Thursday, November 21, 2013

Emeril's Honey-Brined Pork Chops

Anyone with young kids can attest to the difficulties that cold and flu season bring every year to the daily routine (as glamorous as it might sound to watch 3 straight hours of Doc McStuffins episodes with a sick 4-year old, I can assure you, it's not). The twisted logic I had in my head when we moved to Florida was that people living in mild climates surely must suffer less from fall/winter illness than residents of the North; sadly, with Hackknife Jr. regularly coughing this week and Hackknifette dealing with a bout of flu, I've found this hypothesis to be completely untrue thus far (grrr...). Still, while both children (and their viruses) are restlessly snoozing away this evening, I decided to attempt to pound out a quick posting or two before Thanksgiving is upon us. A few weeks ago, I got inspired by the sauteeing/browning exercises in my basics cooking class at Publix (especially the steak au poivre, where we used a cast iron skillet to sear both sides of the meat before finishing in the oven) to try a recipe at home requiring the same skills. Among the swag we received at the Norman's Gala in Orlando was one of Emeril Lagasse's recent cookbooks entitled "Farm to Fork", in which is his version of honey-brined pork chops with an optional nectarine chutney (since we also brought home a jar of Dean Fearing's sun-kissed apricot sauce from the event, I opted out of the chutney). In this recipe, bone-in pork chops are brined for several hours in a mixture of honey (quite a bit in fact, 2 cups), salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and cloves. The brine can be made the night before and provides a pleasant-smelling autumn potpourri aroma in the kitchen while boiling (although my kids begged to differ on the odor). After the brine chills overnight in the fridge, you simply drop in the chops, let them marinate until dinnertime, sear in a cast iron pan (practicing my newly-learned tricks), and roast in the oven until cooked through. The chops in the recipe need 10 to 12 minutes to reach 165F; however, mine were pretty thick and actually required closer to a half-hour. Despite the delay, I ended up with beautifully moist and tender pork (see photo above) that had a slight sweetness from the honey that even the progeny didn't mind. The apricot sauce enhanced the meat a little, but I'd be perfectly happy serving these again completely naked save for a little salt and pepper...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Capital Tacos

One of our local food critics (Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times) recently posted a note on Twitter about an interesting new taco stand up in Land O' Lakes called Capital Tacos (6765 Land O' Lakes Boulevard). Always on the lookout for new places to try, I added CT to my future hit list and managed to make the drive to check it out a few Fridays ago for lunch. I was vaguely aware that Land O' Lakes was located somewhere in my neck of woods here in northwest Tampa, but didn't realize that it was halfway to Weeki Wachee, a solid half-hour drive north from the Canteen past the charming advertisements for Paradise Lakes Resort ("Clothing optional!") and numerous strip malls (which are not as nudist-friendly) lining U.S. 41 through Pasco County.

CT is a little hard to spot from the highway as it's nestled in the corner of one of these nondescript developments (I passed it up and had to double-back). Anyway, once I arrived, I was pleasantly impressed by the breadth and originality of the food offerings. In addition to about 20 different flavor combos (which can be purchased in taco, bowl, burrito, nacho, or salad forms), hungry diners can also select from a number of breakfast combos (mostly involving variations on scrambled eggs) that are available all day (including migas, a mixture of eggs, chiles, crunchy corn strips, and cheese that I hadn't seen anywhere since my Dallas days). With all of these tempting choices, it's easy to find your head spinning with indecision - luckily, I had a few minutes in line to peruse the menu before reaching the counter.

Given that I wanted to try so many items and I didn't know when I'd be back up here, I clearly over-ordered, picking 3 tacos, plus a bucket of chips/salsa on the side. What you see above is the first of my tacos, called the Austinite, a combo of carne asada, jack and cheddar cheeses, caramelized onions, avocado, sour cream, Chihuahua cheese, and chipotle ranch salsa. I figured that any place professing to have better-than-average tacos should be able to execute a solid carne asada and it wasn't bad, although I found the meat to be a little on the bland side (of course, that could also be the zinc lozenges I'd been taking for a mounting cold deadening my taste buds). The mild salsa I picked to go with the tortilla chips (which were homemade, fresh, and tasty) were loaded with big chunks of tomato and onions, a plus in my book.

I did my best to polish off the other two tacos, a Johnny Reb (smoked sausage, corn kernels, pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses, and poblano ranch salsa) and a Mean Verde (fried avocado, refried pinto beans, queso dip, lettuce, pico de gallo, jack and cheddar cheeses, corn strips, and poblano ranch salsa). Both were good, if not a tad on the sloppy side, and I washed them down with a bottle of Sangria Senorial, a Mexican soda that really does taste like sangria without the after-effects of that pesky alcohol.

