Sauteed Mushrooms with Balsamic Vinegar

We love the taste of button mushrooms, especially the small brown “baby ‘bella” variety that are so common and cheap these days.  Earthy and sweet, with a firm texture that takes well to sauteing, these brown mushrooms are a constant addition to many of our favorite dishes – but they stand alone quite well as a side dish of their own.  Mushrooms go well with other earthy and rich flavors, so we’ve decided to saute these sliced mushrooms with garlic, Herbs de Provence, and some balsamic vinegar.  These mushrooms are great by themselves, but they can also be served over rice or even used as a topping for burgers and sandwiches.

Balsamic Mushrooms

  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cups baby bella mushrooms
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

Marinate your sliced mushrooms in the vinegar, Herbs de Provence, salt, and pepper for 10-15 minutes.  Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet and saute the garlic for 2-3 minutes.  Add the mushroom mixture and keep the heat on high, stirring frequently until the liquid has reduced and formed a glaze on the mushrooms.  Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.  We served ours up with some sliced ribeye steak and Southern-style green beans, but these mushrooms are very versatile – get creative.  Mushrooms are an inexpensive way to add something tasty and filling to a meal, and this is one of the best tasting ways to eat them we know of.  Enjoy!

Magic Mushrooms at Cheers in the Heights

Well, okay, so the mushrooms at Cheers aren’t exactly the type to make you see pink elephants or grow huge Super Mario/Alice in Wonderland-style.  But despite their lack of transformational power, I’ve got to say that the fried mushrooms at Cheers in the Heights are probably the best version of the popular appetizer I’ve ever tasted.  What made them so good?  Well first, the breading.  The breading on these mushrooms was thin, crispy, and very flavorful.  Too many fried mushrooms have a batter coating that’s a touch slimy and only tastes of fryer grease.  Secondly, the mushrooms were cut into quarters, something I wish other restaurants that serve fried mushrooms would start doing – it simply gives each piece the perfect batter-to-mushroom ratio.  We ordered these on a whim since they were on special, and although I thought that nothing could ever take the place of Cheers’ chips and cheese dip as my favorite appetizer, these mushrooms did just that.  Next time…mushrooms and cheese dip!

We didn’t just eat mushrooms – although I admit I could have eaten a lot more of them than I did.  Jess ordered a Cobb salad, which came out large and covered with chopped turkey, croutons, bacon, and cheese.  I like a little avocado on my Cobb, but Jess was pretty content with the creamy bell pepper dressing served to the side.  I thought it was a tasty dressing, too, with the sharp, fresh taste of bell pepper coming through the creamy tang of the dressing to make a nice complement to the salad.  The only problems I saw with the salad were that there could have been a touch more bacon involved and that the sliced hard-boiled eggs were woefully overcooked.  A hard-boiled egg that has a grainy yolk tinged with gray at the edge is an unacceptable, overcooked egg and should never be served.

For my own entrée, I’d heard good things about the Garden Burger at Cheers and so I decided to take the vegetarian-but-unhealthy route and order one with a side of fries.  The hand cut fries were hot and crisp, with a firm, mealy middle – these are some of the best fries in the city, and regular readers will know how much I detest bad fries.  The garden burger itself was nothing revolutionary but it had a good, slightly spicy flavor to it and a firm, moist texture that held its own against the generous toppings and fluffy bun.  I’ve always had a fondness for veggie burgers, and this was one of the best versions I’ve had, and it’s a real bargain at around six dollars.  But as good as the rest of the meal was, Jess and I kept coming back to those delicious mushrooms – and I think I’ll find myself back at Cheers sooner rather than later to get a fix of those delectable morsels again.  Enjoy!

Ultimate Sticky Buns

We always keep our eye out for new recipes to try, and Bon Appetit magazine is one of our favorite sources.  This month’s issue caught our eye as soon as we took it out of the mailbox because of the incredible looking sweet roll that was on the cover.  We decided then and there that we were going to make a batch, and while things didn’t go exactly as planned, we were still pleased with the final product.  We usually test drive a recipe a couple of times before we put it up on the blog, but I decided to post this one after just one attempt – the buns came out delicious, and I learned a lot about how to make a “master sweet dough,” which was the basis for the buns and several other recipes in the issue.  Let’s start with our dough:

Master Sweet Dough
from the April 2012 issue of Bon Appetit

  • 2/3 cup whole milk
  • 5 tablespoons sugar, divided
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1″ pieces, room temperature

Heat the milk to 110 degrees, then stir in 1 tablespoon sugar.  Sprinkle the yeast over the milk mixture and allow it to bloom – about five minutes.  Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.  Combine the remaining sugar, flour, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  Add milk mixture.  With mixer running, add the butter one piece at a time.  Once the butter is incorporated, run the dough on medium speed for five minutes to knead.  Butter a bowl and put your dough into it, turning so that the dough gets good and coated with butter.  Cover with plastic wrap and put into the fridge for two hours – the dough will slowly rise, and the chilling makes it a lot easier to work with.

