Monday, May 16, 2011

The Soup Project: Rhubarb-Cherry Dessert Soup with Cashew Cream

We had reservations to fly to Phoenix. Traveling always compels me to use up fresh food I have on hand, so I made this rhubarb dessert soup the night before we left last week.

Four stalks of rhubarb from the produce bin and 1 1/2 cups of thawed pie cherries in a small container, and I was thinking about soup. Could I make a rhubarb soup? I needed one for Monday. (Sorry this is a bit late.) I knew rhubarb and cherries pair well together because I'd made this amazing crisp last year.

This soup is heavenly, but before the recipe, I've got to share a few details about food connections in Phoenix. Who knows you may end up there someday. Before we left I knew I wanted to visit a farmers' market and maybe visit a farm. Here are a few things we did:

Farmers market was our first stop. The Twilight Farmers' Market, a relatively small farmers' market is at the end of a mall and had about ten to twelve vendors. Business was slow and at the information booth we discovered the biggest market, the Roadrunner Park Farmers' Market on Saturdays has about 40 vendors. We found this longer list of farmers' markets at the information booth. The market manager circled the largest market. At this time of year, they sell more processed than fresh foods because summer temperatures in Phoenix can be brutal.

First thing I noticed was a cupcake stand doing a brisk business; beyond the ultra sweet cupcakes, I saw apples on a table. Apples aren't in season now and good local apples are hard to find at markets here, I was curious and when I asked the farmer about his apples, he said he had apple orchards in Washington. I laughed. Every time I go to Phoenix I see Washington apples, but it shocked me to see them at the farmers' market. His faded yellow lab was too adorable, but maybe it's just that I missed my own Cooking Assistant. I bought 4 Pink Lady apples before snapped this picture of his dog resting behind the booth.

Most vendors sold processed products. I bought kale chips from The Health Foodie--a total impulsive splurge purchase, but these chips had the best flavor of any artisan kale chips I've tasted.

The second foodie stop was a trendy mall called Scottsdale Quarter. I spotted this colorful store called It's Sugar and thought the rainbow of candy colors might have something interesting to shoot for my photography class.

What a crazy variety of candy--from candy flavored dental floss to chocolate rocks--everything you never thought of and don't need anyway. A 5-pound gummy bear for $35.00? Where is the nearest dentist for this? I asked if the candy outfits on mannequins were for sale, but they were only made for display. I'm convinced now that America has the quirkiest self-indulgent food trends in the world.

Also in the mall was an advertisement for IPic theaters. I'd never heard of this high end theater chain, so we rode up the escalator to see what they offered. For the right price, to go with your movie you can get wine or 8 types of beer, both on tap, chef-prepared foods and watch the movie in a soft easy chair so comfortable you can put your feet up. Movie tickets for this new theater start at $25 per person. I'm sure after food and wine or beer, your movie experience could be around $100. (Netflix at home seems a great bargain compared to this.)

Across the aisle from the theater was the Champagne and Tea Lounge. The concept of champagne and tea intrigued me, and the white on black sign practically screams exclusive and high-end. When I checked it out later, I learned that this lounge offers a variety of teas paired with "bites" in the afternoon and over 200 kinds of "bubbly" in the evening. The experience here also involves velvet ropes and music, and from the reviews, many people think it's more ghetto than high end. One reviewer called it "straight out of Vegas," another said "it's a pseudo L.A.ish establishment," and many mentioned "too trendy." I think this marketing idea of two different ideas packaged into one only works if you actually have a good product to offer.

The final foodie thing was the Queen Creek Peach Festival put on by Schnepf Farms, a 5000 acre farm that puts on this annual festival every year.

This is the largest farm I've ever visited and I'd actually expected a more farm-like experience--learn about peach trees, who farms the land, how the peaches are grown and all that locavore foodie stuff. But this is a big business farm and what I got was a version of agri-tourism that seemed more in line with a county fair or festival experience complete with the Indian Fry Bread, Polish Dog vendors and the ubiquitious vendor selling magnetic therapy bracelets. Even a furniture vendor had faux-antique furniture out for sale.

Car loads of people flocked to this free event. The dirt lot kicked up dust in the lot that was nearly full. As we passed rows and rows of cars and saw so many families shuffling in, I wondered about the sustainablity of farm events like this. A big tanker filled with water drove around and around spraying water over the dirt lot because the hot wind continually blew dust devils and some morphed into bigger dust clouds that made me think of Timmothy Eagan's The Worst Hard Time, a memorable book about the dustbowl of the 1930s.

