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.



Transition
November 28, 2011, 12:04 am
Filed under: asides | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Graduate Invitation AppleIt is three days post-Thanksgiving. The tree is decorated, the lights are up, half the gifts are bought. Of all the things I accomplished this weekend, none of them involved ‘work’ work. But I did cook. And it was wonderful.

This weekend, I should have written my 15 page paper due in five days. I should have finished my half-written resume. I should have updated my website. I should have finished that CSS/HTML project I’ve been working on for too long.

I did none of these things. Fortunately, I don’t believe in ‘should.’ I do, however, believe in procrastination.

As I writer, I’m not great at transitions. I tend to jump topics without warning. I do the same thing off the page.

The problem isn’t the change. The problem is getting from one place to another without radically changing everything.

How to get from undergraduate degree to living in France for eight months? Spend a summer worrying and eating chocolate pudding for breakfast.

How to get from living abroad to moving home with no plans? Cry a lot.

How to get from a masters to what comes next? Procrastinate, apparently.

There are nine days until the end of classes, nineteen days until I graduate. It is time to transition. Once again, I am lost.

I will make jam. This is how I will transition. With jam. Lots of jam.



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.



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.



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.