Monday, June 27, 2011

Canal House Crab Cakes

Two weeks ago, I went on an inexplicable seafood kick here in the Commissary, cooking up roasted tilapia, trout tartare (see June 2010 posting), and a new recipe for me: crab cakes. Now, I can't say that I've eaten very many crab cakes in my life (probably less than 50), so I'm hardly a connoisseur; however, I did hear at some point through the foodie grapevine that the true sign of a high-quality crab cake is more crab, less filler. One thing I liked about the crab cake recipe that I found in the Wall Street Journal (other than its relative simplicity) is that it seems to meet this criterion, involving only a mere 8 Ritz crackers as the sole filler for 12 cakes. The formula comes courtesy of the ladies at the Canal House, not a restaurant, but a test studio of sorts for cookbooks in suburban New Jersey, and can be found here:
Canal House Crab Cakes.

This culinary creation marks my inaugural foray into using Old Bay seasoning (a staple of East Coast seafood cooks), which I discovered actually has a pretty decent spice jolt to it, especially when the recipe calls for 2 tsp. of it (note to self - tone it down a little next time). For the crab, I bought a good-sized tin of imported lump crab claw meat (from Indonesia, if I'm not mistaken) that was resting peacefully in my ethnic grocer's seafood display case, not getting a lot of takers at $18.99 for a 1-pound can (fortunately, I got a good deal on tilapia and trout to offset some of the financial burn). When assembling the cakes before frying, the Canal House ladies advise chilling them for an hour or two so as to minimize the likelihood of disintegration (they're not just whistling Dixie, as it turns out - without much filler for structural support, the raw cakes are VERY loose). Chilling completed, I plopped them into my hot frypan, letting them sizzle for a good few minutes, then went to flip them over....and promptly watched almost all of them fall apart, resulting in more like crab hash than cakes. This made me angry. Angrier, in fact, than I'd been in the Commissary for quite a while, and my kids got to hear several choice words that they'd otherwise been shielded from up to this point for the most part. Where did I go wrong? Maybe the pan wasn't hot enough? Did I take them out of the fridge too soon or let them warm up too much before cooking? Is collapse perhaps a common problem with crab cakes, as Mrs. Hackknife postulated? We can only guess at this point. Tastewise, they were fine, if not a bit spicy from the Old Bay, so apparently I just need to work on my technique for next time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Baked Beans/Hush Puppies/Mustard Cole Slaw

To most of America, summertime means BBQ time, at least that's what Saveur thinks as they plastered a slab of ribs on the cover of their latest issue. Of course, BBQ means different things to different people depending on who you ask or where you live. In Chicago, we've had a slew of new BBQ-themed restaurants open here in the last 12 months to complement an already fairly well-established (and probably underappreciated) BBQ scene. We're not as good as the folks in Texas, Kansas City, or the Carolinas, but we're definitely ahead of the pack when you consider the likes of, say, Hawaii (although I've never been there....maybe you can get good BBQ Spam in the islands).

Anyway, I'm not much of a home griller or BBQ cook - I prefer to leave that genre of cuisine to the professionals (and I'm chomping at the bit, I might add, to try out Carolina-style BBQ again when we head down to the ocean for our annual family vacation next month). When it comes to the side dishes, however, I decided to throw my hat in the smoker and try a few of the recipes included in the Saveur BBQ issue, namely baked beans, hush puppies, and mustard cole slaw, none of which I'd attempted to make prior to this. My overall vision here was to make a very simple chuck roast in the crock pot (not really BBQ, mind you, but that's about as close as I get at the Commissary) and let the side dishes take center stage on the table.

Of the selected recipes, the cole slaw was by far the simplest - you basically chop up the cabbage (provided courtesy of the weekly farmbox) and mix in all of the specified ingredients, most of which I already had on hand (sans celery seeds). Chill for an hour and, voila, mustard cole slaw, which was crunchy and had a nice kick to it from the 2 tsp. of black pepper added. The baked beans were a little more complicated, but not much. I had no molasses in the pantry, so I substituted dark corn syrup instead (they're pretty close). For BBQ sauce, I used the generic flavor of Sweet Baby Ray's with a little of the honey version to round it out (that wasn't premeditated, by the way - I just ran out of the 1st BBQ sauce and happened to have some of the 2nd one in the fridge). This recipe makes a TON of beans, about enough to feed your kid's little league team with still some left over. They ended up tasting pretty rich and decadent owing to the copious amount of sugar (brown sugar, corn syrup, and BBQ sauce), salt (beef stock, bacon, and BBQ sauce), and fat (bacon + bacon grease); regardless, Mrs. Hackknife and I quite enjoyed them and Mrs. Hackknife's mom also provided positive feedback.

