Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Losses from Trade

Advertised in today's New York Times food section on-line, as part of an almost certainly multi-million-dollar product launch, is a heart-breaking example of how resource-rich countries lose tremendous economic development opportunities. Stevia is an herb native to Paraguay that is naturally very sweet. It has been used for hundreds and hundreds of years by Paraguay’s indigenous population in infusions, mate, and simply to chew. A calorie-free sweetener can be extracted from this leaf and has been commonly used in Paraguay for at least a decade if not more. Imagine the potential this has. Replace ubiquitous, cancer-causing, synthesized sweeteners with a naturally occurring, calorie-free sweetener. This is the sort of breakthrough product that could form the base to develop an entire food industry and development strategy in the country that is blessed with such an herb.

Ah, but this is no good, what about high fructose corn syrup? What about saccharine and sucralose and aspartame? No, Stevia was not safe for consumption, according to the FDA. No matter that it has had regulatory approval in Japan for decades with no evidence of worse side effects than synthetic sweeteners. Americans must be kept safe from the ill effects of stevia. That is, until Cargill and Coca-Cola invest in the research, product definition and design, and marketing that can assure that the economic gains from this product be captured in the U.S. Then suddenly stevia is a miracle herb that no readers of the New York Times food section can miss out on and we get Truvia: "the first great-tasting, zero-calorie natural sweetener that's a miracle of nature, not chemistry."

In the meantime China has far surpassed Paraguay as the main grower of Stevia, having had three decades to consolidate its supply links to the Japanese and Korean markets. No Paraguayan Denomination of Controlled Origin; no development of innovative marketing, product definition, logistics, packaging, and branding capacities in Paraguayan companies; no direct relationships between stevia producers and processors in Paraguay and the enormous international food processing industry that will jump all over Truvia to sweeten everything from that Odewalla sludge that gives professional women their healthy edge to the super-gulps at 7-eleven that give other women their healthy bottoms; no mention of Paraguay at all in Truvia's promotional activities.

As Paraguay yet again embraces its role as a primary product exporter, the government’s export promotion agency and ministry of commerce celebrate stevia's regulatory approval in the U.S., laud Coke and Cargill's 'research and development' of Truvia, and congratulate themselves for 'accessing' an enormous market that will soon open up and produce the latest in two centuries of successive export booms that promise to save Paraguay's ever-struggling "pequeños productores" from their perpetual underdevelopment.

Obviously, exploiting the opportunities afforded by Stevia to their fullest potential would require investment, research, development, planning, and coordination that far outstrip the capacities of any of the public or private sector institutions that currently exist in Paraguay. But that is the point. Instead of using this resource as a 'hook' to attract from abroad the resources necessary to develop themselves and upgrade their capacities, these organizations have thrown themselves entirely into the arms of foreign investors and the multinational monopolies supported by US regulatory regimes. What a waste.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Breaking the food bank

I apparently had four more noteworthy meals before I left Paraguay. I'm afraid that I didn't enjoy them enough, because since I've gotten back to the U.S.--I've got to admit--I've suffered some pretty sever sticker shock: $2.50 for a bunch of organic cilantro at whole food is just absurd (granted it was whole foods, but still). In Paraguay, an equivalent bunch of organic cilantro would cost 20 cents. Food prices really seem to have gone noticeably up since I have been gone. I spent more than five dollars on a single heirloom tomato! It's amazing how much it costs to feed yourself these days, and I realized how much I've been taking my time in Paraguay for granted. It is easy to complain or lament the lack of certain things, like sweet peas or good avocados. But little did I realize that, when I got back to the U.S., I wouldn't even be able to afford an avocado (I've seen them selling for $2.00-2.50)! I've vowed to better appreciate all of the fresh, organic, and affordable produce that is available in Paraguay. Part of it is, of course, the fact that my dollars are worth more than guaraníes (though that advantage seems to be decreasing daily) and that even my meager graduate student income puts me toward the upper end of the income distribution. Still, I'm curious if you compared the cost of food and produce, adjusting for purchasing power, whether food would still not be cheaper in Paraguay. Any economists out there interested in checking this out for me? It's definitely worth knowing, because this is what Paraguayans will give up if they let the countryside get bulldozed and covered by soybean plantations. At any rate, I decided we better eat up while we are in Paraguay, because we might be on a diet of beans and rice when we get back to the U.S.

1. Salad of lima beans, sweet corn, radish, and roasted red pepper with pesto. Notice the nasturtium garnish. This was really a delicious and fresh salad, and I found corn that is actually sweet (not starchy) at the supermarket!
2. Dduk with kim chi octopus and crab stix. I used some surumi sticks that are meant for sushi in this korean inspired seafood soup. It was very good and spicy.
3. Pork soup with mung bean noodles and cilantro. I used the last bit of ecoagro pork in this soup. I boiled the bones with the meat left on it with lemon grass, ginger, garlic, and some leek scraps and pho spices for the broth. I added fish sauce and served it with cilantro and basil. However, we decided that it's time to let this basil plant go to seed, because it's getting to that bitter, woody stage that always makes me think the plant is taking its revenge on us for delaying its reproduction by manufacturing lethal, bitter poisons to kill us.
4. Mixed green salad, and cheese plate. This was made with produce from the agroshopping. A new friend, fellow fulbright scholar, and researcher of agricultural associations was visiting Paraguay from Brazil and wanted to check out the agroshopping. I was more than happy to oblige, and while we didn't have a chance to put together an elaborate meal, the weather and the opportunity was perfect for a really fresh salad and a cheese bored. I tore up some purple basil in this salad, along with arugula and two kinds of lettuce, green onion, and cherry tomatoes and dressed it with a classic vinaigrette. The cheese plate was all local cheeses and included a blue cheese, a buttery cow's-milk with black pepper, and a third on I can't remember the name of (I need to start writing these down!) but was a strong, ripened cow's-milk cheese. All three were pretty good. The blue cheese (and I'm not usually a big fan) was very creamy and pleasant flavored. The salami was also very good.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Second Agrarian Divide?

