Cooking in the Woods

Why do we go camping?
To spend restless nights on uncomfortable air-mattresses and wake up with sore hips and shoulders; to use bushes as toilets at three in the morning because the toilet is too far to walk at that hour; to wash dishes, hands, faces and teeth with unforgivably cold water. Maybe we go camping to have an uninterrupted visit with nature, with the cruising moose and the curious bear. To build a fire, to cook dinner, and hold warm cups with gloves and hats on, and to stare at the endless sparkles of the night skies.

I was introduced to camping by Scott, who is as enthusiastic for the outdoors as a Labrador puppy is for a tennis ball. Camping and I had a rough start in Utah where walls of wind carried sand into everything in its path: our tent, our cloths, the plate of food I was eating and the cup of coffee I was drinking. I banned camping from our lives for a couple of years after that, but after fifteen years married I have learned to compromise, so I go camping once in a while with two conditions: the campsite must be near civilization, and there must be a bathroom with walls, a door, and a roof. I used to have third condition: no camping in Colorado where there are bears, moose, and mountain lions, but after a few times camping on the Pacific Coast I decided to let my guard down. Silly me.

A few weeks ago we ventured to Winter Park, CO, for a weekend with nature.
I was looking forward to cooking on the fire, strolling around with Mr. Miles and lazily reading by the Fraser river. We found a site neatly secluded behind tall pine trees and bushes near the river,  we promptly sat up the tent, unloaded the food and wine, and Scott went to get wood from the camp host while I made a quick lunch of pork-black bean nachos with salsa verde and peach-corn salsa. He came back, wood in hand, staring at me,
“Don’t freak out,” he said 
“Why? what happened?” I asked, wondering if something had happened to our families, the world, a bomb? who knew?
“The host told me that there’s a small bear roaming around, to be careful,” he replied.

There are always bears roaming around Winter Park and the Frasier valley, when we lived there we saw them often, in the woods, trash containers, or by the river, and I knew they must have been watching us, waiting for us to make a mistake and leave food out so they can have a clean alibi when they break in. So, I keep going with my day, always with one eye on the bushes for good measure.

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Heirloom Tomato Salad + Garden Lessons: Diversity

Summer reaches its peak when the markets begin to fill with tomatoes. Our garden tomatoes are still green, as each cultivar fills in with new blossoms and sets fruit. At the market were we go there’s a farm stand that each week displays an array of tomato cultivars with a rainbow of yellow, orange, purple, pink, green, red, tie-dye, and multiple shades of colors, shapes of cherry, grape, elongated, round, boat and even deformed, flavors high in acid and sweetness, and nuances I never knew existed. All different, all beautiful, all tomatoes. 

tomatobasilsalad

This year we planted five different tomato cultivars: cosmonaut, speckled roma, black cherry, cherokee purple, and pink Berkeley tie-dye, to create a microsystem of diversity and insure a harvest for different uses. The speckled roma to make sauce, the cherry tomatoes to sprinkle in salads or make a quick pasta pomodoro, the cherokee purple and cosmonaut to slice in big slabs and eat simply adorned with a sprinkle of salt. Next to them we planted a couple of miniature red and yellow pepper plants, a few purple, globe, genovese, and lemon basil plants to impart flavor {or so I read}, and marigolds to ward off pests. Purslane made its home sharing space underneath the tomatoes helping break the hardpan, clay Colorado soil, while growing deep roots and releasing nutrients from the sublayer. 

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Summer Squash Salad + Garden Lessons: Fences

One of the advantages of having a backyard is the possibility of growing food, cultivating flowers, both for our enjoyment and for the bees, and creating a nurturing environment for all . Since we moved in to this house we have slowly reshaped the backyard to create a garden where us and the critters can live in harmony. Something the bunnies don’t want to align with their eating habits. In past years they ate the carrot, beet and peas sprouts, chomped on the beans, herbs, and flowers, dug the bulbs: daffodils, tulips, and garlic, and reigned the garden beds at night and whenever we were not around.

