Eating Local in Phoenix

Sweet Potatoes
October 17, 2011, 12:39 am
Filed under: garden, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I grew a sweet potato as large as my head.

Well, almost.

Despite my inability to keep hardly anything alive in my garden, I managed to grow 14 sweet potatoes from a kitchen science project. Or, I should really say, the dirt and sprinkler system grew them. I just put them there.

Stooping over the first plant, I wasn’t sure if there would be any of the big red orbs waiting for me. My previous bad luck with the regular potatoes sprouted from grocery store cast offs left me uncertain. After all, those plants had all looked healthy, yet I only dug four tiny potatoes.

But the sweet potatoes were different. As I crouched over the first plant, worried, I saw the orange tops of three potatoes. Convinced they’d be no bigger than a kiwi, I almost left them in the ground to grow for a few more weeks.

It’s a good thing I didn’t.

The first one came out the size and shape of a softball. The hard dirt of my garden makes it difficult for plants to grow deep. The next one was a scraggly little thing. The third looked almost normal. And then another surprise softball.

I was over the moon.

This had worked! I had done it. I had grown sweet potatoes. My garden wasn’t a failure after all.

As I went to dig out the remaining 5 plants my joy was waning. There were no orange tops protruding from this tangle of vines.

After 25 minutes of digging I had 10 more. Some were the size of a baby’s head, some barely bigger than my pinkie. And despite the mess of green vines that had taken over the garden, I managed to get all but one out in one piece.

This success – 14 healthy sweet potatoes from a project started in a mason jar on a window ledge – called for a celebration. Which, in my world, requires a pie.

So that’s just what I did.

Sweet Potato Pie

It turns out that sweet potatoes need to cure for several weeks to develop the rich, sweet flavor they are adored for. But I could care less and it didn’t seem to matter at all. Sweet potato pie is my new favorite – especially when it’s made from a two pound beauty I grew myself.

Ever so slightly adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

1 recipe pie crust
2 pounds sweet potatoes
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp bourbon (I used Calvados instead)
1 tsp bourbon vanilla extract
2/3 cup whole milk
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

It’s essential that the crust is still hot when the filling is added, so plan accordingly
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

While your crust partially bakes, poke the sweet potatoes several times with a fork and microwave at full power for 5 minutes. Turn the potatoes over and microwave for another 3-5 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, but not overcooked.

Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice them in half. Using a paper towel to grip them, scoop out the filling and discard the skins. This should produce about 2 cups. Mash the butter into the sweet potatoes until only a few lumps remain.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks, granulated sugar, nutmeg and salt. Add in the bourbon (or calvados) and vanilla. Then whisk in the milk.

A third at a time, stir the egg mixture into the sweet potato mixture. You’re looking for a nice, smooth texture.

If you’ve hit the timing just right, pull the crust out of the oven and sprinkle the bottom evenly with the brown sugar. Pour the sweet potato mixture over the brown sugar. Bake until the filling is set around the edges but the center still wiggles slightly. About 45 minutes.

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Serve with whipped cream.


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.

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.

September 26, 2011, 12:21 am
Filed under: dinner, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fall orange against a summer sunsetTonight it is cool outside. Things are changing: the sidewalks are no longer blistering to bare feet, the sun no longer holds the same intensity, pumpkins have appeared at grocery stores and I suddenly crave rich foods.

This is the beginning of a new season.

I have a tendency to measure the seasons by my orange tree. As the green orbs begin to gain color I know the cooler weather is coming. They aren’t quite there yet – but I’ve decided to pretend they are. I have to. I’m out of summer recipe ideas.

Fall is a decidedly melancholy season. A season of settling down, of putting the land to rest (but not in Phoenix), an expectation of cooler weather. But more than anything, it’s a season of waiting. Waiting for the cold, waiting for the winter, waiting for the holidays and, this year, waiting for graduation.

This is a fall I’ve looked forward to. This is a fall for celebrating.

So, to start it off, I’m bringing back my stuffed pumpkin recipe – a favorite from last fall and one perfect for celebrations.

