Sunday, December 31, 2006

Big Smoke

Happy 2007!

With all the feasting and fresh air of the past week, I may have overdone the rest and relaxation which has in turn induced a much feared writer's block.

What marks the arrival of a New Year in Sydney, every year, is a spectacular fireworks display at the beautiful harbour on New Year's Eve. Almost a million people went out to the waterfront along the coastline last night to catch a closer glimpse of those iridescent sparkles.

Guillermo had barely recovered from the competitive yet somewhat wonton consumerism at the Christmas sale and was then shocked by how much the city was blowing up in one Big Smoke - A$4 million (about US$3 million) in less than an hour. It is interesting to see how my Argentine husband reacts to a lifestyle which Sydneysiders take for granted.

I must confess that before my experience in Argentina I also took my comfortable lifestyle for granted; never had I stopped to think that we actually lived in a rich country. Our idea of "wealth" has been so elevated that we know not to appreciate our own riches.

The past 18 months I spent living in Buenos Aires has helped me to appreciate the opportunities and choices available to Guillermo and I. We hope we would be able make available the same, if not more, wonderful opportunites and choices to our children one day.

To us, the picture of our future and the choices we have to make are becoming increasing clear

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tales from The Other City

25 hours after leaving Buenos Aires, Guillermo and I finally arrived at Sydney Airport. Everything went well on this long journey except the 4 hour delay in Auckland and that we had to leave behind the jars of dulce de leche we had brought with us at the Australian Customs.

We have since learnt that Argentina is not on the approved list of countries from which dairy products are allowed to be brought into Australia. Guillermo suspects that has to do with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Argentina some years ago.

This Australian summer has turned out to be fairly mild so far. Our Christmas Day was spent lounging on the open deck of a spectacular waterfront property. Guillermo was stunned by the breathtakingly beautiful harbour so close, it was almost touchable.

Lunch was a casual and multicultural affair in which the guests, including us, grazed on Italian style grilled vegetables, Greek dolmas, Southeast Asian satays and pot stickers while beer and wine were flowing in Aussie style abundance. We then moved indoors to a feast of turkey, ham, roasted vegetables, salads and of course, more wine.

Sweet endings were the national dessert, Pavlova, and Bill Granger's white chocolate mousse with fresh blueberries. We headed home in daylight not realising it was already close to eight in the evening.

Guillermo and I are being spoilt rotten since my parents and extended family have planned a string of diversified culinary treats for us to satisfy our pent-up desires over the past 18 months.

From the addictive aroma of Illy coffee to a proper Yum Cha with prawn dumplings and an unending array of curious delights (to a relative novice like Guillermo) being carted around the cavernous Golden Century restaurant, or the fresh clean air and serenity of suburban North Shore to the rampant consumerism at the Christmas sales, at times we feel like we have just landed on a different planet.

None more so than last night when Guillermo declared he just had the best meal in his life. We went over to my uncle's for dinner. My aunt's parents, both excellent home cooks, were originally from Sichuan which is famed for their fragrantly spicy cuisine.

We had salmon sashimi and freshly shucked oysters followed by steamed whole chicken in soy, steamed grouper fish with shallots and a number of muy picante (very spicy) vegetable dishes expertly done using a vegetable, native to Sichuan, which my aunt grows organically in her backyard in Sydney.

This pale green plant looks deceptively ordinary. The long pointy leaves are usually lightly stir fried and then dressed in sesame oil and chilli oil. The almost tuber like stalk can be eaten raw in a salad; ours last night was one of shredded carrot, shredded stalk of this green vegetable and mung bean vermicelli dressed in soy, sesame oil and chilli flakes. When lightly stir fried, it takes on a texture somewhere between cooked cucumber and Chinese summer melon.

With this much feasting, Guillermo has been true to his words; he has taken up running in our leafy neighbourhood each morning. While I'm sure he enjoys the enveloping greenery very much, I suspect his exercising is to do with making room for the amazing meals to come.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

On a High Note

I am a firm believer of each city revealing herself to each individual in different ways.

There are plenty of people who think of Venice as a tourist trap and that Roman waiters are rude. But Venice murmured only sweet nothing to me and my experience with Roman waiters? Um, let's just say I found them almost too friendly.

Buenos Aires has chosen to reveal to me her multifaceted self. In this chaotically attractive city, I've made firm friends, acquired a family and a beautiful apartment.

On the other hand, I have also experienced the kind of bureaucratic horrors which I can't share in print. If you read this post and imagine something 100 times worse with a large sum of money, in USD, being requested from me which in turn led me to seek Consular may just get a glimpse of the tip of one of the many icebergs I encountered in getting acquainted with Buenos Aires.

I am proud that I fought that battle among many other battles when everyone, especially the corrupt parties involved, thought I couldn't. (I once read an interview of some young North Americans who set up a business here; they made an almost too deliberate point in saying there wasn't any funny business under the table, etc. Incidentally why would anyone be foolish enough to admit, in a newspaper interview, to bribing officials when it is officially a criminal offence with a gaol sentence?!)

Anyway, enough time has passed to enable me to look at those incidents as character building experiences. On a good day, I can even see them as blessings in disguise because I will never ever have any naïvely romantic
illusion of this city.

I am also glad that I persevered with mending my differences with La Familia. I can look back now and feel a sense of achievement, and look forward to a new chapter in life; be it in Buenos Aires or another city.

December 2006 for Guillermo and me is definitely a better place in time than that of the previous year. Both of us are really excited about what 2007 would bring.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Hasta 2007!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Perfect Day in BA

From a quick Technorati search before closing la cocina for 2006 I realised I was tagged for a MEME of "My Perfect Day in BA" from a fellow blogger, Alan of Buenos Aires Travel Guide. Despite my aversion to the local expat scene in general, I seriously contemplated what would constitute a perfect day in Buenos Aires for me.

As I said before, I am not particularly interested in
"expat life in BA" as a subject. I have lovely friends who happen to be expats but equally I've progressive minded porteño friends. I'm more interested in people's thoughts than where they are from. Of course, I also have an Argentine family.

So naturally, my perfect day would probably be of little interest to expats and tourists. I thought about exploring the flowers market in Chacarita...but when I met my new porteño student yesterday, Mr P, I decided I would mention him instead.

