Well, since it was just like a lovely California summer day today, January 16 (yes, I know that was a few days ago now, but it wasn’t as summery and warm today), I figured this would be as good a time as any to relay my food adventures in Arkansas this past summer. For about the first two weeks of June 2010 I found myself happily in Arkansas visiting family, taking in new surprising tastes, reveling in old favorites, and having pretty much the biggest kitchen catastrophe I can think of to date in my time cooking. By the way, isn’t it totally awesome that it was like 80 degrees today, a bright pink sunset coloring the sky and providing a beautiful backdrop at the beach for the glistening water?! Oh…it was snowing where you were? Oh, gee, well, that’s really too bad… ;)
The night before I left for Arkansas I made no-knead bread and rainbow cookies for the first time. The bread blew me away (okay, maybe just the crust – a post is forthcoming) and the rainbow cookies were kinda a total pain, but I think once I get ’em down a bit better they’ll be unquestionably worth it. They were still worth it taste-wise.
Speaking of firsts – and getting back to the topic at hand – I was introduced to Whataburger for the first time on this trip. So what exactly is Whataburger you ask? Whataburger is hamburger joint. A casual, old-fashioned hamburger joint. The first one opened in 1950 in Texas and they have since spread out around the South. I believe the one we visited was in or near Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a bit shocked, I must say, at having never previously been taken to or even heard of Whataburger having been visiting Oklahoma and Arkansas for almost twenty years (yeesh!! has it really been THAT long!?!?). My aunt and cousin seemed to find this shocking as well and expressed fondness for Whataburger. Apparently the name comes from the original owner (it’s still family owned and operated) wanting people to enjoy the burgers so much they exclaimed, “What a burger!” upon eating one. Given that it’s been over six months since I ate there I couldn’t really tell you much about the burger. Truthfully, I couldn’t even really tell you what exactly I ordered. My best guess is a cheeseburger and I know I had fries. I almost think of it as blasphemy not to have fries with burgers. What I do remember is having a good time with my aunt and cousins. So that, to me, indicates it would be worth returning to – even more often than once every twenty years. One notable observation though – a Whataburger super hero lives in a case with a beach umbrella in the particular location I ate in. And they’re open 24 hours.
And here’s the “famous” McDonald’s that has often been used as a meeting place/passing off point from the Oklahoma family to the Arkansas family. Aw, memories. No, really. :)
And when we finally got home I just couldn’t resist…
What a time was had at Whataburger.
Aside from the normal excitement of seeing family, I was also excited to try new restaurants on this trip recommended by cousins. The first outing occurred two days into my trip at Pho Hoang, a Vietnamese restaurant. Seeing as how I neglected to take photos of my cousins’s food I couldn’t tell you what they had. But fear not – I did take photos of my food! Given the name of the restaurant, you’d think at least one person at our table would have gotten pho. Maybe they did, but it wasn’t me. Truth be told, I’ve never had pho. I’ve never been a big soup person anyway, but seeing as how I’m becoming more of a soup person this might have to be amended soon. Anyway, I digress. First, I sampled a spring roll with a peanut dipping sauce. I’m usually sold on pretty much anything as soon as I see the words “peanut dipping sauce.” Most notably – at least to me – the spring roll had a mint leaf in it. As noted in an earlier post, this past year I finally started being less afraid of mint in savory dishes. This continued by progression along this path. To take it one step further, I had a vermicelli bowl with beef, green onions, lemongrass, and even more mint – and I loved it. Lemongrass is also still kind of new to me, but I wasn’t as afraid of it in savory applications as I was mint.
Another two days later brought more beef in the form of a home-cooked meal at my cousins’s house. I believe it was brisket and had a little smoky flavor, wonderful gravy, slightly charred corn on the cob, and creamy mashed potatoes. Of course, I had some sweet tea alongside – one of the best parts about visiting family in these parts. Dinner was followed by a very appropriate summer dessert of strawberries over pound cake with whipped cream. Thankfully, I have plans to see these people again in the not-so-far future. I also managed to sneak a taste of my cousin’s tomatillo salsa. I do love me some tomatillos.
And yet another two days later (the two-day rule really wasn’t planned, I promise) I got to cook for my aunt and even more cousins. This time it was all about pork. And kitchen catastrophe. Coming from a family of Razorbacks, as in the Arkansas Razorbacks, pork seems more than appropriate (although maybe in a somewhat skewed way). Add that onto being in the South it was pretty much mandatory to make pig. Right? The kitchen catastrophe part may not have been appropriate per se, but it was an integral part of the evening nonetheless. And so it begins…
Pork – it’s what’s for dinner. That was pretty much the slogan of the night. Babyback ribs and “the” green beans, which by now many of you know to be green beans with bacon and garlic, were the pork heavy hitters. Cole slaw, buttermilk biscuits, and chocolate cake with my great-grandma’s fudge frosting were on the menu as well.
