Thursday, November 30, 2006

Plan B

After my proposal of Panna Cotta di Mate Cocido yesterday, I had every intention in making the pudding later the same day.

This is what tends to happen to me...I go into the kitchen with one plan and then somehow start working on another because something else has caught my fancy.

I thought about introducing another dimension to round out the tannin in Mate thus making it an "easier-sell" to the uninitiated. What could be sweet and smooth in addition to the milk and cream already on the ingredients list? Umm, I spotted bars of white chocolate...

Since I am to try out a new taste, I thought I'd at least use part of an existing recipe as a guide so I have based my Panna Cotta di Mate Cocido on Jamie Oliver's Green Tea Panna Cotta recipe. In his recipe, Oliver uses tea bags of "green tea" in the pudding and pairs the tea panna cotta with a dark chocolate sauce.

I was not entirely convinced that tea bags would yield a taste that can stand up to the dominant nature of dark chocolate so I stuck to my guns with my "softly-softly" approach of white chocolate. Instead of making a chocolate sauce, I also thought of adding the chocolate in the pudding itself so I could cut down on sugar. Since the addition of white chocolate would throw Jamie's liquid to gelatine ratio off-balance, I found other references and worked out my own recipe in the end. I then decided last minute to use Matcha in my first experiment.

Although my White Chocolate Matcha Panna Cotta bears very little resemblance, if any, to the celebrity chef's creation, Guillermo has taste-tested the result and declared it excellent so I'm game to share it here:
(our domestic goddess, Graciela, has just sampled it too - she bursted out with "Eso es exquisito! I love it even more than chocolate!" and is now urging me to sell them on the streets, "just don't tell people it is tea" she winked.)

The white chocolate is sweet enough so there is no additional sugar in my recipe. Also, the pudding is rich in taste and texture so I would recommend keeping the serving small, say 1/2 cup measure per person. Lastly, I didn't use a lot of gelatine leaves because I like my pudding in a quivering, inviting state and not some green rubber that could bounce off my lips.

200ml milk
100g white chocolate, chopped
2 heaped tps Matcha
300ml double cream
1 1/2 leaves* of gelatine, soaked in water

Dissolve matcha powder in some warm milk to form a smooth thin paste. Set aside.

Put the rest of the milk, white chocolate and half the cream in a small pan and slowly simmer for about 10 minutes until chocolate is completely melted and the mixtured thickened a little.

Remove from the heat. Squeeze out the gelatine leaves, discarding the soaking water, stir them into the mixture and leave to dissolve.

Allow to cool a little, place in the fridge, stirring occasionally until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Do not let it set.

Whip the remaining cream until soft peaks are formed. Fold the cream into the mixture.

Divide into four small glasses or ramekins. Cover and chill for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight. I served it plain but I think some lightly crushed raspberries would be a great addition.

*Leave gelatin vary in size and strength, please use package instruction as a guide.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Travel to Learn

Friends who have been living in Buenos Aires for over 2 years recently returned from a long road trip to Chile via the southern provinces of Argentina. As we had predicted, they found the country outside Capital Federal breathtakingly beautiful.

On their southbound journey, not only did they admire stunning landscapes and nature, they stayed at grandiose estancias (ranches) which are private properties of landowners who hold, literally, significant parts of this country. Without going into the bloody and brutal history of native Argentines and land-grabbing European settlers, we moved swiftly onto their journey over the border to Chile where they found the Singapore of Latin America.

As tourists hankering for a "Latin Experience", they found Chile a little too squeaky clean and modern to their tastes but they did remark the neighbouring capital city is noticeably cleaner and much more orderly than Buenos Aires.

The comparison of Chile to the garden city of Singapore doesn't end at cleanliness of the streets but the conduct of government, their police and business efficacy.

According to the Berlin-based organisation
Transparency International and their latest 2006 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index which ranks countries the least corrupt down, Chile ranks 20th and equal with Belgium among First World nations, far above any fellow Latin American government. On the other hand, Argentina ranks 93rd, equal with Syria.

This finding fills me with urge to quote the teachings of a philosopher who made his mark in history half a millennium before baby Jesus was reportedly born in a manger,
Confucius or 孔子 (September 28, 551 to 479 BC).

The famous thinker's philosophy, known primarily through a compilation named
Analects of Confucius, emphasises personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. One of his most famous teachings is as follows:

'If the personal conduct of people is correct, their government will be upright. If the personal conduct of people is incorrect, orders maybe issued but they will not be followed.' or "其身正,不令而行;其身不正,雖令不行。"

The message behind that succinct phrase of his and brilliantly captured by Cha Xiu Bao in English is "what government, what people" Interestingly, this bedrock of Confucianism coincides rather neatly with
Guillermo's own theory of intelligent collaboration with society.

Speaking of learning through travel, it has taken me more than twelve months to like the taste of
Mate Cocido. Neither Guillermo nor any of his family drink Mate Yerba and they rarely have Mate Cocido so I first bought a box of those tea bags out of curiosity. I drank it as recommended, with milk and sugar, but didn't like it very much as a beverage but then, I do not normally take sweet beverages.

I now drink it plain everyday, like a green tea. However, I have not forgotten the traditional version – with milk and sugar; the slightly tannic but herbaceous taste, not dissimilar to that of Matcha, has inspired me to make Panna Cotta di Mate Cocido.

2 tbsp cold water
1 3/4 tsp gelatin powder
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup full-fat milk
4 tbsp sugar
2 Mate Cocido tea bags

Pour 2 tablespoons of water into a small bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over water to let it sponge until softened, about 5 minutes.

Combine heavy cream, milk and sugar in a saucepan, and place over medium heat. Add the tea bags as well. Bring the mixture to a boil and then take it off the heat. Let the tea infuse in the cream for at least 15 minutes.

Add the softened gelatin to the warm liquid and mix until the gelatin has dissolved. Strain through a fine strainer into a clean bowl and discard the tea bags. Chill over an ice bath just until cool.

Pour into 8 small moulds, glasses or ramekins and chill for at least 3 hours. It is probably a good idea to make this a day ahead as gelatin may take time to set.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Baking Blues

An Oxford graduate, the multi-talented Nigella Lawson once said "baking demands mathematical respect".

When I was much younger, I used to diligently follow recipes to a T; on the other hand, recipes back then weren't so liberal with the quantity of sugar, butter or cream. Maybe it's part of aging or just too much healthy living but these days, I dislike the heavy feeling butter leaves on my palate. Further, fats such as butter, cream and cocoa butter trigger a mild skin irritation in Guillermo.

With reading and practise, I have gone beyond following sets of mathematical formulae in baking to actually understanding the function of each component and therefore, able to swap them around to address our dietary sensitivities.

Guillermo and I both prefer my yoghurt cake for it is light and moist in texture and not too sweet in taste. Firstly, the cake has much less fats than a butter-based one. Secondly, I have replaced whatever amount of butter still needed with sunflower oil and reduced the sugar by half. This recipe has become a blue print to which I add flavourings such as lavender or pistachio and lime.

I have also transformed with much success Bill Granger's chocolate chip banana bread using sunflower oil, wholemeal flour and much less sugar. When I have walnuts around, I replace sunflower oil with walnut oil and chocolate with a handful of walnut halves – health food shouldn't be allowed to taste this good.

Then one day, I realised I not only know a Génoise sponge from a Joconde but feel quite at ease in making them. Génoise is a classic European sponge without the use of leavener and Joconde is an almond sponge cake, named after the Mona Lisa, which is known as La Joconde in French. That is where baking ends and patisserie begins...

Unwittingly I began swimming in uncharted waters when I started to feel I can also manage preparing a dacquoise (nut meringue), pâte à bombe (custard based on egg yolks, sugar and cream) and praline.

