Monday, July 31, 2006

Where have all the flowers gone...

I love visiting fresh produce markets wherever I happen to be in the world; the most exciting so far, were the souks in Turkey and Morocco, closely followed by the floating market of Bangkok and the Tsukiji in Tokyo.
Green grocers and fishmongers are particularly exciting places since vegetables, fruits and seafood are sometimes unique to the locale. Having said all that, it is not difficult to deduce my preference for individual grocers over supermarkets.

Since my Argentine family and friends have introduced me to local vegetables such as acelga (in the chard family) and zapallitos (in the squash family) in the first week of my arrival, these vegetables have become staples in my cooking. It is always exciting to find local produce and to learn how they are cooked within their cultural context. Equally, I like to experiment other ways of using them.

Taking into account some mild dislikes of Guillermo, we find almost all commonly available vegetables here appealing. When I run out of ideas for lunch, a tarta de verdura (vegetable pie) with acelga and some crumbled Feta cheese, encased in a wholemeal crust, usually saves the day. Since Bonnie from Daydream Delicious blogged about her pizza experience, I have also started making pizzas topped with thinly sliced zapallitos or berenjenas (aubergines), followed by a light sprinkling of cheese.

Beetroot, pumpkin, zucchini and fennel are other winter favourites. Sometimes, I simply roast them with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to go with whatever I happen to be serving as main course, or I make a winter salad of roasted root vegetables dressed with a drizzle of that fragrantly nutty walnut oil and a scant sprinkle of sea salt.

I was watching Monica Cahen d'Anvers' gardening show on El Gourmet channel the other night. She was planting zucchini and pumpkin and saying how well they would grow here. Despite not having a vegetable patch, I was fascinated. Not only because I love both as ingredients, I was also intrigued to find out what happens to the flowers? Well, Monica didn't say.

I find zucchini at the greengrocers' on almost every visit but I can't recall seeing those cheerily yellow zucchini flowers. Maybe I did once in Recoleta but then again, I could have imagined it entirely in my mind's eyes out of sheer wishful thinking.

Zucchini flowers are commonly used in Italian cooking. The cavity is first filled with a mixture of herb and ricotta or soft goat's cheese. The flower with its short stem is then dipped in a feather-light batter and briefly fried. Frying at that level is an art form; the oil has to be fresh and the frying time has to be short so the delicate taste and texture of the flower are not compromised by the smell or heaviness of oil.

I shall make it my mission to investigate the fate of these flowers. I do hope they are used or at least, exported. It would be such a shameful waste to have them thrown back to earth as mulching.

Before I get to the bottom of where have all the flowers gone, I can still put to good use the mixture of herb and ricotta. This is a slightly health conscious adaptation of one ricotta and tomato tart I found in Bill Granger's first cookbook.

I sometimes substitute puff pastry with wholemeal pastry made with olive oil, but both taste great.

375g of puff pastry/ wholemeal pastry (see below)
2 ripe tomatoes, finely sliced
2 cups ricotta
3/4 cup grated parmigiano
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup shredded fresh basil
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Finely slice the tomatoes and then place slices in a colander to drain. Set aside

Roll out the pastry into a round disc, then place it in a greased and floured baking tray.

Place all remaining ingredients, saving a tbsp of egg, in a large bowl and combine well. Now place the ricotta mixture in the middle of the pastry disc and spread it evenly on the pastry, leaving a 5 cm border all round. Use your fingers to lift and push the border up to form a rim.

Arrange the tomato slices on top of the filling and brush pastry and tomatoes with the tbsp of egg. Bake in the oven for 35-45 mins.
Wholemeal pastry:
2 1/2 cups of wholemeal flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 hot water
Mix all ingredients to form a dough. Set aside.
Lay a piece of clingfilm, or non-stick parchement on the table. Put the dough on top and flatten it slightly. Then lay other piece of clingfilm or non-stick parchement. Now roll the dough out to a thin disc. Now follow instruction for the tart.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Heritage Lost?

Sometime in the mid 90s, I lived a vastly different form of existence from now, in the yuppy territory on the Upper West side of Manhattan. My apartment was on 67th and Columbus, atop the Reebok gym in which I was a member. Starbucks' was opposite my building and Barnes & Noble was a block away. I was surrounded by convenience and comfort.

Armed with various guides to follow the bright lights of the Big Apple, like any newcomer, I attended exhibitions, theatres, ate according to the Zagat's, and shopped until my given shipment quota was filled and was time for me to go home.

After that rather cushy stint, I visited the city a few more times, once even during Restaurant Week (a bi-annual event when participating restaurants showcase their skills in a set menu). Apart from seeing friends and colleagues, I did more or less the same each time: theatres, galleries, restaurants and shops. However, there was always a down-to-earth but no less drool-worthy constant - Jewish pastries; fresh bagels from H & H's served with lox and cream cheese, cranberry & walnut filled rugelach were both top of my agenda.

Rugelach is a pastry dough of Ashkenazic
orgin, made with cream cheese, rolled up with different fillings. I fell in love with this humble looking snack instantly in a cute little pastry shop along Columbus. During each subsequent stay, I went back to buy them by weight.

When I heard that there is a significant Jewish presence in Buenos Aires, I was filled with culinary anticipation; oh joy! I imagined I could stroll into a local bakery to get bagels for Sunday breakfasts and rugelach to go with mid-morning coffees.

For months, I trawled through Once and Abasto, close to the point of stalking the Rabbis but to no avail. I found a Kosher McDonald's but no Jewish bakeshop, and definitely no trace of their scrumptious goodies. The closest encounter was a sweetish and bready ring being passed off as bagel at the MALBA cafe, and I am still on the look out for those moreish little rugelach.

Can it be true? Has the rich and varied Jewish food culture suffered the same fate as authentic Italian cuisine here? Does assimilation in this city call for complete banishment of one's culinary heritage in favour of empanadas and the porteño take on pizza and pasta?

One of my all time favourite cookbook is "The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day" by the revered food writer, Claudia Roden, a European Jew herself. It is not so much a cookbook as a tomb of social history, a well-researched testimonial of food being a vital part of culture and civilisation.

Well, the recurring theme of my blog seems to be "when one can't get, one turns self-reliant!" I can beat the streets some more or I can follow the simple recipe for rugelach in the comfort of my own home, the choice is obvious.

This is my take on those red fruit & nut versions I prefer. Sour cream is not available in supermarkets here and this is one thing I haven't the capacity to make; but if you use the local queso blanco (white cheese) which is wetter than the Philly, you can omit sour cream altogether. If the dough does get too dry, add a dollop of natural yoghurt. Dried cranberries are another item I haven't seen here, substitute with raisins.

The dough:
425g plain flour
1/4 tsp salt
50g caster sugar
3 tsp dry yeast
250g cold butter
100g cream cheese
1 egg
60ml sour cream

The filling:
1 cup dried cranberries or raisins in my case, soaked
3 tbsp raspberry jam, apricot if using raisins
100g chopped walnuts

The egg wash:
1 egg, beaten

The sugar glaze:
3 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp boiling water

Preheat oven to 190C. Mix ingredients for the filling, set aside.

Mix dry ingredients for the dough in a bowl. Add butter and cream cheese. Process until the mixture becomes a soft dough. Divide the dough into 3 and work in batches. Put the remaining dough in the fridge.

Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to a circle of 25 in diameter. Cut the circle into 12 portions. Brush the surface with some melted butter, then spoon a little of the filling mixture onto each triangle. Then carefully pull each triangle away from the centre and roll them up to form a croissant. Repeat this with the rest of the dough.

Put the rugelach on a lined baking tray. Let them stand for 20min in a warm place. Then brush the top of each with egg wash. Bake them in the preheated oven for 20min.

When they come out of the oven, brush the tops with sugar glaze. Let them cool on a rack. Then inhale as many as you like with a cup of black coffee.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

A Little Battler

I was amused by an article which appeared in the Sun-Herald of Sydney over the weekend. The title was The humble lamington fought back yesterday.

For those unfamiliar with Aussie culture, lamingtons consist of a square piece of sponge cake (usually at least a day old) which is cut in half and layered, very thinly, with whipped cream. Both pieces are sandwiched, then dipped in a chocolate ganache and coated in desiccated coconut. (see picture)

This national symbol had a very humble beginning; essentially it was invented to use up leftover sponge cake which was a common item back in the early 1900s when people had more time to sit around and sip tea.

The Healthy School Canteen Strategy was launched in 2003, in the state of New South Wales, Australia, in a drive to promote healthier eating in the younger generation. It eradicated junk food such as cakes, confectionaries, American-style muffins, and "red foods" (food containing E-additives, the most common form being artificial colouring) from school tuck shops (kioscos) except for two times a term.

