Monday, December 1, 2003

¡Qué maravillosa!

A tasty trip through Hispanic holiday foods By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach In Madison Magazine, December 2006
Recipes and shopping tips follow this article

Photo: Martha Busse

When Melania Alvarez tells me how to make cochinita pibil, a Christmas dish from her native Mexico, she gets excited just talking about it. “Oh, my mouth is watering!” she exclaims. She talks me through each step, and calls back a couple of times with some tips she forgot.

I must sound puzzled at her description of some of the more exotic ingredients, because the next day, I find them in a shopping bag hanging on my doorknob. There’s also an authentic comal – a steel griddle for warming tortillas. It’s a gift, for my efforts to share a dish that’s dear to her. The recipe comes out fabulous. The comal works great.

Holiday food customs matter to people. Here are some favorites of Madisonians from around the Latin American diaspora. ¡Que maravillosa!

Rosca de Reyes (wreath of kings) and Cochinita Pibil (barbecue pork soft tacos)

Alvarez, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison, remembers fondly the holiday celebrations she grew up with. Dec. 16 kicks off Las Posadas, a nightly neighborhood-wide reenactment in song of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging, culminating in a party each night at a different neighbor’s house. Festive dishes include ponche con piquete (punch with sting), a fruity, alcoholic concoction. For the children, there’s a piñata filled with peanuts, oranges, tangerines, sugar canes and candy.

Presents arrive on Epiphany (Jan. 6) courtesy of the three Wise Men – not Santa – in remembrance of the gifts they brought Jesus. On that day is served the rosca de reyes (wreath of kings), “a big oval wreath of egg bread with dry fruit decorations and sprinkled sugar on top,” explains Alvarez. “Hidden inside, there is a little ceramic doll which represents the Baby Jesus.”

But the main feast of Christmastime in Mexico, as throughout most of Latin America, is held the night of Christmas Eve. The Alvarez spread was lavish: “We had tamales, romeritos [a green vegetable] with shrimp, pork with plum sauce, bacalao [salt cod with chili peppers], and lots more. Our family loves to eat. In Mexico, food is just an incredible thing. There’s so much variety.” Christmas Day itself is “low-key,” she says – lots of lounging and leftovers.

One of Alvarez’s favorite holiday dishes is cochinita pibil, a kind of tangy pork barbecue served taco style with pickled red onions. Although her family hails from Monterrey in Mexico’s north, this Christmas specialty from south Mexico – an area with a vastly different culinary style – was always on her family’s holiday table. Here’s how it came to be there.

Born in Yucatán in the 1860s, Doña Aurora Canto chronicled the marvelous foods she grew up with, and developed recipes for preparing them in a modern, urban kitchen. Her granddaughter, Melba Sanchez, and her husband, Alonso, opened a restaurant in central Mexico, serving these recipes.

In the 1960s, the Sanchezes befriended a family that had newly moved south to Mexico City. The clan’s matriarch bonded with their little girl – Melania – who loved to hear stories about life in old Yucatán. And Doña Aurora shared with Melania’s family her method for cochinita pibil.

The classic form of the dish involves marinating a whole suckling pig in spices and orange juice, wrapping it in banana leaves, and roasting it in a pit dug into the earth.
This stovetop version from Doña Aurora, however, is easy. “It’s a foolproof recipe,” Alvarez says. “No matter what you do, it’s very hard that you ruin this thing. Put some on your tortilla, add some onion. You close your taco and – heaven! It’s good.”

Cochinitas pibil make a perfect buffet food. Just keep the pork hot in a chafing dish, and put the red onions nearby in a pretty bowl. Warm a stack of tortillas and keep them hot in foil or in a tortilla warmer.

Torejas (sweet corn puffs)

Christmas Eve dinner in Honduras, just north of Nicaragua, features nacatamales – pork or chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves, rather than the corn husks-wrapped tamales of Mexico that Americans are more familiar with. And for dessert, there’s always torejas – delicate little spongey disks dripping with rich, sweet cane syrup.

