Rob Connoley is a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef – Southwest. With a passion for seeking the greatest ingredients that Earth has to offer, he has received acclaim in the New York Times, Saveur magazine, Sunset magazine, and Gastronomica. In this Q&A, Chef Connoley talks about his new cookbook, ACORNS & CATTAILS: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field, which focuses on the concept of foraging. Learn more about his new cookbook and how he incorporates peanut butter in his recipes.
NPB: You have an interesting story about how you came to be a chef. Tell us about that.
Rob: I spent many years in non-profit management and was ready to pursue my life's passion. For as long as I can remember I've pursued meals at interesting and great restaurants, and over time I would teach myself new techniques either through cookbooks or simply jumping in to make a dish out of what I had on hand. I often say I was competing on the TV show Chopped before Chopped even existed.
NPB: What sparked your interest in foraging?
Rob: I began my first restaurant as a locavore menu - featuring ingredients that I could find that were grown or produced within an hour of my business. The first winter after I opened I had been serving tomatoes grown locally and bit into one like I would in the summer and it was bland and mealy. I had that moment when I realized that just because it is local doesn't mean it is good. So I explored the history of the area - for me at that time it was the historic Apache lands of Southern New Mexico - and realized there was a vast array of ingredients out my back door if I was willing to work a little harder to find them and remain hyper seasonal. To me this is truly locavore cooking. Years later, foraged food cooking keeps me constantly on my toes with preservation techniques and gives me a sensitivity to what nature has to tell us - be prepared for this winter, the squirrels were very hungry this fall!
NPB: What will readers find most interesting in your new cookbook?
Rob: There are only so many recipes for grilled salmon that a person needs in their cookbooks. I set out to write a book that was interesting by using easily foraged ingredients, and creating dishes that you won't find in other books. Interesting, satisfying and fulfilling. I wanted to show people that they could make a James Beard-caliber meal in their own homes.
NPB: Why did you choose to include a peanut butter pie recipe in the cookbook?
Rob: I cook fancy, complex multi-course dinners every day of my life. So when I get home I want comfort. For me that tends to be a heaping plate of jambalaya for dinner and a rich, fluffy peanut butter pie for dessert. This pie was born out of my search for perfection - not too feathery light from whipped cream; not tangy tart from cream cheese; and most importantly it has to be a blast of peanut butter flavor!
The peanut butter pie recipe is included below.
NPB: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Rob: I love the diversity of peanut butter. Most people think there's no difference between the bottle of major market brands and the artisanal peanut butter made at a local food co-op. But there are four different peanut varieties in the US, and they each give a different experience. Each producer roasts their peanuts a bit differently - like light roast and dark roast coffees. And of course the variation in grinds. These are exciting playgrounds for a passionate cook. I love my light roasted Runners for baking cookies and pies, but roast the Spanish peanuts at bit darker and enjoy Thai chicken skewers with a bit of cayenne heat.
Peanut Butter Pie
I’ve loved peanut butter pie ever since my time in New Orleans, but either it doesn’t taste peanut buttery enough for me or the recipe includes cream cheese, which doesn’t seem right to my tastes. I worked for years to create this perfect pie!
500 ml (2 cups) milk
147 g (2/3 cup) sugar
30 g (¼ cup) cornstarch
1 tsp salt
4 egg yolks
2 tbsp butter, unsalted
128 g (½ cup) peanut butter, creamy
125 ml (½ cup) cream
In a bowl, microwave the milk for 5 minutes or until simmering. While heating, whisk the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the yolks to the sugar mixture and whisk—it will be thick. Pour a third of the hot milk into the sugar-yolk slurry and whisk until smooth. Return the yolk mixture to the hot milk and whisk again. Microwave for 60 seconds then whisk. At this point, continue microwaving in 30-second blasts, followed by whisking, until the mixture is thickened like a loose pudding.
Add the butter and peanut butter and whisk to combine. Pour into a new bowl and cover with cling film to prevent a skin from forming. Cool in the fridge until the mixture reaches room temperature—not chilled. Whip the cream to a soft peak and fold into the peanut butter pudding. Serve in pie shells or in a cup. I fill a pastry bag and squirt it directly into my mouth. (Voila! A gluten-free pie.)