Wednesday, June 29, 2011

¿Qué comen los vegetarianos?

I come from a vegetarian family, and up until a couple years ago I ate an entirely vegetarian diet. I eat meat occasionally now, but I rarely cook it (nor do I really know how). My day-to-day meals remain largely vegetarian or vegan. When I was growing up, being vegetarian was still considered odd in the U.S.; even in San Francisco people found it strange, especially for a little kid. I probably would have been teased a lot if I  had cared, but given that I never reacted it was always a subject of light humor as opposed to let's torture the weird kid with tofu for lunch. These days most Americans won't even blink if you say you're vegetarian (though I say this never having been to the American South, where I imagine you'd still garner a reaction). In South America, vegetarianism is still a novelty and an oddity, and especially given that eating meat is associated with wealth, it's not something that most people are attracted to. I get asked all the time, what do vegetarians eat? And though I used to say, everything you eat, without the meat, I don't think that's really true. And I do think that's why so many people who decide to become vegetarians end up feeling and/or being undernourished when they eat everything they used to, without the meat, or they replace the meat with fake meat substitutes. So what do we eat? To help to answer that question or at least, what do I, being mostly vegetarian, eat, from here on in I will be occasionally be posting my lunch (which could just as easily be dinner): normal, generally quite inexpensive, everyday vegetarian food. I should add a caveat, which is that what constitutes a typical meal for me changes depending on where I'm living and what happens to be available and inexpensive (South Americans aren't wrong that there can be a strong economic advantage to not eating meat). Plantains and coconut definitely count as everyday food in Colombia; in Argentina, not so much.


Soy de una familia vegetariana y hasta hace un par de años tenía una dieta solamente vegetariana. Ahora como carne de vez en cuando, pero rara vez la cocino (tampoco es que sé mucho de cocinarla). Mi comida diaria en general sigue siendo vegetariana, sin lacteos aún. Durante mi niñez ser vegetariano todavía se consideraba raro en los EE.UU., hasta a la gente en San Francisco le parecía raro y más para una niñita. Me imagino que se hubieran burlado de mi mucho si a mi me hubiera importado, pero como nunca reaccione, hacían chistecitos sobre el tema en vez de tratar de torturar insistemente a la chica que trajo tofu en la lonchera. Hoy en día la mayoría de los estadounidenses ni parpadean si vos decís que sos vegetariano (aunque lo digo sin conocer el sur de los EE.UU., donde me imagino que todavía te mirarían raro). En sudamérica, el vegetarianismo sigue siendo una novedad, y supongo que en parte porque  culturalmente falta de carne significa falta de plata, la idea de ser vegetariano no es muy atractiva a mucha gente. Me preguntan todo el tiempo, ¿qué comen los vegetarianos? Antes contestaba, lo mismo que comen ustedes, sin la carne, pero ya me di cuenta que no es así. Y creo que por eso es que mucha gente que en un momento decide que quiere volverse vegetariano termina sintiendose enfermo o con hambre cuando sigue comiendo lo que comía antes, sin la carne, o reemplaza la carne con substitutos de soja. Entonces, ¿qué es que comemos? Para ayudar a contestar esta pregunta, desde ya estaré poniendo aquí algunos de mis almuerzos: comida vegetariana normal, corriente. Aclaro que lo que constituye una comida típica para mi cambia dependiendo en donde esté viviendo y que esté disponible y barato. Platano y coco cuentan como comida corriente en Colombia, pero no en Argentina.

