Friday, November 30, 2012

Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin

The Hackknives spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the company of my dad's side of the family in Cincinnati this year (yes, we got some stellar chili - more on that in a subsequent posting). When my brother Dave and sister-in-law Amy first agreed to host all of us many months ago, I'm pretty sure they didn't intend her to be 8 months pregnant when late November rolled around, yet here we were and here she was less than 4 weeks from her due date (it's going to be a boy, by the way). Obviously, my parents and other siblings didn't expect Amy to be responsible for preparing the Thanksgiving feast in her condition, so we all pitched in to pull everything together. Considering the able-bodied adults that were present, I probably wouldn't count myself to be among the top 5 cooks in the house (and maybe only slightly better than my nieces and nephews, the oldest being 11); therefore, my best hope was to leave the marquee items (like the turkey, stuffing, etc.) to the pros like my stepmother and simply step in with one or two safe, humble dishes that would quietly rest in the background, then just get out of everyone's way.

We brought a few produce items with us on the long car ride from the Commissary, stray farmbox ingredients like cranberries, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. From this, of course, I was able to assemble my basic whole berry cranberry relish, but also was able to attempt a recipe I'd made note of in the November issue of Chicago Magazine called Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin. Joan, in this case, is the wife of Chef Bruce Sherman, whose under-appreciated restaurant North Pond (at least I'm told it's under-appreciated as I haven't actually dined there) has been a fixture in Chicago's fine dining scene for almost 15 years now. When deciding whom to select as a focal point for a holiday menu article, the magazine editors were astute enough to feature Chef Sherman and his selected recipes, which included (besides the squash gratin) scrumptious-sounding dishes like gingersnap-crusted rack of pork and bourbon applesauce. It was the gratin, though, that caught my attention as being relatively simple to prepare and potentially-worthy of a place in a Thanksgiving spread being consumed by discerning relatives.

My first steps during preparation didn't start so well - I had a hard time peeling the butternut squash and had to make do with a 10"x13" glass baking dish in place of a gratin pan, forcing me to scale down the ingredients a bit (there was no way I was going to fit 2 lb. EACH of sqaush, potatoes, and yams in a 10"x13"). With the two ovens full of other baking goodies, I increased the cook time by 15 minutes or so, plus added foil to the top for the first 30 minutes (as was the consensus from the other cooks in the kitchen, even though the recipe doesn't mention this) before removing it for browning. Given that this was the first time I'd tried this dish, I was understandably a little nervous about the result, but I needn't have been - almost everyone who tried it gave it a thumbs-up, including my dad (who has a bit of a hard-to-please reputation foodwise). The feedback was so positive, in fact, that I'm considering a repeat performance for when we host Xmas Day dinner at the Commissary in a few weeks. Looking at the ingredients, though (heavy cream, cheese, butter, etc.), it should have been tasty, no?...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slurping Turtle

After meeting my brother-in-law Dan and cousin-in-law Bobby for craft beers (all of which were terrific, by the way) at Revolution Brewing one recent Saturday afternoon, the missus and I headed downtown for the evening. Our ultimate destination was a fundraiser for my cousin's son (a foundation and webpage have been set up to support their efforts - I encourage you to check it out here), but, first, we needed to get dinner somewhere in the neighborhood. On a whim, I suggested we try to get into Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard), a relatively new eatery opened by rising star Chef Takashi Yagihasi, who arrived in Chicago from Japan with stops in Detroit and Las Vegas on the way. ST is Takashi's 3rd restaurant in town, the others being his namesake fine dining outpost Takashi (where we happen to be dining next month for the first time) and ramen stand Noodles by Takashi in the State Street Macy's food court. The concept here is izakaya, or Japanese casual small plates, a tasty trend that has spawned a number of local places over the past 12 months, including Yusho, Roka Akor, and the now-defunct Chizakaya, all of which have received some level of coverage in this blog.

