Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Served with a Twist

There is an undeniable boom in the dining out scene in Buenos Aires. There are trendy new restaurants sprouting in Palermo Hollyowod every month. The porteños (the city dwellers of BA) have taken to them like ducks to water. Many of them now understand what sushi is, sashimi still needs a little more work...and the hot spicy fare at Sudestrada attracts a loyal following. There are even the odd ones which claim to serve porteño cuisine.

If I don't fancy dining in a sleek modern restaurant decked out in much stainless steel, glass and wood veneer or if I would like to get away from the crowd which follows the latest restaurant openings like a sport? In the past, I would have had no choice but go to the other end of the consumer spectrum – family restaurants with bright lights, Formica table tops and waiters who don the traditional gear of white shirt and waistcoat. While this Argentine tradition of dining coincides rather neatly with the Chinese one, some occasions do call for a little more ambience. Now, there is an agreeable new breed of restaurants that fills the gap.

Friends from London were staying with me; they have a great appreciation for all things kitsch so we planned on visiting Tierra Santa (the Holy Land) to witness the resurrection of Jesus at half hourly intervals. However, we were bitterly disappointed as it was shut that day so I suggested we visit the Faena Hotel, named after the owner whose normal garb involves, white jeans, white T shirt, a cowboy hat, and snake skin cowboy boots.

My friend Karina was particularly excited about the OTT bathroom taps in the shape of a swan and the Hellenic inspired furniture in the bar. She was ecstatic and declared this Liberace Land a great compensation for our earlier disappointment. We had a successful outing and all we needed was an equally fun place for dinner to round off a great day of homage paid to the camp and kitsch.

I have been introduced to a cute and casual restaurant by our friends, Alejandro and Guillermo, named Enfunda La Mandolina. It claims to be una cocina atipicamente porteña (an atypical restaurant serving porteño cuisine). It is situated in a charming old house with well preserved cornices, way off the main dining hub of Palermo Hollywood; but just when you think the owner would go along with the classical bone structure, he has fleshed it out with traditional objects with a great sense of humour.
The menu is concise, like a good menu should be; there are about 8-10 choices for main course, and a couple fewer for starter. The wine list is well thought out to take care of most price brackets – no, they don't have the rare vintages of Rutini but it is not that sort of restaurant. The surprisingly decent house wine comes in a jar the shape of a penguin – apparently a traditional utensil. The waiters are welcoming and look like they do actually want to be there.

So it was the natural choice for that evening. We booked for 8:30p.m. but arrived a little early – the waiters were having a staff meeting. They spotted us and let us in anyway. We were free to choose where to be seated so we chose to be next to a huge window in the candle lit room. We had some time to settle down and admire the place before a charmingly camp waiter, the only other person in the room, while trying to refrain from laughing at Karina's hilarious musings, came over to offer us the menu – eavesdropping becomes a reflex according to an eye-opening book called Waiting, The True Confession of a Waitress by Debra Ginsberg. We warmed to him immediately.

We were well attended by the same waiter who brought us cocktails of cinnamon and vodka, on the house, while we were introducing ourselves to the porteño cuisine beside grilled steak, Milanesa and empanadas. I settled on a cottage pie, Karina was tempted by the osso buco with sweet potato mash and Karen, the adventurous one, ordered Mondongo (tripe stew). We had empanadas with a dipping sauce to start – the sauce being a clever but untraditional accompaniment, hence atypical.

The servings, on the other hand, were typically porteño – generous. The Mondongo was stewed in herbs and spices and served in a small, old fashion biscuit jar. The cottage pie came completely covered in a dome with a flat top where a mini shuffle filled with raisins sat. It transpired that the traditional local cottage pie has olives and raisins; the addition of raisins is not welcomed by all so here they are conveniently served on the side. I lifted the dome to reveal a pie large enough for a small family. The osso buco was the least surprising in presentation but no less scrumptious.

Desserts were also modern takes on classics such as budin de pan (bread pudding) and flan. We declined pudding and were served a warm cocktail of orange, cardamom and vodka, again on the house. The food was hearty and the bill, almost too reasonable. The place was such a hit with the girls that they took their mother, also one of my house guests, there the following night. Guess what? They ran into Alejandro and Guillermo having dinner– it is that kind of place where you feel you are eating at someone you know and other friends are going to come in and join you.

I haven't learnt to make Milanesas or empanadas but one porteño offering which has captured my attention is the tarta de verdura (vegetable pie) made with acelga (similar to Swiss chard). The traditional version has a hard boiled egg in the centre and a lot of times, a white sauce binds the filling. My stab at it is just to sauté the acelga (chopped) and a clove of garlic (finely chopped) in some olive oil. Season it afterwards (salt too early would encourage moisture to leak from the acelga) and when it is drained and cooled, I add 2 raw eggs, 1/2 cup of grated parmigiano to the mixture. I lay out a piece of flaky pastry or wholemeal pastry, pile the mixture in the middle and fold up the border, Crostata-style. I bake it in a 220C oven for 30min or until the crust is crispy and golden brown. For those who feel it might be too healthy, I add slices of mozzarella on top of the pastry before adding the vegetable. The cheese melts and forms a protective layer against the moisture of the acelga so the pastry at the base remains crispy.

The girls have brought this atypical porteño recipe back home to London along with their numerous pairs of tango shoes!

Sudestrada, Guatemala y Fitzroy
Tierra Santa, Avenida Costanera Rafael Obligado 5790
Faena Hotel, Martha Salotti 445
Enfunda La Mandolina, Salguero 1440

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Trust or Trout?

Trucha, in Spanish, means trout. To you and me, trout is a fish. However, to this nation which consumes a meagre average of 8kgs of fish per capita per year, trucha (fem.)/ trucho (mas.) is more often a slang word for things or people that cannot be trusted.

Tengo confianza (I have confidence) is a phrase one hears often in this town due to the constant need to distinguish the truchas from the real deal because there are just too many of the particular varietal in this pond. When you think "the word" or a handshake carries the same weight here, YOU ARE WRONG. Precisely because so much is being said and promised by everyone to anyone, unless you see a written contract thick as a dictionary or the promised delivered, it is all just hot air. No one seems to take offence – a "trucha/o" uttered with a shrug and life goes on - it is all too common an occurrence to get offended.

In one short year, we have been disappointed after business meetings where the other party shook our hands, looked us in the eye and said "we must work on this together"; in social situations where friends and extended family said "let's meet up next week" and disappeared until whenever you run into them again; and in our daily lives when professionals do not keep their appointments (two sets of friends are still waiting for their respective garden designer to turn up after a year). I commiserate with my fellow settlers while our Argentine partner and family shrug.

