Eating Local in Phoenix


And in the end

A year-and-a-half ago I started this blog. It was to be an experiment: could a grad student make one meal a week from all local ingredients? The answer, it turns out is yes. (As long as you take the term “meal” lightly.)

Now, I’m 11 days from graduation and I’ll no longer be a poor grad student. I’ll be a poor, recently-graduated student. There’s a difference, I’m sure.

It’s funny to look back at that first post. That moment when I vowed that I wouldn’t be growing anything, instead relying almost entirely on farmers markets around the city.

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way I became a jam making, pickle canning, garden obsessing cook. It became less about cobbling together every possible ingredient – no matter the challenge – from a farmers market and more about making stand-out, stand-alone dishes from food I adored.

It became about marmalade and giant sweet potatoes, stuffed pumpkins, simple spaghetti and a chicken that stole my heart.

It was a beautiful and freeing change.

I’ve watched six seasons come and go while in grad school. In a small way, I’ve celebrated them all. I’ve eaten local both here in the Valley of the Sun and abroad.

Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

But this isn’t all about the past. There are big changes on the horizon – even if I don’t quite know what they are, yet. But I do know one thing, the end of my masters career doesn’t mean the end of this blog.

I like local food too much to let this go.

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Transition
November 28, 2011, 12:04 am
Filed under: asides | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Graduate Invitation AppleIt is three days post-Thanksgiving. The tree is decorated, the lights are up, half the gifts are bought. Of all the things I accomplished this weekend, none of them involved ‘work’ work. But I did cook. And it was wonderful.

This weekend, I should have written my 15 page paper due in five days. I should have finished my half-written resume. I should have updated my website. I should have finished that CSS/HTML project I’ve been working on for too long.

I did none of these things. Fortunately, I don’t believe in ‘should.’ I do, however, believe in procrastination.

As I writer, I’m not great at transitions. I tend to jump topics without warning. I do the same thing off the page.

The problem isn’t the change. The problem is getting from one place to another without radically changing everything.

How to get from undergraduate degree to living in France for eight months? Spend a summer worrying and eating chocolate pudding for breakfast.

How to get from living abroad to moving home with no plans? Cry a lot.

How to get from a masters to what comes next? Procrastinate, apparently.

There are nine days until the end of classes, nineteen days until I graduate. It is time to transition. Once again, I am lost.

I will make jam. This is how I will transition. With jam. Lots of jam.



Dreaming
November 7, 2011, 12:13 am
Filed under: asides | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

PomegranateThis weekend I was a grad student. I sat in front of three different computers and worked. For hours. Dreaming. Dreaming about what I would cook as soon as I got the chance. As soon as I got a break. As soon as I was hungry. And then it was 11 p.m. on Sunday.

This weekend, I made a sandwich. And some jello.

But I dreamed.

As I built websites I dreamed about my single pomegranate on that sprightly tree and wondered if the cold would hurt the fruit. Wondered if it would be sweet, wondered when, exactly, would it finally come ripe, wondered if it was ripe now.

Cauliflower GratinI built maps and thought about hot cauliflower gratin. I’ve wanted to make it for well over a year now, but I’ve never found local cauliflower. It would be bubbly and hot, the purple of the purple cape cauliflower dotted with golden spots of melted cheese. There would be pork loin from the meat shop and local cheese. And I would eat it for dinner with nothing else. Because, after floating around in my head for a year, I know it’s sustenance enough.

This weekend I read about food laws, wrote questionable story pitches, planned a video shoot. All the time thinking about ever-so-slightly-warm apple cake. I went apple picking in my mind, gathering up bushels of apples, all red and green and orangey-yellow. I came home and I made apple sauce and apple butter, apple pie and stuffed apples with nuts, brown sugar, butter. I even made apple jelly again, this time careful not to caramelize the stove. Then I gave all the apple jelly away because I still don’t like it.

In my real, tangible kitchen there is none of this. No cauliflower gratin, no apple anything, no pomegranate.

AppleBut I will do all of these things. I will find local cauliflower – I’ll take any color – and I will make a roux with pork loin and grate cheese and mix it all up before throwing it in the oven.

I will go apple picking. Maybe not this year. But I will go. And I will make something apple-y before Christmas and I will put it in jars and give it away as gifts (I hope, for my sake, it’s not apple jelly).

