Thursday, April 28, 2011

A cookbook digression.

I have this feeling that some people who read this blog are like me and enjoy cooking as well as eating. I began cooking as a means of self-preservation when I was a teenager. My father traveled a lot, and was away from home much of the time. My mother was a school teacher, and she left for work early and came home late. Unfortunately, as an adolescent and young teenager, I was hungry basically all the time.

So, one day after school, I opened the refrigerator out of desperation and decided to cook something for myself. I don't recall if it was successful or not, but it probably filled me up because I continued to cook. Then, I had a mini-epiphany: I discovered that I could cook ... whatever I wanted to eat! Not what was plopped down in front of me. I was off and running.

I became enamored with spices, and went through the predictable process of making chili so hot I couldn't eat it, and assorted other failures resulting from my mantra of the time: "If a little is good, then a lot is a whole lot better." I suspect some of you may have done the same thing. I guess it's a rite of passage for would-be cooks. And, after my teenage appetite subsided, I discovered that I enjoyed the creative process of cooking, and the satisfaction I got from preparing really nice meals to share with my friends and family.

For me, eating good food and drinking good wine with your friends is a simple thing, but an important one in life.

At any rate, I thought I would do something a little different and pass along some information about a few cookbooks that I've been using for years or just discovered and enjoy.

A new discovery: The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh (2004, Broadway Books). Lots of great photos of early Texas eateries along with their recipes. The guacamole recipe alone is worth buying the book. I picked up a used copy online for something like $2.

One thing this book has changed about my cooking is that I now make all my own tortilla chips and taco shells. For the latter, you simply heat some peanut oil in a skillet, drop in a yellow corn tortilla, cook briefly on both sides, lift one side with tongs to create the V-shape, the tortilla hardens as it fries, you then drop the lifted side down into the oil and let it fry briefly, take it out and drain on paper towels, and stick in the oven to stay warm. Done. All this in about 30 seconds. The taste is better, the shell is still pliable and a little chewy, and fewer preservatives. Nice.

For Chinese food, it's just tough to beat Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking (1980, Knopf). So many good recipes; many of which can be prepared in under ten minutes. Just a great cookbook.

Another wonderful book is Thai Home-Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen by William Crawford and Kamolmal Pootaraksa (1985, Plume -- an imprint of Penguin Books). This contains my absolute favorite soup in the world, Kung Dom Yam or Hot and Spicy Shrimp Soup.

You make a roasted red curry (Nam Prig Pao) for the soup in advance, and, friends, when they suggest that you prepare the curry mixture outside on a grill because "... a very strong odor will develop when you are frying the dried shrimp and shrimp paste ...," they're not kidding. Do it. The soup is worth it. And, the curry keeps for months in a closed container in your refrigerator.

I really don't think you can beat Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

And for Cajun food, I've gone through two copies of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (1984, William Morrow). There are so many good recipes in this book it's just amazing. The cooking process tends to be elaborate and time-consuming, but the results are almost always worth it. I now cook Brabant potatoes pretty often as a result, and people love them. The seafood filé gumbo is fabulous (and the standard by which I judge all other gumbos), and I've never met anyone who didn't swoon over the roasted pork with oyster dressing or the barbecued shrimp. They're really that good.

So, for you cooks out there, I hope you'll try one or more of these books and see for yourself just how good they are.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Maddie's Place - Definitely worth many visits

1615 Rebsamen Park Road (between the Buffalo Grill and The Faded Rose)

A quick digression: as I wrote the address above, I remembered something from a recent trip to Paris (France, not west Arkansas). As my friend and I were cruising along the Left Bank, I spotted a "Buffalo Grill" out of the corner of my eye (2 Rue Raymond Aron, +33 1 45 86 76 71). As I subsequently discovered, there are at least ten "Buffalo Grills" in and around Paris. I guess that's where the place here got its name years ago. And, all this time I just thought they were clever.

OK, Maddie's Place. Go there. End of review. Not really, but you could stop there and be fine. They've been open about two years now, according to Jason, the manager. So, I'm a little late to the party on this one. Nothing new for me.

This is a New Orleans-style eatery, and the chef and owner, Brian Deloney worked for "Emeril!!!" (just couldn't help myself) in New Orleans and Las Vegas for "almost ten years" (according to their Web site: My friend and I had lunch there today, and we'll go back. Lunch for two: $20 without tip, and a much, much better value than Pho Thanh My.

The facts: the food's good, fresh and well-prepared. The service was great at 1:30p, with Jason, the manager, waiting on us and adding a lot to our enjoyment of the place. He's personable and seems to have a genuine interest in taking care of his customers. Hmmm. Pop Quiz: How many other places can you truthfully say that about these days? Right.

