Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New Orleans Trip - Day 3

Monday began with me moving slowly after a night of fitful sleep, visions of oysters and foie gras dancing in my head. Mrs. Hackknife and I were supposed to be going out for a nice breakfast before the start of her conference this morning, but it was everything I could do to drag myself out of bed to face another day of potential excess calories. Perhaps today's menu should consist of.....water? Cold oatmeal? I had already decided that I would need to spend the bulk of my last day in New Orleans on of my patented long urban walks as penance for gastronomic sins (a la Jim Harrison). Plus, the fresh air and sunshine would no doubt help me purge my system of the rich Creole toxins now inhabiting my every being. Feeling re-energized, we made our way down Chartres St. over to Stanley Restaurant, sitting right next to St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square. This modern eatery, named after one of the main characters in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (Tennessee Williams again), was quite a bit more hip and highbrow than I had imagined for someplace with breakfast specialties such as pancakes with vanilla ice cream and Eggs Benedict po' boy. Be that as it may, I was very happy that I was able to summon the intestinal fortitude to eat Bananas Foster french toast instead of oatmeal (while my lifespan was continuing to shorten, at least my soul was uplifted) - consider it hair of the dog.

It was at this point that I left Mrs. Hackknife and went on walkabout. Turning right down Magazine St. only a block from our hotel, I started walking, past the National World War Two Museum (John Besh has a restaurant in there, you know) in the Warehouse District, under the US 90 overpass crossing the river, through the Garden District and just past the scene of last night's gastrocrime at Commander's Palace, and onward. After 2 hours and 4 miles of passing boutiques, bars, restaurants, and many architecturally-distinct homes, I felt enough of a calorie deficit to stop in at my intended lunch destination: Domilise's Po' Boys, a small, nondescript, family-run operation in the middle of a residential neighborhood (if you weren't looking for it, you'd probably never notice it). This was one of the stops highlighted on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode in New Orleans a few years ago and he was definitely on point. I ordered a half po' boy sandwich of fried oysters (breaded and dropped in the fryer before my very eyes), dressed with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, and perched between slices of Leidenheimer French bread (apparently, most of the local sandwich joints rely on this hometown stalwart to provide structure for their toppings). Chips and cold beer were available for sale at the bar located on the sidewall from the food counter. I sat down at the bar with my po' boy, Dixie beer, and Zapp's Cajun crawtator chips (all 3 local favorites) and hunkered down, enjoying them while admiring the numerous autographed pictures of Archie Manning and his more-famous sons adorning the walls (this is about when I took what I consider to be the iconic picture of my trip, posted above - I've already eaten half the sandwich at this point, by the way....you're looking at 1/4 of a po' boy there, folks).

After lunch, I made my way about a mile further down Magazine St. until I reached Audubon Park, sitting down on a bench to plot my next move. I had just enough time before my flight home to grab a little dessert, ideally one of the local specialties known as a snoball (shaved ice doused with colored flavoring). According to my references, Plum Street Snoball was one of the city's best, only about a mile and a half from the park near the Tulane University campus. I didn't think my feet had that much distance left in them; fortunately, I was able to hop on a streetcar and get dropped off within 3 blocks of the snoball shack, which opened for the day about 5 minutes after I arrived (along with a few others jonesing for a frozen treat). Inside the small operation (many of the stellar food joints seem to be tiny in this town) was a little counter with about 75 different bottles of flavoring (every color of the rainbow) in racks along the walls. Although most of the snoballs were served in the standard white Chinese take-out boxes, mine came in a regular cup, thoroughly saturated in King Cake purple flavoring (my choice), without condensed milk (an optional topping that probably isn't needed except for gratuity). With no indoor seating, patrons sat outside enjoying their snoballs on a sidewalk bench out front, on the street curb (like me), or in their cars. It was quite refreshing and quite filling for the price (I think it was only $3 for a medium size) - I can see how a nasty hot/humid Southern city might come to depend on such a cold refreshment for sustenance in the dead of summer.

And with that, my trip concluded with a full belly, empty wallet, rising cholesterol (sorry, doc), and a digestive tract loaded with memories. I really liked my time in New Orleans, but I don't think I could have survived a much longer visit. In that respect, it reminds me of Las Vegas in that both places beckon you with opportunities of excessive pleasure; however, while Vegas is all about glamour and glitz in the high desert, the Big Easy is more about goth and grunge in the low swamp. Either place will suck you dry if you're not careful....

