Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cushaw Squash-Apple Butter

The easiest way to tell that we're in the death throes of another farmbox season is that the squashes are showing up fast and furious. This year so far, we've received acorn, butternut, buttercup, and, just this past week, a lesser-known variety like the one seen in the photo above known as a green-striped Cushaw. At first, I hadn't the slightest clue what this monster gourd (about the size of a canned ham and weighing in around 8 lb) in my garage was nor did I have any idea what to do with it. After a bit of investigation, I determined that it's actually an heirloom (i.e., once popular, but now rarely found) squash variety that's now mostly favored in Southern locales like Tennessee, New Mexico, and Louisiana, primarily as a substitute for pumpkin (in fact, you might be able to find a Cushaw pie somewhere in Cajun country if you look hard enough). Some more digging turned up a recipe for pumpkin (or other winter squash) apple butter on a vegan cooking blog. I'm not normally in the practice of seeking out vegan recipes, but it looked appetizing/not terribly challenging and was a change of pace from the usual stuffed squash or roasted squash that are my fallback preps.

Like many squash dishes, the hardest part involves reducing the squash into a usable pulp for cooking. With this one, I simply chopped off the long neck, (carefully) sliced open the body and dug the seeds/guts out of the cavity, and roasted the halves face-down in a glass baking dish at 350F until tender (about 45 minutes). Once it cooled a bit, I peeled off the skin using a vegetable peeler, then sliced the meat into roughly 1-inch cubes. After plumping the raisins (which didn't really plump much) in apple juice, I threw the squash pieces along with the juice and raisins into a food processor and turned it on, praying that the liquid in the bowl wouldn't overflow onto my counter and cabinets (the mixture was above the danger level marked on the side, giving me a bit of pause - I had a bad experience once that started out like this). Luckily, no leakage occurred and I completed the recipe without incident.

When finished, the resulting mish-mash of applesauce, heirloom squash, sweeteners, and spices resembled not so much a butter as a spread or a slurry, if you will. Despite its appearance, it was actually quite tasty. I tried it on wheat toast, English muffin, and even straight up as a sweet side along with dinner. My favorite use ended up being as a topping for vanilla ice cream, echoed by Mrs. Hackknife. Tastewise, you couldn't tell that there was squash in there instead of pumpkin, and I think that the squash bits gave it a nice texture, almost comparable to coconut flakes. A week after the fact, I'm still enjoying the remnants (viva la vegan!)....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Once Upon a Bagel/Arriva Dolce

It's become clear to me that Highland Park (an upper-class suburb located on the lakefront north of Chicago, if you're an out-of-towner) has emerged in 2011 as the epicenter of foodie culture outside of the city limits. About every other week, I'm seemingly reading snippets about new cupcake shops, pizzerias, barbecue joints, diners, ice cream parlors, and farm-to-table bistros opening up in Highland Park, which already had a decent concentration of well-respected restaurants even before this flurry of activity. Fortunately for us here at the Commissary, Mrs. Hackknife's brother Dan and his family (including wife Michelle, friend of the blog) reside in Highland Park, providing us with convenient access to the nearby culinary delights. It was with that in mind that the progeny and I stopped by the house a few Fridays ago for a lunch date with Michelle and cousin Connor. The 5 of us trucked over in the minivan to a local delicatessen called Once Upon A Bagel (OUAB), which was recently cited in a Chicago Tribune article by food writer Kevin Pang as having some of the best bagels in town. When we walked in the front door, my first impression was that this was simply a bakery, with racks upon racks of fresh bagels lining the narrow walkway behind the counter (the aroma was, well, striking). Towards the back of the restaurant, however, were many tables for patrons stopping by for a meal, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner - the menu is extensive enough that you could probably eat here daily for a month and not repeat a food selection. The portions were huge and were very reasonably priced, even taking into account the North Shore address. I opted for what is described on the menu as a grilled boat sandwich, that is, a meat (or tuna salad, in my case) topped with melted cheese and toasted on a fresh bialy (like a bagel, but longer), served with a pickle wrapped in butcher paper. The tuna salad was great, not gloppy with mayo like so many other places serve it, loaded with chunks of tuna. Hackknife Jr. dove into a large platter of chicken tenders with fries, while Hackknifette consumed an adult-sized hot dog in its entirety (that's my girl). Michelle was kind enough to let me sample both her matzo ball soup and her pastrami sandwich, both of which were delicious. On our way out, it was everything I could do to prevent myself from ordering a dozen bagels to go. I'm filled with sorrow that we have no comparable deli option within a 30-mile radius of the Commissary (support for moving north, I guess).

