Carrot top pesto

carrot pestoOne of my favorite things to eat is fresh pesto. There’s just something quite wonderful about the sharp, sweet taste of basil matched with the buttery flavor of nuts, deep saltiness of Parmesan cheese, and all held together with just the right twang of good olive oil. It’s good on pasta, makes a fine dressing for sandwiches — and doesn’t do all that bad as a spread for crackers. It’s versatile, and it’s delicious.

Recently, I picked up some lovely carrots from the Bernice Garden Farmers Market grown by the CANAS Victory Garden, and I noticed that they had some really lovely, long, feathery tops to them. Like many cooks, my first inclination with carrot tops is to toss them, but these looked so lush and green that I felt like I should find a use for them. I decided to use them in a pesto, and the result was a fantastic fresh version that was every bit as good as any I’ve ever made.

Carrot Top Pesto

  • 2 cups carrot tops
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup basil
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cups Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a food processor, pulse the carrot tops, garlic, basil, and pecans until they are chopped fine and beginning to form a paste. Add the grated Parmesan, salt and pepper (to taste) and olive oil and pulse again until everything is combined. Use your best judgement as to how coarse or fine you want everything chopped — and these ingredient amounts are all approximate, and can be adjusted for taste or amount of carrot tops you have to work with. Toss the pesto with warm pasta, or spread it on a turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwich (which is my personal favorite way to eat it). Happy cooking!

Ready for springtime

tomatoesIt’s been a long, cold winter, and I don’t know about y’all, but I am so ready for spring time that I’ve taken to giving pep talks to the jonquils that grow outside my house. An Arkansas spring is a wonderful thing, because the warmer temperatures bring with it some pretty fantastic things to do, especially for food lovers. Let me tell you what I’m talking about — spring’s almost here, and it’s time to get warm and have fun!

*Bernice Garden Farmers Market – Our favorite farmers market returns April 14, bringing all sorts of good things to eat to the Bernice Garden on South Main Street. Set in a picturesque sculpture garden, the Sunday market is a wonderful conglomeration of produce, crafts, and artisan products that can’t be missed. Our friends at the Waffle Wagon will be back slinging their delicious wares, and we’re betting they’ll have some new tricks up their sleeve after winning first runner-up in the recent Arkansas Times “Best Restaurants” poll in the food truck category.

IMG_9681*Arkansas Times Heritage Hog Roast This event was a massive success last year, despite the colder-than-average May temperatures. Chefs from all around town will be competing to see who can win this year’s bragging rights for best roast pig in the land on May 3. If the food is anywhere as good this year as it was last time, the real winners are all of us that get to eat it.

*Greek Food Festival – One of Little Rock’s longest-running and most popular food festivals returns on May 16 with all the gyros, spinakopita, and hummus you can possibly eat. This massive celebration of Greek culture runs through May 18, and features music, crafts, and some of the friendliest people in town. If you have a chance, be sure to take a tour of the Annunciation Church, because the Byzantine iconography is a beautiful sight to behold.

*Jewish Food Festival – The best grouping of kosher food in the state has moved to War Memorial Stadium this year, and the added room can only mean good things for lovers of falafel, latkes, and my personal favorite, chopped liver. The event will be on April 27, and will start with a traditional Jewish breakfast at 8:30 a.m. followed by the main event from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Be sure to make your way to the baked goods table — you won’t want to miss all the goodies there.

*Farm to Table Everything – Our chefs love the spring as much as we do, because it means more Arkansas produce for their menus. Matt Bell and the South on Main crew are sure to have some wonderful specials on tap, as will Alexis Jones of Natchez, Peter Brave of Brave New Restaurant, and many others. We’re also looking forward to the opening of Mylo Coffee Company’s new brick and mortar store on Kavanaugh, meaning that the spring is going to bring us more than just new flowers.

Of course, this is just a small sample of the good things coming this spring in Arkansas. I’ve heard rumors that Josiah Moody of Vino’s Brew Pub might be planning a special beer for St. Patrick’s Day, so grab a pint, toast the warmer weather, and get outside and enjoy yourselves!

