Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Banana Peppers in Oil/Chilled Corn Soup

While on vacation in North Carolina with my dad's extended family last month, I was reminded that often times some sort of spicy pepper condiment or homemade giardiniera showed up on the table at grandma's house in Ohio when she brought out a big bowl of pasta and sauce. As a kid, I can recall my dad slathering some of the pepper and oil mixture on his noodles to give it a kick of heat (he would offer to let me try a little and, of course, it annihilated my 9-year old taste buds that were more accustomed to Count Chocula and Wonder Bread). My younger siblings and I would also marvel at (and be a little freaked out by) strange, wrinkled chili peppers drying on a string in the root cellar of the same house, a practice more associated with an earlier generation of Italian immigrants (the peppers apparently came from the backyard garden, which was to us another odd relic of the Old Country; that is, the notion that people would actually grow and eat their own food instead of buying it at the Jewel). I now suspect that the peppers we saw (and that were subsequently turned into the condiment on the dinner table) were banana peppers, a variety with very mild heat, just enough to get your attention. Anyway, getting back to the beach - my Aunts Mary and Monica cooked up a turkey breast one day to feed the sunbathing masses in the family for lunch and served it with large pita wraps and a side of chopped banana peppers in oil. I found these peppers to be simply amazing with the turkey (adding a solid dose of both savory and spice) and spent the rest of the week adding them to whatever dishes I could, whether it was fish, pasta, or other meats. My aunts were kind enough to share the recipe with me so I could duplicate it at home, which I recently did when a bag of banana peppers fortuitously arrived on my doorstep via the weekly farmbox. Here it is (courtesy of Aunt Monica):

7 hungarian hot peppers or banana peppers sliced into rings
(remove ribs and seeds to cut down on excess heat if you want)
3 or 4 garlic cloves (minced)
1/2 to 1 tsp. salt
1/2 to 1 tsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. oregano
1/2 c. neutral oil (like corn or canola)

Toss sliced peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and oil in a large bowl. Adjust seasonings to taste. Put into a sealed plastic bowl or Ziploc and keep in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

In addition to peppers, summer also means frequent shipments of corn (which looked and tasted pretty darn good in spite of the drought conditions that our local farmers have been enduring). Rather than just roasting or boiling it, I tried out this simple recipe for chilled corn soup that appeared in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal on August 6. Other than the fact that I used dried nutmeg instead of fresh, slivered almonds instead of toasted walnuts, and light whipping cream in lieu of heavy cream, the end product turned out well, a refreshingly cool side dish to accompany a heartier entree (like turkey divan). Mrs. Hackknife and I were both fans of the soup, with the progeny preferring their corn kernels to be unadulterated instead of pureed with onions and cream (silly kids)...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Los Angeles 2012 - Day 3

Day 3 dawned a little earlier than the first two so that we could make the 90-minute drive up through the high desert, then back down to the Central Valley for our river rafting excursion on the Kern River near Bakersfield (for the record, doing a non-food activity was not my idea; however, I felt the need to humor my hosts seeing as they'd unflaggingly tolerated my culinary excesses up to this point). Upon arrival, our river guides were happy to share that, not only did we choose the hottest day of the season for our sojourn (forecasted high in Bakersfield: 109F), but the river was at very low flow levels (less than 500 cubic feet per second), meaning we'd encounter lots of rocks that would normally be below the water surface. In spite of these hardships, the river trip went well, with no loss of life or limbs, a small, yet feisty amount of whitewater, and some cool dips in the water to boot. My mates and I did manage to work up a good appetite following all that paddling, so for lunch we hit the first In-N-Out Burger we could find on the road to LA. For those of you unaware, In-N-Out is a celebrated burger franchise in California (and mostly just California, with locations only recently branching out eastward as far as Texas), primarily known for its streamlined food offerings (burgers, fries, and shakes - that's it) that are freshly made to order and its not-so-secret menu (actually described as such on its website). Wikipedia has a fantastic writeup on all of the known secret menu options (you can see it here - it's actually more comprehensive than the version on the company's own website), which Jaime helpfully printed out for me before I arrived so I could research my options.

What you are looking at in the photo above is a single-patty burger and an order of fries served "animal style" (yes, I really said this to the server when ordering - allegedly, she has a button on the register dedicated to each secret menu preparation). For the burger, this meant the addition of lettuce, pickle, and tomato, plus extra sauce (similar to Thousand Island dressing), chopped grilled onions, and a mustard-grilled patty. The "animal" fries are topped with two slices of American cheese (which melted evenly atop the potatoes and wasn't gloppy like the cheese whiz stuff you would normally see on cheese fries), plus the sauce and chopped grilled onions. In addition to being a brilliant marketing strategy (everyone likes to feel like they have some sort of "inside information"), this variation was actually pretty fabulous on both the burger and fries (especially the fries - I'm not normally fond of fries with toppings, but this combo was definitely greater than the sum of its parts). I find myself quite looking forward to my next batch of animal style fast food and hope for an eventual In-N-Out franchise to pop up around here.

Towards the end of our drive back into the LA Basin, Jaime and Lydia suggested we stop for a shaved Mexican ice (called raspado in Spanish, very similar to a snow cone), a welcome antidote to the blistering heat still afflicting the Valley. When we parked at the curb in a fairly-downtrodden residential neighborhood, however, I was confused - where was the store? If you weren't looking for it as you passed by, you definitely wouldn't have noticed the small construction horse with a handwritten sign discreetly pointing to a backyard raspaderia (this was probably not an accident as I suspect the proprietors were not officially registered with the local health department/tax bureau). Behind the house, a man and his wife had set up tables and equipment to prepare raspados, shaving ice cubes to the proper consistency and forming them into a cup-held cone, then topping them with one of 15 or so homemade fruit syrups (plus condensed milk if you so desire). I picked tamarind (see photo above, taken as generically as possible so as not to ruffle any feathers regarding anonymity), which was sweet and a bit earthy. After Jaime showed me how to properly scrape down the ice cone, the whole concoction quickly melted into a refreshing slurry of tamarind syrup and pulp, condensed milk, and ice shavings, as good of a frozen treat as I can ever remember enjoying on a hot summer afternoon.

