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The holiday table, laden with specialties of Little Rock chefs and bakers 

Here in Arkansas, the coming of autumn is almost a religious experience, given our hot summers. When the leaves start falling, the days grow shorter and the air gets that perfect note of crispness to it, minds turn to holidays, family — and food. There's nothing quite like settling down to a great meal of comfort food on a chilly day, especially when it's homemade. We wondered: What do local chefs and bakers cook for themselves this time of year? Here are their answers, which could inspire readers to fire up the stove and get cooking.

Scott McGehee
Co-owner of Big Orange, ZaZa and Local Lime

No local restaurateur has quite the string of successes that Scott McGehee has enjoyed. From pizza at ZaZa to burgers at Big Orange to tacos at Local Lime, McGehee and his crew have managed to create top quality versions of everyday foods, and the results have been some of Little Rock's most popular restaurants. McGehee shares this warming pasta sauce he learned during his time at Alice Waters' famed Chez Panisse, and it's enough to make us want to trade the Thanksgiving turkey for spaghetti. MR.

Bolognese sauce

Olive oil

5 ounces pancetta, diced fine

1 large yellow onion, diced fine

2 ribs celery, diced fine

1 large carrot, diced fine

Salt to taste

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 pound chuck steak, cut into ¼-inch cubes

6 ounces lean pork shoulder, coarsely ground or chopped

1 cup dry white wine

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs thyme

2 cups beef stock

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups cream

4 tablespoons tomato paste

1/3 cup chopped parsley, for garnish

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish

Pepper, for garnish

Heat a wide, heavy-bottomed pan; pour in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and add the pancetta. Once the pancetta starts to brown add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and a little salt. When the vegetables soften somewhat, remove them from the pan and set aside.

Put the pan back on the heat and pour in two more tablespoons of oil and when it is hot, add the beef, pork and a little more salt. Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes until the meat starts to brown. Leave the meat in the pan and add the stock, cream, herbs and tomato paste. Simmer gently for about one hour until the sauce has reduced by about half and the meat is tender. Add the vegetables back into the dish and simmer an additional five minutes. Pour the sauce over wide-cut handmade noodles or your favorite dry pasta. Garnish with a generous helping of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, parsley and freshly ground black pepper.

This sauce keeps for 5-7 days in the fridge, and often improves in flavor with age. Other variations use ground beef, prosciutto and wild or domestic mushrooms.

Jeff Owen
Ciao Baci

Jeff Owen's work in the kitchen and what he puts on diners' plates exemplifies professionalism in every way. Owen's menus change seasonally, and he borrows flavors from all over the world — his current lineup touches on Thailand, New Orleans, Italy, Canada, Japan and Greece. Owen excels at transforming those heartwarming comfort foods into something uncommonly good.

Below, Owen offers a recipe perfectly suited for a chilly winter night — a hearty, rich dish that is bound to stick to your ribs. Make this dish for any of the guests you're entertaining this holiday season, and you may have a difficult time getting anyone to leave. DW.

Short ribs with onion & oyster mushrooms and lemon-parsley grits

3 pounds beef short ribs, cut in half (3-inch blocks)

2-3 small yellow onions, sliced

1 pound oyster mushrooms, quartered

kosher salt, fresh cracked pepper

5 sprigs thyme

1 sprig rosemary

2 bay leaves

3 tablespoons tomato sauce

1 tablespoon HP Sauce (may substitute A-1 sauce if necessary)

red wine and beef stock

Season beef ahead of time — about two hours before beginning prep — with salt and pepper. Brown the meat over medium heat in olive oil on all sides. Add tomato and HP Sauce, and continue to brown for around 15 minutes. Remove meat from pan, add to pan onions and mushrooms and saute for around 15 minutes. Add wine (just enough to deglaze) and stock and return ribs to pan. Stock should come about up about 2/3 the height of the ribs.

Cover and cook in oven at 300 degrees for three hours. Remove from oven and allow time to cool completely (overnight is best). (This is where "the magic happens," according to Owen; the time allows the flavors to marry, the meat to relax and the fat to rise to the top, allowing for easy removal.) Reheat in the oven uncovered for around one hour, turning several times, basting the ribs in the sauce. Allow for a bit of caramelization of the gravy as it bakes.

Owen likes to serve these with this basic grits recipe finished with butter, mascarpone, lemon zest, and fresh chopped parsley.

