Friday, September 12, 2014

Okra and the Chef: Matt McClure's Chicken & Okratouille.

Matt McClure’s a fun guy to watch. Amiable, intelligent, the Little Rock-raised, Boston-educated cook has risen to star status as executive chef of 21c Museum Hotel’s restaurant The Hive. That sort of thing should go to one’s head, but not with Matt, who’s about as relaxed and fun-loving as any bright-eyed young man could be.

Chef must be brave; he agreed to be the kickoff
speaker at the Arkansas Women Bloggers University Foodie Friday this year… no small thing, considering the amount of social media power in the room. Was he worried? Nope. In fact, I think he relished the challenge.

Very excited to be here today,” he mentioned as we got started, “please be kind.”

He started off talking about the difficulty of creating a menu for a group like us. “Writing the menu for something like this is always frustrating, especially when the event is three to six months away. What I want to provide for you is a list of ingredients, but that early, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. Definitely squash, maybe chicken – what’s available locally may be great or it may be petering out.

“Part of the philosophy at the Hive: we source the ingredients and then write a menu around it, the best menu you can find. We don’t want to be tied to an ingredient. We may have amazing tomatoes and then have a storm run through and knock them off the vine. We don’t want to commit to something that may not necessarily be what you’re going to get.”

Matt says he like to be inspired by what’s local – not just the food, but the people. “We have a large Indian population here in northwest Arkansas, and great Indian grocery stores, great flavors for cooking at The Hive. It keeps me interested, keeps me inspired, makes The Hive very unique. I couldn’t just cookie-cutter The Hive and move another restaurant to New York.

“What are the cultures in the part of the country that inspire menu items?

“We’re very close to Oklahoma, very close to Missouri, we have a large population of immigrants from South America, a large number of Hmong farmers. Pulling from those cultures is really what I like to do, what Arkansas food is right now.

“All that to say – we’re going to do a roasted chicken with ‘okratouille’ – similar to ratatouille – but we’re going to use okra.”

There was a little bit of twittering about the audience at that point – both the traditional sort and the sort that involves people entering information on their cell phones. As I said, a community of bloggers.

Matt turned towards the large naked ruddy bird on the counter, which beforehand he’d mentioned came from Sarah Beth’s farm. “Okay, it’s time to butcher a chicken.”

As he worked, he continued talking to the audience. “This is for a lot of people, so I’m going to show you how to ten-way cut this chicken. You get ten pieces of edible chicken roughly the same size, which makes it easy to cook it fairly evenly. The only thing pulled out of the bird – the back and the wingtips – can be used to make stock or sauces later.”

He first showed how to cut off the legs and leave the “oyster,” the tender piece of meat where the thigh meets the back, attached. “It’s one of the most delectable cuts of meat on the whole chicken,” he told us.

“Same thing on the other side,” he said, taking the leg quarter off the other side, “kinda pop that joint out as you’re cutting it. Take the wing bits off,” he disassembled the whole wing, cutting off the last joint. “The great thing, too – we usually get whole birds at the restaurant. Not only is the price per pound a little cheaper, but I want those backs, those wingtips to make soup or stocks or sauces out of. When you’re dealing with a lot of small farmers, they’d rather sell you the whole bird.”

He picked up the remaining chicken. “Basically, the two breasts are still on, and the back.” He put the bird back on the cutting board and positioned his knife. “Cut along the neck on both sides. This way of butchering a chicken is great, every piece of meat has a piece of bone attached to it. And then there’s the rib cages in here, and they sorta come together in a V, and if you can gut where it comes together, there will be cartilage, you can cut right through it.”

He held up the back portion of the chicken, free from the breasts. “So that’s the back, and that’ll be for stock. And these wingtips will be for stock. You can kinda see the breast is still connected – make an incision where you pull it apart, lot of cartilage in this cavity here,” he demonstrated, showing the tip as he turned the breast back and forth. “So pull out this breastbone. That’ll also go for stock, so there’s nothing wasted.”

With the pieces in front of him, he pointed with his knife. “Basically at this point, to get the ten, the breast is cut in half and the leg is separated from the thigh.” With a few more cuts, each evenly sized portion was displayed on the cutting board in front of him.