It seems we need a crash course from the locals on telling which are the truchas, only it is a fine art that can only be learnt through paying our dues. Lesson one – look out for someone's tengo confianza recommendation, the phrase is deemed as good as any ISO quality guarantee. Lesson two – when even the recommended falls through, just shrug. This grasshopper is still figuring out lesson 3...

I actually need the lesson rather quickly...I have been buying organic groceries from a lady who has a shop named El Rincon Organico (The Organic Corner) in Palermo. She seems muy simpatica (very friendly) and the promotional leaflets are printed on unbleached papers, etc. While Demeter qualification is compulsory in some countries to list a product as organic, the application and qualification process are costly so it didn't occur to me not to trust the source of this lady's procurements even though there is no official guarantee.

One day, I was looking at her receipt made of unbleached paper to realise it said, in fine but not unnoticeable font, that it was not a valid record of transaction. It dawned on me that she may be evading tax! Well, I'm not assuming that an organic vendor or consumer, for that matter, should be saintly but tax evasion is a criminal offence!
Who knows, maybe such behaviour is viewed differently in this country as I've encountered a lot of similar "no valido como factura"(not valid as a receipt) receipts. These premises are just clausurado (shut by a government authority) for a while, then they re-open and life goes on.

What really planted doubts in my mind, however, are her apples which have refused to rot! We bought some Granny Smiths' from her a month ago and had forgotten about them. When Guillermo declared he only liked cooked green apples, I planned to make some compote to go with porridge in the morning. I never got round to it so when I discovered these apples this morning, still pristine, in perfectly edible state a month later, I was flabbergasted! Most health-conscious consumers who are willing to fork out the extra for organic perishables probably would have consumed their purchases too quickly to discover any smell of rot or rat.

These apples come unwaxed unlike the normal ones, but that's about it. So my dilemma is: do I continue to buy from this non-receipt issuing organic grocer which is one of only a couple in town or do I rejoin the mainstream. There has never been any doubt in Guillermo's mind, "Give me GM and non-organic!!" Like many Argentines, he thinks the anti-GM campaign is just propaganda from Europe because the Europeans refuse to pay the considerable patent fees to Mont Santo, the Canadian company which holds intellectual property rights to GM technology.

As to buying organic to avoid pesticides, we have been told by an agronomo (agriculturalist) in the family, with whom tengo confianza, that unlike farmers in the US and the EU who get massive subsidies from pesticide producers to use their products, Argentine farmers simply cannot afford such luxury in spades. Hence, the farmers have to use pesticides judiciously.
Not satisfied, I went on to grill him to find out more on the organic producers here and their products. His reply gave me more than a glimpse of the problem facing this country - while the industry is growing, it is still difficult to export because of too many truchas!!

I feel lost and tired on this issue; so for lunch, I am just going to open a tin of sardines, slice a non-organic fennel, caramelise the slices in a pan with some non-organic olive oil, and then fold the two ingredients into some linguini. To my version of instant noodles, Guillermo had previously declared “es fantastico!” Why did I bother with organic in the first place ?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Two Fine Dames

Just when I risk sounding like lyrics of traditional tango songs – one big whinge after another; I am going to say something nice about Buenos Aires.

Like most new comers, I have mixed feelings about the city; I am shocked by the nasty pollution, both air and noise – it is no surprise when the buses and many cars should have retired 30 years ago; abhorred by the porteños' devil may care attitude towards littering – sky raining McDonald's wrappers, dogs' droppings all over the pavement; and the unexpected rudeness of the educated classes – a dirty look may be all you get after holding the door open for the elegant ladies of Recoleta.

However, it only takes one good person's kind deed to melt your fed-up soul. Today, is my luckiest day in a long year, I encountered more than one good deed. Acting on the advice of my graphics designer, Valeria, who promised great things for La Otra Dimension (ahem!), I ventured to the wholesale area of Once (pronounced: On-se). The Time Out guide to BA is the greatest and coolest for those passing through but if one is to set up permanent abode here, Once, the hidden secret of the locals, is too good to miss!

We had bought metres of curtain fabric, also sold at the chi-chi Buenos Aires Design Centre, in Once for quarter of the price! Most of the time you end up buying Industria Argentina (made in Argentina) regardless of where you go, so buying from a wholesaler which is 15 minutes away from the fashionably decked out shops, at a significant discount sounds too good to be true, only it is! For the exigentes (the demanding ones) even imported fabrics are syndicated through some of these wholesalers.

The only problem is Once is a district, not an air-conditioned shopping centre. It is hard work when you don't know where to start. We were tipped off by our curtain maker to focus on a few cuadras (blocks) along Azcuenaga (street). This time, Valeria sent me to Corrientes y Larrea (cross streets) for baking and packaging materials.

I walked along Larrea and found a great papeleria (shop selling gift wrapping materials), shops that specialise in bedding, babies clothes, towels, and what I was looking for – cake tins. The selection is great, the brand is identical to that sold at Geo Bazaar (a fashionable houseware store with branch in BA Design Centre) - I was one excited girl. However, my destination was one shop named Doña Clara (Madame Clara), the Mecca of all aspiring bakers of this city.

Probably due to the excitement of sensing what I need is near, I overshot and passed Corrientes. Unaware of my mistake, I ended up on Cordoba (street). When I didn't find the Madame there, I thought she had moved. I aimlessly made a turn and was thinking of what to do next when I spotted a panaderia (bakery). I walked in and asked if they knew the fine lady. There was unison of "Si!" The guys started telling me where to find her and got confused among themselves. One looked into his phone book of suppliers' and found her number. At that moment, her number just didn't cut it, I needed more...without any prompting the same guy picked up the phone and located her. Hooray, address in hand, I said my heart felt "muchisimas gracias!!" many times over and headed over to her house.

Doña Clara is no Williams-Sonoma or John Lewis but she is full of good things: a chef's blow torch is 40% less here than Geo Bazaar, moulds of all descriptions, a sugar craft galore...she is compact and effective. Her son or grandson, a fine gentleman in his 70s, chatted with me animatedly after I told him his shop is muy piola (very cool). I found a local cooking chocolate of 70% cocoa solids, while still not a Valrhona, it is one step up from the Aguila Extra Fino I used; and a proper Angel Food Cake tin with detachable bottom and legs.

For the non-Americans, Angel Food Cake is a feather-light chiffon cake baked in a tin with a funnel in the middle. To cool this cake, you flip the tin so the exposed cake is facing down; the idea is to have the cake gradually slide out of the tin so it suffers no damage. Many bakers just use a deep cake tin with a funnel in the middle; without the legs, the cake tin can only rest on the neck of a bottle. This is a flawed solution because if the delicate cake slides too far down the wider part of the bottle, it is going to tear in the centre.

