Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Classy Time on the Mountain.

I’ve talked before about the legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller atop Petit Jean Mountain.  It’s an amazing campus and you should go if you get the chance.

This week I was invited, along with several other Arkansas Women Bloggers, to attend a special class by Chef Robert Hall in the cooking classroom inside the River Rock Grill.  I’ve been meaning to get back to take such a class as part of the Saturday Chefs Series for a long time now, but Saturdays tend to be my busiest day.

We all arrived around noon to sit down and watch the construction of a five course lunch by Chef Hall, which we got to try.  Better than that, it was all gluten free.

Why’s that important?  Well, there’s been a pretty significant rise in the number of folks diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease these past few years… and there are more folks who are choosing to go wheat free.  I’m not one of them, but I am often asked about restaurants where folks can dine without the fear of wheat products and the problems they may bring.

Better than that, Chef Hall was going to make a meal featuring food right from the Heritage Farm on the campus -- fresh peaches from the orchard, fresh fruit and best of all, fresh tomatoes.

Some of those tomatoes went into the first course, the appetizer course, in the form of fried green tomatoes.  Now, you may be wondering how in the world you’d be able to get around using wheat products (ie, flour) when making the little golden delight.  Well, here ya go.  Chef Hall gets around that by using polenta.  Another option?  Grits.

Seriously.  Now, mind you, I thought he was going to use some War Eagle Mill products, since Doug from War Eagle was there… but I think it didn’t occur to the chef.  Instead, he used Red Mill polenta, which you can find in just about any store around here.  Next time he knows he can use stuff produced locally and organically right here in Arkansas.

The tomatoes were big Early Girl tomatoes from the Heritage Farm gardens.  They were sliced about a quarter inch thick.  Chef Hall used a two step process to batter the tomatoes.  First he dropped them into a bath of buttermilk then into the polenta, to which had been added thyme, granulated garlic and onion, paprika, ground chipotle pepper and a little cayenne pepper.  From there the slices went into the hot vegetable oil in a wide skillet.

It only took a few minutes to cook each tomato slice -- about two minutes total.  They were then removed to a paper-lined tray to dry.

While they were draining, Chef Hall made up a spicy remoulade sauce in the food processor from mayonnaise, Creole mustard, garlic, yellow Spanish onion, red and green bell pepper, cajun seasoning blend and a little celery. 

It didn’t take long at all to create a creamy pinkish sauce.

He set out one tomato slice on each of about 20 plates, topping each one deftly with remoulade and with a smattering of red and green bell peppers, quite fetching to look at.

But how did it taste?  My first thought was how crunchy that polenta was!  The frying process had made it crunchy but not hard, a nice contrast to the soft of the sauce and the slight give of the tart tomato slices.  It held on decently well, too -- which surprised me, since I’ve had a fairly hard time of having a coating hang to fried green tomatoes without that first dusting of flour.

Chef Hall went on to the second course -- an almost ridiculously simple but still quite tasty fruit-filled green salad.  While assembling it, he went through a bit about himself.

Robert Hall grew up in Searcy and went to school at UCA.  He served during the Iraq War -- here in the States, where he worked as a military paralegal.  He spent a couple of years at Sundance.  He returned to Arkansas when his dad passed away so he could be close enough to help his mom.  While at UCA, he was one of the lucky chefs who was assigned to go to the 2008 Olympics in China and serve on a culinary team there.  The U of A picked him up to work at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute recently.

The salad was a nice conglomeration of things -- mescaline greens that had been dried, carrot slices, blueberries (strawberries are also a good choice when they are in season), black walnuts that had been sautéed in butter and sprinkled with sugar while they were still hot, and a raspberry vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar, raspberries, dry mustard and black pepper.  It was refreshing and light.