Matt then turned to the other ingredient spread out before him, mise en place. He held up a purple ramekin of peppers, BB sized spices and such. “Garam masala – it’s a spice mixture that if you go to India, there’s a thousand different variations of it. In this, there’s cumin, coriander, chili, cinnamon,
peppercorns, star anise – a lot of flavors in there.” He picked up another ramekin and showed it. “I have it ground up to go on this chicken.” Sifting it through his fingers, he patted down the pieces of chicken with the spice blend and with salt.

“I put a little canola oil or any kind of vegetable oil – rice bran oil will work great,” he indicated, referencing the rice bran oil provided to conference attendants by Riceland Foods, “so we’re going to roast it on a sheet tray, but you could grill this.”

The chicken went to the back and into the oven. There was a bubble of talk and activity in the audience while Matt went to thoroughly wash his hands. He stepped back up to the counter and started rearranging the ingredients.

“So, while the chicken is roasting, we’re going to start the okratouille. We’re going to give it an aromatic base of peppers and onions, summer squash, zucchini… and we’re going to cook the okra in a hot skillet, separately. So, for something like this one-pot cooking, for those of you trying to minimize your dishwashing, it’s this: milled tomato paste, summer squash, zucchini, peppers, onions, and we’ll finish with fresh basil and garlic.

“I have everything sort of pre-cut here, and it’s what we call in the cooking world mise en place. For a chef, it’s not just food related, it’s a way of life – everything is organized because time is of essence. It’s very easy to eat wholesomely, having things set up in a way where you walk in, make a couple of knife cuts, 30 minutes of cooking and you’re eating real, not processed, food. So, just letting the oil war up, and I’ve put these in the order that I’m actually going to add them to the pan.”

Matt’s set-up was very neat, very clean, with every ingredient in its own ramekin or bowl. He used an induction burner to bring to temperature a little oil in a brown and white ceramic-lined pot and started adding onions to the pot.

“So, we’re sweating… sweating means cooking without color,” he showed us, adding a little salt to the onions he’d just poured in. “Salt brings out the water from the onions and keeps them from caramelizing. As that cooks, if I didn’t have everything ready already, I’d cut the onion, start cooking it and cut the pepper, then the sauce, then add the squash and zucchini into it. You’re not wasting a whole lot of time, and in this instant, we’re obviously ahead of the game.”

He kept talking as he proceeded to stir, heat and sweat first the onions and then the peppers. “So, one of the things I noticed when I first moved to northwest Arkansas. I moved to Fayetteville first, and I really thought the onions were incredible. I know Georgia has its Vidalia onions. We haven’t marketed ours and they were some of the best onions I’ve ever had in my life. I incorporate that sort of thing into all my cooking. That was onions, or shallots, or any sort of vegetable in that family.”

He stirred again. “This too, you want the onions and the peppers to cook down so they get soft and release their flavor. A lot of sweetness comes out. There’s a balance when making a ratatouille or one pot wonder – in this case acidity to balance it out, which comes from the tomato product.” He carefully scooped the tomato pasted into the pan with a spatula.

“So, a little garlic… can you guys smell this yet?” Matt asked. Indeed, the scent filling the space was phenomenal, and the ladies (and a couple of gentlemen also there for the event) murmured positively. Matt grinned. “No one gets mad smelling onions and garlic,” he confessed.

“As that’s cooking… we’re going to cook the okra. As the season goes through, okra changes. Some is so moist is slimes out quickly. This,” he said, indicating the bowl of neatly chopped okra, “is nice and dry. We’re going to cook this slightly separately.

“A reason a lot of people don’t like okra is the slime factor. We have to figure out how to fight the slime factor. We’re going to take this cast iron skillet and we’re going to hard sear them, and you’ll see that the pot, the hot oil just dries them up and keeps the tenderness inside. Then we’ll fold it into the ratatouille.”

He worked the other vegetables over the heat in batches, and as he added them he kept up the monologue. “So, as this goes, I keep turning down the heat a little bit more and more, like you want that sort of initial heat, so when you start putting vegetables in there, they get heat as they warm, and they help the other vegetables to stay warm. As you add the squash and the zucchini, you’ll kinda eyeball what the moisture content is, sweat this around a bit,” he said, stirring the pot a bit as he added some squash, “there’s a lot of moisture in zucchini and summer squash. As it heats up, it will release that. I’m going to add a little water to aid that, but you don’t want it to be too wet or it will be stewy.”

