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Archive for October, 2011

Monica's colorful weavings made from old clothes

The first time I met Monica Hom, as I put out my hand to say hello, she said “eso es tan frio” and leaned over and kissed my cheek.  This was my first visit to the “bioferia”-the organic market in Mendoza.  Monica is a cooking instructor who sells various handmade goods at the market while promoting her classes.  I was drawn to her warm smile and glowing skin, her colorful clothing and her savory whole grain crackers immediately.

Each week when I visited the market, I would talk more with Monica about her philosophy, her cooking, her classes and students.  I gave her a copy of my cookbook and the following week she explained that she sat for hours with a dictionary pouring through the recipes AND the text.  She had many questions about everything from public health to wild rice.  I was impressed and flattered by her thorough interest not only in the recipes, but in understanding the philosophy behind them. Finally, we found a time that worked for me to attend one of her classes.

I rode with Monica and her son León to their house a half an hour West of Mendoza, in a river valley below the foothills of the Andes. “Rincon Suissa” was originally a Swiss colony, but has since become a collection of Argentinians who prefer to live closer to nature.  Monica’s house reminded me of cabins in Northern Minnesota.  A rustic stone and wood building nestled in a grove of pine trees and situated about 500 yards from the stunning desert canyon of the Mendoza river and just below the rust and green foothills of the Andes.

Before her students arrived, she prepared a quick lunch of pasta with sauce of her own preserved tomatoes, a side of roasted beets and simple salad from the market.  We also ate her hummus on her own whole wheat crostinis.  We discussed food, comparing what our kids eat, she described all the different ways Argentinians prepare potatoes, and I talked about the typical American breakfast.  It was very clear to me that we shared not only a love of food and cooking, but an understanding of the joy and the richness of preparing good, clean, whole food for ourselves and those we love.

The class I attended was the last in a series called “Cocinar con Conciencia” or Cooking with conscience.  Monica begins the course with whole grain breads and baking, continues with grains and vegetables, gluten, soy and other proetiens, seeds and dried fruits and concludes with alternative milks.  I was impressed with her breadth and depth of knowledge, her insights on creative ways to introduce family members to new and different foods, and her discussion of simple and creative ways to prepare tasty, healthy meals.  What really hit home with me was her comment that “cooking is a privilege” and we should feel honored to partake in it, and to have the opportunity to feed ourselves and others in this way.  It resonated so strongly with my own feelings about the importance of this act in our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding the ‘bioferia’ (organic farmer’s market) has been both thrilling and surprising.  Thrilling because I can finally fulfill my desires for some of the same amenities I am lucky enough to have in my corner of the alternative food system in the US; and surprising because it is a small and very obscure segment of the culture of food here in Argentina.  While finding Spinach or Apples is as easy as a walk down the street, I have come to understand that the likelihood that any of the food I buy here is raised in a manner that is safe for the land, the people growing and harvesting it, or the consumers is virtually non-existent.

I am gaining more and more appreciation all the time of the hotbed of sustainability activism we live in, and also aware of the disparities and lack of understanding of these issues in much of the rest of the world.  Monica, in her small way, is finding a way to spread some awareness through the joy of cooking, and eating great food!

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Wine and…Speatzle?!

Argentina, while most definitely in the Southern Hemisphere, has a large number of  European descendants.  Evidence of this is displayed in Mendoza through all of the Italian foods (see my post about this…..) and in the numbers of German colonies spread throughout the Country, specifically around Buenos Aires and Cordoba.  Between the years of 1885 and 1922 the population of Argentina doubled with 3 million European immigrants.  Of these, 100,000 were German speaking.  One of the things that is visibly evident here is the light features of many people.  Our girls don’t stand out at all by their hair or skin color. There are many children in their school with bright blue eyes, blond hair and fair skin who speak flawless Argentinian Spanish. According to a 2010 census, 33-36% of Argentinians consider themselves “White Latin Americans”.

This makes for potentially interesting gastronomic experiences.  For example, we were invited to our new friend Marta’s house last Saturday for dinner.  Marta’s husband, Esteban’s mother is from Austria, his father is Checoslovakian.  He was born and raised in Argentina, but for the first four years of his life he spoke only German.  His Spanish now is as fast and furious as any Argentinian I have met, but he did grow up with some German traditions which Marta has learned to reproduce, not the least of which is Hungarian Goulash!

