Sunday, March 27, 2011

St. Patrick's Tiramisu

Since we're at that time of year again, it was high time to whip up my corned beef/soda bread here at the Commissary to celebrate St. Patrick's Day last week. These associated recipes were chronicled in a posting last March, so I won't regurgitate them here; however, I added a bit of a twist this year. On the morning of my feast prep, I was perusing Twitter and came across a Chef Fabio posting (you know him, right? He's a former Top Chef/Top Chef All-Star contestant and all-around charming Italian dude) of his grandmother's tiramisu recipe. Why, I thought, how perfect for me! I should make this traditional Italian dessert to accompany my traditional Irish dinner! We're celebrating our mixed heritage! After all, my kids are more Italian than they are Irish! Why am I using so many exclamation points?!?

As I had not ever made tiramisu before, I was delighted to find that the recipe itself was not terribly difficult. I already had the 6 eggs I needed, plus some very strong coffee (not espresso, but this recipe calls for regular coffee anyway) courtesy of Mrs. Hackknife's Keurig coffee maker. I simply had to stop by my local Italian market to pick up a package of ladyfinger cookies and a container of marscapone cheese. Easy, right? Well, trouble started when I was prepping the eggs. I had to separate out the yolks from the shells, which I've done once or twice before, but it's a little tricky as the yolks and whites tend to coagulate together (one egg bit the dust as it slid out in its entirety before I could separate it - luckily, I had a backup egg ready). After mixing the egg yolks with sugar and vanilla, you whip it with a hand mixer for a couple of minutes until it's very fluffy. This is when it suddenly occurred to me (why it took this long I'm not sure) that tiramisu, one of my favorite desserts, contains a s*^&load of raw eggs. Now for those of you unaware, I have a bit of a problem consuming raw eggs. I realize that custard contains raw eggs. I realize chocolate mousse contains raw eggs. I acknowledge that there are literally hundreds of other dishes I've eaten over the years that probably contain raw eggs in some form. Yet, here I am, whipping up a homemade batch of tiramisu, becoming aware that, like the old adage about knowing how sausage is made, I don't know if I will be able to eat this now, or ever again for that matter. Soldiering on, I brewed the coffee and dunked the ladyfingers in it (word to the wise - if you make this recipe, it tells you to dip them "briefly" in the coffee. I discovered that it should say EXTREMELY briefly since they fall apart if you leave them in there for more than about a second. I think I finally got the technique about right around #20 of the 24 ladyfingers in the package), then tried to assemble the finished dessert. My recipe says to use a 10"x10" pan, which, of course, I don't have. My 8"x8" pan was too small to accommodate two sets of coffee-soaked, disintegrating ladyfingers side by side, so I had to use a non-uniform 12"x16" dish. Eventually I discovered why you really need a 10"x10" uniform pan when making tiramisu - without the pan sides to provide support, the whole thing sort of oozes apart under the weight of the top layer of cookies/fluff. Undeterred, I wrapped it in foil and threw it into the fridge, where it solidified into an ugly looking-yet-delicate mass of sugar, starch, and caffeine (and, no doubt, salmonella).

With that description, it's no wonder that the neighborhood wasn't exactly knocking down the door to get a bite. In spite of that, however, Mrs. Hackknife and her mother both found it to be delicious. I somehow managed to choke down a small piece (it wasn't bad, actually) before being overcome by waves of disgust and nausea every time I cast eyes in the direction of the pan (this greatly amused Mrs. Hackknife - "How will I ever get you to make this again if you're so unsettled by it?"). My goal next St. Patrick's Day will be to choose a more appropriate dessert, such as flan or baklava....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chicken in a Pot