Inspired by the exceptional Keiko of Nordljus and her version of the French classic Miroir Cassis, I attempted a blueberry bavarois with a sponge cake base.

Bavarois is a cream-based mousse set with gelatin; the most common being a fruit mousse. Since I still have a supply of gelatin leaves brought over by friends from London and punnets of blueberries, I was itching to play in the kitchen.

Post experiment, I have more than doubled my already enormous respect for pâtissiers. Their art is a combination of not only culinary skills, patience, and mathematical prowess but handicraft.

It will be a while before I make another attempt but I've accidentally discovered the surprisingly pleasing combination of blueberry and rosewater. I added a few splashes of the scented water to my fruit purée and magically the taste of blueberry intensified multi-folds. For the sceptics, we couldn't taste the actual rosewater in the bavarois. I suppose this is a classic case of 1+1= so much more than 2 ;-)

Another surprisingly pleasurable pairing is that of lime and pistachio. We discovered this after tasting my lime and pistachio yoghurt cake.

For the cake:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup ground almond
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 cup of whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt
Grated zest and juice of 1 large lime
1/3 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

For topping (optional and replaceable with a lime drizzle icing):
2 tbsp icing sugar
Juice of 1 lime
60g toasted chopped pistachio nuts

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F. Grease a 7" round cake tin/ medium loaf tin and dust lightly with flour.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar till fluffy and pale. Add the grated zest, lime juice and nuts and stir in.

Sift in the flour, baking powder and baking soda and stir till incorporated. Last of all add the oil and yoghurt and mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45min or till the cake tests done. Remove from the pan after 10 minutes and let cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the topping, stir the lime juice into the powdered sugar till smooth and then add nuts. Cover the top of the cake with the topping and let it dribble down the sides at random.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Between Fear and Despair lies Action

Over our short break, Guillermo and I went to see a film which everyone should see. In fact, it is crucial that everyone sees it and considers its content; and I do seriously mean everyone.

The film in question wasn't made to "entertain" but that was never its intention; it was made because a message of utmost importance that is affecting all of us and our future generations has too often been deliberately swept under the carpet by interest groups which do not necessarily have our best interests at heart – politicians and the corporations which back them.

I am talking about Al Gore's documentary on climate changes - An Inconvenient Truth (La Verdad Incómoda). Confronted by hard scientific facts and empirical data, and most worryingly how such facts and data have been manipulated to confuse us and thereby diluting the issue's importance, the duration of this film was an illuminating, intellectually exhilarating yet distressing 100 minutes.

I am not American and I do not feel adequately informed to opine on Gore's politics but watching this documentary in which he built a clear and compelling case for the terrifying consequences we are letting ourselves into by our own actions and inaction, I couldn't help but wonder how could more than half of America's electorates get it so wrong!

Of course, USA is not the only country with a president rejecting the Kyoto Convention. The increasingly pro-US Australian Prime Minister is the lone and blinded supporter of the simplistic Texan, both God-fearing men are hell-bent on spinning a myth of global warming being a myth.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it" –
Upton Sinclair. I would add to that funding for presidential election campaigns and in Australia's case – one insecure man's desire to bury his nose deeply in the rear of the biggest bully on the playground which is the World.

Consider this: not one single "peer-reviewed" report (such reports are reviewed by people trained in the specific field of knowledge) on global warming has disputed the existence of the phenomena and its on-going destructive impacts on earth but over 50% mainstream media reports, majority of which originated in the U.S., presently cast doubts on the "potential" harm such phenomena would do to our planet, if it exists at all in the first place.

What lie between are numerous lobbyists, public relation professionals, otherwise known as spin doctors, all paid handsomely to "doctor" difficult to digest facts, figures and academic jargons for us, the people, who generally are too preoccupied to think deeply about any issue other than our own. And here lies the irony because global warming is our issue, it affects us everyday in its subtle ways.

My O-level history teacher at boarding school, Dr.Tosoni, once said "the first lesson in history you should learn is that humans do not learn from history".

Now consider this: In the time when the Church and simple folks believed the earth was flat, the ones who believed otherwise were vilified, ostracised or burnt to death. I'm afraid we do not have the same luxury of time our ancestors did in waiting for the majority's view to change on the shape of earth because both Artic and Antarctic glaciers are melting while we sit in inactive stupor.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Short Break

...this Thanksgiving weekend...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Spice Up Your Life

Yesterday, while I was grinding up a stash of Chai spice for some chocolate fondant cakes, the thought of Chai Tea came to mind. The drink originated in the Indian sub-continent. There is no fixed recipe for the spice mix or the way such tea is made. It is like an Italian torta della nonna (grandmother's pie); it could be anything depending entirely on grandma.

The traditional Chai tea is a lot more tea-like than the Chai Latte one can get in fashionable coffee stores these days. It is based on brewed black tea such as Darjeeling or Assam. Some prefer to give it a modern twist by using Earl Grey for the fragrance of bergamot goes in perfect harmony with cardamom which is an essential component in the Chai spice mix.

Making your own Chai tea is incredibly simple. Boil a cup of milk with a mixture of cardamom seeds, cloves, cinnamon quill, ginger and fennel seeds. Some add peppercorns and star anise; it is up to individual's taste. Let the boiled milk sit for about 10-15min to allow infusion of the spices. Strain any milk solids and the spices. Make tea as normal and add the scented milk, then sugar or honey to taste.

Besides making Chai tea, the same method translates well in making ice cream, panna cotta, pastry cream, etc. The spice mix is versatile; there are a number of published chai cake recipes, one of the best is from Better Baking.

I had little time yesterday since I wanted to catch the 5:00pm showing of a funny little gem of an Australian movie called The Dish at the British Arts Centre (the movie is also on at the same time today and entrance is free) so the chocolate fondant cakes spiced up by my own Chai mix were all I could manage. When I get a chance, I am definitely making some Chai Chocodoodle...

Snickerdoodle is an American cookie. Although they look relatively nondescript, once you get past their plain appearance you'll discover that the chewy cookie with the crunchy spiced sugar coating is indeed one of the cookie greats. Since Chocolate Chai Snickerdoodles is a mouthful, I've dubbed it Chai Chocodoodle. They are also a doodle to make.

2 1/4 cups sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground fennel seeds
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

Preheat over to 180C.

In large mixing bowl, stir together sugar and spices and set 1/2 cup of the sugar mixture aside. Add butter to mixing bowl and cream with half the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in cocoa powder, followed by the eggs and vanilla. Stir in flour and baking powder by hand or at low speed. Form dough into 1-inch balls and roll in reserved sugar mixture.

Bake for 12-15 minutes or until edges are firm. Cool on wire rack and store in an airtight container.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies. You can freezer the dough.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Slap down, Slip up

When Dubya was still serving his first term as President of the Land of the, er, Free & Fair(?), my American friends were already saying if he was the CEO of any company, he'd had been fired by the board a long time ago.

While we should let time and history be the judge if his is indeed the most shameful U.S. presidency of all times, it seems incompetence of his government is not limited to the top level...
One of US President George W Bush's twin daughters has had her purse and mobile phone stolen in a restaurant in San Telmo, right under the noses of Secret Service agents guarding the 24-year-olds on her first night in Buenos Aires...(read more)

Going to any public place in any country, especially as a visitor, one would think some caution would be appropriate. I was the only person guarding my own purse in many cities more dangerous than Buenos Aires and I'm proud to report a stellar record of still holding onto my belongings after all those fun nights out.
On the other hand, The First Daughter is no ordinary person; she had extra bodies and minds to guard her personal belongings with her and most unfortunately it seems only the ones doing her donkey work are copping the blame now. That job must suck big time!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

An Antipodean Interpretation

While browsing through the fantastic Argentine food blog, El Cuerpo de Cristo (Body of Christ), I found Martin's post on Tomate del Arbol (tree tomato). These egg-shaped exotic beauties can now be found in Abasto where there is a Peruvian community.