Three hours of cooking and chatting with Mr P, I believe I have had my perfect day in Buenos Aires. Don't be alarmed, let me explain why...

This picture of glowing health and calm came to my cooking course to learn about Asian cuisines because he claims there is no decent or authentic Asian restaurant in this city at all. His daring proclamation would probably upset many proud porteños and cause me to receive another incoherent hate mail.

Mr P works at the high and risky end of global finance; he is extremely well-travelled and has eaten at some of the best tables and street hawkers' worldwide. Of those Asian restaurants in Palermo SoHo/Hollywood/Viejo or whatever fancy name they are calling the same few blocks these days, his only comment was delivered with a smirk that they are trendily decked-out.

We chatted about various Asean cultures and the astounding economic progress China has made in the short time since they opened their market in the 70s. However, we bonded over our food related adventures in New York, Shanghai and other bustling financial centres and capital cities. He was particular curious when I told him I once ate sushi made from horsemeat in Tokyo.

Anyone who is familiar with a proper sushi restaurants in Tokyo (and I don't mean those with a conveyor belt) would tell you the same, there is no menu and the best seats are by the counter. One chats with the sushi master and he would present his edible works of art, plate by plate, until one says stop.

I was taken to such a sushi restaurant frequented by financiers; my host was a regular client there. After some of the freshest maguro (fatty tuna) and uni (sea urchin) I had ever tasted, the sushi master ceremoniously presented a lone piece of sushi in front of me.

It was red and I thought it was another piece of tuna except it looked too lean to be the prized fatty tuna (see photo). My host explained that the sushi master would be honoured if I had what he considered a rare treat which he only bestowed upon his best clients and their guests. It was horse. Honour is most important in a traditional culture like the Japanese; I had no choice but to put it in my mouth.

No, it wasn't bad at all but I don't feel life isn't complete until I taste it again. Besides, my host had to pay for this generosity bestowed upon him, of course.

Going back to Mr P, he tells me he and his wife prefer not to have sweets, not even sugar in their yerba mate. They have three boys and they are bringing them up with healthy eating habits. Since his wife's first pregnancy, they have been cooking with very little salt.

I was really pleasantly surprised by his attitude towards changing for the better. It somehow filled me with positive thoughts and hope. I laughingly told Mr P that I felt much better after hearing his parenting style because I had seriously considered leaving the country, when Guillermo and I have kids, to get away from the kids' culture here. He quipped with a wink that there is no need to be concerned over that, there are already too many other reasons why one should quit this country at once.

I just love meeting worldly porteños who are secured in themselves to carry off a wonderfully mischievous sense of humour.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I'm in the midst of packing for our long vacation in the city of beaches, Sydney. Our domestic goddess proactively suggested that she would iron a few outfits for us to pack as we land on Christmas Eve and will probably swing straight into party mode. I don't know about Guillermo, but I sometimes have to pinch myself - we are so lucky to have her!

Guillermo is already vowing to take advantage of our apartment's proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, my head is filled with trips to the Sydney Fish Market which is second only to the Tsuji of Tokyo – tiger prawns, lobsters, top grade maguro (fatty tuna), smoked trout, yum...all my favourites!!

While I am sure I'll bring back a suitcase full of food (my mother has even managed to procure a jar of osmanthus preserved in syrup for me, bless her!), I am actually ferrying no small amount of Argentine delicacies on my way over (the types that would go pass a vigilant Sydney Customs Officer).

My parents fell in love with Yerba Mate when they came here for our wedding in 2005 so I've packed a couple of kilos. We're also bringing a few bottles of Malbec (each person is allowed 2 bottles), boxes of organic mate cocido, jars of La Salamandra's dulce de leche and Cuyen's organic rosehip jam as gifts.

Come to think of it, international trade probably started centuries ago due to human's natural curiosity and desires for what they cannot easily lay their hands on...

Monday, December 18, 2006

An Edible Upgrade

I have not been subtle about my praises for Chocolate Fenix's grand cru line, named after the family behind the company, Salgado.

While I am not suggesting that the Salgado grand cru bars are comparable to the handsome tavolette (Italian for chocolate bars) of Tuscan Amedei or the most sought after Valrhona, they are a great choice within Argentina; I would rather support an Argentine company which is doing great things for the local chocolate industry and pay A$9 for a 100g of their superlative Carenero Superior or their dark-horse favourite* Esmeralda than fork out an inflated A$14 (or more) for the equal weight in Lindt.

When choices of what should have been classified as vegelates (one of the many offenders is bon-o-bon) are chock-a-block in this town, A$9 for a bar of chocolate is probably pricey for many peso-earners. Of course, this money gets one a taste of real chocolate with 70% cocoa solids rather than an exotic mix of hydrogenated vegetable oils, sugar, milk powder, cocoa powder and flavourings which doesn't even warrant a A$2 peso retail price.

I buy good chocolate judiciously; Guillermo and I occasionally have a dark square each with an after dinner coffee. We would rather eat less chocolate less frequently than sacrifice on taste.

Baking for my cake business, however, is a slightly more delicate matter of margins. If I'm making a chocolate cake, you can bet your life on it that I use chocolate rather than cocoa powder. This is the only trade secret I have: I do not skimp on ingredients. I wouldn't sell a cake which I wouldn't be proud to present to my own family and friends. I can't bring myself to make a dry brown cake, douse it with syrup, and then call it a torta de chocolate.

I had been using chocolate with 60% cocoa solids to keep the retail prices accessible. On the other hand, I kept looking into bulk buying, not to improve margin but to upgrade the quality my products. No, I'm not running a charity; I just believe that top quality products would attract appreciative customers who wouldn't mind paying a justified premium, eventually.

My search effort has not been futile after all. I'm really excited to announce that from 2007, La Otra Dimensión will offer chocolate goodies baked only with Salgado's Esmeralda or Bahia Superior (single origin from Brazil and Ecuador respectively, each with 70% cocoa solids). I'll also be incorporating cocoa nibs in some products. The structure of my cooking course would also change to reflect clients' requests. Watch out for an exciting make-over of the web-site in early 2007!

