Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elim Dutch Festival

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

Next (Thai Menu)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Baked Cabbage with Bacon

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

Haymarket Pub & Brewery

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


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

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caponata (Eggplant Relish)

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Labor Day Weekend Noshing

Our good friends (and fixers from our Los Angeles trip last November) Jaime and Lydia decided to visit Chicago over the holiday weekend to get a dose of local culture and cuisine; of course, I was more than happy to use them as an excuse to do some shameless food exploration and they were more than happy to oblige. We wasted no time in getting started - they arrived in town around 2 pm and by 6 that evening we were seated (along with Mrs. Hackknife, who graciously left work early to secure us a spot in queue) at Frontera Grill, the flagship eatery of Rick Bayless's Mexican empire, a notoriously-difficult table to score even before he won Top Chef Masters last year (they don't take reservations). Our mustachioed waiter recommended the house ceviche sampler to start (consisting of two tuna and one shrimp-calamari ceviches - see Photo #1 above), which we enthusiastically gobbled along with an order of bad-ass guacamole, warm tortilla chips, and Topolo margaritas (probably the best I've had in a city bursting with mediocre versions) made with Sauza Commemorativo tequila. Ignoring the growing bulge in my mid-section, we proceeded to the entrees. I opted for the duck cooked in dark mole sauce (I'm a sucker for duck) with red chile corn fritters, grilled squash, and spicy guero chile escabeche (pickled fish), washed down with a Goose Island Marisol beer (made only for Frontera), while my bride chose the (available only 6 weeks yearly, according to our server) sour-orange marinated pork with a habanero salsa and black bean soup - both were outstanding. In lieu of sweets at the end of the meal, we decided to give our guests a little breather while we drove over to our favorite gelato joint, Black Dog Gelato, featured in this very blog earlier this Summer. Nothing shows out-of-towners how we roll here like cinnamon-brown sugar gelato and blood orange sorbet for dessert.

Day 2 of the visit was slated as double-decker bus tour day to see downtown's major tourist attractions. Jaime, Lydia, and I cruised around for a while nibbling on popcorn from local favorite Garrett's before breaking for lunch at one of Chicago's top Italian beef spots, Al's Beef on Ontario at Wells (although they have many other locations throughout town). For those of you unfamiliar with Italian beef sandwiches, they basically consist of thin slices of beef (think cheesesteak) cooked in hot gravy (juice), then liberally piled on a French roll, served with or without peppers (sweet or spicy). The key is the juice - you want as much of it as possible on the roll, preferably sopping, need-to-take-my-trousers-to-the-dry-cleaners-because-it-dripped-out-of-the-wrapper wet, so order the sandwich "dipped" if they ask (as in dipped in the juice). This was my recommendation to my guests and they were not disappointed. Forgoing afternoon snacks (I voted against that) allowed us to be good and hungry when we met up with Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny for dinner at Pequod's Pizza, a fixture at Webster and Clybourn in my family's ancestral neighborhood for about 20 years. Pequod's is one of the shrinking number of independent pizzerias in Chicago that specialize in deep-dish (we still have plenty of chains churning it out) and I'd never had the pleasure of trying it before. We were assured by our waitress that a single large deep-dish pie would feed all of us and she was correct. As far as deep dish pizza goes, this one had a much higher crust-to-topping ratio than I've experienced, with just a thin layer of sauce/cheese atop a thick, but surprisingly-light bottom crust, and a signature edge of burnt caramelized cheese on the rim. Sublime. We were happy to bring a leftover piece home for later consumption.

