Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mexican Green Bean Salad

This concoction isn't nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, I have to say it packs a flavorful punch for a dish that wouldn't be out of place in a vegetarian version of a Betty Crocker cookbook. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself - let's rewind for a second. We have taco night at the Commissary about once a month. Our house tacos usually consist of seasoned ground turkey meat (or leftover roast chicken pieces if I'm feeling saucy) and the usual Middle America toppings of shredded cheese, lettuce/tomato, sour cream, and taco sauce (mild, of course), all plopped in the center of a warm flour tortilla. The progeny typically take their tacos deconstructed; that is, with the cheese and tortilla in separate piles (and mostly dismiss those other ingredients as beneath their sensibilities). Anyway, I digress. I'm constantly seeking adequate vegetable side dishes to go with the tacos - oven-roasted green onions or bulb onions (cebollitas) seem to work pretty well and there's always the ever-present bag of frozen broccoli/cauliflower, but I wanted something different for a change this latest iteration.

I thought back to when Mrs. Hackknife and I dined at Big Star last year and I remembered really liking the braised long beans that were included as part of my ejote taco, so why not come up with a similar bean recipe that has a Latino flair? A quick Internet search using the most generic terms possible ("Mexican" and "green beans") turned up this Mexican green bean salad recipe from the Simply Recipe website, which credits it as a variation on Diana Kennedy's cactus salad from The Art of Mexican Cooking. The recipe is really easy and works well with generic, store-bought fresh green beans. I omitted the pickled jalapenos and used more of a queso fresco instead of the cotijo cheese. The red onion and cilantro give the dish a nice bite, with the avocado and cheese adding richness and the lime juice providing acid to cleanse the palate. If you're careful to slightly undercook the beans (about 5 minutes in boiling water, then spray with cold water after draining), they'll be just a little crunchy in the finished salad.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Next el Bulli Tribute - Installment 3

After the levity of the mullet-on-seashells course, the proceeding dish was a shining example of perfect simplicity, an intersection of French and Japanese tastes: a thick disc of eel atop a decadent slab of bone marrow, under which rested a dark green nasturtium leaf shaped like a lilypad. Another nasturtium leaf held a circle of fresh cucumber and between these two leaves was a beautiful red-orange nasturtium flower.

These flavor combinations were an incredible match, with the peppery leaves and the clean cucumber cutting the richness of the eel and marrow. I have a difficult time describing the taste of the flower, however; that is to say I recall it being relatively bland, bringing to mind images of goats munching on shrubbery. The alcoholic beverage pairing with this course was an amazing beer, another collaboration between Next and local favorite brewery Half Acre. For the Thai menu, Half Acre used hibiscus as the dominant ingredient in the collaborative beer; this time, oranges and beets featured prominently, resulting in a surprisingly smooth, red ale-like quaff called Sanguis (a reference to the dark red "blood" color of the beer, no doubt from the beets). The brew was a great accompaniment for 3 courses and eminently drinkable by itself (indeed, the waitstaff was gracious enough to let us buy 4 bottles of the stuff to take home, one of which has already been enjoyed at the Commissary).

Next up was a curious plate - a civet of rabbit served with two small cubes of hot apple jelly and diagonal smears of beige and maroon sauces. After some discussion at the table, we came to a general agreement that the beige sauce was liver-based, possibly foie gras. There was no consensus about the maroon one, other than it was clearly meant to evoke blood (nicely matching the beer, of course). Regardless of what they were, everything on the plate was mind-bogglingly delicious.

I had to look up "civet of rabbit" back home and discovered it to be an old French dish (also popular in England) whereby rabbit meat is cooked in red wine vinegar plus a brandy sauce that's enhanced with the rabbit's liver and blood. Upon further reflection, then, it seems clearer to me that the "smears" in question were probably rabbit liver (beige) and rabbit blood (maroon), a deconstructed brandy sauce from the traditional recipe (although I'm just speculating at this point). The meal headed back to the funhouse with the following course, a dinosaur egg-sized hollow sphere of a white material that turned out to be blue cheese (the menu lists gorgonzola, but I've read at least 2 published reviews stating that it's actually Maytag Blue from Iowa). Our server cracked the sphere with a flourish and offered each of us pieces for nibbling.

The cheese was delectable, but it was robust and there was a lot of it, much more than the table could eat at this juncture of the meal. In fact, I'd be surprised if any of the diners were able to polish off the whole thing (Chef Beran could probably reduce the sphere's size by half and not really lose anything in the process). From a technical standpoint, this was another of those "how'd they do that?" courses. Liquid nitrogen was definitely involved (the cheese was frozen and started melting fairly quickly) and some sort of scaffolding on which to mold the raw material; beyond that, I'm clueless to its genesis. From this point onward (after the cheese course, naturally), our journey began to nudge ever-so-slightly towards sweeter and less savory plates, starting with a wonderful flan-like caramel custard of foie gras (the ultimate sweet/savory pairing) accompanied by a second palo cortado sherry (this time a Lustau "Peninsula").

