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...