Monday, January 30, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 3

Our last full day at the fest was nearly as packed with activities as the prior one. This time, a buffet breakfast was served on the patio for us courtesy of Food & Wine, who was sponsoring a brief meet-and-greet event with Dana Cowin and Jose Andres prior to the day's main program. Dana did her best to interview the chef; however, he's the type of individual that finds it difficult to stay seated for very long (Photo #1 above shows one of those rare moments). He was quite enthusiastic to talk to our group about his experience being a guest lecturer of culinary physics at Harvard, gave a related impromptu demo on the surface tension properties of water and how it can be applied to innovative cooking techniques in the kitchen, and outlined his ever-widening charity efforts. The F&W folks also managed to keep him around long enough to sign copies of his latest cookbook (Made in Spain) for everyone (all of this activity took place, mind you, during a frenetic 25 minutes, a pace that I'm sure the chef is typically accustomed to).

Immediately after the breakfast talk ended, I was told that my morning demo of dessert wine tasting had been cancelled due to low attendance. Apparently, only me and one other guest had signed up for this event - I suppose it might have been a bit awkward if the presenters, head sommelier Aldo Sohm of Le Bernardin and renowned winemaker Gerhard Kracher, had only two attendees to entertain for 90 minutes (indeed, I can envision a quite-plausible scenario where the 4 of us would have gotten really snookered on sweet vino, resulting in my premature withdrawal from the rest of the day's festivities - see Las Vegas, August 2010). In order to make up for my troubles, the Ritz had two bottles of VERY nice dessert wine delivered to our room courtesy of Messr. Kracher (they're currently chilling in our wine fridge - ask me to bust one open next time you visit the Commmissary), plus they let me sneak in to a different demo, this one featuring Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain (titled "Good vs. Evil") alternately interrogating each other (all very tongue in cheek). In real life, the two gents are best pals (see Photo #2 above), which led to some pretty hilarious dialogue between them about their various shortcomings, likes/dislikes (Paula Deen and Gordon Ramsey, among others, came up in conversation), etc. Anyway, the best part of this tete-a-tete? At the conclusion, I left the tent and was walking back towards the resort when I saw Anthony Bourdain meet up with his little daughter (I think she's around 3 or 4) and start walking with her on the beach, which, of course, made me think of my own children and feel guilty about how it's heels like me that are preventing this poor guy from spending quality time with his kid. Then I got over it and headed to lunch.

After our beef-heavy midday meal yesterday, we were excited about getting an all-seafood lunch at Blue prepared by Eric Ripert's right-hand man onsite, Chef Luis Lujan (a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, where if he had hung around long enough, he probably would have crossed paths with Rick Bayless). While we sipped some fine wines from Washington that Mrs. Hackknife had brought over from her earlier demo (and some rose Champagne from fellow attendees Ron and Santiago, who were kind enough to share with us), Chef Lujan showed us how he prepared two of our courses, then took the group on a walk-through of Blue's kitchen (where we ran into Chef Blais again, who was preparing a horseradish creme fraiche for his own demo taking place that afternoon). Lunch was served on the warm patio (leading to my only sunburn of the weekend) and consisted of seared local wahoo Nicoise with liquid olive (another El Bulli legacy) and mustard vinaigrette, baked local snapper and seafood medley in a basquaise sauce (think paprika - see Photo #3 above), and a caramel parfait with apple, ginger snaps, and eggnog ice cream.

Bellies full, we waddled back down to the beach for our early afternoon demo with Richard Blais, who had his trademark liquid nitrogen tank at the ready to help make his version of one of Thomas Keller's signature dishes, oysters and pearls (see Photo #4 above). In place of the pearl tapioca that they use at French Laundry (where Chef Blais worked for a spell), he immersed droplets of the horseradish emulsion that he was whipping up when we saw him in Blue's kitchen into a liquid nitrogen bath, thus freezing them into "pearls" for the oyster topping. Everyone in attendance got to sample an oyster on the half-shell with a bit of salty roe and the frozen, spicy horseradish dots, which was a delicious combination.