This was followed by another whimsical course, a little game to see how well one's palate could identify various spices. A bowl filled with a light green gelatin (neutral tasting, maybe green apple?) suspended 12 different flavorings, each neatly placed at the hour positions on a clock face. The goal was to match up each spice (listed on a separate card) with its corresponding clock position in the bowl. Some of them were easily recognized by sight (such as mint leaf and saffron threads), while others were more difficult to distinguish (pink peppercorn versus Szechuan pepper). All things considered, Mrs. Hackknife and I did pretty well, correctly identifying the placement of 9 out of 12 spices. We enthusiastically washed down our gameboard with a nice Pommeau de Normandie (cider mixed with apple juice) that had some white tea, lychee, and mandarin orange added for complexity.

I'd gotten a little bit of advance intel regarding the next dessert, described on the menu as a "mint pond", basically a thin, frozen layer of water onto which our server sprinkled mint, brown sugar, and green tea. We were instructed to crack the ice with a spoon (this was a bit messy, with ice chunks popping around the table) and mix the shards with the spices, creating a very simple and tasty dish not entirely unlike what my mother-in-law likes to make at the Commissary in wintertime for the kids using freshly-fallen snow and whatever sweet liquid (juice, maple syrup, etc.) happens to be around (or is it more like the ice cubes at the bottom of the soft drink cup that you chew on?).

When Jose Andres spoke to our group at the Cayman Cookout, he made reference to a technique he'd learned (possibly at el Bulli) to flash-freeze the top layer in a bowl of water and drain out the remainder via pinhole, leaving the hollow frozen layer on top. This came to mind as I scrutinized the serving vessel, but I wasn't able to find any obvious escape route for liquid underneath the top. Maybe the "pond" was frozen in a different mold and then fitted to the serving vessel or maybe a different sleight-of-hand technique was in play - I can't say for sure. A dessert course attributed to Albert Adria (Ferran's pastry chef brother) immediately followed, an elegant-looking plate evoking a sea fan or coral whose components were a diverse collection of chocolate textures and tastes.

Being a huge fan of chocolate in any form, I was pretty pleased with this creation and the smaller sweet bites that came next: chocolate "donuts" that were actually frozen discs of coconut creme dipped in dark chocolate, paper-thin pastry flutes stuffed with whipped cream, and puff pastry "webs" that resembled twisted pretzel dough.

None of these items on the table survived for long. Our final drink pairing (which was served with the dessert bites and the previous chocolate course) was a unctuous Casa de la Ermita "Dulce Monastell" dessert wine from the Jumilla region of Spain. By this time, the overall experience had exceeded the 4-hour mark and everyone at the table was starting to get a little weary. As much as I wanted to tour the kitchen (I'd missed out on my previous 2 visits), Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to defer to of one of the later menus (Sicily in June and Kyoto in October) so we could get home to cut the babysitter loose. As we prepared to depart, our server brought us one more course, a bit of parting theater in the form of inflated white rubber gloves stretched over the openings of small silver bowls. Inside one of the bowls were the el Bulli version of the after-dinner mint, a handful of passionfruit marshmallow candies.

As you can infer from the photo, the idea at hand here (sorry...awful pun) is that the gloves "wave goodbye" as you tap the bowls, which was a fine encapsulation of the whole meal: gestures somehow both refined and casual, executed time and again in perfect balance. Of course, not every course struck a positive chord with me, but as a complete entity, the experience certainly satisfied whatever longing I had to dine at el Bulli (without having to leave my fair city, to boot). I have to commend Chef Achatz, Chef Beran, and all of the staff at Next for having the confidence to take on such a daunting challenge and the technical skill to flawlessly pull it off. I can hardly wait to see what the boys whip up for the next 2 menus and feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to be a regular patron of their temple to world cuisines....

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Next el Bulli Tribute - Installment 2

At this point in the meal (i.e., following the carrot foam), the courses began to consist of some larger entrees (although I wouldn't describe any of them as "large", thank goodness, considering we still had almost 20 to go). First up was a beautiful plate with a single, elegant cuttlefish and coconut ravioli, served atop a small bed of bean sprouts with soy, ginger, and mint emulsions.