The third recipe was a little trickier (hush puppies). I used my 5.5 qt.-Dutch oven as my deep fryer and filled it about 2" deep with peanut oil instead of the called-for canola (I had a giant jug of slightly-used peanut oil under the sink just waiting to be drained). I ran out of yellow cornmeal and had to augment it with a little bit of white cornmeal I had in the freezer (again courtesy of the farmbox). When it came time to mix the dough, it was VERY sticky and I probably should have used some flour to mitigate the tackiness (this would have helped during assembly of the little balls of dough - I opted to hand roll them instead of using a piping bag as recommended by the recipe). Because of the difficulty in putting them together, I think I made them too big and they took a little longer to cook in the hot oil than the 1-2 minutes cited. The progeny were anxiously waiting for me to finish so we could start dinner, so I ended up undercooking a few of them, leaving some mushy in the middle. I wasn't terribly impressed with the result and Hackknife Jr. only briefly nibbled on one before discarding it (Hackknifette abstained entirely), but Mrs. Hackknife told me that she liked them quite a bit at lunch the next day (maybe the curdling buttermilk inside added something positive to the flavor profile).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Birrieria Zaragoza

Last Saturday morning, I made my way to the southwest side of the city for a volunteer event at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. This is something I periodically do with an interfaith group that I belong to at church called the Southwest Interfaith Team (or SWIFT, for short), which promotes dialogue and understanding between Christians, Muslims, and Jews (occasionally, I let a non-food activity slip through the cracks into my daily life, although I guess we were at a food bank, so never mind then). Anyway, Mrs. Hackknife had taken the progeny to the mall and it was lunchtime for me in an area of town I don't normally frequent. I had heard rumors that there might be a top-notch Lithuanian restaurant somewhere nearby, but in the process of my search, I stumbled across this place instead: Birrieria Zaragoza (birrieria being a restaurant that serves birria, a Mexican meat stew), a very small diner on S. Pulaski that has gotten some positive press from the North Side food media about its specialty (really, its only menu item), that is, roasted goat.

When I entered, I found only a few small tables in front of an even smaller kitchen area, within which crowded a few servers, a young gentleman with a cleaver (chopping up goat carcasses, I presume), a lady whose sole purpose was to turn out fresh corn tortillas, and an older man who happened to be the proprietor. Pegging me for the gringo I was, my waitress was very friendly (and curious about how I had heard about them), carefully explaining the menu to me (lest I think I had wandered into a Taco Bell). She recommended the goat combo plate, chunks of meat in a pool of rich consomme served with bottomless tortillas, onions, cilantro, lime wedges, dried arbol peppers, and homemade red salsa. I followed her advice and assembled little tacos out of these ingredients, which were delicious, but eventually just ate the meat on its own when I had had my fill of the tortillas (I think after the 5th one or so). I can recall having goat before on only one or two occasions (both times in the Caribbean, where it's a staple); however, this was by far the best I've eaten, flavorful and mild, not as gamey as lamb and leaner than pork. I asked the owner if they used a spit to roast the meat and he told me that they actually steam it in the oven for several hours to tenderize the meat, then roast it a bit to char the outside. Whatever they do, it's clearly working since the place was full of happy diners. The only sour note was the Mexican apple cider soda (Sidral) that I chose to wash everything down - it wasn't my favorite, so next time, I'll try another of their imported drinks instead.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Exclusive! - Aviary/Next (Paris 1906)

This will probably be the one and only time you'll ever see me place an exclamation point in the posting title (I generally try to avoid hyperbole as it gives me hives). Anyway, getting back to our story from last, I've just begun stuffing my face with (very good) pizza last Saturday when The Call arrives. It's my wife phoning from Target and I hear the kids causing muffled chaos in the background:

Mrs. Hackknife: I have a very important question to ask you. Are you somewhere where you can hear me?
Me: (munch) Umph....yes, sure. (I'm now thinking, "Oh God, I did something really bad. I accidentally bought girls clothing for Hackknife Jr., didn't I?")
Mrs. Hackknife: Do you want to have dinner at Next tomorrow night? And, by you, I mean, just you, not both of us.
Me: (gag, swallow, ?!?) Ummm....yes? Are you serious? (In order to properly understand the inanity of her question, imagine being asked "Is it alright if I sign this $25,000,000 check over to you?")