Checking out the Arkansas State Fair

IMG_0719Before this year, I hadn’t been to an Arkansas State Fair in over two decades. I don’t care for riding rides, and my fellow food blogger Kat Robinson does such a thorough job every year previewing all the wild and crazy food available at the fair that my attempting to do it would be worse than redundant: it would surely be inadequate. But Jess wanted to head down to the fairgrounds this year, and despite my skepticism of going to a place where a sippy cup-sized lemonade is $4, a turkey leg goes for $10, and one of the food kiosks is called “Fried What,” there might be something for me at the fair. Turns out there was: the livestock.

photo 2(2)Having just recently attended an Arkansas-based stop of Outstanding in the Field, the thought of the farmers that work so hard to bring us the food we eat was still pretty fresh on my mind, so walking through the cattle barns and goat pens was of particular interest to me this year. We walked to Barton Coliseum to watch girls in their sparkle belts and Sunday-best boots lead their prize heifers across the arena floor for judging. We watched as entire families washed, brushed, and beautified their animals to prep them for showing. And through it all, I was reminded that there is an entirely different world out there where raising animals and growing vegetables and fruits is a daily way of life. Strange isn’t it, that we see so little of this on a day-to-day basis, and rather sad, too.

IMG_0627I go to many of our local farmers markets regularly, as do many of my neighbors. And there, the vegetables are always washed and clean, the meat frozen and packaged — and while you can talk to the growers directly, it’s still a neat and sanitized version of food that doesn’t nearly do justice to the hard, dirty work that goes into raising those vegetables and raising those animals. Agriculture is a tough proposition, with the Old Testament telling us that it was God Himself who made it that way to punish us all for tasting the forbidden fruit. And yet, despite the long hours, constant threats from bugs and weather, and low profit margins, the growers I talk to seem to love what they do, relishing the growth of each plant or the fattening of each hog as their way of taking the world around them and turning it into nourishment for others. And so while I didn’t get a deep-fried pecan pie, corn dog, or jumbo turkey leg, I did take away something food-related from the fair: the farmer is the life-blood of our civilization, and we don’t pay attention to that fact nearly enough. Cheers.

Reverse-seared Freckle Face pork chop

IMG_9631Some days, it feels like Hillcrest Artisan Meats invented pork. I know some of you out-of-town readers might not understand that, which means you need to get to Little Rock quickly and have lunch at the place so that all will become clear. Today was one of those days —  I stopped into H.A.M. to grab a pork loin sandwich (breaded pork loin, Dijon, aioli, LTO) which was, of course, fantastic. As I stood at the counter waiting on my order, I took a look in the fresh meat case to see what goodies might be found…and I saw some of the prettiest, thickest, most delicious looking pork chops ever to exist on this planet or any other. And like any good impulse shopper, I had Brandon wrap a couple up for supper later that night. Turns out that both the chops and the pork loin in my sandwich came from the same local grower, Freckle Face Farm in McRae. I’ve talked to Mitchell from Freckle Face a couple of times, and he’s one heck of a nice guy in addition to raising some of the best food around. Freckle Face is on a lot of menus here in Little Rock, and their meat is also available at several of our farmers markets, at fine establishments like H.A.M. and also online. Since these were thick chops, I used a method known as “reverse searing” on them, a method that turns the usual way of cooking meat on its head by starting in the oven and finishing in a hot skillet. It’s a fantastic way to get a thick piece of pork completely cooked while not drying it out.

IMG_9638To reverse sear your chop (or steak, but we eat our steaks so rare that a regular sear is enough), pre-heat your oven to 225. Salt your meat and allow it to come to room temperature. I know that bringing meat to room temperature seems like a gross violation of the Laws of Food Safety, but the salt is going to slow the growth of any nasties, it isn’t going to be nearly enough time to spoil — and room temperature meat cooks more evenly. Take your chops, pat them dry, and season with some fresh-cracked black pepper. You might be tempted to add some sort of bottled seasoning or some chili powder: stop yourself. These pigs are raised right. They have flavor. Don’t cover it up.

Put your chops in a cast iron skillet and let them cook in the oven for 30-45 minutes. The chops will be pretty much cooked through, but they should still be quite juicy. For you science folks out there, what we’re doing is allowing enzymes known as cathespins to break down the connective tissue in our meat, which will make it more tender. These enzymes don’t work above about 125 degrees, so low heat is vital. In addition, lower heat will cook without a lot of moisture evaporating, so our meat stays juicy — it’s a win/win.

Of course there’s another science term involved in good meat, and that’s the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction occurs when dry heat reacts with sugars and amino acids in meat to make that delicious caramelized crust that’s so good on steaks and chops. Cooking at low heat won’t give us this, so this is where the sear part comes into play. Remove your chops from the skillet and add a glug of olive oil (the more pungent, the better). Pat your chops dry, and when the oil is hot, sear them until they’re nice and brown. Let them rest for a few minutes and then serve. Savor the flavor of excellently raised free-range pork and don’t worry about anybody seeing you gnaw that bone. Happy cooking!

