Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. The cook stands in the middle. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.
“Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull
The Slow Food movement, the 100-mile Diet, Monsanto and other agriculture giants – awareness of the many issues we face as eaters have, for years now, influenced my choices any time I considered a recipe. Is it in season? (Living in Canada, the answer to that for 9 months of any year, would be no). How was it grown, what’s its carbon footprint… cooking is a responsibility.
As a cook in Mexico, it’s possible to go straight to the source, to cook and eat locally and responsibly. There’s almost always going to be a mercado or tianguis where you can go and buy your ingredients from people who are directly connected to where the food was grown or raised. It’s remarkably easy to stop supporting Big Agriculture.
As I write this, it’s a month after the earthquake. I’m in Mexico City, living in the Roma-Condesa neighborhood.
There was major destruction near my apartment, many lives lost, and while I was lucky to have been spared any damages – aside from lingering anxiety any time a truck passes, shaking the building – several friends who live nearby were displaced from their homes. Resources and assistance, by civilians and international aid, poured into this neighbourhood within hours of the disaster. To call it ‘heartening’ would be an understatement.
This was not true for a great many communities. In less wealthy, less tourist-oriented neighborhoods, assistance came too slowly, people said. No matter how you look at it, the poor don’t have insurance or emergency funds for repairs.
From Tlalpan and Xochimilco in the southern part of the city, to pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas, millions of poor were affected.
In these areas, subsistence milpa farms are the foundation of the local economies. From small, densely productive sustainable agricultural plots, comes beautiful food – the ingredients of their heritage, the base crops being corn, beans, squash and chiles. The community shares what is needed and sell or barter the rest.
In most towns and villages, aside from the mercado(s), tianguis –roaming markets– set up each week at set locations under colorful tarps. These tianguis are typical throughout Mexico –in Mexico City, the sheer number of them is astounding. Amongst the more “commercial” vendors, there are the true regional entrepreneurial growers who have travelled for hours in some case with their baskets of freshly picked produce. In many cases, they are women, sometimes bent and wizened, sometimes with small children in tow.
Outside the Mercado San Juan in the historic centre of Mexico City.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall this vendor’s name, though I did ask him at the time. He told me they were from Puebla, and for more than 40 years he has set up outside the market, along the sidewalk. The stalls inside were too expensive, he said. He is now blind, and was accompanied by his grandson and great-granddaughter who was perhaps seven. He was teaching her how to add and make change. She goes to school on some days, she told me.
It is October, now, post rainy season and high time for harvest of the corn, beans, chiles and the other milpa crops. However, those who farm, harvest, glean and sell, have other serious matters to attend to like building shelter, and repairing what homes can be salvaged. More hands will be needed and this will undoubtedly affect the children whose families are poor – they will be kept home to help.
Floods of donations were collected to assist earthquake victims. But what can we do in the long run? What if each of us made a greater effort to support their work as agricultural guardians?
Given the choice, the supermarkets and big-box stores where shiny apples and perfect peppers grown for the masses by big Agro, are not where I want to put my pesos. Frutas y Verduras – A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico was my own small effort to make foods less known by us foreigners more approachable. I encourage you, now more than ever, to take the time to discover the beautiful foods grown lovingly by real people who work the land with their hands, who pray for rain and who trust in nature.
Until the end of this year, I will contribute 25% of all sales of Frutas y Verduras (both iOS and Kobo) to groups that I will personally be vetting, who are actively working on the re-building of pueblos especially in agricultural areas.
It looked a lot like an alien invasion –’Day of the Triffids’ comes to mind. Enormous mounds of golfball-sized hairy red fruits, like peculiar creatures– swarmed the area around the market of San Cristóbal de las Casas in chariots wheeled around by local vendors. Rambutan is a fruit I was familiar with from Asian markets but for a moment, I was confused: Was it native to Mexico and I’d thought it was Asian?
In fact, no; The climate of the Soconusco region of Chiapas is well-suited to growing these and other exotic fruits of Southeast Asia. In the mid-1980s, Alfonso Pérez Romero, a Mexican specialist in botany, brought seeds, collected in Asia, of rambutan and other exotic fruits, recognizing the great demand by about 10 million Asians living in the United States (and Canada), not to mention the Asian population in Mexico itself.