Anyway, when we arrived, we were fortunate to get seated right away at a communal table before the bulk of the hipster throngs started to appear. I would describe the decor as being cinder block-modern, minimalist to the point of being almost prison-like, with the exception of two giant black and white photos of Chef Takashi as a child back in the fatherland. Lucky for us, the food was much livelier than the setting - our server recommended a couple of items from the bincho (Japanese charcoal) grill to start, a slab of Washyugyu beef (produced at an Oregon ranch that uses the same storied techniques as Wagyu ranchers in Japan) and some asparagus spears wrapped in bacon. This was followed up with my two favorite plates of the visit, a decadent pork belly steamed bun with pickles that rivals any I've had in a place not operated by David Chang, plus some sinfully-good pieces of crispy fried chicken cooked in duck fat (see photo above). The first piece of the bird I took was boneless, leading me to immediately declare in my head "Takashi, you magnificent bastard, you've created the perfect chicken tender"; however, reality intruded when I realized that the remaining pieces did, in fact, contain bones (as do most chickens, by the way), which only slightly dampened my fried poultry lust. Last, but not least, we concluded the meal by splitting a good-sized bowl of tonkotsu ramen (thin noodles in a pork broth with braised pork shoulder, pickled mustard greens, and braised mushrooms). I'd definitely return to ST for the pork buns, fried chicken, and bincho items, although I suspect you can get a bowl of ramen from Chef T's noodle bar in Macy's that's just as good for a slightly lower price (and with fewer hipsters)...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pelagia Trattoria

Two Monday nights past, the missus and I found ourselves out to dinner in Tampa. Why Tampa? Well, we were visiting on a quick trip (less than 24 hours, in fact) for a confidential project whose details I'm not able to divulge at this time, but suffice it to say that, should said project occur, it would result in big changes to both the Commissary and this blog (more details will be revealed as they become available). Anyway, once I discovered that I'd be traveling to west-central Florida, I did what I usually do prior to arriving in an out-of-town locale - I scout out places to get a good meal. Other than Bern's Steakhouse (allegedly one of the best in the country, at least if you believe what those lists in the airline magazines tell you), I wasn't familiar with any of Tampa's dining establishments; however, typing a Google search that included "top chef" and "Tampa" dredged up a worthy candidate in the form of Pelagia Trattoria, a well-regarded Italian restaurant whose head chef was awarded a local "Top Chef" award in 2012 (no affiliation with the Bravo show of the same name). Not only did PT's menu sound good, perhaps most importantly, it was located within 3 miles of where we were staying, which meant we could get a free ride there and back via the hotel shuttle (we had no rental car).

Given that we'd be dining on a Monday night, I wasn't too concerned about us needing a reservation to get in. As it turns out, I was right about that - when we arrived at PT around 8:30p, we appeared to be the sole patrons. The restaurant is situated between what appeared to be an upscale mall and a high-rise hotel, not necessarily good karma if you're hoping to have a stellar dining experience, but Mrs. Hackknife and I were pleasantly surprised to receive great food along with very attentive service. We started with a couple of small plates: some octopus cured with garlic and mint (a fresh and healthier take on calamari) and something I'd never seen before, that is, the house's take on a deconstructed Caesar's salad called Caesar fondue (see photo below) consisting of grilled baby romaine lettuce, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, a toasted focaccia crouton, and a cup of dressing for dipping these items.

For the entrees, Mrs. Hackknife selected a mind-blowing duck and foie gras risotto, while I chose a seafood tagliatelle, or at least I thought I did. There was a little confusion between me and the server, as I asked for the seafood "pappardelle" (a different type of wide noodle from tagliatelle), not realizing that I would get the following dish instead:

What you see is the restaurant's pappardelle with traditional bolognese sauce and Pecorino cheese, the only dish on the menu that's served with pappardelle. Even though it wasn't what I ordered, it did look good (and the waitress was kind enough to box it up for us to take back to the hotel, where I can vouch for its deliciousness - I sneaked in a couple of bites before bed).

