Saturday, June 28, 2008

Passive Agriculture

Eat me!

Passive Agriculture . . . what a great expression and what a great idea. It's the notion that I can harvest what's growing in my yard that I didn't plant, that it actually has some use—say, for dinner!

Some people crave unbroken expanses of green in their yards, every blade of grass identical in color, shape and height, not a weed anywhere. Such yards typically are obtained through the meticulous efforts of a truckload of guys laden with chemicals and machinery. But I find that kind of yard really pretty boring. I prefer the wild 'n wooly look, with a variety of types of grass and plant life giving the place some diversity and interest. AND incidental food.

As a Southern girl, I understand the soil and climate of an entirely different region of the country from where I live now. Living in the desert just doesn’t come naturally to me, and I struggle to get anything to grow in our sandy, nutrient-deprived, full-sun yard in Los Angeles. Even if I succeed in getting anything to grow, the squirrels and possums—and rats—come through when I'm not looking and help themselves to what’s out there. So taking advantage of what's hardy enough to survive in my little postage stamp of desolation—without attracting the attention of the local varmints—is a necessity.

Let’s face it—whether you buy plants or seeds and place them in your yard yourself or you pick a few dandelion leaves to incorporate into your salad, you’re getting plants that have had the same water and care, regardless of which side of the little artificial border from the local weed-n-seed those plants grow on.

A weed is merely a plant that isn’t where you wanted it to be. Nettles, dandelions and chickweed all grow in my yard and I’m happy for that, as they nicely augment the lettuce, chard, sorrel and herbs I’ve planted. Incidentally, you can batter and lightly fry the yellow dandelion blossoms and eat them as well as their leafy appendages.

Sometimes I rely on things that were planted for other reasons. I garnish salads and dishes with nasturtium blossoms. And while I never manage to get any grapes—the birds harvest them long before they’re ripe—I pick the leaves, blanch and brine them and use them for making dolmates.

With a little research to be sure I don’t poison myself, I find grazing in the backyard to be a good way to trim the food bill a bit and take advantage of what Mother Nature offers.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Solar-Powered Oven, Courtesy of Honda

Today’s temperatures are supposed to reach as high as 113°F in the San Fernando Valley, and I know it will be considerably hotter inside my Honda Civic. So I'm trying an experiment. I'm going to attempt to bake meringues in my car. I put a thermometer on the dashboard early this morning, and by 9:20, the ambient temperature inside the car was already 115°F. A few minutes later, when the temperature passed 139°, the thermometer checked out on me. Since it’s made for use inside the house, I guess it didn’t take kindly to being treated this way. So I replaced it with an oven thermometer which doesn’t show an accurate reading until the ambient heat reaches 200°.

Please don’t make fun of my sloppy piping. I was just trying to quickly pipe an array of sizes of meringue and get the pan into my Honda-brand oven before I came to my senses and decided not to go outside at all.

My recipe calls for the meringues to be baked at 200° for two hours. Egg whites—one of two major components of meringue—begin to coagulate at 145°, but since sugar—the second of those two major components—raises the temperature needed for this process by another 30 or so degrees, I’m not sure this experiment will work. Some cooks set the temperature in their ovens really low and leave the meringues in there all day long, so we’ll see how my auto-meringues fare by the end of the day.

10:50 a.m.
I set a sheet pan of piped meringues on the front seat of my car, preheated to around 150°, as best I can tell. This temperature is low for an oven, but at least the eggs are well out of the bacteria-encouraging danger zone.

Borrowing from the Beach Boys, I have a particular melody in my head and find myself singing, “Stang-stang-stang-Mustang meringue . . .” as I wash the mixer and assorted meringue-making tools. How about a Volkswagen vacherin? I can’t find anything that rhymes with or plays well alliteratively with Honda. So much for a punchy, car-inspired title for this piece, unless I go with something generic like “dashboard dessert.”

11:40 a.m.
The needle on the oven thermometer is about to reach the 200° mark. I’d say it’s around 180° inside the car. No wonder the flashlight in the glove box is melting.