She was, in fact, serious, having responded to a request on Facebook from a woman seeking a replacement diner at her 4-top for a sick friend. Now, perhaps I should back up for just a second to provide a little context. For those of you unaware, Next Restaurant is the newest venture from local wunderkind chef Grant Achatz, already the proud proprietor of Alinea, voted earlier this year as the top restaurant in North America. Not content to simply sit on his laurels, he and his business partner conceived and launched in April a new concept in fine dining whereby the theme of the establishment (called "Next") would completely change every 3 months to focus on cuisine from a different location/time period (first up, Paris 1906). In lieu of reservations, interested diners would order tickets online much like one would for a sporting event or concert, with tables priced according to day of the week (e.g., midweek would be cheaper than weekend). Once you've secured a table with your credit card and selected your drink option (non-alcoholic, standard wine, or reserve wine), that's it - no money changes hands at the restaurant, no bill is presented, tax and tip are included in the purchase price.

So, you might ask yourself, was this a good business idea? Well, thus far, let's just say that thousands of foodies, many of whom are, inconceivably, way nuttier than I, have been falling all over themselves and doing everything short of selling off their first-borns to try to get into this place. The state-of-the-art online reservation system developed by Achatz and Co. is completely inundated when tables are periodically released, with a ratio of 3,000 hopefuls to every 1 successful table request (or so I've seen quoted - good luck with that). The same thing happens when the restaurant occasionally releases same-night tables on Facebook, soliciting emails from interested parties (Want to get in this way? Sure, just sit at your computer for several hours continually refreshing the page until the request for emails comes out and shoot off your response as fast as you can, hoping for the best. Think that's crazy? People are doing it. Lots of them.). Meanwhile, you can't beg, plead, or borrow your way in. Prime minister of a small African country? Sorry. Long-lost cousin of the sous-chef? Doubt it. Able to organize a Beatles reunion concert in the middle of Morgan St., re-animating from the dead both John Lennon and George Harrison, who then proceed with their still-living former bandmates to perform the "White Album" in its entirety? Thanks, but we prefer "Rubber Soul". And is all of this hoopla really warranted? Well, the press sure seems to think so, with every reviewer this side of Rockford gushing over each course, proclaiming Chef Achatz a genius redux, calling it "the meal of a lifetime", which, of course, just fans the flames even more.

I kept all of this in mind while carefully considering Mrs. Hackknife's proposal, albeit with some trepidation. Of course, I didn't really want to go there without her, but, as she pointed out, there was only one spot being offered, it was ours to take or leave, and given the level of interest, it would be downright dumb for me to pass on it. As always, she was right, and I agreed to go. The initial thoughts that followed after ending The Call were 1) "That was about the most selfless, generous thing that anyone's every done for me, I SO do not deserve that woman", 2) "Holy s$%t, I'm going to Next!, and 3) "I am totally screwed", for I had images of year after year of indentured servitude to my wife laid out before me in a futile attempt to try to repay this grand gesture.

With that, I found myself sauntering down Fulton Market St. on a warm Sunday night, a dead man walking on air, towards Aviary (Oh! Did I forget to mention that the brains behind Next also conceived and launched in April a groundbreaking new cocktail lounge with no bartenders, adjacent to the restaurant?). Once I received ground clearance from the bouncer that I was, indeed, allowed to enter the hallowed gates, I met up with my dining companions for the evening: Sara, the woman who made the request for a substitute, and her good friends, Ari and Alissa, newlyweds celebrating their one-year anniversary (a fine way to mark the occasion, I might add). After introductions (and a brief silent prayer that my tablemates wouldn't regret letting me tag along by the end of the evening), I glanced at the various cocktails scattered around the room - some were in futuristic-looking test tube/Bunsen burner setups, others in weird-shaped decanters, still others resembling art projects, all very pleasing to the eye (and presumably to the palate, as well). After bringing me an amuse bouche of watermelon gelee containing a pool of soju (i.e., Korean firewater), our server recommended I try the scotch pine cocktail, which was a frothy, pine-scented tipple, although I have no idea exactly what kind of spirits it contained. The drink menu had many other intriguing options; however, since we were having wine with dinner and I still had to drive back to the 'burbs, I put on the brakes after one cocktail and we headed next door towards dining nirvana.

Into the Next dining room we wandered, which was sparsely, yet elegantly decorated, with about 12 tables in all (not a big place - no wonder it's so hard to get in here). My immediate sensory impression of the room, other than the decor, was that it smelled like, well, Denny's, a comment I made to the others that resulted in looks of befuddlement until I explained that I meant this in the most positive way (you know, who doesn't like the smell of waffles and sausages? Great, we haven't even sat down yet and they already think I'm the world's biggest idiot). Our server appeared with copies of the full tasting menu and a brief brochure describing the rationale for selecting Paris 1906 as the inaugural cuisine at the restaurant, mainly a tribute to cooking legend Auguste Escoffier and his efforts in setting the benchmark for modern fine dining at the Ritz Hotel around that time period (Ed. note - Mrs. Hackknife and I stopped in at the Ritz for drinks while visiting Paris in 2008 and the most elegant thing I ate there was beer nuts. I'm so ashamed).