This year, after the first few offenders began digging bulbs and eating sprouts, I asked Scott to build some sort of barrier to give the plants a chance to grow and give us a decent harvest. For the ground level beds, where the flowers and a few herbs reside, he built a PVC pipe structure and wrapped bird netting around it, for the two raised beds where I planted and sowed all the vegetables, he used flexible pipes and created a dome on which we laid the netting securing it on the edges with bricks and clamps. It worked. Or so I thought. 

 

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Slow Food Nations Denver

Slow Food Nations, a gathering of people from around the world centered on food, made Denver the epicenter of conversations that revolved around food freedom, sovereignty, taste, cooking, farming and everything in between. On Saturday morning a panel led by Slow Food’s founder and president Carlo Petrini addressed, with contagious passion, a flock of hungry for fair food followers on the streets of downtown Denver. 

“We must have global consciousness around food,” said Petrini, “a vision that is local, that allows us to know, respect and support our local producers, our local food, and our local community… at the same time we ought to have a global vision of food and value other communities the same way.” 

This is the second time Slow Food has chosen Denver to bring voices around real and fair food for all. In 2015, the conversation revolved around Slow Meat, questioning the meat production processes and systems established in the U.S. and the record meat consumption of our growing society. 

Slow Food changed the way I see food. For more than a decade I have followed this grassroots organization and its philosophy that good food is a right not a luxury. It was Alice Waters who first introduced me to Slow Food when I became enchanted by her vision and passion for supporting local farmers, for eating a summer peach with the pleasure and excitement of a once a year occasion, and for her relentless dedication for change in our food system, beginning with educating children through direct immersion in school gardens.

This weekend I met Alice Waters, I sat in two of her talks and relished in her ideology of “seducing people through taste,” as she said. Waters, as many of the important public food figures who visited us this weekend, believes that if we put our efforts together we, all of us, can help change our toxic food system. “I can’t think about food without thinking about the land,” she said, and her sentiment carried out through the conversations and the different events held over the weekend. Denver chefs and visiting chefs from around the country and the world put together dinners to honor the land, the sea, and the cultures, including flavors of Mexico, sustainable seafood, heritage grains, plus many workshops in techniques like sourdough bread, cheesemaking, butchering, and more. 

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Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Visiting an Acetaia

On our second day in Modena, Italy, we drove south toward Bologna, specifically to the town of Vignola, in search of traditional balsamic vinegar. The morning started with a light sprinkle and we were hopeful the sun was coming out just for us because we had travel all that way for a lovely vacation. The GPS took us through narrow roads to a small town in the middle of the fields as the rain picked up clouding the view ahead. “You have reached your destination,” the GPS lady said, after we turned in to a residential neighborhood. The gated house looked too small to be a factory, of anything, let alone vinegar, but the name on the wall “La Cà dal Nôn” confirmed we had indeed reached out destination.

We rang the doorbell and a few seconds later the gates opened and from behind came out a woman, “Hello, my name is Mariangela,” she said, “welcome to our acetaia.”

We walked to the back of the house where two vine-trees wrapped around a pergola, I pulled out my umbrella and hunched over myself to conserve warmth as the morning turned colder. Mariangela pointed to the vines, “These are our two old ladies, we had three but one died suddenly,” she said as she padded on one of the vines, “these are Lambrusco vines, from my great grandfather’s time.” They still produce some fruit, she told us, but any stressors can kill them. “The rest of our grapes come from the vineyard not far from here,” she said.

The light sprinkle of rain and the cold air were no match to my faux leather jacket and I kept shivering, enough that she suggested we went inside to the tasting room. I laid my umbrella on the floor and walked toward the plastic chairs set up classroom style around a table full of balsamic products in front of a chalkboard with a drawing of the balsamic making process. “Let’s start with the name of our acetaia, the word nôn means grandpa in dialect,” she said, “and means house, so this is ‘the house of the grandfather’ since it was my great-grandfather who established the acetaia.” 