Tree Tomato is native to Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. In Argentina where it is cultivated, the fruit is largely seen as an ethnic ingredient. It has yet to gain the mainstream popularity it deserves.

This same fruit which the antipodeans called Tamarillo is grown as a commercial crop for international export in New Zealand and to a lesser extent in Australia.

The raw tamarillo has a pleasingly sweet exotic scent but is bitter and sour to taste. Like quince (membrillo), sugar and heat would magically release its inner beauty.

Poached tamarillo is an ideal companion to a quivering panna cotta or an indulgent bowl of vanilla ice cream. It provides a modern twist to a French clafoutis or an English crumble. Should you prefer something savoury as pudding, you could serve tamarillo chutney with a selection of cheeses.

The fruit is also a perfect match to white meat such as turkey and pork. A port wine and tamarillo reduction would add finesse to an otherwise bland dish. Some Italians prefer to roast them with a little brown sugar with potatoes and chicken. The French add them to their ratatouille.

The possibilities with this fruit is endless; at A$2 for 6 we have no excuse not to experiment to find our favourite recipe using these tomatoes grown on trees.

I would turn to no other but the most famous antipodean culinary export, Peter Gordon of the Sugar Club and the Providores fame, for instructions on tamarillos...

To poach tamarillos in red wine and chilli syrup, lightly score a cross through the skin at the pointed end of 6 fruits.

In a smallish pan, just large enough to hold the fruit in one layer; bring 1 bottle of a light spicy red wine (a shiraz/syrah or pinot noir would be good) and 2 cups of water to the boil. Add 3 cups of sugar or two cups of manuka honey or any dark honey, half a red chilli, chopped, 1 cinnamon quill and a tablespoon of sliced ginger and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the tamarillos and bring to the boil, put a lid on and simmer for 2 minutes only, then take off the heat and leave to cool. Store, covered, in the fridge for at least 24 hours. The poached fruits and syrup go fantastically with panna cotta, ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

For a savoury dish, split the fruit in half lengthways, lay cut side facing up on non-stick baking parchment, sprinkle generously with brown sugar or honey and bake them at 160 degrees for 40-50 minutes. They will dry a little and are lovely served with cheese or New Zealand venison, so says the maestro .

Monday, November 20, 2006

Deconstructing Monologues

Fuelled by my scrumptious apricot tart, Sunday tea this past weekend was a particularly lively reunion.

We weren't talking about the non-existent energy crisis because nobody in an accountable position in the country has admitted to one yet.

However, existing public infrastructures have been stretched to the seams by the property development boom in Buenos Aires, especially in areas such as Palermo, Nuñez, Caballito, etc. Last week, the Buenos Aires government announced a 90-day suspension in both commencement of construction and processing of applications for new builds over a certain height in these areas so as to buy time to think about the next steps.

I, the newbie to this chaotic form of governing, was shocked on two accounts; firstly, that there was no trace of any forward-thinking plan regarding developmental growth in relation to infrastructural needs and secondly, the authority obviously had not given any due consideration to this inevitable problem as they granted permits for new developments and presently, they still haven't got a clue what to do.

My concern is that whatever they can think of doing in the next 90 days, if they can think, would not solve the problem of this city in the immediate term. It is transparent that these areas where infrastructures were built to support low-density housing are not equipped to handle the sudden multi-fold increase in population that high-rise developments would bring.

Not even divine intervention can give the city additional infrastructure for electricity, gas, water and sewage in 90 days, especially when Buenos Aires has just rejected an expansionist budget, partly aimed at addressing these problems, based on the somewhat simplistic reasoning that nobody wants a deficit budget.

This recent announcement of a 90-day suspension was the preface to a three way monologue I witnessed yesterday...

It all started with my father-in-law who, until the announcement last week, was developing a plot of land in Palermo Hollywood asking our tio, a lawyer, whether he should sue the government for financial damages caused by the suspension and any potentially harmful decision they make against new developments.

The conversation soon turned into two monologues whereby our tio voiced his disenchantment about the lack of preservation of historical architecture in residential areas such as Belgrano R where he lives; beautiful old houses are being torn down to make way for characterless modern apartments, etc.

Meanwhile, my father-in-law was preoccupied with the building code and how the code had allowed development of these areas which are now affected by the suspension. When he opined that Argentina simply cannot afford to let preservation get in the way of economic progress through construction, Guillermo and I started paying a lot more attention to what he was saying.

Both of us are of the mindset that we all, as in the human race, have responsibilities in preserving historical architecture, not limiting to Argentina. So Guillermo fought for air time thereby making it a three-way monologue because his father was still going on about the code while his tio was complaining about owners of old houses selling out to make a quick buck and my husband started talking about setting up a regulatory body like the National Trust in the UK and other countries to evaluate and preserve matters of historical value while accomodating modern needs.

We'd probably revisit this topic in 90 days. Meanwhile, I am baking a pistachio and lemon cake. I have liberally made changes to the butter-based blueprint in the River Cafe Easy cookbook. Lemon and pistachio pair well and orange also works beautifully but I would then reduce the sugar to 1/3 cup.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup ground almond
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 cup of whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon or orange
1/3 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Line a medium loaf tin.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar till fluffy and pale. Add the grated zest, lime juice and nuts and stir in.

Sift in the flour, baking powder and baking soda and stir till incorporated. Last of all add the oil and yoghurt and mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bakefor 45min or till the cake tests done. Remove from the pan after 10 minutes and let cool completely on a wire rack.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Keeping It in the Family

A snippet of our recent dinner conversation at home...

"Cristina may run for President."

"Why? I thought Kirchner could run for another term?"

"Yes, But he may let his wife run."

"Is he doing this because he might be able to fix something for her while he still has some popularity?"

"Maybe he just has had enough of her nagging him for it."

While political fractions are setting up new offices, most of them supporting the Kirchner brand, at the back of the Congress, Reuters ran a piece on a First Lady of another ex-Spanish colony – the famous and infamous Imelda Marcos.

The former First Lady of the Philippines and self-styled icon of beauty, famous for amassing shoes by the hundreds and gems the size of grapes, has launched a line of costume jewellery recycled from the less expensive bits of her own collection.

During the height of the Marcos regime, Filipinos coined the word "Imeldifico" to describe acts of excess. Mrs Marcos was accused of looting up to US$10 billion from her impoverished country together with her late husband, President Ferdinand Marcos.

Ousted as president by a popular revolt in 1986, Ferdinand died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. Imelda returned to the Philippines two years later, running unsuccessfully for president but winning a term in Congress.

Today, the 77-year-old iconic figure is often seen at high-society events in Manila. She currently faces dozens of criminal and civil cases but denies the charges and accuses successive Philippine governments of persecuting her into near-poverty.

The "Imelda Collection" is being produced by Imelda's daughter Imee Marcos, a congresswoman, with youthful input from her grandson Martin "Borgy" Manotoc, an underwear model and possible candidate for mayor of Manila in elections next May.
Who says politics can't be entertaining.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Sign of the Times

If you talk to porteños in their 80s, they might still recall saying the following rhyme at school each morning with their hands on their chest...

En el cielo la estrellas
En el campo las espinas
En el medio de me pecho la Republica Argentina

In the sky, stars
In the field, thorns
In the midst of my breast, the Republic of Argentina

However, my husband, a porteño in his 30s like many his age, was saying for fun the following when they attended school...