Curried coconut rice with plantains, carrots and potatoes
Red cabbage with green onions, cilantro and lime

Arroz con coco con platano verde, zanahoria, papa criolla y especias
Repollo morado con cebolla larga (verdeo), cilantro y limón
Aguacate (palta)

Not Yet

As I spend more time away from the states, I oscillate between viewing things as an outsider and just taking things in as (what now constitutes) normal life. But sometimes my brain gets stuck in processing mode, and this past weekend was a perfect example. On Friday, some 15 people came over for lunch. A group of musicians from the Atlantic coast came to Cali to perform and teach, and as our roommate had previously studied with them on the coast he decided to invite them over for fried fish. Given that the kitchen was going to be occupied and Felipe was going to do a recording with the musicians later that day anyway, we joined them for lunch. The group of musicians was all male; one of them was over 90 and another one was at least over 70. The two old men sat quietly and ate the fish with their fingers, as they do on the coast. The other musicians were younger to middle-aged; a couple more musician friends had come over as well, one of them with his mother, as had a female friend of our roommate. All in all there were 3 women and 12 men. As with conversations with people you don´t know very well often go, they began to ask about kids and wives, and someone was mentioned as having children with 4 different women. ¡Él sí lo pasó bien! (He certainly had a good time!) exclaimed the musician's mother, who for all outward appearances appeared to be a conservative señora over 60. The jokes began about people have children all over the coast, and one of the guys asked where our roommate´s wife was. He´s single...Good because I was about to say, I´ve been seeing little kids that look like him all over town! I really appreciate that you checked if he had a wife around before saying that, really I do, said the señora, patting the guy on the back. Very considerate of you.

One of the musicians from Cali started to eat and asked if there was a salt shaker nearby. A middle-aged guy from the coast was sitting next to him and, looking up at our roommate´s female friend, said, Bring him salt! The guys from Cali wandered into the kitchen with her, shaking their heads. Los costeños son muy machistas! People from the coast are really machista! She rolled her eyes and grabbed the salt. He got lucky, she said, walking out of the kitchen. The rest of lunch was peppered with sarcastic commands of Bring me the salt! Bring me the guacamole! Bring me more refajo! between the guys from Cali and the two of us who were female and under 50. (Refajo is a strangely refreshing combination of Colombiana, the national soft drink, with beer.) The guy who had made the offensive comment didn't notice, nor did the conservative señora who winked at (male) extramarital affairs.

On Sunday, a close friend of Felipe´s family had her 21st birthday party. Show them what I got you for your birthday, said her mother. She came out with an apron and oven mitts. Because it´s that time! You need to learn how to cook! -Of course she does, said one of the aunts, women need to know how to cook and tend house. Then they began to talk about the importance of a clean house, and how one's husband wants to come home to an ordered household and one of the aunts, who lives in Spain, began to lament that in Spain people are muy cochino (really dirty). But the men there are less machista, they cook too. Felipe's recently-married brother came into the room, So how do you feel being the head of the household? asked the other aunt. 

I looked over at Felipe, who was rolling his eyes.

I've talked about machismo here before; Colombians have a reputation of being machistas as far as Argentines are concerned. Colombians will tell you that Cubans are extremely machista, as are people from the Caribbean in general (including the Colombian coast). At a certain point, and I don't know when the point was, things began to change, and much of the younger generation has become aware that the traditional male/female relationship that they grew up seeing is not necessarily what they want for themselves. Thus you come upon situations where the older women in the room are more machista than the younger men.

One time Felipe's mother told me that I got lucky that I am with someone who cooks and helps around the house, because the men here rarely do. I told Felipe what she had said. What did you say to her? What do you think I said? That you wouldn't be with someone who didn't. 

Sunday's birthday girl's boyfriend arrived later to the party while I was ranting privately to Felipe over cake-- as I said, it's strange viewing these things on the one hand as an outsider and on the other hand as part of daily life; sometimes I get annoyed about things that I shouldn't. No one wants to be the judgmental outsider (especially the imperialistic one), but when people you care about are involved it becomes harder to passively accept certain facts of a society. What's going on? he asked us. We updated him on what he had missed. He shook his head. If she ever marries me, she's going to be the most liberated woman in the world, he said, and wandered off to find her. We shook our heads, laughing. I was left more confused than ever. One day maybe it'll all come together for me and I'll finally get it, but for now I've clearly still got a ways to go. 

