Awed by Arizona’s Indigenous Ingredients

Kai 01My favorite dish of 2014 (so far…)

I am always delighted when I am taken by surprise on a culinary excursion. I am relatively spoiled to live in Los Angeles, a city where fine food options crop up practically weekly and represent a plethora of my favorite cuisines from Japanese to Italian to French all within thirty miles of my home. But there is a price to pay for living in a foodie metropolis that is written frequently about in the annals of serious bibles such as Zagat – you tend to find the trendy bandwagon full of similar experimentation across restaurants with chefs all simultaneously expounding poetically on the latest hot ingredient such as charred Brussels sprouts, chunks of linear pork belly, squid ink pastas and cold uni amuses. Not that I am complaining, all of these things are delicious. It’s just nice to be jostled out of the usual tempo and thrown into something unexpected and unusual.

Which is what occurred for me on a recent trip to Arizona. Of all the places in the world, little did I think I would discover my favorite dish of the year, strange surprises, as well as a cornucopia of new Native American tastes in a state that boasts dry bush, desert land, a petrified forest, the saguaro cactus, and one of our seven natural world wonders over any real foodie notoriety. We traversed the southwest for a week and boy, did we eat well. Surely we were a tad bit more gluttonous than normal knowing that at the end of the trip, we would be scaling the Grand Canyon on the hike of our lives—a once in a lifetime opportunity to burn about 5,000 calories in one four hour period. This made for happy tasting and an adventurous spirit that comes when one is on the road.

IMG_1709Pine butter

The best part of the journey was discovering the ingredients of the indigenous peoples and seeing them respectfully incorporated into our meal experiences from the low brow to the high brow and everywhere in between.

Some highlights:

The bizarre Sonoran hot dog in Tucson—a unique frank stuffed into a pita-type bun and filled with normal tomato and mustard condiments but then also loaded with Mexican adornments like chopped onion, black beans and crema. Sounds disgusting yet both the Cute Gardener and I admit to latent cravings that still linger.

We enjoyed an exquisite butter studded with verdant pine flecks from the renowned forests surrounding Flagstaff in the surprising environs of a French bistro’s bread course.

IMG_1811 Pork Belly

Also in Flagstaff was dinner at Tinderbox, which paired odd foods together in ways that, once tried, seemed completely natural like caramelized pork belly (hands down the best version of this dish I have tried yet) on blue cheese grits and pork tenderloin spiced with Asian elements and then laid atop a bed of whipped sweet potatoes.

We spent an evening in five-star glory at a restaurant in Chandler called Kai where I found my FAVORITE dish of the year in a seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Sonoran spiced funnel cake and the most decadent, thick whipped banana cream I have ever had which will surely haunt my dreams for years to come. We also took advantage of being outside the California border by eating two more foie gras dishes on our trek since it is no longer legal in our home state. The Kai bread plate alone touted several local ingredients that caused the traditional base course to become elevated and special. This included a doughy, plains flatbread and a grainy muffin studded with nuts and pipian seeds. Other first-time-ever-tasted additions over the course of the evening were tepary beans, spiced pepitas and cholla buds.

The experience reminded me that it’s nice to step outside your comfort, cultural zone every once in a while, leaping with a palate’s blind faith into the realms of something entirely perhaps new to you, but regionally historic—and for good reason.

Fictitious Dishes Satisfies My Culinary and Literary Cravings

enhanced-26880-1396848979-9To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I know what it means to be transported through time by books-I have been doing it my entire life ever since my mother stuffed a miniature set of classics into my Christmas stocking at age eight which had me hunched in bed with flashlights trolling through my first round with Moby Dick. I also know how much scenes of food in books can tantalize. I fell head over heels with my first piece of culinary prose tumbling from the pages of an MFK Fisher tome in which she was lasciviously slurping an oyster in a French castle – or at least that’s the way my 12-year-old brain imagined it. So when I heard about Dinah Fried’s new book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, I just had to devour it all in one Saturday evening on the couch after an amazing Japanese dinner of unagi and uni, seaweed, rice and sake, and a salad tumbled with tiny cubes of silky tofu, cucumber and mushroom made with love by the Cute Gardener.

enhanced-9768-1396848669-1The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

With a dash of Scotch whiskey, blackberries from the garden and some dark chocolate covered almonds I pored over the exquisite pages. Each consisted of a photograph, carefully conjured by the author’s imagination of a particular food related setting from the annals of treasured literature. Each picture was accompanied by the passage of the book that had inspired it as well as some very fun tidbits about the dishes or cuisine that was being spotlighted. This tickled my word geek taste buds and brought me back to many memories of reading the same stories myself. It was lovely to see evidence of what books do best: cause people to create visuals in their minds borne from simple black words on a page, strum up entire worlds and lives in the brain, and invoke mental travel to places one might never have been before. Seeing Dinah’s table and picnic settings right down to choice of tablecloth—it was fun to compare her images with the way they looked in my own mind and it was wonderful when sometimes they turned out quite similar to the way I would have created them myself—and delicious, also, when they turned out so entirely different.

enhanced-15818-1396849270-1

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Some highlights for me:

