Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson

photo 5 (2)Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson, a dish that is proof positive that absolutely everything sounds better in French. Here in the South, all that fancy talk translates to this: cheesy taters with sausage and onions. Either way, it’s delicious.

This dish comes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, and was featured on an episode of her PBS show “The French Chef” way back before color had even been invented. It’s basically a casserole made from lightly boiled potatoes, Polish sausage, onions, Swiss cheese — and because this is a Julia recipe, a healthy dose of cream. The result is a savory, flavorful concoction of creamy textures, excellently melded flavors, and is one of the few potato dishes out there that works magnificently as a main course. There’s a little bit of prep work that goes into making the dish, but none of it is hard — and with results this good, it’s worth it. Here’s what you’ll need:

Gratin de pommes de terre et saucisson (adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child)

  • photo 2 (5)Two pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced. I used Yukon Gold potatoes because I really love their flavor, plus they stand up to cooking nicely.
  • 1-2 onions, sliced — depends on how oniony you like your food.
  • One Polish sausage, sliced into pieces. Nothing fancy, I used Hillshire Farms.
  • 1 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups light or heavy cream. You can use regular milk, but come on, you’re doing a Julia Child recipe. Indulge yourself.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • Butter

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add your sliced potatoes. You don’t want to completely cook them, just give them a boil of 10-12 minutes until they start becoming tender. While my water was coming up to the boil, I browned my sausage pieces in a skillet. Julia doesn’t do this in her version of the recipe, but I think browned sausage has a better flavor than plain, plus we’re going to use the fat that renders for our onions.

After the sausage is browned, set it aside for later. You should be left with a skillet that has some fat from the sausage in it, so go ahead and swirl a tablespoon of butter into that fat over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add your onions, cooking them until they are opaque and soft, but don’t brown them. Once your onions and potatoes are done, you’re ready to build your masterpiece.

On the bottom of a buttered baking dish, put a layer of half of your potatoes, then a layer of half your onions. Add just a touch of salt and pepper. Add the all the sausage to form a third layer, then top with the remaining potatoes and onions. Beat together the eggs and the cream, and pour the mixture over everything, then give the dish a good shake so that all that goodness settles to the bottom. Top everything with the grated Swiss cheese, then bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes. The egg and cream mixture will form a delicious custard-like layer (sort of like a quiche) and the Swiss cheese will turn a lovely shade of brown. Try not to go back for seconds on this one — I’ll bet you can’t do it! Happy cooking — and as Julia would say, bon appétit!

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Let’s build a charcuterie platter

photo 4 (2)So you’ve got people coming over and you need something for them to chew on while you finish up your cooking. Or maybe you just want to have the sort of dinner that is best eaten with the fingers — there’s a lot to be said for that. In either case, you need a charcuterie plate. 

When building your charcuterie plate, don’t screw around with the cheap stuff. Ham rolls and cheddar cheese from your local grocer might be okay for an office party, but this is something you’re going to serve in your home, to people that you (hopefully) like. So don’t be a cheapskate. Buying high quality ingredients is actually better in the long run — richer, better meats will satiate your guests better, quicker, and more thoroughly, giving them a real “wow” moment before you spring your soup, salad, and main courses on them. And if, like us, you like doing this for the occasional dinner, treat it like a night out at a good restaurant — a good meat and cheese plate should be an event, something to be savored. Make it memorable. Here’s how:

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High quality prosciutto from La Quercia

Step one is prosciutto, always. Good prosciutto is a symphony of salty, sweet, nutty, and wild flavors all rolled up into a thin slice of unctuous ham. With prosciutto, the idea that a little goes a long way is key, so don’t let the sticker shock of the per pound price frighten you when you step up to the butcher counter. Yes, if you buy a whole pound of the good stuff you’re going to be spending some coin, but unless you’re feeding your local high school football team, you won’t need anywhere near a pound. This stuff is sliced paper thin, which means each slice is light — and it’s so rich, a couple of pieces are more than enough to satisfy most appetites. My favorite prosciutto comes from La Quercia in Iowa — and yes, I’ve had the imported stuff, and I promise that La Quercia is better. The picture above features their Prosciutto Americano on the left and a cut from the shoulder on the right. Different prosciuttos will have different flavors, so get a couple of kinds — your butcher will most likely let you sample before you buy (and if they don’t, get a new butcher).