When my actual order arrived at the table, I was still very pleased despite the mix-up. My seafood tagliatelle contained shrimp, scallops, clams, saffron, and guanciale (see photo above), a nice blend of surf and field Italiano-style. Sadly, we were too stuffed for dessert and our trip to town was too short to eat anyplace else besides the hotel's breakfast buffet and the airport Friday's, so I can't comment further on the status of Tampa's dining scene, but let's just say that I may have significant opportunity to do so in the near future....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon

Although I'm not currently in the market for a rental property, I've found a blog entry on Chicago's vintage restaurants that was posted on Domu's website (a local apartment finder service) a while back to be exceedingly helpful (you can see it for yourself here). For instance, I learned that Schaller's Pump in Bridgeport is the city's oldest continually operating tavern and subsequently added it to my list of venues to visit on greeter tours (as I also did for Margie's Candies and Swedish Bakery). While idly perusing the restaurant listing, I stumbled across one place that's not too far from the Commissary: Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon (15743 S. Crawford, Markham), formerly known as Willie's Wee Nee Wagon, serving up red hots since 1955. Although Mrs. Hackknife grew up in nearby Oak Forest, she'd never heard of Johnny's/Willie's, let alone visited, so I took it upon myself to drag Hackknifette there one Friday at lunchtime to check it out.

Less than a mile down 159th Street from my now-favorite local BBQ joint Exsenator's (but on the other side of I-57), Johnny's is situated on a hardscrabble plot of property among tire yards and auto body shops. The building itself is low-slung and tiny, dropped next to a large, unpaved lot that seems to be a preferred overnight parking spot for semi-trucks barreling down the adjacent interstate. Diners are first greeted by the hot dog statue pictured at the top, a whimsical fellow whom I've seen at a few other mom-and-pop fast food establishments.

Once inside, my little girl and I were confronted with a surprisingly-expansive menu, featuring (among other things) hot dogs, tamales, burgers, tacos, wraps, many different sandwiches, enough fried appetizers to put a bowling alley to shame, chili, shakes, and 60 flavors of soft-serve ice cream. In order to keep things simple, I stuck with the basic hot dogs, plain for Hackknifette and full-on Chicago style for yours truly. We also shared a bag of small fries while perching on a couple of the few barstools at the windows opposite the counter (see photo above). The dogs and fries were decent, but nothing I would deem destination-worthy. Better was the regular cheeseburger I ordered once I determined that the one hot dog hadn't adequately filled me up (more research, you know).

It's worth mentioning that Johnny's namesake owner (John Cappas) has a bit of a colorful past (to say the least). As a youth, he ran with a wild crowd and fell into drug dealing, eventually earning enough cash and notoriety to land himself a 45-year prison sentence. The stint in the big house apparently turned around the young man's life - he studied law, gained a 30-year reduction in his jail term, earned a culinary degree on the outside, and saved up enough dough (legitimately, this time) to buy the old hot dog stand and rename it as a testament to his now-cleaned up act (although he hasn't completely shunned his sordid past - at the restaurant, you can buy a copy of his memoir "Tall Money", featuring cover photos of his younger self embracing the gangster lifestyle a la Scarface, with a free hot dog thrown in for good measure). As far as I could tell, the stigma of old transgressions hasn't affected his business as a steady stream of customers came and went while we were there. Regardless of the backstory, if we ever return to Johnny's for more, I'd be anxious to try one of the house specialty dogs, such as the Pitbull (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo)...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Do-Rite Donuts/New Maxwell Street Market