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Orleans Trip - Day 2

After fully expecting to wake up on Day 2 of our trip sensing that I would need to stay close to a restroom for most of the day, you can imagine my surprise when I arose feeling just fine, a sign I took from the foodie gods to mean that I was free to continue my overindulgent ways. At least this time, we had the decency to skip breakfast in favor of brunch at Begue's in the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon St. Legend has it that the whole concept of Sunday brunch originated at Madame Begue's restaurant (which was located at the corner of Decatur and Madison in the French Quarter, now home to Tujagues Restaurant since 1914) sometime in the late 19th Century and the Royal Sonesta has co-opted the "Begue's Champagne Sunday Brunch" for its own use. Joining us on our visit were my cousin Ryan, his lovely wife Kristin, and their newborn baby Channing, who politely sat in his carrier while we proceeded to stuff our faces.

All of the food stations were set up in an entry room adjacent to the main dining room and, collectively, they represented quite a bounty. There was a hot carving station with a whole red snapper and a deep-fried turkey, a raw bar with oysters, shrimp, and crayfish (fortunately, my cousin was able to give me a quick tutorial on the right way to disassemble a crayfish, quite a bit different from how I had mangled them at Dickie Brennan's earlier), omelet station, shrimp and grits station, small hors d'oeuvres (such as mini quiches), smoked fish, standard breakfast items (such as bacon, eggs, sausages, etc.), a waffle station (with optional bananas foster topping), dessert table, fruit trays, and a bakery table. I think I made about 7 trips altogether and I couldn't begin to tell you what exactly I ate during this time (my memory no doubt clouded by the bottomless Domaine Chandon sparkling wine that was being continually poured). I do recall a mini baked Alaska being a standout, plus the Waffle Bananas Foster still makes me salivate at the thought of it. After a leisurely 2-hour brunch, we rolled on out of the hotel, making plans to return someday to check out Rick Tramonto's new restaurant venture (Restaurant R'Evolution) when it opens there later this year.

After all that gastrointestinal damage, it was time for some walking, and walk we did through the old French Market and flea market complex on Decatur St., stopping to sample (and then subsequently purchase several boxes for gifts) Aunt Sally's Pralines, a sinful concoction of sugar, milkfat, and pecans. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Hackknife clandestinely bought an extra 6-pack for our own home consumption (that's why I married that gal). From here, it was a pretty short walk to the corner of Chartres and Toulouse Streets, where we stopped in at the historic Chartres House Cafe to enjoy a Southern Comfort mint julep on the 2nd floor balcony overlooking the French Quarter, per the Facebook recommendation of my Ohio cousin, Kristen, a well-traveled free spirit with much experience in matters of leisure (good call, kiddo). Allegedly, Tennessee Williams used to imbibe in the bar (as I'm sure he did in most of the French Quarter watering holes that are still around from his era).

By this time, we still had about 4 hours until our dinner reservation at Commander's Palace, so we decided that a snack might be in order to tide us over (after all, it had been a whole 3 1/2 hours since brunch). My suggestion to Mrs. Hackknife was Clover Grill, a tiny diner situated at the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine Streets since 1939 (motto: "We love to fry and it shows!"). I have fond memories of visiting here on my only other trip to New Orleans with some buddies in 1997, where I had a late night burger cooked under a hubcap (yes, a hubcap). When we arrived, the air was heavy with grease (which seemed to cover everything inside with a nice brown sheen), the kitchen area was minuscule, the menu was short (pretty much omelets, pancakes, and burgers), and the hubcaps were still being used on the grill (see Photo #1 above). I'm quite certain that if a health inspector had ever visited and NOT awarded a passing grade via the sawbuck method that the city is well-known for, they would no doubt fail, but you can't argue with the results: the place may be less than sanitary, but the burgers are about the best damn things you've ever had. While sitting at the bar in blissful, beefy utopia, Mrs. Hackknife and I pondered the merits of the hubcap. Does it allow the top part of the meat to be steamed? Are there drippings of ancient fat from the inside of the hubcap adding flavor (sort of like how sherry is made in a solera - am I eating part of Tennessee Williams's burger from 1950)? It may remain one of the culinary world's great mysteries; however, at only $5.49, you should be booking your plane tickets now.

