Learning How to Eat

Mainstream America does not emphasize food as a key to a quality life and source of longevity.  Food is mostly used as a sensual sideshow and necessary evil.  One the big challenges we face, especially in dire times, is to reconnect with the earth’s culinary heritage. Not only the exclusive diets of the privileged, but those of common people.  These are diets that nourish body and soul, which utilize the senses instead of merely placating them.  Such foods help define who we are and keep us in touch with the ever present  organic cycles of the earth.

cretan-coastline

I first discovered the significance of food as a young child from my Greek grandmother, who tirelessly went out of her way to both nourish and nurture her family through the medium of lovingly prepared traditional dishes.  Memories in my Yia Yia and Papou’s house invariably are associated the times when our family gathered around the dining table, situated just outside of Yia Yia’s kitchen.  There I sampled exquisite hand made, tender dolamdakia, irresistible spanikopita, perfectly balanced moussaka and pastitsio to die for.  The memories were augmented with intense and creamy skordalia, almost sinfully sweet baklava and the melt-in-the mouth amigdalota cookies made from almonds and orange blossom water.  The food sparked conversation and familial bonding.

mihalis-and-figs

Eating this way, we knew what it was to be Greek.  The food was historically intertwined with cultural identity.  What, how and when it was (or is) consumed was a major portion of the Hellenic psyche.  Greece is a land that has witnessed the ravages of changing civilizations, occupations and political turmoil.  Often it was recognized as the center of the civilized world and the source of our modern political structures.  The unique and flavorful cuisine has been a consistent reminder of the greatness that Greece was…and still is.  Much of this glory was achieved over millennia at tables in homes and villages with foodstuffs foraged in the mountains, harvested from the land and caught in the sea.  The plant based food was so significant that the famous Greek Key pattern, found over millennia as a theme on temples, homes, fabrics and ornaments, was derived from the field plowing pattern used by farmers.  Ancient Greeks would also pour a small libation of wine on the earth before drinking, much in the way we toast today.  The Greeks have learned to live with the earth in a respectful partnership, where harmonizing with the energies of the cosmos became a goal in life.  Anyone who has spent time in Greece can still feel this incredible energy integrated into every aspect.  Often this translates into the Greek spirit of life.  Along with the Mediterranean sunshine, the sea breezes and the stark raw beauty of the land, it is unique and unlike any other place on earth.  No wonder so many Greeks return to their mother land.

hydra-port

Artisanal Fermentation

Each day, 30 to 40 minutes is usually spent cooking. Fast traditional cooking is wonderful, but the traditional slow and carefully prepared dishes add depth, perspective and an understanding of the true meaning of the food. I like to use traditionally prepared condiments, such as tamari, ume plum vinegar, unpasteurized miso, cured olives, salted capers and well aged balsamic vinegar to compliment my quickly prepared meals. Often these dishes are rooted in the climate and politics of the era they originated from, adding romanticized imagery of the times of yore. Many well crafted preparations depend on fermentation, something we are rarely exposed to since refrigeration came into the kitchen. These dishes often define flavors of a cuisine with the unique flavors of enzymatic growth. Often they were used in winter to add flavor and vital nutrients when the fresh harvest was not available. Along with preserving and salt curing, fermentation was used to keep perishable ingredients edible.
hillcrest-market-05-03-2009
Sauerkraut is one of those dishes. In Michigan, every Autumn during the abundant cabbage harvest, housewives and farmers would grate large amounts of the cruciferous vegetable on everything from hand graters to handyman crafted grating boxes which could shred an entire giant head at a time. The freshly shredded cabbage was placed with salt in crocks, barrels or bin, then pressed and covered to encapsulate the fermentation process. After a couple of weeks or so, the cabbage turned into sauerkraut and continued to ferment until canning. Today, a good amount of Michigan’s bountiful cabbage crop is turned into nutritious sauerkraut and donated to food banks.