Chef Hall had already prepared the third course -- a peaches and cream soup that was extraordinarily elegant.  He had taken about a dozen peaches, peeled and pitted them and placed them in a pot, just barely covered them with Chardonnay and then left them to simmer until they had all but dissolved and reduced.  He then added cream and blended them with an immersion blender into a somewhat smooth soup that still bore great bits of peach puree.  He did point out that for folks who didn’t need or want the alcohol, the same thing could be done with water -- and to not strain the soup.

Thing is, I liked it with the Chardonnay.  It had a different flavor.  The wine added lovely elegant notes to the dish that made it taste like a four star experience.

Chef Hall also noted that if you wanted to, you could make the soup with water instead of wine and use it to make freezer pops.  I’ll have to keep that in mind.

I also have to say, wow.  Arkansas peaches are just divine this year, so potent and rich and sweet.  It’s been a good year for them.

He started on the fourth course, our entrée for the afternoon, Steak au Poivre with Arkansas Succotash.  To start with, he started some Petit Jean Meats brand bacon cooking in one pan -- extolling the extraordinary virtues of our locally produced smoked pork.  For myself and another blogger who is a vegetarian, he started a separate pan with olive oil.  These pans were for the succotash and rice dish he was going to make for the steak.

Why was it Arkansas succotash?  Because instead of lima beans, Chef Hall used PurpleHull peas.  Awesome.

He first added some cooked Rainbow Grain rice mix from Whole Foods.  This blend contains wehani, white and wild rices.  He cooked them with butter, garlic and cream for extra goodness.

He also took a portabella mushroom cap and rubbed it real well with olive oil -- to cook up for our one vegetarian in the crowd.  That was awesome.

Chef Hall got the rice going in both pans, then added the vegetation for the succotash -- fresh grape tomatoes from the Heritage Farm, PurpleHull peas that had already been boiled til almost done and corn cut straight off the cob.

With all those ingredients heating through and cooking, Chef Hall turned his attention to the steaks, beautiful little filets from beef tenderloin, seasoned with salt and a pepper melange -- a LOT of pepper.  After all, Steak Au Poivre is by its French name Pepper Steak.

He steamed that portabella with cognac, by the way.  Just in case you’re keeping notes.

While everything was cooking, Chef Hall told us that if we decided to tackle a whole beef tenderloin on our own, we should keep the silverskin and trimmings from said meat.  Cooked slowly over three days with carrots, celery, onion, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper, it reduced into a magnificent beef stock.

He took some of that beef stock along with butter and cognac to create the peppery butter sauce for the dish, stirring constantly as the butter dissolved in the heat to keep it from scorching or the sauce from breaking.  This took several minutes.

And then it was time for assembly.  Each plate was dolloped with the succotash rice, then the beef placed on top and the sauce spooned over the top.  A cheddar cracker was added to each plate.  It was elegant and delicious.

The filets, which had been seared and then cooked at 350 degrees until reaching medium rare in the oven, were pot roast soft and could be pulled apart with a fork.  We ate with butter knives.  They were more than adequate to the task.

I have to admit, I was already getting full.  We peppered the chef with questions as he got started on the final course of our repast -- a flourless chocolate cake.  No, really!

He told us he used just nine eggs, a cup of sugar and a pound of semi-sweet chocolate to make each of these fine cakes.  He baked them in advance so they’d be ready and cooled before we arrived.  To bake said cakes, it’s just a matter of cooking them at the default temperature of 350 degrees until a toothpick comes out clean.  Sounds so easy!  The eggs are what give it the lift to be a fluffy cake and not a sodden, chocolate pool of messiness.

While we finished our steaks, Chef Hall made whipped cream.  He started with the cream itself, allowing the 2 cups of heavy cream to start forming the barest of peaks before adding a quarter cup of sugar and a tablespoon of vanilla to the mix.

“Whatever the recipe says to add of a spice, double it.  You know how when you go to a restaurant the flavor of the food seems more robust, more vibrant?  The chef just made the flavor stronger by adding twice as much,” Chef Hall told us.  That’s something I’m going to keep in mind from now on.

