Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Factory Farms: The Interactive Map

Thanks to the Ethicurian, I´ve added a new feature to The Slow Cook: an interactive map to the biggest polluting factory farms in the nation, provided by the environmental group Food and Water Watch.

Most Americans are just waking up to the fact that their beef, chicken, pork, eggs and dairy are no longer being grown on the green pastures of family farms but rather jammed together in the most horrific conditions in giant factory confinement lots.

Besides raising ethical questions about how we treat the food we eat, the quality of meat, eggs and milk, and the destruction that has been wrought on our tradition of family farming and locally produced livestock, factory farming has unleashed pollution from animal manure on a grand scale.

At the moment, I am unable to provide a link here to a site that state-by-state and county-by-county identifies where the nation´s most polluting factory farms are located, all in easy to use mouse-click fashion. You can find a link on the lower righthand side of the page under Bad Things in Food.

For instance, Iowa leads the way in polluting factory pig farms with 3,876. Even more startling is the diabolical consolidation of hog farms that has taken place there in recent years. According to Food and Water Watch, the number of pigs raised in Iowa has increased only slightly, from 13 million in 1987 to 15.5 million in 2002. But in that same period, the number of pig farms has declined by 26,465. That´s right, the number of hog farms in the state of Iowa has plummeted by 26,465 over a 15-year period. That accounts for all those mom-and-pop farms disappearing, and the business of raising pork falling into the hands of large corporations who do their business by jamming animals together in stifling, mind-altering conditions.

Welcome the era of factory farms. Something to remember next time you go shopping for that pork roast. And maybe a good reason to look for an alternative source.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ninfa, Healer

I am looking back at a certain glass of agua of watermelon consumed in Oaxaca as the cause of certain distress in the nether regions. Otherwise, I can´t think of anything I consumed that was different from the others in our party, who are feeling no ill affects.

Needlesss to say, I am disappointed by a sudden loss of appetite. We have been so careful, even to the point of probing waiters as to the origin of the ice cubes in our drinks. We of course want to know that the cubes have been made from purified water. We have been taking no chances with the water or with raw foods. These are our normal precautions and after several trips to Mexico in recent years I can´t remember a time that any of us has been stricken with the malady so often associated with gringo tourists.

When Ninfa learned of my distress, she took matters into hand. And thus I was given a glimpse into the ways that Ninfa´s native upbringing lives on in these hectic, modern times.

Ninfa grew up in a small hillside village outside the town of Amanalco, up in the pine-forested hills about two hours west of Mexico City. The road to the village was barely passable. In fact, it only recently has been paved. A quiet girl with the striking, bold features of the indigenous folk, Ninfa learned the local ways from her mother.

¨My mother was a very quiet person,¨ Ninfa says. ¨But when she spoke, she was very forceful.¨

Ninfa followed her mother into fields and hillsides learning to gather various herbs and flower blossoms for the folk remedies they practiced. They would mix herbs and flowers for all kinds of potions, to help fevers, stomach ailments, menstrual pains. This herb is for that, the mother would explain to the daughter, and that herb is for the other. And so the daughter learned....

As a grown woman, Ninfa became a nurse, working the night shift at a hospital in Mexico City. But she still actively maintains a collection of herbs and potions for teas. Some she grows herself. Others she purchases from sources in Amanalco and in the city. She keeps a rack on her kitchen wall well-stocked with her collection, switching out the herbs at least once a year if she is able.

So when Ninfa learned that I was having problems, she reached for one of her herb blends and began to make a tea. How did I feel about bitter? she wanted to know. I mean, really bitter, she said.

Oh, Ed loves bitter, my wife replied. And from my bed I confirmed that bitter would be just fine. In fact, the bitter the better, or something like that.

The first cup was intended as a cleanser, and yes, it was bitter. I wish I could report exactly what it was. Ninfa had a name in Spanish, but an English translation eluded us. Be sure to finish the whole cup, every drop, she insisted. And I did.

Later came another tea, something I recognized from my youth when I´d been an exchange student in Switzerland, had suffered some stomach ailment, and my Swiss host mother also had reached into her bag of herbs. It turned out to be lemon verbena--something I´d never known to that point--sweetened with honey. This, Ninfa assured me, would help sooth my stomach.

There was, Ninfa explained, an even stronger purgative, something made with fruit. Did I think I would need it? Ninfa asked. Let´s see what the morning brings, I replied.

In the morning, I felt better, but I requested the stronger tea Ninfa had mentioned. It couldn´t hurt, and I only wondered if it would be more bitter than the first. In fact, it wasn´t bitter at all. It had a faint flavor of oranges, from the dried peel of oranges, Ninfa explained.

I was getting to like the teas so much, I started making them myself. Tea and toast started to look like a fine meal. I wondered how many pounds I could drop in this fashion.