The Topping

  • 1 3/4 cups pecans, chopped and toasted for 10-12 minutes in a 350 oven
  • 1 stick butter
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.  Stir in the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and simmer briskly until the mixture turns a nice golden brown and takes on a glossy sheen.  Pour one cup of the glaze into your pan – Bon Appetit says use an 8x8x2 baking pan, but we had to go with a larger one.  I don’t see any way to fit these buns in an 8x8x2 pan, we had a rather sticky time transferring our ingredients from one pan to another.  Tilt the pan around to coat the sides with the glaze, then sprinkle 1/2 cup of the toasted pecans over the bottom.  Now you’re ready to make the rolls.

In your stand mixer, cream one stick of butter with 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 cup brown sugar, and a pinch of salt.  On a lightly floured surface, roll your dough out into a 16×9 rectangle, and spread the butter and sugar mixture evenly over it (see above right).  Roll the dough into a log shape.  Using a knife, cut the log into 9 even pieces.  Place the pieces into the prepared pan, and coat with an egg wash of one egg beaten with a teaspoon of water.  Bake in a 350 degree oven for 40-50 minutes.  The tops may brown faster than you’d like, so a foil tent might be necessary to keep this from happening.  Once the buns are baked, let them cool for 5 minutes and then top them with the remaining glaze and pecans, and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt.  These are incredibly rich, but guaranteed not to be the dry, boring sticky buns you’ve had in the past.  Enjoy!

Black-Bottom Cupcakes

Like many food lovers who enjoy getting into the kitchen to whip up a batch of delicious baked treats, we keep up with the blog Smitten Kitchen, which is where Jess found this tasty take on Devil’s Food cake with a huge dollop of semi-sweet chocolate spiked cream cheese filling baked right in.  Regular readers will know that we’re big fans of all things cream-cheese, and these cupcakes are no exception, with a moist, dense cake that starts with the flavor of bittersweet chocolate and gives way to a creamy, sweet-and-tangy cheesecake center.  And while theSmitten Kitchen made these into mini-cupcakes, Jess went full-out and made them full-sized – and I, for one, was pleased.

Black-Bottom Cupcakes
from The Great Book of Chocolate by David Leibowitz by way of Smitten Kitchen

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 5 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling, beat together the cream cheese, granulated sugar, and egg until smooth.  Add the chopped chocolate and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 350 and prepare a muffin tin.  Sift together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla.  Make a well in your dry ingredients and add the wet, stirring until just smooth.  Smitten Kitchen says don’t over-stir, or your cake won’t be tender.  Divide the batter into your muffin cups, and spoon a few tablespoons of the filling into the center of each cupcake.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until tops are golden.  These are good hot or cold, and they store well.  And excellent treat for lovers of cheesecake, Devil’s food cake – or like us, both! Enjoy!

Review: Waffle House (Benton)

“I don’t care what they think.  I don’t care what they say.  What do they know about this love anyway?” –Melissa Etheridge

In 1955, something wonderful happened in the state of Georgia:  the very first Waffle House opened.  Its concept wasn’t anything all that new or unique – serve up cheap, hot food at all hours of the day with quickness and efficiency – but there’s just something about those friendly yellow buildings that brings a smile to my face.  I can’t count the hours I’ve spent sitting in a Waffle House booth with a plate of hash browns and a bottomless cup of coffee, whether in the wee hours of the morning after a long night of festivities or as a place to have a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast.  For those of you who came to this story expecting me to perhaps rip on the Waffle House or approach it with some sort of hipster sarcasm, I’ve got to say with no apology: I love the Waffle House without a shred of irony.

