Wednesday, December 17, 2014

AK Cookies

My wife and kids left town for the weekend a few weeks ago, leaving me free to pursue whatever wild fantasies my mind could conger up (like sleep in until 8 and go to Costco to buy Christmas presents).  I ended up driving to Orlando one day to procure some righteous soul food (more on that in a future posting) and also had ample time to read through the entire new issue of Lucky Peach (Winter 2014), which focuses solely on holiday recipes and food-related holiday stories.  Feeling inspired, I undertook a cooking frenzy on Sunday afternoon, whipping together lobster rolls, beet salad, custom cheeseburgers, and decadent cookies, all courtesy of the recipes found in said issue.  I had every intention of writing about each one of these dishes; unfortunately, a bout of stomach flu two days later completely took the wind out of my sails (I discovered there's no worse thought when you're grappling with abdominal cramps than updating your food blog).  I've since managed to recover enough to at least document the cookie recipe here (redirected from Alexandra's Kitchen, a far superior food blog to this suboptimal operation) which I feel is probably the gem of the bunch.  Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan named this cookie Alaska, or "AK", after the Anchorage residence of his friend's mother, where the recipe originated.  Sort of a Toll House-on-steroids cookie, the standard chocolate chips (high quality is recommended, however, I used just your garden-variety chips) are augmented by shredded coconut, oats (quick-cooking or old fashioned - either works), nuts (if desired), and dark brown sugar, yielding a dense, chewy cookie.  The instructions say to use a stand mixer, but my ancient hand mixer did the trick just fine, and I needed closer to 15 minutes in the oven to finish them off (versus the 11-12 cited in the recipe).  Regardless, I knew I had a winner when both Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette enjoyed the finished product (as did the missus and the mother-in-law).

Monday, December 8, 2014

Burger 21 Turducken Burger

About 3 weeks ago, the progeny and I attended their elementary school's "Spirit Night" at our favorite local burger joint, Burger 21.  Restaurants in our community that agree to host Spirit Night (which occurs around once a month and is, of course, highly publicized by the school) donate a portion of the evening's profits to the school, so these affairs are generally bedlam, with parents and kids hanging from the rafters and beleaguered servers/cooks straining to meet the outsized demand.  Anyway, the three of us were in the middle of this semi-organized chaos trying to eat our dinners when I realized that I'd missed out on Burger 21's Burger of the Month - in this case, it happened to be a luscious-looking Southern-style creation with fried pickles or something.  When one of the managers happened by our table to check on us, I quizzed him as follows:

Me: "So, when do you guys stop selling the current Burger of the Month?"
Him: "Today, unfortunately.  But, don't worry - starting tomorrow, we offer our new Burger of the Month, a turducken burger."
Me: (jaw drops) "No!"

Why, yes, in honor of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Burger 21 developed a turducken burger, inspired by the duck-inside a chicken-inside a turkey popularized by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme (but with roots extending back into 19th Century-France).  Burger 21's meat patty consists of ground duck nestled into a layer of ground chicken, which is then further surrounded by ground turkey, grilled on a flattop, and topped with melted Brie and a cherry/red apple/cranberry chutney.  I vowed right then and there to return in December for one of these bad boys, which I did just yesterday.

You can see the turducken burger above in all its glory.  My impression?  Well, it was good, but sadly fell somewhere short of life-changing.  I felt they were pretty skimpy on the duck meat (my favorite poultry, I couldn't really tell it was in there at all) and was a tad put off by the added flavorings that I suspect were intended to evoke stuffing (sage?).  There was enough chutney on the burger that they didn't really need to include extra on the side (although that was appreciated when it came time to consume the remainders of the bun).  I admire the kitchen staff's chutzpah; however, I look forward to subsequent Burgers of the Month that include the more-traditional ground beef...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Northeast Ohio Eats

Since we skipped our annual extended family July beach house rental this year (we went to South Dakota for frybread tacos instead), I arranged for us to spend Thanksgiving week with said extended family, who lives in northeast Ohio when they're not frolicking on the Carolina shore. My aunts, uncles, and cousins were gracious enough to prepare us enough holiday food to supply Napoleon's army; however, as you're aware, no trip is complete in my world without sampling the local grub. So, using a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland as a pretext, we made the hour-long drive to Cleveland to see if there was anything good to eat.