Kitchen mishaps made up the rest of the evening. The months of May and June saw some important firsts: the first time I ever set my dinner on fire – unintentionally that is – and the first time I dropped dinner on the floor. I feel no requirement to specify that action as unintentional, as dinner is never supposed to be dropped on the floor – at least not insofar as I’m aware. Well, I guess dinner isn’t really supposed to be set on fire either. Maybe unless you’re flambeing something…
For the ribs, I made a dry rub and a Coca-Cola-inspired barbeque sauce. I couldn’t recount the ingredients or even any real particular method for you all as it’s been so long. As I remember it, it was tasty. I know onion and garlic were definitely in the dry rub. Chili powder or cumin, paprika, cayenne – those are some of the other probable ingredients. The BBQ sauce had ketchup, brown sugar, garlic, possibly some mustard, and definitely some vinegar. The green beans didn’t stray too far from what their normal deliciousness – at least not until another two or so days later courtesy of my wily aunt, but that’s another story.
Next, I ventured on to the coleslaw. I think biscuits came last, and of course the chocolate cake was the finale. While I do have some record of how I put together the coleslaw, that’s still not exact. Here we go anyway… I used one package of coleslaw mix and for the dressing combined 1 cup of mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon of the horseradish mustard my aunt had on hand, 1 tablespoon of salad vinegar, 1 tablespoon of honey, 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley, and salt and pepper. I may or may not have added somewhere between a pinch and 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar to the dressing, but I can’t remember for the life of me. I’d say, if I were doing it again, add everything, season it with salt and pepper, taste it, and then decide if you want more honey or to add some sugar. The buttermilk biscuits were based off my now-standard recipe, which happens to be Alton Brown’s.
So now what you all really care about – the kitchen catastrophes. There was a main event and then a couple side shows. Onto the main event… It literally was kind of like a scene in a movie or T.V. show. It was comical and heart-wrenching all at the same time. Picture it. The ribs were placed precariously on a short tower of other pans and dishes. They weren’t level. I was doing a million things at once. I picked up a saucepan with the barbecue sauce in it, was awkwardly walking to/leaning over to the ribs, already running around frenetically and frazzled, and hit the rib pan at just the right angle to make it go crashing down onto the floor. Boom! As the pan crashed to the floor and the ribs flew out of the pan sliding onto the floor – into the cat food naturally – the noise from the conversation in the living room was just sucked into the air – a collective gasp. Then silence. After a few “Oh, crap!” panicking moments in my head I tentatively yelled out, “I’m okay…” and started hurriedly picking up the pan and ribs, pondering what exactly to do. You see, while the ribs were in foil packets, small portions of them were exposed and had met the floor. And quite possibly the dry cat food. Hey, at least it wasn’t the wet cat food bowls, right? My cousin, Jennifer, came rushing into the kitchen. She saw the ribs on the floor and we looked at each other totally shocked and I somewhat expectantly and most definitely completely mortified. After a short pause she assured me the ribs were still fine – I picked them up right away – and she then promised not to spill about my spill. Later in the evening, when I slyly referenced the great fall, she said, “I said nothing.” So, of course, here I am telling you all about it. Smooth, eh? Somewhat more assuredly, I finished cleaning up, brushing the ribs with BBQ sauce and put them under the broiler. See, they hadn’t even been under the screaming hot broiler yet. The heat would definitely take care of the cat food and floor germs.
That incident kind of set me off for the rest of the night. I ended up dropping my aunt’s crystal sugar bowl – right on top of the fresh-out-of-the-oven biscuits. Once ensuring the bowl was unscathed (thank goodness biscuits are soft; no crystal was harmed during the process) I calmly let it roll off me and said, “Eh, sugar never hurt biscuits,” which, I must say, I believe to my core is mostly kinda sorta true. Many people like sugar with their biscuits in some form. Me? I go the honey route. But sugar had also found its way onto the floor. And the counter. As it turned out, after everyone had left and my aunt and I were cleaning up the kitchen we found sugar in all sorts of places. Score!