He also cautioned us not to beat our cream too much -- else it might become butter.  Good advice.  I’ve made that mistake before.

Then there was the raspberry couli… Chef Hall made his with two pints of fresh raspberries, about a quarter cup of Chardonnay and a half cup of sugar.  The couli was very similar in production to the peach soup -- the raspberries and the wine sautéed together until everything was soft, and then blended together with the sugar.

In the end, the last course was all about assembly.  The chef spooned a little raspberry couli onto each plate.  Hecarefully cut the cake, slid out a 12th of each cake into a pretty chocolate wedge onto each plate, then dolloped each with some of the freshly whipped cream.  To that he added a couple of raspberries and served it forth.  That was it.

And the cake was remarkably good.  It was clean, yet had nice dark chocolate notes I adored.  Chef Hall says he uses semi-sweet in this recipe because using bittersweet would be just too much, and I totally get that.

We talked for a little bit about the upcoming chefs in the Saturday Chefs Series, then us bloggers were lead over to a theater where we saw a great seven minute film on the life of Winthrop Rockefeller.  We went from there out to the Heritage Farm, where we toured and reviewed some of the great producce growing out there.  I have a slideshow on Facebook; you should go take a look.

So, here’s the thing.  I still want to go back and experience the Saturday Chef Series myself.  And you will, too.  It’s more than just a cooking class -- it’s an opportunity to attempt, taste and take home new dishes to your family.  The cost is $95 a person -- for that, you’re in class for five hours, you get to make several dishes -- and if you bring your own containers, you get to take home some with you too.  That’s a big bonus for folks who will be wiped out after such an intensive course and won’t want to make dinner for the family.  I can applaud that.

There’s also a deal where you can pay $50 more and stay at the Institute overnight in a double-occupancy room.  I’m thinking that’s the way to go.  Seriously!

If you’re interested, give the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute a call at (501) 727-5435 or check out the website.  I think it’d be a heck of a way to spend a weekend!

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Family Affair and Bait Shop.

Tim and Tammy Partin run the 101 Grocery and Bait Shop in Gamaliel.  They get up early every morning and work every night to provide drinks, grocery items, bait and pizza to the folks who live nearby.

They’re not from around here.  The Partins are from Fort Wayne, IN.  Tammy was an accountant, Tim was a garbage collector.  They came down here on vacation a while back and tried out the fishing at Lake Norfork and fell in love. 

They met Frank Schubert, the former owner of the 101 -- a Chicagoan who’d purchased the place from its previous owners nearly six years before.  When he decided to move on six years ago, he sold the place to the Partin family and it’s been theirs ever since.

Their son Travis was 15 and their daughter Tracie was 11 when they made the move.  Travis now works at Ranger Boats over in Flippin while Tracie is still in high school.

“But they help us out.  There’s always one of us here,” Tim told me.  “We just live out back of here so that makes it easy.”

The Partins loves to fish and hunt, and they see a lot of different sorts of game and fish come through their store.  Tim has a box of photos he and Tammy have taken of folks who have been through.  Every sort of fish -- walleye, trout, crappie, bass, striper, you name it -- are in those photos, along with people showing off their trophy deer, turkey and boar. 

The grocery itself started in 1947, a tiny building that now comprises the center of the long facility.  The bait shop on the north end used to be an ice house; the pizza station on the south end used to be an ice cream stand.  Between those ends you can find everything from soda to soup to sandwich makings, household items and novelty gags. 

The Partins have a real sense of humor.  It’s reflected on the sign out front, which advertises “Naked Minnows.”

Tammy didn’t miss a beat when I asked.  “Our minnows have no clothes on.”

They offer lots of things to folks passing by -- maps of the lakes, guide referrals for those who need them.  They can pick up the phone and get you a place to stay and they know where to send you for dinner if you had a rough day on the water.