For those of you who still envision Cleveland as "the mistake by the lake", I'm here to say that the city's outlook has brightened considerably since its darkest days in the 70s and 80s, with its moribund heavy industrial base now replaced by rising stars in the tech, medical, and finance sectors. One thing that hasn't changed over the years, though, is Sokolowski's University Inn, a Cleveland institution serving up hearty Eastern European fare since 1923 (according to the proprietors, they're the city's oldest family owned/operated restaurant).

The view from the tavern's parking lot overlooking the Cuyahoga River towards downtown Cleveland is about the most striking urban panorama you're ever likely to take in.

Back in the day, Sokolowski's clientele most likely consisted of blue-collar workers from the nearby mills seeking a cheap, hearty meal (not to mention a shot and a beer); nowadays, it's largely tourists and families that drop in for eats.  Once inside, the queue to enter the cafeteria line begins near the bar.  When we first arrived at 11:30 am, the place was nearly empty; however, hungry patrons were stacked up outside the door only 30 minutes later.

My first impression of the dishes on offer was that any place putting desserts at the front of the cafeteria line can't be all bad.  I snagged what appeared to be some sort of cake in a bowl, along with a creamy cucumber salad before heading towards the entrees.  I'd read that the chicken paprikash was a standout here (it was one of the things Anthony Bourdain tried when he visited Sokolowski's for his Cleveland episode of "No Reservations") and it absolutely was, probably the best I'd ever had.  Instead of bone-in chicken, the rich and slightly spicy orange-pink sauce (clearly, the cream and butter were not spared) smothered a moist, boneless cutlet.  Although I enjoyed the sauerkraut I chose for my side (the canned green beans, not so much), I immediately regretted my decision not to get egg noodles instead, all the better to mop up every bit of that decadent sauce.

Mrs. Hackknife opted for the house pierogi, which were filled with a potato/cheese mixture and browned in butter before being plated with a little gravy (again, low-cal diners beware).  Having lived for a few years in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, we know what good pierogi taste like and these were definitely them.

The "cake-in-a-bowl" dessert turned out to be a tasty (and somewhat toothsome) form of rice pudding.  Whether it was simply a creation of the kitchen or a version of rizskoch (Hungarian rice cake), I'm not entirely sure.

The progeny were perfectly content to eat a few pieces of kielbasa, some egg noodles, and chopped-up fruit along with their favorite sodas, Sprecher root beer (Hackknifette) and grape (Hackknife Jr.) while the magnanimous visage of Pope John Paul II gazed down upon the dining room from several places on the wall.

Our visit to Sokolowski's was so successful (it's rare that I drag the family to a place that ultimately satisfies everyone) that Mrs. Hackknife suggested we make this a regular stop on our future Thanksgiving trips to Ohio (we'll see).

After a few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and a harsh reminder of how lousy the winter wind can feel to us Floridians - it's situated right next to Lake Erie), we needed an afternoon treat.  Fortunately, the highly-regarded Lilly Handmade Chocolates was nearby in the now-trendy Tremont neighborhood (formerly home to German, Slavic, and Ukrainian immigrants, the new residents are mostly hipsters and young urban professionals).

The folks at Lilly make a point of suggesting wine and craft beer pairings to go along with their gourmet chocolates.  With so many decadent-sounding choices (hazelnut praline butter, anyone?), we had a difficult time making our selections.

