Herbed Blue Cheese Butter and Filet Mignon

Jess and I take a very simple view of making a steak: a good cut of meat, salt and pepper, and a good sear. Serve rare. We don’t use rubs or marinades with a good steak, and god forbid pouring A-1 or Heinz 57 sauce all over it: a good steak should speak for itself, both in taste and texture, and the only acceptable reason for steak sauce is to cover the taste of a poorly cooked steak.

Having said that, allow me to completely make a liar out of myself and mention that there is something we sometimes like to put on a steak, especially a piece of the tenderloin. Steaks cut from the tenderloin are very tender, but often they lack a lot of flavor. This is due to a lack of fat, and like the chicken breast, we’ve got to find a way to add some flavor to this melt-in-your-mouth cut of beef.  Our butcher has already wrapped the filets in a strip of bacon, which will not only add flavor but also keep our steaks nice and moist (basically basting the steak in bacon fat), but we’re going to break our salt-and-pepper only rule and put something over the top of our finished steak: Blue cheese.  Now, blue cheese by itself can be a little overpowering, and so we mix it with with some butter to make a creamy, slow melting topping. The butter adds that savory flavor of fat missing from the steak, and the tangy blue cheese compliments the seared meat better than any flavor I can think of.  The blue cheese butter is very easy to make and keeps well in the refrigerator or freezer.

Herbed Blue Cheese Butter

  • 4 ounces of softened blue cheese.
  • 6 tablespoons of softened, unsalted butter. Use real butter, margarine just doesn’t have the right consistency (and honestly, doesn’t actually constitute anything we consider “food”). Make sure it’s unsalted, because blue cheese is pretty salty to begin with.
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley.
  • 2-3 teaspoons finely chopped shallots. If you use onions instead, use only 1 teaspoon.
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic.
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice.
  • Salt and Pepper (to taste).

Mix everything in a bowl until creamed together. Place into a butter mold, or just wrap up in plastic wrap to make a log and chill at least 30 minutes prior to use. Since I was using these nice little round steaks, I wrapped the butter in some wax paper and molded it in a small ramekin. Slice a decent piece of the butter and place on top of your filet; Serve.  Feel free to add other herbs to this basic recipe; thyme, basil, or tarragon can all be excellent additions.  Happy Cooking!


Taqueria Azteca: Authentic, Inexpensive, Delicious

We’re big fans of Mexican food – the more authentic the better. We lived right down the street from Taqueria Azteca for a long time without sampling their food, a mistake we’re still kicking ourselves over because this humble taqueria has incredible food served up hot and fast. Located on Highway 5 in Benton, right across from Harps, the restaurant is always busy for lunch, something we always consider a good sign. The small vegetable plot out back is another good sign – any place that takes enough time and care to grow at least some of their ingredients is already a step up in our book.  Taqueria Azteca has become one of our favorite places for takeout, and for those of you who prefer dining in, there is a small but comfortable dining area with booths.  The staff is friendly and efficient, and there is a good variety of menu items, prepared fresh daily.

The menu is simple: a la carte items such as tacos, tortas, or quesadillas with your choice of meat. There are also taco, tamales, or quesadilla combos available (combos come with rice and beans) for $4.99 – an excellent value for lunch. Once you’ve picked what basic item you want (I always go for the tacos), you are offered a choice of several fillings: pork in red or green sauce, chicken, shredded beef, or my two favorites, beef tongue and a spicy pork and onions mix. Topped with a mixture of onions and cilantro, an (optional) sprinkle of cheese, the tacos are served up with lime slices and a tasty dried herb mix.  Jess is a fan of the quesadilla, a grilled tortilla with cheese and choice of filling.

My favorite day to go for lunch is Saturdays, because Saturday is menudo day, and nothing is better on a cold day than a hot bowl of the spicy tripe stew. Taqueria Azteca’s menudo is cooked slowly, and the tripe is tender and lacks the strong flavor that sometimes make such dishes unpleasant to eat. The broth is spicy and rich, and I like to add a generous squeeze of lime juice to it along with the cilantro and onion mixture served up with all orders. Tripe is one of those things (like tongue) that many Americans shy away from trying; I urge everyone to try both if you go to Taqueria Azteca. Rest assured, though, there are plenty of options on the menu that will suit a palate raised on Tex-Mex.