A week ago Sunday morning, I met up with two hungry tourists visiting from Canada, Yulena and Scott, for a greeter tour. They were in town taking a training class for work and wanted to experience some of Chicago's more unique dining options while here, so I was happy to take them to a few places nearby the Loop. No weekend morning is complete without donuts and this seemed like a great opportunity for us to stop in at Do-Rite Donuts (50 W. Randolph), just a short walk down Randolph from the Cultural Center into the Theater District. Do-Rite is under the Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE) restaurant group and popped up in early 2012 when the gourmet donut craze was just starting to reach its peak in town. The executive chef and co-owner of the shop, Francis Brennan, has had an interesting couple of years - he was the #2 man in the kitchen at L20 when brilliant-but-mercurial wonder chef Laurent Gras departed in search of greater freedom, abruptly leaving M. Brennan in charge of a newly-christened 3-Michelin star restaurant. Obviously, maintaining that elite level of service is daunting for even seasoned chefs (let alone one in the captain's chair for the first time), and it wasn't too long before he transferred over to a lower-profile LEYE property, Petterino's, leaving the world of glamour cuisine behind. With extensive experience in breadmaking and an emerging market for top-shelf fried breakfast dough, one can easily imagine LEYE's founder Rich Melman sitting down with Chef Brennan to propose carving out a small corner of Petterino's lobby for a retail gourmet donut operation on Randolph (also maximizing use of the restaurant's kitchen during what would normally be downtime overnight and early morning). Having now been at the shop, I can say that a VERY small space was set aside - there's enough room for a walk-up counter and some display bins. If you want to sit while eating your donut, you'll have to do it outside, which is exactly what we did on this brisk morning at some patio tables set out on the sidewalk. Faced with a variety of choices, I went with the cashier's recommendation of the pistachio-Meyer lemon combo (I didn't get a picture, but Serious Eats Chicago has one here), which I found to be a sweet, tangy, crunchy delight (that is, after I inadvertently took a mouthful of Yulena's pumpkin donut first - sorry, Yulena). My guests also seemed to enjoy their selections of PB&J bullseye and (what remained of the) pumpkin donut.

Now fortified, we hopped on the Blue Line and headed a short ways south and west over to the new Maxwell Street flea market, held only on Sundays and a hotbed of outstanding Latino street food. Why is it called the "new" market? Well, the old one was an anchor of commerce for migrants newly arrived to Chicago from all over the country and the world throughout most of the 20th Century, giving them a venue to buy/sell goods on the cheap without the added expense of a middleman retail store (I recall my late grandmother telling me stories of trips to Maxwell Street as a girl with her dad to buy grapes for making wine). Sadly, Mayor Daley the 1st colluded with the University of Illinois-Chicago to procure a large chunk of Maxwell Street property for campus expansion in the 1960s and 1970s (the arrival of the Dan Ryan Expressway didn't help things, either), condemning the vibrant market to a slow death by strangulation, eventually vanishing completely in the 1990s. Since then, the 2nd Mayor Daley has attempted to resurrect the market on a stretch of Desplaines Street a few blocks north and east of the original. Although allegedly a shadow of its former self, I was surprised at the size of this new incarnation, with table upon table of tools, cell phone chargers, and toys available for your bargain buying pleasure. The food offerings were equally impressive - tacos, tamales, pupusas, shaved ice, roasted corn, menudo, and lots of other goodies rivaling those that I'd seen in Los Angeles just a few months back. After walking the length of the market and mulling over our booth choices, the 3 of us settled in to Green House of Steak's mobile operation (during the week, they serve up Mexican cuisine at 2700 S. Millard in the Little Village neighborhood) to get some tacos. I tried a lengue taco and was very glad I did - the meat was tender, flavorful, and crispy from the grill, with a wonderful homemade tortilla underneath and just the right amount of toppings (onion, cilantro, and salsa) for garnish, quite possibly the best lengue taco I've ever had (see photo above). Slightly less adventurous, but no less satisfied, were Yulena and Scott with their asada and al pastor tacos. I can see myself spending a long, happy couple of hours stuffing my face at this market on my next visit and couldn't wait to get home to start planning my return with Mrs. Hackknife some future Sunday morning...

Monday, November 5, 2012


Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had a long-awaited couples dinner date at a long-anticipated Chicago restaurant. The couple in question was Mrs. Hackknife's work colleague, Hanif, and his wife, Nicole, with whom we'd been trying to get together for about 6 months (as always, work/family schedules proved difficult to synch up). The restaurant in question was Nightwood (2119 S. Halsted), a much-lauded farm-to-table venture from the folks that brought us (the also much-lauded) Lula Cafe in Logan Square a few years ago, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds. I'd been eager to dine at Nightwood for quite some time, going as far as to make reservations for us to celebrate my birthday in 2011 there; unfortunately, my grandmother's passing on the day of our meal forced us to postpone our visit. Oddly, it was the sudden closure of Bonsoiree (our original agreed-upon venue with Hanif and Nicole) that created this latest opportunity for us to eat at Nightwood, which was my backup choice for our dinner date (evidence that everything comes around eventually, I guess).