I'm looking at the photo of the plate and it just occurred to me as I'm writing this that the ravioli and sprouts are arranged such that it looks like a swan. Whether intentional or not (and I'm betting that there was nothing accidental about anything coming out of that kitchen), I didn't notice that during the service, quite possibly because I was so anxious to eat the tasty bundle. With this course, we received our second drink pairing (not counting the twice-modified cava from earlier), a Kanbara Junmai Ginjo sake (Junmai Ginjo is one of the 8 categories of premium sake made in Japan) also known as "Bride of the Fox". The sake was nicely balanced between dry and sweet, melding well with the richness of the cuttlefish. Next came a martini glass filled with what appeared to be a pinkish shaved ice. The material was actually described as "savory tomato ice" layered over some almond milk pudding with a sprig of oregano added.

Although nice to look at, the combination of flavors in the glass just didn't do much for me, even when washed down with the sake. The following dish, a hot crab aspic paired with a pile of couscous that was actually very tiny corn kernels, was much tastier (even if the aspic reminded me of something Julia Child might have whipped up in the '60s).

I certainly wouldn't want to be the kitchen slave responsible for extracting all of those microscopic corn kernels. Clearly the job would seem less troublesome if I had imbibed mass quantities of the accompanying drink pairing, described to us by our server as a Basque cider (produced by Domaine Bordatto) made from 15 different heirloom apple varieties that are indigenous to the Pyrenees (at least I think that's what the producer's website said when conducting follow-up research - I can read a little French, but Basque, not so much). Most ciders I've had in my lifetime (that is to say, not many) have had some measure of sweetness to them - this one was not sweet, but earthy and funky (think barnyard), and a bit of a shock to my neophyte cider palate.

Our subsequent course was nothing short of spectacular, visually stunning and containing an incredible interplay of flavors: a mound of delicate cauliflower couscous surrounded by a circle of mixed herbs intended to be the "sauce" of the dish. I can't imagine how difficult it was to plate this and I can't begin to describe all of the different tastes I picked up (I know gingerbread dust was prominently featured). Perhaps the most amazing thing is how savory it all was without an ounce of meat anywhere, clearly the best vegetarian course I can ever recall eating.

This wave of momentum continued right into the following dish, a "suquet" (a Catalan fish stew typically made with saffron and almonds) of prawns, paired with a uncommon version of dry Sherry known as palo cortado (which has both crisp and slightly oxidized characteristics). Again, the course looked and tasted amazing (I think I may have considered selling the progeny for another ladlefull of the stuff - please don't tell the missus).

I'm not sure I even now quite understand what we received after the suquet. The menu lists it as a "potato tortilla" and certainly those flavors were there, but not in any form I would have expected; that is, liquefied in a martini glass. This dish is attributed to Marc Singla, who seems to be a Spanish chef that collaborated with the Adrias back in the 1990s (if you Google his name, you'll get a couple of hits, including a picture of this signature dish, but not much else).

Did I mention that it was delicious? And the wine paired with it (a Cune "Vina Real" grand reserve from Rioja) was also spectacular, light, yet rich. The next course presented some challenges for me, as it included mushrooms as the centerpiece (for those of you who are new readers, I'm a longtime mushroom hater, but I'm slowly coming around via immersion therapy). A large piece of trumpet mushroom (maybe the cap?) was placed atop very thin discs of what I believe was the same mushroom (the "carpaccio" of the dish), sauced and presented with little pieces of rabbit (which I surmised was loin and then later found out was actually kidney - had I known that at the time, I might have paused a bit, but can now look back and say that I enjoyed eating my first ever kidneys).

I didn't have any trouble consuming the thin mushroom discs; however, the trumpet cap was another matter. It was particularly chewy (my main beef with most mushrooms), but I soldiered on and almost achieved a level of "mere dislike" by the time it had disappeared from the plate. There was no dislike of the following dish, a wonderfully-prepared red mullet "Gaudi" style (in reference to the famous Catalan artist known for his eccentric Gothic architecture) with chopped herbs and smears of sofrito (much better made that the slop I created in the Commisary a while back). The food was placed on a piece of clear glass, then laid atop a warm plastic bag filled with water (seawater?) and shells, clearly meant to evoke the ocean.

This in-your-face type of presentation comes from the early days of Ferran Adria's tenure at el Bulli (1987) and I'm sure would have been done much more subtly in recent years. That being said, I loved it all (and, truth be told, I was expecting many of the courses to follow this pattern of obvious whimsy, although one reviewer I've read has posited the formula el Bulli + further playfulness = Alinea, which pretty much seems spot on to me). Our drink pairing in this case was another Spanish red, a Fransesc Sanchez Bas "Montgarnatx" from the Priorat region.

The final installment (#3) of our meal coverage will include a few more entrees and then segues into the desserts. By now, you probably need a bit of time to digest all of this anyway...