We always want to promote local businesses on Arkansas Foodies, because it seems like today that many people would rather go for the bland comfort that comes with grabbing a bite to eat at the nearest fast food place. It’s understandable – you know what to expect with a place like Burger King or Taco Bell, but finding solace in mediocre food is akin to putting blinders on your tongue. A place like Taqueria Azteca is just as easy to get to as fast food, and the service is just as quick (and much friendlier), so I hope you’ll take our recommendation to give the place a try. They are open Monday-Saturday from 10-6. Enjoy!

Taqueria Azteca on Urbanspoon

Collard Greens

There isn’t anything more Southern than a mess of greens, and of all the types available to us, collard greens have got to be my favorite. In this day and age of fast food and instant gratification, making greens is becoming an art practiced by fewer and fewer folks because good greens require time and patience.  The results are completely worth it, though, and I can certainly think of worse ways to spend an afternoon than making up (and eating) a pot-full.

Recipes for cooking greens are endless – talk to ten Southern cooks and you’ll get ten recipes for greens. This what you’ll need to make them the way we do:

  • 1-2 big bunches of greens. These can be collards, turnip, or mustard greens. We get ours from Wright’s Firehouse Produce in Benton – they’re very fresh and around $1.00 a bunch.  If you are using homegrown greens (and we love homegrown here at Arkansas Foodies), be sure you have rinsed them well – they will be sandy. It’s not a bad idea to change the water a couple of times when you first start boiling homegrown greens to remove the sand.
  • 1-2 pig’s trotters, split in half. Alternately, use a ham hock or two. Or some salt pork. Or even some bacon grease. The main point is to get something porky and fatty into these greens to help create some rich pot-liquor. I’m using pig’s feet because they have an excellent balance of meat, fat, and bone; and you need all those things to make good pot liquor.
  • 1 onion, chopped.
  • 1-4 cloves garlic, chopped. Depends on how much garlic you like.
  • 2 fresh jalapeno peppers, tops cut off, left whole.
  • 1/2 cup distilled vinegar.
  • Salt and Pepper to taste.

Add everything to a large kettle except the vinegar. Cover with water and bring to a boil; reduce heat to a slow simmer. Simmering is important because it allows the trotters to release their good flavor without overcooking the greens.  Once you’ve got a good pot liquor going (meaning some of the fat has rendered into the water), add your vinegar – this helps counterbalance the bitterness of the the greens and will help release the flavor of the peppers. I view vinegar to be more of a spice than a condiment, because adding some acidic flavor to a dish can brighten and enhance the flavor without ever being sour.

Cooking time can vary with how you like your greens, but I wouldn’t go any less than 2 hours. Taste your greens as they cook – you’re looking for the perfect balance of rich, subtle bitterness, savory pork and onion goodness, and a bit of bright spice from the peppers, garlic and vinegar. You can remove the pig’s trotter (or ham hocks) and pick the meat from it, returning the pork bits back to the pot. Retain the liquid the greens cooked in – this rich broth is perfect for pouring over cornbread or peas and can make an interesting flavor addition to vegetable soup. The greens reheat well, and taste so good that you’re going to enjoy leftovers for the next few days. Serve some up this Thanksgiving as an interesting and classic side dish – and happy cooking!

Nicholas B. Morris Tapeworm Reading – Arkansas Tech

Image courtesy of Nick Morris/Monkey Puzzle Press

Jess and I had the privilege of seeing a good friend of ours last night in Russellville, and although the night was completely non-food related (questionable banana pudding stories aside; more on that later), I felt it only right to write a little something about the evening.

Nick Morris, formerly of Glenwood and currently of Colorado, has just published his first collection of short stories, Tapeworm (from Monkey Puzzle Press), and was back in the state to read a few stories at Arkansas Tech, where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and also served as editor of Tech’s excellent literary magazine Nebo. Wanting to both support Nick personally and also support writers and artists with Arkansas ties, Jess and I braved the 5:00 I-40 westbound traffic to attend. As an English Lit major and sporadically published poet, I’ve gone to a lot of these sorts of things over the years, and Nick’s reading would have been one the most enjoyable even had I not known him.

In short: the stories are good.

Nick Morris, right; your humble scribe, left; with most of Jess' family in the background.

Nick read two complete stories, along with an excerpt from a third: “The Ringing in Her Ears,” an oddly cheerful tale of a porn model who discovers that amputation is both a cure for what pains her and a way to find great success in the industry; “Arson: A Love Story,” which jumps seamlessly from present to past detailing the narrator’s obsession with a mysterious girl named Deanna and the lengths he’s willing to go to in order to please her; and “Second Coming,” a story about greed, bacon/banana flavored rock god fat, and Zombie Elvis. If that last bit didn’t make you want to pick up the book and read it, I worry for your soul.