mung-dosa-04-23-2009-1

In India, nation culinary treasures such as Idli, Dosa, Jallebi and Dahi (yogurt) all depend on fermentation for unique flavors and health giving enzymes. Dosa has very ancient roots in South Indian Tamil culture that are at least 6,000 years old. This original “crepe” has maintained popularity and is one of the most recognized and cherished dishes in greater Indian cuisine. Thirty years ago, Indian dahi-walla shops were frequently a stove, a pot and a cook (sometimes with a couple of cows out back) who worked among clay vessels of all shapes and sizes made to hold yogurt as it cultured. Down the street, one would usually find a potter sitting on the ground with a throwing wheel, a pile of clay vessels and a pit for firing. For yogurt, the clay would insulate as well as remove whey from the yogurt as it turned to curd over a four to five hour period. Turning milk into yogurt, butter and sweets were a method of preservation before refrigeration and was practiced wherever cows, sheep, goats and buffalo were kept. I remember my Yia Yia (Greek grandmother) making her own yogurt, keeping a string of cultures from one batch to the next. She would culture the yogurt on top of her refrigerator wrapped in towels where it would stay warm enough to transform the milk into a very tangy yogurt.

delhi-1953

India also has a long history of pickle making, using sea salt, mustard, fenugreek, chillies and oils. I learned the craft from a Gujarati family and, over the years would make salty, hot, sour and often sweet pickles during the growing season. Pickles from eggplant, green beans, green mangos, lemons, limes and chillies accompanied the regional Indian cuisine we were preparing daily at the time.

treasury-at-delphi

Garum, a fermented fish sauce, was used throughout the ancient Roman Empire, much the same way fish sauces are used in Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Fillipino and Vietnamese cuisines. Soy sauce, shoyu and tamari in Chinese and Japanese cuisines are rooted in similar traditions. Asian cuisines are full of fermented products, like Tempeh, Natto and Kimchee.

kelowna-october-2004-071

Commonly acknowledged, products with long traditions of fermentation are beer and wine. The ancients became masters of wine and beer making, not just for the pleasing effects, but also because water could not be trusted. The armies of Alexander the Great marched to India using beer and wine instead of water. Bread baking as we have come to know it also started from the process of making beer and wine. The white coatings we sometimes see on grapes are a yeast that is also used for sourdough bread. Brewers yeast, the by-product of beer making, is also an old source of traditional bread yeast. Beer making is perhaps one of the oldest known fermenting traditions with archeological evidence from 9,000 years ago. Since it is made with grains, beer has kept a close relationship with bread. Ancient Egyptians had massive bakeries at the base of the Great Pyramid, capable of providing up to 30,000 loaves of bread a day and were conveniently located next to breweries. Up until the last 60 years, many people kept crocks with yeast starters in their kitchens to make bread with. With the exception of Prohibition, yeast was readily available from breweries throughout America. Packaged, and especially, active dry yeast are relatively new in the world of food.

inn-season-house-bread-2

With the arrival of dependable refrigeration, many of these foodstuffs were relegated to the realm of cultural identity as they were no longer were necessary. Commercial manufacturers took over more difficult tasks such as bread baking, wine and beer making, yogurt and butter as well as anything else they could sell back to the public in order for to time to be saved in the kitchen. 19th and 20th century kitchens evolved so fast that many of the time honored culinary traditions have become very rare or even lost.

Growing up with my Greek Yia Yia’s cooking helped me to appreciate the deep connections between food, culture and environment. For this reason when the current culinary revolution recognized these same connections, I found a natural kinship with those who embraced it. Over the years, I have also discovered the remarkable role vegetarianism has played in human history. Often, it is associated with the visionary brilliance, notably such souls as Gandhi and Einstein. Every cuisine has some form of plant based food in it and I promote that every culture has vegetarian traditions. Commonly, fermented dishes and condiments are prominent in such repertoires.

Beyond obvious refrigeration issues, both ancient and modern medicinal wisdom recognize the potent nutrition and life giving value in fermented foods. Modern science has also recognized the hazards of improperly fermenting, requiring sterile environments and standardized cultures. While this has undoubtedly increased food safety, we have also lost many organic hand-crafted traditions. Often, much of the health benefit is diminished as well. I include as many of these dishes as possible in my culinary stable and even find that once a cultured product is made, it facilitates quick and easy meals while, at the same time, adding the depth of slowly developed flavors.