Amazingly, the wife and I actually had a break in our afternoon schedule following the Blais event. I used a good chunk of this time to wander off-resort to the nearest supermarket (one of my habits when we travel abroad), only about a 5-minute walk away. Much to my consternation, I found little in the way of exotic food offerings and decided that there was little difference between this market and your average Piggly Wiggly back home (presumably due to the large contingent of Americans vacationing on the island). The liquor store around the corner was a bit better, offering Caribe lager (made in Trinidad & Tobago) and the local Caybrew, two beers that weren't particularly distinctive tasting, but valuable to the bottle cap collection nonetheless. Rushing back to the resort, I met up with Mrs. Hackknife on the beach for our last demo of the festival, Sunset Cocktails and Ceviche with Eric Ripert. All of the attendees got to imbibe some sort of rum cocktail and try a couple of tasty ceviches that Chef Ripert and his assistant whipped up for us.

We needed to depart the demo a little early to meet up with our AmEx BIO group at the boat dock on the land side of the resort. It was here that we were loaded onto 4 different boats for the short cruise (about 15 minutes) to Camana Bay for our dinner. In the tropical twilight, the boat ride was spectacular (hard to believe that we'd be back up North in less than 24 hours), winding through the golf course, out into the bay (which was a bit choppy), and back through the canals to the marina at Camana Bay, a modern shopping complex with several restaurants and stores. Our bunch of revelers was treated to hors d'oeuvres on the green behind the complex while we awaited the arrival of Anthony Bourdain, who was slated to do a private book signing with us. Once he appeared, he was kind enough to take pictures and sign autographs for everyone, as was his pal Jose Andres, who made an impromptu visit in the middle of the signing (I came to the conclusion that Chef Andres is pretty much everywhere all the time). Mrs. Hackknife and I chose to eat our dinner at Ortanique, which was featuring a menu assembled by Chefs Richard Blais and Cindy Hutson. Andrea Immer Robinson (of the former Simply Wine tv show on the Fine Living Network, a program that we used to regularly watch) and her husband were also present, pouring wines that they chose to match the menu. Our meal began with a plate of wahoo tartare, fried Cayman chicken, pickled radish, and smoked aioli, served with an Italian rose sparkling wine. This was followed by a bisque containing creamy truffled conch, lobster, and chanterelles, with a side of micro greens and fava beans (washed down with a Chardonnay). Up next was a ravioli "cassoulet" containing toasted curry-braised duck and lentil ragout, pair with a Sonoma Pinot Noir. Last, but not least, was in my opinion the best beef dish of the weekend (yes, more Certified Angus Beef, buy some today!), a filet encrusted with cocoa and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, with an amarena cherry demi-glace, breadfruit, and a cheddar gratin (also excellent). Everyone at the table received a cookies and cream truffle as a parting gift before heading back to the green for the dessert extravaganza to conclude the evening's festivities. Dessert chefs Chris Hanmer and Francois Payard (a well-regarded pastry chef who worked at Le Bernardin prior to starting his own popular patisserie in New York) were there passing out their creations along with several others. There were so many awesome sweets around that I could hardly contain myself (should have skipped dinner - see Photo #5 above). Sadly, I have but one stomach to give for my country and my limits had been reached. The missus and I retreated to the resort at that point to do a little late evening stargazing on the beach before bed and our return flight tomorrow.

As soon as we got home, we were already scheming to see if we could somehow engineer another vacation around a future Cayman Cookout (this was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, you know). The lineup of celebrity chefs changes every year except for the core 3 (Ripert, Bourdain, and Andres, who seem to use the occasion to get together and party, and who can blame them?) - we do know that Mario Batali and Rick Bayless (local guy), among others, are slated for 2013, but I suspect there may be a few more iterations of the fest before we can make it back....

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 2

Day 2 of our excursion started out warm and sunny, pretty much as one would expect for the Caribbean in January. Since we were still stuffed from the banquet last evening, Mrs. Hackknife and I scrounged a couple of items from the hotel coffee shop (bananas, muffins, muesli, and the like) in lieu of a sit-down breakfast. By 10 am, we were parked underneath a tent on the beach for the first cooking demo of the day, entitled "Jose Andres en la Playa". At first, Chef Andres was nowhere to be found, but as he was introduced, he and his family emerged from the surf in full scuba gear and tromped up on stage dripping wet (the chef is nothing if not a showman). Grand entrance complete, he directed the mostly-staid spectators down to the beach where two firepits were set up to hold giant paella pans, the crux of his cooking demonstration. Several attendees were pressed into service as unpaid sous-chefs (see Photo #1 above) to help prepare sangria, grilled oysters with mignonette, and, lastly, a delicious seafood paella made with (of all things) pasta instead of the more traditional rice.