Although the day was gray, cool, and breezy, the kids had been good enough in a crowded restaurant during Friday lunchtime rush that us parents promised them a treat within walking distance of OUAB. About 4 blocks away is the newly-opened Arriva Dolce, a gelato and coffee bar that we were pleased to find open on a Friday afternoon in the middle of November (not exactly peak consumption time for gelato). Although they don't make their gelato in-house (according to their website, Palazzolo's in Fernville, MI provides the goods), what we sampled was excellent, including chocolate hazelnut, mint chocolate chip, and pumpkin cheesecake (my ultimate choice) for Fall. All told, this was a terrific way to cap off a terrific lunch date with the family. Now we only need to make about 16 more trips to Highland Park to visit the rest of the dining establishments....

Carolina Barbecued Pork/Cabbage-Kohlrabi Slaw with Salsa Verde

The dog days of summer mean 2 things (well, more than 2 things, really, but let's just assume that's true for the sake of this posting): last-ditch cookout recipes start appearing in the food publications and the humble kohlrabi starts showing up in my farmbox. Not content to simply chop it, boil it, and combine it with butter/Parmesan cheese (not a bad way to go, by the way), Wall Street Journal was kind enough back in July to publish a collection of cookout recipes that included a novel use for kohlrabi; that is, in a spicy cole slaw with salsa verde (see recipe here). This prep calls for combining shredded cabbage (also from my farmbox), grated kohlrabi, red onion, sea salt, mint leaves, parsley, thyme, extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, garlic, lemon juice, and shallot soaked in champagne vinegar. As far as cole slaws go, it's not creamy, but it packs quite a zing and marries well with barbecued meats, especially the pulled pork I made with it. The pulled pork recipe (see here) is provided courtesy of the folks at Crock-Pot and is the 2nd version I've tried. It's pretty much idiot-proof and requires no overnight marinading like the other recipe I attempted a while back. The Crock-Pot does all of the work and the meat is doubly enhanced by the Carolina-style bbq sauce, which is a mixture of cider vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, sugar, dry mustard, garlic salt, and a touch of cayenne pepper. Some of the sauce goes over the pork while cooking, with the rest reserved for mealtime. For an added flavor boost, I tried making a couple of pulled pork sandwiches with the slaw on the sandwich like they do in the South and it was mighty delicious (which is good, since, with a 4-to-6 pound shoulder, you'll be eating pork for a long time).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chilled Beet Gazpacho

Way back in August (which seems a long time ago - it was 43F outside the Commissary today), Wall Street Journal published a one-page article on cold summer soups, including a chilled corn soup with fresh nutmeg, asparagus vichyssoise, chilled sake cucumber honeydew soup, chilled almond soup, and a chilled beet gazpacho. I don't have much experience doing soups (there was that basil-zucchini one not so long ago, which, oddly enough, didn't show up in this article), but we do get a lot of beets from the farm, so I made a mental note to try the gazpacho the next time we got some. Lo and behold, less than a month went by before some red beauties showed up - I decided to throw together our house meatloaf and pair it with gazpacho for a little change of pace at the dinner table.

The recipe (see here) was pretty much a snap. I roasted the beets in the oven (my usual prep for them) rather than steam them, with the end result being the same. The trickiest part was finding sherry vinegar (which, to this day, I still haven't located after checking numerous food stores) - I was able to determine via Internet search that red wine vinegar is a suitable substitute in its absence. The author states in the article that the gazpacho "has a pickled quality that is not for the faint of heart" and they're not just whistling Dixie. It does, in fact, have a pretty good bite to it if you prep it according to the instructions (Mrs. Hackknife was a bit turned off by this, but I soldiered on and was able to eat several servings of it over the next few days). Given the onion and garlic content, you'll be assured of keeping most people a safe distance away for a while following consumption....

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Burt's Place

There is little dispute that Chicago is a pizza town. As a kid, I ate a lot of frozen pizza (Tombstone or Tony's were our mainstays) and a fair amount of delivered thin crust (from a place in Mt. Prospect called Rosati's), especially on Saturday nights when Mom was getting ready to go out with the girls and didn't want to fuss in the kitchen. Every other month or so, as a special treat, we'd pick up our favorite - deep-dish sausage from Geno's East, which conveniently opened a restaurant in Rolling Meadows not more than 10 minutes from the house (prior to that, if you wanted Geno's, you had to go to the original Superior St. location). This was the pizza I dreamed about when I was away at college or living in Dallas, where the best pie one could get (not to mention afford) was Pizza Hut or Domino's (shudder). Now back in Chicago, as a middle-aged adult with deeper pockets, I've had the pleasure of branching out a little beyond Geno's to try other great pizzas that the city has to offer, several of which I've written about in this blog (Louisa's, Pequod's, Stop 50, and Apart, to name a few).