Now it is a few days later. I am not 100 percent--maybe 90 percent--but my interest in the local cuisine has resumed. Tonight we gathered around the dining room table here in the city for a simple dinner of green pozole--made with wheat berries and garlic in the style of Amanalco--and with cheese and bean quesadillas. So far I have not resorted to any medicines--just the teas. According to Ninfa, the local doctors would probably prescribe a serum of some sort, along with antibiotics. I suppose I could seek out Milk of Magnesia or some such at one of the local pharmacies, but I want to play this out. I´m sticking with Ninfa´s teas.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Domingo es Market Day

I was merely walking into town to look for a couple of batteries for a blood monitoring device when I stumbled into what must be the national passion in Mexico, Market Sunday.

We´d driven from Mexico City with friend Tom and Ninfa to the town of Amanalco about two hours west. It´s a sleepy, unobtrusive place, just a notch up from a village--plain stucco, cobblestone streets, fields of corn and sheep, cows, stray dogs. You find the narrow sidewalks by following the cow pies, basically, and the center of town is where the church steeples rise.

You would never guess this drowsy little place would be jamming on Sunday morning. Turn a corner and suddenly the streets are lined with vendors and the sun is hidden behind all the blue plastic tarpaulins stretched overhead.

The festivities stretch for blocks, up one street and down another, making left turns, then right turns. There are huge displays of fruits--mangoes, papayas, apples, pineapple--followed by stacks of the freshest local produce--perfectly white onions, immaculate radishes, potatoes, avocados and innumerable herbs and salad greens.

Certain sections are reserved for shoes of all descriptions. Hundreds of CDs are laid out on blankets for inspection. At various intervals stereo equipment is blaring the CD offerings. Meanwhile, the comals have been fired up. Heavy cleavers thump against wooden chopping blocks as grilled pork is minced for tortillas. The air is heavy with the aroma of meats grilling and cheese melting. Then there´s the steam rising from the elotes, or boiled corn on the cob. It´s usually slathered in mayonnaise and dusted with queso fresco, then served on a stick. Another vender is grilling the corn for a similar kind of street snack.

I notice at one of the food stalls a man tending a large, peculiar block of dark meat. We had seen this yesterday at the market in Valle de Bravo, the nearby lakeside resort town. When we asked about it there, we were told it is called cecine de res, a kind of salted beef. But not salted as in beef jerky. It is still fresh and pliable. In fact it is cut improbably thin in large rectangles, about the size of an unfolded newspaper section. I´m guessing it is skirt steak cut on a band saw while frozen. Otherwise, I cannot imagine how it is sliced so thinly. I had eaten a similar cecine de puerco in Oaxaca, a grilled piece of seasoned pork that had barely fit onto my plate.

I move on and ogle the fruit prepared by one vendor, neatly sliced and displayed in a fanciful array in plastic cups. Another man is pushing his cart with kegs of ice cream. Still another is ladling cups full of atole, a favorite breakfast drink of blended corn meal.

Sunday market is when the people from outlying villages come into town to purchase provisions for the week and enjoy the sights. Children are sucking on flavored ices and scampering around the square in front of the church. Grandmothers are buying their stacks of corn tortillas. Grandpa is inspecting some tools. There are stalls with assorted cook pots stacked to the rafters, electric appliances, breads. I am always amazed at the doggedness of these people, who begin their day setting up their stalls and hundreds of items, not knowing what the day will bring or what they will sell, then stoically disassembling everything that same evening and carting it all home again.

Well, I used the few words of Spanish I know to ask a clerk at the town´s only supermaket if I might find our batteries there. He shook his head no, not there, but indicated I would find them at another location up the street. But I could make neither heads nor tails of his directions and came home empty handed.

We headed back to Mexico city to find that Market Day was still in progress here in the capital. But in our neighborhood, the streets are almost empty. Families have hied it to the park, where we took our daughter to play on a trampoline and to paint watercolors--activities cleverly arranged by a local entrepreneur for a small fee. We took a leisurely stroll to a local coffee shop for chocolate malteds and nachos. Then we found our batteries at the nearby Sanborn´s department store.

It was a good day...

(Photo, top, by Tom Janota)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Waiter, There´s a Chicken in My Cocktail

On our return from the ruins at Mitla, we stopped at one of the many mezcal operations lining the road. Mezcal is similar to tequila but made from a different variety of agave or maguey plant. The agave looks like it could be a member of the cactus family, with long, spiky leaves of pale blue-green. But it is not.

The agave can live many years. At its core, when the leaves are stripped away, is a pina, or sweet fruit, so-called because it looks a bit like a pineapple. The agave flowers only once, then dies. For the purposes of mezcal, it is harvested at about seven years of age. The pinas are roasted in a pit until they are soft and sweet, then pressed in a large stone mill to remove the juice.

Typically, the juice is fermented in wooden barrels for several days. The fermented liquid is then distilled at least twice before being bottled or set aside in barrels to age. The simplest form of mezcal is the ¨blanco¨or clear liquor, aged not at all or up to two months. A middle grade, ¨reposada,¨ is aged six months to one year. The most expensive mezcal, as with tequila, is the ¨anejo,¨ or old, aged at least a year and often several years until it takes on some of the characteristics of brandy.

