Pork Chops with Apples and Onions

Food Network Magazine had a recipe this month for pork chops with apples and onions, one of my favorite dishes.  I realized reading it that I hadn’t made the sweet and savory dish in several years and set out to rectify that.  The magazine’s recipe is a very basic method of making this classic dish, but I’ve tweaked it a bit to make it better.  First, though, a word about pork chops. Mostly what you find in the store these days are loin chops, either thick cut for braising or grilling or thinly sliced for frying. There’s nothing wrong with these cuts, but I find them to be a bit bland.  My favorite chop is an on-the-bone rib chop, because I think these chops simply have more flavor – mostly because they are a little higher in fat content than a loin chop.  Either cut will work here.

Pork Chops with Apples and Onions

  • 4 Rib Chops, on the bone
  • 2 Granny Smith Apples, cut into 1/2″ pieces (leave skin on)
  • 1 Sweet Yellow Onion, in slices or diced
  • 1/2 cup Apple Juice (make sure it is 100% juice, not sugar water)
  • 1/2 cup Chicken Stock
  • Sage, Thyme, Salt, and Pepper
  • 4 tsp Bacon Grease
  • 2 tsp Canola Oil

Pre-season your chops with some of the salt, pepper, sage and thyme.  Heat 2 teaspoons of the bacon grease and one teaspoon of the canola oil in a cast iron skillet until shimmering and almost ready to smoke.  Sear your chops until they are golden brown on each side; depending on the thickness of your chop this will take 5-8 minutes usually.

When chops are brown, remove them to a platter and add the rest of your bacon grease and oil to the pan and toss in your apples and onions, stirring frequently and frying until they begin to brown.  Be careful with your heat here, because the high sugar content of the apples puts them at risk of burning. When the apples and onions begin to brown, pour in your chicken stock and apple juice and add salt and pepper to taste. Be aware that you’ll be reducing this liquid somewhat, so have a care not to over salt. Put the chops back into the pan with the liquid, onions, and apples and reduce heat to medium. Cover and let simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the chops are cooked through and the liquid has reduced by about half (or a little more if you like a strong sauce).  Serve with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, and enjoy!

 

Cupcakes, Cupcakes, and More Cupcakes

In the past few years, cupcakes have been counted among the hottest foodie trends out there, and really, what’s not to like? They’re cute, easy to eat on-the-go, and evoke a since of nostalgia for the comforts of childhood that many people crave, especially in these times of economic uncertainty.  Of course, plenty of food writers have been eager to announce the death of the cupcake as a trendy food item – because let’s face it, the cupcake has gone mainstream, and of course foodie hipsters can’t be seen liking something that everyone else has discovered.  But leaving all that aside, let’s get to the real question at the heart of the topic: are people making cupcakes in Little Rock, and if so, are they good?

The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes.” Little Rock has two gourmet cupcake bakeries owned and operated by the same group of folks, Cupcakes on Kavanaugh and the new Cupcakes on the Ridge (located in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center).  Jess and I made a point of sampling the goods at both locations and found that they were each quite good.  The cupcakes pictured to the right are from the Kavanaugh location, an Almond Cream and a Black Forest cupcake.  The cake is dense and chewy, with a rich chocolate flavor, and each cupcake boasts its own unique filling – it was a fun surprise to find cherries baked right into my Black Forest cake.  The butter cream icing is thick and incredibly sweet – too sweet for me, to tell the truth, but I’m not the biggest fan of icing in general.  Jess says I’m crazy for feeling that way; she loved the icing.

The setup of the Pleasant Ridge location was very similar to the one on Kavanaugh. Jess immediately went for the Turtle cupcake, a gooey mass of chocolate cake, chopped nuts, and butter cream frosting drizzled with caramel and fudge sauce and filled with a nut and chocolate mix – or as she put it later “A sugarbomb,” albeit one she enjoyed quite a bit.  I was happy to see an offering in the case that wasn’t coated with frosting, the French Breakfast Roll, a buttery white cake rolled in cinnamon-sugar that quickly became my favorite thing on the menu.  The cake was almost creamy, and the light crunch of the cinnamon-sugar reminded me of eating cinnamon toast as a kid. Delicious!