The three of us needed some serious scrubbing after our time in the murky river and dusty valley, especially given our dinner destination that evening: The Bazaar in the swanky Beverly Hills SLS Hotel. I was pretty excited about what was to be my first experience dining in a Jose Andres restaurant, most of which are located in the Washington D.C. area (you might recall that Mrs. Hackknife and I met Chef Andres earlier this year at the Cayman Cookout). A disciple of avant-garde cooking pioneers Albert and Ferran Adria, Chef Andres's cuisine reflects a marriage between old world dishes (many from his home region of Catalonia, Spain) and cutting-edge techniques, often producing whimsical results, the likes of which were celebrated by diners at el Bulli, the now-shuttered gastronomic temple run by the Brothers Adria. Having been wowed myself by over 30 el Bulli creations from the associated Next tribute menu in Chicago this past February, I hoped that my friends would get an opportunity to see a little of this culinary magic in action at The Bazaar.

Jaime, Lydia, and I pulled up to the valet stand at the hotel and were immediately immersed in the jetset culture of modern LA. Our hostess led us through the first of two main dining rooms (this one referred to as "blanca" for its elegant white decor) to a table in the ultra-hip and much darker "rojo" room (see photo above), where we joined several groups of uber-attractive, under-30 diners (of course, it was painfully evident that I did not fit in either of these categories). Although I was a little nervous about just how trendy the restaurant was, the waitstaff was very friendly and helpful, getting us started with drinks and reviewing the tapas-based menu with us. The tapas offerings were divided into "traditional" and "modern" categories and our party opted to try a few of each. First up was a platter of modern and traditional olives (see photo below).

The tasty traditional olives were stuffed with anchovy and placed in a tin as a homage to the high-quality canned goods that are produced in Spain (no joke - the Spanish are known for this). Right next to them on the black slate were the encapsulated modern olives on shiny metal spoons, the very same version I'd eaten back in February during the Next el Bulli tribute dinner. These "olives" (actually olive oil and juices contained in an alginate coating, a dish lifted from the el Bulli kitchen) are designed to explode in the mouth with a burst of pure olive flavor (which they did, impressing, if not weirding out a little, my dining companions). Next up came two more conventional plates, a platter of cured meats (in this case, chorizo, pork loin, and salami) followed by a selection of Spanish cheeses (Murcia al Vino, Garrotxa, and Idiazabal, two goat and one sheep) served with Marcona almonds and quince jam. Before the more substantial courses arrived, our waiter brought over a platter with addictive Catalan-style toasted bread with tomato/garlic/oil spread on top (this rustic specialty was being continuously churned out at a dedicated bar with dedicated chefs in another part of the dining room - they must go through a lot of it).

At this point, one of the managers was kind enough to bring me over to the kitchen so I could take a close-up picture (apparently, he had noticed me snapping away at plates earlier):

Our next dish was picked by Jaime, who had heard about it from someone else in town, the house's interpretation of a "Philly cheesesteak". Listed on the modern tapas portion of the menu under "Some Little Sandwiches", this sandwich was actually turned inside-out, with the meat on top of the bread. Inside the little roll (what they refer to as "air bread", essentially a hollow baguette nearly identical to one we had with ham around it at Next, most probably another el Bulli original) was a dollop of melted cheddar cheese, when taken together with the meat and roll produced a pretty accurate rendition of cheesesteak in my book (see photo below).

Going back to traditional tapas, we tried out some "papas canarias", or Canarian wrinkled potatoes, a popular dish from the Spanish Canary Islands. The potatoes (which apparently have to be small in order for the dish to work) were served with a green pepper sauce, or "mojo". These were fine, but were somewhat overshadowed by most of our other choices (hey, something has to be last). The potatoes were proceeded by two modern vegetable tapas plates, fabulous and airy blocks of eggplant tempura served with a honey-buttermilk dipping foam and flower-like bundles of guacamole (with micro cilantro and corn chips mixed in) daintily wrapped in jicama (see both below).

For dessert, our server led us over to a separate, secluded area of the hotel lobby, decked out more like a club. This "dessert lounge" was quieter and more intimate, a welcome break from the din of the main dining rooms. I really liked this idea of distinct seating at the end of the meal, which probably also allows the restaurant to serve more patrons by clearing table space. The lounge harbored a number of glass cases (see photo below), seemingly filled with precious objects (artifacts? art?), but actually containing items for sale like jewelry (a concept I found a little tacky).

The dessert lounge had its own kitchen for the pastry staff at the back of the room (see photo below). Gift boxes of many goodies from the "Patisserie" (as they called it) could also be purchased, albeit at a Beverly Hills-level price.

As with dinner, the three of us collaborated on dessert choices, having to consider a wide range of mostly-smaller bites. We picked two larger plates, an apples "Carlota" (bread pudding with a saffron sauce) and a blueberry dark chocolate lavender tart (see photo below), along with 3 squares of chocolate mini-tablettes (a dark cocoa nibs, green tea, and raspberry cardamon).

The group all agreed that the sweets were a little underwhelming. The chocolate blueberry tart certainly looked decadent, but I thought the crust seemed too thick and heavy-handed. The bread pudding and chocolate squares weren't bad; however, I'm sure we'd have been just as happy with another helping of backyard raspado (at a fraction of the price and pretense). The Bazaar is definitely a great dining experience with outstanding tapas creations (lots of which we didn't get to try this time) and would be even better if the pastry staff could step up quality just a notch.

