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Archive for March, 2012

As I enter my 9th month here in Mendoza, something is happening.  I am starting to connect to the food.  I am recognizing the seasons, and their bounty and enjoying preparing foods utilizing the beautiful Autumn (yes Autumn!) produce.  And, I have discovered some people who are at the heart of creating a sustainable, organic food community here.  Adam, an American who’s day job is to export organic produce to distributors in the US, and Laura, an Argentinian who share’s his passion for healthy, natural foods, along with Marcio, an Agronomist and farmers Dina, Ruben and Sandra, have created ‘Siembra Diversa’, a sustainable food cooperative. They work to promote clean and safe organically raised food, and the people who raise it.

I was thrilled to learn I could receive a box of organic vegetables, honey, flour, nuts and juices delivered to my door much like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm works in the US, and I happily placed my first order last week.  The box that Adam delivered to my door was stunning.  Overflowing with beautiful, fresh and lovingly bundled bunches of chard, radishes, corn, beets, squash, potatoes, apples, onions, eggplants, zuchini, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes.  In addition, I received organic whole wheat flour, flax seeds and honey.  All of this for approximately $20 USD.  While this sounds cheap to us, it is a big investment for locals. I managed to find places for everything in our tiny fridge, and proceeded to start the familiar pondering of what I would prepare with the abundance in front of me.

This is one of the biggest challenges that people in my community face when they make the ‘CSA commitment’ The familiar question arises: now that I have all this fresh food, what the heck am I going to do with it???  I wondered if the Mendocinos who receive these boxes have the same concerns.  I wonder about who is buying this food, and how Siembra Diversa is doing as a business.  And I continue to wonder about the value that organic, sustainable and natural foods have or don’t have in this part of the world.  I know that for many in Minnesota, where sustainable agriculture and organic cooking is trendy and popular, a weekly delivery of vegetables can be daunting, and requires time, planning and ongoing attention. It is one example of the challenges of eating a healthy whole foods diet and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. Here, where sustainable agriculture and organic cooking is much less common, there isn’t a culture yet to support the commitment of time and money that it requires.

Laura explained to me that they have had a hard time recruiting new farmers to convert to organic methods, despite the fact that their main grower, Dina, has been very financially successful.  She also explained, and I have begun to observe this, Mendocinos do cook.  They  know what to do with eggplant, tomatoes, zuchini and squash.  There may not be extraordinary variety in what they prepare (can you say empanadas, pasta and pizza?), but they are familiar with vegetables and enjoy them with gusto.  The larger question is whether there is an audience that is willing to pay more for food raised without agrochemicals.  To create a culture of sustainabiity, one must be willing to place something else lower on the list (new sporting gear?  a bigger television?  fancy clothes?) in order to prioritize safe, clean food and ultimately to support a healthier food system.  This doesn’t just happen overnight.  For most of us, it requires a re-assessment of our values, combined with a stronger relationship with our food and where it comes from.

The challenge of building a culture of sustainability, in which businesses like Siembra Diversa are thriving and well supported is not unique to Mendoza.  It exists everywhere, whether explicitly-as it is currently in Minnesota where hundreds of people, from farmers to policy makers are working on these issues, or informally in small communities throughout the world who may not even know the term “food system”.  I applaud the efforts of Siembra Diversa for bringing the conversation, and the food closer to the community!

It has taken me almost a year of living here to finally begin to understand the local food system, such as it is.  This is not for lack of trying.   It can be very difficult to access sustainable local food even when you DO have resources (ie: money, education, time), it gives me great appreciation for how complicated it is for someone without those resources.

Ultimately, the joy of receiving, arranging, cooking and eating this food for me is profound, and something I wish for people to experience.  Here is a list of everything I prepared from my box, and it’s not gone yet!:  Fresh tomato salsa (recipe below), roasted vegetables including potatoes, squash, carrots and potatoes, eggplant ricotta dip (recipe below), zuchini muffins, pickled radishes (recipe below), several batches of eggs with sauteed vegetables and of course salads.

