Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ravenous Pig - Winter Park, FL

I have to say that the more time I spend in Orlando away from the obvious touristy areas (read: Disney World), the more I'm impressed with what there is to discover just beneath the veneer of theme park sheen. For example, we find ourselves returning again and again to Winter Park, an affluent suburb just north of downtown that features a picturesque liberal arts college (Rollins), historical lakeside estates (many built by industrial barons as winter residences), a vibrant town center (with events like an annual sidewalk art festival), and several good restaurants. This time, our visit included an hour-long pontoon boat tour of the waterfront mansions and a short jaunt past booths at the art fest; however, the main attraction in my mind was lunch at The Ravenous Pig, open since 2007 and one of the pioneers of the farm-to-table movement in Florida (I recall trying to hatch a scheme to escape the Magic Kingdom and secretly lunch here on our trip to Disney in 2010 - sadly, the plot was foiled). We already enjoyed dining at the newer restaurant of owners James and Julie Petrakis (called Cask & Larder, just up the street and around the corner from Ravenous Pig), but this was our first time at the flagship location.

Much like Cask & Larder, the pig is king in these parts (although other animals certainly receive their due) as you can smell the woodsmoke out in the parking lot. My first impression of the place is that it's a bit more upscale than the sister eatery, although the menus have a lot in common. One key difference is that you can get a bourbon cocktail here that sports an actual strip of bacon (clearly, they're not messing around).

After much hand-wringing and deliberation, we opted on a collection of starter plates for the parents and off-menu grilled cheese sandwiches for the kiddos (unfortunately, choices for younger patrons are limited). This included terrific housemade soft pretzels with a taleggio-porter cheese sauce and whole grain mustard (not photographed) and a fine charcuterie plate featuring chinese sausage, coppa (cured pork collar), beef salumi, a hunk of pungent Oma cheese from von Trapp Farmstead (yes, those von Trapps) in Vermont, some pickled veggies, grilled bread, and a cup full of to-die-for pork rillettes.

Since we didn't want the ocean to feel neglected, we also tried a dish of crostini topped with citrus smoked grouper (good Florida fish), blood orange, Old Bay aioli, pickled kumquat, and cucumber slaw. This combo of ingredients was much more subtle than I expected and I think the missus enjoyed it a little more than I did.

Desserts were fantastic across the board. Although the kids largely ignored their grilled cheeses (which were quite good, by the way - Mrs. Hackknife and I ended up eating a decent amount of the leftovers), we were feeling magnanimous and let them have the "pig tails" (curly fritters dusted in cinnamon sugar and paired with a chocolate espresso sauce). Of course, sharing was mandatory.

The missus and I greatly enjoyed our plank of blood orange chocolate glazed doughnuts with candied pistachios and a scoop of vanilla chantilly cream on the side. We did not shed tears when the progeny rejected our pleas to try it.

All in all, the folks at Ravenous Pig seem to have solid cooking chops. If I had any complaints, I'd gripe that the experience was a little on the pricey side given portion sizes (for $7, would it have killed them to toss in a 3rd pretzel?); still, if you're ever in town on vacation or whatever, I'd advise you to hatch your own lunch scheme to skip Mickey Mouse chicken tenders in lieu of this...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Baked Shrimp Risotto

The March 2015 issue of Food & Wine Magazine has a very enticing-looking shrimp risotto recipe that I thought I'd try here in the Canteen a few weeks ago. Usually when you make risotto, you're sentenced to a good hour of near constant stirring in order to get the arborio rice grains to properly absorb the cooking liquid; however, this particular method cheats a little by using the oven to bake the risotto instead. Basically, all you do is toast the rice in some garlic and olive oil, add your chicken broth, and bake for 20 minutes until done. Since this recipe is so simple, the key is to source top-shelf ingredients - for example, I bought freshly-caught Gulf shrimp from our local neighborhood seafood van (they operate a stand at the weekend flea market in Oldsmar) and whipped up a batch of our house pesto sauce (which would make even old leather shoes taste delicious) to drizzle on at the end. Instead of parmigiano reggiano cheese, I substituted pecorino romano since that's what I had on hand; otherwise, I tried to stay faithful to the instructions. How'd we do? Well, the wife was happy ("you can serve this as a side dish anytime, even without the shrimp" she said) and the kids even ate a couple of bites before bowing out, so this shorthand risotto will be added to my repertoire for future use (although I still plan to do the ol' stovetop risotto when I can - I think it's a wee bit better)...

