A Pinch of Prickly Pear

A survey of cookbooks that came from Tucson kitchens

Western Mexican Cook Book, by Alfonso C. Pain, 1959

This pamphlet was self-published and came with a variety of covers. In some editions, Joe Carithers is listed as a co-author. The artwork is minimal, but Pain includes 16 hints to help the home cook achieve authenticity.

Francisca's Mexican Cookbook, by Charles J. Merchant, 1966

Another self-published book, it honors the recipes of someone named Francisca who created recipes cooked by someone named Lloyd.

Old Tucson Mexican Plaza Cookbook, by Alfonso C. Pain, 1971

This is basically the Western Mexican Cook Book kicked up a notch. The introduction is the same, and those 16 hints are there, but there are more recipes included, and the cover photo shows Old Tucson.

Fruits of the Desert, by Sandal English, Arizona Daily Star, 1981

Sandal English was one of the city's first real food writers. The Arizona Daily Star wanted to produce a book that highlighted the fruits of the desert—and Sandal, with her love of the Sonoran Desert and her professionalism, was the ideal person to write it.

She put out a call for recipes. Mary Gekas, owner of the Palomino restaurant, sent her a recipe for Greek olives. Carolyn Niethammer (who later wrote several desert-related cookbooks of her own) contributed pomegranate-sauced chicken. Other recipes came from everyday home cooks. There are recipes for loquats and lemons, prickly pear and persimmons, agave and apples—more than 350 recipes in all.

Information on plants is also included. This book shows off locavorism long before the culinary term was ever imagined.

Janos: Recipes and Tales From a Southwest Restaurant, by Janos Wilder, 1989

Janos Wilder's original eponymously named restaurant downtown was groundbreaking when it opened in 1983, and most of the recipes here emerged from that kitchen on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block.

This book is a wonderful read. Both memoir and cookbook, it demonstrates that Janos is as creative with a pen as he is with a knife.

"Whether it is a cilantro aioli swirled over pan-fried sweetbreads, a hearty puree of peppers spread under grilled beef tenderloin, or a suave buerre blanc infused with lobster stock and served under grilled king salmon, sauces always add an element of enchantment and sophistication," he writes.

The book kicks off with the restaurant's opening night and all the emotions that come with such a monumental undertaking. Then, chapter by chapter, you learn how the restaurant grew from idea to reality. Full kudos are given to the remarkable team the Wilders put together.

A chapter is dedicated to the story of Hiram Stevens, the early mover and shaker whose home became the restaurant: "Yet as we entered Hiram Stevens' house, I sensed immediately that we had found our location: This fine old structure, with its high ceilings and array of simple, intimate spaces, seemed to invite an enterprise that would once again welcome people within its walls and reintroduce a spirit of gracious living. I knew instinctively that our guests would feel welcome here."

The graphics add to the chic but earthy vibe—and the recipes are amazing.

Padre Kino's Favorite Meatloaf—And Other Recipes From Baja Arizona: A Tucson Community Food Bank Cookbook, by Bonnie Henry and Dave Fitzsimmons (illustrator), 1991

The contributors to this cookbook run the gamut from Sen. John McCain (barbeque sauce for chicken) to Barbara Kingsolver (pizza Odysseus).

The recipes are arranged alphabetically by contributor, so Punch Wood's white ribbon biscuits are next to Dave Yetman's chocolate mousse.

Fitz's drawings are classic, and Henry's blurbs are clever. Her description of former Mayor Lew Murphy: "A big enchilada around these parts ever since he first blew into town sometime back in the '50s, Lew now spends his days spreading rumors that Santa Fe, read backwards, spells Taco Bell."

Even Fitz contributes a recipe (convenience store Coney Island surprise). It involves a Twinkie, a Slim Jim, a ball-peen hammer and goggles. He swears it's an original.

And, yes, there actually is a recipe for Padre Kino's favorite meatloaf, channeled by Gloria Alvarez and Ted Earle, with a healthy nod to Julia Child.

Contemporary Southwest: The Café Terra Cotta Cookbook, by Donna Nordin, 1995

Like its author, chef Donna Nordin, this book is stylish, smart and chock-full of creative recipes. Nordin and her husband, Don Luria, were the creative force behind the iconic restaurant, which opened in 1986.

Nordin offers recipes that made dinners at the restaurant so memorable. She begins the book with a chapter she calls "The Basics," giving readers insight into her favorite ingredients. She devotes more than two pages to chiles alone.

Nordin's definition of Southwestern cuisine rings true with today's trends: "First, it would be based on the fundamental ingredients native to the American Southwest and northern Mexico—chiles, corn, tomatoes, squash and beans. Second, it would reach deeper into Mexico, especially to the Yucatan, central Mexico and Oaxaca, where the sauces are more robust, complex and balanced. Third, it would combine classical French and contemporary cooking techniques and presentation styles with an emphasis on absolutely fresh ingredients."

Ever the teacher, Nordin imparts her kitchen wisdom:

"Keep in mind that every cook has a personal idea of what is meant by 'oil,' 'butter,' 'pinch,' 'dash,' even eggs when reading and producing a recipe. That's the reason it is very difficult to replicate precisely a dish you ate at a friend's house or at your favorite restaurant."

Terra Cotta closed in 2009, but for anyone who ever enjoyed a meal there, these recipes are like being let in on a wonderful secret.

Tucson Cooks! An Extraordinary Culinary Adventure, Primavera Foundation, 2005

The book is filled with information on Tucson Originals restaurants and the recipes they prepared at the annual Primavera Cooks! series—but reading it is bittersweet.

While many Originals are still going strong, and Primavera Cooks! is still a successful series of events, many of the restaurants featured here have closed: Fuego, Bistro Zin, Cuvée World Bistro, Roma Caffe, Barrio Food and Drink, Intermezzo, Livorno, Terra Cotta, Papagayo and Elle.

No author is listed, but Pat Connors of Pastiche and Holly Lachowicz of the Primavera Foundation were responsible for gathering the recipes and the restaurants' stories. Diza Sauers polished the text. Photos of events over the years are also included.

Rumor has it that another book is in the planning stages.

The Great Chiles Rellenos Book, by Janos Wilder, 2008

This book is smaller than Janos' first cookbook, but the chef's passion and creativity continue to ring true in this paean to chile rellenos.

"In the end, it wasn't enough for me to know how to make a great typical chile relleno—I wanted to know how to make a great relleno, period," he writes.

Indeed, Janos includes a chapter on chiles that has just about everything you need to know: history, flavors, methods of roasting and preparation. He includes batters, breadings and crusts. There are recipes for basic rellenos and unusual rellenos. Janos stuffs chiles with lobster, blue cheese, black beans, lamb barbacoa and more. His creativity shines: "Sometimes, it's fun (and tasty) to combine elegant, luxurious ingredients with those that might be considered more humble."

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