FRESH TOMATO SALSA:

2 small or 1 medium yellow onion, diced small

1/2 bunch cilantro, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

4 medium or 8 small tomatoes, diced small

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in bowl.  Puree half mixture in food processor if desired and return to the bowl.

Serve with tortilla chips, bread or just eat with a spoon!

EGGPLANT RICOTTA DIP (adapted from a recipe by Camelia Coulatti)

12 small or 4 large eggplant

2 cloves garlic

1/4 bunch cilantro

1 cup ricotta cheese

2 T olive oil

2 T balsamic vinegar

1 tsp salt

Prick eggplant with fork and roast in 400 degree oven until very soft-about 25 minutes.  Set aside

When cool, use a fork to scrape the insides of the eggplant.  They should come off easily.  Place in the bowl of a food processor

Add remaining ingredients and puree until well blended.  Adjust salt to taste.

Serve with crackers, bread, chips or as a condiment with spicy lentils or stir fried vegetables

Roasted Eggplant Skins

PICKLED RADISHES (VEGETABLES)

These are simple refrigerator pickles, and can be made with any vegetables. They are a great, quick way to preserve vegetables when you have lots and don’t want them to go bad.

2 bunches of radishes, cleaned, trimmed and sliced in 1/4 inch slices

1/2  cup white or apple cider vinegar

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 inch ginger, peeled and chopped (optional)

1 T.  spices-mustard seed, caraway, cumin seed, dill etc

1/4 cup honey or sugar

1/4 cup water

salt

Heat liquid, garlic, ginger and spices in saucepan over medium heat to a simmer.  Simmer for about 5 minutes.  Place radishes(or any vegetables) in appropriate sized glass jar-probably a pint for this amount.  Pour liquid over radishes.  Let sit and when cool cover and refrigerate.  These will improve over time and can last up to a year in the refrigerator.

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Gnocchi

Potatoes.  I love potatoes. In my whole life, I have met one person, a kid, who didn’t like potatoes.  Most of us love them.  They are at once dense and creamy, rich and starchy, colorful (if you open yourself to new varieties, of which there are hundreds!) and versatile.  You can roast them, fry them, bake them, grate them and mash them.  You can eat them with eggs or vegetables, rice or bread or all by themselves.  And they are reasonably good for you-Okay, that is if you don’t deep fry them or cover them with cream. But nonetheless, they are a great food.

Here, in Argentina, and in particular in Mendoza, there is a significant Italian ancestry.  It is noticeable in the abundance of ‘fiambre’ or cured meats, pizza, and especially the pasta.  In almost any little restaurant or deli, you can find your choice of canneloni, ravioli, spaghetti, and gnocchi.  In my mind, gnocchi are the ideal food.  Not only are they pasta, dough that tastes great with most anything and satisfies most everyone; but they are that dough made with potatoes!

In my investigations for information on gnocchi in Argentina, I learned that Argentina actually has a national gnocchi day!  Not once a year, but once a month!  These folks really do love their little nuggets.

I used a basic recipe and adapted it slightly by using half whole wheat flour. This changes the consistency somewhat, but I prefer a bit more texture in my pasta.  The most important thing seems to be to get a good dough consistency.  You don’t want your gnocchi to be so soft that they will droop or fall apart, but you also don’t want them to be so firm that they are hard.  As with pasta or bread dough, you are aiming for a moist, yet firm texture. Something you can roll out without sticking. In addition to the traditional potato gnocchi, I also made a squash and polenta version which may have been even more delicious.  Gnocchi are delicious with most any sauce, simple butter, a cream sauce, pesto or a traditional red sauce. In this case I prepared a red sauce, which included diced chicken, eggplant and fresh basil.  Rico!

BASIC GNOCCHI

2 # potatoes-about 3 medium (yellow finn work very well) If using squash, use half potatoes and half squash.

