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.



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.



Orléans
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.

Ingredients
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.



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.