Tuesday, April 22, 2014

WUSF Longest Table Event

Mrs. Hackknife is what we call a public radio enthusiast (she has a lot of time to listen to NPR on her daily commute). I don't really have the bandwidth to listen myself, however, I do make note of the fact that most of the public radio stations like to cultivate close relationships with the fine dining community for the purposes of fundraising (well-heeled donors are known to enjoy a nice duck breast every now and again). So it was with great interest that I read about an event that our NPR station (WUSF) was holding in April to help celebrate the station's 50th anniversary, something called the Longest Table. For a small ticket fee (most of which was a charitable donation), participants could experience a prix fixe menu from one of several partner restaurants while seated at a very long table situated in the middle of Bayshore Drive (normally reserved for vehicle traffic and joggers/bikers) next to the St. Petersburg harbor. After perusing the menus online, we originally picked Marchand's at the Vinoy (a historic hotel in downtown St. Pete down the street from the event) as our restaurant; unfortunately, I received a call a few days beforehand letting me know that Marchand's had pulled out (as did a couple of the other restaurants, not a particularly good sign), so we were forced to choose another. Luckily for us, one of our favorite places to dine in Tampa (Mise en Place) was still involved and that became our fallback.

On the night of the dinner (which was scheduled rain or shine), the weather happened to be picture-perfect as we made our way through North Straub Park towards the bay shore. Instead of one continuous table, the organizers had set up three separate ones (each representing one of the three remaining restaurants involved), and although they were, in fact, lengthy, they lacked the sort-of awe-inspiring quality that we'd envisioned ("Maybe they should have called this the Long Table instead", opined the missus). You can judge for yourself below.

Regardless, the photo above shows that you certainly couldn't beat the location, with boats/gentle surf on one side and a park filled with dog walkers and something that looked like a group doing hula hoop aerobics on the other. Anxious to chow down, we settled in for the beginning of Chef Marty Blitz's four-course creation, a cannelloni of crab and raw tuna garnished with Meyer lemon pickled cucumber dice, micro watercress, and Aleppo sea salt. Our wine pairing was a 2011 Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc, ideal for the warm evening.

Up next came a soup course, a lip-smacking salmorejo (a Spanish soup made with pureed bread and tomato, similar to gazpacho) containing rock shrimp, corn kernels, roasted pumpkin seeds, avocado, and cilantro crystals paired with a 2011 Alta Maria Pinot Noir. I could have easily consumed a gallon of the salmorejo (followed by a quick swim in the bay), thus forsaking the remainder of the meal.

For the main dish, out of the little outdoor kitchen came what resembled a collection of rarefied German or Austrian fare, a wonderful plate of seared duck breast in a Morello cherry rhubarb port vinaigrette, a single large raviolo filled with pulled duck confit and foie gras, and a tasty pile of caraway wild boar and bacon creamed savoy cabbage. It wasn't needed, but the glass of wine that accompanied the duck (a 2011 Katherine Goldschmidt Cabernet Sauvignon) went down very easily.

Last, but not least, was our dessert, a pineapple and honey tart tatin with a dollop of coconut marscapone semi-freddo and a blood orange spiced rum reduction. My photo doesn't really do this dish justice (I'm aware that it looks like a pile of McDonald's hot cakes); however, trust me when I say that the components came together beautifully in a whirlwind of sweet, sour, and creamy, even more enhanced by the 2012 NXNW Late Harvest Riesling from Washington state.

Before we realized it, day had turned into sunset and then twilight by the time we had finished. Little twinkling lights covering the park's trees came on (Were these left over from Xmas? Does it matter?) and even the aerobic group's hula hoops were glowing like neon signs (or maybe that was just the wine goggles) as we said goodbye to our dining companions and headed back home to the Canteen. We're already looking forward to next year's Long, er, Longest Table event...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Open Fire Grilled Brazilian Food Truck

Coming from a city (Chicago) that's unapologetically apathetic towards a recent popular culinary trend that the rest of the country somehow manages to embrace, I'm constantly amazed by the number and diversity of food trucks in the greater Tampa Bay area. Case in point - whle driving past our local mall the other day, I happened to just notice out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a food truck nestled into a tight space between the Upper Tampa Bay hiking trail and a bike shop, nearly invisible unless you were seeking it out. Upon some further investigation, I determined that the truck (called Open Fire Grilled Brazilian) specializes in grilled meats like one would find at Brazilian steakhouses, you know, the ones with gaucho waiters running around the dining room brandishing giant swords of various delectable beef, pork, and other cuts for mass consumption. Excited to have discovered such interesting eats mere minutes from the Canteen, I vowed to check it out for lunch one Thursday afternoon while Hackknifette stayed late at preschool for Lunch Bunch.

