Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Seasons Eatings From Home and Abroad

Brussels sprout and potato tree: Whole Foods, Venice, California

High-fructose cola tree: San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

Pomegranate poinsettia: a street produce stall in Istanbul, Turkey

Poignant poinsettia pose: the market at Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Happy Holidays!

Related Links:
Market Day: Chiapas, Mexico
Spice Bazaar: Istanbul, Part 1
Spice Bazaar: Istanbul, Part 2

Monday, December 16, 2013

The "La Cucaracha"

Replace your car horn with the "La Cucaracha" Air Horn! Five air trumpets play the most easily recognized notes of the "La Cucaracha" song at the touch of a button, getting instant attention with 118 decibels of power!
Can you sue someone for noise pollution? Each time the mysterious driver blasted "La Cucaracha" my Pavlovian response became more rabid. Those abrasive, fingernails-on-chalkboard trumpet notes had ruined my relationship with a once-charming song.

After hearing that horn for years, now it was especially grating since I didn’t work in an office anymore. I was an aural prisoner in my own home for chrissakes. I told my neighbor about my fury and she said, “Why don’t you find him and make peace with it.” Hmmm, that was an idea. I would stake out this noise polluter so I could put a face to the destroyer of classic Mexican folk songs. I mean "La Cucaracha" wasn’t like that tinkly ice-cream truck song:

     Oh little playmate, come out and play with me
     And bring your dolly three
     Climb up my apple tree
     Shout down my rain barrel
     Slide down my cellar door
     And we’ll be jolly friends forever more

Who cares if you ruin that song. What do those corny, archaic lines even mean? But "La Cucaracha?" The song about a cockroach who lost one of its legs (thus the odd beat, representing a missing leg) that is rich with historical significance and popularized during the Mexican Revolution?

     La cu-ca-ra-cha, la cu-ca-ra-cha
     ya no pue-de ca-mi-nar
     por-que no tie-ne, por-que le fal-ta
     u-na pa-ta de a-tras

So one day when I was taking a walk (with both legs intact), I saw a vendor's truck with the back open that had fruit, chicharrones, chips, candy, etc. I had seen it around the ‘hood for years but never paid it much mind. Then it dawned on me. That's it—the object of my ire! So I went up to the man in the back of the truck.
“Are you the one playing 'La Cucaracha?'" I said accusingly.
He nodded yes.
“It’s driving me crazy!" 
I could see he didn't speak English.
"Loco!" I pointed to my head. "Loco!!"

But for as long as I had wanted to say that or something much worse, pinpointing the perpetrator suddenly gave me pause. I realized that this poor guy was just trying to make a living. Was driving this truck around all day such a joyride? Could he even pay for his gas by selling a few mangoes and a pack of Juicy Fruit gum?

“How does that horn work?” I said, trying to soften my wrath.
“Do you press one button and it plays the whole song or do you have to press each note separately?” I asked, tossing out words like canción, accompanied by unhelpful hand signals. 
He motioned for me to follow him to the driver’s area and showed me the horn. He started to play it, and after the first two notes, I signaled he could stop. 
"Qué es tu nombre?" I asked.
"Pedro," he said.
"Gracias, Pedro," I said with a smile. "Adios."
I waved at him and was on my way.

As I was walking home, I realized that this horn was the poor guy’s print ad, TV commercial, billboard and banner campaign. It’s all he had to tell the world he had arrived as he drove spot to spot, parking for 10 minutes at a time, day after day. Maybe the song drove him crazy too. Hell, he had to hear it almost as much as I did. Then I thought all I need to do is re-associate this song in my mind with someone who’s fighting the fight and doing the best he can—kind of like me, sans an abrasive theme song. So from now on, when I hear those trumpet notes blasting across the ozone, I will think, “There goes Pedro. I hope he’s selling a lot of fruit today. Never mind his air and noise pollution, wasteful oil consumption and pitiful carbon footprint." 

Either way you look at it, I think it calls for a drink. Salúd!

La Cucaracha Recipe

1 part tequila
1 part Kahlua

Serve over ice and enjoy.

A La Cucaracha is sometimes made with a third part triple sec, brandy or rum and set aflame and served with two straws. Two people are to drink it as quickly as possible before the straws melt. However I find that this fire- and BPA-free version does very nicely, thank you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Food Safety Inspector

“We need tongs for these bowls of chips, people! Over 150 hands are goin' in!” I yelled out in the Los Angeles Times kitchen while helping prep lunch at a WriteGirl journalism workshop. I had not only volunteered to be a creative writing mentor for this amazing nonprofit organization that helps teenage girls find their creative voice, I also signed up for lunch duty that day. 