It’s turned out to be a worthwhile commercial effort– thousands of tons of fruits are exported to the US each year, and its flavor is reported to be superior to the rambutan imported from SE Asia.
What was interesting to me was the flood of these into the streets of San Cristóbal. The trees must certainly be thriving, considering it’s only 30 years since the start of the efforts to establish them, and given the interruption by Hurricane Stan in 2005. After that storm, some of the exotic fruits that were part of the original project perished, but the rambutan thrived. It must be hardy, indeed, and my first question, then, is – is it invasive? And – what plants might be threatened by it?
More recently, however, another question came to my mind when I came across an article about a mysterious illness in India causing children to die suddenly – about 100 each year reported for 20 years (how many unreported deaths and over previous years?) . New research, published in the medical journal The Lancet suggests they were poisoned by a toxin contained in lychee fruits:
“Most of the victims were poor children in India’s main lychee-producing region who ate (lychee) fruit that had fallen on to the ground in orchards”
Lychee contains hypoglycin, a toxin that prevents the body from making glucose. Ackee fruit contains the same toxin and similar illnesses, though rarely fatal, have been reported in the Caribbean. Rambutan contains the very same toxin as both these fruits. In India, once health officials had a grasp of what was happening, and were able to deliver advice to parents that they should ensure young children got an evening meal and not eat too many of the lychees, the number of reported deaths dropped dramatically.
What about the children of Chiapas, Mexico? This new fruit is a novelty: sweet, refreshing and fun to eat. In this state where there is poverty and illiteracy, where this fruit has not been tested by centuries of traditional wisdom, it’s not a stretch to think that there may be not a few children who come upon these fruits and fill their little tummies. Has this information of the potential harm it can do reached those families who grow, harvest and sell this fruit? It’s fortunate that the native subsistence foods of corn and beans are ubiquitous and abundant where this alien fruit is grown.
Perhaps rambutan has been good for the economy of this region of Chiapas, but there’s always more to consider when it comes to agriculture and food supply.
Several months ago, when I had decided I was going to commit to this project, I reached out to a few online groups where expats get their information. There is a big Yahoo Group in Michoacan and another in San Miguel de Allende. (Both, incidentally, are resources worth plugging into if you are exploring the possibility of moving to either of those areas. I’ll include the links at the bottom of this post.)
My post described that I was working on decoding the mysteries of the fruits and vegetables here in Mexico that are most foreign to most of us expats– that with this information, I would build a practical field guide and make it publicly available.
I immediately got an email from Linda, who was living outside Pátzcuaro at the time. She had come across a tuber that she said was the root of the chayote. It was no surprise that if the chayote yielded a tuber, or that if it was edible, then it was eaten. However, here in San Miguel, I had never come across it.
She sent me photos and described how she and her husband had prepared it. I was so thrilled, not just to know about this new vegetable, but that it affirmed for me that when we share information – as I wanted to do on a larger scale– it could lead others to feel safer to experiment with foods they were curious about.
Trouble was, I hadn’t been able to get my own hands on this raiz de chayote. The second hand information was great, but of course I wanted to be able to try it myself!
Recently, I was talking to a friend who lives in La Manzanilla, on the west coast of Mexico, but spends some time in San Miguel. Eileen teaches cooking in La Manzanilla, so, as a kindred foodie-spirit, when she mentioned she was going to Patzcuaro, I told her the story of Linda and the Raiz de Chayote. (AKA Chayocamote, chinchayote, chayotestle and probably other names).
So when Eileen was in Patzcuaro, she tracked it down and brought me back a whopping big tuber. Finally, a chance to try it out (that post coming soon), but what was most rewarding was Eileen thanking ME for sending her out on this mission… I know for myself what fun it is to search and discover!
SO LET’S SHARE!
