Review: Maddie’s Place

Jess and I are both fans of Cajun and Creole food, but there just aren’t a lot of places outside of south Louisiana that can make the cuisine in a form worth eating.  In the mood for a po’ boy and some gumbo, though, we headed up to Riverdale to try Maddie’s Place, a restaurant that boasts a chef who is not only a graduate of the CIA but also worked a decade for Emeril Lagasse.  The restaurant was bustling for lunch, which is always a good sign, especially in an area of town that’s known for good eateries. The menu was full of tasty-looking dishes, but we settled on a couple of lunch specials – all a bargain at only $10.00 for the meal and a tall glass of tea.

Jess had come with gumbo on her mind, so she ordered a lunch special that came with a good-sized bowl along with half a fried catfish po’ boy, served with kettle-cooked potato chips and a crisp pickle spear.  The gumbo was thick and flavorful, with just enough white rice in it to give it some bulk.  A lot of gumbo you find around here is too thin and closer to a chunky tomato soup, but this was spicy and just the right texture.  On a cold day, a bowl of Maddie’s gumbo would be a great meal by itself with a few pieces of buttered French bread for dipping.

Inspired by Jess’ sandwich I went for a full version of the fried oyster po’ boy.  Both sandwiches were overloaded with crispy-fried seafood, lettuce, tomato, and topped with a savory remoulade sauce.  The bread was toasted and had a nice crunch to it that gave way to a good, chewy center.  My oysters were large and succulent, and the flavor was not strong like happens sometimes ordering oysters.  In fact, our only complaint about the po’ boys was the complete lack of salt or spice in the batter.  The batter’s texture was spot-on, light and crispy, and it didn’t flake off the fish or oysters – but there was very little taste to it.  We both had to salt our sandwiches quite a bit and pour on the Crystal hot sauce just to coax a bit of flavor from the batter; there definitely should have been more spice at play here. Oversalted food is a crime in any restaurant; undersalted food is nearly as bad.

Overall, we were pleased with the quality of the food and service we had at Maddie’s Place, although I don’t think their po’ boys are as good as others I’ve had.  I’d like to make it back to sample some of their dinner entrees, and it’s definitely a good, solid lunch stop if you find yourself in the neighborhood.  Maddie’s Place is located at 1615 Rebsamen Park Road in Little Rock.  They’re open Tuesday-Saturday 11:00am-9:00pm.  Enjoy!

Maddies_Place on Urbanspoon

Southern-style Fish Tacos

Fish tacos started out on the West coast, but we’re seeing more and more of them here in Arkansas. There are several places serving fish tacos that we love to eat – La Hacienda in Benton and the Flying Fish in Little Rock’s River Market being our two favorites.  We love those two versions of fish tacos for a few reasons: both use breaded and fried fish instead of grilled, La Hacienda tops their taco with a spicy, marinated pico de gallo, and the Flying Fish uses cole slaw instead of lettuce.  We like fried fish instead of grilled because a crisp, fried fillet adds a nice element of flavor and texture to the taco, while grilled fish often winds up being mushy and flavorless.  Cole slaw is a far superior topping when compared to the shredded iceberg lettuce most places use on their fish tacos – let’s just be honest here and all admit that iceberg lettuce really never added anything to a dish it’s taken part in.  We’ve been making our own fish tacos for awhile, combining our favorite aspects into one tasty dish.

To recreate our Southern-style fish tacos, you’ll need to make up some pico de gallo, a spicy mix of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro marinated in lime juice.  We use red onions for this version of the pico, since red onion is a traditional accompaniment to fried fish in the South.  Make your pico a few hours in advance if you can; it certainly benefits from some time in the fridge.  The same can be said of your cole slaw, which can be made in advance as much as the day before:

