Friday, January 31, 2014

Creamy Chestnut Soup

"I want you to make that chestnut soup", said Mrs. Hackknife, perusing a recent (December 2013) issue of Saveur Magazine. The article in question is focused on traditional holiday dishes from the Gascony region of southwest France, highlighting such artery-clogging pleasures as duck confit and Gascon-style flan. If you read the article, you definitely get the sense that the locals have a certain joie de vivre to their daily life that apparently includes the otherwise-humble chestnut, made more festive via the addition of cream, butter, and bacon to a brothy base. "But, Dear", I tried to explain, "the hardest part of that whole project would be prepping the 2.5 pounds of chestnuts (!) that the recipe requires." I knew from previous experience that working with fresh chestnuts was, well, a pain in the rear, requiring boundless patience and stellar fine motor skills to carefully peel off the tight shells after boiling them, followed by vigorous rubbing with a hand towel to wear away the paper thin skin surrounding the meat. Figure about 2 minutes of labor per chestnut times however many of them constitute 2.5 pounds (50? 60?) and you get the picture. So the recipe went immediately to the back of the queue until a few days later I happened upon bags of shelled, skinned roasted chestnuts ready to use at Costco. Ignoring online warnings about how these chestnuts were vastly inferior in quality to both the fresh kind (duh) and those jar-packed in water, I bought two bags and got to work on Mrs. Hackknife's soup (you can see the recipe here). Not being terribly complicated, all went well until it came time to whip out my immersion blender to puree the chunky soup into a smooth veloute - at least, that was the plan. By the time I finished, I had a substance that had a consistency much more like refried beans (and, oddly, not that dissimilar of a taste) than soup, and, without any more chicken stock to thin out this chestnut gruel, I bravely pressed onward, slinging this puree into bowls and landing them on the table for dinner. Verdict? Well, the flavor wasn't bad if you could just get past the heavy texture. I retraced my steps looking for errors and the only thing I could theorize is that the bagged chestnuts were somehow starchier than their fresh or jarred counterparts (that is, assuming I didn't commit any egregious mistakes during prep, a big if at that). I suspect from this point onward, we'll be content to get our chestnut soup from the nearest local Gascon bistro (which might actually be in Toulouse)...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mise En Place

A few months after we arrived in Florida, my Uncle Bob (a fellow enthusiast of good food/wine and a frequent visitor to Tampa for business) raved about a restaurant he tried here once called Mise En Place (MEP), aptly named after the French phrase for ingredient prep/organization in a professional kitchen before the start of service. Immediately, images of musty, traditional Gallic dining popped into my head (not that there's anything wrong with that - I crave the occasional Duck a L'Orange) and I made a mental note to add MEP to our ever-growing list of local food venues to try. When my in-laws made plans to visit the Canteen for a week in January in order to escape the unusually-harsh Chicago winter, I seized the free babysitiing opportunity and made us a reservation, which eventually arrived on a Friday evening the night before we marched in our local pirate parade (long story - don't ask).

MEP is located on the western fringes of downtown (442 W. Grand Central Avenue) across from the University of Tampa in a compact-yet-charming neighborhood (home to a performing arts theater and an old hotel stable-turned-shopping arcade, among other things) I had yet to experience. Belying his establishment's moniker a bit, Executive Chef Marty Blitz specializes in inventive modern American cuisine (the restaurant's motto is "for the Adventurous in Palate and Spirit") that fuses classical French cooking techniques with the melting pot of flavors that is today's United States (in other words, you won't find Chateaubriand here). Mrs. Hackknife and I opted for the "Get Blitzed" tasting menu, which changes weekly according to whatever Chef Blitz feels are his best ingredients of the moment, and we were not disappointed.

First up was an amuse bouche, a rich bowl of sweet potato and corn soup studded with lardons, corn kernels, and what appeared to me to be ground pistachios.

After the soup came what was my least favorite course of the night, not because it wasn't good (it was delicious, actually), but because there was so little of it. A few fresh slices of raw hamachi were topped with matchsticks of golden beets and lime radish, then garnished with a hazelnut puree, horseradish Meyer lemon emulsion, smoked trout caviar (which I had trouble locating), and aji amarillo (a spicy pepper from South America) salt. The flavors of this dish clearly worked, but I definitely needed more than the meager bits there (and would have happily run a $10 bill back to the kitchen to get another serving).