We ended up purchasing a gift box of 12 eye-popping pieces along with a chomp monster bar (a mixture of dark chocolate, black mission figs, and salty almonds).  The monster bar was great both by itself and paired with a nice tawny Port later that evening.  Our consensus favorites of the chocolates were the Jimmie (dark chocolate filled with triple chocolate hot fudge ganache, vanilla bean, and salted caramel) and the Red Planet (dark chocolate with red wine soaked strawberries and freeze dried raspberry powder).

As sumptuous as the sweets were, the kids were dissatisfied with our dessert selection (it's hard to convince a 5-year old of the merits of blackstrap molasses and candied ginger when all she wants is a plain Hershey's Bar).  In order to head off the pending crisis, we wandered down the street and found a tidy coffeehouse called Lucky's Cafe that sold homemade sugar cookies.

Unbeknownst to us, Lucky's had been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives back in 2009 - they also happened to make pie: not just any pie, really, but sweet potato with caramel swirl and toasted meringue on top.  Of course, the adults had to sample it and, of course, we had to buy a whole sweet potato pie to share with family on Thanksgiving Day (because, you know, we only already had 5 pies on the menu for our upcoming feast).

On the day before Thanksgiving, we decided to bring the kids to the World of Wonder Children's Museum in downtown Youngstown (about a 15-minute drive from my aunt and uncle's house).  Like Cleveland, Youngstown is beginning to come out the other end of a long recession period following the loss of most of its steel industry (which had drawn my great-grandparents here early in the 20th Century).  There are new signs of vitality in its historic city center - vintage buildings are being renovated and turned into condos, restaurants, bars, and shops, all riding the wave of tech and agricultural startups that are being drawn to the area.  One of these is Suzie's Dogs and Drafts (32 N. Phelps Street, no website), a casual, family-friendly hot dog joint in an old police station-turned-saloon where we popped in for lunch.

Suzie's prides itself on offering about 50 different hot dog toppings and almost as many well-regarded craft beers, with an emphasis on Midwestern breweries (such as Great Lakes and Founders).  Like the late, lamented Hot Doug's, diners can also choose specific hot dog combos created by the chefs.  I picked one of these combos on the recommendation of my cousin Kristen (a native who's an ambassador for the emerging Youngstown scene); that is, the beef frank topped with Bavarian beer sauerkraut, spiced pecans, a spicy sambal sauce, and crickets.  Yes, you read that correctly - Big Cricket Farms is one of those new agricultural startups that provides sustainably-raised crickets to Suzie's.  I'd decided a little while back that I was finally ready to try eating bugs for the first time (at least willingly, not counting all those parts already hidden in nearly everything coming from the supermarket) and this was the time.  Just in case, I asked our server to put them on the side.

Mrs. Hackknife, Hackknifette, and I all tried one (Hackknife Jr. politely declined) and found them to be not a bit unpleasant (I even, daresay, a little tasty), with a taste and texture similar to a nutty popcorn.  On the hot dog, their flavor mostly got overshadowed by the sambal, which ended up being a little on the spicy side for my liking (I realized too late that it was one of the spiciest toppings on their menu).  Of the whole dish, I actually least liked the hot dog - for an artisanal, locally-made sausage, it was surprisingly bland (I think they'd be better off going with one of the big, nationwide vendors like Vienna Beef).  Much better were the house tater tots and the German potato salad, a tangy and warm side with a refreshing bite of cider vinegar.

Feeling pretty proud of myself (and my daughter - go girl!) for trying crickets, we made one more stop downtown after leaving the museum, again on the advice of my cousin. One Hot Cookie (112 W. Commerce Street) is a small bakery selling decadent cookies just up the street from Suzie's.  While the progeny snacked on candy and kettle corn from a nearby candy shop and watched The Santa Clause on a little tv (the cookies were too fancy for their liking - see Lilly Chocolates above), my wife and I blissed out on a maple bacon sugar cookie (heated up in the microwave just before serving to better digest the bacon grease) and then had to split a death-by-chocolate cookie (also served warm) for seconds.

