Editor's note: Tucson chefs hunger for what's local, in season, new, comforting, interesting.
So do we. Today we launch a monthly series featuring local chefs sharing their advice on everything from what to cook in the hot summer to what to do with Thanksgiving leftovers to out-of-the ordinary dishes with in-season ingredients.
Sigret Thompson is buried in arugula these days. And she likes it like that. "I love arugula," said Thompson, the chef at The Tasteful Kitchen, which she co-owns with her sister, Keanne Thompson.
"I like the texture of the leaves, as well as its peppery, spicy flavor that works so perfectly in salads."
Arugula is in season, and Tucson-area growers are bringing it in abundance to local farmers markets.
Local is what Thompson wants. The Tasteful Kitchen is a vegetarian restaurant with a commitment to making as small a footprint as possible on the environment.
Thompson hadn't intended to launch a restaurant. She and her sister had a catering company, and opened a small space on North Stone Avenue during the annual gem show a few years ago, with the idea of feeding a few hungry souls.
Customers kept coming. And coming. Returning to a quiet catering business alone didn't seem like a reasonable idea, so they opted to keep the restaurant open, too.
"We decided Tucson needs another vegetarian restaurant, and that happens to be my forte," says Thompson.
"Cooking is my art form, and vegetables are my medium."
She is a self-taught chef who has traveled extensively, borrowing from cuisines she loves from around the world.
"I've lived in New York, London and Sydney, and have always been a foodie," she explains.
"I was inspired by my travels, and they all translated into what I do. I've had wonderful dishes to eat, and have tried to reinterpret many of them."
The decision to open a vegetarian restaurant meant a deep commitment to the cuisine for Thompson.
"I wanted to embrace all aspects of vegetarianism," she said. That means raw dishes are on the menu, along with those prepared with heat.
"Raw cuisine is very trendy right now, and I kind of know no one else is offering that," she said.
Her standards, too, are way up there.
"Quality is very important. Everything has to be fresh, locally grown produce as much as possible."
And those growers, such as Oracle Organics out of Oracle and High Energy Agriculture in Marana, come in with "heaps of arugula,' says Thompson, who is "mostly vegetarian."
Whether its arugula or other ingredients, she doesn't believe in getting into a rut.
"The menu draws influences from around the world," she says.
As for the arugula, she uses it on salads, as a garnish, and as a topping on pizza.
What she rarely does is cook it.
"I like it better raw," says Thompson. "I prefer the raw flavor, and the leaves stay nice and bright."
Arugula Walnut Pesto
Yields: 2 cups
• 2 cups arugula leaves - tightly packed, with thick stems removed
• 2 large garlic cloves
• 1/2 cup walnuts
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• 3/4 cup olive oil
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon pepper
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth and creamy.
Store in an airtight container, using the pesto within five days. Try it as a dip with crusty bread or fresh vegetables. Toss it with your favorite pasta. Use it as a condiment to enhance a dish - use it as a sandwich spread or drizzle it over pizza or grilled vegetables.
Freezing it: Portion the pesto out into ice cube trays, and just pop out what you need. Let the cube thaw at room temperature or add it to hot food and allow it to melt.
Source: Sigret Thompson, chef, The Tasteful Kitchen
• Buying arugula: "Look for leaves that are bright green and not wilted; they want to be nice and crisp," advises Sigret Thompson, the chef at The Tasteful Kitchen.
"Don't buy arugula with yellowing leaves; that means it is old."
• Storing arugula: "The best way to store it is to keep it dry," says Thompson. "Wash it, spin it, air dry it, and then put it into a bag and refrigerate it. Be sure it's dry before refrigerating."
The Tasteful Kitchen is at 722 N. Stone Ave., 250-9600, thetastefulkitchen.com
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.