Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Primo/Cask & Larder

With our 10th wedding anniversary fast approaching, I completely stumbled across the perfect gift for Mrs. Hackknife while perusing Twitter one afternoon:

The chef providing the tweet is Greg Baker of Tampa's Refinery (a great place that I wrote about in April) and "this man" is referring to Norman Van Aken, whose generally known as the godfather of fusion cuisine; that is, one of the first to incorporate the flavors/styles of Latin America and Caribbean food into American dishes (as you might expect, given its geographic location, Florida has been a longtime base for Chef Norm's endeavors). The event that Chef Baker alludes to in his posting is the 10th Anniversary Food & Wine Gala for Norman's Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton resort in Orlando, a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of such gastronomic luminaries as Jeremiah Tower, Charlie Trotter, Emeril Lagasse, and Dean Fearing, all of whom have been contemporaries of Chef Norm and have also made their own indelible marks on the fine dining world as we know it today. A who's-who of prominent younger chefs and sommeliers from Central Florida were invited to participate in the gala as well, the centerpiece of which was a black tie dinner (open to the public) where each of the chefs contributed a course. With my mind sufficiently blown, I feverishly began to determine whether or not I could turn this opportunity into the ideal anniversary gift; fortunately, at this late stage, I was able to get 2 tickets (not cheap, but they included two free nights at the resort) and somehow arrange for a babysitter to watch the progeny over the weekend, so off we went.

The main writeup for the fantasy gala feast will be in my next posting - of course, we had to eat a few other meals during our weekend in Orlando, two of which were noteworthy enough to warrant their own blog entry. First up was Primo, Chef Melissa Kelly's Mediterranean-leaning farm-to-table venture in the J.W. Marriott resort (located next door to the Ritz). One of the people we met at the gala's welcome reception on Friday evening (Judge Jim from Tampa) recommended Primo as a good place to grab dinner following a few cocktails. With no other commitments that night, we wandered over to the Marriott and were seated at Primo in short order. Chef Kelly actually has another Primo in Tucson and the original flagship location in Rockland, Maine, which was prominently featured in a 2010 episode of No Reservations (I recall seeing the episode, but didn't make the connection between this restaurant and the Rockland one until after we got home). Oblivious to her background, we happily dug into the following amuse bouche of a seared whitefish nugget paired with a single brown gnoccho:

Feeling a little lubricated from the welcome reception and always cursed with eyes larger than our stomachs, we made no hesitation in ordering 2 appetizers and 2 entrees, the first of which was a spectacular dish consisting of what appeared to be two grilled calamari tubes, each stuffed with sticky squid ink risotto and topped with a spicy red pepper sauce, plus a few fried calamari rings:

Our second starter, veal shank ravioli with demi-glace, grilled pear, and a dollop of white cream (burrata?), was good, but overshined by the two-way calamari:

Nearly as fantastic as the calamari dish was my entree, a sauteed scaloppine of pork saltimbocca, sitting atop a bed of roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach, and prosciutto, all covered in a decadent sage-mushroom Madeira jus (my apologies for the lousy photo):

Our second entree was again just a step behind the first, a duck breast (which was a little tough) with pickled peaches, Florida peach butter, porcini mushrooms, and baby carrots/turnips:

Although mighty full by this point (and not realizing just how full until about 2:15 later that night when I awoke to angry noises from my mid-section), we had to indulge in a little tres leches cake for dessert:

By the next morning, food was the furthest thing from my mind as I struggled to get through my bowl of granola and yogurt at the breakfast table. By the time we arrived in Winter Park (a nearby suburb of Orlando) to do a little window shopping, however, I could actually conceive of having a meal for lunch that wouldn't be nursing home fodder. Fortunately, this was the appropriate digestive state for our lunchtime destination, Cask & Larder, billed as a "Southern Public House" serving inventive snacks and goodies cobbled together from fine ingredients throughout the Southeast. Chefs James and Julie Petrakis kicked off this trend in Central Florida with their first restaurant (called The Ravenous Pig) and have carried it over to C&L along with a microbrewery this time to make things a bit more intriguing. And while I wasn't aware that I was already going to sample cuisine from this dynamic duo later that evening at the Norman's gala (they were asked to provide some of the hors d'oeuvres during the pre-dinner cocktail hour), the missus and I were pleased to pop in.