Explanations completed, a platter of hors d'oeuvres appeared at the table (see Photo #1 above), consisting of Oeufs Benedictine (truffled fish custard served in an eggshell, very similar to what we were served at August in New Orleans just a few weeks back, but a little runnier), small slices of foie gras torchon encased in brioche (how'd they do that?) with apricot jam, quail egg topped with anchovy (had a little bit of a tough time with that one), mushroom bite with leek (ditto), and pork rillette cracker. All small, all delicious, even the egg/mushroom appetizers, and we all agreed that we could easily eat a loaf of the foie gras brioche. The brut champagne that accompanied the course was spot-on, cleansing and tart. Moving onward, we were presented with small bowls of turtle soup (Recipe 907 in Escoffier's "Guide Culinaire" for those of you playing along at home) along with glasses of vin jaune, a very unusual wine similar to dry Sherry from the Jura region of Eastern France. The soup was more like a consomme (i.e., mostly broth) than the heavy, tomato-based concoction that is the turtle soup at Commander's Palace, and is apparently much more involved to make. By itself, the wine tasted a little metallic (which is how it's made, actually), but melded very well with the soup.

At this point in the meal, we began a three-course sequence that was so amazing I struggle to recall anything I've had that even remotely compares. First, a stunning Filet of Sole Daumont (see Photo #2 above; by this time, I had been gently asked by the waitstaff to refrain from using flash, thus bringing disgrace upon our table - Strike 2, dummy), plated in a pool of rich Sauce Normande and presented with crawfish/sole mousse (stuffed into the crawfish head), a crawfish-stuffed mushroom (again, with the mushroom - had to play along), and a sole roe nugget, all paired with a White Burgundy. The roll we'd just received a few minutes earlier was instrumental in mopping up that decadent sauce. Next was a simple plate of spring chicken, topped with Sauce Blanquette and presented in a diamond shape, along with salt pork-wrapped poached cucumber slices filled with chicken mousse (apparently, mousses were all the rage back then). The chicken was nothing short of mindblowing, moist, tender, and rich, seemingly a completely separate species from the junk I try to pull together in the Commissary. The wine pairing for this tidbit was a carignane-based red from the Languedoc region of Southern France, but it could have been Gatorade for all I noticed. Taste buds reeling in ecstasy, along came the coup de gras: a family-style platter of perfect roast duck (see Photo #3 above), dark leg and thigh meat still on the bone surrounded by uniform slices of breast, served with a drizzle of sauce infused with the duck's blood (and a gravy boat of the stuff on the side, which it didn't really need) AND the most decadent scalloped potatoes (excuse me, Gratin de Pommes de Terre a la Dauphinoise, Escoffier #4200) known to mankind. The potatoes were great, but the duck, oh the duck - volumes of ink have been drained thus far waxing poetically about the duck course and I'm here to tell you that the fanfare is all warranted. I started with the breast/sauce combination and, just when I thought it couldn't possibly get better, it did when I nibbled on one of the leg bones. It's possible that tears of extreme joy mixed with regret (as all future duck will, you know, pale in comparison) were shed by one or more members of our party (I'll never tell which). The wonderful Rhone red (a Gigondas) only served to enhance the flavors into another dimension.

Having reached the meal's peak, we began a three-course denouement of Salad Irma (an edible flower, nasturtium, atop a bed of asparagus and radish - not bad, but somewhat lost in the afterglow), Bombe Ceylan (Escoffier #4826, ice cream encased in a chocolate shell with a cookie base and rum-soaked cherries on the side, very tasty, see Photo #4 above) served with a nice 10-year tawny Port, and a collection of mignardies (including beet gelees, nougat clusters, and salted caramels). And, with that, it was over. My only disappointments of the evening were that we missed out on two dishes that later I determined were reserved for VIPs (these were a knockout lamb entree and a Sauternes sorbet) and that we weren't given a quick walk-through of the kitchen as I'd heard some others had done (maybe we had to ask, but apparently, I was zoned out when the time came, way past my usual bedtime and engorged with Escoffier's goodies). All other facets of the meal were nothing short of spectacular - the memorable food, the relaxed and slightly irreverent service (a perfect combination of high-class treatment with low-brow dialogue - perhaps a shot at Trotter's?), the classic tableware. My tablemates were nothing but gracious and engaging during the meal (not even letting a little spilled wine dampen the mood - it wasn't me this time) and I feel indebted to them for letting me share in such a special experience (thanks again, guys). You can bet that when the subscription program for the restaurant is eventually established (think season tickets for dining) as alluded to by the staff, Mrs. Hackknife and I will gladly joust elbow-to-elbow with the foodie masses to secure our spot near the front of the line...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Half Acre Beer/Apart Pizza Company/Hopleaf

