Food Lovers’ Guide to Tucson: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings By Mary Paganelli Votto (Food Lovers’ Series, 2012)
The problem with writing a restaurant guide in a city whose culinary landscape is evolving as quickly as Tucson’s is that you’re bound to miss some recently-opened spots by the time you go to press. For instance, notable new restaurants like Reilly’s, Food For Ascension, and Proper aren’t featured in this book.
Still, Votto has written a well-researched guide to a choice selection of restaurants in the Old Pueblo. She covers the classics, like Kingfisher and Lodge on the Desert, but Votto’s keen sense for seeking out little hole-in-the-wall joints is the real treasure here. Votto encourages the reader to stop into Bobo’s and Frank’s/Francisco’s—already classics in their own right—as well as Gus Balon’s, a little known spot on 22nd Street that she swears makes the best cinnamon rolls and pies in town. On the ethnic side, she endorses CeeDee Jamaican Restaurant, Impress Hot Pot, Zayna Mediterranean, Alisah’s Restaurant, Sher-e-Punjab and more.
Votto also shares little-known details about each restaurant she features, such as Pastiche’s bargain Friday wine tastings and the fact that Greek Taverna’s owner grows his own produce and even makes milk from his own sheep and cows. Even for someone who’s lived in Tucson for many years, this little guide will inspire you to expand your horizons beyond the old faves, without the risk of a disappointing meal. Votto’s vetting seems to come from multiple visits to each restaurant on her short list, as well as a careful culling of any place that didn’t measure up.
The book also includes helpful info on specialty food markets, farmers’ markets, food trucks and native foods. Bottom line: Tucson food-lovers—newbies and oldies alike—will discover something new and tasty in this stocking-stuffer tome.
Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More
By Maria Speck (Ten Speed Press, 2011)
Who knew that a cookbook with an emphasis on health and whole grains could have you drooling and bookmarking just about every page? The very names of the recipes evoke luscious, luxurious brunches and cozy, candlelit dinners. How about Orange Polentina with Honey Marscapone Topping or Saffron Waffles with Orange Cream for breakfast? Or perhaps a take-to-work lunch of Barley Salad with Figs and Tarragon-Lemon Dressing? Warm Oat Berries with Walnuts and Gorgonzola made a delectable dinner served with a salad, as did the Tomato Rye Risotto with Cumin and Chorizo.
Speck’s cooking style is informed by a variety of cultures, mainly Mediterranean and French, though a healthier version of the latter. For example, the Artichoke Rosemary Tart with Polenta Crust has a creamy filling made with whole milk yogurt and a bit of parmesan. The Tangerine Lavender Coffee Cake is made with honey and whole wheat flour.
The question I always have with cookbooks is the obvious one—do the recipes work? I can write with confidence that these do. Not only that, but many of them are quick and weeknight-friendly, and Speck offers guidance on saving time by pre-soaking grains. Additionally, after cooking a few of the recipes with unfamiliar grains, one gets a sense of how to create dishes on their own, substituting various vegetables, nuts, stocks, and herbs. I made the Lamb Stew with Wheat Berries in Red Wine Sauce with CSA stew beef rather than lamb, and mushrooms rather than raisins. It was soul-warming and perfect with a hunk of bread.
When a cookbook is so successful at teaching a style of cooking, like the one Speck has written, one can then make a gift of it to a beloved friend. However, I’ll have trouble letting go of this anytime soon—I haven’t made the Leek Salad with Grilled Haloumi and Rye Berries yet!
Modern Southwest Cooking
By Ryan Clark (Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2013)
A veteran of Fuego!, Lodge on the Desert, The Dish Bistro and Canyon Ranch, Ryan Clark recently made the move to Agustín Kitchen, where he’ll be redesigning the menu as executive chef. As one of Tucson’s most celebrated culinary stars, it is fitting that he would create a cookbook that embraces the culture of the city. With a focus on local ingredients and regional cooking techniques, Clark’s first cookbook is a thoughtful primer on creating whimsical dishes rooted in the Southwest.
Up front, the drinks section features imaginative cocktails, like the Campfire with smoked sea salt, tequila and citrus syrup, and locally inspired Passion Fruit and Chiltepin Spritz and Prickly Pear Margarita. Clark even divulges the secrets behind his coveted signature libation, Black Rice Horchata with Cinnamon—and suggests spiking it with whiskey.
For the main course, Clark goes from the basics (The Best Guacamole and Classic Chili) to the complex (Yam and Ginger-Jalapeño Pave, Oxtail Sugo and Mesquite Flour Gnocchi, Mussels with Nopales, and Roasted Quail with Chorizo Stuffing). Lastly, Clark satiates any sweet tooth with his Ancho Torte, Habanero Crème Brulee and Tres Leches Ice Cream, among others.
Despite the complexity of flavors, Clark writes his recipes as simply and succinctly as possible. He instructs on how to build layers of flavor through brining, pickling, and making homemade stocks, sauces, and condiments (Poblano Truffle Aioli, anyone?).
Such tricks of the trade help elevate a dinner party to restaurant-worthy sophistication, while also reducing the stress by placing the focus on do-ahead flavor boosting. Tucsonans wishing to up their game in the kitchen should definitely add this one to their cookbook collections.