“Everybody has torejas and coffee,” says DeStephen, who was a dentist in Honduras. She came to the States two years ago with her husband, a clinical engineer with Rayovac. “They’re served right after dinner at room temperature. They’re very popular, and very easy. Very nice.”

In other Hispanic countries, “torejas” is a word meaning French toast, or sometimes just toast. But in Honduras, it specifically means these tiny fried corn flour cakes. (Fans of Indian food can consider these gulab jamun for the Western hemisphere.)
The most exotic ingredient here is piloncillo, a cone of evaporated cane syrup, a staple at Latin markets. The label IDs it as “brown sugar,” but it’s not quite the same as American brown sugar, which is just white sugar with a little molasses stirred in. This is the real thing – the pure, unrefined juice of the crushed cane. Compared to our brown sugar, the flavor is rich, hefty, whole.

Pan de Pascua (holy season bread) and Cola de Mono (monkey’s tail)

Fruitcake and monkey’s tail: it’s the instant Chilean Christmas celebration kit. “If you say this combination to any Chilean, they will say, ‘Oh, my, how did you know?’” says Paulette Berthelon. “Everywhere you go, everyone offers it to you. You just keep eating and drinking that through New Year’s Eve.”

Pan de Pascua, or Chilean fruitcake, translates as “bread of the holy season.” Dense, rich and bready, it’s sort of a cross between our fruitcake (less sweet, and not phony) and German stollen.

Cola de mono, meaning monkey’s tail, is the Chilean cultural equivalent of eggnog. This sweet drink is made with spiced milk and coffee and spiked with aguardiente, a Chilean liquor distilled from sugar cane.

Eaten in tandem, you’d think the two sweet treats would just cloy and cancel each other out, but in fact they combine in transcendent spicy harmony. “You eat and drink these two together, and – I don’t know, it’s just right,” says Berthelon.”It’s so good.”

Pan de Pascua is thought to originate from regions in the south of Chile settled by Germans in the early twentieth century, and Berthelon’s favorite recipe is the family treasure of a friend whose great-grandfather arrived in Chile around that time.


Rosca de Reyes In Madison, the Panaderia Marimar (270-0711; 1325 Greenway Cross) bakes delicious roscas de reyes in time for Epiphany. You can call ahead to reserve one, and arrange to pick it up at any of Marimar’s three mercado (market) locations around town.

Here’s a group of party-friendly recipes: every one of these can be prepared days in advance, and most get better with time. Enjoy!

Mexican Cochinitas Pibil
Alvarez recommends making cochinita pibil a day or even a week ahead of time. “It gets better and better,” she says. The pickled onions mellow and improve with time in the fridge, also.
Achiote is a garlicky condiment made chiefly from crushed annatto seeds. Annatto’s flavor is mild, but its color is a spectacular orange. (Used in tiny amounts, annatto gives cheddar and other orange cheeses their familiar ruddy hue.) Achiote is easy to find at any Latino food store. It comes in a little box about the size of a bar of soap, usually sporting a jaunty drawing of – a roast suckling pig.

Banana leaves are also uncommon to the American kitchen, but readily available at a mercado.

In Yucatán, a special orange, the naranja agria (bitter orange), is juiced for the marinade, but, says Alvarez, “You can only get it in Yucatán.” This recipe uses vinegar plus orange juice to duplicate the super-sour quality of naranja agria.

Tortilla warmers, cases to keep your heated tortillas hot, are available inexpensively at most Latino specialty mercados and tiendas (stores). Yue Wah (2328 S. Park St., 257-9338), a multiethnic supermarket, is also an excellent source for Latino groceries and accoutrements.

Cohinita Pibil Recipe

3 pounds pork shoulder butt roast
3/4 bar achiote (annatto) paste
2–3 feet banana leaves
5 oranges, juiced (or 1 1/2 cups OJ)
3/4 cup white vinegar, plus more cups vinegar
1–2 red onions
1 lime
1–4 serrano or habanero peppers
plenty of corn tortillas

Combine juice and 3/4 cup vinegar. Dissolve the achiote into the liquid. Cut the pork into six or more pieces. Marinate the pork in the achiote mixture overnight. A zippered freezer bag – inside another bag or a bowl just in case – works well.