*After much tasting and testing, a number of chocoholics have agreed that the top 3 Salgado chocolates do not necessarily correspond to their slight variances in price. They are Carenero Superior, Esmeralda and Bahia Superior.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Having a Laugh

Since Ollie of ArgyBargy alerted me to their web-site's make-over, I have checked-in a number of times for a good dose of professional journalism worthy of The Guardian.

Recently, Ollie loosely translated an editorial of La Nación which apeared on December 14th with a heading that sent the message "Tourists Go Home!" Guillermo and I proceeded to read the original text in Spanish via the link provided.

First of all, La Nación is the right wing conservative newspaper supporting el campo (the countryside) and the landed classes of Argentina.

The newspaper's readers, mainly the wealthy elites of this country, are most likely the ones who bank overseas and therefore tripled their already enormous wealth overnight from the forced and compulsory conversion of all bank deposits in US dollar to peso, in Argentina, during the financial crisis of 2001; and are the ones who continue to benefit from the booming exportation of agricultural products and meat resulted from the new lower peso.

Any objective observer would probably think they are having a very good deal; but no, that's not quite enough for this spoilt bunch. They have raised their hands for more – how dare taxes and poverty of their compatriots stand between them and their complete lording over the country! And the poor? They can't see them from their estancias (ranches) anyway! Can't afford meat? Let them eat cake!

Now that I've filled in the background, let's go back to that editorial. All in all, it may just be the writer's harmless but poor attempt at satire. Guillermo has long had issues with the poor grammar and quality of writing of the newspaper; with all their privileges and private school education, he logically expected better.

The editorial in question certainly got me laughing because I am still enjoying steaks along with all the trimmings at my local greasy spoon for less than A$25. A$4 gets me through my occasional craving for cafe con leche con media lunas (a cup of flat white with 3 brioches). But of course, these landlords who bascially already own this country wouldn't dream of stepping into my centrally located greasy spoon or a drab local cafe in case they have to be in close proximity with the plebeians (oh, sorry; I mean their compatriots!)

This is the irony they face: The wealthy and the landed want to lord over this country by squeezing every last bit out of it at the lowest costs to themselves possible; and the tourists are an inconvenience because these hard-currency carriers are making privileged living cost more than they got used to paying.

For this bunch with their severe one-way tunnel vision who went on strike because they thought it was only fair that they charge fellow Argentines international prices for their produce to actually feel indignant that they have to pay still-less-than international prices for top drawer local goods and services...sorry, I've to stop right here and roll around laughing. It's simply too funny!

Oh, do excuse my poor attempt at satire; I'm just one of those "gringos de todos los colores" that should go home, according to La Nación.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dark Magic

Volcán de chocolate (soft-centred chocolate cake) has been done to death by restaurants worldwide and more recently, in Buenos Aires. I predict cocoa nibs, actually a wonderfully versatile ingredient, would be the next target by culinary tourists.

Cocoa nibs (nibs de cacao) are simply roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into small bits. They are the essence of chocolate. Nibs add crunch and chocolate flavour without the added sweetness from sugar.

I first came across cocoa nibs in early 2003, in Chantal Coady's book Real Chocolate. Ms Coady is one of the founders of The Chocolate Society in London and the owner of Rococo on King's Road, Chelsea. Rococo was the first supplier of cocoa nibs in London.

In her book, Ms Coady uses cocoa nibs in a brioche which makes a perfect partnership with foie gras.

As they say, you are only really famous if you're famous in the U.S.A. Sad but I can see a grain of truth somewhere in there, so naturally cocoa nibs' meteoric rise to fame has to be credited to U.S. food writers. Michael Recchiuti, in his book Chocolate Obsession, caramelises these dark gems and uses them in a cocoa nib ice-cream. Another writer/ baker/ chocolatier, Alice Medrich uses this ingredient liberally in chocolate mousse, cookies and ice cream; all included in her recent book, Bitter Sweet.

In short, one could experiment by adding these nibs in savoury dishes or play safe (but not boring) by replacing nuts, chocolate chips or dried fruits with them in baking and dessert making.

Being a recipe hoarder, I had resisted collecting recipes using cocoa nibs; the simple reason being that of difficulty sourcing it in this city. However, I have no reason to resist anymore!

Buenos Aires based Chocolate Fenix now sells cocoa nibs online, along with their wonderful Salgado line of Grand Cru Chocolates. They are so named because each bar contains single origin, 70% cocoa solids. Like fine wines, each has a distinctive character. My personal favourite is Carenero Superior.

With an increasingly large number of sweet recipes featuring cocoa nibs, I am tempted to explore a little further.

Adding bitter chocolate to caponata, a Sicilian version of the French ratatouille, is nothing new but adding a handful of cocoa nibs? Um, I'll find out...

This recipe is adapted from Zazu in Santa Rosa, a roadhouse restaurant surrounded by 150 of Sonoma County's acclaimed wineries.

1/3 cup Pinot Noir
1/3 cup yellow raisins
1/4 cup olive oil
1 eggplant, diced, salted for 1/2 hour and patted dry
2 garlic cloves, minced
a pinch of chili flakes
2 celery stalks, diced small
1/2 medium red onion, diced small
2/3 cup diced canned tomatoes
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
30g dark chocolate, chopped
1/4 cup caper berries, rinsed
2 tbsp flat leaf parsley, minced
2 tbsp cocoa nibs
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

In a small sauce pan on high heat, bring the pinot noir to a boil and pour over the raisins to plump. In a large sauté pan on medium high heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic and chili flakes, stirring until fragrant, about a minute.

Add the onions and celery, and saute until the onions are transluscent, about 5 more minutes. Add the eggplant and saute until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, vinegar, and chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is completely incorporated.

Add the yellow raisins, capers, parsley, and cocoa nibs and stir to combine.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Allow to cool. Serve room temperature with grilled rustic bread and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Our Daily Servings

I would never be able to convince the fanatics that this blog is not about trashing a country or a people, just my observations on both the good and the bad I have encountered, so far, in Buenos Aires.

While I do occasionally mention things happening in other cities, no comparisons are intended and least of all any intention to show Argentines up as inadequate.

