Food has been an important concern of the Phoenix-based Arizona Herb Association (AHA) since the organization was founded in 1988. It sponsors a cook-off each December, and herbal snacks are offered at monthly meetings. But for the forty-six members of the AHA’s Culinary Group, herbal delicacies are more than just party favors—they’re cause for serious partying.
The Culinary Group has been meeting monthly on Saturday evenings for the past five years to experiment with herbs in cooking and show off the results. Its affairs have swelled from intimate gatherings of less than a dozen to a recent Harvest Feast for thirty-six people. The Herb Companion partook of that glorious smorgasbord—and came away with the recipes that begin on page 69.
“In the beginning, we used the AHA’s Herb of the Month as the theme for each month’s dinner, but this became problematic,” explains Culinary Group member Carole Palmer. “Although it was fun to see how an herb might be used in all areas of a meal, this also led to a sameness of taste.”
The group has switched its focus to regional (or region-inspired) cuisine, with much success. For its Harvest Feast, it chose a region close to home (actually, home itself): the Southwest. Walter and Penny Leveen hosted the event in their enclosed backyard herb garden, a tiny rural oasis on the sprawling urban border between Scottsdale and Phoenix that includes an astonishing array of plants and even chickens (if you express interest, Walter is likely to send you home with fresh eggs).
As members filed in bearing creations from their own herb gardens and kitchens, it became clear that each had worked long and hard to come up with something special. Cindy Bearce scoured the Internet and found several versions of Three Sisters Stew, which she combined in her own stewpot. Phyllis Mack adapted her Mocha Mole Chicken from a recipe given for red meat on the PBS Savor the Southwest cooking program hosted by Barbara Pool Fenzl. “I used the basic ingredients from the show and adjusted them to what I thought would complement the chicken,” she explained. Mike Hills stirred together corn, peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes in the Leveen’s charcoal-heated wok to create a spicy mélange of hot colors that he referred to as Stir-Fried Calabacitas. Sandra Jefferies sliced pieces of cheerfully striped herbal terrine and placed them on pools of bright tomato-red pepper sauce. Strawberry margaritas contained not a single herb but added to the occasion’s festivity.
Evening brought a welcome chill to the sun-baked garden, candles flickered, and the guests returned again and again to the long table laden with dishes. Unable to choose among Cranberry-Prickly Pear Pie, Pumpkin-Pecan Flan, and Lemon Meringue Tarts, diners helped themselves to all three. As these devout herbies lingered over their sweet delights, conversations turned to gardens, AHA projects, and, of course, the culinary arts.