Thursday, February 26, 2015

Buffalo Cauliflower (Edison)

Among many other tasty gems, the missus and I devoured a platter of this buffalo cauliflower on our recent visit to Edison. Earthy, spicy (but not too much), and a touch sweet, we didn't even miss the fact that there was no real protein here...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Senor Taco

We've learned that when you reside in Florida, the lure of the beaches and the coast is a strong one, even if you're not necessarily a sun worshiper like myself. Thousands of snowbirds arrive every fall from much less temperate parts than these to bask in the glow of eternal tropical warmth (which is a bit of a myth, as it turns out - the outdoor temperature in Tampa as I write this morning is a brisk 46F), snapping up rental properties that are within a block or two of the shore. I'm even met a surprising number of year-round residents who felt the need to get in on a coastal condo development or timeshare so that they had access to a weekend retreat of their own. Unable to resist the siren's call (but also because we simply like the idea of the thing), the missus and I have started ever-so-informally looking at real estate in the beach town of Indian Shores, having thus far toured a spectacular luxury apartment orders of magnitude beyond our price range (the kitchen sink was too small) and a much-more modest two-bedroom unit in a condo hotel development that vaguely resembles a Howard Johnson. Anyway, perhaps our best discovery thus far has been a Mexican restaurant on the road to Indian Shores called Senor Taco (6447 Park Boulevard, Pinellas Park), which shares space in an old motel complex with, among other things, a massage parlor and a one-room church.

While the setting may be a bit unconventional, Yelp reviewers have pretty much posted nothing but platitudes about ST's "Mexican food with a Mayan touch" as the owners describe their cuisine (they're from Progreso, a port city in the Yucatan region of Mexico). Along with the usual suspects (burritos, enchiladas, tortas, etc.), you'll also find a few coveted Yucatecan specialties such as cochinita pibil (roasted pork with pickled onions). We began with a very tasty queso fundido dip before perusing the entrees - we nearly ended up picking "La Tablita" a feast for two that included grilled steak, grilled pork, chorizo, chicken enchiladas, salad, rice, and beans, but thought better of it and opted to select individual tacos instead. This, as they say, was a good move.

What you see above is a platter of three tacos: a carne asada, a carnitas, and a cochinita pibil, all washed down with an ice cold Dos Equis and all of them simply fantastic, from the corn tortillas (made in-house) to the perfectly grilled meats (crunchy in some places from the flattop) to the fresh toppings (onions and cilantro).

Amazingly, things get even better when you consider the house's specialty tacos. This is what they call an "El Tri" (decorated to vaguely resemble the Mexican flag), an unctuous collection of grilled ham, bacon, and chorizo, plus onions, peppers, cheese, salsa, crema fresca, and guacamole. Yes, it's as decadent as it looks. Mrs. Hackknife selected two others, including a "ChoriQueso" (basically the queso fundido dip in a soft taco) and something called a "Machete", grilled pork, mushrooms, and onions topped with cheese, tomatillo, and crema fresca. I tried them both and found the Machete to be so good, I didn't care that there were mushrooms somewhere in that mix (about the highest possible compliment in my book).

I should note that just about everything else we ordered (including horchata and churros for the kiddies) was also terrific. We haven't eaten a ton of so-called "Mexican" food in the greater Tampa area as of yet and most of the local love goes towards the Guy Fieri-approved Taco Bus, but I have to say that Taco Bus got one-upped by Senor Taco (which now gets my vote for best tacos in town). If this is what the road to Indian Shores holds for us, we'll be buying that beach condo if for no other reason than to cut down our commute here...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Marcus Samuelsson's Vegetable Soup