Given the excesses of both the night past and the night to follow, we opted to keep our choices limited to a couple of shared plates and accompanying adult beverages. This included the following order of pimiento cheese fries (topped with pickled gypsy peppers and scallions) and a house Bloody Mary for Mrs. Hackknife:

I'm not normally a fan of curly fries, but I would chow down on these every day and twice on Sundays. I can now also speak to the magical curative properties of cured meat, pickled vegetables, and craft beer (in this case, a glass of C&L's Olde Southern Red Wit, a Belgian White with coriander and lime/lemon/grapefruit zest) as we dug into the Southern Picnic (see photo below):

This tray consisted of deviled eggs (which I happily left for Mrs. Hackknife), country ham slices, two discs of crispy pork terrine, aged provolone cheese, and pickled carrots, eggplant, and green beans. By the time we finished, I actually felt better than I had all morning and was ready to take on whatever outrageous, high-society concoctions awaited us later that evening...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Grilled Chicken with Garlic-Herb Dressing

I may have finally discovered what grilling aficionados have known all along: chicken cooks up on the grill pretty darn well. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog are aware of my past difficulties with poultry; that is, I rarely seem to properly prepare it, pulling it out of the oven either undercooked or dried out. Add this to the fact that Mrs. Hackknife is on record telling me that chicken just doesn't do much for her as an entree and it's no wonder that I tend to shy away from making chicken dishes here in the Canteen. One tiny part of me, however, was always curious if the grill might be a superior tool for prepping a bird; so, now that I'm the proud owner of a sizable outdoor kitchen, I had no more excuses to avoid grilling a chicken. After a little bit of digging through the library, I found a simple recipe for grilled chicken with garlic-herb dressing courtesy of Tyler Florence's Ultimate Cookbook and decided to give it a whirl. The recipe also includes grilled lemon and radicchio as garnish, but I decided to omit those and focus solely on the bird.

The first part of the process was preparing the dressing or marinade to be placed on the chicken pieces during grilling. This entailed roasting a head of garlic sprinkled with thyme leaves, then pureeing the softened garlic cloves with olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley to make "a thick vinaigrette" as Tyler calls it (note - if you run out of lemon juice, as I did, the dressing works equally well if you sub in lime juice). Next, you coat the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and olive oil, putting them skin-side down on a medium-high oiled grill (oiling is important to prevent sticking, although I have to say the stickage wasn't as bad as if I were cooking fish out there) for about 20 minutes. Once flipped over, you baste the pieces with your dressing (I had quite a bit left over, which came in handy as a sauce for the cooked chicken at the table) and cook it for about 20 minutes more until the inner meat temperature reaches 160F.

What you see above is what departed my grill - the chicken was nicely crisped on the outside with a moist/juicy interior (and, perhaps most importantly, cooked all the way through on the first attempt!). The dressing was a little bit robust for the kids, but they ate the parts of the meat unadulterated by sauce, while the missus and I swooned over the end product. This recipe is definitely one for the regular rotation and, all of a sudden, I feel like I have some chicken mojo finally working for me, a convenient thing considering the latest issue of Food & Wine covers almost exclusively chicken (deep-fried chicken livers, anyone?)...

Friday, August 9, 2013

Adventures in Deep South 2013

It's that time of year again for our roundup of noteworthy food happenings from the annual family trip to the Carolina shore. Unlike summers past, this time we made the trek northbound from Tampa and managed to arrive at our destination (Ocean Isle Beach, NC) after only a single day of driving (hallelujah!). With less transit time to sample the Deep South's culinary treasures, our story had to begin before we even left town. First up was a visit to the local branch of Nicola's Donuts and Cupcakes (15006 N. Dale Mabry), which receives my vote for the area's best fried dough. My plan was to pick up a half-dozen donuts to tide us over until our mid-morning breakfast stop (we were planning to leave home under a cloak of darkness around 5 am) the next day.