We stopped at what looked like a large mezcal factory and did not notice until we had already pulled into the parking lot that two large tourist buses had preceded us. The tourists were jammed against the tasting bar and purchasing bottles of cheap mezcal like crazy. We managed to get a good look at the pina crushing in progress. Also the fires were lit under the small stills and barrels of fermenting liquor were stacked against a wall.

For some reason, mezcal maintains an association with bawdy ceramics. Thus, we were confronted by displays of penises, breasts and vaginas in various ceramic guises. We left quickly.

Farther down the road, we stopped at a smaller mezcal stand that our friends Tom and Ninfa had visited before. Here we were able to taste the various mezcals at our leisure and chat with the owners. My wife prefers the light or ¨blanco¨ variety, as is her taste with tequila. My own preference, and Ninfa´s as well it turned out, is for something more rustic, rougher. The reposada, a light golden in color and more complex in flavor, was my choice. We purchased a bottle labeled ¨pechuga

The word ¨pechuga¨ normally refers to chicken breasts. But we didn´t pay any attention until we were back in Oxaca visiting the anthropological museum. There we wandered into a room demonstrating the mezcal process and one of the placards happened to mention that mezcal sometimes is made with chicken breast and is called ¨pechuga


After conducting further research, I can now confirm that my bottle of ¨pechuga¨ mezcal is, in fact, made with chicken breast. Somehow the breast is hung in the vapors during the third distallation, supposedly to balance the flavors of apples, plums and pineapples that are also added to this particular style of mezcal.

Tom and I have a good laugh over this, imagining the conversation that preceded the addition of chicken to the mezcal.

¨Honey, I love your mezcal. But it seems to be missing something, a je ne sais quoi. What do you suppose it might be?¨

¨Hmm. You know, I think you´re right. There does seem to be a certain flavor component missing. What if I added a little chicken to the hooch?¨

¨Ah, yes. At first I was thinking, maybe, roast beef. But you´re right. A little chicken is just the ticket for this mezcal

Last night we opened our bottle of ¨pechuga¨ for the first time. Needless to say, I was curious to detect the flavor of chicken in my cocktail. I can report that this is not KFC...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Tibet Thing

Our friend Ninfa recently returned from a pilgrimage to Tibet. Already a keen observer of things, Ninfa seems to be in a heightened state of spiritual awareness.

At the ruins at Mitla outside Oaxaca, Ninfa was descending into one of the tombs when she noticed the earings being worn by another tourist. They were from Tibet. The two of them embraced like long lost friends, then struck up a long conversation about their experiences in Tibet. The other woman was Swiss and was beaming just as widely as Ninfa. We waited until they´d exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch.

Another of Ninfa´s companions on the three-week stay in Tibet is a woman named Erika who lives in Puebla. Ninfa had mentioned the possibility of stopping in Puebla for mole with her friend Erika on the way back to Mexico City from Oaxaca. Yesterday in the morning there were phone calls. Then, as we neared Puebla more conversations on the cell phone as Ninfa tried to arrange a rendezvous with Erika.

Erika and her mother located us on the highway entering the city then led us into the historic centro. Erika was excited to be taking us to what she described as a teeny tiny fonda, or market eatery, that served only typical dishes and the most exquisite moles. But as it turned out, Erika's mother thought we might be better off at a small restaurant where the noise level would be lower and we would be able to talk.

After parking our vehicles, we followed Erika and her mother around a corner and through a small square that began to look more and more familiar to my wife and I. Finally we entered the Hotel Colonial and realized that this was the same hotel where we had stayed on our first visit to Puebla nine years ago.

The dining room is a perfect example of its type, a colonial courtyard inside the hotel with heavy, high-backed wooden chairs, neatly pressed white tablecloths and waiters in immaculate uniforms. We all chose the menu of the day, which led to a light vegetable soup with grated potatoes, a ´Hungarian' rice, a green salad with tuna (?) and finally a chicken quarter smothered in a black, shimmering mole.

Also on the table were condiment bowls of salsa and mole. I noticed that Erika spooned a generous helping of mole onto her rice, indicating that mole in these parts is eaten any time and with any thing. Erika confirmed that few people actually make their own mole any more. Most buy the paste in quantity at the market and add their own favorite ingredients, such as chocolate or, in her mother´s case, ground almonds, followed by chicken broth to loosen the paste and turn it into a sauce.

Erika and her mother were both fascinated to learn of our interest in pozoles red and green, as well as chilaquiles and of course mole. And after revealing the strange coincidence of finding ourselves back in the Hotel Colonial through Ninfa's chance encounter with another pilgrim in Tibet, we told the story of how, after making a large purchase of ceramics at one of the local workshops in Puebla nine years earlier, we had finished a meal at another restaurant only to find that our credit card company had put a hold on our purchases. We were forced to walk back to the Hotel Colonial to retrieve cash to cover our bill, followed the whole while by our waiter.