I've had this vegetable soup recipe lifted from a Men's Journal magazine (specifically, the April 2012 issue) in my to-do pile for almost 3 years now. I finally used the excuse of Super Bowl Sunday to unleash it on the family - the recipe itself comes from New York City chef Marcus Samuelsson by way of his native Ethiopia and adopted country Sweden (with a dash of America thrown in as well). The list of ingredients is mostly straightforward (and flexible so that you can pretty much add whatever veggies are rotting away in your crisper drawer), with the exception of the blond miso paste, which forced me to seek out a fantastic local Asian market called MD Oriental. MD has 3 locations in the greater Tampa area and is essentially a dizzying wonderland of exotic goods, most of which appear on the shelves in their original, nearly-impossible-to-interpret packaging (i.e., if I hadn't located an English-speaking manager to help me find my quarry, I'd likely still be aimlessly wandering the aisles). My local Publix was out of orzo, however, I managed to track down some pearl pasta (intended for soups) that substituted just fine. Fearing backlash from my peeps, I omitted the mild green chili called for in the recipe, but otherwise mostly stayed true to the instructions and served it steaming hot with hunks of homemade bread and smoked paprika butter. Even without the green chili, the soup packed a bit of a punch from the ginger/chili powder and had profound flavor depth for a soup that had no meat (other than 2 cups of chicken broth in place of water), from the tangy fresh lemon juice and tomatoes to the fatty avocado and the umami-laced miso paste. While a bit too pungent for a general audience, I'm happy to add Chef M's veggie soup to my tiny canon of Canteen soup recipes (currently numbering 4 or 5)...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Pit Stop BBQ

Ever since we decided to make Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor our spiritual home, I'd always been curious about the tiny white shack nestled between a pawn shop and a gas station at the foot of the Florida 580 causeway. We'd pass by the place to/from Mass every Sunday morning - the sign out front advertised "BBQ" and you could clearly see wood smoke wafting up from a corrugated metal shed behind the weathered main building. I can't tell you how many times I made a mental note to drop in and get some barbecue, even after I saw the owner's tent at the Oldsmar Freedom Fest (Pit Stop BBQ they called themselves) and their restaurant received a spiffy, racing-themed paint job a few months ago, but I was never sufficiently motivated until a recent Friday morning when my yearning for pulled pork was finally too strong to ignore. Armed with just a handful of reviews from Yelp (most of which were positive, but not overwhelmingly so), I swung into Pit Stop while out running errands to see if there was any credence to my theory that the quality of the BBQ joint is directly proportional to the dilapidation of its surroundings.

What you see here is the prep kitchen building and smokehouse post-remodeling, with the pitmaster (whose silhouette is barely visible through the doorway) hanging out next to the main smoker inside the shed. The back end of the property certainly scores high on the run-down scale - next to the unpaved parking lot is a grassy yard with a couple of old picnic tables, a rusting smoker, and a collapsed wooden fence, among other random detritus. The prep building is just large enough for a counter, refrigerator, and sink (all food orders are to-go), leading me to believe that much (if not all) of the side dish cooking occurs off-site at the home of Miss Iris, the owner. On my first visit, I decided to try the rib and chopped pork combo dinner, with sides of baked beans and collard greens (all told, the menu is pretty limited).

The weather that morning was pleasant, so I headed over to nearby R.E. Olds Municipal Park to enjoy a bayside lunch at the pavilion. Once I arrived, I dug in and was immediately pleased: the pulled pork was fantastic, moist and flavorful and fatty in all the right places (I had a cup of mild barbecue sauce to go with the meat, but I didn't really need it). Nearly as good were the ribs, although it took me a few initial nibbles to get past some of the tougher meat on the bone (maybe these weren't quite done yet?). Miss Iris's collard greens put to shame anything I'd been whipping up in the Canteen (clearly one of her secrets is adding some of the tasty pig meat and fat to the pot) and even the baked beans, which I suspect originate from a can (I'm pretty sure I saw VanCamp's on top of the refrigerator), ended up being a favorite of mine, a subtle, pineapple-tinged version that's a nice change of pace from the heavy, bacon-and-molasses gut bombs that are much more in fashion these days. Only the cornbread included with my meal didn't really measure up to the rest of the combo.

Having erased my earlier reluctance, I returned for another meal the following week, this time choosing the lunch special (any sandwich, soda, and one side for $6.99) of roast chicken and baked beans. I was hoping to also snag some banana pudding, but apparently Miss Iris only makes that on weekends; the lady behind the counter convinced me to order a container of what she called "cornbread cake" (a bargain at 4 for a dollar) instead.

This time, I sat out back on one of the picnic tables to enjoy my lunch bounty. Again, I was very impressed with the meat - the chicken (which was chopped up with a cleaver in front of my eyes) was nearly perfect, not an easy feat for many so-called pitmasters whose skills are limited to smoking pigs. The beans were tasty as before and the cornbread cake was surprisingly delicious (the photo below doesn't do it justice), exactly as it had been described to me (basically "a brownie without the chocolate"). Even my kids enjoyed the cake, both in their school lunches and dipped into chocolate fondue on Super Bowl Sunday (who said desserts can't be repurposed?).

