Tuesday, October 28, 2014

First Quality Sausage House

When randomly driving through Safety Harbor a few months back (I think we were trying to get around a traffic backup), the family and I happened to pass by a squat yellow building festooned with national flags, a sight that reminded me of various ethnic food businesses scattered throughout old immigrant neighborhoods up North. Upon further investigation, I determined that this place was, in fact, a Hungarian butcher shop, clandestinely tucked away in the industrial part of town. Being part Bohemian (at least according to stories from my ancestors), I find it difficult to pass up the opportunity to purchase cured and smoked meats from the Motherland, so I decided to stop in one day after volunteering at the church food pantry to check our their wares.

The First Quality Sausage House (605 9th Ave. North) is situated across the street from the railroad tracks and surrounded by what appears to be miles of chain-link fence separating it from adjacent blue-collar operations (metal shops?); in other words, you pretty much have to be seeking it out to find it. Once inside, the enticing aroma of fresh sausages snaps you to attention.

The retail portion of the building is very modest (the kitchen in back takes up a lot of space), consisting of a few deli cases, a walk-in cooler, some shelves of sauerkraut/jams, and the cash register. What it lacks in stature, however, is compensated for by the staggering variety of meat offerings on sale: all manner of sausages (brats, polish, knockwurst, blood sausages), lunchmeats (bologna, salami, headcheese), smoked ribs, bacon, hams, and liverwurst, much of it made in-house from the owner's family recipes - these people are not messing around. On my initial visit, the lady behind the counter let me sample some of the house fried bacon (my eyes nearly rolled up into the back of my head - was that both the loin and the belly?) and happily sliced me a half-pound of garlic bologna to take home. When combined with a hunk of crusty bread, some cherry and cheese strudel (also prepared on-site), and some ground pork-stuffed cabbage to go, I had the makings of a great meal.

What about the sausages, you say? Well, I snagged several of those on a subsequent trip, picking up a sackful of polish, hungarian (smoked and vibrant red with paprika, but not in an overpowering way), and their last bratwurst of the day for a cookout at home, all of which were enjoyed and continue to be enjoyed in leftover form. My neighbor down the street swears that I need to try out their "pig salami", which I plan on doing sometime in the near future, along with a healthy (by that I mean size, not body condition) dose of fried bacon pieces for the road. It is now my fervent belief that everyone should have ready access to a Central European butcher shop...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Smoked Fish Dip

I've discovered that, in Florida, smoked fish dip is a thing; that is, I'd never heard of it before becoming a resident of this fine state and quickly realized that almost every fish shack and seafood restaurant here has something like in on their menu. The history behind this dish is a little murky, but my suspicion is that it came about as a means for utilizing scrap pieces of fishing catch that would otherwise go to waste - you basically combine smoked fish meat with mayo, sour cream, and various spices to create a dip that goes on crackers, veggies, or whatever you happen to have on hand. I found the recipe I attempted at home on Allrecipes.com (the link is here); however, there are many others that I'm sure are just as good. The only smoked fish I could find at my local Publix was salmon (my recipe referenced whitefish), which makes for a dip that's a little on the rich side - next time, I'd seek out a leaner protein like whitefish or trout or (shudder) possibly even smoke my own fish to cut the fattiness; in any case, this is a tasty snack that screams "Florida!" for any out-of-town guests that happen to be around.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chicken Cacciatore

I recently completed taking another Aprons cooking class at my local Publix supermarket - this time, it was the "Intermediate" course that follows the "Basics" one I attended last Spring. Although some of the recipes were repeated in this go-round (for example, handmade pasta and pizza dough), I was able to collect a few new ones for the Canteen, one of which (Chicken Cacciatore) has already been tried out for family consumption. My mom used to make a version of this during my childhood (her recipe came from my paternal grandmother) that featured olives in place of the mushrooms listed below. Since I'm not a fan of either olives or mushrooms, I omitted these two ingredients and threw in some capers instead. In place of jar tomato sauce, I was able to use leftover homemade sauce I'd had in the freezer since I made lasagna a few weeks back. The final result wasn't bad, hearty if not a bit heavy from all of the chicken fat that remains in the pot during the braise. If I were to do this again, I'd probably wait for one of our infrequent cool and dreary Florida winter days as the next occasion.

12 pieces of mixed white and dark meat chicken (since my cooking vessel was small, I used 4 thighs and 4 legs)
2 oz. olive oil
2 red bell peppers, seeded and julienned
2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and julienned
1 red onion, peeled and julienned
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, sliced
1 c. red wine
1 1/2 c. tomato sauce
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. fresh basil, picked from stem and torn
1 lb. penne pasta
Kosher salt and black pepper

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat a large saute pan or Dutch oven with a small amount of oil over medium-high heat until oil begins to smoke. Place chicken in pan and cook until golden brown on both sides. Add peppers, onions, garlic and mushrooms to the pan and cook for 1-2 minutes until vegetables soften slightly. Add red wine, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until liquid reduces by half. Add tomato sauce/dried herbs and simmer for approximately 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and lowering heat as needed to prevent burning.

