Monday, February 16, 2009

Brain Food

As I have noted, if someone were to make a top five list of Paisa weekend activities it would probably look something like this:

5. Eat really delicious food
4. Spend time with friends
3. Visit with family
2. Chill at a finca
1. Party at your finca, with your family and friends, celebrating someone's birthday with lots of meat.

Guess what I got to do last weekend?

Alina's good friend Nati was celebrating her 25th birthday, and I was invited to join in the festivites at Nati's aunt's finca, about 30 minute outside of Medellin. After a great deal of vehicular logistics and last minute food shopping, we drove out of the warm, rainy Medellin night and into the mountains, finlly turning off of the autopista onto a dirt road that in turn deposited us at the threshold of Nati's finca.

Immediately, various male members of the party began clustering around the makeshift barbecue grill, blowing on the coals, and offering advice. Nati set to work reassembling the stereo and selecting appropriately festive music. (By morning, the neighbors had all been serenaded by a mix of the best of the 90's and Colombian Cumba.) The devastatingly seductive aroma of chorizo and toasting arepas slowly overshadowed the scents of the campo so that we all began eyeing the grill hungrily and hefting our forks. Candela, the neighbor's curious puppy, waited patiently beside the coals in the vain hope that something dreadful would call us all away and provide her with a window in which to feast. As we passed the bowls of steaming, cripy chorizo from person to person (there were not plates enought for everyone), a mug of mate--a caffeinated herb beverage--passed behind. I was more than content.

The food for these asadas (barbecues) is appropriately simple: arepas, chorizo, some cuts of beef, some butter, salt, and lemon juice. Upon my return to Medellin, I was savoring a different, though surprisingly apropo sort of culinary delight, my new book Feast by Martin Jones. Feast traces the uniquely human tradition of sharing food from Homo heidelbergiensis to the present day and disects the way that food sharing has shaped human culture just as human culture has shaped the experiene of sharing food. Only in humans, Jones relates, do groups not only hunt together but also share the fruits of their labor with extended groups of family and friends. Within the other branches of the animal kingdom, eating is a speedy event and the presense of other creatures is usually a challenge or a threat. But we humans not only tolerate the presense of others of our species at the table, we invite it. We build elaborate rituals around the sharing of a meal, tell stories, sing songs, pray, linger as the night grows deeper.

Shortly after returning from the finca, I happened to be reading about Neanderthals and how the development of stable family groups with hearthfires helped us grow a brain (and with it a real food culture). Food cooked with heat not only tastes sweeter and is more aromatic (a result of a chemical reaction that produces "Amadori products"), it is also easier to digest, as the fire has already broken down many complicated molecular chains into smaller pieces. Fermentation does much the same thing, coincidentally. Cooking with heat renders many toxic raw foods (of both plants and animals) suddenly nutritious, which allowed the human diet to expand and diversify. As humans no longer needed the endlessly regenerating teeth of a shark nor the four stomachs of a cow, we could care for the very old and very young (both of whom need soft, easily digested food) and use that extra caloric energy to grow a bigger brains. Our digestive equipment got smaller even as our brains got bigger. And what did we need that bigger brain for? The neocortex is a part of the mamal brain the size of which corelates with familiar group size and complexity of social interaction. We humans have a neocortex the size of which suggests a "friend" group of 150-200 people (think of your average Christmas card list). This larger group size was necessitated by the demand for greater social cohesion the better to survive in a swiftly changing world.

Which brings us back to the finca, where I sat happily munching away on arepas and chorizo and working hard to grow a bigger brain. I am a product and a producer of the same food culture that has existed for more than 40,000 years. It's manifestations are many and varied, but pretty much all (I'm convinced) are worth sampling.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Grocery Story Shopping

Check out Civil Eats (an awesome website in its own right) for a guest post by yours truly). I'm off to the grocery to conduct further "research". Yum.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner

I'm normally the kind of person who researches a trip semi-obsessively before my departure. By the time I boarded to the plane for my semester of "study" in New Zealand, for example, I had highlighted my Let's Go Travel Guide and already begun planning what food to pack for the hike to Milford Sound. For this Colombia expedition I decided to cultivate a bit more spontaneity, and about the only preparatory action that I took was to watch Dirty Dancing 2: Havanna Nights for salsa tips. The dancing was pretty cool, but the cheesiness was predictably quite high.

Havanna Nights must have had a subliminal effect on me, however, as once I arrived in Medellin, I set to work looking for a dance school. With Luz Helena's help, I found one--El Ultimo Cafe--not too far from my language university, and I was soon signed up for private lessons in any and all forms of latin dance. My teacher promised me 18 hours of class at a ridiculously low price, and I figured that with my gringa background, I needed all of the hours of practice that I could afford.

