The good, the bad, and the ugly: Summer 2013 edition

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Laughing Stock Farms eggplant

Welcome back to another edition of “The good, the bad, and the ugly,” where I keep you all up to date with what’s going right — and what’s going wrong — with local food. It’s been a relatively mild summer, which means it’s been a very good year for our area farmers markets, and we’ve been fortunate enough to meet and get to know a lot of new growers, producers, cooks, and craftsmen all across town. We’ve also managed to put away a lot of local food this summer, and that’s all been good, too (for the most part). Mostly, we’ve been living our lives the best we can, cooking up good food, learning all we can about Arkansas, and trying to dodge the humidity. So without further delay, here are some of the best and worst of Little Rock this summer, an idea I readily admit I stole from Jason and Shelle Stormoe of the Arkansas Merepoix Blog.

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Lillet with orange

Best drinks: The best drinks we had this summer came courtesy of Lee Edwards and Dylan Yelenich of Big Orange. I initially contacted Lee for a story I was working on for Arkansas Life magazine about low-alcohol cocktails for summer, and while he and Dylan could have just thrown any old thing at us and had done with it, they went above and beyond by providing us with an in-depth discussion of vermouth, which led to a discussion of fernet branca, which led to a pleasant evening getting buzzed in West Little Rock and then eating some fantastic food. Big Orange has just opened their new Midtown location, and while we haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, we’ve been keeping up with Lee on Twitter — and it’s pretty obvious that these guys know their business.

Best “Thank Heaven They’re Open”: This one is a tie. First up, Matt Bell’s new restaurant South on Main, a restaurant that I got to try in limited quantities a few weeks ago at an ALFN dinner, and about which my colleague Daniel Walker of Eat Arkansas has written an excellent preview. My personal favorite new joint, however, is the brand new Stone’s Throw Brewing on 9th and Rock streets. Jess and I checked out their soft opening last weekend and were impressed by their Belgian-style beers. Little Rock just got a lot more awesome from the opening of both these places.

IMG_0194Best coffee: Also in the “new” category, across the river this time, is Argenta coffee shop Mugs Cafe. We were quite impressed with the stylish and modern decor, not to mention the tasty lattes and breakfast sandwiches we tried. Check them out next time you’re headed up to the Argenta Farmers Market — you’ll be able to get the buzz you need for all that produce shopping.

Things aren’t all good, though, and so let’s give a few shout-outs to things that have gone down lately that weren’t perhaps the best.

Worst service in relation to food:  This goes to the Capital Bar and Grill, where a group of us got together last week to celebrate some birthdays. Food was, for the most part, excellent (some steak and Cobb salad issues aside). I had a pork belly crostini that was out of this world, and Jess and I both enjoyed dipping our fries into a truffled bearnaise so light that it was almost more foam than sauce. Service, however, stunk. Our waiter was rude, clueless, and neglectful. Members of our group who were having cocktails were never asked if they would like another round; I had to flag somebody else down just to get another glass of iced tea. To top it off, we never saw a single fried black-eyed pea, something that is supposed to be a free starter for every table.

Worst all-around experience:  Twin Peaks. But it did inspire one of the most well-read and most-commented pieces I’ve ever put on Eat Arkansas. I’ll say no more.

Worst all-around food: I thought initially I would pick The Fold, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Mamacita’s on Kavanaugh. The Fold was crappy and overpriced, but it had some bright spots. Not so for Mamacita’s, a restaurant that managed to be bland, foul, and also overpriced on both of our visits. I can’t stress enough how terrible the food was.

Now over to you — what’s your good, bad and ugly? Cheers!

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Orzo salad with sockeye salmon

IMG_0249For Jess and me, summer is a time where we crave lighter foods, like fish, and foods served cold — like salad. Green salads are wonderful, but we get bored with them, and when we do, we turn to the pasta salad as our next favorite thing to eat. Normally, I use those multi-colored corkscrew noodles (fusilli), but the rice-shaped pasta known as orzo also makes a fine-tasting salad. Orzo cooks up just like any other pasta, but its small size means you definitely need to keep an eye on it — anything beyond al dente with this stuff means a sloppy, soggy mess.