Monday, June 13, 2011


I don't remember exactly how it started, but sometime last year I was a (quite a bit) short on grocery money and started selling muffins. I told my mom, so I've been selling muffins.
What do you mean you're selling muffins?
You know, like...selling...muffins...
To who?
People who buy them?
It was actually quite a simple process: I lived by bunch of businesses, and their employees got hungry mid-afternoon. Once they got to know me it was a very easy sell, and the same people bought from me each week. For whatever reason, my mother and my sister Elena found this hilarious; I'm pretty sure I was given a rendition of the muffin man. This from my sister who works at a bakery (cue Elena: we don't sell muffins at my bakery.) Snot.
Argentines love these muffins, once you get them to try them of course (cheese and chocolate is not a time-tested combination in Argentine-land). Colombians love them too, as do probably all kids everywhere. Quite frankly, I'm not normally a big black-bottom muffin fan as I find them too sweet and kind of boring tasting. This version is the result of countless batches and relentless tweaking-- they are less sugary-tasting than usual, with coffee to deepen the chocolate flavor but still well-balanced and sweet enough for kids (and South Americans, my god do they like sugar). I was supposed to show a friend of mine how to make these long before I left Buenos Aires but we never got around to it, and now she's in Santa Fe, Argentina and I'm up here in Colombia. Benefits of technology? Downside of globalization? Proof that all anyone really wants out of life is chocolate cake with cheesecake filling (especially with coffee for breakfast)?

Black-bottom Muffins

These muffins are quite straight-forward, and in my opinion easiest to make in the following steps: first make the filling, then sift the dry ingredients together and stir the wet ingredients together. Then you add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, fill the muffin tin, and dollop the filling over the batter. 
On another note, the chocolate batter is completely vegan; these make great vegan cupcakes, by themselves or filled and frosted with (vegan) mocha frosting. Adding a tablespoon of grated ginger to the chocolate batter makes for great vegan muffins, and they get even better the next day.

For the filling:
8 oz. (220 ml. or 1 cup) cream cheese
1/3 c. white sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. natural vanilla extract

To sift together:
1 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
1 c. brown sugar*
½ c. unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt

To stir together:
¾ c. water
¼ c. coffee (normal-strength drip coffee-- I always use coffee left over from the morning)
1/3 c. vegetable oil (I use sunflower oil, any neutral-tasting oil will do)
1 Tbsp. white or apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. natural vanilla extract 

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a standard 12-hole muffin tin with paper liners (oiling the holes doesn't work here; the muffins will stick and fall apart). 
Make the filling: beat the cream cheese and sugar together, then stir in the egg and vanilla extract until fully mixed in. Don't overbeat as, like with cheesecake, you don't want to incorporate extra air.
Sift together the dry ingredients directly into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, stir together the wet ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and stir quickly until you see no more flour streaks (make sure to scrape up from the bottom and on the sides). Fill the muffin cups two-thirds full (a large Pyrex measuring cup with a spout works well for this), then dollop 2 Tbsp. of the filling in the center of each cup. 
Bake for 20-25 min., until the chocolate cake part springs back lightly when you touch it. Let the muffins cool fully in the tin. They keep well in an airtight container for a day or two.
Makes 12 muffins.

* if you don't have brown sugar on hand, replace it with 1 cup white sugar and add 1 Tbsp. molasses to the wet ingredients when you mix them


Estos muffins son muy faciles de hacer: primero haces el relleno, después tamizas los ingredientes secos juntos y revuelves los ingredientes mojados juntos. Echas los mojados a los secos, llenas el molde, y echas el relleno sobre la masa.
Por otro lado, ésta masa de chocolate no contiene ni lacteos ni huevos; hace cupcakes muy ricos para gente que no come estos productos, solos o con una cobertura (sin lacteos) moka. También podrías agregar una cucharada de jengibre rallado o un puñado de chips de chocolate a la masa.

