Beer-braised pork shoulder

010d1a6ff0aae3d8680ae5f1ba5be9f3d8c33c4efcAfter a long, gloomy week that saw the people of Arkansas wondering if we’d ever see the sun again, we finally got a clear day — and even better, it was a Saturday. It had been some time since I trekked up to the Hillcrest Farmers Market, mostly because cold, cloudy weather brings me down to the point where I just want to stay inside under a blanket, preferably with a cat curled up next to me.

But this past Saturday was a perfect day for getting out and about. Sure, it was still a pretty cold morning, but with the sun out, I felt rather invigorated, and so I made my way up to the market at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church to see what I could see. As luck would have it, Freckle Face Farm was set up and ready to go with some bone-in pork shoulder cuts that I just couldn’t pass up. I’ve sung the praises of Freckle Face’s pork before, and since it had been awhile since I cooked up some really high quality local meat, I grabbed a two pound package to make for Sunday dinner. Now, a lot of folks use shoulder for pulled pork, and that’s certainly a wonderful thing to do; however, I lack a smoker, and pulled pork that hasn’t been smoked would have just been a crime against this particular cut of pork — so I decided to braise it in some beer, pot roast style.

Beer-braised pork shoulder

  • 01d53a8ffaf6746d210cd0137e577186d73bbe27812-4 pounds of pork shoulder. The particular cut I used was right at 2 pounds, and still had the bone in. In this day and age, most of our meat comes to us completely boneless, but I prefer to cook my meat bone-in whenever possible. The bone provides some nice collagen to your pan juices, giving them a more velvety texture — not to mention the marrow adds flavor like you wouldn’t believe.
  • 3 tablespoons oil, shortening, or lard for searing
  • 1-2 bottles of beer. Use a malty, low-hop beer. Abita Amber is fantastic for this purpose, as is Diamond Bear’s Irish Red. In a pinch, using a cheap mass-produced lager like Pabst Blue Ribbon is just fine, too. Save the IPAs for drinking, though — they’ll make your braising liquid too bitter.
  • 4 cups chicken stock. Store bought is fine, homemade is better.
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, mashed
  • 2-3 large carrots, peeled and sliced into chunks
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper

Take your pork and pat it dry with a paper towel. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Heat the oil in a cast iron skillet until almost smoking, then sear the shoulder on both sides until you get a nice, dark crust (going heavy on the pepper makes this crust even better). Transfer the seared pork to a dutch oven and pour in one bottle of the beer and 3 cups of the chicken stock. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, thyme, and bay leaves. Cover with a lid and cook in a 350 degree oven for 2-3 hours, or until the meat is fork tender. Check the pot periodically to make sure there’s still enough liquid to keep the meat almost covered; add the reserved chicken stock and a splash of the extra beer if needed (go ahead and drink that other beer if not needed).

Once the meat is pretty tender, I like to remove it to a platter and strain all the vegetables and herbs from the braising liquid, reserving the liquid and tossing the veggies. Place the meat back into the dutch oven, then pour the braising liquid back in, and add potatoes and fresh carrots for a one-pot meal. You can eat those old vegetables, but most of their flavor has already been transferred to the liquid; adding fresh vegetables and cooking until they are tender will give you much brighter flavors.

I served my roast tonight with some honey-ginger glazed carrots and a fresh spinach and herb salad — I was lucky to come across some early spring carrots and spinach from Willow Springs Market Garden after I got the pork, and man were those fresh veggies good. The result was a meal that was almost entirely local, and quite entirely delicious. Happy cooking!

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Beer-braised chicken with fennel

IMG_9950 (640x427)Any of you who have kept up with this blog for awhile know that Jess and I love our beer. And while drinking the stuff is normally just fine with us, we also like to cook with beer. Brown ales and porters are some of our favorite cooking beers, and tonight’s dish uses Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale as the base for a braising liquid that it quite potent and savory. Sammy Smith’s might be a little bitter for some of you out there, so feel free to substitute any other brown ale, amber ale, or porter in this dish — pick something without a strong hops profile that you like to drink and you’re guaranteed a good dish. The addition of fennel to the mix adds a nice layer of complexity to the sauce, not to mention a tasty addition to the finished dish.

Beer-braised chicken with fennel

  • IMG_9955Four chicken thighs, skin on.
  • One bulb fennel, julienned.
  • One bottle brown ale.
  • One cup chicken stock.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Two tablespoons cider vinegar.
  • Two tablespoons butter.

Salt and pepper the chicken thighs. In a deep skillet, brown the thighs on both sides until they’re nice and golden brown. Remove chicken to a platter. Deglaze your pan with the chicken stock, then add the beer and fennel. Add the chicken back to the pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and let the chicken work until it’s nice and tender. Remove chicken and add the vinegar, cooking the liquid until it has reduced by half. Adjust seasonings to taste, then swirl the butter into the finished sauce for a nice, glossy look and luscious taste. Serve with sweet potatoes or over wide egg noodles. Happy cooking!

