All photos are contributed; copyright 2020, Jackie Alpers. Recipes for all of the dishes photographed can be found in “Taste of Tucson: Sonoran-Style Recipes Inspired by the Rich Culture of Southern Arizona.”
Lockdown or no, there’s always room in our bellies for great food, and thankfully, Tucson author Jackie Alpers delivers in her latest cookbook, “Taste of Tucson: Sonoran-Style Recipes Inspired by the Rich Culture of Southern Arizona.”
Her latest cookbook includes dishes for home cooks of all skill levels, including recipes contributed by some of the most celebrated chefs in the country–who just happen to call Tucson home.
“Taste of Tucson” could be just the kick you need to up your quarantine cooking game.
“Taste of Tucson” is the second cookbook by Alpers, who is also an award-winning professional food photographer. Alpers cooks, styles and photographs food in her natural-light studio and documents food and travel on location. Her blog, Jackie’s Happy Plate, showcases her culinary adventures as a Midwesterner transplanted to the Sonoran Desert.
Alpers contributes articles and photography to a wide variety of online and print media, and you may have seen her work at FoodNetwork.com, Refinery29, Random House’s Tastebook, TheKitchn, TodayFood, Real Simple, National Geographic and Edible Baja Arizona Magazine among others. She has been featured in articles for Reader’s Digest, CNN, Good Morning America, The New York Times & NPR. Her food blog has been featured in numerous online publications including Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Glamour, Better Homes and Gardens, MSN, Brit + Co. and Buzzfeed Food.
We are honored to share this interview with Alpers, as well as a recipe from the “Taste of Tucson,” cookbook, so you can make Chicken Mole Amarillo at home.
Q & A With Author Jackie Alpers
- What inspired you to create this cookbook?
I’ve always been Inspired by the unique regional cuisine of Tucson. I’d wanted to write this book for years I was just waiting for the right opportunity.
- For the uninitiated, what do you believe are the factors that make Sonoran cuisine distinctive and worthy of its own cookbook?
I’ve written about that at length in the opening of my book, but in short, it’s the mishmash of cultures and the evolution of the community through time that cumulates in a unique regional cuisine.
- What food experiences in your past were transformational for your evolution as a food writer?
Well, I was a food photographer before I was a food writer. I’d been visually documenting the local cuisine for many publications and I was often asked to pick which dish to photograph that I thought best represented a particular restaurant. I began writing down my thoughts as to why I chose the dishes that I did. At around that same time my husband suggested that I start a blog to document my own recipes. I was hesitant at first, but it turned out to be a seminal experience for me, and the blog, Jackieshappyplate.com is still doing really well to this day.
- Are there specific dishes seared in your memory that had a profound impact on your decision to write this book?
I think it was the cuisine as a whole that impacted me. I could seriously write another book with a hundred more recipes. There is a never ending supply of inspiration in this town and some dishes kind of blew my mind the first time I had them. Carne seca and the pico de gallo fruit that they serve in those red plastic cups are two that immediately come to mind.
- Do you have a favorite recipe of those in the book? If so, which one?
All of the recipes in the book are like my children. I honestly can’t pick one as a favorite over the rest.
- What food of this region do you believe is overrated? And what’s underrated?
I don’t think any food is either over or underrated. It all comes down to the way a dish is prepared and personal preference. And, as they popular saying goes, I don’t want to yuck someone else’s yum.
- We are blessed with some extraordinary places in the Tucson area to buy specialty ingredients for Sonoran cuisine. Which are your favorites?
Native Seeds Search – especially for spices and beans.
Food City – Especially for produce and pantry items like Sonoran Sea Salt and dried hibiscus flowers which they carry in bulk.
Lee Lees Supermarket
Rincon Market – I love how it’s evolved over the years. They usually have all of the specialty items that I want all in one place. Forbes Meats is now inside there and Yuri Rabayev, the seafood guy who used to be at the 17th Street Market, Hayden Mills Flour, Bianco DiNapoli canned tomatoes, really good coffee, etc. etc.
We are also fortunate that Frys, Bashas, AJs and local chain groceries carry a lot of regional items.
- What sources do you recommend for those outside of this region who want to make some of these recipes?
I get a lot of use out of my Amazon Prime membership. They carry just about everything. MexGrocer.com is also great. I’m in the process of creating a resource page with links to our local suppliers who ship nationally and internationally, on my blog jackieshappyplate.com.
