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January 25, 2007

All Hail the Basics

Dominic Armato

Lying at home, trying to get healthy... what could possibly be better than a really delicious bowl of homemade chicken and dumplins showing up on your doorstep?

Thanks, John!

January 23, 2007

Still Alive...

Dominic Armato

...just very, very sick. Back soon.

Incidentally, flu + fruit punch Gatorade = religious culinary experience.

January 12, 2007

Mining Iron Chef

Dominic Armato
The little fella has (rightfully!) cut into blogging time a bit as of late, so I'm going to keep mining the old Iron Chef archives for a little while. Hopefully he'll start sleeping through the night before I run out of old recipes.

This is one of my personal all-time faves, even if it wasn't everybody's cup of tea at the judging table. Soft-cooked egg is one of those things that just doesn't sit well with some people, for reasons I'll never understand. I can't think of a better way to eat an egg than just barely set. This particular recipe was for Iron Chef, and inspired by Iron Chef. On more than a couple of episodes, the chefs have made what Fukui-san and Hattori-san (or their Canadian voiceover counterparts, in any case) referred to as an "egg royale". I'm still not sure exactly what an egg royale is supposed to be, but this is how I envision it. It's a rich, savory egg dish where the egg is topped with a flavored cream and cooked so that it's just barely set, and still wonderfully gooey. Apologies for the large yield, but it hardly seems worth offing a pair of lobsters for a couple of small cups. Plus, it's not exactly a simple recipe, so I think it's best reserved for larger dinner parties anyway.

Dominic Armato

2 live lobsters, 1½ - 2 lbs. each
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 C. chopped onion
½ C. chopped carrot
½ C. chopped celery
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
½ C. white wine
½ C. heavy whipping cream
2 Tbsp. cognac
1 tsp. coarse salt
3 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 C. finely diced red bell pepper
1 C. finely diced onion
12 large, fresh eggs
chives, for garnish

Lobster Egg Royale with
Cognac-Lobster Cream
Serves 12 as an appetizer

Bring a big honking pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and provided you're comfortable with that sort of thing, toss in the lobsters. After two minutes, pull them out and immediately shock them in a really big bath of ice water. Make sure there's plenty of ice, as most of it will melt immediately and you want the lobsters to continue cooling. When the lobsters are cool, remove the claw and tail meat and refrigerate it for later use. Save the shells!

Using a big, heavy knife or cleaver (you have one, right?), chop the bodies in half lengthwise and scoop out the squicky-looking yellow-green organ in the middle of the body. You can get rid of that. Continue chopping the bodies, as well as all of the shells, until you have a nice, big pile of chitinous carnage.

In a stock pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium, then add the 1 C. of chopped onion, carrot and celery. Saute for a minute or two, then add the lobster shells. Cook for 5-6 minutes until the vegetables start to soften and turn golden. Add the tomato paste, and continue cooking for another 4-5 minutes. You want the tomato paste to kind of caramelize and intensify, but you don't want to burn anything. If it looks like things are starting to get toasty, go straight to the wine.

Once your vegetables and tomato paste have caramelized a little, deglaze with the white wine, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pot. Add enough cold water to just cover, and bring the mixture back up to a simmer, but don't let it boil. Once you've reached a simmer, let it cook away for about an hour.

Using a chinois or other fine-meshed sieve, strain the stock into a clean saucepan, pressing to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Put your back into it. Then, pitch the solids. Now you have a saucepan full of lobster stock, which you want to reduce over medium-high heat until you have about ½ C. of liquid. It should have an almost light gravy-like consistency and be really intense. Remove it from the heat, let it cool, then mix in the cream, cognac and 1 tsp. salt. You don't want it to be like creamy saline, but the mixture should be a little too salty, as it'll be mixed with the eggs later on. Keep it refrigerated until you're ready to assemble the dish.

While you're working on the lobster mixture, preheat the oven to 350°. Pull your reserved lobster meat from the fridge, and dice it. Combine the butter and olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add the finely diced onion and red bell pepper (from which I trust you've removed all of the seeds and ribbing) and saute until the onions start to turn translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Throw in the diced lobster, season with some freshly ground black pepper and more salt (again, make it a little saltier than it should be... it'll work out correctly once the eggs are added), and continue to saute until the lobster has just barely lost its outer raw color, as it'll finish cooking in the oven. Remove the mixture from the heat and adjust the seasoning however you see fit.