The restaurant is located on a relatively-quiet stretch of Halsted Street in Pilsen, a predominantly-Latino neighborhood that has begun gentrifying over to modern art galleries and coffee shops. The road layout in the immediate area is a little challenging to negotiate with the hulking overpasses of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways looming nearby, dead-ending a number of routes from the Loop that one would normally expect to go through (I had to pick up Mrs. Hackknife at her office downtown before proceeding back south to our destination). Once we navigated our way through the travel confusion and found a parking spot down the block, we stepped into the crowded-yet-jovial atmosphere of the bar area from the closed-in patio (now covered for the cooler months). Although a little cramped, our table was right next to the open kitchen, giving us a decent view of the goings-on inside. What was going on was quite tasty: a warm eggplant salad with peanuts, arugula, honey, lemon, apples, and ricotta; a whole Japanese mackerel, deep-fried and plopped on a plate with pickled watermelon, grapes, leeks, cherry tomatoes, and a foie gras butter (nice touch, I might add); and cheese/potato gnocchi interspersed with beef brisket shreds, sage, and parsnip jam, all of which we shared at the table as our appetizers. The entrees were just as impressive, with Mrs. Hackknife indulging in a chicken-fried lamb chop garnished with a melange of creamed spinach, fall tomatoes, and smoked Wisconsin trout and me blissing out on a fine platter of rich Michigan duck leg, applewood-smoked and served with arugula, romesco, grilled duck liver, and pears (see photo above).

Since I've been on a bourbon cocktail kick lately, especially at farm-to-table eateries (see Vie, Tupelo Honey, et. al.), I tried a glass of the house punch named "the Fog", consisting of Cane & Abel rum, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Averna amaro (a Sicilian liqueur), Fee's bitters, and Kilgus Farm milk, giving it the distinctive look of a White Russian - sadly, I can't say that I'd order another. Much better were our desserts, a decadent bittersweet chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate hot fudge, plus a buttermilk panna cotta with glazed raspberries and citrus sugar cookies. The consensus at the table among the two couples was that our second dinner choice served us up a first-rate experience and, although Vie still gets my vote for undisputed king of farm-to-table cuisine in Chicago, I'd gladly dine at Nightwood anytime again (after consulting Google Maps, of course)....

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bacon-Herb Wrapped Pork Tenderloin

With a head of red cabbage from our weekly farmbox and some bacon in the fridge, I set out on the Internet to find a new recipe for pork tenderloin recently (because nothing goes better with cabbage and pig than more pig). Chef Bobby Flay was kind enough to post his own bacon-herb wrapped pork tenderloin recipe online for the masses and it sounded delicious and doable enough for me to try. Step 1 involves roasting a whole head of garlic until it becomes spreadable like warm butter. The recipe advises about 45 minutes to do this; however, after that amount of time, my garlic head was merely soft, not paste-like. Unfortunately, I had gotten myself in a bit of a time crunch and couldn't really afford to roast the garlic for another 15 minutes, so I had to make do with what I had. Following along, I rubbed my mushy garlic cloves on my two pork tenderloins, placed my mixture of thyme, rosemary, and sage on top, laid 3 strips of bacon atop the herbs (the recipe calls for 6 strips to be wrapped all around the meat, although I couldn't quite figure out how to do this on the bottom half without everything coming apart during assembly), and tied the bacon down somewhat-securely with twine. Next, the tenderloins are supposed to be seared on all sides using a hot skillet - sadly, I didn't have a large-enough vessel to brown them simultaneously, so I seared them one at a time only on 2 sides (time crunch again), then cooked them in the oven a little longer than prescribed (about 25 minutes instead of the listed 10).

The final result is in the photo at the top. They didn't look bad and they tasted pretty good, leading me to wonder how good they could have actually been had I not taken shortcuts with the garlic and the bacon and the browning. If nothing else, I learned that this recipe is not ideal for weeknights, but better for weekends when I might have a little more time to deliver the goods properly...