A Southwestern Harvest Feast

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Carole Palmer puts finishing touches on coreopsis arrangements for the tables.
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Chile ­peppers and sage flavor the traditional beans, corn, and squash in Cindy Bearce’s Three Sisters Stew, which she serves with Green Chile Cornbread.
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Pecans spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg add depth and crunch to Dorothy Gunderson’s Pumpkin-Pecan Flan, a new twist on a popular Southwestern dessert.
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A plate piled high with herbal dishes at the ­Harvest Feast.
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Members of the Arizona Herb Association’s Culinary Group present the results of their ­experimentation with herbs in Southwestern cuisine in a sumptuous harvest feast. This page: Mike Hills stirs together corn, ­zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes in a ­charcoal-fired wok to make a festive dish he calls Stir-Fried ­Calabacitas.
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Joan Allen’s Cornbread Salad, which took a prize at the Arizona Herb Association’s annual cook-off, combines crunchy raw vegetables, pimentos, and peanuts with crumbled cornbread.
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Contrasting layers in Sandra and Jim Jefferies’ colorful vegetable terrine echo fall tones found in nature. Tepary beans and squash enhance the regional flavor.
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A guest checks out Walter Leveen’s lush herb ­offerings, leftovers from an earlier herb fair sponsored by the Arizona Herb Association. Below: Phyllis Mack’s Mocha Mole Chicken contains an intriguing combination of coffee, cocoa, ­cinnamon, and chiles and is served with garlic, chile, and cilantro sauce.
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Laura Ruffalo’s Lavender Muscat Wine Cake contains citrus, grapes, and lavender—all of which thrive in Southwest ­gardens—in a mouthwatering dessert.
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As evening falls, the Arizona sun relents and guests linger over plates piled high with the delights of the herbal feast. Conversation turns to gardening . . . and dessert.
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Edible flowers add interest and color to a green salad.

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.

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