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.



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.



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

Ingredients:
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.



Thanksgiving – locavore style

A quick little note: I don’t believe in the “I’ve been super busy” excuse because everyone is busy … but things have been crazy around here lately. So, in an effort to get this post out (finally) there are no recipes with it.  Don’t worry, they’re coming, just not right now.  Once finals are done, I promise.

Thanksgiving tableYes, Thanksgiving was two weeks ago.  Yes, ideally, I should have posted this before Thanksgiving.  All that being said, however, this Thanksgiving was amazing.  It was the first time I’ve really jumped in and cooked – and it was a blast.  We had a pretty non-traditional meal, but, then again, we wouldn’t do it any other way.

In trying to adapt this traditional meal to one made with all local products, I was surprised by how few sacrifices needed to be made.  In fact, the only things cut from our traditional meal were the cranberry sauce (which doesn’t go with chicken anyway) and cherry pie (which we still had – it just wouldn’t be a holiday without a cherry pie).

We also didn’t have pumpkin pie -which we could have made from scratch – opting for sweet potato instead.  For those of you out there who absolutely love pumpkin, let me tell you, the sweet potato version was actually – gasp – better.  Now, before I get any hate mail, let me do some explaining.  This pie was both sweet and savory and had a wonderfully rich sweet potato flavor. Unlike pumpkin pie where one flavor is dominant, this recipe had a lot of depth and each bite was its own, unique flavor.  By the next day the flavors were so complex that each bite required a little bit of time to explore.  It will most likely become our Thanksgiving staple from now on.

Roast ChickenThis year, we cooked a chicken – which is something we’ve been doing for several years now – and it was our first sample of local, pasture raised chicken.  I’m not sure if there’s a better way to describe it, but it tasted like, well, chicken.  The meat had an actual flavor, which isn’t something you always get with the bland, dry grocery story variety.  We had our perennial favorites – stuffing and salad.  And instead of sweet potato casserole this year (made without marshmellows, thank you very much) we had scalloped potatoes.

Shopping for all these ingredients wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d expected.  I’d started the week before with the local chicken, bread (the nine-grain bread from the stuffed pumpkin was so delicious that I had to repeat it), potatoes, onion and cheese.  The day before the big dinner, I stopped by the Wednesday market in Phoenix to pick up everything else I needed.

DatesWhile purchasing the sweet potatoes from Horny Toad Farms I was very eagerly talked into some local medjool dates.  The little guy selling them was really worried I’d balk at the price and did everything possible to prepare me for the “big cost.”  By the time he was ready to tell me the price, I was concerned that I’d fallen in love with $25 dates.  Turns out it was $7.50 for a carton – which, in my book, is a steal. In the end, I was so happy I bought them because they were perfect stuffed with Udder Delights cranberry farmers cheese and topped with pomegranate seeds.

Thanksgiving GroceriesI picked up the rest of my required produce and headed over to the Tempe Farmers market to get butter, some more cheese (because you can never have enough) and breakfast sausage for the stuffing.  All told, it took three trips to get everything – which really – isn’t any more than normal.

With the paired down menu and lack of a turkey, the cooking requirement was manageable.  My Mom cooked the pies in the morning, Dad started the chicken around 1:30 in the afternoon and with an hour of cooking time left I started assembling the stuffing – made with breakfast sausage from the Meat Shop – and scalloped potatoes. Yes, we all helped, but this was a Thanksgiving dinner that one person could have reasonably cooked in one day.

The best part of the day was experiencing some the traditional flavors in season, fresh and locally grown.  We had bread made by neighbors (they go around the neighborhood once a week selling fresh, homemade bread), eggs raised by friends and a bird that lived a normal life before being sacrificed for a special meal.

I’m not one to get overly sentimental … oh, who am I kidding, I cry at cheesy movies … but this meal was really special.  While the food may have tasted better thanks to its freshness, knowing it came from people who care about our and the land’s health made the meal all the better.  Sharing it with my wonderful parents and working together to get it on the table made it a truly wonderful holiday.  I look forward to more local Thanksgivings for years to come.

Happy Holidays and Bon Appetit!

Quick Note: Here’s the photos that will go with the recipes, you know, so you come back and read them …

Sweet Potato Pie

From America’s Test Kitchen

Sweet Potato Pie

Apple Sausage Stuffing

From America’s Test Kitchen

Apple Sausage Stuffing

Scalloped Potatoes

Scalloped Potatoes

Roast Chicken

From America’s Test Kitchen

Roast Chicken

Stuffed Dates

Stuffed Dates

Boiled Carrots

Carrots



Stuffed Bell Peppers

Bell PepperI have a confession to make: I didn’t choose my local meal this week.  Not wanting to repeat my crazed market trips and suffering from a lack of inspiration,  I invited a dear friend of mine from Canada to share in the local process.  After sorting through four different cookbooks, and debating the merits of each, she decided that stuffed bell peppers sounded like the best dish.  And truthfully, I couldn’t have agreed more.  Little did she know, stuffed bell peppers are one of my favorite meals and something that made a regular appearance on my family’s dinner table throughout my childhood.  For me, stuffed peppers are a very comforting dish.  There’s just something special about that rich filling hidden inside the sweet bell pepper shell.  I don’t quite know what it is, but like chicken soup, it’s good for the soul.

