Now is the summer of our discontent.
It's the time of year that APS and water-park operators live for, and everyone else dies from. Despite the strenuous efforts of the chamber of commerce and tourist bureau to make us think otherwise, we hot-weather veterans aren't fooled by their "dry heat" public-relations nonsense. There's no getting around it: From June through September, Phoenix is hell, with the flames momentarily out.
Valley dwellers cope as best they can. My cat, for instance, searches out the one spot in the house where the cool streams of air from two air-conditioning vents intersect. She'll lie there until Halloween. We bipeds seek relief by taking midnight dips in the pool, even though the water at that hour is still hot enough to braise a pot roast.
The fact is, triple-digit temperatures bring on a summertime torpor that's almost impossible to shake off. No one wants to work. No one wants to play. No one even wants to eat out.
Every summer, desperate restaurant owners, hoping to avoid Chapter 7, run all sorts of specials to lure us out of our homes and into their empty seats. And every summer we ignore them. From now until Labor Day, most Valley restaurants couldn't outdraw a Sun City meeting of the Society of Gay Bolsheviks for Gun Control.
Not only don't we want to eat out, we don't want to cook, either. It's too hot. Perspiring locals look upon the stove the same way victims of the Spanish Inquisition regarded the rack--as an instrument of torture to be avoided at all costs.
So what are the alternatives? You can only call pizza delivery so many times. Fast food? I'd rather starve. Even Chinese takeout loses its charms after a few nights.
Supermarkets have figured out the answer. They know we still have to venture out for basic food shopping: bread, milk, juice, peanut butter, eggs. So while we're picking up staples, they cagily tempt us with what the industry calls a Home Meal Replacement (HMR)--a variety of hot and cold, ready-to-eat dishes that require no effort beyond setting the table. For eight months a year, HMRs appeal mainly to the stressed-out and time-challenged. But during the summer season, you can understand why sweltering shoppers, who might otherwise never look twice at a supermarket salad bar or rotisserie chicken, could see them in an entirely new light.
Here in the Valley, two fancy markets have pushed the HMR concept to the edge. Whole Foods and Wild Oats, the two national giants on the upscale supermarket scene, moved into town about 18 months ago, lured by neighborhood pockets of high-end demographics.
What does Whole Foods do best? A few items stand out, so much so that they ought to have their own section.
Salmon is surely at the very top of the list. The $14.99-per-pound tag for the cold poached salmon may give you pause, but nothing else about this marvelous fish will. Brightened with dill, it's meaty, moist and absolutely luscious. For about half that price, you can enjoy it in the form of salmon salad, where it's supported by tomatoes, onions and celery and touched up with olive oil and lemon. The mix of fresh-tasting flavors is irresistible.
I never expected to get a kick out of turkey meat loaf and turkey meatballs--turkey in these forms is usually bland enough to cure insomnia. But Whole Foods' versions will keep you awake. Fleshed out with grated carrots and celery, the meat loaf sports a surprisingly potent combination of taste and texture. The turkey meatballs, meanwhile, benefit from a barbecue glaze and a crispy outer edge.
Spinach manicotti is the most impressive hot-food dish here. It's simply a plump, spinach-stuffed crespelle (the Italian version of a crepe), moistened with a creamy sauce. It wouldn't be out of place served in a good Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, at $8 a pair, you'll pay as if you're in a good Italian restaurant. Chicken pesto pasta is another Italian success story, armed with capers and onions and real pesto energy.
If you're into summer salads, don't overlook the sugar peas, sweet and crunchy, combined with cherry tomatoes and corn and tossed with a light Italian dressing. And if you're into summer nibbling, the sushi, made fresh daily, is high quality--I especially enjoyed the nine-piece spicy crab roll. Teriyaki-glazed chicken wings satisfy the munchie urge, too.
Whole Foods' bakers also know what they're doing. The breads are first-rate, from the rustic baguette, chewy and crusty, to the chile-cheese bread, thick with cheese and zesty chiles that will open all your sinus passages.
Many items, however, don't rise to the level Whole Foods ought to aspire to. Beef stew has nice components--tender beef, carrots, yellow squash, peas, corn--but the total doesn't equal the sum of the parts. Chicken artichoke lasagna is too heavy and needs a sauce. Kung pao chicken, a cold salad, lacks an Asian spark. The tortilla casserole, layers of corn tortillas, chicken and cheese, is boring enough to bring to a church potluck. The dense artichoke wedge, held together with cheese and breadcrumbs, seems better suited to nourish Siberians in winter than Arizonans in summer. The rotisserie chicken, brushed with a pleasant maple barbecue sauce, is routinely juicy. At $3.29 per pound, though, it's no bargain.
