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Local chefs transform locally grown ingredients into culinary delights
Yuma chefs are proving that there's no need to search the world for the best ingredients. They're taking locally grown vegetables and transforming them into culinary delights.
“We could get ingredients from anywhere in the world,” said Alex Trujillo, executive sous chef at the Quechan Casino Resort.
But whenever possible, Trujillo prefers to get fresh produce from local farmers.
“It's nice to know they come from town. They're picked in the morning and used that night.”
You can't get any fresher than that.
Chef Matt Alleshouse of Market Wine Bar Bistro also searches for local ingredients as much as possible when creating dishes.
“We try to include as much local products in our entire menu as much as possible. Most of our dishes have some local ingredients.”
Ruben Huante, chef de cuisine for River City Grill and Ciao Bella (which is temporarily closed for renovations), also prefers to use “fresh, seasonal local produce and greens in our salads and dishes, allowing us to heighten the flavors of each dish.”
Huante believes having locally grown produce at his fingertips give him a culinary advantage. “Keeping it simple with high-quality produce gives our cuisine its special taste.”
As an example, he pointed to Ciao Bella's tomato bruschetta, which features heirloom tomatoes from Hillside Farms. The Yuma farm has partnered with various local restaurants to supply freshly picked vegetables.
“Usually produce is thrown in a truck, sent to Phoenix, then Los Angeles and then back to Yuma. It's nice to know we can call Hillside Farms and get fresh produce straight to our kitchen,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo points out that store-bought vegetables tend to be more bland when it comes to flavor. Produce from local farmers, however, “is picked at the perfect time.”
“It's a good partnership. Generally, Michael (Barkley of Hillside Farms) will call and say, ‘We've got this and that' — stuff you wouldn't imagine grows in Yuma grows in Yuma.”
Among the local ingredients that Trujillo uses are tomatoes, spinach, Medjool dates, olives, artichokes, eggplant, fresh herbs and a variety of fruit, such as watermelon.
Recently Trujillo prepared a three-course meal featuring local ingredients in every dish. A goat cheese- and spinach-stuffed chicken breast with red and yellow pepper sauce on a potato puree had locally grown spinach and heirloom sweet peppers.
There were also pan-seared scallops with a succotash of wild mushrooms and roasted corn and Medjool dates, both locally grown.
“The sweet taste of the dates complements the savoriness of the succotash and the scallops,” Trujillo said.
A salad of watermelon and feta cheese with herb vinaigrette and aged balsamic reduction had locally grown watermelon.
For dessert, Trujillo served fresh fruit pops made of locally grown mixed berries and strawberries. Depending on the week, the pops might be watermelon, blackberry or melon.
Alleshouse's Market Wine menu features many entrees made with local ingredients. The date poppers are made with Bard Valley Medjool dates, chorizo, cream cheese, bacon and orange aioli.
“This is a real cool date popper. It's a twist on the jalapeno popper,” he said.
The roasted tomato soup with basil pesto and mini grilled cheese have tomatoes from Hillside Farms. “We use heirloom and regular tomatoes that are taken from the vine when they're ripe,” Alleshouse explained.
He noted that the longer the tomatoes are left on the vine, the deeper the flavor. “For soup, that's what you want.”
He also uses wild arugula and other locally grown greens as well as artichokes and asparagus. Among the dishes that use local ingredients are “Tomatoes & Pearls,” made with cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, red onion and balsamic reduction.
The beef tenderloin has caramelized onion and blue cheese, marmalade, port wine demi-glace and local roasted marble potatoes and brussels sprout petals.
The braised short ribs come with Yukon golden potato puree, pan jus, horseradish herb salad and roasted vegetables that are grown in Yuma.
“The relationship we build with the local farmers is unique. They let me enter their world and we talk about produce and the growth process, how long we want the tomato on the vine,” Alleshouse said. “Both of us get to reap the benefits.”
Alleshouse said that as soon as he arrived in Yuma nine months ago, he started looking for local sources of food products.
“Being able to source locally, what we call home-based, we contribute to cleaner, sustainable products. In our case, it's produce. It help us as a restaurant because we become part of the community and we utilize what the community offers.”
Trujillo agrees that buying local produce helps also helps the environment. That's why he encourages Yumans to support local farmers.
