Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chicago Mini-Food Tour #2

I was granted a rare weekend off recently as Mrs. Hackknife headed north with the progeny for the annual girls' trip to Appleton. Any sane husband/father would probably spend such a free Saturday watching sports, doing handyman tasks, or catching up on late sleep - of course, in my twisted world, any free time of an extended nature usually turns into much-anticipated me-food time and this was no exception. In fact, I didn't even bother to wait for Saturday to begin before making my first culinary stop, which occurred on the way home from dropping the kids off Friday afternoon. My initial target: Fattoush, a Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant located in Worth (10700 S. Harlem Ave.) where Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky (who has quickly become one of my touchstones for all things gastronomical) recently recommended the house vegetable appetizer plate (perfect for a mid-afternoon snack). As I pulled into the small parking lot, I realized that the family and I had been here before, just last year when it used to be a not-half-bad Greek diner called Dionysus, I think. Anyway, the decor had been spiffed up and serving stations were situated on one side of the restaurant for the once-weekly buffet, offered only on Friday afternoons (presumably for Muslims stopping by after Friday religious services). Tempting as it was, I passed on the buffet and stuck with my original quarry, ordering the vegetable platter and a fresh mango juice. The restaurant manager (who couldn't have been more hospitable, by the way - he checked on me several times to make sure everything was good, thoroughly explained the various dishes I received, etc.) brought my food and I dug in. For $6.95, I got a veritable feast of goodies - 3 big pieces of falafel, hummus, baba ghanooj (similar to hummus, just with eggplant instead of chickpeas), tabbouleh salad (bulgur wheat, parsley, tomato, cucumber, mint, onion, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt), another dip that was garlic and yogurt-based, and pita bread for dipping. All of it was delicious - I was barely able to finish half of the platter and happily wrapped up the remainder to bring home for Mrs. Hackknife to try. Chalk another one up in the win column for the Hungry Hound.

After my snack and a little long-overdue yardwork, I headed over to Ambrosino's, a nearby Italian market for some takeout. I had shopped at Ambrosino's for recipe ingredients many times, but had never purchased any of their food to-go from the deli in the back before. On a recent visit there to pick up some pancetta, I noticed that the folks from Chicago's Best (a local interest TV program) had come by and proclaimed good things about the house meatball sandwich and Godfather sub. For my dinner, I decided to give the meatball sandwich a test drive. What I ended up bringing home (only $4.95, mind you, cheese and peppers extra) could have probably fed a family of 4 (or, at a minimum, two people who are used to first world-sized portions). It consisted of a half-loaf of fresh Italian bread, sliced and stuffed with 4 large meatballs (they were a mixture of beef and pork, if my palate was correct) slathered with tomato sauce. Pretty good stuff, in my estimation, and again I had to stop halfway lest I feel like a glutton (the leftovers made a fine lunch on Sunday afternoon).

My full belly allowed me to doze off relatively early so I could start on a fresh crop of food adventures the next morning. Instead of sleeping in, I was up and out of the house by 7:30 to hit Stop #1 on the day's mini-food tour. A family friend noted on Facebook not too long ago that a small bakery in her neighborhood (Tuzik's, 4955 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn) had started selling their famous pumpkin doughnuts for the season, which tended to sell out early. I was hoping that 8 am wasn't too late to arrive to score some; however, when I walked in, the best bunch (the pumpkin glazed) was already gone (apparently, you do have to get up pretty early - they open at 5). I did manage to snag the last two pumpkin cinnamon doughnuts, along with two of the decadent-looking Black Forest variety, and guiltily noshed on a few bites while sitting in the car. Tuzik's was a fine pre-breakfast before my main breakfast event of the morning - Xoco, Rick Bayless's casual/street food diner (449 N. Clark) that has been well-populated (read: lines) since its opening in 2009. Knowing that I was going to be on walkabout in the city for most of the day, I bit the bullet and ponied up a hefty sum ($26) to park in one of the River North garages down the street from the restaurant. As it turns out, my food from Xoco was cheaper (only $12) and infinitely more satisfying than an off-street parking spot. I was surprised to see hardly anyone ahead of me at the register (timing is everything - by the time I sat down and got my food 10 minutes later, the line was at least 10 deep) and had a nice conversation with the cashier, who was from Sitka, Alaska (she noticed my Holland America jacket from an Alaskan criuse) and was kind enough to explain to me the difference between a chorizo-egg torta and an open-face torta. I selected the chorizo-egg torta (scrambled egg, avocado, and chorizo served on a wonderful, crunchy bread, with tasty green chile salsa) and a cup of the famous house hot chocolate. The torta was terrific and even better with the green salsa, but the hot chocolate (how can I put this delicately?), this was simply heaven in a glass, rich and sweet, not the least bit bitter or cloying or chalky (and not even piping hot so you can't drink it for an hour), like a liquid chocolate bar. The reason (as I learned recently in Michael Ruhlman's blog) for the exquisite hot chocolate at Xoco is that they roast and grind the cacao beans in house, an unusual process for a restaurant to undertake. I will gladly return many, many times to this place just for a nip of this glorious elixir.

