Mulled wine

IMG_0491The cold weather holidays are our favorite time of the year — mostly because of all the fun ways there are to keep warm. Perhaps the greatest of all these methods is a large pot of mulled wine, a spicy, fragrant beverage that’s great for sipping on those days when heavy clothes and a hot fire just aren’t cutting it. Spiced wine takes all those great aromatic ingredients we love about the holidays like cinnamon, anise, and clove and combines them into a something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

We’ve made mulled wine in a number of ways, but our favorite recipe is adapted from the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten. This recipe is full of great flavor, and it isn’t so strong that you need worry about indulging yourself in a cup or two — because after the first taste, I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

Mulled wine

  • photo 2(8)1 bottle of red wine. Use something like a Cabernet Sauvignon here, and don’t break the bank buying it. Because of all the tasty stuff you’re going to add to the pot, the drink won’t suffer due to cheaper wine.
  • 4 cups apple cider
  • 1/4 honey or simple syrup
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 teaspoon whole cloves
  • 4 star anise
  • 1 orange, zested and juiced

Mix all ingredients in a large stock pot. Bring the pot to a light boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into a mug through a tea strainer and garnish with a twist of orange or a cinnamon stick. This recipe is more like a list of suggestions, so adjust your spices to include whatever it is you like — a little allspice, nutmeg, or cardamom can all be good additions to the pot. Enjoy responsibly — which means making sure not a drop is wasted. Happy cooking!

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Savory onion soup

photo 1(4)I hesitate to call the soup I made tonight “French onion” because while it A) is a soup that B) contains onions, it deviates from true, honest-to-Voltaire “French” onion soup in a couple of ways that make me just refer to this soup as a savory onion soup. And if you make it, you won’t really care what I call it because you’ll call it one thing only: delicious.

Traditional French onion soup uses clarified beef stock as a base, but seeing as though I happened to have some really dank, dark chicken stock made from a large hen we roasted this weekend…I decided that we could go the chicken route. Stock made from a roasted bird is always darker and richer than stock made from raw chicken, and if reduced, it’s very close to beef stock in the depth of flavor (and even better in this case, since it was homemade). I did squirt one of those beef “flavor booster” packets into the pot just to add some beef flavoring to the mix, but that was more as a shortcut to add some quick and dirty umami flavor to my pot of soup. Also of note: for traditional French onion soup, I usually reduce my stock with red wine. Of course, this isn’t traditional soup, so in this case, I reduced my stock with a bottle of Goose Island Honker’s Ale — which did just fine.

Savory onion soup

  • photo 2(6)1 quart chicken (or beef) stock. In this case, I was poaching a leftover roasted chicken to make stock and get the remaining meat ready for a chicken salad. If you want to use the store-bought stuff, buy a couple of boxes of it, add some carrots, celery, onions, and garlic to it along with a cup of red wine and simmer for half an hour. You’ll be fine.
  • 2-3 large onions. Cut these from stem to root.
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Fresh black pepper
  • Kosher salt
  • Bouquet garni — bundle up some thyme, parsley, and bay leaves in a cheese cloth or coffee filter.
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Sourdough bread (VERY important)
  • Gruyere, Swiss, or other delicious nutty cheese

In the same cast iron skillet I tell you to use for nearly everything I post, heat three tablespoons of oil. I like to use olive oil for this, because I think it gives the onions a nice flavor, but canola or any other neutral oil is fine. Throw your onions in the skillet and get alarmed by how high they are piled up. Now stop worrying, because these bad boys are going to reduce down quite a bit. Cook the onions on medium-high heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring every few minutes so that the onions get brown but not burned. If you want to add a tablespoon of sugar to this process, feel free — it adds some nice flavor.

Once you’ve caramelized your onions, toss them in the stock with a little salt, pepper, the vinegar, and the bouquet garni and simmer for 20 minutes. Don’t go crazy with the salt — the soup will reduce some, concentrating whatever salt is present. Cream the flour and butter together to make a beurre maniĆ©, stir into the pot. Simmer for another few minutes, mostly until the butter/flour mixture dissolves to thicken your soup and add a luscious level of flavor to the proceedings.

Make some toast with the bread and cheese; put it under the broiler and cook the hell out of it. Float a piece of the toast in the soup, and enjoy your not-quite-French onion soup. Happy cooking!

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Prosciutto stuffed chicken

photo(28)Anybody who tells you that they don’t like prosciutto has either never tried it or is insane. Of all the foods that exist on this planet, prosciutto might be the most perfect: salty, slightly sweet, unctuous, and perfectly balanced in fat-to-meat ratio. It’s a lovely, wonderful thing to eat, and our admitted favorite way is to just cram the stuff into our faces by the fistful — but sometimes it’s nice to sit down to a meal that’s eaten with a fork and a knife. You know, civilized. To that end, we decided to take some prosciutto, wrap it up with some cheese and basil inside a piece of chicken, then bake the lot into a gooey pile of fragrant deliciousness.

When it comes to prosciutto, we’re big fans of La Quercia, an Iowa meat producer known worldwide for their quality pork. “But Michael,” you say. “Isn’t prosciutto supposed to come from Italy?!” Well, yes, it’s a style that originated in Italy…but I promise you that the folks at La Quercia know their business.