Here's another Wall Street Journal recipe that I clipped a few months ago and finally got the opportunity to try recently. After perusing some bistro cookbooks, I've determined that the French have quite a collection of these one-pot suppers where you brown meat, brown vegetables in the rendered fat from the meat, deglaze the pot with some sort of alcohol, add broth/stock, and finish the whole shebang in the oven until the meat is fork-tender. This is at least the 4th recipe I've attempted that follows this pattern, although this particular one is not without its quirks. First of all, I had to track down some preserved (or pickled) lemon, which requires you to visit a Middle Eastern grocery (fortunately, we have a few of those around here). It comes in a large jar containing about 20 lemons, of which I only needed 1/2 of one (were it not for the expiration date on the container, I could see myself finally exhausting that last lemon sometime around my 80th birthday in 2052). The 2nd difficulty, amazingly, was finding a whole chicken cut up into 8 pieces that weighed about 4 lb. total. I wasn't quite as ambitious this time as far as cutting up my own whole chicken, so I had to settle for what I could find in the meat case, which meant picking a package with 4 thighs and 4 drumsticks (all dark meat, not Mrs. Hackknife's favorite) that came out close to the desired weight. After bringing the bird and all of the vegetables home, doing my prep, browning the chicken (again dousing the entire household in a fine mist of grease for days on end), and cooking the veggies in some bacon fat reserved from breakfast (off-recipe decision of mine, I might add - I'm starting to frighten myself a little by my occasional audacity at the stove), it started to occur to me that all of the contents of the recipe might not fit into my 5.5-qt Dutch oven, in spite of what was directed. Luckily, I was able to sort of massage everything together so that it didn't dump out over the edges and added the dough seal. When 55 minutes was up, I pried the lid off with a screwdriver and found something that actually looked halfway decent (see photo above). The chicken and vegetables were tasty, even if it wasn't the greatest casserole ever (and I don't recommend eating the dough seal, which is just baked flour/water, and doesn't really pass flavor muster), and the dish was received in about the usual fashion from the family (wife eats it, says it's good, I eat it, think it's ok but could be improved, progeny refuses it and stares at the ceiling/sings Doodlebops songs).

Here's the link if you want to give it a go: Chicken in a Pot

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Pizzas

Lately, I've been getting the feeling that we here at the Commissary have been in a little bit of a pizza rut. Mrs. Hackknife grew up eating thin-crust pizza (usually cheese and anchovies) from a prominent South Suburban pizza chain called Aurelio's, which is still going strong today. Since I grew up in a different part of town, we almost always default to Aurelio's when we want takeout or delivery 'za, and it's, well, consistently good, but not really my favorite. In Mt. Prospect, we were fortunate enough to be close to a branch of Geno's East, one of the city's most popular deep-dish pizza joints, so my heart (and associated clogged arteries) belongs more to that calorie bomb variety than thin-crust (there, I said it - sorry, honey. Let the repercussions begin...).

Good deep dish is a little harder to find on the south side of town here, but last year I was made aware of an Italian restaurant in Crestwood called Louisa's (14025 S. Cicero) that specializes in the stuff; in fact, that's the ONLY type of pizza they offer. We gave one of their pies an audition after taking the progeny to a Cubs game and it was fantastic, not the heavy deep dish of my childhood, but actually very light-handed with the cheese/sauce and a buttery, medium-thick crust (is there lard in there?). It immediately rocketed to the top of my South Side deep-dish pizza list (not that there was much competition). Our second, more recent experience with Louisa's came a few weeks ago when we decided to dine in with the kids following a trip to the local science museum. We discovered that, unfortunately, it's not the most kid-friendly place - no kids menu or milk to be served, a 30+ minute wait for the pizza to come out of the oven, etc., but the pie was again very good, if not a little less so than the first time we had it. We live outside of their delivery area and it's a little bit of a hike to get there, so we will probably still stick with Aurelio's for the time being, but it's good to know I have the option to indulge when the spirit moves me.

Now that we have a deep-dish pizza option, we also need a thin-crust alternative and I think I may have found one (although it's not exactly around the corner, either). When I visited Totopo's Mexican Grill last month (see earlier posting), I noticed something called Labriola Bakery Cafe in the same retail development in Oak Brook. I recognized the name Labriola as the provider of some really good artisanal bread loaves at local grocery stores and wondered if there was a connection. There is, in fact, a connection - Labriola the bakers opened the cafe a couple years ago as a retail outlet for bread, pizza, desserts, and other casual fare, garnering a bunch of positive foodie press in the process. When back in the area after visiting my grandmother last Wednesday, I stopped in to try out their Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza. I ordered a specialty buffalo mozzarella variety to go (being the first day of Lent, I had to pass on any meat toppings, unfortunately) and had to summon all of my willpower to resist tearing into it while careening down the expressway at 70 mph (some people text, I eat pizzas while driving). When I finally made it home about 30 minutes later, I gazed in wonder at the magnificent pie ensheathed in a cardboard box on my counter (see photo above) and dug in. The crust was perfect Neapolitan - chewy, a little charred, nicely flavored - and the toppings were simple (basil, crushed tomatoes, cheese, and olive oil), yet intense. It was wonderful at room temperature, just as good reheated for leftovers a couple of days later. I'm looking forward to my return visit so I can try other pizzas and/or burgers, gelato, and cannoli....