Spicy Cole Slaw

  • 4 cups slaw mix.  You can, of course, shred your own, but there are plenty of pre-made slaw mixes out there that are great to use. We like one that combines green and red cabbage with shredded carrots.
  • 1/2 cup dijon-mayonnaise.  The best thing to do here is to make your own.  Put 3 egg yolks and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard into a blender with 1/2 teaspoon salt, two tablespoons lemon juice and a teaspoon of black pepper. Blend one cup of canola oil very slowly into the yolks and mustard (similar to our instructions for making aioli).  Otherwise, use a store-bought mayonnaise and mix with mustard and black pepper.
  • 2 tablespoons Crystal hot sauce.  Don’t use Tabasco.
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper. We prefer to buy whole pepper pods and grind them ourselves – you can take the crushed red pepper you buy at the store and pulse it a few times in the food processor.  It gives the pepper a nice, sneaky nature to grind it fine.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Stir all ingredients together, being sure to get a good mixture of dressing and ingredients.  You can adjust the amount of dressing you use – some people prefer a more “wet” slaw, while others prefer a drier version.  Cover and let sit in the refrigerator until needed.

For our fish, we’re using catfish – easily the most popular fish available in Arkansas.  You can use any sort of lean, white fish for these tacos – most restaurants these days are using tilapia (a very cheap, but rather flavorless fish).  Whatever fish you choose, slice the fillets into thin strips and bread them in a mixture of cornmeal, flour, and spices.  You can certainly make your own breading mixture, but I’ll admit that one of the best tasting fish breading mixes I’ve come across is called Louisiana Fish Fry:  it’s flavorful, perfectly spiced, coats the fish well and fries up crispy and good.  This stuff is so good that I’ve never needed to salt or pepper my fish after I’ve pulled it from the grease.  As for cooking oil, canola oil is perfectly fine to fry in, although peanut oil is superior – in any case, use a heavy bottomed pan (cast iron is preferable) on medium-high heat.  Fry until the fish is nicely browned but still nice and chewy.  Build your tacos with hot flour or corn tortillas; top with the slaw and pico de gallo.  The combination of flavor and texture present in one single taco is pretty amazing, and this is a dish that you’ll find yourself craving again and again. There are plenty of variations to the basic concept, so it’s a great opportunity for creativity – most of all, be sure to enjoy!

Meatballs and Marinara

Spaghetti with meatballs has got to be one of the most fun dishes to eat, and making your own meatballs and sauce is easy and delicious.  The best part about the recipes we’re presenting today is that both the meatballs and the sauce freeze beautifully, so if you’ve made too much or just want to have something you can pull out of the freezer after work, you’ve got it covered here.  And if pasta isn’t your thing, you can make quite a sandwich just by tossing some chopped banana peppers on top and melting a few slices of provolone cheese.

Michael’s Meatballs

  • 1/2 lb. ground pork
  • 1/2 lb. ground beef
  • 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs – these Japanese style breadcrumbs are coarser and provide a much better texture than regular breadcrumbs.
  • 1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese. You can use pre-shredded as long as it’s of good quality. Stay away from that weird powdered cheese people put on pizza.
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl.  There’s really no better way to do this, so dig your little hands right in and mix everything until you have a nice, uniform mixture. You can test your seasonings by frying a small portion of the mixture and tasting it – adjust accordingly.  Portion about 3 ounces per meatball (give or take) and drop each meatball into the cup of a non-stick muffin tin.  Bake for 30 minutes on 275, turning half-way through.  A meat thermometer comes in handy here – you want an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.  I always cut one open to make sure they’re done all the way through – this has the added bonus of being a treat for the cook, because these things smell incredible baking.

All that’s left to do now is to make up some sauce for these wonderful meatballs:

Marinara Sauce

  • 1 – 28 oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes.  I’m usually not one for brand dropping, but these really are the best canned tomatoes out there.
  • 1 – 6 oz can of tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup of dry red wine
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 teaspoons basil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Empty your tomatoes into a large saucepan and squish them up with your hands. Add the rest of the ingredients and heat until bubbling; turn your heat down and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If you like a tangier sauce, add 1/4-1/2 teaspoon of dried dill and a splash of red wine vinegar.  Serve over your meatballs and pasta, or finish your al dente pasta in the sauce if you prefer.