- How did you select the local chefs with whom you partnered as contributors to this cookbook?
It was a bit of a complicated process. I had a list of recipes that I wanted to include for a well-rounded book that covered specific categories like street snacks or soups or salads, then I had to decide which dishes best fit those categories and which chef was the best one to supply the recipe based on willingness, availability and whether it was a signature dish for that chef or restaurant. Travis Peters’ recipe is a good example. His restaurant The Parish serves southern food that is also regionally inspired. I wanted a carnitas recipe and Travis Peters is famous for his adobo pulled pork so I figured his dish was a good match for that niche and he was willing to work on adapting his recipe for the home chef and so that the recipe made 10 servings instead of 100.
- Say you’re on death row. What’s your final meal?
I have no idea. I expect if I was on death row I wouldn’t have much of an appetite.
- Favorite quarantine dish, and why?
I’ve been making a lot of whole bean tostadas on baked tostada shells topped with shredded romaine, diced tomatoes, my chiltepin salsa, lemon juice and a splash of Bazil’s salad dressing which they sell in bottles to-go at the restaurant. I don’t know if I was inspired by all of the people on the internet going suddenly crazy for beans, or what, but Sonoran food is healthy food and that dish makes me feel good, both physically and emotionally.
- What’s your advice for budding cooks who want to give Sonoran cuisine a try?
There are quite a few recipes in the book that I consider to be 101-basics and most of the recipes are fairly easy. Buy the book and give them a try.
- Where can people buy your book?
Everywhere books are sold, whether you want a big box store or an independent bookseller, the choice is yours. Here are some common links:
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for the interview and for featuring the book and I.
The book excerpt and recipe below is reprinted with permission.
RECIPE: Chicken Molé Amarillo
Nuttier and less sweet than its chocolate-based cousin, this version of Molé Amarillo is the personal creation of Chef Suzana Davila of Tucson’s Cafe Poca Cosa. She specializes in these complex sauces, and her recipes are longtime local favorites which is one reason why I wanted to feature the recipe in my upcoming cookbook Taste of Tucson: Sonoran Style Recipes Inspired by the Rich Culture of Southern Arizona. Serve this dish with tortillas and a pretty salad, as Suzana would.
- 8 yellow bell peppers
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 yellow tomatoes
- 2 Güero (Caribe) chiles
- ¹⁄2 cup raw sesame seeds
- 1 cup raw almonds
- ¹⁄2 cup raw pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), plus more for garnish
- 3 to 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¹⁄2 cup chopped white onion
- 1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
- 6 (6-inch) corn tostada shells
- 2 teaspoons granulated chicken flavored bouillon, preferably Knorr brand
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¹⁄4 cup chopped white onion
- 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
- 1 bay leaf
- Sea salt
- Corn tortillas, for serving
- Preheat the broiler. Place the bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, and chiles on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Place in the oven and broil until the skins are blackened and charred, about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the stems, seeds, and skins from the peppers, tomatoes, and chiles.
- In a dry 12-inch skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds until golden brown, about 2 minutes, stirring to keep from burning. Remove from the skillet and let cool. Toast the almonds and pepitas in the same skillet until the pepitas puff up but do not darken, about 2 minutes; remove the almonds and pepitas from the skillet and let cool. Once cooled, transfer the sesame seeds, almonds, and pepitas to a food processor or blender. Add 1 cup of the broth and blend until smooth.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onion along with the oregano in the oil until the onion is tender but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the pureed nut mixture and stir well. Reduce the heat to low.
- Place the roasted peppers, tomatoes, chiles, and another 1 cup of the chicken broth to the food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Add it to the onion-nut mixture in the skillet.
- Break the tostada shells into pieces and pulse in the food processor or blender with the roasted garlic, bouillon, and 1 cup broth. Stir into the skillet mixture. Continue to cook the mole, stirring often, over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes. If the sauce becomes too thick, add the fourth cup of broth.
- While the mole is simmering, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in another large skillet over medium heat. Sauté the ¹⁄4 cup chopped onion, the chicken, and bay leaf until chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes.
- Pour the mole over the cooked chicken and allow to simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Add salt to taste.
- Serve garnished with pepitas with the tortillas on the side.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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