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Clockwise from top: Hillcrest Artisan Meats duck ham, pate, and Olli salmi

Now that you’ve gotten your prosciutto foundation, you need to add a few more things to provide some variety in texture and flavor. A pate (lower right) is a must-have (recipe here), although a liver mousse can also be good. Pate adds an earthy element to the plate — there’s a lot going on in a well-made pate, and something wonderful about cutting into something that basically amounts to meat butter. Rillettes, headcheese, or scrapple can also make for an interesting addition — it’s processed meat the old-fashioned way. Good salami (lower left) is always welcome, and while I prefer a hard salami, just pick the one you like the most. Don’t like regular salami? Go for sopressata, or add some beef to the plate with some thin-slice bresaola. Have fun and use your imagination!

The top picture up there is my “wild card” meat, a house-made duck ham made by my butcher, Brandon Brown of Hillcrest Artisan Meats. Your butcher will probably have some of these specialty items that they make, so asking “hey, what’s good in the case” is always a great place to start — surprising things can happen. Brandon has fed me things like pastrami made from lung, house-made coppacola, and various sausages that have all been tasty. That duck ham has fat to it like the prosciutto, but also comes with a compelling smoky flavor that makes it different from anything else on the plate.

Now that you’ve gotten a variety of meats, you need cheeses. Gouda, brie, and blue cheeses are all good for a meat plate, as each appeals to different people and represents a variety of flavors and textures. Chevre or fromage blanc are also nice, as their soft consistency lends itself to spreading on bread or crackers. Cornichons, olives, pickled vegetables (okra, asparagus, and pearl onions are always good), and Dijon mustard are also good additions, and of course you have to have some good bread and crackers. Spiced nuts or other sweet items are optional, but can provide a nice sugar balance to all that cured meat.

Building a good charcuterie plate is almost as fun as eating one. Picking out just the right sort of meats and cheeses is something of an adventure — and your guests will certainly thank you with every bite. Happy eating!

Coppacola from Hillcrest Artisan Meats

photo (4)Go ahead and spend some time looking at that picture over there. I can wait. I promise you that nothing I’m going to say about it will exceed the sheer beauty of that photograph.

Did you take it in? How could you not, right?

That, my friends is some house-made coppacola from our friends over at Hillcrest Artisan Meats. You may have heard me mention them a couple of hundred times. Hey, when the food is this good, a man’s gotta talk about it, you know?

So I’m sitting at work last week, and I load up Twitter to find a message from H.A.M. that I should stop by the store to try something new. At almost the same instant, I get a text message from Steve Shuler over at the Little Rock Foodcast telling me that it would most definitely be in my best interest to head up to the Hillcrest butcher shop. Neither message let on what is awaiting me there, and since I don’t need much of an excuse to go hang out at the meat counter, I hurried that way as soon as I got off.

What greeted me was that lovely display you see up top: pork cured with salt and sugar, rubbed with cayenne and left to air-dry for 4 months. Unlike other versions of this salume I’ve had, this wasn’t dried to the point of having a leathery texture, instead possessing a chewy, unctuous texture that hit the sweet spot that comes with the perfect balance of muscle with fat. The flavor was salty, spicy, earthy, and wild all at once, with a sort of elegant funk to it that gave it one hell of a character. I chewed a couple more slices in silence, eyes half closed, experiencing one of those food moments that only seem to happen to me with good pork. It was a delightful and delectable triumph, and a sign of more good things to come from the H.A.M. crew.

Special thanks to Brandon and Tara Brown for sharing this particular delicacy with me — I made sure to buy a pound of hanger steak as a thank you (and I still got the better end of that deal, because I had hanger for my supper). Yet another reason why Little Rock has the best butcher shop in these United States. Happy eating!

Great salad, or greatest salad?

photo 2Sometimes, all I want to eat is a salad. There’s just something that’s extremely compelling about the light, fresh crunch of greens topped with a little bit of protein and a killer dressing. We’re blessed here in Little Rock with several places that know their way around salad, from the cheese-piled chef-style salads at US Pizza to the artisan meat and cheese affairs served up at Boulevard Bread Company to a chicken liver-topped masterpiece at South on Main that blows me away every time. And after eating salads all over this city, I think I’ve found the greatest salad that Little Rock has to offer.

And it’s being sold at a burger joint.

Now before you scoff, let me clarify: this ain’t no regular burger joint. I’m talking Big Orange, part of a family of restaurants that has made excellent salads part of what they do. Starting with ZAZA Pizza in the Heights, these restaurants excel at pretty much everything they do. And with the Thai Chop Salad, I they have gone above and beyond a mere salad and into the realm of the sublime.

