Monday, September 22, 2014

Pasta Week: Spinelli's Italian Steakhouse in Mena.

An unlikely eatery along Arkansas’s western border deserves attention and praise… and a visit when you’re in the area.

This week, while Michael Roberts with Eat Arkansas and the Arkansas Times delves into great Italian food in Central Arkansas, I’ll be looking outside the area for great Arkansas Italian eats. Check back each day here and there to discover more great pasta dishes.

Mena’s a long drive from the heart of the state, whatever way you slice it. An hour and a half from Fort Smith or Hot Springs, two hours from Texarkana and two and a half from Little Rock, it’s not the sort of town you’re just going to dart over to for dinner if you live in the heart of the state. But if you’re closer by, or if you’re planning to vacation in the Ouachitas or take a ride along the Talimena Scenic Byway, it’s a great place to go.

On the northern outskirts of town, you’ll find a charming bungalow of a restaurant, spread out over a lot. There’s a little parking up front and a lot of parking in the back, and inside you’ll find classic Italian dishes served up with good wine, good soups and a generally good attitude.

This is Spinelli’s. Opened the day after the major tornado that tore through downtown Mena in 2009, the eatery provides an oasis from everything else.

Within the house converted into a restaurant are several rooms decorated in Tuscan colors, walls bedecked with local art and, outside the back door, a large patio with pergolas and vines and… well, it’s actually quite lovely.

On this trip, we spent way too much time looking through the menu. A lot of Italian restaurants have these big menus with dozens upon dozens of items, and Spinelli’s is no exception. We debated between Eggplant Rollatini and Chicken Marsala and a host of different items on the Choose Your Own Pasta option (which includes, in case you’re wondering, your choice of angel hair, spaghetti, penne, linguini or whole wheat pasta with marinara, meat sauce, alfredo, vodka cream, garlic and oil, garlic butter, red pepper cream, butter garlic and lemon sauces), $6.95 for lunch or $8.95 for dinner with a choice of add-ins (meatballs, shrimp, chicken, broccoli, Italian sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers, tomatoes or mixed vegetables) for an additional cost.

Instead, once we saw the seafood platter, we had to go for it. We were warned, though, that a full order of any of the pastas on the menu were going to be large enough to not need an appetizer (an odd suggestion from a waitress, but we took it to heart). She also suggested a compromise – why not split our dinner?

You know, it’s really not normal for a business to suggest you spend less money. I’m all about that.

So we got the Seafood Sampler, a platter of fried calamari, coconut shrimp and crab cakes. It was served with a butter sauce and marinara sauce, and it was obviously handbattered and created right there. The calamari were gnarly and colorful with such a light breadcrumb breading, the coconut shrimp a little sweet and tangy. But the crab cakes were especially fantastic – with just a hint of breadcrumbs and filler and lots of pulled lump crab meat, a bit buttery and a little lemony.

We also opted for soup rather than salad on this venture, and were rewarded with a thick, rich creamy mushroom bisque, the soup of the day, and a hearty and lightly spicy minestrone. While the bisque was a bit thicker than it needed to be, the minestrone was absolutely delightful, with lots of vegetables and shell noodles within.

We also shared the Chicken Fra Diavola, which unlike many of the other varieties we’ve experienced across the state, was more of a spicy Alfredo dish than a spicy marinara pastiche. No worries. The hot roasted chicken sliced atop the thickly cut noodles and their equally thick sauce were a nice combination.

We failed to save room for desserts, though we were told that the cannelloni cannot be beat. Next time we’re in town, we’ll give it another shot.

Spinelli’s may not be a high-end palace like many of our capital city’s lush Italianate eateries, but it is steady and the price point is very reasonable. With Queen Wilhelmina State Park’s new lodge expected to open next spring, you’ll want to make a note.

Of course, my suggestion is to make it a destination along your foliage-seeking drives in the coming months. Every path to get to Mena takes you through lush forests, and Spinelli’s seems to be the sort of place to reach on such journeys.