My feeling is that if one isn't interested in knowing what is going on in other parts of the World, one leads a cloistered life with a narrow mind; and if one cannot put one's defensive reflexes aside, one would never improve oneself and thereby one's society.

Sorry, I have gone off on a tangent here because all I would like to say today is how wonderfully positive that some governments and agencies have woken up to take a serious look at how our modern lifestyle is changing our health.

More "low-fat" and "low-sugar" alternatives are available to our generation but why do we suffer more lifestyle related health problems than our ancestors?

The Buenos Aires based Centro de Estudio sobre Nutricón Infantil (Cesni) reported earlier this year that their specialists had studied children aged 1-4 across social demographics. They lament that Argentine children within this age group, regardless of wealth, consume only 5% of their daily calorie intake in the form of vegetables and fruits of which 70% from potatoes and almost no fruits.

More alarmingly is the fact that of their entire calorie intake which surpasses what is necessary on a daily basis, 30% comes from junk food. Real food powers our body and mind like real fuel for engines. By feeding the body junk food, we are following a simple formula of garbage in, garbage out.

However, Argentina is not alone in fighting this problem; Kathryn, a naturopath and the brilliant blogger behind Lime & Lycopene, is confronting very similar issues in Sydney. She is blogging a mixed bag of encouraging breakthroughs and a set of not completely satisfactory statistics across the State of New South Wales (Sydney is the largest city within that State).

Their State's health department carried out a comprehensive study in which the researchers reported that among children aged 2 -15, 68% eat adequate quantities of fruit and only 20% eat adequate quantities of vegetables. Adequate, in this case, means meeting the Australian dietary guidelines which recommend consuming up to 5 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit every day, depending on age.

The statistics, in broad brush, shows that Australians prefer their fruits over their vegetables and in general are consuming some of the total 7 recommended servings rather than none but there is still a lot of room for improvement. The government has been pushing a very public "Go 2 & 5" campaign which goes as far as providing tips on how to split the servings throughout the day.

In the resulting report, the Chief Health Officer of NSW wrote: "Good health enhances the quality of human life and benefits the community. The opportunity to participate in and contribute to society is maximised in a healthy population."

Changing habits is hard for everyone but if we could approach change with a positive attitude, we are already on the road to success. I, for one, am extremely grateful that such information are highlighted in the media and blogsphere so as to remind us that we cannot afford to take our health for granted.

"Naughty, nutritious, healthy and delicious". Healthy eating doesn't have to mean chewing on rabbit food or milanesa de soja (milanesa made with a soy patty instead of meat).

I've just come across a really tempting risotto of celeriac, thyme and walnut here. It is more a guideline than a recipe; the ingredients are a clove of garlic, two lengths of spring onion (scallion), a celeriac bulb cut into small cubes, chopped thyme, almost one full cup of shelled walnuts, one heaped cup of risotto rice, and some vegetable stock.

To finish, drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle some grated pecorino and a bit more thyme. If you prefer, you can melt some grated pecorino into a crispy wafer as a garnish and to add some crunch.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Sweet Farewell

In the 18 months, Guillermo and I have been living in Buenos Aires we keep meeting others who have also just moved to this South American city. Some of them have moved here to stay and others are here for work which means they would eventually leave.

Yesterday, I was sad to say goodbye to a sweet and extremely able couple, Matt and Lorena. I wish them all the best in their exciting new ventures in beautiful Valparaiso, Chile. From the photos they showed me, it is a seaside town with loads of character and Old World charm.

Matt told me that the Chilean government is pouring funds into shaping up the already attractive town; part of the public funds is in the form of subsidy to be paid to residents for beautifying the exterior of their own houses. In reply, I half-jokingly said Chile sounds like an E.U. country misplaced in Latin America!

I have already scored an invitation to stay at their stunning home which they will turn into a charming bed & breakfast with soothing sea view. How did I do it? I credit my Gâteau Bellevue...

This butter-less yet rich chocolate cake is an invention of famed French pâtissier Christophe Felder and the recipe is included in his book, Le Chocolat de Christophe Felder. Without easy access to international online shopping in this city, I found the recipe through a number of French food bloggers.

It seems while foodies blogging in English are all charmed by madeleines or challenged by macarons, the French bloggers are busy perfecting their own version of Gâteau Bellevue.

Although there is no butter in the cake, it is by no means fat-less; the secret ingredient is cream, thankfully not a lot. I made my version with hazelnuts instead of almonds which gave it almost a hint of Ferrero Roche. Since it is for Matt's birthday, I also made a chocolate ganáche to cover the cake.

When I first started cooking with chocolate, I often heard the warning of not letting chocolate touch water or it would "seize up" and become a hard, gritty, unusable mess. It wasn't until I read the book, Real Chocolate, penned by Chantal Coady of Rococo Chocolates in Chelsea, London that I realised water and chocolate can go together, at the right temperature. So instead of a heavy cream or butter ganáche, I made a water one following her advice.

As the cake is meringue based, unless I bake it very thin, it would sink in the middle upon cooling. Being currently a little obsessed with minimalist presentation, I baked mine in a rectangular loaf tin instead.

The loaf still managed to concave a little. To get a flat surface to ice on, I waited until it was cooled and turned it over, bottom facing up. It was left overnight under a loose cover for the cake to develop some moistness and mellowed flavours. The dent, at the bottom after it was turned, had disappeared by the following morning.

I left the icing until last minute. The end result actually resembled an angular bûche de Noël; the cake was both rich in taste and surprisingly light and moist in texture. It would indeed make a great finale to an indulgent Christmas feast.

Gâteau Bellevue

4 eggs
125g dark chocolate, with at least 60% cocoa
100ml pouring cream
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp plain flour
50g finely ground almond (or hazelnut)
8 tbsp sugar

Preheat oven to 180C. Line the bottom of a 24cm cake tin or a large loaf tin.

Separate the eggs. Melt chocolate with cream and milk. Add egg yolks to the chocolate mixture and then add flour, and almond meal.

Separately whisk egg whites with sugar until firm. Lightly cut the chocolate mixture into the egg white mixture.

Bake for 30-35min.