I began with salsa, which everyone had told me was one of the easiest dances. That may be true for Latin people, born with hips that move in perfect rhythm without either thought or effort, but my WASPy genes did not endow me with such gifts. I could do the basic steps, but the feel of the dance was totally lost on me. I tried not to lose hope, and when my teacher informed me that there would be a milonga Saturday night at my school, I decided to watch in hopes that I might learn grace by osmosis. A milonga, I learned, is a sort of tango salon, a place where couples can dance but where, during breaks in the dancing, professional dancers or singers give brief performances. I sat (happily) in the corner and watched the intricate footwork and graceful movements of the couples. Forget salsa, I thought to myself, I want to tango!

I had my first lesson the following Monday and--much to my surprise--I was actually kind of decent (at least for a total newbie gringa). The steps which had seemed incomprehensible and totally improvised, began to make sense to me. The underlying beat pulsed behind the accordion and piano flourishes and guided me around the dancefloor on tiptoes. I began to recognize the subtle shifts in pressure and footwork that my teacher used to direct me: sometimes holding back and hesitating, sometimes matching our paces to the sweet, tripping notes. I became so enraptured with this dance that I stopped feeling self-conscious, stopped trying to watch my feet or catch my reflection in the mirror. The discovered that the romance of tango can be bold and red: women in tight dresses with a rose between their teeth. Or it can be simple and timeless: the happy feeling of moving in well-paired synchronicity with another person. Unlike Dirty Dancing's Baby, I'm not in love with my teacher, but I am in love with the dance.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Gastronomic Synchretism

A "finca" according to my college Spanish, is a farm. So you can imagine my excitement, shortly after arriving in Medellin, to discover that most Paisas like nothing better than to spend a weekend chilling at their family`s finca. Wow, I thought, this is farming county! Well, not exactly. As it turns out, "finca" translates more accurately as "country house" ("granjas" are the places that produce the food), a point which I was speedily apprised of when I started talking about helping with the weeding.

So when Luz Helena (my host mother here in Colombia) invited me to her finca last weekend, I abandoned my dreams of hard labor and contented myself with long walks, slow meals, and a warm fire at night. Medellin, though high enough in the mountains that the climate belies its equatorial location, is still a fairly warm place. The midday temperature is usually around 80° and the nightime low doesn`t go below 60°. Going out to a finca entails a climb higher up into the mountains to cooler weather, and justifies a fire in the fireplace.

Luz Helena`s finca could have been plucked from the happy ending of a fairy tale: it was surrounded by beds of explosively colorful flowers, and a tiny brook cut through the lawn before disappearing into the trees. Daniel, Luz Helena`s 8-year-old grand nephew, volunteered himself as tour guide for Alina and me, and we armed ourselves with umbrellas before venturing into what was surely a dragon-filled forest. Admittedly, the nearest thing to a dragon that we encountered that weekend was a small black chiauaua (Daniel nicknamed him "Rocky"), who followed us through a gauava forest. There, in the shade of the pygmy guava trees, Alina and I ate our fill while Daniel played tug-of-war with Rocky.

The next morning, Luz Helena took us to a local market to give me a lesson in Colombian fruit words. Among the bitayas, guayavas, mangos, bananas, tomatos de arboles and other new foods, I encountered a familiar (though utterly unexpected) sight. Rhubarb. February is the perfect time for rhubarb if you live in England or the southern United States, but I was more than a bit taken aback to find that it grows in Colombia`s temperate climate. Rhubarb in endemic to Siberia, so this plant was as out of place as a mango tree in Antarctica. But that didn`t stop us from buying a few stalks (they were, after all, local) and the following week Alina and I made a pastel de rubarb (as Luz Helena called it) that combined Colombian moras (rather like blackberries) with our exotic interloper. We made our version Alina-friendly by using gluten-free flour, but the original recipe calls for the normal white stuff, which would probably yield a slightly more durable crust. In our case, the pastel looked stunning in the baking dish, but became a rather messy cobbler as soon as we tried to serve it. Hopefully, I will be able to upload some pictures shortly (which will, I think, induce any skeptics to give this recipe a try).

Pastel de Rubarb y Moras

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg yolk
3 to 4 tablespoons chilled cream
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup sliced almonds
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices rhubarb
2 1/2 cups moras (raspberries or blackberries would be a good substitute, I think)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 T lemon juice

For crust:
Blend flour, sugar, and salt in processor 5 seconds. Using on/off turns, cut in butter until coarse meal forms. Add egg yolk and blend. Add cream if necessary (we didn`t need it). Blend until moist clumps form. Gather dough into ball. Press dough into the bottom of a 9x9 inch Pyrex baking dish. Pierce crust all over with fork. Chill at least 2 hours. Bake cold crust until golden brown, pressing with back of fork if crust bubbles, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

For streusel:
Cook butter in large skillet over medium heat until golden, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Mix in almonds, sugar, and cinnamon. Add flour and stir until moist clumps form. Cool completely. (Crust and streusel can be made 1 day ahead. Cover separately and chill.) If you chill the streusel, it will probably be necessary to break it up with a fork when you prepare to use it.

For filling:
Preheat oven to 375°F. Toss all ingredients in bowl to blend. Let stand until filling looks moist, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Spoon filling into warm crust. Crumble streusel over. Bake until filling is bubbling and streusel is crisp and brown, about 1 hour. Cool tart on rack 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.