By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I felt that I had fully satisfied my craving for LA cuisine (at least for one trip). For breakfast, Jaime, Lydia, and I returned to Los Equipales for my farewell meal, a hot bowl of menudo (tripe soup, reputedly the best cure out there for overindulgence - see photo below) washed down with a hibiscus agua fresca.

The cooks put an awful lot of tripe in one bowl of menudo, so much that I wasn't able to finish it all. Whatever its medicinal properties might be, I certainly felt good on the plane ride home in spite of the weekend's dining dalliances. Next time out in SoCal, I think I'd like to focus a little more on regional Asian dishes, but I wouldn't be disappointed with any of the items encountered on this go-round. Thanks again to Jaime and Lydia for being gracious and enthusiastic hosts....

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Los Angeles 2012 - Day 2

As you might have guessed, I woke up early the following morning feeling, um, a little digestively unsettled (I blame jet lag). Lucky for me, the proprietors of the inn had some figs from the tree out back (a fruit tree in the backyard...try that in Chicago) and watermelon sliced up in the fridge that helped me right the ship. Also helping was the large bowl of birria (goat stew - see photo below) I ate for 2nd breakfast at one of Jaime's favorite local Mexican food joints, Los Equipales, just a short drive from the house in Sylmar. Very similar in flavor and presentation to the birria I had last year at Chicago's celebrated Birriera Zaragoza, the hot bowl of broth and meat was accompanied by cilantro, lime, onions, hot sauce, and corn tortillas.

Feeling rejuvenated, we made our way towards the coast to Santa Monica Pier for a spell of sightseeing. My hope was that we'd be able to see the ocean, then head back inland to get some recommended Thai food for lunch; however, Friday traffic problems prevented us from reaching the city. Undaunted, Jaime steered us back to the Valley and one of LA's most celebrated hot dog joints, Fab Hot Dogs in Receda. Longtime readers may recall that we visited Fab on the last trip, where I feasted on an LA street dog and tater tots. Not wanting to repeat myself, I opted for the Mexicali dog (char dog with guacamole, adobo sauce, grilled onions, and sour cream) and fries on this occasion. While looking good (see photo below) and tasting good, the 3 sauces made something of a sloppy mess, overwhelming the char dog a bit.

Once again, the day's heat in the Valley was beyond oppressive, so after lunch, we heeded the warnings of local officials and stayed cool indoors for the most part (except for a quick dip in the pool). Our plan for the evening was to stop by Jaime's parents again before heading to nearby San Fernando for a taco festival. Upon hearing that I'd enjoyed my shrimp ceviche the day prior, Jaime's mom decided to whip up a batch of her homemade cold shrimp soup for us as an appetizer (see photo below).

Although I sampled many different food items on this trip and I still consider myself to be nothing more than a hack when it comes to truly evaluating the quality of dishes, this shrimp soup was phenomenal x 10, quite probably the best thing I ate during my visit (sorry, Mom - I love you, but you can't cook like Mrs. Q). The textures of the chunky vegetables (cucumbers, onions) and fruits (avocados, tomatoes) melded perfectly with the cilantro, lemon juice, spices, and broth (a mixture of Clamato and a Mexican-brand tomato sauce), while the shrimp added a briny dimension to the bowl. Consuming it outside in the California heat only made it more perfect and I eagerly took a second helping, tacos be damned. Jaime's mom was kind enough to share the recipe with me on the condition that I'd be assassinated should I publish its contents. I don't think Mrs. Q has to worry - in spite of Lydia's dutiful efforts to translate her instructions from Spanish, I'm not confident I'll be able to duplicate the results back at the Commissary seeing as, like all good old-school recipes, there are no ingredient quantities, just a lot of tasting until you get the right balance of flavors.

We arrived at the taco fest (located just down the street from the church where Jaime and Lydia were married) in San Fernando as night fell, bringing some welcome cooling to the atmosphere. The fest itself wasn't quite as large as I'd imagined, more like a carnival with a few booths selling tacos and other Mexican fare.

While trying to make my dining choices, I noticed the local fire marshal having an animated discussion with one of the vendors about his propane burner setup (no doubt after seeing some equipment snafu that had the potential to blow us all to kingdom come). Clearly, this was the booth to start with before they were shut down. One the menu was something I'd had a vague notion about, but never tried, called esquites. This is a Mexican street food specialty where roasted corn kernels are mixed in a small container with butter, mayonnaise, lime, hot sauce, and grated cheese (no, it's not heart-healthy), then eaten with a spoon. I discovered that the resulting melange packs quite a wallop, and while I did enjoy the portion I ate, I wasn't able to navigate my way through the whole thing (more experienced esquite diners probably know how to tailor the amounts of individual toppings to their liking - I pretty much told the senorita to throw everything in there). I followed this up with a killer pineapple agua fresca, much better than the supercharged one I had at Tortas Frontera.

Moving on to tacos, we found a booth with a portable, propane-fueled vertical spit (presumably not running afoul of the local fire regulations) roasting a cone of pork for tacos al pastor (or shepherd-style). Atop the spit was a hunk of pineapple, with its juices dripping down onto the meat to help tenderize it (a traditional method of preparing al pastor). For just $2 each, I picked up one of the cook's tacos al pastor and another filled with some tripe meat, both topped with a mild green salsa. The al pastor taco was lean and tender, while the tripe was a little less so, not exactly my favorite (I've determined that tripe in tacos might be something of an acquired taste). More palatable was the cabeza (head) taco I bought at a different stand, featuring roasted meat from a cow's head (although I'm not entirely sure which part of the head I received, either the cheek, lips, tongue, or some combination thereof). By this time, I had had my fill of traditional Mexican food for the day and we decided to forgo dessert in lieu of extra sleep to prepare for our river rafting excursion in Bakersfield early the next morning...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Los Angeles 2012 - Day 1

As our summer of travel draws to a close before school starts, I managed to finagle one last trip, another solo venture (that makes 2 this year, which means my coffer of favors to be redeemed with family babysitters is now barren) to visit friends and, well, excessively eat. I was really looking forward to staying with Jaime and Lydia, my first voyage back to Los Angeles since their wedding almost 2 years ago, and to experience LA's food culture from their perspective (with some gentle nudges here and there from me). Before arriving, we agreed upon a couple of restaurants to try during my visit and I provided a broad outline of my dining hopes for the trip, trusting mis amigos to fill in the remaining gaps (which they did quite well, I might add).

