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!

The Sixth Annual Guns n’ Hoses Chili Cookoff

After a long, gloomy week that brought rain and cold temperatures to Arkansas, Saturday came with bright, clear skies and temperatures in the mid-60s: perfect weather to head down to the Clear Channel Metroplex on Colonel Glenn Road to the Sixth Annual Guns n’ Hoses Chili Cookoff.  This was a fun event for us last year, and I think this year’s cookoff was even better.  Hosted by 100.3 The Edge’s Corey and Jay Show, the Guns n’ Hoses cookoff is a good time involving crazies in Halloween costumes serving up all sorts of chili, with all proceeds going to benefit the September Fund, a scholarship program for the children of firefighters, police officers, and EMTs.

As we made our way around to each booth, the Halloween theme was apparent everywhere – including this creepy display of chili cups surrounded by plastic mice and cockroaches.  The contestants really outdid themselves for strange ingredients this year, too, from the Zombie Hunter booth’s bear and venison chili to a chili that the servers swore was made with kangaroo sausage.  Spice levels were in the red zone, too, with the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science, and the Arts coming in tops on my list as spiciest chili around – they called it “Man Chili,” and it certainly put my mouth to the test with its sneaky pepper afterburn.

Guns n’ Hoses has always been about the firefighters, police folks, and EMTs, and they certainly brought their “A” games to the cookoff today.  Looking back through my notes, it was these groups time and again that had the best chili.  Our favorite of the afternoon was from our hometown Bryant Fire Department, a chunky, tangy chili with a rich good flavor that I could eat any time.  Close behind them were the guys from the Cabot Fire Department with an oyster, pork, and beef chili that had a good consistency and taste, and the Little Rock K-9 Academy, whose sour cream and cheese-topped chili was perfect for a Frito pie.  The East End Volunteer Fire Department had a good, solid contribution, too, a thick meaty chili that would be perfect for a cold winter night.  The fire fighters and policemen looked like they were having the most fun, too – although it looked like everybody was having a good time.

There were a few other chili’s that stood out to us, including the very messianic Chilly Willy chili to the right.  We tried a couple of different chocolate chili versions, and the best one was called Heinous Anus, which despite the horrific name actually managed to incorporate chocolate into their chili so that the flavor of the chili wasn’t compromised but the chocolate was identifiable in the taste.  That’s pretty hard to do, so I was impressed.  The most unique chili I tried all day was the Dead Man’s Caribbean chili, a smooth, almost watery chili made with a jerk sauce base and garnished with a slice of lime.  I’m a huge fan of jerk chicken and shrimp, and the tart, spicy jerk sauce was an inspired choice for a chili base.  The best chili topping had to be from the Centennial Country Club, who eschewed the usual onions, cheese, and sour cream and went with a smoky pulled pork topping that really added an entirely different dimension to their chili.

So how do you deal with sampling nearly sixty different flavors of chili?  Do you turn to the antacids or a glass of warm milk?  Well, if you’re the Arkansas Foodies gang, you get your fill and then head down to the River Market for some beers and Razorback football.  We had a blast at this year’s cookoff, and we’re eagerly anticipating next year’s event.  Thanks to Corey Dietz, Jay Hamilton, and the rest of the 100.3 The Edge crew for throwing a great party right before Halloween, and thanks to everybody who got up early this morning to cook up a big pot of chili for all of us to taste.  If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation to the September fund yourself, you can do so at any Metropolitan Bank location.  Little Rock has a lot of good food festivals, but this is one of our favorites.  See you next year!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Brown Butter and Sage

Autumn is my favorite of all the seasons, and there aren’t many foods that I associate with the fall and winter holidays more than sweet potatoes.  They’re very versatile, because in addition to the classic (and delicious) sweet potato pie, I’ll wager that nearly every family you meet has their own variation on the traditional sweet potato casserole.  My great-grandmother used to make sweet potatoes with marshmallow and pecans, and I have many memories of my mother’s candied yams.  My sister loves them simply baked and eaten like a regular baked potato – except with sugar to go along with the usual butter.  All these ways are good, but there are times when I just don’t want my sweet potatoes to be covered in all that sweetness.  They’re a pretty flavorful root vegetable on their own, and some simple roasting can really produce some surprising flavors – and the addition of just a little browned butter and sage creates a unique taste that Jess and I just love.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Brown Butter and Sage

  • Sweet potatoes – allow for approximately one potato per person.
  • 3-6 tablespoons olive oil; use more oil for more potatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 7 large sage leaves, cut chiffonade.  To chiffonade, stack the leaves flat on top of each other, then gently roll them into a cigar shape.  Using a sharp knife, slice the roll in thin strips, then break apart with your fingers.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Scrub and then peel your sweet potatoes.  Slice them into 3/4″ medallions.  Toss the sweet potato slices with the olive oil and salt, coating thoroughly.  Lay the medallions flat on a cookie sheet and place into oven.  Roast for 10-15 minutes per side, or until the potatoes develop a deep brown color and are soft in the middle.  Remove potatoes from oven.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  The butter will foam up as it melts, and when this foam subsides, add the sage, gently stirring.  Allow the butter and sage to cook for 3-5 minutes – the butter will start to brown and the sage will become crispy.  Arrange sweet potato slices on a plate and top with the crispy sage and as much of the butter as you’d like.  Roasting the potatoes will concentrate their natural sugars, and the savory herb flavor of the butter and sage really compliment them well.  Enjoy!