Sticking with the seafood theme, our third course was a tender jumbo scallop that was dusted with ground pumpkin seed and then darkly seared on both sides. With the scallop was a mini-salad (composed of beef cheek, trumpet mushroom, shredded Brussels sprouts and corn kernels) and two schmears of sauce, a turnip leek puree and a sherry vinegar black truffle vinaigrette. The ingredients on the plate were a little more ample than the one before (and just as tasty).

Our meat course was probably my favorite, a lamb dish two ways that veered off towards India and North Africa. Perfectly medium-rare slices of lamb loin were crusted in vadouvan (a mixture of traditional curry spice with shallots/garlic) and paired with what was called a lamb shank "brick" on the menu (I considered it to be more of an egg roll or wonton), a deep-fried wrapper filled with shredded lamb shank meat. The lamb was garnished with a bright yellow dollop of saffron leek potato puree, slices of breakfast radish braised in chermoula (a marinade frequently used in Moroccan cuisine) and turnips, plus a harissa (another North African spice) red wine jus. As far as I'm concerned, Chef Blitz hit a home run with this combo - the missus and I could have easily polished off a platter's worth of those lamb shank bricks.

No self-respecting restauranteur offers a tasting menu without a cheese course and this was no exception. Our friends at Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia provided MEP with a block of their semi-firm Tomme cheese (likely the same one we sampled recently at the Floridian in St. Augustine), a slice of which was crowned with a crispy crostini and paired with a knockout verjus grape conserve and some candied pistachios (the verdict was split on the pistachios - I liked them, but Mrs. Hackknife demurred).

For dessert, our server brought over a decadent dome of chocolate truffle cake loaded with caramelized cocoa nibs for added texture. Surrounding the cake were four dollops of custardy creme anglaise, each with its own slice of bruleed banana, blackened no doubt with a blowtorch. Although I can recall trying several versions of the chocolate truffle cake dome over the years, this was definitely one of the better ones I'd encountered.

From top to bottom, I'd say that the missus and I were tremendously pleased with the tasting menu, including the price (a little over $60 per person with the cheese course added - very reasonable). Chef Blitz and MEP would have no trouble holding court in a bigger restaurant market like Chicago and I think that my fellow Tampadres should be happy that it's here, even if just to grab a late-night dessert or a few cheese nibbles before bedtime (every metropolis needs one of those). Thanks, Uncle Bob...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lowcountry Boil

Exhausted from our recent trip up North for the holidays and in desperate need of a quiet evening, the missus and I opted to stay home with the kids rather than venture out on our first New Year's Eve in Florida. Wanting to prepare a nice, yet hearty, dinner for us, I remembered a recipe I'd just seen in the weekend Wall Street Journal a few days before for a Southern stew called lowcountry boil, which I recognized from our frequent travels to the Carolinas. The chef who provided the recipe (Mark Steuer), is a native of Charleston, South Carolina now at the helm of two restaurants in Chicago, neither of which (The Bedford and Carriage House) we were able to visit before the move. One of Chef Steuer's passions is showcasing the cuisine of his home region and this stew does that beautifully, combining the flavors of Spain (andouille sausage), France (fennel), and the Caribbean (cayenne) with a bounty of Atlantic seafood (shrimp and clams). Although my local Publix didn't have the Manila clams (which are actually found in the Pacific Northwest) called for in the instructions, I was able to find Littleneck clams instead and they were more than adequate as a replacement. The stew was easy to prepare and delicious when finished, if not a bit on the spicy side (with all the paprika, cayenne, Old Bay seasoning, and andouille sausage in there, I'll be sure to dial down the heat level next time). If you attempt this dish at home, don't forget to buy a loaf of your favorite country bread to sop up the tasty broth that's left in the bottom of your bowl...

Friday, January 17, 2014

Nu-Way Hot Dogs - Macon, GA

The road from Chicago to Tampa is a long one, but the 2-day drive is made more tolerable by portable DVDs players for the progeny (thank God for Samsung) and impromptu stops at local eateries that exhibit significantly more character than your standard Chick-Fil-A. While cruising through mid-Georgia around lunchtime, the missus and I decided to pull off of I-75 in Macon, a city neither of us had ever visited (most well-known for its 19th-Century cotton commerce and native musical sons Otis Redding, Little Richard, and the Allman Brothers) to stop at a famous hot dog stand called Nu-Way Weiners.

