Thursday, August 14, 2014

Locavores, eat your heart out

Growing up, my diet was stunted by two major constraints: My father was a very picky eater—meat, rice and blackbeans, mostly—and my mom was a terrible cook who could turn even excellent ingredients into mush almost as if on purpose. At the foster homes where I stayed when I came from Cuba the fare wasn't much better, hitting bottom with the last family I stayed with. They were immigrants from Belfast, the housewife a devout practitioner of British cuisine particularly in her knack for roasting meats to between desiccation and incineration. A thin cloud of smoke from the kitchen served as an indication dinner was about ready.

Stew's family, on the other hand, was blessed with the talents of his mom Frances who could rummage through the refrigerator or the pantry and conjure up a great meal in minutes out of whatever she found. Stew remembers a few mishaps, such as the time his dad lit the charcoal grill in the basement of their house in Cedar Rapids. Or when the neighbor's Basset Hound ran off with the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey that was resting on a tray in the garage which doubled as an energy-free refrigerator during the winter.

But those were exceptions and none Frances's fault: I can't recall a bad meal at the Hammers. Still, this was the American Midwest at the height of the Betty Crocker Era, so menus relied heavily on meats and gravy while arugula, kalamata olives and vegetables in general, aside from iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, were regarded with suspicion.

It's what's for dinner tonight. 
When we moved in together, Stew and I brought our limited palates and they didn't expand much despite regular ventures to the myriad ethnic restaurants within a mile of our home in Chicago and the presence of a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe's also nearby. Too much alcohol before and during meals probably didn't help.

All that has changed since we moved to our small ranch in Mexico, whose garden has become a cornucopia of vegetables and fruits neither one of us would have considered before. Lemon cucumbers, a couple of types of squash, five or six kinds of tomatoes, including three heirloom varieties, along with various types of beets, radishes, carrots and a seemingly endless cavalcade of different lettuces plus Swiss chard and kale that continue producing during our mild winters.

Big-city locavores define locally grown produce as that grown within 100 miles of where it's sold. Most of our produce comes within 100 feet of our kitchen and it's all organic unless the sheep and horses that contribute manure to our compost snort cocaine during full moons.

Last night we had home-grown peas, which redefined my idea of what peas ought to taste like. Stew sauteed them in butter with a little bit of salt and that was it. Quick and simple unless you count the half hour it took for the two of us to coax the little buggers our of their pods. There's supposed to be a little string to zip the pods open but we couldn't find it.

Soups have become Stew's culinary forte, largely to accommodate all the vegetables Félix brings from the garden. Stew's copy of Marian Morash's "The Victory Garden Cookbook" is well dog-eared and stained.

The bounty from our garden hasn't turned us into vegetarians, much less vegans. Félix has turned up lumpy fennel roots neither Stew nor I can deal with. Who planted that stuff? Stew likes beets a hell of a lot more than I do. Chilis, which Félix plants and caresses, have limited appeal beyond the common Jalapeños and Serranos. Two tiny volcanic Piquín chilis rest on the kitchen window sill looking menacing. I expect them to eat through the ceramic tile.

The vegetable garden hasn't been foolproof either. Sweet corn just doesn't grow for us—despite some of friends' bragging about theirs—and neither do strawberries, which sprout lush foliage but little fruit. Okra didn't even peek from the dirt and just as well. I tried it somewhere and its oleaginous texture was a turn off. And Idaho potatoes smuggled in from the States just rotted in the Mexican soil.

The laws of produce supply and demand remain elusive. We would have liked more peas but they're finished, except for a batch from seeds we brought in from Portugal that are starting to flower. There's more Swiss Chard and kale than two human beings can eat; Félix refuses to take any home as if the stuff were radioactive. Lemon cucumbers, which look like lemons until sliced, were not a big hit though we got several.

We might envy some big-city treats like concerts, bookstores where you can fondle the merchandise while sipping an espresso and the real feel of an ink-and-paper version of The New York Times.

But locally produced vegetables? Fahgettaboutdit.






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