Feeling sated and sleepy, we again retired to the hotel for a pre-dinner rest break (this is a routine I can find myself getting used to). After freshening up, we hopped on the St. Charles St. trolley and headed over to the day's main event, dinner at Commander's Palace, home of the city's (and possibly the country's) most-renowned French-Creole cuisine. The restaurant complex (which first opened in 1880 and has been serving fine food ever since) was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina, but was extensively renovated and looks rather stately with its blue-and-white awnings (see Photo #2 above), fitting right in to the historic Garden District (the cemetery across the street notwithstanding). As a venue, the vibe certainly wasn't as uppity as August; for example, we were seated not in the main dining room, but in a outbuilding next door that could only be accessed via the kitchen and then the courtyard. The outbuilding was constructed right around two old trees, whose trunks were now surrounded by glass like some kind of open-topped terrarium in the middle of the room (I suppose they could have torn them down, but what fun would that have been?). Somehow, I can't really imagine live trees in the middle of, say, Per Se's dining room. Anyway, the trees did not provide enough of a distraction for us to miss the marquis attraction on the appetizer list: Foie Gras Du Monde, the house's interpretation of Cafe Du Monde's beignets and coffee, consisting of 3 bourbon and fig beignets, topped with a lobe of foie gras, pecans, and powdered sugar, accompanied by a flute glass of foie gras-infused cafe au lait with chickory coffee foam (see Photo #3 above). With its combination of sweet and savory, the dish straddled the line between hors d'oeuvre and dessert, but no matter - it was an incredible way to start the meal and was clearly designed to kill off the clientele as quickly as possible ("We're going to Hell for this, aren't we?", I muttered to Mrs. Hackknife as the last heavenly bite disappeared from the plate). Where does one go from here? Why, the famous house turtle soup, spiked with sherry and optionally served with a little sherry on the side. The soup was delicious, with much more of a tomato flavor than I expected, making me think that I might actually be able to make a reasonable facsimile someday in the Commissary (if I could only get my hands on some turtle meat...). Next came our main courses, a nut-encrusted black drum filet in a white cream and corn sauce for me and soft shell crab with barbecued tomato and avocado for the missus, both of which were excellent. Last, but not least, we limped across the finish line with our unfinished desserts, creole bread pudding souffle for Mrs. Hackknife and a praline parfait for yours truly (truth be told, I had wanted the famous Bananas Foster, prepared tableside, but it had to be ordered for 2 and my wife had already secured her souffle - maybe next time). Although we were stuffed to the gills, it was one of the more memorable meals we've ever had. By the time we returned to the hotel, however, I was beginning to feel the effects of my extended refreshment junket over the past 2 days (I blame my insistence on chugging the remainder of my $20 glass of pinot noir on principle after our large Commander's Palace meal for pushing me over the brink). Could I last one more day?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New Orleans Trip - Day 1

A while ago, Mrs. Hackknife was asked to moderate a session at an actuarial conference in New Orleans. The timing of this event (mid-May) couldn't have been better for us - it had been almost 8 months since we had taken a trip without the progeny, during which time we traveled with them to Los Angeles, Disney World, and Ireland, the latter having been only about a month prior to the conference. It was high time we skipped town for a little extended weekend r&r just the two of us and what better place to go than the Big Easy, well known (among other things) for its distinctive cuisine and easygoing attitude towards, well, excessive consumption of many things, but mostly food. Having thoroughly researched my quarry and practiced austerity in eating behavior since my visit last Wed. to Abiquiu Cafe, we arrived in New Orleans early on a warm, sunny Saturday morning ready to chow down.

With our hotel conveniently perched on the edge of the French Quarter, we proceeded to our first culinary destination just before noon: a celebrated po' boy emporium called Johnny's located smack dab in the middle of the Quarter on St. Louis St., open in the same cozy location since 1950. For the uninitiated, a po' boy sandwich is basically a sliced baguette containing any number of items, including fried shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, ham, or just about anything else you can think to put on a sandwich as evidenced by the shockingly large number of choices on the menu over the counter (see Photo #1). The filling we chose wasn't even on the menu since it was one of the daily specials: boudin blanc, a white sausage containing pork fat, rice (at least the Cajun variety has this), and possibly pork heart/liver, something I'd sampled only once before (at Publican in Chicago a few years ago). I also asked for it to be "dressed" as they call it, which includes lettuce, tomato, mayo. The boudin po' boy also came with some pickles and a side cup of seafood gumbo. Both the sandwich and the gumbo were excellent, the tangy pickles providing a nice counterpart to the savory boudin, which was almost like a loose spread on the baguette. By the time we had finished up, the line for orders was out the door. Grateful for having arrived early, we made our way around the corner and up Decatur St. to Crescent City Brewery for a quick drink before continuing our our foodapalooza. Mrs. Hackknife tried the hoppy Red Stallion, while I quaffed a Spring Bock, one of the house seasonal brews. Both beers were relatively mediocre, mostly in keeping with the city's notoriety for having mostly bad beer (for example, across the street from Crescent City was a mall housed in the former Jax Brewery, regarded to be "pretty much be the worst beer in America" as described by our carriage tour guide on the next day, owing to their use of Mississippi River water in the brew).