I love these two recipes because they are both very hands-on, dive-right-in things to make, but the end result is a rather elegant tasting dish.  Substitute ground venison, veal, or other meats in the meatball recipe or add minced jalapeno peppers to the mixture for some interesting results, and whatever you do — Enjoy!

Review: ZAZA Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza Company

There’s no more basic a food pairing than pizza and a salad. For me, it conjures up memories of after-church trips to Pizza Hut for greasy, apathetic slices of pepperoni pizza and a wilted and slowly spoiling salad bar, watery tubs of ranch dressing only nominally protected from the masses by a sneeze guard.  Zaza Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza Company isn’t anything like that: this is pizza and a salad done better than right: it’s simply spectacular, from the huge fresh-made salads loaded with all sorts of toppings (that monster to the left is considered a “small”) to the wood-oven fired gourmet pizzas.  Everything is at a pretty attractive price-point, too, so there’s really no excuse to miss it.

We’ve tried a couple of pizzas at Zaza, and we’ve always been impressed with the fresh ingredients they use.  On our last trip, we ordered the Margherita (one of our favorite kinds of pizza), and got this lovely pie: rich tomato sauce, fresh sliced mozzarella, fresh basil, and shavings of really good-quality Parmesan cheese over the top.  You can’t find many places using mozzarella so soft and fresh that it has to be sliced rather than grated, even though that’s how “real” mozzarella should be.  The crust is chewy and flavorful, and even though it can be a bit flimsy with some of the heavier-topping pizzas, the taste is very good.  To top it all off, we’ve never waited longer than about 15 minutes for our pizza order, even during a busy Friday lunch rush.

As I mentioned before, Zaza is also famous for their excellent salads, made to order right in front of you.  You can order one of their signature recipe salads or build your own, starting with a choice of spinach, romaine lettuce, or our favorite, mixed field greens.  Toppings are fresh and include the typical salad veggies, things like chopped avocado, a selection of meats and cheeses, and Zaza’s delicious homemade croutons.  Jess and I have easily split a small salad (which costs around $6.00) before our pizza and been completely content with our portion.  A large would make a good meal for two by itself.  Zaza also carries a very respectable selection of craft beers, including beers from one of my favorite breweries, North Coast Brewing.  In fact, on our first trip to Zaza, I mindlessly ordered a Bud Light with my pizza, and when the server went to pour it I noticed that they also had North Coast’s Scrimshaw Pilsner on tap.  The server was nice enough to change my drink order on the spot without any sort of upcharge – that’s good service.

Try and save a little room after all your pizza and salad, because no trip to Zaza would be complete without a cup of their homemade gelato.  This rich, creamy Italian-style ice cream is a bit pricey but worth every penny.  On our last trip, we got a hazelnut-chocolate ganache concoction that I honestly could eat every day and not get tired of; it’s seriously good stuff, and worth taking a trip to Zaza on its own.  They’ve got a wide variety of flavors, and I really can’t wait to make it back for more.  Zaza advertises that they make their dough, gelato, sauce, and salad dressings fresh daily, and I can certainly believe it after eating there a few times.  Little Rock is really blessed with quite a few very good pizza places, and Zaza is right at the top of the list for us.  The seating arrangements are quirky, with a few tables on the ground level, more upstairs, and a small patio area.  We’ve always found service to be good, and our orders have always arrived promptly and well-prepared.

Zaza Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza Company is located at 5600 Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock.  They’re open Sunday-Thursday 10:30 am to 9:00 pm, and Friday-Saturday 10:30 am to 10:00 pm.  Enjoy!

Zaza Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza Co on Urbanspoon

The Beers of St. Patrick’s

For the average American, the Feast of St. Patrick is a good excuse to wear a lot of green and drink a little too much.  And while we’ll leave you to pick out whatever green it is you wish to wear, we thought we’d take some time to review some of our favorite St. Patrick’s day beers. Even though not all these beers come from Ireland itself, they’re all pretty tasty and perfect for a bit of celebrating.

