Meals without meat?

I met Erisbela Garriga almost three years ago. She was participating in a book festival at La Marqueta, a historical marketplace in El Barrio. I was just starting my research on Spanish Caribbean diets, at the time focused on cookbooks. We started talking, and, as I browsed through her cookbooks, the title, De la Tierra con Sabor (From the Earth with Flavor) struck my attention. The book presented Puerto Rican dishes without one (traditionally) important ingredient – meat.

In Puerto Rico, I grew up with the idea that, “a meal without meat is not a meal”. Meat – chicken, pork, beef or fish – is the central piece of the plate. The rest are the “acompañantes”, the side dishes accessorizing the main star of the meal. Eating meat three times a day is commonplace: bacon or ham for breakfast, and other meats for lunch and dinner. Lately, I have been reconsidering this seemingly “traditional” eating pattern and the role of meat in my daily meals.

The idea to limit or decrease meat consumption has been increasingly grabbing headlines. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been recommending decreases or moderation in meat consumption since the 2002 Report, Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases.  Recently, these recommendations were bolstered by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report, reviewing the science on the link between cancer and eating meat. These results were summarized widely by various media outlets, including the BBC (as seen below), and contextualized by nutrition experts, such as Marion Nestle.

WHO meat classification

Concerns about the health, environmental and ethical consequences of meat consumption have led many to turn to vegetarian and vegan diets. Unfortunately, taste is usually left out of motivations to eat a plant-based diet. Yet, a dish without meat can be enjoyable and satisfying. Nowadays, there are more meat substitutes available, as well as a multitude of cookbooks showing us how to reinvent and invent new meals without animal parts. Some of those attempt at changing “Latino” diets with meatless tacos, vegetarian quesadillas, rice and beans, salads…but what about my traditional sanchocho? My pastel? This brings me back to Erisbela Garriga and her cookbooks, De la Tierra con Sabor, and the just published book, Eris’ Green Kitchen.

Eris green kitchen

Eris’ Green Kitchen is the English adaptation and re-vamping of De la Tierra con Sabor. It is a hardcover book, full of color pictures of all the dishes and selected how-to steps. The book motivates a reassessment of the role of meat in traditional Puerto Rican diets. Looking through the book, one realizes that there are is a variety of plant-based dishes in this cuisine. Plus, the book brings the possibility of more. For example, albóndigas de setas, one of the first recipes I tried from the book (with delicious results):
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Aside from the recipes, the book includes valuable introductory materials, such as a section on kitchen equipment, highlighting traditional tools from the past, including the old time stove, the anafre. The book also contains general cooking information: practical cooking tips for essential ingredients (sofrito, annatto oil, adobo), how to cook dehydrated soy protein, and even an illustrated guide to peel green plantains.

I was honored to write the Preface for this book and to be part of a wonderful celebration of its publication at the author’s home,

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Among the dishes enjoyed: tortilla española, a green banana ceviche, a spinach dip, marinated mushrooms, and my favorite: the Bizcocho de Gandules (Pigeon Pea Sweet Bread), which I promptly recreated back home:

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For more information about the book and upcoming author events, see the books’ facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Homestyle-Puerto-Rican-Cooking-Cookbook-86745451323/

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Cecina: Salt, meat and changing times

Salt as well as meat, is one of the many things we are told to consume “in moderation”, or to avoid altogether given health, ethical or environmental concerns. However, salt has been an important part of human history serving as one of the world’s main commodities. Salt accentuates the flavor and texture of foods. Its mineral components preserve food as it inhibits microbial growth by drawing moisture out of the food. The name “salt” (or sal, in Spanish) is linked to Salus, the Roman goddess of health and prosperity. Furthermore, salario, the Spanish term for wage, comes from the use of salt as a method of payment for soldiers. Nutritionally, salt provides sodium and chloride, two of the essential minerals for many body functions. If iodated, it keeps our thyroids happy by providing the essential mineral for its functioning.

The marriage of salt and meat has given us delicious results including: jamón Serrano, ibérico, prosciutto, and carne cecina. Cecina can simply be defined as salted meat. It is also called tasajo or, in Puerto Rico, carne vieja (old meat).The type of meat used and the process varies depending on where you are.  In Cuba, tasajo is said to be traditionally prepared with horsemeat. A similar case is seen in Spain. In Puerto Rico, carne vieja is made out from dried, salted meat. Like bacalao (salted cod fish), tasajo should rest in water overnight before preparing, to remove the excess salt.

Personally, I have not tried Puerto Rican tasajo yet. It is not common in the Puerto Rican tables nowadays. I did tried the Mexican cecina, sliced beef cured with salt, left marinating for 3-4 days resulting in delicious, tender and flavorful tacos, as these:

Tacos de Cecina
Sembrado Restaurant (NYC)

Cecina was brought to Latin America and the Caribbean from Spain, from the northern region of León. However, the tradition of salting and airing meat for preservation was already present in the Americas, using the traditional animal protein sources of the time, such as deer, rabbit, and others (See: C. Lavin). These traditions continue today, as I witnessed during a stroll along an urban town in Chalatenango, El Salvador:

Meat drying outside
San Ignacio, Dept. Chalatenango, El Salvador

The salting meats allowed for a more secure and constant access to animal protein. Throughout history, access to meat has been a symbol of status. In some context, cecina or other types of dried or cured meats, may be a food of the poor, or those lacking access to fresh meat or the technology to preserve it. As access to more modern preservations techniques became available, people may opt for fresher meats, and leave tasajo behind. However, the staying power of these foods goes beyond the material function they play. Now, in contexts with refrigeration and better transportation systems, such as NYC, cecina is valued for its flavor. Its purpose is to be enjoyed by choice and not by necessity.

 

Thanks to C. Espada, for the topic suggestion.