The Thai Chop is a massive plate of romaine lettuce, shaved cabbage, tasty tomatoes, fresh jalapenos, red pepper, cilantro, basil, peanuts and sauteed steak, all served with a spicy, tangy dressing that is one of the most compelling combinations of ingredients I’ve ever had. You may think I’m being hyperbolic about how good this salad is, but I promise you, it’s even better than I can describe. Savory, spicy, and at the same time cool and light, this salad keeps the flavors coming in all directions. I love Big Orange’s burgers, but lately this salad is all I want to eat — and since the Midtown location is just up the block from me, I eat there often.

Summertime is salad time, so if you haven’t tried this one yet, put it on your agenda. The Big Orange gang also tries to locally source ingredients whenever possible, which is another plus — so pass on the burgers on your next trip and try the best thing on the menu. Happy eating!

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Bad food — and expensive, too!

photo (3)No, the picture over there on the right isn’t one of the 1,319 current Federal Superfund sites, but it’s a crime nonetheless. That, my friends, is an actual plate of food that I ordered and was served recently at Bruno’s Little Italy on Main Street, part of a disastrous meal which I talked about in more detail here. This particular dish — a fetid combination of chicken livers, mushrooms, pan sauce, and pasta — deserves some special recognition: it’s one of the worst dishes I’ve eaten, and it cost me $17.95. Now I’m sure that some of you reading this won’t see eighteen bucks as a lot to pay for a plate of food, but to me, that’s expensive. This writing thing manages to pay a lot of the bills, but I’m not exactly Scrooge McDucking into a pile of krugerrands wearing a speedo made out of hundred dollar bills.

Which brings me to the whole point of this article — expensive meals that suck. In the case of those chicken livers (a food with which I am normally quite enamored), the downfall lay with how they were cooked, which in a word, was burned. And not just a little burned, no, there was the robust flavor of charred flour and meat in every bite (and the livers themselves tasted a little unfresh as well). When all was said and done, I was left with a bill approaching $70…and I was still hungry. Oh, and pissed off.

The most expensive crappy meal I ever ate was at Pancetta in the downtown Marriott. That meal reached poetic proportions of badness and made me envy our ancient homo erectus ancestors — and their diet included scavenged zebra that spent days baking in the African sun. I was lucky that my newspaper was picking up the tab for that one, because if I had been forced to drop a Franklin-plus of my own money on that meal, I probably would have wound up in jail. 

Thinking back to my younger years, I recall making $4.25 an hour and thinking that a $25 meal for two was a hopeless extravagance. These days, I’m able to enjoy meals at far better places than then, but that doesn’t guarantee a good time every time. There are still some really bad places out there, and part of what I want to achieve as a food critic is warning my readers about places that will steal your hard-earned cash, fill your mouth with garbage, and then ask for a tip. A bad meal that empties your wallet is the most painful dining experience possible, and I’m just lucky to live in a city where bad meals are a rare occurrence. And don’t eat at Pancetta. Cheers!

Kava, the root of relaxation

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Long ago, on one of the islands of Vanuatu, legend speaks of a brother and sister who lived a peaceful life. The girl was very beautiful, and many men traveled from the surrounding islands to seek her hand in marriage — but she rejected them all. One of these suitors grew angry at the girl’s rejection and flew into a rage. The brother rose up to protect his sister, and the two men fought. The suitor let loose an arrow in his anger, which missed the brother and struck the sister, killing her instantly.

The brother was devastated at the death of his sister, and visited her grave daily. On one such visit, he noticed a strange plant growing on the grave which he had never seen before. As time went by, the plant grew larger and larger until an entire year had passed. The brother, still distraught over the death of his sister, went on his normal daily visit, and on this particular day, he noticed a rat chewing at the roots of the plant. As he watched, the rat suddenly died. In his grief, the brother took this as a sign, and he decided to end his life by eating the roots which had killed the rat. To his surprise, the roots did not kill him, but instead took away all his bad feelings, and he shared this knowledge with the people of the surrounding villages. The plant was a kava bush, the roots of which would become the basis of a drink sacred to many of the peoples of Oceania.

