Home is Where the Art's Place Is

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We all need a place to call home; a proverbial hearth that simultaneous garners sanctuary, familiarity, and inspiration alongside the people we love and cherish.  Home is not simply a place, but rather a state of mind and, at times, even of taste, touch, and smell.  The fragrance of freshly brewed coffee, frying bacon, and cigarette smoke transcends me to my childhood and the home kitchen of my grandma Dighero as she poetically maneuvers through her standard, grease laden daily breakfast.  No matter when:  childhood, adolescence, adulthood….I could count on those three intermingled perfumes to make me feel safe, and perpetually hopeful. 

I’m asked on a weekly basis:  where’s your favorite restaurant, who makes the best burger, what’s your favorite beer, where do you go for a drink?  I typically derive answers based on the party questioning, and my answers to the independent questions alter day to day, depending on my mood.  However, the sum of all of those inquiries together lead me to one, undeniable location in Fayetteville:  Arts Place Bar and Grill.  {Notice, there is no “E” at the end of grill}

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Dark, brooding, smoky, embellished with sounds of pool balls “clacking” intermittently beneath laughter, “rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb” muttering, and the unmistakable “sizzle” of burgers on a flat top grill.  Ahhh, this is home…this is where I come to make business deals, to celebrate the lives of contemporaries, to mourn the loss of important family, to be alone, to be part of a crowd, to break-up, to fall in love, and to, most importantly of all, drink a beer and devour the best cheeseburger on the planet.

There’s really nothing stylized about the Art’s Place burger; it’s an archetype of perfection, but one should never expect something groundbreaking or cutting edge.  The beef patty is fried in front of you, behind the bar on a flat top grill that has been seasoned with whiskey, bar brawls, and a million lonely hearts, then stratified with mayo, sliced tomato, cold iceberg lettuce, and thick sliced white onions…be sure to ask for extra crispy fries; and don’t be offended if the pretty girl sitting next you at the bar pays you little mind, because she is, well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Art’s Place is a lot of things to a lot of people, myself included; but at the very least it’s an important part of the edible culture of Fayetteville, Arkansas.  It may not be your idea of home, sanctuary, inspiration…but I guarantee it’ll be the best burger you’ve had in a very, long time.

Originally published for Experience Fayetteville - February 2017


Blueberry Pie's Free Lovin' Hippie Cousin

Recently hosting a small dinner party, I needed to create a quick, summery dessert with rustic appeal; so after a quick trip to the Fayetteville Farmers' market I devised a recipe for a simple, endearing Blueberry Crostata, a nuanced, slightly free form version of pie.

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Blueberries are in full bloom, so take advantage while you can - and feel free to add or substitute any of the other raspberries, blackberries that are also available at the market.  Fresh is the secret to the filling, soul of this dessert - if you attempt this recipe with canned or frozen berries you will fail miserably, and your friends with abandon you.

One additional virtue for our Ozark Blueberry Crostata is the incredibly rich, delicious, and EASY crust - only a few ingredients and the use of your freezer make this one a keeper.   And since we're not using a tart or pie pan, the end result is utterly free form and rustic - which is great if you're cooking with your kids or in need of a quick, memorable dessert this summer.

High South Blueberry Crostata

The Dough

1 1/2 Cups AP Flour

3 Tablespoons White Sugar

Pinch of Salt

1 Stick of Salted Butter, cubed

3-ish Tablespoons of Really Cold Water

The Filling

3 Cups Fresh Blueberries

3 Tablespoons White Sugar

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice

1 Pinch of Cinnamon

1 Whole Egg, beaten but not berated

1 Teaspoon Flaky Maldon Salt

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Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt; then add butter cubes, toss until cubes are coated; place in freezer to chill out for 20 minutes or so.

Place chilly flour, butter combination into a food processor; pulse and grind until small pea sizes form; slowly add water until dough ball forms.  Turn dough onto a flat surface or board, use additional flour if dough is too wet; press into small salad plate size, then allow to chill in fridge while you construct blueberry filling.

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Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees; line a sheet pan with Pam sprayed parchment (I actually used a perforated pizza pan); remove the dough from cooler, dust with flour, and roll into a 12 to 14 inch oval or circle - no more than a 1/2 inch thick.  Move dough to prepared sheet pan.