How I’d love to see this work: You’re at the Tianguis, or in the Mercado and a vendor presents something– you don’t know what the heck it is, or what to do with it…
Buy it, and try it, or just take a photo of it with your phone, and share it with me here :
I’ll write a post here and will also be able to add this to the content for my upcoming eBook…because you are not the only one who’d come across that very same food and had the same conundrum– the more we share, the better it is for the community, and for the indigenous farmers from whose culture we are gaining so much… When we explore more those foods that are ancient and unmodified, we help preserve them for generations to come.
When the milpas become ready for harvest… the corn (maiz), the vines of beans that have wound around the corn stalks, the squashes that weave through the fields at the base, and the volunteer greens like verdolagas and quelites, that help keep the soil moist under the hot sun… so does the bastard child of the corn come ready for harvest too. Those cobs plagued with disease, a pathogenic fungus that invades the corn, replacing the normal kernels of the cobs with large bloated silvery silvery-grey tumors: call it Corn smut, or ‘Devil’s Corn’… either way, in the North, it’s not been looked upon fondly.
Nothing short of a blight for corn farmers, in fact, often rendering 10% of a US harvest useless. But in Mexico, the Aztecs had long been enjoying this as a food. They call it huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche). Etymologically, there’s several possible meanings for this Nahuatl word, and the one that has had the most ‘hook’ is ‘raven’s excrement’, which may explain its dark mystique.
It’s amazing what a little re-branding can do; in the past 5 years or so, huitlacoche has been introduced to the gourmet market in the US, as the ‘Mexican Truffle’ – it’s a fungus, so that’s appropriate enough.. and it sure sounds better than ‘smut’ or ‘excrement’. But now that the vocabulary around Mexican cuisine is improving North of the Border, ‘huitlacoche’ is claiming its right to be named as such in the food-lovers’ syntax.
How good can sticky black goo taste?
You’re asking me? I love it. The flavor is earthy, a little smoky (if you add a dash or two of mescal while it’s cooking, that brings out the smokiness). … at the same time, there are smooth undertones of vanilla and a bright fruitiness a bit like cherries. And there’s no denying its visual appearance, so dark and wicked. Texturally it’s interesting because where the galls have separated from the cob, you’ll get that chewy nuttiness like a kernel of corn has. Under heat, when the silvery membrane breaks open, the black spores start to soften, break down, almost liquify into a slick, smooth, almost oily mass of black goo.
Even though it’s delicious, it’s oddly difficult to describe it in a way that is conventionally appetizing. Perhaps that’s best… we wouldn’t want Chipotle’s to get too excited about it!
It’s not difficult to cook, and it doesn’t need much in the way of seasoning; like mushrooms, the flavor is best left to stand on its own.
Sautéed finely chopped onion until translucent, then add the huitlacoche. Be sure to pick the threads of corn silk out first! The key is to cook it long and slow on a low simmer adding as little liquid as possible as it cooks and allowing the spores to break down fully and unify into a nice, lumpy black puddle…perhaps dry white wine or mescal to deglaze the pan if you want to get fancy.
How to serve it without scaring anyone…
Yes, some people are funny about what they eat. Fussy. Let them miss out on this delicious experience… leaves more for you and me.
Traditionally, it’s at home in a taco. For heat, strips of roasted poblano chiles (rajas) , chipotle or another smokey cooked salsa. As a quesadilla or filling in any other corn masa based snack: sope, tlacoyo, huarache…
But there’s no reason to be restricted to tradition!
Try using the huitlacoche as you might use mushrooms….
… over pasta, even in lasagna
…stuffing for chicken breasts
…as a sauce to accompany a steak (adding some smokey chile and pureeing it to a smooth creamy texture)
My most recent effort, here, takes a hollowed out calabacita (you can use regular zucchini) which I baked til it was tender, then filled it with the cooked huitlacoche I topped it with a creamy avocado guacamole which I seasoned with hoja santa) and that’s a pasilla salsa finishing it off. It was nice, and used up some of those calabacitas that ramble through the same milpas.
But where can I find it outside of Mexico?