Transfer the meat and marinade into a heavy pot. (Iron or enameled iron are perfect; uncoated aluminum is not a good choice, because the acid will pit it.) Loosely wrap the meat into foot-long lengths of banana leaf. Add water to cover. Simmer, covered, 3–5 hours, until very tender – enough that you can easily tear it into little strips with a fork. (Some people like to use an electric crockpot for this slow cooking; others say it just isn’t the same.) Discard the banana leaves. Shred the pork. Keep the lid off and cook liquid down until it’s juicy, but not soupy. Keep in mind that when it cools, much of the liquid will be absorbed. Mash another teaspoon or tablespoon of achiote with a little vinegar and stir it in, to freshen up the taste. Excellent right away or reheated. Be careful not to let this get scorched: “Burnt annatto tastes terrible,” says Alvarez.

Onion condiment
Slice the onion into thin rings. Place in a glass bowl or other container suitable for fairly long-term refrigeration. Add the juice of a lime. Add vinegar to cover. Slice the pepper(s) lengthwise and add them – as many as you think you will want the heat of! Refrigerate at least a day before serving. The sharpness of the onions mellows over time.

To serve Over low heat, warm tortillas on a griddle or an authentic flat steel comal (available at mercados). Make a soft taco by putting some pork on a tortilla, adding red onion (lift it out of the vinegar), and folding the tortilla in half.

Honduran Torejas

3 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons corn flour (finer than corn meal)
3 piloncillos
3 cups water
Oil for frying (about 1 quart)

Woodman’s carries big, cheap jugs of peanut oil. With its high smoking point and unobtrusive flavor, is a good choice for frying. It can easily be strained and reused after frying torejas.

Beat yolks till thick and creamy, like mayonnaise. Beat egg whites till stiff peaks form. Stir whites and yolks together. Stir in corn flour.

Fry in 1" of hot (375º) oil, dropping batter from a teaspoon. Fry torejas until golden brown, flipping once. It doesn’t take long. By the time you fill the pan, it’s time to flip the first ones you dropped in. By the time you’ve turned them all, it’s time to start removing them to a rack. Cool on rack, then remove to paper towels for better drainage. At this point, they’re feather-light, mostly air – the better to soak up the delicious piloncillo syrup.

Place in the syrup. Refrigerate overnight. Serve about three torejas at room temperature in lots of syrup in a little dish.

Piloncillo syrup In a saucepan over low heat, place piloncillos in water and cover. The dried cane syrup will dissolve into a thin syrup after several minutes.

Pan De Pasuca
Holy Season Bread, or Chilean Fruitcake
Most Panes de Pascua are yeasted breads, time-consuming constructions involving various kneadings and risings. This one, however, is leavened with baking powder, so it’s much simpler to make. It’s legacy, however, is authentic, dating back generations in a German family of southern Chile.

1 cup of butter, room temperature
1/2 cup milk
4 eggs, separated
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon anise extract
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups chopped walnuts (not too small, break every piece in half)
3/4 cup almonds (optional, broken in pieces as you do with the walnuts)
1 1/2 cups golden raisins
1 cup mixed candied fruit
1/2 cup brandy or rum
1 teaspoon white vinegar

Preheat oven to 325º. Grease two deep 9" round cake pans or one 9" springform pan. Spray pan(s) with cooking spray. For extra nonstick-ness, line the bottom and sides of the pan with foil, then spray.

Combine the fruits and nuts in a medium bowl. Toss in a handful of flour and mix to coat. The flour keeps the fruits and nuts from sinking to the bottom of the cake.

Beat butter in a large bowl until creamy. Add all the sugar and beat until
light and fluffy. Add honey. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, beating well at each addition. Add vanilla. Stir in lemon peel and egg whites. Add some of the milk.
Sift flour, baking powder and spices and add to butter mixture alternately
with brandy or rum, beating just until blended. (Get someone to do the adding while you do the beating, and it will be much easier!) Add the vinegar. Now add enough of the milk to make a batter no thinner than an average cake batter. This might mean adding all the milk. Thick is OK, but you don’t want it too thin. Fold in reserved fruit and nuts mixture.