This piece of new toy comes in handy for afternoon tea on Sunday with our good friends Miguel y Paula, and their daughters. When we sit down to sample the cake, I shall propose a toast to Valeria and Doña Clara for a great day out, muchisimas gracias a ustedes!!

Doña Clara, Corrientes 2561
Compañia de Papeles, Larrea 349

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Different Strokes

It doesn't matter what time of the day and where in this city, you would spot kids; many of them would be drinking a pint of coca-cola or munching a triple-deck alfajor (sweet cornflour biscuits with dulce de leche sandwiched between). The parents are indulgent and the kids are happy so what is odd?

As you get older, you may realise there are more ways than one to do things; then sometimes there may not. Well, I mean there may be a few equally logical, scientifically proven views on the same issue, and then there are views and ways that you simply say "no way!" While the debate goes on between the puritans and the laid back whether expecting mothers could have a few drops of alcohol or caffeine once every full moon, an upscale pre-natal centre in this city advises their attendees that they could substitute coffee with diet coke! That explains why I see so many women with their bumps virtuously downing litres of that brown stuff, unaware they have now added more than just liver damaging artificial sweetener to what they were originally avoiding.

It gets worse post-partum, the new mothers are now free to sip cortado (a shot of espresso with a little milk) or coca-cola while breast feeding...

It must have been boredom that drove me to flip through a local magazine named Nacer y Crecer (to born and to grow) targeting novice mothers. On the page where a licensed nutritionist recommended recipes for mothers trying solids on older babies, she listed a heaped tablespoon of sugar and butter in her ramekin of pumpkin soufflé. If you are as alarmed as I was, I can tell you this licensed professional is not alone; I have personally seen another nutritionist adding queso cremoso (a soft fatty cheese that tastes of nothing but salt and fat) and butter to the mashed sweet potato intended for her own 8 month-old.

These practitioners might have been trained at the same college as the doctor my friend went to see with her baby; the good doctor recommended that she starts feeding her 6 month-old a teaspoon of sugar a day to get the baby accustomed to sweets. In fact, adding spoonfuls of sugar to milk for babies and children is a common practice here...
I remember sugar, crates of the stuff, was what my school sent to Africa in response to Band Aid in the '80s. While Buenos Aires came close to the bottom of the league table of the World's most liveable cities, a survival diet of sugar and fats is still out of place.

So what do these kids, veins pumped with sugar, do? They have a night out in town with the parents! If they get a little cranky after mid-night, an ice-cream or some more coke would put them right. Many restaurants have a pelotero (a place for the kids to play) so mummy and daddy can have their dinner in peace, at 10:00 p.m. (the usual time for dinner here)

After a while, I began to think I am the strange one with suburban reflexes and Victorian impulse to introduce routine to kids or to help them form healthy habits. No, por favour! (please!) Healthy habits are for the sick and the elderly; while we can, we should test the limits of our kidneys and liver function.

I am sure I will relapse to my less enlightened values once I have a couple of cubs myself. However, before you draw the conclusion that I am going to be the type who gives a tofu burger to my kids as a treat, you should try my yummy pear & walnut oil cake. It is far, far better than a happy compromise.

150ml walnut oil
150g golden caster sugar,
2 extra large eggs
175g plain flour
175g wholemeal flour
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp salt
450g pears, peeled, cored and diced

20 cm springform cake tin or a loaf tin, greased and lined

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Beat oil and sugar together in a bowl, now add eggs one at a time, beating in between each addition. Beat until the mixture looks like a runny mayonnaise. Add dry ingredients to the mixture, folding with a metal spoon. Then stir in the pears and ginger. The batter should be pretty stiff, don’t worry, just spoon into the prepared tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake in the oven for at least 1 hour and then test doneness with a toothpick.

Let the cake stand for 10 min in the tin on a wire rack, then turn out and leave to cool. This is one of those cakes which taste and texture will improve upon storing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In the Name of Technology

It amazes me when I think about how I am part of the last generation to have encountered a typewriter, watched VHS tapes, phoned with a cellular as tall and heavy as a carton of milk...How much mankind has leaped forward in a couple of decades! What possibilities and unknown are ahead of us?

While technology has bestowed upon us so much more than the ingenious and now affordable motor navigation system, it has also given us genetically modified food, ways for food producers to cut corners using corn syrup, saccharin, partially hydrogenated fats, a phone book of E-numbers, and other substances with undecipherable names.

While the Whole Food movement has gathered substantial momentum in affluent and cosmopolitan cities, most common folks of Buenos Aires are still happily tucking in deep fried empanadas soaked in rancid oil. The yogurt which mothers conscienciously feed their darling young ones is so well emulsified, in all shades of pastel, that it looks more appropiate on the nursery walls than as food for the young kidneys and liver. (Incidentially, after the closure of Parmalat, there is no natural, unsweetened yoghurt availabe in supermakets in Buenos Aires. I make my own through diluting a tub of natural flavour Activia with 500ml of milk.)

The other day, I found, in an Asian supermarket, jars of Japanese style pickled ginger in an unnatural Hello Kitty pink. Upon closer examination, the ginger was fibrous and cut way too thick however far we are from Tokyo. I wondered why it was necessary to resort to additives when a small clove of garlic would have done the trick. I have made pickled ginger from young shoots using a vegetable peeler; to obtain that quintessential blushing effect, I added the said clove of garlic in the sugar and white wine vinegar mixture. After a couple of weeks of preserving, you cannot detect the taste of garlic; and the almost translucent pink morsels hold up next to any authentic sushi and sashimi. So the question is: have our technological advancements created a beast which we have carelessly left in the unconscionable hands of food producers?

I list my much loved childhood favourite – Nutella, as another victim of mass production. According to Ferrero's website, Nutella was created in the 1940s in the midst of a chocolate shortage. Pietro Ferrero, a pastry-maker, stretched chocolate by thinning it out with ground hazelnuts. Mind you, Pietro was in Torino, Italy where hazelnuts were probably falling off trees everywhere while chocolate was still proper chocolate, hence expensive, in the days prior to the omnipresence of partially hydrogenated fats in processed food. Pietro's alchemy became so popular that he gave it a catchy name and the rest is history.

Fast track to 2006, lamentably, a regular jar of Nutella lists sugar as its primary ingredient, contains only 50 nuts (13% of the content),1 1/2 cups skim milk, enough cocoa powder to make it brown, and wait, wait for this, lots of hydrogenated vegetable fats to make it spreadable. As much as I love Nutella, today's commercial version is probably worse for you than the equal weight in lardo (cured lard; popular in Northern Italy, eaten as snack).