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Rustic Peach Cobbler

It’s getting toward the end of a very hot, very dry summer, and that means that pickings are getting slim at our favorite farmers markets.  There are still good things to be found, though, and we were lucky enough to come across a few very fresh, very ripe peaches at the Bernice Garden Farmers Market today that put us in the mind for some cobbler.  We love the little market on South Main, and it seems like every time we drop by, we find something tasty to cook with.  Jess and I debated on the way home about what kind of sort of crust we wanted to use for our cobbler, and we decided on going with one that is slightly sweet and full of fragrant spices.  It’s a little easier to work with than a pie crust, too — and the flavor is spectacular.

Rustic Peach Cobbler

Filling:

  • 4 Large peaches
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinammon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove

First, peel, pit, and slice your peaches.  For easy peeling, score the bottom of each peach in a cross pattern, then blanch in boiling water for 3-5 minutes.  Shock the peaches in cold water, and the skins should slip right off.  Mix together all the dry ingredients, then add peaches, stirring gently to coat.  Pour the peach mixture into a greased baking dish, but DO NOT wash the bowl out.

Topping:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinammon
  • 1 stick cold butter, in pieces
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

This topping is very similar to classic buttermilk biscuits, so if you’ve ever made those, you should be fine here.  Using the same bowl from our filling, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinammon.  Cut in the butter with a pastry blender (or the tips of your fingers).  When the mixture has gotten coarse and all the butter is worked in, add the buttermilk and vanilla and mix well.  Using two spoons, place balls of the dough on top of the peach mixture.  Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, or until the top is nice and brown.  Serve by itself or with a scoop of your favorite ice cream. Enjoy!

Scenes from the Bernice Garden Farmers Market

My favorite neighborhood in Little Rock is the South Main neighborhood, and a big part of that love stems from the Bernice Garden at the corner of Main and Daisy Bates.  In addition to being a lovely garden full of plants and sculptures right in the middle of the city, the Bernice Garden is also home to many fun events that celebrate art, culture, and — most importantly to me — food.  Every Sunday throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Bernice Garden holds a Farmers Market, and it’s one of my favorite places to go for fresh vegetables and locally prepared goods.  If you’ve never made it down to the Bernice Garden, you’re missing out — come on a weekday to enjoy the sculptures and grab some lunch at the Root Cafe or Boulevard Bread Company, or come down to grab an ice cream or a phosphate at the Green Corner Store Soda Fountain.  Come on Sunday and you can have your pick of some of the freshest fruits, vegetables, and flowers around.

At the market this week, we made a beeline to The Food Truck, where our good friend Jeffrey Palsa was serving up a magnificent four-cheese, potato, and broccoli frittata along with some fresh (and refreshing) gazpacho.  Fortified by our tasty victuals, we headed on over to the Laughing Stock Farms booth in hopes that Josh Hardin would still have some of the purple hull peas he’d mentioned to us over on Facebook.  Not only did Josh have the peas, but I realized that his wife Anna was actually an old college friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in years — just going to prove that this state is really like a small town.  Josh and Anna have really developed their farm into something impressive, and their booth was chock-full of plump tomatoes, juicy grapes, bright yellow squash, and my favorite find of the day: fresh figs.  I only bought a pint of the figs, and since they didn’t even survive an hour after I made it home, I really wish I had taken Anna’s advice and gotten a quart of the succulent fruits.  The Hardins also had a rather impressive pile of sweet corn on display, and while I didn’t buy any, I have it from no less an authority than Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times that it’s good stuff:

Max has always been pretty dead-on with his recommendations about tomatoes and other produce, so I don’t see why any of us should doubt him about the quality of the corn.  I can certainly vouch for how good the purple hull peas were — we cooked them up with some peppers and proceeded to polish them off along with a pint of sun gold tomatoes and an entire pan of cornbread.  A little dash of Monk Sauce made them just right.

After a great day that saw peppers being roasted, music played, and featured samples of a very tasty selection of cheeses from Kent Walker, we retired to the nearby Green Corner Store for a scoop of Loblolly ice cream.  Being on a fig kick, I was excited to see that they were featuring a fresh fig flavor, and it did not disappoint.  Expecting just vanilla ice cream with chunks of fig in it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ice cream itself tasted of figs — and it was loaded with huge pieces of the fresh fruit.  It was one of the most perfect ice creams I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat (and Loblolly has made me say that more than once).  Jess opted for a minty melon sorbet, and she described it as “summertime in a cup.”  Refreshed with ice cream (and some cold brew iced coffee from the market), we were ready for just about anything — and it’s all thanks to the folks of SoMa, our favorite spot in the Rock.

Bernice Garden Farmers Market runs from 10-2 every Sunday.