And I will pick that pomegranate before it rots. And no matter what the insides look like, it will be perfect.

And I will cook.



Pumpkin
October 30, 2011, 11:19 pm
Filed under: asides, garden, holiday | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

PumpkinI really want to like pumpkin.

Every year as I’m disembowling some ugly, misshapen gourd (why go generic when you can go warty, I always say) I think about saving the seeds and growing my own orange monstrosity.

I become oddly nostalgic, picturing the vine climbing along the garden trellis, smiling as I picture the sudden appearance of an orange ball, waiting for that one leaf to turn over and die before plucking my jack-o-latern.

And then, inevitably, the bubble bursts when someone gives me something pumpkin flavored – this year it was cupcakes – and I remember that I really don’t care for the taste of pumpkin.

Stuffed pumpkin, yes. Pumpkin flavored anything else? Not so much.

Pumpkins glowIt’s my great food secret. I don’t like ginger and I don’t really care for anything with sweetened pumpkin as a primary ingredient.

So this year, as I was hacking into my reddish-orange, bigger than my head and riddled with warts pumpkin, I had that same old debate with myself: Save the seeds or compost them?

This year, instead of carefully washing and drying the seeds just to throw them out a month later when I can’t remember what they are, my pumpkin gave me a clear answer.

Pumpkin gutsIt seems, my rock hard gourd had self-sprouted every seed. Now, I’m all for gross pumpkin insides, but I’m not planting any seed that mutinously grows inside its host.

Problem solved.

This year I just carved. And I won’t be planting any pumpkins. At least, not intentionally.



Orléans
October 3, 2011, 1:23 am
Filed under: asides, dinner, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I lived in a city where the flowers magically changed every two weeks. There were palm trees and willow trees, pansies and roses. For months, I marveled at the power of the seasons, then I discovered the midnight workers who brought the plants in and out by the truck load. Brightly colored flowers in fall, low-lying ground cover in winter, whispy trees in spring. Even after the magic was gone, the city surprised me.

There was a green equestrian monument in the town square, a cathedral with mass only in the summer, weekly strikes.

It was in this city that I learned about cold, about determination, about friendship and about love. I learned how to stand on my own two feet, how to fight for myself, how to be poor but happy.

It was by the river that I discovered that no matter how far from home you go, it stays with you. When you leave, it never leaves you.

I only lived in Orléans, France for eight months. It seemed like a lifetime and a dream all at once. Every day was a challenge, nothing was easy. Days were weeks, weeks were months, months were years. I fought losing battles, celebrated victories, and kissed windows in moments of joy.

And I grew up.

Two years ago today I set foot in a classroom as a teacher for the first time. I was unprepared. My lesson consisted of answering questions and talking too fast. I wrote in my blog that I wasn’t nervous. I lied.

Two years ago today I came home hungry and cold. Even though I lived next to a supermarché, I had been eating sandwiches, backpacking food, spaghetti with butter – anything cheap. I was happy beyond belief but I was also terrified.

I called home.

I’m pretty sure I cried. And from my mom, who was worried, I inherited the recipe for scalloped potatoes. It was a turning point.

I cooked myself a real dinner for the first time in two weeks. I ate the whole pan of bubbling potatoes. And finally, I felt strong. This experience – all the ups and downs – wasn’t just happening to me, I was living it.

And I was happy.

Scalloped Potatoes

This is an easy dish to make local no matter where you are. The trick here is to make a roux first. This isn’t a particularly French preparation but, for me, this is France.

Ingredients
1 batch roux (2 tbsp butter and flour, add milk slowly until the sauce is thick yet smooth)
6 potatoes
3 big handfuls emmental cheese, or any mild white cheese
2 slices ham, diced
1 small onion, diced

Preheat the oven to 375. Begin my making the roux. Melt the butter, once bubbling add the flour and whisk for 1 minute. Slowly add in the milk, one splash at a time – whisking continuously. The sauce will thicken into a paste. Keeping slowly adding the milk until it begins to resemble a thick cream sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Microwave the peeled potatoes for 5 minutes on high. While the potatoes cook, dice the onion and ham.

Once the potatoes are cool to touch, slice them thinly. It’s important to keep the slices even in thickness.

