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.


Recipe Failure
September 19, 2011, 9:22 am
Filed under: challenge, recipe | Tags: , , , , ,

Cherry tomatoesComplete recipe failure. It doesn’t happen often. But when I make a recipe wrong, I do it in style.

There was the “hey, let’s put frozen bell peppers in a smoothie because it’s healthy,” moment; the, “I don’t have any chicken stock, so I’ll just make this soup with spoiled red wine,” decision; and what can only be referred to as the rice disaster.

But sometimes the problem stems not from my bad judgment, but a cookbook that’s more food photography than solid recipes. Often, I feel worse for getting suckered in to a beautiful image than rinsing dropped rice and serving it anyway (not really).

And so, the story of tomato tarte tatin. It sounded so good. Tarte tatin! Cherry tomatoes! Homegrown basil! I was ecstatic. The picture was so beautiful, it seemed so easy. How could pre-made puff pastry and local tomatoes ready in 20 minutes go wrong?

Oil, sugar, breadcrumbs, tomatoes and puff pastry – all in a frying pan in the oven. No pre-cooking of the crust, just loosely cobbled together and thrown into a medium oven.

Tomato tarte tatinI should have known better.

Flipping the final product there were juices everywhere. The carefully placed tomatoes all crushed together on one side. A seriously soggy crust.

I gently placed the tomatoes back in their rightful spots and took a photo hoping that the taste would compensate for the disaster that was the appearance. But no. It was just weird. Oddly sweet, oily, droopy, pathetic.

Then I remembered. I had retired this cookbook months earlier for this exact reason. Perfect pictures dissolving into a truly bizarre result.

And so, with my head hung low I bow once again to my favorites: Julia Child, Dorie Greenspan, America’s Test Kitchen. I will never cheat again, I tell my dog-earred and smudged copies. But I will. That’s how cookbook love works.

Victory Parsley and Garlic Pasta
September 12, 2011, 12:01 am
Filed under: challenge, dinner, garden, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday five-thirty p.m., I am freshly showered, no shoes, in the garden. This is supposed to be a quick stop – I don’t want to deal with the weeds or the now-weed-like-plants taking over. I just want parsley.

I know where the parsley should be; remember where I planted it in the spring. I know it, tall and leafy, leaning over all the shorter herbs clustered together in the small dirt space. I know it, and yet I can’t see it.

What I can see are the reaching runners of spreading grasses, the pink blooming plants that make you hesitate for a second between the weed/not-a-weed line, the thorny squat leaf clumps that leave the hands stinging.

There is parsley in there. There has to be.

So I move aside some blooming grasses, curious if I can skirt by for another week just pushing aside the gargantuan plants that I’m pretty confident I didn’t plant in the first place.

And there, under a particularly large clump of grass, I find the herb – half dead, a quarter of its original height. Wilted, choked by the out-of-control vine that’s overtaken most of the garden. It is a sorry sight.

Something snaps. Out by the roots go the grasses and the thorny clumps. The vines are ripped out, a dozen strands at a time. The towering pink-flowered plants resist before eventually releasing from the soft ground, leaving a webbed network of roots behind.

Twenty-minutes later, I can see where plants begin and end. The dead cucumber remains tied to the stake, but the sweet potatoes are mostly free of the competing grasses and vines. The herb patch is once again visible and the oregano is thriving. The tomatoes are on their last legs, but the bell pepper has two new fruits clinging to a ridiculously crooked plant.

Finally, after months of neglect, there it is – my garden – worse for the wear but still surviving. And here I am, arms cut up, hands stinging, feet dirty. My just washed hair is stuck to my face, which is now smeared with dirt.

Dirty or not, this feels like a victory.

Victory Parsley and Garlic Pasta

This is a simple pasta. It takes 20 minutes from start to finish and is perfect for the warm days and cooler nights. This is an endlessly adaptable dish. The basics are, 2 cloves of garlic per person and a small handful of any fresh herb.

This is for the parsley that somehow survived.

8 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1/4 cup parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pkg spaghetti or linguine
salt and pepper to taste
a sprinkle freshly grated parmesan

Bring a large pot of water to boil. While the water cooks, slice the garlic cloves and chop the parsley.

Once boiling, salt the water and cook the pasta according to the directions on the package.

With three minutes left on the pasta cooking time, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Once hot, add in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Once you can smell the garlic, toss in the parsley and cook about 45 seconds, or until the parsley just begins to wilt.