En el cielo la estrellas
En el campo las espinas
En el medio de me pecho una lata de sardinas

In the sky, stars
In the field, thorns
In the midst of my breast, a tin of sardines

Between the two editions lies the modern history of a nation.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An Urban Safari

Finally the results of my photo shoot and interview with Club del Vino* has appeared in the November issue of their club magazine. I have received five copies of this "South African" issue which I've endearingly dubbed the Jungle Book for all that leopard prints and blonde mane on the cover.

After reading the article on my venture, La Otra Dimensión, I must confess a tinge of ambivalence. I recall when I was still an impressionable fresher in the finance industry I was surprised that a friend who was a prominent figure in his particular field turned down an interview opportunity with CNBC. He told me he did not grant interviews, as a rule. Many years and a few of mishaps of my own later, I now understand his reasons.

I am a foodie and that was the only reason I agreed to be interviewed – to talk about my favourite subject. The photographer spent hours taking photos of the food I cooked but only one shot of the appetiser has been included in the final cut; the rest are close up shots of moi! I'm so sorry to disappoint all you fellow foodies out there.

The writing itself is interesting, mostly about how the legacy of migrants from different cultures are working into the local cuisine of Sydney, Melbourne and London. A lot of the facts have been mixed up, some even invented. For instance, my dear friend Claudia in Molazzana has acquired a not quite French sounding name Caterine and another old friend Umberto Bombana would be shocked to hear that he was born in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, I am grateful for the coverage. The phone has been ringing for my muy exclusivo classes (the reporter's words not mine). Senior members of La Familia would be charmed and impressed; the abuelas would have something to show off in front of their girlfriends. All ends well in the end.

*Club del Vino magazine can be purchased at their office at Cerrito 1130 7A (y Santa Fe)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Not So Wild Side

Since putting our apartment on the market, I've been able to confirm a couple of those stereotypical observations I've heard about upper middle class porteñas...

Despite speaking in what Guillermo considers a dialect, we have appointed the company run by a bunch of um, these well-groomed ladies. It is not our concern how they speak their Castellano (Spanish) but that they all speak reasonably good English to potential buyers.

After initial troubles with photographs of the apartment because none of them knew how to resize photos using their own in-house software, we have had some interests from foreign buyers. Typically they come for a few weeks to look for a vacation home or are planning to move to this city.

We had been told by the sales manager, in advance, to let her agents speak about our property so we tried not to take part in the viewing process unless approached by a buyer directly.

It is interesting that each of these stylishly dressed agents would wax lyrics about the apartment, the high quality fixtures, the architectural features, etc. but they cannot answer a single question about the area or the general safety of this city intelligently.

I've since discovered the reasons. Firstly, most of these ladies live in Belgrano or Barrio Norte/ Recoleta – the areas viewed by porteños as where one should live if one chooses to live in the city. We have encountered the same narrow-mindedness in our own family which all live in Belgrano and Nuñez; in some cases even if it meant living in a characterless shoebox. They actually do not know much about the rest of the city except by hearsays and prejudices.

For instance, the agent yesterday was completely stumped when the subject turned away from our abode to the neighbourhood. She said to her clients, a family looking for a summer pad, our apartment is very convenient as it is close to the High Court?!

I was standing close by and had to cut in to say we can walk to Recoleta very easily, San Telmo and Puerto Madero are both a 5-10 minute cab ride away. The area has many family-run shops which have been here for decades and have not been tainted by the dollar-grabbing mood in barrios favoured by expats (more on that another time). I hope the agent was taking mental note for future viewings.

Then the subject turned to safety in this city. Again, the agent was hasty to emphasise that she lives in Belgrano and she is very scared to walk to the shops on her own. Sometimes, I feel both amused and frustrated by precious porteñas who are so damn definite with their statements when they are so damn wrong.

Remember news programmes are there to report news; most of them are bound to be bad news. However, there is no crimeless city in the world and one cannot live in constant paranoia.

We have been living in Capital Federal for almost 18 months and have not felt any looming danger at all. I felt much more vulnerable in some parts of London and New York. On the other hand, Guillermo's family in Belgrano and well-heeled porteño friends of ours are always cautioning us never ever to hop into a taxi on the streets; I have been doing so frequently. Except for being asked on a date a few times, I have never had any trouble. Many taxi drivers even round down the fare.

If living by local news programmes is your thing then you really should not be dining in Palermo Viejo at all because there were a number of incidents whereby robbers went into their target restaurant, locked the front door and proceeded to rob the patrons, one by one. I'm only ever deterred by trendy but underwhelming food in that area. I'm not afraid if only because I don't think that's the way to live life but that's just me.

Anyway, should you decide to play safe, you can still sample good Japanese food at home. Gyudon (牛丼) or beef on rice is the Japanese equivalent of Big Mac and Yoshinoya (吉野家) is the MacDonald's of Tokyo; however, the similarities stop right there. Gyudon is much healthier and tastes very good.

150ml dry white wine/ rice wine
100ml Japanese soy
100ml mirin
small thumb of ginger, peeled, cut into thin strips
1/4 cup caster sugar
150ml water
2 white onions, thinly sliced
500g fillet steak, very thinly sliced

To serve:
Steamed Japanese rice
Pickled ginger

Place the wine, soy, mirin, ginger, sugar and water in a medium-sized saucepan over a medium heat. Cook, stirring, to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes.

Add the onions, simmer for a further 10 minutes or until onions are translucent and soft. Add the beef and simmer for a further 1-2 minutes or until beef is just cooked through.

To serve, place rice into 4 serving bowls. Top with some of the beef and onions and ladle over some of the hot broth. Garnish with pickled ginger.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Cute Reunion Story

I started this blog to keep in touch with my family and friends scattered across continents, living high octane lives in Skype-challenging time zones. So instead of writing about yet another shop or restaurant that has opened or shut in the now touristy Palermo, I endeavour to paint a realistic picture of the city I am living in and the kind of society I have encountered so far. For this reason, I'm still surprised that my public readership is growing daily.

A few weeks ago, I received this comment from a lady named Veronika who read my archive.

I had mentioned in that post how our friends Alejandro and Guillermo recommended to us a fun little restaurant with a crazy name Enfunda la Mandolina. I must have also let on very early in my blog life that Señora Libutti is our domestic goddess' real name. Veronika, reading my blog at home in Texas, thought there was a chance she had found her long lost friends.

Instead of responding in the comment section, I wrote to her, in private, explaining sweet Ale and dear Guillermo are partners in life, not brothers. Alejandro is a talented architect specialising in restoration of commercial scale historic buildings by day and a budding thespian and stage designer by night. Ale went to primary and secondary school with my husband, also Guillermo. Theirs was another serendipitous reunion story which took place last year, some fifteen years after they left school; Ale spotted Guillermo and me in one of the oldest bookstores in Buenos Aires.

When Veronika wrote back to say her friends would be in their fifties by now, I held little hope for her. Anyway, one day while Guillermo and I were having a coffee and some chitchat with our goddess, I thought I would ask her if she had brothers. When I uttered the two names, she jaws dropped. For a brief moment, she thought I had psychic abilities.

I explained and she was elated. It turned out one of her brothers, another Guillermo, who lives in L.A. has his birthday coming up soon. I passed on Veronika's contact details – it would make a wonderful birthday surprise!

I am really thrilled that my inconsequential musings have led to a reunion of friends after almost thirty years! Once again, we have an elegant proof of the theory of six degrees of separation.

Speaking of cuteness, I was inspired by these Amai tea cookies. There is no Dean & Deluca around so I hope the cool folks at Lovescool, the maker of Amai, don't mind me whipping up a batch of Matcha cookies in my kitchen.

These cookies are all buttery-crumbly, perfect with a cup of good tea. I used a pretty but rather intricate leave cutter which was hard work with the soft dough so I would recommend you stick to simpler shapes. The quantity makes 28 cookies but you can use half of the dough and freeze half.