Black Beans with Lime Rice and Fried Plantains

For us, cold weather is bean weather, and we like the rich, warm feeling that this filling food provides on a chilly day.  Our last post covered a Southern classic, red beans and rice, but sometimes we like to branch out and cook beans a different way – which is to say we sometimes like to forgo all the sausage, ham, and other pork products that are generally found in Southern bean dishes.  This bean dish is completely vegetarian, but it’s still just as full of good, savory flavor as any bean dish you’ll come across.  We adapted this dish from several different Cuban-style black bean dishes we read, and it’s probably the bean dish I make most often.  The recipe here calls for dried beans, but this is almost as good using canned – and a lot quicker.  We’re serving it with lime rice and some crispy fried green plantains, but it also make a nice topping for nachos or filling for burritos.  Get creative!

Black Beans

  • 1 pound dry black beans (or two cans canned)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 Anaheim chile peppers, chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin

Soak the beans overnight.  If you’ve got really hard water, or like really soft beans, you can add a teaspoon of baking soda to the water – baking soda will raise the pH of the water which softens the beans.  When ready to cook, rinse your beans and add fresh water back to them, covering the top level of beans by about two inches.  Bring your beans to a boil, then simmer until they get good and tender.  It’s important that the beans be good and tender before you add any of the other ingredients; tomato paste and vinegar are both acidic (which lowers pH), and adding acidic ingredients too soon will result in beans that don’t ever get as soft as you might like them to be.  Once your beans have gotten tender, mash about a quarter of them up and stir well.  Saute the peppers, onion, and garlic until soft, then add them to the pot along with the tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, red pepper, and cumin.  Salt to taste.  Simmer until the beans are very tender and falling apart.  Taste often so you can adjust the salt and spice if needed!

For the lime rice, boil your brown or white rice as you normally would, but add the juice of of half a lime and 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander per cup of dry rice used.  This is a great compliment to these spicy beans!  We also enjoy some crispy, starchy fried plantains with this dish, which are very easy to make (see below).

Fried Green Plantains (Tostones)

  • 1-2 green plantains, cut into circular sections
  • oil for frying

The method here is to blanch the plantains in hot oil for 1-2 minutes per side (they’ll start to show a little color), then remove them to some paper towels for a thorough drain.  After they’ve drained, take the bottom of a glass and smash the plantains into thin disks, then put them back in the hot oil for another 2-4 minutes, or until they’re crisp and golden brown.  Sprinkle the crisps lightly with sea salt.  These are also great for dipping, and taste like a cross between a mild flavored banana chip and a potato chip (but better than both).

Beans are probably the best way that there is to eat healthy and cheaply – they’re really a perfect food as far as getting good nutrition and a bang for your buck.  We hope you’ll make them a part of your weekly meal plans – they’re certainly a delicious addition.  Enjoy!

Red Beans and Rice

Every year about this time when the air starts getting a bit crisp, my mind turns to comfort foods – the types of things that fill the house with good smells while they’re cooking, taste delicious, and leave you feeling full and warm as a protection against the cold.  One of the best examples I can think of is the old Southern classic red beans and rice.  Now there are easier ways to make this dish than the recipe I’m giving today, but taking a little extra time with this one (and using quality ingredients) can turn this dish from good to great.  You’ll want to start this one the night before you’re going to cook so that you can give your beans time to soak – canned beans just don’t work as well.