It's amazing and in some ways puzzling to me to watch how food markets are developing in the U.S. It seems like more and more energy is being put into reconstructing the diversity, quality, and geography of traditional food systems and that there is more and more interest in consuming local produce and learning (or relearning) to consume in post-industrial (pre-industrial?) ways. Today, there were two New York times articles that inspired me to write something. One about the local wheat movement, challenging the idea that wheat can't be grown in places like New York State and that wheat ought to be a flavorless, uniform, and consistent commodity. There is a whole package of self reinforcing knowledge that must be recovered together to make such a thing possible: what varieties of wheat grow well where and in what seasons; what those variates of wheat are best used for (pasta, bread, pastries, cakes); how to bake responsively to the variable qualities of flour ground from these different wheats (to adjust the flavors and moisture instinctively to get a good result from different flours); how to enjoy and consume baked goods that aren't just white starches but where wheat and its flavors are an actual player.

Times reporter Indrani Sen writes: "It might take a while to appreciate high-quality, small-batch flours after a lifetime of eating food made with mass-produced flour. Their musky fragrances are often more pronounced, and variations in taste and texture bring a new range of complexity to baked goods, making supermarket flour seem one dimensional by comparison."

I've often thought that, in addition to ecological ways of producing food--i.e. farming methods that mimic ecological processes so that food production is environmentally sound and sustainable--there are also ecological ways of consuming food that mirror or parallel the process of growing food. After all, food is made up of living things, which are limited by their nature and their relationship to the seasons, the soil, the weather, and their relationship to other living things. I think one of the reasons that I love cooking and that I am so fascinated by the world's different cuisines is because of all of the almost ecological knowledge encoded into traditional cooking. Obviously, seasonal eating and the knowledge to make the most out of each season's products is a big piece of this. But it goes well beyond knowing what is in season and knowing what to do and how to respond to the varying qualities of the living things produced by a farm and how to break down and recombine the different components of farm products to make the most of them. French recipes, so I hear, used to stipulate whether winter or spring eggs were to be used, because of their different properties (I might have gotten the seasons wrong, but you get the point). When a cow is killed, it's different parts all have different uses, from the roasting parts, to the soup bones, to the viscera which require special care and treatment to be palatable and occasionally even delicious.

All this knowledge, and then the actual physical investments needed to grow, mill, store, and transport wheat at the local level, must be recovered and put in place to make anything like a market for local wheat possible. And apparently, there is enough interest and will to make this happen. It's bizarre to me, because all of this infrastructure and knowledge existed in the U.S. before it was wiped out by industrial ways of producing and eating and by the subsidies that have upheld and expanded this system in the name of development and progress. Until the 1960s, the Midwest was populated by hundreds of local breweries that produced a vast variety of beers with the knowledge of German, Czech, and Polish immigrants. Midwestern small batch brewing was wiped out by bud light and other tasteless brews only to be later resurrected in the 'snobbish' microbrew craze on the coasts and in cities like Portland, OR. It turns out that people--at least those with economic means--really value the way we used to produce and eat--or at least the way they imagine we used to produce and eat.

What's more puzzling, is that this knowledge and this infrastructure exists (however precariously) in developing countries like Paraguay. Still, rather than strengthening, developing, and making more viable these traditional food systems, most proposed responses to the current global food crisis involve the further industrialization of agriculture. It seems to me that this creates a food supply that people consume not because they demand it or because it is nutritious, but because its empty calories are so cheap that the diversity of qualities people actually value cannot possibly compete. Moreover, by further submitting the food supply to the very vulnerabilities of energy and input intensity that have created this crisis, such a response seems to only postpone an inevitable adjustment toward more sustainable way of producing and eating while leaving an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, environmental destruction, and culinary barrenness in its wake.

The other article was only slightly related, but was about how supermarket chains are opening smaller stores that focus on fresh food and convenience, upending "a long-running trend in the grocery business: building ever-larger stores in the belief that consumers want choice above all." Audre Martin writes: " Of course, small grocery stores have been around forever, and some old-time neighborhood markets still exist. Meanwhile, a handful of specialty retailers have proved that shoppers will flock to smaller stores if they are offered a novel experience." I've also always puzzled at why anyone shops exclusively at huge supermarkets. It strikes me as outright irrational. Produce is much more expensive, for example, at the supermarket near my old apartment in Chicago, than it is at the nearly equidistant Vietnamese small grocers on Argyle street. I never understood why Chicago neighborhoods are not populated by grocers of this sort rather than by Jewel. But it turns out, people like the convenience and quality of a small store for quick shopping trips, and now supermarket companies like Tesco have discovered this and will be the ones to profit from it.

This apparent turning back happens at a time when the monopoly of agribusiness over the food supply and the trade of food has reached alarming levels. From Monsanto's patenting of plant genetic material and the legal system's support for the privatization of life to Walmart's tremendous share in the supermarket industry, private companies have never had so much power to impose their values and profit motive on the way we eat and the way we produce our food. This has led to an illusion of diversity and a reality of stark agricultural and gastronomic monotony.

