Friday, February 28, 2014
There's been a restaurant in that spot on Capitol Avenue for decades... though apparently at one point it housed a car dealership. It's been owned by several different people -- the ones that own it now have owned it for eight years, and they're still serving up one of the best understated and affordable lunches in the downtown area.
Me? I walked in hungry and when I was asked if I wanted one of the big burgers from the back, I was all about that.
You'll find Dave and Ray's Downtown Diner at 824 W Capitol in downtown Little Rock. Call (501) 372-8816 -- or better yet, check out the Facebook page.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
|This batch of chili started with the peppers -- remaindered|
peppers after a snowstorm. The green ones were a little
leathery, but they'd be perfect for this.
|When I roast peppers, I use what's readily available in flame.|
I have a real preference for gas. And before I started, I
scoured both cooktop and grills. Still, you should be
prepared for ashen mess. Roasting peppers is not neat.
|I love the turn of the peppers over the flame. You do need a|
little char to get them going for the next step.
|Roasting the onions isn't part of my normal recipe, but after|
slicing into this smooth rounded inner ring, I wanted to
put it to fire for the caramelization.
|There is a pop you'll hear some-|
times, as the peppers expand with
the heat of flame. They never
explode, they just pop and sigh
like what you might hear from a
|My kitchen isn't fancy, and it's usually cluttered. I also tend|
to cook in low light -- it's more intimate, and my cooking
surface is well lit.
|You'll know the pepper has been fully roasted when the parts|
that aren't charred become lighter and leathery. I have
tongs to manipulate the peppers over the burners.
|Once the onions all became golden and translucent, I added|
in the beef. This big thick pot will cook the beef through.
Yes, that means the onions continue to cook in beef grease.
That doesn't worry me.
|The roasted peppers. That black piece is|
burnt pepper skin.
|This time around, with the five pounds of ground beef in|
the pot, I started adding in the cumin. We're not talking a
teaspoon here. We're talking four or five tablespoons.
Also, black and white pepper.
|So, how do you peel a roasted pepper?|
Cold water. Rub that scorched skin
|There's something so naked about the sensation of a freshly|
roasted pepper in your hands, the pliancy to it. For each
pepper, I rubbed off the skin, twisted the cap and pulled
out the seeds.
|The result? Juicy wet peppers on my cutting board.|
|To cut slimy denuded roasted peppers -- first tear open one|
side, flatten and remove the white bits. This takes away the
bitter, allegedly. It's also a good time to catch any errant
seeds that might not have come out with the core.
|Fold pepper in half. Slice lengthwise. Make one slice|
across the lengthwise slices to cut them shorter.
|I drain the peppers -- don't really have to, but I do.|
|This is the picture of contentment for me -- beans to the|
right, peppers to the left, pot full of meat. Let's go.
|Drain the beef. I did so in the old plastic|
colander I keep for that purpose, lined
with a hefty layer of paper towels.
|On top of that, the tomatoes. I usually put in cans of whole,|
diced and petit diced tomatoes with some tomato sauce
or paste. The post-snowfall crowds wiped out all but the
|Another mix, more cumin. Did I mention I like cumin?|
|And in go the peppers. They've already been cooked|
through, and I love the color they add to the pot.
|Everything mixed, low heat engaged, top on pot and as|
Alton Brown says, "WALK AWAY." For an hour.
|And then there was dinner for the three of us. As with all|
good chili (and good relationships), it just gets better
with time. Also, I like a dollop of sour cream with mine.
I’m talking about the meat-and-beans concoction stewed together with tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, a lot of cumin and a lot of love.
Oh yes, some people make cookies to show their devotion – others cakes. A close friend seduced her husband with a loaf of homemade bread. My talents lie not in the bakery or even the charcuterie but in the honest pot of conglomeration that bears and holds the chili I make.
My chili making as a young woman was reprehensible – in fact, even I preferred the cheap little cans of hot dog chili to my teenage efforts.
