The Jungle Stand: Italian biscuit edition

photo(34)“Boxes” are all the rage these days: pay a few dollars a month and people will send you boxes of all sorts of things. Jess is a fan of Birch Box, a monthly grab-bag of sample-size fancy toiletries, but although my friend Joel DiPippa swears by the men’s version, I lack the skill, knowledge, or confidence to know what the heck to do with a box of fancy stuff to wear.

Not to fear, though — there are boxes out there for folks like me who wear Mountain Dew t-shirts and like to eat in bed, and today I got my first one from The Jungle Stand, a site that promises a “tasting bar” in every month’s box (for only $9.92). This month’s theme was “Taste of Italy,” the taste in question being several varieties of Italian-style biscuits of both the sweet and savory nature. Jess and I dug right in and found the selection to be quite good for the most part. Here’s a run-down of what we tried:

*Sfogliatine: This was an airy, crispy pastry puff that was lightly sugared and had a fine texture due to its many layers. This was one of our favorite bites from the box, so delicate as to almost melt on the tongue with each bite. Delicious.

*Krumiri: These were a dry biscuit made for dipping into a beverage. Prepared without water, the texture was similar to Scottish shortbread, although not nearly as buttery. This version was made with hazelnuts and vanilla, and had a nice, subtle flavor perfect for pairing with a cup of tea or medium-brewed coffee.

*Amaretti: These little anonymous-looking cookies were the stand-out taste in the box. Beneath that tame exterior was a powerful punch of almond and amaretto flavor that was almost shocking at first bite. Sweet, slightly bitter, and delightfully crunchy, these treats were among some of the best little cookies we’ve ever had.

*Cantuccini: What I would call a biscotti. These were infused with raisins and gave a nice, sweet bite that was quite crunchy. Not so great by themselves, but these would be perfect with a strong cuppa for breakfast. (UPDATE: The aforementioned Mr. DiPippa, who is my go-to source for things Italian says that “biscotti” is baked twice, hence the difference.)

*Biscuit with Mediterranean Herbs: The first savory biscuit, and the first one with no actual Italian name. These were some pretty lame little crackers with a strong taste of tomato bouillon and oregano. Seemed more like filler for the box than anything actually Italian.

*Srack Griss: I Googled “srack griss” and came up with nothing. These are little breadsticks with a strong flavor of tomato and basil. More assertively flavored than the other savory biscuit, these little bites were superior yet still not comparable to the sweet treats. Still, the light, crisp breadsticks would make a fine bar snack, and so I give them a pass. (UPDATE II: Joel says “griss” is colloquial term for “bread,” so these are srack breadsticks.)

In the end, our 6-flavor “tasting bar” was a solid 4/6 for success. I admire The Jungle Stand for attempting to include so many different flavors, from the light sweetness of the sfogliantine to the deeper, bittersweet flavor of the amaretti, to the less successful savory options. For our first box, we were well-pleased, and look forward to sharing what we get in next month’s shipment.

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Hillcrest Artisan Meats wins prize; shares with city

photo(29)Right before the July 4 holiday this year, our friends at Hillcrest Artisan Meats announced that they were participating in a “Ham Independence” contest sponsored by one of the world’s best producers of quality pork, La Quercia. I’ve enjoyed La Quercia products at H.A.M. for awhile, and when Jess and I were in Seattle, one of the best meat trays we ate featured meats from Salumi as well as prosciutto from the Iowa producer. We’ve eaten a lot of fine pork over the past year or so, from Spanish raised jamon iberico de bellota to some fantastic local-raised pork chops, but I think we’ve found a winner for best overall pork, because when Hillcrest Artisan Meats won that “Ham Independence” contest, the grand prize was a leg of Acorn Berkshire Prosciutto, a 17 lb. slab of pure porcine perfection that retails somewhere north of $1000.00. Yes, that’s not a typo — that ham you see in the picture above is worth more than a grand.

So of course Brandon Brown and the H.A.M. gang did the only thing they could do: they started slicing up free samples for everybody who walked through the door, because that’s the sort of excellent people they are.

photo(28)This was the first time I’d ever seen a ham with the hoof still on (other than pictures), held in a contraption made just for the purpose of keeping the ham upright for easy slicing. The outside was dark cream, the color of sea foam, but when sliced the ham revealed a lighter layer of creamy fat and a ruby red flesh that smelled of brine, of blood, and of the richness that comes from age and care. Brandon took a long knife and gently shaved a piece from the leg, handing it to me with a knowing smile. The fat began to liquefy as my fingers warmed it, and I brought the slice to my nose, breathing deep a scent that was wild, slightly gamy, and richer than strong wine.