After that refreshment, we continued up Decatur St. to one of the premier tourist traps in town, Cafe Du Monde, serving beignets (basically small funnel cakes with thicker dough covered in powdered sugar) and chicory coffee (and not much else) since 1862. You could partake in this fine experience by either getting waiter service at an outdoor table (all of which were occupied) or by standing in the lengthy line at the to-go window (or the really adventurous among you could simply walk into any souvenir shop within a 10-mile radius and purchase the ubiquitous Cafe Du Monde coffee canister and beignet mix box, making them at home yourself). We opted for the to-go line and lucked into an empty table while we were waiting. Given the daily volume of customers, it was no surprise that the place wasn't exactly pristine, in fact, if a powdered sugar factory were to ever explode, I suspect the aftermath would look something like this. We ordered a plate of 3 beignets (only $2.50, not a bad deal all things considered) and a coffee for Mrs. Hackknife, with ice water included gratis. The beignets weren't bad, although I limited myself to just one so as not to overindulge.

Leaving the bevy of visitors behind, we made our way through the French Quarter to another famous local haunt, that is,Pat O'Brien's bar on St. Peter St. to get an obligatory hurricane, which is basically a mixture of rum and the proprietary Hurricane powder mix (this mix can also be found at local gift shops, often times right next to the Cafe Du Monde stuff). It had been about 10 years since I'd drunk a hurricane and I'd forgotten how sweet and deceptively potent they were (one was enough to relieve any pain that I might have been experiencing). Adequately anesthetized and hungry for oysters, Mrs. Hackknife and I rounded the corner to find a long line waiting to get into the Acme Oyster House. Fortunately for us, Dickie Brennan's Seafood is right next door and had more than enough empty stools at the raw bar to accommodate our growing girths, plus a nice view out the window onto Iberville St. of the large Acme queue. Photo #2 above shows you what we ordered: the Plateaux de Fruits de Mer, including shucked Texas oysters (as the chalkboard over the bar told us) topped with local Cajun caviar, some mussels in a kick-ass saffron/curry sauce, fresh jumbo shrimp, marinated crab fingers, crayfish, and some sort of seafood-potato salad. Given that we still had dinner reservations at 8 that evening, we exercised a modicum of restraint and limited ourselves to only "Le Petit" size of this platter (which still ended up being plenty big enough).

By this time, we needed to retreat back to the safety of our hotel room for digestive purposes. After a little rest and a quick jaunt through the nearby Harrah's casino (Mrs. Hackknife made a nifty $25 at the low-stakes blackjack table to help offset our mounting food bill), we wandered over to Tchoupitoulas St. for this evening's ultimate dining experience, Restaurant August, Chef John Besh's flagship establishment. We first became aware of Chef Besh's culinary talents on the initial season of Top Chef Masters and I made a mental note to visit one of his restaurants should I ever find myself in New Orleans. The eatery itself is located in a beautifully-restored historic building and really exudes Old World Southern charm (that is, the part without the large mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and, well, slavery). The hostess seated us not in the main dining room, but in a very unique two-story wine room with low, romantic lighting that had just a few tables close together (foreshadowing alert: this will be an important detail in a minute). Our first course, an amuse bouche, was comprised of a fish custard mixed with truffle sabayon, placed in an empty eggshell and topped with a garlic crouton. It was delicious and seemed very unique, however, I discovered not long after our meal that this plate was a riff on a classic Escoffier appetizer from turn-of-the-century Paris (and also very similar to an hors d'oeuvre currently being served at Grant Achatz's new restaurant, Next). This was followed by a salad of organic greens mixed with Point Reyes blue cheese and pumpkin seed oil vinaigrette, with the whole thing topped by a large sheet of pumpkin seed brittle - the salad was very good and I like the brittle, although it was spiced a little aggressively, in my opinion. I ate my salad while Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed a bowl of warm shrimp bisque with little dumplings in the broth.