And some dishes require a wide berth. Shepherd's pie is a flop, a pile of salty, cheese-topped mashed potatoes burying a smidgen of ground beef. The chile-cheese tamale is too dry, as well as too light on the chile and cheese. Veggie fried rice is strictly for the health-obsessed. I can't believe anything in this mix of brown rice and veggies was fried. On the upside, it's so lacking in flavor that it must be good for you. The ratatouille, meanwhile, won't remind anyone of southern France. It's composed principally of zucchini, and seasoned principally with air. Somebody forgot to cook the potato in the zucchini potato pancakes. I don't know what seasoning is in the chicken noodle soup, but it's the wrong one. And charging $8.29 per pound for tuna salad is unconscionable.
If you're clever, you can make the $3.99-per-pound salad bar work for you. Bypass the usual suspects, which provide no bang for your bucks. Instead, fill your plastic container with artichoke hearts, palm hearts, white-meat chicken and roasted peppers.
Whole Foods isn't the cure for the summertime blues. But if you pick your way wisely through the prepared foods, it may make one day seem to go a bit faster.
Wild Oats Market, 7129 East Shea, Scottsdale, 480-905-1441. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
I don't know who trains the wonderful staff at this Wild Oats branch, but he or she should take a bow. These are about the friendliest, most eager-to-please employees I've ever encountered in a supermarket. The workers behind the hot-entree and prepared-salads sections plied me with tastes. The sushi maker brought out samples. Another employee urged me to try the soups.
Too bad I can't get that enthusiastic about the food. It's expensive. Most of it is barely mediocre. Some of it is awful.
Wild Oats goes in for hot-entree theme nights. Monday night is Italian. Don't expect to be wowed. Spinach artichoke lasagna isn't very energetic, but at least it's passable. However, neither the eggplant parmigiana nor the chicken breast topped with sauce and cheese has any flavor, Italian or otherwise.
Tuesday means Mexican. If the flabby spinach enchilada and tasteless chicken burrito I had are representative, I'd advise you to make a run from the border.
Wednesday, it's Asia's turn to be abused. The leathery chicken breast in a one-dimensional peanut sauce will make you wonder what the Asian food craze is all about. Lo mein noodles are a starchy mess. Only a vegetarian could love the honey-sesame tofu. The stir-fried "veggies"--actually, they're 99 percent onions and green pepper--are a waste of money. The sweet-and-sour turkey log is better, but only in comparison.
Friday brings seafood. At $14.99 a pound, the overcooked chafing-dish halibut isn't my idea of value, although the coconut curry sauce showed a bit of spunk. Shrimp scampi, though, is irredeemable: small, lackluster shrimp tossed with rubbery noodles in a forgettable cream sauce.
The cold salads also don't do much to move the needle on my excitement meter. Ginger chicken salad features big, unappetizing hunks of poultry with no ginger bite. Curried rice noodles are DOA. Brown rice biriyani, flecked with peas, carrots, corn and an occasional cashew, is health food in disguise. So is the dreadful mustard honey tempeh, whose appeal, at $7.99 per pound, surely must be limited to famished, high-income vegans.
I can only guess what the profit margin is on the couscous salad, which rings up at $6.59 per pound. No doubt it's staggering. Still, goosed up with oranges, raisins and chickpeas, it gives you some return on your dollar. So does the turkey curry salad, heavily mortared with mayo and celery, but with just enough curry punch to keep it interesting. The sushi, too, is a worthwhile option.
Soup, however, is what Wild Oats does best. A couple of cold ones can lift you out of the summer doldrums. Cream of banana, sweetened with honey, is weird, but entertaining. The cucumber soup is outstanding, refreshingly accented with mint, dill and scallions. The hot, hearty turkey Dijon, spiked with an offbeat touch of maple syrup, tastes like something you'd eat at Thanksgiving. But it's yummy now, too.
The salad bar is disappointing. It goes for $4.59 per pound, and there's not a single surprise on it. You're much better off buying your own produce.
The bakery also needs help. I went to Wild Oats four times, between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, when folks are most likely to be putting together dinner. On each visit, the bread pickings were slim, limited to hard-as-rock baguettes and a few plastic-wrapped loaves.
Wild Oats is no substitute for a cabin in the high country or six weeks in San Diego. And I don't have those options. My new summer plan: asking the cat to move over.
Whole Foods Market:
Spicy crab roll sushi
Turkey meat loaf
6.99 per pound
Sugar peas salad
7.99 per pound
Chicken pesto pasta
7.99 per pound
Wild Oats Market:
Cucumber soup (pint)
7.99 per pound
14.99 per pound