Smothered Chicken and Creamed Spinach

It’s the day after Christmas, and although I love turkey and dressing, ham, and all those other holiday dishes – I don’t want to look at them again until next year. What I want now is something savory and good, with the earthy flavor of mushrooms, smoky bacon, and rich melted cheese; what I want is a good plate of smothered chicken.  Smothered chicken is so easy to make at home that you’ll wonder how any restaurant could possibly get away with charging twelve bucks a plate for it. Paired with a bowl of creamed spinach, this chicken is good for a quick dinner that will look like a total mess but taste incredible.

Smothered Chicken:

  • 1-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts. If they’re small, serve one breast per person, but most chicken breasts these days are huge, so feel free to slice them up into smaller portions as desired.
  • 1 cup mushrooms. I prefer the brown “baby bella” mushrooms, but you can use white button, oyster, or shiitake mushrooms.
  • Enough shredded cheese to cover your chicken. I’m using a firm, whole milk mozzarella here, but feel free to substitute your favorite cheese (provolone is especially nice).
  • 4 slices bacon, fried and crumbled (reserve grease).
  • Herbs de Provence.
  • Salt and Pepper.

If you wish, brine your chicken breasts for 1-2 hours depending on size. If brining, allow the chicken breasts to sit out of the brine for about 20 minutes before cooking. Season chicken with salt and pepper and grill your chicken – I’m using a cast iron grill pan, but any grilling method is great.  Set chicken aside to rest.  Fry the bacon (if you haven’t already), and once the bacon is crispy, remove from pan, retaining grease. Slice mushrooms thin and saute in the bacon grease until they have released their liquid and become golden brown. Top chicken with mushrooms, bacon, and cheese and sprinkle on the herbs de provence; place chicken under broiler until cheese has melted and browned.

Creamed Spinach:

  • 2-4 cups of chopped spinach (use fresh, it’s so much better).
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped.
  • 2 tablespoon unsalted butter.
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour.
  • 1 cup milk (or half and half).
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Ready a large bowl of ice water nearby. Blanch your spinach by first boiling for 3 minutes and then immediately plunging into the ice water.  Set aside to drain.

In a skillet, melt the butter and sweat the shallots until they are soft but not brown. Add the flour, stirring to make a roux. Be careful here; we want a blond roux, so keep the heat low and don’t let the flour brown. When the flour has taken on a slightly golden color, add the milk, salt, and pepper and stir until thick. Put the drained spinach in a bowl and pour the sauce over and mix well. Enjoy!

Review: Nom Noms Mexican Grill-n-Chill

Ice cream is one of those things that I really enjoy but don’t eat very often. Other than the occasional pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or rare trip to Coldstone Creamery, I don’t even think about ice cream when my sweet tooth gets hold of me. All that may be about to change, though, after tonight’s trip to Nom Noms Mexican Grill-n-Chill on Central Avenue in Hot Springs. Nom Noms boasts 42 different flavors of homemade ice cream, a wide variety to suit almost any taste. In addition to the ice cream, Nom Noms has popsicle bars available, too, as well as a full service grill.  We came in after a large meal in search of dessert, so I can’t speak to the hot food except to say that it smelled quite good (and that we’ll be back to try it another day).

We had passed Nom Noms on several previous occasions, but it had remained one of those “oh, we’ve got to try that sometime” places. At the urging of a friend, we decided to try it when we were in Hot Springs for Jess’ mom’s birthday, and my only regret is that it took us this long to make our way in. The setup is typical of any ice cream shop: tubs of each flavor displayed under a covered counter, but closer inspection reveals some very interesting flavors like Rose Petal and Avocado Cream as well as more traditional flavors like Cookie Dough and Chocolate. Jess’ choice was the Key Lime, a sweet and tart mixture that tasted exactly like a frozen key lime pie, even down to the bits of graham cracker crust mixed throughout.  Jess’ dad opted for the Raspberry Cream, and remarked that the flavor reminded him favorably of Jelly Belly jelly beans.  I sampled both and was impressed by the smooth, rich texture of the ice cream as well as the flavor.

Jess’ mom went with the Almond Cappuccino, a creamy concoction of luscious coffee ice cream striped with ribbons of chocolate and crushed almond. I love coffee ice cream, and before now, my favorite was from Braum’s (Cappuccino Chocolate Chunk)  – but this was easily its equal.  My own selection was one of the more out-of-the-ordinary flavors, Strawberry Jalapeno. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but having never had ice cream made with hot peppers, I couldn’t pass it up. The texture was just as creamy and good as all the other flavors we tried, but the taste was quite surprising: cool, sweet strawberry at first with a shock of subtle heat on the back of the tongue that made everybody’s eyes go wide as they tried a bite. I’ve never had an ice cream that was cold in my mouth but also brought a little bit of pepper-heat sweat to my forehead as I finished the cup.  I was delighted by the combination of flavors, and as strange as they might sound together, they worked together completely.