This past Saturday was designated as another of our "Visit Your Local Brewery" days (fortunately for us, we have enough of them in the greater Chicago area to continue this tradition for at least a little while longer). As always, my brother-in-law Dan, cousin-in-law Bobby, and I made plans to converge on a microbrewery that we had yet to tour, namely Half Acre Beer Co. on N. Lincoln Ave. in the heart of Lincoln Square. This establishment had been on our hit list last summer; however, the tour format was changed after we had made our reservations and they basically required everyone to start over using the new format (apparently, allowing free tours was causing them some staffing issues in dealing with the demand, so they established a $10 per-person fee with a limit of 60 patrons per tour, first come, first served). Half Acre emailed me at some point to let me know that they would honor our prior reservations, but alas, I promptly misplaced them somewhere in the digital ether.

Which bring us back to Saturday. Dan arrived an hour before the 1 pm tour at the brewery's front door, while Bobby and I fought weekend traffic into and around the city to get to Lincoln Square. He was first in line, but by the time we finally showed up, there were quite a few beer enthusiasts behind him in the queue, not all of whom were guaranteed entry or were very happy to see 2 yahoos immediately advancing to the front of the line (the 95-degree heat and high humidity weren't helping matters). No matter - most everyone who wanted in got in. Since I was unable to produce our old reservations, we still had to pony up the $10 fee, but this bought us a nice souvenir pint glass and a full pour of each of their offerings: Daisy Cutter Pale Ale (a refreshing, hoppy brew that I'd had once before and quite enjoyed), Half Acre Over Ale (a bit of an underwhelming brown), and Gossamer Golden Ale (a little more robust than the Daisy Cutter, but not as refreshing). Given the heat inside the tiny brewery (an example of their fermentation vessels is provided in Photo #1 above) and my empty stomach, I opted for half pours after my first full pint so as not to become s$&tfaced in record time (see Las Vegas, August 2010). The tour itself was pretty laid back as tours go, with one staffer trying his darnedest to shout over the drinker din about hops, fermentation, filtering, and the like. In the end, he was mostly drowned out, with the beer leading most of the conversation.

Feeling fine/alright, the three amigos wandered a bit up Lincoln Ave. towards Montrose to get some grub. I managed to talk Dan out of a visit to the Wendy's drive-thru in lieu of one of the city's alleged best thin crust pizzas, Apart Pizza Company, listed as #16 of the top 25 local pizzerias in the July 2010 issue of Chicago Magazine (yes, I clipped the article - it resides on my bookshelf). The magazine describes Apart's thin crust as an amalgam of Neapolitan, Roman, and New York styles. Taking a seat at one of the two tables inside the even-smaller-than-the-brewery pizzeria, we ordered a large (18") Cacciatore, featuring ham, bacon, pepperoni, and garlic (we held the onions for Dan). After a few short minutes, Photo #2 above shows what arrived from the oven - an elegant-looking, wonderfully-tasting pie with a chewy, blistered crust and loaded with toppings (and, at $19, a downright bargain to boot). Bobby and Dan both pronounced it among their all-time favorites and I was not inclined to disagree (especially since I had just received from my wife what shall henceforth be referred to as "The Call", announcing my unlikely inclusion in a 4-top reservation at Next Restaurant the following evening - much, much more on that dining extravaganza in the subsequent posting).

Departing pizza nirvana, we motored up to Andersonville just ahead of advancing thunderstorms for a brief drop-in at our favorite watering hole, Hopleaf, home of the city's best selection of Belgian beers (and many others). Having had my fill of brew on our tour and facing a long drive back to the 'burbs, I poignantly limited myself to a single offering during our visit, a Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager, from Denver, Co., which was a little on the sour side for my tastes. With its vast beer selection, I've found that Hopleaf is a place best taken advantage of when one hasn't already pickled his liver earlier in the afternoon (and when one isn't designated driving), so a return trip will be in order not far down the road....

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Big Star/Black Dog Gelato

Mrs. Hackknife and I are both trivia junkies (one of several reasons why I married her, not to mention our insatiable appetites for all things culinary, of course). When she received an invitation recently from a colleague at work to attend a trivia night as part of a fundraiser for a local charter school, we jumped at the chance. Now, I can't draw, can't play or read music, am a horrible athlete, and would charitably consider myself to be a mediocre parent/husband/cook at best, but I like to think that I can more than hold my own in most competitions involving useless arcana, so I was looking forward to flexing and flaunting my grey matter in front of strangers. The fundraiser was taking place in a gallery on Division St. in Bucktown, a neighborhood in the city that we don't get to very often; as a result, the area is ripe with restaurants on our hit list.

