Saturday, September 20, 2014

Making Corn Tamale Pie (Recipe)

Tamale Pie has become one of my favorite go-to recipes for a quick and easy home-cooked meal.  Inspired by a dish served at Oh Happy Days Healthfood Cafe & Market, my adaptation is a great way to enjoy the rich flavor of masa harina, without the labor of preparing traditional tamales.



  • 2 cups masa harina 
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup organic vegetable shortening or butter  
  • 2 cups stock or water
  • 2 cups beans (Or one can -- I usually use black beans)
  • Shoyu to season
  • Cooking oil (sunflower, safflower) 
  • Salsa

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees

2.  In a mixing bowl, combine masa flour, baking powder, and sea salt.  

3.  Cut in shortening or butter.

4.  Add water and stir until dough is formed.  Set aside.

For the topping:  

5.  Cook the beans in a skillet with a bit of oil, and with any other vegetables or seasoning desired.  Splash enough shoyu to taste toward the end of cooking, and stir in as much salsa as desired.

The beans may be cooked with any combination of tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, corn kernels, and seasoned with epazote, cumin, cilantro, lemon -- get creative!  

6.  Spread the masa evenly along the bottom of an oiled cooking pan.  Some recipes place the bean or meat filling on the bottom with the masa cooked on top, but I have found that the casserole holds together much better with the masa cooking at the base.

7.  Spread the bean and vegetable filling evenly upon the top of the masa dough.  If you like, add vegan or dairy cheese and olives on top to melt and cook in the oven.  I like to use Spanish Manzanilla Olives with Pimentos!  Cheese and olives may also be added after, to accommodate different dietary practices.

8.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the masa has risen, is firm, and the edges are crisp and golden.  I like to serve slices of Tamale Pie on a bed of salad, with grated carrots, tomatoes, and fresh sprouts.

For this version, I used Daiya vegan cheese.

Tamale Pie has become a dish that I enjoy preparing at least once a week.  It’s easy to make and leaves plenty of room for creativity.  The balance of the salty, savory, and nourishing whole-grain corn flavor of the crisp, fluffy masa makes this a true vegetarian comfort food!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Exploring the Hills of Mt. Washington

Last week, my friend and Arroyo Seco Foundation colleague Scott Cher took me on a walking tour of Mt. Washington, which he has long called home.  Nestled in the hills behind the majestic Southwest Museum, Mount Washington is a historic LA neighborhood with commanding vistas and surrounded by nature.  We set out to explore the open spaces and habitat in the area that have been set aside and preserved, and those which still need protection.

We began our walk by hiking through Moon Canyon Park.  Moon Canyon is an unmaintained Los Angeles city park with great potential for habitat restoration.  The canyon slopes are home to the rare California Walnut tree, which Mt. Washington is known for.

Moon Canyon
Once we reached San Rafael Avenue at the top of the canyon, we were rewarded with views of Highland Park, Eagle Rock, and the San Gabriel Mountains.  We then crossed the road and ventured into the boundaries of Heidelberg Park.

The slopes of Heidelberg Park were covered with such a dense canopy of oak and walnut woodland that when I gazed upward it felt as though I could have been deep in the forest.  We encountered beautiful native flowers which Scott later identified as cliff desertdandelion

As we walked further down the canyon trail, we encountered seasonal stream-beds, elderberry trees, poison oak, toyon, and a skateboard rope-swing!  I climbed onto my new “hoverboard” and told Scott of the various similar spots I’d discovered as a kid while exploring Pasadena’s San Rafael Hills.  I smiled at how kids growing up in the hills will explore them and make them their own.

It’s great to be a kid from the hills.  The author, hanging on the “hoverboard” rope-swing.
After climbing back out of Heidelberg Park, we walked to beautiful Elyria Canyon Park.  We passed by the gates of the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters on the way, which opened in 1925 on the former site of the Mt. Washington Hotel.  The historic homes on San Rafael Avenue surrounding the Fellowship headquarters reminded me of the beautiful Arroyo Seco neighborhood of Prospect Park in Pasadena.

At the bottom of Elyria Canyon, we encountered a plant which at first looked to be Sacred Datura.  Upon closer inspection, Scott found that growing from this plant were small, watermelon-looking gourds, which I later identified as Buffalo Gourd.  Scott noted that they smelled like squash, yet the leaves still smelled a bit like Datura to me.  

Learned a new plant!  Buffalo Gourd in Elyria Canyon, with a sunflower growing in the middle.
In the bottom of Elyria Canyon, we observed more riparian plant species along the dry creek-bed.  Mulefat and sycamore trees indicated the presence of water, and rusted old farm equipment which had been long cast-aside served as a reminder of a bygone era -- of a time when this part of Los Angeles was undeveloped and agricultural.

