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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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.



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

Ingredients:
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.



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.

Ingredients:
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.



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.