Spirit of the Harvest: Traditional Native produce, meats help make Turquoise Room one of best restaurants in Arizona

April 14, 2010

Spirit of the Harvest: Traditional Native produce, meats help make Turquoise Room one of best restaurants in Arizona
Renowned food author Beverly Cox, winner of the James Beard cookbook award, a Julia Child award and a IACP cookbook award, and food editor for Native Peoples Magazine, contributes a monthly column and weekly recipes to TankaBar.com. The Spirit of the Harvest columns are published the second Wednesday of every month. Recipes from Beverly run on intervening Wednesdays.

'I've never tasted anything like this'

When John and Patricia Sharpe visited friends in Winslow, AZ, who were restoring La Posada, one of the grand old railroad hotels of the Southwest designed by Mary Jane Colter, they fell in love with the place. John, who is English, had a successful career as an executive chef/restaurateur in southern California, but missed having time to actually cook for people. When asked if they would consider opening a new restaurant at La Posada, the couple was intrigued. They saw it as an opportunity to spend more time together -- and start a new adventure -- so in 2000 they packed up their pots and pans and moved to Winslow.

One of the Sharpes' first challenges in getting the Turquoise Room up and running was finding fresh, locally grown produce and meat. Unlike California, where chefs are supplied by a huge network of organic farmers, there was not even a small farmer's market near Winslow. If John was going to get the foods he needed, he knew it would take research and a lot of personal effort.

Fortunately, through Slow Food USA, an organization in which he is active, Sharpe knew Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit conservation group, and current director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University in nearby Flagstaff. Nabhan put Sharpe in touch with members of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, and also suggested that he meet members of the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, whose flocks graze on the vast Navajo reservation.

Now, with Chef John Sharpe in the kitchen, the Turquoise Room is considered by many to be the best restaurant in Arizona. The seasonal produce is all locally grown, and special items such as giant heirloom squash blossoms, a menu favorite, are picked fresh each morning in the chef's own garden. The menu includes dishes made with traditional Native American foods: tepary beans, acorns, cholla buds and saguaro cactus syrup from the Tohono O'odham people near Tucson; miniature heirloom corn and ethereally thin blue piki bread from the Hopi mesas; and churro lamb from the Navajo.

An opportunity to taste the lamb, which is not yet sold commercially, draws connoisseurs from near and far. "They say, 'I've never tasted anything like this.' It's absolutely amazing,'" Sharpe says. "Unlike most commercial breeds, the smaller churros have almost no fat layer, and the meat is pale, mild, and subtly flavored by the wild herbs and grasses on which they graze."

Though you probably won't be able to buy churro lamb chops to prepare the recipe that follows, Sharpe suggests that you try to find local lamb, preferably grass-fed. "This dish epitomizes the use of local ingredients while preserving the integrity of the flavors by not over-presenting or over-seasoning the food," he says. "Both the lamb and the beans speak well with just a little enhancement from the mint, garlic, vinegar and oil. Nothing else is needed to show how these ingredients work."

Grilled Churro Lamb Chops with Tepary Bean Salsa and Mixed Greens

Yield: Serves 4


8 ounces dried tepary beans*or another heirloom variety, like Anasazi beans
2 teaspoons pressed or minced fresh garlic, divided
1 bay leaf
2 dried ancho chiles, seeded
1 bunch fresh mint, divided
2 medium summer squash, yellow and green
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 to 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 red bell pepper
1 fresh poblano chile
1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 cup cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
4 cups mixed summer greens (spring salad mix from the farmer's market)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
12 small or 8 large lamb chops

Cooking the beans:

Pick over the beans (discarding the bad) and rinse. Soak beans overnight in cold water, covered. Drain, and place beans, 1 teaspoon garlic, bay leaf, ancho chiles and 1 sprig of mint in a large saucepan with 1/2 gallon cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook beans at a gentle boil until tender, 2 to 6 hours, adding more hot water if needed. (If you live at a high altitude, you may want to use a pressure cooker to save time.) Cool and refrigerate beans until needed.

Preparing the salsa:

Halve squash lengthwise and season with salt, pepper and olive oil. Score the skin of the bell pepper and poblano with a sharp knife and roll them in the olive oil. Grill squash for 2 to 3 minutes on each side over medium-hot coals. Grill bell pepper and poblano until the skins are black. Place in a covered bowl for 10 minutes to steam and loosen the skins. Peel peppers and cut into 1-inch dice. Cut the squash into 1-inch pieces.

Chop two sprigs of mint and place them in a small pan with rice vinegar and the remaining teaspoon of garlic. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool and whisk in 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Place cooled, drained beans in a bowl and add squash, peppers, tomatoes, red onion and mint dressing. Toss well. Season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate until serving time.

Cooking the lamb:

Coat the lamb chops with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over a high heat for 3 to 6 minutes each side, depending on how you prefer them to be cooked and the thickness of the chops.

To serve:

While the chops are grilling, lay out four large dinner plates and toss salad greens with the balsamic vinegar and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Place a small mound of greens on each plate. Dress the front of the plate with the bean salsa. When the chops are cooked, arrange them on the bean salsa and garnish with fresh mint sprigs.

A special thanks to Jay Begay Jr. (Dine) of Tuba City, AZ, for supplying the churro lamb for this article. For details on the La Posada Hotel: LaPosada.org

Beverly Cox is the food editor of Native Peoples Magazine and a former food editor and director of food styling for Cook's Magazine. She holds a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and apprenticed with Gaston LeNotre.

Beverly has written 13 cookbooks, including Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking, winner of the James Beard and IACP cookbook awards in 1992, and Spirit of the West, Cooking from Ranch House and Range, winner of a Julia Child award in 1997, and Spirit of the Earth, Native Cooking from Latin America, an IACP cookbook award finalist in 2002, all co-authored with food photographer Martin Jacobs. Their most recent book is Eating Cuban, 120 Authentic Recipes from the Streets of Havana to American Shores.

Beverly and her husband, Gordon Black, an architect turned rancher, live on the historic Eagle Rock Ranch in Northern Colorado where her great grandfather homesteaded in 1872. Beverly teaches hands-on cooking classes for small groups who want to combine cooking with the experience of visiting a working cattle ranch.

You can contact Beverly at BeverlyCox@TankaBar.com

For more information about Beverly's cookbooks featuring Native American recipes:

Body, Mind and Spirit: Native Cooking of the Americas

Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking

Spirit of the Earth: Native Cooking from Latin America

For more information about Native Peoples Magazine: Native Peoples

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