Immediately add the pasta straight into the garlic, herb and olive oil mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss until the pasta is coated. If the mixture seems too dry, add in some of the cooking water.

French Toast
August 22, 2011, 12:33 am
Filed under: breakfast, challenge, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Published February 21, 2011
Local BreadI don’t know exactly when the weekly ritual of buying bread from a door to door sales-family started. I can’t remember if it’s been one year or two since the blond, pigtailed girls began showing up at my parent’s doorstep. And I don’t fully remember their story.

What I do remember, however, is my first taste of this bread – made from a secret family recipe – and the way it tugged and pulled and slowly dissolved with each careful bite. I remember the handful of times when it arrived still warm from the oven and a thick slab of salted butter melted into the strands of dough. I remember when my Dad left the required $3 in an envelope taped to the front door with a crooked note, “One small loaf, please,” because he was outside mowing the lawn and didn’t want to miss his chance to buy our weekly bread.

YogurtIt’s funny how such a simple ritual can become transformative. As a family, we aren’t big bread eaters, yet, every week we diligently buy a loaf. It’s become important to us. Important to support this entrepreneurial family, important to share the homemade bread over our weekly family dinner. And, if it lasts long enough – important to use that slightly stale bread for breakfast.

The flour and yeast of this “swiss’ bread probably aren’t local. The family, however, is from a few blocks away – and that’s good enough for me.

There are a lot of reasons for eating local – from keeping more of your dollar in the local economy to reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil – but, personally, my interests revolve around keeping me connected to my place, my little postage stamp of native soil.

EggsI celebrate the 800 types of citrus in season at the moment, get excited for local pork and taste the earth in local wines. This is how I know what home is, this is how I feel connected to my place and this is how I celebrate what Arizona has to offer.

This is Phoenix. This is my neighborhood. This is home.

French Toast

You can make this recipe with milk, or use homemade yogurt thinned with lemon juice to achieve the same effect. Personally, I love the yogurt from Udder Delights.

French ToastIngredients:
8 slices bread
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup milk (or 3/4 cup yogurt and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice)
4 medium eggs
2 Tbsp sugar
3/4 Tsp cinnamon
1/4 Tsp salt

Beat the eggs, milk or yogurt mixture, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Transfer this mixture to a large, shallow baking dish or plate.

Soak two pieces of the bread in the batter – about 30 seconds per side. Meanwhile, melt 1 Tbsp of the butter in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until it begins to brown – swirling it to coat the entire pan. Remove the bread from the batter, allowing any excess to drip back into the dish. Lay the bread into the hot pan.

Cook until both sides are golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes per side. If using the yogurt mixture, keep an eye on the bread – it has a tendency to stick and may require extra butter. Transfer the French Toast to a wire rack and keep warm in a 200 degree F oven, or serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining bread, batter and butter.

Butterflied Greek Chicken
August 22, 2011, 12:32 am
Filed under: challenge, dinner, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Published February 13, 2011
TomatoesThere are some meals where all you do is introduce the raw ingredients to fire, using the cooking process to draw out the natural flavor, complementing them ever-so-slightly with salt and pepper. A meal where the whole is better than the parts, but each component stands alone. This is one of those meals. And it’s really simple.

I’m often hesitant to cook with local chicken – not for reasons of cost or availability – but instead worried that whatever I create won’t stand up to a chicken that actually tastes like, well, chicken. Somehow cooking with a chicken that has a depth of flavor leaves me baffled. How do you draw it out, show it off, accentuate it? I want to do this chicken justice. And until this meal, I’ve resorted to roast chicken, confident that the tried and true method is the best display for real chicken.

OlivesI now realize the error of my ways.

It turns out that these birds are strong enough in flavor profile to outshine even the most acidic of complements. In fact, the bird becomes an even bigger star. While the lemons from a friend’s tree, olives from Queen Creek Olive Mill (which are unbelievable) and locally made feta give the chicken a run for her money – she stands alone in her excellence.

And for a meal that could easily be made on weeknight, well, the bird steals the show.