Don’t discount the rest of the menu. Though we didn’t get to the steaks, salads or seafood also offered on the menu, they’re worth exploring.

Spinelli’s Italian Steakhouse
1411 Highway 71 North
Mena, AR 71953
(479) 394-3737

Spinelli's Italian Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 19, 2014

Conceptions People Have About Arkansas That Are Wrong.

This is Arkansas.
I tend to get up in arms about things that the average human being considers trivial. And sure, there’s adequate support for not being concerned about our state’s chosen native dessert, or the location of the most incredible Arkansas doughnuts, or why someone got our most prolific and representative chain restaurants wrong.

Still, what’s a blog for but to celebrate the trivial and entertain the masses?

This is also Arkansas.
Recently, the real estate website Movoto – which, as far as I’ve been able to tell, doesn’t really have any other reason for posting these lists about Arkansas than to drive people to its site to purchase homes – created a new piece of junk called “10 Signs You’ve Lived in Arkansas 
This too is Arkansas.
Too Long.” Now, other than not being a really good motivator for individuals considering The Natural State to find a home (what are you doing, Movoto? You’re drunk, go home), it’s actually a pretty offensive piece of sputum that doesn’t deserve the wide dispersal it’s received across the Internet. In fact, it saddens me that such a purulent article has found its way to postings on many of my friends’ social media pages. Alas.

Yes, Frank Bonner's from
Arkansas.  No, we don't
dress like that.
So, Movoto, since you obviously dredged your information about Arkansas from ancient Southwestern Conference football program flyers, old Herb Tarlick suits and classic episodes of both the Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, here’s some education for you.

A Southern Arkansas Mulerider (courtesy
1. We did not all grow up, and do not all now speak, what you call “Hog Speak.” Nay, though many of us native to this state have rooted for the Arkansas Razorbacks, represented by that fine porcine beast, Arkansas also celebrates its other great schools and their mascots, including the Red Wolves, Trojans, Muleriders, Golden Lions, Boll Weevils and Cotton Blossoms, Wonderboys and Golden Suns, Bears, Reddies, Bison, Warriors and all the rest. Herb Tarlek may have carried around an Arkansas Razorback mug on WKRP, but his attire and attitude weren’t indicative of all of us.

Yes, there are many, many Razorback fans. But this “hog speak” is not practiced in schools by our children, nor is it common to just walk up to someone and ask them to call the Hogs. There’s a time and a place: in a football stadium, for instance. At a pep rally. In a bar full of sports fans, even. I hardly think you’ll hear “woo pig sooie” hollered in a communion or a movie theater. Hasn’t happened in the ones I’ve been to.

2. The Arkansas Delta tamale is not Mexican food. Honestly, bring a tamale from Mexico and serve it alongside one of the moist, fat-soaked tubular miracles from Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales or the hearty, beef-rich smooth and juicy packages from Pasquale’s Tamales. Heck, even alongside one of Lackey’s Tamales from Smokehouse Barbecue or a stack of golden marvels from Tamale Factory… they are as similar as Indian fry bread and Taco Bell.

Nay, immigrants and ethnic influences have elevated Arkansas’s Delta pride from a mere masa-cased meat-filled corn husk empanada to a sustaining, irresistible meal staple that, alongside duck and rice, marks the trinity of all that is holy in Delta foodstuffs. This writer apparently never journeyed west of the Mississippi into an endless plain broken by Crowley’s Ridge’s majesty, where roads run straight and sunsets last eternities. Better go learn about the history of the Arkansas Delta tamale before making such aimless assumptions.

3. Movoto’s writer decided to poke fun at the strong religious roots of many Arkansas families by posting this beauty:

The sign in question, by the way, stands hundreds of miles from our state’s borders. It’s actually located on I-65 in Alabama, between Birmingham and Montgomery. Way to check your facts there, Movoto (thanks, David!).

