Tuna with Balsamic Glaze and Roasted Cauliflower

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I love sauces, and there aren’t many foods around that I won’t splash a sauce of some sort on.  Of course, when most people think of a sauce, they think of the butter and cream enriched sauces that form the backbone of classic sauce making – and yes, those sauces are amazing.  But although it would be nice to live in a world where everything came with a side of bernaise, there are other ways to get the pleasure of a tasty sauce without using any fat at all – like the savory balsamic glaze we made tonight to coat a couple of pan-seared tuna steaks.  In addition to our fish, we’ve also made a simple roasted cauliflower; and if you’ve never tried it this way (or don’t like cauliflower), I urge you to give this a go.

To make the roasted cauliflower, cut up an entire head into pieces.  You don’t have to make the pieces tiny; in fact, I rather like keeping them large.  Toss the cauliflower pieces in a mixing bowl with salt and olive oil until coated.  I think a good olive oil really is important here, and since Jess and I really like olive oils with a bit of a sweeter, fruitier flavor, I’ve been using a blended oil from California Olive Ranch called Miller’s Blend.  It’s only around $9 a bottle and tastes as good as oils twice the price.  Once you’ve gotten your cauliflower good and coated, spread the pieces out onto a cookie sheet.  You want to be sure not to crowd the pieces, because crowding will cause the florets to steam rather than roast.  Roast them in a very hot oven (around 400 degrees) for 25 minutes until they turn golden and have a few brown spots on them. Cauliflower cooked this way will have a sweet, nutty flavor that is completely different than the item steamed or boiled.  While that’s cooking, let’s get our fish ready.

Balsamic Glaze

  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup shrimp or chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon corn starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all these ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Cook for a minute or two over medium heat until the glaze has reached your desired thickness.  Adjust salt and pepper as needed, and if you really want a luscious hit of velvety-smooth deliciousness, take the pan from the heat when it has thickened and whisk in a tablespoon of butter.  The sauce stands up for itself nicely without this step, though, so it’s your decision.  Serve over tuna steaks that you’ve grilled, broiled, or pan-seared for about 3 minutes on either side for medium-rare. Enjoy!

Creamy Chocolate Cookies

When it comes to my learning to cook, I have two things to thank: my mother, who swore she wasn’t going to let me leave her house without knowing my way around the kitchen, and the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.  I’ve owned a lot of cookbooks over the years, from the terrible to the sublime, but I’ve always kept Fanny Farmer on the shelf – and not just for sentimental reasons, but because this is one of the simplest, most varied cookbooks around.  I used it as a beginning cook to learn how to identify cuts of meat, when to use different cooking techniques, and just basically how to follow a recipe in general.  Fanny Farmer, along with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking are two cookbooks that any home cook should have around for reference.  So when Jess needed a quick cookie recipe for a work potluck, it was Fanny Farmer to the rescue, and the resulting cookies were delicious – like all the good parts of a brownie rolled up into the shape of a cookie.

Creamy Chocolate Cookies
(from The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, by Marion Cunningham)

  • 6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1.25 cups sugar
  • 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Melt the unsweetened chocolate with the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan of very low heat.  Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, then add the sugar, beating until light and well-blended.  Add the melted chocolate to the egg mixture and combine.  Add the flour mixture and mix well until blended.  Stir in the chocolate chips and chill the batter for about an hour.  Drop spoonfuls of batter onto a greased cookie sheet and bake for 5-6 minutes at 350.  Serve with a large, cold glass of milk, and most of all – Enjoy!

Rainbow Cupcakes

What’s more fun than cupcakes? Cupcakes that look like a rainbow!  These cupcakes are a lot of fun to make and look at, and they’re even more fun to eat.  What starts off as a simple white cake mix turns into a circus-worthy swirl of color topped with a simple vanilla butter cream icing. These cupcakes are perfect for birthday parties, office get-togethers, or as gifts for your favorite Dead Head.  The best part of these cupcakes is that they are relatively simple to make, as long as you’re willing to mess up a few dishes (and possibly a good portion of your kitchen) in the name of dessert.  This is a fun afternoon project for the kids, too, just be careful with the food coloring – that stuff can stain!

