Thursday, March 29, 2012

Creole Spiced Salmon

I've found another version of salmon to add to the Commissary menu list, this one featuring a spicy rub and sides of basmati rice/greens dressed in oil and vinegar. The salmon recipe comes from Chef James Boyce at the Commerce Kitchen in Hunstville, AL and is ridiculously easy to make. There were a few spices called for in the rub (namely smoked paprika and garlic powder) that I had to track down, but otherwise, the ingredients are straightforward. Since Mrs. Hackknife was traveling and the progeny are not big salmon eaters, I ended up buying only about 1.25 lb. of fish instead of the 2 lb. listed in the recipe. Unfortunately, I forgot to adjust the amount of seasoning down to compensate for the smaller weight; as a result, the spice crust atop each piece of salmon was a little, shall we say, robust. Next time, I'll be more careful to use less rub if necessary (I suspect I could also reduce the amount of salt - 2 Tbsp, which is a lot - without anyone noticing). The recipe includes extra spice blend that you can refrigerate and use on other meats (I'm thinking pork, chicken, and other fish types, like tilapia). Note that my basmati rice needed about double the cooking time (around 35 minutes) instead of the 18 minutes cited, but the final product is very tasty: rich rice grains with a little texture to them from being toasted in butter prior to steaming.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I have often commented that I regret only having one digestive tract with which to enjoy the multitudes of culinary treats that our modern world has to offer. This lament is compounded by the fact that I didn't get on the foodie bandwagon in earnest until really the last five years, which makes me wonder exactly how many calories I wasted on Hamburger Helper prior to my conversion. Anyway, I find myself getting a bit reflective like this as I've now just this past week crossed the threshold from the you're-still-relatively-young 30s into the you're-definitely-middle-aged-now 40s, more determined than ever to make the most of my finite stomach capacity. Fortunately, the place I chose for my milestone birthday dinner was well-deserving of the honor. Goosefoot, named after a family of plants (which includes swiss chard and quinoa) with leaves that resemble the walking appendages of said waterfowl, opened in late 2011 on a quiet stretch of Lawrence Avenue between the north branch of the Chicago River and Western Avenue (an area more accustomed to homey ethnic eateries such as the Croatian joint down the block). Chef Chris Nugent and his wife designed every aspect of the restaurant's decor and menu, drawing from his experience at Les Nomades (one of the last bastions of traditional French cuisine in the city) to create an elegant-yet-relaxed menu that marries precise French techniques to innovative presentations of seasonal ingredients (think Charlie Trotter's with less Asian influence, or, better yet, El Ideas with a touch more subtlety). A vein of environmental ethos runs through the whole production, from the herbs and greens that the Nugents grow at home in their garden for the restaurant to the menu printed on wildflower seed paper (as tempting as it is to plant my souvenir of the evening, given my lack of skill in the yard, I'd probably just grow more menus).

The premises don't have a liquor license, so Mrs. Hackknife and I brought our own wine to enjoy during the meal (I selected a Louis Jadot Beaune Therons 2009 red Burgundy, young, light, and versatile for lots of different courses). We arrived to a tranquil and mostly empty restaurant at 6:30 (it didn't stay that way as nearly every table was full by the time we left a few hours later) and we were greeted with a tasty amuse bouche of golden beet topped with a dollop of whipped goat cheese, with a tiny, rich cheese puff on the side. The first listed course on our biodegradable menu was a seared scallop placed in a pool of curry and lobster sauce, garnished with a puree of hubbard squash, a small cloud of licorice root foam, and a dusting of Parmesan powder, the flavors of which were all perfectly balanced. This was followed by a surprisingly large bowl of amazing chestnut soup infused with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence, topped by a sizable (almost too sizable) puff of smoke foam. Although the foam seemed a bit extraneous to me (and brought to mind the Next el Bulli smoke foam course that also wasn't a favorite), the soup was fantastic, probably the best example of its kind that we've had in the past year (I guess chestnut soup must be a trend in fine dining circles these days).