It's a little challenging to find Nicola's Dale Mabry location since it recently moved into a shared space with one of the latest frozen yogurt operations (in this case, the Yogurt Spot) that seem to be popping up around here like mushrooms following a rainstorm. In fact, there's only a little pink-and-orange Nicola's sticker on the window to indicate to unsuspecting passersby that high-quality donuts are inside. The gal working the counter (who herself appeared a bit befuddled about the whole yogurt-donut shop arrangement) told us that Nicola's still makes all of their baked goods at the flagship store on Busch Avenue and drops off fresh product every morning.

The available offerings were impressive - I opted for all cake donuts, including chocolate choco iced, red velvet, vanilla coconut, vanilla maple, and chocolate sprinkles (see photo above). I also tried a chocolate lava drop cupcake and ate it on the premises before leaving; unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted (too much frosting). As for the donuts, I was a little concerned that they might not be so fresh the next morning (Nicola's specifically advises customers to enjoy them the same day as they're not made to last), but I can tell you that day-old Nicola's still beat the pants off of the same-day product you get from most other donut purveyors. Our stash was completely gone before we made it to Jacksonville.

Upon arrival in North Carolina, we spent the majority of our week of sun/surf simply overstuffing our bodies with the ample traditional vittles prepared by my aunts in the beachhouse kitchen. We didn't actually explore areas off the island until Thursday, when we made our now-traditional trip up to Wilmington with the progeny in tow to visit the local children's museum. Rather than head straight back to Ocean Isle Beach, we made a detour over to Carolina Beach (which appears to be sort of a mini-version of the Jersey shore) to find another celebrated donut shop called Britt's (we did actually eat things other than donuts on the trip, although I'll forgive you for thinking that).

Snugly nestled within Carolina Beach's two square block boardwalk, Britt's has been serving up hot glazed (and only glazed) donuts during tourist season since 1939 (see photo above). What the store lacks in creature comforts (like air conditioning, sand-free floors, and comfortable seating), it makes up for in flavorful goodness.

Saveur Magazine recently included Britt's among the top 50 donut shops in America (that's where I first heard of them) and I can clearly see why. Day after day, Britt's turns out mass quantities of featherlight, ethereal fried yeast dough circles that are like a warm, sugary pillow for your taste buds (see photo above). Not the least bit greasy or cloying, these beauties put my previous hot glazed donut champ (Krispy Kreme) to shame. No one looked at us askance when we ordered 2 dozen to go (I got the impression that this was not an unusual request) for the rest of the family back at the beachhouse, who promptly consumed the whole lot before sunup the next day.

Oh yes, you can also get seafood near the ocean. Roadfood.com makes note of a popular seafood restaurant called Crabby Oddwaters in neighboring Sunset Beach (you can follow the link here), which we decided to check out on the last night of our trip (Friday night is usually reserved for consuming leftovers out of the beachhouse refrigerators in lieu of a cooked meal). The service at the joint wasn't exactly stellar, but I can't complain about the bill of fare. First up were a gratis basket of to-die-for hush puppies (accompanied by a sweet butter spread, not that they needed it) and a half-dozen Oysters Rockefeller (see photo below):

For an entree, I went with one of the house specialty buckets (which arrives at the table not in a bucket, but in a large roasting pan). The Islander features a smorgasbord of delectables, including some giant oysters, clams, sweet mussels, shrimp, corn on the cob, sliced red potatoes, and a slab of sausage similar to kielbasa, all steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, and butter (see photo below).

I needed my big boy pants (presumably for the extra room) to get through this beast and I still came up a bit short. The bucket comes with a shucker to open up the oysters, a few of which were so challenging that I had to retain the assistance of our server (and even she had some problems). Here's hoping the local levels of heavy metal contamination are low because I ended up with a whole lot of the ecosystem in my belly.