There are eleven other stories in the collection, and I’ve been impressed with the obvious skill and attention to detail with which they’ve been crafted. Nick’s language is playful and descriptive, but it doesn’t get in the way of what everybody comes for: the story itself. Hearing some of these tales read aloud made me enjoy them that much more – I’ve always been one to read things out loud to myself in order to hear the language, and these stories hold up well that way, and the audience seemed to enjoy the reading as much as Jess and myself.

Tapeworm is available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher, Monkey Puzzle Press. I recommend picking it up if you like good short fiction; not just because Nick’s a friend, but because these stories are as good as any I’ve read, witty and good with that nice country flavor we love so much on Arkansas Foodies. Until next time, happy cooking!

Review: Layla’s Gyros and Pizzeria

Most people in Central Arkansas are familiar with Layla’s, Mahmoud Jitali’s Mediterranean restaurant and halal grocery on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock, but in the past year Layla’s has expanded south into Bryant – and the results have been delicious. We’ve got a soft spot for the Bryant location since we live just a five minute drive down the highway from it.  Jess was first introduced to Layla’s by a food segment on our local morning show and since the first time we tried it, the restaurant has been one of our go-to places for sit down dinners or takeout.

Layla’s menu is diverse, encompassing staples of Middle-Eastern cuisine like falafel, hummus, and their excellent gyros along with pizzas, a Mediterranean burger, and their excellent calzones. Tonight, Jess and I started with a falafel plate (right) which comes with four of the chickpea croquettes, bowls of tangy taziki sauce and Layla’s rich hummus, and warm pita bread.  This plate is listed as an appetizer, but it can easily make a lunch, especially if paired with a bowl of hot, satisfying lentil soup.  The falafel is well-seasoned, crispy on the outside with a soft middle, not over-seasoned and dry like falafel can sometimes be.

Jess ordered what I think might be the best thing on the menu: the Yogurt Plate, which comes with a choice of gyros meat or shawarma chicken (both are good) with onions and mushrooms over basmati rice, covered in a rich, savory yogurt broth. The portion is huge – I’ve never yet finished an entire plate in one sitting, which is fine, as the yogurt plate warms up splendidly for lunch the next day. The plate is finished off with a small green salad and more of the warm, fresh pita – perfect for sopping up all that yogurt goodness.

I was torn between ordering the kibbeh, a bulgur wheat and lamb meatball that’s deep-fried a golden brown, and one of the calzones, but finally decided on a Gyros Calzone. The calzone is huge, filled with gyros meat and cheese, and the crust is thin, crispy, and covered in flavorful herbs and Parmesan cheese. Layla’s offers a pepperoni and three-meat calzone option, so even the picky eater in your group can find something they’ll like here. Layla’s pizza options are just as good, and their Greek pizza (covered in feta cheese, gyros meat and onions) is a must-try.

The food at Layla’s is about as good and authentic as any ethnic cuisine you’ll find. Jitali, the proprietor, is a friendly and warm host, and as a halal butcher, assures that the food you’re eating is fresh and prepared according to the strictest standards. Prices are very reasonable – only one dish on the menu exceeds ten dollars (and that one is a sampler of pretty much everything). Finish everything off with a crisp piece of baklava and a strong cup of Turkish coffee and you will leave full, satisfied, and eager to come back and try something else new. Layla’s in Bryant is open Monday-Thursday 11-8 and until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s not far from the I-30 Bryant exit, so stop by next time you’re through!

Update 8/5/11:  Unfortunately, the Bryant location of Layla’s has closed down.  Bryant really isn’t known for its adventurous tastes, being more of a land of national chains and fast food joints.  You can still sample the excellent food at Layla’s at their Rodney Parham Road location in Little Rock.

Layla's Gyros And Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

There Will be Brine (and Some Roast Chicken, Too)

There’s nothing worse than roasting a turkey or chicken for hours only to find that the end result is a dry, flavorless bird unfit for human consumption. Getting a large bird thoroughly cooked while keeping the meat juicy and succulent is a challenge most of us are familiar with, especially during the holidays where we are expected to serve up a richly flavored, golden-brown turkey for a room full of hungry guests (all sitting in judgment of your hard work). Do not fear: there is a technique that can help fortify your turkey against drying out, while at the same time adding flavor to the bird: brining. Soaking your meat in a brine is simple, inexpensive, and takes only a little preparation, and it’s not only good for your Thanksgiving turkey, but also for chicken (whole or pieces), pork (whole loin or chops), and even fish.