ForkfulThere were two sticking points to this dish, however, and that’s the necessity of ketchup and rice.  The ketchup problem was easily solved by creating a sauce with the reserved tomato juice and thickening it with some corn starch.  Rice, on the other hand, grows only in wet climates where water stays on the ground for a while.  Seeing as Phoenix is not only a desert but also suffers from very dry soil, it’s highly unlikely that rice would do well in this climate.  Beyond that challenge, most rice is grown overseas, except for wild rice  (which is actually a grass) grown in midwest.  Some rice is grown in California but, for whatever reason, I can’t seem to find it in stock here in Phoenix.

I briefly thought about creating a traditional French farci filling for the peppers – which replaces the rice with bread crumbs – but thought better of it when remembering that farci has a tendency to be overly dry, and typically is used in small amounts for a reason.  I finally solved my rice conundrum by revisiting the organic brown rice couscous from the Chopped Salad recipe.  I had quite a bit still sitting in my pantry but was worried about the texture and moisture content of the grain.  Couscous is fairly tiny – and can be very dry – and had the potential to get lost in all that texture and flavor of the stuffing.  Having no other choice, I jumped in feet first.

Market PurchaseThis week, I returned to the Phoenix Public Market and, as it has been for the last month, it was positively full of people.  Despite the hustle and bustle, I find it inspiring to see the market full of people all wandering around with purchases in hand.  This week the market was full of lettuces and carrots and even a few renegade eggplants!  Turns out my ratatouille dish wasn’t going to disappear out from under me after all!  Also at the market this week, was a stand selling potted vegetables, flowers and trees ready for planting in winter gardens.  Besides the gorgeous flowers, there were several large and healthy tomato plants. They were quite a steal too at $5 a plant.  However, I opted for the somewhat exotic pomegranate tree at the great price of $10.

I’ve been trying for about a year now, unsuccessfully, to talk my parents into expanding their fruit trees.  While they already have several trees, including an orange,  peach –  and a, as of yet, unknown citrus volunteer – I’ve been pushing for some of the more bizarre fruits that grow well in Phoenix.  Including avocado and pomegranate trees.  This weekend my wish finally came true and I’m happy to say that the pomegranate tree has been planted and should thrive.  Now, if only I could convince them on those chickens…

Fruit trees and chickens aside, the preparation and cooking of these stuffed bell peppers is fairly simple.  It’s a two pot meal (well, and one baking dish) that takes about 30 minutes to put together and another 30 to bake.  The most challenging part – truly – is cleaning out the insides of the bell pepper without puncturing any holes.  My concerns over the couscous issues evaporated after cooking the grain with 1.5 times the required water for half the time.  The couscous stayed nice and moist and helped blend the rest of the ingredients together.  This is a great dish for dinner and will be revived at my dinner table for years to come.

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

Serves 4

Ingredients:

Stuffed Bell Peppers4 bell peppers of any color (red, yellow or orange are preferable), 1/2 inch trimmed off the top, stemmed and seeded

1/2 cup couscous or similar grain

3 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, chopped fine

1 pound ground beef

4 cloves garlic, minced

5 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and crushed (reserve about 1/2 cup of the juice that’s released during the seeding process)

5 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1/4 thickened tomato juice

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.  First, immerse the tomatoes in the water for 10 seconds each and peel and seed them.  Using the same water, add the bell peppers and cook until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.  Remove the peppers from the pot, draining the excess water.  Place the peppers cut side up on a paper-towel-lined plate.

Discard all but 1 1/2 cups of the water.  Return to a boil and add the couscous and a generous pinch of salt.  Cook for 7 minutes, drain and transfer to a large bowl.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

While the couscous is cooking, heat 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add all but 1 tbsp of the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the beef, breaking it into small pieces, until no longer pink, about 5 – 6 minutes.  Stir all but 1/2 tbsp of the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Transfer the mixture to the bowl with the couscous.

While the onion and beef mixture is cooking, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in small a sauce pan over medium heat.  Add in the remaining onions and cook until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add in 1/2 cup of the reserved tomato juice and 1/2 tbsp garlic and bring to a boil.  Once it has come to a boil, add in salt and pepper to taste and the leaves of 1 sprig of fresh thyme.  After 1 minute, reduce to a simmer.

While the tomato sauce simmers, return to the stuffing.  Add in the tomatoes, all but a handful of the cheese, parsley and 2 sprigs of thyme.  Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.  Stir to combine.

Place the peppers, cut-side up, in a 9 by 9 glass baking dish.  Divide the filling evenly among the peppers.

Return to the simmer tomato sauce.  If the sauce coats the back of a spoon it’s ready to go.  If not, add in a small spoonful of corn starch.  Whisk vigorously and let cook for an additional minute or two.  The mixture should coat the back of a spoon.  Once finished, spoon the sauce over the peppers and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Bake until the cheese is browned and filling heated through, about 30 minutes.

Bon appetit!