Butterflied Greek Chicken

Adapted, ever so slightly, from Bobby Flay

Serves 4

Butterflied greek chicken1 3-pound chicken, butterflied (step by step instructions here)
Salt and pepper
Canola Oil
6 plum tomatoes, halved
3 lemons, halved
1 red onion, skin on, cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds
1/4 red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil
2 – 3 Tbsp chopped oregano leaves
1/2 olives, pitted
6 ounces feta, crumbled
1/4 cup basil leaves, chiffonade
1/4 cup greek yogurt (or, since unable to find locally, sour cream with a squeeze of lemon juice)

Preheat grill to medium, leave 1 side or section of the grill off. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and coat well with canola oil. Place the chicken, skin side down, on the grill over direct heat. Cook until golden brown and slightly charred. Once the skin is charred and blistered, flip over and move to the indirect heat. Continue cooking until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the chicken reads 170 F for the thigh meat – about 14 – 17 minutes. Remove from grill and let rest for 10 minutes before cutting.

While the chicken is on the grill, brush the tomatoes, lemon and onion with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill lemons, cut side down, until golden brown – about 8 to 9 minutes. Grill the tomatoes, cut side down, and onion for 5 – 7 minutes until softened and slightly charred.

Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by combining the vinegar, mustard and olive oil in well sealed jar. Shake, rather violently, for 30 seconds until combined. Add in the oregano and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, carve the chicken into 8 pieces and arrange on a plate or shallow bowl with the tomatoes, onions and all but one of the lemon halves. Evenly scatter the olives and feta cheese and drizzle with vinaigrette. Add the basil leaves. If using sour cream, add a half squeeze of a half of the cooked lemon and mix well. Dollop the yogurt or sour cream mixture in the center of the platter. Squeeze the remainder of the lemon half over the platter.

August 22, 2011, 12:30 am
Filed under: challenge, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Published February 6, 2011
CitrusThere’s something so undeniably tangeable about citrus. The way its weight feels in the hand, the skin-like texture of the peel, the cellular interior all of which yield to a sticky, pungent juice. It’s a combination I find irresistible.

Like so many other fruits, however, their peak is short lived. Come mid-May these fruits are a mealy, flavorless disappointment, which makes it easy to spend two hours turning them into a treat that will last throughout the year.

Marmalades are notorious for their difficultly, often requiring several days to transform the bitter fruits into the famously bittersweet spread. It’s an unfortunate reputation. Orange MarmaladeTurning fresh-from-the-tree fruit into a canned treat takes no more than three hours. Skip the canning, and in under two hours you have five pints worth of gold.

Truth be told, however, I wasn’t the biggest fan of marmalades. Somewhere between the back of the tongue bitter and whoosh of sickening sugar, the mixture has always left something to be desired. That is, until I made my own. I said last week that oranges are the bearers of sunshine in winter – marmalade, it turns out, is like sunshine in jar.

And after a batch or two, I’ve discovered a few tricks that take this jam from scary (like when I made apple jelly and caramelized the glass stove top) to relatively painless.

Seville Orange or Grapefruit Marmalade

For this recipe you can use the “decorative” oranges you find all around Phoenix, as long as the skin has not been sprayed with any chemicals. If you don’t have any citrus – the Phoenix Public Market is teeming with the fruits. Just make sure the peel is untreated and pesticide-free.

This recipe is easiest using a mandolin. While highly effective, this is a very dangerous kitchen tool. It is amazingly easy to do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. It is imperative to use the hand guard every time you use this tool. If you do not feel comfortable with a mandolin, you can achieve the same results with a knife – just slice the fruit as finely as possible.

And, finally, as tempting as it may be to double this recipe – don’t do it, it won’t set.

Grapefruit MarmaladeIngredients:
1 3/4 pounds oranges or grapefruits (4-5 medium oranges, 3 medium grapefruits)
12 cups water
1 lemon, zest and juice
3 pounds 12 ounces sugar
5 clean pint jars
2 Tbsp Orange flavored liquor (optional)

Scrub the fruit clean and put in the freezer for 10 minutes. Using a mandolin, slice the fruit into 1/8 inch slices and then, using a knife, cut into quarters. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a large, non-reactive stockpot. While the water is heating, place the fruit into a strainer set over a bowl and press down to release any juices. Once the water is boiling, add in the peel and pulp, reserving the juice. Boil the fruit, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, add the zest and juice of one lemon into the reserved juice.

After 5 minutes, strain the peel and pulp. Add back into the pot with the reserved juice and remaining 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to an aggressive simmer. Cook for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The liquid should greatly reduce. After 40 minutes check the peel for softness – yes, you have to eat it – it should be soft with just a little bit of resistance. If the peel isn’t soft enough, add in 1 cup additional water and cook for 20 more minutes.

