follows pretty much the classic pattern of prepping undesirable cuts of meat for maximum flavor; that is, browning, sauteing of vegetables in the resulting rendered fat, deglazing/liquid reduction, and putting the meat back into the pot for long-term simmering. After about 2.5 hours in the oven, they were ready to go along with some garlic mashed potatoes, broccoli strascinati (see May '10 posting), and frozen biscuits (yes, I copped out at 3 homemade dishes cooking simultaneously - my sous-chefs are on permanent holiday). The flavor of the short ribs turned out really well; unfortunately, the ones I bought apparently were fattier than usual, so there wasn't a whole lot of edible meat on them. As a result, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to put this recipe back into the pile until such time as I can get better short ribs from someplace (like an as-yet-to-be-identified butcher). In the meantime, here it is in case you want to give it a go:

4-5 lb. beef short ribs, cut into 3" pieces
leaves from 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary
leaves from 1 sprig of marjoram
2 whole sprigs of sage
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. dried basil
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1" chunks
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 1/2 c. full-bodied red wine (I used a cabernet-merlot blend from Tuscany)
1 1/2 c. beef broth (low sodium if you can find it)

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Rub the ribs with salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and basil. In a large, deep skillet or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the sage and the ribs in batches, browning the meat well on all sides, about 10 minutes total per batch. Remove the ribs and set aside.

2. In the remaining fat, saute the onion and carrot until the onion is translucent and softening, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 2 minutes more. Stir in the wine and the beef broth, scraping the pan bottom to loosen any browned bits, and cook over high heat until the liquid is reduced by a third to a half.

3. Add the bay leaves, ribs, and any drippings, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and transfer to the oven. Let the meat roast gently for 2-3 hours, turning the ribs carefully once per hour. Remove from the oven when the meat is tender and starting to pull from the bone.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fight Night Goodies

Most normal guys would be happy to host a get-together for the Super Bowl. Some of them might even make a few tailgate-type dishes to keep guests company during the gridiron action and endless commercials. In my world, we skip the Super Bowl in favor of mixed martial arts and host a UFC watching party THE NIGHT BEFORE the big game (amazingly, my main UFC-watching buddies are all disinterested enough in the Super Bowl that they'd rather watch a totally different sporting event one night earlier in lieu of it. Try that with a random sample of 4 American males aged 35-47). Anyway, being a good host, I did provide a minor spread to accompany the flying fists and the bloodletting (on the TV, not in my house - my kids were sleeping).

Dish #1 was a fantastically good (and fantastically unhealthy) buffalo chicken dip that I wrote about in a February posting last year. My second offering was a hot spinach and artichoke dip stolen from the Food Network's Alton Brown (Spinach/Artichoke Dip recipe). This dip is very tasty and almost embarrassingly easy. If you do attempt it, be aware that my version has some slight alterations to it, namely 1) drain excess water from the spinach after heating it up, 2) use canned artichoke hearts instead of frozen ones (easier to find), and 3) add 1 clove of fresh chopped garlic and several dashes of hot sauce to jazz it up a little. You can either boil or microwave the spinach to heat it up (just follow the heating recommendations on the package). The animals in attendance pretty much licked the bowl clean on this one.

Guy appetizer #3 was another recipe from Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Glenn, or from his wife Cindi, to be more specific. The genius in this dish is in its simplicity: two ingredients, canned jalapenos and sugar. Someone figured out that if you put these two together in a bowl for a day or two, the jalapenos lose some of their heat and replace it with sweet, which makes a perfect topping for cream cheese and crackers. Here are the instructions:

Cindi's Jalapenos

1 26 oz. can sliced nacho-style jalapenos
1 lb. sugar

Drain most of the liquid from the jalapeno can. Place jalapenos in a large glass or plastic bowl. Pour sugar on top and stir. Cover and leave at room temperature for 24-48 hours, stirring once or twice a day. Separate into containers of your choice. Serve over cream cheese with crackers (such as Town House).

If you have trouble finding the right size can of jalapenos, any size will work as long as you maintain about a 1.6 jalapeno-to-sugar weight ratio (sorry - that's the scientist in me talking).

Last, but not least was the cheese bread. A little background first: growing up, my stepmom occasionally used to make the tastiest cheese bread to go with dinner. It was hot, buttery, tangy w/onion and Dijon mustard, and very, very cheesy. About 10 years ago, she assembled for all of her kids/stepkids a binder with some of her best recipes in it, with the presumption that we'd actually find this useful someday (which, at the time, I did not as Hamburger Helper was still a staple in my weekly bachelor menu). Fast forward to last week - I find this binder on my cookbook shelf and, lo and behold, here's the cheese bread recipe and it's not hard to make, and, why, if I only had a reason to make this, such as a social gathering of some kind. You get the picture. Anyway, it's not my normal modus operandi to try new recipes on guests, but I figured I'd do it anyway and it was a big hit, so much so that I made a second loaf this week to supplement my homemade gnocchi that didn't turn out so swell (posting to soon follow).

