The Arkansas Foodies 2012 Year End Thing

mjwedHere we are at the end of another year — Jess and I couldn’t have asked for a busier, crazier, better one than this one just finished. When 2012 began, Arkansas Foodies was a small blog just finishing its first full year of existence, and Jess and I were an engaged couple trying to make gourmet food in a tiny apartment kitchen down in Saline County. Of course, small kitchens aren’t a detriment to good cooking — take a look at the Smitten Kitchen sometime and see the size of her kitchen! In addition to our cooking, we attended festivals, saw the food truck scene deal with some growing pains, and tried to bring all of you honest, informative restaurant reviews and foodie news. In March of 2012, Jess and I began working for the Arkansas Times, providing restaurant reviews and pictures for both their weekly print edition as well as becoming one of the main contributors to their Eat Arkansas blog. Suddenly, this plucky little blog began drawing all sorts of traffic, and we got to know all sorts of people in the Little Rock food scene (moving up here into the middle of things helped).

elliotbayOf course, the main excitement that happened in 2012 (even more exciting than winning Runner-up for Best Blog and Best Website from the Times’ Reader’s Choice Awards) was the fact that after a long engagement, Jess and I got married. We had a small, elegant ceremony at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Hot Springs, followed by a fantastic week in Seattle for our honeymoon — something that’s old news to all of you regular readers. We also got to know a lot of our fellow food writers, first at our jamon iberico tasting at Hillcrest Artisan Meats and then through a series of lunches that saw me and my Eat Arkansas partner Dan Walker eating everything from Southwest Little Rock barbecue to French bistro food in the Heights. We laughed, we scoffed, we certainly got indigestion — and I couldn’t ask for a better lunch crew, nor better dinner companions than Dan with his wife Lindsey.

aaathumbupSo here, at the end of the year, when people tend to reflect, I must ask: did I learn anything? I learned that new friends can come sometimes when you least expect them, and that old friends are the people who never give up no matter what. I learned that my family loves me even more than I thought they did, and that they’ll do anything in their power to keep Jess and me safe and happy. I learned pimento cheese is a lot more popular in Arkansas than in Texas, that dermatologists can talk mad game about foie gras, and that a growler from Vino’s is a welcome guest at any dinner party. Lastly, I learned that there are a lot of you out there, and you teach me about food every single day. Thank you all for reading, and from Jess and me: Have a wonderful and happy New Year! Cheers.

Salumi

aasalumiCharcuterie. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m pretty mad about cured and preserved meats, those delicious results of a time before refrigeration that linger on into this modern age because they’re just so incredibly delicious. We’re no strangers to the good stuff here in Little Rock, with restaurants like The Pantry and Hillcrest Artisan Meats turning out some fantastic house-made and imported food, but since we were in Seattle, there was but one destination for us: Salumi, Armando Batali’s cozy little sandwich shop located in Pioneer Square. It was a chilly November morning when we arrived at the door a half-hour before opening, and after ducking into a oddities shop next door to warm up for only a few minutes, we found ourselves already third in line when we returned. I spent some time on Twitter while we waited for the place to open and managed to get a retweet from Mario Batali, Armando’s extremely famous chef son.

aasalmeatOnce eleven o’clock hit, the doors opened and we headed down a narrow hall to the assembly line-style ordering. These folks knew their business, and kept everybody moving while being friendly (if a bit brusque). It’s not a big place, and there are a lot of people trying to eat there, so I’ve got to give props to the women behind the counter who turned out orders so efficiently. We started with a sampler tray, a collection of the different cured meats available at the shop. We had previously eaten the Salumi Salami at Pike Brewing, and we were once again pleased with its firm texture and light, oily flavor. The big hit on the plate was the Hot Sopressata, a spicy sausage that won us both over with a mild start and a fiery back end. The cheeses on the plate were excellent, with a soft mozzarella, smoked provolone, and a nice, sharp blue adding good flavor contrast and balance to the meat.

aaporchettaJess went for the Salumi Salami sandwich, so she really got her fill of the stuff that day. I ordered the Porchetta, a hot sandwich that had been recommended by several reviews (and also several people on Twitter). To all those people, I say “thank you.” The porchetta was tender, well-spiced, and incredibly juicy from all the melted fat infusing each bite. Stuffed into a hollowed-out roll, each bite of this sandwich was an almost overwhelming rush of flavor and texture unlike any sandwich I’ve ever had. Jess and I both are of the opinion that the sandwich might be mankind’s greatest invention, and this porchetta version served as added evidence to that theory.