That all changed my senior year of high school, not because of any great coming-of-age or some fantastic date, but because of a boyfriend of one of my friend’s moms. Don was a decent guy who years later I would realize was one of the last of the true hippies. He was a fantastic cook with lots of kitchen secrets. But one of those days when I showed up to see my friend and neither he nor his mom was there, I stuck around… to learn the magical art of chili making.
I was indeed a young paduwan, just preparing to leave for college and full of myself. But the culinary arts were of interest to me. I had, from the time I was old enough to work the massive magical box of a microwave, been providing meals to my family. I cooked often, mostly from boxes and cans but as I matured I explored my mother’s spice cabinet and spelunked in the fridge for whatever had been purchased on the latest trip to the store, and I would come up with things. I might not have been able to make a roux (an art I only mastered as a married woman) but I could do amazing things with pasta, cheese, tomatoes and meat or a handful of spices and cream cheese. I’m not saying I was gifted, I’m just saying I was creative.
Yet outside of a moderately inadequate semester of home ec my junior year, my training had been limited to those few moments my mom could spend with me, or the bare observation I was able to accomplish in the kitchens of my grandmother or my mom’s friends. I should have taken more time observing my friends’ parents once I had wheels, but I was 16 and a band geek and full of hormones. You probably know how that is.
Don saw in me something that could be cultivated, and though he claimed he never shared his secrets in the kitchen, that one particular day he set me to opening cans, grinding spices and watching as he assembled a pot of what he considered to be the perfect chili – browning beef, sautéing together onions and garlic (and explaining to me the difference in flavor of chopped, sliced and smashed garlic), roasting peppers over the flame of the gas stove and adding in stages those translucent aromatic vegetables, cans of various beans, diced tomatoes, the beef and layer after layer of black pepper, white pepper and cumin.
Oh, cumin, my oldest and deepest love. From the moment that bottle was opened that afternoon I was besmitten with it. It smelled like chili to me, like the purest essence of what I expected chili to be. Over the years I would be charmed by it over and over again, as I experimented first with stews and soups and then with the meats. I would fall in love all over again at the age of 30 as I discovered the joys of the different ages and regions of Indian cooking. No musk or cologne ever entranced me the way cumin has.
An afternoon when one of my closest friends had forgotten my imminent arrival, when the wind outside was saturated and mossy, Don shared with me what would become that dish I’d return to over and over again.
Chili started to define important days in my love life. I showed up at a boyfriend’s door one weekend when his parents were away with all the ingredients I needed – even a pot – on a freshman year visit home. We’d never really broken off our relationship when I graduated, and there were many things to say. We talked about our lives over the counter as I roasted and sliced and spiced, and when the pot’s contents matured we shared bowls from it, an informal ceremony that marked our last meal together. We never saw each other again.
Chili making in the dorm was an occasion where I would meet girls I never knew attended Tech. Our kitchenette on the second floor of Roush Hall was a single piece affair with a built in refrigerator that had frozen itself into a single solid ice cube within, alongside a barely adequate oven a step above an Easy Bake. But my one big pot fit across two of the burners, and my tiny sauté pan rested on the third, and if I asked really nicely someone else would chop the onions on a plate on top of the old sewing machine cabinet.
The rare days I made chili in our succession of houses and duplexes once I left the dorm were always hits – my contribution to the growing number of roommates under our roof. It was the first thing I made on the stove in our Little Rock apartment when that boyfriend and I moved back home, and the first thing I made on the stove in my Jonesboro apartment when the gas was finally flipped on one December afternoon in 1995.
When I married, my husband’s wedding gift to us was a large television and our first DVR player; mine was an expensive set of Healthcraft cookware I purchased at the state fair. The biggest pot, the 12 quart monster, was the perfect vessel – I could brown beef and sauté onions on its bottom, drain it and add in my layers on top. Seeing the pot on the stovetop on arrival home from an overnight of work culled any argument we might have had… it meant a day of no fighting over who would provide our pre-slumber meal, or what we’d eat when we got up before heading in at midnight to our respective television stations.