[This picture is just outside the largest fragment of Atlantic Forest left in Paraguay; the emptiness of the cleared forest and the tree stumps that dot some of the landscape give eerie testament to the extent and the newness of the destruction]

It's like food production and consumption is being pushed or pulled in opposite directions and a highly developed dualism is arising that parallels the increasing inequality of income, education, and health in the U.S. I often wonder how this could possibly play out. Can these two food systems coexist, and if so, for how long? What tensions does this imply for Americans, some of whom will increasingly get their chicken from farmer Phil and others from Phillip Morris?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Porky Paraguay

As I mentioned in my last post, I discovered an excellent source of pork and other wonderful small-farmer produce. It is ecoagro, a marketing firm for small farmers involved in the agroecology development project of Altervida, a Paraguayan environmental NGO. If you sign up, they send you a weekly product list and you can place your order by email or by phone. They have all sorts of vegetables and herbs, citrus fruits and papaya, and even some dried goods like cornmeal sugar, brown sugar, yerba mate, beans, and animal products like Paraguayan cheese, pork, and I suspect/hope they sometimes have chicken and eggs. The quality is very high and the quantity very generous (the cilantro bunches were huge), and it is not any more expensive than the supermarket. It's all organic and from small farmers, and if you order more than 50.000, they have free delivery. I really recommend this service for anyone in Asuncion. There is virtually no draw back, except perhaps that you will still need to go to the supermarket once in a while. Here is some of the stuff I made from this produce:

1. Hummus, avocado, radish, and pita. This actually was made with stuff from the agrofair. After fussing so much about how bad the avocados are in Paraguay, we actually had a run of pretty decent ones. Still less buttery and nutty than good old Hass, but much better than the weird watery ones we had been getting. The food processor my parents got me (in addition to the wok) has also made a terrific addition to my kitchen. Making hummus from garbanzos and sesame seeds is pretty quick work now
2. Olive flat bread with caprese salad. Nearly a year after planting the smuggled seeds, our nasturtiums finally bloomed. Expect to see them garnishing everything I eat for a while.
3. Fried tofu with miso sauce, and a salad of watercress, avocado, heart of palm and radish. We had tofu like this at a Japanese restaurant in Asuncion and after finding firm Japanese-style tofu at a Korean store near the municipal market, I wanted to try to recreate it. It turned out pretty good, and even better the second time (below).
4. Arugula salad with pecan dressing. At the agroshopping they had whole (shell-on) pecans, grown in paraguay, and sold pretty cheap. While I never realized what a pain in the ass it is to shell pecans, I had never enjoyed them so much either. Generally, I feel that pecans are inferior to most nuts--the walnut, almond, cashew, hazelnut, maybe even the peanut--but these were really delicious and sweet. I bought them because David always talks about his grandfather's pecan tree in Alabama, but I think I ended up enjoying them more than he did (maybe because I made him do the shelling). This arugula salad, which I dressed with pecans that I smashed in the mortar with raw garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice and topped with shaved sardo cheese was really delicious. 5. Angel hair pasta with shimeji mushrooms, roasted red pepper, and bacon. I sauteed these mushrooms from the agroshopping (I guess this post was actually mostly about an earlier trip to the agroshopping not ecoagro's delivery service) with some bacon, onion, and garlic, deglazed with some sherry, and added a container of frozen duck stock that I had. I reduced this down added some roasted red pepper and finished the sauce off with a good quantity of butter, grated cheese and chopped parsley. This was awesome.
6. Here began three meals with the ecoagro pork: Pork with dduk, kimchee and tofu. As mentioned, we found a Korean store near the market where we bought tofu, and also kimchee and little 'coins' made of glutinous rice. We had eaten something very similar to this near our apartment in somerville, and I had always wanted to reproduce it. It turned out pretty well.
7. Fried tofu with miso and beet greens; Pork with cilantro. The beet greens were also from the tops of the beets we got from ecoagro. They were excellent with the tofu and miso, very sweet and flavorful. The pork with cilantro was actually also an attempt to reproduce a dish we'd sometimes get from a chinese takeout place in somerville. You wouldn't think that stir frying cilantro like greens would work very well, but it is delicious. It was hard to get good light on this picture, but I wanted to include it because the meal turned out so good.
8. Penne and Pork with fennel, beet greens, and pecan olive pesto. This was probably the best of the meals here. The olives, ricotta cheese, and pecans made a rich and meaty pesto that stood up well to the pork, and the sweetness of the beat greens and fennel contrasted well with the saltiness of the pesto.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wok's New, Pussycat?

So, as I mentioned, my parents made me the super-awesomely useful gift of a wok when they were in Paraguay. It's kind of weird that I've never had a wok before, because they are extremely practical cooking tools, and the variety of Asian-inspired dishes you can easily and deliciously prepare in them are also extremely practical. It's even more surprising given how often I clumsily crammed way more ingredients than comfortably fit into my medium sauté pan in boston for stir frying or to dress pasta, cursing the inadequate size of my only available cooking vessel. As it turns out, an identical cuisinart medium sauté pan was one of my only cooking vessel for the first 8 months or so in Paraguay as well. So, when I got the wok, I immediately went about seasoning it, and then I went a little wok crazy:

1. First, I tried to make smoky hot chicken stir-fried with dried red chillies and green garlic chives. I saw this on a show by an Australian chef and chinese cooking-show host, Kylie Kwong, that the 'People and Arts' channel shows down here on cable. I really like her and her show (which is unusual because food show hosts usually grate on me--perhaps it's my envy of their food super-stardom). Perhaps it was my inexperience with the wok, but this was kind of dissapointing. It wasn't bad, kind of lighter and more herbal tasting than I was craving that day--it definitely did not turn out all caramelized and beautifully browned and smoky like hers. At any rate, I think that my skills have really improved as I've used my wok more and more and maybe I should try this again. The better my results have gotten, though, the more I feel compelled to up my game. I am totally set on buying a pit stove when I get back to Boston for good next year. They sell them at the Taiwanese grocery where I bought the wok in Paraguay for only $25-$50. Hopefully they are not much more in Boston's china town (and hopefully it's not a fire-code violation or anything). It's basically bowl-shaped iron burner you connect directly to a gas tank (like a barbecue) and it lets you get the wok much, much hotter and apparently lends food a special flavor that only the 'breath of the wok' can give. I'm sure it would also cut down even more on the cooking time.

2. My second attempt was soy braised baby bock choi with sausage. They sell little dried pork sausages at the agroshopping that I think make a pretty good stand in for chinese sausage.
3. These sausages were especially good in what I would consider my first wok success: dried sausage fried rice. I don't remember any more, but I think there may have actually been shrimp in there too, in addition to eggs, beansprouts, and green onion.

