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.



Limoncello
August 22, 2011, 12:37 am
Filed under: drinks, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published March 21, 2011
Torre a Mare, ItalyApril 13, 2010 found me in southern Italy, sipping homemade limoncello, oblivious to the imminent doom of Eyjafjallajökull. I could not know in that blissful moment that our flight home to France for the final two weeks of our English teaching stint was about to be canceled. I couldn’t know of the multiple trips to the airport, roadside conversation with the Carabinieri, the train trip that almost saw us abandoned somewhere in Italy or what can only be known as the bus ride from hell.

No, in that moment all I knew was the slightly sweet, full lemon flavor of the perfect post dinner digestive.

Lemon zestI had previously considered limoncello to be an overly sweet, highly alcoholic drink that I consistently avoided. Following that first sip, I was converted.

But my subsequent attempts to relive that moment left me sorely disappointed. I consistently found sugar-laden, neon yellow knockoffs that left the mouth dry and the palette overwhelmed. There was nothing of the refreshing drink I had enjoyed in the waning sun, the waves of the Adriatic Sea lapping in the distance.

Making limoncelloSo when I came into 16 lemons last week, conveniently left on a break room table, I knew it was time to recreate my Italian memories in a bottle.

It turns out there are as many recipes for limoncello as there are dialects in Italy (and probably more). Not wanting to disappoint myself, I did a little experimenting and – most importantly – contacted my Italian friend and creator of the magical liqueur. The following recipe, I’m delighted to report, comes pretty close to recreating that first sip. All I need now is an ocean breeze.

Limoncello


Recipe thanks to my friend Valerio (all inaccuracies in recipe are mine)

Ingredients
zest10 lemons
75 cl EverClear or, if not available in your state, a high proof Vodka
75 cl water
2 cups sugar, more or less as desired

1 large glass container, about 1 gallon, with a secure lid.
Several #4 coffee filters
2 75 cl glass bottles with replaceable lid
Wooden spoon

Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemons in long strips being careful to avoid the white pith. Using a paring knife, scrap the pieces of zest to remove all remaining pith. (See image above right, you want the zest to look like the piece on the right.)

Add the zest to the glass jar. Cover with the EverClear and water. Add the sugar directly into the jar. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir the mixture until the sugar is swirling off the bottom.

Cover the jar with a piece of plastic wrap and lid. Keep the jar in a dark location and stir the contents once a day, until the sugar swirls off the bottom. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, the batch is done. This takes anywhere from 3 days to a week, depending on the temperature.

Using the coffee filters, strain the mixture into the glass bottles, discarding the peels. Place the bottles in the freezer where the mixture will continue to mature for another several days. Store in the freezer. Enjoy!



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.



French Toast
August 22, 2011, 12:33 am
Filed under: breakfast, challenge, recipe | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Published February 21, 2011
Local BreadI don’t know exactly when the weekly ritual of buying bread from a door to door sales-family started. I can’t remember if it’s been one year or two since the blond, pigtailed girls began showing up at my parent’s doorstep. And I don’t fully remember their story.

What I do remember, however, is my first taste of this bread – made from a secret family recipe – and the way it tugged and pulled and slowly dissolved with each careful bite. I remember the handful of times when it arrived still warm from the oven and a thick slab of salted butter melted into the strands of dough. I remember when my Dad left the required $3 in an envelope taped to the front door with a crooked note, “One small loaf, please,” because he was outside mowing the lawn and didn’t want to miss his chance to buy our weekly bread.

YogurtIt’s funny how such a simple ritual can become transformative. As a family, we aren’t big bread eaters, yet, every week we diligently buy a loaf. It’s become important to us. Important to support this entrepreneurial family, important to share the homemade bread over our weekly family dinner. And, if it lasts long enough – important to use that slightly stale bread for breakfast.

The flour and yeast of this “swiss’ bread probably aren’t local. The family, however, is from a few blocks away – and that’s good enough for me.

There are a lot of reasons for eating local – from keeping more of your dollar in the local economy to reducing our nation’s dependence on foreign oil – but, personally, my interests revolve around keeping me connected to my place, my little postage stamp of native soil.

EggsI celebrate the 800 types of citrus in season at the moment, get excited for local pork and taste the earth in local wines. This is how I know what home is, this is how I feel connected to my place and this is how I celebrate what Arizona has to offer.

This is Phoenix. This is my neighborhood. This is home.

French Toast

You can make this recipe with milk, or use homemade yogurt thinned with lemon juice to achieve the same effect. Personally, I love the yogurt from Udder Delights.

French ToastIngredients:
8 slices bread
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup milk (or 3/4 cup yogurt and 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice)
4 medium eggs
2 Tbsp sugar
3/4 Tsp cinnamon
1/4 Tsp salt

Beat the eggs, milk or yogurt mixture, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Transfer this mixture to a large, shallow baking dish or plate.

Soak two pieces of the bread in the batter – about 30 seconds per side. Meanwhile, melt 1 Tbsp of the butter in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until it begins to brown – swirling it to coat the entire pan. Remove the bread from the batter, allowing any excess to drip back into the dish. Lay the bread into the hot pan.

Cook until both sides are golden brown, about 2 1/2 minutes per side. If using the yogurt mixture, keep an eye on the bread – it has a tendency to stick and may require extra butter. Transfer the French Toast to a wire rack and keep warm in a 200 degree F oven, or serve immediately. Repeat with the remaining bread, batter and butter.