A brine, in its most basic form, is a simple solution of salt in water. Through a process known as osmosis, meat soaked in the brine will retain and gain more water. In addition, the meat takes up some of the salt from the brine, resulting in meat that is seasoned all the way to the bone; this is preferable to a bird that is salty on the surface and bland underneath. This extra water makes for a juicier bird and helps protect your meat from drying out in the oven – or in the case of the chicken wings to the left, brining helps keep them moist on the high heat of a grill. There are any number of seasoning you can add to your brine as well, because anything you add to your solution is going to soak into your meat. For poultry, we like using thyme, sage, and lemons in our brine, as well as adding some sugar to help balance the salt (and help for a crisp, delicious skin). We’ve used fruit juices in pork brines as well, and the sweet/tart flavor of the juice adds a really good taste to the meat. So now that you’re convinced, let’s make some brine!

Basic Brine:

  • 1 Gallon Water
  • 1 Cup Salt – Some people prefer kosher salt, but table salt works just fine. If you use table salt, get the non-iodized kind; iodized salt can give a chemical flavor to the meat.
  • 1/2 Cup Sugar – regular white sugar is what I use, but you can use brown sugar (especially with pork).

Mix everything up in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring so that the salt and sugar go into solution.  Let the brine cool to room temperature, then chill in the fridge. You want your brine to be cold when you use it, but putting a pot of just-boiled water in your fridge directly can bring up the temperature of your icebox up too much (not good for everything else you’ve got in there).  Because the brine needs to be chilled to use, it’s usually a good idea to make it up a day or so in advance.

Now that we’ve done our basic brine, it’s time to get creative. You can add any number of things to the solution – you are pretty much only limited by what flavors you like. Fresh tarragon, thyme, rosemary, sage, or dill are all herbs that add a lot of flavor, and I generally don’t make brine without adding a couple of lemons – just cut them in half, squeeze into the brine, then drop them in. Aromatic vegetables are also fun to use in brine; carrots, onions, shallots, and/or celery are just as good in brine as they are in making stock. For pork, we’ve used a can of frozen apple juice concentrate to give a subtle sweet taste to the meat – citrus juices other than lemon can also be used.

The only other thing you need to know now is how long to soak the meat in the brine. My general rule is to brine something at roughly 1-1.5 hours per pound.  Too long in the brine can leave you with meat that is too salty; the best thing is to just brine the heck out of a lot of stuff to get a feel of how you want your food to taste using the brine. Smaller items like chicken wings and pork chops don’t need but an hour or two in the brine while a large Thanksgiving turkey will benefit from an overnight soak.  Take your meat out of the brine a few hours before you’re ready to cook it and let it rest. This allows the salt distribution in the meat to even out, and for poultry, it lets the skin dry out some – this results in a crisper, more flavorful skin. Cook just as you normally would, and be comforted in the added moisture and flavor your bird has.

Basic Brined Chicken for Roasting (I prefer the flavor of chicken to turkey)

  • 1 batch basic brine with added lemon, bay leaves, sage, and thyme
  • 1 chicken for roasting 3-6 lbs
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped shallots, 4 cloves roughly chopped garlic, 1/4 cup chopped celery, 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, sprigs of thyme and sage
  • Twine for trussing

Submerge your chicken into the brine, using a heavy plate to weigh it down – it’s very important that no part of the bird be above the water. Soak chicken in brine for 6-12 hours. Remove chicken from brine and rinse, allow to rest uncovered in the fridge for 2-4 hours. Rub the skin of the bird and the cavity with half the butter. Stuff the cavity with the shallots, garlic, celery, pepper, thyme and sage. Truss the bird (click that link for an excellent video demonstration). Trussing makes sure all the things in the cavity don’t fall out, and it insures even cooking – plus it just looks nice, so don’t skip this step.