Of course, no talk about Irish beer can happen without a discussion of Guinness.  Most people have strong feelings about the stuff — people that love Guinness are passionate about it and people that hate it tend to make all sorts of animated faces at the very mention of the name.  I’ve always been pretty fond of Guinness on tap, but the bottled and canned offerings have often seemed like a poor substitute.  Guinness Extra Stout in a bottle is a tasty beer, but it’s a lot different than drinking a pint in the bar.  Guinness has gone a long way toward solving that problem with Guinness Draught Extra Cold (see left), a bottled beer that manages to capture almost all the taste and texture of a tap-poured Guinness.  This beer has a rich, creamy texture to it and a smooth drinkability unmatched by any other Guinness product I’ve tried.

Another great discovery we’ve made this spring is Boulevard Brewing Company’s Irish Ale, a deep red beer with a very good malty flavor.  Fans of Irish classic Smithwick’s will enjoy Boulevard’s take on the style.  I found the Boulevard offering to be a bit richer in flavor than Smithwick’s without the overpowering caramel flavor that can sometimes rest a little thick on the tongue — and don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Smithwick’s, so my saying that Boulevard’s Irish ale is better is a huge compliment.  The brewery doesn’t make this beer year round, and there’s been several places I’ve heard of in Arkansas selling out, so be sure to pick this one up if you see it.  Jess even likes this one, and she’s generally not a fan of the heavier malt styles.  Our own local brewery, Diamond Bear Brewing, also brews a very drinkable Irish Red Ale, although it is far better fresh from the tap than out of the bottle.

Fans of lighter beers may enjoy Murphy’s Irish Red, from the same folks who make the very fine Murphy’s Irish Stout.  This red ale pours a vibrant copper color and is flavored with sweet malts with just a bit of bitterness on the finish.  It’s a very approachable beer, and friends who prefer American light beers will probably take to this one before any of the others we’ve listed here.  Of course, there’s always the Coors version – Killian’s Irish Red, but Murphy’s has a lot more flavor and character than Killian’s.  Both are quite drinkable, though, and both are a nice companion to food.  In any case, with a bit of luck, you’ll be transitioning from beer to Jameson at some point anyway, and we can only ask that you try to maintain a bit of dignity.  If that’s too much to ask, at least you can stay away from green-dyed Bud Light and drink something a bit more appropriate to the occasion.  I’ve only been able to scratch the surface here — there’s a whole world of delicious Irish-style beer out there. Enjoy!

Shrimp Taco Salad with Black Bean Purée and Pico de Gallo

Taco salad, despite the word “salad” in the name, isn’t really a dish that anyone considers healthy. Most taco salads are drenched with cheese, beans cooked with lard, meat, sour cream, and often come served in a deep-fried (but delicious) tortilla bowl.  It’s possible, though, to recreate the best things about the salad — including the tortilla bowl — in a much healthier way without sacrificing taste.  Instead of beef or chicken, we’re going to use shrimp in our taco salad, topping it with a fresh tasting homemade pico de gallo and a dollop of lime cream.  And in place of heavy refried beans, we’re going to make a purée of seasoned black beans, and best of all, we’ve got a low-fat way to make a crispy tortilla bowl in just minutes.  Some parts of the dish can be prepared as much as a day in advance, so if you spend a little time making preparations, the final dish will pull together with very limited time or effort.  We’ll start with our pico de gallo.

Pico de Gallo

  • 2 medium tomatoes.
  • 1 medium onion. I prefer yellow onion in this, but feel free to use whatever type of onion you like best (red onions are also good).
  • 1 fresh jalapeno, chopped.
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice.
  • Kosher salt

Remove the seeds from your tomatoes and cut into pieces. The size of the pieces is your choice; we prefer larger chunks of tomato with our pico.  Toss all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl and stir until mixed thoroughly.  If you can, let this sit for a few hours in the fridge before you use it, stirring periodically — the flavors really mingle nicely over time.  Once you’ve completed your pico, you can go ahead and make your lime cream by stirring together 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon buttermilk, 2 teaspoons lime juice, 1 teaspoon lime zest, and a tablespoon of chives together; store covered until ready to use.

