Friday, October 06, 2006

Off The Shelf

Since we'd been without gas for weeks plus I still get tired very easy, I have to think of imaginative ways to cook with boring pantry staples. This experience has inspired me to share with my fellow BA residents, a few finds on the supermarket gondolas (aisles). You know, nothing recherché just good quality mass market products, affordable to everyone.

Contrary to what my in-laws believe, we have very few Chinese meals at home. To me, a home cook Chinese meal means steamed fish with ginger, spring onion served with soy dressing, steamed greens served with oyster sauce, and soup with red dates and a pinch of Qian Shi (芡實) and dried wolfberries (杞子). I simply can't make it out to Barrio Chino in Belgrano/ Barrancas every week. Well, to be precise every Tuesday when the seafood is freshest.

To avoid, as much as possible, the vices that modern technology has incorporated in our food, I usually go down the "homemade" route. OK, I confess, I'm also a glutton who prefers to eat well. However, there are occasions when I can't be bothered or I'm busy and something quick is what I need. I've found products, mostly recommended by my Argentine friends, which are great standby in these situations.

Don Vincente – very good brand of dried pasta when you don't have time to make fresh. They are actually of much higher quality than pasta one gets in most local greasy spoons which look and taste like udon (Japanese thick doughy noodles). Don Vincente does tallerines (tagliatelli) in different widths, orrechiette (small ear shaped pasta) and a couple others.

Molto – mi piace! It is a brand of pasta sauce made without preservatives. It states it is gluten free (Does that imply inferior products have gluten as a thickener?) and packs a punch in flavour and texture; yes, one can spot loads of chopped tomatoes. They come in a variety of flavours; I find the basic tomato sauce "pomorola" (after pomodoro in Italian/ tomato) the most versatile.

Don Vincente and Molto have saved me on many occasions. I just add sautéed vegetables to the sauce and I have a meal on the table.

I always shop for pure first cold pressed oils. Unrefined oils have always been the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. These oils are rich in nutrients and have particular individual taste, colour and of course, unique aromas.
The industrial oil refineries have sabotaged these qualities by reducing oils to the bland, colourless and flat tasting clear oils that flood the marketplace: inferior oils that are detrimental to health.

One could find a selection of good olive oils at Casa China (Barrio Chino) in addition to a wide variety of spices, nuts, flours and pulses. It is also a great place to look for holistic products. (I've just realised they don't have any signage in Spanish, Casa China has been my own translation from the three Chinese characters displayed on all their labels.)

I often use sunflower oil for baking when I don't want the taste of oil to interfere. I've been recommended the mass market Natura by an organic grocer as a happy compromise. Natura is also pure first cold press oil.

I've been evangelical about the organic sugar Chango now makes; unbleached and organic at a very affordable price, available at supermarkets. Salt, however, is altogether a different proposition. Sea salt is still rarely found at Disco or Coto (major chains of supermarkets) but it is widely available at health food shops. Also do not confuse light salt with sea salt; light salt (often sodium carbonate and sodium thiosulfate are added as fixing compounds, and magnesium carbonate is added to prevent grains adhesion) is the equivalent of freaky artificial sweetener in my book. If you are worried about salt intake, just use less but use the real thing. Use less anyway; you'll start tasting the food. The salt from nature, available in BA, is called Gell Singh Sal Marina.

One off the shelf product which I reluctantly waned myself off years ago was Oreo cookies. There are many types of Oreo eaters; I was one who discarded the white icing (sweetened vegetable shortening is one scary concept to me). I was happy with the dark sides until I stepped up my effort to cut out hydrogenated fats. Ladies, forget about expensive cellulite creams; cut out these toxins lurking in processed food and watch the "orange peel" on your thighs disappear.

When I came across this cookie recipe that promises a better than Oreo's Oreo taste, there was no hesitation on my part. I'll list the icing part here for the other types of Oreo fans.

1 1/4 cups plain flour
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
Set 2 racks in the middle and upper third of the oven and preheat to 190C.
In a bowl, thoroughly mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Add butter, then egg. Beat or process until a dough is formed.
Drop rounded teaspoons of batter onto parchment-lined baking trays at 2-inch intervals. With moistened fingers, round out the cookies and flatten them a little.
Bake for 9 minutes, turning the trays once for even baking, until the cookies are set. Sit the trays on a rack to cool.
Vanilla-Cream Filling:
60g unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups icing sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Put the butter and shortening in a mixing bowl and, at low speed, gradually beat in the icing sugar and vanilla, until blended.
Turn the mixer speed to high and beat for 2-3 minutes more, until fluffy.
To assemble, place teaspoon size blobs of filling onto the tops of half of the cookies. Keeping the smooth bottoms of the cookies facing up, flip the remaining cookies on top of the filling and lightly press to form sandwiches. (You can also pipe filling onto cookies using a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch tip.)
Makes 36 cookie sandwiches

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