Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thai Curry with Red Kuri Squash

With winter now here for good at the Commissary, we recently received our last couple of farmboxes for the season. As you might have guessed, root vegetables (carrots, turnips, beets, etc.) and squashes make up the vast majority of our end-of-year bounty. Last winter, I got a red kuri squash and was able to turn it into a pumpkin-like pie; this time around, since we'd been knee-deep in pies from Halloween onward, I decided to seek out a savory recipe for the red kuri squash that arrived. I stumbled across the following Thai curry recipe from fellow blogger CarpeSeason that sounded like it was worth a try. A long time ago, I attempted a yellow Thai curry that didn't go over so well; nonetheless, I happened to still have the yellow curry paste in the fridge to stand in for the green curry listed in the recipe. Because the family is spice-challenged, I really dialed back the curry amounts, using less than a tablespoon of curry paste and only slightly more than 1 Tbsp. of curry powder. For the extra vegetable, I went with the blogger's recommendation of broccoli, buying a big bag of frozen florets (I think it was 12 or 14 oz.). Everything else was followed to the letter and I served the steaming curry to my hungry housemates atop small mounds of basmati rice. As usual, the progeny turn up noses; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I were quite taken with the results, happy both with and without the green onion/cilantro garnish. This recipe is definitely a keeper, although I'll probably need to procure a different type of squash next time since, like McRib, red kuri only appears once in a blue moon...

McRib is Back

I'm aware that this post is silly, pointless, possibly nauseating to some of you, and obvious filler in an attempt to pad my postings total before the end of 2012, but I just had to write a brief homage to McRib. Like Haley's Comet, it only comes around once in a while (and is quite possibly also made from space rock) and that time is now until supplies are exhausted, I suppose. Mrs. Hackknife is the consummate McRib fan, always eager to hear of its return and almost first in line to get one. Me, I don't mind waiting a week or two until my better sensibilities are sufficiently worn down and I slink over to the nearest McD's, almost too ashamed to speak my order aloud to the waitstaff. Yes, its main part is derived from unnamed, mysterious pork leftovers/entrails synthetically fused together with meat glue and God knows what other nasty chemicals, but it's so tasty, with the sauce and the pickles and the raw onions and the long bun (which wasn't all that good this time) that only emerges from the McDonald's warehouse for this sole annual purpose. McRib, I know you remove months from my lifespan, but I salute you, anyway...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sweet and Sour Onions

Not surprisingly, many publications that we read here in the Commissary use the late year holidays as an excuse to unleash myriad Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's recipes on an already-beleaguered audience simply trying to survive the mass hysteria until early January. Some recipes are classic (about 80 different ways to prepare stuffing, for example), some are nouveau (cornbread with creamy poblano chiles), and some are not necessarily specific to the season, but sound good anyway. This was the case with a recipe I recently saw in a weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal, featured in an article highlighting so-called "alternative" side dishes for Thanksgiving. Paul Bartolotta is a Milwaukee-based chef who specializes in inventive Italian dishes - Mrs. Hackknife has had the good fortune to dine in 3 of his restaurants (Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Las Vegas, and Bacchus/Ristorante Bartolotta, both in Milwaukee) over the last few years, each time without me, I might add (but I'm not bitter or anything). His contribution to the WSJ article was a version of Cipolline in Agrodolce, or sweet and sour onions, a traditional Italian side dish. Although I'd seen another sweet and sour onion recipe before (in my ever-present and oft-referenced April 2010 issue of Saveur), Chef Bartolotta uses chicken stock, some butter, and red wine vinegar to play up the savory aspects of the dish (the Saveur recipe includes raisins, no butter, and only balsamic vinegar, which I assume results in a sweeter finished product). When the time came to make a simple noodles with pesto sauce entree one Sunday night, I decided to roll out Chef Paul's onions for a side.

There's nothing terribly complex about the dish prep, although I think I may have overdone it a bit on the caramelization step, as a few of the onions ended up slightly singed (burned food is never a desired result). Luckily, the problem was isolated and the rest of the recipe proceeded without incident. The finished onions were dark, complex, and a little on the rich side - Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed it, but only in small doses. As with many of the sweet/sour vegetable recipes, it doesn't look like there's a lot in the pan when you're done, but what's left is very, um, concentrated in flavor. Next time I choose this for a side dish, I'd like to give the Saveur recipe a whirl to see if that version is a little less decadent than Chef Paul's...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Italian Superior Bakery/Frietkoten

As we approach the finish of another calendar year, I recently read about another longtime Chicago food establishment planning to close when 2012 is over (you may recall that Ramova Grill, dishing out chili and diner fare since 1929, scraped grease off its flattop for the last time this past spring). Italian Superior Bakery (931 S. Western) has been churning out pizzas, traditional Italian breads, and (up until a few years ago) pastries at the western end of the Little Italy neighborhood since 1933. At the outset, the bakery business in the tight-knit Italian community boomed, forcing the founder to move up the block to a larger location at the corner of Western Ave. and Taylor St. in 1940 (where the bakery still sits today). However, as the demographics of the area shifted over time from Italian to Eastern European/Hispanic, the demand for artisanal baked goods slowly declined from its peak around 1960 to the point where production had to be scaled back to part-time in 2005. Finally, as of a few months ago, the family of the original owners made what had to be the painful and difficult decision to close the bakery at year's end. Always a sucker for nostalgia (and a good slice of pizza from the Motherland), I decided then and there to ensure I stopped in for a visit on one of my frequent trips into the city before the ovens went cold for good.