Getting to the truck is a little tricky - it's typically parked next to the trail at 7424 Edgemere Road on the property of Citrus Park Bikes, which is accessible from a frontage road that runs along Gunn Highway. I couldn't tell if the unmarked area where I parked on Edgemere was for local residents or for trail users (maybe both); regardless, I was pleasantly surprised to find no waiting at the height of the lunch rush. Given the lack of customers (which, I suppose, could also be taken as a bad sign), the owner Cesar was able to give me a detailed rundown of his food offerings and a little about his personal history. He grew up in southern Brazil learning about grilling meat from the older relatives in the family. At a relatively young age, he joined a company opening steakhouses in Brazil and excelled to the point where his bosses sent him up to Miami to oversee what turned out to be the first Brazilian steakhouse in America (this was back in 1996). Since then, he's bounced around North America consulting on various churrascario projects until eventually settling down in Tampa with his own food truck that he started this past November. The space constraints of operating a mobile restaurant force him to keep his menu relatively simple - patrons can order picanha (top sirloin with a nice strip of fat across the edge), filet mignon, marinated chicken, or skirt steak, either a value portion of the meat on a skewer with pita bread or a larger serving with black beans, white rice, something called farofa (yucca flour mixed with bacon and herbs), and a piquant vinaigrette. I opted to go whole hog (so to speak) and chose the full-size portion of picanha with all the trimmings, plus a can of Guarana Antarctica (Brazil's #2 soda behind Coke, which contains the quasi-cherry flavored extract of the guarana plant from the Amazon Basin - it also has more caffeine than coffee) to wash it down.

I raced home to eat before everything got cold and dug in (see photo above). The meat was cooked perfectly to order (medium rare), well seasoned, and generally delicious, with the acidic vinaigrette providing a nice palate cleanser. Both the black beans and rice, two items that can be bland in the wrong hands, were equally good, making me suspicious that they had been gloriously dosed with a generous helping of both salt and fat (bacon grease?). Even the farofa was very tasty, if not a little grainy - it reminded me of the bread crumb and butter mixtures that have traditionally topped many Betty Crocker casseroles since the 1950s (and I mean that in the best possible sense) and I'm not entirely sure I was using it correctly (does it go on the meat? on the rice? by itself? all of the above?). In any case, Cesar's cooking appears to be the real deal and I'm greatly looking forward to trying more on another lunch visit (or hiring him to cater my next party - he told me that catering allows him to prepare a larger selection of items and provides the bulk of his business)...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Highway 60 Eats

My dad (Mr. Hackknife, if you prefer) lives in Vero Beach, which is about a 3 hour-drive almost straight east from the Canteen (it's funny to think that we can travel from the Gulf of Mexico clear to the Atlantic Ocean side of the state in a relatively short amount of time). As a result, we've made several car trips over there since we moved, discovering fairly quickly that the most direct route between Tampa and Vero is Florida State Route 60. Route 60 literally runs from one coast to the other, beginning on the Gulf in Clearwater and terminating on the beach (or thereabouts) in downtown Vero. In between, you have downtown Tampa, a few nearby suburbs (namely Brandon and Valrico), two moderate-sized towns (Bartow and Lake Wales), and, for long stretches, not much besides pre-Everglades wetland, scrubby cattle ranches, orange groves, and the occasional trailer park until you cross I-95 on the far end. Usually we're hurtling across this vast landscape as fast as humanly possible (you know, before the batteries in the portable DVD players run out) to reach our destination; however, on our latest journey over the past weekend, Hackknife Jr. and I were by ourselves (the missus and Hackknifette were in Chicago for my sister's wedding shower), so we could be a little leisurely in our travels for a change. As I'm always on the lookout for unique and interesting eats, I'd noticed a lonely Mexican grocery/taqueria perched on the outskirts of Lake Wales (no doubt there for the immigrant fruit pickers who support the local citrus industry) and made a mental note to stop in at some point. This was likely the best chance I'd get to do so, and after promising Hackknife Jr. a Happy Meal if he could be patient for a bit while Daddy consumed a few backroom tacos, we pulled into the parking lot (the address is 2415 State Road 60 in case you're ever in the neighborhood) just after noon on Sunday.

The taqueria in the store is named La Botana (snack or appetizer, in Spanish) and is, in fact, set up in the back corner, with a take-out counter fronted by a handful of tables. Although there weren't a lot of customers, the kitchen was buzzing with activity, and, fortunately, one of the two hardworking ladies there was able to help me in English with my order. Menu offerings included soups, shrimp cocktail, tortas, burritos, and more, but I stuck with the basic tacos, choosing al pastor, carne asada, and lengue to go with a giant-sized horchata poured from a clear plastic cooler next to the cash register.