Monday, February 20, 2012

Next el Bulli Tribute - Installment 1

Just a few nights ago, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the extreme privilege to dine again at Grant Achatz's shape-shifting restaurant, Next, this time for the much-heralded el Bulli tribute menu. I won't go into a lot of detail describing the process I went through to get us a table at such a sought-after event (this rigmarole was chronicled in my June 2011 posting on the Next Paris 1906 menu), but suffice it to say that I spent more time stalking the restaurant's website and associated Facebook page than I care to admit in order to time the release of tables just right (and even then it came down to luck of the draw and my ability to guess the composition of two fuzzy-looking security words under pressure). In any case, we found ourselves seated at 7pm on a recent evening with two new foodie friends (Sharon and Chrystal) who had expressed great interest via a colleague of Mrs. Hackknife in joining us on this culinary adventure tour, all 4 of us giddy with anticipation. The ensuing meal amounted to 29 courses, so for ease of reading, I've decided to divide my coverage into 3 separate postings.

In keeping with my two earlier visits to Next, the meal began with little in the way of fanfare, save for a single red rose suspended above our table from the ceiling (I'd read that Messr. Achatz and Co. hatched this idea in lieu of placing a flower vase on the table, which would occupy valuable plate space). First up was a version of an aperitif, a capirinha (Brazil's national drink containing sugar, lime, and cachaca, a type of rum) frozen using liquid nitrogen and served in a hollowed-out lime.

The silver spoon on the slate next to the lime contained a small bit of tarragon concentrate, which we were instructed to mix into the frozen slurry to add some complexity to it. Considering I hadn't eaten for several hours, my capirinha went down quickly, and I nearly started munching on the crystalline base below the lime, thinking it was an edible part of the dish (it wasn't - our server told me it was a combo of sugar and salt before whisking my dish away to safety). Next began a parade of single-bite courses, much like what we'd experienced at the outset of both the Paris 1906 and the Thailand menus here. The following course was a single bite listed as a "hot/cold trout roe tempura", a puffball of fried dough inside of which rested a clump of salty, silky trout eggs. Unfortunately, we only received one each and I could easily imagine downing a basket of 20 of these in a single sitting. The tempura balls were paired with a Jane Ventura "Brut Nature" Cava Reserva sparkling wine from 2008, the perfect foil to the roe's richness. The cava also paired very well with our next bite, the famous "spherical olive" that's been well documented as one of el Bulli's signature dishes.

Our server had to spoon the delicate olive spheres (concentrated olive juices and oil encapsulated inside an alginate coating, much like an egg yolk) from a large jar onto the individual serving spoons. This was as difficult as it sounds and he good-naturedly endured a couple of misfires before getting it right (one olive burst and another slid off the spoon onto the tablecloth, yet amazingly remained intact - you can see the spot where it landed in the picture, and no, we didn't get to eat the scraps).

Two more courses subsequently arrived, including a coca (a Catalan pastry similar to a flatbread) topped with avocado, tasty white anchovy, and green onion and what was called an Iberico ham "sandwich", basically a slice of wonderful Iberico ham wrapped around a hollow, feather-lite baguette (where did the insides go?).

We've now had the good fortune to have sampled Iberico ham 3 times in the past year (at L'Atelier de Robuchon in Las Vegas, at the Cayman Cookout courtesy of Jose Andres, and here) - I'm getting to the point where I'm tempted just to mail order a whole leg of the stuff and have it shipped directly to the Commissary, expense be damned.

Three more single bite courses showed up, along with a small vial containing a blend of Pineau des Charentes (a fortified wine popular in a few regions of western France) and farigoule (a thyme-flavored liqueur from Provence). Our server instructed us to add the vial's contents to our glasses of cava so that it better matched the flavor profile of the new courses (which it did).

In the photo foreground, you can see what was one of my favorite dishes of the night, a black sesame spongecake topped with a liquid globe of miso, reminding me of so many lightly-sweet-yet-savory boxed gift cakes that we encountered all over Japan. Directly above were some delicious chicken liquid croquettes, a take on the ubiquitous tapas offering (again, a basket of 20 would have been much appreciated). Mrs. Hackknife loved the last course in this sequence, a "golden egg" consisting of what I believe was a quail egg yolk inside a sweet, hard candy-like shell (not being a big fan of either hard candy or raw eggs, I had a bit of trouble with this one).

Our server brought out another liquid vial intended to again transform our cava, this time by adding a few drops of Malaga Moscatel (a Spanish white wine) combined with Reagan's Orange Bitters. This accompanied a small glass containing what was described as "smoke foam" topped with two golden croutons. Although I understand the significance of foams as a triumphant symbol of el Bulli's innovative cuisine (at least it was back in 1997, when this particular dish was conceived and before foams in fine dining became cliched), I have to say that this was my least favorite of all the courses - I found the smoke flavor to be overly harsh and somewhat one-dimensional.