So, without further ado, I showed up at O'Hare last Wednesday evening and began the bacchanalia before even departing Chicago, stopping to get dinner to go from Tortas Frontera, Rick Bayless's answer to drab airport cuisine. I had actually already eaten at TF's Terminal 1 location prior to leaving for Paris in June and left it out of the associated blog posting (too much material, you know), even though I found it to be superior terminal food by a wide margin. This time, in Terminal 3, I didn't have quite as good of a meal. Sure, the smoked pork mollete (open-faced sandwich) I had was pretty tasty, filled with shredded pork, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, cilantro, fig spread, and 3 kinds of cheeses (Chihuahua, goat, and Cotija), but I might have overdone it with the chips (which were very salty and very crunchy) and salsas (which were very spicy), plus the EXTREMELY tart classic lime agua fresca. It's almost as if the flavors were too amped up in an attempt to distinguish TF's offerings from the hash slung throughout the rest of the facility, a rare misstep by the city's reigning Mexican chow king (or maybe I just caught the staff on an off night).

With taste buds buzzing, yet undaunted, I boarded my flight and made the 4.5-hour journey to the Left Coast, secure in the knowledge that I would soon be enjoying fried chicken and waffles with Jaime at Roscoe's, a late night LA-institution since 1975. We found locals cavorting with parking lot security on the restaurant's front stoop (one of whom told us it was "time to grub up" as we walked past) and hipsters populating the Naugahyde diner booths seeking a midnight snack. Anthony Bourdain had included Roscoe's on his No Reservations itinerary when filming in LA some years ago (which is how I got wind of it), but the only famous person enshrined on these walls was President Obama, who had decided to grub up here himself during a fundraising trip in 2011. The President had ordered a #9 (waffle and 3 wings); however, I went for the #13 (the Carol C. special), a delicious fried chicken breast (not the least bit greasy) and a wonderful waffle crowned with a dollop of butter (see photo above) that I unceremoniously shunted aside. The menu was expansive enough to give us many more dishes to try on future visits (chicken liver omelet?) and, although we were tempted to pop in to Pink's for a hot dog on the way to the homestead, discretion (and fatigue) drew the evening to a close.

My first morning in Cali began sunny and hot, with extreme heat advisories in effect for the duration of my visit. Jaime's sister had suggested that we check out the old Grand Central Market, which opened in 1917 as a venue for selling produce among downtown's historic buildings. The market is now primarily an ethnic food court/grocery (see photo above) and is open-air, so we opted to visit early before the day's heat enveloped the proceedings. The dining choices were non-chain (emphasis on Latino, but other cultures as well), varied and impressive, leaving me a little bit jealous that we have no comparable equivalent here in Chicago. After a lap or two to survey my options, I picked up a bowl of shrimp ceviche from the Marie's Fresh Seafood stand. The ceviche was simple in preparation, yet very flavorful, featuring lime, onion, tomato, and cilantro, with a couple of corn tortillas and a little hot sauce. Paired with a honeydew smoothie from a nearby juice bar, it made a fine breakfast (see photo below).

Now that we'd removed the edge from our morning hunger, we decided to take things up a notch and head a few blocks' away to Nickel Diner, downtown LA's hip diner hotspot. Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and vouched for by some of Jaime's friends, the Nickel is the perfect spot to grab a gourmet doughnut. Jaime swooned over the maple bacon, while I did likewise with one called the Irish Car Bomb, a decadent creation of Jameson-infused cream sandwiched between lobes of cake doughnut rolled in a Guinness crumble (reminiscent of gingersnaps). Apparently, Chicago's not the only town to embrace upscale fried dough these days.

At this point, my friend and I needed a little break in the action before lunch could be considered. From downtown, our next destination was another market, this one a little more focused on the cuisine, merchandise, and services sought out by the city's large Mexican population: El Mercadito in East LA. Inside the mazelike complex was a dizzying array of food stalls, boot and leather shops, hair salons, Latino music/video stores, and much, much more. Tempting as it was, I managed to resist buying any snacks and simply snapped a picture or two, including the candied fruit display below.

Just a short drive from El Mercadito was our lunch stop, Los 5 Puntos, named for the intersection of streets that converge at its doorstep (the "5 points"). Foodie media sources as divergent as Rachael Ray and Saveur Magazine both lauded the tacos churned out from Los 5, but Jaime's fond memories of stopping here with his family to get picnic grub when he was a kid was all the validation I needed.

Los 5 primarily sells meat by the pound for patrons to bring home (referred to as a "carniceria" - I've since discovered that we have a few of those around here, too), featuring the standard offerings such as carnitas (shredded pork) and some less attractive-sounding animal parts such as tripa (tripe) and buches (esophagus). There was little to no chance that we'd be able to consume a pound of anything at this point; fortunately, individuals tacos were also available. I picked up a carnitas taco and one filled with lengua (tongue), topping both with nopales (pickled cactus) and a mild red salsa.

Since the place was more market than restaurant, there was no seating, so we made like the locals and chowed down outside, using a nearby Spanish-language newspaper box as our table. The tacos were delicious, full of lean, well-seasoned meat inside a soft-yet-chewy house-made tortilla (see photo above).