The search of good food knows no bounds...I can now dip my spoon into my own version of Nutella, low in sugar and free of trans-fats, adapted from a recipe in le hamburger et le croissant. OK, fingers-crossed for my translation work right here...

Pate a tartiner chocolat noisettes:

30g ground hazelnut or roasted hazelnut without skin

1 tsp hazelnut oil

1 tsp Dutch cocoa powder

1 tsp icing sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

75g dark chocolate

Melt chocolate in a bain-marie or microwave. If using roasted hazelnuts, place the nuts in a processor and pulse until a paste is formed. It takes about 30sec to 1 min. Add oil, cocoa powder, icing sugar and vanilla to the paste followed by melted chocolate. Process until a homogenous paste is formed. If the mixture is too dense, do not hesitate to thin it with more oil. Transfer the paste into a small bowl and leave it to cool. That's all folks!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

All that Glitter is Not Gold

George Negus, a well respected Australian journalist, took a working sabbatical in Italy with his fellow journalist wife and their two sons. His year away from home resulted in a book hailed by the Melbourne Age as genial and thoughtful "...the local people are not reduced to...suit the author's poetic view of the country as a kind of sun-drenched Eden."

I am sure Frances Mayes' Cortona and Peter Mayle's Provence are all the more agreeable to the authors since they have amassed a fortune through paddling a dream - we can all leave the Rat Race, just "pick up" a new language, renovate a house, make blood brother-like local friends, all accomplished while drinking Barolo or Grand Cru. Most of Europe is, indeed, very pretty, but I also can vouch from personal experience that even The Tuscan Sun doesn't shine everyday.

Most foreigners who flit through Buenos Aires love the city. Inevitably, they are charmed by the European legacy and the overall impression of sophistication. Many do not stay long enough to prise this veneer or may prefer not dig too deep, after all why should they; they are here to have a good time and take advantage of their hard currency. I too thought places such as Turkey and Morocco breathtakingly beautiful and romantic; judging by how many Turks and Moroccans currently residing outside of their country, I suspect they may hold a slightly different view.

When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, I was immediately struck by the gross social inequality. While we were lounging in a cafe in Recoleta, children as young as 4 came in to beg; before the waiters could shoo them away like flies, they had gone around each table to collect the leftover little biscuits that come free with the coffee. The ladies of leisure at these tables barely took notice.

I didn't limit my activities to the more affluent areas such as Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano; I wanted to see the real Buenos Aires. In retrospect, I think I have seen too much...on my way to Spanish class, I used to drive pass a ramp, a family had taken permanent shelter under the eave of this structure. There was a torn and soiled mattress on the pavement; the bare feet kids, hair caked up with dirt, were playing with rubbish collected in the neighbourhood. This family is not alone, I see too many like them if I care to look.

What strike me even more than these heart wrenching sights is the antipathy from the better-off porteños. My Spanish teacher was an attractive, well travelled lady who qualified as an abogada (lawyer, fem.) and spent her idyllic childhood in Belgrano and her weekends in the Country (the term for private country clubs among the wealthy gated communities). I was stunned that she had little sympathy, even for the little ones who should have been in kindergarten. Her frequent referral to the clase baja (lower class) and the morenos (literally brown people; the indigenous and various ethnic groups from the Mercosur countries) at first puzzled and later disgusted me. I fled and searched for replacement, only to find varying degree of the same attitude common among clase media (middle class) and above.

Politicians may not be deemed trustworthy in any nation but we can still rely on our government, as a whole, to keep law and order, carry out justice, etc. In Argentina, however, it seems dealing with corruption is a reflex ingrained in every citizen. People, in general, seem most concern about knowing the right people to fix their "situation" or out smart their fellow countrymen.

I have sat and listened to educated professionals and successful businessmen, otherwise referred to as pillars of society, talked about the importance of having a valuable contact in the right places. Few were bothered that the notion of corruption itself is wrong. Obviously, knowing the right people is easier than setting up the right system. However, don't we all know from playschool what happens to our skyscraper when we put the wrong sort of blocks as pillars!

When I need to get away from it all, I build my Gianduia Stack. With a melting chocolate ganáche sandwiched between each layer of hazelnut meringue, my pillars are sturdy and reliable, my stack deservedly glorious and proud.

Hazelnut meringue:
80g hazelnut meal, toasted
1½ tsp corn flour
6 large egg whites
240g golden castor sugar
2 drops red wine vinegar
a pinch of cream of tartar
3 drops vanilla extract

Chocolate ganáche:
275ml thickened cream
300g dark chocolate
20-30g toasted nuts to sprinkle on top

Preheat oven to 140C.

Mark 3 x 18cm rounds on baking parchment, flip it over and place on baking trays. Set them aside.

Combine hazelnut meal, corn flour and ¼ cup sugar in a bowl. Whisk egg whites with the remaining sugar in a separate bowl until stiff. Fold the dry mixture into the egg whites.

Divide the mixture and pipe 3 discs on baking parchment, using the mark as a guide. Spread the meringue evenly. Bake for 30min and move to the bottom of the oven for a further 30min.

When cooled, make chocolate ganáche, spread evenly on top of each disc, sandwich them together. You should end up with a layer of chocolate ganáche at the top. Sprinkle toasted nuts on the top and serve.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Sunday of Green & Gold

While I care very little about contact sports in general, I do enjoy watching the World Cup games. The most memorable for me was setting the alarm clock with my PoPo (maternal grandmother) in order for both of us to get up and watch the final at 3:00 a.m.; that was 1978, and coincidentally Argentina was the champion.

Regrettably, I have grown up a rootless global villager so I cheered for whichever team that played well or offered eye candies. I supported Argentina in 1990 - that had nothing to do with Maradonna's looks. In the last World Cup, I supported Spain – they had the best looking players (no, never understood the Beckham magic) until they dropped out, then I supported the champion worthy Brazil.

Australia came to soccer late (football in Oz refers Aussie Rules); the Socceroos had a low profile in and out of the country. That is, of course, history – the Sleeping Giant has woken up and now joined the rest of the world in enjoying this skilful and fascinating game.

The composition of the Socceroos has also changed, reflecting the country in 21stC. The National Team makes me proud to be occasionally refered to as Australiana, almost emotional in fact. We have a Brett Emerton, a Tim Cahill playing along side one John Aloisi, and a Marco Bresciano. The Cahill in question is half Samoan; John would have been Gianni if his ancestors had stayed where they were, his physique tells the story of many Australians today - his decidedly handsome southern Italian face is complimented by his considerable Australian height. Captain Mark Viduka could have represented Croatia in Germany..the Socceroos unite the nation more than any other Australian sporting hero, and there are plenty.