Moving onward, we were given a small fillet of loup de mer (European sea bass), perfectly crisped on the outside and served atop a mixture of tapioca pearls and Meyer lemon (reminiscent of something that Thomas Keller might do) with a smear of sunchoke puree.

The garnish of orange, yellow, and green foliage (from the house garden, I assume) seen in the photo above appeared in various arrangements throughout the meal, attempting to establish a common visual link between plates (not sure if that was necessary - too obvious?). With the food tasting as good as it did, window dressing clearly wasn't needed, as further evidenced by the fowl course, a delicious roasted quail paired with spiced beluga lentils, jellied ginger cubes, spheres of pickled "compressed" apple, parsnip puree, and droplets of mustard vinaigrette. Mrs. Hackknife promptly put a baggie of the apple spheres on her Christmas wish list. The beef course (fillet of Angus beef with cumin/shallot jus served with goosefoot greens, truffle powder, and various forms of heirloom carrots, one of which looked like a quail egg yolk) was just as succulent and artfully presented.

After a palate-cleansing shot of pomegranate juice mixed with citrus-infused olive oil, a cheese course consisting of delectable Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese shavings (voted best American cheese in 2010) atop a celery-truffle caponata puree with almond marscapone and what I later determined to be a tapioca cracker supporting the whole shebang arrived at the table.

As good as this dish was (note to Chef: package those tapioca crackers and I will give you my firstborn), the desserts were even better. First up was a sort-of deconstructed pumpkin pie - a slab of soft cinderella pumpkin (yes, there is such a thing - I looked it up) resting on a bed of spice puree (containing cinnamon and nutmeg among others), paired with a sweet nougatine and coffee drops. I was then promptly blown away by the chocolate course, a masterly arrangement of chocolate mousse encased in a shell of cocoa butter and dark chocolate, then placed next to a crispy hazelnut and praline mound, sprayed with orange blossom water, and garnished with a single chocolate-dipped sea bean (which got me thinking of Noma) and a smear of mulled wine glaze (I had to restrain myself from eating the candle - it was not edible).

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this entire experience was the cost - $90 each for the set menu and no markup for alcohol since it's BYOB. When considering that we've easily paid twice that (or more) for cuisine of comparable quality at swankier locales, I think we may have stumbled upon the best dining value in town. I guess growing older isn't so bad when you're feeling savvier than those whippersnappers downing $20 martinis and gnawing on $60 steaks at Mastro's in River North. Well done, Chef...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Two-Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

This recipe is clearly the kitchen version of a neat parlor trick. While paging through the Spring 2012 issue of Lucky Peach (David Chang's quarterly magazine focused on what can best be described as "esoteric" culinary matters), I found an article detailing the history of the now-ubiquitous chocolate lava cake. The cake's history is interesting in and of itself; however, the most intriguing item is a recipe for two-minute chocolate mug cake found at the end of the article. Surely this must be a joke, I thought - you can't possibly take simple baking ingredients and make a decent gooey chocolate cake using a coffee mug and a microwave. Of course, I had to take it upon myself to try it out just so I could be proven right. As it turns out, I was NOT right. While it may not have been the best chocolate cake I've ever eaten, it was still surprisingly good given its, well, redneck upbringing. Mrs. Hackknife concurred that this dessert belongs in the section of the Commissary cookbook "Desserts to make when you're harried and desperate" alongside the instant chocolate fondue (sugar, cream, and chocolate chips, in case you were curious).

Chang and Co. slightly edited the recipe from its first form, whose origins are murky (according to the article, it began circulating around the Internet in 2009). The only technique modification I would recommend would be mixing the batter up in a small bowl prior to placing it in the mug for microwaving (my cake ended up a little eggy in places, reminding me of French toast, I suspect due to insufficient mixing of ingredients), although that might take some of the fun out of it.

