I was excited to see an article in this Sunday’s local paper entitled “Alimentos, Por que no saben como antes?” (“Food, why doesn’t it taste like it used to?”)
The article discusses fruits and vegetables and the fact that what is available today does not taste like what was available in the past. In an optimistic tone however, it goes on to say that there are alternatives to return to the pleasure of the flavors of the past, and highlights various options such as seeking out organic and local agriculture, saving seeds to grow your own, eating seasonally and generally restructuring or re-prioritizing one’s philosophy of life.
Little of this information was new to me, in fact it is something I have spent much of my professional life teaching and promoting, but I wonder how new it might be to much of the general public and what the overall response is. Thus far, as I have written in my previous articles, I have encountered little discussion about these topics, as well as little to no infrastructure or access to these types of resources. I have come across organic sugar, ‘natural’ ham and quinoa flour in the grocery store, a pleasant surprise to me, but the majority of products (possibly including these) and produce available are industrially produced and raised with any number of chemicals and procedures that I personally wouldn’t choose, if the choice was given.
It is an interesting position to be in. I experience it in a different way in the US, but the combination of a certain level of education, access and skills creates a unique relationship to all things food. The challenge isn’t really about privilege, but instead it is much more about what I have available to me and sometimes I have to seek and find those things that best serve my family.
As I enter my 9th month here in Mendoza, something great is happening: I am starting to connect to the food. I am recognizing the seasons, and their bounty and enjoying preparing foods, utilizing the beautiful Autumn (yes Autumn!) produce. And, I have discovered some people who are at the heart of creating a sustainable, organic food community here. Mendoza is about the same size as Minneapolis. It is a busy, built up, thriving metropolis, surrounded by farmable desert lands and lots of space. There is room to grow things here, (most of what people want to grow are grapes for the thriving Argentinian wine industry) anything if people had the motivation or support and indeed, some are taking matters into their own hands. I am now on the list of one of the few ‘organic’ farms near the city that offers a delivery box. Adam, an American who’s day job is to export organic produce to distributors in the US, and Laura, an Argentinian who share’s his passion for healthy, natural foods, along with Marcio, an Agronomist and farmers Dina, Ruben and Sandra, have created ‘Siembra Diversa’ (diverse planting), a sustainable food cooperative. They work to promote clean, safe, organically raised food and the people who grow it.
I was thrilled to learn I could receive a box of organic vegetables, honey, flour, nuts and juices delivered to my door much like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm works in the US, and I happily placed my first order last week. The box that Adam delivered to my door was stunning: overflowing with beautiful, fresh and lovingly bundled bunches of chard, radishes, corn, beets, squash, potatoes, apples, onions, eggplants, zuchini, cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes. In addition, I received organic whole wheat flour, flax seeds and honey. All of this for approximately $20 USD. While this sounds cheap to us, it is a big investment for locals. I managed to find places for everything in our tiny fridge, and proceeded to start the familiar pondering of what I would prepare with the abundance in front of me.
This is one of the biggest challenges that people in my American community face when they make the ‘CSA commitment’. The familiar question arises: now that I have all of this fresh food, what the heck am I going to do with it??? I wondered if the Mendocinos who receive these boxes have the same concerns. I wonder about who is buying this food, and how Siembra Diversa is doing as a business. And I continue to wonder about the value that organic, sustainable and natural foods have or don’t have in this part of the world. I know that for many in Minnesota, where sustainable agriculture and organic cooking is trendy and popular, a weekly delivery of vegetables can be daunting, and requires time, planning and ongoing attention. It is one example of the challenges of eating a healthy, whole foods diet and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle. Here, where sustainable agriculture and cooking whole foods is much less common, there isn’t a culture yet to support the commitment of time and money that it requires.
Laura explained to me that they have had a hard time recruiting new farmers to convert to organic methods, despite the fact that their main grower, Dina, has been financially successful. She also reminded me that, indeed, Mendocinos do cook. They know what to do with eggplant, tomatoes, zuchini and squash. There may not be extraordinary variety in what they prepare (can you say empanadas, pasta and pizza?), but they are familiar with vegetables and enjoy them with gusto.
The larger question is whether there is an audience that is willing to pay more for food raised without agrochemicals. To create a culture of sustainability, one must be willing to place something else lower on the list (can we compromise on new sporting gear, a bigger television, fancy clothes?) Certainly something is required in order to prioritize safe, clean food and ultimately to support a healthier food system. This doesn’t just happen overnight. For most of us, it requires a re-assessment of our values, combined with a stronger relationship with our food and where it comes from.
The challenge of building a culture of sustainability, in which businesses like Siembra Diversa are thriving and well supported, is not unique to Mendoza. It exists everywhere, whether explicitly-as it is currently in Minnesota where hundreds of people, from farmers to policy makers are working on these issues-or informally in small communities throughout the world who may not even know the term “food system”. I applaud the efforts of Siembra Diversa for bringing the conversation and the food closer to the community!