To make water ganáche, simple let 225ml of boiling water melt 225g of chocolate. Once the chocolate has melted, stir well to fully combine.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sugar is Sweet, Pretenders are Not!

If I had a "peeves" list, the ludicrous advice I've been hearing from licensed nutritionists in this city comes close to the top.

After one licenciado (licensed practitioner) showed alarming ignorance and arrogance in telling my sister-in-law (who has to learn all about milk allergy to take proper care of her daughter) that milk allergens are found in milk but not cream, another one had told her to add artificial sweeteners to Maria-Paula's formula powder which the little girl consumes regularly. This advice means that her tiny two year-old body is processing no small amount of saccharin daily.

Saccharin, the first widely available chemical sweetener, has been replaced by aspartame in most countries but is still an ingredient in some prepared foods, gum, toothpaste, and over-the-counter medicines. However, it is the main ingredient in the most popular, widely available brand of artificial sweetener in Argentina – Hileret.

Remember those carcinogen warnings on the side of products that contained saccharin? They no longer appear because industry testing showed that saccharin only caused bladder cancer in rats. What these industry experts performing such testing don't like to dwell on is that most researchers agree that in sufficient doses, saccharin is carcinogenic in humans. The question is: how do we know how much artificial sweeteners each individual body can tolerate?

Artificial sweeteners are not food which is why they carry very few calories. Instead, they are body toxins capable of causing possible irreversible cell damage which is why they are never a good idea for pregnant women, children or teenagers despite the reduced sugar content.

If you still decide it's worth all the risks, I can't say more than I urge you to find out as much facts as possible before ingesting these chemicals. Also pay attention to your body, your mood and your cravings. If you track your response to artificial sweeteners, it may surprise, or spook, you.

When I posted the dangers of aspartame
previously, I made a brief mention of Splenda which I am sure, given time, would reach our shores.

Splenda is the trade name for sucralose - a synthetic compound stumbled upon in 1976 by scientists in Britain seeking a new pesticide formulation.

It is true that the Splenda molecule is comprised of sucrose (sugar) — except that three of the hydroxyl groups in the molecule have been replaced by three chlorine atoms.

Manufacturers of products using Splenda are touting their products as "natural". Although the FDA has no definition for "natural", it didn't stop their press release on sucralose parroting the claim that "it is made from sugar" — an assertion disputed by the Sugar Association, which is suing Splenda's manufacturer, McNeil Nutritionals.

While some industry experts claim the molecule is similar to table salt or sugar, other independent researchers say it has more in common with pesticides. That's because the bonds holding the carbon and chlorine atoms together have more characteristic of a chlorocarbon than a salt — and most pesticides are chlorocarbons. Well, are you all that surprised when the scientists who discovered Splenda had the intention of making pesticide?!

The inventors of Splenda admit around 15% of sucralose is absorbed by the body, but they cannot guarantee us (out of this 15%) what amount of chlorine stays in the body and what percentage flushes out.

Yes, one may argue just because something contains chlorine doesn't mean it has to be toxic. So, is Splenda safe?

The truth is that we just don't know because there are yet to be long-term studies of the side effects of Splenda in humans. However, observational evidence already shows side effects including skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain in some consumers.

Meanwhile do you and your family really wish to serve as test subjects in the latest artificial sweetener experiment?

If this sounds familiar, it should: we went down the same path with aspartame. Almost all of the independent research into aspartame found dangerous side effects in rodents. However, the FDA chose not to take these findings into account when it approved aspartame for public use.

the course of 15 years, those same side effects appeared increasingly in humans. Not in everyone, of course; this reason and other mildly worded research reports are where the industry experts, lobbyists and Donald Rumsfeld (former head of Searle which manufactures aspartame) found their necessary loopholes.

story of Aspartame has been an illustration of the dark side of Corporate America; how a scientific discovery turned into a commercial jackpot for some and then a legal and political labyrinth which has entangled all the innocent users since.

Meanwhile, if we don't let ourselves or the precious little ones become addicted to the taste of refined sugar, we don't have needs for a substitute; thus, life becomes much simpler and ironically, sweeter.

Urban Myths

It is not often that I seek reading material in Guillermo's office as most of his books have a neuroscience slant to them. However, he was reading out loud a paragraph from one of his collection and I found myself listening with interest.

The book "Early Intelligence - how the brain and mind develop in the first five years of life" is written by Lisa Eliot, a neuroscientist; a Harvard graduate who received her Ph.D from Colombia University. Dr Eliot is an assistant professor at the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and a lecturer at the Erikson Institute, the graduate school of child development in Chicago.

Her book begins with the question "Nature or Nurture?" and it goes on to explain how children are raised in their early years (counting from pregnancy) has a profound impact on their future lives.

She says that we are the product of a "delicate dance between genes and environment". While genes programme the sequence of neural development, its quality is shaped at every turn by our experience. Thus, dispelling the common perception that it is a matter of heredity when it comes to a child's intelligence; intelligence is largely the result of a developmental process.

I am still going through the first quarter of the book which deals with the pregnancy phase of a child's life. The author gives details and cites scientific research findings when she dissects medical advice given to pregnant women. Since her target audience is not necessarily pregnant women, I have found her writing a lot more objective and interesting than an easy to read book written typically for soon-to-be-mothers.

For example, on the subject of alcohol consumption, she rightly says that heavy drinking can cause fetal alcohol syndrome and it also increases the chances of miscarriage and other birth complications. However, she actually gives hard facts and numbers: it happens to 30%-50% of mothers and babies whereby the mothers consume 6 drinks per day during their entire pregnancy.

This neuroscientist says the effects of modest alcohol consumption are more controversial; there is a conspicuous divergence between studies conducted in the United States which tend to find significant effects of modest consumption and those conducted in Europe and Australia which tend to find no effects at all.

I'm definitely not encouraging pregnancy women to consume alcohol. On the other hand, I don't know about you but after knowing how the FDA approved all those dubious artificial sweeteners or how part of the U.S. media is helping the U.S. government in creating doubts about global warming, I am sceptical of research findings coming from a country where much research is done but very often with a commercial or political agenda obtaining results which eerily favour the interest groups providing the funds

Dr. Eliot, in unsubtle words, confirms my scepticism by saying "It is from a public health standpoint, rather than from knowledge of individual risk, that abstinence is now advised during pregnancy."