Contributing greatly to the area’s rustic atmosphere was the Red Barn in Elyria Canyon Park.  Growing next to the barn was a beautiful, gigantic Coyote Brush, which attracts various insects and pollinators.  (Incidentally, coyote brush is also the best cure for poison oak!)  

I had a great time exploring the hills of Mt. Washington with Scott.  There is no better perspective through which to view the land than the eyes of a native.  The more I have met and befriended people who grew up in the hills of the Arroyo Seco, the more I’ve realized their important role in shaping our character.
The view from Sea View Avenue.
If we wish to live in a country which people love, then let us preserve the very places that residents fall in love with.  There are still natural areas of Mount Washington that need to be protected.  By saving our remaining open spaces, we will be providing future generations with cities worth taking pride in.  We will be creating neighborhoods of citizens who love the land upon which they live, and who will in turn love and nurture their community, their nation, and indeed, the world.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Willow Bark for Pain Relief

I evoked some curiosity from my running companions on Saturday by chewing willow bark as we travelled along the Gabrielino Trail in the upper Arroyo Seco.  Willow trees are abundant beside many of the canyon trails that I run along, and are a useful plant to know if you want to reduce pain and inflammation - the natural way.

Photo by Daisy Pliego.

Willow leaves and bark contain salicin, which is metabolized into salicylic acid in the body and is the chemical aspirin was derived from.  For thousands of years, willow has been used by cultures around the world in the same ways that people use aspirin today.  Hippocrates advised patients to chew the bark to reduce fever and inflammation.  The Chumash people, and other native Californians, also used willow for pain, aches and fevers - by making poultices, teas, or by eating the leaves.

Willow branches were also used by native Californians for the construction of their domed houses, bows, and acorn granaries.  According to the Chumash, and as taught by James D. Adams, Jr, this was because willow was like women - strong, but flexible.

I chew willow bark occasionally on my trail runs so that I too may remain strong and flexible - and hopefully pain free!  Willow in it’s natural form is a milder pain treatment that aspirin, although it can still upset the stomach if used in excess.  The bark - which contains the highest concentration of salicin - may be bitter, but the taste is well worth the benefit of knowing how to use this wonderful, medicinal plant.

Acorn granary made from willow branches.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nature’s Brunch - Saturday, August 2

Join me this Saturday at Cottonwood Canyon in Pasadena for “Nature’s Brunch," and see firsthand this hidden jewel that my land trust - the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy - is working to save.  Enjoy acorn pancakes and fruit under the oak canopy, and learn about the history and habitat of this essential wildlife corridor.

I will also lead a short native plant walk through the canyon for anyone interested in learning the food and medicinal uses of our local flora.  Look for street parking between 1950 - 2010 Linda Vista Avenue, Pasadena 91103.  Hope to see you there!

Beautiful Big Leaf Maple foliage in Cottonwood Canyon

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fiesta del Maiz - Xilonen Ceremony

I attended the Fiesta del Maiz - Xilonen Ceremony on Sunday at Prospect Park to distribute articles, promote my upcoming cooking class (a fundraiser for the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy), and to enjoy this celebration of traditional, non-GMO corn.  I had some interesting conversations, and shared the park with organizations doing great work to improve our environment and society.

“Fox” Orozco, an Aztec Dancer, was one of the first people to greet me.  I took in the smell of the white sage he was smudging to "start the day off right,” and gave him a brief description of my writings promoting the importance of returning to a traditional diet.  When I  visited his booth later in the day, I was grateful to hear that he really appreciated my article, Stolen Corn.

SLOLA’s beautiful heirloom corn.

The Seed Library of Los Angeles was an organization that I had just learned about, and I was excited to chat with them.  SLOLA’s mission is to preserve genetic diversity and increase food justice and food security by saving heirloom seeds, and by creating a local community of seed-saving gardeners.  A beautiful selection of native corn seeds were on display at their table, and David King, SLOLA’s board chair, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about sharing their great variety and diverse culinary uses.

It was nice to have my friend Samyrha stop by and visit, along with one of her friends from the nearby community garden Proyecto Jardin.  They had just harvested some beautiful, heirloom corn from their garden - huge and multicolored.  We shared a pot of quinoa and ate from improvised corn-husk spoons as we talked and caught up.

Samyrha hanging at the Arroyo Sage table.

I was happy to find another friend, Dennis Uyat, setting up a table for Comida No Bombas next to me.  Dennis is an old garden-club buddy from Pasadena City College, and another member of Proyecto Jardin.  He’d told me before of his work with  Comida No Bombas, but I became very impressed after learning more.