At both locations, the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful – they looked like they were having a good time serving up their tasty little cakes.  And judging by the brisk business (especially at the Pleasant Ridge store), it seems that nobody here in Central Arkansas has gotten the memo that cupcakes are over – and honestly, if they taste this good why should they be?  I’d rather enjoy something tasty and fun to eat than be disdainful of a food just because it’s too “mainstream.”

Cupcakes on Kavanaugh is located at 5625 Kavanaugh Boulevard.  Cupcakes on the Ridge is located at 11525 Cantrell Road in the Pleasant Ridge Shopping Center.  Both places boast a wide variety of cake flavors and friendly staffs, so whichever part of town you find yourself in, treat yourself to something yummy!

Cupcakes on Kavanaugh on Urbanspoon

Review: Jason’s Burgers and More

Don’t be fooled by its dive demeanor and a decor than can only be described as eclectic funk: Jason’s Burgers and More has some serious food.  There are the burgers, of course – thick and juicy with enough choice of toppings to build the beast of your dreams, but Jason’s certainly lives up to the “more” in its name, serving up great steaks, chicken, fish, oysters, ribs, and one of the meanest Philly cheese steaks in Arkansas.  Jason’s is our usual spot to eat after a day at Oaklawn, but the laid back atmosphere, diverse menu, and affordable prices make it a perfect place to eat for almost any occasion.  Tucked away off Highway 7 just south of Hot Springs, Jason’s might seem out of the way but be prepared to get there early or wait for a table: this is a well-loved place among locals and visitors alike.

Jason’s is, of course, best known for their hamburgers, thick slabs of 100% percent ground beef cooked just right and served up hot and juicy with any number of toppings (my favorite is bacon, cheese, and jalapeno).  The monster to the right there is just the single; a double- and even an off-the-menu triple-burger are also available.  Every place serves up a burger these days, and even the gourmet places are getting in on the act with the silliness of “Kobe Beef Burgers,” but Jason’s burger is exactly what a burger should be: flavorful beef served up on a hot bun with no lack of toppings. There’s nothing better.

As you may have gathered, Jason’s food is not for any light eaters or shrinking violets you might have in your midst – portions are huge, cheap, and delicious. In addition to their burgers, they also have the behemoth seen to the left: a foot long beef hot dog (as thick as a kielbasa) smothered in chili, cheese, mustard, onions, and Jason’s tangy homemade cole slaw and served up with more fries than any one human should ever contemplate eating in one sitting. The hot dog itself is grilled so that it has a firm, crunchy skin and a hot middle that explodes into juiciness.  I admit that, on my last visit, I consumed an entire one of these, leaving only a couple of onion slices and about six fries. Totally worth it.

If you’re not in the mood for burgers or hot dogs, Jason’s also has grilled or fried fish, steaks, and one of the best grilled chicken and vegetable dishes I’ve ever tasted. The Philly cheese steak is a don’t miss, although I recommend getting the half portion unless you’ve been living on bread and water for a few weeks or plan on taking some home (and that’s coming from the guy who ate that hot dog monstrosity above).  Rib and shrimp platters are also available as well as several delicious varieties of pie for dessert. Jason’s also has some of the cheapest and coldest pitchers around, so it’s easy to make a night of food and drink last for not a lot of cash.

Jason’s is located on Highway 7 south of Hot Springs, just up Amity road.  They’re open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-9pm and Sunday 11am-9pm. Bar seating is available, and I’m pretty sure they serve wine – although I just stick to beer. Enjoy!