In a medium sized bowl toss blueberries together with sugar, cinnamon, and lemon juice.  Add blueberries to center of the flattened dough, then carelessly fold the sides of the dough onto the outer edge of the blueberries, sealing any open edges or seams.  Brush top of the dough with egg, then sprinkle with Maldon Salt and a whisper more of sugar.  Allow to collude in the fridge for 10 minutes before adding pan with dough to 400 degree oven.

Bake until the crust is a shimmering golden brown and the berries are bubbling, chatting, probably 40 minutes or so.  Allow to cool a bit before topping with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and devouring.  

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Let's Get KRAKEN on this Charred Baby Octopus with Olives, Pickled Peppers, and Basil Oil

Viva Al Fresco | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon

Viva Al Fresco | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon

Spring is in the air, and what better way to celebrate this special season than with an al fresco dinner party with some of your closest friends. 

This season I've devised a “mash-up” of High Southern food standards with slightly elevated, healthier Mediterranean fare to create an entirely new genre of exciting cuisine I'm calling “Medi-South”

High Heat, Quick Char | Photo Cred: Kerri McMahon

High Heat, Quick Char | Photo Cred: Kerri McMahon

Charred Baby Octopus with Olives, Pickled Peppers, and Fresh Basil Oil is used as a salad of sorts, melding sexy, exotic octopus with briny, green and black olives, alongside southern inspired pickled peppadew peppers.  We procure the small, baby octopus from Richard’s Meat Market, then straight into a boiling pot of white wine and chicken stock for a quick poach, let’s say three minutes, before cooling in the fridge with a marinade of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, fresh basil, salt and pepper. 

After at least three hours resting in the chilled citrus bath, we “quick char” the tentacles on high heat, using a heavy press or cast iron skillet to compress the seafood against the grates.

Freedom of the PRESS | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon

Freedom of the PRESS | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon

Careful not to over-cook here, we only want a tiny bit of char on the arms.  Serve the octopus with an accompaniment of olives from Wholefoods, pickled red peppadew peppers, roasted garlic cloves, fresh basil leaves, and a generous drizzle of pesto olive oil.   

You OCTO-PI my Belly | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon  Full Thrill of the Grill article:   https://www.citiscapes.com/eats-drinks

You OCTO-PI my Belly | Photo Cred:  Kerri McMahon

Full Thrill of the Grill article:  https://www.citiscapes.com/eats-drinks

Pond Scum Cocktails, Hushpuppies, and Ozark Trout Cakes Will Make You a MAN

The June 2015 Wednesday Over Water (or WOW) garnered inspiration from the temporary exhibition Fish Stories: Game Fishes of North America; and much like the exhibition, the night’s food, stories, and insights offered a broad scope of tall tales, delicious foods, and an interesting cocktail…that almost got away.

Special guests included library director Catherine Peterson, Chef Melody Lane of the Great Hall kitchen, and Ed Javorsky, host of a popular radio show.  I was happy to disclose my family hushpuppy recipe as a starting point to the evening as Catherine Peterson offered insights into the nuances of the Fish Stories exhibition.  Chef Melody Lane made her first-ever appearance at WOW (and certain NOT to be her last), discussing her time as a fishing guide off the coast of Belize, and also her appreciation of the work of Japanese artist, Mineo Yamamoto, a master fish printer. 

WOW guests were also served several interesting exhibition-inspired foodstuffs, which included our version of a Trout Cake with a Mississippi Comeback Sauce—that’s a “kissin’ cousin” to the more-traditional remoulade sauce, but made with just a whisper of chili sauce.  It’s a must for anyone traveling through Mississippi when dining on fried fish, shrimp, or pretty much anything that could use tarter or remoulade sauces.

Pond Scum Cocktail

Finally, we allowed guests an opportunity to imbibe in something we like to call the “Pond Scum Cocktail” which features Tito’s vodka from Austin, aloe vera juice, fresh mint, and hydrated basil seeds that have a look not at all unlike that of tiny black fish or frog eggs.  Interesting to look at…delicious, refreshing, and fun to drink.  Give it a try at your next High South dinner party…it’s sure to WOW!

 Hush Puppies Recipe Serves:  a lot | Recipe from the kitchen of:  Mary C. Todd

1 can corn – drained 2 cups corn meal 3 cups flour ½ cup sugar 3 eggs – beaten 2 tsp. salt 1 chopped onion 4 cups milk Drop heaping teaspoons in deep fat and fry until golden brown.