Matcha Shortbread Cookies:

120g unsalted butter, softened at room temp.
1/3 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
2 tsp Matcha powder
1 1/4 cups plain flour
pinch of salt

Cream the butter and sugar until well blended. Mix in the Matcha powder. Add flour and salt and mix until dough comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Use the plastic to help form the dough into a log about 7-inches long. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 6 hours and up to 3 days.

Preheat oven to 180C. Cut the chilled dough into 1/4-inch slices and arrange on parchment lined sheet pans. Bake until the tops look dry and edges just start to brown, about 10-15 minutes.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Scent of Heaven

Since laying my hands on a stash of lavender, I have not only made gâteau au yaourt scented with lavender sugar but dug out my reserve of rosemary sugar from last summer and used it in a white chocolate cake over the weekend. Flushed with success, I am now hooked on baking with flowers, herbs or sugar scented with their perfumed natural oils.

Thanks to the resurgence in tea culture, usage of Earl Grey, Jasmine and Matcha in baking is suddenly de moda (I can never bring myself to say muy fashion for not only I but Guillermo would cringe). Lavender which has always featured in Provençal cuisine is now part of any chef's repertoire. The quintessentially English elderflower is also enjoying a revival. So while the foodie world is all excited following this undeniable trend, it has prompted me to speak up for a "little guy", Osmanthus (桂花)

These fragrant flowers are a close relation to the jasmine family. They are grown in China for culinary purposes as much as for its thick, sweet scent. Tea is probably how most people would get to meet this flower outside of Asia. The Chinese city of Nanjing is known for its osmanthus scented roast duck. However, it is the scented sugar that is getting my attention.

Osmanthus preserved in sugar, like lavender in Provence, is heavily featured in the sophisticated but generally sweeter Shanghaiese cuisine. A small amount of flowers with its scented sugar is often used to fill glutinous dumplings so when one bites into a hot gooey dumpling, a burst of delicate floral molten sweetness coats one's palate. My favourite is a signature Shanghaiese dish – lotus root slices stuffed with osmanthus flowers and glutinous rice steamed in osmanthus syrup. Heaven should smell like this.

These flowers are grown in a warm temperate climate so it should be able to find a home in Buenos Aires. A friend has an osmanthus tree in her house but it has not yielded one bloom in the three years since she planted it. Well, we shall live in hope...

It turns out I am not the only one missing the fragrance of osmanthus, I have recently stumbled across a French food blog by a Chinese girl living in Paris – Lorraine Délices. She has chosen to capture the distinctive scent in some biscuits and gorgeous photos.
(Note: Lorraine has been having a lot of problems with those bad apples in the blogging world who, shall we say, "liberate" her creations and claim as their own. For this reason, I won't be translating her recipe; I feel it's best that I provide you with the link to her post.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Family Tie or Family Leash?

I have often teased Guillermo about his "odd-ball" ways. By that I only mean his thinking and behaviour are so often the opposite of a typical porteño's. My mother-in-law agrees that he was the most "difficult" of her four children and she tells me there were times they didn't quite know what to do with him. By difficult, his mother didn't mean Guillermo was a misbehaving child or low-scoring student but he was different from his siblings and other kids.

When my husband was three, he had wanted his parents to teach him how to read. They refused him; my mother-in-law explains in those days it wasn't good to be seen as "too intelligent" and they didn't want him to be different from other kids his age.

Unlike most Argentine young adults, Guillermo moved out of home in his early twenties. Meanwhile none of his siblings left home until they got married. He moved quite a distance, at least in his parents' eyes, to Abasto (Abasto is 30 min's drive from Belgrano where his parents have been living most of their lives). It wasn't a comfortable living environment but he felt he needed to have independence. His parents felt hurt and rejected; his mother called him everyday.

When he decided to leave for England to pursue his PhD, his entire family cried a river; they didn't want him to leave them. A PhD scholarship was not enough to convince them that temporary separation from their flesh and blood was a worthy sacrifice. It took me quite some time to understand ours is not some bizarre Addam's Family but pretty close to the norm in 21stC.

Guillermo and I met a lovely retired couple at dinner some weeks ago. The gentleman is Argentine while his partner is a Chinese lady who followed her Pakistani diplomat first husband all over the world and then settled in California with her second husband, an American. She was part of the first set of modern international nomads. This pair met in Buenos Aires, years after she was widowed.

Each of them has children in their thirties. Hers are scattered in England and California, leading independent and rewarding lives. Her children take care of their mother's routine obligations to her house in California whenever she is spending time here in Buenos Aires. His are in their mid-thirties living with their father who is still taking care of household chores single-handedly because his kids wouldn't know how to help.

The two of them make a very sweet couple except when they talk about child-rearing methods. He accuses her of being cruel to her children by letting them leave home when they were young (at university age, late teens to early twenties). She retorts with not wanting them to be reliant, taking a comfortable life for granted. On the other hand, she cannot understand what good it does to children by spoiling them. To this, he retorts that it is not called spoiling but love; he is very proud of his thirty-something stay-at-home children who cannot iron their own clothes or put a nail into a wall.

All I can say is that we wouldn't be having this particular disagreement at home.

After sorting out the last course for our festive lunch with La Familia, I have tentatively decided on the main. Not too fancy (in term of food group) and not too dull – a couscous stuffed roast chicken.

For the Chicken:
1 large chicken
1 litre buttermilk (I used half unsweetened yoghurt, half milk)
1/3 cup honey
2 pieces lemon rind

For the stuffing:
1/4 cup butter
1/2 sweet onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 cup whole almonds
6 dates, pitted and chopped
1 cup couscous
1 - 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
juice of one lemon
1/4 teaspoon zested lemon peel
1 large egg

For glaze:
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For sauce:
2.5 cups stock
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
juice of half a lemon

To prepare chicken: Marinate clean, rinsed chicken at least 24 hours in buttermilk, honey and lemon peel. Drain chicken and discard marinade. Place chicken in roasting pan ready for stuffing. Pre-heat oven to 200C.

To prepare stuffing: Melt butter in large stir-fry pan. Add sliced onions, garlic, almonds and dried spices. Cook and stir over medium heat until onions are translucent and almonds have begun to toast, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the couscous and stir for 2 minutes more. Add all the remaining stuffing ingredients except the egg, stir until bubbly, cover and remove from heat. Allow to sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove cover and allow to cool slightly, for 10 minutes. Prepare the glaze while the stuffing is cooling.

To prepare glaze:Place all glaze ingredients in a small pan over low heat. Stir together to combine, set aside until required.

Stir the egg through the cooled stuffing. Spoon the stuffing mixture loosely into the chicken's cavity. Skewer cavity closed. Heap remaining stuffing (if any) into a small glass or metal loaf tin. Mix all the sauce ingredients except the lemon, and pour them in the bottom of the roasting pan.

Brush chicken with glaze mixture and pop chicken and extra stuffing into oven. Use the glaze mixture to baste the chicken once every 20 minutes until the glaze is used up.

Roast the chicken for 30 minutes plus 20 minutes for each 500 grams. This should include the weight of the stuffing. This stuffing is relatively light so I cook a 1.5 kilogram chicken for 100 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow chicken to rest under foil. Use a fork to squash garlic cloves into sauce in bottom of the roasting pan. Scrape pan and pour juice through a sieve into a medium saucepan. Heat the juice until it is reduced in volume to about 1/2. Add the lemon juice and stir. Alter the seasoning for your own taste

Scoop out stuffing on to the centre of a platter. Slice chicken and place slices around the stuffing. Drizzle a bit of the sauce over both chicken and stuffing and serve the rest of the sauce on the side.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Noble Bloom

Peony (牡丹) has been hailed as the symbol of riches and nobility in Chinese literature for centuries. They are often the subject or a source of inspiration for poets, painters, even playwrights.

