The Arkansas Foodies 2011 Year-in-Review

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” -Benjamin Franklin

In many ways, 2011 was a hard year.  Natural disasters, economic woes, and the continued existence of reality television all served to really put a damper on what we had all hoped would be a year full of peace and prosperity.  But a lot of good things happened in 2011, too, and Jess and I have never been so thankful for all we’ve been given – nor so proud of everything we’ve accomplished in the past year.  2011 was the first full year for this blog, and what started out as a little hobby for us has turned into a project that we love, and it’s the continued support of our readers that makes it all worthwhile.  So since it’s the thing to do to make “end of the year” lists, we figured we’d look back at our favorite things from our first year – and we also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading and sharing your own experiences with us.  Here’s to a great 2012!

Best Pizza: Vino’s Pizzeria and Brew Pub.  We haven’t actually reviewed Vino’s on the blog yet – but that’s because it’s our favorite place in Little Rock and I haven’t written anything I like enough yet to post.  Get the Margherita Pizza, it’s fantastic.  Runner-up: Cafe Amore in Eureka Springs.

Best Hamburger: Big Orange in the Promenade at Chenal.  Big Orange has some of the biggest burgers around with a wide variety of toppings.  Bonus points for serving Dazbog coffee, but the service can be slow.  Still, it’s a very tasty place.  Runner-up: The Pantry Burger at the Pantry on Rodney Parham.

Best Food Festival: The 2011 Jewish Food Festival.  This was one of the most fun days we spent this year – latkes, rugelach, and some of tastiest chopped liver I’ve ever had along with some of the friendliest folks we’ve had the pleasure to meet.  If you go next year, be sure not to miss the baked goods table.  Runner-up: The 2011 World Cheese Dip Championship.

Best Beer: Sofie by Goose Island Brewing.  And I’m technically cheating here, because we first reviewed the Sofie back in October of 2010 – but I didn’t try another beer all year that I liked better than this light, crisp saison.  Runner-up: North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw Pilsner, which I drank every time I could afford it.

Best Side Dish: Truffle-Herb Fries from Big Orange.  These are the best french fries I’ve had that I didn’t make myself.  Crisp outside, mealy inside, dusted with herbs and drizzled with truffle oil, these fries are only made better by the side of creamy aioli they’re served with.  Runner-up: Stilton Tomato Half at Brave New Restaurant.

Best Restaurant: Brave New Restaurant.  Impeccable service, delicious food, and a gorgeous view of the Arkansas River – what more could you ask for?  The Mixed Grill is a carnivore’s dream, and the Cream of Brie soup is one of these best things I’ve ever tasted.  Runner-up: Boulevard Bread Company, both for their PLT sandwich and the foie gras and sweetbreads special, which we drove to sample during some of the worst tornado warnings central Arkansas saw last year.

Favorite thing I was supposed to share but didn’t: The Charcuterie Board at The Pantry on Rodney Parham.  This delightful spread of cured meats, bratwurst, and pate is technically the sort of appetizer that is shared among an entire table.  But since Jess isn’t nearly as big a fan of this sort of stuff as I am, I just ordered the thing as my main entrée.  Delicious!  Runner-up: I think there’s enough food there to qualify the Charcuterie Board for runner-up, too.

Best Main Dish we Made: Shrimp Taco Salad with Black Bean Puree.  That one got us a mention over at Eat Arkansas, and was one of our more popular posts all year.  As for a runner-up, I’m rather fond of our meatballs, our mussels, and my own version of pate.

Best Dessert we Made:  German Chocolate Cake.  Jess really outdid herself with this rich chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing.  Jess really came into her own as a baker this year, and out of all the delicious things she made, this cake is my favorite.  Runner-up: I love her pumpkin bread, and we also made a pretty tasty strawberry tart last spring.

Best Bar:  This one is a tie between our two favorite bars in Eureka Springs, the Squid and the Whale, home of both Guinness in a mason jar and the spiciest Bloody Mary ever and Henri’s Just One More, home of the best dirty martini I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink.  We spent a very fun afternoon crunching around in the February snow between these two places last winter.  Runner-up: The Flying Saucer, where we wound up in Sync magazine looking a little tipsy.

All in all, 2011 was a fun year.  We tried a lot of different food, had a lot of great meals, and met a lot of really interesting folks who like to do things just like we do:  they cook well, they eat well, and they live life to the fullest.  We hope you all have a happy New Year, and we’re looking forward to bringing the deliciousness to you again!