Grits

2 cups milk

2 cups water

1 1/4 cup grits

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons mascarpone cheese

zest and juice from half a lemon

handful of chopped parsley

Boil milk with water and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in grits and keep whisking until grits are cooked completely. Pull from heat, add butter and mascarpone, continue to whisk as butter and cheese melt, incorporating them completely. Add lemon juice and zest, finish with parsley.

Tomas Bohm
The Pantry

The Pantry is known in Little Rock for its rustic and authentic flavors of Europe. Below, chef/owner Tomas Bohm provides us with a recipe for Czech fruit dumplings. He remembers it as one of the first recipes to really interest him in food, back when he was 4 years old. Bohm recalls watching his mother make the dumplings for the family; he would often assist. She would work the dough, cut and fill it, and young Tomas would roll the dumplings into their final shape. By the end of the baking session, Bohm remembers always being covered in flour. DW.

Czech Fruit Dumplings

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 ounce unsalted butter

1 egg

1/3 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

7 ounces cottage cheese

Choice of fruit fillings, fresh or frozen (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, red currants, blackberries and apricots all work well)

Place flour and salt in large bowl and mix well. Set aside. Place cottage cheese, egg, and butter into a food processor and pulse until blended well. Next, add milk to the food processor and pulse until blended well. Pour the wet ingredients from the food processor into the dry ingredients bowl (with flour and salt mixture) and mix with a spatula until most of the flour is incorporated. Roll out the dough to ¼ inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3x3 inch squares and place fruit fillings in the center of the dough. Fold up the four corners of the square until they seal off the fruit filling, forming a dumpling about the size of a golf ball.

Place them in simmering water for 15-20 minutes until they are slightly firm. Eat them shortly after removing from the water. Serve with your choice of toppings: cottage cheese, yogurt, fruit compote, whipped cream or chocolate sauce.

Brandon Brown
Hillcrest Artisan Meats

The signpost outside Hillcrest Artisan Meats — featuring a pig with a meat cleaver at its center — should tip you off to the awaiting selection of exemplary sausages, cured meats, and other charcuterie. But don't discount owner Brandon Brown as simply a butcher. He can keep up in the kitchen with any other chef in town.

Brown offers us a recipe he's adopted from one of his best friends — his mentor and boss for 15 years, Mike West. West was a successful chef and restaurateur in Oregon who passed away a few years ago. This recipe for braised sauerkraut is one that the Brown family uses often. This recipe, and many others used at H.A.M. today, is meaningful because it reminds Brandon of his former days in the kitchen with West and of the important role food plays in our fondest memories and most cherished relationships. DW.

Braised sauerkraut

1/2 pound of bacon or pancetta, diced

1 large onion, julienned

2 large carrots, julienned

1 tablespoon garlic, sliced thin

1/8 cup juniper berries

2 cups Riesling

8 cups sauerkraut, drained and rinsed

2 cups chicken stock

Cook the bacon (or pancetta) in a large Dutch oven until there is enough fat to saute the onions and carrots. When the bacon is cooked and the onions are soft and beginning to color, add the garlic and juniper berries. Cook for a few minutes then deglaze with the Riesling. Add the sauerkraut and stir, season with salt and pepper. Cut parchment paper to fit and cover the pan, and place in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour.

Brown likes to pair the dish with sausages or mixed grill plates. He will often serve braised sauerkraut with "Choucroute Garnie" — a dish made with a duck confit, Toulouse sausage and smoked pork loin.

Alexis Jones
Natchez

Chef Alexis Jones grew up outside of Jackson, Miss., and attended culinary school in Chicago, but found her way to Little Rock in 2011 when she was offered a position at Ashley's under the direction of Chef Lee Richardson. She opened her own restaurant, Natchez, just over a year ago downtown.

Jones is committed to using the freshest ingredients possible — not always an easy task when a good majority of your menu involves seafood and you live in the center of a landlocked state like Arkansas. She also plans and executes a new menu daily, a practice that also allows her to use primarily what's in season, without having to rely too much on stockpiles of boxed, frozen or processed ingredients.

Raised in a home that was proud of its Southern traditions, she says much of her passion for cooking stems from a heritage studded with exceptional home cooks. Jones provides us with a recipe for cornbread dressing, a dish that finds its way on her family's table every Thanksgiving and Christmas. DW.