In the Asiatic climate, peonies bloom around the same time as Lunar New Year, hence their popular use as festive ornaments in Chinese households to signify hopes of riches for the coming year. These flowers hold equal status as peach blossoms which usage is not unlike having a cut pine tree for Christmas in Occidental cultures.

I do not recall being fond of peonies until I lived on the ancestral plot of my Italian friend, Claudia, in Molazzana. Instead of being cultivated in pots for ornamental purposes, the translucent pink buds were at one with nature.

It was a particularly cold May up on those Tuscan hills and I visited the peonies each day to witness their struggle to bloom. I was there to cheer them on. Eventually a few of them made it to give us delicate and barely pink petals. I have been in love with peonies since those moments.

Recently, I was charmed by pictures and the lovely water-colours of peonies at Paris Breakfasts. Then, I discovered flower stalls in some barrios are selling them right now. I spied pink and white blossoms tucked discreetly in a corner at a couple of stalls on Santa Fe (close to Callao). I've also seen them in Belgrano and Recoleta. They don't seem to be as popular as jasmine which is abundant at this time of the year. However, if someone would just take them home and release them from their cellophane wrapping, these babies would definitely stun you with their beauty.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Buenos Aires 101

As they say "Different strokes for different folks". We are fortunate to be living in a free society where people are entitled to voice their opinions and nowadays many blog theirs as well. We should be grateful for this diversity.

From the fast expanding list of Bloggers in Argentina, I conclude that a growing number of residents in Argentine like their opinions to be heard. My personal favourite is clearly D for Disorientation for its impartial and informed look at the country. I also follow a couple of expat blogs with keen interest such as Dan's and greekinargentina's. Then, there are a few which I glance through every few months or so.

I did just that yesterday and found this rather disturbing post. It described a dialogue broadcasted in a local television programme which offered a glimpse of the negatives of this country I have voiced before – low-brow fun at the expense of ethnic groups condoned by the majority. No, that wasn't the disturbing part...

Maybe I am too naïve in thinking that most sensible, educated people would ignore such rubbish, move on instead of endorsing it. Maybe my fault is in assuming people are sensible and educated in the first place. Anyway, the blogger in question, Robert originally from the U.S., found it so humorous that he had to share it in his blog. From the comments he received, one also gets the sense that his readers, bar one who was ambiguous, found it all kosher too. What can I say; I guess we don't actually need his walking tour to witness a hint of the true colours of Buenos Aires.

I am not known for political correctness at all but there are just certain things even I, an unexceptional adult, would think twice before putting out for public consumption because it is in poor taste to do so. For instance, if someone comes along and tells me "U.S. Americans have pea-sized brains". I just might laugh, especially after reading the above-mentioned blogger's post. However, I would know I am wrong - not all U.S. Americans have pea-sized brains. (If you are an U.S. American reading this and feeling offended, you ought to understand the point I am making.)

It is the obliviousness of wrong doing in the mainstream culture here that baffles me. That post has been an unintentional but poignant illustration of just that. It has definitely helped me to understand the unrepentant majority and their insistence that calling someone "moreno" (brown) is considered absolutely fine...fine by the just a tinge fairer-skinned porteños.

Thank you, one big lesson learnt!

Friday, November 10, 2006

My 'hood

We ate at our local greasy spoon last night. It is well-known among the locals to be a good neighbourhood joint with very reasonable prices. We go, on average, once every couple of weeks for their set menu.

It is no ordinary set menu; there are 4 or 5 sets starting from just under A$10 to over A$30. These set menus are offered at lunch every weekday as well as dinner (Monday to Thursday). Nothing fancy, just honest grub.

The most basic set gives you a very generous main course which you choose from a large selection like roast chicken, merluza/hake (two sizeable fillets in one portion), a chunky meat stew, squid braised in red wine, pork chops (two thick chops in one portion), etc. Each dish comes with a side dish of vegetables, potato/pumpkin puree, fries, or salad of your choice – these portions are also very generous (ample for two persons). It also comes with drinks and bread; you can choose any soft drink, mineral water or a carafe of house wine which then comes with a sifon of water. Last but not least, you can choose between pudding from a good selection or coffee. All that for A$10! This makes getting a Big Mac an even bigger joke than just how bad it is.

The more expensive menus give customers choices of bife de chorizo (sirloin) or other parilla items (grilled meats), a selection of branded wines, coffee as well as pudding.

Their set up is clean and bright, definitely not the type of place which attracts tourists. For a long time, I was the only foreigner among the regulars. You can imagine it is the kind of place full of regular folks from our aging neighbourhood. There are more than a few senior customers who are on first name basis with not only the waiters but the other senior customers.

However, things are changing. No, not the offers; the clientele. While Guillermo and I were talking about the lunch we are hosting for La Familia, I noticed a neighbouring table of four, all from the U.S. They may be travellers who live here, tourists who come for tango (our neighbourhood offers a number of milonga halls); it doesn't matter. The point is our very local greasy spoon is getting noticed! Our favourite waiter, Carlos, was a little shy serving his new clients but he did a great job.

I appreciate my neighbourhood more each day. Most importantly, it is not touristy; well, it has the potential but not just yet – a sleepy neighbourhood oblivious to the tourist boom. It is close to Recoleta, Barrio Norte (we always walk it) and not far from San Telmo. A walk in a different direction takes me to shops which offer wholesale prices.

I came back yesterday with 3 small loaf tins and 2 large oblong tart tins with removable bottoms (the type favoured by food stylists, especially Donna Hay); the loaf tins were a steal at A$4.50 each; exactly the same ones at Geo would set you back more than double.

To "inaugurate" my trendy tart tins, I'm going to use apricots which are in season now to make a frangipane based tart. The original Donna Hay recipe was for a nectarine tart; I have adapted it by cutting down significantly on the quantity of sugar, triming down on the required butter and swapping lemon zest for orange. The end result is a fantastically moist and not overly sweet tart in which the stone fruits and orange work their alchemy.

Apricot Tart with Orange Syrup

6 fresh apricot halves (depending on size)
1/4 cup caster sugar
70g butter, softened
1/3 cup caster sugar, extra
2 eggs
1 cup ground almonds
1/4 cup plain flour
zest from 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
orange syrup:
1 cup orange juice
¼ cup Cointreau, optional

Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Sprinkle the nectarine halves with the 1/4 cup of sugar and cook cut-side down for 2–3 minutes or until the sugar is melted and golden. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F).

Place the butter and extra sugar in a food processor and process until just combined. Add the eggs, ground almonds, flour, lemon rind and baking powder and process until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into a lightly greased 12 x 35cm rectangular loose bottom tart tin. Press the nectarines into the mixture and bake for 30 minutes or until cooked when tested with a skewer.
To make the orange syrup, place the orange juice and Cointreau in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10–12 minutes or until the mixture thickens. Set aside and allow to cool and serve it with the tart. Alternatively, just squeeze orange juice over the tart as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An Early Berry Christmas

In little over a month's time, we would be leaving for Sydney. We are to stay in that seaside city for over two months. Guillermo is already speaking enthusiastically of jogging along the beach every morning - the reason for his exercise plan is his anticipation of all the great culinary indulgences that await him there.

Senior members of La Familia have come to terms with our absence during the upcoming festive season. Over the past year, they have finally woken up to the fact that our marriage is a merger, not an acquisition; therefore, they now understand they have to accept that Guillermo and I might like to spend time with my side of the family once in a while.

Having said that, I only wish my parents-in-law wouldn't look as if they had just been to a funeral each time the subject of our Christmas plans is raised. I would have been peeved if not for the mounting evidence of their separation anxiety, bless them.