While chicken is cooking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Stir in pasta and cook according to package instructions. Drain well and place on a serving platter. Remove chicken from pan, stir in fresh basil, and evenly distribute over pasta. Pour sauce from pot over chicken pieces and pasta.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

EPCOT Food & Wine Fest 2014

This past weekend marked our first-ever visit to the annual food and wine fest that the good folks at Disney put on every year at EPCOT, a two-month long fusion of international cuisine, abundant alcohol (provided by sponsors who are no doubt giddy over the prominent exposure), and mouse ears. Fortunately for us, having our annual resident passes meant we didn't have to pay the resort admission fee or parking charges, freeing up additional cash to be surrendered at the various event kiosks (of which there were many, ranging from Africa to South Korea and everything in between). Instead of toting around a large wad of bills or incurring multiple credit card swipes, the missus and I decided to follow the advice of another blogger and placed money on individual gift cards that were easily scanned whenever we chose to indulge in some country's tempting offerings. Although the lines were sometimes lengthy (often with entire groups of people in matching t-shirts exhibiting a variation on the "Disney Drinking Team" theme) and the sunlight intense (highs in the low 90s, warm in October even for Florida), the hard-working park staff kept things moving efficiently, making our experience a mostly-pleasant one (this would have likely been different had the kids been with us - I should note that we left them home with grandma). Below are some of the day's dining highlights:

The Patagonia kiosk was selling a nice, meaty slab of roasted salmon (courtesy of Verlasso, a sustainable farmed salmon provider based in Chile) topped with arugula chimichurri and garnished with a little quinoa salad.  We enjoyed this a bit better than the beef empanada from the stand and washed both down with a slightly-tart Cono Sur Bicicleta Pinot Noir Rose, a wine so nice that we picked up a couple of bottles from the festival center on our way out the next day (note - wine sales by the bottle at EPCOT are similar to duty-free in that you have to wait to pick up your wine package until you exit the park) .

A little further in, we came across the Farm Fresh kiosk and scored some Nueske's pepper bacon hash with sweet corn, potatoes, hollandaise sauce, and pickled jalapenos (which were a little on the potent side).  This dish was paired with a Key lime wine from St. Pete's own Florida Orange Groves Winery (this was just ok).

In honor of the now-shuttered Hot Doug's in Chicago, I had to try South Korea's kimchi dog with spicy mustard sauce. Although not a bargain at $4 for half a dog, this was a mighty tasty bite.

After reading that the Brazil kiosk (see above) was serving up crispy pork belly with black beans, tomato, and cilantro, I couldn't wait to get there. It was worth the long trek to the far reaches of the park (as was the Kaiser Xingu black beer we got with it).

Although I'm not normally a fan of escargot (its texture is too similar to mushrooms, in my humble opinion), we had to try France's tartlette aux escargots (escargot topped with garlic, spinach, and Parmesan in a crispy tart shell). One nibble reminded me why I steer clear of snails (luckily, I was able to cleanse my palate with some Kronenbourg beer, bringing me back to the days of my high school trip to France).

My experience at the Puerto Rico kiosk was much better as we snacked on yummy, chewy tostones (fried green plantain patties) with rosada sauce (mayo-ketchup) and a decadent flanchoco (vanilla caramel custard atop chocolate coffee cake) while listening to the rapid-fire sounds of live island percussion music.

Our final stop before we headed to the hotel for a pre-dinner respite was the Desserts & Champagne kiosk, featuring a trio of passion fruit coconut creamsicle, blueberry lime cheesecake roll, and chocolate espresso opera cake, plus a frozen s'mores slushy with toasted marshmallow syrup.

After wallowing in a shower and some air conditioning, Mrs. Hackknife and I made our way back over to EPCOT for the evening's dinner event, something called "Party for the Senses". This gala is held several times during the fest (always at the World Showplace Stage on Saturday night and almost always selling out) and features chefs from all over the country (many of whom are affiliated with Disney properties) preparing small plates of food in a carnival-like atmosphere. We arrived early enough to be herded into a holding pen with all of the other prompt patrons while the event staff finished prepping the room, during which time we saw the most distinguished of the guest chefs, Art Smith (of Table 52 and Top Chef Masters fame) mingling in the crowd with Chef Lorena Garcia (also of Top Chef Masters, but attending incognito rather than cooking). Once the curtain was lifted, there was an initial mad dash towards the stations that quickly spread out through the cavernous space - before long, everyone was able to comfortably approach all of the tables distributing nosh/drinks (although seating was hard to come by) and enjoy the musicians/acrobats of La Nouba Cirque de Soleil performing throughout the night.