This strategy also encourages the school canteens to offer mostly "green" foods such as wholegrain breads, rice, vegetables and fruits. It is not unlike what English chef, Jamie Oliver, is promoting across schools in the UK through his "Jamie's School Dinner" programme.

The Sydney-based Federation of Parents and Citizens which is behind this strategy then went a step further in proposing to extend the healthy canteens food guidelines to apply to all school activities, even those outside of school hours. Had it succeeded; traditional fund-raising activities such as lamington drives, chocolate wheels, fetes and sausage sizzles (asados) would have been restricted.

Reportedly, these school organised events, only counting those held within the state of New South Wales, had collectively raised a cool $50 million Australian dollars (about 100 million pesos) in the past year alone. The money went mostly towards up-grading computers for the kids and refurbishment of the schools, and then to various public charities.

Fortunately the proposal was defeated. The Education Minister said that the parents had the prime responsibility for teaching their children about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Touché!

I read this article with mixed feelings. I totally agree with the outcome and I think good habits, be it food related or not, begin with the parents. However, here lies the conundrum...if the parents are not capable of setting good examples, it is unfair to expect their children to do so in their own accord, at least not at that age.

I had been to too many parties in BA where kids as young as one were bottle fed coca-cola or other gaseosas by their parents or relatives. These frizzy drinks are known to be bad for teeth, liver, kidneys and bones in adults, not to mention the yet to be fully developed organs in young children. Most often, there was no healthier option at these parties. I later realised that frizzy drinks were not just for special occasions, but, commonly, the daily beverage of choice for the whole family.

Not long after I arrived here, I received an email from a mother with school-aged kids. She lamented the canteen situation at her kids' old school, one very prestigious private school in the northern suburbs. She found the canteen situation no better after she moved her kids to a more liberal and even more expensive private school. It was the same at this new school; unhealthy food, no one wanted to hear about initiating a change, no one wanted to change.

This courageous lady, who suffered much discouragement from fellow parents and staff, all the way up to the head master, was determined to see the next generation eat and grow healthier.

After a couple of long years and much struggle, she and two fellow mums are finally seeing fruits from their effort. She should be proud of her sheer determination and achievement, yet she sighed "sometimes one wonders why it is so hard to introduce change that is good for everyone".

Aside from the lack of initiative to introduce good nutrition to the next generation, I am always sad to see parents, sometimes even grandparents, littering in front of their impressionable young cubs. While I recognise these are not my battles to fight; I can't help but think about what this implies for the other habitants of this city, not only for now but in the future if these adorable angels grow up adopting their elders' habits.

I cannot see any rainbow at the end of this particular tunnel right now but I still have faith that things will get better. I don't have to look far, my husband and our close Argentine friends give me a glimmer of hope that the good and sensible will prevail.

I am going to introduce another Aussie culinary symbol, the ANZAC biscuits. These chewy biscuits, packed with wholesome goodness, were first invented in the trenches of WWI, on the Gallipoli front, by the brave young men in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who went to unfamiliar Europe to fight naked aggression. The biscuits were distributed as army rations in WWII when the boys, again, went all the way over to Europe and Asia to fight the war of principle. These battlers were the unsung heros of both World Wars.

1 cup plain flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup desiccated coconut
2/3 cup brown sugar
125g butter
1 tbsp golden syrup
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp boiling water

Preheat oven to 160C.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Melt the syrup and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Place bicarbonate of soda and water in a small bowl, mix well.

Add the bicarbonate mixture to the saucepan and stir. Pour the dry mixture into the saucepan. Stir to combine.

Roll teaspoonful of dough into balls and place them on a greased and lined baking tray. Leave at least 3 cm between each for spreading. Now flatten the balls with the tines for a fork.

Bake for 15-20 min. or until the biscuits are golden brown at the edges. At that stage, the biscuits are cooked, they are suppose to remain soft and chewy in the middle. Makes 20.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Let's vote on this!

Moderation is a widely used word in our civilised society these days; at the very least, we are told that we should eat, drink, and exercise in moderation. We should even watch television and consume water in moderation. I wonder if there is a group of scientists or researchers sitting together somewhere thinking up things we should be doing next, in moderation.

I agree with many forms of moderation, but only when I exercise them on myself; when it comes to others, I take the attitude that it is up to the individuals, not me, to decide. Hence, when I was setting up this blog and was given the option by to activate the comment moderation button, I chose "No".

I felt visitors should be given the freedom to express their thoughts. It is like inviting new acquaintances to my home; my first-time guests are free to behave as they see fit because I trust them, as mature adults, to act with civility and decorum. However, if they violate this trust then they don't get asked back and that's that.

I wished to hear others' views and opinions. Many of those posted were very different from mine, and usually after a civil discussion, I felt I had learnt something new. I was grateful to these visitors for providing a refreshing and informed perspective.

While almost all of the visitors to my blog, my abode in cyberspace, have been absolutely wonderful in supporting my feeble attempt in revealing my personal experiences and observations of this city, a couple of them have chosen to be unnecessarily rude while remaining cowardly anonymous.

These visitors were just aggressive with more than a hint of bitterness in their breath as they spitted out their comments. They provided neither valid nor informed reasoning but abuses, and resorted to childish name calling. They certainly showed themselves up as being lacking in taste and culture, the very essence they were trying to defend. As the saying goes, if you give them enough rope they can usually manage to hang themselves.

So I have a choice here; to let them continue to show their true colours and perform like monkeys for all to witness while lowering the general tone of my blog and disturb other visitors, or do I activate the moderation mechanism? To be, or not to be?

My star sign is Libra; it has been documented in many books on astrology that a Libran can be a bit of a procrastinator. Hamlet is probably the most famous character in literature to fit the description of a Libran male. My "Libraness" is most obvious when it comes to making decisions for others.

Well, being the procrastinating Libran that I am, I think it's fair to have a vote. I have just activated comment moderation, with my pledge that only the obscene and inappropriate would be censored. Hence, no valid opinion, however different from mine, would suffer the same fate.

Meanwhile, please let me know if you would like to keep this cleaner environment or go back to status quo by leaving a vote in the comment section. I shall follow what the final vote says in a week's time. Gracias, Merci, Grazie, Danke, Zie Zie.

Culture? you mean Cheese?

I am glad that I have started this blog; it has provided me an opportunity to talk about my passion in cooking and baking and to muse over my adventures and experiences in this city. However, most importantly and rewardingly, I have since met some great people; many live in other corners of the world and share my passion, others are settlers in BA who have taken the trouble to write to me to share their personal experiences. I am moved by their passion and their stories.

Today, I have received two such touching emails, this time, both from food bloggers. One is a fellow Aussie, a lovely girl, living in Cambridge, England. We email each other often and chat about baking and life in general. She is going to follow a chocolate cake recipe I sent her and blog about the process and result after the weekend. It is a great recipe I dug out from The National Trust archive no less. I'm glad that this old but good recipe is going to enjoy a little publicity in the food blogging universe.

I love cooking from recipes passed on to me by friends or even better, by their mother or grandmother. There is a sense of heritage, provenance; a form of culture being passed on from generation to generation. I love that.

The other email is from a wonderfully knowledgeable and able home cook in Hong Kong who has just posted, on her blog "Toast & Butter", photos and recipes for a six-course dinner she cooked single-handedly and served up at home: it started with two courses of amuse bouche using French foie gras, then a seafood course of New Zealand green-lipped mussels cooked in white wine, finished with a sprinkle of Fleur de Sel (French sea salt harvested by hand off the village of Guerande in Brittany).

After the first three courses, their palates were cleansed by a home-made sorbet, an ingenious combination of fresh blueberries and thyme. The meat course then followed; it was a spectacular venison rack, paired with mushroom risotto. The main meal was completed with a goat's cheese from Valençay, France accompanied by freshly baked bread with dried wild raspberries.

Espressi (pl. strong black Italian coffee) were then served with hand-crafted chocolates from Le Gôuter Bernardaud. Wow, I'm impressed; not so much by the ingredients but her knowledge and ease in using them to turn out course after course of top restaurant quality food!

What was even more impressive was how she still spared the time to send me an email. I had asked this expert of multi-tasking who can count fluent Japanese as one of her many skills, if she had come across an Earl Grey tea mousse. I had read in food blog "Nordljus" that a stunning Earl Grey and Kumquat mousse cake was an adaptation from a Japanese recipe. Kumquat being chinotto (kinoto in Spanish), is in season so I had wanted to try my hand in making it.

What I didn't expect was her touching and clever email with photo attachments – she had photographed every page of a similar recipe in her translated cookbook! She had made sure the words were readable from the photos. I was rendered speechless by her generosity of spirit in indulging my wish.