Before long, the heat forced us back inside the car and we headed back to the San Fernando Valley. Amazingly, it was even hotter in the valley, topping out somewhere around 105F. We stopped by Jaime's childhood home to visit with his parents, hardy Mexican immigrants disinterested in the creature comforts of air conditioning, who we found sitting in the backyard under a canopy while a nearby thermometer registered 111F. After 20 or minutes or so, when the extreme warmth began muddling my thought process, Jaime's dad appeared with a welcome treat - a whole coconut cut open at the top so that the refreshing water inside could be sucked out with a straw. I quickly gulped down the coconut's entire contents, so much so that I must have given them the impression that I was also hungry, as his mother went inside to heat up some meatball soup she'd made earlier. I readily acknowledge the absurdity of eating hot soup under these conditions, but I'm sure glad I did as it was delicious, a nice mixture of seasoned rice and big meatballs in a tasty tomato broth.

Feeling fortified from the coconut water and meatball soup, Jaime and I retreated to the pool at his compound, then got ready for the evening's dining highlight. I had managed to score us a reservation at animal, a place I'd been wanting to dine at ever since I'd first read about it a few years ago. Chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo were early practitioners of the latest nose-to-tail cooking resurgence (along with Chris Cosentino, Paul Kahan, Paul Virant, Fergus Henderson, and many others) that's now de rigeur at so many trendy restaurants. Having heard of their rock-and-roll personas and occasionally-shocking menu items (that might include preparations of veal brains, for example), I was expecting a grungy, graffiti-laden dining room pumping out Metallica tunes and was surprised to find a rather genteel salon/classy-looking bar more in keeping with its upscale location near Hollywood and Beverly Hills (although I had to wonder what the proprietors of the kosher butcher shops across the street first thought when they discovered a pig-centric temple had moved to the neighborhood). The menu consisted of many interesting small plates (sadly, none of them included foie gras, now banned in California as of 7/1/12 - just my luck) and I negotiated with mi amigo to try a few things that might normally have been a little outside of his comfort zone.

We began with a schmear of chicken liver toast (see photo above), much lauded in foodie comments and a bargain at only $3. Jaime was hesitant at first, then later conceded that it'd had been the best bite he'd eaten all day (pretty high praise considering the ground we'd covered). The liver was rich and velvety, the perfect foil to the crunchy toast underneath.

Next up was a spring roll studded with shrimp and rabbit sausage, artfully presented with garnishes of sprouts, eggplant, carrots, and amazing green/red curry sauces (see photo above). Like our first dish, it was gone in a flash.

Having recently had a stellar plate of bone marrow in Paris, I convinced Jaime that we needed to try the house version, which was half a bone topped with chimichurri sauce and presented with more crunchy toast (see photo above). Although good, I was a little disappointed at the portion size, much smaller than the brontosaurus bones served up to me at La Boucherie Rouliere.

The room got progressively darker with the setting sun and my cell phone pictures got progressively dimmer, so we'll have to go photo-less from this point onward. Our next dish was a pair of bbq pork belly sandwiches topped with cole slaw, which were sweet and tangy and fun and sloppy, the fatty juices nearly running down our chins. This had to be about the best pork belly prep I could recall ever having. Not to be outdone was our final savory plate, a pile of housemade fries mixed with shredded cheddar cheese and a generous helping of oxtail gravy, a regal version of poutine fit for Louis XIV, had poutine actually made it back to France while Quebec was still under the crown (and I think that Jaime is now an oxtail convert). Desserts were also fabulous, including a vanilla custard laden with berries, lavender crumble, and opal basil, and a bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt & pepper ice cream. The crunch bar was enough to put my eating companion over the edge for the remainder of the evening (I was about there myself); even yet another fantastic farmers market (this time LA's Original Farmers Market, nearby at 3rd and Fairfax, absolutely packed with great food stands that took great pains for me to walk by) couldn't spur us to nosh again before calling it a night. Fitful sleep awaited....

Monday, August 13, 2012

Strongbow Inn

Last Saturday, we somehow managed to wedge in our annual day trip to Stone Lake between our numerous out-of-town voyages this summer. As always, we stop for dinner on the way home and opted to try a new place this time instead of our old standby (Don Quixote in Valparaiso). Although the summer around here has been exceedingly hot and dry, we drove through what turned out to be quite a bombastic thunderstorm streaking its way across northwest Indiana, featuring high winds and opaque sheets of rain so strong that I actually had to pull the family truckster over to the road's shoulder amongst the riven cornstalks and tree branches at one point. Once Mother Nature's sanity had restored itself, we continued relatively unfazed to our dining destination: Strongbow Inn (SI), another of Valpo's finer restaurants, just on the outskirts of town near U.S. 30. SI has a long history in the area serving meals, hosting weddings, and churning out tasty baked goods since the 1940s. The complex was originally a turkey farm that eventually morphed into a motor inn/diner and gas station to support hungry travelers passing by on the old Lincoln Highway. As one might expect from a restaurant attached to a turkey farm, turkey in all of its glorious forms was and remains the mainstay on the menu (although FDA poultry processing regulations eventually put the kibosh on the use of turkeys direct from the farm). Third-generation chef Russ Adams and his crew crank out prodigious amounts of roast turkey, turkey noodle soup, turkey pot pie, turkey schnitzel, turkey oscar, and a select number of non-turkey dishes to feed the local masses.

