Q&A: Jackie Alpers’ Inspiration Behind “Taste of Tucson”
The prolific author, photographer and recipe creator shares the story behind her new cookbook.
By Olivia Munson
Author, photographer and recipe creator Jackie Alpers has been covering the Arizona food scene for more than 25 years. In addition to contributing showcasing her culinary adventures on her own blog, “Jackie’s Happy Plate,” she contributes to such well-known media sources as Food Network, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens, and Buzzfeed.
Recently, Alpers released her latest cookbook, “Taste of Tucson: Sonoran-Style Recipes Inspired by the Rich Culture of Southern Arizona”, which celebrates the Sonoran savories and sweets that give America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy its distinctive flavor. Through mouthwatering photographs, easy-to-follow recipes and interesting tales about the cultural and historical significance of many of the dishes, readers are taken on a dining experience through the Old Pueblo.
We caught up with Alpers so talk about her cookbook as well as southern Arizona’s noteworthy cuisine.
Phoenix Home & Garden: What was your motivation while creating your latest cookbook, “Taste of Tucson?”
Jackie Alpers: I’ve been wanting to do a Sonoran cookbook for a long time now. I started my blog in 2010. It focuses on my food photography as well as my own original recipes that are highly inspired by the region we live in. Many of the recipes that I develop for my editorial clients become extremely popular with their readers. I wanted to showcase all of the things that things that make Tucson’s food so special and share it with the rest of the world. So this book features my own recipes as well as those from 15 local chefs, many of whom have put Sonoran-style cuisine in the spotlight.
PHG: What sets Tucson’s food scene apart from other regions of Arizona?
Alpers: Tucson is influenced by its proximity to Mexico. Its unique heritage is a combination of the way that the cuisine has developed over time. From the special plants that grow around here to the Native American culture and regional Mexican dishes, these influences have had a huge impact on the Sonoran cuisine.
PHG: How did you select the recipes and chefs that are featured in “Taste of Tucson?”
Alpers: It was a really complicated process. I’ve been covering restaurants in Phoenix and Tucson for the Food Network for several years. As I would go on these assignments and photograph these different eateries, I would often be asked to pick the menu item that I thought best represented the restaurant. Over time, I came up with a list of dishes that are particularly representative of specific item or fit a niche that I really wanted to include in the book.
A good example is my Topopo salad (recipe included below). There is quite a bit of lore surrounding its origin. Several Tucson restaurants claim to have invented this dish. My research found a couple examples of a similar salads served in other parts of the world, although I don’t have an exact date for when it began showing up on local menus. In regional cuisines, there is often a lot of storytelling that gets passed down from generation to generation, and Sonoran cuisine is no different in that regard.
PHG: How does cooking help connect families during this time of social distancing?
Alpers: Everyone wants a creative outlet that is fun and useful when they are stuck at home. Cooking from a cookbook such as mine will help people learn more about a place they’re interested in visiting or simply knowing more about without having to leave their houses. I think a lot of folks are thinking, “Maybe it’s now time for me to learn something new or to make something I’ve always wanted to try.”
PHG: Are you planning any other food-related projects in the future?
Alpers: I was thinking about how there are restaurants in Phoenix that didn’t get included that I really want to include next time. I didn’t learn about some of the Sonoran and regionally inspired restaurants that were there until “Taste of Tucson” was past. There are constantly new restaurants and I am constantly coming up with new ideas, so I’ve already got the next edition of this book in my mind.
Jackie Alpers’ Topopo Salad
I’ve heard different stories explaining why Tucson’s most iconic salad is made to look like a volcano. One origin theory is that Tucson is surrounded by mountains. The most recognizable, Sentinel Peak, also known as “A” Mountain, is often mistaken for a small volcano. It’s not, but it was formed out of the lava from a volcano that erupted near there 25 million years ago and hardened into black rock. In fact, the name Tucson translates into “at the foot of the black mountain.” For this showstopper salad, you will need a 4-inch-diameter funnel with at least a 2-cup capacity and a large serving plate at least 8 inches in diameter.
2 cups Iceberg and/or romaine lettuce, finely chopped
½ cup frozen mixed vegetables (corn, carrots, green beans, peas), thawed in a colander under warm running water
1- 2 tablespoons prepared vinaigrette salad dressing
1 corn tostada shell
¼ cup refried beans, warmed
4 jicama strips, thin, cut into 2- to 3-inch-long strips
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
1 tablespoon pico de gallo or other chile-citrus seasoning
4 small carrots or carrot sticks
6 large cooked shrimp
¼ cup yellow cheddar cheese, finely shredded
1 tomato slice
1 pimiento-stuffed green olive, halved horizontally
Red or green salsa for serving
Combine lettuce, mixed vegetables and salad dressing in a large mixing bowl. The lettuce should be well-coated but not dripping.
Spread the inside of the tostada shell with the warm beans. Set aside, within reach.
Holding the funnel in your nondominant hand so that the wide end is facing up, fill the funnel with the lettuce mixture and press it down firmly with a spatula. Cover the hole end of the funnel while filling, then take your finger off the hole and let any extra dressing drain out into the sink.
Flip the tostada shell over onto the funnel so that the refried beans are touching the lettuce. Flip the serving plate over and place it centered on top of the tostada in the funnel. Then, flip the whole thing over and gently place it on the countertop. Carefully remove the funnel to reveal the volcano-shaped molded salad.
Dip one end of the jicama sticks in lemon or lime juice and then dip them into the pico de gallo seasoning. Lean the jicama sticks, vertically at even intervals, around the
perimeter of the salad (chile side up), followed by the carrots and shrimp. Sprinkle the top of the salad with cheddar cheese to resemble lava. Crown your topopo with a slice of tomato and half of the pimiento-stuffed olive. While eating, once you topple your topopo, mix in some salsa for an extra kick.
Serves 1 as a meal or can be split for 2 as a side dish.