The Yoga of Small Bites

Across the country, top chefs have adopted serving a series of small bites to their discerning customers in order to present food at its purest and freshest state.  In those culinary emporiums of the celebrity chef, the goal is to immerse the senses in the wonders of gastronomy.  Through visual presentation, tactile sensation, aromatic teases and tasting stimulating flavors chefs are wowing their guests with magnificent plates and anticipatory service.

stuffed okra

While the specific experience may be new, there is a long history for this kind of eating.  While the great cuisines of Europe are directly rooted to the indulgence of monks in abbeys of the middle ages (and indirectly in Roman high-society excesses), there are also culinary traditions from areas of the world less exposed to the American palate, such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and India.  One of these is the cuisine of Yogic India.  Entwined with the ancient medical science of Ayurveda, as well as religious philosophies which espouse spiritual cooking and distribution of food, the yoga of cooking has been refined over fifty centuries of recorded history.

GVF74059

Many years ago, my personal culinary journey placed me in Vrindavan, one of the yoga epicenters of India.  This was Krishna’s hometown and continues to thrive as a philosophical retreat with over 5000 temples and numerous spiritual schools, particularly inclined toward bhakti-yoga.  I became enamored by the attention to detail placed on the food, not only in temples, but in households and street food as well.  With a different approach than Western chefs, the food not only had to look good and taste perfect, but it had to be cooked “a-la-minute” and more significantly, also digest well.

Govardhana Puja 2007

The Ayurvedic philosophy of balance was present everywhere, but especially noticeable in the traditional main lunch meal, called a thali.  This is where small bites came into play.  Originally served on banana leaves with clay cups or stainless steel trays for the common man, it was also served pure silver trays for the aristocrats.  Rice is placed in the center and small bowls of vegetables, savories, dahls, pickles, chutneys and raita surround it. In addition, freshly made pillow shaped chapatis are served with steam still spouting through a crack in the top.

GMF75020

The meal balances the five tastes and five mellows of Ayurveda to create an ideal healthy meal with abundant complete proteins, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants.  Like the fine dining cooking in America, it is a complete sensual immersion, but unlike the West, one feels nourished and vitalized in body, mind and spirit with both sensual stimulation and dietary engagement.  The senses are wowed, but they are also brought on board as partners in health.  All ingredients were local and, without refrigeration, we shopped the market daily.  In my mind, this is the gold standard for us to strive for.  There were no leftovers and extras were shared with local sadhus and animals.

April 2009 photos (73)

While my explanations cannot do them justice, it can be said some of these meals were instances that created rare tears of joy as I ate.  The food was that good!  The cooks who prepared those meals are still my culinary heroes and inspire similar attention to detail in every meal I prepare.

Vegan Love Bites

A Lifestyle of Romance

This is the time of year to shake off the dust of distraction, polish our manners and look for creative ways to express ourselves romantically.   Often the centerpieces of these endeavors are built around sensual foods and, when wooing our loved ones on Valentines Day, chocolate rules supreme.

The roots of St Valentines Day lay in Rome with February marking the beginning of Spring on the Roman Calendar.  At that time, every household was swept out and  sprinkled with salt and spelt berries. The fertility festival, Lupercalia, began on the Ides of February (15th) and was celebrated throughout Rome by pairing unmarried youths until the following February, often resulted in marriages.

Roman culture had a great appreciation for earth’s beauty and those who inhabited it.  They celebrated the gifts of the land and the power of attraction which is intimately intertwined like a grape vine in an arbor. One could reason this had something to do with the word romance being derived from Roman.

In 485 A.D., the Catholic church sought to Christianize the Lupercalia festival by celebrating Saint Valentine, thought to be a martyred priest from two centuries prior.  As a result, the romantic aspect of the celebration does not appear again until the Middle Ages.  It was the mid 19th century when it began to resemble the phenomena it is today.

On Valentine’s Day, when the meal is emotionally charged, there is one ingredient that is a “must” on the menu–chocolate.  Chocolate has long been known as an all around sensual ingredient.  The Aztecs called it “Nourishment of the Gods.”  Not only does it enchant us with its dark seductive flavor, but it contains compounds which have an immediate sensual effect as well as long lasting health benefits.