After one more series of folding, Matt turned to another small bowl. He held it up to show the tomato paste inside. “We make a lot of our own tomato paste at the restaurant, and it’s pretty dry. You’ll want to coat everything,” he continued, dolloping in the paste. “Applying this at home, this is a great one-pot wonder. You can make a big batch of this on Monday and eat it the next couple of days until you get tired of eating it. Everything’s kinda coated with the tomato product,” he indicated, gesturing into the pot. “Just a little more liquid, and we’re going to put this back on the stove to keep cooking. You’ll want to keep the lid on it to keep the moisture in.”

He pulled the pot off the induction burner and set it to the side, replacing it with a good old-fashioned cast iron skillet.

“Now, this is the fun stuff,” he said, turning up the burner. “You don’t want to crowd the pan. You want to do (the okra) in batches, sear it, platter it. If you soak the pan you’re going to suck all the heat out of it. You can pull too much heat out of it.”

He pulled out a platter and the oil and put the okra right beside the skillet.

“So, while this heats up, here are some of the ingredients we’re using today. With the garam masala, you look at the spices in that, just like in a Chicago barbecue sauce, how it’s integrated itself into American cooking already. Cooking in the U.S. today is a lot of fun for someone like me.”

Pointing into the skillet, he continued. “It’s started smoking, really hot right here. The induction burner doesn’t really like the cast iron.” He added the first batch of okra to the pan. “I’ll season this a little bit too. Season each component separately.”

Matt stepped back while the okra started to fry. “One thing my cooking has evolved to – I don’t use a whole lot of black pepper. When I was coming up a new cook in Boston, I would have kosher salt, sea salt, a pepper mill, lemon juice, lime juice. I learned salt is a seasoning, pepper is a flavor. Though I still use it, I use other dry spices – the chilies in the garam masala – use them in oils, lots of chilies, not just for heat but for aromas.”

He prodded the okra in the skillet.

“You can’t really see this, but I can see the slime drying up.” The overhead camera showed how the pale okra was starting to turn a vibrant green. He took the first batch out of the oil with a slotted spatula and moved it to the platter.

So, basically, once you have this hard seared you have cooked it, not quite crispy, but you have thoroughly roasted it. That’s when you’re going to pull it out. You could go ahead and put it in the rest of the stew and it’ll become nice and tender. I think this is why a lot of people just keep frying okra – hot heat is the best way to have that okra flavor but eliminate the slime.

“When there’s a good amount of oil in the pan like for a shallow frying, you need a slotted spoon or spatula so you don’t pull all that grease out with (the okra). You can put a paper towel at the base to work out some of that.”

He turned and grabbed the pot with the other vegetables in it and brought it back to his workspace.

“Once you have that okra seared, you can add it right back to the pot and keep it cooking,” he shared. He poked at it for a few moments more, then made a gesture to his sous chef, who went to the back of the kitchen.

“So this is the miracle of planning ahead,” Matt told us. “I have a pot that is finished.”

And he did. He spooned out the contents of the new pot onto a large purple platter. “What I’m going to do is finish it with basil. You can use Thai basil or any fresh herbs. Once, I was stubborn and only wanted the sweet basil I grew up with. I hate monotony.” He added the garnish to the platter.

“My favorite thing to cook is – I love doing something right now. Okra in the summer, but by the end of summer I’m tired of cooking it. I’m looking forward to squash and the new vegetables.

“So the flavors don’t get cooked out and melded in, I kinda like the variety of a couple of different finishing herbs, basil and parsley.

“A dish like this is sort of a stew, a soulful stew. It helps to have something to brighten it up. It’s kinda nice to just platter it. You have friends coming over for a cookout or something like that, you can have the okra done ahead of time, the chicken can be cut and marinating in the refrigerator so you can just put it on a sheet tray and roast it.”

Matt took a pan of cooked chicken offered by his sous and arranged the pieces of chicken atop the mélange. “For as much vegetables as you have in here, this is sort of a beige plate, but there’s a lot of good flavors in there. Garnish it with a few more herbs that we cooked it with and scatter them around – and that’s roasted chicken and okratouiolle.”

If you’d like to take a stab at Chef Matt McClure’s dish and need some more specifics as far as measurements and cooking times and heat goes, head over to the Arkansas Women Bloggers website for the official recipe. And next year, make plans to attend Foodie Friday at the annual Arkansas Women Bloggers University. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Harvestfest: Woodstock of the Ozarks.

Since I cannot attend Harvestfest this year, Grav will tell you all about it.