I asked about the gumbo, and Jason tried to steer us away from it because he thought they were ending a batch in the kitchen and that the last bits were too thick. However, I asked for a sample, and he brought a bowl for us to try -- gratis. That is in "free." I began to like him and the place more and more. The gumbo was good: flavorful and not shy about seasonings, i.e., with a nice amount of filé and spice heat, but not overdone.

My friend had a bowl of white bean and ham soup and a spinach salad with goat cheese, sugared pecans and a light vinaigrette. She liked the gumbo better than the soup, only because the soup had a spice that she didn't care for (I couldn't identify it). Others might enjoy it a great deal.

I had an oyster po-boy with fries (my default New Orleans lunch). The fries were shoe-string, fresh and perfectly cooked. The oyster po-boy was large -- enough for two to split, actually. The oysters were fresh and perfectly fried. And the toasted Leidenheimer french bread (a New Orleans po-boy staple) was slathered (and I say that in a loving way) with a very nice Remoulade sauce.

Jason kept coming around and asking us if we needed anything and what we thought of the food. I admit, I like that in a place if I think it's not disingenuous. Here, I think it's sincere.

So, we left with plans to come back for supper sometime soon. Roughly lighter in the wallet as the day before at Pho Thanh My, but with an entirely different attitude. The place has high quality food and an undeniably amiable vibe, courtesy of Jason. In fact, if he gets around to adding Sazerac cocktails to the bar menu soon, I may very well become a "regular."

Pho Thanh My - Still good. Still over-priced.

302 North Shackleford Road

Stopped back in Pho Thanh My for lunch yesterday, and the pho tai was delicious, as always. It was also way too expensive, as always (with tip, $22 for two bowls of soup and two iced teas -- maybe the South Vietnamese actually did win the war?).

Channeling Warren Buffet, I am a "value" eater: I like good food and good service at what I consider to be reasonable prices relative to the experience. These days, I'm not getting that at Pho Thanh My, and it's a disincentive to go there -- despite the quality of the food.

Today, my friend and I ate at Maddie's Place, and my inner Warren Buffet was happy. The review follows.

Monday, April 18, 2011


2650 John Harden Drive, Jacksonville AR

Drop the tray and move away from the buffet...

No, it's not the police or even the Weight Watchers group, but it's great advice. There are truly very few buffets in this world that have fresh tasting food on them. This is no exception, with rubbery fish, dried out rice, and undercooked boudain.

No, but if you sit down and order from the menu, you might be pleasantly surprised. Ordering gumbo will get you a gigantic bowl full of a fair representation of the craft, though a bit salty and lacking in the proper amounts of seafood. But near as I can tell, everything comes in ample portions so it's not necessary to go through the line to tank up.

The crab cakes, ala carte, are bigger and much better than the dried patties on the buffet, and the fried oyster platter was ample, juicy and perfectly fried for only twelve bucks. I would love to try the soft shell crab and some of the made to order fish dishes, so we'll be back for an encore.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Taco Tuesday at El Porton

My friend, Joe Bob Deux, says that tacos are almost the perfect food. And I tend to agree. When I think of Taco Tuesdays, I also think of my old friends, the Swinging Franks, who play at Casa Mexicana in Sherwood every Tuesday night. And I certainly would never steal any of their glory. But I have to admit that the food at Casa Mexicana, while always seriously mediocre, has taken a turn for the worse. Maybe even the worst. Last time I ate there, the food was terrible.

Since there are so many poor examples of tacos knocking about in the world, I was a bit trepidatious about trying the tacos at El Porton, but the sign out front has been calling out, "Taco Tuesday $1.00 Tacos" for months now and I finally broke down and headed over there last night. We fudged a little and ordered a few more than we thought we really wanted, I mean they're only a buck, right? Called it in and pulled into their drive through about ten minutes later and they really only charged me a dollar each, and they were ready when I got there. So, A plus for service and truth in advertising.

When I got home, we opened the traditional round aluminum pan containers to find real, full sized, no scrimping tacos loaded with ground beef and cheese and lettuce. These tacos are good! I added some squirts of Cholula sauce and while son2 pronounced them not quite as good as mine, I could tell from the way he ate seven of them that they probably came close.

So, with all of the cookie cutter Mex restaurants (if they have a "speedy gonzales" on the lunch menu, run away!), El Porton is quickly becoming one of my favorites of the genre. And the tacos just bolstered that opinion. A great deal, may become a regular Tuesday event at our house.