Set out a dozen 4 oz. ramekins, and fill them about halfway with the lobster-vegetable mix, leaving a slight indentation in the center. Crack an egg into each ramekin so that the yolk sits in the indentation. Pull your cognac-lobster cream from the fridge, and spoon 1-2 Tbsp. around each egg yolk, so that it mixes with the whites. Arrange the ramekins in a deep baking dish or roasting pan, and fill the pan with simmering water so that the ramekins are halfway submerged. Bake them in the oven until they're finished. Of course, knowing when they're finished is the trickiest part. They can go from perfectly done to overdone in just a minute or two, so you want to watch them carefully. Ideally, you want the outer edges to be set, the center to be a little jiggly, and the yolk nice and runny. If you poke the outer edge of the egg white with a fork or chopstick and it's firm, get 'em out... they're done. Then carefully transfer the ramekins to plates, garnish them with a little chopped chive, and get 'em on the table.

January 09, 2007

The Pasta Primers - Prologue

Dominic Armato
Okay, I realize that a post that serves no purpose other than to set up future posts is a bit of a cop out, but I'm really jazzed about this. I hope I don't end up being the only one.

One of the most common laments I've heard from those who are enthusiastic about cooking is that they're comfortable following a recipe, but they wish they had the instincts and knowhow to be able to just walk into a grocery store or market, see what looks good and create a recipe on the fly. For years, I've always encouraged these people to cook a lot of pasta. Pasta's the perfect vehicle for honing basic cooking instincts. Great pasta is simple by nature, rarely incorporating more than a few ingredients. Because of this simplicity and emphasis on freshness, ingredient sourcing is of particular importance. Pasta recipes easily lend themselves to adjustment, substitution and improvisation, and though the central themes are simple the variations are endless. The techniques involved aren't overly complicated, but subtle improvements can yield noticeable differences. And perhaps most importantly, even if you screw it up, it's probably going to be edible. That's long been the spiel, but it's time to do something about it. As such, with the Beef-Off in the rear view mirror, 2007's monthly feature will be the Pasta Primers.

Dominic Armato
The syllabus is almost complete, and I'm excited. The Pasta Primers are twelve lessons, each centered around a different recipe, that are designed to teach the basics of preparing pasta. But rather than acting simply as a collection of traditional recipes (though many traditional recipes will be included), the Pasta Primers will be focused on really examining and developing the underlying techniques and skills that can then be applied not only to new, improvised pastas, but to other recipes as well. They'll start off very, very simply, and they'll stay fairly simple through the entire series. But if it works as I hope it will, somebody who works through all twelve lessons should be able to stroll into a grocery story with no plan, and stroll out with the ingredients and knowhow necessary to head home and throw together a pasta they've never made before. And then, in theory, this acts as a jumping-off point for further experimentation and improvisation in the kitchen, outside of the pasta realm.

Dominic Armato
So, once a month, I'll throw up a monster post that starts with a few lessons on ingredient selection and pasta technique and ends with a recipe that utilizes those techniques. And, as an additional bonus that I trust will be both fun and enlightening, my sister-in-law has enthusiastically volunteered to be the Pasta Noob. Like most, she's comfortable following a recipe, but her experience with pasta is fairly limited. So before I post, she'll do each primer herself, and then write a sidebar about her observations and experiences as somebody who is also learning through the primers. Then, at the end of the series, we'll set her loose in a grocery store and see what happens. If the primers have done their job, an abundance of deliciousness will ensue. To give you a taste, here is a list of the twelve pastas... subject to adjustment as I finalize the syllabus:

I - Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peppereroncino
(Spaghetti with Oil, Garlic and Hot Peppers)
VII - Cavatappi con Salsicce e Curcurma
(Cavatappi with Sausage, Raisins and Turmeric Cream)
II - Penne Arrabbiata
(Penne with Spicy Tomato Sauce)
VIII - Fettuccine al Limone
(Fettuccine with Lemon Butter Sauce)
III - Linguine alle Vongole
(Linguine with Clams)
IX - Spaghetti Bolognese
(Spaghetti with Meat Sauce)
IV - Bucatini all'Amatriciana Rossa
(Bucatini with Pancetta and Tomato Sauce)
X - Tonnarelli al Pesto Genovese
(Tonnarelli with Basil Pesto)
V - Ziti al Cavalfiore e Mente
(Ziti with Cauliflower, Mint and Breadcrumbs)
XI - Pappardelle con Asparagi e Noci
(Pappardelle with Asparagus and Walnuts)
VI - Rigatoni con Salsicce e Porcini
(Rigatoni with Pink Sausage and Porcini Sauce)
XII - Ravioli d'Anatra con Burro e Salvia
(Duck Ravioli with Butter and Sage Sauce)

Chapter I soon!