1 p.m.
It’s a mere 112° on the front porch, while the oven thermometer on the dashboard says it’s a solid 200° inside the car. Those meringues must be coming along nicely now. I’m so glad my car has cloth upholstery. Otherwise I’d need 'bestos for my ass . . .

3 p.m.
The temperature inside the car is beginning to drop, although it’s still dangerously hot in there, well over 100°.

8 p.m.
We bring in the sheet of meringues, let them come to room temperature and then give them a try. They're perfect, not one speck of moisture left inside. Good for meringues—bad for living things.

The finished products: I didn’t want to cook the blueberries and generate any more heat in the house, so I just poured the fresh berries right into the vacherin shell and we enjoyed them like this.

No, this is not an efficient way to cook--just an interesting thing to do with an uncomfortable circumstance. An upholstered oven certainly doesn't provide the best concentration of heat. But I think my experiment was pretty darn cool!

Can I officially call myself a food geek now?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Breakfast . . . It’s Not Just For Dinner!

North of the border, we have some pretty rigid ideas about what constitutes breakfast. Before my recent trip to Mexico City, I guess I did, too, although I’ve always been game for something different. And we certainly got it there!

Each morning’s breakfast was an adventure. Along with our freshly squeezed juice we’d have tacos or gorditas or tortas. One morning we had tamales, made just hours earlier and picked up moments before we ate them. The sweet ones were deep pink in color and just lightly sweetened. They were nothing like the typical heavily sweet pastries and doughnuts that Americans tend to go for. Other varieties of tamales included mole and poblano. All were tasty and helped fortify us for the days’ adventures. This may seem like heavy fare, but considering that no one really sits down for lunch any earlier than mid-afternoon, starting off the day with something hearty and filling is a smart idea.

And as with the other meals, breakfast was never a quick, on-the-go affair. Everyone sat down together and enjoyed conversation along with their morning’s repast. It’s a much more civilized way to do things than in those households where people eat in shifts, standing up or sitting in their cars. Or not at all.

I appreciate the view of mealtime that we witnessed during our visit. The people around the table are the focus. No television or radio turned on, no reading at the table, everyone present and engaged.

This is the way I grew up in rural Tennessee. Not that everything we did there was better, but in this respect, absolutely! We were much more attuned to our family members and to what was going on in each others' lives. At the table my brother and I learned how to talk AND how to listen. We learned how to be a part of the family.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Move over, sangria!

During our stay in Mexico City, our friends introduced us to a pair of refreshing summer beverages, both of which are quick and easy, requiring just two ingredients each—three if you count the ice, and four if you count ice and garnish!

Calimocha is a half-and-half combination of red wine and cola. It’s a tasty blend—and a smart one, as the caffeine from the cola helps stave off the headache that can result from drinking wine on a hot day. Calimocha’s lighter cousin is Tinto de Verano, which means “wine of summer.” It’s a half-and-half combination of red wine and clear soda, such as Sprite or 7-Up.

Half and half or thereabouts, depending on your personal taste. But you get the idea. Both are clever ways to add zing to an inexpensive bottle of red. And a pitcher of each at a summer party is a cool and conversation-starting way to keep guests hydrated and happy. And it’s a nice change from sangria, most of which, truth be told, just isn’t as inspired as it could be.

We stirred up a pitcher of calimocha to share with friends at a cookout this weekend, and those who weren’t intent on sticking to beer or soft drinks were surprised by just how much they enjoyed this decidedly odd combination. I sipped it throughout the late afternoon and into the evening and never developed a headache—nor did I find myself knee-walking drunk at the end of the night.

Heh! That's something to drink to!

I got a charge out of the bilingual labeling in a market in Mexico City's Centro Historico. Both Spanish and Sri Lankan are included on these bottles of Coca-Cola.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

First Class Blues

An aside: Since we stayed with friends and didn’t have to shell out the pesos for a hotel room, we indulged on our recent trip to Mexico City and upgraded our flight to first class both ways. The upside is obvious. The downside is that we never want to travel in steerage again.