A recent (September 29, 2011) article in the Tribune, however, reminded me that there are still plenty of untried options out there, for example, Burt's Place in Morton Grove. Burt's first appeared on my radar screen almost 3 years ago when watching a No Reservations episode filmed in Chicago. In the segment, Burt Katz (owner and head chef) comes off as something of a cranky crackpot, moody and seemingly unconcerned with small details such as consistent operating hours for the restaurant or even bothering to answer the phone for orders. In spite of these rough edges, Anthony Bourdain loved the pizza, speaking about it in hushed, reverential tones. I'd lived here almost my whole life and fancied myself something of a pizza expert - how had I not heard of this place, in the Northwest Suburbs (my neck of the woods), no less? Needless to say, I was intrigued and I filed the notion away for future reference that we needed to eat there sometime. Fast forward to September 29. The Tribune article is released and I get the vibe from reading it that Burt, now 74, may be starting to get the retirement itch. If this local elder statesman of the pizza arts (who opened his first place, Gulliver's, way back in 1965, and the original Pequod's, around the corner from his current place, in 1971) were to hang up his apron before I'd had the chance to try his food, would I be able to live with myself? Absolutely not. Would my readers ever forgive me? Don't answer that. Thus, I made the executive decision that Mrs. Hackknife and I would be going to Burt's for pizza as soon as possible, writing down Friday, October 21 as the date.

Burt's has no website, so I trolled the foodie boards looking for advice on how to secure a reservation. Since Burt does everything himself, you can't simply show up and demand to be fed, you need to call ahead a day or two in advance with your order. Many people posted that the line was always busy or just rang continuously. I tried getting through on the Tuesday before the 21st and got a recorded message that the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Undaunted, I tried again on Wednesday at about 11:30a - Burt himself answered the phone (apparently, they run a lean operation). He wasn't cranky. He wasn't moody. He didn't spout off gibberish about how Kraft is controlling the world's population by dispensing inferior Mozzarella. He was cordial, polite, and patient, even as I hemmed and hawed over how many jalapeno poppers to get as an appetizer (2 or 4? No pizza for me?). I gave him my pizza order (pan style, sausage, bell peppers, and onions, extra large) and he told me to arrive 15 minutes before my requested reservation time of 7 pm so he could "get your drinks and get you drunk". I hung up the phone feeling relieved. It was almost charming to talk with him. I couldn't wait until Friday.

Friday night arrived and I drove to Morton Grove (about 45 minutes from the Commissary) to meet Mrs. Hackknife. I was early, so I made a little detour into a large Asian marketplace (much like Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights) in Niles that I happened to pass, stopping just long enough to pick up an 8-pack of little ping pong ball-sized walnut cakes from a food stand inside (dessert, you know). Burt's is located in an old blacksmith's shop (circa 1880) near downtown Morton Grove on a relatively-quiet residential street - it could be a neighborhood bar in any town anywhere. Upon entering, you can see why they want you to call ahead. It's small. The dining room fits about 10 mismatched tables that are pretty much on top of one another. There's a coat rack, a table to hold finished pizza pans (no room for them on the dining tables), and a plethora of clutter (old radios, model trains, autographed pictures) conjuring images of a long-departed elderly relative's basement. Some bloggers have complained that the place isn't clean, but I thought of it more as dusty character, no different than a hundred taverns/pizzerias that I visited as a kid all throughout the Midwest.

Burt's wife (who waits tables) came by to get my drink order. Not wanting to come off as elitist in this homage to lowbrow dining, I ordered a Miller Lite - she chuckled a little, explaining that they only offered better beers, like North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner (which I was happy to take in its place - the dining may be lowbrow, but the beer selection isn't). Out came the poppers and they weren't bad, but clearly this isn't why you come here. By this time, Mrs. Hackknife had arrived (she was about 10 minutes late) and a relieved waitstaff brought out our pizza. I think they were starting to get nervous and I suspect I know why - I had read in the Tribune article that Burt's kitchen is about as big as one might find on a submarine, so I suspect that they were taking up valuable oven space keeping our pizza warm. In any case, it arrived at our table fresh, hot, and, pardon my French, f^&*%#g delicious (see photo above). Most accounts I've seen regarding the characteristics of a Burt pie say that it's somewhere between thin and deep dish (sort of a "medium" dish) and I would call that accurate. The peppers were bright and flavorful, as was the sausage, which was randomly scattered atop the crust in large chunks. The sauce had a bit of sweetness to it and the cheese was well-distributed, not overly thick like you'd find in the typical deep-dish variety. The crust was rich, but not cloyingly so, and the signature band of burnt caramelized cheese was there, encircling the rim of the pie (subtly, I might add, not as prominent as Pequod's version). Every bite was perfectly harmonious - if there ever were a pizza that was precisely balanced between the crust, cheese, sauce, and toppings, this was it. It was so harmonious that I didn't think twice about downing two gigantic slices, behavior that would normally keep me close to a restroom the next day after eating deep-dish (no gastrointestinal distress here). Lucky for us, we had ordered the extra large, so there were precious leftovers to bring home.