Culture and Balsamic Vinegar, a bit of history
Traditional balsamic vinegar is a product ingrained in the culture of Modena and the Emilia Romagna region, where the locals have produced it for hundreds of years, and kings and emperors loved and praised its unique flavor; luckily for us, Mariangela shared her contagious passion and exquisite knowledge of the history. The story goes that ancient Romans used to make a honey-like grape syrup called Saba all through the empire using the grapes of each region; in Emilia Romagna they used Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, mainly. To make Saba, they cooked the pressed juice of overripe grapes in large copper cauldrons to evaporate water and concentrate the sugars yielding a dark brown syrup; Mariangela told us that scholars believe that balsamic vinegar came from the fermented saba that underwent a vinegarization and aging process.

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Living Paris

Paris is a place to celebrate big milestones; our tenth wedding anniversary, my 40th birthday, our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and my husband’s 40th birthday. Each trip devoted to learning more about the city, walking its streets, sitting at a café and drinking a few glasses of house rosé or a couple of coffees, visiting the farmer’s market and fantasizing about having a small flat around the 3rd or 11th arrondissement from where we could walk to the bakery every morning and buy croissants and pain au chocolat, or go to the market on the weekends to buy fish and groceries and flowers and sit on a bench eating an authentic falafel wrap. Each trip is an attempt at Living Paris

The RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris links the reality of a heavily diverse city to our fantasies of french speaking, macarons, and duck confit. La Gare Du Nord is a chaotic, organized mess where patrons rush through walking highways to the train platforms. Underground the city is ugly, unsettling, and real. 

The city up the stairs is a breath of fresh air. Out of its cavernous veins the dream of Paris becomes a reality. 

Les Marais 
Our first trip we rented a studio apartment in Les Marais neighborhood near the Arts et Métiers train station. I love that station. Copper walls that arch around the ceiling holding cooper wheels and pinions suspended beneath the ancient streets, and the submarine-like windows displaying magical images from Jules Verne’s science fiction books.

My husband got up early each morning to try the different bakeries around the block until he finally settled for Earnest and Valentine, the pain au chocolat won him over. From our studio on the Rue Montgolfier we walked to Rue de Bretagne to buy groceries and rotisserie chicken for lunch or dinner, depending on our plans for the day. On the same street we found the Marché des Enfant Rouges, an indoor market and dining hall, and around the corner we lunched on bento boxes at Nanashi Asian Bistro.

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A day around Modena and a Cheese excursion

For my husband’s 40th birthday, we planned a trip to Italy to eat and drink until our hips were unrecognizable. Everyone told us it was an easy task to accomplish; one of his coworkers said he gained 18 lbs {eighteen pounds (!)} on a week-long trip to the land of pasta, prosciutto and parmegiano-reggiano; so we set out on a goal to learn about the culture, one pound at the time.

After a quick stop in Paris {more about that in another post}, we flew to Bologna where we picked up our car rental, a Mini, as my husband wanted to surprised me and indulge my unreasonable obsession with the tiny car. This was the bigger, 4-door version, which is like wanting to eat prosciutto and ordering Easter ham instead, it is pork, it is cured, it is not prosciutto. The Mini is a mix of advance machinery and old style glam, pretty leather seats, race car dashboard and incomprehensible computerized entertainment and navigation system.  While we fiddled with the car and the GPS, it began to rain. The black-grey skies circled overhead and the GPS lady couldn’t find her way out of the roundabout onto the highway. 

We had rented an Airb&b apartment in Modena, about an hour drive from Bologna, and the heavy rain followed us all the way to the parking lot our host had suggested for us to leave the car and drag our suitcases to the apartment, because driving in the historic area of town is a privilege for only those with a resident sticker on the windshield of their cars. We sat in the car looking at deep puddles around the parking lot unwilling to soak our entire wardrobe on the first day. We walked to the apartment, without bags, assessed the street situation, went back to the car with drenched shoes and socks, broke the law by driving to the apartment building, jumped out of the car, dumped the bags on the street, I stayed behind and struggled with the bags up four sets of stairs – no elevator-  and my husband drove away. So far no arrest has been made. It rained all night, many pairs of socks were soaked in the making of these memories. 