After closing the demo with a group rendition of the chef's theme song (a rap number, no less), the missus and I headed over to Seven (the resort's steakhouse) for our group lunch featuring a menu conceived by Anthony Bourdain and sponsored by Certified Angus Beef (apparently, the beef people ponied up significant dollars for this festival). Messr. Bourdain (I get the urge to call him chef, although I realize that he hasn't technically been one for about 10 years now) himself was present to introduce the menu and stuck around to visit with each table for a few minutes. The first course saw us dining on a number of small bites, including salt cod brandade on crostini, assorted French crudites (vegetables), finocchiona (fennel-infused salami) and coppa (pork shoulder salami) provided by Creminelli (a Utah-based Italian meat supplier), and a duck mousse pate, all washed down with a Stonestreet Sauvignon Blanc. So substantial were the initial offerings that I made a crack to Tony (I can call him that - we're buds now) as he passed by about how this must be a conspiracy to get us to eat less at the beach bbq later that evening (he responded with a quip about how it was like when unscrupulous buffet operators fill up their patrons with cheap starches before putting out the expensive stuff). We probably could have stopped at that point (after all, we still had two more demos that afternoon and I was starting to experience some gastrointestinal distress, which I'm sure had nothing to do with all of the rich food and drink passing through the system), but no, Course #2 was beckoning, featuring grilled cote de boeuf with roasted bone marrow, Pommes Pont Neuf (basically, thick-cut fries), Green Beans Almondine, and bordelaise sauce, paired with a Tuscan red. This was followed by some cheeses and a red Bordeaux wine, at which point Mrs. Hackknife (who had just completed a spirited conversation with Tony about the differences between his new show, "Layover", and his long-running "No Reservations" series) and I ducked out before dessert (warm cherry clafoutis with Tahitian vanilla ice cream) to catch our 2 pm demo with April Bloomfield.

Bloomfield is a British chef that is currently the gastro-pub queen of New York City (the New Yorker did an in-depth article last year on her latest culinary exploits). Although her demo was titled "April Bloomfield Meets the West Indies", she opted to show everyone a most un-Caribbean recipe, a beef and Stilton pie - my suspicion is that she had originally planned to do something a little more in keeping with the island spirit, but, was forced into Plan B due to unforeseen issues. Regardless, we, the audience, were the beneficiaries as Mrs. Hackknife and I got to sample a sizable chunk of an earlier-baked pie at the conclusion of the presentation. It was quite tasty and very rich, possibly owing to the fact that she used suet (the raw, hard fat surrounding the loins/kidneys of cows or sheep, which seems like a very British thing) as the fat in making her dough (apparently, it's not just for bird feeders). After a brief respite between demos during which I had to conduct, um, further gastrointestinal management, Chef Laurent Gras took the same stage to prepare an excellent green curry tuna ceviche. I was pretty excited to see Chef Gras in action - for those of you unaware, until recently, he was the proud operator of L2O, a 3-Michelin star seafood restaurant in Chicago specializing in Alinea-like preparations of fish (he also maintained an amazing blog documenting the steps involved in making many of his dishes), until he decamped in a huff to New York City following a philosophical dispute with the restaurant's parent company. L2O has since lost 2 of its 3 stars and the chef has moved on to bigger and better projects of his own on the East Coast; sadly, it's become clear that our fair city is the poorer for his departure. Anyway, there were no crazy tricks involved in making the ceviche as he kept everything simple and straightforward, with an emphasis on the fresh ingredients at his disposal. Getting a chance to sample his great cooking only made me regret more that we hadn't been able to visit L2O before he left town.