January 08, 2007

La Bocca Della Verità

Dominic Armato
Italian restaurants in Chicago have always caused me some consternation.

If, god forbid, I were ever subjected to the horrible (and rather unlikely) fate of having to choose one subcuisine to sustain me for the rest of my life, "Italian trattoria" would escape my lips without a moment's hesitation. To me, there's nothing more simple, elegant and satisfying that I could eat day in and day out than assorted antipasti, pastas that utilize four or five ingredients, the occasional bit of simply prepared meat or fish, some quaffable wine and a bit of potent coffee or a digestivo. Visiting Italy is absurdly pleasurable in this fashion. Fall into any of the ubiquitous corner trattorie, and odds are the food is going to be delicious. The beauty of the Italian trattoria is that it isn't rocket science. This is simple food. But that only makes my inability to find a place I'm happy with at home more frustrating.

Dominic Armato
First, you have the whole Italian/Italian-American schism. While I love the saucy, meaty, tomatoey, Goodfellas-ey Italian-American for what it is, it's so pervasive in this town that it also creeps into the more traditional Italian restaurants with frustrating regularity. Secondly, if there's one thing I cook a ton of, it's pasta. As such, while I long for a little place I can fall into a couple times a week, I leave most establishments feeling that I could've done a better job staying home and doing it myself. Third, for reasons I'll never understand, most of the places that serve authentic Italian in Chicago are skewed heavily towards the upscale end of the spectrum. If you want casual, authentic Mexican, Thai or Polish, you can throw a stone and probably hit a pretty decent place. But authentic Italian requires business casual and a $50 per person commitment. La Bocca Della Verità, on the other hand, requires no such commitments, and it's clearly striving to be exactly the kind of spot for which I've been searching.

Dominic Armato
La Bocca spans three storefronts in Lincoln Square, a casual little joint that successfully covers the bases by offering a dimly-lit room to couples and a more boisterous room to families. The menu is dead-on trattoria fare, with about 20 simple salads and antipasti, a dozen or so pastas, and a handful of fish and meat dishes. Unfortunately, I've found that it's something of a hit-or-miss affair. Tonight, we sampled a couple of antipasti as well as three pastas. The Mozzarella di Bufala was right on the money: a delicious creamy, tart round of cheese accompanied by slices of Granny Smith apple and baby arugula, simply dressed with olive oil and lemon. The Calamari Affogati, on the other hand, was disappointing. I thought the house marinara was a little too heavy for the squid, which was too tough and pushing rubbery territory. What's more, I'm all for gnarly seafoody flavor, but I thought this dish was overly abundant in the fishy category. Calamari can be wonderfully light and clean, but it wasn't here.

Dominic Armato
The pastas displayed the same kind of inconsistency. I've had their Spaghetti alla Carbonara before and adored it in the past, but it seemed a little off tonight. I salute them for keeping their carbonara cream-free, the way it absolutely should be, and the house-cured guanciale is a stellar exercise in crispy, smoky, porky goodness... it's really exceptional and justifies the dish no matter what they do with the rest of it. But the balance felt off tonight. Light on the egg, heavy on the wine? And more frustrating, the pasta was a little overdone. It wasn't so overcooked as to be offensive, but it clearly went a bit too far which is something that should really never happen in a place like this. In any case, this is a dish that I know can excel, even if it wasn't quite there tonight. The Gnocchi al Pomodoro, however, were just flat. They weren't nearly as light and fluffy as I'd like, and the tomato sauce had a certain one-dimensional quality that I couldn't quite put a finger on. I'm leaning towards not enough olive oil, but in truth, I'm not sure.

Dominic Armato
The one special we tried, however, definitely impressed... doubly so since it's one of my favorite pastas. The Pappardelle sull'Anatra had a beautiful flavor and bite, with a duck ragu that kept things simple and avoided drowning the bird in other flavors. It was a little oily, a little buttery, cheesed just a touch, and the duck was delicious. Interestingly, while such a ragu is usually a little wetter with ground or shredded duck, La Bocca's bird was barely sauced and very finely diced. It was a nice little textural twist that I thought worked great. Hands-down winner of the night, and if they consistently turned out dishes of this quality, I'd be a happy fellow. Desserts were simple and tasty, but the espresso was a bit dirty tasting, only furthering the theme for the evening. In the end, I came away feeling the same as I have the other times we've stopped in. La Bocca does some things very well, and they're good enough to tantalize me and make me pine for the kind of trattoria perfection that they fall a little short of attaining, even if their heart's in the right place. That said, they're still much, much closer than most of the other joints I've tried in this burg. And yet, the quest continues.

