Sunday, August 28, 2011

Three Sisters Soup

The end of summer/beginning of autumn is the time to reap what we sowed. Harvest. Such a comforting word! No better reminder of eating locally can be had.
I really like old recipes that were very locally inspired. What choice did they have back then but to be local? It was a necessity not a fad.
One such recipe is the soup composed of the tres hermanas: squash, beans, and corn, the mainstays of Mexican diet and culture. That native diet works due to a delightful confluence of factors.
  1. The plants grow together well. The corn grows tall, providing a "pole" for the climbing bean vines, and slight shade for the creeping squash vines below. The beans' roots also provide nitrogen in the soil for the other two species.
  2. The vitamins and amino acids in the three products complement each other. Adding rice makes for an even healthier meal.
  3. The flavours and consistencies combine superbly in a single dish, or several dishes eaten together.
  4. The plants ripen around the same time - or can be stored easily until it all "lines up."
  5. All plants are indigenous: adapted to a long growing season and very hot, dry conditions.
Although the conditions where I live in Canada are fairly different, during the summer they can resemble Mexico's - especially lately. I never had the space to grow the three sisters together (where they are happiest), but I certainly have enjoyed putting them together in soup every August and September. The local farmers' market can provide all three ingredients. If not, I buy a local squash (delicatas and acorns are best) and add frozen corn and canned beans, all organic. [About 100% of non-organic corn is genetically modified, so I avoid it.]
To make Three Sisters Soup, bake a squash (cut in two and de-seeded) until it is nearly entirely cooked. Remove the skin off and cut into small pieces. In a medium pot, put the cubed squash, 2 cups of vegetable stock, herbs to taste, about a cup of corn kernels, and about a cup of small pre-cooked beans. (I prefer navy, cannelli, or baby lima.)  Cook for about 20 min. on a moderate heat. Add a dollop of butter and stir in before serving. For a creamier soup, purée the squash before adding to the stock, and add a bit of organic milk or cream. Serve with a green salad and garlic bread - all locally sourced, of course!
!Buen provecho!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Holding onto Summer

It's still warm outside, but already the sun is winking over the mountain (where I live) a little later every morning, signalling to my deep brain that the summer is edging away. Soon, the days will be significantly shorter. In their "deep brains," plants will start shutting down and birds will prepare for migration. The science of such signs - day length, mean daily temperature, flowering rates, animal sightings, etc. - is called phenology. The deep brain, of which I speak, is the part - call it instinct, if you prefer - that learned long ago to respond to nonverbal signs in the environment (and probably branched out to pick out cues from other people, too). It's only a few years ago that I noticed how a certain time of year would bring on a mood: the phenological data were reminding me on a visceral level of an event (sad, bitter, regretful, whatever) that had happened at the exact same time, years before.
[This year, I am remembering several happy-sad experiences I had exactly a year ago. Even if I am preoccupied with other duties, the very act of going outside in similar weather brings those experiences back to the surface. And the emotions that accompanied them come rushing back as well.]
Spring is a special season because of its association with rebirth, but summer's a virtual synonym for leisure, fun, relief from school or work, time with people we care about, and - most of all - bountiful food. Most people in western countries might not think of the food aspect too much; after all, air transport has wiped out much of the seasonality of most food stuffs for us here. If you can get something in January as easily as you can in July, that plus side of summer is less noticeable.
But there's no denying that local, seasonal produce is best. Even before the locavore movement, or the 100-Mile Diet, people extolled the qualities of June strawberries, July tomatoes, and August blueberries.
Is there some way of holding onto that taste, that delight? Is it possible to extend the shelf life of a summer's day?
The most prosaic answer is yes: dry, freeze, or can the produce at its peak and enjoy it in somewhat degraded but still delicious form throughout the year, even in deepest winter, when the only tomatoes, peaches, and strawberries available taste like cardboard. 
Here's one set of instructions to start:
I have never canned anything - a series of small kitchens (including the present one) put an end to any such ideas. But I have had a lot of fun making soup ingredients with a food dryer, and hope to do so again soon. I also freeze wild blueberries, red and black currants, and my own black raspberries. I held off the last batch as long as February, and served them at a special meal. The fact that I had picked most of them myself made it even more special.
I will embrace autumn when it arrives, and even enjoy winter, but I am not ashamed of holding onto summer as long as I can.