Eating Local in Phoenix

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

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.

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.

Putting down Roots
August 22, 2011, 12:36 am
Filed under: asides, garden | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published March 7, 2011
Beans for plantingIn the midst of stress, frustration and pending chaos I find myself in the garden. Spring has always meant one thing to me – a weekend in the garden. Dry hands. Sore knees. Dirt in my ears. This is how I welcome the new season.

As a child, I both longed for and dreaded the mandatory days in the garden. Planting never ended, the shovels and trowels had to be cleaned, and the raking. Always the raking.

I can vividly remember weaving brightly colored impatiens among the roots of my favorite tree, myself becoming more and more distracted, impatient even, feeling the name was so fitting for the interminable flats of flowers. It was such a punishment, I wanted to be sitting up in the crook of the tree, watching my parents do all the work, not down on the ground myself.

plantingI was willing to suffer, however, if I could go along on the trip to Rowland’s nursery. Walking in, collecting the unruly green flat cart – with the wagon handle – pulling in through aisles upon aisles of flowers, vegetables, strawberries. It was my botanic gardens, and a little bit of it always came home with me. Scooping the fallen flowers from the ground, I would cradle them throughout the trip, my own little bouquet. I was always allowed to pick out one or two plants – and I always chose the most improbable, ill-suited plants for the Albuquerque summers. It was something of a miracle if they lasted more than two weeks. The ritual carried on for years.

Rowland’s has long since closed and I’ve lived in Phoenix for ten years now, but with the first burst of warm air, I’m back under that tree – it’s a ficus now – planting.

Today, I put in my first real garden. My parents have always had a garden – tomatoes, herbs, peppers, grapes, sometimes more, sometimes less – and I’ve always helped in the planting.

This one is something different. I picked the plants, selected for their soil preferences and producing abilities, set them into place and loosened their root balls into the freshly turned soil. I had help, to be sure, but I feel responsible for this garden, these plants, that dirt.

And now, snug in my asphalt-locked studio apartment, I am worrying about my onions, beans, tomatoes. Was the soil loose enough? Did I plant them too deep, not deep enough? Will they get enough water? What about weeds?

Onion BulbI can’t explain my transition from passionate eater to idealistic gardener (I planted eight short rows of onions, planning to braid and store them for the winter), but I can say that it feels wonderful. There’s dirt under my fingernails and plants in the ground and a tangible feeling of accomplishment. And I feel calm. Spring is here.

Little Postage Stamp of Native Soil
August 22, 2011, 12:25 am
Filed under: welcome | Tags: , , , , ,
Posted on January 24, 2011 

OrangesI didn’t start my local eating project with the intention of putting down roots. This was a buyers only thing. Sixteen weeks later, however, I find myself searching for the “root end” of a sweet potato so that I can sprout and – if things go according to plan – grow my own.

I’m not entirely sure how I reached this point. Somewhere between the gardening books and cooking fresh produce, I’ve changed from a passive consumer to a planter. Not that anything is in the ground, yet.

This project was, and still is, a grad student’s attempt to create an all local meal from products purchased in and around the Valley of the Sun (and you can read my previous adventures here). Except, it’s no longer just about the local meal. I now make my own marmalade and jellies, preserve lemons and can seasonal produce. This is an adventure in local food, and it’s having a surprising effect on me.

Preserved LemonsI hadn’t planned on becoming so attached to Phoenix. I’m a grad student, which means my time here is likely short-lived. Yet, the more I cook and the more I search for recipes to highlight the local produce, the more I find myself rooted to the soil.

It’s strange to suddenly find myself so attached to my home after living here for ten years, but as William Faulkner said, I “discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”

Join me as I discover my own little culinary stamp within the Valley of the Sun.