So I had a real dilemma watching the match, Australia vs Brazil, on Sunday. Firstly, the sea of Green & Gold in the stadium, colours of Australian sports, cheered for Brazil! I was a little confused for a minute; for the match, our boys opted for a much more complexion flattering navy.

The first half was nail biting, the commentators said Australia was playing "de igual a igual" (as equals) with their formidable opponent. I was excited whenever Australia looked like she was going to score yet I didn't want the brilliant Brazil to lose. I had to cheer for Brazil the way they scored in the second half but I was proud of the overall performance of our boys. Guillermo was greatly amused, to him and his compatriots there was never a question of which team to support.

Even our youngest niece who just turned 2 on Thursday learnt about "Argentina" and "futbol" at the jardin (kindergarten). All the schools have put up a big screen in the assembly hall so the kids and the teachers could watch and cheer for the Argentine team. In fact, the whole city grinds to a halt for the 90 odd minutes. The Argentines take their futbol both very, and I mean very, seriously and personally.

The next Argentine match is on Wednesday afternoon; to get away from the deafening noise and the commentators' "Gooooooooooooool" (goal) when the team scores; I have decided I would follow the example of my Australian friend here and do some baking in the kitchen. So I present to you my Gooooooooooooooey Chocolate & Walnut Brownies:

110g soft unsalted butter
185g dark chocolate
110g plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
185g dark brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
150g chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23x23cm square tin or a small oblong brownie tin with baking parchment, bottom and sides.

Melt the butter and chocolate together in a saucepan or in the microwave. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract together. Measure the flour into another bowl and add salt.

When the chocolate mixture has melted, let it cool a little. Then beat in the egg mixture. Now fold in the flour and nuts. Stir to combine smoothly, beware not to over mix. Over mixing would cause the gluten to toughen which compromises the resulting texture. Pour into the lined pan and bake for 25min-35min. The baking time is only a guide, so much depends your oven and whether the size of your brownie tin.

Once I had this brownie in an oven for over 40min. But don't worry, after 25min you can open the oven door and check doneness by touching the top lightly. When it's ready, the top should be slightly paler; also it looks like a thin speckled surface has formed. At this stage the middle should still be dark, dense and gooey.

If you do need more then 25min, keep checking until you get this effect and then take it out immediately. The brownie will continue to cook thus dry up as it cools so you do need to be alert.

Leave it to cool completely in the tin, then peel off lining on the sides, cut into squares, and lift them from the lining at the bottom.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Cous Cous, not Pasta

I had spent much time in England and Australia, and often heard that there was some Irish blood in everyone – obviously the speakers were not including me or my fellow Orientals in their hypothesis. All in all, they didn't seem to be far from the truth, speaking from where they were.

However, since coming to Buenos Aires, I can safely say that such guesstimate also applies to the Italians. Our cous cous night was a case in point. There were six of us; 1 full blooded Italian, 1 Irish-Italian, 2 Argentines who don't have to trace far for their Italian heritage (both could name instantly the town their grandparents came from; I bet if they go to their respective Commune (the equivalent of Town Hall in each Italian township) today, they would probably find personal details of their ancestors written in ink in the same huge leather-bound ledger that is currently in use- yes, still modus operandi in 2006), and last but not least, 2 who bear Italian married names.

If I care to look around, the Italian legacy is everywhere...our housekeeper, whose chiselled cheekbones, natural light blonde hair and clear blue eyes would make her a model Frau Schmidt, is Señora Libutti. In fact, I don't have to look further than myself; I even have the "SuSANNa con doble n-ne" to mislead people.

I pragmatically served up couscous so not to risk being compared to someone's mama or nonna/ abuela (grandmother). I made a tagine of osso buco (see previous posting) to go with it; this time, however, I toned down the heat factor for our guests. The absence of chilli was compensated by lemon zest, loads of it. I had meant to preserve lemons as it is a key ingredient in Moroccan cooking but each time I saw a bowl of lemons in the kitchen, my mind turned to lemon curd and baking...

Was it a stroke of genius or just plain desperation? Anyway, I experimented with fresh lemon zest. Bill, as in Granger, may not approve but the result was convincing. I actually preferred it to preserved lemon because the tagine was exceedingly rich, the scent and acidity of fresh lemon gave the thick sauce a much needed lift – equivalent to “10 years younger” so you get my drift.

When it came to the couscous, I applied my new trick again: another generous sprinkling of lemon zest before I forked through the grains so they were not claggy. The toasted pistachios, the crowning glory, were added last so they retained some crunch.

I had little energy to deal with Filo pastry so I made some fried zucchini cakes as appetiser. The "fresh" coriander in Barrio Chino (Chinatown; one of a handful places where I could find a limited selection of passable fresh herbs) didn't smell of anything and there was no mint in stock; I had to improvise again...to grated zucchini and par boiled potatoes, I added juliennes of spring onion, chopped parsley, ground coriander and crumbled feta cheese. Eggs and a pinch of flour were added to bind the mixture. I fried them in a non-stick pan because my test batch of baked ones was really too ugly for words. They went down a treat with Guillermo and our guests. I'll definitely make them again; they would make an excellent lunch or light dinner.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chocolate Pudding de Moda 2006

It is a known fact that there are trends in food just like in fashion. Culinary fashionistas may look upon Tiramisu now with the same distaste as we do a pair of stone-washed jeans.

Although I never cared much for this pudding, it is a perfectly respectable one and has been around much longer than those "of the moment" restaurants that served them in the early 90s. Chocolate mousse is another example; I remember ordering it when I was a young girl decades ago, and where would you find it now? Restaurants are the culprits when it comes turning good food into cliché.

The chocolate pudding de moda 2006 in Buenos Aires seems to be Chocolate Fondant. I would find it in a French bistro as fondant du chocolat, another would name it volcan de chocolate, others choose to call it torta tibia de chocolate (warm chocolate cake). No self-respecting restaurant de moda would dream of not serving it. I think they see the pudding as a mark that they are not a "family restaurant" where diners would only ever find unpretentious looking budin de pan (bread pudding) and flan, both served with lashings of cream and dulce de leche. Sometimes I actually prefer such restaurants where you dine in bright light and eat off Formica table top, at least you get some good honest grub.

While these little cakes, with a molten centre, have managed to sneak onto most menus across the fashionable dining neighbourhood of Palermo Hollywood and beyond, few are remarkable. This cake contains none or very little flour, it relies on the quality of chocolate to make it outstanding.

Argentine chocolates are made to suit the local preference for sweetness. Very few care about the cocoa content of their brown slabs; most are very sweet and milky. Even chocolate amargo (bitter chocolate) with 60% cocoa solids tastes more of sugar than the smoky lusciousness found in a bar of Green & Black's or Valrhona of the same cocoa content; comparing them is comparing apples to oranges.