As AmEx BIO attendees, the missus and I had a pre-dinner excursion arranged for us as the sun began to set on Day 2; that is, a catamaran ride (see Photo #2 above) with our fellow guests and some of the Food & Wine Magazine personalities, including Dana Cowin and Ray Isle, the publication's executive wine editor. The main purpose of the boat ride (other than to cruise the water during sundown) was to try several wines from the portfolio of the Incisa della Rochetta family of Tuscany, one of whom (Piero, a grandson of the founder) rode along with us to provide commentary (and eye candy for the female attendees). Wines from Argentina and Italy were passed around for everyone, with the absolute highlight being the 2008 Sassicaia, a Super Tuscan (Bordeaux-style blend, not the sangiovese-based wines that Tuscany is known for) widely considered one of the best Italian wines on the market (by the way, it's priced accordingly at about $175 a bottle). At the conclusion of the boat excursion, Eric Ripert was present to meet us beachside and walk us up as a group to the Barefoot BBQ, the evening's main dinner event held at a local beach bar. Chefs Ripert, Andres, and Bourdain each had a buffet station (see Tony in action, Photo #3 above) that they manned for almost the duration of the night (I have to give those guys credit as they've certainly earned the right not to toil away carving meat for the masses for an extended period). Bourdain served up porchetta (boneless Italian pork roast) with arugula and fennel salad, while Ripert dished out grilled beef tomahawk (there's that beef sponsor again). At the far side of the venue, Jose Andres had the most intriguing food choices at his station, including lox and bagel "cones" and slices from a big leg of Iberico ham, plus more Certified Angus Beef (prime strip steak). There was also a wide selection of ceviches, desserts, and side dishes to choose from. We certainly had no shortage of food, but given the size of the event (easily 600 or 700 people) and the buffet format, the quality was not quite as good as the prior evening's dinner or today's lunch. The circus-like atmosphere certainly made up for any deficiencies on the plate - while in line at Eric Ripert's station, we ran into Richard Blais again (this time with his wife) and got to chat a bit more. Many of the other chefs (including April Bloomfield, Laurent Gras, and Chris Hanmer) were also there with family/friends to grab some grub and mingle before resting up for Day 3. As the evening progressed, we discovered an unlimited supply of adult beverages (including CayBrew, the island's local beer) available for our consumption; however, we opted not to overimbibe and eventually headed back to the resort with some other group members as the festivities began winding down.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cayman Cookout - Day 1

We have now reached my postings on what will probably be the apex of our culinary adventures here in the Commissary for some time to come (unless I happen to receive an invitation to become a sous chef for Rick Bayless in the coming weeks). In lieu of your average milestone parties, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to treat ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime foodie trip as our 40th birthday gift to each other. The destination? Grand Cayman. The event? The 4th Annual Cayman Cookout, a lavish food and wine festival held at the Ritz-Carlton on Seven Mile Beach every January (conveniently between our birthday months of August and March, respectively). Since he runs a restaurant at the resort (the outstanding Blue), uber-chef Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin in New York City) serves as the "host" of this gathering along with his notorious real-life friends Anthony Bourdain (who generally needs no introduction) and Jose Andres (another amazing chef and culinary personality about whom you'll likely be hearing more soon) and an all-star roster of other well-regarded chefs, sommeliers, and wine professionals. Mix in the white sand, turquoise waters, chill-free atmosphere (save for a tropical drink or two), and numerous meet-and-greet opportunities, and you've got yourself a recipe for a good time. To further up the ante, we invoked the "go big or go home" rule, reserving our tickets through American Express's By Invitation Only (BIO) program (available only to platinum members, of which Mrs. Hackknife conveniently became upon her promotion last year), which allowed us greater access to the demos/special events and the VIPs in attendance. Fortunately, we were able to cash in a vast number of hotel points and a frequent-flyer ticket to help defray some of the travel expenses (lest you think I had to deprive the progeny of their beloved chicken nuggets in order for us to afford it).

So, with tropical wear in the duffel bag and Immodium in tow, Mrs. Hackknife and I left the Commissary on Wednesday night to reach our first stop, the O'Hare Hilton (we decided that our 5:30 am flight on Thursday warranted a stay-over across the street from Terminal 3). An early morning departure turned out to be a prescient move as our flight took off for Miami just a mere hour or two ahead of the season's first major snowstorm. Once in Miami, we celebrated our escape from the clutches of Old Man Winter by lunching at La Carreta, an outpost of Cuban cuisine conveniently located in Terminal D just a few gates from our connecting flight. Saveur Magazine recently recommended La Carreta's roast pork with black beans/rice in its January-February 2012 issue; however, since it was technically still breakfast time (even on the East Coast), I had to settle for a tasty Cuban sandwich (ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles) to tide me over until later. After a brief scare during which I was separated from my passport (it had been left AWOL on an airline seat while I was loading the overhead bin) and, as a result, threatened with exile from the plane, we were cruising over the deep-blue ocean, skimming over Cuba en route to Grand Cayman.