Holidays? Chili. Potlucks? Chili. Needed to feed 150 medieval re-enactors at an SCA event? Chili. Oh sure, some would complain that chili didn’t need beans – that included my now-ex, who claimed he was allergic to beans but never seemed to mind when I had obliterated them with the immersion blender first. Some would gripe about the lack of spice – and I’d hand them some cayenne-garlic sauce.
I made it mine – and like my bread pudding, I make it with what’s on-hand. I prefer a variety of bell peppers but will settle for just green ones and, if time is of essence or cost is an issue, will replace with that three pepper and onion frozen blend. I’ve made it with dry beans before but prefer canned ones because of the “bean juice” in those cans. I’ve made it with fresh tomatoes and frozen ones and once even with a giant can of V8 because I haven’t had anything else to work with. I’ve used ground beef and shredded beef and chicken and venison and veal (!) and duck and turkey and once even squirrel (I don’t advise it) – and I’ve even made it without ground pepper. But it always contains onion and garlic, and it always – ALWAYS – contains cumin.
Today I got out to the store. I knew I had writing I wanted to do, and Hunter and I are working on making Valentine’s packets for her school, but after the snow that just fell and the next one expected I had to get out of the house and be around people I wasn’t related to. I went to Kroger, and because of the weather the produce section was just full of remaindered vegetables – including bell peppers.
Lately my soul has felt friction. My path has never seemed so clear, yet there are obstacles I must remove before I can return to it. I have felt unsteady. My eyes have watered from the winds of change. It’s time to make a pot full of sustenance. From the five pounds of meat that’s been thawing in a cold water bath in my sink today will come dinner for us, care packages for Grav to take to his father and some put back in bags in the freezer for when time eludes me and there’s a hungry young girl to feed.
I don’t purport to be a star chef, but I do feel that you’ve done me a great grace of reading through this blog and perhaps others of mine, and sharing my chili with you is the least I can do.
One big pot of chili
Five pounds ground chuck. When I am poor, ground beef will do. When I am doing well, I like throwing in a bit of chopped steak into the mix. When my belly is sore, I shred chicken.
Tomatoes. Today the tomatoes in the produce section looked sad, as they should in February but this time mushy as well. I procured what cans of tomatoes had been left when the crowds came this morning – mostly petit diced. Five cans.
Beans. With the blessing of meat, I am going with four cans – light red kidney beans, dark red kidney beans, red beans, black beans. When meat is scarce I double this.
Onion. Chopped. I have stuck some back in the freezer from previous cookery. I’m also throwing in a couple of bag’s worth of frozen plus a whole yellow onion that’s been sitting on my counter for a week.
Peppers. Boy they’ve been expensive lately. However, the produce section findings included two four-count bags. I have six green, one yellow, one red.
Garlic. I thought I had a nearly dry head in the cabinet. I’ll use a few slightly shriveled cloves, some freeze-dried and maybe some garlic salt. And I’ll put garlic back on my shopping list. Can’t believe I forgot to pick it up.
Black and white pepper. These I keep in the grinder. Sometimes I get the pepper mélange with its green and red peppercorns too – but this time, I want to balance the flavors a bit more.
Cumin. Ground. I just picked up a fresh bag from Indian Grocer, since there was just a whisp left in the old Tomes container. Yes, I still use the Tomes container. I just find the $2 bag for either six or eight ounces of cumin at Indian Grocer far more affordable – and it allows me to get over there and go through the exotic teas and masala and nuts and chutneys.
Alongside this blog entry you see the photographs from my chili-making. This wasn't something just thrown together -- though the chili I make in that fashion has fed hundreds over the years. This was an afternoon to shed off the worry and hurry of life and to let the memories come to the surface. The scent of roasting peppers brought forward a lot in my mind -- of sinks I'd leaned over while trying to solve the dilemnas of my world. Of the people I was cooking for -- and moreso, of those few instances where someone shared my kitchen.