Muffins de Chocolate con Queso

Para el relleno:
220 ml. de queso crema
1/3 taza de azúcar blanca
1 huevo
½ cucharita de extracto de vainilla natural

Para tamizar juntos:
1 ¼ taza de harina de trigo (tipo 000)
1 taza de azúcar morena*
½ taza de cacao amargo (polvo de cacao sin azúcar)
1 cucharita de bicarbonato de soda
¼ cucharita de sal

Para revolver juntos:
¾ taza de agua
¼ taza de cafe (café colado-- normalmente gasto aquí el café que tengo de sobra de la mañana)
1/3 taza de aceite vegetal (yo uso aceite de girasol)
1 cucharada de vinagre de manzana
1 cucharita de extracto de vainilla

Precalienta el horno a 180ºC. Coloca papeles de muffin en un molde de 12 huecos (aceitar los huecos no funciona aquí; los muffins se pegarán a los lados y se van a desbaratar). 
Haz el relleno: revuelve el queso crema y azúcar juntos, después agrega el huevo y el extracto de vainilla hasta que la mezcla esté bien mezclada. No la batas demasiado porque, como con un cheesecake, no quieres incorporar aire demás.
Tamiza todos los ingredientes secos directamente a un bol grande. En otro bol, revuelve todos los ingredientes mojados juntos. Agrega los ingredientes mojados a los secos y revuelve rapidamente hasta que no veas más rayas de harina (no te olvides raspar el fondo y por los lados) Llena con la masa dos-tercios de cada hueco, después echale 2 cucharadas de relleno en el centro de cada hueco.
Hornea durante 20-25 min., hasta que la parte de torta de chocolate se vuelva a subir cuando la tocas. Deja los muffins enfriar en el molde. Los puedes guardar en una coquita al vacio un día o dos.
Rinde 12 muffins.

* si no tienes azúcar morena, puedes reemplazarlo con 1 taza de azúcar blanco y agrega 1 cucharada de melaza a los ingredientes mojados cuando los revuelvas

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Mature Ones

My sister has what might be called a minor obsession with plantains, specifically the ripe, sweet ones known as platanos maduros (mature bananas...unlike some other people around here). She regularly orders a side dish of plantains as her main course at Caribbean restaurants, and here in Colombia over winter break she consumed a truly awe-inspiring quantity of sweet plantains in their numerous preparations traditional to valluno cuisine. On a daily basis, Felipe's mother prepared (and prepares) them simply. Sauteed in a bit of oil, they turn out soft and sweet, light on the (all too often abundant) grease and slightly salty from the salt she sprinkles onto the pan to keep them from sticking. 

Make sure to choose plantains that are completely yellow and already blackening at the tips. A couple of bruises aren't a bad thing, either-- these aren't bananas and won't turn mushy unless they are fully black, in which case they can still be used but you´ll have to handle them more delicately. If you use a plantain that has just turned from green to yellow, it is likely it isn't ready, and won't soften when cooked this way. Plantains that are in between green (platano verde) and maduro are called pintado (painted). Their starch is still in the process of turning into sugar, so they don't cook up sweet. So make sure to use fully maduro plantains for this. If in doubt about the ripeness of your plantains, leave them for a few days longer on the counter or up to a week if your kitchen is on the cold side.

Platano Maduro (Sweet Plantains)

Yellow plantains, halved vertically and then crosswise, peel removed (dark yellow with black edges and bruises)
Vegetable oil

