Thursday, February 27, 2014

Octupus Stifado (Dimitri's On the Water)

It's time to send out a little love for what's probably my favorite new dish since moving to Florida last year. What you see above is a steaming bowl of stifado, a hearty Greek stew made with onions, tomatoes/tomato paste, olive oil, cinnamon, nutmeg, and garlic, plus a protein that is often beef, but can also be seafood. Even though Chicago has many Greek restaurants (and even more Greek restauranteurs), I can't recall ever seeing this concoction on a menu up north and wasn't aware of its existence until we dined at Dimitri's on the Water (690 Dodecanese Blvd.) in Tarpon Springs a few months ago. For those of you who are non-Floridians, Tarpon Springs became a magnet for Greek immigrants around the turn of the last century to support a thriving sponge diving industry - since then, most of the sponges have disappeared, however, many Greek restaurants have sprung up in their place. Anyway, Dimitri's version of stifado features what's probably the only fork-tender octopus that I've ever eaten (who knows how long it has to be cooked to get this way?), plus Kalamata olives and feta cheese for an added briny boost. When combined with rosemary chickpeas and braised vegetables, you've got a warm, substantial meal to heat up your cool insides in a climate where you generally don't need that kind of thermal support (suffice it to say that this has been the only time I wished for autumn-like, brisk weather in Tampa)...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sweetwater Organic Farm/Fresh Cabbage Kimchi

One of my goals for when we got settled in Florida was to locate a service like we had up north for community-supported agriculture (CSA), which provided us with a regular farmbox full of fresh veggies that we'd otherwise be unlikely to purchase. Fortunately, it didn't take long for me to locate a CSA relatively close to the Canteen - Sweetwater Organic Farm is tucked away in a remote, wooded pocket of a residential neighborhood next to a meandering creek (if you weren't looking for it, you'd probably never notice it was there, and even if you did, you'd probably write it off as some old hippie commune judging from the ramshackle buildings on the site). Twice a month, I make the 15-minute drive down to Town & Country and cross the footbridge from the parking area to collect my bi-weekly share of produce. Lately, I've been receiving all manner of lettuces, mustard greens, turnips, scallions, herbs (like dill and parsley) and carrots, with the occasional surprise of celery or fennel thrown in for good measure. One challenge I had was figuring out what to do with consecutive offerings of Napa cabbage - I have a single recipe for steamed cabbage slaw with a carrot-walnut dressing (which I made one week), but was stymied about what to do with the next one until I fortuitously stumbled across an easy prep for what's essentially instant kimchi in the March 2014 issue of Food & Wine Magazine. The actual recipe (they call it fresh cabbage kimchi) uses Napa cabbage in combination with bok choy; however, I discovered that it works just as good with other extra vegetables that you may want to toss in there, say, celery (leaves and all) and fennel, for example. Unlike traditional kimchi (which is normally fermented for a long time period to create the sour funkiness that's the signature taste of Korea's national dish), this version simply brines the chopped-up veggies in a hot bath of sugar and kosher salt for 30 minutes, then mixes them with fish sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and a little more sugar, before chilling until cool. The resulting melange is crunchy, fiery (possibly a little too much so) and delicious, great by itself as a side dish or on top of rice as an impromptu lunch. Of course, my kids wouldn't touch it and even Mrs. Hackknife found it to be too aggressively spiced, so I plan to cut down on the heat (maybe 1/2 Tbsp. instead of a full Tbsp. of red pepper flakes) for my next batch. Regardless, if you're a CSA participant, I place this kimchi right up there with Joy of Cooking's braised greens as regular standbys to help use up that leftover produce...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

La Mercedes Supermarket

Every time I drive down into the Town & Country neighborhood of northwest Tampa (previously to take Hackknifette to preschool and now every other week to pick up our CSA share), I notice another ordinary storefront in an otherwise-unremarkable strip mall advertising some sort of ethnic cuisine waiting to be explored. If you proceed southbound on Hanley Road between Waters and Hillsborough, you'll find at least three or four small Latino groceries scattered along the street. It was one of these supermarkets (called La Mercedes, 6724 Hanley Rd.) that caught my attention on a recent trip down there with a sign out front touting among other things "Hot Food to Go". I made up my mind at that point to stop in for lunch the next time I was headed to the farm for our veggies.

Whenever I think of a Latino grocery with a take-out counter, I always envision a place hawking Mexican goodies, chock full of tacos, steaming pans of menudo, and maybe even tortas or cemitas. My experience in Tampa, however, is that the Latino to-go food skews more Cuban/Puerto Rican/Spanish (a more accurate reflection of our Hispanic population) and La Mercedes is no exception. In place of tacos was ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish cooked with stewed tomatoes and peppers that is popular in Cuba, along with giant trays of yellow rice, black beans and rice, and fried plantains. The ladies behind the counter spoke little English and few of the Spanish words posted on the menu board seemed familiar to me, so I had to let my eyes drive my dining choices on this visit. Spying wrapped-up tamales and some chicharron (fried pork cracklings), I gestured to the server for a little of each, then had her add black beans, rice, and plantains (which I think pretty much everyone got) to my to-go container. I also received what appeared to be a bright yellow bowl of thick soup ("for the tamale", the lady told me, although she was unable to articulate its exact origin). Towards the back of the store was a small table with about 4 chairs for customers - it was filled with the lunchtime crowd, so I made a beeline to my car for a console picnic (see photo above).