And it is also from this unlikely source that I've learnt more about monosodium glutamate (MSG) which most people associate with Asian food and restaurants.

MSG is composed of a common amino acid, glutamate, together with one molecule of sodium. Glutamate is a potent favour enhancer not only found in some Asian restaurants (these days, usually in the low-quality and cheap ones) but it is also present in many prepared convenience foods, especially soups, salad dressings, sauces, marinades, luncheon meats, frozen meals, flavoured chips (papas fritas) and crackers (galletitas saladas), and flavoured mixes for rice and pasta.

The author goes as far to say that in fact, the average American (in the US) probably consumes much more glutamate from eating at home than from the occasional Chinese dinner out.

In addition to MSG, glutamate is often added to food in form of "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" which contains from 10-30% glutamate and can be referred to on food labels, confusingly, as "natural" flavouring.

It is unlikely that MSG consumption during pregnancy would damage the foetus's brain as glutamate does not cross the placenta very well. However, the effect of MSG is very different on young children.

Concern about glutamate arises from the fact that high doses are known to kill brain cells, and younger children are especially susceptible to its toxic effects. Glutamate is the most prevalent excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain; when neurons are overexcited by glutamate, in some cases, they can be damaged or even killed - much as an electrical appliance can be damaged if too much current passes through.

I hope this starts people thinking about the deceivingly innocent but toxic cocktail of papas fritas (potato crisps) and diet coke they consume or worse, they feed their toddlers.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Taking Stock

It has been one full year since the renovation of our apartment. Our lunch on Sunday was like an anniversary celebration. With my bones still arching from exhaustion, I reflect on how things have changed in the past 12 months...

All three abuelos (grandparents) have become significantly more health conscious since Abuela (Guillermo's maternal grandmother) had a series of strokes. Further, my mother-in-law who never exercised voluntarily has started weekly Pilates, acupuncture and is following a balanced diet without any
artificial-tasting Ser products (Ser means "to be"; it is the low-calorie range from La Serenissima). These days, she is always smiling and looks radiant; it seems she has kissed that siempre enojada look (or more accurately described as the "fruit stuck permanently up her bottom" look) she used to wear a permanent goodbye. My father-in-law is also eating much less salt, drinking much less coffee, coke and wine; I have finally seen him drinking water!

I am really happy; not so much because I feel vindicated about my early ranting on the gross unhealthiness and gluttony they, like so many porteños, allowed themselves but that some of my newly acquired family members have finally learnt to treasure their constitutions.

One wouldn't dream of putting diesel in a Ferrari or let it look shabby and grotty, why would we put junk into our system and sacrifice our health? Surely one's health is much more valuable than a piece of machinery, however well designed it maybe.

I am also beginning to understand the reasons for those extreme and, at times, aggressive reactions I receive for saying coke and diet coke are not suitable soft drinks for children; pastel-coloured yoghurt and galletitas (biscuits, usually sweet and mostly made with trans-fats) do not count as a healthy meal for the young ones; and that green vegetable and fruits should be an important part of our daily consumption, not an afterthought...

I have realised, sadly, it is not about whether it makes sense to live better but that it entails radical changes in entrenched behaviour and the admission that they have been mistaken. The anger is to do with their desire to defend status quo and their comparing themselves with "even worse" diets and people elsewhere, a denial of their erred judgment. Of course, there are also a few die-hards who still believe thinness is the testament of health, and it doesn't matter if their svelte bodies never come into contact with whole foods and drinking water.

So going back to our feast yesterday, I started my guests on some "deconstructed" crostini as antipasti: "muddled" avocado with spring onion, seasoned with a squeeze of lemon and a light sprinkle of sea salt; and my take on the French tapanade, my version was made of green olives, pistachios and queso blanco (cream cheese; I would have used goat's curd if it were available in Buenos Aires) in separate bowls accompanied by small rounds of toasts (from a ficelle).

Morrocan-ish roast chicken followed; I decided after all to stick to the couscous stuffing with almonds and dates. The mixture of cumin, cinnamon, cardamom (my last minute inspiration) and honey went down a treat with everyone; the whole bird was devoured within minutes.

I had prepared more food per person because they used to be much bigger eaters, so a slow-baked beef shanks in soy, vinegar and rice wine, sautéed broccoli, and glutinous rice followed.

These last dishes didn't go down as well, firstly because most of the guests were already half full from the crostini they continued munching while waiting for my eldest brother-in-law and his family which eventually turned up 40 minutes late without any explanation, let alone a simple "sorry" to indicate there was a shred of manners in them. Secondly, this rather annoying delay meant that the beautiful melting texture resulted from slow baking meat was beginning to turn into chewy jerky.

No matter, the last course was another stunner. I had long wanted to introduce the undiluted taste of gianduia (pairing chocolate with hazelnut, originated from Torino) to La Familia. For pudding, I baked a flourless hazelnut cake, and paired it with the
velvety chocolate gelato I made from my precious tin of Cacao di Pernigotti and Salgado's Carenero Superior. For my mother-in-law and Abuela, I made a blueberry yoghurt panna cotta. Both fell in love with the slight tartness of arandanos frescos (fresh blueberries).

The preparation, cooking and cleaning up afterwards is more tiring than I remembered. Although I'm sure I'd forget about that aspect soon enough and send out our next round of invitations to those in La Familia who have a modicum of respect for time-keeping.

Flourless Hazelnut Cake

6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
6 tbsp sugar
1 tsp natural vanilla extract
1-2/3 cups whole hazelnuts, toasted and skins removed
pinch of fine sea salt

Preheat oven to 180C. Butter and lightly flour a 22-23 cm springform cake tin.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks, vanilla extract and 4 tablespoons of the sugar until thick and pale yellow.

Process the hazelnuts in a food processor with 1 tablespoon of sugar until they are finely ground.

Whisk the egg whites and salt in a large bowl or the work bowl of an electric mixer until foamy. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and whisk until they form soft peaks.