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Drunken Beans

IMG_9092I know this might surprise some of you, but there are times when I do really stupid things. Sometimes those things are forgivable, like eating a bag of Famous Amos cookies and a Diet Coke for lunch, but sometimes I pull some really egregious shenanigans that embarrass even me (and I’m a guy known to order pig intestines in restaurants). My most recent bone-headed move was buying a growler of Josiah Moody’s fantastic Scotch Ale yesterday at Vino’s…and then just letting it sit. By the time I got around to cracking that bad boy open, a lot of the carbonation had escaped, and I was left with the knowledge that I had committed quite a sin against one of God’s gifts to mankind: beer. And not just any beer, but a beer that I’ve waited around to be brewed since last year, from my favorite brewery on the face of this great earth. Something had to be done, something that could live up to the quality of the beer I had so carelessly mistreated. There was but one answer: a big pot of drunken beans.

IMG_9089Michael’s Drunken Beans

  • 1 pound dry beans. Pick your favorites. I like red beans the most with barbecue, so that’s what you see here, but this technique works with pintos, black beans, or navy beans.
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Your favorite barbecue sauce. Make your own, or use a good bottled kind. I’m using a new (to me) brand called “My Uncle’s Sauce” that was given to me by a nice guy I met recently who is trying to open a food truck. It’s good stuff.
  • Beer. If you want to use cheap, horrible beer, that’s fine. A good amber ale works nicely with beans. And since I’ve got some half-flat Scotch Ale at my disposal tonight — I’m using that.

Don’t worry about soaking your beans overnight. Cover them without about an inch of water in a kettle and bring them to a boil on your stove top. When they’ve reached a boil, turn the heat off, cover, and let sit for an hour or two. During this time, cook your bacon. You can either cook the 1/2 pound I called for and retain the meat and fat, or you can admit you are a bacon fiend and cook an entire pound, eating half and leaving yourself with a second half pound for the beans. Up to you — I won’t tell anyone.

Rinse your beans in a colander, returning them to the kettle. Pour a bunch of beer into the beans. If you have enough to cover them, do that. I like to pour in enough to get right to the point of covering them and then add some chicken stock for extra flavor. Crumble up the half pound of bacon you didn’t eat and toss into the pot. Using some of the retained bacon fat, cook the onions until they become translucent and somebody from the next room says, “My GOD what are you making that smells so good?!” When that happens, add the garlic just to tease them and saute for three more minutes. Dump the whole lot — onions, garlic, and bacon fat into the pot. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. Add liquid if needed — more beer, stock, or water.

Once your beans have gotten soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed, add in as much of the barbecue sauce as you’d like, and adjust your salt and pepper to taste. Put the kettle into the oven and cook baked-bean style until the barbecue sauce has darkened and begun to caramelize. If you like sweeter beans, add a touch of brown sugar before baking. If you like hot, add your favorite hot sauce. Use your imagination. You’ll be left with a pan of beans flavored with the rich barley malt flavor of beer and brought to perfection by tangy barbecue sauce. Serve with cole slaw and barbecue chicken — or whatever floats your boat. Enjoy!

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The Pike Brewing Company

Ah, beer. From ancient times to this modern age, beer has been with us as the happy result of what happens to barley water when it gets a little funky. Lucky for us in these civilized times, mankind has gotten the art of beer-making down to a pretty good science — and even luckier, American beer-making is at its greatest moment in history in terms of flavor and variety. The craft beer scene has exploded across the country, and the result has been a golden age of the golden brew across these United States. It wasn’t always the case. Time and again, I talk to brewers who all say the same thing: they got into brewing because the state of American mainstream beer in the 20th century reached a horrible low point in terms of taste and quality. This was the case for Charles and Rose Ann Finkel, founders of Pike Brewing, a couple who started by importing some of the finest beers that Europe had to offer and wound up creating one of Seattle’s most famous and tastiest brew pubs. The pub is located just outside (and underneath) the well-known Pike Place Market and sports an excellent menu of suds and eats that we enjoyed greatly.