First of all, I recommend you come to Mexico. Let a señora serve it to you atop a handmade tortilla that’s been cooked over a big metal barrel-cum-griddle…
Failing that, canned huitlacoche is really not a bad substitute for the fresh stuff and most authentic Latin markets will sell it. It’s not cheap, but it is intense, and goes a long way.
Or, you can see what happens if you grow your own corn… maybe you’ll get lucky and wind up with some smut instead, like my friend Steev did… read about that here, along with a recipe for his Squash blossom fritters stuffed with huitlacoche.
The quince is not native to Mexico, nor is it widely cultivated here. Its native origin is in Central to Southwest Asia: Turkey, Iran and into Morocco where it is a popular ingredient in tajines. From there, it would have entered Spain, which is likely how its seed was transported to Mexico. It grows on woody hillsides and orchards, so wherever you might find an apple tree there might also be a quince growing wild. The fruit comes into season in mid-late August into October, and here in Mexico it’s more likely you will find it through the local vendors who bring in produce from small orchards or the countryside, rather than from the larger vendors who bring in cultivated fruits and vegetables.
Generally, the fresh fruit is not eaten. The pulp is hard, somewhat woody. Its tartness mellows with cooking and floral aroma is released. Canning in syrup is a popular way to prepare and preserve it as well as jams, jellies, candies and liqueurs. It’s a nice addition to apple or pear compotes with its rosy-pink colour and firm texture. Having a high pectin content helps in gelling.
In Mexico, as well as other parts of South and Central America the membrillo is cooked, using plenty of sugar, into a pin block of firm jelly, called ate (AH-tay), or a darkish pink paste known as dulce de membrillo. The pectin level in the fruit along with the sugar, ensure that it holds up firmly. It’s delicious served with cheese, especially nutty Manchego, or soft curds spread on toasted bread or crackers and is classic Spanish tapas… A handful of almonds along with this, and a glass of sherry, or Jeréz, of course in Mexico, is exactly how I want to spend the rest of my evening…
Flor de maguey is an indigenous food, the unopened buds of the maguey plant, which flowers only once in its approximately 30 year lifespan. It’s a dramatic show– within days, a trunk-like stem shoots up to a height of nearly 30 feet. This contains the aguamiel, which either goes into the flowers, if the buds are allowed to open, or it is cut back and the aguamiel, a sweet sap, flows back into the piña – the core of the maguey– where it is then available for production of pulque or mezcal. Here, I prepared the buds with onions, tomato, oregano and epazote for a taco filling.
When I lived on a rural property in Ontario, I battled purslane in my perennial garden every summer. There was no end to the determined fleshy stems that put down root wherever it came in contact with earth.
Little did I know I was sitting on an Omega-3 empire.
In the cracked, dry earth of summer, purslane pops up in the most inhospitable of spots, making itself at home in gardens beds and gravel and between rocks and cracks in driveways and sidewalks. Most of us just yank it out and throw it on onto the compost pile.
Unaware of its virtues as a nutritious food, North American gardeners and homeowners know this plant best as an annoying weed. Bright jade in colour, with the plump character of a succulent, it’s easy to identify. Fleshy paddle-shaped leaves cluster, petal-like, around a rubbery magenta-tinted stem. It spreads eagerly, shoots reaching out in every direction from a central taproot to create a thick mat.
Its origin is Eurasia, but thanks to its hardy nature and limited needs – a minimum of 20˙Celsius for germination and hardy seeds – it has easily become naturalized over land. Long-established in North America, fossilized pollen in Crawford Lake in Southwestern Ontario confirms pre-Columbian presence; the seeds, viable even after digestion, arrived ahead of the explorers, likely in the stomachs of birds. When Samuel Champlain arrived in what is now Massachusetts, he noted that this plant, pourpier in France, was covering the ground surrounding the Indigenous peoples’ crops of squashes and corn.
In Mexico, this same plan is called verdolagas. It’s long been a volunteer companion to the milpas – indigenous agricultural systems of corn, squash and beans. Along with the other wild greens such as amaranth and lamb’s quarters(quelites) that self-sow at the bases of the crops, it’s harvested and eaten. Verdolagas are readily available in Mexico’s markets most of the year; they feature in traditional dishes and are prized by influential modern chefs, like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita (chef and culinary researcher of Larousse Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana), who regularly feature verdolagas on their restaurants’ menus.