1 egg
3 T milk
3 T neutral oil
3 T flour
4 T sugar
2 T cocoa powder
pinch salt
3 T semi-sweet chocolate chips
small splash vanilla extract
1 small or medium coffee mug (microwave safe)

Add wet ingredients (including egg) to mug and mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix well again. Add chocolate chips and vanilla, mixing well once more. Put mug into a 1000-watt microwave for 2 minutes. The cake may rise over the top of the mug (don't be alarmed). Allow to cool and tip out onto a plate if desired.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cauliflower and Anchovy Orecchiette

I found this recipe in a recent Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal (the "Off Duty" section often features decent recipes - I've written about them many times). This particular dish caught my attention since it's the brainchild of April Bloomfield, a renowned British chef that we saw at the food fest in Grand Cayman (you may recall me mentioning her beef-and-Stilton pie demo). I just recently waxed poetically about the virtues of eating small oily fishies, so I was hoping that this version of orecchiette ("ear" in Italian, so named for their shape) would be a hit with the missus, who is quite possibly the world's foremost anchovy advocate (a title that might look a bit weird on a business card). Sadly, we found it to be underwhelming and surprisingly bland, especially for something that includes olive oil, Parmesan, caramelized red onion, garlic, and anchovies (although the last statement of the recipe urging the diner to "season to taste with salt, oil, and lots of Parmesan" should have tipped me off that maybe the base flavor would be, well, neutral). The leftovers have been a little better, more so after I threw a few more anchovies on top and drizzled the oil from the anchovy tin on it (ed. note - I've discovered that, much like nuclear energy, the use of oil infused with the essence of small oily fishes is tremendously good when used for the benefit of humanity and not for evil purposes). Perhaps the most positive lesson to glean from this experience is that I need to seek out some bottled anchovy essence (basically the Italian equivalent of Asian fish sauce) for general use in the Commissary...

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lao Sze Chuan

Before we get to the main topic of this posting, I have a couple of housekeeping notes to pass along. First, I discovered this past Saturday afternoon that the good people at Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, IN not only continue to produce microbrews that put the majority of the civilized world to shame (I had the pleasure of sampling the Admiral Nelson Extra Special Bitter, the Topless Wytch Baltic Porter, and the Hell's Black Intelligenser Coffee Stout, all fantastic), but can also whip up a mean smoked lamb platter even while undergoing major renovations (the kitchen was completely closed - in its place, just a grill and a smoker operating under a tarp outside). Secondly, I made a return visit to Eleven City Diner (where I procured a nice chocolate milkshake on foodie walkabout last October) for lunch today and got to try the house smoked brisket sandwich (called the "Schwartzy" in obvious homage to the home of the most famous smoked brisket, Schwartz's Deli in Montreal), which was tremendously good (and saved me the airfare to Canada).

This brings me to tonight's headliner - Lao Sze Chuan in our fair city's Chinatown neighborhood on the near southwest side. Restauranteur Tony Hu is quickly becoming a well-known figure in the local culinary scene, having recently opened his 5th venture in Chinatown. Each of his places focuses on the cuisine of a distinct Chinese region (Szechuan, Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, and You Ju), with Lao Sze Chuan (LSC) being his first (open since 1998). I had heard many good things about LSC's offerings and have made woefully few trips to Chinatown during my long tenure as a Chicago resident, so Mrs. Hackknife and I finally decided to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Our foodie friends Phil and Karen V. kindly agreed to join us, making it a couples night out without the kiddies (not too late, though - daylight savings time was looming at 2 am, waiting to steal away an hour when the clocks moved forward).

I made a halfhearted attempt to get us a reservation a few weeks in advance, and by halfhearted, I mean that I spoke on the phone to a hostess who told me in broken English to call 20 minutes before our arrival to presumably get our names on the waiting list (at least, this is what I think she said). Anyway, a persistent busy signal prevented us from making further contact on our drive up, so we simply waited our turn outside the storefront along with the other anxious masses. After about 30 minutes of listening to the Chinese maitre 'd scream out waiting list names (his voice was possibly better suited for a cattle auction) and watching one instance where I swear he let a group of natives from the Fatherland in ahead of everyone else (they had a brief exchange in Mandarin and he slipped them a little pink paper with some scrawled characters - it was all very clandestine), we were seated just inside the main doorway.