Red Beans and Rice

  • 1 pound dried red beans, rinsed and soaked for at least eight hours
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 large bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 Anaheim chile pepper, chopped
  • salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 pound andouille sausage.  It pays to get the best quality sausage you can find.  I was lucky this time to have a couple of links of some really good homemade smoked andouille (see right) – it really makes a difference.
  • 1 pound smoked ham hocks
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 8 cups chicken stock (if using canned, get a low salt variety)
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 cups cooked white rice

In a large pot, season your onions and peppers with about 1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper and saute until soft (bacon fat or schmaltz work wonderfully here for your saute fat, but vegetable oil is fine).  Add in your ham hocks, sausage, bay leaves, thyme, garlic and cayenne (to taste) and stir frequently until the hocks and sausage are browned.  Add the chicken stock, water, and beans to the pot stir well, then bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about two hours, stirring occasionally.  After two hours, remove the ham hocks, then pick the meat from them and add it back to the pot.  Mash about 1/4 of the beans with the back of a spoon, then cook for twenty minutes more, or until the beans are tender and creamy.  Serve over white rice with some Crystal hot sauce on the side.  Enjoy!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

Since 1790, the King Arthur Flour Company has been making some of the best flour in America, and even though they’re a bunch of Yankees, we’re pretty big fans.  If you’ve never had a chance to check out the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion or their excellent baking blog then you’re really missing some great recipes that are presented with the sort of wit that we love from the blogs we read.  Since the autumn season is upon us, Jess figured it was about time for some pumpkin bread, and she used this unique and delicious recipe from the folks at King Arthur.  We hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread
(from the King Arthur Flour baking blog)

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 2/3 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 15oz. can pumpkin
  • 3 1/3 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350 and grease two loaf pans.  In a large bowl, beat together the oil, sugar, eggs, pumpkin, and water. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, and vanilla, stirring to combine.  Stir in chocolate chips and nuts.  Spoon batter into pans and bake for 60-80 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the bread from the oven, and cool it on a rack. When it’s completely cool, wrap it well in plastic wrap, and store it overnight before serving.  Enjoy!

Review: Big Orange

I don’t often make it all the way out to the Promenade at Chenal – it’s a decent drive out that way from Saline County.  But since Jess and I found ourselves with a Saturday afternoon and nothing to do, we decided to make the journey to take a look around the Apple store and grab a bite to eat at a restaurant that has been on our “must try” lists for awhile now: Big Orange, the upscale burger place run by the same folks who do such great pizza and salad over at ZaZa’s.  The restaurant has a friendly and attractive layout, and since it was such a warm and lovely day, Jess and I decided to eat out on their small patio.  My first instinct was to get something from their very respectable draft beer list, but when Jess pointed out the French press coffee, I immediately changed my mind.  I’ve always really enjoyed hot coffee with a hamburger – it reminds me of a lot of late nights when I was in college.  The coffee came out perfectly steeped and ready to go, and Jess and I savored a cup with just a splash of the half-and-half served to the side. Heavenly!

Having kick-started our appetites with a little caffeine, we turned our attention to the menu, and while Big Orange has a wide selection of what I’m sure are excellent salads – I had to have a burger.  The burger menu is diverse and creative, and I had to try the Spicy Pimento Cheese burger.  As an aside, if you’ve never tried homemade pimento cheese on a burger, you are missing out.  The burger came out piled high with a creamy, almost runny helping of pimento cheese and chunks of tangy green tomato relish.  I didn’t really think it was all that spicy, but the flavor of the cheese was good, and the Creekstone Farms beef was well-cooked: hot, juicy, and served on a roll that actually added some flavor to the plate instead of just being a delivery mechanism for the meat.  This was a messy burger to eat, but a yummy one.

My hamburger was big; the Farmer Burger Jess ordered was enormous.  That same delicious hamburger patty was topped by thick-cut Petit Jean bacon, butter leaf lettuce, red onion, havarti cheese, tomato, and a fried egg.  It was so large that she had to cut the thing in half just to get it down to a more manageable size.  As you can imagine, it tasted wonderful.  The bacon wasn’t the limp, overcooked bacon that most places use – it was smoky flavored and chewy.  The cheese melted into a gooey, creamy mess, and the egg was cooked just until the yolk began to get firm, but not so long that it got grainy and tough.  I ate a few bites of this monster, and Jess did her best, but even between us we weren’t able to finish the entire burger – we could have easily just split this as our meal and been completely full.

Even though the coffee was excellent and the burgers huge and delicious, none of those things were the best thing we had at Big Orange.  That distinction goes to the Truffle-Garlic-Herb Fries – hand cut fries fried up crisp and topped with mixed herbs and black truffle oil and served with a delicately flavored aioli for dipping.  There may be a better order of fries in Little Rock, but I couldn’t tell you where that might be, because these fries were pretty much ideal.  The potatoes had an almost sweet flavor to them, and the earthiness of the truffle oil and the garlicky aioli were perfect companions to the crisp-outside, mealy-inside fries.  These fries alone make it worth my while to drive all the way out to West Little Rock to eat – I can’t really say enough about how good they were.  We ate them down to the last crumbs and both declared it was one of the best things we’d ever eaten.

Big Orange is located at 17809 Chenal Parkway in the Promenade shopping center.  They’re open Sunday-Thursday 10:30am – 10:00pm and Friday-Saturday 10:30am-10:30pm (with the bar staying open until midnight).  Enjoy!

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