The mole on this occasion was as good as ever. And like clockwork, the clouds opened up shortly after 6 pm for the daily deluge. On our way out of Peubla, we realized there is not a lot of attention paid to storm drainage in Mexico. The streets were like rivers, with rushing water up to the axels and pedestrians cowering in the doorways...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fonda Withdrawal

Our friend Tom has introduced us to breakfast at the Mayordomo restaurant here in Oaxaca as one of the best bargains going. Seventy pesos, or a bit less that $7 US buys all you can eat at a buffet that opens for business at 8 am. Along with fresh fruits, ranging from cantaloupe to pineapple and papaya, there´s a selection of dry cereals, yogurt, pancakes, French toast, bacon, enchiladas of some sort, often pozole, quesadillas, Oxacan cheese with poblanos, omelets to order and small tortillas smothered in black beans and fresh cheese called memolitos.

At Mayordomo we were also introduced to a Oaxacan pizza called a tlayuda, which is actually a huge tortilla dressed with beans, cheese, lettuce, sausage or whatever your preferred toppings may be. A great late-night snack and dinner here often takes place late at night, since lunch often is not taken before two or three in the afternoon.

Tom´s wife, Ninfa, has always been extremely protective of us on our visits to Mexico. Meaning, she steers us away from our most natural inclinations, which are to find our food on the streets. Ninfa and Tom make sure that we, and especially our daughter, are not exposed to the local water, even insisting on purified water in the ice in our soft drinks. So we have been chaffing somewhat here in Oaxaca, long viewed as a culinary center of the country, and being confined to restaurants where our tendencies to eat anything and everything are restrained.

In the markets we have seen the legendary grasshoppers and grubs for sale. And finally one evening recently we found ourselves in a restaurant who´s name translates approximately as Grandma´s Place. And there I tasted my first grasshoppers as an appetizer. The didn´t look so much like bugs as dark, ground up meal. But salty, and thirst invoking when spread on a tortilla with the guacamole provided. But having hoofed around the city for several days we are constantly exposed to the little ladies patting out their tortillas and frying them on their propane-heated grills or comals, filling them to order with the local cheese and beans and seasonal squash blossoms.

In some parts of town, the streets are lined with temporary fondas or food stalls where tables are covered with plastic liners, the diners seated in plastic chairs and the street covered with blue plastic tarpaulins to protect against the rains that fall inevitably in the afternoons this time of year.

On particular market, the Mercado 30 Novembre, is devoted almost exclusively to more permanent version of the fonda. As elsewhere in the country, these are typically long diner-style counter tops clad in white tile with stools spaced in front for the diners. One or two or sometimes a whole contingent of female cooks and staff will stand behind the counter waiting for an order. Although unlike most fondas I have visited, there seems to be a rather intense competition for customers. Approach one of the stalls and you will be accosted with the day´s menu and the specialties of that particular fonda. Even as you eat, there is a crush of vendors pressing up behind you offering all manner of toys and trinkets and cheap jewelry for sale.

We finally convinced Tom and Ninfa that they would not hear the last of it if we did not visit one of the fondas at least once for one of our meals. So we trekked down to the Mercado 30 Novembre and somehow found the entrance where the meat grilling takes place. It would be a mistake to imagine that anything other than grilling meat takes place in this particular hall of the market. Each stall has its slabs of skirt steak and other cuts hanging for inspection. Between the stalls, along both walls, are charcoal fires burning and attendants fanning them furiously, almost in unison. Rising about the scene is a thick cloud of smoke, that resides permanently on the ceiling in the form of a gigantic stain of grease and creosote. Simply passing through the hall was so intensely hot that we felt we were running a gauntlet.

Deeper into the market we found our place, or a fonda for five. The menu is simple: tortillas, quesadillas, tamales, beans, rice, soup. There are votes for some of each. I am anxious to try the Oaxacan tamale with black mole, wrapped in a banana leaf.

Fonda food is home cooking, rustic and rough around the edges. No garnishes, bells or whistles. The soup, for instance, is a meal in itself, with whole green beans, big chunks of carrot and cabbage, a generous morsel of chicken breast meat. We receive cutlery, but often there is very little need. A plate of tortillas and any Mexican is set. We watch one gentleman in a straw caballero hat rip a tortillas in pieces. With a swatch in each hand, he pushes the food onto a piece of tortilla and into his mouth it goes. Occasionally he picks up his fork, but it is only to push some beans and rice onto his tortilla.

My tamale is everything I hoped for. Unlike a restaurant version I´d been served the night before, dry and bland, this one is fresh and tender. The mole is dark, slightly spicy and chocolaty. Inside is a piece of chicken, bones and all. We feel the fonda is where we belong....

(Photo, top, by Tom Janota)

Mole and More

There was some question whether we would make Oaxaca our destination on this trip. Last year protests by local teachers turned into clashes with riot police, leaving some teachers in prison and raising calls for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor. This year the teachers have focused their grievances around the Guelaguetza, an ancient dance festival honoring the corn goddess that draws thousands of spectators. Fierce pride in the local culture packs the local auditorium where the dancing takes place.

