Milpa (a Nahuatl* word meaning 'to the field') is an agroecosystem of growing crops throughout Mesoamerica based on the ancient Mayan agricultural system where several complementary crops are planted together in a cleared area of forest, and cultivated for two years, then leaving the land fallow for eight years (allowing for natural regeneration of vegetation & a habitat for birds & mammals). But the milpa system isn't just about growing a lot in a tight space, it's a sacred act that brings together families & communities, the core of Mesoamerican society. It's also a system that is self-sustaining, doesn't require pesticides or fertilisers, and the planting of a wide variety of crops sustains their genetic diversity. A milpa will usually have multiple varieties of sweetcorn, beans, squashes & chiles (many will have other crops too, such as amaranth, avocado, jicama, sweet potato & tomatoes).
The Native American 3 Sisters method of companion planting (growing squash, sweetcorn & climbing beans in the same place, where the sweetcorn supports the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the dense groundcover of the squash suppresses weed growth) is a well known example of a milpa system. Pretty cool, huh?
So if you're growing your own veg, a milpa system is well worth a try. I plant squashes & pumpkins at the base of my sweetcorn, tomatoes & beans, where they keep the roots cool & moist, and block out light & suppress weeds. It's also a good way of getting a few more crops out of a small space. Say, if you only have room for a wigwam of runner beans, why not plant a pumpkin or squash at the base, and encourage it to grow around the base of your wigwam. Small climbing squash like acorn can happily work their way up the lower parts of bean frames without affecting your lovely legumes.
So all this is a pretty long winded way of explaining why this recipe I came up with the other day is called 'Milpa Chile', using a few veg from my own little milpa (and it's another courgette recipe)
2 Ancho chiles (dried)
100g green beans (or runner beans), sliced
1 onion, sliced
2-3 cloves garlic
1 tsp epazote (or coriander leaf)
50-100ml vegetable stock
salt & pepper
Remove seeds from the ancho chiles & soak in boiling water until soft (this will take 5-10 minutes). Put ancho & garlic in a blender or food processor (have a taste of the soaking water. Sometimes the chile gods frown upon us, and the soaking water tastes bitter & unpleasant. When the chile gods favour us, the soaking water is spiky, spicy and yum. If it isn't bitter, add it to the blender. If the spicy ones frown upon you, add a little water instead. And make appropriate offerings of chocolate hobnobs, and unlikely promises). Wizz away, adding water until you have a smooth puree. Set to one side (incidentally, this puree is lovely with sweet potato wedges. Just toss them in the puree, add a squeeze of orange juice & bake in the oven - yum!). Fry the onion & courgette in a pan until browned. Add the sweetcorn& beans & give it a quick stir & add the ancho puree & stir. Add your vegetable stock (this is a personal judgement thing here, add stock until the sauce is a thickness you like. If you like your chile quite dry & intense, don't add any at all, if you like it quite wet, so the juices soak into the rice, add more). Simmer for 5-10 minutes (5 if you like your beans with a bit of bite, 10 if not. Add water or stock if it's looking a little too dry). Season with salt & pepper, and the epazote/coriander. Serve with rice (I went for arroz amarillo - it's yellow!) & a wedge of lime. Avocado is good too.
Om nom nom!
*A group of languages & dialects around central Mexico & Mesoamerica (the chunk of South America that stretches from Mexico to Honduras & Nicaragua. Nahuatl words that have been adopted & adapted into English include 'Chocolate', 'chile', 'coyote' & 'tomato. The word 'Nahuatl' means 'a good, clear sound'.