It was my first time as a mentor, and I wasn't too sure what was on a teenage girl's mind these days other than the classics like boys and deflowerment—the ones who still had their flower, that is. But I was paired up with Graciela—an eighth-grade, doe-eyed, unpollinated innocent, and while I was relieved she was not the poster child for the morning-after pill, I wasn’t sure how to connect with such a young girl. I have purses older than her, for chrissakes. So I asked her questions about school, her family and hobbies and hoped she wasn't visualizing a big yellow sign on my chest that said FOGEY ON BOARD. Relating to kids doesn't come naturally to me since I’m not really the warm and fuzzy type until you get to know me. And then it’s not so much fuzz as lint.

But prepping lunch for the girls and their mentors—that's where I shined. When 160 foil-wrapped burritos arrived, the woman in charge told us to cut them in half because there weren't enough to go around. As I was cutting, I noticed little shards of foil getting into the burrito filling. “Make sure not to get any foil shards in the burritos!” I said to the other burrito cutters with burrito-cutting authority. “I had a traumatic foil-eating incident in my youth,” I shared with a kitchen full of strangers. But I nipped my overshare in the bud and left it at that. The truth was I had swallowed a small piece of foil from a veal parmigiana tv dinner that was somehow big enough to scar me, my mother and our carpet for life. To this day I haven’t eaten veal. Never mind that I’m morally opposed to it and  wouldn’t eat it anyway. But veal in a tv dinner? Who came up with that idea? Or to kill baby animals in the first place? Was it someone who wasn’t that hungry and said, “I’ll have a little beef,” and the host went out back and slaughtered a calf?

“Plating, people! It’s all about the plating!” I yelled as we started assembling the burrito halves on large platters. I noticed when I talked, people listened. Sure, it could've been the volume, but I liked the new me. When the woman in charge of lunch referred to me as the “food safety inspector,” I beamed. “Could this be my new calling?” I thought. Bacteria, foil and E coli, oh my! Then after lunch, the head of the nonprofit came over to the lunch helpers and said, “I heard we had the best lunch crew of all time today.” I beamed again and knew she was talking about me.

Meanwhile back at the mentoring ranch, I helped Graciela with an article and gave her suggestions on how to write a good headline. Sure I knew how to do it myself, but teaching a girl was a whole new ball of syntax. Would I be any good at this or was it too soon to tell? I tried not to get all judgey on myself. She was bright and interested in learning and listened when I talked and didn't sext, tweet or Facebook once. And as our five hours together came to an end, I said, “I really enjoyed working with you.” And she said, “Me too. You’re really nice.”

My heart melted. That felt almost as good as being called the “food safety inspector.” All in all, it was a win-win kind of day.

TV dinner image from theimaginaryworld.com

Related Links:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Candied Yamulkes

These aren’t your old-shul candied yams. They’re a new hybrid designed by organic yam farmers and Hasidic tailors. Pilgrim meets pogrom. The bottoms and tops are roasted yams, and the middle is candied yams. And while most of my celebrations don't require men to don yarmulkes, for this once-in-a-lifetime confluence of holidays, I have asked that my yams wear them—at least while my guests arrive. Since these candied yamulkes are bite-sized, they make a truly amusing bouche. They're also kosher, vegan and gluten-free in case a rabbi or persnickety pilgrim should happen to land. This isn't a recipe per se like my Thanksgivukkah Miracle-of-Light Green Beansbut I've distilled it down to the 10 essentials.

The 10 Commandments of Yamulkes 
(I hope you’re reading this on a tablet.)

1. Thou shalt choose the narrowest yams. Make sure to find ends that most resemble yarmulkes (at two yamulke caps per potato, it requires many potatoes if you’re amusing a lot of people.)
2. Thou shalt cut off the ends for the yamulkes, leaving skins on (this isn't a bris).
3. Thou shalt peel the rest of the potatoes.
4. Thou shalt slice two yam discs per potato for the bottoms.
5. Thou shalt roast them in a 400º oven using coconut or olive oil.
6. Thou shalt boil, steam or roast the rest of the potatoes for the candied yams (if roasting, make sure they stay pliable for mashing).
7. Thou shalt make candied yams according to your liking with dates, nuts, coconut oil or butter, brown sugar, maple syrup or desired sweetener (but no Splenda—feh!).
8. Thou shalt take out discs from oven when brown and caramelized.
9. Thou shalt drain potatoes and mash with said ingredients.
10. Thou shalt assemble yamulkes and let the festivities begin. 

