Grilled Mahi Mahi with Blood Orange Sauce

Sometimes I go shopping with a specific dish in mind, knowing in advance everything I’m going to need to make dinner.  This is usually my method of shopping during the week when time is limited and expediency is required. On the weekends, I’ve got a little bit more time for shopping, and it’s a lot more fun to take some time and see what ingredients strike my fancy.  Today’s trip to the produce market found me staring at a big pile of blood oranges; and while I wanted to make something with them, I really wasn’t sure what to do.  I had some mahi mahi that I found on sale, so I decided to grill the fish and use the oranges to make a tangy, spicy sauce with the deep color of the oranges and reminiscent of good sweet-and-sour.  The resulting dish was pretty good, and the sauce is really easy to make:

Blood Orange Sauce

  • 1 cup blood orange juice (3-4 oranges). If you fall a little short, don’t hesitate to make up the difference with some fresh-squeezed juice from regular oranges.
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/8 teaspoon dried ginger (if using fresh, use 3/4 teaspoon minced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes

Mix all your ingredients in a saucepan and boil over high heat until reduced to just under 3/4 cup (10-20 minutes).  Stir frequently.  We’re looking for a sauce that has a very syrupy consistency.  If you want a smooth sauce, strain your sauce after it has boiled for 10 minutes or so.  The sauce will be very intensely flavored, which will work nicely with our fish.

For the fish, make a marinade from 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1.5 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 minced shallot, and 2 cloves minced garlic.  Marinate the fish for about a half hour, turning halfway through.  Pat fish dry when ready to cook and grill over high heat. Serve with steamed asparagus and your orange sauce.  Enjoy!


Foie Gras and Sweetbreads at Boulevard Bread Company

We recently reviewed Boulevard Bread Company, and there’s certainly no better place in town to get sandwiches, baked goods, and cheeses of the highest quality.  They do some pretty delicious soups and dinner specials, too, and we braved the recent stormy weather to try one of their latest: Seared Foie Gras and Veal Sweetbreads with Pickled Red Onions and Pineapple Chutney.  Fatty duck liver with a side of thymus gland and some fresh baked baguette? Sounds like just my sort of dish – and not one you see on many menus here in Arkansas.  And since it was a relative bargain at only $14.95, we figured some spring thunderstorms shouldn’t keep us from sampling the goodies.

Foie gras has been considered a delicacy since at least the time of the Roman Empire, but these days it’s become a controversial food due to the force-feeding of ducks that produces it.  It’s a rich and delicious treat, though, and rare enough in these parts that I’d suggest trying it whenever you can.  Boulevard’s foie was seared nicely with a nice crust on the outside and a meltingly tender center; it was delicious by itself.  Eaten on pieces of baguette with the tart onions and the spicy-sweet chutney, though, it was pure decadent bliss.  The veal sweetbreads were also delicious; tender and full of good, slightly mineral flavor without the gamey taste that sometimes mars the sweetbread experience.

To keep up with Boulevard’s daily specials, like them on Facebook.  They provided a nice, casual atmosphere for a very good gourmet dish, and I hope that this is something they bring back periodically – I’ll definitely be back to try it again.  Organ meats such as these tend to make folks squeamish, but the quality of ingredients and care of preparation should allay any fears you might have trying them.  Enjoy!

Review: Red Door

Sometimes it’s fun to try a new restaurant without knowing anything at all about it: no reviews, no word of mouth, just a pure shot in the dark with a place that sounds like it might be worthwhile.  You can get burned pretty bad this way, of course, but there’s that nice feeling of serendipity that comes with picking a winner.  Jess and I were lucky enough to be on the winning side of this restaurant roulette game with Red Door Restaurant in Little Rock, an attractive restaurant on Old Cantrell Road in Little Rock that describes itself as “Modern Southern” cuisine.  The menu is eclectic but not so huge that quality suffers, and we had a delicious meal.

We started our meal off with the Toasted Bruschetta, an odd an interesting dish of toasted French bread topped with asparagus, red bell pepper, onions, olives, and cheese that was somehow more than the sum of its parts.  When I first saw the dish, I thought that maybe everything on the plate would just be a mushy mess, but there was a nice balance of texture and flavor that came through in every bite, from the tart olives to the mild, sweet onions to the nutty flavor of the Parmesan cheese on top.  The bread was a good, substantial bread, and those of you who read this blog regularly know that we’re not fans of bread (or crust) that can’t hold up under the weight of some toppings.  This was one of the more interesting and different takes on bruschetta that I’ve ever eaten, but it worked well and was a nice start to the meal.