As I said, I feel fortunate that I have started this blog and it has connected me with wonderful people. It fills me with hope that there are nice places out there in this world where bitterness and aggression have no place.

This is the perfect opportunity to share the result of my treasure hunt. I had thought that The National Trust was only concerned about preserving period architecture but I am so glad that they actually do a lot more and this is one of their preservations:

The National Trust Chocolate Beetroot Cake:

You can double the quantity below to make a 27cm cake or use this quantity in a medium loaf tin to make a loaf cake. The top can get a little crusty so if your oven is powerful, add a foil cover in the last 15min. of cooking.
I usually make a citrus cream cheese icing to go with it. Just add icing sugar to cream cheese, then a little zest and juice, lime is the most refreshing but sometimes they are hard to find in this city. In that case, orange or lemon would do.

100g butter
100g dark chocolate
100g raw beetroot, grated
100g sugar
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
225g SR flour
1 tsp baking powder
25g cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease the cake tin.

Melt butter and stir in chocolate. Leave for a moment until both are melted. Now add sugar, salt and eggs. Stir well. Then add flour, cocoa and baking powder. Fold in beetroot. It is a fairly stiff batter but it should not be dry.
Pour into cake tin and bake for 50min. To serve, dust top with icing sugar or top with cream cheese icing and maybe some walnut halves.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My "more than a food blog" Food Blog

I've spent all morning installing a voice recognition software, the Cantonese Voice Writer, on my computer so I can write traditional Chinese characters with just my voice, how cool is that! The only glitch is I better not catch a cold with a bunged up nose from now on.

I had needed an apparatus like this since I started, not long after our wedding, a travel column for Next Magazine (a publication based in Hong Kong). My Chinese typing is much slower (at snails' pace to be precise) than my writing so this pen 'n' paper girl had been faxing her pages through at a local locutorio (shop with IDD phone booths, fax and internet) every week for the past year.

After I started this blog, I became reluctant to sit down with a pen; this, I call a modern disease. My articles took longer to finish and were sent in less frequent intervals, I started feeling embarrassed even emailing my editor in Hong Kong. I offered to translate my blog but he thought most postings were too personal or political, etc. He thinks his readers would prefer a rose-tinted guide to Argentina (yes, I'm capable of that too; I just need to put on my Armani sunglasses). So this nifty little gadget, from Zoe, is my timely saviour.

With this positive mindset generated by my new toy, I am not going to blog too much about the city today but to tackle a recipe which has been sitting in my too-hard bin, gathering dust...

Being the greedy wannabe gourmand that I am, I've found the variety of petits fours rather limited here. There are mini alfajores (little cornflour biscuits sandwiched with dulce de leche), then more mini alfajores dipped in compound chocolate (a cheap brown substance with high percentage of vegetable oil, often mistaken as chocolate) or icing sugar, and corn flour biscuits with a drop of dulce de membrillo on top (quince jam, usually tastes more of sugar than quince, the biscuit is similar to a jam drop).

If delicate morsels cannot be bought in this city, the only option is not to moan but be self-reliant. Inspection of my pantry last night yielded a jar of pistachios I had stashed away not long ago and had forgotten about(this is a frequent occurrence with me, not limited to unperishable organic apples).

These brilliant green gems are relatively expensive and not easy to come by in this town so they are just perfect for some luscious macarons. The little French biscuits are characterised by their smooth and paper-thin, dome-shaped shell. Underneath is a chewy, cake-like layer, and underneath that, is a ruffled skirt.

I have read many accounts of failure in the world of food bloggers; hence I had been waiting for the day when positivity and courage swell within me to make my first attempt. Since it has a French provenance and is a patisserie item, who else would I turn to for advice but the maestro, Pierre Hermé. He has made these little bursts of flavour sexy; so much so that a macaron fad has now swept across Asia.

The simple and short list of ingredients is pure deception as to how difficult it is to get it right. Stir the biscuit batter too little, and your macarons won't have the quintessential ruffled skirts but a peak on their tops. But stir too much, and you'll end up with tough and chewy biscuits.

I have adapted the recipe a little, using pistachios instead of almonds.

Macaron Batter:
1 ¼ cups icing sugar
1 cup finely ground pistachios*
slightly more than ¼ cup egg whites, at room temperature
pinch of salt
¼ cup granulated sugar

Allow egg whites to thicken by leaving them uncovered at room temperature overnight.

On three pieces of parchment, use a pencil to draw 1-inch (2.5 cm) circles about 2 inches apart. Flip each sheet over and place each sheet on a baking sheet.

Push ground nuts through a sieve, and sift icing sugar. Mix in a bowl and set aside. If the mixture is not dry, spread on a baking sheet, and heat in oven at the lowest setting until dry.

In a large clean, dry bowl whip egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy. Increase the speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar. Continue to whip to stiff peaks – the whites should be firm and shiny.

With a flexible spatula, gently fold in icing sugar mixture into egg whites until completely incorporated. The mixture should be shiny and has a lava consistency. When small peaks dissolve to a flat surface, stop mixing.

Fit a piping bag with a 1 cm round tip. Pipe the batter onto the baking sheets, in the previously drawn circles. Tap the underside of the baking sheet to remove air bubbles. Let dry at room temperature for 1 or 2 hours to allow skins to form.

Bake, in a 160C oven for 10 to 11 minutes. Use a wooden spoon to keep the oven door slightly ajar, and rotate the baking sheet after 5 minutes for even baking.

Remove macarons from oven and transfer parchment to a cooling rack. When cool, slide a metal offset spatula or pairing knife underneath the macaron to remove from parchment.

Pair macarons of similar size, and pipe about ½ tsp of the filling onto one of each pair. Sandwich them and refrigerate to allow flavours to blend together. Bring back to room temperature before serving.

Italian Buttercream:
2 egg whites
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp granulated sugar
120g unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into slices
3 tbsp finely ground pistachio*
In an electric mixer bowl, whisk together the egg whites and sugar. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and heat the mixture, whisking often, for 3 to 5 minutes, or until it feels warm and sugar has dissolved.
Transfer the bowl to the electric mixer and whip warm egg mixture on high speed using the whisk attachment until stiff and shiny, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the butter, one slice at a time, and continue to mix until all the butter is thoroughly incorporated.
Add ground pistachio and refrigerate for 1 hour or until it becomes firm. The buttercream can be kept, covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.
* If you have to ground the pistachios yourselves (like I have to) make sure you peel the soft husk off as much as you can.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

La Otra Dimensión

I have unashamedly hinted in much early posts of mine that I have hired an able graphic designer, Valeria, to produce good quality, fully coloured promotional leaflets for my cooking classes and stylish stickers to go on cake boxes for my bakery business. While that's all progressing well, I am still not beyond taking a critical look at these ventures of mine, especially since I am trapped at home because of one amazingly fierce hale storm sweeping across the city right now.

I started offering cookery courses after numerous friends expressed their serious wish to learn what I serve up at afternoon teas, casual lunches and dinner parties – cakes, modern Asian food and puddings.

I had no idea how much to charge for these courses; I didn't want them to be too expensive because my clients are friends, yet the classes still ended up not exactly cheap because the ingredients: Asian sauces, free-range chickens and eggs, beef, fish, pork belly (a cut I've only found in Barrio Chino), and dark chocolate with over 70% cocoa solids do not come cheap.

Since those early clueless days, I've discovered that the fee I charge is really quite low; for example, it would cost quite a bit more to attend other ethnic cookery classes, currently on offer in this city. That said, my "bargain basement" prices are not attracting more than friends; also, all of them expats.
Many of our Argentine friends are interested but they would not even ask the price; I think maybe any price is too high and that, regrettably, is a real shame. So I'm an occasional cookery teacher; a hobbyist.

While it is not my profession and certainly not how I make a living, teaching gives me a lot of satisfaction. My first student Madeline, a lovely English girl, took a combined baking and Asian cooking course. By the end of the eight weeks, she was wowing her Argentine partner and his family with the volcan de chocolate, profiteroles filled with lavender ice cream, Vietnamese rice paper rolls and Chicken satay soup noodles. I felt like a proud parent seeing her recently graduated daughter thriving at work...

My bakery business started along similar veins. I often take a cake or a pudding to friends' dinner parties. Our Argentine friends are especially intrigued by my creations: chocolate cloud cake with Chai Latte cream, Moorish flourless orange and almond cake, il diplomatico (chocolate mousse sandwiched between liqueur soaked Savoardi biscuits) and the most popular of them all, the volcan, otherwise known as chocolate lava cakes.

Many of these friends don't cook or they don't have time to attend my baking course so they ask me to make something for them on special occasions, usually their parents' birthdays or when they are invited to their friends' and need to bring something nice.