Now, you may be aware that szechuan food has a reputation for being a little heavy on the spice - as a result, I think we were all a bit wary about what we might be getting from the kitchen. Our group decided to order a mix of dishes from the "spicy" and "non-spicy" options listed on the house special menu page (there were many more pages of available dishes, which we mostly ignored this time out) to hopefully cover a broad swath of LSC's best-known offerings. Our server first brought out a little plate of white cabbage spiked with red chilis (you can see it in the upper right corner of the photo at top). This dish was complimentary and was possibly intended to be a palate cleanser, although I would describe it more like a palate carpet bomber as it was stunningly spicy. While I waited for the feeling to return to my lips, I started to worry that perhaps we had gotten a little more than bargained for with respect to the heat, nervously glancing at other tables to see if anyone else has polished their cabbage off (some did, some didn't). Phil theorized that the staff used this plate as a spice benchmark for each table, watching to see who avoided it, then adjusting the heat content of the subsequent dishes accordingly. He may have been onto something as our other food items were all pretty tame in comparison (apparently, we failed the test).

I must give credit to Nick Kindelsperger of Serious Eats Chicago, who recommended 2 LSC dishes in an article he wrote back in January, both of which (Tony's three chili chicken and the string beans in a spicy black bean sauce) were unbelievably good. Many food bloggers have described the three chili chicken as being addictive and I can see why - try to imagine the endorphin rush from the best General Tso's crispy chicken that you've ever had and multiply it by 10. The fried chicken pieces were wonderfully crisp, not the least bit greasy, and were perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy. Our last dish from the spicy portion of the menu specials was a platter of what was described as twice cooked pork fat (with the word "fat" listed in parentheses - we never really figured out why). This one appeared to feature thin slices of fatty pork mixed with roasted peppers, mushrooms, and corn (it's the red, green, and brown pile featured in the lower right corner of the photo) and was the group's least favorite of everything we ate that night (still not bad, but not all that distinct from what the cheap Chinese take-out joint in your local strip mall is churning out).

As for the non-spicy dishes, we picked an amazing crispy shrimp in mayonnaise sauce (easily the best honey-type shrimp dish I've ever eaten at a Chinese place) and an equally impressive Szechuan smoked tea duck served on the bone with an addictive (there's that word again - are they mixing heroin into the MSG shaker back there?) dipping sauce. By the time we had picked apart the last piece of duck and swallowed down the final crispy nuggets of fried chicken/shrimp, the 4 of us took our fortune cookies and headed back south feeling mightily content and heartily smelling of wok oil. I'd say we were all pretty satisfied with the experience and can hardly wait to try another of the restaurants in the Tony Hu empire. I continue to feel this way even after waking up at 4:30 that night (it would have been 3:30 the previous night, but clock changing be damned, I had more pressing issues to endure) to rush to the bathroom, clutching a box of Immodium while pondering death on the toilet like Elvis. I don't know if it was the extra duck drumstick or the third helping of three chili chicken that put me over the edge, but I think my ever-weakening stomach is warning me not to mix microbrewed beer and spicy Chinese food on the same day again...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Burger 'N Que

A hearty thanks goes out to Friend of the Blog (and fellow foodie) Karen V. for cluing me in to a local burger joint that's been long overdue for a visit. If you're driving up Wolf Road in the far reaches of Orland Park, you'll notice a gas station on the left right after you pass the light at Southwest Highway. Sharing the lot with the gas station is a small, relatively nondescript building that looks as if it could have been a convenience store at one point. The tiny diner located within, Burger 'N Que is one of those places that, as a local, I've passed a hundred times without ever really noticing that it's there (let alone stopped in). It surely would have remained that way if not for the effusive praise Karen gave it on Facebook one evening - something about jalapeno bottle caps particularly caught my attention and I made a mental note to add it to the ever-growing hit list.