For her entrée, Jess chose the lasagna, a large dish of noodles layered with a savory mixture of crumbled meatballs, Italian sausage, and ground steak, topped with fresh portabella mushrooms and covered with rich cheese and a wonderful pomadora red sauce.  I’ve been to purely Italian restaurants that didn’t have lasagna nearly as good as this was.  The noodles were cooked perfectly, and the meat mixture was spiced well but didn’t overwhelm the dish.  The sauce was assertive and bold and really pulled together all the other flavors of the dish.  Red Door also has a pasta and meatballs dish with the sauce, and that’s definitely on my list of things I want to try here.

For my entree, I got the Osso Bucco – mostly because it was a bit of a shock to actually see it on a menu here in Arkansas.  I’m not sure how Italian classics like lasagna and osso bucco qualify as “modern Southern,” but this braised pork shank with haricots verts and asparagus was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten – ever.  The outside was glazed perfectly and the fork-tender meat was juicy and flavorful all the way to the bone.  You don’t see pork done well on many menus, and most people tend to think of it as a meat good for barbecue alone.  This dish puts that idea to shame.  The haricots verts and asparagus were cooked well (and were both delicious), but the pork was the shining star of the plate.  Honestly, if this dish were all that Red Door served, I’d eat there regularly – it’s that good.

Red Door Restaurant is located at 3701 Old Cantrell Road in Little Rock.  They serve a lunch menu Monday-Friday 11:00am-2:00pm and dinner until 9:30 seven days a week.  We found the service to be passable, if a tad indifferent – but the food was excellent. Enjoy!

Red Door on Urbanspoon

Classic Crumb Cake

If you’ve ever needed a quick dessert that you can whip up and serve to company, you’d be remiss if you didn’t consider making a crumb cake.  This rich, moist cake is topped with a buttery crumb topping and flavored with just enough cinnamon to make things interesting.  This cake goes perfect with a cup of strong coffee as an afternoon snack – and it doesn’t make a bad breakfast either, to tell the truth.  For our recipe, we turned to everyone’s favorite domestic ex-con, Martha Stewart, and although some of you may blanch at the sight of all the butter this recipe uses, trust us when we say it’s totally worth it every once in awhile.

Classic Crumb Cake
from Martha Stewart’s Baking Book

For the cake:

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1.25 cups sour cream

Preheat your oven to 350 and butter a 13×9 baking pan.  Mix your dry ingredients together and set aside.  Cream your butter with the sugar until it is light and fluffy – Martha would like us to use our paddle attachment here, but we don’t have that sort of fancy stuff, so we used a hand mixer. Worked fine.  Mix the egg one at a time until incorporated; add the vanilla.  Add your flour mixture and sour cream and beat until just combined. Spoon the batter into your cake pan and smooth it out with a rubber spatula.  Top with the crumb topping:

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup packed light-brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1.5 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 3.5 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl of your food processor.  Add the butter by chunks, pulsing the blade to cut the butter into your dry ingredients until large, moist lumbs form.  Spread this stuff on thick for a tasty cake.  Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, rotating your pan halfway through baking (about fifteen minutes).  It’s a pretty fat-rich cake, so we know it isn’t something you’re going to eat every day – but it’s a pretty impressive cake to serve, and it’s very simple to make. Enjoy!

Review: Boulevard Bread Company

Jess and I were driving around Little Rock the other day trying to find a good place for lunch.  For most people, this is like a pretty mundane activity: pick a kind of food you like and figure out the best place that serves it within a set budget. Unfortunately, Jess and I both can be a bit picky and indecisive when it comes to figuring out just what exactly it is we want to eat.  We knew we wanted something light, and since it was a lovely day, we really wanted to eat outside.  We were near the Heights by this time and so decided to swing by Boulevard Bread Company for a sandwich; it was an excellent choice.  Boulevard’s fresh-baked bread and tasty ingredients make me wonder why anybody would ever waste time at one of the chain sandwich places.