Although at this point we were far too full to keep going, we kept going anyway. We certainly didn’t want to leave without sampling a couple of Nom Bars, and these were even better than the ice cream. In keeping with my spicy/sweet theme, I got the Mango-Chili bar, a combination of sweet mangoes, tart lime juice, and a salty/spicy chili mixture that was an even better flavor profile than the Strawberry Jalapeno ice cream.  Jess and I sometimes make a fresh mango and red pepper salad, and this was like that salad in a frozen popsicle form.  The next time I make it back, it’s going to be really hard for me to try another flavor of Nom Bar because this one was so incredibly tasty.  Jess’ selection, the Orange Juice Fruit Melody (below left), was just as good, though – a fresh fruit cocktail of kiwis, cherries, and strawberries frozen in tangy orange juice. There are almost as many flavors of Nom Bars as there are of ice cream, and I’m impressed at the quality and creativity that has gone into each selection.

What’s most pleasant and surprising about the frozen treats at Nom Noms is how fresh tasting they are. It’s easy to tell the difference in product that has been sitting in the back of a warehouse freezer for months and shipped halfway across creation and product that is made locally with craftsmanship and care. The service was excellent; I really felt like the staff working was excited for us to try their food – a feeling you definitely don’t get from the folks working the counter at Coldstone or Baskin Robbins. Nom Noms Mexican Grill-n-Chill is located 3371 Central Avenue in Hot Springs (in what used to be Taco Bell), and they’re open 11am-10pm Monday-Thursday, 11am-Midnight Friday, and Saturday they start at 11am and work the clock around until 10pm Sunday night.  They’ve got free Wi-Fi available, and honestly, if you can’t find a flavor you like here – you’ve just got bad taste. Enjoy!

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Moules Mariniere (Mussels Steamed in Wine)

One of my favorite things to eat is moules mariniere, mussels steamed with butter and white wine, but it isn’t a dish that’s easily made here in Arkansas. Or at least that’s what I thought before two very fortuitous things happened this week: Jess got me Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook and we discovered some very inexpensive and fresh mussels at Whole Foods over on Rodney Parham. I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about Whole Foods in general – the prices are usually outrageous and you have to wade through a lot of unnecessary products to find something really worthwhile. I’ll give the seafood counter staff in Little Rock a lot of credit, though – the gentleman who helped us out let us really pick and choose which mussels we wanted and made sure that we got two pounds of good-smelling live ones, a nice change from some other local markets we’ve tried, all at a very reasonable $4.99/lb.  We added bottle of sauvignon blanc from Mount Bethel winery in Altus and a loaf of crusty French bread and headed home to steam some mussels.

Choosing good mussels is, of course, the most important part of the dish. You want mussels that are shiny black and closed, and they should smell like rich, good seawater. If you pick up a mussel that is open, give it a good tap and if it closes, it’s still alive and good to go. Don’t buy any that stay open or feel too light – we want these little morsels to be alive when we get them home, not dead and smelling like an old tuna boat.  After selecting your mussels, take them home and soak them in cold water for an hour or so – this will allow them to discharge any sand that might be present in the shells.  Some of your shellfish might have little “beards” attached; pull those off right before you get ready to cook.

When you are ready to cook, here’s what the Les Halles Cookbook says you need (adapted to serve two):

  • 2-3 pounds mussels.
  • 1 large shallot, sliced thin.
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine.
  • 4 ounces butter (with one ounce held in reserve).
  • Salt and Pepper.
  • Parsley (finely chopped).

Heat the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the shallots. Cook the shallots until they are soft and just beginning to brown, and marvel at the amazing aroma. Add the wine and bring up to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Put the mussels into the pot and cover with a tight-fitting lid; give the pot a good shake so that they’re coated with all that buttery goodness.  Steam until the mussels have opened, about 5-10 minutes. Throw in the parsley and the rest of the butter, toss to evenly distribute. Put your mussels in a serving bowl and pour on the sauce. Serve with a ton of bread, because this sauce begs to be sopped up to the last drop.

You may find that a couple of your mussels did not steam open; discard those. This is one of the simplest dishes to make, but the flavor and presentation are elegant and refined. It works perfectly as a first course, but I’m especially fond of it as a light dinner by itself. French cuisine has a reputation for being fussy and complex, but as Bourdain says in the introduction to the Les Halles Cookbook, simple recipes like this are “the most beloved, old-school, typical, and representative” dishes of true classic French cooking. The cooking time here is only about fifteen minutes, and you can’t get much better than this dish in that amount of time. Happy Cooking!

