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Blessings on our Meal

We are traveling through the Sacred Valley in Peru.  It is home to numerous Inka ruins, and an extraordinary history of culture and farming.  There is an abundance of incredible agriculture here, stunning terraces with varied crops.  We are tasting many flavorful traditional dishes representing everything from quinoa and amaranth to potatoes, yucca, peanuts, fresh cheeses and vegetables.  Ironically, there is also still a presence of excessive amounts of white bread and rice, and plenty of sugar-seems there is always this contradiction.  I will describe many flavorful experiences and post pictures soon, but for now I want to share a simple blessing that we learned, which for me says so much more than any recipe could, and really represents the meaning behind sharing a meal:

HOLDING HANDS AROUND THE TABLE, IN SONG

ESTAMOS AQUI (We are here)

JUNTOS DE LOS MANOS (Together holding hands)

CANTANDO LA CANCION (Singing the song)

LA CANCION DE CORAZON (The song of the heart)

ESTO ES FAMILIA (This is Family)

ESTO ES UNIDAD (This is Unity)

ESTO ES CELEBRACION (This is Celebration)

ESTO ES SAGRADO (This is Sacred)

And another we learned from our pre school:

EARTH WHO GAVE US ALL THIS FOOD

SUN WHO MADE IT RIPE AND GOOD

DEAREST EARTH AND DEAREST SUN

WE´LL NOT FORGET WHAT YOU HAVE DONE

BLESSINGS ON OUR MEAL

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There are many interpretations of the meaning of ‘slow food’.  Some think it is simply cooking slowly, which really describes the concept well-you really can’t prepare whole grains quickly, or rush the making of cheese, the rolling of fresh dough or the filling and baking of empanadas.  Each of these things takes as long as it takes.  Slow food however,  is more than just a measurement of time; it is a way of relating to one’s food and food system.  It may represent growing and eating one’s own food, or using the food nearby in your cooking.  It definitely involves supporting producers in your community or region, planning and eating meals according to your local calendar, nurturing the earth in return for being allowed access to what she provides. It is also taking part in making wholesome, real food available to all people regardless of who they are, where they live, or what they have.  Ultimately, it is quite simple.

Good.  Clean.  Fair.   For everyone.

We were traveling for the last 10 days in the Salta and Jujuy region of Argentina, just below the Bolivian border, where the Andes are high and vary between cactus covered plateaus, dense and thick green cloudforest, and richly colored, marbled rock.  Here they call mother earth “Pachamama” and seem to maintain a reverence for her that is visible in their lives and their wares.  Nestled within these massive and dramatic landscapes are small communities-people living  off the abundance of the region.  Spinning and knitting sheep and llama wool, and preparing their meats for meals, drying red peppers to be ground into paprika, preparing salads and stews from the local quinoa, amaranth, goat cheese, eggs, oranges, peaches, figs, walnuts, spinach, carrots and squash.

In the town of Tilcara, we were lucky enough to be introduced to a small restaurant “El Patio” offering ‘comida tipica’, which included all of the above prepared in simple, creative and delicious ways.  I knew we had found kindred spirits immediately upon arriving to the sign in the front of the house:

What was exciting about the cafe (besides the obvious)  was the creativity and uniqueness of the offerings.  While we have had many tasty regional versions of empanadas,  Mercedes, the owner and head chef offered the most unusual and delicious version I’ve ever had.  Quinoa and goat cheese empanadas!!  I had never heard of, nor thought of such a simple and delicate thing.  Fresh and warm out of the over, they were moist, with just soft quinoa, slightly melted and not too goaty cheese, flecks of red pepper, garlic, onion and fresh herbs.  I would have been satisfied to fill my belly with these (and the lovely roasted potatoes next to them), had it not been for the other enticing menu items.