Jason's Burgers & More on Urbanspoon

Review: Ed & Kay’s Restaurant

Jess and I enjoy fine dining as much as the next person, but our hearts truly belong to diners and diner food.  There’s just something about sitting down in a local diner, hearing the small talk of folks who all seem to know each other, and enjoying home-cooked food served up with a smile and a “thanks, y’all!” Sound too good to be true, or maybe a bit cliché? Tell that to the staff of Ed & Kay’s restaurant in Benton, because a better example of such a diner might not exist anywhere.  It’s always amazed me that places like Cracker Barrel and Dixie Cafe can survive at all, because their food and atmosphere are just a cheap, unimaginative attempt at capturing the feel and taste that a place like Ed & Kay’s does effortlessly:  pancakes as big as a dinner plate and lighter than air, fresh grown vegetables, and yeah, the pies really do look like that – they don’t call them “Mile High” pies for nothing!

But more about the pie in a bit, let’s talk about supper.  On a recent visit to Ed & Kay’s, the daily special was the catfish platter: four tender catfish fillets, lightly breaded and fried and a choice of two vegetables.  Jess went for the purple hull peas and the fresh potato salad, a hearty mix of fresh potatoes, onions, pickles, and a light dressing that would fit in at any picnic or pot-luck.  The fish was moist and the batter had a good flavor and light, crispy texture, and while the peas needed a bit of salt to set them right, they were quite tasty with one of the diner’s fresh yeast rolls.  All that was only $7.95 and included a free piece of pie for dessert; if you can find a better deal than that for food this good, please let us know.

The regular dinner plates are still a value at $10.95, and I was very happy with my thin sliced roast beef, creamed potatoes, and purple hull peas.  The beef was tender, but still chewy and flavorful, and the potatoes were creamy and smooth.  Both items were covered with a savory brown gravy that didn’t overwhelm the food but rather added richness and taste.  Once again, a bit of salt was needed for the peas, and I could have gone for a shot of hot sauce, but the jalapeno cornbread muffin was a nice addition to this plate, mostly because Ed & Kay’s doesn’t add sugar to their cornbread and ruin it.  Once again, a piece of their famous pie was included in the meal (and if you’re too full, they’ll let you take it to go).

Of course, the “Mile High” pies (like that lovely coconut cream pie above) are the most famous and dramatic of all the desserts at Ed & Kay’s, but they’ve got some pretty delicious (if more down to earth) selections as well.  Jess opted for the German chocolate pie, a rich chocolate custard pie with a crunchy top that was one part gooey brownie, one part fudge, and all parts awesome.  The homemade crusts are tender and flaky and really let you know what you’re missing eating the warmed up Mrs. Smith’s cobbler you’re getting served at Cracker Barrel.

Ed & Kay’s has been family owned and operated for decades, and when you go to pay your bill it’s most likely Miss Kay herself who will take your money and ask you how everything was. The waitresses are always friendly and ready to give you a tea refill or tempt you with dessert.  The dining area, while small, is clean and well-maintained, and the quality of service is good any time of the day.  This is a great place for Sunday morning breakfast, Friday night dinner, or for an afternoon cup of coffee and a slice of pie.  In this day and age of chain restaurants trying to foist off swill as “home cooked” food, it’s nice to know that there are still people doing it the right way, locally and homemade.

Ed & Kay’s Restaurant is located right off Interstate 30 on the southern edge of Benton.  They’re open Wednesday-Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You will not be disappointed!

Ed & Kay's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Leftovers

When we decide to do a post on a dish or restaurant, Jess generally takes a great many more pictures than we can use in one post. That’s a real shame, because usually there are several that I’d like to include but lack the space to do so.  These are some “leftovers,” and like most leftovers, they’re still pretty good after the fact.

Here’s a good shot of the taps at Little Rock’s own Diamond Bear Brewery.  Jess took this on our first visit, right after the release of their summer seasonal Southern Blonde.

Pictures are an excellent way to remember a dish, a restaurant…or a hefty lineup of delicious beers. On our trip to Colorado last fall, we wanted to try a lot of beers that we can’t normally get in Arkansas, and to that end, we wound up with this lovely assortment.

Selection of hot sauces at Peppercorn on Pearl Street in Boulder.

Peppers at the farmers market in the Little Rock River Market district. One of our favorite summertime activities!

Chili cup from the Guns n’ Hoses Chili Cook-off. This particular selection was our buddy Chet over at Knife Fight Food Blog‘s entry. That cheese straw was THE BUSINESS.