Sensing my in-laws displeasure (Can you believe it? That's why I have given up on guilt), I suggested to Guillermo that we shall host a festive lunch for the immediate family, all 15 of them, before we leave.

When it comes to entertaining La Familia, my otherwise closeted Type-A personality comes out in its full glory. It is never too early to plan; cutlery, china, glasses, linens, then the perplexing question of "what to feed them?"

Last time we hosted lunch, a lovely three-course Mediterranean affair which took me days to plan, shop and prepare, both sisters-in-law rang the night before to make sure I cook some boiled plain pasta with butter for their kids.

Guillermo and I really don't want to judge them as parents; if they are not interested in introducing a variety of foods to their children, that's not our concern. On the other hand, we are only talking about normal and nutritious food such as mushrooms, roasted pumpkin, fennel, sweet potato and beetroot, baked fish, and chicken.

Besides, is it really socially acceptable these days to specify to your host what food to provide without even knowing what is on offer first? (Dietary needs and allergies are understandable exceptions but not applicable in our case.) It was a private affair, I wasn't running a restaurant.

Before an indignant parent tells me I wouldn't know until I have kids, a few years ago I helped taking care of my then young nephew and niece who tried everything offered to them; at 5 and 8 now, they are great fans of sushi, toro-tuna sashimi, smoked trout and red capsicum (morrón). I've a three year-old cousin who is allowed all types of junk food but his favourite food is carrot, followed closely by green seedless grapes and strawberries.
Our dear friends Miguel and Paula have an agreement with their young daughters – to try every food offered to them at least once; these kids (aged 2 and 4 now) enjoy a wide variety of foods, some of which are "grown-up" in taste such as olives, basil, rosemary, and bitter chocolate. We never had any problem with them whenever they had come for lunch. Kids don't start off rejecting food; bad eating habits are fostered by the parents.

While I have to appease the philistines, I would really like to pull all bells and whistles for our abuelos. Abuelo is a worldly gentleman who truly understands and appreciates good food and wine. The abuelas (Abuela and Abuelita) may not be able to eat much but they love to be fussed over. It is a real pleasure to cook for them.

Deep down I know I don't want to acclimatise to La Familia's practise in entertaining which means serving ham and cheese followed by shop-bought empanadas or media lunas stuffed with chicken. My reasoning? Very simple, if I have to sit around the dining table for over 4 hours, I'd like a hot meal so when playing hostess, I simply cannot bear treating my guests any worse than I'd treat myself.

Life is short; I always plan what I eat backwards by first looking at what is the pudding course. Since finding a new source of fresh berries, I plan on making a refreshing champagne and berries terrine. It is one of the easiest yet stunning last course – baubles of jewel-coloured fruits suspended in a block of festive champagne!

Champagne Terrine of Summer Fruits

425 ml champagne

50 g caster sugar
11 g gelatine leaves, soaked & softened
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
350 g small strawberries
225 g raspberries
350 g combination of blackcurrants, redcurrants, blueberries (any other combination you like)

You will also need 2 x 900 g loaf tins, each 19 x 12 cm x 9 cm deep, preferably non-stick but anyway with a good surface.

First prepare the fruit: remove the stalks and halve the strawberries if they are any larger than a quail's egg. Then mix the fruits together in a large bowl, being very gentle so as to avoid bruising them.

In a small saucepan heat half the champagne till it begins to simmer, then whisk the sugar and gelatine into it. Make sure that everything has dissolved completely before adding the remaining wine and the lime juice. Then pour the liquid, through a fine sieve, into a jug and allow it to cool.

While that's happening, lay the mixed fruit in one of the loaf tins – and it's worth arranging the bottom layer with the smallest, prettiest-shaped fruit as this will be on top when the terrine is turned out.

Next, pour all but 150 ml of the liquid over the fruit. Now lay a sheet of clingfilm over the tin, place the other tin directly on top, then put two unopened tins of tomatoes or something similar to act as weights into the top tin and put the whole lot into the fridge for about 1 hour, or until it has set.

Then warm up the remaining 150 ml wine mixture and pour it over the surface of the terrine. Re-cover with clingfilm and return to the fridge overnight to set firm.

When you are ready to serve, turn out the terrine by dipping the tin very briefly in hot water and inverting it on to a plate. Use a very sharp knife (also dipped first into hot water) to cut it into slices. Serve with chilled pouring cream or crème fraîche.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Blame Game

The media in Buenos Aires has been noticing a sharp increase in the number of expats living in this city. Just the other day, a radio programme interviewed an Icelander who lives in Capital Federal.

This transplanted resident said that tourists inevitably fall in love with BA because they are impressed by what they see but that would just be a very small and now touristy part of the sprawling city. According to him, expats may not have chosen to live here for the same reasons as a tourist. For instance, he was robbed during his first week in this city but he decided to stay nonetheless.

Some other expats have also been dispelling the myth that all of them are rolling in greenbacks and taking advantage of the devalued peso – a stereotypical view of many embittered porteños.

I have found this whole debate/envy or whatever one would prefer to call it rather interesting for the following reasons:

Firstly, there are just as many rich Argentines living in and out of the country, taking advantage of the devalued peso. Many of them are building palatial houses up the Delta or investing in apartments in the smart barrios within the city; these Argentines have benefited from the devaluation one way or another. Whether their earnings are in dollar, euro or peso is absolutely irrelevant; the point is they are earning a vast amount of money which has translated into formidable purchasing power.

The interesting part is that anyone should be envious or bitter over others' earning abilities. As long as their conduct is completely honourable and legal, why should people not be rewarded for their hard work or innovations?

Secondly, the strong Argentine culture which places utmost importance on the concept of "La Familia" discourages, to some extent, their own to explore the unknown, to travel the world, to broaden their horizon through living in other countries and cultures regardless of financial rewards. This is the opposite of many modern cultures; a vast number of traveller-residents here have this progressive mind-set and are earning a basic living in pesos. They are certainly not the ones buying up Alan Faena's luxurious loft developments in Puerto Madero.

Yes, and then there are those who are doing just that. They may have come from the U.S., Europe but among them are definitely rich Argentines. In every society are the rich and the poor. It is not necessarily a zero-sum game; the fact that someone can afford fine things in life doesn't equate to them robbing others the same opportunities – it is up to the individuals.

I am afraid if I continue I would be opening a Pandora's box of the "blame" mentality prevalent among people of this country – blame the society, blame the government, blame the politicians, blame the neighbours, blame the newbie expats...they believe they have absolutely nothing to do with anything that has gone wrong so far.

No, I won't go into all that but I'll leave you to ponder over this quote:

"...las sociedades no son entes abstractos sino la suma de las personas que la conforman, con sus mecanismos psicológicos, sus comportamientos y sus producciones." - Pensamiento Origanizado by Dr. Guillermo Campitelli

"Societies are not abstract entities but are formed by the sum of persons, with their psychological mechanisms, their behaviours and their productions." – Organised Thinking by Dr. Guillermo Campitelli

That means you, me and everyone else – no more shirking, no more blaming others.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Little Bit of Heart

Expats from cosmopolitan cities lament the lack of good dim sum in Argentina. I have surmised the most likely reason being the absence of a sizeable and affluent client base with sophisticated palates which have progressed past the decade of chop suey (strictly speaking a commercial invention to fool those who don't know better) to support qualified dim sum chefs.

Good food needs an appreciative audience. For instance, the secret behind superlative Chinese food in Sydney can be easily explained - Australians of any ethnicity ordering steamed fish, done just about pink in bone, to go with a bottle of crisp white is common sight in Chinese restaurants across the city. Lesser skills and quality simply cannot survive in that competitive culinary landscape.