4. This was kind of the tail end of the Persimmon season. We still get them at the supermarket sometimes, but they are all mushy and kind of wierdly Styrofoamy (like winter tomatoes) now.

5. Not realizing the season was over, I bought way too many not very good persimmons that sat in the fridge forever. Finally, I made this persimmon cake from them, where they worked very well. My grandmother devoured the majority of it.

6. I didn't use the wok for this Tom Ka Gai (Thai coconut chicken soup), but it did continue with the asian theme. It used up a lot of stuff we had, including some coconuts that were lying around (they don't always have them at the supermarket and so whenever they do I buy them just in case), some chicken legs and thighs that were in the freezer, and baby corn I bought on a wok-inspired whim. It may surprise you, but Paraguay actually produces a lot of lemon grass. It is a different variety than the southeast asian one, called cedrón kapi'i here, but shares many of the essential oils and the same flavor profile. The annoying part, for me, is that it is only used in tea here and not to cook with, so mostly you can only get the thin blades from the top of the plant and none of the lower, tougher stem that you use in cooking. So every time I'm in the market I examine all of the cedrón and try to get some of the coveted stem. I've had some luck a few times, like when I made this soup. But my hunt is finally over because just this week we planted two plants in our own herb garden.

7. A few times when I've been out in the field I've had really fantastic interviews, with farmers that are really enthusiastic about organic farming and their success with it. These farmers are not only extremely generous with their time and information, but sometimes even with their produce. I'm sorry I didn't get a good picture in the field, but the boiled mandioca here was from one of those farmers who brought out two very thick roots to show me how using green manure had really increased his yields. In his formerly nutrient poorer soil, he had only produced thin, fragile roots for him and his family to eat. Seeing how impressed I was, he offered the roots as a gift. The cheese here, queso paraguay, a crucial and unsubstitutable ingredient in traditional Paraguayan cooking, is also from a sugar-cane farmer whose wife makes cheese from their family's cows (though I had to purchase this one, it's a little scarcer than mandioca), and who, incidentally host a very nice peace corps volunteer with whom I had a long chat about the community.
8. These ingredients found their way into a very traditional dish of mandi'o chyryry, or fried mandioca with eggs, cheese, ham, and onion, cooked in a very untraditional wok. I promise a recipe for this and other paraguayan specialties will eventually make it on here.
9.We had a tenderloin festival a while back when I saw an Argentine cooking show where they were preparing one for beef carpaccio. I went to the butcher down the street and asked for their freshest beef tenderloin, explaining that I intended to eat it raw. He brought out a plastic-wrapped tube from the freezer, which had a decent color, but didn't really convince me. After getting some help to clean it up from youtube, it looked much better, but I chickened out in the end and, after freezing the cleaned tenderloin, I very quickly seared the outside on a cast iron pan before slicing it. Here it is served up with arugula, cherry tomatoes, capers, a lemon vinagrette, and spicy mayonaise. It was truly delicious, and aparently completely safe.
10. The next day we had another round of tenderloin, this time (slightly less) quickly seared, marinated in a mixture of soy, sugar, and sherry (I had no mirin--japanese cookign wine) and served cold with pickled onion, and chili-daikon relish. This is one of David's absolute favorite dishes. It is really delicious, flavorful, and rich, without being at all heavy.
11. Out of the leftover tenderloin and some cabbage, I threw together a quick beef teriyaki in the wok. In the back is a avocado, arrugula, and cherry tomato salad.

12. Also using the wok, I made some braised red cabbage, with lardons, orange peel, and green apple, to serve alongside the left over sundried tomato and mascarpone ravioli that had been in the freezer. This was a really excellent wintery meal for the cold weather we were having.

13. Finally, I made some orange pork, hoping to redeem my earlier attempt at smoky chile chicken. This was a little better, though the pork was a really horrible, barely edible quality. I won't be buying pork from the supermarket any more. But as future posts will attest, I have found an excellent source of really fresh organic pork grown buy small-holders and made some good pork dinners since. Notice the new rice bowls in this picture too. We were eating so much asian food that we decided it was worth getting some bowls for rice. We still need noodle bowls, but I haven't found quite the right size and shape yet.
Their is a colony of Japanese immigrants in the south of Paraguay, near Encarnacion, that grows Japanese-style, short-grain rice that is pretty good. It's texture is a little mushier than the real Japanese stuff, but it has a really good clean flavor and has been indispensable to making all of these asian-inspired dishes. I buy it at the Taiwanese grocery near the main public market in Asuncion.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Omnivore's Hundred

So, a British food blogger at Very Good Taste came up with an interesting game. He made a list of 100 items he thought every omnivore should try at least once, asked people to post it on their blog, bold the items they had tried, cross out the items they wouldn't consider trying, and link the results to his blog. While a lot of the choices would definitely make my 100, some of them definitely would not and strike me either as rather odd choices or things that I can't imagine anyone who is even remotely fond of eating wouldn't have tried already and eaten many times (e.g. catfish, poleta, calemari). Maybe I'll make my own list later. But it is a fun game, and you'll probably learn stuff about my by reading it. I can't figure out how to do strike-through on blogger, so I've put asterisks around the items I wouldn't consider trying, and I've annotated my list as I thought interesting. A quick count yields 26 items that I have not tried, and only three that I wouldn't consider trying, and in reality I probably would in certain circumstances. Chocolate and Zucchini has linked to wikipedia for the more obscure entries if you want more explanation.
At any rate, here it goes.

