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.

The Arkansas Foodies 2011 Year-in-Review

“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” -Benjamin Franklin

In many ways, 2011 was a hard year.  Natural disasters, economic woes, and the continued existence of reality television all served to really put a damper on what we had all hoped would be a year full of peace and prosperity.  But a lot of good things happened in 2011, too, and Jess and I have never been so thankful for all we’ve been given – nor so proud of everything we’ve accomplished in the past year.  2011 was the first full year for this blog, and what started out as a little hobby for us has turned into a project that we love, and it’s the continued support of our readers that makes it all worthwhile.  So since it’s the thing to do to make “end of the year” lists, we figured we’d look back at our favorite things from our first year – and we also want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading and sharing your own experiences with us.  Here’s to a great 2012!

Best Pizza: Vino’s Pizzeria and Brew Pub.  We haven’t actually reviewed Vino’s on the blog yet – but that’s because it’s our favorite place in Little Rock and I haven’t written anything I like enough yet to post.  Get the Margherita Pizza, it’s fantastic.  Runner-up: Cafe Amore in Eureka Springs.

Best Hamburger: Big Orange in the Promenade at Chenal.  Big Orange has some of the biggest burgers around with a wide variety of toppings.  Bonus points for serving Dazbog coffee, but the service can be slow.  Still, it’s a very tasty place.  Runner-up: The Pantry Burger at the Pantry on Rodney Parham.

Best Food Festival: The 2011 Jewish Food Festival.  This was one of the most fun days we spent this year – latkes, rugelach, and some of tastiest chopped liver I’ve ever had along with some of the friendliest folks we’ve had the pleasure to meet.  If you go next year, be sure not to miss the baked goods table.  Runner-up: The 2011 World Cheese Dip Championship.

Best Beer: Sofie by Goose Island Brewing.  And I’m technically cheating here, because we first reviewed the Sofie back in October of 2010 – but I didn’t try another beer all year that I liked better than this light, crisp saison.  Runner-up: North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw Pilsner, which I drank every time I could afford it.

Best Side Dish: Truffle-Herb Fries from Big Orange.  These are the best french fries I’ve had that I didn’t make myself.  Crisp outside, mealy inside, dusted with herbs and drizzled with truffle oil, these fries are only made better by the side of creamy aioli they’re served with.  Runner-up: Stilton Tomato Half at Brave New Restaurant.

Best Restaurant: Brave New Restaurant.  Impeccable service, delicious food, and a gorgeous view of the Arkansas River – what more could you ask for?  The Mixed Grill is a carnivore’s dream, and the Cream of Brie soup is one of these best things I’ve ever tasted.  Runner-up: Boulevard Bread Company, both for their PLT sandwich and the foie gras and sweetbreads special, which we drove to sample during some of the worst tornado warnings central Arkansas saw last year.

Favorite thing I was supposed to share but didn’t: The Charcuterie Board at The Pantry on Rodney Parham.  This delightful spread of cured meats, bratwurst, and pate is technically the sort of appetizer that is shared among an entire table.  But since Jess isn’t nearly as big a fan of this sort of stuff as I am, I just ordered the thing as my main entrée.  Delicious!  Runner-up: I think there’s enough food there to qualify the Charcuterie Board for runner-up, too.

Best Main Dish we Made: Shrimp Taco Salad with Black Bean Puree.  That one got us a mention over at Eat Arkansas, and was one of our more popular posts all year.  As for a runner-up, I’m rather fond of our meatballs, our mussels, and my own version of pate.

Best Dessert we Made:  German Chocolate Cake.  Jess really outdid herself with this rich chocolate cake with coconut-pecan icing.  Jess really came into her own as a baker this year, and out of all the delicious things she made, this cake is my favorite.  Runner-up: I love her pumpkin bread, and we also made a pretty tasty strawberry tart last spring.

Best Bar:  This one is a tie between our two favorite bars in Eureka Springs, the Squid and the Whale, home of both Guinness in a mason jar and the spiciest Bloody Mary ever and Henri’s Just One More, home of the best dirty martini I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink.  We spent a very fun afternoon crunching around in the February snow between these two places last winter.  Runner-up: The Flying Saucer, where we wound up in Sync magazine looking a little tipsy.

All in all, 2011 was a fun year.  We tried a lot of different food, had a lot of great meals, and met a lot of really interesting folks who like to do things just like we do:  they cook well, they eat well, and they live life to the fullest.  We hope you all have a happy New Year, and we’re looking forward to bringing the deliciousness to you again!

Braised Cabbage and Black-Eyed Peas

Cabbage, black-eyed peas, and hog jowl are the traditional food of the New Year, ostensibly because these foods represent money, prosperity, and richness. My honest opinion has always been that we eat these simple, earthy foods on New Year’s Day because we’re still recovering from our indulgences in rich food and drink throughout the Christmas season. Whatever the reason, it’s a delicious tradition, and one worth keeping even apart from superstition. To keep our luck up in the new year, we’re making black-eyed peas with hog jowl and peppers and a white-wine braised cabbage (along with a pan of skillet cornbread).

Black-eyed Peas:

This is truly the simplest recipe to make. If you can find good frozen peas, then you’re already ahead – we get ours from a local co-op that has fresh picked and frozen products. Of course, your local supermarket has a wide variety of canned and frozen black-eyed peas, but most of them lack good flavor and texture – if you can’t get a good frozen product, use dried.

If using dried peas, you must soak them first in order to get them ready to go. My favorite method is to cover the peas with cold water (the water should be about an inch above the peas) and soak overnight in the fridge. An alternate method (which is quicker) is to bring your peas to a boil for two minutes and then let them soak in the hot water for an hour.  With both methods, discard the water you’ve soaked your peas in before cooking.

Cooking the peas like we do is simple: cover them with a good two inches of water in a large stock pot and add 3-4 slices of hog jowl, salt to taste, and two jalapeno peppers. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce and simmer until peas are tender but not mushy. Peas cooked this way produce a wonderful pot-liquor, so reserve the liquid for drizzling over cornbread.

Braised Cabbage

To make our white wine braised cabbage, you’ll need the following things:

  • One head green cabbage, cored and sliced into ribbons.
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, chopped.
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter.
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Melt butter in a pot large enough to hold the cabbage. When the butter is hot (but not brown), add the garlic and cook over medium heat until golden brown.  Add the cabbage, stirring to coat evenly in the butter. Cook until the cabbage starts turning clear and is just  beginning to brown.  Add the wine and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle a bit of Gruyere cheese over the top and salt and pepper to taste.

The best thing about all this food is that it all gets better the second day. This is something good to make a day or so in advance to allow folks to heat what they want as they’d like – perfect for the aftermath of New Year’s parties (or any cold winter’s day for that matter). Happy New Year, and Enjoy!