Looking a little bedraggled (and a tad underdressed) from an afternoon at the lake/storm encounter, the family and I staggered in the front doors and sat down in the hopes of snagging a good meal. Mrs. Hackknife received with her entree (the full turkey dinner) an appetizer portion of the turkey liver pate, which was decent if not indistinguishable from the more-common chicken variety. I also ordered the roast turkey dinner and was presented with a full plate (see photo above) of white meat turkey atop corn niblets, mashed potatoes, and homemade stuffing, with sides of gravy and cranberry relish. Sadly, I'd say we were both a little disappointed with our choices - the turkey was a bit dry (although improved with the gravy) and the sides pretty much uninspired, especially the stuffing, which was surprisingly bland (I've had many better versions). For a place boasting about their prowess with turkeys, I would have expected better. Tastier was my mother-in-law's schnitzel, featuring a turkey cutlet in lieu of veal. I saw a large selection of attractive desserts in the bakery case in the lobby; however, I never got to sample anything as I was designated to accompany a cranky and tired Hackknifette back early to the family truckster. Maybe next year, we'd have a better experience here, but I suspect that we'll be returning to Don Quixote again....

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Swedish Bakery/Athenian Room

Another week, another greeter tour - this time, my task was to accompany a cadre of ladies visiting from Minnesota for a birthday weekend. After some back and forth communication, I decided to take them briefly through two of the more upscale North Side neighborhoods, namely Andersonville and Lincoln Park. I've previously written a bit about Andersonville when Mrs. Hackknife and I dined at Big Jones earlier this year - it's an area about 6 miles north of the Loop that was originally populated by Swedes, so there's a preponderance of Swedish restaurants and shops on Clark Street, the main drag through the neighborhood. Of course, this greeter visit gave me the perfect excuse to pop in at an establishment I'd noticed on my last trip here, that is, the famous Swedish Bakery (5348 N. Clark), a local institution since the late 1920's (either 1928 or 1929, no one is really certain). Given that it was a warm morning and we'd done some walking in the heat (i.e., sinking blood sugar levels), my guests were happy to oblige. Inside, the bakery's decor was surprisingly sterile (hospital ward white, in fact) and, besides an elderly matron working behind the counter, the employees appeared to be very non-Swedish despite the presence of many traditional (and non-traditional) Swedish goodies (designated as such by a blue and yellow Swedish flag on their respective nametags). I first inquired about getting a piece of a sinful-looking Swedish flop (a thin coffee cake with a cream cheese filling and topped with powdered sugar - oddly, this creation seems to be somewhat unique to the Chicago area from what I can gather) and was told that they'd only sell it to me by the half-sheet or full sheet). As much as I'm sure that I'd have no trouble polishing off a half-sheet coffee cake, modesty got the better of me and I opted instead for two Swedish cookies. The rum roll was a little log of marzipan covered in chocolate (and there CLEARLY was rum in it, as I'm sure 4 or 5 of these would have made me a bit tipsy), while something called a toska bitar (almond cake topped with sliced caramelized almonds) was equally dense and decadent. The range of desserts available at the bakery was almost mind-boggling, so repeat visits are definitely in order to sample other wares.

After hopping on the Clark bus to Webster Avenue and a leisurely stroll through Oz Park, the ladies and I stopped in at the Athenian Room (807 W. Webster) to grab a late lunch. The Athenian Room has been around since 1972 (exactly the same amount of time that I have) and has remained a steady, if unspectacular, presence in Lincoln Park for DePaul students seeking a good, value-priced Greek meal. Business picked up quite a bit in late 2010 when former Lincoln Park resident Tina Fey was quoted as saying that the Athenian Room's Grecian chicken with fries was her favorite meal when she was a fledgling writer and performer at Second City back in the day. Things were a little slower in the place on this early Friday afternoon, but, folks, I can attest that Ms. Fey has absolutely impeccable taste in chicken (as you can see below from the plate that was delivered to me).

The roast chicken arrived with a crackling skin (almost like bacon), mostly dark meat (my preference) doused in a combination of olive oil, lemon, garlic, and oregano. The meat was perfectly moist; however, the most impressive part of the dish was the fries, giant slabs of potato perfectly crisped on the outside with a fluffy interior, then placed under the chicken in a pool of the rich, fatty juices, which soak up into the potato. Sublime. I'll be dreaming about this combo for some time to come (and I don't say that about too many things I eat).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Adventures in Deep South 2012

By now, you may have figured out that the Hackknife Household usually takes its annual North Carolina beach vacation during the last month of July, and this year was no exception. Of course, it's nice to have quality time with the progeny and extended family without the usual distractions of home (except for Mrs. Hackknife, who ended up sacrificing most of her week to the incessant demands of the work gods); however, from a pure foodie standpoint, I always look forward to this trip as an infrequent opportunity to immerse myself in the cuisine of the Southern USA, if only for a brief time. The family truckster left the Commissary very early on a Friday morning not long ago and motored along through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee (where we encountered an 8-mile backup on I-75 due to construction), and the mountains of North Carolina, where we eventually pulled into the parking lot of our favorite Asheville eatery, Tupelo Honey (TH), in time for a late supper. TH is one of the South's farm-to-table gems - our first visit last year for lunch made me envious that we had no comparable establishment in Chicago (although Vie in Western Springs comes close) and this time only enhanced its standing in my eyes. While I sipped on an Ode to Muddy Pond (consisting of Maker's Mark, Muddy Pond sorghum syrup, muddled basil, and Blenheim Ginger Ale - yes, I've succumbed to the bourbon-cocktail craze), our table happily dined on house biscuits with homemade blueberry jam (cue eyes rolling back into head here). Mrs. Hackknife and I split a heavenly plate of tomato and mozzarella salad (which included both red and green tomato slices) before receiving our entrees - I opted for the root beer glazed-pork tenderloin, served with smashed sweet potatoes, green apple salsa, and smoked jalapeno barbecue sauce. I'm always a little leery of ordering restaurant pork since it's easy to overcook, but this piece was perfectly fork-tender and quite delicious, a great combination of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors (especially when paired with the green apple salsa). Mrs. Hackknife was very pleased with her chicken breast and she even let me snag a bite of her mac and cheese side, which was made ultra-creamy by the addition of pimento cheese, a Southern staple (more on this later).