Jess’ sandwich order was the PLT, a spin on the classic bacon-lettuce-tomato combo made with thinly sliced, crisp-fried pancetta, a cured and rolled pork belly bacon that we both just love.  The bread was just the way we like it – a good, crusty exterior with a soft, chewy middle; and unlike some places that claim to bake their bread fresh daily, Boulevard’s bread does more than act as an edible holder for the meat and toppings – it actually has flavor.  In addition to the pancetta, the sandwich was piled with rich, ripe tomatoes and crisp green lettuce.  I had a bite or three and I can say that the PLT is one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

Another one of those “best sandwiches” has to be my own Boulevard selection, the porchetta, a sandwich made with homemade slow-roasted Italian-style pork, tomato, lettuce, and a pungent (but excellent) aioli.  There’s something about a well-made aioli coupled with ripe tomatoes that makes a perfect flavor combination, and when added to the tender pork and served on a chewy ciabatta roll it really becomes a thing of beauty.  The ciabatta bread here was just slightly oily (in a good way) and had a good flavorful tang to it.  I had a cafe au lait with my sandwich, and I have to say that they pour a pretty good cup of coffee, too.  In addition to the sandwiches, Boulevard has soups and salads available as well as a great number of breads and pastries (of course.)  Cured meats and other delicacies are available on shelves and in a small cooler as you walk in, and it was tough leaving without dropping some serious money on all the good things they had on display.

The location we ate at is at 1920 N. Grant St. in the Heights, but they also have locations in the River Market, at UAMS, and on Main Street.  There aren’t many places to get a quick sandwich that tastes this good, and they also have daily dinner specials, so give them a try – and Enjoy!

Boulevard Bread Co on Urbanspoon

Strawberry Tart

Springtime is strawberry time, and we were excited to hear this weekend that Wright’s Firehouse Produce in Benton had just received their first batch of fresh Arkansas-grown berries.  As soon as I walked into the store I could smell that warm, sweet fragrance and I immediately grabbed two quarts, barely making it back to my truck before eating a couple.  Unlike the tough berries sold in many grocery stores that taste sour if they taste like anything, these berries were firm but soft and bursting with sweetness.  The only thing to figure out now was what to do with them – and it had to be something worthy of such good ingredients.  I don’t have an ice cream maker right now, so strawberry ice cream was out of the question, and it seemed a shame to just chop them up a over store-bought version.  Jess and I finally decided we go all-in and make a strawberry tart from scratch, and it turned out so well that we thought we’d share it with you.  The tart consists of three basic parts: the crust, the custard, and the glaze – and the berries, of course, but those take care of themselves.  So first, let’s make a crust.

Sweet Short Paste Dough

  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/8 tablespoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons chilled butter
  • 1.5 tablespoons chilled shortening
  • 2.5 tablespoons ice water

Mix your dry ingredients and then cut in the shortening and butter with a pastry blender.  Add your ice water and work the dough with your fingertips lightly to form a mass.  Turn the mass out onto a lightly floured surface and push the dough out with the heel of your hand in small increments (this mixes the fat into the flour a final time).  Form the dough into a ball and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours – you want this dough to be very firm to work with.

Once your dough is chilled, roll it out quickly to about 1/8″ thick.  I usually will roll mine out on lightly floured wax paper because when the dough has reached the thickness you desire, you can flip it over onto the tart pan and peel away the paper.  The pan we’re using is a false-bottomed tart pan, and if you don’t have one of these, it really pays to get one.  This crust is pre-baked and removed from the pan and the cold ingredients are put into the stand-alone shell, so the false bottom is necessary to get the crust out in one piece.  We picked this one up at Eggshells Kitchen Company in Little Rock for about $16.  Mold your dough to the shape of the pan, poke some holes in the bottom with a fork, then line the pan with parchment paper and weigh it down with dried beans (or pie weights).  Bake like this for 7-10 minutes in a 400 degree oven; once the shell has set, remove the beans and bake for 5-7 minutes longer.  The crust should be a light golden brown.  Slip the crust from the pan and then slip the false bottom out from under it; let the crust cool on a rack while you make your custard.

Custard Filling

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 2 cups boiling milk
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 tablespoons cognac

With an electric mixer, gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks.  The mixture will turn pale yellow, and “form the ribbon,” which means that when you lift the beater from the mix, a slowly-dissolving ribbon of the mixture will fall back into the bowl.  Once this has occurred, beat in the flour.  Once the flour is incorporated, SLOWLY add the boiling milk, mixing all the while. If you go too fast here you’ll end up with scrambled eggs, so easy does it.

Once the milk is blended, pour the mixture into a heavy sauce pan and put it on medium-high heat and stir with a wire whip.  It’s really easy to think you messed up at this point, because when the custard comes to the boil, it’s going to get all lumpy looking and weird.  Don’t panic; just turn the heat down a bit and keep stirring for 2 or 3 minutes until everything thickens up and smooths out nicely – just be careful not to scorch the bottom.  Remove the custard from the heat and add the vanilla and cognac; mix well.  Cover the custard with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic into the surface to form an airtight seal and let chill in the fridge.