Once the peel is soft, place a small plate in the freezer. Bring the mixture back to a boil and add in the sugar. It is critical at this point to stir constantly until the mixture sets (about 220F degrees if using a candy thermometer). To test the marmalade, place a small amount on the plate that has been chilling in the freezer. Return the plate to the freezer and check after 1 minute. If the mixture has jelled slightly and wrinkles when nudged it’s done. If not, continue to cook until it sets. The process takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

Remove the mixture from heat, add in the optional orange liquor and ladle into clean jars.
You can store these in the refrigerator without processing them, however if you plan to can them (which will make them last for a year) you can learn more about the process here.

Carnitas with Slow Cooked Beans
August 22, 2011, 12:28 am
Filed under: challenge, recipe | Tags: , , , , ,

Published February 1, 2011
OrangesIt’s not saguaro cactus, warm dry air or even the various take-out places ending in ‘bertos. No, for me, the Valley of the Sun is defined by orange trees. They are the markers of the seasons and the bearers of sunshine in winter. At their most simple, they are a joyous fruit.

And yet, come February, most residents of the Valley can’t get rid of them fast enough. They, along with lemons and grapefruit, start appearing on office break room tables with the somewhat motivating incentive of “free.” There are drives to donate the fruits and fear-inducing local TV stories warning of roof rats. And if that isn’t enough, someone eventually complains about the fruits rotting underneath the “decorative” orange trees and a clean-up drive is organized.

And then, suddenly, it’s spring and you can smell the orange blossoms from the freeway.

But before we reach that wonderful week in March, I’ve stumbled upon a recipe that uses up a handful of those oranges along with some of the fresh, new produce coming into market.

Pork CarnitasCarnitas is a wonderfully simple dish that is very easy to dress up or down. Serving it topped with an orange reduction and accompanied by slow cooked beans makes you look like a kitchen genius (when, in fact, it takes very little effort).

Shopping for this meal prompted my first trip to the Meat Shop. I frequently purchase from them, typically at Phoenix Public Market or Tempe Farmer’s Market, but I had never been to their store.

It turns out that Fridays and Saturdays are their Fresh Days – where you can watch them carving your cut of meat through the glass window. I was so carried away by it all that I left with not only the two required pounds of boneless pork shoulder but also lardons, breakfast sausage, rashers and a large bone.

Finishing the slow cooked beansThe unsung hero of this meal, however, was the beans. Left in a crock pot for four to six hours, it’s the addition of fresh tomato, onion and bell pepper at the end brings a lightness to the dish which compliments the mild flavors of the pork.

Combined with the fresh tortillas from Phoenix Public Market and oranges from my parent’s orange tree, this meal bridged the gap between two seasons – celebrating the winter oranges and the new, crisp arrivals.


Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food

Carnitas2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, fat trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 garlic cloves, crushed
8 cups water
coarse salt and ground pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup milk
Zest of 1 orange
12 torillas
1/3 cup goat cheese
1 small bunch lettuce mix, preferably with some varieties mixed in

In a large dutch oven, or similar type of heavy pot, combine pork, garlic and water. Season with salt and pepper. Cover pot and bring to a boil, once boiling reduce to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes or until pork softens. Drain well.

After about 20 minutes, start in on the orange reduction. In a small sauce pan, bring 2 cups orange juice and orange zest to boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low until sauce is just simmering.

In the dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add pork, 1/2 cup orange juice and milk. Stir occasionally until liquid has evaporated and the pork is browned about 10 – 12 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

By this time, the orange sauce should have greatly reduced into an almost syrupy mixture. If not, bring to a rapid boil until thickened.

To make mini tacos, layer lettuce, pork and crumbled goat cheese on a warmed tortilla. Top with a drizzle of orange sauce.

Slow Cooked Beans

Adapted “Tia’s Beans” by Lorraine Glazar from Valley of the Sun, The Farmers Market Cookbook

Slow Cooked Beans2 cups dried pinto beans
1 qt water
Pork bone or 1 strip bacon
1 small jalepeno
1 1/2 tsp olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp chile powder
1 tomato, diced
1 onion, diced
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1 tsp salt

Rinse beans well with warm water, being careful to remove any bits of dirt or rock.
In a large slow cooker, combine beans, water, pork bone, jalepeno, carrots and garlic. Cover top of slow cooker with aluminum foil and lid. After 1 hour, remove the jalepeno. Cook on high for 4 to 6 hours.

One half hour before the beans are done add Worcestershire sauce, chile powder, tomatoes, onion, cilantro, bell pepper and salt to taste. Stir gently and continue cooking at high heat in slow cooker for remaining half hour.