Although there have been some sporadic demonstrations and marches by the protesting teachers, dancing and vacations continue. I have aimed my own daily activities at discovering the ultimate mole, considered by some to be the apogee of Mexican cuisine and a specialty here in Oaxaca.

Mexico´s is a cuisine unlike most in the west. It developed without dairy products products and largely without meat. Those items did not arrive on the scene until the Spanish brought cows and pigs in the 16th Century. The Mexicans, meanwhile, had taken food to an art form with chili peppers, corn, squash, chocolate, seeds, avocados. What we call mole is a mix of dried chilies, seeds and sometimes nuts and chocolate turned into a sauce with water or chicken broth.

Home cooks in Mexico who still bother to make their own mole create their own favorite mixes of chilies, seeds and other ingredients take it to the local grinder, who turns it into a paste, saving lots of hand-grinding. Otherwise the markets are full of vendors who sell the different varieties of mole in huge plastic basins. Here in Oaxaca, mole is selling for about $2 per pound, which seems an absurdly low price to American who is deprived of real mole most of the time. But remember, this is Mexico, where chili peppers also are displayed in the markets in great heaps, in dozens of different varieties.

My first mole here was a red mole, or mole ¨rojo,¨ that was thick, complex and delicious. But chocolate also being a specialty of Oaxaca, I´ve gravitated toward the black mole, or mole ¨negro,¨ made with dark chilies and chocolate. Typically is is served as a sauce over a piece of chicken breast, garnished with sesame seeds. But an ultimate version has been elusive. My guess is that restaurants don´t bother making their own moles, but rather purchase it in bulk and then tweak it in the kitchen. The best black mole I have found so far was not in the city of Oaxaca at all, but in a cafe in a small town outside the city where we were investigating the local rug weaving craft.

Chocolate also is everywhere. Here the beans are on display in huge burlap bags and there are numerous shops where the locals line up and order their own preferred blends, chocolate with cinnamon or vanilla or almonds being typical. The ingredients are placed in large grinders and the final product sold in plastic bags. There are stalls in the markets devoted exclusively to chocolate in all its guises, the vendors handing out tiny plastic spoons containing samples. If you stop for any length of time, you are soon besieged with every variety of chocolate. Finally your defenses evaporate and you are buying a pound to take home.

Being a non-coffee drinker, chocolate has been a bright spot for me. I am drinking it every morning for breakfast. We´ve become partial to the breakfast buffet at the Mayordomo restaurant where the waiter brings steaming chocolate to the table in the traditional large green pitcher, then stirs it vigorously with the same chocolate stirrer that has been in use in Mexico for centuries. The cup fills with a foamy head, usually with a taste of cinnamon to go with our morning plate of chilaquiles.

Next, the market fondas....

Monday, July 23, 2007

Eating in the Streets

There is food in the streets in Mexico. And by that I mean literally in the street.

At heavily trafficked intersections the vendors are walking in traffic lanes, selling everything from candy bars to fruits and vegetables. In a country without a social safety net, this is a means of subsistence for many. Even young children frequently are seen wandering in traffic hawking gum and candy. Chicklet! Chicklet! they cry.

On our way out of Mexico City we were making great time until the freeway came to a sudden, screeching halt at a major construction site. Major may be an understatement. Huge new overpasses were being constructed. Traffic was at a standstill. Sure enough, we were soon swarmed over with vendors. Peanuts, nougat candy, quesadillas, sodas and juices. It´s a constant refrain of Non, gracias. Non, gracias.

You begin to think this is a country constantly nibbling on something. At the mountain passes, the highway is lined with small food shacks. Often just a wooden hut with a couple of plastic tables in front, but also a grill smoking aromatically. One eatery after another, all cheek by jowl and butting right up to the highway.

We were on the toll road and somehow the food vendors know where the delays are. Any time you are caught in line in front of a toll both, you can count on the old ladies in their black shawls approaching with boxes of sweet potato candy or men in straw hats twirling plastic bags stuffed with pistachios.

About halfway to Oaxaca, we stopped in a rest area to east the sandwiches our friend Ninfa had prepared for the trip, lovely sandwiches on a kind of hard roll with fresh tomato and cheese. She gave one to a policeman who was standing idly near his vehicle. Then two large transports full of soldiers with automatic weapons pulled up. At that point an entire family, from grandma down to the preteens, that had been sheltering themselves from the sun under a nearby underpass made their entrance, offering the soldiers tortillas and sandwiches from aluminum pots and plastic tubs.

On a good day, the drive to Oaxaca from Mexico city is five hours. But as we neared the ancient city, we learned that major road construction was underway. The toll road was being torn up and narrowed to one lane at various points. Often we were not only stopped but forced to wait long intervals. Long enough that most of the vehicles emptied out their loads of passengers, to be greeted by hoards of food vendors.

We were miles from the nearest village, yet here were pedaled vehicles with traveling ice cream stands, hot tamales and corn on the cob. Where do they come from? We wondered. The only thing we purchased was a small block of toasted amaranth seed held together with some kind of sugary syrup. It would last us several days. Now we know we have the same delays to look forward to on the return trip.