Again, I didn't know how much to charge. Had I applied the industry standard of 30:70 mas o menos (roughly), my cakes would have been very expensive indeed. Besides, my husband reminds me I am not Dos Escudos or Nucha with their fancy shops and cake boxes.
In the end, my dark and fudgy chocolate cake which contains three bars of quality dark chocolate is less expensive than a dry and coarse cake made with cocoa or algarroba (carob) powder, doused with sugar syrup and dulce de leche which one could easily get at any neighbourhood panadería.
I don't really mind; the trouble is, I haven't started seeing it as a business. Furthermore, I always ring or get Guillermo to ring these friends for feedback; not exactly the practice of a money spinning business.

At this point, you may wonder "Why are you doing this?" or "Why are you sinking money into advertising tools such as the leaflets and stickers?"

To the first, I think it is quite obvious that I love what I do; the intimate experience of transference in case of the classes and the joy of knowing someone relished my creation on a special occasion are simply priceless rewards to me.

To the latter, my answer is also very simple: I am just a shallow woman who buys into aesthetically pleasing presentations; to be associated with nicely designed and printed products doubly enhances my enjoyment of what I'm doing and hopefully the same would be apply to my clients.

So this is the case study I present to all you MBAs, empresarios (business owners) and business consultants out do I make this "thang" that I love doing into a viable business?

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Let's Clean Up Together

I am proud to report that the Chinese herbal tea yesterday was a complete success all round. Zoe brought along her mad English boyfriend, Mr.T. He has become the latest disciple of Diana, our masseuse who is fast assuming goddess status.

We all drank a couple of glasses of this dark brown tea without much fuss. The two non-Asians didn't protest at all; my husband mused over his drink and said with some sugar and ice it would be quite similar to a flat coca-cola.

Of course, we spent much of the afternoon understanding the latest on Zoe's DNI saga. The talk of bureaucracy soon got us onto a general discussion of life in BA. Zoe and her adorably mad Englishman have been living here a year longer than us; they are in the right frame of mind to hold a level headed discussion on BA– neither blasé nor are they wearing rose-tinted glasses.

One would have to be blind not to notice the litters wherever one goes in this city. I once saw a mother with her young daughter who had just finished a family sized bag of potato crisps while walking on the street. The daughter turned to the mother with her big empty bag and an inquisitive look. She was too young to know what to do with it. The mother took the bag from her little hand and just casually dropped it on the ground without even a glance around her. Education completed; this little girl now knows what to do whenever she has rubbish in her hands.

I have always wondered if the dog owners who let their dogs do their dirty business anywhere in public get upset if they themselves step on dog poo, particularly on a wet day. If they do, why do they think it is ok to continue this selfish and unhygienic practice? Do we really need an epidemic across the city for people to wake up to the fact that we are letting ourselves live in a dog pan – people with any common sense would never want to live like this.

When the city is a rubbish tip and one big public toilet for pets, graffitists would not hesitate to add grunge to the already grungy. Is that how we want to live, in a smelly dirty city with walls filled with obscenity? If the answer is no and we all can make decisions within our control to help a little, why do so many still do nothing?

So Mr.T tells us his three preoccupations in life here are: litters, dog shit, and graffiti. He admitted that the list could have been longer but he thought best not to lose focus and three are already plenty because he is not a whinging foreigner but an action hero around where he lives in Palermo Hollywood...

He and his girlfriend not only clean the part of the street outside of their own home few times a day but make a ceremony of cleaning their neighbours'; their behaviour seemed odd to the neighbouring porteños in the beginning but their persistence has finally rubbed off on these neighbours and this particular corner of Fitzroy is probably the cleanest part of Buenos Aires.

To deal with dog shit in his area, he used to come out on the pavement with a shuffle and dramatically hurled the offending objects into the air so they land on the road. His neighbours began to take notice; one of them was brazen enough to tell Mr.T that he always cleaned up after his own pet to which Mr.T responded with a smile "No, you don't because I have been watching you through my window." This neighbour turned the colour of beetroot and never had his dog poo in front of Mr.T's house again. In fact, the word soon spread among the neighbours and Mr.T has now retired his shuffle.

On the issue of graffiti, it is a little costly for the individuals or shop owners since we don't have a government committed to cleaning up this city with vigilance but it's not too hard, we can still make a difference...

Anyone who had been to New York City, pre Rudolf Giuliani, would remember the subway being a hotbed for crime and was filled with graffiti. It was a monumental task to clean up the act.

The new Mayor vowed to clean up "Sin City" to make New York a place he is proud to call home and for foreigners to visit. Not only did Giuliani have the police right there to catch and book the offenders on the spot; the more psychologically effective was that he ordered graffiti to be painted over daily; yes, every morning when one stepped into the station and onto a train, the walls were blank. His persistence finally wore the graffitists down.

When you think you are just an individual and you won't make a difference, remember it just takes a few individuals and you have critical mass, and with that it could grow into a collective consciousness so please don't say no. We can all do what's right and help spread the word; a revolution will soon take shape!

I have searched high and low but to no avail as to what the French eat to celebrate what we know as Bastille Day or "le 14 juillet" to the French. Apparently there is no special food tradition associated with July 14th. This has turned out not to be so surprising, as the original events of 1789 were initiated in great part because the French people was suffering from a terrible famine, while the aristocracy held boisterous feasts in the privacy of their own castles.

So we just have to contend ourselves with a famous culinary symbol of France...the Financier! The little almond cake is so called because it is baked in a rectangular mold, to resemble a gold bar. Hence the name Financier

125 g sugar

125 g almond meal
2 eggs
70 g butter, plus more to grease the molds
20 g flour
berries, optional

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over gentle heat. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the sugar and almond meal. Add in the eggs and mix well with a fork. Add in the melted butter, mix again. Then add in the flour, stirring while you pour.

Butter the molds if they're not nonstick, then pour the batter in each individual mold, filling it up just to the rim. If you like, you can add raspberries or blueberries (a line of three for the regular-sized ones or just one on top of mini ones), pushing them down in the batter slightly.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your molds. The financiers should puff up a bit, get golden and slightly crusty on the edges, but they will still feel soft to the touch. Let them stand for a few minutes, before turning them out on a rack to cool completely. The bottoms have a tendency to be a bit sticky when still warm, so you may want to put them upside down on the rack, or put them on a sheet of parchment paper and let them gently slide out in due course.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Customer What??

The network of Fibertel (our broadband provider) was down all morning. I asked my husband to ring the customer service hotline as I remembered they told us they would deduct the day's charge from our monthly bill. To my surprise, Guillermo wasn't keen to call; he told me none of the promised deductions had ever materialise despite the network being down a considerable number of days since our installation last year. Sometimes, I wonder why businesses are so short sighted about customer service or in this case, so careless in what they promise.

Since I had no access to internet, I thought I'd best use the time for grocery shopping. I first went to get some almonds. I plan to grind the nuts into almond meal for a flourless orange and almond cake this afternoon – I've successfully bribed Guillermo into drinking the Chinese detox tea with the promise of a piece of sublimely ambrosial cake which he has never tried before.

On my way home, I stopped by a local greengrocer which stocks the freshest vegetables in the area. The owner is a real character; the first time I bought from him, he jokingly (at least I hoped) asked for "un dolár" (US$1 is roughly 3 pesos) for a small bunch of basil. To his demand, I laughed while handing him a peso. We both laughed and the deal was done. Today, he was busy playing boss so I was served by a lady.

I asked for a bunch of bananas, some fennels and two corn cobs. The total came to 7 pesos. I handed the lady the money and as I was looking away from my purchases, I caught a glimpse of her taking one banana off the bunch! I couldn't quite believe what I saw but really didn't want to embarrass her so I left the shop with the rest of my purchases without the one banana which I had also paid for.

I have grown quite philosophical about dealing with small businesses in this city. That one banana cost me about twenty cents and would have cost the shop five? What could she possibly gain from the act except to risk me seeing it and accost her there and then or simply never return?

Since fellow blogger, Robert, of the BA walking tours fame pointed me to capítulo J of the tax code in his comment to Trust or Trout, Guillermo and I read the chapter carefully yesterday (see my latest comment attached to the original post). At the end, Guillermo who is also a monotributo (a self-employed, one-man band) said he still struggles to understand why so many of his fellow small business owners try to dodge the little tax they are obliged to pay.

He then revealed to me, for the first time, our previous monthly grocery bills from El Rincon Orgánico could have easily covered that outfit's entire monthly tax obligation. So it was purely an act of greed on their part which they hastily corrected as soon as their antic was made known in my post (and all I was concerned, at that point, were my apples, and later, not to get them into trouble with the authorities; how naïve was I?).