Prosciutto stuffed chicken

  • IMG_07942 boneless chicken breasts, or 4 boneless chicken thighs
  • 6-8 slices of prosciutto. Seriously, go to a meat market or deli and buy the good stuff. The six pieces I bought tonight was only $3.50, and it was so much better than the pre-packaged stuff from the grocery store. Buy extra if you’re a snacker.
  • 4 pieces provolone cheese
  • 12 basil leaves
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Pound your pieces of chicken until they’re around 1/4 inch thick. Lay the prosciutto on the underside of the chicken, then the provolone, then a few leaves of the basil (according to how much basil you like to taste). Roll each piece of chicken up and place in a baking dish. Slop a generous dash of vinegar onto the chicken, then hit the dish with healthy glug of the olive oil. Finish with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, then bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Serve.

Now go find a pig and thank it for being so delicious. Happy cooking!

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In praise of teres major (and chimichurri)

photo 2(4) (480x640)It pays to listen to people who love good food. Case in point, teres major, a cut of beef that most folks (me included) haven’t heard of. I’d seen it for sale at the butcher’s, but it wasn’t until a friend, Steve Shuler, mentioned that this bit of steak from the shoulder was as tender as filet but had a lot more taste that I decided that I had to try it. Steve’s an avid cook and barbecue expert, so I knew he could make a better-than-educated statement about the beef — he’s a smart guy, even if he’s a South Carolina Gamecocks fan (nobody’s perfect).

So I headed down to H.A.M. to grab a slab of teres major, slapped some salt and fresh-cracked pepper on it, and hit it with a hot cast-iron skillet. The pieces are long, like a tenderloin, and slice into perfect medallions. The result? Meltingly tender beef bursting with flavor. It’s like a ribeye and a filet had a wonderful secret baby that only a few people knew about. Apparently this little bit of beef is a pain in the neck to harvest from the animal, so it isn’t common. Lucky for Little Rock, we have an uncommon meat market at our disposal — uncommonly good.

To pair with the steak, I made a quick chimichurri sauce, something that one of our other butchers, Travis McConnell of Butcher and Public, got me hooked on. This is a simple, fresh sauce that goes well with any sort of meat and adds a light burst of wonderful flavor and color to any dish.

Chimichurri

  • IMG_07181 cup fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 small onion (sliced)
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • Juice of one lemon (or lime)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Pulse the onion and garlic in a food processor until they are roughly chopped (not pureed). Add the parsley, cilantro, and spices, then pulse again until they have been roughly chopped and incorporated. Dump everything in a bowl and add the olive oil, stirring to mix thoroughly. Taste, then adjust the salt, pepper, and acid to your liking. Serve.

I love discovering new things to cook, and this cut of beef is one of the best discoveries yet. I’ll have to echo Steve’s recommendation, and I urge you all to try it if you haven’t. It’s relatively cheap, and the flavor is beyond fantastic. Happy cooking!

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Vino’s muffuletta pizza

photo 3(2)I’ve written about Vino’s Brew Pub quite a lot over the years, but usually I’m talking about their beer. There’s a good reason for it, too: the beer they make down on 7th and Chester is some of the best around, and continues to improve every year.

Vino’s does more than just make great beer, though — they also make a pretty mean pizza. Whether by the slice or by the pie, Vino’s makes pizza that’s some of the best in town. I’ve always been partial to the Margherita or just plain pepperoni, but today we tried the muffuletta pizza, and I think I’ve found a new favorite.

I’ve always liked Vino’s version of the muffuletta sandwich, so it wasn’t surprising that I enjoyed the pizza version. All the expected toppings were there: olive salad, cheese, ham, and sliced pepperoni, which the restaurant uses in place of the more traditional salami. A little bit of olive oil serves for sauce and the result is a savory, gooey mess of toppings on top of a buttery crust. It’s a filling pie and one that I hate took me this long to try. And of course there are plenty of tasty house brews on tap to help you wash it all down.

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The happenings

dinner

Dinner (and picture) courtesy of Hillcrest Artisan Meats

It’s always nice when a favorite lunch spot starts doing dinner, and the folks at Hillcrest Artisan Meats have definitely put a nice spin on things with their take-home dinners. We’ve tried a couple of these now, and they’ve been fantastic. Our first experience with the dinners was a homemade lasagna, both a meat-based kind and a cheese kind — and surprisingly, I liked the cheese best of all (although the meat version was tasty). Our second meal was the lovely creation you see there to the left — a confit duck leg, Toulouse sausage, pork loin, sauerkraut, and new potatoes. Jess and I split it — she took the pork loin, I took the duck, and we split everything else right down the middle. It was fantastic eating, and something I hope they do again. If you haven’t tried these dinners, they’re doing them on Mondays and Fridays from 4:30-6.

musselsUnfortunately, not all food can be good, something we found out when we visited Pancetta, the new-ish restaurant in the Marriott downtown. Those mussels you see to the right are among the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and Jess and I wound up sick for nearly three days after the meal. This also led to one of the worst reviews I’ve ever given, something that made life a titch uncomfortable with the Times’ advertising people since Pancetta advertises with the paper. But like the editorial staff and other contributors, my job isn’t to sell ads, it’s to write honest food reviews.

Periodically — and usually after a negative review — someone will ask why we review places we don’t like. The answer is simple: I have deadlines, and not everywhere serves good food. I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing only the good places when I’ve got a review due every week or so. It’s no fun bagging on restaurants — I had a lot more fun writing this positive review of South on Main than I did blasting Pancetta.

There are a lot of bloggers out there that do it as a hobby — and I think that’s great. It’s also how I started. As my food writing grew in popularity, though, it became possible to do it for money — and that changes things. You get to a point where people start gunning for you and sniping at you, something I never really understood until just recently. Fortunately, that’s a minority view, and the vast majority of readers are friendly, good people — and it’s pretty easy to ignore those who aren’t. And if you go to Pancetta, don’t get the mussels.