When the other server brought out my tacos, I was surprised to see a foam plate with four lengue and a separate one with three asada, with no al pastor in sight. After a briefly futile exchange with her during which I tried to explain my order details (she apparently spoke little English), she grabbed one of the asada tacos and returned it to the kitchen, leaving me with the six total that you see in the photo above (still not bad for less than $7 altogether). Giving up and digging in, I found the lengue meat to be a little dry and chewy (clearly not the best I've had), but the asada was fantastic, consisting of charred beefy and fatty bits that melded perfectly with the simple toppings (onion, cilantro, and a cup of green salsa with a solid kick to it). I suspect that the small corn tortillas were prefab; however, I'd gladly stop by again for the asada tacos and perhaps a giant Torta Milanese, which I saw another customer attempting to subdue while we were there.

With our lunch cravings now sated, we continued on our trip back home towards Tampa. Usually, we make a right turn in Bartow to eventually pick up the expressway, however, this time, I stayed on Route 60 for another half an hour, rolling through the phosphate industrial corridor until we reached the heavily-trafficked retail stretch of Brandon. Our target? The Revolution Ice Cream Company, a much-lauded Bay Area sweet treat joint tucked into a quiet strip mall at 220 W. Brandon Blvd. The folks at Revolution have become known for their inventive and whimsical ice cream flavors not seen elsewhere, such as Curried Sky (vanilla with curried toasted coconut), Porky's Delight (vanilla with bacon bits and bacon brittle), and Girlscouts on Espresso (espresso with Tagalong cookies mixed in), not to mention certain "adult only" varieties with various alcoholic liqueurs added that might be available on a given day (see photo of flavor cards posted below).

Hackknife Jr. gorged himself on a scoop of Chocolate Shock (chocolate ice cream with fudge, chocolate chips, and brownie pieces) while I tried out the house's version of banana pudding with a little fudge sauce drizzled on top. The store manager mentioned that a Revolution food truck was close to making its maiden voyage, so we shouldn't have to wait for another trip down Route 60 to get our next batch - it'll hopefully come straight to us...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ultimate Spaghetti with Clams

Because my kids are fussy eaters, we rely on a lot of pasta dishes here at the Canteen, although most of the time I end up setting aside a bowlful of plain noodles for them before adding the rest to whatever mélange of ingredients I happen to be throwing together. The frequency of pasta meals is high, but the number of noodle recipes I fall back on is not - in actuality, there are probably less than 10 in my regular rotation (Bucatini alla Amatricana, noodles with pesto, cacio e pepe, Shrimp Gambino, and baked spaghetti immediately come to mind). It is with that mindset that I approached Mrs. Hackknife one Saturday afternoon and asked her to peruse the noodle chapter of my Tyler Florence Ultimate cookbook to pick a new recipe for the coming week. What she chose was his ultimate spaghetti with clams, a tasty and simple dish combining cherry tomatoes with pancetta, garlic, white wine, basil, crushed red pepper, and littleneck clams, which are usually in abundance at Florida supermarkets. Wanting to get fresh clams, I waited until the day of cooking before heading over to the local Publix seafood counter to get my quarry of about 25 littlenecks, which I was reassured by the clerk would stay alive in the refrigerator as long as I kept them in their foam tray with holes punched in the plastic cover so they wouldn't suffocate. I dutifully brought them home and carefully placed them in the fridge with what I deemed to be adequate ventilation between the egg carton and containers of yogurt. When the time came to make dinner, I followed Tyler's instructions of cooking the bulk of the dish in the oven for about 10 minutes until the clams opened. Except they didn't really open. Even after 20 minutes of roasting, all I could see was one lonely clam that had thrust its gaping maw wide and several others with only a slight hint of surrender. Now keep in mind that I don't have a ton of experience with shellfish, but I'd read enough to know that you're not supposed to eat clams or mussels that don't open during cooking, the reason being that the dead (i.e., rotten) ones don't panic like their live (i.e., fresh) brethren when exposed to extreme heat, thus remaining closed. So here I was staring at a beautiful bowl of finished pasta (see photo above) trying to decide what to do with all of these suspect, potentially bacteria-loaded clams. I sniffed and ate the single open one - it was fine; good, in fact. I decided to pry open a few of the ones that had slightly yielded, which was surprisingly difficult without the aid of power tools. These, too, tasted just as I thought they should, briny and a little chewy. After struggling with a couple more, I opted to pull the remainder out of the dish and disposed them, polished off the rest of my pasta bowl, and began patiently waiting for the paralytic toxic plasmosis (or whatever was going to invade my body) to kick in. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened and I was able to eat the leftovers (sans clams, but presumably bathed in the clam juices left behind) relatively fear-free. Given the ease and richness of the recipe (the wine, tomatoes, garlic, pancetta, and seafood all come together beautifully), I'd say that it's earned a place in my regular noodle rotation and I'll simply hope for cooperative shellfish in the next iteration...