The store never closes for the holidays.  “We’re here every day, five in the morning to ten at night, even on Christmas,” Tim told me.  “We never take vacations, because we’re always on vacation here.”

101 Grocery and Bait
3287 Highway 101
Gamaliel, AR 72537
(866) 746-5596

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Salem Dairy Bar near Benton.

When I was a little girl, I recall going out to get burgers was a big deal. My mom and I would head over to the north end of Geyer Springs and get burgers at Green’s Drive-In. I’d go up to the window while Mom sat in the car working on bills or reading through the day’s mail. I’d place our order and go back and sit in the car. When the burgers were ready one of the folks inside would roll back the window and holler for us to come pick up the order. I also adored Green’s dipped cones.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

California in the Ozarks.

Raimondo Winery may be small, but its Sicilian-come-California vintages are making an impact here in Arkansas.

You’ve heard of many of the bigger wineries in Arkansas. But did you know there’s one in the middle of north central Arkansas? It’s tucked away in Gamaliel at the Blue Lady Resort.

That’s where Margie Roelands is continuing a family tradition. She’s a third generation winemaker, and she’s using her family’s California-grown grapes to create amazing wines in the Ozarks.

Roelands’ grandfather, Marty Raimondo, moved from Palermo, Sicily to California in the sixties. Since he was the person in the family who knew how to make wines, the family immediately gave him those responsibilities, and Marty made his wines from grapes found there in California -- Mission and Zinfandel grapes, the closest he could find to what was used in Sicily. The family wines were marketed under the name “Grandpa and Grandma Raymondo’s Family Wine.”

Roeland’s uncle Tony Raimondo went back to Sicily in the ‘80s, learned the true spelling of the family name and found the family crest -- both of which were introduced in 1988’s crop of wines.

Margie, along with Tony’s daughter Lisa Garcia, started learning the business in the 2000s -- though Margie will tell you wine’s been part of her world her entire life. That being said, she had worked her way up the ranks in the corporate world. Yeah, might seem strange, but Margie was the marketing guru for the Adobe Reader. That’s something else.

She and Lisa took classes at UC-Davis and in Napa Valley, and by 2005 they had both made their first barrels of wine.

So how did Margie end up here in Arkansas? Well, back in 2005 she and her husband Brian came to our state for a vacation on Norfork Lake. They fell in love, and when they discovered Blue Lady Resort was up for sale they jumped for a chance to own their own Arkansas resort… and eventually, wine cellar.

Margie’s still using the family grapes to make her wines. She goes back to California and chooses the specific grapes, then they’re shipped here to be produced and bottled here. 18 wines are on the list right now. They’re all considered California wines, and they all have quite distinctive identities. Margie’s wines are mostly dry or semi-dry; the Moscato Secco is in my opinion a romantically expressive beauty, though I do believe my favorite is the effervescent Grand Cuvee Brut.

She’s been hoping to utilize Arkansas fruit in her wines, and it looks like that will happen this year. It’s a different sort of business model from what you’ll find at the state’s other wineries, but it works for the Roelands.

One more thing Margie has going for her -- and that’s the oils and vinegars her wine cellar also produces. The oils are pressed with a variety of different herbs and spices to create incredibly rich flavors. The balsamic vinegars are similarly spiced but piquant and sharp with their own amazing blend of flavors. Margie offers a wine, oil and vinegar tasting that’s just marvelous, worth the drive to Gamaliel to try them all out.

Raimondo Winery * 149 County Road 820 * Gamaliel, AR * (870) 467-5115 *

Friday, July 22, 2011

Best View on the White River.

“It was hard to visualize.  We came out here on a path all the way out to the edge and you could sort of see it.  But as the trees came down you could see more of it, and it was just breathtaking.”

Tina Watson is referring to the view from her back porch at the White River Inn Luxury Bed and Breakfast Lodge.  Situated some 300 feet above the river, this Frank Lloyd Wright inspired lodge is a comfortable home away from home for visitors.