To top the night off, later in the evening, when discussing three-lettered names, I enthusiastically offered “Bill” as an option. I was proud and surprised no one had come up with it yet because it was a relatively common name and like names were being offered up. Everyone looked at me kind of funny. And then it hit me. I had been totally convinced “Bill” was a legitimate option. I blame the early rib fall.
And lest we not forget the chocolate cake with fudge frosting. How bad can that be? I mean really – chocolate cake AND chocolate fudge. And vanilla ice cream on the side of course. :) Last year my aunt introduced me to her grandma’s frosting for the first time and making a batch of it with my little cousin after dinner that night really was icing on the cake…wah, wah, wah. But it really was a nice moment being part of the passing down of family recipes.
Then my aunt and I had the oh-so-fun task of clean-up. Such is the nature of cooking.
Instead of the random two-day rule that I somehow inadvertently instituted my next Arkansan food adventure happened the very next day. I met two of my cousins for lunch at Rolando’s, a self-described “nuevo Latino” restaurant. One of the owners is Ecuadorean and the other an Arkansan. One of my cousin loves the tortilla soup and tamales. I ordered the goat cheese quesadilla with chicken. It was adorned with an Argentinean sauce, which I think was a chimichurri or something similar, a mango sauce, and brown sauce. The fruit was very present in the mango sauce and it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, which was nice, and had a very slight undertone of tea to me. The brown sauce had a little heat to it – I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it had a slight smokiness – maybe chipotle – and reminded of something similar to a mole. The black beans and rice came with green onions, peppers, and cheese and tasted very Cuban. Pickled cucumbers and onions were served as an accompaniment as well. I LOVED these. They were quite sour and I got hints of lime and maybe coconut – and this might sound weird – but the flavor was reminiscent of a coconut mojito to me.
And isn’t the plate so fun and festive?!
For dinner that night, I was treated to a dinner made by my aunt. I can’t remember exactly what she called it. She made ground beef patties cooked in a tomato sauce with buttered (and I believe Parmesan-ed) noodles, biscuits, and reheated some green beans from the night before…or so I thought. Tricksy, tricksy auntie. Of course, she also made her sweet tea, which I absolutely adore. If I could package it and bring it home with me, I would. After we’d enjoyed a yummy dinner – and I was telling her so – she slyly let slip that she’d doctored up my green beans. Scandal! She added some vegetable seasoning to the green beans and I can’t deny that they were very tasty. Tricksy, tricksy, tricksy.
(Sorry for the poorer-than-normal quality of the last three photos – they’re phone photos.)
The next day brought one of the most exciting events of probably my whole summer. SNOW CONES!! We went to Snow To Go by The Little Red Caboose in a strip mall parking lot. For the past few years at least, I know it’s been in the same lot – maybe longer and I sadly don’t visit it often enough to remember. Either way – snow cones! For as long as I can remember, that’s always been one of my favorite things to do when visiting Arkansas. Flavor-wise…it’s all about the Chocolada. Chocolate and coconut. Best thing ever. My aunt always gets some Hawaiian something or the other thing. It’s bright yellow. Maybe it has cream in it… I kinda get tunnel vision when I go or talk about these snow cones. CHOCOLADA! I don’t know how they do it, but they are amazing. They’re creamy without being like a milkshake or ice cream, the flavor is balanced perfectly, and when they melt the liquid isn’t too watery and is just as good to slurp through a straw as it is to scoop up with the “spoon” end of the long red straws. I love these things. I’d bring these home with me too if I could. While on our afternoon snow cone adventure my aunt drove me by Miss Laura’s, Forth Smith’s visitor center, which is the first former brothel listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the concert venue down by the river. Snow cones AND brothels – clearly this was an exciting day!
To top off my last night there I ate cold ribs out of the fridge and made a second batch of buttermilk biscuits because I was slightly disappointed in the first batch. The second batch was indeed better. The next morning on the way to the airport in Tulsa we stopped off at Sweet Bay Coffee Co. I wanted to pick up some beans for a fellow coffee-lover back home and had to pick up some beans for myself as well. I’d heard good things about them, but also they’re a local company meaning I can’t find them elsewhere. I got two pounds of their Double French Roast beans, which were sufficiently rich and strong. I also got a Vietnamese French Coffee for the road, which is basically an iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk. This was my first time having such a drink – and I liked it. I’m interested in finding more of these at home.
And with that I bid Arkansas 2010 adieu and look forward to Arkansas: the 2011 edition. Hopefully it’ll be written about before 2012. And hopefully wintry weather – although not too wintry of course, this is SoCal after all – will bring us back to January in January soon. ;)