Archive for July, 2011

Plastic Bags

Back home I am all about sustainability.  I am passionate about and committed to all things green. It’s even my favorite color.  I never feel like I am doing EVERYTHING that I can to live a life of minimal impact and ‘best practices’ as they say in Public Health.  We recycle our bottles and papers, we buy many things secondhand, we use chemical free cleaners and bath products, we buy our food in bulk and store it in glass containers or reused bags, we garden organically, mow our lawn with a push mower and own only one car.  And we choose to bike as much as possible. And of course, we buy our (whole) food often from local sources, many of whom I know personally. I have spent the bulk of my adult life, especially since settling into a house and having children, trying to be a good steward of the earth.

Now, here I am in South America, where, like many other places across the world, I think we romanticize as being quaint, and old-fashioned, which may include such things as living simply and off the land and eating regional foods…..NOT!  I am dismayed and confused at the extraordinarily wasteful aspect of this culture.  It is not new to me.  I have done some traveling in Mexico and the Middle East and seen similar behavior, but I simply can’t wrap my head around it.  The wastefulness exists on so many levels it is difficult to begin to describe it.  I will start however, with plastic bags.

bags for eveything.......



They have become the bane of my existence.  It is as if they are a sign of wealth. When I go to the store, no matter which store it is, they send me home with about one bag per item, and these are small bags.  I have learned to suggest that they fill them more full; I’ve even had the gall to take things out and repack my own bags. On a typical trip to the ‘target’ style store, I might come home with 8 bags-each containing an average of two items.  We have been here for less than two weeks, and our broom closet is bursting with bags.  I guess this could be seen as a good thing, since we also throw EVERYTHING in the garbage.  I have yet to learn about any alternative disposal for vegetable/food waste.  We asked around a bit, and no-one seems to have an idea of what we are talking about. As for the recycling, fortunately there is an informal system of cardboard collectors-they just take it upon themselves to collect what is left on the street, and bring it to the recycling center.  According to one fellow, it is a good living.  This is, of course, if people don’t just throw their cardboard into the garbage along with everything else.

The saddest part of this to me, is where the plastic seems to end up.  Jon and I took a bike ride out of the city yesterday, up the mountain road leading out of Mendoza.  It was our first exposure to the shanty towns.  The makeshift communities where many of Mendoza’s poor families and laborers live.  While there was no shortage of satellite dishes attached to the flimsy roofs, the extraordinary landscape of plastic bags and bottles strewn across every hillside was disheartening and just plain awful to look at.  It was a reflection of course, of many larger socioeconomic and cultural problems, but painful nonetheless.

I know there is a bigger discussion here, about global issues of supply and demand, and about consumption and access and survival and about consumer culture and what it means throughout the world…..in the mean time though, I am thinking about bringing my own bags to the store.  As they say, “be the change you want to see in the world.”


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Pizza? Pasta?

Many people are surprised to know that the staple food here in Argentina is NOT rice, beans and tortillas. In fact, I have yet to find anyone or any place to buy tortillas of any kind, and although we have passed a few Mexican restaurants-for some reason it seems strange to go out for Mexican food…  Meanwhile, between the mid 1800’s and the early 1900’s over 2 million Italians immigrated to Argentina making Italian the second most common language spoken here. As you can imagine, Mendoza is bursting with Italian culture, not the least of which is it’s food!  Although Argentina has a reputation for being all about meat-and it certainly is abundant here, there is definitely no shortage of pasta and pizza.  We have only begun to explore the abundant varieties and opportunities for these items, but I have already found lots of fresh pasta, and sampled some of the local pizza crusts at home.

I made a simple tomato sauce using onions, garlic, oregano, fresh tomatoes, tomato puree and a shot of honey.  This crust didn’t need much, as you can see there are fresh herbs and  tomatoes baked into the crust already

Along with the crust, I came home with fresh mozzarella, arugula and some Italian Saracen style olives.  I made a simple saute, and topped the pizza with these fresh ingredients.

The pizza was delicious, especially complemented by a nice (local) Malbec.

That said, many of you who know me know that I am not that much of a pizza kind of gal-especially the white flour variety.  I tend to prefer most everything whole foods, and that has been a big challenge so far.  Thankfully, I am also very resourceful, and have found the flour, grains, vegetables and beans that I need to satisfy the whole foods gal in me.  And I have found a few good sources for a decent whole wheat bread-here they call it “pan salvado”. Salvado roughly translates to “saved or salvaged” and refers to the bran of a grain. While it is saved by removing it from the rest of the grain (the endosperm and the germ), in the case of the bread, it has been added back to make the bread “whole” again.  I love this idea, that when a food is whole, it has been saved-saved from the evils of processing and the removal or destruction of all that lovely fibrous goodness.