Stuffed Pumpkin

This year, I’m not making the same mistake and will be stocking up on any and all local orange beauties so I can enjoy this dish more than once.

Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table
Serves 6 (this will vary based on pumpkin size, the following is for a 6 pound pumpkin)


1 pumpkin, about 6 pounds
1/2 pound nine grain bread, sliced thinly and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 pound cheddar cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 pound Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
6 small slices ham, cooked and chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
2 Tbsp mild onions or scallions, chopped
1 Tbsp thyme
2/3 cup heavy cream
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or you can use a dutch oven or casserole dish.  The pumpkin will retain its shape regardless of what you cook in it, however if you plan to serve it in slices it’s best to use the baking sheet.

Cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin and clean out the guts.  Generously pepper the inside of the pumpkin and set in on the baking sheet or dish.

Toss the bread, cheese, ham, garlic and herbs together in a large bowl.   Add the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to the cream (go easy on the salt, however, as the cheese and ham are quite salty).  Pour the cream mixture over the combined ingredients and toss well.  You want the bread to be moist, but not swimming in cream.

Using your hands – or a spoon – stuff the ingredients into the pumpkin.  You may have too much or too little – every pumpkin is different – adjust as necessary.  Place the cap on back on the pumpkin and bake for 2 hours.  Check the pumpkin after 1 1/2 hours.  For the last twenty minutes of cooking time remove the cap so the ingredients can brown and any residual liquid bakes off.  The pumpkin is done when the ingredients are bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin can be easily pierced with a knife.

You can serve this in slices or, if you prefer, scrape the pumpkin meat away from the sides and mix in with the stuffing.

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.

Grilled Pizza
August 28, 2011, 11:57 pm
Filed under: dinner, garden, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fresh tomatoes and basilThere comes a point every summer where the heat just becomes too much. It comes every August. That moment where saying the word “hot” just doesn’t justify the pressure from the sun.

These are the weeks when cooking becomes impossible. Turning on the oven or a burner runs the dangerous risk of bringing the inside temperature nearer to that of the outside. Every year I contemplate if I can subsist on ice cream alone.

Despite my best efforts to eat only cold or frozen things, I slowly dissolve into a hungry baby bird – opening and closing the refrigerator, wondering if something lies inside that will keep my stomach from rumbling.

Something I can cook without bursting into flames.

Something to celebrate the season of ripe tomatoes, green basil.

Something easy that will keep the kitchen cold.

Kneading the pizza doughAnd then, over the waves of roaring hunger came Bobby Flay with his grilled pizza. It was, and is, the perfect solution to the shimmering heat. Cook outside, over a fire, away from the house.

It turns out grilled pizza crust is the ideal vehicle for garden leftovers and stunning local Italian sausage. I added Crow’s Dairy goat cheese, a perennial favorite – but the star was The Meat Shop‘s Sweet Italian Sausage. Hell, you could even skip the pizza and just eat the sausage with a side of tomato salad – but I digress.

Grilled Pizza

This is a classic cracker crust pizza – add what you want, as long as it isn’t too wet, which will take the crust from crackery to mushy in a heartbeat.

Adapted from Bobby Flay
Serves 4 – 6

Grilled pizzaIngredients:
1 recipe pizza crust (make your own with a favorite recipe or use a pre-made crust)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup olive oil
3 Sweet Italian Sausages, grilled and sliced
4 oz goat cheese
4 oz mozzarella or monterey jack cheese, grated
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
4 sprigs fresh basil, chopped

Heat the grill to 400 F.

While the grill warms, roll out the pizza crust as thin as possible. Flour one side and brush the other side with olive oil.

Once the grill is hot, coat the grates with olive oil.

Flip the pizza, oil side down, onto the hot grill. Immediately brush the other side with the oil. Leave the lid open and let the crust cook for 7 minutes or until the crust has a nice golden hue. Flip the pizza crust and let cook for another 5-7 minutes.