Over the years, I've had the good fortune to visit several Caribbean islands, but never the Caymans until now. Upon arrival, our driver gave us some basic statistics regarding what was to be our home for the next 3 days (most of the full-time residents are Jamaican, it's about 20 miles long by 4 miles wide, Don King is the Prime Minister - just kidding). This was extremely helpful since we didn't get to actually see much of the island outside of the resort, such was the level of immersion into our festival experience (a nagging sinus infection thwarted what I had planned to be my only off-site excursion, a snorkel trip to Stingray City). Apparently, the Cayman Cookout is the marquis event each year for both the Ritz and Grand Cayman, as evidenced by the number of support staff and hotel guests milling about the complex. Never having stayed at a Ritz-Carlton property before, I was blown away by the level of service from the moment that you walk into the lobby until the moment you check out, making you feel like royalty instead of some schlub with a mediocre food blog. Upon checking in, we made our way to the AmEx hospitality area (located in a private area on the patio facing the beach) to receive our badges and tickets for the various seminars we would be attending. Despite the early wake-up call and lack of shower, the smooth glass of Champagne (sponsored by Moet) and rich rum cake went down mighty easy. Eventually snapping back to reality, we headed up to our room to unpack and freshen up for the evening's festivities.

Our first item on the agenda was a cocktail hour (located back at the AmEx hospitality area) to hobnob with some celebrities of the food world, namely Richard Blais, Chris Hanmer, and Dana Cowin. As there were only about 30 people that had registered for the Cayman Cookout package under the AmEx BIO program, this gathering was fairly small and allowed for ample conversation with both the guests of honor and other foodie attendees. I was enthralled to be able to briefly talk soccer with fellow Arsenal fan (oh, and also Top Chef All-Star winner and burgeoning restaurant impresario) Richard Blais (see Photo #1 above) and hear stories about how Food & Wine Editor Dana Cowin was able to work some back channels to get into Next (although even she couldn't get Grant Achatz to stop by the restaurant to say hi). We also got to hear a little bit from Chris Hanmer (recent winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts) about his school of pastry design in Las Vegas.

After the cocktail hour concluded, the group made our way up to the Grand Ballroom for a silent auction preceding the evening's dinner, a "Tour de France" prepared by executive chefs from throughout the Ritz-Carlton empire. The auction was pretty crowded, yet we still managed to meet both Tim Duncan (an Executive VP at Silver Oak Winery in Napa, not the former All-Star center for the San Antonio Spurs) and, unexpectedly, Jose Andres, who apparently had sidled in to bid on some lots and possibly to snag a couple of appetizers. The doors to the ballroom opened late, but we were treated to an excellent meal courtesy of Jacques Scott (the largest liquor distributor in the Caymans) and the Maitres Cuisiners de France (an association of chefs dedicated to the preservation of traditional French cuisine, which sounds a little elitist until you're eating some of their wares). Our first course consisted of Iberico ham (you know, the good stuff that comes from acorn-fed pigs) paired with quince jam, goat cheese, lingonberries (who knew that someone other than the Swedes use these?), marcona almonds, and rocket (aka arugula) salad, washed down with a nice Trimbach Pinot Blanc. Course #2 was a duo of walleye yellow pike quenelles (sort of like a dumpling) in a nantua (crayfish) sauce (not seen in my world since the ethereal fish course at the Next Paris 1906 menu), paired with a Latour Meursault white Burgundy. Next up (see Photo #2 above) was a piece of black cod glazed with tangerine and soy, plus vanilla leek, kabocha squash, cashew dukkah (a nut/spice blend), and hibiscus lobster jus, downed with a Bouchard Pere and Fils Gevrey Chambertin (a red Burgundy, my personal favorite). This was followed by a slab of Certified Angus beef tenderloin (the Certified Angus people were another sponsor) served with winter veggies, a walnut panisse, and juniper berry sauce, paired with a Chateau Cantemerle red Bordeaux. Unfortunately, this was the one course that was underwhelming, even just plain bad as my beef was overcooked and the vegetables were somewhat perplexing in both presentation and flavor. Last up was a dessert of Valrhona chocolate gateau with pastis and raspberry cremeux and a bit of champagne sorbet, with a sweet wine (Chateau Coutet) from Sauternes. The dessert was great, although our new pastry chef friend Santiago (one of our fellow foodies) agreed with me that the sorbet was a little superfluous. All of the courses were prepped and plated at stations placed next to the stage (with an overhead camera to give diners a view of the proceedings (very Top Chef-like); in my opinion, this may have led to a slight deterioration in the quality of the meal (which, admittedly, was very good nonetheless considering I had been expecting banquet-level cuisine for this first dinner up until a day or two beforehand). Feeling plenty full of good nosh and drink (and doped up on cold medication), I escorted Mrs. Hackknife upstairs to our chambers so we could rest up for Day #2 of festival fun.....

