I have just returned from a brief trip into the Sierra Gordo mountains of Mexico. A film series on Peace Corps volunteers took me to the remote town of La Salida, two hours off the last paved road and four hours from Qaretaro.
We were scrambling up a steep hillside when we crossed a small cornfield where beans were growing up corn stalks and squash spread out under them. The volunteer explained that I was looking at milpa agriculture, a traditional way of growing “the three sisters,” corn, beans and squash that formed the basis of the traditional American diet.
I have been reading Charles Mann’s superb new book 1493, on the profound changes brought about worldwide by Columbus stumbling onto the Americas. It turns out milpa agriculture characterized the American landscape when Cortez conquered Mexico in 1521.
Milpa is an intensive agricultural method that provides large yields without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines. The low lying squash becomes a living mulch, stifling weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating. Spiny squash leaves discourage predators from approaching. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts, calls milpa “one of the most successful human inventions ever created.”
The three crops compliment each other botanically. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following year’s corn. The large amount of crop residue left over can be incorporated back into the soil to build up organic matter. The fields are either not plowed at all or lightly plowed in the furrows, keeping the soil structure intact.
The three crops also compliment each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful, delicious oil from the seeds. Together they create a healthy diet.
Sustainability remains a question. Traditionally, heavy yields were possible on a sustainable basis if after two years of planting the milpa fields were left fallow for 6 to 7 seasons. According to one study, a little over an acre of milpa crops can feed a family of five for a year, with a little left over to sell. If the rotation is six years, a family theoretically could liver forever on a 7.5 acre plot.
It’s summer season for eggplant, and in my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) there are many different varieties, from the traditional black you find in supermarkets, the long narrow Asian variety and now white and pinstriped in various sizes. I love eggplant, but sautéing it in olive oil or even broiling it after brushing on a thin layer of oil can be more oil than you want. Here’s a recipe where the eggplant is steamed.
Ingredients for eggplant compote
- 1 ½ pounds eggplant, peeled and cut into ½ inch dice
- 3 to 4 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 2 to 3 close of garlic, minced
- ¾ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon Hungarian paprika
- Quarter cup tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Optional garnish
- ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Preparation of a plant compote
- Steam the eggplant until tender about 12 min. And drain well
- Coleman in a large skillet combine the tomatoes with the garlic and paprika and simmer over a moderate heat until thickened. You may want to further mashup the tomatoes as they cook. Add the tomato sauce and the eggplant and simmer gently stirring a few times until the eggplant is thoroughly mixed with the sauce, about 3 min.
- Remove from the heat stirring the Weiner season with salt and pepper and garnish with a lemon zest cilantro and parsley serve warm or at room temperature.
Jalapeño and garlic sauce
Ingredients for jalapeno garlic sauce
- 1 handful jalapeño chilies
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Preparation of Jalapeño and garlic sauce
- Cut the jalapenos in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and stems. Slice them thinly.
- Mince the garlic.
- Sauté the jalapeno slices and garlic in the olive oil until very tender. Add a little water along the way if necessary to keep the jalapenos from burning.
- Purée in a small blender and add salt and pepper if desired.