When the crust is golden on both sides, place on a cookie sheet. Top with the cheese, sausage, tomatoes and basil. Place the pizza – on the cookie sheet – back on the grill. Close the lid and let cook until the cheese melts, about 3 minutes.

Roast Chicken
August 22, 2011, 12:39 am
Filed under: dinner, recipe | Tags: , , , , ,

Published April 4, 2011
Green beansSeveral years ago, I was watching a cooking competition TV show where the contestants had been tasked to create a last meal for 5 or 6 famous chefs. In an instant, without hesitation or concern, I knew what my last meal would be, should I ever have to request it: roast chicken with sweet potatoes, carrots smothered in butter and green beans.

No matter how much I think about it, I can’t fully explain my choice.

There are so many meals that I love, so many tastes that remind me of adventures, home, favorite memories. Rainbow carrotsThere’s my mom’s spaghetti, my French love, pain au chocolate, or my favorite childhood meal, green chile chicken enchiladas.

And yet, my choice is roast chicken. It is soothing, simple, rustic. I instantly think of bare feet, dirty from picking herbs in the garden, walking on my parent’s wood floors. The dirt is crunching, there’s a slight feeling of guilt for tracking mud, and everything smells like chicken.

Browning the chickenBut my nostalgia is out of place. I’ve lived in a city my whole life and, until recently, chicken has always come wrapped in plastic sans innards from the grocery store. (it still comes wrapped in plastic, except now there are guts and farmers)

As it turns out, the nostalgia comes from a previous generation. My mom grew up with chickens – bred specifically for dinner. Upon sighting a 9-pound bird at the Meat Shop, just like the ones they raised, her eyes lit up and the afternoon was filled with excited stories of “our chickens growing up.”

I may have inherited my nostalgia for roast chicken, but the love is all my own.

Roast Chicken

Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

If you don’t have a 9-pound chicken, use the following times for cooking: 3-pounds, 1 hour and 10 to 20 minutes; 4-pounds, 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes; 4 1/2 pounds, 1 hour and 25 to 40 minutes; 5 1/4 pounds, 1 hour and 30 to 45 minutes; 9-pounds, 3 hours.

IngredientsRoast Chicken
9-pound chicken
3/4 tsp salt (in 1/4 tsp increments)
5 Tbsp softened butter
1 lemon
1 large onion, quartered
1 carrot, cut into large pieces
A couple sprigs thyme
1 Tbsp cooking oil
1/2 Tbsp shallot or onion
1 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp softened butter
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Clean the chicken and pat the outside dry with paper towels. In a 12 inch skillet, melt 1 Tbsp butter. Once hot, begin to brown the chicken, turning the bird once every 3-5 minutes until all sides have a nice, light brown coloring.

Sprinkle the inside of the bird with salt, smear in 1 Tbsp butter and add the onion quarters, carrot pieces, thyme sprigs and lemon into the cavity. Truss the chicken. Rub the skin with the 1 Tbsp butter.

Place the chicken breast up in the roasting pan (it’s easiest to set in a V-shaped roasting rack inside the pan). In a small sauce pan, combine 2 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp oil, cook until just melted.

Allow the chicken to continue browning for 15 minutes, turning it every 5 minutes and basting after each turn, finish with the chicken resting on one side. Reduce oven to 350 degrees. Leave the chicken on its side and baste every 10 minutes, using any fat collected in the roasting pan if you run out of the butter and oil mixture.

Halfway through the cooking time, salt the chicken with 1/4 tsp salt and turn on its other side.

Fifteen minutes before the end of the estimated cooking time, salt with 1/4 tsp salt and turn the chicken breast up.

Using a thermometer, check for doneness. The breast should read 170 degrees and the thigh should be at 180. Let the chicken rest for 10 – 15 minutes under tented foil before carving.

For the sauce, use the roasting pan. Remove all but 2 tbsp chicken fat. Add in the shallots or onion and cook slowly. Add in the chicken stock and boil rapidly, scraping up any fond. Season with salt and pepper and, if desired, add in 1 tbsp butter.

Serve with roast carrots, green beans and sweet potatoes or potatoes.