La Bocca Della Verità
4618 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
Sun - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PM

January 01, 2007

Tank Restaurant

Dominic Armato
Vietnamese is at or near the top of the list of cuisines I don't know nearly as well as I'd like. I have some general knowledge of the flavors and common ingredients, I'm familiar with many of the most common traditional dishes, but I haven't spent nearly as much time eating my way through Argyle (Chicago's most prominent Vietnamese neighborhood) as I'd like. A couple of months back my ladylove and I decided it was time to change that, so we stopped by what is probably the most well-known of Chicago's casual authentic Vietnamese joints, Pho Xe Tang, aka Tank Restaurant. It has quickly become something of a favorite, and we've been back four times since. Of course, in five trips we've only just barely begun to scratch the surface of the formidable 256 item menu, but we're doing our best to make a dent. Technically speaking, they're a self-proclaimed Vietnamese and Chinese joint, and there are a great many dishes that certainly seem more Chinese than Vietnamese to me. So far, however, we've focused on the Vietnamese fare.

Dominic Armato
I'm no expert on authentic Vietnamese, but I have it on good authority that Tank is the real deal. Given how delicious everything has been, I don't find that hard to believe. Though I should probably be shot for even starting to make a comparison, Vietnamese has always struck me as Thai's simpler, not quite as explosive but fresher and cleaner cousin... there's sweetness that isn't cloying, rice noodles and wrappers, an abundance of shrimp, fish sauce in lieu of salt, vinegar, citrus, and piles and piles of fresh herbs. That and an unusual amount of grilled beef. I've always found Vietnamese very light and refreshing, and Tank is a great place to get it. It's a very casual joint that's loud, a little chaotic and usually packed. I have to wonder if the name has any meaning beyond the most obvious, but there's a little tank on the menu and most of the servers wear camo aprons, so it isn't just a matter of erroneous transliteration. The tables are piled high with hordes of condiments, including hoisin sauce, fish sauce, rice vinegar with jalapeno, a couple types of chile sauce and more. While I always try to trust the chef, it's a dream for those like me who can't help but taste and adjust.

Dominic Armato
The appetizers include a number of spring roll variations, both fresh and fried. We tried the most basic of each, the cha gio (fried egg rolls) and goi cuon (fresh spring rolls). The fried rolls are served with lettuce leaves for wrapping, and an extremely light, fresh sweet & sour fish sauce for dipping. There are endless variations out there, traditional and otherwise, on fried spring rolls, but this is my favorite way to have them. The sauce isn't overly potent and cloying, so it doesn't bury the flavor of the roll, and wrapping the roll in a fresh lettuce leaf takes an otherwise heavy dish and makes it light and refreshing. The fresh spring rolls are also straight-up traditional, with rice vermicelli, fresh herbs, shrimp, sprouts, a couple of other vegetables and, in Tank's case, a bit of pork. They're served with a chilled peanut sauce that's smooth and slightly sweet. Simple and delicious, both.

Dominic Armato
Next up, pictured above, is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, chao tom... lovingly referred to in our household as shrimp pops. A thick paste is first made from shrimp, shallots, garlic, pork fat and some other seasonings. This paste is then formed around sugarcane and grilled. It brings to mind my old favorite, the Japanese shrimpburger, but it's a little more refined. At Tank, it's served with a pile of fresh herbs and rice vermicelli, as well as dried rice wrappers and a bowl of hot water with which to rehydrate them. High-maintenance, but that's the price you pay for extreme freshness. I also ordered the banh cong, which wasn't at all what I expected, but we loved it nonetheless. It's translated as "deep fried shrimp cakes stuffed with mung bean", and I thought it'd be closer to the chao tom, but it actually veered much more towards the mung bean end of the spectrum. I'm sure there was some shrimp in the cake itself (aside from the crispy fried shrimp on top), but the texture and flavor was much more of a fried batter, which is where I assume the mung beans came in. The banh cong came with similar accoutrements, the exception being lettuce instead of rice wrappers for rolling.

