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Archive for July, 2012

Tasting the Andes

We just returned from our year of life and adventure in South America.  For the last 6 weeks we were traveling around La Paz, Bolivia, and throughout the Sacred Valley in Cuzco, Peru.  There is so much to say about food, and culture in this part of the world, it will take many posts, recipes and stories to cover it all. Here is my first attempt….

It would be impossible to talk about Bolivia and Peru, without talking about potatoes and corn.  I LOVE these two starchy vegetables and generally eat them with glee.  However, there is a blessing and and a curse to these varied and colorful carbohydrates. They offer sustenance, texture, color and a blank canvas upon which to build delicious and filling meals.  On the other hand, they lack the nutritional complexity and variety to sustain healthy bodies, teeth and land for the larger community, yet they provide the bulk of calories for many people in these two countries.

The impressive size of the Andes is clear upon arriving to a city like La Paz, whose million plus people sit nestled in the base of a bowl below a circle of 4, 5 and 6 thousand meter peaks.  What is also clear is that many of the inhabitants of La Paz, and the surrounding countryside make their living selling any number of things in the streets.  Each morning this city begins to awaken with the hustle of people pushing, pulling or hauling on their backs bags often two or three times their size, full of food products.  These products range from potatoes and corn, to other vegetables, citrus fruits, peanuts and peanut products, or a ubiquitous snack made of sweetened, puffed wheat, corn or pasta.  By 9 AM, the streets are loaded with vendors spilling out over the sidewalk and onto the streets making it almost impossible to walk without stepping in front of a mini van full of passengers. The visual experience of this chaos is stunning.  Most of the food vendors are indigenous women, (about 50% of the population of  both Bolivia and Peru are indigenous) sporting the colorful and elaborate costumes, braids and bowler hats of their tradition, and the colorful cloth tied across their backs, frequently holding a baby. They also often wear a very serious expression betraying the challenge and hard work of their daily lives.  The juxtaposition is at once fascinating, and sad, offering a sort of time warp between old and new, modern and traditional.

As for the diet, for better or worse, the potatoes and corn have maintained their place at the center of the Andean plate.  This has provided for the development of classic regional cuisine, representing some of the most commonly available foods together in dishes such as papas a la huancaina, Peruvian potatoes with a bright yellow sauce made of aji, the traditional vibrant orange Peruvian pepper, and fresh local cheese.  The saltine crackers are a surprising, but crucial ingredient as they add a subtle salty and starchy finish that brings a different character to the sauce.

PAPAS A LA HUANCAINA (adapted from a recipe from http://www.acozykitchen.com)

12 oz. queso fresco (check your local Mexican market, or coop, and if you can’t find it, substitute a soft mild cheese, or even feta)

2 aji amarillo peppers- (1 habanero or banana pepper if you cannot find aji), cut and deseeded

5 oz. evaporated milk or milk of your choice

1 T. turmeric (mainly for color)

1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil

4 saltine crackers (for gluten free use rice crackers)

1 tsp salt

Cut the cheese into cubes, blend in blender or food processor with the peppers and milk.  Then add turmeric if desired.  Add vegetable oil slowly. Add the crackers and salt last, and blend until well combined.  If sauce is slightly thick, add a spoonful more of the oil, and if it is thin add an extra cracker.  You can also adjust the heat by using half spicy pepper and half sweet pepper.

The sauce is traditionally served over boiled quartered potatoes and hard boiled eggs on a bed of lettuce and garnished with black olives.  It also makes an interesting dip for vegetables, and I had a lovely variation with Yucca in place of potatoes.

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Lunchtime Meltdown

No, I´m not talking about my kids….I´m the one who lost it the other day, and yes, it was about lunch!

We have been traveling in Bolivia and Peru for just over a month.  We have seen incredible sights, met interesting and lovely people, slept in many different places, and eaten out every day, sometimes 3 times.  Heavenly right?  Hasn´t everyone dreamed of this luxury?  No need to shop, cook or wash dishes.  Simply sit down, make a choice, and viola, the meal appears.

Here´s the thing.  I LOVE to cook.  Every day, I think about my next meal….what I crave, what I need, and what is available.  I often go to sleep planning tomorrow´s scones, or creating my shopping list for the week of meals.  I relish the opportunity to use a local cheese, a seasonal vegetable, a favorite whole grain, or tasty nut in a compelling new flavor combination, or even in an old stand by.  I barely finish one meal before I am thinking about the next.  I know my body, my rythm; these thoughts, these feelings are my constant companion.

And the truth is, I like my routine.  I miss my routine.

It doesn´t help that here, in this part of the world, and at this time of year, people eat copious amounts of potatoes, corn and white rice.  While I love the more colorful varieties, they are starting to make me feel sluggish.

Yesterday, I just wanted simple, green food.  Salad, broccoli, brown rice kind of food,  I wanted it NOW, and I didn´t want to worry about what anyone else was eating but me.  Simple, maybe, but within minutes I was in tears! (and not long after, so were my kids).  In any case, I had to let go and feel the sadness.  The joy and nourishment that comes when you have a relationship with your food is life sustaining.  While I am incredibly lucky to have the means to travel, and feed myself and my family, there is really nothing like getting messy making simple food, fresh from the source, and then sitting down to eat it.

I got some vegetables, and they were green, and tasty, but my heart is still waiting to get back into the kitchen.

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