We chose the Pike Sampler (shown above) to get a good representation of the different varieties available, but we also wanted to soak up some of those suds with something good to eat. To that end, we ordered the Ploughmans Sampler, a plate of charcuterie, cheese, olives, and flatbread that was easily one of the best bar appetizers we’ve ever tried. Two of the meats, the salami and coppa, were from Seattle’s own Salumi Restaurant (and we’ll have more on THAT lovely place later), and our favorite meat on the plate was a prosciutto from La Quercia Artisan Meats in Iowa. Each separate item was distinct in flavor and texture, from the oily, almost sweet flavor of the rosy salami to the briny coppa that finished on a note of subtle heat. The prosciutto was the second best pork I’ve ever eaten, and when the first best is true jamon iberico, that means it was some damn fine ham. We reveled in the taste of salt and fat, tearing small strips of the pork with our fingers and chewing slowly, washing each bite down with a different type of beer to see how many tastes we could match. Of equal pleasure were the cheeses, from the ale-rubbed “Naughty Nellie” (also the name of our favorite Pike beer) to the creamy camembert-like “Cirrus,” to the Seattle-made cheddar from Beecher’s in the Pike Place Market. This was a quality meat and cheese board, with many of the components from local producers.

While bread, beer, meat, and cheese might be a perfect meal, we didn’t want to pass up some of Pike’s seafood offerings. To this end, we ordered the Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Dip, a hot and creamy mixture of crab meat, onions, and cheese. I found the dip to be tasty, if a tad heavy on the onions; Jess liked it better than I did. The seafood dish that had us both raving, though, was the Roasted Garlic Jumbo Prawns, a dish made of sweet, succulent shrimp with a subtle garlic flavor and a rich, meaty texture that just blew us away  — these are the sort of shrimp we just can’t get here in Arkansas. There wasn’t anything I’d change about this dish except the quantity: shrimp lovers will be teased by the small starter plate.

So after all that talk about the good food, how was the beer? Well, I wouldn’t place the beer in the elite ranks of craft brews, but it certainly had its bright spots. We particularly enjoyed the Naughty Nellie, a crisp blonde ale that was very drinkable and a perfect addition to the food. Fans of Belgian styles will be fond of the Monk’s Uncle Tripel, a fruity and wild-tasting beer that is a very good example of the style. The rest of the tasting try consisted of a decent IPA, APA, and porter — and while we tried a drink of their barleywine, it wasn’t for us, but I find barleywines to generally be too boozy in flavor anyway. That Naughty Nellie had us coming back for more, though, and I’d call the entire Pike line-up very solid in terms of quality and flavor — just pick whatever style you like that they do, and you’ll be almost certain to get a very drinkable entry.

We came into Pike Brewing half-expecting a glorified TGIFriday’s made for tourists. What we got was a fun and friendly brew pub with some good-to-great beers and a wonderful selection of nibbles. It’s a fantastic place to stop in for a drink or three, and it’s certainly one of our Seattle highlights. Pike Brewing is located at 1415 1st Avenue in Seattle.

The Pike Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Review: U.S. Pizza Co. (Hillcrest)

I’ve eaten quite a lot of U.S. Pizza over the years, from their Dickson Street location while I was going to college in Fayetteville to their Fair Park location just a few blocks from where I work – but I think my favorite location of all remains their one in Hillcrest.  Saline County (our current home base) is about to get their first U.S. Pizza, so we thought we’d take a trip up to grab a bite and remind ourselves how good U.S. Pizza is.  The Hillcrest location has indoor and patio dining available, and fortified by a couple of the iciest mugs of Diamond Bear Pale Ale I’ve ever been served, we spent some time with the extensive menu.

The pizza at U.S. Pizza is great, but don’t worry if you’re in the mood for something other than a pie – there are enough sandwiches, salads, and appetizers on the menu to satisfy almost any taste.  Like many restaurants in central Arkansas, U.S. Pizza has a tasty cheese dip that makes a perfect addition to one of my favorite items on the menu: the Reuben, served up right on marbled rye and piled high with corned beef, sauerkraut, and cheese.  Other great sandwiches include the Meatball and the Philly Cheese Steak – these guys do sandwiches as well as they do pizza.  We were in the mood for some pizza today, though, so we opted to go with the Dave’s Favorite, a flavorful combination of Anaheim and jalapeno peppers with grilled chicken, tomatoes, fresh spinach and yellow squash piled high on U.S. Pizza’s signature thin crust with Alfredo sauce.  The pizza was a perfect balance of tangy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and savory chicken; the crust was crisp and held up very well underneath the weight of all those toppings.  This was the first time we’d ever ordered this particular pizza at U.S. Pizza and it quickly became one of my favorite pies I’ve ever eaten – the yellow squash was a delightful discovery.

U.S. Pizza is a rare example of an Arkansas-based restaurant chain, and the quality in food and service is fairly consistent across the board among the locations I’ve eaten at.  There are some pretty good pizza places here in Little Rock, but I think U.S. Pizza certainly belongs among the best of the best.  Fresh ingredients, unique and varied choices in toppings, and an extensive non-pizza section of the menu makes U.S. Pizza one of the most well-rounded pizza places around – with the best part being the fact that they can actually pull off such a diverse menu and make it all taste pretty good.  Prices are in line with any of the mainstream pizza joints you might have in mind, and the taste and quality is far beyond whatever they’re making at Papa John’s.  There are several locations around the state, so there’s bound to be one near you.  Enjoy!