“Leafy Purslane appeases the plot’s thirst” wrote Columella, the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman Empire. How true this is. Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed purslane as part of their diet: a simple salad of olives, tomatoes, feta and purslane is very Mediterranean. It’s considered a culinary gem in the Middle East, Turkey, and India where it is cooked with other greens. From time-to-time in history it has appeared in North American cookbooks, often pickled or as a salad green, but otherwise, it’s been considered a weed, unworthy of a place on the table.
Yet, as a food, it’s versatile: its young, tender shoots are succulent and crispy; the flavour, tangy, like salty lemon-water on the tongue, makes it a bright addition to herbal salads. The entire plant, aside from the roots, is edible. As the plant matures and the stems get thicker, it benefits from cooking and integrates well into stews – its mucilaginous quality, like okra, will thicken a sauce slightly. As a side to proteins, it is complementary to pork, lamb, fish and poultry. When cooked with other greens, purslane adds a zip of citric acidity, just as a squeeze of lemon juice would.
It has been called the “vegetable for long life” in Chinese folklore and compared to spinach, there’s just no contest. It’s high in Vitamins A, C, E and B-complex; rich in calcium and magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium. But most remarkable are its levels of alpha-lineolic acid(ALA), an important Omega-3 fatty acid, which are higher than in any other land-based plant. In the magenta-tinged stems a bioflavonoid One caution however: like spinach and rhubarb, it is high in oxalates, meaning people with predisposition for kidney stones, or with gut-sensitivities may want to curb their consumption.
Come June, purslane will, once again, begin making its enthusiastic appearance. As history has shown, resistance is futile while the benefits at the table are many.
I was recently in DF (Distrito Federale) on a search and discover mission to see what seasonal goodness I might find in the markets. I had some idea of what was in season, but was ready to be surprised. I’d read about the Sullivan Tianguis (this is a Nahuatl word, used to refer to a weekly traveling market) on Culinary Backstreets, and not only was it was a quick bus ride away from my AirBnB room, it promised not to be a huge rambling affair, which on that particular day I was not in the mood for.
It’s easy to be distracted and pulled in by any of the vendors plying you with tastes of the fresh pick of the day. I did take a few handouts of mamey… more on that in another post– let’s just say for now, I was converted! But already familiar with mamey, I was here to find something new.
Then, a lovely pile of maguey flowers stopped me dead in my tracks. I knew these were edible, but had expected that if I wanted to get my hands on any, I’d likely have to get someone to harvest some for me. The vendor pointed to the long stamens sticking out of some of the buds and explained in Spanish that I should remove these. I bought a few bunches and wrapped them carefully for the long journey home. They are in no way fragile like flor de calabaza (squash blossoms)and, in fact, are more like daylily buds – firm and slightly rubbery.
Maguey flowers are definitely special because this plant–a cousin to Agave tequilana from which tequila is made– blooms only once in its 30+ year lifespan. As it reaches the end of its life, it sends up a single central stalk, rapidly shooting up a foot or more a day to a height of up to 40ft. If that stalk is cut before the flowers bloom (the stage these buds were at), a sweet liquid sap called aguamiel collects in the central core of the plant. It is from this aguamiel that mezcal is made.
I had an idea to pickle them in escabeche – treating them kind of like okra. I made a simple spiced vinegar solution with onion, garlic chiles and oregano, then blanched some of the buds whole before letting them do their thing in the pickling brine. Later, I viewed a few YouTube links describing traditional preparation and learned that not only were you supposed to remove the stamens, the stem also was to be discarded, leaving only the petals. So much waste! While there was a slight bitterness from the stem and stamen(?) I didn’t find it at all unpleasant and thought the bright yellow whole buds were lovely, intact.