Monday, January 9, 2012

Dan McGee's

Now that we've got kids in the household and are past a certain age, Mrs. Hackknife and I find more and more that we're willing to forgo the craziness of the typical New Year's Eve bash in favor of a quiet evening dining out and early to bed (lame, I know, but if I had it my way, I'd be snoozing well before midnight). Even better is the occasion where we can get a top-shelf meal without having to trek all the way into the city on such nights (when amateur drinkers are errantly wielding their chariots of steel all over the roads). It is with this in mind that we're very pleased to have a great restaurant just a short drive from the Commissary. Chef Dan McGee opened his namesake eatery in a strip mall on a nondescript stretch of Route 30 in Frankfort back in 2007. An alum of Charlie Trotter's and fine hotels worldwide, Messr. McGee and his staff perfectly execute traditional American dishes with minimal gimmickry or pretension (perhaps an apt description of the neighborhood in which he set up shop). The wife and I have dined there 3 times and have not been disappointed on any visit. So when the time came to book a table for our New Years' feast, we had no problem choosing the venue.

The restaurant was pretty full when we arrived for our 7:30p reservation. Chef McGee was offering a special holiday menu that evening featuring an appetizer, soup/salad, entree, and dessert, all for $65/person (a bargain considering the food and the surroundings). I started with a bowl of polenta-encrusted scallops served on a bed of apple hash (washed down nicely with a glass of Spanish Cava), while Mrs. Hackknife opted for the braised pork belly with Cole slaw. Course #2 entailed a breaded goat cheese/spinach salad (for me) and a bowl of chestnut soup with shredded pheasant (for the missus, who enjoyed the rich chestnut broth, but felt that the pheasant was extraneous). We both loved our entrees - I chose a plate of venison medallions (cooked medium-rare) crowned with small pieces of foie gras, all in a dark blackberry reduction; Mrs. Hackknife got the filet of beef with mashed potatoes and asparagus, simple yet elegant. To cap things off, we split a chocolate truffle cake with peppermint ice cream and a Bavarian cheesecake round, both decadent and the ideal conclusion to a fine meal. The best part? We were home by 9 o'clock and in jammies by 9:30...

Friday, January 6, 2012

Salmon Stew with Lentils/Roasted Vegetables

When you write about your food experiences, you tend to get a lot of food-related items from Santa for Xmas. This year, among other things, I happily unwrapped a bottle of sherry vinegar (you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find this), a basket-of-the-month from iGourmet, a long-sleeved t-shirt with a local pizzeria logo on it, and (of course) a new cookbook, The Family Meal, by the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adria and his wonderstaff at the now-shuttered El Bulli. Chef Adria is known worldwide as the godfather of molecular gastronomy, morphing El Bulli from an ordinary eatery into a temple of culinary wizardry, devising meals that were mind-bending as much as they were stomach-filling. With this in mind, one would think that El Bulli would be the least likely source for a cookbook of simple, humble food, yet this is exactly what has been produced, namely a collection of 3-course meals (appetizer, entree, and dessert) that were prepared in the kitchen for the staff to eat (commonly referred to in restaurant parlance as the "family meal") before getting down to the business of chemistry and magic for the paying customers. The book itself is a welcome departure from the run-of-the-mill cookbook, containing lots of step-by-step pictures, adjusted ingredient lists to scale up (or down) each recipe for 2, 6, 20, or 75 people, very thorough indices (greatly appreciated by anal-retentive you-know-who), and even a cooking timeline for each meal so the home cook can at least attempt to have all 3 parts on the table simultaneously, everything designed to make life easy for the home cook. I was really anxious to try it out and picked a salmon stew with roasted vegetables (plus a white chocolate cream for dessert, which I skipped this time) as my trial recipe, hoping that both Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny would be willing to give it a spin.