1 large egg

1 cup four  (I used 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white)  If using polenta or cornmeal, use half and half.

salt

Dice and boil potatoes until very soft.  When cool, remove skins and mash. Some recipes suggest using a ricer, but I like the rustic texture of mashing by hand. For squash, either peel, dice and boil until soft, or bake until soft and scoop out the flesh. I also added cinnamon, and thyme to the squash version. Combine the egg with potatoes and mix well. Then add flour and salt and mix until it becomes a doughy texture.  You may need to add more flour if the dough is very moist.

variation with half squash and half polenta

When the dough is firm enough, roll out on a floured surface into thin logs and cut into pieces about 1 inch long.  You can roll each of these into ovals, decorate with a fork or simply leave as they are.  If you will be using them in a sauce or stew (as I did), their appearance will be less noticeable.

When the gnocchi are ready, prepare them like regular pasta, but they should only boil for about 2-3 minutes as they are very fresh and soft.  If using in a sauce or stew, add them just before serving, as you would a dumpling.

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Inspiration

Inspiration.

I bet you thought I’d be talking about how inspired I’ve been lately.  About all the great food I’ve been cooking and all the fresh produce I’ve been buying on this side of the equator where the late summer heat is still making it hard for me to sleep.  NOT.

I am sitting here, in our warm apartment in Mendoza with an abundance of material, struggling with what to write about.  In many ways, it is like standing in front of the kitchen cabinet, or the refrigerator and struggling with what to cook.

Most of us go through our days methodically.  Often happily, or at least contendtedly, but inspired?  I am not so sure.  And truthfully, I am not sure if it is appropriate to expect inspiration with any kind of regularity.  Writing a blog can be a lot of pressure-something I didn’t really think about when I began.  What makes what I have to say interesting enough for someone to take time out of their undoubtedly busy day to read it?  Furthermore, isn’t it presumptuous to assume that I have anything to say worth publishing?

I went through many of these same questions with the publishing of my cookbook.  I think many teachers struggle with this question, sometimes on a daily basis.  Perhaps most people do, no matter what their profession.  Even if we love our work, and feel that we are good at it (that alone is a stretch for some) to feel inspired is another thing altogether.

So, what inspires me?

More than anything, it is people who inspire me.

The farmers and producers who work harder than anyone I know, doing some of the hardest work there is, for the love of what they do.  These are not people who are in it for the money, or the fame, but because it is in their blood.  It is their connection to the land, to their community,  to their families.

Moms inspire me.  The incredible degree of giving that they (we) do, because we have children, and because we are multi-taskers.  Really, show me the mom who isn’t doing multiple things at once and throughout the day, because it needs to be done.

Athletes. I love people who push their bodies as far as they can be pushed and take pleasure in doing so. I would add that only those who take good care of their bodies inside and out are inspiring to me.

Food comes in a close second. Fresh food. Color, texture, flavor.  Food that Brings me in touch with place and season and the people behind it. Food that satisfies me, fills me up without weighing me down, looks and tastes like goodness.

Talking about food, describing it really does get me excited about cooking and eating it.  So, I think I have solved my inspiration problem.  While it is becoming fall here, and there is suddenly an abundance of squashes and apples, I know it is becoming spring in my neck of the woods. Here is a delicious, light and springy recipe from my cookbook that is a tangy way to welcome warmer days.

POLENTA AND ARTICHOKE SALAD (VEGAN)

This began as an accidental discovery to use up leftover polenta. The delicious dense grain of polenta combines with the tangy lemon. With the artichokes, tomatoes and capers, the result is a savory, multi-layered yet amazingly balanced salad. The combination is really lip smacking.

The Family Kitchen: With already cooked and cooled polenta, kids can enjoy cutting the soft polenta with a butter knife. Or give them cookie cutters and let them get creative with shapes!

Prepare polenta  in shallow oiled baking pan and allow to cool. When cool, dice into 1 inch pieces (or see note above) and set aside.