Monday, March 7, 2011

Slow-Cooked Lamb/Veal Shanks in Pinot Noir

Gotta love that Wall Street Journal. We are constantly butting heads on all issues political (yes, I acknowledge that it's odd for a card-carrying left-winger to read an unabashedly right-wing publication every day), but they have really stepped up their weekend reporting on soft news, especially from a foodie perspective. Every Saturday, I can pretty much rely on a decent handful of food-focused articles and recipes from well-respected chefs across this great land of ours (cue the National Anthem). Many of these recipes I can even duplicate in the Commissary with some measure of success. For example, the spotlight a few Saturdays ago was on crock pot meals (dear to my heart since you set 'em up in the morning and by dinnertime, you have a meal ready to go without having to figure out how to entertain the kids while you're cooking away), one of which jumped out at me. Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo have a renowned nose-to-tail restaurant in Los Angeles (appropriately named "Animal") and contributed a slow-cooked lamb shank recipe for the WSJ article. With Mrs. Hackknife completing her final presentation for partnership last Thursday, I wanted to cook a special celebratory meal and found that this would fill the bill nicely.

Since most crock-pot dishes rely heavily on the sauce to provide the flavor, you usually need to have something to mop up all of the good juice left behind on the plate, so I started out by making a loaf of our rustic house bread to go with the meat. Getting the ingredients for the main recipe wasn't too bad (I had just obtained coriander seeds for the chicken and coconut paella, for example); however, finding 4 1-lb lamb shanks proved to be somewhat difficult. I thought that this would be the perfect time to try out the butcher shop in downtown Frankfort that I had recently been clued into, but of course, they were closed for vacation all week. Large Corporate Grocery didn't have them and my local ethnic grocery just had two - one that was bigger than I needed (about 1.5 lb) and one that was just right (about 1 lb). To compensate, I also bought a couple of veal shanks (lamb, veal, baby sheep, baby cow, what's the difference, right?) and brought everything home. Step 1 involved browning the meat in a Dutch oven, which made the house smell wonderful at first, but ultimately resulted in a fried meat haze settling over everything on the first floor (it's getting better, but I still think I'm entering a kebab stand every time I enter the house). Once the meat was browned, you dumped the excess fat, cooked your vegetables, deglazed with pinot noir, dumped the meat, veggies, spices, and juice into the crock pot, and away we went. After 4 hours, dinner was served and was quite nice, especially since we got the added bonus of a little bone marrow from the veal shanks (by golly, I nearly made osso bucco without even realizing it). The bread was perfect for sopping up the gravy, the progeny quietly refused most of the meal, and everyone was pleased for the most part.

Extreme Paczki

Given that we live in a major metropolitan area, we don't really rely on our neighborhood newspaper (you know, the free one that arrives in your mailbox once a week that reports on whose car got vandalized and the junior high wrestling team that took 4th in a tournament over the weekend) for much other than recycling material. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across it amongst the mail the other day and found a picture on the front page similar to the one I posted above. Now THIS is something that will get my attention. A local bakery in Tinley Park by the name of Creative Cakes (website: decided to release a line of what they called "extreme" paczki for the pre-Lent season up to Fat Tuesday (which happens to be tomorrow). For those of you residing in a region without a large Polish population, packzi (pronounced "punch-key") are basically doughnuts that are glazed and sometimes filled with fruit preserves (like apricot or strawberry) that make their appearance every year right around this time. Think of them as an indulgence for the Polish community (and hangers-on like us) to enjoy before the enforced austerity of Lent clamps down. Anyway, Creative Cakes (whom we've bought birthday party and baptism cakes from in the past) came up with several packzi versions that can be considered borderline illegal, such as Bananas Foster (bananas in a rum custard filling w/caramel icing), Maple Bacon May-Ham (maple custard filling, maple glaze icing, and a slice of bacon on top), and my personal favorite, O Captain My Captain (Captain Morgan custard filling w/strawberries, edged in Captain Crunch). Upon reading about this cutting-edge culinary development occurring practically in our backyard, my first thought was "How quickly can I bundle up the children and drive over there to get me some?".