  • The jelly spread from Little Women – a book that was revered by me for my entire fifth grade year in which I played the youngest sister Amy in a play, relating to her most as she was the “artist” of the family, refusing to give up her self expression for the self sacrificing feminine norms of the time.
  • The gin and pineapple juice tableau from Lolita and recalling how Humbert had admitted that drinking it in the afternoon seemed to double his energy. Who doesn’t love the bewitching cocktail hour?
  • Feeling an internal hunger for crumpets and angel food cake while eyeing the Rebecca page and recalling my love of reading about another Rebecca when young—the one from Sunnybrook Farm.
  • Learning that the Graham cracker was first created to be a bland food as part of a bland diet to curb too many sexual urges.
  • Hankering for corn dodgers from Huckleberry Finn (of which I just had the pleasure of viewing in first edition form at the Huntington Library in Pasadena) – spread with lavish amounts of melted butter with honey.
  • Remembering how much I always crave the Indian puffed rice breakfasts that Jhumpa Lahiri always writes into her novels.
  • Being reminded of the fact that I really want a genuine yerba mate gourd.
  •  The Catcher in the Rye spread teasing my current craving for a once a year decadent butterscotch milkshake, with or without the addition of an adult liqueur.
  • Wanting to try the liverwurst and cream cheese sandwich from A Wrinkle in Time and remembering my mother always going to the convenience store when we go to Cabo San Lucas to buy deli liverwurst and white bread (of all things!) from the Mexican grocer.
  • The Madame Bovary spread, much like her extramarital affairs, and much like the movie Marie Antoinette, provoking a phantom stomach ache with the knowledge that too much of a good thing usually turns rotten.
  • Hearing To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout in my brain, proclaiming “What in the Sam Hill?” over her plate of fried chicken and tomato slices just like the Cute Gardener does whenever I pour large amounts of sweetness onto food that he feels should be kept savory, like maple syrup on cheddar biscuits.
  • Understanding that I, just like Maurice Sendak, would not really be able to trust someone who doesn’t like chicken and rice soup.
  • Heidi’s burnt toast with golden cheese bubbling on top belying two things that go well together regardless of altitude or oven versus flame.
  • Finding new inspirations in ingredients like the Swiss cheese, dill pickle, caviar, hard boiled egg, pickled herring, liver sausage, liver pate, cucumber, rye bread, mustard sauce and chive sandwich combinations from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which are bound to show up in my own kitchen soon because my honey has a love affair with German and Austrian cuisine.
  • Deciding that everyone should take off their hat of food snobbery every once in a while to enjoy a good ole platter of 1950s pigs in a blanket.
  • I used to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe out loud to my fifth grade peers after lunch from my teacher’s high stool and podium in front of the class. Ms. Kolmel knew I loved to read so she would let me while we journeyed through the entire set of CS Lewis that year. I do not, however, recall Turkish Delight being in the book and now am determined to try the jelly-like candy because it looks jiggly scrumptious.
  • Thanks to the Motherless Brooklyn page, I realize I never ever have to actually try a White Castle burger.

enhanced-6280-1396849358-1Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Dinah Fried has taken me, like many of my favorite books, down a simply yummy trail of yesteryear in food, whimsical words and fun and I recommend this book for anyone who loves to play in these realms as much as I do.

IMG_8261An Artist and a Gardener by Kimberly Nichols

Here is a spread I created myself after being duly inspired by Fictitious Dishes. It’s from the book of my own life “An Artist and a Gardener.” An excerpt:

On any given night, the artist is spoiled when the dashingly black haired Cute Gardener cooks Italian style—picking fresh produce like fava beans from the garden and nonchalantly frying them up with funky bits of birds that have fed us nights prior. Rich chunks of liver and slices of moist giblets nestle next to piles of flat pasta spiked with tomato sauce that has long since fermented in the fridge from summer when the Momotaros burst forth from the vine. Noodles on plates with newspapers nightly—neat cocktails to coincide with dinner and plump strawberries to follow.

Existence is grand when life and art blend and become each other, fed by all the palate’s favorite things.

Dandelion Tea and Morning Nature Vitamins

IMG_8230I have been an ardent fan of Michael Pollan ever since reading The Botany of Desire, a poignant plants’ eye view of the world. But the reason I like him most is that he’s a proponent of the same thing I am and that is Eat Whatever You Want, Just Cook It For Yourself.


Michael Pollan in Action

IMG_8238Beginning of my batch of dandelion tea

I am continually finding new ways to stop buying things in boxes or cans at the grocery store. Recently after my toxic tea bag rant, I decided that would have to trickle down to my favorite drink as well—tea. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying foraging the yard for ingredients. There’s nothing as serene as heading out to the garden at eight a.m. freshly rustled from a good night’s sleep to feel the first rays of sunlight on my arms as I peel away produce plants in search of ever-invading dandelion greens. The bees come by to buzz hello, the fat frog sunning on the damp rock blinks an eye, the birds are chirping their morning remarks, the snails are sluggishly heading up stalks of kale and I am fingers deep in dirt instead of jumping into early computer screen hypnosis. Once I have the base of dandelion greens, I look around for whatever else is currently available. At this time of year, it’s purple chive flowers in bloom along with hearty stems of rosemary. Once back in the kitchen I clean the dandelion roots, save the leaves for a salad later, and throw my entire foraged wild into a pot. The recipe is traditionally the same: around 6—8 cups of water in the pot, bring to a boil for about ten minutes and then simmer with the lid on for 45 minutes to one hour. Voila, a nice brew of tea to enjoy throughout the day. And the remains can be refrigerated to enjoy cold for up to three days.

IMG_8240My love dove with two new babies who’ve made home in the Cute Gardener’s blackberry brambles.

Homemade tea may take a little more effort than opening a cardboard envelope, but when you get to commune with nature and discover things like the birth of baby doves, it is highly medicinal to the soul as well as the body.

IMG_8227Along with my tea, I like to enjoy a decadent breakfast that provides at least one substance to dunk. My recent obsession has been rye toast with almond butter, bananas and a sprinkle of coconut sugar proving that food that tastes sweet and good doesn’t have to be bad for you. My next endeavor will be to stop buying jarred nut butters and learn how to make my own in further endeavors to be completely box, bag and jar-less eventually.