This dessert, Hazelnut Love Bites, is a combination of three luscious flavors and textures–hazelnut, raspberry and chocolate–all making for a passionate dessert experience.

Love Bites

Makes 24 Love Bites

Bites

1/3 cup ground hazelnuts
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup evaporated cane juice (organic sugar)
1 1/2 teaspoons arrowroot powder
2/3 cups plain almond milk
1/4 block (3 ounces) firm silken-style tofu
1/8 cup raw cashew nuts, ground to a meal
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350º F. Using a 24 cup mini cupcake pan, line each cup with unbleached baking cups. Put hazelnuts, flour, baking powder, evaporated cane juice and arrowroot into a large bowl and whisk together with a French whip. In a blender, puree soy milk, tofu and cashews to a smooth consistency. Transfer to another large bowl and stir in canola oil and vanilla. Combine the two mixtures and stir vigorously for one minute to develop the gluten in the flour. Fill each cup to just below the rim and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean(a little sticky is Ok).  Allow to cool.

Raspberry Sauce

1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon evaporated cane juice
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat a saucepan on medium heat. Add all ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes. Then strain by pushing through a fine wire strainer with a rubber spatula until only the seeds are left–really work it. Discard seeds. Return strained raspberries to pan and simmer for another 5 minutes. Reserve.

Chocolate Ganache

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup evaporated cane juice
1/2 cup plain almond milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a double boiler on medium heat, add all chocolate ganache ingredients. Stir periodically and cook for about 30 minutes until chocolate is melted and smooth. Test a drop on a cold plate, it should set up to a frosting consistency.  Allow to cool and reserve.

Assembly

When the cupcakes are cool, use a small pointed-tip knife to create a crater in the center of each cake, then pour in a small amount of raspberry sauce.  To frost, either use a flat knife to frost each cupcake or put frosting into a pastry bag and pipe.
Ready to serve.

Note:

I only use organic and unadulterated ingredients

Through personal example, my father inspired me to respect beauty and romance on a daily basis–one never knows when they will be encountered, often by chance.   He often expressed his inspirations through poetry.

 

 

 

 

Beauty

 

 

 

 

 

With the kindness of its weather,

San Diego has developed multiple forms of beauty.


(My words of enthusiasm are difficult to restrain.)


The soil harbors and embraces plants which give birth

to hundreds of varieties of flowers.


Their creative method of procreation is:

they make their flowers so fragrant and colorful

that the bees and other pertinent species

are attracted to visit,


To collect their nectar, and thereby leave tracks

from gathering visits to neighboring flowers.


The plants then “eat”, and become happily pregnant.


This is the intelligence of beauty!


Now the plants we call ‘trees’ reach high for the sky

and its sunshine.


Each family has its own leaf formation, and height,

their arms lissome to the winds,

as their hair of leaves is tousled.


And we humans too enjoy our views of them.

~Spyros Vutetakis 2007

Happy Valentines Day!

 

 


Share


The Great Plains Heartland

State of the Veg Union Part 4


Traveling east, through amber waves of grain, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on our San Diego to Detroit restaurant tour, my wife Sara and I marveled as the Rocky Mountains disappeared into the ground and flattened into the Great Plains of the mid-west.

We pulled into the historic Haymarket District of Lincoln, where the old rail and distribution system has been largely bypassed by 21st century modernization.

Over a century ago, way stations for the railroad system, which distributed grains, produce and farm products, were set up from coast to coast. These stations became distribution centers and agricultural hubs, standing out like sparkling jewels in corn and wheat fields when there was little else around.  Eventually, these became the urban centers, which were integral components for the westward expansion of America’s commodity food system. Thanks to local efforts, many of the magnificent edifices from the late 19th and early 20th century are preserved and now function as cultural centers of the community.

In one of those old warehouse structures stands Maggie’s Vegetarian Cafe–an all-natural, from-scratch cafe using local and organic ingredients whenever possible.   It is very casual and charming with down-to-earth sensibility.

Owner Maggie Pleskac was in the kitchen and made our Spicy Hummus Wrap and Unfried Falafel Wrap, which we found to be filling and delicious with noticeably fresh ingredients.