I haven't had much experience with barbecue in Florida (or really anywhere, for that matter) and I'm hardly an expert on the matter, but Pit Stop has immediately risen to the top of my list of best local smoked meat palaces. What they lack in menu diversity, they clearly make up for in quality (not to mention my theory of BBQ dilapidation still seems to be holding up)...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fodder and Shine

I think it's fair to say that Southern cuisine (fried chicken and biscuits, for example) is a hot trend at the moment; at least, it is, well, in the South (that may just be the most absurd sentence I've ever written). Perhaps it's more accurate to say that different regions of the South are embracing the dishes that are specific to their localities more so than any time in the last 75 years (before which, you know, most people were ACTUALLY gleaning the bulk of their food from the farm and garden in their backyards). This includes Texas barbecue, Cajun/Creole cooking in Louisiana, Lowcountry cuisine in the Carolinas, and so on. Until just recently, chefs in Florida hadn't quite established an historical food roadmap unique to the state (outside of the occasional grouper sandwich or slice of Key lime pie); this is now starting to change with the opening of eateries like the Floridian in St. Augustine, Cask & Larder in Orlando, and Ulele in Tampa. Another new entrant in this field is Tampa chef Greg Baker's Fodder & Shine, a restaurant with a focus that's even more precise: Florida "cracker" (or backwoods) cuisine from the first half of the 20th Century, a mystical time before Disney when the state was primarily inhabited by hardy homesteaders (working cattle ranches or citrus orchards) who were largely unperturbed by mosquitoes or the lack of refrigerated air. Mrs. Hackknife and I first became aware of Chef Baker's venture when we met him at the Norman's 10th Anniversary gala way back in August 2013, and had been keenly anticipating Fodder & Shine's opening ever since. Although they don't take reservations for parties smaller than 10, the missus and I were able to arrive early on a Saturday night before the usual crush of weekend evening revelers and were seated relatively quickly at a table in the bar.

My first impression of the new digs (which are located at 5910 N. Florida Avenue in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood, just a few blocks north of Chef B.'s flagship place, the Refinery) was that they were larger than I expected, much more so than the cozy confines of the Refinery - the extra space (which was formerly an auto body shop) allows the proprietors to place tables well apart from each other, a nice change of pace from the loud, cramped dining venues that are de rigeur these days. Decor is stark gray and tilts towards (surprisingly) 80s retro, with arcade game consoles in the foyer and vintage punk band concert flyers (I hadn't thought of Black Flag since seeing Henry Rollins at a Clark Street sushi bar in Chicago about 15 years ago) that I suspect have long been in Chef's personal archives just waiting for the right venue to display them.

I was planning to meet the guys in the neighborhood for drinks later, so I took a pass on the craft beer/custom cocktail menu and zoned in on the bill of fare, which was both jarring and exciting in equal measure (you have to respect a place that lists "Fried Livers and Gizzards of the Day" as an option - well played, Chef). Although the choice was difficult, we selected the smoked mullet spread (mullet meat mixed with scallions, celery, datil pepper, mayo, and lemon, accompanied by pickled onions, sliced jalapenos, smoked mullet roe, and sheets of crunchy hardtack) and the house bacon fat cornbread (arriving at our table in a cast iron skillet much quicker than the 20 minutes referenced on the menu) for our appetizers. This fish dip was austere compared with the gloppy beach shack versions I've seen elsewhere in the state, yet supercharged with complexity, a description I'd also apply to the cornbread (which, despite its inclusion of bacon fat, was more subtle than expected).

For my entree, I went with the tasty cornmeal-fried chicken (apparently, the Florida pioneers didn't have access to flour and the nearest Wal-Mart was more than a full day's ride away) with tomato gravy and rice (boiled rice mixed with more bacon fat, stewed tomatoes, and chiles, something I could have easily eaten a full pot of) and cane syrup-roasted beets (I found these to be a little underwhelming). Mrs. H. tried the cornmeal-fried mullet (which also seemed to be lacking a little boost - I ate the leftovers with tartar sauce the next day, something that would probably make the chef cringe) along with some amazing bacon braised greens (mixed with bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and pepper flakes) and something called sofkee, a grits-like concoction traditionally enjoyed by Native Americans consisting of fermented rice, butter, and cream. The sofkee reminded me of the Minute Rice recipe that had you throw in a slice of Kraft American cheese at the end (a side dish I fondly consumed a couple of times in my childhood) - this is meant to be a compliment, however, I can see where the F&S kitchen staff might not interpret it that way.

