Foraging for edible plants is an important activity throughout Mexico, and we are lucky that people who do this bring what they don’t use to the regional markets!
Cilantro is a beloved flavor in Mexico… the fresh citrus balances the heat of fresh chiles very nicely. Here are a couple of “cilantros” I have encountered in my travels.
To identify these leaves which I had found at the Thursday Tianguis at Zaachila outside Oaxacaa, I consulted with Chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca, El Restaurante
I had been told they were “cilantro de montaña” by the vendor, and sure enough, the thick juicy leaves taste like cilantro. But how to use them, I wondered.
Alejandro explained that they come from the Mixteca, a lush mountainous region reachable via Oaxaca City. it was typical there to use them like a tortilla to contain fillings, for maiz-less tacos.
Another discovery was this cilantro, which looked like little water-lily pads — shiny surfaced to resist water, and a long stem. Indeed, they are found at the edges of ponds and lakes as I was told by a vendor in Tepoztlán who referred to the plant only as “Cilantro Criollo”, Criollo referring always to un-cultivated and wild.
Here, I used it to complement apple and cheese on toast.
Frutas y Verduras – A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico is a handy mobile guide packed with info for lovers of healthy foods.
Learn more HERE and buy it at a Pay What You Wish price!
Agriculture starts with seeds and ends on the plate. The cook stands in the middle. By influencing our food habits to become more respectful of family farmers, cooks have the potential to be great “shakers”.
“Link biodiversity with the pleasures of food” by Janneke Brull
The Slow Food movement, the 100-mile Diet, Monsanto and other agriculture giants – awareness of the many issues we face as eaters have, for years now, influenced my choices any time I considered a recipe. Is it in season? (Living in Canada, the answer to that for 9 months of any year, would be no). How was it grown, what’s its carbon footprint… cooking is a responsibility.
As a cook in Mexico, it’s possible to go straight to the source, to cook and eat locally and responsibly. There’s almost always going to be a mercado or tianguis where you can go and buy your ingredients from people who are directly connected to where the food was grown or raised. It’s remarkably easy to stop supporting Big Agriculture.
As I write this, it’s a month after the earthquake. I’m in Mexico City, living in the Roma-Condesa neighborhood.
There was major destruction near my apartment, many lives lost, and while I was lucky to have been spared any damages – aside from lingering anxiety any time a truck passes, shaking the building – several friends who live nearby were displaced from their homes. Resources and assistance, by civilians and international aid, poured into this neighbourhood within hours of the disaster. To call it ‘heartening’ would be an understatement.
This was not true for a great many communities. In less wealthy, less tourist-oriented communities, assistance came too slowly, many said. No matter how you look at it, the poor don’t have insurance or emergency funds for repairs.
From Tlalpan and Xochimilco in the southern part of the city, to pueblos in Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca and Chiapas, millions of poor were affected.
In these areas, subsistence milpa farms are the foundation of the local economies. From small, densely productive sustainable agricultural plots, comes beautiful food – the ingredients of their heritage, the base crops being corn, beans, squash and chiles. The community shares what is needed and sell or barter the rest.
In most towns and villages, aside from the mercado(s), tianguis –roaming markets– set up each week at set locations under colorful tarps. These tianguis are typical throughout Mexico –in Mexico City, the sheer number of them is astounding. Amongst the more “commercial” vendors, there are the true regional entrepreneurial growers who have travelled for hours in some case with their baskets of freshly picked produce. In many cases, they are women, sometimes bent and wizened, sometimes with small children in tow.
Outside the Mercado San Juan in the historic centre of Mexico City.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t recall this vendor’s name, though I did ask him at the time. He told me they were from Puebla, and for more than 40 years he has set up outside the market, along the sidewalk. The stalls inside were too expensive, he said. He is now blind, and was accompanied by his grandson and six year old great-granddaughter. While we talked he was teaching her how to add and make change. She goes to school ‘on some days’, she told me.
It is October, now, post rainy season and high time for harvest of the corn, beans, chiles and the other milpa crops. However, those who farm, harvest, glean and sell, have other serious matters to attend to like building shelter, and repairing what homes can be salvaged. More hands will be needed and this will undoubtedly affect the children whose families are poor – they will be kept home to help.
Floods of donations were collected to assist earthquake victims. But what can we do in the long run? What if each of us made a greater effort to support their work as agricultural guardians?
Given the choice, the supermarkets and big-box stores where shiny apples and perfect peppers grown for the masses by big Agro, are not where I want to put my pesos. Frutas y Verduras – A Fresh Food Lover’s Guide to Mexico was my own small effort to make foods less known by us foreigners more approachable. I encourage you, now more than ever, to take the time to discover the beautiful foods grown lovingly by real people who work the land with their hands, who pray for rain and who trust in nature.
Until the end of this year, I will contribute 25% of all sales of Frutas y Verduras (both iOS and Kobo) to groups that I will personally be vetting, who are actively working on the re-building of pueblos especially in agricultural areas.
Think you are seeing blueberries? Nope, these are garambullo, one of many cactus fruits enjoyed by locals in the central parts of Mexico. Like other red-purple-blue fruits such as cranberry, pomegranate and blueberries, the pigment indicates high levels of anthocyenins which is among those flavonoids highly recommended for good health.
Wait…what are flavonoids again?
Just think about eating a broad spectrum of color – each colour group plays a role in protecting your body’s cells against disease and boosting function of organs. This particular red-blue family is understood overall to be anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial; for guarding the liver against damage, reducing blood pressure, improving eyesight. And if you have heard before of “free radicals” these anthocyanins scavenge for them. Feel better? You should– free radicals are troublemakers; un-paired molecules that float around damaging healthy cells which, in the worst case scenarios, leads to cancer and heart disease.
Now that you know ‘why’, let’s talk about ‘how’ to enjoy garambullo fruits.
When you are in parts of Central Mexico (from Queretaro, north to San Luis Potosí, generally) where cactus dominate the landscape, you’ll find garambullo in season in May. It’s a short season, but the harvest is frozen, so thereafter you can find it … well, until it runs out. As a paleta (popsicle) or nieve (fruit sorbet) it’s absolutely delicious. Slightly blueberry, a bit of grape or raspberry to the flavor, and a color of technicolor magenta. . While there will be added sugar, there is not much–the fresh fruit flavor is allowed to shine through and the little seeds just slip down your throat easily. You could easily justify it as a ‘not-so-guilty- pleasure’.
Right now, I am experimenting with using it to make a naturally fermented fruit vinegar. You can follow any standard recipe you like.
Try this link for some ideas
Any thoughts on other ways to use these special fruits? I’d love to hear your ideas!