After opening up my bags/containers, I immediately came to the conclusion that I ordered too much food (which often happens when I go on these little exploration junkets). The black beans and rice were delicious, but I probably would not have been able to finish my portion even after three meals. My tamale was also excellent, sporting a rich mixture of masa, chicken, and lard (it was the only item that I finished). I'm still not entirely certain what was in the soup, but I suspect that the yellow hue came courtesy of pork fat (between this, the tamale, and the chicharron, I'm pretty sure I set a personal record for number of different ways to consume pork fat in a single sitting), and I discovered that it made a great dip for everything in my container, including the sweet and caramelized plantains. The pile of chicharron in my order was large and some of the pieces were a little chewy; however, whenever I bit into one that had the right ratio of crunchy skin to tender, fatty meat, it was nothing short of sublime (sadly, that only happened about 25% of the time). Before too long, my stomach was bulging with starch and fat, so I bolted over to the farm, where I felt the need to eat a raw, unwashed carrot from our veggie share on the spot, if for no other reason than to psychologically flush the lard from my arteries. Still, I'd be happy to try La Mercedes again, although I think I'll give the cow-based products a try next time...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Carbone's Garlic Bread

After all the wide-ranging cuisines that the missus and I like to try (and I sometimes attempt with mediocre effect at home), Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette still prefer basic buttered noodles with cheese over almost anything else. Needless to say, then, we consume a lot of garlic bread here at the Canteen with our preferred frozen varieties being Cole's Texas toast slices or Pepperidge Farm's traditional garlic bread. Every now and again when we tire of prefab, I get the hankering to create a garlic bread of my own from scratch or try someone else's recipe (like Tyler Florence, for example), but haven't really come up with a version that sings on the taste buds. The latest garlic bread recipe that caught my attention comes from the January/February 2014 issue of Saveur, which includes the writers' annual list of 100 noteworthy food-related items from the past year. Number 55 on this list is Carbone's Garlic Bread, Carbone being a newer restaurant in New York City that serves immaculately-executed renditions of traditional Italian-American standbys (such as linguine with clams and Veal Parmesan) that can be found in practically every town across this great land from Bakersfield to Boston. What struck me was the simplicity of the recipe - you just spread a mixture of butter, olive oil, red chile flakes, oregano (the dried, bottled kind), mashed garlic, salt, and pepper onto a halved baguette, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, roast under the oven broiler for a few minutes, and top with chopped chives/parsley. What could be easier? Well, before trying this at home, I opted to omit both the chile flakes and the chives/parsley (as the progeny abhor anything green or spicy in their food) and took the healthy route by substituting Smart Balance for the real butter. Had I included the original ingredients and not burned the edges of the baguette (I'm pretty much a novice at using my oven's broiler setting and must have had it turned up too high), I'm sure the finished garlic bread would have been a lot more palatable; still, after trimming off the blackened parts, the remaining blandified slabs of seasoned croutons held the promise of something greater (I was sure it was going to be a flop, yet Mrs. Hackknife expressed interest in having it again sometime). On the next go-round, I'll be sure to follow the recipe to the letter and watch the broiler like a hawk, even if it means my kids will have to settle for the usual Pepperidge Farm on the side...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Alex's Southern Style BBQ

When I initially got wind of the possibility that we might be moving to Florida, of course, I immediately started thinking about the foods that we'd have greater opportunities to discover. It wasn't, however, the first few obvious cuisines (say, seafood, Latino, or Caribbean) that popped into my head; instead, I had barbecue on the brain (after all, Florida is a quasi-Southern state). Now that we've lived in Tampa for nearly a year, I've stumbled across a couple of local bbq joints, but certainly not with the frequency that one would expect in, say, Tennessee. Nevertheless, I'm always on the lookout to expand my personal experience with smoked meats (that sounds a little dirty now that I go back to reread it), which is what brought me to the front doorstep of Alex's Southern Style BBQ, a short drive away from the Canteen in the Carrolwood region of Tampa (5362 W. Village Drive).

My first clue that a purveyor of the barbecue arts had set up shop in an otherwise-unremarkable strip mall was the portable smoker parked at the corner of Ehrlich and W. Village beckoning passersby with the promise of succulent pulled pork. One day, I thought, I'll pop in for lunch and, sure enough, I did just that one recent Thursday afternoon. When you walk into Alex's place (and, yes, there is an Alex - founder Alex Cooks open his namesake restaurant here way back in 1994 when dinosaurs were practically still roaming this part of the Tampa metro area), you immediately encounter the haze of burning oak wood (a plus in my book) wafting into the dining room from the blackened open-air smoker behind the counter. Although the space wasn't dirty, it did appear to be a little on the disheveled side (water slowly dripping from the ceiling into a white plastic bucket, various folded-up canopies and signs, possibly exiled from a closet, jumbled into a far corner) as I made my way towards the back to order.

Like all good bbq impresarios, Alex offers his take on ribs, chicken, beef brisket, pork, sausage, and hot wings, the recipes all perfected from years of toiling away in the family kitchen back in Mobile, Alabama. I opted for the 2-meat dinner combo of pulled pork and sausage, doused in the secret house sauce (a practice that some might find sacrilege, but, being a barbecue newbie, I have no issue with) and served up with two sides (Cole slaw and steak fries), plus a halved hamburger bun (see photo above). Sure, the slaw was a little bland and the supermarket bun completely forgettable; however, the meats were terrific - the shredded pork decadently tasted of fat and smoke, a bit pink on the inside to show off its gentle handling, while the sausage was pleasantly mild, not overseasoned or heavily spiced like in some places. I enjoyed both of Alex's sauces - I can't tell you exactly what's in the house blend (other than it's got a solid kick of Worcestershire), but its hint of sweetness melded perfectly with the pork/sausage, and the hotter sauce option (featuring a healthy dose of Tabasco and maybe habanero?) provided a gentle heat that wasn't face-melting. Alex states on his website that he sells the best barbecue in Tampa and I'm not inclined to argue on the basis of my first visit. I'm hopeful that the brisket and chicken (which I plan to order next time) will be just as good.