1. Venison (I would actually replace this with elk on my 100. I had elk once in vermont and once in Montreal and both times it was really delicious)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros (i've noticed these a lot on T.V. lately, and apparently producers think these are some form of scrambled eggs. They are actually fried eggs with a tomato or chile sauce. They are ok, but not great I much prefer a breakfast taco or quesadilla).
4. Steak tartare (not yet, but I'm now very fond of beef carpaccio, so I'm willing to give it a shot)
5. Crocodile (I've had Aligator but not croc)
6. Black pudding (delicious as part of a hangover-curing, artery-clogging irish breakfast; much more commenly known as morcilla, or blood sausage, some of David and my favorite parrillada fare)
7. Cheese fondue (I've had it in Switzerland!/if I see one more reference to this as dated or a blast for the '70s past I am really going to kill someone)
8. Carp (Better than you'd think. Whole fried carp chinese style is really good)
9. Borscht (I prefer the polish style, clear borscht with little tortellini-like dumplings). I've been dreaming of it since I went to a Polish restaurant near my friends apartment in Brooklyn a couple years ago. In fact, I found a recipe a few days ago and was going to try it out)
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho (anyone who reads this blog can attest to my obsession)
13. PB&J sandwich (not a big fan)
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (a french, washed-rind cows-milk cheese. I picked some up from Copone's once. If I recall it was pretty could, kind of caramely, but would definately not make my top 100 in the cheese category)
17. Black truffle (I don't know if it was just too subtle or a poor execution, but truffles did not make a big impression on me)
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (not a big fan of the fruit wines I've had)
19. Steamed pork buns (I love these and miss them so much that I'm considering trying my hand at them)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes (someday I will have a garden full of these)
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras (mostly in paté; I still want to try an honest to goodness dish made of foie gras)
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese (It's not bad, actually)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper (I guess I would try this, but I don't see much point)
27. Dulce de leche (I come from the land of Dulce de Leche--speaking of which, I'm really tired of Argentina getting sole credit for lots of things that are also typical of paraguay: yerba mate (it's called ilex paraguayensis for pete's sake), empanadas, and if that weren't enough they even steal credit for things that are unambiguously Paraguayan like chipa)
28. Oysters (I love them)
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda (aparently an Italian fondue-like dish)
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (I don't really think the sourdough bowl in necessary)
33. Salted lassi (I got this one by mistake once, and I got to say, I thought it was disgusting)
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (I've had them each separately (sorry mom) does that count?_
37. Clotted cream tea (Also my favorite. Tealuxe in Boston has great crumpets with clotted cream and strawberry jam and a fantastic tea selection)
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O ( i'd really rather have the vodka straight)
39. Gumbo ( I really hate okra, even in gumbo)
40. Oxtail (very common on my dinner table growing up. I love it in puchero and in pasta sauce)
41. Curried goat (I love goat curry, one reason for my secret plan to become a goat farmer)
42. Whole insects (I'd try them, I guess, but I wouldn't go out of my way to)
43. Phaal (apparently the hottest curry dish you can order at an indian restaurant. I know what I'm getting next time I visit Devon Ave. in Chicago)
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more (there is a funny story about this and our unexpectedly large dinner bill the first week we were in Paraguay a year ago).
46. *Fugu* (this is that Japanese pufferfish dish. I can't imagine it's delicious enough to be worth even a small risk of death)
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel (I've recently discovered that eel is common in rural Paraguay, and on my last stint of field work had many a bowl of deliriously delicious eel soup)
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut (They really are quite good)
50. Sea urchin (I had some at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo)
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi (very sour)
53. Abalone ( I don't believe I've had any)
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal (But I've actually been on a fast-food boycott since I saw supersize me. It has been almost five years since I've had anything from an unambigously fast-food chain ('casual dining' such as Chile's not included)--my mom beats me though. Once when I was like in third grade she had a terrible hamburger at the Mcdonald's in the Field Museum in Chicago and vowed she would never eat fast food again. We all thought she was crazy (really), but it has been probably 20 years since she has eaten anything from a fast food restaurant besides KFC--my parents are loco for KFC, but even that they only have like once a year).
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini (I hate gin, and until several years ago, I didn't like olives either)
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. *Poutine* (This is a quebequeois specialty of french fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy; it's not so much that I wouldn't consider trying this; i just can't imagine that I'd enjoy it that much)
60. Carob chips (I really don't know how this made the list. Unless your allergic to chocolate, there is no point)
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads (They come grilled a lot in Paraguay as molleja. I used to hate them, but I can stomach them now)
63. Kaolin (this is a kind of clay; I certainly wouldn't object to trying it, but would probably only do so in conjunction with some highly alkaline food like acorns or something that required its neutralizing properties).
64. Currywurst
65. Durian (I'm definitely intrigued after all the press this stinky southeast asian fruit has recieved)
66. Frogs’ legs (I can't remember if I've ever had these; if I did, they didn't make a big impression)
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake (I've had all of these, in fact, and, as long as the cinnemon is kept far, far away from them, I love these kinds of fried pastries).
68. Haggis (why not?)
69. Fried plantain (I got a taste for these when I was in Haiti for a summer teaching music)
70. *Chitterlings, or andouillette* (I just know that I wouldn't like these. I have such a history of disappointing experience with cow entrails that I don't really want to explore the possibilities of porcine viscera)
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini (I don't believe I've had them together)
73. Louche absinthe (not yet, but it's on my list)
74. Gjetost, or brunost (If someone offered, I would definitely try this Swedish whey cheese. But, odd-looking as it is, I don't think I'd try it on my own)
75. Roadkill (do people actually eat this? really? I thought that was a mean-spirited, classist joke. I guess it depends on the circumstances though)
76. Baijiu (an extremely potent, apparently fowl-tasting chinese liquor distilled from sorghum. I'm not opposed, but I'm a little past wild nights of drunkenness (usually)).
77. Hostess Fruit Pie (again, not sure how this made the list)
78. Snail (see No. 89 'Horse')
79. Lapsang souchong (a pine-smoked, chinese tea. I tried some at tea-luxe. It is very smoky, good for crisp weather)
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky (we just found some of these chocolote-covered cookie sticks at a Korean store in Asuncion)
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. (someday . . .)
85. Kobe beef (not yet, but some japanese restaurants in asuncion advertise kobe-style beef)
86. Hare (I've had rabit, and like it a lot, but I've never had an honest-to-goodness wild hare)
87. Goulash
88. Flowers (you'll notice in my future posts that nasturtium garnishes will become ubiquitous as our plants FINALLY started to bloom)
89. Horse (When I was in Switzerland. Me and a chinese-american friend tried to explain to our bemused Swiss hosts how it was strange and a little uncomfortable for Americans to eat Horse. However, it was our turn for bemusement when the Swiss shrieked "You guys eat that?" in disgust when we decided to order to the snails.
90. Criollo chocolate (not sure what this is)
91. Spam (It really doesn't taste bad, but I don't think this is a can't miss. It's pretty much represents all that is wrong with the food industry)
92. Soft shell crab (I think soft-shell crabs are kind of insect-like, and disturbing. With all the other delicious crabs out there, I'd leave this one off the list).
93. Rose harissa (I've had harissa but not Rose Harissa. But if it is made with rosewater, I probably wouldn't like it. They make meringue with rose water here, and I think it makes everything taste like old ladies' makeup)
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox (I think I blogged about this, but I'm always amazed by how much better this is in New York)
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Move Over Chicago, A Cambridge Boy's in Town