Next, we dive into Oaxaca´s famous mole...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hola from Mexico

The Slow Cook Very stealthfully boarded an early flight this morning and arrived in Mexico City just around lunch for some serious touring in Oaxaca.

Our friends Tom and Ninfa brought us home to a refreshingly simple lunch of cheese quesadillas in whole wheat tortillas. Then we drove to the local Thursday market where there was a mad jumble of vegetable hawking, tamale steaming, pork skin frying and tortilla stuffing already in progress.

Unfortunately I am not able to offer photos at this time. But imagine the aromas rising from at least a dozen grills with skirt steak, onions, chilies frying. A communal dining table half a block long was packed with diners.

Ninfa stopped for a long while to negotiate a purchase of some fresh tortillas to take home for dinner. The saleswoman insisted we sample her sweet tamales, then another fried savory of corn and cheese.

At another stand, a cook with a long pair of steel tongs was removing slabs of pork skin from a cauldron of bubbling fat. The fried skins, or chicharron, were laid in tall stacks on the sales table. A crush of shoppers snaked their way through the stalls. We stopped for fresh mangoes, nopales, big white potatoes. Everywhere people were pressed up against the food stands, or fondas, eating off their plates of fresh tortillas.

As we left, a marching brass band and drum broke into song. I am thrilled to be back in the land of zea mays, or maize or corn used every which way. Yes, the world has intruded on Mexico in a big way. Sam´s Club has arrived. But we had a discussion about the important differences between fresh corn masa and the mass produced dry product. You can taste the difference in the toritllas, said Ninfa.

In the evening, Tom made a first-class blender full of margarittas and Ninfa served a simple vegetable soup, followed by chicken in a peanut and tomato sauce. How many people know that dinner in Mexico would be unthinkable without soup? And where did that come from, I would like to know. Blue corn tortillas. Fresh, vey ripe mangoes for dessert.

Welcome to Mexico.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Killer Tomatoes

Before we can eat the tomatoes we must grow the tomatoes.

I am following the methods advocated by Charles H. Wilber, who holds the Guinness record for tomato production. Wilber has achieved tomato plants that tower nearly 30 feet high and produce more than 300 pounds of tomatoes per plant.

And, no, I don't plan on growing any 30-foot-high tomato plants in my front yard. But please follow along.

The main point is to build sturdy cages the tomatoes can grow in. That means getting a 100-pound roll of concrete reinforcing mesh into the trunk of my car at the lumber yard and borrowing a pair of bolt cutters to cut it with.

Wilber makes cages three feet in diameter by cutting lengths of mesh 18 squares across. He then fastens the ends together with hog rings. Most importantly, he then trains 18 suckers from the tomato plant to climb the cage, one sucker for each of the vertical wires in the cage. To anchor the cages to the ground, he uses lengths of concrete reinforcing bar, or re-bar, to which he welds a small piece at the top to make a hook that grabs the cage. When the plant reaches the top of the cage, he fastens a second cage on top of the first one and so on.

I didn't have any hog rings handy, so I just cut a bit of extra mesh and used the loose ends of wire as fasteners, bending them back with my thumb.

My plans are not nearly as ambitious as Wilber, who just enjoys growing huge vegetables. I will be happy if I can figure out how to identify the vines and train them up the cage. If they continue growing over the top of the cage, I'll just let them grow back down to the ground.

Wilber mulches around the tomatoes with a thick layer of straw. That's another challenge for me here in the District of Columbia. I've identified a source for the straw (usually I just liberate it from local construction projects) but none has actually made the trip to the garden.

I also believe adequate distance between plants is critical. Tomatoes should get plenty of ventilation and room for the roots to spread. According to Wilbur, tomato roots will extend 10 feet. He advocates at least five feet between plants.

This year I have three varieties of tomatoes, two heirlooms, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, and a yellow cherry tomato. I am betting on a tomato salad by August, and tomatoes well into October. With any luck, we'll have a bushel of green tomatoes for pickling as well.

To tell the truth, I was a bit terrified of getting involved with these heavy-duty cages, but they've turned out to be fairly easy once you get past the heavy lifting. And they are almost invisible in the garden.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Urban Orchard with Style

You may have been bombing through our neighborhood here in the District of Columbia recently and thought, What's with the shrub with the hairnet?

Well, that wasn't a stylin' crape myrtle you passed. That was our neighborhood peach tree. This year, to keep squirrels (and the occasional pedestrian) from snagging our peaches, we coiffed the whole tree with row cover.

After a couple of weeks under wraps, the unveiling took place over the weekend. Our neighbor who looks after the tree adjudged the fruit ready for picking. We gathered our buckets, assembled our ladders and rolled the drums.

Kids, are you ready for some peaches?

Off came the row cover and in we reached.

The first peach I bit into took me back to my youth. Warm juices running down my chin. Bursts of summer flavor. And right here on our block in the middle of the city. Imagine: growing food on 13th Street! This is even better than the farmer's market...