I always used to joke that I could never live near my Ohio relatives since I'd end up obese from all of their great home cooking; now, it's become clear that the area's established and emerging foodie offerings would cause me just as many issues...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Butternut Squash with Marcona Almonds

Unlike when autumn hits up north, we don't see a lot of squash in the grocery produce section down here (at least not in this part of the South).  As a former recipient and enthusiast of many winter squashes from our old CSA supplier, I get a little nostalgic for squash dishes when the days start to get shorter (even if the outdoor temperature is still nicely warm), so I finally decided to dust off a recipe I'd been sitting on since February 2012.  This twist on butternut squash puree may look like baby food when it's finished, but I can assure you that it's high-class baby food (and I should also mention that it's insanely simple to prepare).  Chef Mark Mendez of Vera in Chicago (one of our favorite Spanish restaurants) roasts a 3-pound butternut squash with clove and cinnamon resting in the hollow underneath the halves, then purees the bright yellow flesh in a blender with some heavy cream, butter, and brown sugar, finally topping it with chopped Marcona almonds, a little honey, and some sea salt.  Since Marconas can be hard to find (and are expensive if you do find them), I used some plain roasted almonds instead, and the final dish came out beautifully (especially when paired with a tomato and fish stew), a great mixture of sweet, rich, and crunchy.  As daylight continues to fade towards the winter solstice over the next few weeks, I look forward to my next opportunity to whip up this side dish...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Andy's Spanish Restaurant

Like many neighborhoods across America, you don't have to look very hard to find an industrial park near our house.  This particular industrial park sits about a five-minute drive from the Canteen, just south of Tampa Bay Downs, and its tenants include (among more mundane operations) a free water skiing show on Saturday evenings courtesy of the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team.  Anyway, I was driving down Douglas Road (the park's main drag) one sunny morning (not to see the skiers - I was on my way to pick up Cub Scout t-shirts) and noticed a small, nondescript restaurant tucked away in the corner of a strip mall.  The sign outside the building said "Andy's Spanish Restaurant" (472 E. Douglas Rd., Oldsmar) and appeared to be the type of laid-back, no-frills place that ethnic food enthusiasts like myself are constantly seeking out, so I decided to pop in for lunch one day.

Andy's is a blue-collar worker's nirvana, where patrons can get a large plate of tasty grub for a very reasonable price.  If you're able to navigate the cramped parking lot (arrive before noon to beat the lunch rush), inside you'll find not what I normally consider to be Spanish cuisine (i.e., tapas), but Cuban instead (in fact, I've come to realize that in Florida, "Spanish" and "Cuban" food essentially refer to the same thing), with a menu offering roast pork sandwiches, stewed meats (such as beef and sometimes goat), plantains, yellow rice/black beans, empanadas, and the like.  Dishes are prepared in large hotel pans and delivered cafeteria-style (you grab a tray, receive your order, pay, and sit down in the dining room), with a side of Cuban bread available to anyone who wants it.  On my first visit, Andy's daily special was fried whitefish, which I ordered with a side of yellow rice and black beans, plus a drink, all for less than $10.

The fish wasn't bad (the breading had a slight spiciness to it), but the beans and rice were spectacular, probably the best I've had since we arrived in Tampa, and they were even better when garnished with chopped onion and a slathering of the house-made hot pepper sauce (both of which are in bowls next to the cash register).

