Buenos Aires – Yesterday was just one of those days – the whole day was oriented around the topic of healthy food. I don’t know why, it just sort of all happened at once. And, it’s probably a good thing to have a day like that now and again. It started off with lunch – the day before, when I’d picked up the pasta sheets for yesterday’s lasagna, I’d also picked up some freshly made potato gnocchi. On my way home from the morning’s wine tasting, I stopped by the vegetable market to figure out a sauce.
One of my favorite pasta dishes is a squash filled ravioli with some sort of butter and herb sauce – usually something like sage. So I started there and picked up a small butternut squash, the plan being to puree it like I would for a ravioli filling, but make it into the sauce instead. Because of how sweet the squash is, I wanted something a little bit bitter to balance the flavor, so I grabbed a bunch of arugula at the same time – my sage plants died in the heavy rain last week, so I figured on the arugula doing double duty as both balancing component and herb.
1 small to medium butternut squash
1 bunch of arugula, preferably young, fresh leaves
1 large shallot
½ cup milk
salt and pepper
¼ teaspoon ají amarillo
1 teaspoon oil
Peel and seed the squash, cut the flesh into cubes, and boil in salted water until tender. Save the seeds! Chop and saute the shallot in ½ teaspoon of the oil until browned. In a food processor or blender, puree the squash, arugula leaves (de-stem first), and the browned shallots. Add the milk a little at a time until it reaches a thick sauce consistency – you probably won’t need the entire amount, depending on how much water the squash has retained. Season with salt and pepper. Clean the seeds of any major bits of pulp, then saute them in the remaining oil with the ají amarillo or another mild chili powder, until lightly browned. Toss with a bit of salt, and use as a garnish on this dish. Depending on the size of the squash, you’ll probably end up with about enough sauce to serve between 4 and 6 people over pasta or gnocchi.
Feeling quite happy, I sat down to do some more catching up on various food (and other) related films. Next on my list was Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s month-long McDonald’s fest. I hadn’t bothered with this film when it came out because the premise just sort of sounded silly – I mean, does it take a rocket scientist to figure out that binge eating fast food three times a day for a month isn’t healthy for you? But, I figured I may as well check it out, and I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. The film is indeed a manifesto of sorts against McDonald’s and others, but it’s done with humor and intelligence, and, what I was trying to point out the other day in relation to The Future of Food, balance.
While clearly out to demonstrate the adverse effects of junk and fast food, Mr. Spurlock does two things very deftly. First, though he singled out McDonald’s as a prime culprit, he didn’t limit his attack to the golden arches. He notes other fast food restaurants, and he takes on junk food and packaged food as well, especially within the U.S. public school system. Second, and most importantly from my view, he offers his opposition the opportunity to comment, to participate, and to defend themselves. What that accomplished for me was two-fold – it forced him, as the director, to dig a bit deeper into his arguments and present them more clearly, because he had something on camera that he needed to refute; and, at the same time, he let them hang themselves. As he points out at one juncture in the film, the representative from one of the largest lobbying agencies around for packaged food actually ends up having to admit that “we are part of the problem.” He also acknowledges that individuals, parents, teachers, school administrators, and the public in general, need to take some responsibility.
The film isn’t fast paced, but it moves at a decent clip. There are interviews with everyone from street kids to politicians, dieticians to doctors, fast/junk food aficionados to the purveyors of the same. It’s a fun ride, worth watching, and while one would think that it wouldn’t be necessary to demonstrate the deleterious effects of this type of diet to the degree that he did, one would have thought the same thing about Stella Liebeck and the whole hot coffee – McDonald’s incident. Yet, by the end, we get to witness the surprise of even the nutritionists and doctors as to just how destructive this food is – which was as surprising as the results themselves.