Spoon into pan(s) and smooth top. Bake for one hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake is firm. (It might take up to fifteen minutes longer.)

Cool completely on wire rack. Cover with foil and refrigerate or store in a cool dry place. Pan de pascua keeps for several days.

Chilean Cola de Mono
Monkey’s Tail

1 quart milk
8 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste)
4 tablespoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon grated cloves
sections of peel from 1/4 orange, white pith scraped away
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed coffee.
3/4 to 1 cup aquardiente

Aquardiente, a cane-based spirit that predates rum, is difficult to find stateside, but rum or tequila are serviceable substitutes. Paulette cautions against using vodka: “It gives a bitter taste. Don’t even try it.”

Place the milk, sugar, vanilla extract, grated nutmeg, grated cloves, and
orange peel in a two- or three-quart saucepan. Over medium heat, heat the mixture to just before to the boiling point, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat just as it’s about to boil. Stir the coffee into the hot milk. Let it cool at room temperature. (If you prefer to use instant coffee, dissolve 4 teaspoons in a cup using a little bit of the hot milk mixture, and then add it to the rest of the mixture.)

Add the liquor after the liquid has cooled. If it’s still warm, the alcohol will evaporate! You can add the liquor by stages, to adjust the strength to your taste. You might even want to add the liquor later, to suit individual tastes and so that children and other non-drinkers can enjoy it.

Remove the orange peels, strain the cola de mono and decant into bottles, using a ladle and funnel. Cover tightly and chill before serving. Keeps several days refrigerated.

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Natural Collaboration: Organic Valley's George Siemon

An unconventional business, Organic Valley Family of Farms has grown into a national leader in the organic movement.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Corporate Report Wisconsin, October 2003
Profile: George Siemon, Organic Valley's CEO

Needle-tart, refreshing, sweet: a delicate, complex play of juicy flavors bursts onto my tongue with startling directness, as if I’d pierced the skin of a just-picked fruit. My eyes widen. It’s organic grapefruit juice, freshly squeezed and packed into 1/2 gallon paperboard cartons, then shipped, carefully chilled, thousands of miles to Wisconsin.

Across a polished wooden conference table sits George Siemon, the CEO of Organic Valley, the fourth biggest organics brand in America. “Isn’t that stuff just incredible?” says the lanky 50-year-old, his gleaming blond hair draping to his shoulders. “We just started making juice two years ago. I drink the grapefruit juice myself.”

The juice comes from a farmer-owned cooperative of 14 members, all organic growers of citrus in Florida. That co-op is, in turn, a member of CROPP Cooperative, whose 550 farmer-members make it the largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in North America. The La Farge, Wis.-based CROPP (Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools) is better known by its brand name, Organic Valley Family of Farms.

A producer of organic dairy and eggs, produce, meats, and, lately, juice, it’s also known in the natural foods world as one of the remaining independent holdouts in a growth industry in which many of the successful pioneers have been bought up by giant corporations in recent years. At Organic Valley, where each of the seven directors on the board is a farmer-member who is elected by the other farmer-members, where members own the company directly and each member gets precisely one vote, selling out is not on the agenda.

Siemon arrived at work today dressed in jeans, sandals, and a blue denim shirt embroidered above the breast pocket with the Organic Valley logo: a gambrel-roofed, red barn amid a green field of crops. He’s usually less formal, he explains, but today he’s gussied up for the CRW photo shoot.

The photos, by the way, had been delayed for a bit while Siemon pushed a dollyful of Cryovac packaging wrap through the grounds of Organic Valley’s full-to-bursting headquarters, to the cheese-packing facility somehow jammed among the offices stuffed inside the main building, an old, converted dairy. Office space spills over into a row of trailers out back.

After the photos, Siemon headed upstairs and into his office and immediately slipped out of the sandals. That’s where I am now, sipping grapefruit juice and talking with a barefooted, nature-loving, vegetable farmer who, despite having no formal business education, shepherded the rise of an association of seven Wisconsin farmers into a national company with 2003 sales expected to top $150 million.