Cornbread dressing

2 pans day-old cornbread, crumbled

1 loaf of country white bread, torn into small pieces

4 stalks celery, small diced

4 carrots, small diced

2 onions, small diced

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (oregano and sage, if you like)

4 ounces chopped chicken livers

6-7 ounces butter

6 eggs, beaten

6 roasted/braised chicken breasts, shredded

1 quart chicken stock

1 pint heavy cream

In a large bowl combine cornbread and white bread. Saute onions, carrots, celery and garlic together in 2 to 3 ounces of butter until softened. Add livers and thyme, cook liver until it is no longer pink, stir in 4 ounces of butter. Combine vegetable mixture with chicken, add to bread with one quart chicken stock and heavy cream. Season and add whipped eggs. Reserve 1/2 cup of mixture for gravy. Spread the remaining mixture in buttered pans (9x13 works well), should be moist. Refrigerate overnight. Cook the dish covered in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes, then uncover and let brown in oven 10-15 minutes.

Cornbread

2 cups yellow cornmeal

2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

4 ounces butter

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 cup flour

4 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Mix melted butter, buttermilk and eggs together. Add to dry mixture of cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Bake in 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden on top.

Gravy

1 small onion diced

4 ounces flour

4 ounces butter

2 ounces chopped chicken livers

1 quart chicken stock

2 boiled eggs, diced

1/2 cup cornbread dressing mixture (see above)

2 oz. heavy cream

1 tablespoon lemon juice

kosher salt

Cook onions in a small amount of oil or butter, add livers and flour. Cook until flour starts to turn golden, stir in chicken stock. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add heavy cream, lemon, and season with kosher salt. Just before serving, add cornbread dressing mixture and boiled eggs and heat through.

Stephanos and Monica Mylonas
Mylo Coffee Co.

Without the aid of a front door, a single table, or even a permanent address, Mylo Coffee Co. has won over the hearts of pastry and coffee fanatics across Central Arkansas. Customers often begin forming lines long before Mylo starts selling at their weekly farmers market appearances. Of course, the brick-and-mortar version of Mylo Coffee Co. is currently in the works (hopefully arriving some time in early 2014), and you can surely expect the place to be buzzing when that time does arrive. If you've spent enough time talking with Stephanos and Monica Mylonas, the fine folks behind this operation, you soon realize that these are people passionate about their work. Their attention to detail, patience, and unwavering dedication to quality comes through in everything they create.

"In our family, cooking is the most fluent expression of love," Monica explains. "It's something we can do on a regular basis, and it's infinitely replicable, allowing ever more family and friends into the fold."

Here, they offer up a recipe for chargrilled broccoli with chili and garlic. Broccoli, which they've lovingly branded the "scourge of the playground," is not something you regularly see at the family feast. "Indeed, there's not much worse than a pile of tiny waterlogged trees raining on your yeast roll parade," said who? Fear not — with a little help from this simple preparation, you're sure to have the whole table asking for seconds. Here, Stephanos and Monica are inspired by the "punchy and unmistakable umami of a good stir-fry." And though they present the recipe with broccoli, the same recipe would work just as well for Brussels sprouts.

Chargrilled broccoli with chili & garlic

2 heads of broccoli (they're in season, so check your local farmers market)

7 tablespoons olive oil

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 mild red chilies, thinly sliced

coarse sea salt and black pepper

toasted flaked almonds or very thin slices of lemon to garnish

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. It should be big enough to accommodate the broccoli easily. While waiting for the water, prepare the broccoli by separating it into florets. Throw in the broccoli and blanch for two minutes only. Quickly transfer the broccoli to a bowl of ice-cold water to stop the cooking at once. Drain in a colander and allow it to dry completely. In a mixing bowl, toss the broccoli with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and a generous amount of salt and pepper.

Place a griddle over high heat until extremely hot. Depending on the size of your griddle, grill the broccoli in several batches — the florets shouldn't be cramped. Turn them as they grill so they get char marks all over. Transfer to serving dish.

While grilling the broccoli, place the rest of the oil in a small saucepan along with the sliced garlic and chilies. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is golden. (For even more "oomph," try adding four chopped anchovy fillets to the oil when cooking the chili and garlic.) Drizzle the oil mixture over the hot broccoli and toss to coat. Garnish with almonds or lemon just before serving.