Feeling fortified and refreshed, I headed back out into the brisk morning (sunny, breezy, and 52F, maybe?) and proceeded on foot about 2 miles north on LaSalle Street, past the touristy environs of River North, through the Moody Bible Institute campus, along the condo canyons of Sandburg Village, up to the southern edge of the Lincoln Park Zoo to find Green City Market, the city's largest and most renowned farmers market. I'd been wanting to check this out for quite a while, having read that many local chefs come here to get fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, even flowers and herbs. There was a couple from Wisconsin selling grass-fed beef (I think we've bought their stuff before closer to home) and at least two different tables for fresh pasta. If you wanted hot doughnuts or apple cider, you came to the right place. Not only did I stumble across Mick Klug, a Michigan farmer who often provides the fruit that ends up in our weekly farmbox (we had just eaten some of his amazing pears, so I bought another box from him), I also finally met Vicki Westerhoff of Genesis Growers, our hardworking CSA provider who gives us the great veggies every week - she has a large plot of tables at the market every week (in fact, Picture #1 above is her pepper display, some of which I'm sure ended up in our refrigerator that week). I have to say that it's a unique experience to be able to shake the hands of the people that are growing your food (Michael Pollan would be proud). It's even better when you can get some goods from said people that you can't easily find in your neighborhood megagrocery stores, like a very nice Pecorino (sheep's milk) Romano cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, IL (aged for a year in a mixture of black clay, olive oil, and black currant paste, according to the website - don't worry, it didn't taste like clay, oil, or currant) or a pear/apple/cranberry mini-pie from Hoosier Mama Pie Co. (1618 1/2 W. Chicago Ave. - more on these folks later in the posting).

Cheese, mini-pie, and pears in tow, I mulled over ideas in my head to determine my next move. Goose Island brwepub (1800 N. Clybourn) was due to open for the day at 11, promising cold beer, college football, and a sedate place to read a newspaper. After about 1.5 miles of further jaunting, I arrived ready to take a load off of my angry feet for a bit. The bartender was able to find the Purdue-Penn St. game for me on one of the screens and I spent the next hour and a half glancing at the game, blissfully reading through the weekend Wall Street Journal, and sipping a Red Felt red ale (a little hoppy for my tastes - I would have been better off trying Goose's collaboration on a plum beer with Mick Klug, yes, the very same farmer who I just saw at the market). I decided to forgo further food and skipped out at halftime to head over to Goose Island Shrimp House (GISH) for lunch. GISH is located at 1013 W. Division, less than a mile from the brewpub, albeit in a slightly different environment than the snooty retail area I just came from. To get there, I headed southeast on Kingsbury St., which used to feature mostly dilapidated buildings, dive bars, a lone gentlemen's club, and vacant lots along the river. It's gentrified since my last visit about 6 years ago - now there's a Whole Foods and several new businesses in loft settings (even the strip club went upscale). Once you reach Division and cross the river, though, there are still plenty of lonely places to stash a body. GISH appears pretty much out of nowhere on an industrial stretch between the river and the Kennedy, about the most non-descript eatery you'll ever find. Inside are a couple of stand-up video games and a simple counter from where you can place your order for fried seafood, crackers, cocktail sauce, drinks, and slaw. That's pretty much it. No tables or anywhere to sit. I ordered a half-pound of fried shrimp and some fries to go, and started walking in the general direction of the nearest El stop (on the far side of the Kennedy, near Division and Milwaukee), stopping to rest on a log in an unpaved parking lot to eat my lunch. The food was, well, just ok. The shrimp were big, but overbreaded, and not really anything notable. Fries were nominal. I have to admit I had higher hopes for GISH, being a hole-in-the-wall and all. Next time I have a hankering for fried shrimp, I'll head over to Calumet Fisheries on 95th St. for better stuff that's closer to the Commissary.