At this point, the relative tranquility of our meal was (unbeknownst to us) about to evaporate. While waiting for our second appetizer (yes, we couldn't help ourselves), a plate of fried oysters served with cherry tomatoes, bacon, and blue cheese, a couple was seated at the table immediately next to us in the corner of the wine room. As they sat down, I noticed the attractive woman, thinking to myself that she was approximately our age and had a vague resemblance to Catherine Zeta-Jones, but didn't really pay much attention beyond that. A few minutes passed before I glanced at her date and realized that he looked just like Kirk Douglas - then it hit me like a ton of bricks: that isn't Kirk Douglas, it's MICHAEL DOUGLAS and that's his wife CATHERINE ZETA-JONES sitting right the $^%&^% next to us! Now, in my life, I've had very few close encounters with celebrities, and these two were, by far, the most famous people I'd ever seen in person, let alone in close proximity (Mrs. Hackknife could have reached over and swatted Messr. Douglas in the back of the head if she were so inclined - knowing that he's just been through cancer treatment, this was not recommended). As you might imagine, their presence pretty much overshadowed the rest of our meal, which, admittedly, was still very good. The oyster appetizer was fine (the Douglases also ordered this - at least we know they have good taste in food), my roasted duck with creamy polenta and candied quince (see Photo #3 above, with Michael Douglas out of view slightly to the left of the frame) was for some strange reason tough to cut, but tender to eat, and Mrs. Hackknife's softshell crab with veal stock custard and marcona almonds tasty, if not a bit overbreaded. By the time we reached the dessert course, the happy movie stars had already departed into the warm night and we were able to finish out the meal no longer fearing spontaneous combustion from too much excitement. With pulses slowing, I nibbled on Chef Besh's version of hummingbird pie (vanilla cake with pineapple and sweet syrup) and Mrs. Hackknife tore into a strawberry panna cotta, followed by mignardises of little pralines, bittersweet chocolate, and passionfruit chews.

I dread to think about how many calories we had ultimately consumed in just the first day of our 3-day visit, but there was still much more to come. Stay tuned....

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Abiquiu Cafe

Another Cubs campaign has started (with initial results not looking too promising) and this one marks our 11th year as night/weekend season ticket holders. Now that I'm a food fanatic, I've started using my forays into Wrigleyville for night games as an excuse to visit new eateries in the immediate area. Often times, I find that my dining experience before the game outshines the game itself. Case in point - this past Wednesday, showers and thunderstorms loomed on the darkening horizon as I took leave of my vehicle near Belmont and Southport about 90 minutes ahead of first pitch versus the reviled Cardinals (always a fun game to attend). Normally, I don't park in this neighborhood since parking on most of the nearby side streets during night games is restricted to local residents, but this time, I found a legal spot a few blocks out of the permit zone so I could easily access my target destination: Abiquiu Cafe (please don't ask me how to pronounce it - I had to inquire myself and I still don't think I get it), conveniently located at Belmont and Kenmore, only about 6 blocks from the park.

This restaurant caught my attention when it first opened in January of this year since they bill themselves as the only place in town serving New Mexico/American Southwest cuisine. Now, I've been to New Mexico a handful of times and my impression of the food was basically American-style Mexican (think enchiladas) with lots of green chiles. Upon scanning the menu when I first sat down in the empty dining room (most of the fans must have been eating hot dogs at the ballpark instead), I discovered that the entrees were separated into two sections: New Mexico-inspired dishes (like enchiladas and chile rellenos) and Southwest-inspired dishes (which seemed to include a combination of High Plains Texas stuff like Amarillo chicken roll and barbequed meats, along with a smattering of dishes from Arizona). Apparently, there is unity among the Southwestern states regarding appetizers since there was only a single section for these - I had to get an order of the mini sopaipillas (small fried puff pastries of sweet dough) and three dipping sauces (southwest pesto, chili aioli, and Abiquiu red). Of these, the chili aioli was the standout by far, its flavor combining with the chewy sopaipilla reminding me of the hot dog crepe that you used to be able to get at the long-defunct Magic Pan restaurant (disappeared from Woodfield Mall back in 1983 or so - I'm showing my age here), in two words, simply badass. The entree that sounded most intriguing to me was the chile rellenos, a dish that I've enjoyed at other places. At Abiquiu, they took 2 large poblano peppers, hollowed them out and filled them with a combo of Chihuahua cheese and chorizo (you can also get them stuffed with beef/potatoes or black beans/corn), then lightly breaded them and fried them before smothering them Christmas-style (that is, one in red sauce and one in green). I chose a green chile pozole (corn soup) and spicy black beans as my sides, both of which were excellent with the peppers.

By the time I finished my food, the restaurant was still mostly empty, which is a shame since there seems to be a lot to like food-wise here. As for the game, the two teams only managed to get 2 innings in before the storms hit, unleashing a biblical-scale downpour on the field, with a 53-minute rain delay ensuing. I had to leave well before the game concluded, but was kept company on my long walk back to the car by the warm feeling of red/green chiles in my tummy (mmmmm)......