In a casserole dish, spread a little sauce in the bottom, then layer the potato slices in the pan – don’t overlap them. Add enough cheese to loosely cover the potatoes, then sprinkle on a third of the ham and onions. Keep building layers with roux, cheese, ham and onions until you run out of potatoes. For the top layer, pour on the remaining roux and sprinkle generously with cheese.

Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until a knife can be inserted with little resistance.



August
August 22, 2011, 12:43 am
Filed under: asides, garden | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

It is August in Phoenix. My garden, so lovingly planted in the spring, is now filled with plants obliterated by heat. The only signs of life, outside of the giant weeds, are the sweet potatoes and a handful of surviving herbs.

My potato plants, foolishly sprouted from market spuds, yielded five tiny tubers before wilting under the sun. And my zucchini plant, always the champ of a garden, was devoured by mysterious bugs overnight after giving up just under a dozen fruits. The onions, so carefully planted and worried about, yielded a pungent product no bigger than my fist.

Wily, my much adored chicken, finally succeeded in integrating herself with the neighbor’s hens. She hasn’t rooted through my garden in months. She still roosts in the orange tree, however, and, if we are lucky, we get a glimpse of her most evenings at dusk.

May, June and July were a funny mix of travel and homebound interludes – punctuated by an emergency appendectomy and a slow recovery from a long semester. I watched as my previously lofty goal of crafting delightful meals from garden grown produce wilted and eventually died. My fortitude to turn on the oven and four burners slowly waned away, while my weekly trips to the farmers market eventually became impossible – mostly thanks to my inability to sweat gracefully.

Instead of complete meals, I made a lot of jam. None of it was local.

But this is August. Despite the heat, there is promise in the air. This is the month where my sweet potato plants will reach maturity. My pomegranate tree – which wasn’t suppose to grow anything – is still hanging on to one rock solid green bulb. The cherry tomato plant is still going strong and the bell pepper will produce more next year.

I will turn the garden and I will start again.

But more importantly, I will expand my horizons. Phoenix is more than just all local meals. It is honey and wine, farms and ranchers, local beers and food trucks and, importantly, exceptional restaurants. I will look beyond my kitchen for inspiration and I will celebrate the Valley of the Sun.

After all, this is my postage stamp of native soil.



Wily
August 22, 2011, 12:40 am
Filed under: asides, garden | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Published April 18, 2011
Wily, the chickenMy chicken roosts in my neighbor’s orange tree. She digs in my garden, transplanting most of my potatoes while looking for worms. She ate what were to become my pole beans. She flies over the wall, squawking, if you come within 15 feet.

And, she lays perfect, small, cream-colored eggs in my neighbor’s coop.

Dysfunctional wouldn’t even begin to describe our relationship.

I held her once, shortly after she took up residence in my parent’s yard. She smelled like saw dust and feathers. Clucking softly, she was scared and warm. I loved her immediately.

We didn’t plan to be chicken owners. She just showed up one day, unannounced. It took us two weeks to realize that the rustling noise coming from the jungle of lantana and ivy draped over dead trees in the depth of the yard wasn’t a cat. We thought she was a rooster. We almost gave her away.

Wily's eggsNow the whole house comes to a standstill to watch her scratch around the yard. When it rains, she stands under the small, blooming peach tree, angry. She wades through the irrigation flood to eat bugs. She chases pigeons around the yard. She stands on the wall, staring at you with one eye, before hollering and launching herself into the orange tree for the night.

A social bird, she spends most of her time in the neighbor’s yard trying to befriend their three hens. She patiently waits her turn to lay an egg once a day in their coop. Smaller and faster than the other hens, she never shares the worms she digs up. She is an outcast.

Even though she barely belongs to us – let’s be honest, she shows up for the food and to dig in my unprotected garden – our neighbors continue to call her our chicken. Their 9-year-old son diligently brings a half dozen of her eggs to us every weekend. Feeling bad, we always send him back with something. This week it was homemade blackberry jam, last week, coupons for free french fries at McDonald’s.

Egg YolksHer eggs are tiny. Often speckled, never perfectly white. The shells are tough, the yolks deep yellow. The ultimate cycle, we eat the bugs and beans and fallen oranges she’s scavenged from our yard. Eating them is to be home.

Seeing her is to be home.

It’s a funny thing to have a chicken.