Ginny's Cheese Bread

1 large loaf of Italian bread or 2 small loaves French bread
8 slices sliced brick or Munster cheese
8 slices sliced Swiss cheese
1 stick butter
2 Tbsp. chopped onion
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. seasoned salt

Cut a large loaf of bread on angles nearly all the way through (8 cuts total). Take 1 slice of each cheese and put between slices. Take a large piece of aluminum foil, lay sliced bread on top of foil on a cookie sheet, and fold the edges of the foil up loosely around the bread to form a "foil boat". In a small saucepan, heat the remaining ingredients until butter melts and stir thoroughly. Pour melted butter mixture on top of bread and bake in a 350F oven for 30 minutes.

Ed. note - As I usually do when I read recipes containing ungodly amounts of heart-killing ingredients, I shuddered and thought "for the love of all that is good and decent, do we really need a whole stick of butter and a full slice of 2 cheeses between each slice of bread? Is Paula Deen everywhere in our lives now? Would this not be as good if I were to, say, use 1/2 stick butter and 1/2 slice of each cheese between slices instead? I made these AMA-recommended adjustments and, yes, it was just fine, but don't tell my stepmom (she'd heckle me).....

Monday, February 7, 2011

Meatballs/Roasted Tomato Sauce

Now that we've officially reached the dead of winter here in the Midwest, the Commissary has kicked into high gear, cranking out dishes (some good, some bad) at a breakneck pace. The following is the first of a series of postings on recent in-house cooking endeavors, soon to be followed by a couple of upcoming restaurant reviews.

After watching the East Coast get repeatedly bombarded by snowstorms over the past month or two, it was finally our turn last Tuesday to get slammed by high winds and heavy snow. I can't say for sure what the final snowfall totals were around our neighborhood (18 inches seemed to get tossed around by the local media), but suffice it to say that the drifts in and around our driveway came up to my eyeballs in places. With the wind howling along at 40 mph, I decided it was the perfect night to make our house meatballs along with a new red sauce (more on the sauce in a minute). The meatball recipe we use here is one adapted from my grandmother's side (the Nutonis, originally from Tuscany), made marginally healthier by the use of ground turkey instead of ground beef (Ugh, you say? Try me - I'll bet you wouldn't be able to tell the difference). I've made them enough now that I feel pretty good about both the ingredients and the technique, which is heavily reliant on a cast-iron skillet to get a nice char on the outside of the meatballs (this happens to be the key). When you've got your wife swooning and even your kids are eating a couple of bites, you know that you've got a great thing going.

1-1.5 lb. ground beef or ground turkey
3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (plus 3 more Tbsp. for the skillet)
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 c. seasoned bread crumbs
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 c. water

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl. Shape into 2"-3" diameter balls. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides, turning about every 5-7 minutes (I usually go 7 minutes initially, then start turning them at 5-minute intervals). Place on dish with paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve alone or with your favorite tomato sauce.

Speaking of sauce, I stumbled across a roasted tomato sauce recipe in an old copy of Cook's Illustrated (lent to me by our new foodie friends, the Gs - thanks, guys) that is specifically geared for the winter months when fresh tomatoes are scarce. The recipe entails roasting vine-ripened tomatoes from the supermarket (along with some onions and garlic) in the oven to bring out the caramelized flavor of the vegetables. This is quite a bit different from our usual house sauce, which has a ground meat base and uses canned tomato sauce/paste to build flavor (plus, it's simmered, not roasted). Most of the effort is spent in vegetable prep, namely halving/coring the tomatoes. Once everything gets arranged on the roasting pan and cooked up, it was a pretty small matter to just puree it all in the food processor and have it ready to go. As far as the taste, Mrs. Hackknife stated that she "really liked it", although stopped short of pronouncing it better than our usual sauce, so now I guess we have 2 go-to sauce recipes.

2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme leaves
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
3 lb. vine-ripened tomatoes (about 9-12)
6 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 small onion, cut into 1/2" rounds
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
granulated sugar, salt, and pepper (to taste)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 475F. Halve each tomato and remove the cores. Combine tomato paste, 1 Tbsp. oil, thyme, pepper flakes, 3/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper in a large bowl. Toss tomatoes, garlic, and onion with mixture until well-coated. Place a 4" square of aluminum foil in the center of a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Place onion/garlic on foil square and arrange tomato halves (cut side down) around foil square. Roast until vegetables are soft and tomato skins are well charred (45-55 minutes). Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer garlic and onion to food processor; pulse until finely chopped (about 5 1-second pulses). Add tomatoes, vinegar, and remaining oil to food processor; pulse until broken down, but still chunky (about 5 1-second pulses). Using a rubber spatula, scrape down bowl; season with salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Continue to process sauce until slightly chunky (about 5 1-second pulses). Stir in basil.