Friday, May 13, 2011

Shawn McClain Dinner @ Cooper's Hawk

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently attended our 2nd Cooper's Hawk wine club function (the first being the Rick Bayless dinner last July). When it was announced that Cooper's Hawk had lined up local chef Shawn McClain for a wine club guest dinner, we jumped at the chance to attend (you may recall that we dined at Chef McClain's now-shuttered restaurant Spring in December and we quite enjoyed it). For this event, the chef created a five course menu inspired by dishes from various restaurants in both his past and present. Like Rick Bayless, Messr. McClain did a brief cooking demo during the meal, although he was a little stiff compared to the ebullient Mr. Bayless, preferring to spend the bulk of his time in the kitchen ensuring that everything went smoothly rather than doing backflips for his audience.

The attention put into each plate really showed. For my money, the appetizer course was the best one, an American Wagyu beef tartare (yes, that's raw beef) mixed with a crushed caper aioli, placed on a toasted crostini with a crispy dark chocolate shard on top. Whoever had the idea to combine raw beef (exceptional-quality raw beef, that is - don't try this at home with ground chuck from the Piggly Wiggly unless you have a hankering for e. coli.) with dark chocolate should be gifted a Caribbean island or something, as it was utterly amazing. Lucky for us, we were sitting at a half-full table, so there were extra appetizers to go around (I think I lost count after I ate around 4). The chef explained that this gem came from his time working at Trio, a now-legendary restaurant in Evanston that showcased the talents of our host chef, Grant Achatz, Rick Tramonto, and Gail Gand (a culinary dream team if there ever was one) before closing a few years ago. I weep for my having missed dining at that temple of gastronomy, but I take solace that its legacy lives on in my digestive track.

Our second course came from Chef McClain's current venture, Green Zebra, a mostly-vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. This dish paired heirloom beets slow-roasted in duck fat (which is definitely NOT vegetarian) with a burrata-like crescenza cheese foam, shaved Iberico ham, and marcona almonds. I liked the combination of flavors, but was a little disappointed with the beets - I was expecting something a little more decadent-tasting given the inclusion of duck fat in the process. All in all, I didn't think they were much richer than those I've been able to roast up at the Commissary from the farmbox. Course #3 stepped up a notch: glazed black cod with fermented Chinese black beans, Dungeness crab/scallion pancakes, and sweet red chili sauce. This was the exact same dish that I consumed with reckless abandon at Spring just a few months back (in fact, I'm pretty sure my associated blog posting has a picture of this entree at the top) and it was again delicious, if not just a tad less so given that it was created in a guest kitchen under different circumstances.

Our meat course (#4) was more American Wagyu from Snake River Farms (the same fine beef purveyor used by Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York), this time a skirt steak served medium-rare on a bed of creamy white polenta, Michigan morel mushrooms, wild ramps (aka leeks), and black garlic. One can find this plate (and the panna cotta dessert described below) at Chef McClain's newest restaurant venture Sage, at the CityCenter in Las Vegas. The meat was tasty, but very potent owing to the ramps and garlic; in fact, when I staggered to the bathroom at 5 am the following morning to remove some beef tartare from my digestive track, I felt like I had eaten an onion/garlic smoothie at some point. Dessert consisted of a Tahitian vanilla bean panna cotta topped with a combination of rhubarb jelly and strawberries marinated in Balsamic vinegar, with a couple of lavender shortbread cookies on the side. I enjoyed the panna cotta, but wasn't crazy about the cookies (this did not deter me from eating them both, however).

Interspersed with the courses were several Cooper's Hawk wines (Blanc de Blanc Sparkling, Chardonnay Arneis, Gewurtztraminer, Lux Merlot, and Ice Wine), all of which complimented the food quite well (and given that I'm an ex-employee of the winery and a current wine club member, I should probably stop there with the platitudes given my biased viewpoint). Combine good food and good wine with good conversation (Cooper's Hawk founder Tim McEnery sat at our table and gave us some insights into the inner workings of his business) and the evening was quite a memorable one.

Chocolate Caramel Pecan (Waiting for Wilma) Pie

The neighbor lady and I were hobnobing the other day while our respective progeny were playing outside and the conversation turned towards our recent Easter dinner. She comes from a big family and mentioned that one of her siblings had brought a chocolate caramel pecan pie to the party. This, of course, made me think of the chocolate pecan pie that I'll occasionally whip out for the holidays and made me wonder what I would have to change in order to incorporate caramel (one of Mrs. Hackknife's favorite sweets) into it. Out came my newfangled Epicurious App on my phone and up popped the following recipe for something called Waiting for Wilma pie (apparently, it's a Southern specialty and, no, I have no idea why it has such a peculiar name, my meager Internet research skills having failed me).