The foam dish that immediately followed, however, was a revelation: carrot "air" served atop a bed of coconut milk. When mixed together, the carrot and coconut were amazingly intense and melded together beautifully, to my mind a more-evolved example of an el Bulli foam (from 2003, so that theory at least fits chronologically, although I'm probably unqualified to make such an observation). This was the first of many subsequent courses where I sincerely wanted to lick the serving vessel (hmmm...I wonder how tricky it would be to create something like this in the Commissary...stay tuned).

From this point onward, the meal progressed into courses that were more substantial in size (i.e., entrees). I'll chronicle the middle portion of our experience in the next posting...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rogue Chocolate Stout Brownies

This decadent-sounding recipe was the 2nd of 3 that I culled from the March 2011 Men's Journal article on cooking with beer (the other being short ribs braised in Chimay Red). Like the Chimay Red, I needed to make a trip to my local mega-liquors to find the beer in question, that is, Rogue Chocolate Stout, sold in a large-format bottle. With Mrs. Hackknife logging heavy hours at the office this week (it's audit season), I found myself with a little extra time in the Commissary and decided to finally try whipping these brownies up (Hackknifette was kind enough to act as my sous-chef during the cooking process). Here's the recipe:

1.5 c. Rogue Chocolate Stout (accept no imitation)
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli chips)
6 oz. semisweet chocolate, chopped (Nestle's Toll House chips worked fine)
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. cocoa powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter (or use Pam) an 8" x 8" square baking pan and dust with flour. In a medium saucepan, melt half of the bittersweet and half of the semisweet chocolate (note - I put the chocolate in a glass bowl and microwaved on 50% power in 1-minute increments until it melted), then remove from heat and let cool. Mix butter, sugar, and brown sugar with an electric mixer until creamy. With mixer running, add eggs, then pour in beer in a steady stream, then mix in melted chocolate.
2. Combine flour, cocoa powder, and salt in a separate bowl, then stir mixture into egg-chocolate-beer bowl. Stir remaining chocolate pieces into mixture.
3. Pour mixture into baking pan and bake 40-45 minutes or until a knife stuck into the center comes out almost clean (note - it took my brownies close to 55 minutes to reach this point).

A couple of things surprised me as I assembled this dish. The batter filled the 8" x 8" baking pan to the point where I was almost certain that it was going to overflow as it rose in the oven. Fortunately, this didn't happen and I ended up with a pan of about the thickest brownies I've ever seen (see picture above). In spite of their excessive height, the finished goodies were almost cake-like in density, nicely lofted by the eggs and the carbonation in the beer. Their flavor was rich and complex, a nice combo of sweet and bitter, with the beer adding some yeasty notes and the chocolate chunks that were mixed in just prior to baking providing a little texture. By all accounts, everyone enjoyed this recipe quite a bit (including the neighbors, Mrs. Hackknife, the progeny - who seemed to sleep just a tad better than normal after consuming a beer-laced brownie, or maybe that was just my imagination - and my mother-in-law, who is the reigning top brownie chef in the family). I can't say that I was much of a fan of the beer by itself, so it won't be popping up in the Commissary liquor cabinet, but I'd use it in a cooking context again anytime...

Thursday, February 16, 2012


For many married couples, Valentine's Day presents a conundrum, especially for the husband, who feels pressure to come up with a gift for his wife that's equal parts meaningful and romantic. It can't be too cheap, nor too expensive. Lingerie can be a fantastic idea or a horrific one depending on how one's doing in that department at home. Flowers are nice or too ephemeral. Same with chocolates (do you want me to get fat? and besides, did you buy these just so you could have some, too?). What's a poor spouse to do?

In the Hackknife household, the solution is generally simple: there's an exchanging of cards (mostly of the "simply stated" variety), then we go out to dinner and everyone's happy. Mrs. Hackknife and I are quite aware that the pathway to each other's hearts passes through the stomach, so there's not much reason to deviate from this approach (at least not now - maybe someday I'll get called to the carpet for being insufficiently original, but I'm content to skate by until that day comes). This year, I really outdid myself and booked us a reservation based on a Groupon I bought (I know, ladies, how enchanting, right?) in December. The restaurant in question is called Cite and has a long history of hosting romantic dinners in the Chicagoland area, mostly owing to its location atop the 70-story Lake Point Tower, immediately adjacent to Navy Pier. I recall Mrs. Hackknife first mentioning Cite to me fairly early in our relationship when we were still foodie neophytes. Several years passed and our dining tastes became more sophisticated, but I had made a mental note that we needed to eat there eventually, and the Groupon naturally sealed the deal.

Mrs. H had to work on Saturday, so rather than take 2 cars into the city, I hopped on the train and headed over to Fox & Obel (F&O), a gourmet grocery store up the block from the restaurant, to kill time until our reservation at 7. I'd always wanted to duck in F&O to check it out and I'm glad I did - they have a great selection of cheeses, specialty meats, deli items, and chocolate (two dark bars of which I had to buy, one from Olive & Sinclair in Nashville, another from Mast Bros. in Brooklyn), plus a cafe whose offerings I had to poignantly decline lest I spoil dinner.