In my world, tacos and beer are as good as anything when it comes to brain food, thus, I suggested to Mrs. Hackknife that we swing by Big Star for a quick dinner. Big Star is another venture for local restaurateur Paul Kahan, who's already flush with success on the heels of his other properties in town, namely Avec, Blackbird, and Publican (written about on this very blog). This particular place looks like it was built into an old gas station (which may very well be the case) and oozes hipster vibe out of every pore, with fashionable twenty-somethings perched on every available space and loud music blasting through the open-air bar (obviously, we were too old to be there). On this Friday night, the hostess told us that the wait for a table was over 90 minutes (happy hour, you know), but we were welcome to order food/non-alcoholic drinks from the walk-up take-out window (we gladly opted to do this). Even there, we ended up waiting almost 15 minutes for our order to come up, sharing spots at a communal picnic table when the time finally came to eat. It was pretty much worth the delay - Mrs. Hackknife and I split an order of chips with guacamole (which came in a tub larger than it really needed to be) and each had an ejote (braised long beans, snappy chile arbol, red onion, mint, and queso fresco) taco and a panza (crispy pork belly, tomato guajillo sauce, onion, cilantro, and queso fresco) taco, both with great flavors and textures. My only regret is that we couldn't order the pork belly tacos by the 6-pack (well, I suppose we could have, but we would have suffered the wrath of anxious hipsters waiting too long for their fix). With drinks (horchata and real, imported Mexican Fresca), the total tab came to about $25, a little steep in my opinion for what was essentially street food.

Bellies full and minds primed for action, we headed over to our trivia night fundraiser, which quickly degenerated into a drunkfest for most of the twenty-somethings there (seeing it was open bar, I probably should have anticipated this outcome) well before the first answers about the Milky Way, the Beatles, and Citizen Kane were hurled about in gladiatorial splendor (in fact, we needed to depart before the trivia even began - unlike most of the attendees, our babysitter was waiting). We were able to overcome our complete disgust enough, however, to make one more stop before leaving the city limits: Black Dog Gelato, a relatively new, oft-talked about dessert joint was beckoning us, just a few blocks south of the gallery on Damen. There was a good-sized crowd in attendance there on this warm night, all of whom marveled at the amazing gelato flavors offered within, such as blood orange (which I'd only seen in Paris up to this point), salted peanut, and Mexican hot chocolate, along with a gelato made from Three Floyd's Milk Stout (sadly, earlier hordes had consumed their entire supply). I opted for a small cup of sesame fig chocolate chip and Mrs. Hackknife tried a combination of goat cheese-cashew caramel with a little strawberry balsamic. Both were heavenly - creamy, refreshing, and bold in taste, easily the best gelato we've had in town (and probably most everywhere else to boot). It took all of my persuasive powers to keep Mrs. Hackknife from jumping back in line a second time to get more, all the while fighting my own urges. If gelato addiction is wrong, I don't want to be right....

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ace Drive-In

With summer break now having reached us, I recently made a comprehensive list of activities for the progeny and me to do so that we're not constantly cooped up inside the house killing each other while Mrs. Hackknife is away on business travel. A few of said activities take place just a short distance down I-80 from us in Joliet, home of a newly-christened minor league baseball team called the Slammers (their mascot is a blackbird or a magpie or something dressed in a prison jumpsuit - see, among other things, Joliet is fairly well-known for its historical prison). While Hackknifette was having some quality time with Grandma, I had made arrangements to take Hackknife Jr. to a Slammers matinee, that is, until he decided at the 11th hour that he didn't want to go (despite my reassurances that real criminals would not be playing the game). As a substitute, I managed to talk him into visiting Joliet's Iron Works Historic Site, one of the more unusual urban parks that you'll ever come across, with walking paths snaking among the ruins and foundations of a 19th-Century steel mill (almost like visiting Pompeii without the rude Europeans and smoldering volcano).

From there, we needed some nourishment, so I took us past our favorite local hot dog stand (Hey! Hot Dog, reviewed earlier this year) to another long-time Joliet favorite, Ace Drive-In, serving up hot burgers and cold root beer since 1949. Unlike Hey! Hot Dog, there is no indoor seating at Ace, only carhop service (if you're so inclined) or shaded picnic tables, which were perfect for us on this breezy, warm Spring day. After perusing the food offerings, I got Hackknife Jr. his usual plain hot dog, while I opted for the house specialty beef barbecue (kind of like Sloppy Joe) on a French roll. We split an order of fries and tried out their frosty mug root beer to wash everything down. I quite enjoyed the beef sandwich, especially the roll, which had either been slathered in butter or soaked in beef gravy (possibly both) before adding the meat. My little buddy downed most of his hot dog and we both agreed that the fries were good, small, yet nicely crisp. While there, we ran into fellow foodies Phil and Karen V., celebrating a Kindergarten graduation along with their brood - since they're certainly no strangers to good eats, I knew I had validation (above and beyond my taste buds, that is) that my dining choice was solid on this occasion. We'll be back sometime this summer (possibly after a Slammers game) to nosh on burgers.....

