Eating Local in Phoenix

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.

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.

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.

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.

August 22, 2011, 12:37 am
Filed under: drinks, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published March 21, 2011
Torre a Mare, ItalyApril 13, 2010 found me in southern Italy, sipping homemade limoncello, oblivious to the imminent doom of Eyjafjallajökull. I could not know in that blissful moment that our flight home to France for the final two weeks of our English teaching stint was about to be canceled. I couldn’t know of the multiple trips to the airport, roadside conversation with the Carabinieri, the train trip that almost saw us abandoned somewhere in Italy or what can only be known as the bus ride from hell.

No, in that moment all I knew was the slightly sweet, full lemon flavor of the perfect post dinner digestive.

Lemon zestI had previously considered limoncello to be an overly sweet, highly alcoholic drink that I consistently avoided. Following that first sip, I was converted.

But my subsequent attempts to relive that moment left me sorely disappointed. I consistently found sugar-laden, neon yellow knockoffs that left the mouth dry and the palette overwhelmed. There was nothing of the refreshing drink I had enjoyed in the waning sun, the waves of the Adriatic Sea lapping in the distance.

Making limoncelloSo when I came into 16 lemons last week, conveniently left on a break room table, I knew it was time to recreate my Italian memories in a bottle.

It turns out there are as many recipes for limoncello as there are dialects in Italy (and probably more). Not wanting to disappoint myself, I did a little experimenting and – most importantly – contacted my Italian friend and creator of the magical liqueur. The following recipe, I’m delighted to report, comes pretty close to recreating that first sip. All I need now is an ocean breeze.


Recipe thanks to my friend Valerio (all inaccuracies in recipe are mine)

zest10 lemons
75 cl EverClear or, if not available in your state, a high proof Vodka
75 cl water
2 cups sugar, more or less as desired

1 large glass container, about 1 gallon, with a secure lid.
Several #4 coffee filters
2 75 cl glass bottles with replaceable lid
Wooden spoon

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemons in long strips being careful to avoid the white pith. Using a paring knife, scrap the pieces of zest to remove all remaining pith. (See image above right, you want the zest to look like the piece on the right.)

Add the zest to the glass jar. Cover with the EverClear and water. Add the sugar directly into the jar. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the mixture until the sugar is swirling off the bottom.

Cover the jar with a piece of plastic wrap and lid. Keep the jar in a dark location and stir the contents once a day, until the sugar swirls off the bottom. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, the batch is done. This takes anywhere from 3 days to a week, depending on the temperature.

Using the coffee filters, strain the mixture into the glass bottles, discarding the peels. Place the bottles in the freezer where the mixture will continue to mature for another several days. Store in the freezer. Enjoy!