I arrived at the bakery on a cool-yet-sunny Thursday morning around 10 (I didn't want to get there too late lest they be sold out of some product). The storefront is pretty unassuming (see photo above), while inside, the decor was sparse and cases/shelves mostly bare, making for a pretty somber atmosphere. The lady behind the counter quietly explained the details of the bakery's imminent closure and it was clear that they were already preparing for this eventuality (I felt like some dark dirge should have been playing in the background). Luckily for me, there were still goodies to be had - I selected three different kinds of ready-to-eat pizzas (onion, sausage, and a ricotta-vegetable combo), cut up in large slices (approximately 6" by 4" each) and wrapped in white butcher paper, a steal at around $3 apiece (and I suspect the counter lady even gave me extra pieces for no charge). I also picked out an oblong loaf of fresh Italian bread and had it sliced for sandwiches. All in all, my $15 bought a lot of food and I was anxious to try some, so anxious that I gobbled up a whole slice of room-temperature ricotta pizza while I sat in the car, the garlic and olive oil doing wonders to help clear out my sinuses. Later on, the whole family got to sample the remaining slices, with Mrs. Hackknife and I favoring the sausage, while the kids favored, well, none of them. The sliced Italian bread had wider appeal, making great toast and sandwiches for a few days after the fact.

After my bakery visit, I conducted some other business downtown before realizing that I needed a snack before heading home - fortunately, the French Market in the Ogilvie Transportation Center was nearby. With my stellar visit to Fumare for pastrami fresh in mind, I made my way to another stand I saw there called Frietkoten. The folks at Frietkoten primarily serve Belgian-style fries along with custom dipping sauces, all to be washed down by Belgian beers, a little bit of Brussels in Chicago. The fries come in giant paper cones (see photo below) and are all fresh-cut/double-fried to maximize flavor and texture.

I opted for a harissa mayo (harissa is a bold spice mixture frequently used in Middle Eastern cuisine) to dip my fries and a Blanche de Bruxelles (a Belgian wheat beer from Brasserie Lefebvre) for liquid refreshment. The fries were definitely well-prepared, with a fluffy interior and a crisp outside. I was a little disappointed with the flavor, though, finding them to be a bit bland - I'll allow the possibility that my zinc lozenge (I'd had one a little earlier to help ease my cold) was responsible for slightly muting my taste buds. I'll be happy to give the fry guys in the Market another chance when my head is clear and sense of taste is unadulterated...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Farewell, O Snack Cake Friends

When I first heard the recent news about the impending liquidation of Hostess, I suspect my reaction was pretty much the same as a lot of people who came of age in the 1980s, which was "Wow, I haven't had a Zinger in, like, 20 years, but that's an awful shame". And then my next thought was "I know that they're full of carcinogens, lack any sort of nutritional value, and have an undefined shelf life, but what kind of parent would I be if my kids went through their entire childhood deprived of the opportunity to ever try a Twinkie?", so, of course, I had to rush off that very afternoon to my local neighborhood gas station to stock up on Hostess products before the mad crush of wistful 40-somethings cleaned out the remaining inventory. Luckily, I wasn't too late - actually, the Hostess rack was full and I was the only one there (perhaps I overestimated the attraction of these dessert sins against nature). Initially shocked at the number of offerings in the Hostess repertoire (I had completely forgotten about Snoballs, Honey Buns, the fruit pies, and a few others), I stuck with a few core items and brought home a package each of Twinkies, Ding Dongs (chocolate cakes filled with cream and shaped like hockey pucks), and chocolate cupcakes (one of my personal favorites).

The progeny were initially skeptical. "What are those?" asked Hackknife Jr. "What do they taste like"? I tried to explain that they were treats that Mommy and Daddy occasionally sampled as kids, not mentioning that their consumption proved to be a gateway to a lifetime of obesity for many of our bretheren. "Well, what's in them"? "Lots of sugar and other stuff that's not particularly healthy", I said, conveniently omitting the dubious provenance of most of the additives. "How are they made"? "No one really knows, H.J. It's a closely guarded secret involving space-age technology and the miracle of modern chemistry. I don't believe there's any actual baking involved during any point of the process. If you think about it too much, you might go insane. Just try them", I said. Although the cupcakes and Ding Dongs were both a solid week past the stamped "Best by" date on them, not surprisingly, they were just as edible and tasty as I remembered, and both kids gobbled them right up. Hackknifette wasn't crazy about the Twinkie, but her brother seemed to enjoy it, as did his mom and I. A few days later, I heard that there'd been a shipment of more Twinkies released to the marketplace before production was to be halted; however, having scratched the 20-year Hostess itch and satisfied with my parenting acumen, I resisted the urge to go out and get more, deciding to let the taste memories drift off into the great synthetic sunset of nostalgia...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Camp Washington Chili/Triple XXX Drive-In