An article I wrote and published at upsidedownworld, a Latin American news website.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Belated blogging

Well . . . it's certainly been a long time. I had an intense couple months of fieldwork, which was followed by an intensive month of writing and my first academic conference. All this went well, but I'm afraid let this blog slide. While I haven't been blogging in the last months, I have not stopped cooking, and think I'll just spend the next few posts catching you all up on what I've been eating. The last post that I had planned is actually from when my parents were visiting Paraguay. We did a lot of cooking and eating, not unlike when they would visit me in Boston.

1. One of Asunción's must visit restaurants is Bar San Roque. It is actually Asuncion's oldest restaurant and has been open more than 100 years. We (re)discovered it when I was little and my sister was going through a phase of obsessively repeating words she thought sounded cool. We were deciding where to go for dinner, someone had suggested Bar San Roque, and Alice started an endless chant of "Bar San Roque, Bar San Roque . . . " until my parents relented. While she didn't actually want to go there, we have her craziness to thank for discovering one of our favorite restaurants in the whole world. The menu has some German influence, but San Roque has some of the best traditional Paraguayan food in Asuncion (of course the best traditional food is home cooked and in the countryside). Pictured here are the only things that a first time visitor should even consider ordering: Asado a la olla ( beef short ribs that have been boiled and then browned in there own rendered fat), and Bife Koguã (steaks cooked in a sauce with tomatoes, green and red peppers, onions, and cilantro, topped off with poached eggs). They make a good chipa guazú (a sort of corn and cheese soufflé), milanesa de surubí (breaded fried fillets of a delicious local river fish), and bife de lomito con cebollas (pan-grilled tenderloin with grilled onions). If you make it to Bar San Roque, you should definitely not pass up a style of Pilsen Chopp (draft of the excellent local pilsner-style beer). For some reason, the beer taste better here than anywhere else in town (ask for a manija grande de chopp).

2. We also went to a german festival at the local German club. After living in northeast Wisconsin for four years during college, I can't say I was impressed with the food. But it was cool to see them making split pea soup in these huge cauldrons.

3. One night when we didn't feel like going out I made a quick lima bean soup. I browned some bacon and a left over pork bone I had in the freezer (I believe it was left over from the tofu with pork and long beans), added some diced turnips and potatoes, onions and garlic, and deglazed with some sherry, covered with water and closed the pressure cooker. After maybe 15 minutes i added the fresh (but starchy paraguayan) lima beans, and softened them for another 15 minutes. I believe the green was fresh thyme. It was really delicious