Siemon is doubtless one of the most important figures in organics today, and not just because of his work at Organic Valley. He’s also serving the first of five years on U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board.

He’s also, arguably, one of the most important figures for the future of rural America. For decades, small farms across the nation have been going out of business, thousands and sometimes tens of thousands each year. Organics, the fastest-growing agricultural sector, is seen as a rare ray of hope for farming families. In 2002 alone, Organic Valley brought 94 farmers – 44 in Wis. – into its fold, saving many from extinction.

Siemon, who also serves on the USDA’s Small Farm Advisory Committee, uses all of his muscle to advocate for rural communities and small-scale family farming, defend the environment, and champion the ethical, humane treatment of farm animals – which generally requires practices that are possible only on small farms.

Note that the championing of small farms is an Organic Valley value, not necessarily an organic one. Half of California’s $400 million organic produce market comes from just five big farms. Washington’s Cascadian Farms, the ninth biggest organics brand in the U.S., buys the ingredients for its organic microwavable dinners, frozen veggies, jams, and more from large farms in California and abroad. Colorado-based Horizon Organic, Organic Valley’s most formidable dairy competitor, fences thousands of cows inside grassless lots. Organic to the letter of federal law, these mega-farms use no pesticides and the cows are fed grain grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. (Horizon was purchased by Dean Foods, America’s largest dairy concern, in August, 2003.) Organic Valley, on the other hand, requires its livestock farmers to provide access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight and natural pasture. Herds of 70-80 cows are ideal for such treatment.

Protecting rural communities and the environment is written into Organic Valley’s mission statement, and it shows in the company’s actions. Consider the site of the $4 million headquarters now under construction: a couple of hillsides away from its present Main Street address in La Farge (pop. 775), about two-thirds of the way from Madison to La Crosse. The nearest Interstate is 20 twisting miles north; the closest U.S. Highway several miles south along steep terrain.

“The expectation was that we’d move to be near a big city. Probably Chicago,” Siemon says. “We looked into it. But we decided it was right to stay in La Farge. This is where we grew up. It’s where we bank.” So instead of pulling 206 jobs out of the rural area, Organic Valley is staying put, with plans to add another 105 jobs. Local workers and, as much as possible, local contractors and locally sourced materials are being used to build the structure.

The facility will boast green goodies including cotton insulation, recycled steel siding, sheet rock made from recycled coke-ash, sustainable water-free plumbing and solar-powered parking lot lights. Windows will be specially glazed to let in a maximum of light with little glare, saving energy and providing workers with beautiful views.

“We wanted to build a green building. To provide a healthy environment for the employees, plus keep the electric bill down,” says Siemon. He firmly believes it’s good business to do good for everyone involved. “I think there’s a real positive value to creating a work environment that’s healthy and pleasant to be in. Employees react to that, don’t they? They feel, ‘Somebody cares for me.’ They’re going to work a little harder.”

He believes his approach to be the wave of the future in business: “The penny-pinching school of thought that says that all that counts is my profits, being greedy, taking advantage of your position to further yourself – it’s an attitude that’s short lived. Good business is sustainable and environmental. Really, it’s the golden rule. You can’t have a sustainable business based on another’s unsustainability.”

If this sounds like a hippie-era flower child at heart, that’s not too far off. Being a business executive was never his intention.

Growing up, Siemon yearned to get as far from his family’s office supply business as possible. “I swore I’d never be a business person,” he recalls. “I wanted to work outdoors in nature. I did outdoor bird photography when I was a kid, joined the Audubon Society. I spent my summers at farms, with family in Alabama. I was Nature Boy.”

In 1970, Siemon fled his West Palm Beach upbringing for the free-spirited atmosphere of Colorado State University. He worked his way through college as a hired hand at local farms. At first he majored in forestry, planning to become a naturalist, but he switched to animal science. “I got disillusioned with forestry,” he says. “I used to say, ‘I’m just going to count picnic tables for the government for the rest of my life.’”