Plate of delicious sushi from Igibon on Rodney Parham. Best sushi in town!

RC Cola and a Moon Pie.  Yep.

Brined and roasted chicken with duck fat cottage potatoes. The only thing ever left over about this is the pictures.

We always enjoy looking back at the pictures we’ve taken of different things, and it’s a shame that so many of them wind up never seeing the light of day.  Thanks to Jess for all the wonderful pictures she’s taken over the course of our working on this blog, and here’s looking forward to a lot more!

Review: La Hacienda (Benton)

There seems to be no end to Mexican restaurants in Arkansas, and to be honest, most of them are terrible, serving up dishes filled with the same bland ground beef and coated with limpid, uninspiring red sauce and watery cheese dip.  The La Hacienda family of restaurants doesn’t do any of this, and it’s far and away our favorite place for Mexican in central Arkansas. For years, the Hot Springs location was a Friday night must for myself and friends, and now that I’m closer to the Benton location it’s been nice to see that the quality and taste of the dishes remains constant.  There really isn’t a bad thing on the menu, from quesadillas loaded with marinated chicken to seasoned, grilled shrimp to a liver and onions with chorizo dish that blows me away every time. The service is almost always stellar and friendly, and the food comes out hot and fresh with surprising speed.

One of my favorite things on the menu is the torta, a Mexican submarine sandwich that is a full meal on bread (and inexpensive at only $5.99): grilled carne asada, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, and a layer of La Hacienda’s wonderful, rich refried beans.  I seriously don’t know how they make these beans, but there’s not another Mexican place in the state that comes close to matching them.  The torta is served on a toasted roll, and I’ve eaten half of one of these for lunch and had the rest for dinner – it’s that huge.  The torta is also available with chicken, and while the chicken at La Hacienda is great, I really love the marinated steak.

Jess’ entrée was another one of our favorites, the Carne Asada La Hacienda Style, a mixture of grilled steak, tomatoes, onions, and fresh cilantro served up with rice, beans, and fresh guacamole.  The tomatoes and onions in this dish are cooked just enough to bring out their flavor without losing any of their good freshness.  This mixture folded into a tortilla with a generous spoonful of guacamole and a dash of fresh salsa is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, and a variation of this dish with chorizo is one of my favorite things on the menu.

Taking into account the Hot Springs location, I’ve probably eaten at La Hacienda more than any other restaurant over the last fifteen years, and the food and service have remained consistently excellent.  The restaurants are family owned, and the pride they have with the food they serve is apparent with the high level of attention each guest receives – at La Hacienda, you don’t have one server, you have a room full of folks who will make sure you don’t run out of chips and salsa and who will never let your glass of tea (or delicious orange punch) get more than halfway empty.  The menu is extensive, and can fit almost any taste or budget – the shredded beef tacos and pork tamales are definite “do-not-miss” dishes, and if fajitas are your thing, they have an excellent “fajitas for two” combo for a very reasonable $21.99.  Other than our local taqueria, there’s really no other place in Benton I’ll eat Mexican, because when it’s this good, why bother?

La Hacienda is located right off Interstate 30 in Benton (right next to Wal-Mart), and are open for lunch and dinner daily.  During the week they have an excellent lunch menu at reduced prices (but not reduced portions), but the dinner menu is reasonable as well. Don’t pass this one up if you’re in the area – it’s one of the best places to eat in Saline County. Enjoy!

La Hacienda DE Benton Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Cottage Potatoes, Lamb Chops, and Stretching Ingredients

Despite the title, it didn’t start out with lamb chops or potatoes at all – it started off with a wonderful roast duck I made last week. Duck is one of my favorite things to make, with its rich, flavorful meat and all that crispy skin.  At first glance, duck seems to be an expensive bird to make; they’re no bigger than a chicken and about double the cost. But despite the regular things one can make to stretch a roasted bird into more than one meal (duck salad sandwiches are wonderful), a roasted duck is also good for something I consider pure gold in the kitchen: its rendered fat.  Ducks are water birds, and as such they have a thick layer of insulating fat between the skin and muscle. It is this fat that crisps the skin so nicely as it melts and renders during roasting, and it is this fat that I keep to make one of our favorite treats of all time: cottage potatoes.