Needless to say, procuring quality chocolates to make the cake is out of the question for most restaurants here for two reasons: firstly, with the exception of Lindt, good chocolates like Valrhona is priced out of the BA market; secondly, profit margin. On this particular point, I did wonder with the price they charged, if they were being very greedy. My suspicion was later confirmed when I attempted making it, using local ingredients.

I first made these dark gems, at home in Buenos Aires, with Aguila Extra Fino (60%) - a local dark chocolate because I refused to buy overpriced Lindt.
I trusted the famous Daniel Boulud of New York to guide me to chocolate nirvana, and he did. All I did differently was halved the sugar specified in his recipe.

Of course, had I use Valrhona as suggested by Monsr. Boulud, the pudding would have been even more wonderful but it was espectacular enough. And after I have found the Salgado line of 70% cocoa solid, single origin dark chocolate, the rest is history.
I didn't use fancy imported ingredients and I am not a trained chef; the success of my pudding only made Guillermo and I more determined to avoid the hyped up eateries in this town. So, to all the fashionable joints out there serving the latest culinary inventions, I say this: long live chocolate mousse!!

This is a wonderful recipe for an intensely chocolaty mousse and it is mooless! There is not one drop of milk or cream in it. This one is for you, Karina.

The mousse is based on a water ganache, using water instead of cream. I have experimented with great success, using Earl Grey, peppermint, etc. The key is the water should be hot. Melted chocolate cannot come into contact with cold water, not even a drop. It will cause the chocolate to "seize" - turning it into a solid, grainy mass which is unusable. On the other hand, heat releases the fragrance in chocolate.

200g dark chocolate
120ml hot water
3 eggs
40g caster sugar

Melt chocolate with hot water. Stir well. Add egg yolks and stir again. Whisk egg whites then add sugar, continue whisking until glossy. Beat 1 tbsp of egg whites into the chocolate mixture to loosen it and then carefully fold in the rest. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

The Five o'clock Afternoon Tea

Guillermo and I, we are a multicultural unit (he is Argentine and I am culturally confused); adapting to each other’s customs is often a cause of amusement and at times, frustration. Family gatherings, I am speaking only of his family since my relatives are scattered everywhere else but here, are potential pitfalls for me.

We have afternoon tea on Sundays at the abuelos' (grandparents). The typical fare would be dainty wafer-thin sandwiches (sandwich de miga) like you could imagine Oscar Wilde nibbled on in his time, medialunas (half moons – most similar to Italian brioche but look like croissants), churros (deep fried sticks of dough filled with caramel like dulce de leche), and sometimes a ricotta cake snowed under an inch of icing sugar or an apple tart filled with tooth-achingly sweet apple compote and topped with a thick disc of white glaze.

It would have been fine if these gatherings were held at 3-4 p.m. – no, no, it starts at 5:00 p.m. on a good day (that would be the normal Argentine time for tea) but most of the time at 7:30 p.m. This posts a dilemma for me because they usually last a good few hours. While I like something sweet in the afternoon, it is no substitute for a proper meal. It leaves me, at 10:30 p.m., in no man's land; still hungry, yet too late to cook plus I feel jittery and bad-tempered after a high GI overload.

We don't yet have a solution to my problem because I turned down Guille's kind suggestion of bringing my dinner in a tuck box. With my opinionated ranting on coca-cola in feeding bottles, tablespoonfuls of sugar in milk for toddlers, parents forcing chupete (dummy/ pacifier) on their cubs...I am already que raro! (equivalent to "Is she from Mars?"). A serving of pasta with roasted vegetables, just enough sauce to coat each strand, topped with a scant sprinkling of parmigiano would only invite more "que raro!".

While I have decided to soldier on with this afternoon tea arrangement, I feel less stoic about our family fiestas de cumpleanos (birthday parties). With an immediate family of almost twenty, it has become a real and frequent concern of mine. The Argentines excel at parrillas (barbeques); theirs put the proverbial Aussie Barbie to shame. However, porteños (inhabitants of the City of Buenos Aires) do not seem to like cooking for groups, even when they are family.

Most often, empanadas (like Cornish Pasties with various fillings) are duly ordered and delivered for such occasions. When they really "go to town" and order fancy cocktail food, I have to be extra careful - I was brought up to eat whatever is offered to me and say thank you, however, the time when I bit into a sickly sweet and dense Swiss roll filled with tuna and mayonnaise, I had to rush to the loo; and I am speaking as a person who happily tucked into pan-fried fish sperm - oh, where else but Tokyo.

It turns out that the Chinese have sweet & sour, the Venetians have agro-dolce, and the Argentines have salty & sweet. In principle, I have no objection to such combination; the Thais, Vietnamese and Indonesians are masters at pairing opposing flavours, balancing each other; and their food tastes like a harmonious symphony.

My problem is probably a cultural one: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiched between a scone; slice of mini Swiss roll topped with mayonnaise, ham and pickled onion; plastic cheese and ham lying between two squares of sweet flaky pastry (fosforitos); or a mini round of sweet sponge cake topped with tuna and olive...to me at least, are visually and psychologically unacceptable – blame it on my confused Anglo-Chinese-Aussie upbringing.

So when we have a weekend off from la familia, we invite friends over to ours for tea so I can do it my way. I often make a traditional cake like banana bread or gingerbread, and some rolled oat biscuits.

I found, in a dated cookbook, one spicy gingerbread recipe. I liked the ingredients; living in BA poses difficulties in sourcing ingredients so I avoided recipes with my beloved black treacle. I now use this recipe all the time. Whenever I make this gingerbread, a divine fug fills the kitchen – the smells of Christmas: mulled wine, mince pies, clementines, and log fire.

In the beginning, after I managed to procure all the ingredients, I felt the recipe was too "safe". To overcome this, I grated fresh young ginger which I had cooked in muscovado sugar syrup and preserved in a jar.

I have greatly augmented the quantity of ginger in the recipe by grating 2 thumbs of my muscovado preserved ginger and if I have oranges lying around, some zest too. – together, they add a modern touch, I think.

The cake is moist even when eaten straight out of the oven, and it improves so much more upon storing. Best to wrap it in foil and eat it the day after. I happen to like the slightly gritty texture from the wholemeal flour, if you prefer otherwise, just use plain flour.

175ml golden syrup
175ml water
1/2 cup muscovado light brown sugar packed
200g butter
2 cups plain flour
1/4 cup wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
3 tbsp ground ginger
3 tsp mixed spice
2 pieces of fresh ginger cooked in syrup, grated
1 tsp orange zest, grated (optional)

In a saucepan gently melt butter then add water, golden syrup and brown sugar; warm through gently to dissolve sugar, but do not boil it. Leave to cool to lukewarm.