For the rainbow cakes, you’ll need one boxed white cake mix and six small bowls.  Make the cake mix as directed and divide the batter evenly among the six bowls.  Using food coloring, color each bowl of batter a separate color – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.  Place your cupcake liners into a muffin tin and layer spoonfuls of each color on top of each other until the cups are around 2/3 full.  Bake the cupcakes just as you would normally, and you’ll be left with the colorfully layered cakes you see above.  While the cakes are cooking, you can make up for the fact you’re using a store-bought cake mix by making some frosting from scratch.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Using a stand mixer (easiest) or hand mixer (much harder), mix together the butter and sugar, starting at low speed and increasing slowly.  That should take about 5-6 minutes.  Add the vanilla and cream and mix for a minute longer.  Keep the buttercream in a cool place, and be sure your cupcakes are cool before you frost them – this stuff will melt easily if the cupcakes are hot.  Enjoy!

Review: Straw Hat Pizza

Jess and I generally avoid reviewing chain restaurants here on Arkansas Foodies for two reasons: the food at most chains is inferior and we prefer to promote the hard work done by local places.  I’m bending that rule a bit here tonight to review Straw Hat Pizza in Bryant, because this location is the only one Straw Hat has here in Arkansas – and the food is pretty tasty.  Straw Hat is located in the Midtowne area of Bryant, and while I admire what the city is trying to do with the area (including an attempt at a farmers market), I don’t feel like it’s gotten much traction in the community at large.  There are other places to get pizza in Bryant, some good and some not-so-good, but Straw Hat is doing pizza a little differently than anybody else, and they are definitely worth a try.  We picked up a couple of pizzas and a “hot hat” just recently and were pleased with the quality of the food and the speed with which it was prepared.  Pricewise, Straw Hat won’t hit your pocketbook any harder than Domino’s, and they have delivery service as well.

We tried two pizzas from Straw Hat tonight, the Mexicali and the Chicken Bacon Ranch.  We were pretty happy with both.  There are a lot of places these days serving chicken pizza with bacon and ranch sauce, and this version was a pretty good rendition of the style.  The crust was chewy and firm, with just the right amount of crunch, and the bacon was smoky and good.  The other pizza we tried is a combo that I haven’t had before, a beef and chorizo topping with thinly sliced green bell peppers, jalapenos, and onions.  It was delicious, spicy and flavorful, and it made me wish that more places in Arkansas would offer chorizo as a pizza topping.  The Mexicali is now my go-to pizza at Straw Hat, and it’s one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tried.

Straw Hat has a full selection of sandwiches and what they call “hot hats,” and since we didn’t just want to limit ourselves to pizza, we ordered the Ham and Cheese Hot Hat.  The hot hat was a cross between a good calzone and a stromboli – a crispy-yet-tender crust filled with thinly sliced ham and gooey melted cheese.  The pizzas were good, but this thing was amazing.  We were less than impressed with the potato wedges served with it – they were rather limp, and although the insides were nice and mealy, the outsides needed some extra cooking to develop that crisp exterior that is the mark of a superior potato log.  But the hot hat itself was perfection, and at only $4.99 it’s one of the best meal values in town.

Straw Hat Pizza is located at 209 B St. in Bryant – just follow the road where Reynolds meets Highway 5 into the residential neighborhood until it ends.  I hope you’ll all give them a try, because I’d like to see that part of town really turn into a thriving part of the community – and the food is really good. Enjoy!

Update 7/21/12 — This location of Straw Hat Pizza is now closed.  I can’t say that I’m really surprised.  The restaurant itself was nice, but the location — the back end of a subdivision that just sort of peters out into nothing — was terrible.  The city of Bryant attempted to make this area a sort of fakey-looking “Main Street” but it’s been a pretty dismal failure.  The opening of the new U.S. Pizza location on Hwy 5 (a much more central location) was most likely the final nail in the coffin.

Straw Hat Pizza on Urbanspoon

Ribeye Steak and Sugar Snap Peas

Sometimes, after a long week at work, all we want to do is sit down and eat a gigantic slab of red meat, and the ribeye is just about our favorite cut to eat.  Learning how to make a good steak at home will save you a lot of money, because you can easily get two good steaks at the butcher’s for the price of one inferior steak at a steakhouse; you also get to control how done your meat gets.  We don’t mess around with fancy rubs or complex seasonings – a good steak is the result more of good technique as opposed to added flavors.  If you have a choice in the matter, buy your steaks with the bone still in, because when you’re cooking these at home, you can gnaw that bone like a caveman.  When you get your steaks home, allow them to come up to room temperature.  They won’t spoil, and they’ll cook more evenly.  While the steaks are warming up, you can get started on your peas.