The first taste: salt and fat, with a nuttiness from the acorn diet these Berkshire hogs are fed. Then a rush of sweet fat melting on the tongue, with a floral sweetness like good figs but with a solid deepness that coated and surrounded my tongue with delicious flavor. I’d consider it superior to even Spanish ham — a bold statement since it was the Spanish that brought pigs to this continent in the first place. La Quercia knows their pork, and it was a privilege to be able to sample some, especially at my favorite butcher shop on earth. Thanks to La Quercia, thanks to Hillcrest Artisan Meats — and thanks to all of you that voted. Arkansas really brought home a prize with this one.

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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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Jamón Ibérico at Hillcrest Artisan Meats

It all started as a bit of a joke on Twitter — a bunch of local food bloggers talking about how much we love Hillcrest Artisan Meats, and how much we’d all like to try one of the more expensive items sold there: the $89/lb jamón ibérico de bellota. The joke became serious — and then a reality — as we realized that we could all perhaps pool our resources and all partake in this legendary Spanish ham without breaking the bank. It was also an excellent excuse for quite a few of us local bloggers to get together face-to-face, something Jess and have wanted to happen for quite some time. Present at this blogger/pork summit in addition to Jess and myself were Christie Ison from Fancy Pants Foodie, Joel DiPippa from the Southern Ash blog, and my excellent colleague from Eat Arkansas, Dan Walker.

Widely considered the finest ham in the world, this Spanish import is made from black Iberian free-range pigs who are allowed exercise and are finished strictly on a diet of acorns (which greatly influences the flavor of the ham). The meat is aged for up to 36 months, so you can see that the time required to cure one of these hams coupled with the limited number of pigs that the pastures and oak groves of Southwest Spain can sustain means meat that is on the upper end of expensive.

And how was it? Simply fantastic. Brandon at Hillcrest Meats sliced us a half pound of the stuff so thin that it was almost translucent. Unlike prosciutto, which I find to be rather chewy, the iberico was soft and yielding, with a luscious fat to it that melted almost as soon as it touched the tongue. The flavor was mild and rich, and like good, strong wine was almost overwhelming in a way that forced each of us to take our time and savor each bite. This was more than charcuterie — this was the essence of all that is perfect and wonderful about charcuterie summed up in a wafer-thin slice of salty, unctuous heaven.

Everyone I’ve talked to (who wasn’t there) has the same question: is it worth it? I’d say that it certainly was. A half-pound of meat for nearly $50 seems like an insane amount to spend, but with five separate bloggers splitting the cost, that only comes to $10 each — and by the end of that half pound, we were all so overwhelmed with the richness of the meat that I don’t think anyone could have eaten another bite. It’s certainly something I would consider buying a few slices of as a nice addition to any tray of antipasti, and as a bonding experience among a group of food writers who only just met, I can’t think of anything better to serve. The sweet, wild flavor of the meat, buffered by salt and age was more than a mouthful of ham — it was one of the truest food experiences I’ve ever had.

THE HERMANOS JAMONES: Joel DiPippa, Daniel Walker, Jess Miller-Roberts, Michael Roberts, Christie Ison

THE HERMANOS JAMONES: Joel DiPippa, Daniel Walker, Jess Miller-Roberts, Michael Roberts, Christie Ison

Review: Hillcrest Artisan Meats

I don’t think there’s anything I don’t love about Hillcrest Artisan Meats — a.k.a. H.A.M.  I love the selection of cured meats, from imported mortadella that fries up to a crisp, delicious brown to a house-made pork-lung pastrami that I tried just to be brave and wound up buying half a pound.  And if you’re in the mood for a quick, satisfying lunch, there aren’t many places in Hillcrest (or in Little Rock at all, for that matter) where you can get the sort of quality, service, and taste present at H.A.M. — served up with a little bit of attitude and a healthy dose of cheesy rock music on the radio.  We’ve eaten a few sandwiches there lately, and I think that they’re among the best sandwiches around.

The first sandwich I ever tried at H.A.M. was a tasty concoction of seared foie gras, raspberry preserves, and arugula on a crunchy baguette.  I found out later that it was H.A.M.’s Brandon Brown who had been responsible for the tasty foie dish we ate last year at Boulevard Bread Company, and I knew that this guy was on to something good.  As good as the foie was, the current love of my life at H.A.M. is the country pate sandwich seen to the right:  a coarse-ground, succulent pressed loaf of pork, lightly seasoned and perfectly complemented by a couple of slices of tomatoes, some cornichons, and a healthy dose of spicy mustard.  Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a fiend for pate, and this is one of the best versions I’ve eaten.  If you’ve ever wanted to give the stuff a shot, this is where you should go.

For folks with a heartier appetite, you can’t go wrong with H.A.M.’s eponymous sandwich, a monster piled high with cold cut salame rosa, Fudge Family Farm ham, capicola, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, aioli, and Maille Dijon.  A sandwich made with any of those meats would be incredible; a sandwich made with all of them is an almost overwhelming experience.  It’s the sort of sandwich that might give Dagwood Bumstead a moment of pause before tucking into.  It’s also one of the most delicious things we’ve ever had the pleasure to eat.