We render our fat two ways: the first is by pricking our duck all over with a fork (into the fat layer only, not the muscle) and roasting it on a rack over a drip pan.  What winds up in the drip pan is the oily fat and liquid drippings – be sure to use a fat separator to get rid of all that juice because it can spoil your rendered fat quickly.  The second way we get our duck fat is to render it from the extra skin we trim from the duck before cooking as well as from the fatty deposits we remove from the inside of the duck.  By simmering these with a few tablespoons of water in a sauce pan, we’re eventually left with pure oil and few duck “cracklings” – just run the contents through a strainer and keep the oil. This also works with chicken fat, (this is known as schmaltz). We use this stuff sparingly, but it’s always good to have some in the freezer for a special treat.

For our potatoes, tonight I used the Yukon Gold variety because I love the balance of sweet and salty that Yukon Golds cooked this way have, but I’ve done these with russet potatoes, red potatoes, and several varieties of the “fingerling” potatoes and they all turn out tasty. Take your potatoes and slice them into small cubes, and try to keep the size relatively the same size – smaller cubes cook faster, so you don’t want to have some pieces burning while others are only just now getting crisp. Heat your duck fat up in a cast iron skillet until it shimmers and is close to smoking, and toss your potatoes in (being aware that they are GOING to pop and sizzle).  Fry until golden brown with a crispy outside and a tender, almost creamy middle; limp potatoes with no crispiness aren’t done enough while potatoes that are all crunch are overcooked. Drain them on paper towels and season liberally with sea salt.  You can let your fat cool, strain, and save it for another use as long as it still has a good color and smell.

These potatoes are good with burgers or roast chicken (or as a snack by themselves), but tonight we decided to serve them with a couple of simple broiled lamb chops.  I love the flavor of lamb, and I don’t really care for any heavy seasonings with my chops, so these were seasoned with a sprinkle of kosher salt and a dusting of black pepper, although a bit of fresh thyme or rosemary goes well with the flavor of the lamb, too.  A few minutes under the broiler (until medium-rare), and we had a delicious and simple meal, thanks in part to “leftovers” from a meal I made last week.

Of course, if you really want to stretch ingredients, you can do what I’m doing now: save your lamb bones and simmer them with some shallots and white wine in a few cups of that homemade chicken stock you’ve had in the freezer forever.  Skim the fat and foam that forms from the top and in an hour or two you’ve got a respectable cheat for lamb stock.  Refreeze the stock and use for a rich sauce the next time you make leg of lamb.  Doing things like this takes a bit more time, but I feel like I get more for my money from the ingredients I buy; I also enjoy having these interesting sorts of things you can’t necessarily buy at the store kicking around in the freezer.  In the end, though, it’s all about taste, and this shows that being thrifty can also be delicious. Happy cooking!

Review: Sushi Cafe

Jess and I had been wanting to try Sushi Cafe on Kavanaugh for quite some time, and despite my general misgivings about places that use the term “fusion” in describing their cuisine, I was generally pleased with the quality of their food. Sushi Cafe has been the recipient of several “local favorite” awards, and it’s easy to understand why: the restaurant boasts an elegant yet funky decor and some of the freshest tasting sushi around. We sampled some other things off the lunch menu, too, and were well pleased with with our selections.  Service was good, although rather aloof and cold, and we were slightly annoyed at being seated right next to a noisy server’s station with plenty of room in the main dining room – but that’s about our only complaint with our visit.

We started off with two of the most basic rolls known to man – the spicy salmon and tuna.  I always like ordering these two types of rolls on my first visit to a new sushi place because honestly, if a place can’t pull off a simple tuna roll, there’s very little hope they’ll do anything right. The tuna at Sushi Cafe is firm, moist, and loaded with flavor. I could seriously embarrass myself eating these, as I found myself craving more when our order of six pieces was gone. The spicy salmon was even better, with the salmon just as fresh tasting as the tuna, subtly spiced and tempered perfectly by a small sliver of creamy avocado.