It has taken me almost a year of living here to finally begin to understand the local food system, such as it is. This is not for lack of trying. It can be very difficult to access sustainable local food even when you DO have resources (ie: money, education, time) and it gives me great appreciation for how complicated it is for someone without those resources.
Ultimately, the joy of receiving, arranging, cooking and eating this food for me is profound, and something I wish for people to experience. That is the greater goal.
In the last two days, while I have been working on this article, I have had a few conversations with people proclaiming the incredible freshness of fruits and vegetables here in Argentina as well as the superiority of Argentinean food in general. It was at once humorous and intriguing. I take it as a challenge to me to revisit and rethink my perceptions and judgments of both the food here, and perhaps more importantly, the culture around food. In the end, no matter where you go, food connects us all, and that should always give one hope.
For those of you craving some summertime produce or those also in the southern hemisphere, here is a list of everything I prepared from my box...and it’s not gone yet!: Fresh tomato salsa, roasted vegetables including potatoes, squash, carrots and potatoes, eggplant ricotta dip (recipe below), zuchini muffins, pickled radishes, several batches of eggs with sautéed vegetables and, of course, salads.
EGGPLANT RICOTTA DIP (adapted from a recipe by Camelia Coulatti)
12 small or 4 large eggplant
2 cloves garlic
1/4 bunch cilantro
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 T olive oil
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 tsp salt
Prick eggplant with fork and roast in 400 degree oven until very soft-about 25 minutes. Set aside.
When cool, use a fork to scrape the insides of the eggplant. They should come off easily. Place in the bowl of a food processor.
Add remaining ingredients and puree until well blended. Adjust salt to taste.
Serve with crackers, bread, chips or as a condiment with spicy lentils or stir fried vegetables.
Masa (dough) de empanada
(This is a large recipe...it is advisable to cut it in half.)
Harina (flour) 3 kilograms or 1 1/3 pounds
Manteca (butter) ½ kilogram or 1#
Grasa (fat/oil) 200 GR or ½ cup
Agua (water) 1.2 litros or 4 cups
Sal (salt) .75 GR or 1 oz or 1 Tbsp
Almidón de maíz (cornstarch)
Para hacer la masa, poner los ingredientes secos en un tazón de fuente. Mezclar la manteca y la grasa en la harina. Agregar el agua y mezclar apenas hasta que se junte y pueda formarse fácilmente una bola. Estirar la masa y doblarla, poner almidón de maíz entre las capas. Refrigerar por lo menos una media hora, luego cortar la masa en discos redondos
(To make the dough, put dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix the butter and fat into the flour. Add the water and mix until just together and you are able to form the dough easily into a ball. Knead the dough and put the cornstarch on to coat. Refrigerate for at least a half hour and then cut the dough into circles)
Las empanadas de carne de vaca son uno de los platos más tradicionales de Argentina. (Empanadas with a beef filling are one of the most traditional dishes of Argentina.)
(Again, cut this in half if you are just starting out...maybe even cut it in half again.)
Carne picada (chopped meat) 2.5 kilograms or 5 #
Cebolla rebanada (sliced onion) 1.25 kilograms or 2.5 #
Grasa (oil/fat) 150 GR or 6 oz or ¾ cup
Huevos duros (hard boiled eggs)
Un poco de sal, pimienta, paprika y orégano (a little salt, pepper, paprika and oregano) .
Freír la cebolla en aceite caliente hasta que este cocida, bajar el calor y agregar la carne picada, cuando esté cocida agregar los huevos duros y las especias .
(Fry the onion in hot oil until cooked, lower the heat and add the chopped meat. When this is cooked, add the eggs and spices)
Finalmente, agregar algo del relleno al centro del círculo de cada disco de masa. Pegar los bordes hasta el final, formando semi un círculo. Cada una de nuestras empanadas tienen diversos “repulgues”, esto se hace generalmente para distinguirlos.
Para tener una superficie mas dorada, pintamos con una yema de huevo la parte superior de la masa de empandas, las ponemos en horno muy caliente de arcilla por aproximadamente 10 minutos.
(Finally, add the filling to the center of each circle of dough. Fix the borders around the edges to form a semicircle. Every one of our empanadas has different edges, this is generally how you can identify them. To make a more golden surface, brush the surface of the dough with egg yolk, then bake in a very hot clay oven for about 10 minutes)
I fill these with everything from lentils, to potatoes, to beans….they are simply another version of a great portable, dough filled treat. It is also quite common to see them filled with local soft cheeses, and sweet fillings like apples and cinnamon.
Jenny Breen has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook"Cooking up the Good Life" which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011.