Mix the ground nuts into the egg yolk mixture, mix one-quarter of the egg whites into the nut mixture and then carefully fold in the remaining egg whites and turn the batter into the prepared tin.

Bake the cake in the center of the oven until it is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack. Remove the side of the pan and let the cake cook completely before removing it from the bottom of the pan.

Just before serving, sift icing sugar over the cake if desired.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Matter of Timing

Piled up among my stack of Italian cookbooks, I noticed an artfully bound journal covered in an old fashioned, multi-colour Venetian print-pattern. I opened it and saw half familiar scrawls; written in a different time, at a different place and by an almost different person...

Somewhere in the journal it says "I wake up to the sound of birds chirping. When I push the library-green shutters and open the window, I hear the city, at its most serene, being woken up by a symphony of campanili (bells). When I look out onto the garden through my window, I feel I have been in Venice forever..."

On another page, "...The San Giuseppi sisters remind me of Sr. Carla at the Italian convent where I attended primary school, delightful yet strict. They look like merli (Italian for black birds; the sisters wear their habit in black) busying themselves in their daily chores with feet shuffling very close to the cool terrazzo floor...”

"Mother Superior has the eyes of an indulgent grandmother; she always wants to feed me more and asks me each morning how I had slept. She loves to hear every detail of my adventures outside their convent, Casa Carbulotto..."

"...Sister Olympia's tiny frame is overwhelmed by her severe habit. If Mother Superior is the grandmother, she is the loving grand-aunt who greets me with ciao bella when she pours me caffè latte each morning... "

"...Although I get told off by the sisters when I dash pass the closing door at this convent every night, dangerously close to the curfew, I am safe in the knowledge that they each have a heart of gold..."

Pity, all that happened just before "blog" became a word.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Kindness & Bounty

The public holiday yesterday turned out to be rewarding in more ways than one. Our esoterically tuned masseuse Diana paid me an afternoon visit. I often joke that I turn into the worst hostess with her because she routinely declines my offer of food and drink, not even a drop of mineral water would go pass her lips when she visits our home.

On the other hand, she is always bearing me gifts – trays of organic eggs (once there were so many that I had to give some away), medicinal herbs and ointments; even homemade sweetened red bean paste (red bean is commonly known as aduki) from her family's well-guarded recipe. This time she brought me a bag of glutinous rice (糯米).

This short-grained Asian rice turns very sticky when cooked. Almost every Asian culture has its unique way of transforming the humble grains into culinary delights. Glutinous rice is typically used in the Chinese culture for a leave-wrapped parcel of rice and meat called 糭子 (pronounced zòngzi) eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival 端午節 in May and during autumn and winter for it is believed that, in addition to the rustic yumminess, glutinous rice nourishes our Chi.

One way the Chinese cook glutinous rice is in a sweet 八寶飯 which means "eight treasures rice". This pudding, most often eaten with the floral syrup of Osmanthus, is popular in the Jiansu province (where Shanghai is located). It is made from sticky rice steamed with sugar, red bean paste and eight kinds of fruits or nuts. This elaborate dish is often the last course of important festive meals when the whole family celebrate together.

On the other hand, it is the Thai cuisine that should be credited for propelling glutinuous rice to international recognition through their national pudding, sticky rice with mango and coconut cream.

Glutinous rice should not be confused with the also short-grained rice which is used to make gohan (cooked rice) in Japan. Our glutinous rice is referred to in Japanese as mochi rice.

Cooked mochi rice is stickier than conventional Japanese rice which is already quite sticky compared to the long-grained Jasmine rice favoured by most other south-east Asian countries. Mochi rice is commonly used for daifukumochi 大福餅 (rice dumplings filled with sweetened adzuki paste), other sweet pastries or pounded into rice cakes which are usually grilled and then served in a savoury soup or wrapped in nori seaweed.

This bagful is a timely gift for La Familia tomorrow. I am going to make a savoury dish simply referred to as 糯米飯 or glutinuous rice. I have been soaking 3 cups of the rice with water. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to steam the rice until 80% cooked (equivalent to par-boiling, just without actually touching water).

When the rice is steamed it would turn sticky. If sourcing ingredients weren't such an issue, I would then fry the rice with some dried Shitake mushrooms 冬菇 (soaked and softened) with diced up chinese duck liver sausages 臘腸, dried shrimps 蝦米 or the pricier conpoy 瑤柱. Some cooks even add a bunch of roasted peanuts for texture.

Since, I don't have all the ingredients to make the trad version, I am going to just fry the rice with some soaked Shitake mushrooms and diced up spicy salami.

I am still tossing between sticking with couscous stuffing intended for the roast chicken I have been planning to make and serve the rice as another side dish or throw all the rules out and stuff the bird with some of the sticky scrumptious mess and in doing so turning it into a Chinese dish inspired by a Cantonese delicacy 糯米釀雞翼 - stuffed chicken wings with glutinous rice. In this labour intensive dish, each chicken wing is skilfully de-boned, stuffed with gultinuous rice and then fried. The resulting wings hold their shape beautifully.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Bonus Harvest

I have lost count of the number of public holidays in Buenos Aires province or in this country – the two are not always the same. However, today is a national public holiday celebrating Ascension de La Virgen (Ascension of Virgin Mary).

Despite being baptised as Roman Catholic at 3 months and a convent educated girl since kindergarten, I had only a vague idea of this day and it was only yesterday I realised it is a public holiday in Argentina.

I breathed a sigh of relief because this feriado (public holiday) leaves me "bonus" time to organise our upcoming trip home to Sydney, the Sunday lunch we are hosting for La Familia with all their different dietary needs and desires and the cooking classes I am teaching next week.

In my attempt to organise and deplete stock in my pantry and freezer, I have left myself a little short on nibbles for morning coffee and afternoon tea. One cake fest after another in the past weeks with knowledge that only more such occasions are coming before the month is out...I had been exercising some restraint.

That was until I remember my still "virgin" purchase from Doña Clara – some old fashioned individual madeleine moulds. I bought them instead of the much-easier-on-life silicon tray because the shape of the resulting baby cakes is different from the common, run of the mill, ones we see everywhere. These simple and cheap moulds flare out at the end, like stems of wheat being gathered at the waist. The idea alone hooked and wheeled me in.