Of course, Hillcrest Artisan Meats is a lot more than just a sandwich shop.  As I said at the top, I’m a rather huge fan of their imported mortadella, but they also have a wide selection of sausages, steaks, pork, chicken, and a small (but respectable) selection of cheeses — including cheese from Arkansas’ own Kent Walker.  The best part of the H.A.M. experience is that the guys behind the counter are proud of what they do, they know that some of the things they have are unfamiliar to the general public, and they aren’t hesitant to answer questions and hand out samples in order to sell you on their quality products.  They’ve also got one of the finest selection of foodie magazines to peruse and purchase, including Meat Paper and Lucky Peach.

Hillcrest Artisan Meats is located at 2807 Kavanaugh Boulevard, Suite B in Hillcrest, and they’re open from 10-6 daily.  Do yourself a favor and get yourself some meat.

Hillcrest Artisan Meats on Urbanspoon

Sweet Treats at the Savory Pantry

Good cooking starts with good ingredients, and while we may not have a large quantity of gourmet stores here in Arkansas, there are still some excellent places around to get quality products.  The challenge that most gourmet stores have here is convincing people to spend a little extra for a high-end olive oil or vinegar, especially when so many folks are unfamiliar with just how much better these things are than the typical supermarket version.  The Savory Pantry in Hot Springs has done a wonderful job confronting this problem head on by making an incredible number of their products available for sampling daily.  This allows the casual shopper or novice cook some much needed hands-on experience and goes a long way to opening folks up to an entirely new world of cooking.  As owner Keeley DeSalvo (who also owns The Pancake Shop next door) put it, “We want you to like what you buy.”

Along with several other Arkansas food writers, Jess and I recently had the privilege of attending a “Foodie Friendly Day” hosted by The Savory Pantry, and we were not only impressed with the wide variety of high-end items available at the downtown store, but also with the enthusiasm and joy that the entire staff exhibited showing off their wares.  The Savory Pantry is set up to provide you with good, quality pantry staples, and to that end we tasted several salts, olive oils, and vinegars.  It might seem kind of strange to have a tasting of ingredients that people rarely ever use alone, but it allowed us to see that even a basic thing like salt can have a wide variety of flavors available to the home cook.  I grew up thinking that salt came with a girl holding an umbrella on the box and that vinegar was strictly of the white distilled variety, and here we were tasting salt mixed with truffles and six-year aged Maletti balsamic (both of which were heavenly).  This sort of thing just simply wasn’t available in Southwest Arkansas when I was a kid, and it’s nice to see it being offered now.

We were also lucky enough to get to try some tasty treats from MaryClare Macarons.  Macarons have been heralded as the new trendy dessert (watch out, cupcakes), and the ladies making these definitely know their business.  The sweet meringue cookies almost melted in the mouth with a light crunch, and each was filled with something yummy – raspberry jam, orange creme, peanut butter, and others that I didn’t even slow down chewing long enough to identify.  Even if you aren’t a cook, it’s worth going into the Savory Pantry to get some of these – they look elegant and lovely and taste even better.

Finally, if you’re looking for a gift for the foodie in your life, you probably can’t go wrong with one of the Savory Pantry’s ready-made gift baskets.  Especially if it’s a gift for me.  These baskets have a nice variety of things to – what else – help stock a pantry with quality ingredients.  I’ve used the pasta you can see in the basket to the right, and it’s really, really good stuff – there’s no skimping on quality here.  Even if you’re not much of a cook, there’s plenty of snacks and other things to tempt you, and it’s the only place I know of where you can get McClure’s Bloody Mary Mix, a briny, spicy mix that’s one of the best I’ve tried.

As an added bonus, we’d like to include a recipe we picked up during our recent trip, and while the flavor combinations might seem a bit out of the ordinary, we urge you to try it.

Strawberries with Maletti Balsamic Vinegar

  • 1 quart strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and sliced
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp Maletti 6 year Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Chopped fresh mint leaves for garnish

Toss strawberries with sugar and let sit for 10 minutes. Do not refrigerate.  Sprinkle with the vinegar, toss gently, then taste and add more sugar or vinegar if desired.  Sprinkle with pepper, toss again, and garnish with mint.  We like to eat these just like this, but they can also be served alongside pound cake.  It’s a wonderful mix of flavors.

The Savory Pantry is located at 214 Central Avenue in historic downtown Hot Springs, as well as online.  Stop by when you get a chance – you’ll love the fun atmosphere and the delicious things available to try, and check out Kat Robinson’s Tie Dye Travels for more pics from the Savory Pantry and the Pancake Shop.  Enjoy!