Even if you’ve decided that making a crust is too much work, this custard works as a yummy dessert on its own: just slice some berries over the top and add a little whipped cream (see above right).  If you’re in for the long haul, though, it’s time to make the glaze.

Currant Glaze

  • 1 cup red currant jelly
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cognac

Boil the jelly, sugar, and cognac until it reaches about 228 degrees (a candy thermometer is handy here).  Lacking the thermometer, just boil the stuff until it coats a spoon nicely.  Take a pastry brush and paint the inside of your crust with a bit of the glaze – this will form a somewhat waterproof layer on the crust, which is handy if you want to make this dish in advance of serving it.  Save the rest for when you build your tart.

To build the tart, spoon a layer of the chilled custard into the tart shell.  If you’ve got a couple of rough spots in the shell, use that custard like a bit of magical glue to fix things up (sometimes the shell doesn’t behave).  Hull your strawberries and place them stem side down into the custard, larger berries in the center and smaller ones to the edge. Alternatively, you can slice the berries into any number of shapes and arrange them into whatever pattern you like; we prefer large bites of sweet berry.  Spoon or brush the red currant glaze over the top of the tart (you will probably have some left over) and you’re ready to serve.  The tart keeps rather well in the fridge, so feel free to make this up a few hours in advance of serving.  It’s a rather labor-intensive dessert, and it certainly was much easier with two of us working on it, but we can’t think of a better way to celebrate the first strawberries of spring. Enjoy!

Review: The Pantry

I fell in love with Bavarian and Czech food as a teenager at Adolf Thum’s venerable Bohemia restaurant in Hot Springs.  Since the closure of the Bohemia (although they have opened under new ownership), I hadn’t found anywhere that came close to capturing the quality and flavor of good, authentic Eastern European cuisine – until we tried The Pantry Restaurant in Little Rock.  Jess and I had a very tasty and pleasurable meal there recently, and I was much impressed by the delicious food and excellent service – and it scratched an itch for flavors I’ve been missing for years.

Our idea was to beat the weekend crowds and eat at the Pantry on a Thursday night, but the restaurant was crowded and bustling with folks enjoying the warm Arkansas evening.  We were met with a large smile by Tomas Bohm, the owner, who graciously welcomed us to his restaurant and took us to our table.  We started with the house-made pate, served classic-style in a small jar with pickles and French bread toast (above left).  I love pate, and found the Pantry’s offering to be very good; full of flavor and spice but with a wonderful earthiness that was accented perfectly by the sour pickles.  Even Jess spoke highly of it, and she’s usually not one for anything involving liver.  I could make a light lunch of just this appetizer alone.

For her entrée, Jess chose a classic dish, Baked Cod in Parchment Paper.  The cod fillet was huge, and steamed perfectly with spinach, lemon and vegetables in white wine and olive oil.  If you’ve never had fish done this way, try the Pantry’s version because it’s one of the best versions I’ve ever tasted.  The fish was flaky and tender, and the sizeable fillet hid a treasure trove of mixed vegetables and spinach that soaked up all the good flavor of the wine and lemon.  This isn’t a dish you’ll find a lot of places, but it’s something different and fun to try.

For my entrée, I chose the Roasted Pork Shoulder with Czech Potato Dumplings and Braised Red Cabbage.  This dish was amazing, and it embodied all those good flavors I’ve loved for so long.  The cabbage was just the right amount of tart, and the potato dumplings soaked up the juices from the cabbage and pork with their firm, mealy texture.  The pork was cooked so well that I just closed my eyes and savored the first bite for half a minute.  You see a serrated knife in the picture above, but let me tell you: I didn’t use that knife once – the pork was fork tender and bursting with flavor.  We ended our meal with a slice of the Pantry’s homemade cheese cake, which was creamy and rich with a carmelized sugar topping.  It was almost like having cheesecake and creme brulee all at once – very good.

We’ll definitely be back to the Pantry for more – they have some very tasty looking burgers and sandwiches on their menu, as well as a charcuterie board on the appetizer menu that I’m dying to try.  The service was excellent – any restaurant where the owner himself will get you a refill when your server is busy with a six top is great in my book.  The Pantry Restaurant is located at 11401 Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock.  They’re open for lunch 11:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday-Friday and dinner from 4:00 pm – Midnight Monday-Saturday (the bar is open later).  Give this one a try for something different, and Enjoy!

The Pantry Restaurant on Urbanspoon