Homemade Kettle Corn

When I was a kid, my family used to take a trip to Branson, Missouri nearly every year to visit Silver Dollar City, and if you’ve been there, you know that there are tons of good things to eat in the park.  One of my favorites was always the kettle corn – a perfect balance of crispy, salty, and sweet – and so light that it was almost like eating air.  Kettle corn always makes me think of the holidays, and with Christmas just around the corner, I can’t imagine a better snack to have while trimming the tree.  Kettle corn isn’t that hard to make at home, and with a little patience and care you can have that salty-sweet taste any time you’d like.  An added bonus of making it at home is that you can add some things to it that really take it over the top – but more on that later.

Kettle Corn

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/3 cup unpopped popcorn
  • 1/4 cup white sugar.  White sugar gives the popcorn a light, popcorn ball-like taste.  For a richer flavor, feel free to use brown sugar.
  • Sea salt for sprinkling
  • Optional toppings: crushed chocolate covered pretzels (see right), crushed Twix, Heath, or Skor bars, cayenne pepper – or any other thing you can think of.

Heat the oil in a heavy copper-bottomed sauce pan on medium-high heat.  I usually will throw one popcorn kernel into the oil and cover – when that kernel pops, the oil is hot enough.  When the oil has heated, pour in your popcorn and sugar.  Give everything a good, quick stir with a wooden spoon, then cover the saucepan.  This is the tricky part, because you’ve got to keep the popcorn hot enough to pop, but you can’t scorch the sugar.  You can accomplish this by leaving your pan on the burner for a 10-15 count at a time, then moving the pan around quickly off the heat so that everything gets stirred around.  Be careful that you’re holding that lid down tightly so that you don’t splash yourself with molten oil and sugar (because there’s no burn quite like it).  Pop the corn in this fashion until the pops get about 2-3 seconds apart – I usually will err on the side of caution.  Pour into a bowl and sprinkle with the sea salt while still warm, and either eat like that or add the topping of your choice.  Enjoy!

The Ron Swanson Turkey Leg

Who inspires the home chef to attempt feats of culinary greatness?  Names come to mind: Escoffier, Careme, Thomas Keller, Julia Child.  But there is one man who has, time and again, proven himself to be the master of the carnivorous arts, a man who is satisfied with nothing less than “all the bacon and eggs,” a man who once ate an entire burrito called the “Meat Tornado.”  Yes, I’m talking about Ron Swanson.  And since Thanksgiving is just a couple of days away, I figured that I would try my hand at a holiday-appropriate Ron Swanson-inspired dish: the bacon-wrapped turkey leg.  The results were everything I hoped they would be, and I know that Ron is smiling on me somewhere behind his awesome and powerful mustache.  My only regret is that I didn’t have a smoker available to give these more flavor, but they taste pretty amazing right out of the oven.  If you’d like to try your hand at this masterpiece, here’s what you need, and the stuffing is optional:

Ron Swanson Turkey Leg

  • 4 turkey legs
  • 12 slices bacon
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon sage

Mix the pepper, paprika, salt, sugar, allspice, and sage together in a bowl.  Rub the spice mixture onto your turkey legs thoroughly.  Wrap each turkey leg with three pieces of the bacon.  Bake for 2 hours at 300 degrees, then for 20-30 minutes at 350 until the bacon has gotten nice and brown.  Eat with your hands.  Like Ron Swanson. Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Homemade Bacon Salt

A love for all things bacon has been an ongoing foodie trend these past few years.  From my Southern point of view, the popularity of bacon is amusing, because for folks in the South, bacon isn’t a trend – it’s a way of life.  We eat it pan-fried with our biscuits in the morning, use it to flavor beans and greens, and save its rendered fat for any number of nefarious Southern-fried uses (mix a little bacon grease with butter and use it to make a grilled cheese and you’ll see what I mean).  It’s versatile stuff, and I’d like to share today how bacon can go from side dish or flavor enhancer to becoming an actual condiment.  I’ve seen these bacon salt recipes kicking around for awhile, most recently in the Food Network Magazine, and I finally decided to make a batch – and it was tasty!