I had one stop remaining on my walkabout, which was good since my feet were about ready to go on strike (hence my need for the subway). The last stop, Eleven City Diner, was recently cited by Hungry Hound as having one of the best chocolate milkshakes in the city. I figured this would be the perfect way to conclude the mini-food tour. The El shaved off about 2 miles additional wear on my legs and deposited me at Roosevelt and Michigan, only a block from my destination (1112 S. Wabash). When I arrived, I was shocked to see how crowded the place was for 2pm on a Saturday - lots of people waiting for tables. In order to get a milkshake to go, I was directed to the souvenir counter rather than the bar. It easily took 10 minutes to put my order in and another 10 for it to appear (good thing I wasn't there for lunch). While I waited, I had plenty of time to peruse the decor, which featured numerous quotes from famous Jewish personalities (even in the men's room), candy from Israel (see Photo #2 above), and a huge wall-mounted menu showing traditional deli fare liked corned beef sandwiches, brisket, and knishes. My milkshake appeared in a large plastic cup, lidded to hold the cookie wafer and crown of whipped cream ("hat" as they call it) perched on top, and it was the perfect accompaniment on my 1.7-mile walk back to the car.

One last thing - that mini-pie I bought? I busted it out for dessert at Mom's house later that evening and it was exquisite, possibly the best pie I'd ever eaten, and I'm not even a huge fan of fruit pies (I prefer cream pies). Clearly, the folks at Hoosier Mama have been touched by God in some way. When I bought it, I was ruing the $8 price tag and now found myself loaded with regret that I hadn't ponied up $22 for the full-size version. This oversight has been rectified, however, as two Hoosier Mama pies (pear/apple/cranberry and chocolate chess) will be joining the Hackknife extended family at the Thanksgiving table in Ohio later this month. My order has already been placed.....

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sedano e Pomodori Brasati (Braised Celery and Tomato)

In the almost 2 years since we started receiving a weekly farmbox of fresh produce, I've stumbled across two vegetable recipes (one for broccoli, the other for peppers) that are simple, amazingly tasty, and have become go-to side dishes for the Hackknife household. I think I may have found a third one to add to that list. We had a bunch of cut-up celery hearts left over from Hackknife Jr.'s 6th birthday party that I didn't want to waste. Coincidentally, there was an article in the October 2011 issue of Saveur on long-cooked vegetables, and in the article was a recipe for braised celery and tomatoes (or sedano e pomodori brasati, for those of you who are Italian speakers) provided courtesy of Marcella Hazan, one of the pioneers of Italian-American cooking. I tried a Joy of Cooking braised celery dish a while back that turned out, shall we say, less than stellar, so I was a bit skeptical about this one, although the fact that it contained pancetta (Italian bacon) certainly helped brighten my outlook.

I picked up about 1/4 lb. of sliced pancetta from the local Italian grocery and needed a little more celery to round out my ingredients. After about 2 hours total cook time (most of which was simple, low-maintenance braising), I had a pot of reduced, high-concentrated celery to go with some simple pasta. Wow! I will never figure out how essentially 5 ingredients (celery, pancetta, onions, tomatoes, and olive oil, not counting salt and pepper) can make such a kick-ass, life-affirming vegetable side dish (or a great topping for plain pasta, as I discovered). It was everything I could do not to eat the whole pot, including the share I set aside for Mrs. Hackknife, who was out of town on business. I suspect that the jacked-up flavor profile came from the smoky, salty pancetta and its rendered fat, which you use as the cooking base for the onions (although I must say that there really wasn't much fat left in the pot - it was mostly the olive oil doing the cooking). Regardless, I'll never look at celery the same way again. Molto bene....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cashew Shrimp Curry

I like Twitter. I don't really know how to do much on Twitter other than subscribe to tweeters and read postings (if any of you readers would be willing to give me a brief tutorial on how to actually post something and/or directly contact other tweeters, I would be greatly appreciative, maybe even enough to make you a pie), but I've found that it's a handy tool for monitoring goings-on in the foodie world. Many famous chefs (and some not-so-famous ones) are using it to post restaurant news, menus, recipes, gossip, etc. A few weeks ago, I attempted to make my first-ever recipe gleaned from a Twitter posting: a cashew shrimp curry, courtesy of Chef Marnely Rodriguez (who specializes in Caribbean dishes) via Chef Marcus Samuelsson's website/Twitter account (you know, Marcus Samuelsson....the Ethiopian/Swedish cook who won Top Chef Masters #2). This recipe stood out to me from others I've seen on Twitter because 1) it looked relatively good, 2) it looked relatively easy, and 3) I had most of the ingredients on hand (come to think of it, that's pretty much the criteria I use to pick just about every recipe regardless of origin), including an eggplant from the farmbox.