There's no official recipe here... everyone makes chili differently. But please, walk through the images and you'll see what came to my mind.
Chili stories, now.
I used to get upset with the ex because if I put beans in, he'd pick them back out and put them in the pot.
I've been told I make Wendy's chili. Mind you, when I am on the poor side, a $1 bowl of their chili and a baked potato is a hearty lunch. But I think I do it better. Also, they need more cumin.
When I'm feeding large groups, I will cook up gallons of chili -- some with meat, some without. If I get a good sale on ground beef, it's very cheap -- and it goes further when I do "the bar." Now, "the bar" is a construct I took from my high school days, when I figured out it was cheaper to purchase a baked potato and go to the potato bar than to purchase a full lunch. I got more, and it was filling and good. For "the bar," I usually get the Sam's Club box of tortilla chips, 20 pounds of potatoes (I bake them the morning of), a can of nacho cheese sauce, a large container of sour cream and the largest container of salsa I can find. This satisfies so many people in so many ways -- baked potatoes, nachos, chili, it's all right there. If I am feeling generous or find a sale, I also throw in hot dogs and buns.
I found out my old pressure cooker needed a new gasket while trying to can this chili.
This is the only chili my friend Neale trusts to eat. He has a delicate stomach. I have macho friends that make fun of this chili, but I never see them turning down a bowl.
My friend Bryan passed away this week. I'm still in shock about it. Just a couple of weeks ago, he joined me and Grav and about a dozen others in a church kitchen to cook for an SCA event in Conway. I had found fresh garlic on sale and had forgotten my rolling pen, but we located a hammer and I smashed the hell out of the garlic cloves through a freezer bag. I apologized for the near-macing of the kitchen crew when I opened said bag. He told me he figured that's how heaven smells.
The other piece of advice Don gave me about the chili -- and relationships in general -- is that a good man will always eat your cooking, even if it's not what he might like. A really good man will tell you what's wrong with it before he finishes it off.
I have a gallon of chili now in the freezer and a quart in the fridge. It'll be a while before I get back to making more, but at least I have what I need when I feel the craving.
Grav tells me it's good, but next time, add more beans.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
The Arkansas Delta may be home to the longest, prettiest sunsets I have ever seen. Miles of flatland along the Mississippi River alluvial plain give way only to the seam of distant treelines, straight up into the sky.
But unlike my ancestral homeroots in southwest Arkansas, the roads here are straight and the topsoil lies 200 feet deep, a slurry of mud hardened only by drought or cold or decades of passing tires, double-rutted dirt roads a slash across thousands of acres of fields…
white rows of cotton tops in summer, neon slices of green when the winter wheat starts to poke up its head. And when the fields are fallow, a textured turn-up of mud or the black of new ash from burn-offs patch their way together all the way to the horizon.
And the wind… it never stops. Sometimes it blows distant treetops along the St. Francis River, the silent undulation barely visible in the distance. Sometimes it kicks up dust and sediment and sends it scurrying along the roadside. In November, the cotton wind blows, ethereal spiderwebs grown rather than spun, released from bolls and gravity to hover. In July, it feels as if the devil himself is panting from the long run across the county. And when the wind turns, you can sometimes hear the echo of distant Interstate 55… or the howl of a wrong-way storm.
|Eleanor Roosevelt gives a speech at Dyess Colony, |
June 9, 1936.
Though the wind was unforgiving, the land itself was pure gold, rich and fertile. And despite the floods and the droughts, it was enough to scrape out a life.
But not any more.
In 2012, Arkansas State University acquired this property and another – in Dyess proper, the old administration building and bandshell at the heart of the little town. A few months from now, you’ll be able to visit the Dyess administration building, the old bandshell and… yes… even the childhood home of one JR – later Johnny – Cash.
|Joanne Cash Yates, Tommy Cash, Rosanne Cash and Joy|
Williams and John Paul White of The Civil Wars practice
before the second Johnny Cash Music Festival,
October 5, 2012.