I opted for take-out the next time, trying out the media noche (basically a Cuban sandwich made with sweet bread instead of Cuban bread) and more of those fabulous beans/rice (with more of the onions and hot pepper sauce, of course).  The sandwich was nice and crisp on the outside, and full of thick ham/pork, with a little bit of salami in a nod to Tampa's Italian heritage (the Cuban sandwich purists in Miami would find this to be heretical).  I can't say that I liked the media noche quite as much as my favorite food truck Cuban, but it was plenty good enough to warrant future consumption.  All in all, I think Andy's is a local gem and I'm anxious to stop by again, hopefully to get me some stewed goat or oxtail...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bern's Fine Wines & Spirits - Prunotto Wine and Truffle Dinner

Fluke Crudo with Grapefruit, Lovage, Pink Peppercorn, and Smoked Marscapone
(served with 2012 Prunotto Roero Arneis)

Venison Tartare with Juniper, Sottocenere, and Black Truffle Mustard
(served with 2009 Prunotto Barbera d'Asti Nizza Superiore "Costamiole")

Duck Raviolo with Hazelnuts and Burgundy Truffle Sauce
(served with 2000 Prunotto Babaresco)

Buffalo Terres Major Loin with Red Wine Polenta, Chanterelles, and Perigord Truffle
(served with 1998 Prunotto Babaresco)

Parisian Gnocchi with Robiolo and Alba White Truffles
(served with 1995 Prunotto Barolo)

Wild Blue Mountain Hare with Gorgonzola Dolce, Autumn Fruits, and Black Truffle Marmalade
(served with 1994 and 1995 Prunotto Barolo "Bussia")

While much of our fine dining focus this year has been out-of-state, it's nice to be occasionally reminded that great gastronomy is also happening here locally.  For example, when Mrs. Hackknife received an email ad from Bern's Fine Wines and Spirits about a special wine and truffle dinner being held at the Epicurian (Bern's new hotel complex), we decided to check it out as our early Christmas present to each other (this, of course, saves me a trip to the mall). I assumed that the dinner would take place in Elevage, the farm-to-table restaurant onsite; however, we were surprised to be directed to the wine shop when we arrived, which had been transformed into a mini-bistro, with tables, chairs, and china nestled among the bottle racks (the shop isn't a big place). The special guest of the evening was Erik Saccomani, a representative from the Prunotto Estate (founded in 1904 and now part of the Antinori wine empire), located in Alba (home of the celebrated white truffle) of Italy's Piedmont region. Signore Saccomani brought with him several Prunotto wines, including Arneis (a white grape similar to Sauvignon Blanc), Barbera (a light red), Barbaresco (made from Nebbiolo grapes), and Barolo (also Nebbiolo-based), the winery's signature product.  All of these rich wines beg to be served with an equally-luscious plate of food, so Elevage's executive chef Chad Johnson (who also helmed the former SideBern's) went to work crafting Mediterranean dishes that played off the strengths of each wine pairing.  Nearly all of the 6 courses were fantastic, starting with two that featured raw proteins (fluke crudo and venison tartare, the latter covered in a thin layer of mild Sottocenere cheese, not unlike the manchego course we'd just had at Next in Chicago), two that were so decadent that eyes rolled back into skulls (duck raviolo and gnocchi covered in a mobster-sized mound of white truffle shavings), a terrific buffalo loin, and a hybrid rabbit-dessert course that was, frankly, a little peculiar.  Of the wines, I most enjoyed the 1998 Prunotto Babaresco, with tannins that had softened up nicely over the 17 years since it had been bottled (I found the barolos to be a little hefty for my liking, more Mrs. Hackknife's speed).  Although the odd dessert course left us wanting a bit at the end of the meal (we swung by Dough Bakery on the way home to obtain a proper sweet), the dinner overall was impressive enough that we'll gladly contemplate returning to Bern's Fine Wines for future events...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Next (Trio Menu)

Brook Trout Roe, Avocado, Sugar, Lime

Rock Shrimp Fritter, Cranberry, Meyer Lemon
(Served on a Vanilla Bean Skewer)

Coconut Gelee and Shredded Crab
(Plus 12 Bridging Garnishes)

Chestnut Baked Potato Soup, Bitter Chocolate, Quince

Parmesan/Olive Oil/Black Pepper Ice Cream Sandwich

Black Truffle Explosion, Charred Romaine, Minced Black Truffle

Duck Two Ways, Lavender Salt Lozenge, Foie Gras, Plum

"French Bread Pizza" Stamp

Poached Lamb Loin, Floral Infusion, Artichoke, Orange

"Cheese and Cracker"