Braised Venison

The opening day of deer season is one of the Southern High Holy Days (up there with Christmas, Easter, and Super Bowl Sunday), but there doesn’t seem to be very much variety in how folks cook their meat: either thin slices, dipped in flour and then fried, or ground into hamburger and put into chili or sausage. We’re huge fans of all those, but venison is very versatile and can benefit greatly from one of our favorite ways of cooking meat: braising. Slow cooking the meat in a mixture of beef stock and red wine is not only flavorful, it also results in extremely tender meat. This is a good way of cooking deer steak for folks who claim they don’t like the stuff because it’s too tough or gamy tasting.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 pound deer steak, sliced thin. We prefer (of course) the back strap, but this method is perfect for cooking the hams, too.
  • 1 bottle red wine.  I’m keeping it cheap and local with Post Familie‘s Traditional Red.
  • 2 cups beef stock. If you aren’t making your own, make sure you get a low sodium version from the store. We’re going to be cooking this stock down and it can get too salty quite fast.  It’s not a bad idea to have a cup or so in reserve, too – sometimes the meat needs extra cooking – which means extra liquid.
  • 1 large onion.
  • 4-6 stalks celery.
  • 2-4 large carrots.
  • Several sprigs fresh thyme.
  • 1-2 cloves fresh garlic.

Soak your sliced venison overnight in cold water, sweet milk, or buttermilk. Change at least once. This will take out some of the wild taste that might be present in the meat (and in the case of buttermilk, helps tenderize).  For older deer, you might want to up the time the meat soaks to two days, but overnight is usually sufficient. After soaking, drain the meat and dry well. Sprinkle with kosher salt and set aside.

Now it’s time to make our red wine reduction. Cooking down red wine with aromatic vegetables is a wonderful way to add flavor to meat, and when mixed with stock and used as a braising liquid also results in a wonderful sauce. Chop half of the carrots, celery, onion, and garlic and put into a saucepan. Add a sprig or two of the thyme. Pour in half the bottle of red wine and simmer on the stove top until the wine is reduced by 1/2 to 2/3 – you want the consistency of the wine to be syrupy. When the wine is reduced, strain into a bowl and discard the cooked vegetables.

To cook the meat, heat some fat in a cast iron skillet. You can use shortening, canola oil, or lard, but what I’m using tonight is a bit of home-rendered schmaltz, a mixture of duck and chicken fat. Home-rendered fat is a good little secret to have up your sleeve because the flavor is so much better than anything you buy in the store. When the fat is hot, brown your meat, being careful not to overcrowd your skillet. It’s better to do the meat in batches because overcrowding the pan causes the meat to steam cook rather than brown – and we want a nice outside flavor and texture to our meat.

When the meat is browned, drain the oil from the skillet and deglaze the pan with one cup of the beef broth. Scrape the bottom of the pan lightly with a wood spatula to loosen up all the good, caramelized bits of meat that are on the bottom – they add great flavor to the sauce. Return the meat to the pan along with the wine reduction, the rest of the stock, and the rest of the vegetables. Add a dash of salt and pepper, being careful not to overdo it (again, flavors will intensify as the meat cooks down). Cover and place into a 400 degree oven until the meat is fork tender.

To make the sauce, remove meat from skillet onto a platter and strain the braising liquid, discarding the vegetables. Return the liquid to the pan, reduce further if needed, and whisk in 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon sauce over meat and serve alone or over rice.  Enjoy!

Review: Igibon Japanese Restaurant

Sushi was a rarity when I was growing up in southern Arkansas, but these days it’s commonly found in area grocery stores and as standard fare on most Chinese buffets. What’s less common is the high quality and variety served up by Igibon Japanese Restaurant on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock.  Jess and I have been hopelessly enamored of the place since our first time eating there, so much so that when I decided to propose to her, I did it over a plate of Igibon’s excellent age shumai. Nestled in the Market Place shopping center, Igibon is easy to miss, but it’s a shame if you do.

Service at Igibon is impeccable – we’ve never been treated with anything less than the most prompt and courteous service possible. Servers remember their regulars, and although tonight was the first time in several weeks we’ve eaten there, one of the waitresses recognized us immediately and warmly welcomed us back. Having said that, I must warn that excellent service does not translate into fast service, and this is a plus: your order is prepared fresh for you when you place it, and the quality workmanship in the sushi is well worth a bit of a wait. The atmosphere of the restaurant is so conducive to a leisurely meal that I doubt you’ll even notice the extra time it takes to prepare your meal.

We began our meal tonight with inarizushi, sushi rice wrapped in sweet fried tofu, and the mussel clam roll, a nori wrapped mixture of mussels and spices over rice with just a bit of crunch for texture. The inari was flavorful and rich, and I can’t speak highly enough of the mussel and clam mixture. It was rich and savory, with just a bit of spice from the sriracha dotted atop it, and unlike many mussel dishes served locally, it lacked any stale, overpowering fish flavor: a testament to the freshness of Igibon’s sushi.