The lodge, built from coastal Western Red Cedar,  sits on the very edge of a hill near Cotter.  Getting there is interesting -- you leave Denton Ferry Road, which is paved, and take a long, curvy, winding gravel road up to the front door.  But once you get there, you are in the lap of luxury.

“There are a lot of places to stay up here, but they’re rustic.  There’s not a whole lot of places like this up here,” Tina told me when we took the tour.

The front door opens to the Great Room and its magnificent view of the sky on the other side of the lodge.  Great beams of Douglas Fir stretch overhead.  A mountain lion overlooks the leather furniture.

Straight out the back door you’ll find the most magnificent view of the White
River valley.  The back patio overlooks several of the river’s bends.  You can almost see all the way to the Bull Shoals Dam.

The White River Inn’s five guest suites are decked out in Mission furniture with high-end linens.  Whirlpool baths and separate showers are available in each room.  There’s a Jacuzzi on the back deck and several common areas in which to mingle.

Throughout the property, there are animals -- fish, deer and exotic wild animals that Moose Watson managed to take over the decades on hunting expeditions overseas.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive trophy set anywhere.

There are animals outside, too.  A deer feeder draws does and bucks in close to the lodge for viewing, and American Bald Eagles are often spotted from the deck and the wide windows.

White River Inn
924 County Road 174
Cotter, AR 72626
(870) 430-2233

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Bridge That Shouldn't Have Been Built.

The Cotter Bridge has become one of the most famous sights in the Arkansas Ozarks, spanning the White River with beautiful rainbow arches.  But if a county judge hadn’t taken action, it might not have been built.

The Cotter Bridge across the White River is a stunning, beautiful affair, a Rainbow Arch bridge with five arches and an aqueduct that takes Highway 62’s business route high across the river at a point historically known for flooding. 

However, if it wasn’t for a county judge’s actions, the dang thing might never have been built.

A little history for you.  Used to be, the only way to cross the river around those parts was by ferry.  However, the White River was a pretty untamed beast.  It tended to flood often, making ferry travel unviable.  To get over, you had to head 100 miles north up to Branson to make the crossing.  That just wasn’t going to do.

Now, back in 1905, the town of Cotter was incorporated, some 1400 lots created and sold by the Red Bud Realty Corporation.  The Missouri Pacific Railroad put a rail bridge across at that point (previously known as Lake’s Ferry) and railroad employees began filling up the town. I suppose technically folks could cross the river on the rail bridge -- but it wasn’t a really feasible way of doing things, right?

Folks wanted a bridge.  There was no denying that.  Dr. J Morrow and the Honorable J.C. Floyd introduced a measure back in 1912 to secure a bridge across the river at Cotter… but there just weren’t funds to get it going.

Money was always going to be a point of contention, it seems.

Took until 1926 for anything to really start happening as far as bridge-building goes.  That’s when two private companies came forward and proposed to build between them three toll bridges to cross the White River in the area.  They bought out three of the ferries where those bridges were going to be put.  That went over like a ton of bricks.  Arkansawyers by our very nature have a low opinion of toll roads, bridges and the like.  We just don’t have them around these parts.  It’s not just how we feel today -- it’s how we felt back then.  Want proof?  Here’s part of an editorial that appeared in the Cotter Record on February 11th, 1927:
“No truer statement was ever made than that ‘Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty,’  and its truth is brought home forcibly to the people of Baxter and Marion counties by the attempted grab of toll bridge franchises at Denton ferry on White river and the ferries on North Fork.  The construction of such bridges by private individuals, companies or corporations would in effect erect a wall about Baxter and Marion counties to the serious injury of North Arkansas, the state as a whole and the country at large… a toll bridge at best is not desirable, and under such a sweeping unlimited franchise… is a positive menace, a crime… Black river is cursed with such a bridge and efforts are being made to do away with the nuisance.”