The kava plant’s scientific name, piper methysticum, means “intoxicating pepper,” and it’s an apt description. The root of the kava plant contains compounds known as “kavalactones” which produce a calming, sedative effect when consumed, while the flavor of the root (which is in the pepper family) is slightly peppery and very earthy. I’ve been drinking kava off and on for years now, and I’ve found it to be a very relaxing beverage that soothes the muscles, calms the nerves, and makes for an excellent sleep aid. The flavor can be somewhat off-putting at first, but I’ve grown very fond of it.

Traditionally, fresh or dried kava root would be chewed or pounded into a pulp, then mixed with water and strained to produce the kava beverage. In these modern times, we have two things which make this process easier: prepared, powdered kava root and the blender (although there is something quite compelling in the hypnotic motions of traditional preparation). My basic preparation is as follows:

  • 2 cups water (for best results, use warm — not boiling! — water, around 140 degrees. Cool tap water is fine, though.)
  • 1 cup almond milk (cow, soy, or other milk is fine — we’re looking for a source of fat, as the kavalactones are more readily absorbed by fat and aren’t soluble in water.)
  • 1/3 cup kava (can be adjusted for a weaker or stronger brew)

Blend the ingredients for about five minutes. At this time, I usually pop my kava into the fridge for at least 1/2 hour, but you can strain immediately if you want. To strain, I use a special nylon kava bag that a supplier sent to me after I left a nice review of their product on Amazon, but basic kava bags can be had for a few dollars. Lacking a strainer bag, feel free to use an old t-shirt or a clean nylon stocking to strain. Keep in mind that most mesh strainers are too big and coffee filters don’t work. When I strain, I let the liquid drain into a large bowl, then I squeeze out the remaining liquid from the kava pulp. Save this pulp, as you can usually get a couple of brewing sessions from it (although potency does decrease).

As for flavor, you can enjoy the kava brew as-is, or you can add things to make it more palatable. Many people add chocolate syrup, but I don’t care for the flavor of chocolate with kava. I am, however, fond of adding some Tazo chai latte concentrate to the mix for a pleasant evening brew, but more and more I’ve just taken my kava straight. Two good local sellers of excellent kava are Maison Terre Natural Products out of North Little Rock (mail order) and Dandelion Herb Shop in the Little Rock River Market. It can also be found in bulk on Amazon.

There are dozens of kava cultivars, each the product of over 3,000 years worth of artificial selection by the South Pacific islanders. This means that if you try one type of kava and don’t like it, don’t give up — try another one. Kava, for me, is preferable to alcohol, as the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced and it doesn’t leave me with a hangover. Still, some caution should be taken if you throw yourself a kava-drinking session: don’t operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery after consuming kava, don’t mix kava with alcohol or prescription drugs, and don’t overdo it — the traditional serving of kava is 4-6 ounces, so the recipe I provided makes for multiple servings. There are also any number of instant kava mixes, pills, and extracts available on the internet, but I can’t speak to them — I prefer to just use the root. So get cheerful, get relaxed, and bula!

David’s Burgers is still the best

photo(1)Little Rock has some great burgers. Two locations of Big Orange, burger Fridays at H.A.M., classic eatery The Box — the list goes on and on. Outside the metro area, we’ve got the burger that brought Man vs. Food to town: the Cotham’s Hubcap. And of course, Russelville is home to Feltner’s, which even as a shadow of its former glory can still make a tasty burger.

But out of all these, David’s Burgers, particularly the Markham Street location, remains my favorite.

So, first things first: what makes a good burger. It starts with high quality meat with a good fat ratio. David’s uses freshly ground chuck, so they’ve got that covered. The burgers should be hand-formed (but not handled too much), then fried on a screaming-hot grill. David’s does that, too. Next, decent toppings, which David’s also does (I like cheese, tomato, grilled onions, and jalapenos on mine). Last, it shouldn’t be too expensive, and it should be served with as many fries as a man can eat — again, David’s passes those tests with flying colors.

This isn’t a fancy burger, it’s more like the Platonic ideal of what a good diner burger should be. It’s a juicy, salty, mammoth slab of ground chuck on a toasted bun, and it tastes like a burger should taste time and time again. There’s a place for fancy burgers — I’m not knocking fancy burgers — but there’s something very compelling about this down-home simple hamburger that keeps me coming back time and time again. Plus, being able to feed two people for less that $20 ain’t bad either.

Simple, delicious food, friendly service, and an endless parade of fries? Yes, that’s David’s Burgers, and it’s why it remains my favorite burger in town.

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