The culinary activities of Day 3 finally pushed me and our guests over the gastrointestinal distress cliff. We left the house extra early to get to Hot Doug's, the city's reigning encased meat champion, before heading over to the Cubs game. Amazingly, a 9:50 am arrival in advance of a 10:30 am opening was only good enough to get us a spot around 25th in line. With crossed fingers, we arrived at the counter to place our orders about an hour later, leaving us just enough time to nosh on gourmet sausages (or, in Lydia's case, a traditional Chicago-style dog) without missing the first pitch. I opted to skip the famous duck-fat fries (available only Fridays and Saturdays - they're good, but not so good that I need them each and every time) and go for two (count 'em), two dogs to maximize my dining pleasure (because who knows when I shall pass this way again): the Chardonnay/jalapeno rattlesnake sausage with citrus mojo mayo, espresso Bellavitano cheese, and crispy fried onions (when asked about the taste of rattlesnake, Doug himself told me it reminded him of "anaconda") AND a saucisse de Toulouse with Dijon goat butter, pate de campagne, and creme de brie cheese. The rattlesnake was surprisingly mild, not the least bit gamey, and made me ponder the existence of large rattlesnake farms somewhere to supply a burgeoning sausage market. The saucisse de Toulouse was much richer, all Champagne and caviar on a bun, washed down with my first-ever birch beer soda (like root beer, but a little minty). Feeling full and happy that we went to the trouble of stopping here, we sat through a rather-uneventful Cubs game that was punctuated by a long rain delay, giving us a convenient excuse to leave early for dinner at Cemitas Puebla. Cemitas (whose signature dish is a namesake sandwich of meat, avocado, adobo chipotle peppers, Oaxacan cheese, and papalo [like cilantro], served on a very-unique sesame seed bread) has been featured on both Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (of which Jaime and Lydia are fans) and our local foodie show Check, Please (coincidentally, we had just watched the Cemita episode a few weeks earlier). It's not located in the best neighborhood and parking is a bit challenging (they use the term "lot" loosely when directing you to the alley out back), but you certainly can't look down on the food. We started with a small plate of arabe chalupas, open-faced corn tortillas topped with spit-roasted marinated pork, red/green salsas, cheese, and onions (when they say the hot sauce is VERY spicy, they mean it, right Jaime?), followed by the famous sandwiches. I ordered two of the big buggers with the intention of eating half of each and bringing the remainder home to Mrs. Hackknife - one being the arabe (the same pork as the chalupas) and the other the Atomica, an unholy conglomeration of breaded pork chop, ham, and guajillo-marinated pork chop (yes, two pork chops) along with the aforementioned items. They were outstanding and I somehow managed to eat both halves, perhaps aided by the excellent horchata accompanying them gullet-side (see Photo #2 above).

It was about two hours later that my body began revolting and decided that I needed to lie prone for a little while. There would be no more overindulgence for 24 hours until we arrived at our Day 4 dinner destination, Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket, a local institution for fried chicken on old Route 66 since the early 1940s. It's another place that was featured on D,D,& D, one of those diners that everyone's familiar with (except us North siders - I'd never heard of the joint), but no one's actually been to. Happy to rectify this oversight, the family and I met our guests there after a long, final day of sightseeing and started out with tasty biscuits and an order of corn fritters (very donut-like). The salad bar leaves a little to be desired (hygiene doesn't appear to be a major concern here) and the house chicken dumpling soup is a keeper; however,the long wait is for the fried chicken and I now understand why. If you order the 4-piece dinner, you'll get a half-chicken cooked to order, unbelievably-juicy meat covered in a breading that's light as a feather. The sides are more-or-less forgettable (mashed potatoes and green beans), but the chicken is bar none tops in Chicagoland in my humble opinion, a sentiment more-or-less seconded by Mrs. Hackknife and our visitors, whom I think we sent home with full bellies, warm hearts, and higher cholesterol.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Captain Cafe/Bakery

Just a few weeks ago, I was motoring my way into the city on a Friday evening to join Mrs. Hackknife at a work event (her company has an annual shindig at the Shedd Aquarium on the lakefront) and I realized that I was passing by Chinatown with a bit of extra time on my hands (often a deadly combination). As sometimes happens when I'm in transit to an outing where dinner will be served, I somehow manage to rationalize stopping for a quick bite prior to reaching my ultimate destination (you know, it might be a while, maybe even an hour, before food makes an appearance - a man's gotta eat, you know). This is what flitted through my head as I parked on a side street next to Chinatown's main thoroughfare, seeking out one particular place for nosh: Captain Cafe/Bakery. Captain was among a number of Chinatown joints singled out in a Chicago Tribune eating guide this Spring, with the article making specific mention of its chicken curry buns, likened to a meat-filled doughnut. Located in the middle an outdoor mall complex filled with Chinese restaurants, convenience stores, and jewelry shops, the place is small and appears to cater mostly to take-out customers, although there were a few diners seated at tables inside (including a Chicago policeman - good sign as the cops generally know where to get quality grub). The girl working behind the counter was very helpful as I made my selections - beef curry bun (alas, they hadn't made any chicken curry buns that day), shrimp/pork dumpling, sweet red bean bun, and winter melon roll, showing up in order from left to right in the photo above (except for the melon roll, which is barely visible underneath). As much as I wanted to hang around and listen to the Mandarin-language soap opera on the tv, I was running a bit behind schedule, so I took my stash of goodies back to the car and did a little sampling. The beef curry bun was amazing, a meat-filled doughnut being a pretty apt description (I would gladly exchange a dozen doughnuts from Dunkin' for a batch of these). I also enjoyed the shrimp/pork dumpling, the dough encasing the filling more savory than sweet. The red bean bun was more of a dessert treat and it was VERY dense (not necessarily in a good way), flecked with coconut flakes and bringing to mind the stuff that stars must be made of when they collapse upon themselves (you know, before the black hole develops). Last, but not least, was the winter melon roll, another dessert item that was recommended by my server - unfortunately, I can't say that it was my favorite (it lacked a certain decadence that I come to prefer in sweets, a little on the plain side). The bottom line appears to be that Captain is the place to go for savory buns, but maybe not so much for desserts (I am willing to do additional research to refute my original theory, though).....