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Teperto - Fried Bacon (First Quality Sausage House)

Yes, you really are seeing what you think you see. The photo above contains pieces (nay, chunks, rather) of the crunchiest, fattiest, most soulful expression of the pig that I think I've ever encountered. The local Central European butcher shop in Safety Harbor (First Quality Sausage House") sells this product that they call teperto, which is loosely translated from Hungarian to mean "pork cracklings". On my last visit, I spied a hotel pan full of these piggy jewels behind the counter and asked about it - shop owner Aniko Rakoczi let me try one and explained (as my eyes rolled backwards into my skull upon first nibble) that she takes these thick-cut bacon slabs and oven roasts them (no deep frying, because, you know, that would be unhealthy) to a crisp. At $12 a pound (and worth every penny, mind you), it's one of the store's best-selling items (if fact, she told me to "call ahead next time if you want more - sometimes customers come in and buy the whole pan"). I took a brown sack loaded with half a pound of teperto back to the Canteen to share with the wife, kinder, and house guests, each of whom has their own dietary restrictions/hang-ups and each of whom reacted in the same manner as I did when they sampled the goods, that is, transported somewhere between ecstasy and unconsciousness. If you've ever wondered about the existence of God, this will have you singing his porcine praises...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Taqueria Acapulco/La Caridad

Shortly after my recent posting about Senor Taco, FOB Eric R. suggested that I try out another local taqueria, this one (called Taqueria Acapulco) located quite a bit closer to the Canteen in South Tampa (1001 N. Macdill, to be precise). As luck would have it, I happened to be headed to this part of town one day a few weeks ago to return a light fixture, so I decided to pop in for a quick lunch on my way home.

The building's exterior isn't much to look at (you'd probably fly right by without a second look if you weren't seeking it out) as the proprietors share the lot with, among other things, a chiropractor clinic. When researching details on the Web, the business comes up on the search engine as being a Mexican grocery - there is, in fact, a grocery area when you first enter, although it's probably the smallest one I've seen, more on the order of a convenience store (still, the selection of dried chiles for purchase is impressive). The back 2/3 of the space holds the taqueria, a collection of counters, tables (maybe 8 total?), a deli case, couple of TVs tuned to (what else?) telenovas and a food prep area. Behind the counter, two older ladies who appeared to know their way around a comal pretty well were making tortillas and chopping vegetables in preparation for the lunch rush.

After flagging down one server who didn't speak English, another came by to take my order. I spied a number of tasty-sounding items on the menu (sopes, for example), but decided to stick with the basics and ordered up my usual round of lengue, carnitas, and al pastor tacos, plus a horchata to wash everything down. While waiting for the food, I noticed a handwritten sign on the wall that read "We have pork skin tacos (cueritos)!" and, although I hadn't seen the term cueritos before, asked if I could have one of those as well. The 4 tacos arrived at my table with a simple garnish of cilantro and chopped onions, to which I added a drizzle of fresh lime juice and a couple of hot sauces of indeterminate origin (one red, one green). I had a little bit of trouble identifying which meat was which, but every taco was nonetheless delicious, with just the right mix of textures and flavors (some crunchy bits, some fatty bits), much like my experience at Senor Taco (the homemade flour tortillas were also excellent). I managed to determine later that cueritos are a version of pork skin that's been pickled in vinegar instead of fried (like chicharrones) and I can tell you now that they're much better than you might imagine from their description.

Feeling alternately full and inspired, after paying the check I opted to make one more stop before heading back to the homestead, this time at a bakery on a busy stretch of Hillsborough Avenue (4425 W. Hillsborough) that I've passed a hundred times going to/from the Toyota dealer. The eye-catching yellow sign out front says "Angelito's at La Caridad Bakery - Panaderia y Dulceria" and purports to be a specialty purveyor of Cuban baked goodies. The bakery cases were full of enticing-looking pastries, cakes, and sandwiches, most of which eluded easy identification (my favorite kind of bakery). Like the last joint, English is mostly a second language here, so I had to pantomime a bit with the sales girl when making my selections, which included a couple of cream cheese and guava pastelitos, a coconut pastelito, a chocolate and peanut corona, and something called torrejas.

As you can see above, most Cuban baked sweets are of the puff variety, that is, consisting of many thin layers of pastry (much like phyllo dough) surrounding some sort of filling (like guava or coconut). The pastelito seems to be the basic unit, with the corona representing a slight variation on this concept where the filling is more on the outside (the top, or crown, hence the name "corona"). These 3 were all very good, if not a bit similar, and held up surprisingly well for the couple of days it took us to consume them (I recommend refrigeration). The surprise of the bunch, however, was the torreja (top right in the photo), a preparation for day-old Cuban bread that's like French toast on steroids, eggy, syrupy, and riotously sweet with evaporated milk and sugar (even my kids liked this one). The sales girl sounded a little surprised when I told her I had only wanted one piece (they're not large) and now I understand why - I'll be picking up an easy dozen of them on my follow-up visit...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Publix Hula Hula Macadamia Ice Cream