Supposing that I should follow a recipe for a change, I invited my friend Pueblito over to prepare the remaining buds as described in several similar recipes I’d seen. This is a pre-Columbian food and not in the culinary lexicon of the average Mexican householder, so she was delighted to have the opportunity to cook and eat this plant. Basically, after tearing the petals off, they were to be cooked with the usual suspects: onion, garlic, oregano, tomato and chiles. According to a few of the videos they had a “sabor como pollo”. Tastes like chicken? We’ll see…
We proceeded to take apart the blossoms…
And we were not left with much…
I followed the recipe: onion, garlic, chiles, tomato and oregano, and added a sprig of epazote…
Of course we served them in tortillas with a crumble of queso fresco.
In the end, I guess what they mean when they say it tastes like chicken is that the petals have a mild flavor… and it’s the seasonings that make the dish. The pickled buds were more tasty, Pueblito and her husband Antonio agreed, with a little crunch and squeak. Next time, I’ll see if I can remove just the stamen keeping the bud as whole as possible and definitely keeping the stem… unless I find evidence that these are toxic ( I monitored my gastrointestinal response after eating several whole pickled buds and felt perfectly fine). But if anyone knows, I’d be eager to hear about it.
Sullivan Tianguis: in Mexico City every Saturday and Sunday. Location is convenient to la Alameda, Museo del Chopo and lots of other points of interest. At Reforma Metrobus stop– it runs alongside James Sullivan Park just off Insurgentes.
The genus Curcubita includes the edible-skinned summer squash, the pumpkins, and gourds. All are indigenous to the New World. The name of this particular variety is derived from the Nahuatl word: Tzilacayotli, and while its actual location of origin is not known to a certainty, the names it is called by in other parts of Central and South America are clearly derived from this word, so its origin is credited to Mexico.
Nutritionally, this species differs from other hard squash, like pumpkins; low in beta-carotene (the flesh is very pale yellow in color) and relatively high in carbohydrates. It does have a unique value, however, in that it is high in a substance called D-Chiro-Inositol. This is used successfully in Asia to treat diabetes and also sold in supplement form for treating Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in women. There is a scourge of diabetes in Mexico but the preferred preparation, dulce, boiled in a sugar syrup until candied, likely cancels out any effectiveness of this substance.
In Mexico, a fervently devout Catholic country, food and religious ritual are inseparable. The fruits of the land are presented as offerings or shared communally on saints’ days and other Holy days. The Chilacayote has its place of honor on Viernes de Dolores.
On the Friday before Palm Sunday, Mexicans honor the Virgin Mother’s suffering in the knowledge her Son would be soon put to death. If you are a practicing Catholic, and are wondering why you have never heard about this day, “Viernes de Dolores” – translated literally as Friday of Pain – was declared by Vatican II as redundant to the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, marked on September 15. But in countries like Mexico, where the Virgin Mother is so deeply revered, the Holy See looked the other way (so to speak), and the feast day carries on.
The mottled pattern on the skin of the Chilacayote (and the leaves of the plant), I am told, symbolizes the falling tears of the Virgin Mary as they splashed to the ground. Dulce de Chilacayote is traditionally handed out to visitors of the altars that are set up to revere the Virgin Mother.
To prepare the squash a dulce, it is cut into pieces and boiled in a syrup of piloncillo and spices like canela, anise and cloves. Now,the mature squash has a very hard rind, I have discovered. Cutting into it is a dangerous production, and it’s been recommended to me that I use a machete, which, quite frankly, I find terrifying. Another solution is to drop it from a height or fling it onto hard ground, which, while less controlled, is obviously less risky.
The inside is a pale yellow, with many dark flat seeds, similar to, but larger than that of a watermelon. These are used like other squash seeds and are rich in healthy oils.
An economy of labour is evident in many traditional foods that you will find sold in the mercados. Generally “hecho a mano” (made by hand) means some processes, like painstakingly picking out seed after seed, are deemed not worth the fuss and bother so in this case, the large dark brown seeds are often left in the candy. The result is an authenticity of product– its natural origin not obscured.
Coming soon, I will prepare my own chilacayote dulce and will post more photos (will I drop, or machete the thing into pieces…) as well as the recipe I use.