Matthew Bell
South on Main

Perhaps no chef in Little Rock better represents the city's growing culinary chops than Matt Bell, who along with his wife, Amy, have brought fine dining to South Main Street. Bell's skill as a chef along with the cultural draw of Oxford American magazine programming have made SoMa a destination for food and music alike, and while the chef is known for creating an attractive main course, he's also well aware of how important side dishes are, leading to these two vegetable recipes that would be at home on any table. MR.

Brown butter sweet potatoes with lime and sea salt

2 large sweet potatoes

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

2 limes (zest reserved)

Coarse sea salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

Roast sweet potatoes for one hour at 350 degrees. Cut open sweet potatoes and let cool until they stop steaming. Scoop out sweet potatoes and mash with a fork. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and sweet potatoes and begin to caramelize the sweet potatoes, stirring often. After five minutes add the butter and brown sugar and continue to stir. The idea is to caramelize the sweet potatoes and butter just to the point of almost scorched. Constantly stir the potatoes, incorporating the caramelized bits. After about eight minutes remove from heat and stir in lime juice and sea salt to taste. Serve immediately topped with more sea salt and lime zest.

Fried brussels sprouts with onion jam

1 pound Brussels sprouts

3 tablespoons onion jam (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons oil

Remove a tiny bit of the root end from the Brussels sprouts, pulling away any outer leaves that are damaged or falling off. Quarter the sprouts through the root end and set aside, then proceed with jam.

Onion jam

3 cups diced red onion

3 cups apple juice

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one orange

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons oil

Sweat red onions in a pan with oil until translucent but not caramelized. Next add all other ingredients except lemon juice. Simmer until liquid is reduced to just above the onions and the mixture is slightly sticky. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Set aside to cool. Store in refrigerator for up to one week. Heat a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add sprouts and cook, stirring often. You want to caramelize the sprouts on the outside while still leaving them slightly crisp. This should take about eight minutes. When the sprouts are ready remove from heat and stir in onion jam and butter. Serve immediately.

Kristi Williams
Brown Sugar Bakery

Kristi Williams and Brown Sugar Bakery are known for their cakes — but every cake needs some icing, right? Enter this luscious, slow-cooked caramel icing that's bound to make the kitchen smell as wonderful as it tastes. Williams gives some suggestions about what to put this icing on, but it's going to be hard not to just eat it right off the spoon. MR.

Brown sugar's old school caramel icing

2 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter (or 1 stick)

6 ounces evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon imitation rum extract

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, mix butter, evaporated milk and two cups of the sugar. Heat and stir with wooden spoon until sugar dissolves. Do not boil mixture.

As soon as sugar dissolves, reduce heat to low. In a small pan or skillet on medium-low heat, melt the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar. Stir constantly with wooden spoon until liquid and brown in color.

Pour the browned sugar into the saucepan with milk, sugar, butter mixture and quickly stir to blend the ingredients. Stir continuously until the liquid reaches the soft-ball stage. It may be easier to determine the soft-ball stage with a candy thermometer (the caramel should be at 235 F), but if you don't have a candy thermometer, you can test by dropping a small amount of caramel into water to see if it forms a soft ball. Note: It could take up to 30 minutes for the caramel to reach the soft-ball stage. Don't turn up the heat because the caramel could burn and be ruined quickly. Just keep on stirrin' until it's thoroughly combined!

Remove from heat, and let cool slightly. Add the vanilla and imitation rum extracts. A yummy variation: add up to 1 teaspoon of Fleur de Sel to cooled caramel to create gourmet salted caramel! Pour on anything! Ice cream, cheesecake, doughnuts, cupcakes, and brownies are all great choices.

Rachel Moore
Loblolly Creamery

Rachel Moore, the culinary genius behind delectable Loblolly Creamery ice cream, is also an accomplished vegan and gluten-free baker. So if there's someone at your fall party this year that needs special dietary considerations, he or she can still indulge their sweet tooth with these excellent gluten-free cookies (which can become vegan with an egg substitute). And why not serve ice cream with them? MR.

Sweet & simple peanut butter cookies

1 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

A pint of Loblolly Creamery ice cream (optional)

Mix all ingredients until a smooth dough forms. Divide dough into 10 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, and flatten each onto a parchment lined baking sheet either with your hand or a fork. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before removing from baking sheet. Then pile high on the counter, scoop a dollop of double vanilla ice cream on top or make ice cream sandwiches with Loblolly Creamery's salted caramel ice cream. The more ice cream, the better.

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