On the walls were pictures of the local farmers who supply the cafe–Maggie told us which one provided each part of the sandwiches.  We left with renewed energy from a simple, yet satiating, meal and felt good about supporting a business that reveres the local farmers, who I view as the true heroes of the modern food revolution.

Omaha was our next stop.  This city still has many of the mansions and magnificent structures from the early 20th century.  Reminiscent of the elegant neighborhoods populated by the auto-barons of Detroit, these were the homes of cattle barons.  Omaha was one of the capitals of the early factory farming industry in America.

Ironically, McFosters Natural Kind Cafe is at the edge of this neighborhood.  The building looks like an old Tudor-style home, but was originally Skip’s Skelly Gas Station, one of the original service stations on the old Lincoln Highway.  Now re-incarnated as a natural foods restaurant, it fuels visitors with freshly-prepared food.  Although they serve seafood and free-range chicken, it reminded me of the old-school vegetarian cafes–down to earth, funky and colorful, with an expansive, but uncomplicated, menu.  Unfortunately, we had filled ourselves in Lincoln, so a salad and carrot juice were all we could manage–both were fresh and flavorful.  We hope to travel through Omaha again–this time with empty stomachs.

Our appetites returned that evening as we pulled into Iowa City, Iowa, a college town with a number of veg choices.  We chose The Red Avocado, an upscale, yet cozy, vegan restaurant in the lower level of a house near the university.  We began with a Cilantro-White Bean Dip garnished with toasted pepitas and fresh baked flatbread (check out my version of the recipe below).

This was followed by a Corn-Mushroom Soup which was creamy and savory.  Our first entree was Corn Cakes with Shiitake Mushrooms and Tofu, a beautifully prepared dish with excellent flavors and textures.

Second was Gnocchi, properly light and fluffy–unfortunately, it was swimming in tomato sauce. Dessert was a chocolate truffle which we took to go because the restaurant was closing. Later, we discovered this to be the weak-link in the meal; however, the rest of the experience, including the great service, overcame any disappointment.  This was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip.

Click Here For Video!

The heartlands of Nebraska and Iowa were a pleasant surprise.  We were heartened  to see the passion and commitment for local and organic foods as well as a relative abundance of plant-based options.

Next, in our quest to discover the state of the veg union, we visit a raw, culinary treasure in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

Inspired by the Cilantro-White Bean appetizer at The Red Avocado in Iowa City, I created my own version to celebrate the heartlands of America and those good people who are making a difference.

 

White Bean Cilantro Dip

Click here for the recipe!

If you have questions or suggestions, please email or write me on Facebook or comment here.

 

 

Extraordinary Grains in Historic Eastern Market

When I was in Michigan recently,  I participated in events ranging from cooking demonstrations and classes to lively talks about how food is medicine.  After all the work was done, my favorite past-time was hanging out with the organic farmers in the local farmers markets.

One of my more memorable stops was at the historic Eastern Market in Detroit, which is in the midst of a revival due to recent restorations and an explosion of interest in local, farm grown foods.  On this early spring day in April, the market was teaming with people buying food for the week ahead. 

The chatter between the farmers and shoppers was accompanied by music from talented musicians scattered throughout the market.  It was exciting to see the market still thriving as the heart-center of the Detroit food chain.

While there, I was thrilled to see my old friends Randy and Shirley Hampshire of Hampshire Farms in Kingston, Michigan.  Hampshire Farms was one of the original farms which participated in the Inn Season Organic Growers booth at the Royal Oak Farmers Market in 1990 and 1991.

They have been at the forefront in the push for more certified organic farming in the Midwest region, a breed of farmers who I consider to be the real heroes of the modern food revolution.

Join me as I walk through the market, talk with Randy Hampshire and look at some of the market’s incredible produce.

I encourage you to visit this landmark, which is open every Saturday, and participate in the timeless grandeur of our local fresh food system. Take a look at a video of my visit and hear Randy speak about his extraordinary products.