Hats off to you, and happy Thanksgivukkah!

Related Links:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgivukkah Miracle-of-Light Green Beans

This year I'm thankful for not having to eat that heavy, old-school green bean casserole. Sure, I liked it when I was 12, but I also loved Bazooka bubble gum and Danny Partridge. Now that I’m 29, I think of Durkee french fried onions and Campbell's mushroom soup as shameful skeletons in my closet next to my mug shot, ankle bracelet and love letters to Charles Manson. Oops. Did I say too much?

I know I need not expound upon the vegan, vegalicious virtues of these green and yellow beans, caramelized roasted peppers and garlic, and earthy shiitake mushrooms. They speak for themselves. In fact I hear the red, yellow and orange bell peppers are tri-lingual. And much tastier than that illiterate, white-trash green bean casserole. So why be a slave to tradition when you could be the master of your thighs, domain and discriminating palate? Well, at least the palate, anyway. Besides, I'd rather do my fat-loading elsewhere. Too bad I discovered I'm gluten- and egg-intolerant. But now's not the time to get maudlin—I have a blog post to finish.

The recipe, an encore presentation from an earlier post, was originally titled Roasted Green Beans, Peppers and Garlic. But as you can see, you may easily roast some shiitake (or cremini) mushrooms along with the other vegetables to add a deep, robust dimension. This year I'm thankful for the bounty of fresh food that surrounds me in fertile, farm-rich Southern California. What are you thankful for?

Related Links:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lentil Squash-salad Boats

All aboard the USDA Organic Delicata.
As far as squash boats go, this one is see-worthy, light and won't weigh you down like those Titanic types. So if you’re jonesing for some beefcake like Leo, you’d best board another boat. Even with its deep flavor, this hearty vegan dish is really quite delicate, hence the name of the squash: delicata. And since it's organic, you can also eat the skin—a plus for lazy seafarers. But if the delicata doesn't float your boat, you can use any other squash that floats, like butternut, acorn, kabocha, a pumpkin or even your garden-variety zucchini. 

If you're a landlubber, you can skip the boat altogether and eat this earthy Lentil Squash Salad on good old terra firma—or better yet—a plate. What makes it so earthy and lubbable? It's the robust yet visually camouflaged capers, bold marjoram, caramel-y roasted garlic, zesty sun-dried tomatoes and a zingy Dijon-shallot vinaigrette. Wow, that was a boatload of adjectives.

While you may attribute this Lentil Squash-salad Boat’s brilliance to its shipbuilder (and it would indeed be fitting), it was quite a serendipitous journey. After I had roasted butternut and delicata squash halves and put some of them into the salad, there were two empty delicata vessels just sitting there that I knew could easily transport luscious legumes to the mouth of a hungry river. The Colorado? The Mississippi? The Nile? No, the mighty Lentil Breakdown! Lentil Squash-salad Boats can be served cold, room temperature or warm.* 

*Lifejacket not required

Lentil Squash-salad Boats (vegan and gluten-free)
2 small organic delicata squashes*
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 cup dried French green lentils
1 heaping TBSP sun-dried tomatoes (not in oil)
2 tsp of capers
¼ teaspoon marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup olive oil
1 TBSP red wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp minced shallot (about half a medium shallot)

Preheat oven to 400º. Cut squashes in half, discard seeds and insides, then rub flesh with olive oil as well as the three garlic cloves (still in their skins). Place squashes flesh down on a cookie sheet along with the garlic, add a little salt and pepper and roast.

Boil lentils in salted water for about 20 minutes until al dente but chewy. Drain and let cool. Make vinaigrette. When squash is soft, remove from oven and let cool. Cut up one of the halves into small chunks and mince the roasted garlic (may be a bit soft, but try to evenly disperse in salad. Golden and crunchy is good too—but not burnt). 

When lentils are cool, add garlic, squash chunks, capers, marjoram, about 2/3 of the vinaigrette and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Let sit at least an hour.

* I used butternut squash also in the salad, but it’s not necessary.
** This makes more vinaigrette than you’ll need. Use the leftover for salad dressing.

Lentil’s Breakdown

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, certified USDA organic means:

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock. The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

Organic multi-ingredient foods. The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.

Veggie-stuffed Eggplant

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Apple Curry Quinoa Salad and a Trip to the Andes

The mother of all grains meets the mother of all media.
This Martha Stewart-adapted quinoa recipe got me thinkin' about the Incans, so I took out some old trip pics for a blast from the past. Park your alpaca and sit for a bit.

Grainy pics and grainy souvenirs. Quinoa is spelled Quinua and amaranth is Kiwicha.

