The world got a little flatter Monday night at Sueños Restaurant.
That's where four chefs served up Mexican fare made from vegetables and herbs sourced from local farms run by Mexican and Latin American immigrants. Did you follow all that?
The food and drink were being offered as part of a fundraiser for those farmers, all participants in GrowNYC's New Farmer Development Project. Many of them saw extensive damage to their fields and major crop losses due to Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.
Nestor Tellos, of Tellos Green Farm in Dutchess County, says the rains washed out his new crop of caigua.
Chef Jacques Gautier of Palo Santo piped up to explain: "It's like a cucumber. It's hollow inside, perfect for stuffing. I use it for a version of chili rellenos."
This, he says, is what makes working with immigrant farmers like Tellos exciting: "They're growing things you'd never see in the States."
Through GrowNYC's efforts, these farmers are introducing to the city's greenmarkets Latin-inspired ingredients like tomatillos, papalo and pinto beans. Chef Gautier was using papalo in tacos made with braised chicken from Tellos' farm.
This means I got to try some papalo, finally, after being denied the pleasure during a recent Last Chance Foods episode with the director of the New Farmer Development Project. (She forgot to bring some to the studio!) The taste of the papalo was bright and smooth. I think it's a good substitute for those who hate cilantro but want that special zing that it provides.
Also at the event was Chefs Sue Torres of Sueños, John Keller of Viktor & Spoils and Joseph Macchia of Vynl NYC, who offered tacos made with braised beef tongue and a seasonal salsa made from rutabagas, parsnips, celery root and red onion.
Don't be alarmed, Mexican food-lovers. It wasn't totally North of the Border. The salsa also had cilantro, serranos, jalapeños and lime juice.
But I loved that Chef Macchia took up the challenge of creating traditional Mexican cuisine with non-traditional ingredients, like rutabaga. It again illustrates the American melting pot mash-up going on at this event. Chefs using rutabagas in their salsa. And local immigrant farmers, like Hector Perez of Mexico, who are learning how to grow such far-north-of-the-border produce.
Perez farms 45 acres of rented land in Milford, New Jersey. He says he got a degree in agriculture in Mexico. When he moved to New York City 12 years ago, he said, "I didn't have hope in farming again." But his hopes were renewed through the GrowNYC New Farmer Development Project (N.F.D.P.), which helped him find work at a farm in New Jersey.
Once he got his own operation going, Perez turned to N.F.D.P. for assistance in mastering crops that are familiar to us North American Zone 6 eaters, but weren't to him: kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. Perez grows all of these crops today at his Jersey Farm Produce.
But his specialty is tomatoes. Of course.
"We've got the perfect ground for it," a sandy soil, he tells me. Plus, "I have experience growing tomatoes since I was a child."
As for the fundraiser itself, Michelle Hughes, director of N.F.D.P., says it raised about $5,000 from 60 attendees. She says the fund will go to 13 farmers in the program who had losses due to the storms.
May it help them get back to growing papalo, pinto beans, cilantro AND those wintery rutabagas.