           Woodstock of the Ozarks.  That's right.  I said it, and I stand by those words.  Many of you have read Kat's festival survival guide.  Some of you may have even attended Wakarusa, Bonnaroo, or any number of the music festivals in the region and across the country.  However, none of them are quite like the  Yonder Mountain String Band's Harvest Music Festival .

            For one thing, Harvest Music Festival, held at Mulberry Mountain, is much smaller than Wakarusa.  Most years it is a very intimate crowd of 8,000 to 10,000 people.  It lacks the crushing throngs of humanity which pervades many of the medium to large music festivals.  You always seem to have plenty of breathing room regardless of where you go.  If you are the kind of person that gets peopled out after while, this is definitely the festival for you.  I short walk from almost anywhere on site will drop you into the middle of the Ozark National Forest with great music echoing through the trees.

            The thing which separates Harvest Music Festival from other is the vibe which resonates through out the event,  Harvest Fest, as many of the participants call it, is the home festival for the bluegrass band, Yonder Mountain String Band.  If you are not familiar with Yonder
Mountain's music, you really should take the time to check them out.  They are a progressive bluegrass band with a wide selection of influences.  This festival, while primarily bluegrass (both traditional and “newgrass”,) attracts an eclectic selection of artists from similar generas.  Last year Beats Antique graced the stage as well as Les Claypool of Primus fame.  One thing is guaranteed: this is not your granddad's bluegrass nor his bluegrass festival...  unless your granddad was a hippy back in the and never outgrew that scene.

            This leads me to my original statement about Harvest Fest: Woodstock of the Ozarks.  There is a very good reason why I describe it this way.  Those old hippies who never outgrew peace, love, and joy...  If you ever wondered what happened to them, chances are you will meet more than a few of them at Harvest
Fest.  A lot of this has to do with how progressive bluegrass evolved.  Many of those folk and rock musicians from the late 60's and early 70's found a new home in a rapidly evolving bluegrass scene which allowed for cross cultural music exchange which generated the newgrass and jam bands which are a staple in most musical festivals these days.  You will see a wide swathe of humanity at Harvest Music Festival.  You will see old hippies with their tie dye and the new hippies with their dreadlocks and brightly died hair dancing hand in hand with hillbillies dressed in garb that would have been in style in Appalachia at the turn of the last century.  One thing is certain, you will see a lot of smiling happy people kicking up their heels, dancing to the heart beat of the hills, rain or shine.   Grab your camping gear and good attitudes and come check it out.  You won't be disappointed.

Sushi Thursday: Satisfying at Samurai Japanese Steakhouse.

This week's sushi outing took me to another place I haven't been before - Samurai Japanese Steakhouse in west Little Rock.  Mind you, I recall about four years ago when it moved into the same long building as Panda Garden (on the other end)
- and I assumed it'd be pricey.  Of course, at that time I wasn't doing as well as I am these days, so anything over the price of Panda Garden's buffet was going to be right out for me.

Being a sushi adventure, Grav and I passed up the chance for a hibachi dinner (which, since it was about 1:15 p.m., would have been weird anyway; there weren't any diners we could spot on that side of the restaurant) for a sushi lunch.  We were given menus and sushi sheets and decided to split a Three Roll Bento and one specialty roll.  Being at Samurai Japanese Steakhouse, the Samurai Roll seemed the obvious choice.

Most of the restaurant is dark, thanks to blinds and recessed windows.  We did get a seat at the brightest corner in the space (we were actually asked "sushi or hibachi?" and this was the sushi section, I'm guessing) and relaxed in a booth with a shiny black-topped table.

I'm guessing the folks at Samurai are used to folks sharing.  Our waitress didn't even bat an eye when I placed the whole order, and she somehow knew to split our starters (the soup to Grav, the salad to me). The miso was lightly cloudy and a hint more salty than what we've experienced at other local restaurants, while the ginger dressing on the salad was particularly creamy, but still pleasant.

The rest of the order all arrived at once.  The Three Roll Bento is just that -- three rolls of choice from the menu (choices include California, Yellowtail, salmon, shrimp, tuna, avocado, shrimp tempura, crunchy crab, eel, cucumber, spicy
salmon, and Alaska rolls).  We had selected a simple tuna roll, shrimp tempura and Alaska rolls.  The simple tuna roll was exactly that -- we noticed the rice wasn't very sticky but it worked all right, and it was very clean and fresh.  The Alaska Roll was filled with crunchy

crab, masago and cucumber, split and half covered in salmon, the other half in avocado.  This was a little unusual for us, but we liked having different choices.