Review: Copeland’s of New Orleans

I always like it when a chain restaurant can make me eat my usual dismissive words, and Copeland’s of New Orleans in the Shackleford Crossing shopping center is one of the tastiest times I’ve ever had doing it.  On a day when we wound up getting disappointing service from a local favorite, it was nice to experience the friendly and efficient service provided by the staff at Copeland’s – and the food was pretty tasty, too.  Jess and her mom had eaten there before, but it was my first time; and while their food is a bit pricey, it’s good and the portions are so huge that there’s no way a normal person could ever think about leaving hungry.  I’m a pretty big eater, and even though I skipped breakfast and ordered a lunch portion I still wound up stuffed.  Copeland’s is a spacious and friendly restaurant, and we’ll definitely be going back.

Because it was lunch and we had some shopping to do afterward, we didn’t sample any of Copeland’s drinks on this visit, but we did start off with an order of Crawfish Bread, toasted French bread topped with spinach, artichokes, Alfredo sauce, crawfish tails, and Monterrey Jack cheese.  The bread was firm and chewy – and it was surprisingly capable of holding up the copious toppings.  I was happy to be able to actually taste the crawfish tails among all that other stuff – all too often they’re just chewy little flavorless bits.  We also started with bowls of Copeland’s Gumbo and their Crab and Corn Bisque.  The gumbo was respectable, although nothing outstanding, but Jess and I enjoyed the bisque a great deal.  Creamy soup loaded with sweet corn and lump crab meat – a perfect combination of flavor and texture that I didn’t expect to like nearly as much as I did.

For my entrée, I ordered the Eggplant Pirogue: two slices of crisp-fried breaded eggplant over linguine and topped with spicy Alfredo sauce, shrimp, and crab claws.  Well, okay, to be honest, it was just one crab claw – even though the menu was pretty clear that there were going to be claws present in numbers greater than one.  That’s my only complaint with the dish, though, as the eggplant was firm and sweet and the pasta was only just on the edge of being overcooked (which is honestly where I like it).  The shrimp were flavorful and the creamy sauce didn’t overpower the dish but was great for sopping with the bread Copeland’s serves with all their dishes: a strange hybrid of a biscuit and a dinner roll that was interesting and tasty.  I love eggplant, but I usually don’t order it because it comes out soggy and bitter – Copeland’s did neither.

Jess’ entrée was called Catfish Acadiana, which is just a fancy name for a huge filet of fried catfish.  It came served with a “creamy shrimp butter sauce” which reminded me of sausage gravy made with shrimp instead of sausage – strange, but rather tasty.  The fish was tender and mild tasting, and the breading was very good, almost like a chicken batter.  For her sides, she got some rather bland and uninspiring mashed potatoes and a crazy-decadent macaroni and cheese.  Honestly, just to say “mac n’ cheese” and conjure up the blue box really doesn’t do this stuff any justice at all – it was rich and creamy and loaded with cheese and crisp bacon.  I took a few bites, and while I found it delicious it was far too rich for me.  I’ve got to give Copeland’s some credit for the side dish – it really delivered more than any side dish has any right to do (pay attention, mashed potatoes).

Copeland’s of New Orleans is located at 2602 Shackleford Road, in the Shackleford Crossing shopping center, and they’re open for lunch and dinner.  It’s one of the better places serving up Creole-style food in the area, and well worth a try if you’re in the area.  Enjoy!

Copeland's of New Orleans on Urbanspoon

Easy Chicken Cacciatore

By its name alone, you’d think that a dish called Chicken Cacciatore (or Hunter’s Chicken) would be all about, well, chicken – but it really isn’t.  Indeed, the best part of this simple stew isn’t the chicken at all but the rich, thick tomato sauce that results from a long, slow simmer.  The chicken certainly does its part to add some flavor and a bit of protein to the dish, but it’s that spicy, flavorful sauce that will keep you making this dish time and time again.  The preparations for making our version of chicken cacciatore aren’t hard at all – you just need a little bit of time and a great big pot to cook in.  This is one of those dishes that is as varied as the cooks that make it, but this is the version we like best.