Monday, June 6, 2011

TAC Quick Thai Kitchen

Spring weather can be wildly unpredictable in Chicago. Many moons ago, when I used to reside just a few blocks from the lake, I quickly learned that pleasant, warm days at my office in the suburbs would often be windy and brisk at home in the city. Apparently, this knowledge was lost to me when I became a suburbanite again - a few weeks ago, I left 72-degree Tinley Park in short sleeves expecting to enjoy a nice evening of baseball at Wrigley Field, only to find the entire North Side enveloped in a dense fog bank as I crossed over the Chicago River, shivering and cursing to myself as I walked from my car towards the stadium in a 49-degree breezy chill, with only a light windbreaker to offer negligible warmth. This would be the perfect night for some dinner with a little heat to it, namely TAC Quick Thai Kitchen, a little Thai restaurant on Sheridan Rd. just north of the park. TAC had been on my radar for a while, having received a number of accolades from the local foodie press, as well as having been vouched for by such culinary luminaries as Grant Achatz (I've found that if I just dine wherever he dines, I'm always happy). Grateful for any shelter from the elements, I ducked in for a quick bite before first pitch.

According to their website, they offer both a "standard" and a "secret" menu (I find it somewhat endearing that a "secret" menu would be prominently displayed on the Internet for review); however, not being even remotely well-versed in the finer points of Thai cuisine, I was content to limit my choices to the "standard" version provided by my server. Soup stood out to me as a good way to restore my body temperature, so I opted for a bowl of tom kha, described as a coconut broth with galanga root (sort of like a mellow ginger), mushrooms (ugh), tomato, white and green onion, cilantro, and citrus leaf. Designated by the house as only one-star spicy (i.e., about the same intensity of burn that one might find in a box of Frosted Flakes), it was just what the doctor ordered for renewed vitality: rich, warm, and complex, and even the mushrooms weren't too bad (I somehow managed to bring myself to eat around half of them). For the entree, I went with the kai tod, a collection of deep-fried, marinated small chicken pieces (wings, thighs, etc.) served with a plate of white rice and and a mysterious-yet-addictive dipping sauce (What's that flavor I can't identify? Lime? Pomegranate?). The chicken wasn't the least bit greasy, with little, if any, breading and a light glaze reminiscent of teriyaki, but with a little more pizazz to it. I was thoroughly satisfied with the meal (you can see both soup and entree in the photo above) and ended up dropping less than $20, or about the same price as a hot dog, nachos, and lousy beer at the frigid ballpark. Given that I chose to abandon the game early (a rain-shortened Cubs loss) and race for my vehicle in advance of an approaching storm front, the great Thai food was by far the most joyous of the evening's festivities....

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pork in Red Chile Sauce/Mexican Rice

The May 2011 issue of Saveur has a long feature article on some really delicious-sounding Mexican dishes. Other than tacos and carne asada, we don't get too adventurous around here when it comes to Latino food, but I wanted to give a couple of the Mexican recipes a spin last Sunday for family mealtime. The two I chose (pork in red chile sauce and Mexican rice) looked to be doable for a novice, so off we went.

As always, some of the ingredients proved to be challenging. The pork dish calls for 8 dried New Mexico chiles and 2 dried Guajilo chiles, along with 2 oz. of Mexican chocolate, none of which I could find at any of my usual grocery stores. On cooking Sunday, I happened to be in the city for a pasta-making class, so I figured I'd swing by a supermercado in Pilsen, thinking that if I couldn't find the stuff there, it's not to be had anywhere in the Midwest. I struck out immediately on the New Mexico chiles and chocolate. Furiously searching Google on my iPhone while trying my best to ignore the Mexican League soccer match on TV in the Produce section (Soccer! In the Produce aisle! Why can't us gringos do that in the burbs?), I managed to determine that Anaheim chiles are a suitable substitute for New Mexico chiles - my amigos had fresh Anaheims, but no dried ones (I grabbed 4 fresh ones just for kicks). I had better luck with the dried Guajilo peppers, finding them hidden underneath the apple stand.