Day 2 of our travel offered little in the way of noteworthy foods (other than the sloppy barbecue burger and fried pickles I consumed at a Huddle House in South Carolina, the very same one we stopped at for breakfast on the way home last year) and we arrived at Ocean Isle Beach drained from the long drive. Luckily, my dad's family spares no extravagance when it comes to dining at the beach house - Uncle Bob provided the nightly wines and Aunts Mary/Monica/Maxine (with support from others) prepared fantastic dinner spreads including grouper/snapper/flounder, blue crabs, shrimp, pastas, and ribs (not all on the same night, of course). Each dinner was preceded by a full round of appetizers too numerous to mention. Not only did I remain stuffed pretty much for the duration of the week, I came home determined to obtain recipes for both the beach house cornbread and a spicy banana pepper relish (almost like a giardiniera) for use at the Commissary (stay tuned for these). When not pigging out inside, the Sunset Slush Italian ice cart was a welcome sight on the beach every hot afternoon. The Hackknives probably contributed about $50 to the Sunset Slush coffers during the week, indulging on flavors such as mango, blue vanilla (creamy and sweet, almost like a snow cone), and lemon lime.

Not all of the trip was spent within spitting distance of the ocean. Like last year, we picked a day to take the progeny to the Wilmington Children's Museum, about an hour's drive away. Although we didn't have as much opportunity to explore downtown Wilmington this time, we did manage to have lunch at another Southern farm-to-table joint called The Basics, located in the old Cotton Exchange Building on Front Street. The proprietors are originally from Athens, GA and the restaurant reflects more of a casual rock-and-roll aesthetic than the genteel surroundings of Tupelo Honey, but they both share the commitment to higher-quality traditional Southern food. This was evidenced by the decadent grilled pimento cheese sandwich I had (see below), served with a side of Hoppin' John in lieu of the tomato soup listed on the menu.

Here were two truly Southern dishes I'd yet to experience. Pimento cheese is basically a cheese spread, a mixture of sharp cheddar, mayonnaise, chopped red pimento peppers, and salt/pepper. Some versions may also contain cream cheese, although I couldn't tell if mine had it or not. Allegedly, this sandwich (either plain or grilled) has been a favorite lunchbox item for generations of southern schoolkids and I can understand why - it's pretty tasty. My chosen side, Hoppin' John, has roots in West Africa and contains black-eyed peas, rice, onion, and bacon. If you think that sounds like a winning combination, you'd be right. The only thing that would have made this meal even more stellar would have been a Southern dessert (hummingbird cake, banana pudding, and Coca-Cola cake were all available); alas, Mrs. Hackknife had to take another call and the kids were anxious to visit the USS North Carolina battleship moored nearby, so I had to defer sweets until a later time.

For the first time this year, we brought our own babysitter with us to the beach (a high school girl who lives 3 doors down from the Commissary), mostly so that Mom and Dad could enjoy a few evenings without being tethered to the condo after progeny bedtime. This enabled us to actually dine out in Wilmington one night at one of the city's finer seafood establishments: Catch, located away from downtown in a more suburban environment, stealthily situated in an average-looking strip mall (much like our own local hidden secret in Frankfort, Dan McGee). Chef Keith Rhodes is an alum of the last iteration of Top Chef (he didn't win his season, but hung around long enough to impress), which is where we first heard his name and took note of his restaurant's location for future beach trips. After getting assurances from Mrs. Hackknife that she would turn off her phone (work commitments intruding again), we settled in for a nice dinner. My bride selected the shrimp ceviche (which included avocado, key lime, cilantro, and oranges) while I went for the Carolina fried oysters with blue cheese slaw and Texas Pete aioli (Texas Pete being a famous brand of hot sauce in the South). For our entrees, I chose one of the specials, a plate of grilled Outer Banks scallops (perfectly charred on the outside) served with arugula and a cherry-goat cheese polenta that was fantastic. Even better was Mrs. Hackknife's special, a signature creation of the house called an "angry" lobster, 1.5 lbs of Maine's best cooked in a sweet chili whiskey glaze and propped up on the plate atop a bed of pineapple-foie gras fried rice. Its presentation alone was enough to turn heads from other tables (see photo below, which doesn't really do it justice), but the combination of the sweet lobster meat and the unbelievably rich fried rice blew both of us away (my only regret is that I wasn't able to secure more than a few bites).

Although Chef Keith's bona fides were clearly cemented by this point, we were let down a little by dessert. Mrs. Hackknife had a passable maple bacon ice cream (it was mostly maple and short on bacon) and my Basque cake was dry and uninspired, conjuring images of a Starbucks muffin. Apparently, next time, we'll skip dessert and just continue gnawing on the empty lobster shell.

On the last night of the trip, my aunts typically clear out whatever leftovers remain in the refrigerators instead of cooking dinner. By this time, most of the animals in the beach house have decimated what's left, so we'll often order take-out to minimize any meal hassles. This year, we decided to try out a popular Jamaican restaurant called Sugar Shack. At 5:30 on a Friday evening, the small building was packed to the gills with a long wait for tables and parking spots scarce. Even though we got our food to go, it still took a solid 30 minutes. Back at the beach house, we unpacked our goodies and got to work. While the kiddos ate chicken tenders, the missus and I split an order of crab fritters (they came with a lime salsa) and divided up a Jamaican sampler. The sampler had ample servings of 4 items - jerk pork (which I found to be average, a little dry), jerk chicken (better), tasty cod fritters referred to as Stamp & Go (often a breakfast item in Jamaica), and small savory pies containing spicy beef called patties (clearly an adaptation of the pies found in England, but with Caribbean fillings and spices). All told, it wasn't bad, but I'd like to experience the real thing in Jamaica sometime (unlike my last and only visit to the island, when I was a 22-year old mostly petrified of leaving the resort).