4. I also had some chicken livers left over from something, and had been wanting to make chopped liver since I saw Ina Garten make it. I thought it was really good, but extremely rich. It was also one of the first meals I prepared with the awesome gift my parents gifted me: a food processor. I'll write more about the processor later, but I've got to say, it's been really useful. I've never been a food processor person, since until now I haven't undertaken many cooking tasks that a blender can't handle. But since I'm making so much from scratch here (e.g. tahini, falafel) it has come in really handy.
5. A different night we used purchases from the agroshopping and the mercado 4 (the largest public market in Asuncion) to make Surubí en papillote, with miso and shimeji mushrooms. Next to the fish is my mothers excellent asparagus risotto. Cooking fish in parchment paper is easy and delicious, and the result is light and very flavorful. I believe in addition to miso, mushrooms, and fish, these parchments had bean sprouts, carrots, green onion, ginger, pepper, and the white wine pictured here. I'm afraid I can't remember the name of the wine, but I would give it my highest recommendation. This particular bottle had sat for who knows how many years in probably the worst place imaginable for wine storage: above the refrigerator in the kitchen, where the heat irregularly ejected by the fridge and the stove did its best to spoil it. Then, it was moved outdoors and stored alternatively next to the stove and the grill for the better part of this year. By the time we actually opened it, the cork was as dry and crumbly, and we opened it only for lack of anything else to drink. Despite having been through wine hell, it was actually pretty good. A little too sweet, perhaps, but not bad.
6. The best meal we had was sun-dried tomato and mascarpone ravioli with tomato braised shortribs and sausages. I made the filling out of ground sun-dried tomatoes, mascarpone and sardo cheese, roasted red pepper, and rosemary. My mother made the sauce (I never get it to turn out as good) and probably the best pasta I've ever had in my life. The ravioli turned out perfect, they were pillowy and light with just the right texture.
7. The timing of my parents visit coincided with my Birthday. We had a big barbeque with all my relatives, and David made this really beautiful and excellent cake for me. It was just the kind of cake I like, not too sweet. He's actually much better at baking than I am.
8.Here is a very traditional lunch of puchero con bori bori. I promise that I am still working on a whole series of posts that will turn dinner bell into the go-to website for Paraguayan recipes, but until then, I'll post pictures and descriptions of some of the outstanding meals we have. It's actually kind of ironic. I've always hated when I'm looking for a really obscure recipe and I find a website that describes, pictures, or otherwise mentions some dish but gives no effort a providing a recipe. Now I am guilty of it myself. But I've decided this website and a potential Paraguayan cookbook are going to be my side project while I do my Fulbright year here. At any rate, puchero (in Paraguay) is basically a beef bone soup (made with neck bones, oxtail, and or short ribs) with boiled vegetables (at home we usually had carrots, potatoes, squash, and cabbage). Here you can see some of the meet and boiled vegetables served with a watercress salad (a traditional accompaniment) and the broth served with bori bori, which are dumplings made from cornmeal and cheese.
9. Another fruit that was in season around this time was "grosella" (to the right in the picture) It took me a while to figure out what this was. In the stands of the supermarket and farmers market they always looked really pretty, and I had tried and liked grosella juice before. But I couldn't imagine what it was or how it was used. But, guessing it would be juicy and taste sort of like a berry, I went ahead and bought some, assuming that I could identify on the internet. but when I examined and sampled one, I discovered that it was basically a flower bud and tasted as much, dry and kind of sour. Furthermore, my internet sleuthing was thwarted by the fact that "grosella" actually means current in standard Spanish and I couldn't find anything that seemed close to what I purchased. Finally, on a website talking about an agricultural diversification development project in Paraguay I found the scientific name, did a second search for that, and discovered that the fruit in question was actually quite familiar to me. It was the calyx of the roselle flower most commonly used to make the Mexican refreshment agua de jamaica, sometimes served hot as "hibiscus tea" in the U.S.
I knew that it was a member of the hibiscus family, but having only seen the flowers dried, I imagined that they looked more like this.
At any rate, I ended up substituting the hibiscus flowers for the cranberries in a recipe for cranberry sauce with kumquats (which were also in season and abundant). I think the sauce turned out ok, and it was meant to be served with

9. Roast ducks. But I think these particular ducks had sat in our grocer's freezer for a bit too long. While the duck itself tasted fine, the sauce definitely tasted 'off' after I added the duck pan drippings that had been de-glazed with some red wine. After having gone through all the trouble of identifying the roselle flowers and then making the sauce, I was kind of annoyed--I think especially because this was mine and my mom's birthday lunch. But then, I'm not sure if I like kumquats either. They seem like such a good citrusy idea, but in reallity, they are all pith and are kind of bitter. Maybe I just needed to add a lot more sugar. The nurse who comes to help take care of my grandmother nearly fainted when we told her how much the ducks cost, and she said she could get us live ones for much cheaper next time. I'll probably take her up on it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

El hormiguero del mundo

David and I are making a second attempt to use our limited garden space productively. Of the the 20-some heirloom tomato and poblano pepper seeds we planted, only one plant survived to reach maturity, and--as mentioned earlier--it produced only two fruits before it was defeated by illness. Of the dozen nasturtium seeds we planted, only two germinated and ants killed one of these. The other plant has grown large, but to date has produced only three flowers. I'm hoping we'll have more luck with our winter crop. We ripped up a small section of grass (to my mother's temp0rary horror) to plant a couple of rows of garden peas. The results were immediately promising, as they beat their 8-10 day germination time by 5-6 days. But no sooner had they reached two inches than those damned leaf cutter ants marched in and began decapitating our little seedlings. So far they have only gotten to three or four of them, but there is no stopping them if their set on ruining our plot. The most infuriating part is that they seem to cut the pea sprouts down just for spite. They just leave the leaves to rot next to the decapitated stem. They just can't stand to see something growing, and these mycoculturalists of the insect world have quickly gone from objects of amazement and wonder to objects of intense hatred. But I'm still hoping they will spare my peas. I am really excited to introduce my family to the wonders of fresh sweet peas, and to make at least a few meals where I don't have to be worried about the treason of Paraguay's starch peas. In the meantime, we have been enjoying some seasonal fruits and vegetables from the supermarket in our meals.

1. Heirloom Tomato Salad with China Rose Radishes and Avocado. This salad would have been amazing, had it not been for the avocado. Add avocado to the list of produce of puzzlingly inferior quality in paraguay (currently populated by peas and tomatoes). This had to be the worst avocado of my life. Avocados here tend to be flavorless and watery, but this one had a distinct foul bitterness and a vague rancid nut flavor. It was just horrible and enough to make me give up on Paraguayan avocados. But I keep buying them, because everytime I go to the supermarket they look slightly different in shape, color, and texture. Sometimes completely spherical, sometimes longer and recently even pear shaped, sometimes lighter green sometimes darker, sometimes smooth, sometimes rougher. It's maddening because each time I see a new shape I think, "this is it; this is the one," only to be dissapointed all over again. Well, I have one more in my fridge now, so we'll give it one more shot. But these beautiful radishes were an unexpected discovery. I bought them because they looked unusual, especially compared to the typically very conventional produce carried by our supermarket, but I didn't expect to like them very much. I thought they would be more like daikon than like salad radishes. But they are excellently spicy and sharp and reveal gorgeous patterns when cut into thin slices. After some internet searching I concluded our new find was a 'china rose' radish. We've been using them a lot in salads in the last few weeks. 2. Falafel with Tahini. This was a bit of a chore, but well worth it. There is an excellent brand of pita bread here, which (when reheated) is soft inside and crispy and chewy on the outside. I used NYtimes food writer Mark Bittman's recipe, and it turned out really well--though I would not suggest using a blender for this recipe. I ended up not having parsley the night I decided to make this, so I used watercress instead and it turned out fine. I also made some tahini by grinding up seseame seeds with oil in the blender and mixing it with plain yogurt, garlic, mint, and some green onion. I served it with some more radishes and green onion. For dessert we had another seasonal item, persimmons. They appeared a couple months ago and were such a persistent offering in the supermarket that I finally gave in and tried one. They are really delicious and sweet with an almost brown-sugar or maple syrup kind of flavor. We have been eating them a lot for dessert after lunch and dinner.
3. A closeup
4. Tofu Miso Soup with spinach. I've mentioned that the tofu here is excellent. I had a chance to go to the agroshopping and buy some from my favorite stand, which i believe is from a Taiwanese farm. The tofu was creamy and dense with an excellent clean flavor.
5. Yard-long beans with spicy ground pork and tofu. I promised this would make a reprise. It was good, but I had to use miso instead of black beans (hey fermented soy is fermented soy, right?) and I didn't put enough spice into this one, I think. But it was still good, and I like long beans much better than green beans; they have less water and a more concentrated, greener flavor.
6. Yogurt cheese with fresh herbs and olive oil. This was an elegant light dinner with some pita bread and the salad pictured below. I made the cheese from some homemade yogurt, strained in cheese cloth over night, rolled it in mint and basil, and drizzle it with olive oil and black pepper. It is garnished with nasturtium leaves.
6. Spinach salad with toasted almonds and spiced persimmons. This is one of the best salads I've ever made. I dressed it with lime juice, honey, toasted ground cumin and coriander, and olive oil, and sprinkled the persimmon with ground hot chile. It was perfect.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Back to Boston