1/3 cup olive oil

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

1/4 cup lemon juice

3 cloves  garlic, minced

1 tsp salt

1 small red onion, sliced thinly

2 ½ to 3 cups canned artichoke hearts, finely chopped or pureed

2 cups sun-dried tomatoes, re-hydrated in warm water and chopped

Fry polenta in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil until well browned on both sides. Set aside. Combine remaining olive oil, vinegar and lemon juice, add minced garlic and salt. Mix together onion, artichokes, polenta and sun-dried tomatoes with the fried polenta, and dress with the oil and vinegar mixture. A great addition: Add a pound of cooked and diced chicken breast.

Serves 6 to 8

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We have finished our Patagonian bike journey and returned to our apartment in Mendoza!  It was an incredibly enjoyable trip in many ways, and in other ways a very difficult one.  In all ways, it was truly successful and a learning process for all of us.

If you know me, you know that I am very physically active, and thrive on physical challenge.  I LOVE to push my body to work hard and thoroughly enjoy the endorphin high and feeling of strength and accomplishment that result. In fact, I generally prefer going up to going down. In the region of northern Patagonia there are few paved roads, so the most difficult challenge for me was riding the ‘ripio’.  This is not simply a gravel road, but an uneven surface with potholes, washboard  and many loose rocks, often the size of baseballs.  On my (fabulous Surley Long Haul Trucker) touring bike with a tag-along, a 50 pound child and 6 panniers attached, all of my concentration and energy (both physical and mental) was devoted to keeping upright and moving forward.

Despite these demanding elements, biking in this region brought constant rewards of extraordinary scenery- forested mountains and snow capped peaks often surrounding pristine turquoise lakes or rivers, and in the heat, the promise of a refreshing swim.  The other reward was the pleasure of eating during, and after a long hard day of biking.

As always with camping, one must be creative about packing food.  There is no refrigeration and limited space in general.  Out of 12 panniers (bike bags), we had two devoted to food and all our cooking supplies including pots, pans, stove, bowls and utensils, an additional bag on the back rack for easy access lunch items, and my handlebar bag filled with instant snack items like crackers, chocolate, cookies and nuts  In addition to the limited amount of space was the possibly more complicated problem of finding the type of food we like to eat in some of the small, remote communities where we were traveling.  As per my last post, finding vegetables was a challenge in itself, and variety was fairly limited. In Patagonia, berries are ubiquitous (see the past post on our stay at a strawberry farm) but not easy to pack. I used them when I could, and we always had good marmalade.  I am still confused about the lack of leafy greens in general here and have come to believe it is more of a cultural distance from these foods than any inability to grow them (heck, if I can grow kale and collards anyone can!)

In general, I do not eat things from a mix. Besides the fact that I am a chef who teaches and preaches scratch cooking, I find mixes generally overly salty, lacking in texture and grainy in texture, not to mention that they are loaded with things like Monosodium Glutamate, artificial flavoring and several versions of sugar and salt.  All of that said, I resorted to and relied on these mixes for many of our meals.  They were light, added bulk and some flavor and were always easier to find and carry than fresh vegetables. When possible, I bought local cheese, and it is easy to find bread (‘pan amasado’-literally kneaded bread often sold at roadside stands) and other versions of fried dough just about anywhere.

I found myself challenged in terms of creativity and ingredients much like many of the people that I teach.  It was often frustrating, and unsatisfying to cook and eat this way, and there were several times when it left me longing for something else. This gave me great empathy and helped me to think through this problem in new ways.  What are the most basic things a person needs to have and to know in order to eat well?  How much energy and time does it take to make good, wholesome food when the situation is less than ideal?  Can it even be done?  I am a lucky person.  I was traveling through extraordinary landscapes by choice, and the limits and shortcomings in our ‘pantry’ were temporary. In addition, I was able to take advantage of local producers with some regularity and although many of these items were not ‘whole foods’ at least they were fresh and hand made.  It is complicated to determine which of these priorities is most important, and equally important to relax, and enjoy the food you have and the opportunity to share it with those you love in a comfortable, and hopefully, a beautiful place.

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