Open since 1916 (and allegedly the 2nd-oldest hot dog purveyor in the country behind Nathan's of NYC), Nu-Way has expanded into 9 total locations around these parts of central Georgia, but the original diner in downtown Macon on Cotton Avenue (see photo above) is still going strong. When the 4 of us first arrived, the place was nearly empty; however, it wasn't long before nearly every booth and stool was occupied (a bit of an odd occurrence at 2pm on a Monday, but a testament, I guess, to the allure of these mystical weiners) in the small restaurant.

This is a bare-bones, no-frills operation, with two cooks crammed into a small counter space incessantly grilling up hot dogs on a flattop, slapping them onto Sunbeam buns (I saw the package, same as you can get at your local Piggly Wiggly), and handing them over to a server on disposable foam plates. Although you can order burgers or breakfast here, I decided to stick with the house specialties and picked a slaw dog with fries.

Southerners seem to have a habit of sticking Cole slaw onto sandwiches and my first-ever slaw dog was a decent one, but wasn't the Mardi Gras-in-my-mouth that I was hoping to experience. Mrs. Hackknife let me try a bite of her hot dog served "all the way", that is, with mustard, onions, and homemade chili sauce and I was instantly convinced that this was a superior offering, so much so that I had to get my own afterwards (see photo below).

The meat-only chili sauce was nicely seasoned with cinnamon and clove, very reminiscent of the chili dogs you can get in Detroit and Cincinnati. Nu-Way's founder, James Mallis, was a Greek immigrant just like the hot dog pioneers that settled in those Midwest locales, which started me wondering if they basically all showed up at Ellis Island with the same recipe.

The chili dogs at Nu-Way are all colored a hue of bright atomic red that you can see slowly seeping into the sausage's interior (see photo above). I shudder to think about what kind of future toxic syndromes I unleashed on my cells that afternoon, but I'm aware that some sacrifices have to be made in the name of gastronomic exploration. In any case, we now know we've got a reliable lunch source the next time we make the long drive up north from Tampa...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Betty's Town House Cafe - Seymour, IN

So far it seems that the Hackknives picked a pretty good winter to spend as our first in Florida, as the area around our old suburban Chicago homestead has been waylaid by heavy snow, high winds, and extended bouts of sub-zero cold this December and January. We received a small taste of this brutish weather while back up North for the holidays (the air temperature on Christmas Eve morning fell to a very un-Florida-like -2F) and managed to escape town on an early Sunday morning just ahead of the next Arctic blast, driving as far as southern Indiana before finally pulling off the highway for a late lunch. Rather than suffer through another round of fast food, the missus and I opted to drive a few miles into the quiet farming community of Seymour (best known as the hometown of John Mellencamp), where our online sources pointed us towards a casual, unpretentious diner that was originally named Betty's Town House Cafe, but now is simply called Town House Cafe.

According to the sign out front, the diner has been in business since 1962 and I suspect it's changed little since the Kennedy Administration, except for the possible addition of an album cover or two from Seymour's favorite son (I'd be willing to bet M. Mellencamp has popped in a few times for eggs and coffee over the years) on the walls. A quick read of the menu shows hearty, no-nonsense dishes intended to fill up the hardworking locals that have spent a full day out in the fields. The one dish that caught my eye was the pork tenderloin sandwich, a creation usually more associated with Iowa, but done to spectacular effect here.

When my plate arrived, I was at first flummoxed by the sheer size of the tenderloin, which occupied a solid portion of real estate on the dish (see photo above) - I had to break it into halves just to get it onto the bun. As large as it was, the texture of the meat and breading was inexplicably light (almost like tempura), not the least bit heavy or greasy, and all of the garnishes (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and mayo) melded perfectly with the crunchy tenderloin. Somehow, I was able to finish the whole thing and still felt as if I could go for a run afterwards, a culinary Jedi mind-trick if there ever was one. The onion rings I ordered to accompany the sandwich were also good, but, clearly, the tenderloin was the star of the show. If you are from Iowa and you ever find yourself in southern Indiana, you may suddenly be questioning basic facets of your existence after eating a Town House Cafe tenderloin sandwich (not to mention the homemade pie - we'll be back someday for that)...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Eataly Chicago