Although we were pretty stuffed by this time, I couldn't pass on dessert. Sour orange pie is a not-well-known Florida delicacy that may predate Key lime pie (the recipes are essentially the same, with sour orange juice swapped in for the lime juice) and was on the F&S dessert menu. To my amazement, it's not terribly difficult to find wild orange trees growing in pockets of forest throughout the state (they're descendants of cultivated orange trees gone rogue) - we saw some while hiking on our last Cub Scout outing near Brooksville and their juice is bracingly tart, so their uses are somewhat limited (dessert and marinade are two of the more popular things to do with them). The pie filling was quite scrumptious, but I couldn't say I was a big fan of the cornmeal crust (there's that missing flour again), which seemed, well, underdone.

Overall, we enjoyed what's on offer at F&S - I'm anxious to try many other items on the menu (rabbit and cornmeal dumplings, wood-grilled oysters, fried jam pie, the list goes on and on) and I think the restaurant is a valuable addition to the Gulf Coast dining scene. I'm sure Chef Greg's goal is to have F&S be to Florida Cracker cuisine what Husk (Sean Brock's temple of Carolina heritage cooking) is to Lowcountry gastronomy; he's not there yet (after all, they've only been open for about 2 months), but I like the direction it's headed...

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Great Spiedini

When the Great Spiedini opened up last summer over by Burger 21 (that's 9648 W. Linebaugh for those of you who aren't residents of Westchase), the name made me think that it was a piano bar for some reason. While they do have a large outdoor patio (I'm sure plenty of singles fill up the place on weekend evenings), I recently discovered via our free neighborhood advertising circular that TGS specializes in a very specific type of regional cuisine, something called a "spiedie", which is a sandwich featuring marinated pieces of meat (originally lamb, but now also including chicken, pork, beef, and/or veal) that are grilled on skewers and served on a hoagie or Italian roll. According to my crack sources (i.e., Wikipedia), Italian immigrants that had settled in the Binghamton, NY area first conceived this dish early in the 20th Century and it remains a popular food item in that region of central New York and the Southern Tier of the state outside of New York City (there's even a Spiedie Fest in Binghamton every year). TGS came about when a native of upstate New York relocated to Tampa and realized that, upon jonesing for his favorite local sandwich, there were no spiedies to be found within a 1,000-mile radius. After much trial and error on developing a marinade, a winning recipe was formulated and a food venture was launched to share the spiedie love with other local residents. Being a sucker for such unique dining experiences (especially those that are essentially just down the street from the Canteen), I had to try it out and headed over to TGS one Thursday for lunch.

What you see above is my first ever spiedie, simply called "the Traditional" - I chose the marinated chicken, which came on a slice of Italian bread and accompanied it with a side of salt potatoes (tossed in butter, parsley, and thyme, another Binghamton specialty, apparently). While flavorful from the oil and vinegar marinade, I found the chicken to be lacking a bit in tenderness, not surprising when you're grilling white meat. I quickly realized that the bread slice is key in sopping up the fatty juices (maybe the best characteristic of this culinary invention). Overall, I finished my spiedie feeling a little underwhelmed (and hungry, for that matter - I needed a bigger one) and decided to return the following week for a different version.

Now this was more like it, a Philly spiedie (marinated chicken and pork combo, this time) topped with sauteed onions, peppers, provolone cheese, and spiedini sauce (i.e., the marinade), the TGS take on the traditional cheesesteak. For side, I went with the cucumber salad, a bracing, creamy concoction of chopped cucumbers (very tart, almost like pickled Japanese vegetables), dill, onion, and sour cream. While this time I left with a full belly, I still wasn't quite getting the "wow factor" of this whole concept. Maybe it's just that it's an acquired taste for the non-New York native, much like Italian beef tends to initially puzzle those who aren't Chicagoans. And like the Italian beef cut, which needs to be marinated in juice for a long time and (even after that) sliced super-thin to make it palatable, lean grilled meats are very tough to get tender, marinade or no marinade (after all, fat is flavor). Still, I can see the nostalgic allure of the spiedie to a very specific segment of the Westchase population (and Lord knows there are plenty of New Yorkers around these parts), but anytime I find myself looking for lunch on Linebaugh, I'm probably more likely to pull up to Burger 21 before TGS...