Bacon Salt

  • 6 slices bacon
  • 1/2 cup coarse sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Lay bacon flat on a cookie sheet and cook at 350 until the bacon is extremely crisp and starting to blacken – you want it more done than you would like if you were just going to eat the bacon.  When the bacon cools, blot the remaining grease with paper towels.  Pulse the bacon in a food processor until it is pulverized – you’ll probably have to scrape the resulting bacon paste from the sides of the bowl.  Add the sea salt and pepper and blend until the salt breaks down and mixes with the bacon and pepper.  Make a batch of popcorn and taste the magic!

Acorn Squash “Flowers”

Thanksgiving is just a week away, so there’s no better time than the present to start a little bit of menu planning – and there’s no better addition to your turkey day feast than some winter squash.  And while we’re big fans of butternut and spaghetti squash, our favorite winter variety is the acorn squash with its sweet, nutty flavor and tender flesh.  Most of the time, we’ll just chop one in half, scoop out the seeds, and roast it with some butter and cinnamon, but there’s a prettier way to make them that we think is perfect for a holiday table.  Be sure you’ve got a really sharp, heavy-duty knife for this, because these squash can be a bit tough to cut sometimes.

Acorn Squash “Flowers”

  • 1 acorn squash
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Turn the acorn squash over on its side and slice off the stem end.  Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and pulp from the center of the squash.  Cut 1/2-3/4 inch slices from the squash so that the scooped out portion becomes a hole in the middle.  You’ll see that this cut forms nice flower-shaped disks.  Lay the squash pieces flat on a cookie sheet that you’ve sprayed with cooking spray.  Drizzle the melted butter over the slices and sprinkle the brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg over them.  Bake at 350 until the squash gets soft and begins to brown.  Turn the broiler on for 2-5 minutes to finish the slices, and serve hot.  These pretty squash slices make a great side dish to your turkey and dressing – and they taste good, too! Enjoy!

Caramel Cheesecake Bars

A little while back, Jess and I made a really tasty caramel sauce that turned out even better than I had hoped.  But like so many things, after I made it I really had no idea what to do with it – there’s only so many ice cream sundaes that a person can eat.  We drizzled it over some butter-fried plantains, and while that was delicious, it still wasn’t something I thought worthy of that delicious caramel.  By coincidence, Jess had just checked out a book from the library by Alice Medrich called Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-in-Your Mouth Cookies, and there was a recipe for some really yummy looking cheesecake bars swirled with caramel sauce.  Jess made a batch of them, and I really thought they were good: creamy cheesecake, rich caramel, and a shortbread crust – what’s not to love about that?

Caramel Cheesecake Bars
(adapted from Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich)

For the crust:

  • 1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

Mix the melted butter with the sugar, vanilla, and salt.  Add the flour and stir until just mixed.  Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of a pan.  Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 until the crust is golden with darker edges.  Let the crust cool before adding the filling.

For the bars:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until just smooth.  Scrape bowl and paddle.  Add the sugar and vanilla and beat just until smooth and creamy.  Add one egg and beat until incorporated.  Scrape bowl and paddle well and then add the second egg.  Stir two table spoons of the batter into the caramel sauce.  Pour the remaining batter over the crust and smooth the top.  Spoon pools of the caramel over the filling, leaving plenty of plain filling showing.  Marble the caramel by stirring gently in small circles with a toothpick.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until the filling is puffed at the edge but still jiggly when the pan is shaken.  Let cool for 4-24 hours and serve.  Enjoy!

ROOT Liqueur, a New American Classic

America is, as these things go, a relatively young country.  Even so, there are traditions that date from our more agrarian past that have been lost in the these industrialized – and supposedly more civilized – times.  One of these traditions is “root tea,” alcoholic concoctions made from local herbs and roots and, like amaro, turned from medicinal use into something that could be used as a digestif or as the basis for any number of cocktails.  There’s really no telling how many versions of root tea there were across the country in the 18th and 19th century, but we can be sure of when their production suffered a killing blow: Prohibition.  With alcohol being banned by law, and root tea specifically targeted by many municipalities, the nascent native liquor industry of the United States turned into the milder soft drink known as “root beer,” and even when liquor was allowed again, no traditional “root tea” beverage ever gained popularity in America again.