 

 

 







Pepita and Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

My first experience with a pesto-style dish was in my Greek grandmother’s house.  Yia Yia prepared every family member’s favorite dish and my father’s was skordalia, the traditional Greek garlic sauce.  As a child in Crete, where almonds are plentiful and full of flavor, her mother taught her the art of the dish; she learned to prepare the skordalia by pounding garlic, almonds and olive oil with a mortar and pestle.  We always knew when we walked into her home that she had prepared the skordalia because of the heavy garlic smell in the air. It seemed to stay in our mouths for days and even crept out of our pores as garlic-tinged sweat.  Over the years, my dad was the only one adventurous enough to indulge, which he would do on a Friday so he could return to work on Monday with minimal effect.

The Italian word pesto is often used to describe a combination of ground garlic, basil and pine nuts, although the preparation method of grinding ingredients into a paste is universal and cross-cultural.  Ever since man discovered how to grind and pound food products with stone and wood, this method has been employed in traditional cuisines around the world to create sauces, condiments, bases and pastes which enhance flavor profiles. Every culture put their stamp on the method with the common denominator being a mortar and pestle or grinding stone and it is a superb way to add a savory and flavorful edge to a dish without frying or grilling.

A Sicilian version is pesto rosso which substitutes almonds for pine nuts and adds tomatoes with less basil.  In Mediterranean France, a cold sauce made from garlic, basil and olive oil is the base for the much-acclaimed pistou soup in Provence.

In India, I watched cooks deftly handle a flat grindstone with a rectangular pestle to create intensely flavored mint chutneys, robust masala pastes and pesto-like fillings for a variety of breads and savories.  The grinding stones would absorb the right amount of moisture and unique flavors would be developed by the grinding action.  I was so enamored by the amazing quality of these preparations that I carried two of these heavy stones home on a flight.

Central and South American cuisines have a long history of grinding spices, pastes and mole bases using a metate or mealing stone. Chimichurri sauce is one of the well known sauces to use this method.  One can imagine my pesto recipe being made on a metate grindstone in an adobe kitchen a hundred years ago.  Nutty toasted pepitas with crushed garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, brightly flavored cilantro and smokey fire-roasted poblano chiles provocatively meld together to create an explosion of flavor in any dish that it is served with.  I particularly like it as a foil to corn dishes and often pair it with Quinoa-Corn Arepas and Chocolate Cherry Salsa from my cookbook Vegetarian Traditions.  The bright flavor of the pesto is the perfect companion to the natural sweetness of the corn and deep, dark anti-oxidant-rich salsa.

Today, I often make pesto with a food processor, which is a compromise for the sake of modern efficiency.  However, if you have a metate, or mortar & pestle and a little extra time, I encourage you to use it–not just for the earthly connection and romance of hand-working one’s food, but also for the flavor.

This easy-to-prepare recipe works well in sandwiches, as a mezzes-style dip, a quesadilla filling or a layer in a tortilla casserole.

Pepita & Fire Roasted Poblano Pesto

1/2 cup pepitas, toasted
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 poblano chile, fire roasted, stemmed and seeded

In a food processor, grind pepitas to a meal, add all pesto ingredients and pulse to a coarse consistency.  Store in an air-tight container and keep refrigerated.

Cretan Horta

In one of his daily shows, Dr. Mehmet Oz talked about super foods and explained the benefits.   One of the super foods he mentioned was “Greek greens,” otherwise known as horta.  On the island of Crete, the tradition of foraging for wild greens can be traced back to Neolithic times.  It is one of the nutritional secrets of the Mediterranean diet.
The weed-like greens are hardy and have extra-potent sources of vitamins and minerals.  In San Diego, we have the benefit of having local seasonal Greek greens always available, such as spinach, Swiss chard, curly endive, lacinato kale, mustard greens and beet, turnip and radish tops.  Often some of the greens such as Lamb’s Quarters show up at farmer’s markets because they sprout like weeds amongst other crops and the farmers have learned there is a market for them.
According to Dr. Oz, Greek greens are a superfood and should be consumed as much as possible, if not daily.

