How busy has Susan Lowell been? She's co-owner of Rio Nuevo, author of one of the cookbooks and co-translator of another. This fireball descendant of an old, old Western family is probably best known for her children's books, but she clearly devotes some of her vast leisure time to cooking and collecting stories and old recipes.
Her latest book, Clouds for Dessert, is an appealing collection of sweets of the Southwest--some Southwest-themed (a gingerbread casa), some indigenous (almendrado) and some imported verbatim from 19th-century Anglo settlers (a legendary rice pudding called "Spotted Pup"). The clear, detailed recipes are from Lowell's kitchen and from friends and family, and come embedded in a savory mix of history, personal anecdote and food lore. The result is delightful, even if you don't have a sweet tooth: Lowell is a terrific storyteller with an eye for the perfect quotation. She ends the introduction to her grandfather's recipe for madeleines, for example, with a passage from Proust about loss, the survival of small, evocative things and what they contribute to "the vast structure of recollection." This book is part of that structure.
I am happy to say that Carolyn Niethammer's The Prickly Pear Cookbook is the one the Opuntia-obsessed among us have been waiting for. Arizona native Niethammer--a prolific writer and an expert on the region, wild foods and cooking--covers the ground like nobody has before. And while she lists commercial sources for all the native-to-here ingredients, this is truly a cookbook for Tucson. It tells you how to harvest and handle both the nopales and the tunas, how to fertilize the cactus in your yard (should you be so inclined), and many of the recipes are from local chefs and home cooks. So how SoAz is it? A salad from chef Chris Pederson of Westward Look calls for the leaves of the purslane that flourish in disturbed soil after the monsoons. How much more local can you get than ingredients you can pick up in the alley?
Anyone who's ever had trouble making prickly pear jelly--and we are legion--will turn immediately to the jelly recipe, hoping that Niethammer's is foolproof. She makes no promises, telling the story of a local commercial producer who had to call in a food chemist to find a method that set up every time. Still, Niethammer's levelheaded advice is enough to send us out again next August armed with tongs, a paper bag and renewed hope.
The one recipe we tried, beef with prickly pear and port sauce, was a keeper. It's from Perla Myers, a well-known New York food writer who spends time here. (Niethammer talks about the sources of her recipes, a generous practice that makes a cookbook more than a technical manual.) The hard work for this one consists of putting together port wine, a shallot, prickly pear syrup or juice, citrus and some cayenne and letting it all boil down. Oh, and you have to grill and slice some steak. So easy, and as good as anything we've ever tasted. (Note: We don't like things too sweet, so we used Arizona Cactus Ranch's Prickly Pear Concentrate, which is unsweetened, tasty, thick and goes for $25 a pint at Wild Oats; there are reasons other than personal satisfaction for processing your own fruit. On the other hand, Niethammer tells us, some clinics successfully prescribe the exact same stuff as a treatment for diabetes and heart disease. For a drug, it's cheap.)
Unfortunately, Rio Nuevo's other new cookbook doesn't come close to the first two. Belonging as we do to the "add bacon and double the chocolate" school of cooking, we were suspicious of Secrets of Light Latin Cooking (by Alexandra Drijanski, Esther Guindi and Mabel Killer; translated by Mary Humphreys and Susan Lowell) at first thumb-through. A recipe calling for a teaspoon of red onion (eggplant stuffed with rice) did not bode well. (The eggplant actually tasted OK after we multiplied the onion by a factor of roughly 75 and added three kinds of chile. But the texture was still for toddlers.)
It turns out that the book was first published in Mexico as Secretos de la Comida Sana (Secrets of Healthy Cooking), a much more accurate title: There's very little that's Latin going on here. Dishes like "tricolor fusilli with red pepper sauce and Oriental vegetables" do not scream south-of-the-border to your average Sonoran, nor to anybody else, for that matter. The food is healthful, low-fat, easy to prepare and fatally bland. Note to the authors: Flavor is not dangerous to your health.