In all of Argentina, it has been a challenge to find food without meat.  While I am happy to enjoy the occasional Asado (grill with several meats) and particularly the local specialties, I have been somewhat disappointed with the limited use of the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables here.  This made the specials on the menu that much more appealing.  It was clear that Mercedes had enjoyed creating these dishes as much as any others on the menu.  It was a difficult choice, but we went with two ‘budins’ or timbales (a molded dish, often made with eggs or other sticky ingredients).  The first was a budin of Amaranth surrounded by fresh stir fried vegetables including spinach, carrots and red peppers.  The second was a budin of broccoli with grilled vegetables and complemented by a fresh peach chutney.  Each was presented beautifully, was colorful and a perfect balance of flavors, textures and colors.  I love the use of fruits together with vegetables, and the Amaranth was a tender, savory and sweet mixture that was full of flavor.

And, of course we had to try the Llama meat. Again, while I personally am not a big meat eater of any kind, it makes complete sense that this is the local meat.  It is very lean meat. You don’t see any fat Llamas around-while they are not wild, they are free roaming, and are simply not raised like feedlot animals. They are quite mild, with a great texture for sauces.   We tried two, one was baked with a dark and rich  orange gravy, and the other grilled with green onion and local potatoes. Both were satisfying and rich, without being heavy and again presented with creativity and care.

Besides enjoying a delicious, regional and seasonal meal served lovingly and thoughtfully, the space seemed to represent the community, and the history of good local food, and the kitchen, filled with jars of grains, herbs, spices and other delights, spoke to me as a chef.  I took the opportunity to introduce myself to Mercedes, the owner, and found, not surprisingly that she was a kindred spirit.  We shared our love of working with food from our community, and crafting menus that honor and highlight that food.  She is committed and passionate about slow food, and actively building a network in her small corner of the world.  I continue to find inspiration in places like Tilcara and it refuels my own passions and commitment to building a world that is Good, Clean and Fair.

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Power Breakfast

I used to think that breakfast was all about cereal and toast.  Something simple, maybe including fruit or orange juice  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love this type of breakfast and enjoy it many times a week. Home made whole grain breads, nut butters and granola, fresh seasonal jams and honey, a good creamy yogurt-each offers a delightful, energy-giving and satisfying start to the day.  However, when I have a little more time, or a lot more appetite, I enjoy something else entirely.  This breakfast will last the whole day, and is a colorful, flavorful, protein filled feast. It is also a unique and tasty way to get your whole grains.  Once you have the basic formula, you can adapt this recipe to whatever is available seasonally, and/or whatever you have in your refrigerator.

POWER BREAKFAST  Serves 4

2-3 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 small sweet potato, squash, beet or other tuber, peeled and diced small to make 1 cup

1/2 bunch broccoli, stems included, peeled and chopped roughly

4 large leaves (or enough to make 2 cups) chard, kale or spinach or other greens, cleaned and chopped

1 1/2 cups cooked grains (any combination will work-I particularly enjoy quinoa or brown rice alone or combined with wild rice)

4 large eggs

1/2 cup of your favorite cheese (fontina, gouda and swiss are delicious, feta and goat cheese make great variations), diced into small pieces

1 tsp salt

1 tsp thyme, dill or other favorite herbs

water for steaming

Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and about 2 Tbsp of water in a large skillet-cast iron is my favorite for this.  When hot, add sweet potato or squash, and cover to steam.  After about 2-3 minutes, check them.  They should be soft, but not mushy.  Add another Tbsp oil, and stir in onion and garlic, and saute 2 minutes.  Add broccoli and another Tbsp of water again to steam and mix well with other vegetables.  When broccoli is just bright green-about 2 minutes, add grains, and greens and combine well.  Add another Tbsp of oil, and crack eggs over the top of the vegetables.  Add salt, herbs and greens, and combine everything with a spatula, making sure to mix together well.  Sprinkle cheese on top, and cover for 1-2 minutes.  The cheese should begin to melt slightly while the eggs cook.  Flip egg mixture over in segments to cook the other side.  Cook for another minute or so, but try not to over cook.  The texture should be firm, and all the vegetables should be tender, but moist. Allow to cool for a few minutes and enjoy.