Once I started to dig into the heavier details of the recipes, I discovered one reason why the recipes seemed so easy - a lot of the base ingredients (such as stocks, sauces, etc.) are outlined for separate bulk preparation in a front section of the book (this, of course, is how restaurant kitchens really work), then when the time comes to actually cook the meal, you've already completed some of the grunt work. For the salmon stew, I needed to whip up a batch of picada (described by Adria as "an aromatic sauce traditionally used in Catalan cuisine as a base flavoring", containing saffron, garlic, parsley, olive oil, and hazelnuts, sort of a Spanish pesto) and a separate preparation of sofrito (another base flavoring, this one containing garlic, olive oil, onions, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, tomatoes, and salt). Since I was making the smallest serving size of stew (i.e., for 2 people), I only needed 2 tsp. and 1 Tbsp., respectively, of each sauce, but a lot of the recipes in the book call for these flavorings, so I put the excess into ice cube trays in single-tsp. increments to be frozen for later use. Making the picada appeared to be straightforward:

1. Wrap 1 tsp. of saffron threads in foil and toast in a warm frying pan for a few seconds (I had a complex about ruining the saffron, which costs about $10 a container, so I kept it in the pan for a very short time, not knowing if it really even toasted or not).
2. Mix 1 clove garlic, 2/3 cup parsley leaves, the toasted (or not-toasted) saffron, and 2.5 Tbsp. olive oil in a bowl. Use a hand blender to make a coarse paste (apparently, they must have been using better hand blenders at El Bulli than mine here in the Commissary, since mine can't really chop up much unless it's primarily in liquid form - I had to punt and use a small food processor instead).
3. Add 1/4 c. of toasted, blanched hazelnuts and continue to process into a fine paste.

The last step is where the trouble started. It's not easy to find hazelnuts in the store - all I could located was a bag of hazelnuts in the shell. If you've ever tried to remove a hazelnut shell, you're in for a treat. I needed a meat hammer to pound them off, spraying shards all over the Commissary in the process. That's not the worst part, though. In order to blanch the nuts, you have to remove the tight skin covering the inner nut after de-shelling. This allegedly is accomplished by either 1) roasting them in a hot oven for 20 minutes or 2) soaking them in boiling water. I tried both methods and still couldn't get the damn skins off, having to resort to laboriously scraping each nut under running water using my fingernails to finally get the job done (thank God I only needed 1/4 c. of them). I now understand why El Bulli was an expensive restaurant - apparently, you need a dedicated staff member (or a nut purveyor that employs slave labor) just for prepping hazelnuts. I can assure you that I will be avoiding future Family Meal recipes that use picada unless I can get hazelnuts that have already been worked over.

Making the sofrito was a little bit better:

1. Puree 1 garlic clove into paste using a hand blender (again, mine was not up to the task, so I smashed it with a fork - the garlic, that is, not the blender).
2. Fry the garlic paste in 2 tsp. of olive oil on medium heat until browned (I gave up on browning after about 10 minutes, not wanting bitter, overcooked garlic)
3. Add 1 1/3 c. finely chopped onion, a pinch each of thyme and rosemary, and 1/6 of a bay leaf and cook until the onion is browned.
4. Add about 1 1/3 Tbsp. of tomato puree (I MacGyver'ed some puree up using 3 parts tomato paste to 5 parts water) and cook for 30 minutes.
5. Add another 1/3 Tbsp. of tomato puree and cook for another 30 minutes.