Sift all the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Stir them together until combined, using a wooden spoon. Pour liquid ingredients from the saucepan into mixing bowl and beat until combined. Pour into prepared tin and bake at 160C for 45-50 min testing with a skewer from 40 min.

I bake mine in a small brownie tin measuring 10 cm wide and 23 cm long and 7 cm deep, greased and lined with baking paper. You can also bake it in a tin of 8 cm wide and 26 cm long and 4 cm deep at 170C for 30-35 minutes, but watch that the top doesn't burn.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

La Serenissima

La Serenissima is a major brand of dairies here but no, I am not going to talk about the lack of variety in Argentine dairy products. I am referring to the original La Serenissima - Venice. Friends are heading over to Italy soon so I offered to leaf through my "stuff" to find interesting places to eat and drink in the land of La Dolce Vita.

Most people think of Venice as a tourist trap, you know what? The Venetians couldn't agree more! On the subject of trappi turistichi (tourist traps), Venetian friends asked me "How could people buy those tacky glass bits and bobs masking as Murano glass?""How could people order those ghastly tourist set menus?""How could...""How could..." I don't have the answer, it is just like asking why some men and women desire fake boobs, why most of us continue to eat food packed with chemicals and colouring, why people feel the need to own an oil guzzling, air polluting 4x4 when they only ever drive on perfect tarmac, why George W is president; we all have our own list of questions without answers.

For me, however, Venice will always be The Most Serene. The glorious Old World is still alive and kicking; I love standing on the deck of a vaporetto, every time it turns a corner on the Grand Canal, some magnificent creation of mankind is literally in my face, forcing my acknowledgement. Yet, less than half an hour by speedboat, I could be walking on deserted sand dunes on the World's narrowest island - Pellestrina.

I love the food in Venice. The Venetians live off the sweet morsels from the lagoon and flavoursome vegetables from the Veneto. If there is still a gap in their stomach, they certainly know to fill it with pastries from the revered Puppa or Tonolo. Of course, you can follow the guidebooks and go to Harry's Dolci, Da Fiore, pay London prices and have a meal which you could have in a good restaurant in any capital city. I, however, am a paid-up member of the "when in Rome..." school. I had my best meals in Venice in the homes of Venetians, with one exception.

Antiche Carampane is decidedly anti-tourists. It is one of the hardest places to locate in Venice (I was lost and chanced upon it in a narrow calle leading to a quite square). Their attitude towards tourists is summed up on the sign by the door: no pizza, no spaghetti Bolognese, no decaf, no American Express. I vaguely recall it also mentioned a charge for tourist information...

I read the sign and knew immediately I had stumbled across a very special place. I opened the door, everyone looked up from whatever they were doing - it was late in the afternoon, aging locals were playing cards and sipping fragolina (sweet white wine with a hint of strawberry). It was quite intimidating but I thought I'd give it a go anyway, so I walked up to the Signora at the counter and politely muttered something about a prenotazione. I was met with a warm smile and a nod. The old dudes were still watching my every move but the suspicious glint in their eyes disappeared and was replaced by approval.

When it came to the meal that evening, I asked the same Signora to advise me on what to have. Her choices opened my eyes to honest Venetian food; I had raw shrimps with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, the sweet freshness of the shrimps just blew me away; only sushi at the Tsukiji market at 5:00 am was comparable. It was followed by grilled local fish with radicchio di Treviso, simply flawless. Pudding was typically Italian, some gianduia (chocolate and hazelnut) concoction. The portions were generous, the service attentive and unfussy. Il conto was very reasonable for the quality and quantity. On my second visit (I went back more than a few times - in life, you don't just let a good thing go), La Signora even offered to let me pick a wine gum from her commanding glass jar on my way out, she said goodnight and gave me a wink. At that precise moment, I fell in love with Venice all over again.

A reason for the abysmal dining in Venice is the Venetian habit of snacking throughout the day. They even have a local slang for the word "snacks", cicheti. I certainly was offered food, and therefore, eating all the day long. One early morning, after visiting the fresh produce market at the Rialto; I walked along the Grand Canal, away from the Rialto square. Just off the main square where the vendors were, I found a little bar selling panini stuffed with various delicacies: prociutto, wild rocket, etc. I bought one with an ombra (small glass of sweet white wine) for 2.50 euro. I set down on the steps by the Grand Canal and had the best breakfast of my life.

However, the best ombre e cicheti to be had are at All'Arco, packed with locals (always a good sign) standing with a glass in one hand and a snack in the other. The folks there do a brisk trade - all cash. Due to it's popularity, it can be a Soup Nazi experience for the uninitiated. I think I had my first taste of horse meat there...

I am partial to Italian biscuits because while the rest of the world dips their biscuits in tea, coffee or milk, the Italians dip theirs in Vin Santo. Most people think of biscotti as long dry slices dotted with nuts or chocolate chips. Those are Cantuci, easily found in Tuscany and now, Starbucks' all over the world. I learnt to make some very buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, biscotti called Buranelli at Bruno Barovier’s home in Murano. His ancestors moved to Murano in 13th c. Their name is synonymous with Murano Glass; many earlier pieces are now in museums all over the world. I didn't witness his blowing skills but his cooking certainly was not shabby.

Buranelli originated from the sleepy residential island of Burano (see image). The island is known for the colourful houses - Venetians told me the trend started centuries ago when the Buranese husbands got too drunk to recognise their own front door after a night out with the boys, so their wives painted the house a different colour from their neighbours...
The dough for these biscotti should be stiff, not crumbly like shortbread, making it easier to form into a tight S shape. Make 48.
150g soft butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large egg yolks
3 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 180C. Line baking trays with parchment. Set aside.
In the bowl, combine butter and sugar. Beat with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, lemon zest, and salt. Beat to combine. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, until fully combined. Reduce speed to low, and add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating until fully combined.
Roll a walnut-size piece of dough into a ball, then roll out into a rope about 3 inches long and 1/4 inch in diameter. Shape into a decorative S. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, placing cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on baking sheet. Bake until firm, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

The cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. Enjoy them with a glass of sweet white wine. If after making buranelli at home, you happen to go to Venice and find them there in a deep primrose colour, don't be alarmed, it is not food colouring. Good Italian eggs have almost orange colour yolks - eggyolks are called i rossi (the reds).
Antiche Carampane San Polo 1911, rio terà delle Carampane (041 524 0165)
All'Arco San Polo436, calle dell'Ochialer (o41 520 5666)
Puppa Cannaregio 4800, calle del Spezier (041 523 7947)
Tonolo Dorsoduro 3108B, rio terà Canal (041 528 9014)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