Always good catching up with Dennis.  Such a good dude!

Comida No Bombas is a collective of young people who deliver free, vegan meals to folks in need - by bicycle!  They use food that otherwise would have been wasted, and wrap it in biodegradable packaging.  While other organizations provide food of questionable salubrity, in styrofoam packaging, with plastic utensils which end up as litter on the ground - Comida No Bombas seems to have all the right bases covered.  Their model benefits our environment, our health, and our society - and should be replicated in every city, nationwide.

I enjoyed other interesting conversations with people throughout the day - all to the backdrop of Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc’s dancing and ceremony. A volunteer with the Seed Library shared how a family history of farming inspired her to preserve biodiversity. Another woman shared her knowledge of natural, Mexican remedies for colds and injuries.  Anet Aguilar, of the Facebook page Yo Soy Maiz, discussed with me the importance of identifying sources of non-GM masa and corn for the Latino community.

The issue of preserving the genetic integrity of natural, non-GM corn is an issue of preserving cultural identity.  After learning the disadvantages of genetically modified corn, I resolved to avoid it as much as possible.  Unfortunately, this also meant avoiding and losing a part of my culture. Fond memories of my Nana making tamales, and of eating my favorite ones (tamales dulces!) returned to me.  Before finding non-GM alternatives, I felt a sense of loss that I would not eat those foods again.

Attending the Xilonen festival left me encouraged that a desire to preserve the living heritage of natural, non-GM corn is growing.  Embracing the health-giving foods of our ancestors, voting with our lifestyle, and opting out of the industrialized food system in favor of sustainable agriculture has the power to impact our health and environment for the better - and in ways that are far more powerful than casting a vote at the ballot box.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ethical Vegans Should Refuse Plastic

For several years I have followed a mostly-vegan diet for the health benefits it provides.  Although I am not an ethical vegan, I do support humane treatment and compassion for animals.

The author, center, showing off vegan fried rice at Kushi Institute

Over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about the profound impacts our modern society is having on the creatures of the world and their habitats.  Few technologies are having a more destructive impact upon wildlife today than the proliferation of disposable plastic.

The evidence of the destructive impact of plastic pollution on birds and sea creatures is abundant.  More than 90% of northern fulmar seabirds have eaten plastic, some of their gizzards becoming completely filled with it.  Whales have washed ashore with stomaches full of plastic.  At least 100,000 marine creatures and approximately 1 million seabirds die each year from plastic consumption and entanglement, while sea turtle populations are plummeting due to plastic pollution.

Creatures on land aren’t faring much better.  Camels, sheep, goats and cattle have all died after ingesting plastic in the Arab world, as have elephants and holy cows in India.  Various other animals on land are suffering from the negative effects of plastic pollution.  Humans are no exception.

Toxic chemicals leached by plastic into food such as phthalates and BPA have been linked to various health problems, including cancer, diabetes and obesity.  Plastic particles which break down in the ocean attract toxic chemicals onto themselves that work their way up the food chain - and onto our dinner plates.  These microscopic plastic particles have been found to outnumber plankton - the base of the ocean food web - by a ratio of 6-1.

Clothing has recently been revealed to be another source of such “microplastic” pollution throughout the world’s oceans.  Many ethical vegans, in an attempt to avoid animal-sourced products and materials, choose to wear synthetic “vegan” clothing.  Such clothing, however, can be far from plant-based or natural, and is often made from petroleum-based materials - or in other words, plastics.

Microscopic plastic threads which shed from synthetic clothing make their way from the washing machine into the ocean and are taken up by filter feeders such as clams, mussels and small fish.  These creatures, including Lugworms, the “earthworms of the sea,” play a key role as food for other species and are profoundly harmed by ingesting the PCBs, dioxinsDDT and other pollutants absorbed by synthetic clothing threads.

A better option for ensuring animal welfare would be to rely upon truly natural materials which biodegrade and pose no threat to the environment.  Organic cotton, hemp and other plant-based fibers are the superior choice, and I think responsibly-sourced, ethical yarn could also be a part of the solution.  If the alpacas, llamas and sheep providing the wool are managed with a focus on animal welfare, vegan-friendly yarn could be peacefully-produced and provide another alternative to synthetic materials.

The time has come for us all to be concerned not only with the food that we eat, but also with the packaging that it comes in.  Single-use and disposable plastics are the greatest source of plastic pollution on the land and in the sea.  By refusing single-use plastics, using natural materials for clothing and supporting the meaningful regulation of plastics, ethical vegans - along with all the rest of us - may take steps to improve conditions for all life forms and to truly live according to shared principles of compassion.