Salumi was a fantastic experience, not just from the excellent food, but also from the excitement of the people around us. People were looking at this meal as an experience, something that Jess and I tend to do with most of the meals we eat. Was this famous house of meat better than our neighborhood sandwich palace, Hillcrest Artisan Meats? Not at all — if anything, the fact that H.A.M. matches Salumi bite for delicious bite makes me all the more thankful for the excellence we have just around the corner. So if you find yourself in Little Rock, head to Hillcrest — but if you’re reading this from Pioneer Square, it’s worth the wait to eat at Salumi.

Salumi on Urbanspoon

Elliott’s Oyster House

bigwheelJess and I had two separate seafood-related goals during our trip to Seattle: she wanted to find somewhere to eat a pile of Dungeness crab and I wanted to gorge myself Walrus-and-the-Carpenter-style on some oysters. Since our condo was so close to the waterfront, we decided to head down to Pier 56 and try Elliott’s Oyster House, a place that Zagat calls “a great spot for out of towners,” and which even the Seattle Stranger had nice things to say about (despite making fun of tourists like us). But I don’t mind going to a touristy restaurant if the food is good, and the wide selection of oysters and crab dishes seemed just the thing we were looking for. So after meandering through Pike’s Market, we found our way down to the waterfront and bypassed the more casual Elliot’s Seafood Cafe an went straight for the good stuff. The restaurant itself was a little stuffy, but the food ranged from good to great with some nice surprises in-between.

acrabbypattyOur cooked dish were the Dungeness Crabcakes — which go down as some of the best crabcakes I’ve ever eaten. Sweet, succulent lump crab meat was present in large quantity in these cakes, only just held together by a small amount of seasoned bread crumbs and crisped on the outside edges. I’m normally pretty dissatisfied with crabcakes as they are usually more “cake” than “crab,” but these were meaty and luscious, with just the right balance of crunchy, soft, and slightly chewy. There was a jicama slaw served to the side of these bad boys but we were so focused on those pretty little cakes that we never touched a single bite of it.

acrabbyplatterOur love affair with the crabcakes ended, we moved on to the main event: the Celebration Platter, a mound of fresh-shucked oysters, snow crab claws, chilled prawns, and half of the Dungeness crab Jess craved so much. The oysters were briny and cold, and just a slight squeeze of lemon made them perfect. The snow crab claws were large and very meaty, with a mild, clean taste that gave way to a delightful sweetness. The Dungeness crab legs were every bit the highlight that Jess assured me they would be, with a soft, tender meat that needed no other seasoning beyond the flavor of the meat itself. The prawns were a touch disappointing, but that may have had more to do with the quality of the other seafood on the platter.

aaoysterplatterNot content with the oysters that came with our Celebration, we ordered a second dozen, sampling several of the local varieties. The range of flavor and texture among these varieties was astounding, and somewhat unexpected for a couple of people used to the flavor of Gulf oysters. These were far brinier than the oysters we are used to, with some balancing that brininess with a firm sweetness and some just sliding down with a taste like a breath of sea wind. Wine lovers always talk about “terroir” when it comes to their favorite vintages; the same might be said for oysters, too, as different types raised in different areas of the Pacific Northwest were widely different in their taste. I would love to be able to take the time to learn more about these oysters, mostly because it means I would get to eat a lot of them.

Elliott’s might be considered a place for tourists, but we were well-pleased with the fresh flavor of the seafood. Being from a landlocked state, we are relatively inexperienced with good seafood, although we both crave it constantly. For a good sample of regional seafood, this place is highly recommended.