I picked a Thursday morning before the lunch rush not long ago as the best time to try it out, with Hackknifette accompanying me for moral support (she was hoping to get some lemonade out of the deal). The lot in front of the restaurant was full (even at 11:30), so we parked in the muddy, unpaved area off to the side and sauntered in. I was immediately struck by how little space there was inside, with room only for a counter, kitchen, restrooms, and a couple of booths/tables. A few people were milling about waiting for their orders to arrive; otherwise, I'd describe the vibe as sedate, with the decor consisting of signed photos from local celebrities (such as Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky), a 50s-era auto racing design scheme, and a tv blaring Jerry Springer in the corner. Clearly, there wasn't much to focus on than the cuisine, which is fine in my book when the food is good like it was here. Hackknifette opted for the kid's cheeseburger with fries (and, yes, she got her lemonade) while I tried 1/2 lb. Bernie burger (see photo above), served with grilled onions, American cheese, a house sauce eerily similar to thousand island dressing, all on a crusty French roll (fries came with my order as well - I was hoping to get the black and tan onion rings I saw on the webpage menu; alas, they're not listed at the restaurant). My burger was great, juicy and a little sloppy in the way I like my short-order burgers to be. The roll was a bit toothsome and the fries were just ok, but the house gets extra points for having Barq's Red Cream Soda available (a favorite of mine from college that I don't often see anymore). I'd have to give a slight edge to Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly with respect to my ultimate South Side burger; however, the offering at Burger 'N Que was more than adequate and a much closer trip from the Commissary. I'm sure we'll be making a return visit to sample the pit bbq brisket and also to get some of those mysterious jalapeno bottle caps...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sweet & Sour Sardines

As a general rule, Americans (at least those without predominantly Northern European bloodlines) tend to shy away from small oily fish. This certainly was the case during my childhood, where eating an anchovy was considered only marginally preferable to covering one's naked body with maple syrup and belly flopping onto a fire ant mound. Indeed, even as an adult, I wouldn't have given pizza with anchovies a second thought until I met the great Mrs. Hackknife, who convinced me that the idea had merit, and, by golly, she was right! The humble, salty anchovy proved to be a gateway to other tiny swimmers - I no longer feared herring, smelts, or sardines, even willingly seeking them out at times, sold on the rich, dense flavor and the well-documented health benefits. This leads me to our featured recipe, which is included in the current (March 2012) issue of Saveur in an article on Venetian "cicheti" (essentially one-bite bar snacks). Of the dozen-odd dishes presented, one of them (sweet and sour sardines) stood out to me as being 1) easy to prepare, 2) enticing to Mrs. Hackknife, 3) a good companion to pesto pasta (yes, that same pesto left over from my earlier gnocchi disaster), and 4) full of several ingredients already in the larder (e.g., white wine, raisins, olive oil, pine nuts).

My initial challenge was getting the sardines. The recipe listed 2 lb. worth - if that seems like a lot to you, you'd be right. At first, all I could locate were canned sardines, which were quite expensive if you bought 2 lb. of them (each tin held about 4 oz., meaning I would need 8 tins at $3/tin, well, you get the picture). Luckily, the deli at my local ethnic grocery offered sardines packed in salt for about $8/lb. - even then, I stopped at only a pound after I realized that still gave me about 12 decent-sized fish (each about 4 in. long). Bringing my quarry home, I had planned to whip the dish up right before dinner until by chance I noticed the text "marinate in refrigerator for 4 hours" appended onto the very end of the recipe, which caused me to launch into a flurry of panicked activity between lunchtime and picking up Hackknife Jr. from school in order to get my fishies prepped and into the fridge. Really, all parts of the process were simple, with one exception - cleaning the sardines. Since they were salt packed, I followed the Ruhlman technique of soaking them in milk for 30 minutes to remove the salt crust. Next, like anchovies, I figured I'd need to slice each sardine open to remove the backbone and, hopefully, many of the smaller pin bones at the same time. Unlike anchovies (which are smaller), I discovered that sardine backbones are much more embedded and, therefore, harder to remove without breaking into pieces (and as for the small bones, forget it - they all mostly stayed behind in the flesh). Still, the picture of the finished dish in my magazine clearly shows pin bones protruding from the fish, so I pressed onward unconcerned.

