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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Artichokes!

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My first encounter with fresh artichokes off the bush was a springtime journey 25 years ago to Crete. Walking through the village, we would snap the giant thistle buds right off the bush, eating them raw. Most often, my great aunt Yeorgia would cook them in dishes like Aginara Stefado (artichoke stew) with fennel, carrots, celery, lemon and onions. She accompanied the fragrant stew with rice pilafi and hard crusted bread to sop with, it was a perfect meal for the season.

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Over the years, I served artichokes regularly at Inn Season Café. We found a surprising number of people to be unaware of how to eat this most ancient vegetable, therefore causing us to use them inside dishes instead of serving them baked, braised, steamed or stuffed as a full globe. Maybe people were fearful of the aptly named choke, but I still tried, pointing out the sensual nature and satisfying experience of eating them one leaf at a time. By the time the artichoke is finished, one usually feels quite full.

One of my favorite dishes used baby artichokes. Pre-cooking them allowed us to remove some of the outer leaves to reach a completely edible and exquisitely tender heart and choke. Sautéing them with garlic and pine nuts, they would be dressed with a light creamy sauce and served over pasta; either homemade fettuccini or a high quality udon noodle (similar to linguini). We served it in two versions, one vegan and one not. These days, I make it without animal products.

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This week at the Hillcrest Market, Sage Mountain Farms had the beginning of the local crop of organic artichokes.  I also harvested our first artichoke from the large bushes in the back yard. Excited to do a taste test, I cut them in half, removed the chokes and roasted them in the oven Sicilian style with garlic, extra virgin olive oil and oregano. It wasn’t a fair comparison because the Sage Mountain artichokes had already been harvested for over 24 hours, while our home garden grown globes had only been picked 30 minutes before cooking.  They both had an intense artichoke flavor that practically shouted Mediterranean at me, but the home grown was perfect…tender, creamy and sensual. The season has just begun and with a number of chokes developing on the bushes; it promises to be an auspicious beginning to a great summer of freshly harvested food.