We recently had the chance to visit the treasured, and James Beard recognized, Elote Cafe in Sedona. Courtesy of Chef Jeff Smedstad himself, the Arizona Office of Tourism, and our great friends at MMPR Marketing, we were given the chance to catch up with long time friends and make new ones over food that defines Arizona’s food culture and in celebration of Smedstad’s newest book, The Elote Cafe Notebook. Below is an excerpt from the most recent issue of Edible Phoenix magazine, celebrating Smedstad’s newest release right alongside another Arizona chef favorite, Chris Bianco, who has also penned and released his cookbook this past month. Both are now available at local bookstore Changing Hands Phoenix.
Chef Smedstad will be making a Phoenix appearance at Changing Hands Phoenix on Monday September 11th at 7pm, offering small-bite samples and sharing his new cookbook of southwestern flavors. Seating opens at 6:30pm. More information.
Two of our favorite Arizona chefs, Chris Bianco and Jeff Smedstad, have new cookbooks coming out this summer. Both of their chef-driven volumes feature local foodstuffs and the belief that you don’t need a long list of ingredients to make good food. While one chef cooks his version of Italian and the other cooks Southwest, their stories are a testament to the fact that when you love what you’re doing, it shows on the plate—and in the cookbook.
“Food is a collective business. I’ve always said that, for me, my restaurants are more of a human study than a business.” —Chris Bianco
Bianco—the Reluctant Cookbook Author
Chef Bianco’s long-awaited BIANCO: Pizza, Pasta and Other Food I Like (HarperCollins, 2017) comes out on July 25. Surprisingly, one of the reasons it took so long to produce the book is that Chef Bianco wasn’t sure he believed in cookbooks, even though he enjoyed reading them. He was worried that the book might be perceived as THE way to make pizza (and the other foods), rather than as an expression of his way of making the dish. And that readers might use the cookbook as a shortcut to how the recipes were supposed to taste rather than relying on their own preferences. He fervently believes that “before you can learn to cook, you need to learn to eat.”
Luckily for us, his publisher convinced him otherwise and BIANCO teaches us just as much about learning to eat as it does about learning to cook.
Take for example, the classic Mozzarella and Tomato sandwich from Pane Bianco. With only six ingredients (bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, salt), you’d think the recipe instructions wouldn’t be that complicated.
But Bianco says, “Precisely because they are humble and unassuming, sandwiches have a lot to teach us about what it takes to make good food. Most people are rarely prepared to answer the question of why they think a certain food is good (or why not), and just taking the time to ask that question is the beginning of a great sandwich, or of any good cooking experience.”
In the case of this “Caprese salad between slices of bread,” it’s the sturdiness of the bread, the juiciness of the tomatoes, the freshness of the herbs. Then it’s making a little cradle by hollowing out the bottom part of the bread, gently laying the medium-thick slices of tomato on top of the bread so that it can absorb some of the juices, layering on the milky mozzarella to cover the whole sandwich and tearing up the basil so you don’t just pull out one big leaf with your teeth. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt complete the sandwich before it’s topped with the other half of the bread. Bianco even suggests cutting the sandwich on the diagonal (looks better and is easier to eat.) A simple sandwich indeed!
If you’re a local fan of the Bianco empire, you already know the basic history behind the restaurants, but the book offers new tidbits along the way, many from Bianco’s New York childhood and his visits to Italy. You also find out which pizza he’s most likely to make and the pizza he finds most challenging.
“I feel freer than ever before to work in a style that says Mexico, says Southwest, and yet is my own.” —Jeff Smedstad
Smedstad—A Notable Notebook
Chef Smedstad’s The Elote Cafe Notebook is a 10-years-in-the-making follow-up to his first book, the Elote Cafe Cookbook. It will be out at the beginning of July. Both of his books feature dishes from the café (including many of his daily specials), but the new notebook also includes a major chapter on cocktails (revolving around tequila and margaritas).
After observing his Elote Cafe customers’ imbibing habits, Smedstad’s bartending advice is to create a good-sized drink: “The reality is that about 90% of the people who come in my restaurant are looking for a generously poured drink that will get them by for more than a couple of minutes. The variations are practically endless (you should see my notebook scratchings) but always remember, make them large with lots of ice and plenty of booze.”
That quirky sense of humor and observation is evident throughout the oft-times rambling notebook, but that randomness works. One minute you’re in Smedstad’s North Dakota grandmother’s kitchen making just-picked corn cakes, in the next you’re cooking Mexican-influenced smoked pork cheeks in cascabel chile sauce and in the third you’re putting them both together with buttermilk cumin drizzle and spicy cabbage kale garnish. Whew!
But don’t worry, most of the recipes are much simpler and easier for a home cook to tackle. Smedstad told me he’d really gotten into heirloom beans in the Notebook, and that’s evident with a whole chapter devoted to just rice, beans and corn. There are plenty of small dishes and snacks along with the substantial mains.
And, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that the book’s design is as fun and quirky as its text. From the corn-tortilla-textured cover to the brightly colored, bygone-era, sultry Mexican movie posters dotting the pages, you can tell that editor, designer, producer Carol Haralson was happy to be along for the show.
See “Cooking Fresh” on page 17 for Smedstad’s recipe for Tomato, Sweet Corn Soup + Zested Lime Crema, a perfect summer dish, and the Edible Phoenix website (ediblephoenix.com/what-cook) for Jiffy Pop Fish.
For more information on book signings and other related events this summer, visit the Edible Phoenix event calendar at ediblephoenix.com/events.