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Milpa Mexicana Part 1

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Story by José C. Marmolejo
Modern agriculture has kept humanity fed against all catastrophic predictions of overpopulation, diseases and pests. Many scientific discoveries have kept us alive, fed and well; and research continues. There is, however, one scientific discovery that I consider amazing: the collaboration between legumes and other plant families. Legumes we know now, through an association with the right kind of bacteria, are able to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil for later absorption by other plants. Other species benefit from this phenomenon and corn is no exception.

Chickpeas and squash with serranos

Chickpeas and squash with serranos.

What I find most interesting is that the Mexicas a.k.a. Aztecs, knew that planting beans and corn together was more beneficial that not doing so. In this agricultural method, beans also benefited from corn by using it as a support to their vines. A win-win situation, as we say these days. Milpa was the name given to this method of food production where several or many plant species coexist in the same space contributing to each other’s development. Squash for example, grows wide leaves and covers the soil from the sun thus preserving moisture and preventing undesirable plants to prosper. Squash and squash flowers—blossoms they called them—are the rewards from this process. Also present are quelites, wild edible plants—now cultivated—like purslane, chard, kale and other 350 plus species that remain harvested wild in Mexico. Culinary and medicinal herbs are a must around the Milpa. We find also our beloved chiles, forming a barrier against pests. And defining the limits of properties, we find nopales and magueyes, cacti and agaves, that enrich the Mexican diet. Any bees? You bet!
Squash stuffed with oysters

Squash stuffed with oyster mushrooms

In 2010, UNESCO recognized traditional Mexican cuisine as a “comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners.” The study of this model made possible its understanding as well as its diffusion, and Mexican cuisine was designated as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. This distinction is shared by French and Japanese cuisines as well as the Mediterranean diet. This recognition gave way to declare November 16th, Mexican Gastronomy Day. Another Mexican fiesta day? Yes, why not?

Chiles, along with corn and beans, comprise the trilogy that became the foundations of traditional Mexican food. These three ingredients were to be present daily in all homes from pre-Columbian times to this day in a wide array of preparations and combinations. Thus the ancient agricultural production model of these staples, the Milpa, was here to stay. While the tortilla continues to be used as a dish when you add something on top—rolled or not—or an edible spoon when you cut it in half and using both hands to scoop your meal or a meal by itself when you just add salt and/or salsa, beans remain center stage waiting to be seasoned in multiple ways and be served on a dish or spread on a tortilla or tostada, and chiles reign as our “spice” of choice.

Chilacayote stuffed with corn

Chilacayote stuffed with corn

Let’s go back to our squash as an example of Milpa value. This sweet and tender vegetable has an infinite number of uses. It can be eaten raw in a salad, grilled, boiled, baked, sautéed, stuffed, used in soups and stocks, and is so easy and quick to prepare. It marries well with cheese, chiles and other vegetables, corn, rice, even with pasta! And we haven’t gotten to the blossoms yet! Those beautiful flowers can be used as decoration, become the stuffing of quesadillas or be stuffed themselves! All this from a plant that on top of it all, is so easy to grow. And we’ve touched only one of the species that can grow in the Milpa

As you can see, the Mexican Milpa is very generous, nutritious, and best of all sustainable. Still found in Central and South Mexico, this method remains as a source of food, spice, and health to small peasants, an ecosystem for organic vegetables to grow, and a cultural treasure to Mexico… Perhaps we all should own a Milpa. If we have awakened some interest on how can you do a Milpa, follow us on to the second part of this post…

Recipes Milpa Mexicana Part 1
These vegetarian recipes call for cooked tender squash of a variety that suits your taste. They need to be baked, boiled or grilled whole to avoid loose their interior moisture and sweet flavor. Can be main or side to meat dishes.

Squash Stuffed with Oyster Mushrooms and Poblanos
A simple recipe that yields a complex flavor. If desired, you may devein the poblanos or enjoy the flavor plus pungency.

Ingredients
4 Squash cooked
4 Chiles poblanos roasted, sliced and seeded. Deveined optional
4 Oz. of oyster mushrooms sliced
1 Medium size onion chopped
2 Cloves garlic minced
Cooking oil or butter
Salt to taste

Instructions
Cut the squash lengthwise in half and remove the seeds. Reserve. Sautée between 3 and 5 minutes the poblanos, mushrooms, onions, garlic, squash seeds, and add the salt. Stuff the squash halves and enjoy!

Yield: 4 portions
Heat level: medium to hot

Chickpeas and Squash with Serranos
This dish can be eaten alone or used as a side to a meat dish or be the stuffing of quesadillas. Good at lunch or for a light dinner.

Ingredients
1 Lb. cooked chickpeas
4 Squash cooked cut in chunks
2 to 4 Chiles serranos sliced seeded. Deveined optional
1 Onion chopped
2 Cloves garlic minced
Cooking oil
Salt to taste

Instructions
Sautée between 3 and 5 minutes the chickpeas, squash, serranos, onions, garlic, and add the salt. It is ready to enjoy! Quick and easy!

Yield: 4 portions
Heat level: medium to hot

Chilacayotes stuffed with corn, epazote and chile de árbol
Chilacayotes are a spherical wild variety of squash. They are best harvested when their diameter is between 3 and 5 inches for our purpose.

Ingredients
4 Chilacayotes or any spherical tender squash cooked
1 Lb. sweet corn cooked
4 Chiles de Árbol stemmed
1 Onion chopped
The juice of two lemmons
A sprig of epazote. Substitute cilantro
Cooking oil
Salt to taste

Instructions
Cut about an inch in the top of the chilacayote on the side of the stem and remove the seeds. Reserve. Sautée the corn, chiles and onions for about five minutes. Add the lemon juice, epazote and salt, and sautée for another three minutes. Stuff the squash with the sauteed mix and serve! Buen provecho!

Yield: 4 portions
Heat level: hot

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Managing Editor | Mark is a freelance journalist based out of Los Angeles. He’s our Do-It-Yourself specialist, and happily agrees to try pretty much every twisted project we come up with.

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