Here you see our neighbor, John Paul, filling his bucket with fresh peaches. By my estimation, less than half the fruit was fully ripe. Still we harvested several buckets worth--enough for the whole neighborhood, really. We'll come back later in the week for more.

Meanwhile, we hauled our share of peaches home and yesterday my wife turned them into these exquisite 6-inch pies. She plans to distribute them to the neighbors who so graciously have been tolerating all our gardening madness.

Now I'm having a Forest Gump moment. I'm thinking peach ice cream, peach cobbler, peaches and cream...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sweet Surrender

After an exhaustive search for a summer squash casserole recipe that does not call for heavy cream and cheese, I have hoisted the white flag. I officially surrender.

But to make the casserole a bit more interesting, I've added fresh bread crumbs made from one of Whole Foods' "Asiago Volcano" breads.

Otherwise this casserole seems to follow the usual pattern of squash plus onion plus cream plus eggs plus cheese. To my mind, we should make a concerted effort to have plenty of ways to prepare squash so we are not caught off guard when the deluge strikes.

I lifted this recipe from the Martha Stewart website and only adjusted it a little so that I could use the entire basket of Italian squash I've been accumulating on my kitchen counter. My Italian squash plants are not necessarily prolific, but the size of the squash is impressive. What I think is important is the initial cooking of the squash with salt to draw out the moisture. Otherwise, you might have a wet casserole.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut 2 pounds of squash (can be zucchini, yellow squash or a combination) into 1/2-inch slices. Peel and cut 1 large yellow onion into large dice. Place the squash and onion in a cook pot and cover with water. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until squash is tender. Drain into a colander and allow to cool.

In a large bowl, mix the cooked squash and onion with 1 cup fresh bread crumbs (cut part of a loaf and run it through the food processor); 3 large eggs, lightly beaten; 1 cup heavy cream, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves; 1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (you'll need another 1/2 cup later); 1 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon ground black pepper; dash cayenne pepper.

Pour the mixture into a greased casserole. Dust with more bread crumbs and another 1/2 cheddar cheese. Place in oven and cook until bread crumbs are lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

Serve this immediately with a chilled bottle of Chablis. Or, make it a day ahead and reheat it.

The Times Goes Fishing

The New York Times devoted a sizable chunk of yesterday's opinion page to seafood issues. Of course none of the news is good, and reading three different authors riff on various aspects just gives us a sinking feeling.

Trevor Corson, who we cited in an earlier post as authoring a new book on the history of Sushi, issues a plea for an attitude adjustment among American diners. It was Americans, Corson submits, who introduced big, fatty fish such as the endangered bluefin tuna to the sushi experience. We need to develop a taste for other, more sustainable kinds of seafood that are more traditional in Japan. Put down those chopsticks, take a seat at the sushi bar and let the chef show what he can do with humbler ingredients, Corson urges.

Taras Gresco, who has a book of his own on the slaughter at sea coming out soon, weighs in on the lack of adequate inspection of foreign seafood. The U.S. is being flooded with 6.6 million tons of seafood annually from more than 100 different countries. Yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration receives scant funding to make inspections. Farmed fish in Asia too often are swimming in chemicals or animal feces. Witness the ban on five different varieties of seafood imported from China. But one way or another, tainted seafood manages to find its way into the country.

Finally, Steven A. Shaw questions why women--especially pregnant women--are warned not to eat seafood. In Japan, he says, the situation is quite the opposite: Pregnant women are counseled to eat plenty of seafood for good health. Most health problems associated with seafood originate with shellfish, he says.

Missing in all this is any sign of hope for the world's fisheries. Bottom line: It doesn't matter much where the seafood is coming from, we--meaning humans--are rapidly eating our way through the oceans' bounty and destroying the planet's largest ecosystems. Unless stern measures are taken--and we're not expecting any soon--there won't be any point fishing. There'll be very little to catch.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Where's the Garlic?

This morning saw a happy convergence of food activities.

The garlic we picked yesterday is still sitting on the front stoop. I have no idea whether to wash it or find some other way to remove the dirt. I am just that stupid about garlic. I asked my wife and was surprised to learn she didn't know either.

But I was determined to taste some of the garlic and it just so happened I was preparing to grill four chickens. I had removed the innards and divided the birds into pieces with my poultry shears, removing the backs. I had the good sense to put the backs in a pot to cook for chicken stock. I don't normally save the innards. It suddenly occurred to me, Why not eat them?

My breakfast therefore consisted of sauteeing the hearts and gizzards first, seasoned just with salt and pepper. I then added the livers and when they were lightly browned added a clove of my fresh garlic, finely chopped, and put a lid on the pan just until the garlic had cooked through. Finally I ramped up the heat, poured in a splash of Bordeaux (2004 St. Emilion) and let it rip until the wine was a sauce.

Into a bowl, with a shot of the Bordeaux. While the chicken grilled, I dug into the innards. Very fine. I suppose there are better forms of liver (calves liver, for instance) but for an improntu meal, the chicken livers did the job. The garlic--fresh and strong--was just the right touch. The only thing missing: a baguette to mop up the sauce.

