Eating Local in Phoenix

November 7, 2011, 12:13 am
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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.


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


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!