Towards the end of the meal, I happened to glance towards the kitchen door and saw Burt standing there, briefly surveying his dominion before retreating back to the galley. Did it matter that he resembled an indigent Santa Claus? Did it matter that his pizza was served on plates bearing the IHOP logo? Did it matter that I had to jump through a few minor hoops to get this experience? Heavens, no. My only regret is that I can't eat this amazing pizza every week and I might only be fortunate enough to have it a time or two more before the ovens go cold and Burt wanders off into the sunset. Do yourself a favor, dear readers - get this pizza, get it now, don't wait. There may not be another chance....

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Overnight French Toast Casserole

Many thanks to Texan-by-way-of-Trinidad Deb Boopsingh for cluing me in to this recipe. Apparently, someone discovered that when you have a lot of leftover bread of just about any variety (in my case, French bread cut into 3" segments for Italian beef sandwiches, procured for Hackknife Jr.'s birthday party), it can make a tasty French toast casserole for breakfast the next day. During the week, we don't do extravagant breakfasts, but every once in a while, we get a little crazy on the weekend and this recipe clearly fits the bill. It's adapted from a website called and I found it posted on fellow blogger Mommy's Kitchen page here: Overnight French Toast Casserole.

As always, I made a few adjustments when making the dish to address various limitations. The 12 pieces of roll I had didn't fill up a 9"x13" glass pan, so I used a smaller one and cut down a bit on the butter (6 Tbsp. instead of a full stick). I followed the "alternative" method of arranging the bread; that is, instead of cutting it into strips and making two layers (with 1/2 of cinnamon-sugar mixture in between), I opted for one layer, although I didn't add flour to the batter or individually dip each piece before placing it in the dish (I did sort of roll them around in the batter after pouring it over them). Since my kids are not fans of nuts, I left the pecans out.

When I removed the casserole from the oven and gave it a try, it was good, but I wasn't exactly blown away by it. Mrs. Hackknife, however, who happens to be a French toast connoisseur (and also holds the unofficial title of "Bacon Ambassador") thought it was delicious, the keys being the caramelized brown sugar topping and the maple syrup (real stuff, not that Aunt Jemima crud) drizzled over the slices about 5 minutes before taking them out. The progeny, as expected, offered little to no attempt. Regardless, this recipe appears to have become our go-to French toast moving forward.

Short Ribs Braised in Chimay Red

This is the second short rib recipe I've attempted at the Commissary. For this one, Daniel Duane of Men's Journal is the recipe source - I cribbed it from a "Cooking with Beer" article in the March 2011 issue. It's a little bit simpler than the Wine Spectator version I tried last year. The gimmick is that you use a Belgian beer (Chimay Red, in this case, although any beer will do as long as it's not too bitter) as the braising liquid, the idea being that the beer helps tenderize the tough cut of meat (i.e., the short ribs) and adds flavor to the whole melange. Here's the recipe:

Approx. 2 cups Chimay Red (can be found at better liquor stores)
1-2 Tbsp. canola oil
2.5 lb beef short ribs
kosher salt
3 medium onions (about 1.5 lb), sliced 1/4" thick
2 bay leaves
1 tsp white peppercorns
a few dried porcini mushrooms
Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 300F. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet or dutch oven on high heat. Dry ribs with a paper towel, salt generously, and sear on all sides. Add onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, and dried porcini. Pour in enough ale to bring the liquid to about 3/4 of the way up the meat. Cover the skillet partway with a lid, place in the oven, and cook at the barest of simmers for 2 hours or until the meat is tender enough to pull apart with a pair of forks. Use a gravy separator to remove fat from the braising liquid. Divide the meat and onions among bowls, then pour some liquid in each. Serve with mustard on the side.

I made a couple of minor revisions out of necessity. First, I had some difficulty finding dried porcini mushrooms, or at least identifying them. My local ethnic grocery store had a small rack of dried mushroom packets from somewhere Slavic (Poland? Belarus?); unfortunately, they were poorly labeled, not to mention expensive. Rather than guess at whether or not the puzzling mushrooms inside were porcini, I opted to leave out this ingredient (possibly robbing my dish of some precious umami as a result). I also couldn't find white peppercorns, so I used some black ones I had at home. We had some carrots left over from Hackknife Jr.'s party that I threw into the pot for a little variety.

Other than making a mess with the gravy separator (it either doesn't work so well or I need some instruction on it), I didn't have any trouble pulling the recipe together. The final result was, well, not bad, but a little fatty again (apparently, finding decent short ribs is not so easy) and somewhat potent owing to the black peppercorns (which, I think, are more robust than the white ones). I'll keep this one around for future consideration in the event I can find better ribs or a different meat cut (brisket? oxtail?) to try....