While it was instructive—and hell, it was fun!--finding out how good those in front of the aisle curtain have it, the fawning was a bit much. You’d think the flight attendants were working for tips. Just give me the comfy seat, the legroom, the nice meal and the bottomless bottle of wine. But please lay off the overabundance of attention. The average American simply isn’t used to such fussing. It’s embarrassing when a flight attendant who is smaller than I grabs my bag from me and heaves it into the overhead compartment, her smile locked firmly in place.

I suppose the sensible thing to do is research which airlines have the comfiest seats and the most leg room in the economy section, and try to stick to flying those. That way I can enjoy the more reasonably-priced flight (which is getting increasingly expensive even as I type this) with my own stash of eats—typically French bread, a couple of good cheeses, a few olives, a piece of fruit and some good-quality chocolate, and just purchase a glass of wine on board.

Still, it’s nice sharing the lavatory with just the pilot, the co-pilot and a handful of other folks up front. There never seems to be a line or a mess. I whined to Andy that we probably shouldn’t have upgraded, that it will forever remind us of what we’re missing as we schlep through the first class cabin on the way to the cramped quarters in back on our future flights. His response? “’tis better to have loved first class and lost than never to have flown first class at all . . .”

Next time I’ll book economy for Andy and first class for myself. That’ll show him what happens when he goes Tennyson on me!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To all my boy cousins—and my brother—who tried to gross me out as a child: EAT THIS!

a fine meal in the village of Bernal in the state of Queretaro:
tortilla soup with ancho chiles and a trio of quesadillas: huitlacoche, chapulin and zucchini blossom

Two foods I was set on sampling as we planned our trip to Mexico City were huitlacoche and chapulines, because neither tends to show up on the menus of even authentic Mexican restaurants north of the border. And both are pretty high up there on the list of foods for the adventurous.

Huitlacoche is corn fungus, a delicacy in Mexico, where it is also sometimes known as Mexican caviar. However, to gaze upon huitlacoche in its natural environment is to risk having nightmares—it’s some seriously butt-ugly stuff, all motled black, gray and yellow, and bulging like some mutant life form. It IS a fungus, after all, perched there on a tall, elegant corn plant like a hideous vampiric creature set on the utter destruction of its victim. I call it the monkfish of the plant world—you don’t want to look at it—just enjoy it. In fact, the native Nauhuatl words for it mean “raven excrement.” Yummy.

But huitlacoche is quite tasty, a sweet, smoky, corny mushroomy delight. I had it cooked up and served in a quesadilla with cheese. Just be glad I didn’t manage to get a photo of any fresh huitlacoche—the rainy season, when it flourishes, hasn’t yet set in. Most likely what I was served came from a can. Maybe next time I’ll be there in time for the fresh stuff, in the summer.

My dad was a farmer who despaired every time he found that immensely unpleasant-looking fungus growing on his corn crops. It’s too bad he didn’t know that the stuff is actually cultivated and appreciated as a delicacy and that it commands a high price. Well, even if he HAD known, it might not have made much difference to him. He was a practical man, but the aesthetics of the field were still important to him.

Alongside my huitlacoche quesadilla was another one, this one filled with chapulines, reddish Mexican grasshoppers. The taste was difficult to pin down at first—no entomological pun intended. Then Andy said, “When I was a kid, I’d play with grasshoppers, and the way my fingers would smell after I’d finished playing is exactly how these grasshoppers taste!” He was right about that—as odd as it sounds. Chapulines have a tangy flavor that's reminiscent of the plants the grasshoppers feed on.

Would I eat huitlacoche and chapulines regularly if they were available in my neighborhood? While a great part of my determination to try these foods was the I-had-the-guts-to-eat-it-do-you? factor, if corn fungus and grasshoppers ever do show up on the menus in the Mexican restaurants in this area, I’m happy to report that, yes, I’d order them and enjoy them. Both are good, and both are at least worth a try.