Our visit with them was a lovely mixture of modern Argentina and old Austria.  Esteban helps to run a fairly new, very small boutique vineyard that is not open to the public.  We were lucky enough to get a private tour and tasting of ‘Tercos’ (‘stubborn’) wines.  Situated in the winemaking mecca of Lujan de Cuyo-about 25 minutes South of downtown Mendoza, Tercos’ entire wine production occurs in one building.  They produce about 8000 bottles per year of Malbec, Torrontes, Bonarda and a few other varietals, and export all of it (except of course what they take home).

nothing like an empty bodega for running around!

now that's close to the source

At Tercos, they use three different aging environments-cement tanks, traditional stainless steel tanks and oak barrels.  One of the things I am learning is that no matter how scientific you get, wine-making will always be a craft and an organic process, and the most effective way to arrive at the best tasting wine is to sample it regularly.  This is the only way that enologists know for sure when their wine is ready.  Each tank at Tercos has a spigot on it, and we walked from one to the other sampling what was inside.

After 5 or 6 samples, and some very interesting discussion about aroma, flavor, yeast, mold and oak, we returned to their house to prepare for goulash.  This involved a classic spaetzle batter consisting of flour, eggs, milk and butter and a wonderful traditional spaetzle making  instrument from Esteban’s grandmother.

Spaetzle is where dumplings meet noodles.  They have that doughy, chewy texture that makes dumplings so comforting, but are lighter and stringier and able to hold a sauce like noodles. The classic technique is to hold the spaetzle maker (or colander in many cases) over a pot of boiling water and push the dough through the holes so they drop right into the pot.  They cook very quickly, and are ready as soon as they float to the top.

The girls had first row seats

We ate our spaetzle with a traditional beef and sour cream goulash, but I have seen spaetzle served simply with butter and cheese, or more complexly with herbs and vegetables.  The possibilities are endless. Below is a classic spaetzle recipe from ‘europeancuisines.com’ and a few ideas for variations.

  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup (or more) water
  • 1/4 cup butter

Sift the flour, salt and nutmeg together in a bowl. Pour eggs and 1/4 cup water into middle of flour mixture: beat with a wooden spoon.

Add enough water to make the dough slightly sticky, yet keeping it elastic and stiff.

For a slightly richer dough, use milk instead of water, and for a healthier dough, use half whole wheat flour.

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We took our first major trip out of Argentina last week, and crossed to Andes to visit our dear friends Laura, Dan, Grace and Theo in Valparaiso, Chile.  The bus ride was extraordinary, if a little tough on the stomach (we got to go down the infamous ‘Caracol’ or snail-a descent consisting of about 24 tight, narrow switchbacks on the Chilean side of the border). It was worth every minute to spend a great four days enjoying friends, food and funky Chilean culture!

Valparaiso is kind of like the Chilean San Francisco.  Situated in the foothills right next to the ocean, it has that humid, salty air and constant breeze under generally sunny skies.  To walk in Valpo as it is lovingly called by the locals, is to test your knees either ascending or descending the intensely steep and winding roads. In fact, to get to most places above, you need to take either steps or the ‘ascensor’-essentially an elevator on the side of a mountain.

Later we would be attending a gathering with some friends of Lojo and Dan’s, so of course we hit the fish market, and bought clams and a local fish which was expertly fileted right in front of us.

An added component of this weekend for me was the fact that Saturday was Yom Kippur-one of the holiest days of the Jewish year when we fast for a day while doing a final inventory of the past year. We ask ourselves what sins have we committed and for which we need to ask forgiveness, who do we need to forgive and how can we set an intention for more empathetic, holistic and engaged relationships in the year to come?  Then we hope that we are inscribed for another year in God’s book of life.

I decided to create a ‘visiting non-Jewish friends in Chile’ version of the holiday, and prepared freshly baked challah which the kids rolled into gorgeous spirals.

We brought this along with our fish to Cecelia and David’s house for what would become a glorious evening of wine, food and conversation-we would finally sit down to eat around 11 PM-classic South American meal time.

This was my fist time since arriving in the Southern Hemisphere that I was able to share the kitchen with others,while music played and the wisdom of women’s hands created beautiful food.