After a few minutes of reflection and time to let my heart rate drop back down below 180, I came to the conclusion that 4pm on a Friday is probably not the best time to do bakery shopping (i.e., they'll be out of everything by now), so I opted to defer until Monday morning when the hordes of foodie marauders from the weekend will have slunk back to their foxholes and I can choose my extreme paczki unencumbered. Unfortunately, I failed to note on the website that the store (like many bakeries) is closed on Mondays, so after one failed trip, Hackknifette and I managed to gain access to the pearly gates on Tuesday morning and brought home a half-dozen beauties as you see above (clockwise from top left: Atomic Mash-Up, Turtle, Nutella, O Captain My Captain, Maple Bacon May-Ham, and Bananas Foster). Mindful of the potential caloric consequences of eating what are essentially 6 small wedding cakes, I made sure to spread out the joy with many other parties, including my mother-in-law, our once-a-week sitter (who is Polish and probably found these to be quite sacrilegious, although she seemed to enjoy the Bananas Foster), the progeny (who, in true progeny fashion, both decided that plain doughnuts were preferably to these monstrosities), and Mrs. Hackknife, with whom I did most of the damage. Of the 6, I have to say that my favorites were Turtle, Bananas Foster, and by a wide margin, the Maple Bacon May-Ham, which left me giddy and wondering exactly how many dozen of these I could possibly procure before the Pope was forced to intervene (the combination of fatty bacon and sweet doughnut can only be described as ethereally sublime - I now enthusiastically endorse the liberal application of bacon on all desserts).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Chicken and Coconut "Paella"

Chicken. The mere word conjures images of beige and boredom to the home cook. Overly processed, industrial gray matter masquerading as protein at the local Large Corporate Supermarket, there are only so many things that you can do with it to make it into a somewhat appealing meal. We've tried roasting, frying, slathering in cheese and tomato sauce, broiling, baking, and many other preps, all with varying degrees of culinary success. I am always on the lookout for new chicken recipes to try and I came across one the other day in my Tyler Florence "Ultimate" cookbook. This particular prep is called Chicken and Coconut "Paella" ("paella" being in quotes since it's not really a true paella like one might find in Spain, but more so inspired by the concept) and it's accompanied by a nice pea and watercress salad (Messr. Florence apparently really likes watercress since both times I've ever used it in a recipe, they've been his). In order to assemble this dish, I had to run out and find some whole coriander seeds (which provide a nice, citrusy note and crunchy texture to the chicken and rice), which luckily proved not to be too difficult, although at this rate I'll soon need an annex built onto the Commissary to accommodate my ever-growing collection of spices. The recipe was pretty easy to make and full of flavor, garnering thumbs up from both Mrs. Hackknife and Hackknife Jr. for a change (Hackknifette abstained as usual). It's not the healthiest of plates as a whole can of coconut milk goes into it (i.e., lots of fat and cholesterol), but at least it's got lean meat, even if it's just your standard gray chicken.

Chicken and Coconut "Paella"

1/4 c. coriander seeds
8 chicken thighs (I found boneless, but you can use bone-in, too)
Kosher salt and black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1" piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
2 c. basmati rice
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 c. chicken broth (I used low-sodium)
1 1/2 c. coconut milk

Preheat the oven to 400F. Coarsely crack the coriander (use a spice grinder or crush with a rolling pin in a towel or under wax paper). Season the chicken well with salt and pepper and sprinkle all over with the cracked coriander. Heat a 3-count of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Lay the chicken thighs in a pan (skin side down) and sear for 3-4 minutes until a nice crust develops. Turn and cook for 3-4 minutes more until the other side is browned. Remove chicken from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil and reduce heat to medium. Add onion, ginger, and bay leaf and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes until the onion is soft, but not colored. Add rice and season well with salt and pepper. Stir for a minute or two until the rice is well-coated with oil. Stir in lemon zest. Add chicken broth and coconut milk and bring pot to a simmer. Tuck the chicken thighs into the liquid, place pot in the oven, and bake uncovered until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.

Pea Salad

1 c. frozen peas, thawed in a colander under cool water
Small handful of mint leaves
1 bunch watercress
Juice from 1/2 lemon
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper
Mint and lemon (for garnish)

Put peas, mint, and watercress into a large bowl. Add lemon juice, oil, and salt/pepper and give the contents a good toss. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Serve with chicken and rice.