Back in 2010, I was paging through one of my many magazines (Saveur, I think) and stumbled across a concept that may very well have originated in an epicurean fever dream: a superstore, nay, a mall even, devoted solely to all things Italian food - rows upon rows of oils and wines; refrigerator cases filled with fresh pasta, cheeses, cured meats, fish, and pastries; coffee bars, beer bars, gelato bars; wood-fired ovens churning out Neapolitan-thin pizzas and roasted meats; anything and everything one could think of from the Motherland intended to tempt one's palate. This crazy idea, dubbed Eataly, was made reality by entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first Eataly market in Turin, Italy, expanded throughout his home country, then went global to Japan and the USA, settling on New York City as the first stateside location, where he would partner with local restaurant magnates Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for added street cred. It was the NYC Eataly that I had first read about and salivated over, even more so when I subsequently heard how successful the operation was and how large the crowds were. With its strong Italian heritage and rabid foodie contingent, Chicago seemed a logical choice for the country's second Eataly location, but no official announcement was forthcoming until we were comfortably settled in our new Florida home, at which time the B&B Boys revealed that a new Eataly was coming to downtown Chicago in the old ESPNZone space at Wabash and Ohio in River North. Stung that this all happened after we moved, I was nonetheless encouraged that I'd have a chance to visit the brand new megashop (which opened on December 2, 2013) while back in my hometown for Xmas, and this is exactly what I did on the Monday before the holiday while Mrs. Hackknife shopped on the Magnificent Mile and the progeny played at Grandma's house.

Armed with a gift card and a wool cap to warm my bare scalp, I made my way from the parking garage on Grand (only $10 if you buy $20 of Eataly merchandise!) to Eataly's front entrance at 43 E. Ohio. I had read about the lines down the block during the first week of operation (so much merchandise was sold that they actually had to close down for a full day of restocking), but was pleasantly surprised to find that I could walk right in. Not that it was empty, mind you - I had no illusions about getting a table at one of the 5 sit-down restaurants (all of them had a minimum 1-hour wait), but had done my homework to find out that if I went to one of the counters that make up what is called La Piazza (pattered after small snack bars that line central plazas in Italian towns, where patrons normally congregate at stand-up tables while eating and socializing), I could get served without the long wait. Fortunately, I found a single open stool wedged next to the server's station at the crudo bar and perused La Piazza's menu, which included fried items (Fritto), cured meats/cheeses (Salumi & Formaggi), freshly-made mozzarella, and raw seafood (Crudo). After a few head-spinning minutes, I first chose a plate of assorted radishes, drizzled in honey and then fried (greens and all).

These radishes were delicious (see photo above), especially the greens, which, when fried, tasted like a much better version of my kale chips, with a salt and crunch to rival anything Frito-Lay mass produces.

Since man cannot lived by fried vegetables alone, I also ordered a plus-size platter of the house's best cured meats and cheeses (see photo above), including some melt-in-your-mouth prosciuttos, speck, mortadella, and salami, soft ricotta, creamy taleggio, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, and gorgonzola. My waiter also brought over a good size hunk of warm bread with olive oil for dipping and a small plate of candied fruits and honey to accompany the cheese. On this little plate, the almond amaretto honey (middle of the 3) nearly made me leap out of my chair; sadly, I was told that there are no plans to bottle it for sale until later this year (mark my words, I will be first in line). I was a little concerned at first that I might not be able to finish all this chow (plus a Menabrea Ambrata beer to cleanse the tongue), but it turns out I had no problem doing so and didn't even hate myself afterwards.

Now that my belly was sufficiently full, I spent the next hour and a half simply wandering the aisles, marveling at the fine bounty around every corner. There was a beautiful fish counter selling (among other fare) whole branzino:

Nearby was another counter, this one specializing in many fresh, handmade pastas, including ravioli, bright yellow nests of angel hair, and, the ultimate luxury, white truffles by the pound:

Not far away from there was a dizzying array of cured meats and Italian cheeses for sale at the deli counter:

Over by the bakery and wood-fired pizza were shelves full of olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and spices. It was here that I found a little bottle of anchovy extract to bring home (sounds disgusting, but try a drizzle on pasta sometime for an instant flavor boost):

My basket began to fill up - panettone, a sweet Christmas bread filled with raisins and other dried fruits that's good at breakfast or any other time, an Italian lemon liqueur called limoncello (have yet to open it), a 6-pack of hard-to-find Dogfish Head Burton Baton Ale (Dogfish Head collaborates with Eataly on several beers), little chocolate bars for stocking stuffers, a bottle of Barbera (which, truth be told, wasn't particularly good). My gift card was long gone by the time I made it back downstairs, past the Nutella bar (and avoiding every urge in my body to buy a crepe filled with the tasty spread) and over to the sweets section.