The missus became stuck in traffic after missing her turnoff; as a result, I hightailed it over to Cite to check us in. I was surprised by two things the minute I exited the elevator into the restaurant's lobby: 1) the view IS pretty amazing, especially on a cold, clear night and 2) I suddenly felt like I'd gone through a time portal back to 1987, what with the mirrors, gold decor, adult contemporary soundtrack, etc. A number of the patrons also looked as if they stepped straight out of the '80s, as did the menu, which was full of old-school offerings like steak tartare, French onion soup, duck a l'orange, and Bananas Foster (served flambe at tableside). Of course, there's a place in the local dining scene for eateries that have stayed with a once-popular format that's now past its prime; indeed, had Mrs. Hackknife and I gone through our courtship 20 years ago, I'm sure Cite would have been near the top of the list of romantic city dining for a couple of green suburbanites like us. Now it seems more like nostalgia, and not necessarily in a good way.

As far as the food goes, we had no complaints. Our waiter brought us an amuse bouche of scallop with avocado (which resembled and tasted like guacamole to me), followed by our appetizers of escargot in herb butter topped with puff pastry (Mrs. H) and crab souffle with bearnaise sauce (me). I had read many recent reviews warning of less-than-stellar service here and this is where we started to experience that, as a few of my wife's snails were cold. We moved on to the entrees, where I had the aforementioned duck (crispy breast and leg confit, served with fennel salad, very delicious) and Mrs. Hackknife ordered a filet mignon. An a la carte side of fries with garlic aioli was scrumptious, but another side of creamed spinach failed to materialize until the entrees were nearly gone, even after repeated inquiries (in fact, most patrons appeared to be waiting for food to show up at some time or another - I would charitably describe the meal's pace to be "leisurely"). For dessert, we opted for the obligatory cheese plate (a petit basque sheep's milk, a mimolette, and a bleu d'auvergne, served with fig cake and port gel) and a nice presentation of chocolate macchiato (gianduja chocolate mousse with salted caramel, sweet milk foam, and espresso gelato). All told, the whole meal stretched out to nearly 3 1/2 hours, so we had lots of time to savor that spectacular skyline view and outdated decor. On the way home, the missus and I reached the same conclusion - we're glad we tried Cite out, but felt no compelling need to return anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Creamed Onion Gratin/Yucatecan Pickled Red Onions

I am a big fan of onions. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. In the 6th or 7th grade, my childhood friend Chris Wise and I went so far as to create onion sandwiches (raw sliced onions atop buttered, toasted bread with a little salt) based on a recipe in a novel that we were reading for school. Yes, they were potent and no, I didn't really have much of a concept of what bad breath meant at the time. Anyway, as a slightly more discerning adult, I'm happy to try onions of most any variety in about any context (the sandwich notwithstanding - I think I consumed my last one sometime around 1986).

You can imagine my pleasure then at seeing a whole article on the humble onion in the November 2011 issue of Saveur (with accompanying recipes, of course). Before cooking up Chinese pork ribs one day last week, I sought out a new side dish and found in this article a decadent-sounding recipe for creamed onion gratin, which I decided to give a whirl. It contains a solid dose of early death-inducing ingredients, such as heavy cream (1 c. full), butter (2 Tbsp., not terribly bad), Gorgonzola cheese (almost 1/4 lb.), and grated Parmesan (1/2 c.), a combination that would presumably make Escoffier proud. Throw in a little dry white wine (I used a bottle of Spanish Albarino that I had on hand) and you've got yourself an ultra-rich, sloppy, boozy mess of goodness that actually could have used more onions in my opinion to help balance out the abundant fat. Although it did go well with ribs and garlic bread, I exhausted the onions on my plate faster than the cheese/cream fallout left behind and just couldn't in good conscience bring myself to swallow down what remained (Mrs. Hackknife invented a novel use for the leftover slop - tortilla chip dip). My doctor is endorsing a proposed lifetime ban of this dish from the Commissary. He may get vetoed.

Now that we've demonstrated that onions go well with dairy, I've proven that they're also a good match for acid, namely red wine vinegar. Another Saveur onion recipe is for pickled red onion, a specialty of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula used primarily as a relish for seafood. Raw red onions are sliced and placed in a jar with salt, oregano, garlic, cumin seeds, whole black peppercorns, and the aforementioned red wine vinegar. After chilling the mixture for a minimum of 4 hours, the onions are pickled and ready to go. I tried them as a side dish to go with a stuffed pepper taco (bought at a local Mexican cafe, not made at home) and they were fairly high on the potency scale, sour and crisp (see photo above). The progeny and I are planning another round of tacos tomorrow evening (this time our more traditional ground turkey) and I intend to do more pickled onion research, this time by including them among the taco toppings.