Jess and I both ordered an entrée from the lunch menu, and because I’m a tuna junky, I picked the Grilled Ahi Tuna, served with asparagus and fried rice.  The tuna was grilled to perfection, lightly seared on the outside with a cool, chewy center and served with a creamy strawberry yogurt dipping sauce that went well with the tuna, but would have matched up even better had the tuna had just a bit more spice to it.  The asparagus was tender and flavorful, and while I enjoyed the fried rice, there wasn’t much going on with it to differentiate it from any other fried rice I’ve had.  Still, it’s nice to see that Sushi Cafe knows how to handle both raw and cooked fish, and this was a dish I’d definitely order again.

Jess ordered the Shrimp Tempura Bento Box, easily the best value on the menu.  The box comes with four large tempura battered shrimp, two California rolls, an egg roll, a creamy wonton, a tempura battered slice of sweet potato, and a generous helping of fried rice.  The shrimp were very well done, and we were pleased that the light, crispy batter didn’t overpower the delicate flavor of the shellfish.  The creamy wonton was a welcome departure from the typical “crab” rangoon, with a rich filling that tasted of cream cheese and cinnamon.  I’m a fan of tempura sweet potatoes, and eagerly ate Jess’s when she offered it to me – it was delicious.  There are several other bento boxes available, and if they’re all as good as this one, then Sushi Cafe is one of the tastiest value lunches I’ve eaten in awhile.

Sushi Cafe is located at 5823 Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock.  They are open for lunch Monday-Friday 11am-2pm, and serve dinner starting at 5pm every night of the week. Be prepared to leave full!

Sushi Cafe on Urbanspoon

Braised Cabbage and Black-Eyed Peas

Cabbage, black-eyed peas, and hog jowl are the traditional food of the New Year, ostensibly because these foods represent money, prosperity, and richness. My honest opinion has always been that we eat these simple, earthy foods on New Year’s Day because we’re still recovering from our indulgences in rich food and drink throughout the Christmas season. Whatever the reason, it’s a delicious tradition, and one worth keeping even apart from superstition. To keep our luck up in the new year, we’re making black-eyed peas with hog jowl and peppers and a white-wine braised cabbage (along with a pan of skillet cornbread).

Black-eyed Peas:

This is truly the simplest recipe to make. If you can find good frozen peas, then you’re already ahead – we get ours from a local co-op that has fresh picked and frozen products. Of course, your local supermarket has a wide variety of canned and frozen black-eyed peas, but most of them lack good flavor and texture – if you can’t get a good frozen product, use dried.

If using dried peas, you must soak them first in order to get them ready to go. My favorite method is to cover the peas with cold water (the water should be about an inch above the peas) and soak overnight in the fridge. An alternate method (which is quicker) is to bring your peas to a boil for two minutes and then let them soak in the hot water for an hour.  With both methods, discard the water you’ve soaked your peas in before cooking.

Cooking the peas like we do is simple: cover them with a good two inches of water in a large stock pot and add 3-4 slices of hog jowl, salt to taste, and two jalapeno peppers. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce and simmer until peas are tender but not mushy. Peas cooked this way produce a wonderful pot-liquor, so reserve the liquid for drizzling over cornbread.

Braised Cabbage

To make our white wine braised cabbage, you’ll need the following things:

  • One head green cabbage, cored and sliced into ribbons.
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, chopped.
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter.
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Melt butter in a pot large enough to hold the cabbage. When the butter is hot (but not brown), add the garlic and cook over medium heat until golden brown.  Add the cabbage, stirring to coat evenly in the butter. Cook until the cabbage starts turning clear and is just  beginning to brown.  Add the wine and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle a bit of Gruyere cheese over the top and salt and pepper to taste.

The best thing about all this food is that it all gets better the second day. This is something good to make a day or so in advance to allow folks to heat what they want as they’d like – perfect for the aftermath of New Year’s parties (or any cold winter’s day for that matter). Happy New Year, and Enjoy!