Like many fellow settlers, I've learnt not to be bothered by these little things which, unfortunately, occur here and there, almost daily. It just shows how adaptable human beings are; if for nothing else, at least to preserve our sanity...because sanity comes in handy when you are asked by people why you would bother making pita bread when you can find them so easily in supermarkets. At that point, you may haughtily tell them homemade pita bread is simply far superior in taste and texture.

1 1/4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
3 cups plain flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, plus more for bowl

Pour water into the bowl of an electric mixer. Sprinkle yeast over water, and stir to dissolve. Use the paddle attachment, or by hand to mix in 1 1/2 cups flour. Cover bowl; let sit in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours, until dough has doubled in bulk.

Sprinkle salt over flour and yeast mixture, and add olive oil and remaining 1 1/2 cups flour. Mix on medium-low speed, or by hand until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5-10 minutes.

Transfer dough to a floured work surface, and knead about ten turns, forming a ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in bulk, about 1 1/4 hours.

Heat oven to 230°C. Turn dough out onto a board, and cut in half. Cut each half into four pieces, and form each piece into a ball. Cover them loosely with a piece of plastic wrap to keep the dough from drying out. On a floured work surface, roll two balls into circles 7 inches in diameter and slightly less than 1/4 inch thick.

Bake on an ungreased baking sheet until puffed and light brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Repeat, baking two pita breads at a time, unless you've an industrial sized oven.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tengo Familia

With my chocolate chestnut cake coming out perfect from my other electric, temperature controlled, oven (No, not the turbo charged gas oven which is all guesswork when it comes to any temperature other than max. and min. Come to think of it, I don't even know what is max. or min.), I got ready for Sunday lunch at my parents-in-law's. It was the first invitation to their home since our wedding a year ago.

It was a small gathering of six adults and only two kids; we had picadas (cured ham, cooked ham, palm hearts and gherkins) to start, followed by my mother-in-law's amazingly moist, melt in the mouth, roast pork loin with apple sauce. She told me she had marinated the meat in a bottle of white wine for a couple of days. Then we had a rocket salad; while balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt were on the table, she told me she didn't dress it knowing I didn't like too much salt or oil in my food.

After we all helped clearing the dishes, we sat down to sample my cake made with Clement Faugier's chestnut puree. The cake was very moist but the chocolate overshadowed the subtle taste of chestnut completely. While they appreciated that I had spoiled them with an imported delicacy, they thought it was a waste of money; having said that, my father-in-law still found room for three slices. We had a great lunch and a relaxing afternoon sipping coffee, chatting and playing with the kids. No one seemed to recall how different things were only a few months ago.

Coming from a fairly laid back and westernised Chinese family, the concept of "La Familia" (the family being an insular unit within which nothing is out of bounds) is both innate and foreign. The innate part comes from years of watching Asian soap operas, usually costume dramas depicting life in 18th C.

The first week after we arrived in BA last year, I was shocked when my wardrobe was inspected by my then soon-to-be mother-in-law. Every von Furstenberg, Joseph or Brora was examined without expression. Then we renovated our apartment; I cried with incomprehension after my in-laws came for house inspection and sneered at my handiwork (which even our builders thought was good, and non of our friends noticed it wasn't paid work by a professional) while praising their son for hanging the curtains. Then they wanted to drop by for repeat performance every Saturday before we all meet up again, with the extended family, for Sunday tea.

Numerous SOS calls, screaming "May Day!", were connected to Sydney and Hong Kong. My parents kept telling me to try harder, to think more Chinese (meaning be stoic); they joked they might have been the same if they weren't brought up in the more liberal Hong Kong. So, it was all my responsibility as far as they were concerned.

My husband, the brave one, took the matter up with his parents. He told them not to visit us on their own for a while. His parents were deeply hurt, they cried. My mother-in-law ignored me on the first few occasions afterwards. I kept quiet and invited this clan of twenty, repeatedly, into our home for lavish meals.

Things started changing ever so slightly by the beginning of winter this year. They still did not engage me in conversation much, blaming my Spanish, despite watching me socialising with the abuelos (grandparents) and tios (uncles and aunts), all in their tongue, every Sunday. However, gone were the tears and the melodramatic self-pity, instead I got a gracias por todo (thank you for everything) when I kissed them goodbye. I wasn't greedy; from the darkest days, that was already a significant improvement.

My parents were right. It was up to me because I had disturbed status quo. If they were lucky enough to have another Argentine daughter-in law, maybe none of this would have happened. What kept me trying, besides my husband's encouragement, was my optimism that no one could be that mean; I believed that one day they would see my opinions and behaviour may be different but it doesn't make me a threat to their lives. Besides, their son is happy and well fed (despite still being "too thin" in their eyes).

I am already looking forward to our next family lunch and I think I would bring something more familiar to them while showing them how much better it can be when done with good quality ingredients, and without gelatin - I am thinking of the Concorde.

Parisian pastry chef, Gaston Lenôtre, invented the Concorde in the early 1970s. His idea was to use chocolate mousse instead of a pastry cream or buttercream as a filling and use chocolate meringue instead of a Genoese or sponge cake to create a layered dessert. The crisp meringue and the velvety mousse proved to be perfect companions, and today his creation is a classic that can be found in pastry shops throughout France and here in Buenos Aires.

½ cup good quality cocoa
1 cup icing sugar
9 eggwhites
1 cup caster sugar

Chocolate mousse:
240 gm dark chocolate, chopped
150 gm unsalted butter, chopped
4 egg yolks
6 eggwhites
2 tbsp caster sugar

Sift cocoa and icing sugar into a bowl. Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form, then add 1 tbsp of caster sugar and beat until dissolved. Add remaining caster sugar in batches, beating to dissolve each addition before adding the next, until mixture is thick and glossy. Add sifted mixture and gently fold in to combine.

Spoon three-quarters of meringue mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 2cm plain nozzle. Line three oven trays with baking paper, trace three 18cm rounds onto each tray, then pipe meringue in a spiral to cover. Spoon remaining meringue mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 5mm plain nozzle and pipe mixture in lines on oven tray beside meringue rounds. Bake them in a 150C oven for 1 hour or until meringues are firm to touch. Turn off oven and leave meringues to cool in oven with door slightly ajar.

For chocolate mousse, melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, then add butter and stir until combined. Remove bowl from pan and cool mixture to room temperature, then stir in egg yolks, one at a time.

Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites until soft peaks form, add sugar and whisk until dissolved. Using a large metal spoon, fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Then fold in the remaining egg whites until well-combined.

To assemble cake, place a meringue disc on a serving plate and spread with one-quarter of chocolate mousse, repeat with remaining meringue discs and mousse. Using a palette knife, spread remaining mousse over the cake. Break meringue strips into 2cm pieces and press into the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate cake until ready to serve. To serve, cut in slices using a warmed serrated knife. Meringue can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in an airtight container.

Cake will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Man Who Ate Everything

I have just told fellow blogger, Alex, from Salta that my husband is indeed a rare Argentine. I had long suspected, and am now convinced that something had happened during his mother's pregnancy with him which set him apart from his siblings.

When I first met Guillermo in London, I had just moved there from Molazzana, near Lucca, in northern Italy. He was a little shocked by my "Italian" cooking. I thought it was me but now that I have lived here for more than a year, I have since realised the Argentine idea of Italian food bears little resemblance to the real deal. This bearer of an Italian cognome (apellido, last name) ate everything I cooked with much curiosity and some appreciation. After that we moved on to the more challenging...

By then we were living in his apartment; one night while I was preparing dinner with an ingredient I had never used on him, he chatted with his friend in Buenos Aires on the phone. He started coughing all of a sudden, quite uncontrollably, with tears streaming down his face. He told his friend he must be coming down with a, it turned out to be my Thai green curry chicken! He drank lots of water with his meal that evening but soon asked when we were having that tear jerker of a dish again. That was a watershed moment.

When we decided to get engaged, we flew to Sydney to meet my family. It was during the glorious summer months of beach, abundant tropical fruits, and Chinese New Year. He was amazed by the display and variety at fruit & veg shops, all those "vegetations" he had never seen before...we examined, up close and at length, zucchini flowers, fresh whitecurrants, mulberries, golden gooseberries, mangosteens, etc.

We were staying with my PoPo (maternal grandmother) so when we weren't eating out, we were drinking her Chinese soups made with all sorts of dried herbs and flowers or picking from her fruit bowl. He soon observed the daily consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in my family easily outstripped what a normal Argentine family would consume in a month.