Pre-heat oven to 425. Mix remaining butter with canola oil. Place chicken, breast side up, in roasting pan, roast for 15 minutes to start the skin browning. Turn chicken on its left side, baste with the butter/oil mixture, roast for 10 minutes. Turn chicken on its right side, baste with the butter/oil mixture, roast for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, leave chicken on its side, basting with the butter/oil mixture every 8-10 minutes – once this mixture runs out, the chicken should have rendered enough fat of its own to continue basting. Roast for another 20 minutes, then turn the chicken to its other side; roast for another 20 minutes, continue basting. Turn chicken back breast side up for the last 20 minutes of cooking to brown. This seems like a lot of flipping and flopping – and it is – but what we’re going for here is an attempt to mimic the way a chicken would roast on a spit – this gets our skin good and crispy and makes the meat delicious on all sides of the bird. When internal temperature is 165 and the juices run clear, the chicken is done – let it rest for 20 minutes before serving. Enjoy!

Colorado Foodies, Part 3: Mountains, Tommyknockers, and Beer

We always try to visit some of Colorado’s most valuable natural resources every time we’re there: the breweries. Jess and I are both beer nerds, and Colorado to us is what Paradise must have been like before Adam and Eve decided to get advice from a talking snake. Jess had previously visited the Coors Brewery in Golden, and last year we went to New Belgium and Odell Brewing in Fort Collins – but this year Jess’ brother took us into the mountains to Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs. The day was bright and clear, and although we never thought we’d see November temps in the 70s, we were certainly happy to take advantage of them.

Tommyknocker Brewing serves as an homage to Idaho Springs’ gold rush past, named for the elves said to inhabit mines. The beers have a mining theme, and as we had previously tried a beer made by Tommyknocker at Baker St. Pub and Grill, we were excited to sample their other brews. The pub itself was large and divided into a sit-down restaurant and a spacious bar area; the staff was very friendly. I can’t speak to how good the food is, however, because we visited just a short while after our feast at Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder and were strictly looking to sample some suds. The Tommyknocker bar did not disappoint, as they served up a tasting tray of ten 5-oz. beers. Jess and I decided to split one.

We started with two of the lighter beers, the Pick Axe Pale Ale and the Ornery Amber, and were pleased with both. The Pick Axe was a sweet, hoppy brew with just enough maltiness backing it up to give it a well-balanced flavor. I enjoy hoppy beers when the hops shine through more as a flowery sweetness rather than just being bitter and astringent, and the Pick Axe was a perfect beer for that. The Ornery Amber tasted basically like the Pick Axe minus the hop profile; it was a good, biscuity beer with just a bit of caramel flavor on the back end. We were certainly off to a good start.

One of my favorite beers in the sampler was the Black Powder Stout, a rich, creamy stout that went down very smooth with a good flavor of raisins and chocolate. This was a basic, pure stout: smooth, almost milky texture with very low carbonation – and although it wasn’t a complex beer, I liked the straightforward flavor. I don’t know if this was served off a nitro tap or not, but it had that very silky texture one finds with beers like Murphy’s served from nitro taps. It was enjoyable – and the best part was that I got to drink our sampler and Jess’ dad and brother’s as well (as I’m the only drinker of stouts in the group).

The other beers we enjoyed were the Jack Whacker Wheat, a crisp wheat beer with that banana-clove-coriander flavor I love in wheat beers and the Imperial Nut Brown Ale, a strong, malty brew that would make a perfect pub beer. Some of Tommyknocker’s other selections weren’t nearly as popular with the group, including their Maple Nut Brown Ale (think drinking pancakes with syrup beer) and their Cocoa Porter Winter Warmer that tasted like somebody mixed a spoonful of NesQuik up with a dark beer. Still, we’ve tried enough beers to know that not every beer in every style will be for us, and both of those beers have their audience, I’m sure. We picked up a six-pack of Pick Axe from the gift shop up front and a bottle of what was our best discovery: the Golden Saison, a fresh tasting farmhouse ale that was everything we like in the style – dry tartness up front with a bit of maltiness on the back of the tongue. I wish I had tried one of these straight off the tap, or at least picked up more than one bottle – it’s really a very good beer.

Warm with beer, we ventured back out into the clear mountain day, possessed by that state of perfect cheer one always hopes to achieve. I’ve got to thank Jess’ brother Andrew again for planning the afternoon – he took us on a beautiful drive into a part of Colorado we had never had the privilege yet to see, and the good beer we got to sample during the journey made the trip that much more memorable. There are certain days we all have that stand out in our memories as perfect; this one is the most recent example I can think of for myself.

If you’d like to see more pictures from our trip to Idaho Springs, you can do so on our Facebook page.

Tommyknocker Brewery & Pub on Urbanspoon