Today is the day we here at the Canteen are giving a grateful shout-out to Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley for turning us on to a limited-edition ice cream flavor from our local Corporate Grocery behemoth, Publix. Back in January, Madame Reiley wrote this article touting the virtues of said ice cream, a base flavor of what the Publix brass deem "whipped cream" (it's mostly like vanilla), plus caramel ribbons and candied pieces of macadamia nut (which, I'm sure most of you will agree, is the best of all possible nuts). Having read the article, I was intrigued enough to stake out my nearby neighborhood Publix until it one day appeared, and I purchased a half-gallon for my own analysis. Now, in many cases, I find the hype surrounding such limited-edition products to be unwarranted; however, in this instance, the obsessed Hula Hula devotees are right - this is rarefied stuff (especially with a healthy drizzling of Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, a tiny, over-the-top addition that probably directs me down the path to eternal damnation), so good I slinked out a day or two later to secure another half-gallon before it disappeared completely from shelves. By mid-February, there was no more Hula Hula to be had - luckily, there's a Facebook page ("Where's My Hula Hula Ice Cream?") I can monitor for signs of its next appearance (just like the first tulip bulbs in Spring) in January 2016...

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Owen's Fish Camp - Sarasota, FL

Although we've now lived in Florida for almost two years and have perused a decent chunk of our surrounding areas, one region had remained unexplored up to this point; that is, the vaunted Gulf Coast immediately south of the Tampa metroplex, including Bradenton, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and the associated keys. Due to a quirk in the Hillsborough County school schedule whereby my wife had the day off (Presidents Day) while class was in session (and grandparents here to fetch the kids off the bus), she and I were able to take a day trip down towards said region to see what the fuss was all about. Crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (a lovely excursion on its own), we took a right in Bradenton and headed west until we struck land's end near Anna Maria Island, then proceeded along the shore through the chill environs of Longboat Key, eventually reaching our planned destination, Sarasota. The greater Sarasota area was mostly known as the winter headquarters of the circus back in the day, but has since morphed into a vibrant and cosmopolitan haven for tourists/well-to-do permanent residents. It is here, we discovered, that you can wander the high-end shopping environs of St. Armands Circle and tour the former Ringling estate, home to a beautiful Venetian mansion, circus exhibits, and a surprisingly impressive art museum (I gather the Ringlings must have sold a lot of peanuts to be able to afford that Rubens). Still, if you poke around a little, you can encounter echoes of the Old Florida that existed here before the elephants showed up. Case in point - Owen's Fish Camp (named after early Sarasota pioneer, developer, and philanthropist Owen Burns) is a restaurant tucked away down a back alley in an upscale enclave of downtown Sarasota (516 Burns Lane, to be exact). Inspired by the many fish camps that once dominated this parcel of property circa 1900, I would describe OFC as consciously ramshackle, serving the kind of unpretentious (but well-executed) fresh seafood and Southern fare that once defined Florida cuisine and has been returning to prominence of late.

According to OFC lore, Thomas Edison (he had a winter residence in Florida like just about every other famous American in 1920 did) allegedly gifted a banyan tree to Owen Burns at some point, who planted it here - I think that's the tree in question on the left edge of this photo.

All humidity-weathered wood and tightly tabled (not a lot of room to spread out - arrive early if you don't want a long wait), the restaurant's owners certainly nail the ambiance, but, as always, the food is what matters above all. Both an army of Yelpers and my neighbor J.P. (who has a family weekend retreat nearby) laud the bill of fare, and they're absolutely spot on. We started with a half-dozen raw Georgia oysters (and could've used a half-dozen more), followed by the daily blackboard special of what they term "naked fish", namely whatever's right off the boat, simply prepared. I opted for a nice black grouper filet (see above), grilled with a lemon-caper butter sauce, and accompanied by two kicked-up sides (black-eyed peas with andouille sausage and spicy local collard greens) that would make Emeril proud, all washed down with a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (helping me take the edge off at 8% alcohol).

Although stuffed to the gills, Mrs, Hackknife and I had to split a slice of the house bourbon pecan pie with fresh whipped cream before departing. By the time we left, the wait was well over 30 minutes (on a Monday night, no less). Clearly, OFC is the goods and should be on the short list of preferred dining spots if you're ever in the Sarasota area. My only regret is that we haven't quite discovered a comparable eatery closer to home - our local Ballyhoo restaurant comes close (its menu is a little too much Red Lobster) and there's no shortage of greasy spoon beach dives serving platters full of fried shrimp (think Frenchy's), but no one's quite pulled off the fish camp formula around here to my knowledge (stay tuned - the search continues)...