“Get involved by going to farmers markets and supporting them. Not only will you support local farmers, but sustainability is big now. When something is shipped and it goes everywhere before it returns to Yuma, you're leaving a carbon footprint.”
Chef Alex Trujillo's Pan-Seared Scallops
½ cup roasted corn kernels
3 Medjool dates, pitted and sliced
3 jumbo scallops
½ cup wild mushrooms
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Dash of sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
For the succotosh, sautee mushrooms and corn in the olive oil until tender. Add dates, fresh herbs and salt and pepper.
Season scallops with salt and pepper and pan sear in hot pan.
Make a bed of succotash and place on top.
Chef Ruben Huante's Tomato Bruschetta
1 cup chopped heirloom tomatoes
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar
3 pieces bocconcini mozzarella (diced)
Basil pesto (2 Tb.)
5-1/2-inch sliced baggette
1/2 cup mixed greens.
Grill bread until lightly toasted. Place greens in center of plate. Place diced tomatoes and mozzarella on toasted bread. Place bruschetta around the greens and spoon some pesto on top. Drizzle bruschetta with balsamic and serve.
Chef Matt Alleshouse
Matt Alleshouse, chef of Market Wine Bar Bistro, has always felt a passion for cooking.
“It's something I always felt drawn to. It's a strong passion.”
Alleshouse, 31, arrived in Yuma nine months ago, coming from the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. He has been in the industry for 15 years. But he's been cooking for longer than that.
“I have been cooking since I was a kid. I started cooking at the age of 6. I come from a cooking family, where my grandmothers and mom and dad all cooked. Growing up, dinner was always at the table and no TV.”
He grew up in Ohio. After graduating from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, he “traded in the snow for sunshine” and headed to Arizona.
“Cooking has always been comfortable for me. The reason I like to cook so much is because it brings people together. Cooking is about spending time with family and friends. Food always brings cultures together.”
Chef Alex Trujillo
Born and raised in Yuma, Alex Trujillo returned to his hometown to operate the Quechan Casino Resort's three restaurants almost three years ago.
Trujillo, 32, learned to cook from his grandmother, who cooked for Yuma restaurants for 30 years. “I got my passion from her. Always wanted to be a cook, as long as I can remember.
“It feels good. I love being in the kitchen, cooking for other people and having them enjoying a meal. It's very satisfying. Whenever I can cook for people, I jump on it.”
He graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and later opened a Four Seasons restaurant in Scottsdale, then transferred to another Four Seasons in San Francisco.
He worked in Las Vegas before returning to Yuma to open the Q, where he manages a staff of 80 to 100, depending on the season.
“I like coming to work, and I love what I do.”
Chef Ruben Huante
Ruben Huante, chef de cuisine for Ciao Bella Italian Restaurant (which has been temporarily closed for renovations) and River City Grill, test drove a few careers before finding his true passion - cooking.
Born and raised in Glendale, he graduated from high school in 1990 and then went on to earn an associate's degree in electro-mechanical drafting while working full time at a bank.
In 1994, he relocated to Boulder, Colo., and had his first culinary experience, working at Schlotzsky's for three and a half years. In 1997, his culinary career was “ignited” at Trios Wine Bar and Grille.
Huante worked at Trios until 1999, then went to work at 15 Degrees, under one of America's Top 10 Best New Chefs of 1999, James Mazzio.
At the end of 2000, he went to Leesburg, Va., to become a sous chef at The Ledges Restaurant. He stayed there for one year then moved to Baltimore, Md. to become the chef de cuisine at The Black Olive, a fine dining Greek restaurant.
In 2002 he discovered Roy's Restaurant, owned by James Beard Award winner Roy Yamaguchi. The restaurant had a Hawaiian fusion and fine dining concept. For the next nine years, he worked his way from line cook to executive chef partner, while moving between Tempe, Ariz., Austin, Texas and Palm Springs, Calif.
“In that time I would cook for numerous celebrities and start a tradition with the Arizona Cardinals cheerleaders. For 3 years in a row, I held healthy cooking classes for the Cardinals cheer squad,” Huante explained.
This year in March, Huante moved to Yuma to be with his girlfriend Jessica and their three boys, Ismael, Samuel and Azael.
“My passion for cooking comes from spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother and mother growing up,” Huante said.
“I learn something new everyday and I constantly push myself beyond all boundaries. It allows me to express my creativity.”