With my 2 base sauces done, I was finally free to proceed with the actual recipes. I made the roasted vegetables first:

1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Drizzle a large eggplant and a large red pepper with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, place in a roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt.
3. Wrap 2 medium onions in foil and add to the roasting pan. Roast the vegetables for 45 minutes.
4. Let vegetables cool, then remove the blackened skin and the seeds from the pepper. Cut the stem off the eggplant and remove the outer skin. Cut the peeled eggplant and peppers into 1/4" strips.
5. Unwrap the onions, remove the outer layers, and quarter them. Arrange all of the vegetables in a serving dish.
6. Make a vinaigrette using the juices from the roasting pan, 1 tsp. of sherry vinegar, and 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Season with salt and drizzle the vinaigrette over the vegetables.

Last up was the salmon:

1. Remove the skin (and any bones, if need be) from 11 oz. of salmon fillets and cut into 1" cubes.
2. Finely chop the leaves from 2.5 sprigs of parsley.
3. Pour 2 tsp. of olive oil and 1 Tbsp. of sofrito into a saucepan over medium heat. Cook for 1 minute. Add 1 3/4 c. fish stock (I used store-bought) and bring to a boil.
4. Add 1 1/4 c. canned lentils and 2 tsp. picada. Simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Season the salmon pieces with salt and add to pan. After 1 minute, carefully turn pieces over (to avoid breakage) and season with more salt if needed.
6. Add chopped parsley and serve in bowls.

I have to say that everything came together fine and tasted relatively good, with the vegetables garnering a little more praise than the salmon from the family. The stew was a little bland in my estimation, which could have been the result of store-bought stock (instead of homemade) or my lack of skill in making the flavoring bases (i.e., sofrito and picada - I might need a little more practice with these), or both. Anyway, I fully plan on cracking the book open for another round of simple meals once we return from Grand Cayman in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Fogo de Chao

For the first posting of 2012 (in great anticipation of our upcoming food & wine fest trip to Grand Cayman next week, I'm beginning a panicked attempt to clean out my inbox), I'd like to write about one of our favorite restaurants in the city - Fogo de Chao. For those of you not familiar with the Brazilian steakhouse concept (of which Fogo is a pioneer), you basically show up and eat about as much meat as you can possibly consume (along with side dishes from an impressive salad bar, if you'd rather allot calories elsewhere) for one per-head price. When seated, you're given a small coaster with a green side and a red side. After tiny (and delicious) cheese puffs are brought to the table as an amuse bouche (hint: don't fill up on these), you flip the coaster to "green", at which point servers dressed as gauchos and carrying various cuts of meat on swords begin descending on your table en masse to offer you slices of whatever they're toting; this onslaught continues until you can stand no more and you turn your coaster over to "red". Mrs. Hackknife first took me here when we were in the early stages of dating in 2002 and I ate so much I nearly induced a meat coma, swearing for hours afterwards that I'd never do such a moronic thing again and then eventually realizing, upon extended digestion, that I'd just experienced one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind. Since then, we've been back every 2 years or so and have also tried some imitators (such as Brazzaz and Sabor do Brasil) with varying degrees of satisfaction, but still prefer the original.

This latest visit, we treated my dad and stepmom for their Xmas present while they were in town from Florida (we're responsible for turning them into Fogo junkies as well). My current strategy to maximize enjoyment of the house fare without suffering the adverse after-effects of overindulgence is to start slow and continue slow, a marathon and not a sprint, if you will. I started with a few selections from the salad bar (including heart of palm, garlic potato salad, shrimp, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese) to lay down a base in the stomach, then moved on to a few meat items, such as the picanha (top sirloin seasoned with garlic), fraldinha (bottom sirloin), and filet mignon. Once finished with this and a slight sampling of the standard side dishes, crispy polenta and caramelized bananas, I returned to the salad bar for smoked salmon, roasted peppers, and prosciutto, followed by a few more meats, including rib-eye (my personal favorite), lamb chop, and parmesan pork loin. As tempting as the other cuts of meat were (pork ribs, sausages, chicken, and up to 12 others), I passed on them in favor of the signature papaya cream dessert (said to aid digestion, although possibly a myth). Given my excessive consumption of Pinot Noir at EL Ideas the previous night, I abstained from all alcohol this evening and was probably the better for it, feeling about as good as I'd ever felt at the conclusion of a Fogo meal (that is, not hating myself and not in need of immediate medical attention). Sure, I could have eaten more and gotten a little better value for my dollar (it's about $50 per person to take this plunge down Cholesterol Canyon), but I survived to chow down another day...