So, how’d that end up?  Turns out, there was no need to go after those companies anyway, thanks to a ruling by Congress in January 1928 that upheld the Highway Commission’s contention that it, not county courts or anyone else, had the authority to build toll bridges -- as long as those bridges were made free bridges once the cost of building them had been paid off.

What does this have to do with a county judge or the bridge itself?  Hang in there, I’m getting to the point.

Before that official ruling, the state Highway Department had obtained federal government approval to build nine toll bridges in Arkansas.  County Judge R. M. Ruthven wanted Cotter to be on that list of proposed sites.  Problem was, there wasn’t enough traffic to make that bridge feasible.  Indeed -- a feasibility study including a traffic count was a requirement for each and every site before they could be approved.  That study on Cotter was done in June 1928, and it came back that no, there wasn’t enough traffic to justify a bridge there.

Judge Ruthven went down to Little Rock and was present when the Highway Commission was to review the reports.  Somehow, the report on Cotter disappeared out of that stack of studies.  The Commission figured it must have been an oversight, approved all the studies and commissioned the bridges.

Ruthven allegedly took that report back home with him to Cotter.  He mailed it to the Highway Commission since it was the right thing to do… twenty years later.

Sly, eh?

So… after the U.S. Senate passed a bill granting the Highway Commission to issue bonds and construct and operate a toll bridge over the White River --

Hey, wait a minute.  A toll bridge?  Seriously?

Yes, a toll bridge.  Seems that while private companies couldn’t get away with doing it on a state highway, the state could.  Well, there you go.

May of 1929, Frank Marsh of the Marsh Engineering Company in Des Moines, IA came down and surveyed and measured where the bridge would go.  Two months later plans were approved.  Bids were submitted, one accepted, all rejected when the plans were changed and the submission process started all over again.  Still, by October of that year the Bateman Contracting Company out of Nashville already had workers on site.  By November the materials to build the bridge were coming in and locals were being hired to help construct it, and by December piers were being set in the river. 

The White River, which had been so unruly over the past several years, cooperated for once, not flooding or arguing with the men so steadily working on the bridge from a cableway above.  Folks had expected the weather and the water to be uncooperative and had planned for down days.  Instead, the bridge was completed on November 1, 1930, six months ahead of schedule.  It was dedicated on the 11th of that month.  Between three and four thousand people turned out for the party.  It was a heck of a celebration.

But while Baxter and Marion County residents were glad they finally had a bridge, they didn’t want to use it -- not and have to pay a toll.  Though Baxter County refused to renew the license of Joe McCracken, the Cotter ferry operator -- Marion County granted him one, and he kept running it.  And people kept using it. 

The bridge wasn’t getting paid for and the state didn’t like that.  So how did the problem get fixed?  Easy.  In July 1931 the state gave McCracken $250 to not only stop ferrying people but to destroy the ferry.  Instantly there was an upswing in people using that bridge!

So, there you go.  The Cotter Bridge was officially renamed the R. M. Ruthven Bridge in December 1976, though few call it that.  It was dedicated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in October 1986. 

A decade ago, a new bridge was opened north of Cotter… a four lane plain Jane featureless bridge that carries four lanes of US 62/412 across the White River.  Originally the Cotter Bridge was going to be replaced, but there was an outcry to save this landmark of the Ozark landscape and it was saved.  It was renovated and reopened in 2004, outfitted with new lights to shine at night.  It’s still a regal beauty, and if you’re in the area you might want to go check it out.

To get there from the west, you’ll take a right off US Highway 62/412 just east of Flippin.  From the east, it’s a left-hand turn onto US 62B right before you get to the White River, right on the west side of Gassville.  There’s a lookout point on the Gassville side where you can see both the Cotter Bridge and the MoPac Railroad Bridge next to it.  Take your camera.

This piece appears in the July/August edition of Arkansas Wild.  Grav Weldon's photographs of the Cotter Bridge and Cotter Rail Bridge are available for sale; contact the photographer for more information.