After a hot cup of coffee and fresh pair of socks and shoes, we put on our rain coats, opened our umbrellas, and set out to explore Modena. The lights shined on the wet roads as we hustled from building to building in an attempt to stay somewhat dry on our way to the local market, Mercato Albinelli, which to our luck stays open late on Saturdays. The front door was adorned with basil, thyme, and rosemary planters, and piles of strawberries and asparagus. Dozens of vendors offering meats, vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, culatello, porchetta – oh the porchetta! – anything one could need for a homemade meal, I wanted to buy it all, I dreamt of walking there everyday with a my shopping basket to buy the day’s fresh produce chatting with the vendors in Italian, and eating prosciutto for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

After our shopping we walked back to the Piazza Grande and experienced our first aperitivo, the Italian version of happy hour where the restaurant or bar puts out an impressive display of food, banquet style, and the patrons pay a minimal fee, in our case at Caffe Concerto we paid €5 each, for an all-you-can-eat {read all the prosciutto you can eat} buffet, plus the cost of drinks. At this point, one day in, I began to worry about whether we could walk, waddle, or roll by the end of our Italian journey.  

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Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Last spring, I went to Mexico for work. We visited the state of Oaxaca, a word I learned to pronounce when I learnt about the trip. It isn’t a Spanish word but rather an inheritance of the native language of the region. This was a theme I encountered while traveling and conversing with the inhabitants of the coastal town of Puerto Escondido. 

We settled in Puerto Escondido to visit a school as part of a partnership with the university I work for, and traveled around the area visiting turtle and iguana sanctuaries, multiple beach towns and eating local specialties like Oaxacan cheese and the fisherman’s day-catch. 

The best way to reach Puerto Escondido, or “Hidden Port”, is by air. There are roads from the big cities but the trek is long and uncertain, as the locals told us. By air is an hour fly from Mexico City in a 40-passenger plane battling shifting winds. The view from the low-flying plane is wide and mountainous, especially when leaving Mexico City where El Ajusco (12,894 feet), Nevado de Toluca (15,354 feet) and Iztaccíhuatl (17,126 feet) peaks frame the scene. 

We arrived in Puerto Escondido at 6p.m., after leaving Denver at 5a.m., due to a three-hour delay in Mexico City. The landscape changed as we approached our destination. The plane swarmed around the coastline charging toward the ocean and descending as a graceful goose preparing to land in the water, with a gently tilt we turned around to face the airport and the tiny runway. I won’t lie, it was frightening and I mistrusted the entire situation, thankfully the pilot proved me wrong with a smooth landing. 

The sticky hot air blew as we walked from the plane into baggage claim where our host waited for us. “Welcome! How was your flight?” they asked with big, warm smiles as we exchanged hugs and kisses on the cheeks. “Beautiful!” I replied while walking to the van for a 5-minute ride to the hotel. The sunset was a minute away from exploding in orange and gold hues and we rushed from the parking lot of the hotel to the pool where the uninterrupted view allowed the magic of the sun to glow on the palm trees. 

Puerto Escondido is a small enough town to create a feeling of community, but large enough to have multiple traffic lights and crowded streets, and a food market covering four blocks. Nearby towns provide an oasis for tourist, with restaurants on the sand where the chairs sink as you sit and hammocks strung from bamboo poles under kiosks beg to be used. We visited during the low season and enjoyed the solitude of beaches barely sprinkled with tourist. Our host told us, “Next week is Easter and for two weeks you won’t find a place to stand on the beach, let alone lounge and leisure, plus prices double.”