The menu has a wide variety of non-sushi Japanese dishes such as yakitori and the aforementioned age shumai, and tonight Jess and I went for one of our favorite edible critters, the soft-shell crab. The crab came split in half, dipped in tempura batter, and lightly fried. The batter was perfect, light and crisp without being oily or heavy, and it accentuated (rather than overpowered) the delicate sweetness of the crab meat. This was the first time we had ordered this dish, but I assure you that it won’t be the last.

Our main dish of sushi consisted of tuna rolls, spicy salmon rolls, and another soft-shell crab creation, the spider roll (our waitress pegged us right, “You two love soft-shell crab!”).  The tuna roll and the spicy salmon roll are basic sushi options served in most places that sell sushi, but once again, Igibon’s fresh ingredients set them apart in flavor and texture. The tuna has a firm texture and buttery, rich taste, while the spicy salmon was rich and good with enough spice to be assertive without overpowering the delicate taste of the fish.  The spider roll, an incredible mixture of rice, (more) fried soft shell crab, fish eggs, cucumber, and avocado, is worth going for alone. The texture combination of soft, firm, and crunchy work together quite well. It’s a hard thing to describe except to say this: perfection.

Igibon Japanese Restaurant is a winner of many local reader’s choice awards from the Arkansas Times, and it’s easy to see why. Great food served by an excellent staff is all too rare these days, and deserves to be recognized where it exists. If you’re in the mood to just sample the food without spending a lot, go before 7pm Monday-Thursday for “happy hour,” a special sushi menu that has sampler sizes of all their rolls and sashimi for less than the full dinner price. Dinner is still a value, though, as two people can easily eat their fill (with great variety) for $30 or less. Igibon is located at 11121 Rodney Parham Road, Suite 13A in Little Rock. You won’t be disappointed!

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Review: Larry’s Pizza (Bryant)

There’s a lot of bad pizza out there, mostly made by national restaurant chains who care more about their bottom lines than they do quality products (Domino’s recent claims otherwise notwithstanding). Far rarer are the truly great pizza places, places that have a taste all their own, serving pizza you can find yourself waking up craving at 3am. And somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is Larry’s Pizza, an Arkansas-based chain of restaurants started in 1992 by Larry White in Little Rock. The location nearest us, in Bryant, is the second oldest store in the chain. The restaurant itself is large and clean, with numerous tables and booths to choose from. Seating was a bit haphazard, though, as we were just kind of waved on to the dining room upon entering and told to seat ourselves. We sat near several other tables, and there didn’t seem to be a server assigned to any specific section; whoever saw a table first became that table’s server.  This led to a bit of confusion in the staff about who had been waited on or not, but we were finally able to place an order.

The menu boasts a variety of typical build-your-own toppings and sizes ranging from the 7.5″ small to the 16″ large. In addition, there are a great number of specialty pizzas on the menu, including everything from the expected Supreme and Meat “Madness” pizzas to stranger offerings like Baked Potato and Cheeseburger (the former with a sour cream topping and the latter substituting mustard for the sauce).  We decided to order two of the small pizzas: Jess made a three-topping “build-your-own” with diced tomatoes, bacon, and green olives (see below left), while I ordered the Garlic Chicken specialty pizza (see above right).

The resulting pizzas were…well, they weren’t terrible. Larry’s certainly doesn’t skimp on toppings like most chains do, and other than a brief screw up by the kitchen (for which our server apologized by saying “them boys can’t read tickets”), we were served very quickly. At the same time, though, the pizzas weren’t all that great either, and their major downfall was the crust. Larry’s doesn’t offer a choice of crust thicknesses – which is fine by me, because I’ve always felt that too many pizza places offer a hundred different types of crust without getting any of them right. Unfortunately, Larry’s has the same problem with their single offered crust, a thin, flavorless crust lacking any sort of texture or support for the ample toppings. A bit longer in the oven would perhaps help the sogginess, but I don’t know that it would do anything for the lack of taste.

Larry’s Pizza is the sort of pizza place that is pretty typical for small towns – a big, cheerfully-lit place with a game room to accommodate families after church. As far as that goes, Larry’s excels, filling a valuable niche in the community. For me, though, such mediocre pizza just doesn’t cut it, and there are places in Arkansas far better than Larry’s, like Damgoode Pies in Little Rock, or Layla’s Gyros and Pizzeria just a block over from Larry’s – both of which have delicious, flavorful crusts and toppings that don’t taste like they came off the Sysco truck. Larry’s is an excellent place to carry small children or large groups, but the serious pizza lover might be better served going somewhere else.

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