Traditionally they are prepared by boiling in a small amount of water until they are tender, then dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt.  In Crete, they serve horta with the nutrient-rich broth which then becomes “salsa” for dipping bread into.  It is a common lunch item or side dish for dinner and features whatever edible green item is available from the fields or gardens.
As a child visiting my Greek grandparent’s house in Ohio, I remember seeing the horta on the table at almost every meal.
In the Spring, they would frequently enlist the whole family to gather dandelion greens, sometimes walking miles to an undeveloped field with the coveted weeds jutting up from the nutrient-rich soil.
Their search for Greek greens served as a link to the old country and culture of Crete while providing their family a highly nutritious super food.

 

Locavores do it Fresher!

botanical 02 15 2009 002

Throughout human history the best foods have been local.  Regions, cities, towns and villages would have their own specialties with differences in climate and soil creating subtleties in food, often sought after for the rare experience.    The current slow food movement embraced by chefs the world over, also recognizes these subtleties and strives to preserve the culinary heritage of unique indigenous foods.  In addition, the new movement toward creating local small farm suppliers for goods originally from other areas is encouraged.  With globalization, people take their cultures everywhere and their food can follow them in the form of seeds and nearby craftsmanship.    This is not a new story.  The ancient Silk Road was the first historically notable and documented large scale exchange of goods with trade between Asia (India and China) and the Greeks and Romans.  Sugar reached Europe in small quantities as a food for the elite along with spices and cooking technologies.  At the same time in the Americas, corn made its way up from South to North America as well as a robust trade in shells, feathers and other sacred goods, eventually spreading throughout the Americas.  The age of exploration, particularly the 15th and 16th centuries, changed local food forever.

Cuzco 1962

Spices, seeds and plants crisscrossed the seas and within a few years chiles were common in India, potatoes in Europe and squash, beans and tomatoes all over.  Back in the Americas, olives, pigs, horses and coriander were introduced and often adopted by force.  The pace of change often moved quicker than technology could keep up.  Empires invested heavily in food.  It was the key to economic power.  Sugarcane was planted in the West Indies, Corn in Africa and the southern hemisphere was exploited for the abundance of meat.  Formerly the food of the rich, these foods became available to everyday people and changed the perceptions of diet and health.  The ancient traditions of balancing the diet were based on what was local and indigenous.  With the influx of these former luxury goods, popular culture adapted to include and subsequently rationalize the use.  Indeed, in preserved forms, these foods frequently prevented famine from poor crops, the scourge of local economies which depended on yearly harvests and kind weather.    So we have a double-edged sword.  There is no “best of both worlds” in this story.  It is a story of adaptation and survival, but with a dark side that is driven by the inevitable greed of economic based decisions, which has also resulted in modifying the health of a good portion of the planet.

The phenomenal advances in scientific understanding hardly offset the fact that we have created an epidemic of obesity, an alarming rise in allergic reactions and a society that is blind to what they eat.  Nothing exemplifies this more than the meat industry, which is a systematic mechanism of death to innocent lives as well as a major contributor to the destruction to the environment.  It is quite shocking that the concern for global warming and reduction of the carbon footprint have not addressed this significant impact.  Decisions that affect the health and well being of people are made for economic reasons, instead of looking at what is best for people.  But, this too is not new in our checkered history of toil and struggle.  The question is whether a vision of a bigger picture will prevail.   Let us step out of the darkness and look at the positive opportunities the food system has provided.  More than any other time in human history, any food product one may want is available almost anywhere in the world.  This is an amazing achievement, giving the ability to choose eating what is good for us, to create balance and to eat what we desire.  The choice is now ours and ours alone.

hillcrest 11 22 2009-7

With the proliferation of local farmers markets, small organic farmers and groceries that buy local, fresh high-quality food is usually right around the corner.  The economic cycle has come full circle to help people realize that quantity does not necessarily equal quality.  In addition, discovering the rich heritage in our culinary traditions adds depth to our food and meaning to life, creating a win-win scenario for local farms and the health of the people around them.    People have also rediscovered gardening and the bounty the earth can provide.

tomatoes in hillcrest

Not since the Victory Gardens of World War II has growing vegetables and herbs been emphasized, or considered as fashionable.  Putting fingers in the soil and nurturing plants to bear fruit is one of the great unsung pleasures of life and is local food at its best.  I can attest to this and always plant a garden wherever I live or work.  It is a simple activity which bonds us to ancestral heritage along with the life-giving energies from the earth, sun and moon.  Try it, you will like it!

san diego 02 2009 079

Georgia on my Mind

Pomegranate is a neighborhood style restaurant at the edge of University Heights.  As a change of pace, we decided to have a dinner out to celebrate the last day of my son Spyros’ visit.  Entering the restaurant, we stepped into another world, chock-full of a spirit and hospitality unique to Russia’s feisty neighbor, Georgia.