The minds behind the meal

Nuri, another friend prepared the fish.  It was simple and divine.  She laid onions and red peppers on the pan, placed the fish on top, sprinkled with fresh parsley, salt and pepper and then covered with cream and baked. Meanwhile, I was assigned the task of preparing Pebre-a very traditional Chilean Salsa of sorts.  It was a basic salsa recipe-lots of garlic, red onion, cilantro, tomato, lemon and salt.  It is typically eaten on bread, an interesting use for our Yom Kippur Challah!

We also had fresh watercress, salad with salty olives, anchovies and pepper in a simple vinaigrette, sauteed yellow peppers and mushrooms seasoned with another traditional Chilean pepper they call “aji”, and of course, potatoes.

 

 

 

 

 

The highlight for me was just before the meal when we all gathered around the challah and grabbed it together.  I recited the blessings and explained their significance-a general concept of thankfulness for what the earth has given us,  and great appreciation of our opportunity to gather together in community as we all pulled off a piece in celebration. What a great start to the new year!

Challah

4 cups warm water

2 T yeast

2 T honey

8-10 cups flour (1/3-1/2 whole wheat)

1 tsp salt

2 eggs

oil

Dissolve yeast in water with honey

When yeast begins to bubble beat in eggs, then add flour 2 cups at a time and salt.  When the dough is well blended, and firm but not sticky, remove from bowl and knead by hand for 5-10 minutes

Let sit in a warm place in an oiled bowl for about 1/2 hour until proofed.  Knead again and roll into long snakes.  Form these into a spiral, pinching the end to secure it.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes.  Brush with egg white or oil about half way through baking.

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Eat Bike Grow

The College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Sciences at the University of Minnesota has an assortment of creative thinkers.  People who are passionate about rethinking our food and agricultural system, and about doing so in unique ways.  Before leaving Minnesota, I heard about Paul Porter, an Agronomy and plant genetics professor who was preparing to take students on a three month bicycle tour from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima Peru.  The goal of the trip was to see firsthand the range of agricultural practices, systems and operations in South America while also experiencing the landscape and the people by bicycle.  He and 4 students joined a group of about 15 other through Tour d’Afrique a supported, guided bike touring company whom Paul had previously joined on a tour of Africa.  (www.tourd’afrique.com)

 

The eat, bike, grow team (click here for a link to their blog)  is together examining questions of agriculture and human culture through the lens of sustainability while also challenging themselves both physically and emotionally as they ride great distances through difficult and varied terrain.  Paul is also co-teaching a class back at the St Paul campus and they are interacting directly through the team’s blog. Through a series of networks at the U of M,  and amazing technology, the team and I were able to find one another as they traveled close to where I am living in Mendoza.  Yesterday I took the bus two hours west into the Andes where the team was preparing to cross the border into Chile.

I arrived to a groovy camp scene-bikes and tents spread throughout the municipal campground which was surrounded by the rust and golden Andes in the late afternoon sun.  Music was playing, there was plenty of wine (local) and beer and a jovial, friendly atmosphere as the riders anticipated their much needed dinner.  I found the Minnesota contingent and we jumped right into our conversation.

I applaud Paul for having the vision to combine his love of adventure travel with an educational opportunity, and I applaud the students, Evelyn, Wes and Grace, and their resident Spanish speaker Linda, for recognizing the unique experience this would be and the fact that, no matter what they are studying, what they learn from this will contribute to their life in innumerable ways.

Paul and Grace relaxing next to the support truck

Wes and Evelyn on dish duty

I also met James, the chef.  Let me tell you folks, if you are looking for a way to see the world and enjoy food and cooking, this is it!  James has traveled with many tours, experienced much of the world and figured out how to find both the local fare as well as things like miso, peanut butter and brown sugar in unlikely places.  Through him, the riders know that they will be well nourished not to mention eating delicious and creative food.  The tours are so well organized that everything is taken care of.  James, along with a crew that includes a mechanic, trip director and assistant director,   travels in a metal truck (much like bank security trucks I’ve seen) that carries the food, the mobile kitchen, the riders clothes and supplies and is available for anyone who needs a day off.