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Brick Chicken

Every now and then, I come across a recipe that seems too good to be true. Occasionally, I'm even foolish enough to attempt such a recipe. This episode of "Cooking Gone Bad" focuses on what sounded like a simple, hassle-free way of cooking a whole chicken without using an oven; that is, butterflying it and roasting it in a cast-iron pan on the stove while underneath a large brick (the chicken, not the cook). Tasting Table is a website that sends me a daily recipe and a daily newsworthy item from the local food scene (and also happens to be run by one Heather Sperling, currently Grant Achatz's significant other). Anyway, my email inbox on July 5 featured a Tasting Table recipe provided by Virtue Feed & Grain, a DC-area restaurant, for chicken cooked under a brick. According to the interviewed chef, the idea of using a brick (or similar hefty object) is to flatten the bird on the cooking surface, thus evenly cooking it at the same rate all over, yielding a juicy chicken in less time than oven roasting (those of you who are fans of chicken probably are aware that the major problem with cooking the bird in the oven is that the breast meat cooks faster than other parts, eventually drying out before the rest of it is done). Gimmicky? Yes. Intriguing? Also yes. I filed it away for future execution.

Last week, I decided to defrost a whole 3.5-lb, locally farm-raised chicken that had been doing penance in my freezer since late Spring and opted for the brick method, which, due to its quickness and few steps required, appeared to be perfectly designed for the home cook with whiny children in the background. First, I located a brick, a leftover paver from our back patio that got a nice sudsy bath in the sink (who knows how long it had been sitting out there) before drying and getting wrapped in foil. Next, I butterflied the chicken by removing its backbone, rubbed a marinade all over it and under its skin, flopped it skin-side down into my cast iron pan, placed the brick on top, and waited for the magic to happen. After about 12 minutes, I flipped the guy over, saw that the skin had browned a bit (not as much as I'd wanted, but ok), and replaced the brick. The photo above was taken around 25 minutes into the cooking process - according to the recipe, by this time, the carcass should have been cooked through and ready for serving, but it's fairly obvious that, not only is it not finished, we haven't even moved into the earth tones on the legs, creating an image not unlike that which you might see if a shiny weather balloon crash-landed atop a small, hairless animal. 10 more minutes, minimal additional cooking, curse words, and into the oven went the whole mess (without the brick), where 25 minutes MORE was needed to cook the chicken all the way through. I had to pull out chicken nuggets for the progeny, who were slowly starving to death while watching this whole ordeal and finally got to eat the finished chicken myself well after they left the table, carefully poking and prodding around to look for undercooked pockets to avoid.

What in the Sam Hill happened? Had I not thawed the bird completely? It had been in the refrigerator for 48 hours and spent a little time on the counter at room temp, so I don't think that was the problem. User error? Quite possible, since I have no prior experience cooking with bricks. It's bad enough that I'm entirely inept at home improvements, but when I use construction materials as kitchen tools and this is the end result, I think I need to take it as a sign to keep those two worlds separate from now on.

Chilled Zucchini-Basil Soup

With all of the fine dining occurring around here lately (none of it happening in our kitchen), it was good to have an opportunity to finally re-engage the Commissary for a simple mid-week meal. I had a zucchini and a plethora of sweet basil in our weekly farmbox to ponder and, as often happens, the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) came to the rescue with just the recipe that I needed. The WSJ article in question highlighted ways to use basil other than making pesto (which we already do quite a bit) and the dish that intrigued me most was a cold soup, perfect for a hot summer evening. The recipe itself was pretty easy and not terribly time consuming, other than an hour or two for chill time in the refrigerator. Pair the soup up with a good crusty bread (I could have made our house rustic loaf, but went for a Costco pre-made garlic artisan bread instead) and you've got a light supper to counteract the extreme overeating that's becoming de rigeur among the adult Hackknives these days.

Bring 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Drop in 1.5 lb zucchini, trimmed (but not peeled), seeded, and cut into small chunks, 1 spring onion (also known as a knob onion or cebollita) trimmed and sliced, and 2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped. Season with salt and pepper and return to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, partially cover pot, and cook 10-12 minutes more or until zucchini is easily pierced with a knife. Working in small batches, puree soup in a blender until smooth. Refrigerate until chilled (about an hour or two). Just before serving, puree 1 packed cup of basil leaves with 1 cup chilled soup. Stir the puree into remaining soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then pour into soup bowls or glasses to serve. Garnish with a swirl of heavy cream, if desired.