That's it. (Courtesy Shelli Russell)
There are signs encouraging church attendance, sure, but none of this sort. In particular, there is a longstanding sign in Benton that was once in a roadside field, now surrounded by homes and businesses, that simply states “WARNING: PREPARE TO MEET GOD.” Whether this sign was posted to welcome you to the Saline County burg or to inform you that God has made residence in the city, is open for interpretation.

The text that accompanies the photo, however, is equally as misleading. “You have lived here so long, that you hardly notice how, after just meeting someone, the first question they ask is your name and the second is what church you attend. It’s come to be expected,” the weblog says. Both are incorrect. Usually in a social setting, the first question is “do you require sustenance?” or, in some local vernaculars, “y’eet yet?”

4. The idea that randon gunshots have ceased to make natives flinch is misleading. There are times to flinch at gunshots, particularly when in the city or on a date. Certainly, the seasoned hunter waiting patiently in a tree stand for deer or sitting quietly in a duck blind fails to flinch when the first round goes off. But we aren’t so desensitized to hearing firearms as to dismiss them lightly.

Also, what is that, a pop gun? You can get a really good air rifle in Rogers at Daisy.

The insinuation that “most Arkansans own a gun or two, and sometimes they like to shoot at random things throughout the day” is incendiary, and is like to get you shot. Not all of us are big on firearms use. For instance, longswords and crossbows are the weapons of choice in my household.

5. While the term “coke” is regionally used to describe soft drinks, individuals in Arkansas are certainly smart enough to know that Coca-Cola is a proprietary brand name, and that Cokes aren’t made in flavors such as Pepsi, Monster and Minute Maid. In fact, while cola is consumed broadly throughout the state, we also celebrate the creation of fruit-inspired carbonated beverages Grapette and Orangette, developed by one Benjamin Tyndal Fooks in 1939. His multiple flavors also included Lemonette, Sunburst and Mr. Cola, and his sodas are the flavors generations of Arkansawyers savored in their youth. Grapette was so beloved by one man, Sam Walton, that the original recipe and name were obtained by Walmart and today you can find both it and Orangette on the shelves of the world’s largest retailer.

But as far as referring to those sweet carbonated beverages as “cokes,” you’ll find, is just as prevalent in Atlanta and New Orleans as it is here.

These states require purple paint tree posting.  Arkansas
allows for POSTED signs.
6. While purple paint is used to denote hunting lands in six states, in Arkansas it is more common to see the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s regulation that clearly states “Signs may be placed not more than 100 feet apart and at each road entrance. The signs shall bear the words “POSTED” and/or “NO TRESPASSING” in letters at least 4 inches tall. Signs shall be readily visible to a person approaching the property.” Many of these signs will bear the name of the hunting club or family that owns the land. To hunt in these areas, you need written permission – unless you are related to the landowner, in which verbal agreement will suffice.

Growing up and visiting relations in southwest Arkansas, it was not uncommon to see where properties met, a series of different colored paint blocks. These were usually white, yellow, blue, pink, or whatever color paint the landowner had left over after some project. Purple was unusual.

7. Very few individuals keep Dramamine, and it’s unlikely you’ll just “end up” on the Pig Trail. Arkansas Highway 23 is one of many extraordinary, gorgeous drives in western Arkansas, and during fall it’s knock-out magnificent. But happening upon it by chance and still choosing to drive it would be the driver’s decision. And anyone who’d usually choose to drive the stretch from Ozark to near Fayetteville would probably be used to its hairpins and curves.

Any of you remember climbing the tower at Mount Gayler
along US Highway 71?
Most people take I-49 up from Alma to Fayetteville these days for Razorback games. Its sweeping stretches provide grand views of valleys below, and there’s a tunnel (the only one in Arkansas), and the speed limit is 70 miles an hour. Those choosing a slower route usually opt for the Boston Mountain Loop of old US Highway 71, which once was crowded and sometimes dangerous but which now offers magnificent views, quaint shops and access to Lake Fort Smith State Park, a jewel itself.