You can also make your black bean purée ahead of time.  Put one can of black beans (with liquid) into a blender with a clove of garlic, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper, and a dash of salt and blend until it has reached your desired smoothness.  Simply heat the puree in a saucepan on low heat a few minutes before you’re ready to build your salads, taking care not to burn the beans on the bottom.

Now that we’ve made our advance preparations, it’s time to grill our shrimp, make our tortilla bowls, and eat!  Marinate your shrimp in 1 tablespoon each of lemon and lime juice and a dash of red pepper for five minutes.  Grill them in a grill pan or saute them until done; set them aside and keep them warm.  To make your crispy bowl, you’ll need the following:

Guilt-Free Taco Salad Bowl

  • 1 flour tortilla per bowl (low fat tortillas are fine)
  • Non-fat cooking spray
  • 2 ceramic soup or cereal bowls

Spray each side of the tortilla with the cooking spray.  Invert one of the bowls and place the tortilla over the center of the bottom.  Place the other bowl gently over the top of the tortilla to form the shape of the finished edible bowl.  Put the bowls and tortilla into the microwave and cook on high for around four minutes — and be careful because those cereal bowls will be HOT when you’re done.  Carefully remove the top bowl and the tortilla bowl should slide easily from the the bottom bowl, and you’ve got a nice, crisp bowl for your salad without deep-frying.

Build your salad by spreading a layer of the bean purée on the bottom of each tortilla bowl.  Fill the bowl with mixed salad greens and top with shrimp, pico de gallo, and the lime cream.  You’ve got a taco salad with all the flavor and spice you might ever want without breaking the bank on calories, right down to the satisfying crunch of the tortilla shell. If you prefer your tortilla soft, this also makes an excellent wrap. In either case — Enjoy!

Roasted Parmesan Zucchini (with some Salmon and Spinach)

Zucchini squash was always one of my favorite things to eat growing up.  My parents always had a garden, and there would always be plenty of yellow crook-neck squash and the dark green zucchini. Our normal way to eat them back then was to cut them into strips, roll them in seasoned flour, and deep-fry them – because honestly, that’s the go-to way of cooking anything here in the South.  As an adult, I’ve discovered that I want to try and live past the age of 50, so I’ve generally nixed the deep-fry method — but that’s no reason to stop eating zucchini.  This method takes is much healthier than frying but is even more flavorful – and doesn’t take much time at all.

Roasted Parmesan Zucchini

  • 1 small zucchini squash per person
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese per zucchini
  • Salt, pepper, and Herbs de Provence

Cut the ends off of each zucchini and slice in half longways.  Salt and pepper each half.  Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet and brown the zucchini pieces – about five minutes on each side.  You can use your best judgment about how brown you’d like your zucchini to be; I prefer mine with a nice, browned crust on the top like the picture at the right.  Remove the zucchini to an oven safe dish and top with the Parmesan cheese and herbs.  Broil the zucchini halves for 5-7 minutes until the cheese is nice and browned on top.  For a gooier, not-quite-as-healthy version, mix a bit of mozzarella in with the Parmesan before you broil.

This zucchini can make an excellent side vegetable to pretty much any dinner – soup, steak, or as we’ve served it here, with grilled salmon and spinach sauteed with shallots in a little bit of truffle butter.  The olive oil really brings out the flavor of the zucchini, and the nutty flavor and chewy texture of the Parmesan really adds a very delicious element to a vegetable that is often neglected.  This has become our preferred method of eating zucchini, and since summertime is right around the corner, the farmers’ markets are going to be filled with the item fresh and ready to go. Enjoy!