Amanda Stone's Tasty States

Arkansas is a complex state. Not only can “The Natural State” be divided into six diverse geographical regions, with forests of pine trees, mountains, swamps, hot springs and opportunities to dig for diamonds, but it’s also our biggest rice-producing state and home to the World Cheese Dip Championship and the World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off.

With the big sport ball game this Sunday, it’s a good time to learn that Arkansas lays claim to the most popular snack enjoyed in homes across the country during the big event: cheese dip. There’s some arguing between states, particularly Texas, about where cheese dip was invented, but we’ll let Arkansas have it this time.

Cheese dip historians tend to believe it was invented in neither state but rather in northern Mexico. Proximity made it popular in Arkansas restaurants in the 1940s, quickly catching on with home cooks in the area and beyond.

Once the Ro-tel factory opened and Velveeta was invented, the rest is history. These days, where there are countertops lined with slow cookers, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a shirt without a dribble of cheese dip resting on the front.

Arkansas is also known for fried pickles, which were possibly invented by the owner of the Duchess Drive-In in Atkins. The story goes that he was gazing out the window at the pickle factory across the street when inspiration struck. There are naysayers, but all I really think matters is that they were invented at all. I am thankful.

I really like to learn the origin stories behind recipes, but I don’t feel the need with Arkansas chocolate gravy. Hot, buttery biscuits topped with chocolate sauce just makes sense, no backstory needed. Of course someone poured chocolate on their biscuits back in the olden days. Of course it caught on. What’s not to like? There’s nothing further to discuss.

I had the pleasure of attending the squirrel cook-off in Bentonville a couple of years ago, and I was blown away by the creativity of the recipes, the skill of the chefs and the sheer distance contestants traveled in order to compete in the world championship.

These people had to procure their own squirrels, clean them and cook them into something not only worth eating but a dish that could compete with dozens of others. It had to be delicious. I may have gone into the event thinking it would be silly and entertaining, but I left there in awe. The World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off is on Sept. 26 this year. I hope to see you there.

Get a taste for Arkansas with these recipes.

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Arkansas cheese dip

6 tablespoons flour

1/2 pound Velveeta smooth melt cheese

2 cups grated jack cheese

2 cups milk

1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro, minced

1 medium jalapeno, minced

1 medium poblano pepper, minced

2 cups mild diced green chiles (canned or freshly roasted, peeled, and seeded)

2 cups fresh tomato, minced

1 cup yellow onion, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Combine all ingredients in a double boiler with simmering water or slow cooker on a low setting. Melt cheese, stirring as necessary to fully incorporate all ingredients. Serve warm. Thin with milk, if necessary. Serve with crisp tortilla chips.

Recipe source: www.thelocalpalate.com.

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Oven-fried pickles

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup freshly chopped dill

2 tablespoons melted butter

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup flour

2 large eggs

1 cup pickle slices, patted dry with paper towels

Ranch dressing, for dipping

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. In a shallow bowl, stir together bread crumbs, dill, melted butter, garlic powder and cayenne, and season with salt and pepper. Put flour in another shallow bowl. In a third bowl, beat eggs.

Working in batches, toss pickles in flour until lightly coated, then dip in egg, then toss in panko mixture until fully coated. Place pickles on prepared baking sheet and bake until golden and crispy, about 15 minutes. Serve with ranch.

Recipe source: www.delish.com.

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Chocolate gravy

1 stick butter

4 tablespoons cocoa

4 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups milk

Melt butter. Stir in cocoa and flour, then add sugar and milk and whisk. Cook over medium heat until thick, stirring often. Serve over hot biscuits.

Recipe source: www.8broads.com.

Amanda Stone is a food and gardening columnist for The Joplin Globe. Email questions to amandastone31@gmail.com or mail her c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802.

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