It’s all a matter of what you’re accustomed to. There’s nothing inherently wrong with eating either of these things. But because people in the U.S. don’t typically eat grasshoppers, corn fungus or myriad other foods that are the mainstays of the diets of others--and sometimes cherished delicacies--they seem to most people here, odd at best and unacceptable at worst. Would that all Americans could see how people in other countries often turn up their noses at some foods Americans think nothing of eating. Peanut butter, for example. People who didn't grow up in the U.S. just don't get it. And I know someone who prepared a turkey-with-all-the-trimmings feast for Thanksgiving while in another country, and no one wanted to touch the stuff!

It’s important to keep an open mind and an open mouth. Otherwise, we run the risk of missing out on some good foods and some great opportunities to connect with people in other cultures. Andy and I certainly scored points for ordering these things and for cleaning our plates. I'd hate to think what we'd have missed if we'd adhered to a narrow dining path. Not just the foods themselves, but the conversations we had and the connections we made with the locals.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tortilla Nation

If the American South is Cornbread Nation, then Mexico must be Tortilla Nation, for the tortilla seems to knit a meal together there in a way that spans region, class and taste.

Tortillas show up at every meal, and no, I don’t mean those flavorless dead-crunchy, boxed and bagged jobbies we find in grocery stores north of the border. Real tortillas are freshly made, hot, flavorful and ready to wrap around anything you care to eat.

And they’re ubiquitous. Consider the following dishes, all requiring tortillas either rolled, folded, used a base or served alongside: alambre, burrito, carnitas, cecina, chalupa, chimichanga, enchilada, enfrijolada, entomatada, flauta, gordita, huarache, machaca, quesadilla, sincronizada, and the famous and clever taco. And this is just a start.

While corn—ask for maize—seems to be preferred, tortillas may also be made of flour—harina. Occasionally tortillas will be crispy, but typically they’re soft. And I was surprised to discover that there are actually two distinguishable sides of the tortilla, a softer, more moist one and a harder, drier one. When you start to fill a tortilla, hold it with the softer side toward your hand (for a better grip, perhaps?), and the drier side inside.

There’s a saying in Mexico: “The sides of a good taco don’t touch.” I paraphrase. But it’s true, and I worked on making and eating several GOOD tacos during my stay. Essentially, you can put most anything inside. Whether you’re making a meal or a snack, you can’t go wrong with a fresh, hot tortilla filled with your choice of ingredients. (This taco included chicken, tomato, avocado and nopal, a cactus that has a taste and texture reminiscent of okra).

But tortillas are satisfying on their own, no fillings needed. Just rolling up and eating a tortilla all by itself is a nice little treat to have anytime. That's certainly a comfort when you've indulged too heavily or you've tangled with El Senor Tummy Bug!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Apropos of something . . .

Andy and I popped into a neighborhood Japanese restaurant on Sunday and noticed this sign as we sat at the sushi bar:

Thanks and arigato!

A Confession

Buenos Dias! We’re back from our week in Mexico City, filled with good food and great memories. Problem is, I’m inundated with ideas and trying to sift through them all. Which one to write about first? and second? and so on?

So as I work my way through a major case of bloggus indigestus this morning, I’m procrastinating for a few minutes by reading some food blogs I like. The current entry on Orangette gives me encouragement. If Molly Wizenberg can admit to train wrecking in the kitchen and reaching for olives and cereal, then I too, can admit to a recent lunchtime of kimchi, doritos, peanut butter and ice cream. No, not all at once, but in fairly rapid succession.

Sometimes it’s necessary to do this sort of schizophrenic grazing. Satisfy the taste buds with an assortment of different flavors that might not go together, but that are nonetheless required to keep the tongue and the spirits happy. I don’t do it very often, but maybe I can do it with less guilt now that I see Ms. Wizenberg owning up to it.

Hmm, perhaps that should be a blog all to itself, a confessional spot on the Web where people could go to admit to the bizarre combinations of food they sometimes find themselves building a meal (or a grazing session) out of.

I promise, the next blog will begin a launch into the glories of authentic Mexican cuisine. And there are many.