Or at least that’s how the story seemed to end – that is, until a Philadelphia-based group called Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction began producing their ROOT liqueur.  ROOT is an attempt at creating a traditional root tea using organic cane sugar, birch bark, smoked black tea, cinnamon, winter green, spearmint, clove, anise, orange, lemon, nutmeg, allspice, and cardamom – and it all comes together to create a complex drink that is reminiscent of really good root beer but far more complex than that.  There are so many levels working in ROOT that it’s hard to really describe how good this stuff is.  There’s the astringent flavor of the mint tempered by the warmth of cardamom, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.  It starts sweet on the tongue but finishes with a clean dryness that prevents the drink from ever becoming cloying.  And while ROOT is delicious neat or on the rocks, it’s also wonderful with club soda, ginger beer – or our indulgent favorite, mixed with cream soda.  ROOT is a unique drink, not to be confused with some sort of awful root beer flavored vodka or novelty drink:  it’s full on deliciousness, smooth and rich.

I first read about ROOT in an issue of Antenna magazine, and I found the description of the liqueur so compelling that I immediately started hunting for it.  Art in the Age was only just ramping up their distribution of ROOT, and Arkansas has never been high on anybody’s list of places to send new drinks.  Finally, after a wait of almost two years, we found it at Colonial Wine and Spirits in Little Rock – and for much cheaper than we expected.  Two years of anticipation can set a man up for disappointment, but that first sip of ROOT was everything I wanted it to be, and it’s quickly become my favorite thing to drink.  Branch out and try it – I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything quite like it. Enjoy!

Review: Flying Fish of Little Rock

It’s a little crazy that I haven’t done a review on the Flying Fish yet – I’ve eaten there more often than any other place in the River Market.  It’s the place that Jess and I will usually take friends from out of town for a quick lunch, and it’s a perfect place to either begin or end an afternoon of bar-hopping.  Upon entering, you might think of the Flying Fish as just another fried food palace, but there are some healthier options available for all you calorie conscious folks out there (but yes, the fried stuff is pretty tasty).  The prices are very reasonable – especially given that some of Little Rock’s priciest restaurants are within walking distance of the front door.  The kitsch factor is pushed up all the way to eleven as well with an entire room lined with defunct Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques – and when I say “lined,” I mean from almost floor to ceiling.  Rush times can be a bit hectic, but don’t let the pushy folks who want you to order and shut up get you down – take a bit of time over to the side to check out the diverse menu, and you’ll be sure to find something delicious.

During a recent trip to the Fish, one of our dinner party ordered one of my favorites, the catfish and shrimp basket.  The catfish is classic Southern style – cornmeal dipped and deep fried.  The unfortunate thing you run into at so many catfish places is that they leave the fish in the the fryer too long, which dries out the ends to an inedible crust – that’s not a problem here.  The fish is tender and moist, and the cornmeal has a good bit of seasoning to it that flavors the fish well.  The shrimp are huge, butterflied open and coated similarly to the fish – and the slightly sweet taste of the firm shrimp comes through nicely.  A word to the wise:  you might be tempted to ignore your hushpuppies, and let’s be honest – not a lot of places do good hushpuppies.  But don’t do it, as the Flying Fish has the best hushpuppies this side of my mama’s house.

My own entrée was the Oyster Po’ Boy, and while it wasn’t as good as some others I’ve had, it’s still a respectable sandwich.  The bread is firm and chewy and grilled until the outside is crunchy.  The oysters were fresh tasting and good, and there was a good bit of spice to them (ask to “make it snappy” or “snappy snappy” for added heat), but there just weren’t nearly enough of them to keep the lettuce, tomato, and onion from overpowering their delicate flavor.  The oysters weren’t that large, and really would have preferred about double the number on my sandwich; but it’s also true that I’m an oyster fiend and can’t get enough of them.

Jess ordered the Fish Tacos, and these are my favorite things on the menu.  There are two places where I love to eat fish tacos – La Hacienda in Benton and the Flying Fish.  The first thing to love about these fish tacos is that they’re served in crispy taco shells, not flour tortillas.  The second thing to love is that they’re loaded with perfectly cooked pieces of fried catfish.  The third thing to love is that the toppings – cole slaw, pico de gallo, and a creamy sauce – actually accentuate the awesome nature of these fish tacos instead of just being extra filler for the taco shell.  It all comes together to make a taco so good that we based our own version of fish tacos off the Flying Fish version.  If a fish taco sounds strange to you – try these, and I’ll bet you’re hooked.

The Flying Fish is located at 511 President Clinton Ave. in the Little Rock River Market.  They’re open from 11:00am-10:00pm Monday-Thursday and 11:00am-11:00pm Friday and Saturday.  Enjoy!

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