Purely by chance, my friend Heather and I had already planned to spend the evening at a secret hideaway of a restaurant (what the Cubans call a paladar) offering up raw food vegetarian fare. Not generally one of my favorite types of cuisine, but I’m always willing to give it a chance and see what someone creative might come up with. The place had been recommended to us by Ian over at GoodAirs as “definitely worth checking out.” I’m going to have to be a trifle sketchy on the details, as Diego and Lola operate restaurant verdellama (green-flame) out of their house on the border of Colegiales and Palermo Viejo, obviously off the legal radar – should you one day have interest in checking the place out yourself, you can call them for address info at 4778-1889. Their home is a beautiful two-story building with a rear courtyard and deck. They’ve turned the courtyard and a long living-dining room combination into their seating area – offering roughly 16-20 seats, depending on how tightly you want to pack in. They’re only “open” on Thursday evenings. We were the first of the evening to have reservations (at 9:30) – others didn’t begin arriving until 10:30 or after – which was good for us, as we had the courtyard garden to ourselves, and more personal attention from Diego, the chef.
After relaxing for a short while, we were presented with this beautifully colored beet soup. It’s going to be tough to give you a solid feel for everything that went into this food, Diego sat with us for a few minutes as he served each course, listing off all the ingredients in each dish. And they were plentiful – though he has a few things that he clearly is quite fond of using, like flax and chia seeds and oil, turmeric, and nutritional yeast. This beet soup is really a combination of raw beets and tomatoes, pureed with almond milk and several different types of seeds, herbs, and spices, and garnished with arugula. It’s served with a cracker made from a dehydrated batter of flax and chia seeds, that understandably isn’t crisp, but more of a fruit leather sort of consistency. The soup was delicious, and I’d easily be happy just eating a couple of bowls of that for a meal. But then, I’m a huge fan of borscht, it’s part of my heritage!
This duo arrived as the appetizer portion of the evening (the soup having been served as an hors d’oeuvre). On the right, a “ravioli” made of chard leaves wrapped around a filling of various seeds and nuts, and topped with tomato sauce and a bit of nutritional yeast – really quite good. The folded over pancake was good, though slightly less interesting, a coconut based pancake that I wasn’t exactly clear how it was made – since he talked about cooking it at very low heat for about twenty minutes on each side – clearly “raw” isn’t always raw, apparently heating to a certain point is acceptable, that point being just over 100°F. The pancake was filled with avocado, apple, and lettuce, and a sort of chutney made from various vegetables and a whole lemon, peel and all.
What are Living and Raw Foods?
Raw and Living Foods are foods that contain enzymes. In general, the act of heating food over 116°F destroys enzymes in food. (Enzymes start to degrade in as little as 106°F). All cooked food is devoid of enzymes, furthermore cooking food changes the molecular structure of the food and renders it toxic. Living and raw foods also have enormously higher nutrient values than the foods that have been cooked.
– from Living and Raw Foods
The main dish, too, had a slightly cooked component. It’s a tasty little scoop of polenta, but polenta made by letting it soak up the various liquids Diego wanted to flavor it with, then mixed with herbs, spices, and seeds, and very lightly toasted on top. It’s served with another fruit leather-ish cracker, this time made from beet puree. The salad is a simple lettuce, arugula, and tomato salad with a basic vinaigrette. I liked the polenta quite a bit, I’m a fan of the stuff – given that it was the main course I probably would have opted for a little bit more, since this actually seemed a bit smaller than either of the two appetizers, but then, at the end of the evening, I didn’t feel particularly hungry, so maybe he knows what he’s doing.
The dessert, too, seemed a bit small, but again, I felt sated when we were through. It was a shotglass filled halfway with a mixture of dried fruits and nuts, and then topped with a whipped and foamed cashew cream. Quite tasty! By the way, Diego and Lola also offer an option for a bottle of wine, keeping in stock the Chardonnay and Malbec vina organica wines from Familia Zuccardi. Our bottle of 2002 Chardonnay was completely over the hill and oxidized – for me it was undrinkable, Heather managed a bit of it. I think I’d recommend bringing your own if they’ll allow it, I forgot to ask. Liquid refreshment was the one disappointment of the evening, in an otherwise fascinating adventure, that I’d recommend to anyone willing to try something new and different – water was tap water, which while safe to drink in Buenos Aires, is safe because it’s loaded with enough chlorine to be reminiscent of gulping pool water, which left me with a scratchy cough for most of the night. Given the whole theme of the venue, I was surprised they didn’t offer either bottled water or at the very least, filtered tap water. All told with a bottle of wine, and tip, the evening cost us 40 pesos apiece