U S Pizza Co on Urbanspoon

Review: Boscos in the River Market

We like beer, but we unfortunately don’t have that many places in Arkansas that make the stuff.  The selection of out-of-state craft beers has been steadily getting better over the past few years, but our local brewers still face an uphill struggle when it comes to getting folks to put down their Budweiser and branch out.  But we do have a few brave souls making beer in Little Rock, and one of them is Boscos Restaurant, a Tennessee-based mini-chain of restaurants that brews some tasty beers right in the heart of the River Market.  We recently went for a sample of what they’ve got on tap, and we’re sure that no matter what kind of beer you like to drink, Boscos has something you’ll like.

Famous Flaming Stone

This is Boscos’ signature beer, and we’re big fans of this light, slightly sweet blonde ale.  The characteristic caramel flavor of this beer is from – you guessed it – hot stones being lowered into the beer during brewing.  It’s a malty, lightly hopped beer, and while it isn’t challenging in the least, it’s well-rounded.

Bombay IPA

Hardcore hopheads will be dismissive of this IPA – it’s rather on the tame side compared to others we’ve tried.  Still, once we let it warm just a bit, the hop flavors opened up into a clean, slightly floral beer that wasn’t heavy on the tongue.  A good beer to introduce somebody to the style with, but overall not flavorful enough to stand out.

Isle of Skye Scottish Ale

Scottish-style ales are one of my favorite styles of beer, and while Boscos’ version wasn’t as tasty as their cross-town competitor Vino’s, I enjoyed this rich, full-flavored beer.  The beer itself has a flavor of chocolate and toasted malt, and goes perfectly with some of the fish dishes on the menu – although I found myself wanting a true fish n’ chips with lots of malt vinegar while drinking this one.  Probably one of the best beers we tried all day.

Cooper Hoop

For a lighter beer with some surprising flavor, the Cooper Hoop can’t be beat.  The hops are spicy with just a touch of tartness, and the dry bitterness on the back end was very crisp.  A good beer to drink with a steak.

Downtown Brown

Another good solid brown ale from Boscos, I enjoyed the rich but mild flavor of this one.  Most folks think of a beer like Newcastle when they think of a brown ale, but this beer lacked any of the skunked flavor and harsh bite of Newcastle.  Perhaps it’s my like of the style, but this was my second favorite beer I tried.

A great thing about Boscos is that they are constantly putting out new beers every season, so there’s usually something new to try whenever you’re around.  They also serve their beer to go in half gallon growlers, so even if you don’t have time to stop in and have a drink, you can still sample some of the best hand-crafted beer in Arkansas.  Boscos is located at 500 President Clinton Avenue in the River Market, and they’re open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday and for brunch on Sunday.  Enjoy!

Boscos Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunshine Wheat Citrus Caramel

In a lot of ways, it was New Belgium Brewing and a tour of their main facility in Fort Collins, Colorado that got Jess and me into craft beer in the first place.  Sure, we’d drink the occasional six pack of Sierra Nevada or some local brew on a trip to Vino’s for pizza, but it was that tour and the beer we drank on it that really opened our eyes to the possibility that there was a lot more to the world of beer than we had ever realized.  I can still remember when they took us into an upper level room with high wood-beam ceilings and poured us a tasting glass of a reddish-brown beer that smelled of tart cherries – the Lips of Faith La Folie.  That first sip of crisp sour brown is burned into my mind as the first truly astonishing experience I ever had with beer.  My favorite of all the New Belgium brews, though, is the Sunshine Wheat, a citrusy, spicy wheat beer that tastes like everything good about summertime.  And since the Sunshine Wheat goes so well with citrus flavors, we decided to use it as a base for a caramel sauce.  Beer caramel?  Yes, indeed, and this Sunshine Wheat version is the tastiest we’ve made!

Sunshine Wheat Citrus Caramel

  • 1 bottle Sunshine Wheat beer
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • Zest of 1/2 orange, cut into large strips
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • pinch of gray sea salt

In a medium saucepan, combine the beer, cardamom pods, and orange zest and bring to a boil.  Reduce the beer to about one cup, then add the brown sugar and butter, stirring only if it seems the pan might boil over.  Boil the mixture over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, or until it gets very syrupy.  You’ll know when the caramel is done when a spoonful dipped into cold water forms a soft ball.  Slowly stir in the cream and keep cooking until the sauce thickens again – about five minutes.  Stir in the vanilla and salt and remove the orange zest and cardamom pods.  Once the caramel has cooled slightly, transfer it to a jar and refrigerate.  This is a rich, creamy sauce that is perfect on ice cream, drizzled on cake – and I’ll bet you eat more than a little of it right off the spoon.  Happy Cooking!