Cooking is a joy for me, as is exploring new (and familiar) foods in new cultures.  I will continue to seek out the interesting food traditions of this land.  I will also remain passionate about my belief in the importance of whole foods in sustaining our health.  Argentina is right behind the US in rates of obesity.  Maybe it’s time to revisit that meat and white bread centered diet?

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Pots with flat bottoms

In my quest for a functional kitchen, I have discovered one of the most important requirements.  Pots with flat bottoms.  I guess I haven’t thought a whole lot about this, which must mean that my pots and pans at home are pretty flat.  The pots here in our kitchen are nice, heavy duty old metal pots-they are great, except for one thing-they aren’t flat.  Every time I try to prepare anything, the middle of the pan burns….stir frying and sauteeing,check, popcorn, definitely, pancakes, yup.  I really, really want these pans to work, so I am adapting and adjusting, and learning how to work around the middle.  But, I bought a couple of pans too. We now own a cast iron flat round griddle.  I LOVE cast iron-almost all my pans at home are this heavy, hearty metal.  People often ask me what I cook with at home, and I am always proud to tell them-and here’s why: cast iron conducts and contains heat incredibly efficiently,  leaches iron into your food and gets better with age. And it looks really cool.  What more could you want?

I also bought a medium sized enamel saucepan-with a very flat bottom, and red.  At least next time I make popcorn, it won’t burn, and it looks cute too.

red pot and skillet being put to good use

Can you see the indent?

functional and cute

The other must have is containers.   Probably three to four times a day, I am mixing, dumping, combining and cooking various grains, flours, nuts and other dry goods.
I can’t stand having to search through plastic bags, untie knots and then try to pour the right amount without spilling half of it on the counter.  It is crucial to organize this stuff.  It gives me great insight into the challenges and the barriers that many people face in attempting to set themselves up to cook at home.  Really, I can see how easy it is to lose your motivation if finding things and getting to what you need is messy and frustrating.  It is all about flow and ease-so this is one of the most basic, and critical lessons for any cook.  Buy bulk, and organize your stuff-it is worth the up front investment for long term functionality.  And, it need not be expensive or elaborate.  I went to the local target type of store here and bought glass containers with sealable lids, but in Minneapolis, I know several thrift stores that sell old glass containers or canning jars that are both attractive and useful.  You could even find them at your local hardware store.  If it helps people to prepare food at home, it is worth the cost-just like any good investment!

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Argentina is in the Southern Hemisphere…which means that it is winter here.  We arrived to weather that, by Minnesota standards is not terribly cold-30’s at night and 50’s during the day, but there was something about transitioning from the 95 degree humidity, to this chill that crept deep into my bones.  I just couldn’t warm up.  Meanwhile, I had been devouring  fresh salads with broccoli and kale from our garden, cold cheeses and home made sangria, and find myself in the midst of winter vegetables.

I found a wonderful produce shop in the Mercado Central-I have been there twice already.  It is a tiny stall with piles of vegetables and fruits-while you stand amidst the spinach and beans, the men (young and old) who run the place select your goods. You pick a number and wait to be called-then there is a flurry as they brush past you to grab your goods. There is a giant squash-probably 1 1/2 feet across and they will chop off a big piece for you, the spinach is big and tough, there are beautiful hand shelled fresh beans called “porotos” that are white with purplish stripes, and I bough a bag full of fresh honey.  All of these foods have gone to good use already-in fact we haven’t eaten out once yet.  With my limited repertoire of ingredients-I am relying on lots of garlic and olive oil, I have created a few simple and delicious meals.

fresh "porotos" beans cooking with carrots and potatoes

Still finding a way to have a salad- with winter spinach, fresh mozzarella, tomato and avocado

Solana, my great helper, at the kitchen table

I have been spending the last few days trying to outfit the kitchen-a fun, and exhausting task for someone who has been building a well stocked and beautifully flowing kitchen for the last 15 years. I see this as an exercise in both efficiency and openness.  What do I absolutely need, and what can I live without?  So far, basic tools-wooden spoons, pots and pans, bulk ingredients and good containers for them are most important.  They need not be fancy, in fact I am pretty simple that way, but there are basic things one needs to move smoothly in the kitchen.