James making pre-sunrise breakfast

Ultimately the Minnesota team are getting a view of the agricultural systems and the food and farming in this part of the world that they would not otherwise get.  Combined with the knowledge and enthusiasm that Paul brings, the Eat Bike Grow team will have much to offer to the world of food, sustainability, technology and culture.

I asked each of the students to offer a sound bite about something related to these things that they had each learned.  Evelyn expressed that it has pretty much led her to re examine everything in her life and she will probably re think many of the things that she has taken for granted in the past.  Wes said that he is starting to look at almost everything now through the lens of sustainability and that this is really changing the way he is understanding many systems in the world and community around him, and Grace shared an evolving relationship with food particularly as a woman, and that working so hard has helped her see that nourishment and calories are crucial to survival and can even be fun!

Linda and Grace

Wes and Evelyn

Paul at the rear

I am really glad that I was able to meet up with everyone and get a taste of what they are doing and seeing.  I think it is so important that as educators and people who care about the food system, whether local, regional, national or global, we do our best to understand the context, the history and culture behind this system and build relationships with the land and people with whom we share our earth.

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There are many things that are different here in Argentina.  One of the most notable is the seasons.  While our friends in Minnesota and throughout the US were marking the Fall equinox last week, we were celebrating the arrival of Spring.  Here, the trees and flowers are budding and blooming, and the temperature is rising.  Days are getting longer and birds are singing everywhere.  This makes for a strange experience of the Jewish holidays.

Wednesday evening was Rosh Hashanah-the beginning of the 10 days of observing the Jewish New Year.  For all of my life, this holiday has fallen during the cool days of Minnesota Fall.  We typically spend part of the day outside, bundled in fall jackets and scarves and enjoying the crisp air and the glory of the fall colors. These physical signs have always gone hand in hand with the holiday for me.  It makes sense that the year is coming to a close as the growing season also comes to a close.  It is the end of the cycle-a time to wrap things up, reflect upon how it all went, ask for forgiveness (whether symbolically or in person) and prepare to start anew.  This, shared with family is the essence of this holiday for me.

Simmering brisket

The spiral challah

So, it  is not surprising that it was a bit strange to try to get into the new year spirit as the life cycle is just beginning.  As with all Jewish holidays, much revolves around the meal.  Therefore, I decided to prepare some of the familiar, and traditional foods and to create Rosh Hashanah in our new home.  There are a few must haves.  While on most other holidays, the Challah (Jewish egg bread) is braided, on Rosh Hashanah it is prepared in a circle to symbolize the complete cycle of the year.  Another important symbol is sweet foods, to encourage a sweet new year. In particular, apples are dipped in honey, and often we finish the meal with honey or apple cake.

The meal itself has many variations, but in my family brisket is traditional.  While I am not a big meat eater, I felt that it was only right to prepare this old world delight for my family.  Root vegetables are another popular item, with dishes like tsimmes or potato kugel.  I got a little creative here and decided to make a lentil dish (round food) with squash and tomatoes.  We also had gingered green beans (from my cookbook), and a lovely salad.  And I prepared a yummy apple-honey cake with cream cheese icing and walnuts for dessert.

Gingered green beans

Lentils with butternut squash and local cheese

We invited our neighbor Marta (the grandmotherly Catholic woman who was honored to share the holiday with us) and a new acquaintance who is a Jewish woman from Minnesota (what are the odds?).  It was a lovely, low key holiday that reminded me that the essence of Rosh Hashannah is to be together with those we love, to observe the rituals and traditions and to always reflect on how to improve our relationships and ultimately our lives and the lives of others.

BRISKET

1 1/2# piece of beef (from the breast or neck)

1 medium onion, sliced

4 cloves garlic, sliced

6 small or 3 large carrots, cut into 2 inch pieces

6 small potatoes, quartered

3 cups tomato puree

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4  cup honey

salt, pepper

Sear the meat on all sides for about 5 minutes per side

Place meat into a pot with all vegetables

Combine sauce ingredients in a bowl, then pour over meat and vegetables

Sprinkle with salt and pepper

Cover and cook in 350 degree oven for about 3 hours.  Check every half hour and distribute the sauce with a spoon.  Turn the meat at least once during cooking.

The meat should be very tender, and begin to pull apart when ready.  It is delicious when prepared one day ahead of time and then re heated.

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