Wednesday, August 09, 2006

sshh! piano, piano...

When I first met Guillermo's family a year ago at Sunday afternoon tea, I was not only intrigued by the more than plentiful food at that hour of the day but everyone's appetite, just a few hours after lunch.

The abuelos, all in their mid eighties, were tucking in piece after piece of headache-inducingly sweet cakes topped with even sweeter icing and salty jamon crudo sandwiched between brown bread which gets its colour not from whole grains but molasses.

My in-laws and our tio with their ample apple shaped figures were not to be out done by the abuelos. To top it off, all that afternoon fare was accompanied by half a dozen litres of "fat" coke, not diet. No one showed much interest in tea or coffee at teatime.

One Sunday, I watched with horror when my father-in-law lovingly put a glass of coke to the lips of our niece who was yet to turn one. She had no idea what was the dark liquid, but that ignorance didn't take long to correct. Her grandfather looked at her with indulgence, then, slowly fed her the content of the glass while exaggerating his vowels "CO-CA, CO-CA". The wild-eyed baby made an attempt to imitate the words after gulping down the exotic bounty offered by her favourite abuelo.

I came home that evening, still reeling from the earlier horror, to talk to Guillermo. I was extremely naïve about the Argentine character in those early days; I pleaded with him to persuade his grandparents and parents not to consume so much sugar and salt given their body shapes were already tell-tale signs of what nasties could be waiting for them in the wings. Guillermo shared my concerns but he also knew better to promise anything could be done.

On a separate occasion, my mother-in-law was offering Guillermo and me coke which we turned down in favour of water. I was totally flabbergasted when my guileless husband picked that precise moment to tell his parents my disapproval of gaseosas (frizzy drinks), especially when fed to young children.

My father-in-law zealously defended coke like a coca-cola PR agent. His conclusion, like so many other Argentines', was "kids won't die from drinking it." Indeed, how can one respond to that? I'm sure if kids were allowed to take puffs on cigarettes they wouldn't die of lung cancer on the spot either, but where does that kind of logic lead us?

After many futile attempts by Guillermo to alert his family about the health hazards they were letting themselves and the children into, we changed tact. We simply kept our mouths shut on the subject but took more initiatives in hosting lunches and afternoon teas for the whole family.

For lunch, we offer home cooked food, not delivery from the local empanadas joint; and to drink, we offer wines, mineral water and freshly squeezed orange juice without added sugar.

Afternoon teas are simple; I usually make a cake and some walnut brownies using good chocolate and little sugar, they are rich and gooey rather than the cakey slabs made with cocoa powder, common in this town. On the savoury front, I make a couple of vegetable quiches. We offer them freshly brewed tea and coffee made with grinded beans in a proper coffee maker. Of course, the kids have all natural orange juice.

They ate and thank us for our offerings but carried on ordering deep-fried empanadas and drinking coke when gatherings were hosted on their turf.

Then, a few months ago, our abuela had a stroke which nearly took her life. Since her spell in the hospital, she has been ordered not to eat salt or salty food. She has also become a lot more conscious about sugar and fats. So we are gradually seeing subtle changes at the Sunday teas. We can now find a bottle of mineral water among the gallons of coke, some diet; and the shop bought cakes have largely disappeared.

I now offer to bring something every time we go; I tortured myself last week over whether I should make a flourless orange cake to take to our Saturday buffet dinner. The cake is purely ground almonds, confit of whole organic oranges, eggs and a small amount of organic sugar.

Guillermo loves the moistness and natural sweetness from the almonds and oranges; also the fragrance is incredible. My doubts, however, were based on previous experience with the family over my carrot cake which was deemed a salad. Since that episode, I had only made gooey and sweet banana breads and all sorts of chocolate cakes. I console myself that banana is a fruit and at least I use quality dark chocolate and not the brown dust they called cocoa powder.

Guillermo told me they probably wouldn't like the cake but I should go ahead and make whatever pleased me. With much hesitation, I took a gamble. When the cake was presented after dinner, I was a little nervous. Both Guillermo and I explained tirelessly what went into the cake. Abuelita (endearing term for "grandmother", in this case, Guillermo's paternal grandmother) took the plunge first, followed by abuela and abuelo.

The elders all proclaimed it was muy humeda (very moist) and delicada (refined). The rest of the family started cutting pieces from the round; abuela who had stayed off cakes since her operation, even went for a second helping. In no time, the cake was all gone. I teased Guillermo that he had little confidence in me to which his reply was he had little confidence in his family. He admitted that he was utterly surprised by them.

We doubt the family will ever change their habits and still nothing is being done to guide the kids in forming healthy eating pattern but slowly they are seeing alternatives to dulce de leche and coca-cola. They are also increasingly willing to try them; so who knows, maybe one day they might just surprise both Guillermo and me!

This wholemeal onion tart is one of my offerings at teatime. The secret of this tart, with its wholewheat cheese pastry, is to cook the onions until they are caramelised so they form a sweet layer over the base.

For the pastry:
50g self-raising flour
50g wholemeal flour
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp Coleman's mustard powder
50g butter
40g grated parmigiano

For the filling:
700g onion, sliced finely
50g butter
2 large eggs, beaten
110ml natural yoghurt or full fat milk
1 tbsp of parmigiano
salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven, and a baking sheet, to 180°C. Grease an 8 inch (20 cm) fluted tart tin.

First make the pastry by sifting the flours, salt and mustard powder into a mixing bowl, then rubbing in the fat until the mixture becomes crumbly. Then stir in the grated cheese and add enough cold water to make a dough that leaves the bowl clean. Wrap the dough in a polythene bag and leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.

Meanwhile, you can be preparing the filling. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, then add the chopped onions, stir to get them well coated in the butter, and cook them (uncovered) over a medium heat for about half an hour until they have reduced and turned a deep brown. Give them a stir from time to time to prevent them catching on the bottom of the pan and, if at the end of the time they haven't turned almost mahogany brown, turn the heat up and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Then roll out the pastry to line the tart tin, prick the base with a fork, place it on the pre-heated baking sheet, and bake in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes. After that remove from the oven and brush the inside of the pastry case with a little beaten egg (from the filling), and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

Then spread the onions all over the base of the tart, whisk the beaten eggs together with the cream and some seasoning, and pour as much of this mixture over the onions as possible (depending on how much the onions have reduced, there may be a tiny spot left over). Finally sprinkle the cheese over the top, return the tart to the oven and bake for 30 minutes till the filling is puffy and golden brown.

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