Monday, February 13, 2012

El Bulli Family-Style Potato Salad/Thai Beef Curry

In honor of scoring (against all reasonable odds, I might add) season tickets to Next Restaurant's 2012 menus, including a much-heralded homage to the now-shuttered El Bulli, I decided to return to the El Bulli family meal cookbook I received from Santa for some new recipes (ed. note - actually, I made this meal well before the season ticket thing happened, but it makes for better copy to link the two). The dishes I ultimately chose looked pretty simple, which is in keeping with the cookbook's theme; that is, simple meals from a restaurant that served customers decidedly un-simple creations. I began with the Thai beef curry. Chef Adria uses blade steak in his curry dish - this is also better known in America as a flatiron steak, a cut that's not terribly tender, but can be very tasty when braised for a long time. My local ethnic grocery had a top chuck beef cut in the meat case, which I determined to be pretty much the same thing. The meat was already sliced thin (about 1/4"), so I didn't need to do much to it aside from halving the bigger pieces. Here's the full recipe (I opted to cook for 6 servings this time):

1. Cut 2 lb. blade steak into slices about 1/4" thick (approximately 3 slices per person). Season with salt and pepper.
2. Mince 2 thin slices of unpeeled ginger. Heat 5 Tbsp. of olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add ginger and fry gently for 2 minutes or until fragrant.
3. Stir in 1 tsp. of yellow Thai curry paste and 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves. Add 6 1/4 c. of water and approximately 1 c. of coconut milk.
4. Place beef in Dutch oven, cover, and cook in a 325F oven for 3 hours.
5. Add 1/4 c. of coconut milk and remaining 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves. Salt to taste and serve.

The aroma of the beef cooking in the oven was wonderful, enveloping the whole house. When the time came to sit down and eat, however, the curry was, well, a little bland, much like the salmon lentil stew I made earlier from this same cookbook. I had to double-check to make sure I hadn't misread the amount of curry paste (yep, only 1 tsp.). After a bit of brainstorming, I thought that I might be able to repurpose the curry as a sort-of Asian noodle soup and serve it atop some instant ramen noodles (hey, it works for David Chang - see Lucky Peach magazine, Vol. 1). I tried this a couple of days later and had pretty much the same reaction, as did Mrs. Hackknife, who was a little underwhelmed. I was finally able to make the leftovers more palatable by throwing a gob more curry paste in there (about a tablespoon), plus some Crystal hot sauce. Ultimately, though, I'm afraid this one won't be making a repeat appearance at the Commissary.

The potato salad, on the other hand, certainly didn't suffer from lack of flavor. I have to admit I was a little shocked at first by Chef Adria's inclusion of sliced hot dogs (maybe the hot dogs they have in Catalonia are really, really good compared to ours), conjuring up images of a recipe one might find on an Oscar Mayer label from 1975 instead of in the kitchen of a groundbreaking restaurant. In any case, it garnered better reviews from the family and was a versatile side dish for a few days, especially when doing a tapas-style lunch. Here's the recipe (again, for 6):

1. Boil a large pan of water seasoned with salt and add 2.5 lb. of large new potatoes (I used Yukon Gold). Cook until tender (about 20 minutes - mine took closer to 30). Drain potatoes and individually wrap in foil.
2. Finely chop 1.5 Tbsp. of chives. Also finely chop white parts of 2 small green onions. Slice 6 medium pickled gherkins into 1/2" slices. Do the same with 4 hot dogs.
3. Using a whisk, mix together 1.5 c. mayonnaise, 2/3 c. whipping cream (35% fat), and 1/2 c. Dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Unwrap and peel potatoes. Cut potatoes into 1" cubes and place in a large bowl. Add onion, gherkins, hot dogs, and 1.5 Tbsp pickled capers. Spoon sauce on top and stir, being careful not to break up potatoes. Season with salt, pepper, and chives and serve.

I expect to make this potato salad again (maybe without the hot dogs, though) when grilling season comes around this summer....