How was the food, you ask? By and large, we were extremely satisfied with most of the offerings, which covered the gamut from soups (my favorite was the carrot bisque with ramps, anise hyssop, flax seed, watercress, and edible flowers from the Disney resort Golden Oak Club) to meats (the Berkshire pork belly with edamame hummus, smoked leek, blood orange, and cranberry marmalade from the Disney Grand Floridian put to shame the stuff we'd had earlier at the Brazil kiosk) to seafood (I especially liked the seared cobia with green papaya slaw and aji amarillo-mojo from Dominique's on Magazine in New Orleans) to killer desserts (the spumone tartufato, a creation of pistachio, toasted almond, and chocolate gelato with Italian meringue and Amarena cherries from Lincoln Ristorante in NYC was to die for). I sampled my first-ever Icelandic beer (Einstok Toasted Porter) and also sipped some wonderful sparkling apple ice wine (Neige Bubble) from Quebec. After about 2 hours of snacking and drinking, we had pretty much laid waste to the place and decided to call it a day so we could rest up for tomorrow morning's brunch event.

Although there were times on Sunday morning where I was pretty sure I'd never need to eat again, I managed to rally in time to enjoy the nice brunch provided to us courtesy of Chef Warren Brown, a former Food Network personality who now runs his own baking company in Washington, D.C. Chef Brown (see above) has degrees in law and public health, but eventually heeded the call of the kitchen and learned the pastry business (his venture, CakeLove, is well-known locally for its high-end desserts and is in the process of expanding into other regions of the country). Brunch guests dined on croissants, fruit, sun-dried tomato quiche, chicken breast in lobster cream sauce, and asparagus while the chef conducted a baking demo of some of his most heralded creations, like the salty caramel cake in a jar (which we'd had at the gala last night) and cake icing bite that you see below.

Chef B also makes delicious scones (we tried a ginger-pecan variety) and some of the best cookies I'd ever tasted, a black pepper and chocolate crinkle version that perfectly straddled the line between sweet, bitter, and spice (I now have the cookie recipe and, if I get brave enough, I may attempt to make these in the Canteen sometime).

Overall, I'd say our inaugural experience with the EPCOT Food and Wine Fest was pretty positive and, although it was on the expensive side (it would be even more so in future years without our annual passes), we'll have to strongly consider return visits every year as long as we're living in Florida...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cuban Breezes

In Chicago, we're used to being able to find a hot dog stand or Italian beef joint on just about every other corner.  The nearest Tampa equivalent is the Cuban restaurant, which, while not exactly ubiquitous, is frequent enough down here that you can eat ropa vieja (shredded skirt steak in tomato sauce) or lechon asado (pulled pork in mojo sauce) every meal if that's your jam.  There happens to be such a restaurant called Cuban Breezes located within a 10-minute drive of the Canteen - I first saw it when stopping in for halo halo ice cream at my favorite local Philippine grocery (it's in the same strip mall) and made a mental note to stop in for lunch one day.  Several months passed and I finally got the chance to drop in on a random Friday.  I was initially surprised to see that it wasn't simply a take-out counter, rather a small restaurant masquerading as a Florida State sports bar.  They seem to get a healthy lunchtime crowd from nearby businesses - I was fortunate enough to get a booth before most of the seating filled up.  The menu contains an enticing mix of traditional Cuban standbys (such as the frita cubana, a burger made from both beef and chorizo) and a few odder-looking items (such as a turkey cuban sandwich, something I suspect you'd have trouble finding in Cuba).  I ended up ordering a papa rellena (a deep-fried potato ball stuffed with seasoned ground beef) for starters and a pan con lechon (roast pork sandwich with onions and guava bbq sauce) with black beans/rice to go with it.  My opinion of both dishes was similar - the papa rellena alternated between tasty bites and those that seemed a bit freezer-burned (the house "Havana sauce", a sort-of cross between mayo and ranch dressing that gets provided with just about every dish, didn't really help much), while the sandwich had a Sloppy Joe quality to it that wasn't entirely pleasant.  I had the chance to make a return visit the following week when I met up with some Cub Scout leaders for a planning lunch and opted for the traditional Cuban sandwich this time.  While decent, the house Cuban somewhat paled in comparison to my favorite version in town (the one from El Truck Del Rincon Criollo) and was actually diminished by the side plate of tostones (smashed fried plantain patties with garlic) I tried, which were on the dry side.  Clearly, there's enough other quality Cuban food in the Tampa Bay area that I can pass over Cuban Breezes next time unless I'm watching a Seminoles game...