I had hoped to eat Carolina barbecue at least once during our trip; unfortunately, I wasn't able to do so until our journey back home. Having taken an alternate route in hopes of avoiding traffic delays (no such luck as high vehicle volumes from returning vacationers slowed us down again), we were able to locate a barbecue joint less than 10 miles from the interstate (albeit in Virginia) in a small, but picturesque mountain town called Galax. Mostly known for its traditional Appalachian music (think bluegrass) festival every year, Galax also has a smokehouse named, well, Galax Smokehouse right in the town center. Virginia doesn't appear to have a barbecue style of its own (rather, a hybrid of Carolina and Memphis), so the house offerings were pretty standard, namely beef brisket, ribs, rib tips, and pulled pork. Wanting to try more than one item, I chose the two meat platter (ribs and brisket) with barbecue beans, corn, hush puppies, and bread (see below). Both meats were dry rubbed, but not sauced - our waitress brought over 4 different bottles of sauce (house, sweet, mustard, and mountain, a sweet-spicy combo) to try with the meal.

Let's start with the good. The hickory-smoked ribs were amazing, pink on the inside with a nice charred crust. I can't say I was much of a fan of the mesquite-smoked brisket, which was dry enough that sauce was needed to swallow it down (my personal favorite was the mustard). I enjoyed the hush puppies, beans, and a couple of homemade potato chips I was able to pilfer from Hackknife Jr.'s plate. The corn and roll were practically inedible. Maybe the best part of the whole stop, however, was the banana pudding (yes, I finally got my Southern dessert), a luscious melange of bananas, pudding, whipped cream, and Nilla Wafers. I'd gladly return to Galax for this beauty and a slab of ribs, possibly combined together.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


As I know I've mentioned before, I've been happy to shamelessly utilize my Cubs tickets this season (clearly a "rebuilding" year under new GMs Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer) as an excuse to explore the dining environs of Wrigleyville and Lakeview prior to first pitch. On this particular occasion a few weeks back, Mrs. Hackknife had had a particularly grueling day at the office and was jonesing for some comfort food in the form of enchiladas. While searching in vain for an old, nondescript Mexican place on Broadway we'd frequented a time or two as residents of the neighborhood (discovering it to now be a sketchy-looking red sauce Italian joint), we stumbled across a sidewalk board advertising:

"Today's Special - Unlimited mussels and fries, $12.99"

or something to that effect. The board belonged to Hearty (3819 N. Broadway), a dining venture from local caterers and celebs the Hearty Boys (whom you may or may not recognize from the Food Network, having won the Next Food Network Star competition in 2005). Although the restaurant appeared to be a bit swanky for a quick pre-game meal, it was mostly empty and beckoned us over with the promise of abundant shellfish (which, of course, we proceeded to ignore, ordering other dishes). After a few minutes of visiting with our server and discussing the merits of Bermuda's national drink (the Dark & Stormy, a mix of 2 oz. Gosling's Black Rum and 8 oz. ginger beer), we picked our entrees, with my betrothed opting for the lobster roll. I decided that two of the small bites sounded too tempting to pass up; that is, the rabbit corn dog and the short rib "s'more".

While the corn dog might have resembled a giant version of what you would normally periodically clean out of a rabbit's cage (see photo above), I can assure you that it was quite delicious, only a touch gamier than your standard corn dog, with the batter encasing the rabbit sausage described as "red velvet" (I never did figure out exactly which ingredient was used to give it that characterization). The beer glaze dipping sauce and the cole slaw garnish were both nice additions to the plate.

Although not terribly large for $10, the short rib "s'more" (see photo above) packed a solid punch of flavor. In place of the Graham crackers were two rich, toasted pieces of brioche, in-between which were the succulent short rib meat (the "chocolate") and a dollop of soft feta cheese (the "marshmallow"). I liked that the brioche was able to soak up a fair amount of the short rib juices without becoming a soggy mess in my hands. With a 5 Rabbit Golden Ale to neatly wash everything down, the missus and I were less than concerned about the fact that we were going to miss the start of the game, content instead to nosh on modern comfort food until eventually arriving at Wrigley for the start of the 2nd inning....

Miko's Italian Ice

On a recent greeter tour with some graduate students visiting from Toronto, we found ourselves making our way up Milwaukee Avenue (whose footprint is an old Native American trail that actually DID end up in Milwaukee at one point) from its starting point near Clinton Street, through West Town, Wicker Park, and Logan Square, at which point we made a slight deviation sotuhward. It was a warm July day and I'd gotten wind of a diminutive-yet-coveted Italian ice place on Sacramento Ave. called Miko's (3000 W. Lyndale) that sounded worth a stop. My guests and I arrived a little before the noon opening, so after killing a bit of time in nearby Palmer Square Park, we returned to the window to find some plastic lawn furniture set up on the sidewalk (no indoor seating here) and a marker board listing the day's available flavors (see photo above). I immediately gravitated to the banana with chocolate chips, which was lucious and refreshing, with the chips adding a nice textural element to the smooth and creamy banana. My Canadian friends also enjoyed their selections, a double shot of raspberry (regular and black, mixed together) and a mango, respectively (Is mango a thing now? I went to Walgreen's the other day to pick up a prescription and saw them specifically advertising mango as a new flavor selection for kids' medicine, which, I believe, does, in fact, make it a thing, following traditional thing rules). I don't have a large enough sample size to determine if Miko's has displaced Zarlengo's as my go-to Italian ice; however, I am perfectly willing to conduct more research here, possibly with Mrs. Hackknife and the progeny next time, to reach a suitable conclusion...