Hunter loves the snow.  Taken in January.
Or June.  Or sometime in the past five years.
8. The idea that Arkansas is any more weatherprone than any other state in the nation is problematic. Sure, we have tornadoes, hot spells, cold spells, the occasional ice storm, infrequent cycles of cicadas and the potential to one day have an earthquake – but we aren’t bothered by hurricanes, volcanoes, blizzards, tsunamis, sandstorms, glacial shifts or swarms of bees. What we do have, we prepare for as best we can.

While living here means you might encounter an ice storm, a flood and a tornado in the span of a week and a half, it also means you get to experience all four seasons in their fullest splendor. And if you’ve ever experienced a gorgeous Arkansas October, you’d understand that.

Know why it's called a tourist trap? It
traps the tourists. Those would be folks from
not around here.
9. Of course we know about Booger Hollow. Every person who watched TV during the 1992 presidential election cycle knows about Booger Hollow. It’s a shame property ownership issues kept it closed after the 2006 season. But we also have the Little Rock River Market District, Hot Springs Bathhoue Row and – oh, yeah, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Focusing on one two-story bathhouse is just another attempt to paint us as a bunch of hicks.

10. The last point in this piece is the only thing you really got right.
Arkansas folks are friendly. We still talk to strangers, and we still try to help one another out. If that makes us uncivilized, well, your definition of uncivilized is different from mine. And if it’s a sign that we’ve been in Arkansas too long, then by golly, seems like a good idea to just stay put. When your writer decides to come visit and actually see what Arkansas is like, we’ll welcome her, too.
And this is also Arkansas.

Oh, and one more thing. Arkie – or Arky – can be considered a condescending term. Mind your manners when you get here, and keep language like that under wraps.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sushi Thursday: Gold Town Korean BBQ.

Good sushi isn't limited to Central Arkansas.  The northwest part of the state has a surprisingly strong sushi-loving community, and there are several great places to get fresh fish and rice throughout the I-49 corridor.

Of these, Gold Town Korean BBQ in Bentonville is my favorite.  Tucked into the back corner of an unassuming strip mall at SE 14th and J Streets, it doesn't look like much.  There's also the whole term Korean.  Don't worry about it.  You're going to like it.

There are lots of options, including a fantastic bulgogi and bi bim bap, but if you're going for sushi, go for lunch.  The Sushi Lunch special is $10..95, and it's five pieces of nigiri plus your
choice of one of ten rolls --
California, Crab Stick, Tuna, White Tuna, Salmon, Red Snapper, Vegetable, Spicy Crab, Spicy Tuna and Philadelphia -- and it comes with miso.  For a quick lunch, it's nicely priced and quick.

Other possibilities include a Sashimi Lunch and a Roll Combo -- or you can go for the Sushi Special for $8.50 -- which is two rolls from the list above.

We liked the freshness of our rolls.  However, we were a little confused on our first visit.  You order at the front, pay, and then find your seat -- more like a dairy bar than a sit-down restaurant, really.  We were also each given a tiny pajeon upon sitting, a little pancake with zucchini and scallions, a pleasant little surprise.

Our favorite dish from our visits has to be the jalapeno bombs -- fresh jalapenos seeded and stuffed with cream cheese, raw tuna and roe, battered and deep fried, drizzled with hoisin sauce and Japanese mayo and sprinkled with a little green onion.  Amazing.

Gold Town Korean BBQ has an extensive menu, and if we lived closer, we'd probably spend a lot more time in its dark interior.  Give it a shot when you're in Bentonville.  And check out the extensive menu before you go.

Gold Town Korean BBQ
1100 SE 14th Street
 Bentonville, AR 72712
(479) 172-1000

Gold Town Sushi & Korean BBQ on Urbanspoon

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.