One ingredient I didn't have was cashew butter. After scouring the local grocery stores and coming up empty (even at Trader Joe's, which I erroneously thought was just quirky enough to carry it), I figured out that it's actually not hard to make on your own (thanks, Emeril) - cashew butter recipe. You basically just throw cashews, oil, and a little salt into a food processor and Voila! Once that mountain was scaled, the rest was easy. My local ethnic grocery had two versions of coconut oil, which I learned is solid and congealed at room temperature (hopefully not like my arteries) - I opted for the cheaper version ($3.99) as opposed to the fancy-pants all-organic one (which clocked in at $11.99). Instead of raw shrimp, I used cooked, tail-off shrimp from the freezer section. The only other substitution was brown basmati rice in place of jasmine rice listed in the recipe.

How'd it turn out? Not bad, but a little underwhelming and in need of some pizazz. You'd think that a curry dish would be in danger of being overspiced, but not this one, apparently. In fact, the best part was the homemade cashew butter, the leftovers of which I enjoyed on English muffins for a couple of weeks after the fact. Mrs. Hackknife noted that I'd made better curries before, so I might just have to put this recipe at the bottom of the pile.

Friday, October 14, 2011

South Florida Trip

Two weeks ago, the promotion wining and dining extravaganza reached its apex with a congratulatory trip for new partners and their spouses to the Waldorf-Astoria Resort in Boca Raton, Florida. Not only did this little junket allow Mrs. Hackknife and I to enjoy a few days of tropical sunshine, but also provided us the opportunity to meet up with my dad/stepmom (who live about 1.5 hours north of Boca) for dinner and do a bit of sightseeing in Miami, a city that neither of us has spent much time in. As you might expect, seafood is heavily represented on the dinner menus of many South Floridians, but there is a substantial focus on Latin (especially Cuban) cuisine as well.

So, with that tasty tidbit in mind, we packed our bags and headed to the airport, arriving in Ft. Lauderdale early on a Saturday afternoon. Our first meal was at the resort itself, a sprawling, pink labyrinth of passages and breezeways constructed in a combination of Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial styles by Addison Mizner, the architect who created the city plan for Boca Raton in the 1920s. Inside the resort were several restaurants, some of which were not open for lunch. Lucky for us, the sushi restaurant on the premises, Morimoto, welcomed us with open tables. Those of you who are Iron Chef fans will recognize Chef Morimoto's name from the show - he has sushi restaurants scattered in various spots around the globe, but none in Chicago, so we were excited to have the chance to try his wares. Boca's Morimoto is sleek and modern with a wall of video screens behind the sushi bar projecting schools of fish, giving one the impression of being on a submarine. Since it was already past 2pm local time and we had upcoming dinner reservations with my parents in just a few hours, Mrs. Hackknife and I opted to try a couple of appetizers: a delicious tuna "pizza" (tuna sashimi on a tortilla with red onion, jalapenos, tomatoes, and anchovy sauce - see photo above) and a locally-caught soft-shell crab platter with soy dipping sauces. The second dish arrived at the table by accident - we had actually ordered a soft-shell crab maki roll, but our server mistakenly brought us the platter, which was one of the daily specials. This ended up being a good thing as the crabs were fantastic, huge and crispy and luscious when soaked in the sauces.

Dinnertime saw us heading north about 30 minutes to West Palm Beach to a place I found online last Xmas season. Marcello's La Sirena is an old-school Italian joint catering to the retired masses in this part of the state, just the type of food that my old man loves. I bought he and my stepmom a Marcello's gift card for Xmas and they hadn't yet gotten around to spending it, so we were happy to provide the excuse. At first the restaurant was pretty empty (was it even open?), but it filled in quickly with Saturday night diners. At our table, we passed around a plate of baked little neck clams to sample, along with a wonderful buffala mozzarella/tomato http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifplatter, washed down with a nice Chianti. For the main course, Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed veal canneloni while I scarfed down a pan-fried branzino (sea bass) that was perfectly browned on the skin, served with the house specialty "vegatale del giorno" (vegetables of the day), namely carrots, zucchini, and fennel sauteed in butter. By the time our desserts arrived (tiramisu, of course, but also chocolate-almond flourless cake and panna cotta), my pants were busting at the seams.