In this version of the dessert, dulce de leche (a caramel sauce popular in Latin America that's made from milk) provides the caramel. Other than that, I already had most of the other ingredients on hand, including the dark corn syrup (from my failed attempt at making Parker House Rolls last Xmas) and the pre-fab pie dough (left over from Easter when I made quiche), so I decided to give it a go for upcoming Mothers' Day festivities. As usual, finding a key ingredient proved to be problematic. I naively thought that I could just go into the Hispanic aisle of any supermarket and find dulce de leche, like, in a can or something (possibly like condensed milk?). Unfortunately, it was neither there nor in the baking aisle with other sweeteners. The closest thing I could find was an instant dulce de leche mix (a product of Canada, oddly enough) at my neighborhood ethnic grocery store. I have to say that this mix was quite a marvel in it of itself - basically, you combine cold whipping cream with sugar, whisk in the powdered mix, heat it slowly to boiling while stirring constantly (about 20 minutes), and then, via the magic of caramelization, runny liquid suddenly becomes thick in the matter of a few seconds. After chilling the finished product for about an hour, it was ready to use in the pie filling (with lots left over for dessert later on).

Once the caramel hurdle was cleared, the rest of the recipe is very straightforward. I did have to thin out the dulce de leche with a little water so it could be incorporated into the filling and I cut down on the sugar from 1/2 c. to 1/3 c. per a reviewer comment. The pie did need a full 50 minutes in the oven to firm up, during which time the crust got a little browner than I liked, but everyone seemed to enjoy the finished product (see photo above). Mrs. Hackknife pronounced it better than my other chocolate pecan pie recipe (which will probably henceforth be retired), but was underwhelmed by the pre-fab crust. I REALLY need to learn how to make real pie crusts and stop ruining perfectly decadent desserts.....

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cacio E Pepe (Cheese and Pepper) Pasta

The "Rome" issue of my Saveur Magazine (April 2010) is starting to look a little dog-eared as I continue to work my way through the various Roman recipes within, several of which have been featured on this blog (Bucatini All'Amatriciana, Spaghetti Alla Carbonara, Broccoli Strascinati). Just last week, I assembled one more of them for a weeknight meal: Cacio E Pepe (Cheese and Pepper) Pasta. Of these recipes, this one was probably the easiest (although none of them have been too challenging thus far, the semolina gnocchi still looms out there somewhere on the horizon). Also like my challenges with finding guanciale for the bucatini/spaghetti carbonara, the recipe features a hard-to-find ingredient that I had to eventually compromise on, in this case, a roman cheese called Cacio de Roma (which I'd never heard of and apparently is most readily available via mail order, unless you already happen to reside in Rome). Instead of sending away for this cheese, I simply replaced its mass (3/4 c.) with an equivalent amount of Pecorino Romano, which is more easily found at my local ethnic grocery store (the recipe already calls for 1 c. of Pecorino Romano, so I added a total of 1 3/4 c.). The finished pasta is very basic and has a little bite to it from the copious black pepper that gets toasted in olive oil prior to putting the cooked noodles in the pan. There's no garlic, sauce, or any other seasoning, just a little pasta water Molto Mario-style to thin out the cheese into a sauce that sort of coats the spaghetti. I threw on top a little chopped parsley as garnish and that was about it - I'm still enjoying the leftovers at the time of this posting. Even the progeny consumed a little of it, as long as I rinsed the pepper off the noodles with cold water before serving them (most kinds of spice are anathema to my kids and immediately render a dish useless for all intents and purposes). That bag of unopened semolina flour pokes out of my cabinet almost every time I go in there, so I guess I'll have to give in and make gnocchi soon.....

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Turning Tricks w/Turnips

The humble turnip is a frequent visitor in our farmbox, especially during Spring and Fall. Not having ever eaten one (at least not knowingly) in my youth, I wasn't quite sure what it'd be like when I first had them a couple of years ago, but suffice it to say that IMHO it's basically a blander, slightly spicy potato. I've tried braising them (mediocre) and throwing them into Shepherd's Pie (makes them indistinguishable from the rest of the casserole), but I've now got two recipes at my disposal that allow me to cook them up in a halfway-appetizing manner. When we received 4 turnips and some beets in the box this past week, my first inclination was to pull out Tyler Florence's Ultimate Cookbook and throw together his Roasted Root Vegetables with Honey, Balsamic Vinegar, and Goat Cheese (the title pretty much tells you everything you need to know) to go as a side dish with some black bean & ham soup . There isn't a lot to this recipe and you can make substitutions as necessary (for example, I replaced the carrots and parsnips with an equal weight of turnips/beets since that's what I had in the larder, plus Large Corporate Grocery was out of shallots, so I had to make do with pearl onions).