A-State acquired the properties for its Arkansas Heritage Sites program, and through funds raised by the Johnny Cash Music Festivals and with the help of Tommy and Joanne Cash (Johnny’s brother and sister) added to the hard work of Dr. Ruth Hawkins and her staff, the home has been restored to its original glory.
A few months ago, I was one of a few offered the chance to visit the home. What I saw surprised me.
Dr. Hawkins explained that there had been a lot of work to do here… including replacing rotten boards with similar pieces of wood that would age properly with the rest… and moving the door frame back to its original location while salvaging the wood to patch everything back to where it needed to be.
To the left, that doorway takes you through to the old dining space and kitchen… complete with a sink recently scavenged to place here. It sits before a window that looked out on fields of cotton.
This time of year, the fields lay fallow, with the colder than normal winter and its winds huffing the loose dust into the wind to create a motion of brown swirls visible from that kitchen perch.
To the right of the living area lay a small hall and three rooms – one intended to be a bathroom (though it was not plumbed out while the Cashes lived there, it was where a tub was kept to fill with water for bathing) and two bedrooms. The back bedroom was where Ray and Carrie slept in one bed, with one of their daughters in the other.
And in the front of the house was the bedroom shared by the other siblings – two girls to the left, and two boys to the right. One of those boys was Johnny Cash.
As I mentioned, the family came to Dyess Colony in March 1936. Wind brought the heat and it brought the cold… in fact, in April 1936 a record monthly low was set of just 23 degrees one night. And the next year, floods would inundate the colony, a story Cash will tell you about himself in this clip from 1958.
The family may have made for high land and spent time waiting for the waters to recede hours away in Pine Bluff, but they did come back – indeed, JR Cash lived in the house at Dyess from the time he was three until he was 18 and headed for the Air Force. The military wouldn’t take him without having what they considered to be a “real name,” and though JR had been named such by his daddy, he took the name “John R. Cash” that day in 1950. Five years later when he signed with Sun Records in Memphis, he signed on as the man we know today… who would become the Man in Black… Johnny Cash.
The wheat, the oats, the little garden in the back… when you’re just listening to the music, the ideas tack together in your mind. But here, out on the plain between Lepanto on the St. Francis River Bayou on the
|Joanne Cash Yates with|
Carrie Cash's piano,
February 27, 2012.
There was other music here – Carrie Cash’s piano and the voices of family members raised in praise and harmony over the years. That piano will come back to the home soon – the mayor of Dyess, Larry Sims, located and preserved the upright.
Today the house looks as if it was never moved – except for a lone cornerstone declaring both the date of its original construction and its revitalization.
There is far more to be done to the boyhood home of Johnny Cash. The efforts to complete the restoration and to collect the items that will be displayed within continues. In Dyess itself,
the administration building is under its own renovation progress, and the bandshell next door is being stabilized.
You can still see the foundation of a stage to the big building’s other side, next to the city hall.
A few months from now, the doors will open to the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, and a grand celebration will be held during the Johnny Cash Music Festival weekend events August 16th. Thousands are expected to make the pilgrimage at that time.
For more information about the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, head to this ever-evolving website created and maintained by Arkansas State University. You’ll also find a touching tribute to Cash and memories shared by his daughter Rosanne Cash by the remarkable folks at CBS Sunday Morning, and a story on the restoration efforts by Little Rock CBS affiliate THV 11. And for more information on the Dyess Colony, check out this entry from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Reader bonus: Here's the bandshell under restoration.
In the center of the semi-circle drive in front of the administration building, you'll see this plaque for a flagpole placed in honor of the 200th birthday of the United States, placed in 1976.
And here's that flagpole.
There's also a souvenir stand between Dyess and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home on Highway 14.
And northeast of the administration building, you can still visit the arch from the high school JR Cash attended.