Now we get to my main epiphany, revealed after broiling the semi-deboned sardines in a hot oven for 3 minutes - they're exceedingly oily. And this oil is, shall we say, incredibly pungent, leaving behind a persistent, smelly trail wherever it makes contact, even after repeated cleaning. For days afterwards, my sink, towels, cutting board, and hands carried a faint, oceanic odor that was readily apparent anytime someone wandered by the Commissary (Ed. note - for those of you readers in the Taliban, I daresay that sardine oil would make a far better dirty bomb material than plutonium, with its stink rendering any city completely uninhabitable for centuries). Despite its olfactory condition, the marinated, chilled sardines looked pretty much like they did in the article photo. I would characterize their taste, however, as very salty, maybe overbearingly, high blood pressure-inducing salty (perhaps 30 minutes more in the milk bath were needed). And although the pin bones are edible, I wouldn't exactly describe them as pleasantly so. Mrs. Hackknife and I both agreed that the dish worked on principle, but the salt/bones really detracted from the experience and pretty much overwhelmed the flavor of the pesto pasta (which is usually strong on its own). I suspect that in more capable hands (especially someone who knows how to properly fillet small fish), the end result could be much more balanced and appealing. Perhaps some reconnaissance to Venice is needed to sort these issues out....

Monday, March 5, 2012

Forloren Hare (Danish Meat Loaf)

After my gnocchi debacle the other night, I was in some serious need of redemption and I found it in the comforting form of meatloaf. The January/February 2012 issue of Saveur listed meatloaf as one of a select 100 "new classics" (whatever that means exactly) and included recipes for several versions of it, one of which caught my eye more than the others. Listed in the article was a variety of meatloaf from Denmark called forloren hare (literally "fake hare" or "mock hare" in Danish) that includes a mixture of beef/pork, some heavy cream, a rich gravy, and strips of bacon over the top to help retain moisture during baking (apparently, those Danes know how to indulge themselves). Now, we already have a house meatloaf recipe that's pretty well received (courtesy of my mother-in-law) - it also happens to include a beef/pork mix, but not any of the other goodies I listed. So, as a change of pace, I decided to give our mock hare a try in the Commissary.

All of the ingredients were procured pretty easily (I had to go to my local ethnic grocery to find some red currant jelly) and the dish's assembly was not tricky at all. I ended up using about 6 slices of thick-cut bacon to cover the loaf before putting it into the oven on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. While it was baking, I whipped up the gravy on the stovetop (I believe this was my first ever gravy made from scratch) and was quite surprised at the decadent result from cooking down caramelized onions, beef stock, the jelly, some flour/butter, a little thyme, and a bay leaf. Although the recipe called for straining the gravy to remove all of the solids, I couldn't resist taking a couple spoonfuls of the filtered debris (which was loaded with those awesome browned onions) and mixing it back into the gravy liquid to kick it up a notch.

The meatloaf came out of the oven not looking all that great (hence the lack of a picture in this post), but the flavor was a knockout, with Mrs. Hackknife and I both swooning (and completely forgetting about the weekend's earlier failures). The progeny were content to nibble on the bacon portion of the loaf, which I consider to be a vote of confidence from that crowd. All told, it blew away our house version of meatloaf, not surprising considering the rich contents. If the local county fair had a contest to judge baked meat structures, the forloren hare (I would have to rename it "Danish Beauty" for marketing purposes) would definitely be my blue ribbon submission. Unfortunately, the extra fat from the bacon/gravy/cream did a number on my insides for 12-24 hours after the fact, so we'll have to save this recipe for special occasions and holidays for now on, sticking to the old, blander standby for our habitual meatloaf...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gnocchi alla Romana

If you're a frequent reader of this blog, you know that my track record with new recipes significantly varies. A few of them are home runs, lots fall in the mid-category range of being decent, but not necessarily warranting a repeat appearance, and every now and again I come up with a real clunker. My recent attempt at making semolina-based gnocchi (aka Gnocchi alla Romana) falls into this last category, a spectacular, unmitigated, nearly-inedible disaster. How did we get here, you say? Well, I'll try to conduct an adequate post-mortem.

