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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is it possible? An abundance of high quality food is causing fine dining to change?
Over the last two decades, high-end chefs in America established their reputations around dishes created from rare ingredients and items served at the peak of freshness. In recent history, these two areas of food products have not readily been available to the public. Indeed, to their credit, the very chefs who helped to build networks of local farmers, food purveyors and distributors and who, in turn, expanded their offerings to the general public are responsible for the public demand. Chefs were the rock stars of the dinner table and everyone wanted in on their secrets, or to emulate their craft.
Today, we have an economic downturn, but this as the only cause of the change of economics in the restaurant industry, albeit a predominant factor. The same formerly rare food products are now becoming readily available and markets have started to feature local, up-to-the-minute fresh foods. For example, just over a decade ago mesclun lettuce was only seen in upscale restaurants, now it is everywhere. The same micro-greens and baby vegetables chefs would wow customers with are sold at major grocery store chains. Casual restaurant concepts around the country serve organic food and these formerly exotic ingredients. Why spend $150 for one dinner, when the same food can found at an upscale bistro-style restaurant for $30 to 50 dollars per person. To add to the dilemma, one can eat like a king much cheaper than this by shopping at local farmers markets and cooking at home. Recipes and techniques are readily available in a matter of minutes on the internet. Food is no longer the lone star, now more than ever, the upscale restaurant has to entertain through service, constructed presentation and themes designed to mentally transport the diner away from the locale they sit in.
While enjoyable, this is often a distraction that competes with the food. High-end restaurants have been the bastions of the well-to-do with an additional peppering of the middle-class. The foods of the rich and noble have always been looked up to and desired by those not as fortunate. Numerous parallels to this can be studied in the history of culinary endeavors. Thus, culinary economics are cyclical as engineering advances in food manufacturing and agriculture offered food products previously only available to the elite, thus making them available to the general public. Grocery store shelves are full of such storied items; White flour, refined sugar, Strawberries out of season, refined oils and frozen foods are a few examples. As a result, products available are determined by what is purchased, not by what is healthy.
We advanced ourselves into nutritional depletion and are facing the consequences with such issues as obesity and malnutrition in lower income children. Education is the key to transcending this economic wheel of misfortune. The first steps are simple, starting with reading labels and learning what you are eating. Next is to act on it by shopping local and eating organic foods. Cooking at home and growing a garden are the most significant things to do that will educate us about the value of food.
It is not a black and white decision, but a gradual commitment to change. There is no time like the present to take charge of our destiny and good health.
Julia wanted her viewers to loosen up, get physical, not with controlled substances but with food, not through a glass darkly but at table, with delight. Hers was a civilized sensuality, the integration of the senses that she’d learned in France. This is why her following was legion—Julia’s appetite appealed to young and old alike.
“Americans didn’t come over on the Mayflower trusting food,” says Laura Shapiro. “Julia’s whole thing about food was that you had to trust it. That, to me, is her great message. Getting your hands into it—touch it, breathe it, smell it, live it. If we as Americans have overcome to any degree our fear of food, our weird neurotic thing about the body, it starts with Julia.”
“I felt very related to her,” says Judith Jones, “because we were both released from very traditional, middle-class American values. And it was France that released us. She wanted to bring this message to America—that we were still steeped in the Puritan attitude towards food, and what the food industry had done to make us feel that food was not for the modern woman. It’s what an artist does: you want to express it so that you awaken sensibility. And she really did that.”
“Her favorite point in her life was the years in France, that period of discovery and awakening,” says Alex Prud’homme. “As she said, ‘I felt myself opening like a flower.’ It was a lovely phrase. And I think one of the reasons that—this is my personal theory—she wanted to write all these recipes down and transmit them to Americans is it was a form of distilling experience, almost like a short story or a poem. She used the recipe as a way of talking about France and its values, which are so different from ours. You know, doing things correctly and taking the time to get it right, and to work hard and learn your technique, and also to have fun.”
Every morning we harness our companion Tea-Bird and walk through the neighborhoods of Mission Hills. It is an area that was laid out in the beginning of the 20th century exemplifying the Southern California lifestyle much in the same way as towns such as Pasadena. The railroad connected San Diego to the rest of the country in the 1880’s sparking a boom in tourism and seekers of fortune. Concurrent with the Belle Epoque in Paris, San Diego had its own renaissance before the sobering effect of The Great War. The founders of Mission Hills included names like Marston, Johnson, Nolen and, of course, Kate Sessions, who had landscaped Balboa Park. Kate Sessions’ original nursery, still in operation since 1911, is just down the street from us and is nestled among an eclectic mixture of Arts and Crafts Bungalows, Spanish Revival homes, swaying eucalyptus, towering palms and rushes of bamboo. Many homes contain architecture elements from the 1915 Pan American Exposition which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and started the Spanish Revival movement of home building on a national level. The building boom in Mission Hills coincided with the construction of the Exposition which began in 1911. San Diego was a city of 39,000 and the smallest ever to hold a world’s fair style event.
The streets of Mission Hills follow the original slopes of the terrain as the founders believed in the Arts and Crafts notion that living spaces should harmonize and work with the earth, not define it. This now historic neighborhood retains much of the original charm, which, in addition to the beautiful architecture, is greatly enhanced by wonderful natural landscaping most of the homeowners take pride in. As we walk down the sidewalks, each yard has fragrant flower, fruit trees, cacti and tender perennials. Common are creeping rosemary and bushy lavender which add savory fragrances as we brush by.
Beauty is not just the view, but how people live as well. Mission Hills is always full of dog walkers, runners, bike riders, kids and strolling couples, making it a friendly and social environment, greatly enhancing the storybook feel to the neighborhood. Here in San Diego, the sunshine and bright, often cloudless blue sky, are backdrops to the movie-set perfection of the neighborhood. I often marvel at the foresight of the small group of visionaries who designed Mission Hills. While the future is difficult to predict, they created a neighborhood that stands out from the crowd of poorly thought out developments and accomplishes much of their original goal. Every walk we take is different and stimulating, very good for creative thinking.
The Mission Hills Garden Walk is an annual event which offers the opportunity to see beyond the beauty of curb appeal and catch a glimpse of our neighbors’ lifestyles. We also enjoy meeting people who put their hands in the earth and use it as a canvas for organic expressions. Every home on the tour is unique, but one thing in common are outdoor living spaces, often as an extension of a kitchen, or an entertainment area of its own. Similar to the Mediterranean, the residents of Mission Hills frequently create spaces for casual gatherings centered about food. Alfresco dining and the chatter of company intermingling with fluid songs of mockingbirds are frequently part of the soundscape in Mission Hills. The star house on the tour, designed in the 1920s by William Templeton Johnson, even had a loggia-style bar that opened onto a patio overlooking fountains, a patio and a panoramic vista looking past an infinity pool added by subsequent owners. Houses like this help honor the ritual of food in a social setting. Like drinking from crystal making the beverage taste better, dwellings like this help us to savor both food and company. For the rest of us who cannot afford to live this way, the restaurant industry has thrived on the same principle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.