Sugar Snap Peas with Garlic and Pancetta

  • 1 pound fresh sugar snap peas
  • 4 ounces pancetta, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

In a cast iron skillet, heat the teaspoon olive oil over medium heat and add the pancetta.  Cook the pancetta until crisp and brown, taking care that it does not stick.  Spoon the pancetta into a bowl; retain the rendered fat.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Don’t be shy with the salt – I usually use just under 1/4 cup for about a quart of water.  When the water is boiling rapidly, add the peas, boiling for no more than about five minutes; overcooking these is a real tragedy.  Plunge the peas into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.  The peas will keep in the water until you’re ready for them, so if you’d like to start your steaks using the instructions below, you can finish the peas later.  When you get ready to finish them, heat the tablespoon of olive oil and butter in a skillet and add the peas, gently tossing to coat them.  When the peas have heated through, add the pancetta and garlic, cooking just until you can smell the garlic start to cook; serve.

Cooking the steak isn’t difficult, but I like to use a two-step process.  Forget putting one of these beauties on the grill – that’s just asking to dry it out.  What we want to do is sear the steak in cast iron skillet to get a good crust formed and then finish the meat in a hot oven until we’ve achieved our desired level of doneness (never more than medium-rare in my house, but to each their own).  To cook, pat each steak dry with a paper towel and season generously with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Heat the rendered fat you saved from cooking the pancetta until almost smoking, and quickly sear the steaks on both sides.  You aren’t trying to completely cook the steak on the stove-top, you’re going for a good outside crust and dark color.  Finish the steaks by placing them in a 300 degree oven until they’re as done as you like them.  This gives you a very juicy steak with a wonderfully flavored outside.  A good cut of meat doesn’t need anything to season it beyond the salt and pepper, and good technique will provide more flavor than any rub.  Let the steak rest for about fifteen minutes and serve with the peas. Enjoy!

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!

2011 Jewish Food Festival

It’s always fun to step outside the routine and eat a few things that aren’t part of our day-to-day menu, and our local food festivals are a great way to do it.  With this in mind, Jess and I made our way up to the River Market on Sunday for the 2011 Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, an annual event hosted by the Jewish Federation of Arkansas.  From latkes to rugelach (with some matzo ball soup and chopped liver in-between), we ate ourselves completely silly, all the while enjoying the festive atmosphere and friendly folks serving up the deliciousness.  This was our first year to attend the festival, but it was so much fun that it won’t be the last.

Latkes were one of my first introductions into Jewish cuisine, and they’ve long been a Thanksgiving tradition in my own family, so there was no way I was going to leave without eating some.  These potato pancakes were seriously good, crisp and firm on the outside with a moist, mealy interior and served with apple sauce and sour cream (I prefer the sour cream).  We paired our latkes with a plate of stuffed cabbage rolls – beef and rice stuffed into soft cabbage leaves and covered in a savory tomato sauce, and I couldn’t resist getting a cup of chopped liver and crackers.  Now, I can hear a lot of you groaning a bit at the idea of eating chopped liver, but I urge each and every one of you to give this a try.  The version served up at the festival was mild and good with a creamy base of onions and hard-boiled eggs.  I’m a fan of traditional pate, but as that mixes dairy (butter and cream) with meat, it’s a no-go for kosher eating, and I was impressed with the flavor and texture of this dairy-free version.

The falafel plate was another delicious thing we tried, and the folks making them were rolling them out by the dozen (see left).  Paired with the chickpea croquettes were a wonderfully light hummus, a slice of pita, and one of my favorite things I ate all day, an Israeli salad.  I don’t know if they chopped all that salad by hand, but the small bits of vegetables were tossed together with a light and flavorful dressing and just exploded with good flavor.  By this point, we were pretty full, but given that there was a huge selection of baked goods, we knew we weren’t finished.  We bought a variety pack of sweets and a whole babka (cinnamon cake) to take with us – and I’ll be honest, the babka didn’t even make it a full 24 hours before it was gone. If you’ve never had a chance to attend this festival, it’s definitely worth putting on your calendar for next year, and we’ll hopefully see you there! Enjoy!