Arwen Rice has two claims to fame: her unusual name and her extraordinary talent in the kitchen. Her father, whom she affectionately refers to as a sci-fi nerd, gifted her with the unique moniker, naming her after an elf in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. And, with both parents always cooking and baking, her passion for inventive food grew throughout her life. “My dad was always baking bread and making cookies, cakes and brownies, ” Arwen shares of her early exposure to the culinary world. “My mom was all about eating fresh and eating from the garden. I definitely don’t think I would be cooking and doing what I’m doing today without the influence of both of my parents.”
The 34-year-old originally hails from Albuquerque. She met her husband, Bayou La Batre-born Shane Rice, while attending culinary school in Denver. The couple came to Alabama almost a decade ago and settled down in Midtown.
Arwen’s restaurant resume includes several stints in Colorado along with Naman’s Midtown Market and Naman’s Catering in Mobile before turning up almost accidentally at Red or White Wine & Gourmet Center. She says she happened to “pop into Red or White” when her neighbor Mike Gibson, the general manager, asked if she was interested in a job. She happily accepted. “I was always open to something new, and so I started off one day a week and it just developed into a full-time thing, ” she says. That was four years ago; she is now the executive chef at the Mobile location.
“I love that they let me do pretty much whatever I want to do food-wise. They give me creative free rein, ” she says. The popular wood-fired pizzas are her forte. She dedicates herself to fresh, local ingredients, and she prepares homemade dough daily. “We aren’t really boxed into any one cooking style. I wouldn’t say we are Italian or Spanish just because we do pizzas and tapas or small plates. It’s always changing. Whatever is seasonal, that’s usually what inspires me.”
When Arwen and Shane, along with their 8-year-old daughter Evie, stir up some spontaneous fun with friends, she returns to her roots for ideas. “I do a lot more New Mexico-inspired stuff when I’m entertaining at home. I like doing enchiladas or chilaquiles and guacamole. I’ve been making guacamole since I was maybe 9 years old. Oh, and we’ve always got to have wine, ” she adds with a grin. In this case, bringing her work home with her is the easiest part of entertaining because, as she says, “We have the best.”
Arwen’s Great Guacamole
This is a longtime specialty of Chef Arwen. She says it is what she always brings to family events. Serve it as a snappy condiment to accompany turkey chilaquiles or with a big basket of tortilla chips as a classic appetizer.
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 jalapeño, finely diced with seeds removed
1/4 cup sweet yellow onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, diced
6 dashes hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
3 good pinches of salt
pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
3 ripe avocados
1. Add all the ingredients but the avocados to a medium bowl and let marinate for 5 – 10 minutes. (This will soften and mellow the onions.)
2. Dice the avocados and add to the bowl. Mash gently with a fork, leaving some big chunks.
3. Test for saltiness and spiciness. (Arwen advises, “Add more salt if needed — it makes a huge difference!”) Makes approximately 3 – 4 cups.
Arwen’s Southwestern-style chilaquiles are a splendid supper solution for transforming leftover Thanksgiving turkey.
3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 – 4 chipotle peppers (more or less depending on how spicy you want it), chopped
3 (15-ounce) can red chili enchilada sauce (Arwen uses Hatch brand from New Mexico.)
3 cups leftover turkey or chicken
12 ounces (usually one and a half bags) good quality tortilla chips (Arwen prefers blue corn.)
8 ounces freshly grated sharp cheddar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Heat a large skillet and add olive oil. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat for 7 – 8 minutes or until translucent,
stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in the chipotle peppers and enchilada sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Add leftover turkey or chicken after simmering.
3. Meanwhile, gently crush the tortilla chips in the bag. Add the tortilla chips to the sauce, stirring them in with a wooden spoon until all the chips are well coated. (The mixture should be pretty saucy. If not, add a little water.)
4. Pour mixture into a greased 9-by-11-inch pan and top with cheddar cheese. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
5. Remove from the oven and let rest for at least 5 minutes. Serve with Arwen’s Great Guacamole. Serves 8.
Green Chili Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup
Arwen loves to craft up a big pot of soup and invite friends over when cold weather finally arrives. The dish is warm and comforting, yet easy and casual.
5 pieces bacon, diced
1 large onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
2 bay leaves
1 pound black beans, soaked overnight
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 – 4 teaspoons salt
3 (4-ounce) cans diced green chilis (Arwen uses Hatch brand from New Mexico.)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 medium sweet potatoes, diced small
sour cream and corn chips, for garnish
1. Heat a large soup pot and add the diced bacon.
2. Once the bacon has browned a bit, add the onion and garlic. Sauté for 5 – 7 minutes then add the chili powder, cumin and bay leaves. Sauté for another 2 minutes, then add the black beans and remaining ingredients except for the sweet potatoes and sour cream.
3. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 1/2 hours over medium-low heat. Stir frequently.
4. Test a bean after an hour and if it is soft, add the sweet potatoes. Simmer another 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are soft.
5. Remove 3 cups of the soup out of the pot and mash with a potato masher then add back to the soup and stir. Portion into bowls and top with a dollop of sour cream and chips. Serves approximately 8 – 10.
Mexican-style Double Chocolate Chip Cookies
Arwen enjoys baking with her daughter, Evie. These deliciously different chocolate chip cookies are a favorite.
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks butter, melted and cooled a bit
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (preferably Mexican vanilla)
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 (4-ounce) bar dark chocolate, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl.
2. In a medium bowl, add melted butter, vegetable oil and brown sugar. Mix with a hand mixer until well blended and fluffy.
3. Add eggs one at a time, and then add Mexican vanilla.
4. Mix in the dry ingredients until just blended, then add the chocolate.
5. Scoop onto parchment-lined baking sheets with a large ice cream scoop, keeping dough a couple inches apart.
6. Bake for 6 minutes, rotate the pans and bake for another 3 minutes or until light golden brown. Makes 16 large cookies.
Arwen’s Wine Selections
• Broadbent Grüner Veltliner from Austria for $14 (Pair with Green Chili Black Bean and Sweet Potato Soup)
• Rios de Tinta Tempranillo from Spain for $15 (Pair with Turkey Chilaquiles)
• Graham Beck Sparkling Rosé from South Africa for $17 (Pair with Mexican-style Double Chocolate Chip Cookies)
Red or white wine & gourmet center
Address & Hours
1104 Dauphin St. 478-9494.
10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. M // 10:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. Tu – Th // 10:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. F / Sa
At this Midtown hotspot, Arwen Rice and her kitchen crew bring something delectably different to the table. The popular shop offers an impressive, intriguing array of vino, along with fun, fabulous food. It’s a cosmopolitan concept, with the lively bustle of business and a hip, date-night vibe. Stop in for a great pizza and pop a cork on a good bottle of wine. This month’s cover features the popular wood-fired Midtowner pie. There is a $5 corkage fee for the first bottle of wine. Or, if you prefer, the restaurant offers more than a dozen wines by the glass from a vast selection that changes monthly. redorwhitewine.com
text by Sallye Irvine • photos by Elizabeth Gelineau