Heading home with makeshift ingredients and some trepidation, I set to work on my Mexican fiesta meal. The rice was easy, basically chop everything up, throw it in the blender, and cook it on the stove. The pork, not so much. Trouble began when I decided to roast the fresh Anaheim peppers in the oven to dry them out. Ideally, I would have had 8-10 hours to do this, but I only had about 1 hour to work with, so they didn't really dry so much. The next step was lightly toasting the peppers on high heat in a pot on the stove. I was a little too aggressive on my toasting and ended up with borderline burnt peppers and a little burnt pepper residue in the pot (not good as bitter compounds from burnt food will pretty much destroy any dish). Same problem with my toasting of the almonds and peanuts - too much heat, too much browning, nearly burnt nuts (insert your own joke here). When it was time to put everything in my blender, my fear was that there would be too much liquid in the bowl (fresh peppers, for example, have more water than dried peppers) and we'd have an undesirable overflow situation (I've had these before and they're the quickest way to kill your cooking buzz), with boiling water, no less (hello, Emergency Room). To avoid this scenario, I used 4 cups of water instead of 5 and still nearly put too much in, nervously watching the many ingredients swirling around at high speeds against the blender lid, just waiting for the whole steaming concoction to spew out all over the kitchen. Miraculously, this did not happen, although I might have been a little gun shy with the puree button as my sauce was, well, chunkier than it should have been. I browned the pork pieces as well as I could, but these got pretty angry and splattered hot grease in the vicinity of the stove (overall, I was not having a good experience - this happens sometimes).

One hour of simmering later, we had Mexican pork and Mexican rice, served with tortillas and a healthy dose of stress. The pork was just ok in my opinion, especially given the work put into it. It could have been that the stew meat I used wasn't as tender as the shoulder that was referenced in the recipe. Maybe the Toll House chocolate chips don't provide the same flavor profile as the Mexican chocolate. Perhaps my choice of chile peppers and the associated prep methodology left something to be desired. Regardless, I think I'll be needing to try a different recipe from that issue next time.....

Roasted Halibut in Almond-Tomato Sauce

If you haven't already figured out, I sometimes don't eat as healthy as I should ( blog). As a result, I'm always looking for new opportunities to incorporate fish into the weekly meal plan since 1) it's better for us than, say, fettuccine carbonara and 2) we actually enjoy a good piece of fish here at the Commissary (even the progeny on occasion). The problem is my somewhat limited repertoire of solid fish dishes, which numbers about 5-7. Luckily, the June 15th issue of Wine Spectator included a recipe for roasted halibut with an almond-tomato sauce at the back, provided courtesy of Chef Richard Vellante of Legal Sea Foods in Boston (i.e., people who should know a thing or two about cooking fish). The recipe is really simple and is as follows:

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
1 c. Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. garlic, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. thyme, chopped
1/2 c. basil, sliced
10-12 tomatoes, skinned and seeded (or 1 28.5 oz-can of peeled canned tomatoes)
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 c. capers, rinsed
1/2 c. almonds, slivered and toasted
salt and pepper, to taste
1.5 lb. (4 fillets) of halibut, skinned

1. Place olive oil and onions in a Dutch oven and soften for 10-12 minutes over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.

2. Add thyme, basil, tomatoes, sugar, capers, and almonds. Cook at a low simmer for about 10 minutes. Cool and reserve sauce.

3. Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Place almond-tomato sauce in the bottom of an ovenproof casserole dish. Lightly brush fish with olive oil and season with salt/pepper.

4. Place fish atop sauce in casserole dish. Bake uncovered for 15-20 minutes.

Now, there are a few items of note that are worth sharing. I looked for halibut fillets at the local Large Corporate Grocery and could only find some in the specialty fish freezer, priced at a paltry $17.49/0.75 lb. Rather than drop $36 on an ingredient in an unproven recipe, I decided to use a cheaper substitute: cod fillets, costing half as much and looking more or less like halibut. To save myself some headaches, I bought a package of slivered almonds and a can of peeled canned tomatoes to reduce prep work (I also wimped out and used dried thyme, 1/3 tsp. worth, which is about the same as 1 tsp. fresh). Once it was time to cook, I roasted the almonds on a cookie sheet in the oven at 400F for 5 minutes (almost too long as they got pretty browned). The recipe wasn't clear about draining the juice from canned tomatoes (if you're not using fresh), so I dumped about half the juice out and threw the other half in with the tomatoes. When the sauce was finished, rather than cool it down, I simply added the cod fillets to the Dutch oven and threw the whole shebang in the oven (one pot supper).

While the final result was a little runny (I put it in bowls instead of on plates to better capture the sauce, almost like a bouillabaisse), it tasted AMAZINGLY good, even to my critical palate (I think Mrs. Hackknife used the term "restaurant quality"). I couldn't believe the depth of flavor in the sauce, which was both salty and rich, almost TOO tasty if you know what I mean (Where's the butter? There must be cream in here somewhere!). Was it the capers? The toasted almonds? The oil and caramelized onions? All of the above? Regardless, this recipe is now in the regular rotation. Next time, rather than boiled potatoes, I'll make some of our house rustic bread to help sop up the good sauce....