Tip #1 :  I generally prepare a large batch of whole grains early in the week, and keep in the refrigerator for various uses.  This makes cooking time from anything from stir fries and salads, to this breakfast considerably faster and also helps with meal planning.

Tip #2:  This recipe can be adapted and varied for any season.  In spring, use early spring onions and greens, asparagus, and fresh goat cheese or feta.  In summer, go crazy with different seasonal vegetables including carrots, peppers, cauliflower and a rich gouda, in fall enjoy the variety of tubers including squash, parsnips, and beets, and in winter warm up with potatoes, swiss cheese and late season brussels sprouts, collards or kale.

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Shopping

As our year is coming to a close here, I have been thinking about what I have gleaned from our lifestyle here.  While some things food-related have been challenging (lack of availability of certain foods, and general lack of awareness/culture around whole and healthy foods), other things have been refreshing and fun.  Here are some reflections

In many ways, the food situation here represents both ends of the spectrum, and very little in the middle. I wrote extensively about this in my series of articles entitled “Globally Aware” at www.simplegoodandtasty.com  In the grocery store, I can buy much of what I need, from brown rice, whole wheat bread and lentils, to oil, butter, yogurt and even produce, but the quality and freshness of those items is questionable at best, and the amount of packaging is disturbing.   Meanwhile, I can walk 5 blocks to the Mercado Central and find many bulk items, from spices, to grains like quinoa and millet, to bulk cheeses and cured meats and fish and chicken and to top it off, I have interactions with the folks who sell these items.  These interactions often include advice on the flavor and texture of a certain type of fish (ever heard of “white salmon”?), which type of paprika is available, or what cheese will be best before dinner tonight.

While in Minneapolis, I can find the best quality foods, and the biggest variety of foods in one location (my local food coop) the one thing that I love about shopping here it the interaction with proprietors.  These shops are small, the people who own them are the ones handing you your bag, or explaining where something comes from.  This is their livelihood, and the day-to-day interactions are their venue.  I love this.  Shopping is a very personal and often a very solitary activity.  I can spend half an hour in the grocery store, and not exchange a word with anyone.  There are times when this is exactly what I want-a break from everything and a time to stare at the bulk nuts and contemplate the week’s menu (or sometimes, something entirely unrelated to food!).  Other times however, the interaction, the activity and the contact is a part of the shopping experience, and also adds to the joy of preparing the food.  It becomes a window into the path of the food, much like the feeling of coming home after shopping at the farmer’s market in Minneapolis.  I have met someone who produced or procured the food, and who takes pride in bringing it to the public.  The business of feeding people is no small task, and doing so with enthusiasm, and creativity is another thing altogether.

The truth is, I am still unsure of the path of some of this food, and it is still difficult to get any information about chemicals and growing methods.  That said, I am certain that I am buying this food from someone who has taken the time to choose the best of what they can find, and to present it in a way that celebrates the joy of cooking and eating.

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(OK, a little shoe shopping while we’re at it never hurts…….)

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Hello friends,

I have written a series of articles entitled “Globally Aware” for the local Minnesota food blog “Simple, Good and Tasty”.

The third in the series is now up and ready for comments.  Please read, forward along and comment if you wish!

http://simplegoodandtasty.com/2012/05/03/globally-aware-learning-about-food-issues-from-another-hemisphere-part-3-with-recipes

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Our apartment has a flat screen television with about 200 cable channels.  We rarely even turn it on, but every once in a while I like to peruse the many Argentinian cooking shows.  I love to watch professionals cook.  Even if they are not preparing anything I think I might want to make, I find that it often inspires me to get into the kitchen and start creating.  It is a great example of why attending cooking classes is such a great idea.  And, sometimes you find something new, or a new version of something old that is worth trying.  Such was the case the other night when I caught the tail end of a demonstration of an intriguing version of what I call chicken pot pie.