We passed a sign that said "relax and breath the fresh country air." It felt a bit like a faux Knots Berry farm when I saw the pony, train and hay rides or maybe it was just a small town carnival feel. We waited in long lines with the sun beating down for everything and at each one, I asked and searched for any information about the farm history or how they grow peaches and farm vegetables in this desert. But the farm seemed almost removed from itself in this place with people everywhere like insects, tossing their plastic bottles and styrofoam plates into big garbage cans. I saw bag after bag carted away by farm employees.

I couldn't find the farm information, then my daughter said, "It's probably online." Sure enough, there it was. Hard to believe someone once thought to grow corn, a crop that sucks up water, in this dry arid place.

The little train that carried about 50 people at a time around the farm tooted every ten minutes or so, and big green tractors pulled up with cartloads of people sitting on hay bales. As these folks got off another load of people took their seats. Is what farmers mean when they say they want agri-tourism? Or is this some weird bastardization of the concept?

We waited in line for peach cinnamon rolls, but they'd sold out; the few peach pies they had left were quickly snatched up as well. "We have a baker rolling out the dough. More will be available in an hour," a woker shouted at the people in line. I felt like we were at a feeding frenzy; shelves with farm grown products filled shelves that morning, only to be swiped clean by noon with a few lonely stray bottles of peach syrup or preserves scattered about.

Was it the "local food" or "free event" that made so many people, especially families, come to this farm? Cases of peaches went flying out of there and one worker mentioned that Saturday had more farm visitors, many out for a real farm like experience, others came for the food and entertainment.

We bought a few peaches to take on the plane, then walked over to the tasting room where we sampled many of the farm products--from peach gummy bears and rings, to salsas, to canned and dried peaches and preserves.

I've visited many farms and farm stores, but this was the first sighting of gumballs as value-added farm products. A cool orange color. Is this an interesting twist on "farm fresh" products? Or a huge deviation? One of the things I like about farms is they're all different and maybe there is room for farms that offer peach gumballs and gummy bears. Is candy the best way to expose kids to a farm? Just wondering.

The rhubarb and peach preserves caught my eye. I've never paired peaches and rhubarb but I'd bet flavorwise Northwest pie cherries or even raspberries and rhubarb have more to offer than peaches and rhubarb. We didn't get a taste here either, the preserve samples were gone, so we moved on.

This annual peach festival was interesting but it made me wonder if this is what farmers mean when they talk about agri-tourism? We looked everywhere for farm information about how they grow the peaches in the desert. We found farm T-shirts but no postcards or even basic farm information.

I appreciate that all farms are different, but I like to get away from crowds, not feel the pressures of people and lines everywhere I turn. Plus as I watched farm workers cart out bags and bags of garbage, I wondered how much plastic waste is generated by events like this?

Back at the airport, I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ--click my heels and I'll go home.

I love my farmers' market that seems more about community than entertainment. Somehow peach gumballs just isn't right. I appreciate Rockridge Orchards where I bought my fresh rhubarb and Grouse Mountain Farm where I got my cherries and froze them last summer--working farms, not big business farms that cater to agri-tourism and have long forgotten to share their farm stories.

Traveling sometimes makes me really appreciate the treasures in my own back yard! Three cheers for Northwest markets, farms and produce!

Here's the recipe:

Rhubarb-Cherry Dessert Soup with Cashew Cream
(Serves 4)

4 stalks of rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups pitted pie cherries
1 vanilla bean, slit down the middle
1/2 to 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 to 2 cups water
Salt to taste

Place all ingredients except salt in a sauce pan. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until rhubarb breaks down and mixture becomes thicker. Make Cashew Cream while soup simmers.

Cashew Cream
(Makes 1 cup)
This dreamy decadent-tasting cashew cream can be mixed in or drizzled across the top. It has an intriguing texture that can be quite addictive.

3/4 cup raw unsalted cashews
1 cup apple juice (I used Rockrodge Orchards)
Pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

Soak cashews in apple juice overnight. Puree, then add a pinch of salt and lemon juice to taste.

My Cooking Assistant didn't go to Phoenix but he loved posing with this soup the day we returned. I could just imagine him telling the dogs where he stayed about his modeling career and his kitchen duties.

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