There is so much more to say-about food, and everything else.  What do I do with all the food waste???? Right now, it goes into the garbage-it is almost painful every time I toss something, but so far, there is no evidence of an alternative waste stream….this is on the list of things to explore.  In the mean time, I will keep cooking.

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We have arrived.  It is overwhelming.  A big, busy city and cold cold cold!  We left Minnesota on A 95 degree sauna of a day, arriving here to a sunny, chilly afternoon. Thank goodness I packed a few sweaters and wool socks, and let my husband throw in a fancy new warm jacket, because I am wearing them!  We have been here just a day, and I am searching out the places to find good food….We found the Mercado Central today, and I was able to buy bulk grains, Argentinian produce, and more.  I know where I will find my spices and cheeses too.  It is almost like starting from zero-not a thing in the fridge or cabinets, and not much to cook with either.  Thankfully, I packed two chefs knives!  I will be posting photos and more soon, but am just letting everyone know I am here.

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I recently had the opportunity to do a presentation on cooking as a health strategy at the University of Minnesota in Morris. I wasn’t totally sure where Morris was. I knew there was cool stuff going on there, because I have met several folks who are changing the food system there, but I still wasn’t quite sure where it was.

I left at 7 PM and drove Northwest in the end of a hot, hot Minnesota day.  As I headed toward the setting sun, I saw gorgeous rolling hills, and could almost feel the sand in my feet as I went past lakeshore houses with docks and boats…who knew?  I arrived at the home of my colleague, an organic beef farmer who runs the Morris Health Eating Project.  People think I’m a busy woman-Mary Jo and her husband, Luverne manage 160 acres of beef and organic wheat and soybeans and a small patch of organic strawberries-this is when she is not running the healthy eating project at the University! When I arrived at 9:30 PM, she was returning from picking berries, and he had just finished cultivating half of the soybean field.

Their house overlooks the gorgeous rolling hills of their farm-about as idyllic as anyone could imagine.  She talked to me about the frustrations of trying to get organic certification for her small strawberry patch-one they had planted (with permission) along with organic canola and wool mulch.  She showed me the 1/2 inch thick pile of paperwork she had to send in to prove the legitimacy of their growing methods-all to get $3 a quart at the local coop for possibly an hour of labor….Makes you wonder about this food system.

Which is, of course, why I was in Morris.  I spent the following day with a group of passionate, committed folks from throughout the region who are working in all kinds of ways to rebuild a sustainable food system in farm country-where industrial scale agriculture has taken over, and people are not quite sure how to get back to sustainable farming, or eating for that matter.  I spoke to people about returning to the basics of cooking for our families, and we talked about the barriers and opportunities to change the eating habits of their community.

Then, on this 97 degree day, I went to the farmer’s market on Main street, and did a cooking demonstration.  Between the heat blaring up from the asphalt, and the flame of the gas burner, I was sweating on the inside!  But the response of the crowd and the treat of showing folks how to make delicious, healthy food from scratch was worth the sweat!  All in all it was an inspiring, and important day in this work toward bringing food back to our food system!  And the best part was that Mary Jo sent me off with 2 GALLONS of fresh picked organic (not certified of course) strawberries!

Most people are making cobbler and crisp, muffins and breads with their strawberries, which is delicious of course, but here is a great recipe from my book for a quinoa salad I prepared at the Mill City farmer’s market Saturday:

Quinoa and White Beans with Berry Dressing


Quinoa is a fantastic addition to the whole grain repertoire. Although it is an ancient grain, it has recently become popular in the natural foods community. It is highly nutritious—a complete protein by itself, cooks quickly—in about 18 minutes, and is incredibly versatile—delicious with beans, tofu, chicken, meat or fish, and with spicy, tangy, sweet or herby flavoring.

The Family Kitchen: Kids love fresh berries. They will enjoy stirring and mixing the dressing ingredients in this recipe and watching as the color changes to bright pink.

1 ½ cups navy or other white beans cooked in 4 cups water (See Cooking Beans and Legumes, page X)

1 cup quinoa cooked in 2 cups water (See Cooking Grains, page X)

1 small red onion, sliced thinly

1 pound mixed salad greens

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled


1 cup berries

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

¼ cup water

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup mayonnaise or soy mayonnaise for vegan option (I used yogurt this weekend)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoons fresh tarragon, chopped (See Sidebar)

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, crushed

¼ cup olive oil

Bring the berries, vinegar, honey and water to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Cool. Add salt, mayonnaise, garlic, oil and herbs. Mix well. Combine beans, quinoa, onions and greens and dress lightly. Top with crumbled feta.

Serves 6 to 8

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