Eataly Chicago actually has TWO gelato bars (because one just isn't appropriate), one serving the traditional variety and the other dishing up a higher-end version using milk from Alpine cows, who spend their days happily munching on mountain clover. It was the second of these where I purchased my medium-sized cup of fancy gelato, a rich combo of hazelnut and pistachio (no photo - sorry, my hands were full).

Last, but not least, since the missus would surely brain me if I didn't bring something to share back to our hotel, I made one final stop at the pastry stand, asking them to box up a limoncello-soaked sponge cake elegantly crowned with a raspberry and a sinfully-good blancmange (a creamy dessert of milk, gelatin, and almonds) dome flavored with coconut and passionfruit (you can see these in the photo above, 4th and 5th from the bottom, respectively).

Although my wallet was considerably lighter by the end of my visit, I at least now know where I want my ashes to be scattered when it's time to finally go to that great trattoria in the sky. Please join me in starting the letter writing campaign to bring Eataly to west-central Florida...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Floridian - St. Augustine, FL

2014 has arrived and I've resolved (among other things) to shake off the drab writing blues that plagued me during the holiday season (I think December was about my least productive month since this blog's inception) by adding a fresh posting this first week (and every subsequent week, if possible) of the new year. I feel some shame that this particular entry has been festering for about a month, but better late than never, I suppose, so here's to my rejuvenated outlook and best wishes for health/happiness to all my readers in 2014:

When Mrs. Hackknife made the decision to schedule some medical tests at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville over Thanksgiving week, I of course had to research where in the area we might be able to get some good local eats during our sojourn (Krystal burgers were not an option this time). I quickly discovered that the Spanish colonial-era city of St. Augustine was within easy reach of our hotel in the southern outskirts of Jacksonville and hosts an intriguing dining option called The Floridian, whose owners bring a farm-to-table sensibility to northeast Florida's culinary highlights, namely seafood and Minorcan cuisine (many natives of Minorca, one of Spain's Balearic Islands, arrived in St. Augustine as indentured servants and their descendants remain today). Although Hackknifette was feeling under the weather (indeed, we just managed to return to the hotel before the latest round of stomach flu hit her), the missus and I decided to make the 30-minute run down to St. Augustine for dinner.

For those of you not having been there before, St. Augustine appears on the surface to be a quirky combo of Southern charm and party atmosphere, exuding both the graceful history of Charleston and the devil-may-care vibe of New Orleans, old churches rubbing shoulders with tequila bars. The Floridian sits right in the middle of this mix, and a quick glance at the menu once we arrived immediately brought to mind another locavore eatery we'd frequented recently in Orlando called Cask & Larder, that is, if C&L had been doused with a healthy dose of teal and kitsch.

As you can see from the photo above (try to overlook the flu-ridden 4-year old in the picture - what bad parents are we), the restaurant's decor can best be described as mid-century beach house, the designer apparently having scoured every flea market in Florida for the tackiest seashells, manatee prints, and flamingo ashtrays.

There was nothing outlandish about the food offerings, however, as I found myself wishing that I could order one (or two) of everything. We started with a selection of cheeses all originating from Georgia's Sweetgrass Dairy and Flat Creek Farm, including Green Hill camembert, Thomasville tomme, Asher blue, and a couple more that escape me at the moment, all garnished with candied pecans, local honey, toasted baguette, and seasonal fruit. For my entree, I picked the shrimp and sausage pilau (see photo above), sort of a Floridian take on jambalaya with the local favorite spicy Datil pepper standing in for tabasco/cayenne (St. Augustine actually has an annual Datil pepper festival in case you're interested). A pint of Bold City Killer Whale Cream Ale (from Jacksonville) served in a Mason jar helped me take the edge off of the dish's heat, as did the sizable portion of the house cornbread, which was studded with cheddar cheese and vegetables such that it had a consistency similar to garlic bread. Large enough for leftovers, I was able to reheat the remainder of my entree the next day for lunch while we were hunkered down in our hotel room during a rainy and cool afternoon. We definitely plan on staying longer in St. Augustine next time we find ourselves in the area and it's comforting to know that we'll have no trouble getting a top-shelf Southern meal at the Floridian on our return trip...