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Prosciutto and Caramelized Onion Pizza

One of the partners in Mrs. Hackknife's department periodically hosts gatherings at his home in the city. He and his wife always throw a lavish holiday party in December with plenty of goodies for noshing, and they also usually have guests over sometime during the warmer months for a cookout. It was at one of these summer soirees that we dined on a wonderful homemade pizza with caramelized onions that was grilled (!) rather than baked in the oven (I'd read a little about pizza on the grill, but had never actually eaten one before). Wanting to try this dish at the Commissary, I pressed the hostess for her recipe and she referred me to Healthy Living magazine, but I had trouble tracking it down and eventually forgot about it.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago - while monitoring my Twitter feed (as I frequently do) for food-related news, I noticed that Chef Marcus Samuelsson had posted about a prosciutto and caramelized onion pizza recipe on his website. Being curious, I linked over to check it out. It's not entirely clear to me if the recipe is credited to the author of the associated writeup (Emma Haberman) or the proprietor of the Brooklyn pizzeria that she references (Dom DeMarco of Di Fara), but, either way, the instructions appeared to be relatively simple. So, one night last week, I decided to give it a go. You may recall an earlier attempt of mine at homemade pizza dough (see May 2010). This latest recipe was a bit different in that you use a stand mixer to prep the dough (rather than bare hands) and bake it on a sheet pan instead of a superheated pizza stone (good thing, since my stone is barely functional after my last foray into the pizza arts). Oh, and you need a little more planning ahead time in this case because the raw dough must be refrigerated at least overnight - I assembled the dough ingredients on a Monday night in preparation for Tuesday dinner baking.

When the time came to prepare the pizza, I cooked some red onion slices coated with brown sugar (in order to better caramelize them) on the stove, rolled out the finished dough over a light dusting of yellow corn meal on the sheet pan (the recipe calls for covering the pan with olive oil, but I was a bit concerned about olive oil's low smoke point in a 500F oven) into a (very) rough approximation of a rectangle, and lightly brushed the dough with oil. I then topped it with the caramelized onions, thinly-sliced prosciutto, and fresh sliced buffalo mozzarella from local ethnic grocery (plus a little pepperoni on one end per Hackknife Jr.'s request), added a sprinkling of grated Parmesan, and baked it for about 15 minutes. When finished, a drizzle of olive oil and some basil leaves were added before slicing it up for consumption (see photo above). Although I felt that the crust could have used another minute or two of browning, the consensus from the progeny, Mrs. Hackknife, our part-time babysitter (whom I dispatched home with a slice), and me was that it was excellent, nearly the equal of the grilled version I remember having a while ago. The combination of the onions, prosciutto, olive oil, basil, and fresh mozzarella was amazingly rustic and flavorful, so much so that I didn't miss the tomato sauce (indeed, my Italian relatives out East frequently make a version of this sauce-less pie called "white" pizza), and the crust held up very well, even after 5 days in the fridge. I look forward to cooking up the other half of finished dough currently stashed in the freezer next time we get a hankering for good 'za...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fennel Baked in Milk

The April 2010 issue of Saveur Magazine has become an indispensable reference to me here in the Commissary, primarily for its section on traditional Roman recipes. I've managed to successfully attempt 5 of the included recipes (cacio e pepe pasta, spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all'amatricana, broccoli strascinati, and peperonata), two of which have become kitchen mainstays (the broccoli and pepper ones) here. So, when I was seeking a vegetable to go with a mishmash of leftover noodles and homemade meatballs, I knew exactly where to turn. Another of the Roman recipes that caught my eye was finocchio con latte al forno (translation: baked fennel with milk) and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to try it out.

I encountered the primary obstacle with this dish early on; that is, at the local ethnic supermarket where I tried to track down the 3 medium fennel bulbs that the recipe called for. In the produce section, I could find anise bulbs, but no fennel. Now, mind you, I was vaguely aware that fennel and anise are two different things (indeed, if you look in the Commissary spice cabinet, you'll find separate jars for fennel seed and anise seed), but I was confident that they were pretty much the same thing, a licorice-flavored vegetable. I started to get nervous, however, after bringing some home and doing a little online research. It turns out that fennel is actually in the parsley family, while anise is a completely separate species of plant (and, oddly, licorice flavoring comes from the root of a third type of plant that's a legume). Luckily, for non-professional cooks like myself, the two are more or less interchangeable, and I felt better still once I discovered that stores frequently mislabel "fennel" as "anise" (so, at the end of the day, I'm not 100% sure which one I ended up using, but I suspect it was in fact fennel).

Anyway, back to the dish. The execution is not complicated at all. You cut the fennel bulbs into wedges, braise on the stovetop in a mixture of milk and butter for a while (it took my batch about 40 minutes to get tender - keep an eye on the pot so the milk foam doesn't boil over), add ground fennel seeds and salt, dump the whole mess into a Corningware dish, top with a little more butter and a nice carpet of grated Parmesan, and bake it for about 20 minutes. The cheese browns up nicely and the fennel comes out of the oven tender and surprisingly mild-flavored (I was afraid that it might taste like a pile of licorice ropes soaked in dairy). It was a nice accompaniment to my noodles and meatballs (Mrs. Hackknife agreed, progeny abstained from commenting) and gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that I'll know what to do if fennel (or anise) bulbs appear in my farmbox sometime this season....