Dominic Armato
We had a couple of spectacular salads as well. The first is bun bo nuong, which comes in a number of varieties that vary some of the toppings. They're all served on a base of chilled rice vermicelli with some lettuce, cucumber, carrot, bean sprouts and mint, and they come with a lightly tart and sweet "lemon fish sauce" for dressing. The version you see here includes grilled beef and shrimp, chopped peanuts, a fried egg roll (same as the appetizer, I believe) and a slice of grilled sausage. Everything is simple and delicious, but the sausage was a surprise. It's some powerful stuff, fairly tart and very garlicky. I understand it's made in-house, and it's really delicious. The dish mixes cold and hot, tart and sweet, moist and dry... all wonderfully balanced. I've had "Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salads" elsewhere that were inspired by this dish, but they have a tendency to get far too heavy and overpowering... more like noodles swimming in sweet sour sauce. I know I sound like a broken record, but Tank keeps this dish very simple, light and refreshing. When it's 90º and muggy, this will be at or near the top of my list of perfect hot weather meals.

Dominic Armato
This one, however, is probably my favorite of everything we've tasted so far. It's called bo tai chanh, and it's a salad that's primarily composed of a very healthy helping of thinly sliced beef that's just barely cured in onions and lemon juice... essentially raw. It also contains large strips of onion, carrot and red bell pepper, along with a ton of fresh basil, another long-leafed and very green-tasting herb I can't identify, and a little fresh lime to squeeze. Finally, it's topped with a few airy, crispy shrimp chips for texture. I'm partial to good preparations of raw beef so I'm a little predisposed to enjoy this one, but I still think it's one of the best raw beef treatments I've had. It's definitely the most raw beef I've ever consumed in one sitting, which is probably saying something right there. I've had some mean carpaccios, but none that I'd want to eat in this quantity. Light, citrusy, delicious, and absolutely featuring the beef.

Dominic Armato
Of course, there's some more wintry fare as well. One that sounded quite promising but ended up being my singular disappointment was the hu tieu kho dac biet. It's billed as a "special" rice noodle soup, and by special I can only assume they mean all-encompassing. A very mild broth is served on the side (I suspect so that it can be seasoned before being added to the noodles, though if anybody with more Vietnamese experience can confirm, I'd love to know for sure), and the noodles are topped with so many little tastes I can't even remember them all. There was cooked shrimp, barbecued pork, cooked chicken, a couple different dumplings, pork meatball, a salted quail egg, crab meat, cucumbers, herbs, fried shallots and a few other items I'm forgetting. There's a certain novelty to the little taste of everything under the sun approach, but unlike the other dishes we had that incorporated multiple elements, I didn't feel that these worked together. It may very well be intended as more of a sampler and less of a cohesive dish, but it just didn't appeal to me.

Dominic Armato
Let this not, however, lend the impression that Tank doesn't serve some excellent soups, because their pho is phenomenal. If the chilled noodle salad is my ideal hot weather dish, this is my ideal cold weather dish. I've had pho at a few other joints in the city, but having it at Tank was like tasting it for the first time. Admittedly, this may be a function of my pho inexperience rather than Tank's awesomeness, but I suspect it's more the latter than the former. For anybody who's still in the dark, pho is an intensely flavored yet very light and clear beef soup that is one of the primary faces of Vietnamese cuisine in the States (not to mention the inspiration for endless bad puns). Tank serves a number of variations on the theme, but I tried the restaurant's namesake, the pho xe tang. It's a slightly larger bowl than the rest that includes a number of different cuts of beef, including brisket, flank, tendon, tripe, a meatball, and a small pile of rice vermicelli hiding at the bottom. Though I'm sure many will be tempted to choose iterations of the soup that skip the tendon, tripe and more intimidating beefy parts, I'd discourage that practice. Flavor-wise, they're completely inoffensive. They're all about texture, and if they just don't do it for you, well, they're easy to eat around. But you owe it to yourself to give them a try.

Dominic Armato
As for the broth, though you're given a ton of options for seasoning the soup yourself, this is the first pho I've had that I don't feel obligated to season. It's dynamite all on its own, with a great beefy intensity and a nice blend of seasonings that, much to my excitement, doesn't skimp one bit on the star anise. Still, pho is all about personalization, and in addition to the myriad table condiments mentioned above, each bowl comes with a plate of accoutrements including bean sprouts, basil, the aforementioned mystery herb from the raw beef salad, sliced jalapenos and a wedge of fresh lime. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm accustomed to hammering my pho with fish sauce and vinegar (a desperate attempt to jazz up mediocre pho, I like to think), but at Tank, I find that a little fresh basil, a tiny dash of lime and a couple of jalapeno slices are all the modification I wish on such a great soup. It's their namesake for a reason.

Pho Xe Tang (Tank Restaurant)
4953 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640
Mon - Sat8:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun8:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Closed Wed