After graduating in 1974, Siemon moved to Iowa with his wife, Jane, for her graduate work. Later they migrated east of the Mississippi and began farming vegetables in the rugged Kickapoo Valley region of southwest Wisconsin. (Jane continues to run the farm today.)

In 1988, they banded together with a few other farm families to form a cooperative to sell their produce. Siemon was tapped to run the business end of things. “I was the only one in the group who wasn’t raised on a farm,” he says. He was surprised to find how much useful knowledge he’d gleaned from his business family background: “You learn more sitting around the family table than you realize.”

The business gig was supposed to be temporary, Siemon says. “I kept saying, ‘I’ll get this thing going, and then I’ll quit. One more year, and then I’ll quit.” But the growth of CROPP led to an unexpected personal transformation.

“I resisted who I am today,” he says. “For the first half of this, I thought I would be quitting any time. My objective was to work my way out of a job. Then I realized that was self-centered. My whole mission in life had been to sit at home and watch the birds fly by. But it became obvious that CROPP has an important role as a farmer leader in the nation, and that I was part of that. And that I should accept that. Around 1995, we started hiring professional people. They were helpful in mentoring me and encouraging me. They said, ‘We need you.’”

“Becoming a boss was my biggest challenge,” he remembers. “You’re no longer one of the gang. You don’t know how friendly to be. How much conversation to have in the hall. You make a comment in the break room and it turns into some weird mandate.” Siemon had to accept that his former peers were no longer peers, exactly. “I had to learn how to fire friends. It’s just part of growing up. You can be mission oriented, but in order to have the luxury to serve your mission, you have to have good business.

“This place is very uncorporate, but not everyone sees that. ‘Oh, back in the old days,’ they say. Yeah, in the old days it was very tough and stressful. CROPP is changing. It’s got it’s own life. We can’t hold it back.”

That growth has not been without controversy. Over the past few years, Organic Valley squeaked by with a 1.5% profit margin, despite rocketing growth. Facing criticism from all around, not least from the bank, the co-op stubbornly refused to lower the price it paid farmers for their milk.

“Lowering the milk price would have been as easy as falling off a log,” says Siemon. “But one of our objectives is to pay farmers a good price. It’s an easy, easy path that, every time we hit a bump, oh, we’ll just lower the farmers’ pay price. That’s what happens in America. But we have a pay program the farmers expect us to deliver on. These relationships are the most important thing.”

He admits, “Quite honestly, we did take the co-op to the point of risk by growing so fast. That was the time when the mass market started to explode in organic milk. We went for that market. We grew fast, so we weren’t able to make money. The other side of it is, now we’re much bigger, serving more farmers, with a national brand well placed in the mass market. Sixty percent of our business is in the mainstream supermarkets now. We’re in chains with 900 stores. We couldn’t get in like that today. Do I regret taking that risk? No. We had to go into that world or we wouldn’t be in the position we are now: strong enough to influence the overall pricing structure.”

Ultimately, he says, he protected organic dairy’s price premium nationwide – the very thing that makes organic the hope for the future of family farming.

“My biggest dream,” says Siemon, “is that the organic marketplace will grow, that it will just explode, as individual people start taking responsibility as consumers.”
If that happens, Organic Valley farmers will be well placed, thanks to Siemon’s deft steering through the recent organic dairy boom. “We are a market leader in the industry now,” he says. “We are the number one dairy brand in natural foods markets, and number two in the mass market. We’re growing up to twice as fast as our competitor. We’re on the fast track. It’s incredibly exciting.”

George Siemon: An Inside Look
Favorite Musician:
John Trudell, known as much for his fusion of political poetry and rock and roll with Indian tribal chants and drums as for his chairmanship of the controversial American Indian Movement (AIM) through much of the 1970s.

On His Magazine Rack:
Harvard Business Review
Meat and Poultry
Rural Cooperatives

Favorite Vacation:
Tent camping, horse packing or car camping in the Kickapoo Valley. “I like to hike. I like to use my feet.”

Best Way to Zone Out:
Western novels.