I've had a 2-lb. bag of semolina wheat sitting in my spice/baking cabinet for nearly a year now. I went out and purchased it soon after my original mediocre attempt at making gnocchi last year (this one was potato-based - see February 2011 posting). With Lent having just arrived and the bag's expiration date fast approaching, I decided that last Friday was the perfect time to finally try out the semolina gnocchi, in theory an ideal meat-free dish for us (semi-)observant Catholics. The recipe in question Gnocchi alla Romana comes from my oft-used April 2010 issue of Saveur featuring Roman cuisine (you'll recall that I've had much success replicating dishes from this article up until now). Upon reading the instructions, I didn't anticipate any hangups and set off pretty confident in my abilities to pull this one off like the others.

Almost immediately, I hit a major snag. The recipe calls for 1 1/2 c. of semolina, or 8 oz. Now, I would assume that most normal, thinking folks would read that and say "Boy, that must mean the 2 measures should be roughly equal". I may not be considered normal or a thinking folk, but, in any case, that's at least what I thought. Perhaps the fact that one measure is a volume (c.) and one measure is a mass (oz.) should have led me to be a bit more cautious in double-checking my ingredient outlay. Anyway, when the milk started simmering and I added my 1 1/2 c. of semolina, I was shocked to discover that my pot became an unstirrable (is that even a word?) morass of glop, with the material inside unable to be moved by whisk, wooden spoon, or jackhammer. It was almost as if I had added too much semolina. Hmmmm. It was then that I glanced at my bag of semolina to note that it was half-empty. This is when the math gears in my mind began whirring....2 lb. is 32 oz.....half of 32 oz. is 16 oz......1 1/2 c. of semolina is 16 oz.). Why, I had used twice as much semolina as I was supposed to! Was this semolina somehow a super-dense version previously unknown to mankind? I cursed myself out for not noticing this discrepancy at the beginning and tossed the whole mess in the garbage (I must admit it wasn't a total loss - it actually smelled nutty and rather pleasant as garbage goes, even after a day or two).

At this point, convinced I had solved the problem, I started again, this time using the correct amount of semolina (3/4 c. or 8 oz.). All went well until it was time to cut up the solidified, dried gnocchi dough into 2" squares. The mixture looked good when pored onto my cookie sheet and seemed to have the right consistency, but after the recommended 40 minutes of downtime, I cut into....glop, a soggy, loose, wet mess that barely held any shape. This couldn't possibly be right, could it? Now I was really in trouble. I had already lost time after my initial misfire, the kids were hungry, Mrs. Hackknife was about to walk in the door expecting to find a hot, hearty dinner, and I've got Malt-o-Meal. I put on a brave face and tried to finish out the recipe, using a spatula to scoop the very-runny dough squares into my baking dish, loading them up with cheese/butter, throwing them into the oven, and hoping for the best. The best never arrived. My completed gnocchi landed on the plates looking like bad polenta and tasting worse than that. Even our well-loved house pesto sauce (which I would gladly apply to my own gym shoes if for some reason they were the only thing around to eat) couldn't rescue this. Mrs. Hackknife stopped after a couple bites and murmured something about take-out pizza. The progeny? Forget it. I soldiered through a first and smaller second helping, then promptly tossed the remainder to join its unborn sibling at the bottom of the trashcan.

I want to believe that the dough simply needed extra drying time to harden, but I'm not entirely sure that's true. After this and the prior unsuccessful experience, I'm starting to think that gnocchi just might not really ever find a place in my recipe box (I don't even really like eating it that much, so I won't shed any tears). From now on, I'll leave the gnocchi making to my Ohio relatives (who can turn out a mean batch of the stuff) and our local Italian restauranteurs....