So I found out today that I have been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do research in Paraguay for 2008-2009. This is really great news for my research, because I was starting to get really worried that I was very short on time and now I will be able to extend my project and look at how different peasant organizations are reacting to the cannibalistic spread of the soybean industry. This probably means I'll be going back to the U.S. a little sooner than I expected, and I'll be back in Paraguay a lot sooner. All this back and forth is getting to be a bit much, but I certainly am not about to complain. But I figure I should catch up on my blogging about the meals I cooked in Boston before its time to go back again.

In the last few weeks before my sublet ran out, I took advantage of having the kitchen and made some pretty good meals.

1. This was not one of them: Curried Pumpkin soup. It was an extreme convenience meal. Preparation consisted of me dumping a can of pumpkin left behind by the former subletter of my room in beacon hill into a pot with a can of coconut milk, half a jar of red curry paste, and half a box of chicken broth. I threw in some left over canned tomatoes too, and topped it off with chopped cilantro. My roommate said it "tasted like curry sauce." I can't say that it was the most delicious thing I made while in Boston, but it fed me in less than 10 minutes, used up some leftover ingredients, and let me get back to work really quick as I was preparing my colloquium. And I wouldn't say it was 'bad.'2. This was followed, however, by one of the best meals I've cooked in a long time. Rum braised beef short rib with roasted butternut squash.
I have been meaning to do a big long, ranty post about how much I hate butternut squash. With all the tremendous, delicious diversity of squash that exists in the world and in its native American habitat, the butternut squash has somehow gained a regrettable culinary hegemony. Do a search for squash soup, winter vegetable stew, squash gnocchi, squash risotto--what you will--and you'll observe how the butternut, the bully of the squash world, has marginalized its more delicious and beautiful brothers into shameful obscurity. It's watery, flavorless flesh, smooth, pale skin, and industrial uniformity recalls alarmist cold war depictions of communist consumer autocracy. Yet, it is the capitalist forces of Safeway or Super Stop and Shop and some industrial-scale farm in California or Texas, rather than Big Brother, that has perfected blandness and obliterated choice. How could anyone pass up the turban squashs's explosive colors, the oddness of the hubbard and kabocha squashes, the elegance of the fairytale pumpkin and golden nugget squash, the buttercup squash's rustic charm, and the rich, creamy, even caramely, flesh they harbor for such a miserly vegetable as the butter nut squash? I'll never know. But . . . having just read the omnivores dilemma and being as I am, deeply concerned with agricultural sustainability, I decided that I would try to eat more locally while I was in Boston, and at whole foods (the only supermarket in the vicinity of the room I was renting) the butternut squash and the beets were about the only local produce available. The butternut squash's shortcomings aside, its shape did make for a nice presentation here, and this meal was delicious. I was very sad to have eaten such a delicious meal by myself. But as it was the middle of a very busy week, I couldn't find a dinner guest.
3. I had many guests at another memorable meal: "mussels two ways." In keeping with my desire to eat more locally, I steamed up two heaping bowls of new england mussels, one with tomato broth, olives, and Spanish chorizo, and another with leaks, cream and lemon zest. Mussels are my go to dinner party dish, because they are quick, cheap (at least in Boston) and delicious as long as they are fresh. They make a great impression without much work or expense. These took a little more work than I bargained for, as they were particularly dirty and bearded [cheap, quick, dirty and bearded . . . doesn't sound like the makings for a dinner party], but I put my friend Roberto to work cleaning as I get everything else ready. Luckily the crowd was a relaxed one with no hurry [despite appearances], and when it was ready we worked our leisurely way to the bottom of both bowls as well as many bottles of wine. I hope there will be lots more meals like this with these friends when I eventually get back to Boston.
4. This meal was meant for David while he was in town, but I didn't get to cooking it until the very last day that I was in my sublet kitchen. It's the second installment of squid ink pasta I promised long ago: black linguine with smoked salmon, capers, leeks and cream. The salmon and capers together were a bit salty, but still a good use of squid ink pasta, I think.
The last meal I made before returning to Paraguay was with my friend melanie. I believe this was tilapia, with cream and roasted poblano chile rajas. On the side was balsamic glazed brussel sprouts with caramelized shallots. This is one of my favorite fish recipes. The roasted peppers have a smoky, sweet, and entirely unique flavor that marries perfectly with the cream and fish.