I remember the Swanson’s chicken pot pies of the 70’s.  I LOVED them.  Not only were they warm and comforting, with a flaky crust, creamy sauce and just the right mixture of potatoes, peas, carrots and chicken, I also felt like I was actually cooking something!  It was a start….

This recipe is sort of a grown up version of the pot pies of yore. It is a great use for leftover chicken, and almost any vegetables you happen to have on hand.  I used mostly green cabbage, which in this recipe worked great. The Asian curry seasonings and coconut milk give it a really unique flavor and the nuts are a surprising and flavorful addition.  The version I saw on television uses phyllo dough, which is a great idea.  I happened to have a puff pastry dough that is commonly used here for tarts, and it worked great.  You can also use your favorite pie crust recipe.  Whatever you use, have fun, get creative and enjoy this grown up comfort food!

CHICKEN POT PIE

Oil or butter a 9 inch pie pan and place half your dough over the pan. Dough should be big enough to drape over the sides of the pan.  If using phyllo, use about 5 sheets and butter or oil each sheet before adding the next.  Reserve the rest of the dough for the top.

3-4  cups cooked chicken, chopped or shredded

1 T toasted sesame oil

1 T olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch ginger, peeled and minced

3 cups chopped vegetables of your choice (if using potatoes or other tubers, par boil first)

1 T ground cumin

1 T ground turmeric

1 tsp ground chilis or red pepper

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup orange juice

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup toasted nuts, roughly chopped

Heat olive and sesame oil and saute onions for 3 minutes until tender and translucent.  Add garlic, ginger, vegetables, spices and make sure vegetables are well coated.  Add orange juice and simmer for 2-3 minutes before adding coconut milk.  Mix in chicken and nuts and cook until heated through, about 2-3 more minutes.

When mixture is ready, place in prepared pie pan and top with remaining dough.  Again, if using phyllo, butter or oil each layer.  Seal as desired-a ‘rustic’ look is perfectly acceptable with this pie.  place slits in the top and bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes until crust is nicely browned.  Enjoy

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Teaching Food

For many years I have been teaching cooking.  However, this does not really describe what I have been teaching.  Really, I teach people about incorporating traditional, culturally, family-oriented and health-promoting skills into their lives in a way that sustains them and their community physically, spiritually  and environmentally.  I teach people about how food is a connection to their communities and to the land, and try to convey the message that knowing how food is raised, distributed and prepared matters as much as how good it tastes. I promote the political part of cooking, and most importantly, the joyful part of cooking- the process of procuring, preparing and providing beautiful, fresh, clean and whole food for the people you love

A lot has changed in our food system since I began trying to pass these messages along.  Awareness has grown significantly around the issues of food access, equity, literacy and sustainability and the connection they each have to our health.  I am proud to have been a small part of the growth of this awareness, it has certainly been a tasty process, and I am even more excited to see that these concerns are now beginning to receive the validity and attention that they deserve from some of our more respected and powerful institutions, like our universities!  The New York Times had a great article the other day highlighting the development of these programs:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/education/edlife/truly-food-for-thought.html?

This is what I am talking (and teaching) about.  Programs are being developed in many places because we now know that, while important, nutrition knowledge, or food science alone are not enough to promote and sustain a healthy food system.  And without a healthy food system, what difference does it make if you know what the food guide pyramid says??

I am thrilled to be joining this movement and embarking on an exciting new project with the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives institute at the University of Minnesota, where I will be the chef/instructor for an undergraduate cooking class: A food systems approach to cooking.  Please spread the word.  This will be a fascinating, practical and fun class, and will help to move the University toward creating and building sustainability and health through real life skills.

You can find out more about this class here:

http://www.hfhl.umn.edu/StudentOpportunities/index.htm

See you in the kitchen!

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