This past Cinco de Mayo the Watershed Management Group here in Tucson put on a Local Foods Iron Chef fundraiser. My dear friend Kusuma Rao of Ruchikala and I teamed up to create a dish using their secret ingredient. Unlike the Food Network’s Iron Chef there were a few differences to this event. First, we were up against five other impressive teams of dedicated local food lovers. Next, we received the secret ingredient the week prior and most of the food was prepared in advance to feed a crowd of 150 all judging us to see who would “reign supreme.”
Kusuma and I spent a few weeks discussing, brainstorming and munching on the possibilities prior to learning about the secret ingredient prickly pear juice. We are each relatively comfortable with the ingredient, which is a common local food here in Tucson. Actually, my first experience with them was just last year when I picked them off of the cactus that cuddles up to our mailbox. They simply need to be carefully washed, blended to a puree and than strained to remove any residual prickers and thorns.
The third part of the collaboration was Sleeping Frog Farm. By chance we ended up driving out to the farm to pick up the produce for our creation and were able to meet & spend some time with the crew there. I have been wanting to see this farm since I have been dining on their greens and things after our move to Tucson and it was a treat to be able to work with their beautiful produce.
Having grown up in Tucson, Kusuma (aka Kumi), knows even more than I about how to dive further into the integrity and beauty of the prickly pear juice with an interesting method of freezing and defrosting to strain off the richest color and flavor. For whatever reason reducing prickly pear juice by stovetop seems to diminish the intense magenta color and leaves the flavor a mere whisper of its original self, so Kumi’s efforts & technique were essential for the final product. She whipped the concentrated flavor into a beautiful spicy gastrique which is an almost caramelized syrup with hints of vinegar, guajillo chilies and chile cascabel.
My favorite part of the entire process was the joy of working with Kumi and collaborating with one of the most talented chefs I have the privilege to know. When we finally were happy with the finished product it contained seven elements. The beauty of this was the base masa cup was entirely a collaboration and then by chance we each took on three of the remaining layers as our own.
The base cups were colored with shreds of Sleeping Frog Farm’s ruby colored beets along with Achiote & Sarina Pudi spice blends created by Kumi. I next took the beet-masa mixture and formed them into little cups that resembled terra cotta plant pots, hence the name cazuelitas.
Next, we filled them with the goods. I toasted coconut to blend in with another local favorite, drought-resistent Tepary Beans from the Tohono O’odom tribe. These refried white beans became the base filling inside the cups. Kumi sauteed onions, garlic and more Sleeping Frog Farm beets with South Indian tharka spice & chipotle which become the top inside layer in the cup.
Kusuma also created one of the most heavenly Mole Rojo’s I have ever experienced with tangy tomatillos, pecans, sesame, chocolate and mulato chilies. This was paired with her Prickly Pear Gastrique and placed just above the beet layer and on the plate for the guest to dip as they desired.
The top of the cazuelitas were crowded with a Prickly Pear Slaw I created with Sleeping Frog Farm beet greens and chard. Many thanks to my husband Xerxes for his masterful skills at turning dark leafy greens into seemingly endless piles of paper thin shreds. My final touch were Candied Chipotle Pepitas that were just baked in a toss of coconut oil, Native Seeds/SEARCH chipotle powder and sugar until toasty golden. Diners were given these to sample as they walked up and watched us assemble their mini creation to order.
Fundraisers and events that highlight the joys of the food that can naturally grow in our desert climate are essential for our health and that of our planet. Organizations such as the Watershed Management Group are making incredible efforts to preserve not just our watershed but the local food system.
Finally I would like to raise a Prickly Pear Margarita in thanks to WMG, the Food Conspiracy Co-op for letting us use your beautiful new kitchen, Dana & Paul for the Tohono O’odham Tepary Beans, Xerxes for your endless support & knife skills, Kumi’s parents with their backstage assistance & support, to all of the guests of the WMG Iron Chef dinner, especially those who voted for us and encouraged us throughout the evening. And a final cheers to my kitchen partner Kumi, may we have many future food collaborations whether they are online, over the phone, in another state, country, or just across whatever stove someone dares us to use. It has been a joy!
For more info and photos from the event check out Xerxes’ post, too.
Tucson has a happening food scene that I am always thrilled to be involved in. Living in a desert especially, much attention is given to the limited water resources and drought surviving native plants among many other topics. It is almost because of this strain on resources that many folks come together.
Last weekend, I was invited to a dinner discussion with the film makers of a documentary about the young farmers community, The Greenhorns. They are in the process of producing follow up short films as they bring the message that the next generation of farmers are ready and willing to step up to change the way food comes to our tables. Our small gathering of Tucson food movers and shakers was inspiring as each guest shared their knowledge and work here. Actually in all honesty, it was an intimidating crowd of hard working folks ranging from urban desert farmers to rain water harvesters to a couple of solar energy dudes, everyone an activist in their own way. And then there was lil’ old me, the chef. In the end, I did my job to fit in with the crowd. I talked about my work on Food Day, the Farm to Child program with the Community Food Bank and I brought these Beets & Seeds Burgers. Arguably my most important contribution were probably these little vegan numbers. While there was plenty of food all around including native tepary beans, local tortillas, spring salads and homemade olives and rosemary bread, I clearly should have made a triple batch. I welcome the next opportunity.
I am tempted to try these on my barbeque, but have not yet as they seem to be a fragile veggie burger prone to falling apart a bit. Placing them on a baking sheet and baking them up keeps them together nicely though and once they are cooked they rarely fall apart.