BA has been awashed with celeste y blanca (sky blue and white - the national colours) for quite some time now. We see people in silly blue and white arlequin (harlequin) hats everywhere. Everytime I turned on the television, I heard "Vamos Argentina!" in almost all the ads. Men were preoccupied with team selection as if it were their own affairs.
The first Argentine match on Saturday, when the team played Ivory Coast, was el mas importante. So important, in fact, the streets were empty! Grocery shopping that morning was almost pleasurable and definitely stress-free. I was later told by a friend that during half time, shops and supermarkets were completely crowded with shoppers pressed for time.
When Guillermo told me he was going to watch the match with the boys, I had a lightbulb moment - why not have them as unsuspecting guinea pigs for my cupcakes!! I immediately went to work, um, I thought to myself, not anything with dulce de leche or chocolate because they would love them anyway...something more challenging for the Argentine palate... something foreign...
I looked into my fridge and found a jar of low fat lemon curd I had made the week before, Guillermo had complained that it was too tart; he dipped sweet biscuits into the curd. With that as the starting point, I settled on plain cupcakes with lemon curd filling and buttercream icing on top.
I simply am incapable of following a recipe without tweaking it ever so slightly. So instead of making the Magnolia Bakery's plain vanilla cupcakes (cupcakes of Sex and the City fame), I did the following:
240g softened butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 3/4 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
a pinch of salt
1 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp zest

Beat butter until soft and then add sugar. Continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beat for 30 seconds between each. This is important because the mixture may curdle if you add the eggs too fast.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and zest in a separate bowl. Measure out milk. Add about a fourth of the flour to the butter/sugar mixture and beat to combine. Add about one third of the milk and beat until combined. Repeat above, alternating flour and milk and ending with the flour mixture.
Scoop into cupcake papercases about half to three-quarters full. If you like your cupcakes to have a flat top, fill up to half full; otherwise you end up with a doomed top. I use an ice cream scoop for this so I don't have to think about whether I have evenly distributed the batter among the cases. Bake for 22-25 minutes until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool cupcakes on a wire rack.
When they are cool, I cut a circle in each cupcake with a paring knife (sharp small knife). The idea is to get a "cone" of cake out so there is a cavity. You can try with a melon-baller (I don't own one because I think carving fruits is really naff! Those amazing Thai carvings excluded). Cut off the "cake" bit of the cones and leave the tops for later. Into these newly created cavities, you now spoon some lemon curd. Then you put the tops back on. You have now hidden a surprise in these babies.
4 eggs
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 cup lemon juice
strips of lemon peel

Beat eggs lightly then add juice of lemon. Whisk over a saucepan of simmering water until thickened. If you can't be bothered with simmering water, etc. just whisk manically over a very low flame and then pour the thickened mixture through a sieve to get rid of any offending eggwhite solids and the strips of peel. Pour into a sterilised jar - again, if you are going to polish it all off in less than a couple of weeks, just make sure the jar is clean (ideally straight from the dishwasher). Make 1 1/2 cup and remember to store it in the fridge.

Now, whether you make a buttercream icing or a cream cheese icing is really up to you. I made a lemon buttercream icing for the boys because I know they are fearless of fat and sugar. If you decide to make a cream cheese icing, may I just say I still haven't figured out why all the recipes out there suggest mixing butter into the cream cheese - I am getting a heartburn just writing about it! My cream cheese icing is very simple: cream cheese (low fat version if you prefer it), icing sugar, and lemon zest. Keep mixing and adding icing sugar until you get the taste and consistency you need. If it is too thick, add a few drops of lemon juice, though I doubt you would need it.

I am sure I don't have to instruct you to substitue lemon with lime, grapefruit, orange; or if you feel like being extravagant, use tarrochi (Italian blood oranges). Yum, yum.

Oh, the verdict: my cupcakes performed like the Argentine team :)

Not quite Scherazade

We are having dinner parties both Friday and Saturday. Friday is going to be cous cous night and I haven't started my grocery shopping! Must chant to self in order to get self to venture out in this miserable weather.

It all started when I experimented with some osso buco (osobuco in castellano), bought from my butcher. I didn't want to make osso buco milanese - my pet peeve is making the soffritto (carrot, onion and celery which form the holy trinity, the backbone of Italian cooking, etc.) I had some pulped red pepper (stranger things had happened when I experimented in the kitchen!).

I made a base with garlic and olive oil, then added bay leaves, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn (currently in love with the floral note in these blushing darlings), leftover red wine, some dark and light soy (I did say I wasn't in the mood for classical), and azucar integral (I think it is musvocado sugar). As I was adding the lightly pan-seared osso buco to this experiment, I remembered some chickpeas disguised as soyabeans (another long and not so interesting story at the supermercado) and my bright red pulp. I chucked them all in, together with a handful of chili flakes.

5 hours later, I lifted the lid and was immediately transported to some place where I ate with my fingers and finished dinner with fresh mint tea and rosewater scented delectables... The sauce was doing a song and dance on my tongue, the meat was melting; I had only one thought that moment - cous cous. I quickly ripped open the colourful box to release those baby grains. I dealt with them the Cheat's way: just poured hot stock onto them and when the liquid was fully absorbed, I forked through some pistachios.

That night, Guillermo ate in silence for a good 5 minutes. I thought, oh no, I had forgotten about the Argentine adversion to flavours! Anything more than salt or sugar is too demanding for this lot; most of them actually prefer bland food with lots of salt or sugar, bless them. Just at that moment, he came back to life and beamed "this is wonderrfull, darrling!" The week after, he was still raving about the "tashin (tagine) y cous cous" to anyone who cared to listen.

Will post blog on the dinner parties.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Blog Virgin

It is getting cold here in Buenos Aires, just cannot believe it has been a year since I first set foot in this country! It has been a very hectic year too - organising the wedding in 10 weeks after our arrival, buying our apartment, renovation it, Guillermo setting up his consultancy...and then my travel writing for Next Magazine and my cookery classes. I must be getting the adrenalin from all that Argentine beef and Malbec!!

I am having a lot of fun teaching (sometimes I do wonder if I enjoy the classes more than my students). It is just like having friends over for lunch; we chat away while they watch me cook. (I prefer to keep the size of my class small, 1-3 persons is the ideal size, see http://cablemodem.fibertel.com.ar/laotradimension/) Then we sit down together to enjoy the result. It is a fun and intimate experience. The best time was when we lunched on freshly made profiteroles filled with home-made lavender ice cream in a deep dark pool of chocolate sauce...so naughty yet sooo good!!

I will sort out my camera and start taking pictures...