Sunday was our big day in Miami. We slept a little later than usual (no kids to provide a wake-up call, you know) and left the hotel a bit tardy for the hour-long drive southward. After a quick climb up the lighthouse at Key Biscayne, we made a stop for brunch at Sra. Martinez, a tapas-style restaurant inside of an old post office in the city's Design District. Sra. Martinez is one of Chef Michelle Bernstein's two eateries in Miami, this being the more casual of the two. Starving from the lighthouse climb, we started out with a cheese plate (Manchego and a pungent Valdeon blue) alongside some Spanish serrano ham and raisin bread with fig marmalade. Next up were some tapas plates recommended by our server, amazing bacon-wrapped dates (stuffed with Marcona almonds and more Valdeon blue cheese) and ham/cheese croquettes. Slowing down, we concluded with huevos rancheros (mostly Mrs. Hackknife's choice since I'm not a fan of fried eggs, but I managed to choke down most of my portion) and a small platter of churros with chocolate sauce. The churros were spectacular and probably the best I've ever had, with a crisp exterior and a warm, soft interior like the best doughnut. After our experience here, we made a pledge to visit Michy's, Chef Bernstein's flagship fine dining restaurant here on our next Miami trip. With only a few short hours until we were required to return to the resort for a scheduled work event, we drove over to the Lincoln Street Pedestrian Mall in South Beach for a little people watching. I was blown away by the number of restaurants on this street and marveled at the many food vendors, who were mostly selling empanadas and fresh-squeezed juices. Had we shown up at South Beach with empty stomachs, I would have been happy to fill up on this street food (alas, it was not to be).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Yet another of the promotion dinners for Mrs. Hackknife came and went a few Saturday nights ago, this one taking place at Sunda in the River North neighborhood just a stone's throw away from the Bayless empire (Xoco, Topolobampo, and Frontera Grill) at Clark and Illinois. I had vague knowledge of this restaurant, which bills itself as a specialist of "New Asian" cuisine (a combination of Southeast Asian and Eastern Asian, according to the website). Sunda is a recent addition to the Rockit Ranch group of trendy eateries/nightclubs established by local entertainment impresario Billy Dec (who's claim to fame is that he's famous) and boasts celebrity chef Rodelio Aglibot at the helm. Messr. Aglibot has acquired the nickname "the Food Buddha" due to his resemblance to a certain deity (although he's not actually Buddhist) and had a short-lived cooking show on TLC that my dad raved about, but it disappeared before I could watch it.

Anyway, Mrs. Hackknife and I arrived at 7pm to a dining room packed with attractive, nattily-dressed 20- and 30-somethings. There was a long sushi bar on the ground floor; however, we were escorted upstairs to a private party room for our function. Given the trendy decor and vibe of the place, my fear was that the food would exhibit more style than substance - these concerns were quickly laid to rest upon sampling one of several very good sushi pieces and an amazing seared Kobe beef tartare bite atop pan-fried crispy rice, which were circulated during the cocktail hour. Once seated, we proceeded with the main menu served family style. First up was an appetizer course consisting of warm spinach and mushroom (sigh) salad, grilled salmon salad (excellent), a tasty dish called loompya (crispy pork and shrimp egg rolls), and one of the house specialties, rock shrimp tempura (served with glazed walnuts and creamy honey aioli). A collection of main course dishes followed: what they call "shaking" beef (wok-seared beef filet, greens, and lime-pepper dipping sauce), steamed ginger salmon filet, and veggie lo mein, all of which were good, except I only managed to secure one small chunk of the beef (these are the hazards of family style dining). Two sides were presented with the main courses, white jasmine rice and grilled asparagus. Last up, for dessert, we were given some different flavors of Japanese mochi ice cream, which we had coincidentally just discovered at home (courtesy of Trader Joe's). Mochi consists of a small dome of ice cream (green tea, for example) encased in a thin layer of sticky rice dough covered in powdered sugar. Sunda serves their version with chocolate, caramel, and fruit dipping sauces.

I left the table feeling pretty satisfied, if not overstuffed (not a bad thing), and was generally pleased with our evening's food offerings. Mrs. Hackknife and I agreed that we'd be willing to make a return visit, although maybe not as much if we had to pick up the tab next time. We'll see...