We paired our salad tonight with some sockeye salmon, which is my favorite kind of salmon. Be aware that sockeye filets are sold with the the pin bones still in, so have a pair of needle nose pliers handy to make short work of those bones and get to cooking.

Orzo Salad

  • IMG_02318 oz. uncooked orzo. Cook according to package instructions (or until it’s as tender as you want), rinse with cold water, and set aside.
  • 1 cup black olives, sliced.
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, diced.
  • 1/2 cup artichoke hearts, chopped.
  • 6 oz. feta cheese (sheep’s milk if you can find it).
  • Salt, pepper, and dried oregano to taste.

It’s almost too simple for words: mix your chopped ingredients with the orzo. Add salt, pepper, and oregano to taste. You can hit this salad with a glug of sharp olive oil, splash of lemon juice, or any other herbs that you like. The neutral flavor of the orzo picks up the briny flavor of the rest of the ingredients nicely, creating a balanced dish that looks nice on the plate and tastes even better. Happy cooking!

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Fun with pork belly

IMG_0171 (640x427)Ah, pork belly. Around here, the only kind you usually find has been salted, cured, smoked, and sliced — that’s your regular grocery store bacon. But down at Mr. Chen’s on South University, they sell uncured, raw, skin-on pork belly, and I like to play around with it from time to time. Uncured belly can be made to do so many things, but my favorite method is to braise it in a savory liquid and slice it thin. We bought a big package of the luscious pork recently to play with, and the results were pretty good. Both of these dishes utilize beans, because beans are a good, solid base to help cut the richness of the pork. But honestly, this stuff is so good, it’s hard to resist just eating it right out of the oven.

Basic Braised Pork Belly

  • IMG_0163 (640x584)1 pound pork belly, skin removed. The easiest way to do this is to have the belly just slightly frozen, which makes that skin easy to shave off.
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt.
  • 1 tablespoon sugar.
  • 1 teaspoon crushed black pepper.
  • 1/2 teaspoon all-spice.
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander.
  • 4 cups beef or chicken stock.
  • 2 cups dry white wine.
  • 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce.
  • 2 carrots, sliced.
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced.
  • 1 onion, chopped.
  • 4 cloves garlic.
  • Herbs — parsley, thyme, bay leaf all do well here, but do what you like.

Prepare a dry rub with the salt, pepper, sugar, all-spice, and coriander. Rub into the pork belly and place the belly in the fridge for at least 4 hours (overnight is better). While the pork is curing, prepare your braising liquid with the remaining ingredients, simmering in a sauce pan until the liquid has reduced by almost half. Strain out the vegetables and herbs. Rinse your cured belly, then brown the hell out of it in a cast iron skillet. Seriously, you want this stuff crispy on the outside. Place in a baking dish, and pour the braising liquid over the lot. Keep in a 300 degree oven for around 3 hours, or until the belly is fork tender. For easiest slicing, let the belly chill in the fridge — but I doubt you’ll wait that long.

IMG_0129 (476x640)The first dish we did with our pork belly was thin-sliced belly with white beans and kale, which we prepared similarly to this soup recipe — just with less liquid and more bean puree. The result was pillow-soft pork atop richly flavored beans and greens — a dish that was decadent and earthy all at once.

The second dish we called “The English Breakfast Bowl,” because we incorporated several elements of the classic English fry-up in one bowl. Rich baked beans were topped by chunks of the braised belly, a poached egg, and two halves of grilled heirloom tomato. It was a messy, savory, delight that made for quite a filling dinner.

Pork belly is a cut of meat that takes a little time to get right, but the results are so good when you do. It’s one of the richest things you’ll ever eat, so just a little goes a long way. Let us know how you like yours in the comments — and happy cooking!