Elliott's Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Red Beans and Rice Cakes

IMG_9075By now, all of you must be aware of what a fan I am of The Southern Gourmasian, the unique and popular Little Rock food truck that playfully (and skillfully) takes Asian and Southern ingredients and combines them into some really fantastic dishes. One of my favorite dishes the Gourmasian makes is their Spicy Chicken and Dumplings, which takes rice cakes (known as dok in Korea and mochi in Japan), pan sears them, and serves them up with shredded chicken and a thick, spicy ramen broth. The rice cakes in particular are wonderful in this dish, with a slightly crisp outer layer that gives way to a dense, chewy center that I just can’t seem to get enough of. And I figure that since mochi is rice, and one of my favorite dishes is red beans and rice, I might try my hand at pan-searing some rice cakes myself and see what happens.

Red Beans and Rice Cakes

  • 1/2 pound mochi. Normally you can find the rice cakes sold in sticks or in medallions. While I prefer the sticks that Gourmasian uses (they make fatter dumplings), the only ones I could find tonight were the thin medallions. They work just fine.
  • 1 can red beans (you can click the above link for a dry bean version of this dish)
  • 1 link andouille sausage
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Hot Sauce (Your pick. I used Monk Sauce, but you can use Crystal, Tabasco, or Sriracha)
  • Soy sauce

Cut your sausage up as fine as you like it and brown in a skillet or saucepan. When the sausage has rendered some of its fat and begun to brown, add the diced onion and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 3-5 minutes longer. Add the beans, season with salt and pepper, and allow to simmer.

In a separate pan, heat up some sesame oil. Crisp the mochi until the outside begins to brown. Remove from heat and toss with a generous dollop of the hot and soy sauces. Pour your beans over the top and serve. I had a few crawfish tails, so I added them, but that’s entirely optional.

As a first attempt at a new dish, I’ll call this one successful, although it lacks the deep flavors and heavy prep that the Gourmasian does. As a quick rice cake fix, though, I have to say that it got the job done, and I look forward to trying this again when I have a little more prep time to let all the flavors here mature. Cheers!

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…And We’re Back!

photo(6)What a month November was, and what a month December has turned out to be! Jess and I got married, Jess found a new job, and we moved from our tiny apartment in Bryant to a much larger place in the heart of Little Rock. Moving into the city has long been a goal for us, and while I’m happy we’re here, I hope I don’t have to do the move thing any time soon — it’s complete and utter torture. And while we’re still unpacking boxes, we’ve got our new kitchen up and running, so I figured I’d share with all of you some of the things we’ve been making. I’ve traded in my crummy old electric stove for a gas range, and while our new place doesn’t have a dishwasher, that’s a small price to pay for the convenience and quiet of where we are living. And as you can see by the Chicken Parm pictured above, it hasn’t stopped us from whipping up something tasty. The parm itself is easy: take 1 cup shredded Parmesan, 1 cup Panko, and season with herbs of your choice and fresh pepper. Cut strips of chicken breast, dip in a beaten egg, then coat in the Panko/cheese mixture and fry until golden. Serve with wide egg noodles and a chunky sauce.

photo(3)The second meal we cooked in our new kitchen was a classic Southern feast: country-fried venison, green beans, and mashed potatoes. We make green beans like grandma used to: salt, pepper, and some thick cut pork belly. Oh, and a little secret ingredient known commercially as Accent (which is pure MSG). Just a pinch or two of MSG really sets off the flavors of these beans. To prepare, throw everything in the pot with some clean water and just cook the ever-living hell out of them. By most standards, these beans are overcooked, but a long, slow simmer allows the pork (and monosodium glutamate) to work its magic and create a richly flavored dish of beans with a nice, hearty pot liquor.

As for the deer steak, we dipped it in egg an dredged it in a mixture of seasoned flour and cornmeal. And the mashed potatoes were simply that — with far too much real butter in them. All-in-all, it’s been a tasty first week in our new place, and we’re excited to be posting again. Stay tuned for the delicious conclusion of our Seattle series, and a look at Little Rock’s newest trendy taco joint Local Lime. Stick around!

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