Lightly film a heavy saute pan with oil. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over its surface, then add in the plantains, cut side down.  Don't worry about crowding the pan-- in a 10-in. pan, you can easily fit 2 or even 3 plantains, depending on their size-- you just want to make sure that there is enough room so that face-down cut sides all have full contact with the pan. Put the pan over low heat and cover it. After 5 min., using a spatula, check to see if the undersides are golden. If they are still pale, cover the pan again and check every two minutes. When they are golden, flip each plantain over and cover again, until the rounded sides are fully yellow and beginning to brown just a bit. Don't let them burn. Cut into one of the plantains-- it should be completely soft. If you aren't sure if they are done or not, bite into one of them. If it tastes at all starchy, add a little bit more oil to the pan, cover it back up, and give them a couple of more minutes, always over low heat. 
Sprinkle with additional salt if you want to play up the sweet/salty combination. The standard serving is 1-2 pieces per person (1/4 to 1/2 a plantain) as an accompaniment to a meal of rice, beans and meat; my sister prefers 1-2 plantains per person, and accompanies it with whatever else happens to be around.  I'd say 1/2 a plantain is about right for me, enough so you don't feel cheated, but not so much that you can't function after lunch.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Caldito para la Niña

I've mentioned it before: I'm the Jewish kid who didn't grow up eating chicken soup. I didn't understand the whole "Chicken Soup for the Soul" thing (although after I opened one of those books up, I really didn't want to), and the penicilin in our house was the liquid bubble-gum flavored kind. I loved (and still do love) my mom's vegetarian matzoh ball soup, but I wouldn't say we ever ascribed medicinal properties to it either.
Then I moved to another continent and started living in sin with someone whose idea of meal planning was to buy a whole chicken on the weekend, hack it up with a big kitchen knife, and, meal by meal, consume the chicken parts over the course of the week, braising the legs one day, then shredding the breast to use in pasta, then making chicken soup with the innards and wings and whatever else was left over. Not bad meal planning, not at all, actually, just not at all what I was used to. After awhile, though, I was the one making sure we bought the chicken. I didn't want it for the "real" parts of the chicken though-- the legs, the breasts (whose appeal I fail miserably to understand-- does anyone honestly prefer white meat?); I just wanted the chicken soup. 

We were living in an apartment that for God knows what reason had the kitchen and bathroom outside, and I was cold all winter long. Felipe would get up in the cold and heat up breakfast while I huddled, drowsy and pathetic, under the covers. By far the best thing about those mornings was when Felipe had made chicken soup the day before, and would bring me a bowl of it, steaming and fragrant with cilantro, into the bedroom. One of the consequences of being pathetic is that the other, more functional person may well decide to mock you. "Caldito para la niña," he would appear, smiling, maneuvering his way into the room with a steaming bowl of soup in each hand. "Caldito para la niña que tiene tanto frio" (broth for the the little girl who's so cold). 
My friend Mira was the impetus for getting Felipe to explain to me exactly how he makes his soup. She's seeking the perfect chicken soup, the platonic ideal of liquid comfort. I would certainly not consider myself an expert, not in chicken soup eating, and certainly not in chicken soup making, but this version is hard to beat. It's not your grandmother's chicken soup-- it's not even Felipe's grandmother's chicken soup, because she certainly didn't use smoked paprika or turmeric, elements that make the broth particularly deep-flavored, and particularly helpful on those mornings where getting out of bed seems a monumental challenge. 

Caldo de Pollo (Cold Morning Chicken Soup)

Giblets, wings and thighs from 1 chicken (even if you don't normally like them-- I don't-- the giblets are important to flavor the broth)
7 c. water
2 medium potatoes (or 4 small ones), peeled, quartered and sliced
¼ tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. smoked paprika
½ tsp. turmeric
1½ Tbsp. salt
10 grinds pepper
2 bay leaves
2 spring onions or 4 scallions, finely sliced
1 medium-large tomato, finely chopped
½ c. packed cilantro leaves

Place the chicken and 7 c. water in a large pot over high heat. Add in the potatoes, cumin, smoked paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper and bay leaves. When the pot comes to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer. After 15 min., add in the tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, then let the soup simmer for another 15 min. Taste for salt.

As far as serving goes, make sure that the giblets go to someone who wants to eat them, or leave them in the pot. We normally eat one wing or thigh per person. For a more filling meal, serve with rice, adding it already cooked to each bowl of soup, or serving it on the side, spilling a bit of the broth over the rice. It is also very good with a hunk of challah on the side.