High South Trout Cakes Yields Eight Trout Cakes 2 cups flaked smoked trout 2 tablespoons green onion – chopped 2 teaspoons drained capers 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper 1 large egg, beaten to blend 1/4 cup whipping cream 1 cup panko bread crumbs

Combine trout, green onion, capers, lemon peel, and pepper in medium bowl. Season with salt. Stir in egg, cream, and 1/2 cup bread crumbs to blend. Form mixture by hand into eight 1/2-inch-thick fish cakes. Place remaining 1/2 cup bread crumbs in a shallow dish. Roll trout cakes in bread crumbs, coating completely. Heat 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, and adding more oil as necessary, fry trout cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.



The MOREL of the Story

I quietly laced up my boots, rolled up my sleeves, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and grabbed a brown paper sack from beneath my desk before sneaking out of my office, through an empty corridor, and around a corner.  I pushed open a side door to the museum, and found myself bathed in the bright sunlight of spring as brilliant, white dogwood buds waivered in the gentle breeze, still wet from a small rain storm that swept through just hours before dawn…all the signs were perfect for the hunt.

I started my pursuit for the elusive Ozark morels in a small ravine, slowly walking from one small bluff to the other, looking up each slope from my feet to eye level, but to no avail.  Still, I was mesmerized by the foliage, including white sycamores, scrub brushes, and the occasional cluster of fiddlehead ferns poking their curled heads up out of the black dirt.

After about 15 minutes, something caught my eye…a small, conical shape pushing up from a pile of brown leaves.  “Awww…I see you…” my pulse quickened, as I bent down to get a closer look.  The small mushroom was perfect, beige and gray in color, bending slightly to the right.  I pulled the specimen out of the dirt from the base of her stem, careful to keep the head intact.  Then I saw two more within inches of the first, and I knew I was on the right track to have a good day.

The small window of time for finding morels is about 10 to 14 days every year, and it is only when the temperature, humidity, and conditions are perfect, that those of us that covet the elusive morel, are able to actually find and harvest the elusive morel.  In fact, some people from the Trails and Grounds department of Crystal Bridges are downright cryptic and deceptive when it comes to the location of morels on the property, selfishly keeping the treasures to themselves.

A Response

From Clay Bakker, Trails and Grounds Manager, in an email to Case Dighero

Back in 2009 when I first started working with Scott [Eccleston] as a contractor on the property, I made my first discovery of morel mushrooms. I ended up finding these little delights from one end of the 100 acres to the other. Then, when we came back to the site and built a crew and subsequently staffed the whole museum it became apparent there were many of us who would be seeking these gems. In order to avoid conflict, we decided to apportion off sections of the property. We committed to stay out of each other’s domain so there would be enough morels for everybody.

A few days ago, in the area that I had adopted, I found several beautiful specimens that I took a picture of (at the top of this blog post). I left them there to get a bit larger for the next few days and checked on them on a daily basis like a doting parent. Then yesterday I was aghast to discover they had been stolen! “How could this happen?” I thought to myself. “We all have our own areas and everybody has stuck to the rules for so many years??”

Well if you check out the photo below, you will be able to make out the boot print of the actual thief. I tracked the print throughout the Honey Hole. I will be on the “case” of identifying this marauder at all costs. In the meantime I’m also pretty sure I saw beaver tracks in that area so I will be setting numerous beaver spring-traps. These are said to be able to break a grown man’s ankle so I hope my marauder doesn’t stumble into them.

(Editor’s note:  as I am aware Clay is a peaceful and critter-loving groundskeeper, I am certain he would do no such thing! I do believe this is merely a thinly veiled warning to our culinary director to steer clear of Clay’s morel patch in the future

A Peaceful Conclusion

Gentle reader: It now appears that things have been peacefully resolved.  Case has been welcomed into the museum’s Morel Club with no loss of limbs. In fact, he shared his bounty, as well as his coveted Chicken Fried Morel recipe, (below) as a peace offering.

 Chicken-Fried Morels

Submerge morels in cold water, pat dry. While the mushrooms are resting and drying comfortably, bring a pot of vegetable oil up to 375 degrees. Combine AP flour with salt, pepper, chopped parsley, basil, and thyme…then whisk together a couple eggs with milk, minced garlic, and Asian chili sauce. Roll morels in flour mixture

…then egg and milk mixture…then back to flour mixture....fry until golden brown…

…then allow to rest (for the last time) a few minutes on a towel…finish with a squeeze of lime, dust with good Parmesan, then devour like it’s your LAST SUPPER