Ah, quinoa. I remember that humble, yet pleasant peasant food that grew high in the soil of the picturesque Andes. We first met in 1998 in Peru and Bolivia, and I wondered where it had been all my life—or any of our lives in the West for that matter. That was long before it had become a first-world pantry staple and proclaimed a superfood by the superfood proclamators (I’d like to know how you become a superfood proclamator, as I’m looking for new career options). Yep, quinoa has come a long way from the Inca empire to the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia empire. And that’s a good thing, right?

Well, it depends on who you ask. A couple of years ago I had read in The Guardian and The New York Times that because of quinoa’s huge popularity in the West, the indigenous people couldn’t afford to eat it anymore since they were exporting most of it to us at premium prices. That meant they were eating cheaper processed foods like noodles and white rice. Indigenous people forced to swap the rich, ancestral crop they had been growing for thousands of years for nutritionally inferior "white" food? Only in a Pizarro world. On the other hand, I also read that this economic boon has allowed the Andean people to become more self-sufficient and are able to diversify their diet by adding more fresh vegetables. So if we buy quinoa, are we taking it off their plates? If we don't buy it, are we depriving them of a place at the table? Damned if you quinoa, damned if you don't. Meanwhile, I continued to buy it in moderation, unsure if I should be feeling guilty or not. Ambivalent guilt. That was new—even to me.

And now I've come to find out that according to the United Nations, 2013 is The International Year of Quinoa. Whoa. Quinoa gets its own year? Barley never got squat! Then I wondered if The International Year of Quinoa was just some PR stunt, as large corporations try to swoop in and root out the small organic quinoa farmers, which would result in environmental degradation from more aggressive cultivation. Some say that traditional, organic farming methods must be maintained to preserve the purity of the crop.

As quinoa's worldwide popularity spreads and other countries including the U.S. are trying to grow it, The Year Of Quinoa co-founder, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said, “I hope this international year will be a catalyst for learning about the potential of quinoa for food and nutrition security, for reducing poverty—especially among the world’s small farmers—and for environmentally sustainable agriculture.” And since outspoken Bolivian president Evo Morales supports The Year of Quinoa, I figure it must be okay to eat. I mean, the guy is a celebrated proponent of indigenous rights, anti-imperialism, was named "World Hero of Mother Earth" by the U.N. and has blamed our fast-food empire and transnational corporations for disease and obesity. Sounds like he's looking out for his homies, so I'm hitching my llama to Evo. Ba bye, first-world guilt. Hello, Apple Curry Quinoa Salad. I've made this recipe several times. Trust me, it's a good thing.

Apple Curry Quinoa Salad 

This was adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. The curry, apple, raisins and almonds are a sweet and spicy counterpoint to the nutty quinoa, and the mint adds a refreshing, whimsical note. I threw in a little chiffonaded kale for more greenery, but it's not necessary.

1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 cup quinoa (2/3 white and 1/3 red for color)
1 teaspoon honey or agave
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons currants or raisins 
1 small sweet red apple, cut into thin wedges
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish
*Optional handful of kale, cut in thin strips

Rinse quinoa thoroughly in a fine sieve; drain. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa; return to a boil. Stir quinoa; cover, and reduce heat. Simmer until quinoa is tender but still chewy, about 15 minutes. Fluff quinoa with a fork; let cool.

Spread sliced almonds in a skillet over a low flame and heat until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool.

Whisk together honey, shallot, curry powder, salt, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Season with pepper. Whisking constantly, pour in oil in a slow, steady stream; whisk until dressing is emulsified. Add quinoa, currants or raisins, apple, mint, nuts (and kale if using); toss well. Garnish with mint.

Lentil's Breakdown
  • Quinoa is not a grain, but is a chenopod, which is a flowering plant of the goosefoot family that includes spinach, beets and pigweed.
  • High in protein, quinoa was a major crop with great importance to pre-Colombian Andean civilizations, second only to the potato. It still remains an important food for the Quechua and Aymara peoples of the rural areas in the Andes. In the Quechua language, quinoa is called chisiya, meaning ‘mother grain’.
  • Quinoa is the only plant food that has all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins.
  • It’s grown in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, though Peru and Bolivia account for as much as 97% of global production.
  • Resistant to drought, poor soils and high salinity, it has the ability to adapt to different ecological environments and climates, offering an alternative for countries suffering from food insecurity.
  • The Rocky Mountains, much of Canada, and the Pacific Northwest all have potential as quinoa-producing regions.
  • Quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, yet Bolivia’s consumption fell 34 percent over the same period.