Weekend Update

The Ethicurian blog has announced a "netroots" campaign to counter Helmann's effort to push its corporate mayonnaise as "real food."

The idea is to summon the forces of the food blogosphere to demonstrate to the corporate and government interests that "real food" consists of something more genuine--something more connected to the soil and the human spirit, something more natural and scaled to the needs of individual people--than eggs from a distant factory chicken whipped into an industrial gel that will last indefinitely on a supermarket shelf.

Therefore, I am taking this moment to reflect a bit on the meaning of The Slow Cook.

In fact, there was a Slow Cook before there was a blog. It began with a collection of recipes--an emerging collection of recipes--centered on the idea that the food we eat and how we eat it should be a point of departure for our lives. Our current culture, the commonly accepted approach to food, has it backwards. We treat food as something that has to "fit in" to our hurried lifestyles. Food is not a point of departure, not a focus, but rather an afterthought, an inconvenience that merely fills our inconvenient need to eat.

We just don't have much time for food, because we have arranged our lives around the pursuit of money and the goods that money buys. We are preoccupied with work and acquiring things. Food, if it is to hold our attention at all, must be fast and easy.

A slow approach to food, therefore, represents a rejection of the prevailing cultural imperative. It is a big, fat "no" to the idea that our lives must be organized around the principles of non-stop work, money making and goods acquiring. It is a big fat "no" to the corporate interests that would centralize and industrialize and monopolize the production of our food. It is a big fat "no" to the government interests that subsidize and promote and encourage the corporate ends.

The word "focus" should interest us because it derives from the Latin word for hearth, the place where the family gathered to prepare and eat their food. For The Slow Cook, a focused life is one centered on the family's involvement with food. Food is central to a wholesome, fulfilling life. It is the essence of family, and therefore the root of civilization.

In a short period of time, I progressed from recipes and cooking methods that brought food literally into focus in our home, to actually growing much of the food we cook. I turned our yard here in the District of Columbia into a vegetable garden. In our own urban way, we have tried to return to the soil. It was a natural progression, underscoring for me the importance to the human spirit of working in the soil.

This is the opposite of what has happened to our culture's approach to food and family. The corporate forces that would convince us that cooking is drudgery and that food should serve first and foremost a need for convenience are the same forces that have removed the production of food from our homes and from our communities. They work with government interests to promote sprawl and enforce zoning practices that put small family farms out of business in favor of fast-food businesses that cater to automobiles. Government and coroporations work together to de-humanize food, to centralize and consolidate the production of food in factory settings out of sight and far from where it consumed.

Government perverts our tax system by subsidizing the corporate food producers, turning food into commodities and the production of food into a globalized auction for the cheapest labor. Government encourages the centralization and mass production of food, requiring artificial fertilizers and pesticides that destroy our soil and water.

"Real" food, then, is first and foremost an act of defiance. To adopt "real" food is to embrace a subversive position in our culture. To embrace "real" food is to reject corporate and government control of our food and return food to its original focus, the center of family life. For food to be "real" it must reside where we value our lives most; it must direct us inward toward our spiritual core. Only "real" food sustains our need as humans to be connected to the soil and the most basic cycle of life. Food that comes from a distant factory is empty and devoid of meaning.

So go ahead. Take the "real" food pledge. Refuse to live in service to a corporate and government lifestyle. Slow down. Draw closer to the soil where the "real" food is.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Garlic Harvest

In the course of weeding one of our garden beds, I forced myself to consider the small garlic patch that had been overrun with crab grass.

"It's all brown and dried out looking," I told my wife. "What do I do now?"

"Sounds like it's ready to harvest. When did you plant it?"

Last fall is when I planted it. But for some reason I was not expecting it to be ready for harvest until this coming fall, or one year later.

As you may have surmised, this is my first experience planting garlic. I just assumed it had given up the ghost after being throttled by all that crab grass.

There was just one thing left to do: Dig!

So out came the crab grass and the garlic. The bulbs were smaller than I'd expected, certainly smaller than what you normally see in the grocery store. (Maybe because of all the weeds?) The garlic sets were a gift from our farmer friend, Mike, so I no longer even know what variety they are, no idea what they are supposed to look like. Duh. Could have taken notes...

I tossed one to my wife.

"That's garlic!" she exclaimed. "They look great!"

Good enough for me. I dug up the rest of the garlic and set it aside. My daughter came out to help weed. Then we spread some of the compost we've been working on since March and turned it into the bed with a stirrup hoe.

The compost is deliciously fine and light and fluffy, like spreading goose down. It has exceded all my expectations, and certainly has been worth all the effort collecting leaves and grass clippings and weeds and kitchen scraps. Not to mention all those mornings turning the pile. (But really, I have no complaints. Turning compost is good for the soul.)

My daughter insisted on hoeing. She wants a vegetable bed of her own. I think we might just put some of our many extra tomato plants here. I planted several dozen, thinking I would sell them at the produce market. They are beautiful seedlings now that certainly will be producing fruit into October. Can't let them go to waste...