CT appears to appeal to both Pasco County civil servants (lots of firemen, teachers, and parks department workers were there for lunch that day) and the local hipster element (I can't recall seeing a cook wearing a fedora in the kitchen before) alike, so the owner's concept seems to be pretty solid. I feel like if they can sharpen up their execution just a bit (maybe eliminate one or two toppings from each flavor choice to cut down on the clutter?), they'd have a taco stand worthy of a regular 30-minute drive to the far reaches of the metro area. In any case, I'm anxious for my next visit so I can sample a few of the breakfast creations (especially the migas)...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Trotter

I was at the park with the progeny on Tuesday afternoon when I noticed that my Twitter feed had been erupting with a torrent of messages expressing dismay over the sudden passing of famed chef Charlie Trotter, found dead in his home earlier that morning. Only 54, the brilliant, but frequently maligned Chef Trotter laid down the template in the late 1980s for what was to become Chicago's modern haute-dining scene, helping to launch the careers of a hundred prominent chefs that passed through his kitchen along the way (just a sampling of his proteges - Rick Tramonto, Gail Gand, Graham Elliot, Curtis Duffy, Bill Kim, Matthias Merges, Mindy Segal, Grant Achatz, Dan McGee, Giuseppe Tentori - the list goes on and on). As the master architect of an activity that I love (experiencing unique cuisine) in the city that I love, I have a lot of admiration for the chef even though I never had the opportunity to meet him. Mrs. Hackknife and I were fortunate to have dined at his namesake restaurant in Lincoln Park twice before it closed in August of last year. Our first visit occurred in 2002 when I was just a fine dining greenhorn and, frankly, a bit uncomfortable eating in a place where the plates served were small/fastidious and an army of attendants would descend upon you like a SWAT team if you gave even the slightest indication that you might want to rise from your chair. Despite the stuffiness, the whole encounter awakened something in me, and I can recall saying to Mrs. Hackknife (then my girlfriend, not yet my wife) at the time about seeing how food preparation and presentation (such as the mango and macadamia nut brittle cake with kiwi juice and passionfruit ice cream you see below, my sole food photo from that evening) could be elevated to an art form in the right hands. Clearly, Chef Trotter had those right hands.

In the 10 years that passed until our second visit to Trotter's, the missus and I came to realize that we greatly enjoyed the culture of gastronomy (in no small part because of that first dining foray), inspiring us to seek out epicurean adventures both near and far, which eventually led to the formation of this blog in 2010 to help chronicle our experiences. I subsequently wrote about our amazing dinner at Trotter's kitchen table in August of 2011, a time that found both us (now married with children and solidly in middle age) and the restaurant (less pretentious and more relaxed, at least within the confines of the kitchen) in different places than before. Fortunately, the excellence in the cuisine had not changed one bit as Chef Trotter's expert staff continued to turn out eye-popping and tongue-tickling dishes (for example, the heirloom tomato terrine with white sesame and daikon below) the likes of which are still rarely found.

At the conclusion of the meal, our server told us we had been the first kitchen table of the restaurant's 25th year of operation (having just celebrated their 24th anniversary the day before). What we didn't know then was that the 25th year was to be the last, as Chef Trotter dropped a bombshell on New Year's Eve announcing that he would be closing down the following August. At the time, he made reference to a vague desire to travel, read, and get a doctorate in philosophy as his reasons for wanting to step away; however, rumors began to swirl about how the very proud and maniacally-driven chef may have felt like the rest of the city's dining scene had finally surpassed him, speculating that he'd rather pack up his toys and go home like a petulant child rather than change his well-entrenched ways. From there, things seemed to spiral out of control. There were a handful of run-ins with local media over how his legacy was being portrayed, even though much anecdotal evidence indicates a pattern of repeated vindictive behavior on his part, especially towards employees wanting to leave his inner circle. Then came the truncated auction of the shuttered restaurant's equipment and inventory, which he ended prematurely since bids on many of the items fell short of what he believed was their perceived worth. Another incident entailed an argument with some high school art students over whether or not they should be made to clean the dining rooms in return for using them as a temporary gallery for their exhibits. I personally encountered the consequences of his increasingly eccentric nature at the Norman's Anniversary Gala this past August in Orlando. He had been scheduled to make an appearance along with several other celebrity chefs and never arrived, citing an illness preventing him from flying as his excuse for the absence. I had chosen the gala weekend to be my wife's 10th anniversary present in large part because of the chance that we might get to talk with the chef a bit, and, as you might imagine, I was more than a little annoyed that he hadn't bothered to show (the tickets to this event were not an insignificant expense).

Given his recent history, when I got word of the chef's passing yesterday, my first reaction was that it had to be a suicide, as if there could be no more reasonable explanation (or, for that matter, apt conclusion) for the untimely demise of a ultra-demanding trailblazer whose life had seemingly followed the path of a Greek tragedy, attaining the highest highs for so long and eventually descending into torment/madness as his status diminished. However, as is often the case, reality isn't that tidy. Reading through the various tributes and news accounts of the chef's death, I discovered that Chef Trotter had actually been physically unwell for most of the year, suffering from seizures and small strokes, which he had kept quiet from the press. Doctors also discovered that he had an unruptured brain aneurysm, advising him not to fly or visit high-altitude locales to reduce the likelihood of its rupture. Given the obvious rigors of running a world-class restaurant for 25 years, it's no wonder that the man likely mortgaged his long-term health for the sake of his unrelenting vision. Perhaps he became aware that his body couldn't handle much more stress and found it necessary to walk away from the business to spend whatever time he had remaining with his wife and son. In any case, we'll never know what might have been in store for the Chicago dining public had Charlie Trotter returned for a second act (and I wholeheartedly believe that he would have popped up again after a few years away from the kitchen); much like the ever-present anticipation of a Beatles reunion was snuffed out by John Lennon's murder, all that his fans are left with now are the fading beams of a star that shined too brightly and was extinguished too soon. Speaking for myself, I know that, although my experiences with his food and his restaurant were brief, they infinitely expanded my world of what gastronomy could be. For that, Chef, I thank you. Godspeed...