The Market


The next morning, after a walk, barefoot on the blonde sand,  we went to the market with a student from the school working as our guide. The warehouse-like building crowded with piles of mangoes and pineapples brought me back to my younger days in Colombia and the melancholy of sweet, ripe tropical fruit memories. We stopped at a booth selling peppers, fresh and dried, and homemade sauces where my boss decided to try his spice resistance, a brave move if you’d asked me as my spice resistance stays at 0 on the Scoville scale – or the equivalent of a sweet bell pepper. Continue reading Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Stewed Garbanzos and The Art of Meal Planning

With the summer abundance finished it’s time to shift gears and plan meals for cold, busy weeks. Summer is easier, with lots of fresh produce, garden offerings and the punishing heat that suggests lighter meals, lots of rosé and mint water, preferably in the backyard under tree shade. Fall and winter are a different game, I’m extra hungry as the weather cools and the days shorten, and fuller meals are in demand.

easygarbanzostew

Meal planning is key to my budget, and my sanity. It helps me prepare quick meals as my life runs faster than I can, and it keeps me from wasting food. In a country where 40-50% of the food produced goes to waste it’s difficult to take food waste serious, until it has a personal impact. After all, part of what I teach is meal planning and mindfulness around food, which makes me more aware of my own shortcomings.

mealplanningprep

Every Saturday, I fill bowls with beans, lentils and grains, of any color and shape, cover them with water and soak them overnight. On Sunday, I cook them all, as I mosey around sipping my morning coffee and reading The New York Times. At home, we are not vegetarians, but we use pulses, grains, and many vegetables to stretch animal proteins. Luckily, I’m a trained Colombian who grew up on beans and rice, so diversifying using lentils, beans and vegetables is familiar, if not comforting.

Once cooked, pulses and grains are an easy and reliable base for many meals through the week, with or without meat. Sometimes I’ll make bigger batches and freeze finished meals for the following week, if I know I’ll be extra busy. This weekend we worked on a batch of lentil-oat bars for Mr. Thomas, as he’s always bouncing around town and in need of nutritious snacks. We also worked on black bean and farro tacos for a lazy Sunday lunch; garbanzos to stew with tomatoes and fennel, to make hummus, and for falafel patties; and white beans for Cassoulet and Minestrone soupwhich I froze in two-portion containers, and are perfect for a snowy night, like tonight, when traffic is horrid and stressful, and I can relax knowing that a hearty dinner is ready to heat up.

stewedgarbanzoswithpesto

This weekly ritual acts as a way to inventory what is in our fridge, pantry and freezer, and to find recipes for produce, or other perishables. I’m mortified anytime a lonely turnip or carrot, forgotten underneath a pile of mushrooms or lettuce, gets soft and moldy and I have to dispose of the dead evidence. How much did I pay for that turnip?

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Lentil-Oat Bars and Holiday Lentil Gifts

***Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post!

For as long as I can remember, lentils have been a part of my life. My mother’s favorite meal is lentil soup, and if I had to choose a food to live on forever it would be lentils and rice, preferably basmati rice. 

Last month, I went to a conference in Austin, TX, where I learned about an organization promoting lentils, Canadian Lentils. I normally don’t write about specific products {except for books or interesting websites}, but this got my attention. They displayed lentils in burlap bags next to mason jars, in front of two tall shelves full of spices. From turmeric, ginger, garam masala, cumin, dried herbs, and different kinds of peppers, they encouraged visitors to take a jar fill it with lentils and add spices, either following one of their recipes or each person’s own mix. They elevated this humble pulse and made it the star of the conference, their booth was packed at all times with people interested on the endless possibilities provided by the spices. 

lentilsoupinajar

Lentils are miracle food. Let’s deconstruct this statement:

  • Lentils contain high amounts of protein. 1 cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein
  • Lentils are high in heart-healthy fiber that also helps level blood sugar
  • Lentils provide high levels of iron 
  • Lentils, like other pulses or legumes, fix nitrogen into the soil where they are planted, creating a better growing environment for other plants, and reducing the carbon footprint of our food by using less chemical fertilizers per kilo-calorie
  • Lentils are delicious and versatile, and we can find recipes from all over the globe that feature them. They adapt to any spices and flavors we may dream of using. Italian lentil soup with tomatoes, thyme or oregano, for example, or Indian Dahl – orange split lentil – soup with curry, my mothers lentil soup with cumin, paprika and turmeric, or endless salad combinations, like Bulgur and black lentil salad with carrot green pesto.

homemadeholidaygifts

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