My parents bonded with him over the numerous meals we shared. One morning, my father announced that he was to take us to his favourite Japanese restaurant for lunch. I was secretly worried because I knew teriyaki and soba noodles were not what he had in mind.
We arrived at this popular restaurant on a Friday when office workers were kicking back with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a bento (meal served in a lacquered wooden box with compartments) stuffed with mouth-watering sushi and sashimi. We sat down and ordered; my mother kindly suggested a chicken yakitori (grilled chicken kebab) to Guillermo but my father kept raving about the freshness of the fish. While my father didn't say, of course he meant it raw – he was in a Japanese restaurant after all!

We realised when our lunch arrived that sashimi was part of the bento anyway. Guillermo just followed what we were doing – including that killer bit of wasabi on the fish. One bite and he was hooked! After that, we ventured out to the Sydney Fish Market frequently with a bottle of wine in a freezer bag and just picnicked on smoked trout or freshly shucked rock oysters followed by sashimi and sushi. Guillermo looked like he had found heaven, well, definitely a foodie one.

Since I had left Sydney for some time and it was Chinese New Year, my extended family found every excuse to meet up often for dim sum, steam boat dinners and traditional Chinese banquets. The latter involved at least ten courses, one after the other. Guillermo ate through his fair share of sea cucumbers (dried sea slugs) with conpoy (dried scallops), braised abalone with "supreme" chicken broth, steamed grouper fish and shark's fin soup with gusto.

When he described what he ate in Sydney to his friends and family here in Buenos Aires, their eyes glazed over or they winced; one can imagine what it was like for Marco Polo when he returned to Italy from Imperial China.

My latest mission is to prep talk Guillermo into drinking Chinese herbal medicinal nourishments with me. Our godsend of a masseuse has just given me a couple of bags of dried flowers; in fact, it is called Five Flowers Tea Mix. When boiled for an hour, it turns black and bitter but has the benefits of detoxification. He seems to be warming to this concept but the moment of truth is this coming Monday when I actually make it for myself and fellow settler from Hong Kong, Zoe.

This detox and de-stress beverage may be timely since I will probably hear more of the DNI induced farce she is going through with the Argentine bureaucracy (see earlier post). If there is ever a human football be bounced between various government departments, sadly, she is one at the moment.

When I was a child, my parents bribed me to drink this horrible looking and bitter tasting Five Flowers Tea at least once a month. And the bribe? Usually a piece of Black Forest cake (ok, it was the 70s). Since then I have discovered cakes from other cultures which are different but just as good. This Japanese soufflé cheesecake is spongy and delicate; it is also a "Lean Cuisine" without intentionally being so.

200g full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
50ml milk
3 eggs (separated)
100g caster sugar
30g cornflour
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp cream of tartar (cremor tartaro)
For glazing:
2 tbsp jam
1/2 tbsp water

Pre-heat the oven to 175C. Line a 18cm cake tin with greaseproof paper.

Soften the cream cheese with milk in a bowl. Add half of the caster sugar, egg yolks, cornflour, lemon juice and cream of tartar and combine together.

Place the egg whites in a large bowl, whisking them until they form stiff peaks and then keep whisking, adding the remaining sugar in 2 - 3 batches until the mixture stands in stiff peaks.

Fold the half of the egg white mixture into the cream cheese mixture as gently as possible, then fold in the remaining egg white mixture gently but thoroughly.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared tin and level the surface. Put the tin into a larger roasting tin and create a bain-marie by pouring boiling water in the roasting tin. Bake on the lower shelf in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Leave in the tin until cool enough to handle.

Put the jam in a sauce pan on a low heat with the water and warm up until it's melted. If necessary, thicken this glaze by simmering a bit and then brush it on top of the cake.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Scent of the Sun

In the midst of all that rant yesterday, I managed to make a chocolate fudge cake following Pierre Hermé's recipe (for recipe, see earlier post). I made this simple but decadent cake especially for an Aussie friend who is expected to deliver her first baby in the next few weeks, I thought she and her hubby might just like to sit back and relax with a treat before their lives are changed forever with the new arrival.

We met up for lunch at a charming little bistro in San Telmo named Abril. The three course set lunch was nice and very reasonable, the waitress was helpful and service was attentive. When we walked out after lunch, the cobbled street was reflecting a warm glow from the winter sun. This lovely afternoon with great company and good food served as a timely reminder why I am not ready to write off this city.

So today I shall venture into my kitchen, not to unwind but to truly enjoy the process of creation, the alchemy of simple ingredients. During the summer, I grew my own lavender and various other herbs. These fresh herbs went into roasts, home made ice creams and summer salads. Whatever left over I had, I used them to scent sugar and salt.

None of the plants has survived past autumn since the winter sun is lower and my patio doesn't get enough light and warmth to keep them alive. Luckily, I still have these jars of lavender and rosemary sugars and sage salt to transport me back to the sunnier months when Guillermo and I were busy renovating our apartment with our builders.

Our builders were a group of well-mannered young men, from Moreno, who worked very hard. Every afternoon, I offered them coffee and facturas (sweet pastries) and we all took a break together. They were amused to see me picking up a scraper or a paint brush. One day, they found me on my knees vanishing the skirting boards, their jaws were on the floor "Señora!"(Madame) Soon enough they started giving me helpful advice and introduced me to various products. I was able to later successfully revamp the entire wooden floor on my own since it wasn't part of their contracted work.

From time to time, one of the guys would come to fix the plumbing or do other handyman tasks we can't manage ourselves. They would comment on the gradual transformation of the apartment with appreciation, like a proud parent. They may not be educated or de clase media which seems to be an obsession with many porteños but they are real people with warmth, conscience and manners; all the great qualities many of the higher class, better educated inhabitants of this city lack. They are good old fashion people with good old fashion values.

In the culinary world where innovations and trends can sometimes overwhelm, I return time and again to older, less fashionable recipes which have stood the test of time. They may not wow anyone anymore but they still taste good. A Madeira cake is a case in point. It is also perfect for using up my stash of lavender sugar.

200g softened butter
150g lavender sugar, more for sprinkling on top
2 tsp dried edible lavender, optional
zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 large eggs
200g self raising flour

Preheat oven to 170C. Line a medium sized loaf tin with parchment.

Cream butter and sugar together until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add lemon zest, lavender flowers and eggs, one at a time and alternating with a tablespoonful of flour to prevent curdling. Finally add the lemon juice.

Spoon into the loaf tin and sprinkle more lavender sugar on top. Bake for 1 hour or until the cake tester comes out clean.

Abril, Balcarce 722 tel: 4342 8000

The Luckier Country?

I really didn't feel like shifting my focus from cooking and my search for ingredients which foodies from other countries take for granted. However, if I have to be absolutely honest, I have become a prolific home cook/ baker since moving to Buenos Aires because it is my way to unwind from the stress of living here.

Argentina is an amazingly beautiful and absolutely wonderful country to visit when one is armed with hard currency. It is also not a bad place for the transient "settlers" who would go home in a few years, enriched by their Latin experience. However, things start to get trickier if one has to make this city his/her permanent abode or God forbid, start a business.

Guillermo and I arrived in Buenos Aires this time last year. Since then, we have organised our wedding, bought and renovated our home office, he has published a book and started his consultancy business. There are days when we look at what we have done in this short space of time and feel proud; but most of the time we are frustrated.

I am certain that the modern history of this country has shaped the collective consciousness of her people. The very old are civilised and well mannered; the ones who grew up during the dictatorship years are similar to those Mainland Chinese foreign investors encountered when Communist China first lifted its iron curtain in the 1970s - neither have any respect for anyone or anything. This particular generation has gone on and brought up the generations which followed with their values so the country is now full of people with little respect for others and themselves.

I would leave such manifestations as the nonchalant littering, viveza criolla (funny enough, the Italians have the same concept named furbizia – cunning is the closest in English) and crazy driving for another day. Our frustration stems from frequent encounters with business people who make appointments which they couldn't be bothered to keep or to ring to cancel. It is not only a lack respect for our time but what puzzles me is the lack self respect for themselves as professionals.

I have often made comparisons between the "Lucky Country" Australia and this supposedly "luckier country"; both are sizeable, rich in natural resources and agricultural produce. I argue Argentina is luckier because she has La Pampa in the middle and Patagonia in the south while Australia has a desert where you would want to banish your mother-in-law. So why does Argentina rank 34th in the UN human development report while Australia is 3rd? The writing is, sadly and clearly, on the wall.

I am hardly patriotic as I view myself more as a rootless global villager but today, I started thinking meat pie, lamington and Anzac biscuits...then I realised Australia has finally embraced her multi-cultural identity and is now the best place for Italian and Asian food outside of Italy or south of Asia! So instead of Anzac biscuits from Women's Weekly circa 1960, Today, a tried and tested recipe from Stefano Manfredi, an Aussie and an Italian via this Aussie and Chinese:

Stefano Manfredi’s Almond & Lemon Biscottini

300g almond meal
250g of icing sugar
zest of a large lemon
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1 tbsp of honey
2 lightly beaten egg whites

Preheat oven to 160C

Combine almond meal, icing sugar, lemon zest, vanilla extract, honey and egg whites in a food processor to form a soft dough. Place mixture in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Roll the dough to about 4mm thick and cut into half circles with a cookie cutter. Use fingers to form each piece into small, elongated "s" shapes. Place onto trays lined with silicone paper dusted liberally with icing sugar, then dust the tops as well.