1/2 lb. medium carrots, peeled and left whole
1/2 lb. medium beets, peeled and quartered
1/2 lb. medium turnips, peeled and halved
1/2 lb. medium parsnips, peeled and left whole
3 shallots, unpeeled, cut in half through the stem
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
4 oz. fresh chilled goat cheese crumbles
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350F. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil and salt and pepper in a big bowl. Dump them out onto a baking sheet in a single layer and roast for 25 minutes. Whisk together the honey and vinegar in a small bowl. Take the vegetables out of the oven, pour the honey-vinegar mixture over, and toss. Return the vegetables to the oven and cook until fork-tender and caramelized, about 20 more minutes. Top with goat cheese and serve.

With 2 turnips to spare, I started poking around my Epicurious iPhone app looking for something else to do with them and I found Creamy Turnip Puree with Walnuts, Anchovies, and Parsley, courtesy of Bon Appetit. My hope was that this would be a nice, rich alternative to my run-of-the-mill mashed potatoes. The recipe calls for 6 pounds of turnips, so I scaled it down to 1/3 of the main ingredients and 1/2 for the walnut-anchovy-parsley topping (3 things we like very much around here and don't mind having extra). The pureed turnips, despite the robust addition of heavy cream and butter (bringing to mind the infamous "death potatoes" served by master French chef Joel Robuchon, where the mass of cream/butter actually outweighs the mass of potatoes in the mix), were still a little blase, but certainly edible (at least if you're an adult in the Hackknife household). As for the topping, I have to say that this has promise for potential applications in all kinds of dishes down the road. I think we'll be seeing it again sometime, maybe over pasta or perhaps on vanilla ice cream.....

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Paul's Paella

This recipe is one that's actually been in the house repertoire for a while since I clipped it out of Parade magazine way back in Oct. 2005 (the same month that Hackknife Jr. was born - you'd think I would have had better things to do at the time). Appropriate credit should be given to its author, a Mr. Paul Angelucci from Unicoi, TN. I don't believe that it's actually a true Spanish paella, which is typically prepared in giant wide pans on several stove burners or over an open fire, traditionally includes snails and saffron, and has a layer of toasted rice on the bottom of the pan, but, like chili, there are about a thousand different versions out there and no particular "standard" recipe. I prefer this version since it's relatively simple and the ingredients are all easy to come by (often times, we have most of them already on hand in the Commissary). For some reason, I had to cook the rice an extra 10 minutes since it was still somewhat toothsome and wet after the 20 minutes specified in the recipe.

Paul's Paella recipe

Most recently, I made this paella for Mrs. Hackknife's parents one Sunday evening when we had them over for our Ireland video watching party (yawn). I like to serve it with a good rustic bread, either something I can grab at the bakery or a homemade loaf like I make in the Dutch oven (although that requires some planning ahead obviously). Usually, we have a ton of leftovers, but this time, the family polished a pretty good chunk of it off.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Apple Cheddar Cornbread

The past 6 weeks have been something of a whirlwind for us here in the Hackknife household. Between the passing of my grandmother/great-aunt and subsequent funerals, our trip to Ireland, Mrs. Hackknife's eye surgery, Easter, and my niece's First Communion, there hasn't been much time to try out any new recipes in the Commissary. Now that things are settling a bit as we careen into Spring (although you wouldn't really know that from how bad the weather's been in April), the stove is heating up again with exciting (ok, that may be too strong a term....perhaps "interesting" is more on point) victuals to dazzle both the eye and palate, or at least give us something marginally less boring to eat than our standard meatloaf.

First up is apple cheddar cornbread, a recipe from Momofuku Milk Bar in NYC (home of the insanely good crack pie, sampled on our last trip to the Big Apple in March of last year) as dictated to Wall Street Journal this past November. It was included in an article WSJ did prior to Thanksgiving on how to cook with various Fall fruits (quince, persimmon, etc.) and I ended up clipping the whole thing, but didn't find an opportunity to put it into play until Easter this year. When poring over our menu choices for Easter dinner (we hosted both sides for the holiday at the Commissary), this one popped out at me as a possible appetizer. It's made in a cast iron skillet, which I happen to have, although mine was a bit large for the job. When I spread out the batter in the skillet for my dress rehearsal batch, it barely covered the bottom. I made a mental note to double the recipe on Easter Sunday - this proved to be a good move as it filled the skillet space much better, with the only drawback being a little extra oven time needed (about 25 minutes instead of 15) to firm it up. The result was fairly impressive - moist, good apple flavor, not overly cheesy or strong from the onion included in the mix, and well-received by our guests. I'd say this one has earned a spot in our bread recipe rotation.....