Easy Chicken Cacciatore

  • Four chicken thighs.  It’s your choice whether or not you want the skin on them, but make sure you use thighs – they give the sauce its best flavor.
  • 1 large can of good quality canned tomatoes (we prefer San Marzano).  If using whole tomatoes, have some fun and squish them up good with your hands.  If using diced, get petite diced.
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • Salt and Pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan.  Salt and pepper the chicken and brown on both sides in the oil, cooking for around 5-7 minutes per side.  While the chicken is cooking, cut the flour into the butter to form a paste and set aside.  When chicken is browned, remove it to a platter and pour off all but about 2 tablespoons of the oil and add the onion and bell pepper.  The water-heavy onions and peppers will serve to deglaze all the tasty brown chicken bits left in the bottom of the pan, so be sure to scrape the pan vigorously while they brown.  Once the onions have become translucent and start to brown, add the chicken stock and wine and return to a boil.  Add the crushed or diced tomatoes, paprika, and a dash more salt and pepper.  Add the flour and butter paste, stirring until well-dissolved and mixed in.  Add the chicken back to the pot and and bring it back to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour or so – until the chicken is tender to the point of falling off the bone.  Serve over rice – and enjoy!

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Peppermint Frosting

When it comes to Christmas sweets, there aren’t any flavors that fit the season quite like the cool taste of peppermint and the rich flavor of chocolate, and Jess came up with a delicious and very festive looking way to combine these tastes into one single treat: a moist, rich dark chocolate cupcake topped off by a creamy butter cream frosting spiked with bits of crushed peppermint.  The flavors and textures at work in these cupcakes are varied and surprising – and we know of at least one jolly old elf in a red suit with a severely hectic schedule who might like a couple of these on Christmas Eve instead the regular old cookies and milk.

Dark Chocolate Cupcakes

  • 1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/3 cup coffee
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter

Preheat your oven to 350 and prepare a cupcake pan with liners.  Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the the egg, white, and brown sugar.  Add the coffee, milk, and butter and mix thoroughly.  Add the dry ingredients.  Divide the batter into the cupcake pan and bake for 10-12, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Let the cupcakes cool on a wire rack before icing.

Peppermint Frosting

  • 3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 6-8 teaspoons milk

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and cream cheese.  Add the powdered sugar, one cup at a time, incorporating the milk as needed.  Mix until light and fluffy.  Fold in the crushed peppermint, reserving some to top the frosted cupcakes.  Serve and enjoy!

Chicken Paprikash with Gnocchi

One of the best parts about writing a food blog is that our families are always on the lookout for items and ingredients that we can’t get around these parts.  Jess’ brother and sister-in-law recently made a trip to Italy, and they surprised us with this bottle of olive oil from the Castello di Monterinaldi vineyard in Tuscany.  It’s perfect to dip bread in with a little cracked pepper, and it’s also wonderful to splash on steamed vegetables, but I wanted to cook something with it, and I think that nothing tastes better seared in olive oil and a little butter than chicken.  This has been one of the wettest and coldest nights of the winter we’ve yet had, I wanted to do a dish that is filling and will warm a body through and through.  And since a good, savory sauce never hurt anybody, we decided to make Chicken Paprikash – and soak up all that good sauce with some gnocchi.  The olive oil gave our chicken and onions a great flavor, and by the time we were done we were full and satisfied.

Chicken Paprikash

  • Four chicken leg quarters, separated into legs and thighs
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2-3 medium onions
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • Salt and pepper

Salt and pepper the chicken pieces liberally.  Slice the onions lengthwise, from stem to stem.  In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the butter and olive oil until the butter quits foaming and begins to show some color.  Brown the chicken in the butter and oil mixture, cooking for 3-5 minutes on each side – you may have to cook the chicken in two batches.  Once your chicken has developed a good brown color and the skin has begun to crisp, remove the chicken to a platter and set aside.

Add the sliced onions to the pan.  The onions will serve to deglaze the pan here, so be sure and scrape up all those tasty little chicken bits that were left behind.  Cook the onions for 8-10 minutes, or until they’re golden brown.  Add some freshly ground black pepper, salt, the paprika, and the cayenne.  Stir well, then add the chicken stock.  Nestle the chicken pieces on top of the onions and bring to a slow boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer and simmer until the chicken begins to fall from the bone (about an hour).  When the chicken is done, remove from the pot and transfer to a serving dish.  Allow the sauce to cool for five minutes.  Whisk in the sour cream and pour the sauce back over the chicken.  We served ours with gnocchi, but egg noodles, rice, or even roasted potatoes go quite well with this dish.  Enjoy!