For a place with the word “waffle” in the name, you might expect that to be the most popular thing at Waffle House, but I figure it’s the hash browns most people come in to eat.  That plate to the right is my favorite way to eat them; covered with a slice of neon orange American cheese, smothered with diced onions, and cooked with diced tomatoes.  As a younger man, I would occasionally order my hash browns “all the way,” but I value my health a touch more these days.  I like to order my hash browns with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, and the Benton Waffle House fries bacon about the best of any location I’ve been to.  This isn’t a breakfast a body should eat every day, but it’s a fine and tasty indulgence for an occasional weekend treat.

Waffles, of course, are still an important part of the menu, and Jess is a big fan of the pecan variety.  I like Waffle House waffles because they aren’t the thick, doughy Belgian-style waffles that tend to be a little too filling.  These waffles are thin and light, allowing you to get that perfect balance of waffle, syrup, and butter (or, to be honest here, margarine) that makes for a perfect bite every time.  Each waffle covers an entire plate, and it can be tough to finish one if you’re having anything on the side.  Jess ordered hers with some hash browns and cheese eggs, and unlike some locations that just throw a slice of cheese on top of scrambled eggs, the Benton Waffle House does them right, scrambling the eggs with the cheese so that every bite is consistently gooey and delicious.

My favorite thing about the Benton location of the Waffle House is the folks that work there.  This is easily the friendliest, most attentive staff I’ve ever seen at any location.  The folks on the morning shift know most of their regulars by name, and they make sure that you’ve always got a fresh cup of coffee and that your food is cooked the way you like it.  From the moment we hit the door, we were greeted by several people calling out, “Good Morning!” and that set the tone for the rest of the meal.  The servers and cooks seemed like they really knew how to work together to get orders cooked and served, all the while keeping up friendly banter with customers and making sure everything was just right.  I can honestly say that the service at the Benton Waffle House is equal to (and some cases exceeds) any of the restaurants we’ve reviewed here on Arkansas Foodies.  It’s our favorite Waffle House, so if it’s been awhile since you ate at one, stop by the Benton restaurant – just don’t play any Waffle House songs on the juke. Enjoy!

Waffle House in Benton is located at 1215 Hot Springs Highway, just off the Sevier St. exit, and they are open all the time with a full menu.

Waffle House on Urbanspoon

Beef Fajitas

The first thing you need to know about making really good fajitas is that you have to get the right cut of meat.  Sure, you might be able to get by with sirloin or tempted to make do with (God forbid) round steak, but a proper plate of fajitas starts with just one thing: skirt steak.  In older times, the skirt steak was considered a “throw away” piece of beef, saved by the butcher for his own table or given to vaqueros to eat along cattle drives – the latter being where the humble fajita got its start.  Skirt steak is a flavorful, chewy cut of beef that comes from the “plate” area of the cow, right between the brisket toward the front and the flank.  These days, the secret is out about how delicious skirt steak is, and so you might have trouble finding the cut, but it’s worth it to keep your eyes peeled and snap it up whenever you see it available.  Skirt steak does well with a marinade, so that’s where we want to start.

Beef Fajita Marinade
(for one pound of skirt steak, increase as needed)

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons chopped red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Juice of half a lime

In a blender or food processor, pulse all the ingredients together until smooth.  Skirt steak usually comes in pieces about 18″ long, so cut your steak into four equal portions and place into a plastic zipper-type bag.  Pour the marinade into the bag with the steak, and then press out as much air as possible and seal the bag.  Place the bag into a pan that will let it lay flat (this will catch any leaks you might have) and let sit at room temperature for one hour, turning the bag halfway through.

Once your meat has finished marinating, you’ve got a few cooking options.  Traditionally, the skirt steak would be cooked by placing it directly on hot coals, and Alton Brown recommends using a hair dryer to blow away all the excess ash before doing this.  Alternatively, you can grill the skirt steak on a regular charcoal grill with a grate – just make sure that you’ve got really hot coals.  As for me, I think you can make these just fine in your kitchen using a cast iron grill pan or regular cast iron skillet.  Get your skillet hot with a couple of tablespoons of canola oil – you’ll want the oil just starting to smoke.  Toss your skirt steak into the pan, and be sure not to crowd the pieces; cook this in two batches if your pan isn’t large enough.  Brown on both sides.  Let your meat rest for 5-10 minutes while you cook up some peppers and onions to serve with the fajita steak.  Slice the meat against the grain and toss back into the pan with the peppers and onions – and since you’ve got another half of a lime left over from the marinade, squeeze it out now and stir it right in for a final kick.  Serve with warm tortillas, fresh salsa, guacamole, or pico de gallo; and remember: it’s the cut of meat that makes the fajita so good.  Enjoy!