The shrimp tempura roll confused us a little.  I was expecting a simple roll with just shrimp tempura within, but what we received also contained avocado, cucumber and eel sauce and was topped with masago.  There's no description for the shrimp tempura on the sushi menu.

The bento came with two
gyoza (pork dumplings, which Grav seemed to like) and half an orange.  

While the bento was acceptable and satisfying, we both preferred the Samurai roll.  The salmon on top was very fresh and nicely cut, balanced well so the pieces were easy
to maneuver with chopsticks (at least for me).  Packed with a lot of spicy crawfish and some crabmeat as well, it was tightly rolled and topped with the aforementioned salmon and more masago, drizzled with two sauces.  One of those was the typical eel sauce, the other something Grav
mentioned tasted like "kickin' chicken" sauce.  It had a slight barbecue-ish flavor to me, but it worked on this orange-palette roll.  

Samurai Japanese Steakhouse isn't really a standout -- how could it be, with so many other amazing sushi restaurants in town?  But it is steady and the quality is where it should be.  Our lunch came out to $31 before the tip, including our beverages.  Not too bad for a quick lunch.

Samurai Japanese Steakhouse
2604 S. Shackleford Rd, Little Rock, AR 72205
(501) 224-5533

Samurai Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Quick Bite: Victoria's Cafe and Bistro, Rogers.

I spied this little cafe tucked into a row of businesses in downtown Rogers on a Friday night, just a half block from the Rogers Little Theater.  I had been walking, heading down to the park to take in dinner at The Rail, but this small storefront caught my eye and its OPEN neon intrigued me.

Twilight was just starting to fall when I crossed the street and went through the door.  There weren't many people inside, just a couple of full booths and a couple at the bar.  The lady at the bar indicated I could sit where I liked.

The interior was nicely done, a bit eclectic-hipster pop in design, with a painted metal ceiling and a split story back.  I could see what appeared to be a pool table on the upper level, and there was a kitchen at the back out lower.

I asked if they were still serving -- it was about 7:40 on a Friday, and I thought I saw a sign that said they closed at 8 p.m.  I was told sure, they'd still serve me.

For some reason, it took a while to get a menu.  I waited about 10 minutes before I flagged the attention of the barkeep and asked about a menu.  She brought it to me and apologized -- apparently one of the waitpersons had quit the cafe's employ and they were understaffed.

The menu seemed pretty robust -- several burgers, a goodly number of salads and sandwiches and quiche.  My eye was drawn to the quiche, especially to the Sea Side -- a crabmeat and artichoke heart version.  Okay, what the heck.

While I waited for my order, the barkeep brought me tea and water and I caught up on messages that had piled up through my day.  My quiche came out quickly (of course, quiche being what it is, it probably just needed a warm-up).  Along with it was a few red grapes, a single red grape tomato, a roll (mentioned in the menu as Hy-Bread) and a pile of pink coleslaw.

Now, I'd opted for that slaw instead of a green salad (oregano vinaigrette sounded just dreadful, truthfully) and I'm glad I did.  Listed as "California chop salad," this sweet offering was a combination of purple cabbage, carrots, green cabbage, dried fruit and strawberries in what tasted to be a sweet strawberry vinaigrette.  It was very light and a little sour, bright and festive.

The quiche really got my attention, though.  The crabmeat was likely Krab (the crab-flavored product you get to snack on at the grocery store) but it worked in this application, especially with the sharp, tart artichoke hearts.  It was both savory and sweet, yet still fit the desire I'd had for a light meal.

The Hy-Bread roll, though, was something else, moist and pliant with a good substance and heft, served with real butter.  I will have to try these again.

I didn't try the brownies, but oh, they look scrumptious.
I left right at eight on the dot quite satisfied, yet not overweighed by my repast.  I'll have to check Victoria's Cafe Bistro out again next time I'm in Rogers, perhaps to check out some live music at this venue.  It's prominent on the restaurant's Facebook page, which I found later.

You'll find Victoria's Cafe Bistro on Walnut Street in downtown Rogers, a half-block from the Daisy Airgun Museum.  It's open for lunch every day and for dinner Thursday-Saturday.

Victoria's Cafe Bistro
113 W Walnut St
Rogers, Arkansas 72756
(479) 246-0100

Victoria Cafe and Bistro on Urbanspoon