11 2009 004

In ancient times, Georgians were the fabled Scythians Herodotus wrote about.  In modern times, most of what we hear about is strife and unfortunate news.  Some of the cultures in the area are renowned for their unusual longevity, such as the Abkazians,who have been victims of recent political power struggles, thus threatening the lifestyle which has made them a rare example on the planet.  But, what we rarely hear about is the strength of the people and the amazing cuisine that makes them that way.  As John Robbins points out in his book Healthy At 100, this cuisine is full of foraged wild greens, mushrooms, roots and tubers, along with seasonal cultivated vegetable crops and preserved foods.

The menu at Pomegranate starts with a warning of the experience to come:

“Once upon a time in the West … on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street, there appeared a Russian-Georgian restaurant.  Our food is robust, for heroes of the table, as our motto amply testifies: “Borscht by the bucket, vodka by the inch.” Our service is “Allegro ma non troppo!” As for parking, it is positively Darwinian:  survival of the fittest.”

11 2009 005

Our experience at the restaurant did not disappoint as the food is flavorful and very generous in portions.  The walls are covered with graffiti by happy customers in languages from around the world.  One can imagine many of those scrawled quips were created under the influence of copious servings of vodka, Georgian beer or the special wines made from indigenous Georgian grapes.  The menu boasted 20 vegetarian items so we started with beautifully prepared vegan borscht, full of zest and a good texture.  Next, we grazed a salad sampler plate with a red cabbage slaw, a carrot slaw, a potato salad, a red bean salad and a green bean salad—all tasty.  We finished with a vegetable stroganoff and an eggplant “ratatouille” called Ajap Sandhali.  Both were outstanding.  Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that made everything so good, reminiscent of the family feasts I would enjoy in Crete with long tables of relatives.  Or, it could have been the feeling of authenticity–that we were in the midst of Georgians, celebrating their culture as participants, not just observers.  Whichever way I recall, it was a memorable dinner, for the food and the people.  I even took the opportunity to scrawl my own message, in honor of my father who loved this place.    On the way out, the owner and waitress both enthusiastically invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner, noting it will be home-style–family, friends and great food.

From About Georgia:

“Georgia is an amazing cluster of cultures, religions, fascinating landscapes and ancient history. The country where everyone can find something to his liking – from snowy peaks to subtropical shores, from deserts to lush forests, from cities to enchanting villages. Ethnic Georgians constitute a majority of the population. The official language is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world. Tbilisi is the capital and by far the largest city.”

“Georgian cuisine uses well familiar products but due to varying proportions of its obligatory ingredients such as walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate grains, barberries and other spices combined with the traditional secrets of the chef ‘s art the common products do acquire a special taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular and unique.”

“The Georgian table is conducted in a wise manner in accordance with the ancient ritual. The head of the table “tamada” is elected as proposed by the host. The tamada must be a man of humour with an ability for improvisation and a philosopher’s wisdom. If there are many guests at the table he appoints assistants who in Georgian are called “tolumbashis”. The tamada’s toasts follow one another in a strict never violated order. The guest is obliged to listen attentively to each toast and appreciate the beauty of style and the purpot of the worlds said. If is not allowed to interrupt the tamada when he is saying the toats. The tamada’s assistants and other guests may only add something to the toast or develop its ideas. If you wish to say a toast, you must by all means have the tamada’s consent or else you will find yourself in an awkward position. This table ritual does not put restraints on the guests but maintains discipline at the table. The feast proceeds among jokes and is accompanied by a dance competition, table songs and music, quotations and aphorisms from the works of poets and writers.”