Freeze-Dried "Salad" with Red Wine Vinaigrette

Raspberry Tapioca/Rose/Lemon Basil Tube

Pushed Foie Gras, Pear, Sauternes, Salt-Roasted Pear Sorbet

Passion Fruit/Mustard Ice Cream

Smoked Persimmon, Endive, Pancetta, Coffee

Lobster Meat, Wild Mushrooms, Lobster Cream Foam, Rosemary Vapor

Burnt Pineapple, Smoked Salmon, Soy, Togarashi
(Served on a hands-free skewer)

Short Rib, Root Beer Emulsion, Vanilla Gelee

Transparency of Manchego with Various Garnishes

Huckleberry Soda, Five Gelled Flavors

Maragda Chocolate at 94F, Flaxseed/Pistachio/Chocolate Crisp, Brewer's Yeast Ice Cream

The apex of our latest trip to Chicago was the year's final menu at Next, an homage to Chef Grant Achatz's time at the now-shuttered Trio in Evanston.  Chef A. arrived at Trio in 2001 fresh off a tour of duty at French Laundry, during which he became fully schooled in classical cooking techniques, and, by the time he left in 2004 to open what became Alinea, his modernist phase was in full swing.  The Achatz tenure at Trio represents a bridge between these two worlds of cooking (which were distinct then, but are not so separate anymore); indeed, many of the dishes we experienced this night were early renditions of what eventually ended up on Alinea's regular menu.  Perhaps the most well-known creation is the black truffle explosion, a single raviolo filled with liquid black truffle essence to be eaten in one closed-mouth bite (lest the juices fly out and stain your lapel) - this decadent signature is now to Achatz what Oysters and Pearls is to Thomas Keller (his mentor at French Laundry).  Other echoes of Alinea can be seen in the coconut and crab dish with 12 garnishes (a precursor to the now-famous lamb loin with 60 garnishes), the plastic straw filled with raspberry/tapioca/rose/lemon basil (this same tube is filled with bubble gum flavors at Alinea), and the lobster cream dish with rosemary vapors generated courtesy of hot water (vapor aromas typically show up a couple of times at the other place), not to mention the many whimsical metallic serving pieces designed by Martin Kastner.  Speaking of whimsy, a couple of the Trio courses are clearly intended to mess with the diner's mind; specifically, the cracker packet that resembles a pizza bite and is filled with a Cheez-Wiz-like substance (a take on "cheese and crackers") and the postage stamp-sized "pizza" that tastes just like the Stouffer's frozen French Bread variety (apparently, Achatz and I were eating the same junk food during our adolescent years in the mid-80s).  Not all of the dishes were hits - Mrs. Hackknife wasn't impressed by the chestnut baked potato soup, which seemed a little haphazard (and the knob of bitter chocolate didn't really enhance the flavors) and I wasn't a fan of either the freeze-dried salad (which I found over-the-top vegetal) or the short rib-cum-root beer float (the sauce was overpowering in a few of the bites).  Others, like the duck two ways with a lavender salt lozenge, foie gras, and plum sauce, were so good I got shivers (the things that these people at Next do with duck is nothing short of mind-blowing), and the cheese/dessert courses (especially the manchego cheese film layered atop garnishes like Kalamata olive and anchovies and the deconstructed stout beer, featuring yeast ice cream, hot chocolate foam, and flaxseed/pistachio crisp) were terrific.  We never had the pleasure of dining at Trio when it was still around (our interest in the culinary arts was in its infancy at the time), but Mrs. H. and I both feel fortunate that we had this second opportunity to experience the formative cuisine of Chef Achatz at Next (and this may very well be our final visit there, as our tickets are up for renewal soon and we expect to spend that money elsewhere in 2015)...