Bake in a preheated 160C oven for 15 minutes until they rise a little and turn a golden colour. Makes about 50.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pay Peanuts Get Monkeys

Something has been on my mind lately, in fact, it has caused many sleepless nights. You see, our first wedding anniversary is coming up in August which also marks the anniversary of my residency & DNI or Documento Nacional de Identidad application. This identity card is important because it functions as a work permit and much more. No, I won't be toasting the latter occasion because I am still DNI-less.

I wouldn't want to force the galling details of my application on anyone; let me just say that the staff at the immigration office at Retiro and the DNI office in town are equally ill-trained, untrained would actually be a more appropriate word, to deal with any issue that is not cookie cutter perfect.

For the expats who have "someone at the office" to deal with the tramites (all forms of paperwork, mostly created because of bureaucracy) or those fortunate enough to have a straight forward set of documentation on their exsistence: relax, this post probably doesn't concern you and you can continue to rave about how the people of this country makes it so special, etc. However, please try to understand that those unfortunate souls who suffer similar predicament may not be so ethusiastic in their praises for the people, especially if they are part of this insane, paper shuffling bureaucracy they call a government.

I am an Australian citizen born in British Hong Kong. My parents being Roman Catholics, only put my chinese name on my birth certificate. I was then baptised, at three months, and given a christian name (occidental name) by some Italian Padre Riccardo or Luigi. Years later, I was transplanted to Sydney, via Sussex, England. A few more years later, I became an Australian citizen. It has been close to twenty years since I obtained an Australian passport with my christian name and chinese initials; I never ran into any problem even with the extensive travelling I did for work and pleasure. But that was then, this is now.

Mine is a typical story of many American, Canadian, Australian and British immigrants. In fact, it is a typical story of many Argentines! However, reason and logic have no place in the head of an immigration officer working in the casa amarilla (the immigration dept is located in a yellow house in Retiro), let alone empathy. At some point during our impass, I was told, in seriousness, to obtain an Australian birth certificate!

After numerous trips between this depressing yellow house which is teeming with people from other Mercosur countries and the tranquil Australian Consulate in leafy Belgrano, I passed that particular hurdle. No, I didn't produce an Australian birth certificate but I did pay for a number of pages signed by the Australian Consul which I then had to pay more to get copied and certified by an Escribano (Notary) before passing them onto the immigration department.

However, that was just part one of the obstacle course towards DNI ownership. With my residency paper in hand, I went to apply for the DNI in their office in town. My problem now is to persuade the officer there to let me have my DNI in the same name as all of my other official documents which list my christian name and chinese initials.
According to the officer, the name on the DNI has to be the same as the name on my birth certificate, therefore, only my chinese name should appear. So, I may end up with an official document which officially bears no relation to me. The jury is still out on this one, but the reason for my DNI induced sleepless nights is something I had not anticipated but potentially a lot stickier...

My fellow Hong Kong born friend, Zoe, is still applying for her DNI after 2 years. Last week, when she thought all was done and she just needed to stroll into the office to pick up her DNI after the 120 day processing period (from the day they approve your application to the day you get your DNI- usually a 120 days' wait, if you are lucky), she was greeted by an officer who told her the tramites were problematic. It turned out the officer decided that Hong Kong was not the right answer to the question of where she was born!

"Hong Kong no fue un país, no es un país"
(Hong Kong was not a country, is not a country) this officer said with much conviction. He decreed that Zoe was born in Great Britain and needed to get her paperwork changed at the immigration department!

So my friend hopped back on this bureaucratic merry-go-round to the yellow house. The officer there told her the DNI office was wrong. Yippy! She thought for a brief second, all she needed was this officer to tell the other one his mistake. Oh, no, two officers from different departments of the same government talking to each other? That won't do, just too hard. Imagine what the country would become if they start communicating among themselves!

In fact, the immigration officer refused to stand by what he was saying – he refused to give his name or write a note to state the position of the immigration department on the issue. Zoe's saga continues because the note she paid the British Consulate to write, in hope of clearing the matter, hasn't helped to address this issue at all.

I am being kept up to date on her progress and I pray she gets through this lunacy somehow not only because it will be my turn next month but more importantly, I need to believe we are not living in a joke where monkeys are running the country and thus, our lives.

No pun intended here, this o-so-good monkey bread recipe is from the doyenne of American domestic serenity and order, Martha Stewart. For the non Americans, monkey bread is a big cinnamon and pecan bun baked in a ring tin.

For the bread:
2 tablespoons butter, plus more for pan and bowl
1/4 cup warm water
1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus a pinch for yeast
1 scant tablespoon of dry active yeast
3/4 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the coating:
120g unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

For the icing:
1/4 cup milk
2 cups icing sugar

Lightly coat a 10-inch Bundt pan and a medium bowl with butter; set aside.

Put the warm water and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl; sprinkle yeast over top. Stir; let the yeast soften and dissolve, about 5 minutes. Beware, too hot, you’d kill the yeast and too cold it won’t grow.

Place butter, milk, sugar, salt, and egg in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook.

Add yeast mixture to the mixture, and beat to combine. Slowly add flour. Knead on medium-low, 1 minute. Transfer dough to the prepared bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place, 20 minutes.

Make coating: Place melted butter in a bowl. In a second bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts; sprinkle 2 tablespoons nut mixture into prepared Bundt pan.

Cut dough into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll into balls. Coat in melted butter, then roll in nut mixture, and place in prepared pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 180°C. Bake, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert onto a serving plate, and let cool 20 minutes more.

Make icing: In a small bowl, combine milk and icing sugar. Stir until smooth. Drizzle over bread.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Very Hungry Caterpillar

The current weather of Buenos Aires has not helped to lift my mood. It has been grey and humid for weeks; I feel a dampness settling in my bones which is encouraging a not so desirable tendency in me to cocoon in my study, in front of the computer.

This cocooning, however, has yielded unexpected results. I have discovered a number of expat bloggers in Buenos Aires! Laura from Moving to Argentina pointed me to TalloVerde, a much more organised organic grocery outfit from which one can order on-line. I am definitely going to enquire about deliveries to the city centre.
(Note: after I have decided to stop dealing with El Rincon Organico, a fellow ex-El Rinconer has told me the organic selection at Jumbo has improved greatly. I am keeping my fingers crossed that, for the benefit and security of the customers, the Organic Movement in BA would soon take shape so the critical mass would be able squeeze out the less professional operators)

With much excitement to be had in front of the computer, this hungry caterpillar only ventures out of her study on calls of nature such as at 1:45pm today, Guillermo stepped out of his home office and returned "home" in search of lunch only to find me still in my Juicy tracks typing away on the keyboard. I could offer only one quick solution, ha! a very good one nonetheless...pumpkin soup.

I have been constantly reminded of the presence of Diana's organic pumpkin in the kitchen because of the sheer giganticness of it. So it is only natural that we should enjoy this harvest as soon as we can. It is not a Japanese pumpkin which the Argentines call Kokkaido after a province of the same name in Japan. It is oblong in shape but is neither a butternut. Diana, my much in demand masseuse, told me the seeds came in an envelope from her sister in Mainland China. However, she too was surprised by her accidentally organic produce since they never grow to this size over there.

I only used a sliver of the vibrant flesh since the whole pumpkin which Diana carried on her 2 hour journey from home to Buenos Aires City probably weighs more than 5 kg – people are often misled by her slender frame and femininity but apart from her huge hands, this lady really is a tower of strength.

I was pressed for time to feed two very hungry adults so I just put some chopped pumpkin in a pot filled with water and added some grated ginger, a clove of garlic and seasoning. In about 30min, this work in progress was ready to be transformed into a healthy and scrumptious lunch. As I was liquidising it with my much exercised Braun Stick, I knew instinctively this soup was going to have a lovelier texture than my usual butternut version.

Without hinting to Guillermo my hunch, I put a bowl of this wholesome sustanence, in bright orange, in front of him. After one spoonful he declared the soup exceptional. Without much effort, it looked and tasted like some velouté from a Marco Pierre White cookbook. After this accidental "gourmet" meal, we had to have an equally impressive last course.

Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to receive a couple of bars of Green & Black's organic dark chocolate with orange and spices from our lovely Irish friend who has just returned from Ireland. These smoky, tangy, luscious dark slabs are Guillermo's and my favourite. A square of this glorious Mayan harvest is the perfect finish to our rather virtuous lunch.

To help use up this amazing bounty, I have found a pumpkin bread recipe which can be made as muffins too.

2 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups shredded fresh pumpkin
1 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

Preheat the oven to 170C.

Sift the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, vegetable oil, eggs, and vanilla. Combine both mixtures and fold in the shredded pumpkin and pumpkin seeds. Once the ingredients are all incorporated pour into a non- stick 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan. If your pan is not non- stick coat it with butter and flour.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. At this point a knife inserted into the middle of the loaf should come out clean. Cool for 15 minutes and turn out onto a cooling rack. Cool completely.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Trouts in The Big Pond

I was brought up to trust because in Anglo Saxon jurisdictions of Colonial Hong Kong , England and Australia, the violators pay a considerable price in penalties. Due to this upbringing, I have encountered a great deal of frustration in this country where both government and citizens adopt a more relaxed attitude toward trustworthiness.
My earlier post Trust or Trout? which attracted much attention and debate in the local community seems to have made my organic grocer, El Rincon Organico, a reluctant law abiding tax payer for now. However, judging from the following story which appeared in Sydney Morning Herald on July 15, the rest of the world is also plagued by the same problem of merchants with lesser moral.

Eco-Yarn organic tampons are sold in health food shops in Australia, North America, Britain, and on the internet. They come in packaging that states they are made of "100% organic cotton certified by the Texas Department of Agriculture". But nowhere do they say where they come from.
Three years ago Sydney resident Suzie Gold grew suspicious about whether these tampons were really organic and raised her suspicions. She managed to get a copy of a transaction certificate from the Texas Department of Agriculture which the man running Eco-Yarn, Mark Coulton had used to demonstrate their organic status. When Gold checked with Texas, she found the certificate had been falsified...this story is fully covered in the article When you can't trust organic labels.

In What they don't want you to know, June 9, the same newspaper stated that "The Herald (SMH) believes that despite their numerous shortcomings, Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are an essential tool for the media and the public to scrutinise the operation of all levels of government."
Their Senior journalist Matthew Moore has been appointed to encourage greater use of Freedom of Information laws and to help reporters appeal against government refusals to release information. He hopes to show the sort of information that can be obtained by using the laws and to highlight consistent attempts by governments to deny access to information that should be in the public arena. Hence the launch of FOI Blog on the SMH website as the forum to address these issues. Something we so desperately need and most probably would never get in Argentina.

Freedon of information may not be on the horizon in Argentina but for this week at least, I no longer have to ponder what to do with my organic groceries. Diana, my very able masseuse, upon hearing my preference for organic produce, lugged all the way from her home outside of Buenos Aires City, a pumpkin half metre tall and a dozen of amazingly tasty and sizeable oranges. When I wanted to pay her for these fresh off the field fruits and vegetable, she energetically declined. She laughed and said they are all gifts from her garden which she has no time to attend to. I am one very lucky girl indeed!

To showcase these absolutely organic oranges, I am going to make a simple orange and almond cake inspired by Nigella Lawson's clementine cake in her first book, How To Eat.

1-2 oranges (about 375g total weight)
250g ground almonds
6 eggs
225g sugar
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder (gluten-free, if necessary)
dash of Cointreau

Put the oranges in a pan with some cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 2 hours. Drain and, when cool, cut each orange in half and remove the pips. Dump the oranges - skins, pith, fruit and all - and give a quick blitz. Then tip in all the remaining ingredients and pulse to a pulp.
Preheat the oven to 190ºC. Butter and line a 21cm Springform tin. Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for an hour, when a skewer will come out clean; you'll probably have to cover with foil or greaseproof after about 40 minutes to stop the top burning. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the tin. When the cake's cold, you can take it out of the tin.
This cake imporves in flavour and texture, it tastes better a day after it's made, but I can assure you there won't be any complain about eating it any time.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Honey, you've shrunk the beef

While my daily read still includes newspapers from different continents, I have stopped reading La Nación and Clarín (the two major national publications). Actually, I have given up on all news Argentine. This has nothing to do with the language or my interest in current affairs, I am purely practising self preservation. I have come to the conclusion that local politics and news are damaging to my health, not only mentally but physically.

I certainly do not want to be kept up to date on what else the populist president, Kirchner, who is running this country like his own kiosk, is doing to destroy the future of his people. I remember well the night he declared a ban on beef exportation. We had just dined at Cabaña Las Lilas, the most written about Argentine steakhouse in English language tourist guides...

The casual chic of Cabaña Las Lilas is just about the only thing it has going for it and the mostly American clientele lap it up and declare that it serves the best steaks in Buenos Aires. The Argentines snigger "let the dumb foreigners believe that". It is certainly one of the most expensive parrilla restaurant (grill/barbeque restaurant), 300% more at least, with underwhelming quality. We dined there because a couple of out-of-town friends had read those guidebooks, and with much well intention, wanted to spoil Guillermo and me. Thus, we were invited to bear witness to our friends being ripped off by enterprising marketing.

After this expensive meal of half a cow, we came home to watch late night news. The self made Kirchner had been having problems with the right wing landowners and the hard currency rich cattle farmers; he wanted to squash them under his thumb by harming their lucrative business of beef exportation.

This government gains much needed tax revenues in exports, and the inflows of both public and private funds have trickled down to boost the economy at large. In general, as any economy heats up, the group that sees the least benefits, in the immediate term, is the bottom of the social economical hierachy. In the case of Argentina, even at the worst of times, this group had been able to put a kilo of beef on the dinner table for the family every night– totally unheard of in any other country. However, that was until the lead up to the ban.

As inflation sets in, price of beef and other goods started to rise and people went on the streets, drumbs rolled outside the Congress. Many in this meat eating nation chanted they had nothing to feed their family. Evolution is obviously too slow a process to teach these people to turn to other food groups like their fellow humans in other countries.

Argentina consumes a staggering 58kg of beef per capita per year; with industrialised nations trailing far behind at 21kg. Consumption of other meats and fish by the locals is minsicule, about 8kg per capita per year.

The demonstrations on the streets of Buenos Aires gave Kirchner the perfect excuse to destroy his nemeses. With little regard for the hard work that had gone into opening up markets for export or the longer term social economical benefits for the country through tax revenues and investment generated employments, the President showed Argentina who is boss.

I was sadden beyond words when I found out from independent industry sources, and much later in La Nación and Clarín, that the beef being exported by Argentina was a different breed which had never been distributed in the local market. It was clearly and purely an act of spite by Kirchner. His people, the majority of them too poor and uneducated, did not realise what was their President's real motive. They, and their plight, were his pawns in the game of politics.

When he was found out, Kirchner simply reverted the ban. As a businessman himself, he would have been a little naïve to think the clients of the Argentine beef industry are going to simply return and trust an unreliable supplier. Maybe, how the country fare is not this President's priority.

Since then I have read more about Kirchner and his wife Cristina, they travelled the world on public duties but that didn't stop them dining at Michelin starred restaurants or shopping on Rue Faubourg. They remind me of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. When Guillermo told me over lunch, the other day, many believe Cristina Kirchner would be the next president, I almost threw up my meal – I am living in Manila of the South!

I have to tune out, too much information. However, to prepare for the salad days ahead of us; I have here a beef salad recipe. I trust we would still be able to afford beef; as they say, you can't teach old dogs new tricks.

600g piece of beef eye fillet
Fried shallots (available from Asian food stores), to serve
6 coriander roots and stems, rinsed and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, dry-roasted and ground
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
¼ cup lime juice
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons caster sugar
1-2 fresh small red chillies, seeded and finely chopped
1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 lebanese cucumber, cut into ribbons with a vegetable peeler
½ mignonette lettuce, washed and leaves torn
½ butter lettuce, washed and leaves torn
125g cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup coriander sprigs
¼ cup thai basil leaves, torn
¼ cup mint leaves, torn

For marinade, process all ingredients in a small food processor or grind in a mortar using a pestle until a coarse paste forms. Place beef in a ceramic or glass dish, add marinade and rub over beef. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Return beef to room temperature before cooking.

Barbecue beef on a flat plate over medium-high heat for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway through cooking, for medium rare, or until cooked to your liking. Remove beef from heat, cover loosely with foil and rest for 10 minutes before serving. Meanwhile, for dressing, combine all ingredients with 2 tablespoons warm water in a small bowl and stir until sugar dissolves.

For salad, combine all ingredients on a platter or in a bowl. Just before serving, pour ¼ cup of the dressing over and toss to combine. Cut beef into thin slices and place on salad. Serve topped with fried shallots, with remaining dressing passed separately.