Don't get me wrong, I'm most appreciative that Chinese restaurants here such as Nueva Chinatown trying their very best but quality dim sum are made by specially trained professionals – it is like asking a chef to moonlight as a haut pâtissier, the result is going to be passable at best. Anyway, I would go back to Nueva Chinatown, in a heartbeat, for their roast duck and pescado entero.

Since dim sum literally means a little bit of heart, I look for the essence of it elsewhere. Yesterday, our domestic goddess came to work bearing a box of alfajores from Havana for Guillermo and me! We were really touched by her thoughtful gesture – that was the best dim sum I have ever had in this town.

I also discovered a rather elegant looking sweet dim sum at Asia Oriental last Friday; a Matcha flaky pastry filled with aduki paste wrapping a walnut in the centre. Guillermo showed his approval by wolfing down two of these dainty wagashi (和菓子/ Japanese sweetmeat) in one brief sitting.

I have only recently spotted Matcha from Taiwan (ex-colony of Japan) at the supermarkets in Barrio Chino and last Friday was the first time I saw this green tea powder being used in commercial baked goods in Buenos Aires. I am excited that Matcha Love has finally reached these shores.

The producer of this flaky pastry is very smart in keeping the flavour of Matcha subtle; hopefully this would attract the more adventurous porteños to sample and grow to like this delicately green bocadito (a little mouthful) and then venture out to seek other exotic flavours.

I am still filled with sweet dim sum love from the wagashi and alfajores so I'll share with you a wonderful fusion chocolate sandwich cake recipe inspired by a chocolatier, Katrina Markoff, CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat in Chicago.

Ms Karkoff was one of the first to infuse chocolate with unexpected ingredients such as ginger, wasabi, and black sesame seeds – she named this Asian-inspired creation of hers the Black Pearl truffles. The ingredients are the building blocks of this recipe I have adapted by slashing the quantity of sugar and eliminating the corn syrup; I present to you, the Black Pearl Cake.

Part 1: Black Pearl chocolate ganáche
150g dark chocolate (at least 85% cocoa solids), finely chopped
1 cup double cream
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
3 tsp wasabi powder
2 tbsp black sesame seeds
1 tbsp ginger syrup (see Part 2)

Place chocolate in medium bowl. Bring cream, ginger, and wasabi to boil in small pot. Pour hot cream over chocolate; cover and let stand 15 min. Whisk cream and chocolate until smooth. Mix sesame seeds and syrup in small bowl to coat; stir into chocolate mixture. Let cool to lukewarm. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight to set.

Part 2: Ginger syrup
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
5 tbsp juliennes of peeled fresh ginger
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Place 1 cup water, sugar, and ginger in small saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into pan; add bean. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Simmer 2 minutes; remove from heat. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour for flavors to blend. Strain syrup into small bowl. Chop ginger. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead) Cover and refrigerate ginger and syrup separately.

Part 3: Cake
2 cups boiling water
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 3/4 cups plain flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
240g unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and flour three 20cm sandwich cake tins; and line the bottoms with parchment paper.

Whisk 2 cups boiling water, cocoa powder, and the reserved ginger juliennes in medium heatproof bowl. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in large bowl. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in large bowl until fluffy, about 1 min. Add eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition. Beat in vanilla extract. Add flour mixture in 4 additions alternately with cocoa mixture in 3 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture.

Divide batter among prepared cake pans; smooth tops. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans 5 min. Turn cakes out onto racks; cool completely. (Cakes can be prepared 1 day ahead. Wrap with plastic wrap and store at room temperature.)

Part 4: Cream frosting
2 cups chilled double cream
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons icing sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Black sesame seeds, for decoration*

Beat cream in large bowl until soft peaks form. Add sugar, vanilla, and ground ginger. Beat until stiff peaks form.

Trim doomed tops off cakes to create flat surface. Place a cake layer, cut side up, on a plate. Brush top with 1/3 cup ginger syrup. Spread half of ganáche over top of cake. Place second layer, cut side up, atop first layer. Brush with 1/3 cup syrup; spread with remaining ganáche. Top with third cake layer. Brush with remaining syrup. Spread sides and top with cream frosting.

Sprinkle top with black sesame seeds. Refrigerate until cream and ganáche are set, about 4 hours. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving. (The whole cake can be assembled 1 day ahead. Keep refrigerated.)

*If you can get hold of edible gold leaves, this is an opportunity to put it to elegant use. Gold, the edible kind, is frequently a part of food presentation in Japan.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Silence is Golden

It is interesting how reality can be very far from hasty perceptions especially formed by those who are too ready to accuse. Like many fellow expat bloggers, my blog is my space to rant and vent so I could, in real life, remain a positive and calm person.

My observations on the practises
of members of La Familia may not have sat well with some Argentine readers; maybe I've pointed out something too close to home for comfort? However, contrary to casual assumptions, Guillermo and I had differences with his parents but no argument.

Differences can be discussed calmly and then resolved in civilised manners while arguments put people in an offence-defence situation which, regardless of outcome, is destructive. Interestingly, the word discusión in Spanish can mean argument (pelea/ fight) in English so no wonder I've found that most people here have to have the last word; they will probably never understand the true meaning behind the phrase "silence is golden".

This past Sunday, we visited the abuelos. It was a small gathering of Guillermo's parents, tio and his wife, and us. I brought a Gâteau au Yaourt (yoghurt cake) made with lavender scented sugar which Abuelo and my father-in-law each had more than a couple of slices. It was shaping up to be a really nice afternoon.

After our tio and tia departed, Abuela who had two strokes (infartos) this year led the conversation to her sufferings
again. Her main gripe is that she is simply too far from her youngest daughter (aged 39) and her two grandsons (aged 4 and 8) who live outside of Capital Federal. The daughter and her children come to visit her parents in Buenos Aires every month and if it is during school holidays, they stay for weeks; nonetheless, she burst into tears with more than a few "poor me".

Her eldest daughter (Guillermo's mother), my father in-law and Guillermo all tried to encourage her to look at the positives which are many: she has a large family all of whom she sees regularly, she lives in a very comfortable apartment in Belgrano and doesn't have any financial worry, her husband is still alive and keeping her company...Nothing could persuade her to stop this tirade of self-pity.

My own maternal grandmother (PoPo/婆婆) who lives in Sydney is exactly Abuela's age; upon her own insistence, PoPo lives alone. At 86, she still leads a busy social life, tends to the garden as her exercise and is very appreciative to be alive. All of this, I kept to myself at this gathering lest I risk taken as gloating. I kept my mouth firmly shut while the self-indulgent whining continued.

Finally Abuelo spoke; he turned to his wife like a parent to his obstinate child and asked her "Have you ever thought of other people less fortunate than you? How about this granddaughter here who hasn't seen her abuela for almost two years?"

Even with that cue, I didn't take the opportunity to impress on all of them my own circumstance; I just smiled and remained silent. I was grateful that the point was made for me by a true gentleman and that was enough. Abuela was put in her place instantly yet she was thankful that I didn't rub it in further. Abuelo and my in-laws were impressed by this display of maturity and consideration. My husband was proud. No words could have ever won me as much. Enough said.

Lavender Scented Yoghurt Cake

2 eggs
1 cup of whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt*
1 cup scented sugar ( I used lavender)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon lavender, optional

Preheat the oven to 190C, line a loaf tin with parchment paper

In a large mixing-bowl, gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, and oil.

In another bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Add the flour mixture into the yogurt mixture, and blend together -- don't overwork the dough.

Pour the batter into the prepared tin, and bake for 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Let stand for ten minutes, and transfer onto a rack to cool.

* I make my own unsweetened yoghurt, so I infused the hot milk with 1 tbsp of lavender flowers this time.