When I learned that we would be spending Thanksgiving in Cincinnati this year, turkey and the traditional fixings were definitely not the only dishes on my mind (man cannot live on stuffing alone), as southwestern Ohio is known as one of the chili capitals of America. Why Cincinnati? Apparently, a number of Macedonian and Greek immigrants to the city started selling a local version of chili con carne in the early 20th Century as part of the offerings at their hot dog stands and the trend took off from there. Today, there are a few fast food chili franchises (such as Skyline and Gold Star, whose little chili dogs with mustard are one of my favorite guilty pleasures) that dominate the local market; however, I had recently read about an independent chili purveyor named Camp Washington Chili (CWC) that's been in business since 1940 still ladling out bowls of its famous chili at a diner in the namesake neighborhood of the city. This, I thought, would be the perfect place for us Hackknives to grab lunch one day to break the cycle of nearly weeklong Thanksgiving food monotony.

The Camp Washington neighborhood, named for a military training camp sited there during the Mexican War in the 1850s, is located a few miles north of downtown Cincinnati and reflects the blue-collar, industrial vibe that distinguishes much of the metro area (if you travel there via I-75 South like we did, you pass right by the gargantuan Ivorydale soap works, formerly the hub of Procter & Gamble's worldwide production). CWC is just a stone's throw from the expressway in a modern diner - the original restaurant was demolished in 2000 when Colerain Avenue was widened (there's a nice portrait of the old building on the wall, underneath the James Beard Award plaque). Despite the new digs, the chili recipe has not changed: patrons can get chili served plain or with beans in a bowl, moving up to a plate if they opt to go 3-way (chili on top of spaghetti and smothered with finely shredded cheddar cheese), 4-way (same, but add chopped onions), or 5-way (throw beans on there as well), plus oyster crackers if you please. Other chili offerings include the house good stuff poured on fries or on hot dogs. Invoking the "go big or go home rule", I chose a plate of 5-way chili and a chili dog for comparison.

When the order arrived at the table (see photo above), my first thought was "Gee, they must go through a s$%&tload of shredded cheese in this place"; indeed, if not for the bun, a casual observer might be hard-pressed to identify which plate held the hot dog. After a few bites, however, the picture was crystal-clear: the 5-way chili was tremendous, with nice notes of cinnamon and cloves melding with the ground beef (at least that's what I think it was - no way to be sure) and sauce, and a slight hint of grease holding the whole production together. Not quite as enticing was the chili dog, as the sausage itself seemed to be pallid-gray and mostly flavorless, an afterthought underneath a riotous mound of other ingredients. Still, this was dime store chow done fabulously well - I'm already thinking about my next plate of 5-way on our return trip (I'm also looking forward to trying a side of goetta, the local meat-and-oatmeal breakfast sausage developed by the city's German population), which will hopefully be not too far off.

As you might expect, we spent the remainder of our visit to Ohio stuffing ourselves to the gills, but we weren't overindulged enough to skip lunch on the way home to the Commissary. Our return trip ended up conveniently passing through West Lafayette, IN during lunch hour, just in time for us to grab a quick bite at one of my favorite places, Triple XXX Drive-In. TX3 has been a Purdue institution since it opened in 1929 as one of many "thirst station" outlets across the country selling Triple XXX Root Beer (based in Galveston, TX). The owners claim to be the oldest drive-in restaurant in Indiana and the last thirst station selling Triple XXX Root Beer (which continues to be produced, by the way). Much has changed in the Levee neighborhood where TX3 is located - just in the 20-odd years since I graduated, an entire apartment, retail, and entertainment village has sprouted where there were formally dive bars and budget motels, but the drive-in is still slinging top-quality hash (in the form of great burgers and hubcap-sized pancakes) from within its distinctive orange-and-black structure. I started out eating here as a not-very-worldly college student (having breakfast while perusing the Sunday paper), returned several times as an adult (one of my proudest foodie experiences occurred here, as I managed to stomach, even enjoy, a Purvis burger topped with peanut butter after spending the morning at a nearby hog rendering plant - charming, I know), and now can say that I've dined here with my kids.

TX3 has no tables (only counter seating) and it's gotten increasingly difficult to get in since they were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives a few years ago, so we were fortunate to get 4 stools together (no doubt some of the crowd was drawn away by the Indiana-Purdue football game going on at the stadium up the hill). Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette were happy to color while waiting for lunch (see photo above).

The burgers and milkshake are all made to order from fresh ingredients (nothing frozen here). I went for the Boilermaker Pete (3 patties with American cheese and grilled onions) and the house onion rings, along with the root beer, of course. This burger (see photo below) was much better than the Boilermaker Pete facsimiles that the kitchen staff in the dorms would occasionally serve (not that we cared - we scarfed them up anyway, fodder for high metabolism).

I've never had the house milkshake (Mrs. Hackknife tried a vanilla one and can vouch for its awesomeness), nor the pork tenderloin sandwich (an item that's popped up on my radar screen since having spent some time in Iowa a while back), but I suspect they'll both be on my next order ticket. Until then, Boiler Up!...