When the time came to depart for home, I hatched a plan I'd conceived long before our trip was ever on the calendar. If we left the island around 6 am, my calculations told me that we'd arrive in Charleston, SC just as the front door of Hominy Grill opened at 9 o'clock for their Saturday brunch service. For the uninitiated, Hominy Grill has been serving up dining classics of the Carolina Lowcountry (shrimp and grits, for example) out of its historical digs in Charleston (about 10 minutes from the harbor) for almost 20 years and is beloved to the point that its owner/chef (Robert Stehling) is now gaining national recognition for his efforts. Of course, with notoriety comes demand, and my fear was that we'd arrive to find a large crowd ahead of us all waiting for their weekend morning fix. Amazingly, we pulled into the parking lot next to the barn-like structure (see photo below) at exactly 9 am and were able to stroll right in.

The Hominy Grill decor can be best described as modern farmhouse, all wood and whitewash and consistent with the stick-to-your-ribs cuisine. I had to resist my urge to simply order one of everything on the menu and chose the lowcountry omelette (Charleston red rice with shrimp gravy, home fries, and toast), which I was extremely pleased with (see photo below) until I had a bite of Mrs. Hackknife's "big nasty biscuit", a mindblowing melange of fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy on a homemade biscuit, at which point regret set in.

I needed this piece of buttermilk pie to make me whole again (and it certainly did):

By the time our server brought our to-go box of the house banana bread and we made a quick restroom visit (the lavatory gets points for being spacious, clean, and private enough to change 2 kids out of pajamas/brush teeth), the wait for tables had reached hour-long status; luckily, we were free to proceed onward with our journey home. After such an elaborate breakfast, I opted to go lowbrow for lunch, pulling off I-95 near Brunswick, GA to grab some burgers at Krystal. I was vaguely aware that Krystal is the South's version of White Castle, but I'd never had the opportunity to pop into one until now. Unfortunately, I don't know that I picked the best place to stop (it wasn't exactly the most hygienic restaurant I'd ever set foot in), but we pressed forward with our order nonetheless.

What you're looking at above is the famous Krystal burger, and if you think it resembles a White Castle slider, you'd be right. The Krystal chain was founded in 1932 (a good 11 years after WC) and rumored to have been inspired by those dirty Yankees running White Castles up north. Interestingly, the two companies cover geographical territories that are nearly independent of each other, with the exception of Kentucky and Tennessee, where they somehow co-exist without civil war. Anyhoo, my personal assessment of the Krystal burger is that it's not quite as thick, onion-y, or flavorful as a slider, and truth be told, the mustard (which a slider does NOT have) doesn't adequately take the place of that little layer of grease that soaks into a slider bun. Still, it'll have to do in a pinch when I'm stuck in Florida craving a fast food mini-burger with no White Castles to be found within 700 miles (or maybe I'll just go to Waffle House instead)...

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Strawberry-Preztel Ice Cream

Because we are now residents of the South (I've heard Florida specifically described as "the South's Dumpster" by tongue-in-cheek sources), Mrs. Hackknife thought it might be a good idea for us to subscribe to Southern Living Magazine (the original idea was Coastal Living; however, we quickly discovered that this publication would also encompass such locales as Mendocino and Nantucket, not quite prime examples of tropical culture). As fate would have it, the very first issue of Southern Living that arrived on our doorstep (July 2013) had a feature article listing 56 no-cook summer recipes. After anxiously paging through all 56 recipes, I decided to start at the back in the dessert section with a sinful-sounding strawberry-pretzel ice cream. Unlike other homemade ice cream recipes I've tried that include, well, cream, this particular version employs cream cheese, buttermilk, and half and half instead to yield more of a smooth, custard-like confection. If you're so inclined, you can stop with just the base or throw in more ingredients to gussy it up a bit. In order to make strawberry-pretzel, I needed a combination of fresh strawberries and strawberry preserves, plus some chopped fresh basil and crushed pretzel sticks. Since my Cuisinart ice cream maker is fairly low capacity, I was forced to mix in by hand in all of the pretzels and about 1/4 of the strawberries after the maker had done its thing (lest I overflow the whole contents). The final result was incredibly soft (almost too much so) and, even after firming it up in the freezer for a while, still had a not-unpleasant loose consistency. Regardless, neither my kids nor my niece/nephews visiting from Chicago had any problems gobbling down this icy treat, although they were all a little put off by the "odd green flecks" (maybe we'll omit the basil next time)...