There are a large number of yummy recipes and gorgeous photos on the subject of Proust's favourite accompaniment to tea*. Some use ground almond to add crumbly moistness, others stick to the convenience of butter and flour. I've laid out some butter and eggs so they reach room temperature by the time I finish this post; and the recipe? I think I would have to turn to a talented French blogger who not only weaves magic in the kitchen but behind the lens.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Bea's matcha madeleines.

*The quote, in very fine print, below the cartoon reads "Ah, Monsieur Proust we would like to discuss product placement for one of our cakes." ;-)

Post mortem: I baked my first batch according to the temperature stated with passable results. I then turned the oven up to an intuitive 180C which yielded better looking and tasting madeleines. Alternatively, try suggestion in Bea's comment section - 230C for 5-8 min. then 180C for 5.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Inconvenient Truth

Since much of my recent thoughts have revolved around two growing porteñas whom I adore very much, Gabriela and Maria-Paula, I have taken a fresh and more serious look at how advertisements affect our decisions as consumers.

For quite some time now, I have been feeling particularly uncomfortable about two television advertisements aired on various local channels during the "family hours". Each advertisement targets the mother, the individual with decision making power as to what food is purchased and consumed by her family, especially her children.

The first is a dairy product by La Serenissima named Cremix. It is an overly sweetened yoghurt artificially flavoured with vanillin and made with an extra dose or two of emulsifier to make it thick and creamy; hence the name which conjures up idea of lush creaminess.

The prime time advertisement shows an actor being portrayed as a "yoghurt expert" asking volunteers to taste-test Cremix, the yoghurt in question. An actress playing a mother, with her DNI number showing on screen, testifies that Cremix is indeed extremely creamy, tasty, blah, blah, blah... Then the camera zooms in on her children, played by a very cute bunch of child actors, who also tasted the yoghurt and proceeded to sing its praises too.

This is what is termed, within the advertising industry, as "testimonial selling" which is based on the dubious but effective belief that when someone, anyone, seemingly objective and unrelated to the producer of the product, tells you the product is good, it's got to be good because that's the "truth".

This Cremix advertisement has been denounced by an advertising professional in his article Esto es verdad, written for Clarín (a major local newspaper), as lacking in creativity and credibility. However, Cremix remains one of the best selling yoghurts.

The second advertisement is a lot more creepy in the sense that it tries to send a subliminal and "aspirational" message to consumers by portraying a happy, healthy, good looking family at dinner time but something seemed lacking until Patyviena hotdog sausages were served. Coincidentally, hotdog sausages contain no small amount of additives, colouring and non-meat substances including milk allergens. Well, reconstituted mystery meat for dinner anyone?

Consumers seldom think too deeply about advertisements, especially in the evenings, after a long day's work. It is precisely this lack of awareness in self-defense the advertisers are exploiting with great success.

Across the ocean, a journalist at Sydney Morning Herald has similar issues with Cottees, a cordial manufacturer over there. Their devious advertisement campaign runs with the tag line: "Kids need water. Cottee's makes it fun."

No claims have actually been made that their sugary cordial is healthy, while implying it all the same because drinking water is considered a healthy practice. By any standard, sugar and colouring laden cordial is junk food. This offending cordial which appears in the ad, contains only 1 per cent concentrated apple juice. Other ingredients include sugar, citric acid, sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulphite and tartrazine.

When made up according to the instructions, a metric cup of Cottee's "fun water" would contain 19.8 grams of sugar, not that much less than Coke, which has 26.5 grams of sugar in a metric cup. If a child had got half his/her daily recommended water intake from cordial, he/she would have consumed nearly 2½ kilograms of sugar in a month.

This completely warped logic, shamelessly sold to us by advertisers, reminds me of a huge billboard ad I saw once, on the way into Buenos Aires city from the airport, which said "We need energy. Have sugar".

During my 18 months in Buenos Aires, I have met more skeptics of sound dietary choices than I had in my entire life up till my arrival in this city. The usual line of dismissal was that in order to enjoy life disfrutar la vida, one must eat fat laden milanesas (also see photo) often and feel free to consume out of gluttony; this rationale employs the same logic as "you only live once".

These people would never fathom that I enjoy life very much - I only live once so it makes perfect sense to live it smarter.

While we are on the subject of what to feed children, I have stumbled upon a fantastic website and blog aptly named One of their brilliant posts on introducing solid food to babies means I'd never have to buy into those dubious licensed nutritionists' advice on food allergies or feeding babies sugar, butter, etc.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

License to...Confuse

Having lived and worked in a number of countries on various continents, I appreciate and accept differences in education systems, qualification procedures, even methodologies. However, there is an issue which I've encountered in Buenos Aires that would probably sit in my "to be reconciled" tray for a while.

It had been explained to me by Guillermo and a number of Argentine friends that the local university education of certain subjects takes much longer to complete than it would in other countries because a graduate under the Argentine system is also a licenciado (licensed practitioner) whilst in many other countries graduates who studied a vocational subject would have to work in the related field for a number of years after their graduation and then sit for professional exams in order to qualify with a practitioner's licence.

While my personal experience with licensed professionals here, especially medical doctors, has been a very good one, I have observed the following:

Firstly, the proverbial GP (General Practitioner) almost doesn't exist. Through our Medicus health insurance scheme, we can see a GP whose function is largely ferrying us to an appropriate specialist. How much these GPs keep up to date with latest medical research findings or professional development is anybody's guess.

Secondly, probably as an indirect result of the first - most Argentines I've come across including my own husband feel their medical condition, be it a common cold or an itchy eye, has to be looked at by a specialist.

Further, many of the patients, especially the older generation, feel the age of their doctor is one of his/her credentials. Again, how much a specialist keeps his/her knowledge fresh and updated is down to the individual. For this reason, my personal feeling is that the age of a doctor could actually be a handicap in some unfortunate cases.

Once I look beyond my personal experience, the bigger picture turns a lot grimmer. I've heard of medical doctors who recommend a spoonful of sugar a day for babies when they reach the solid-food stage at 6-months; or a friend who had gone through emotional turmoil and a few licensed fertility specialists to realise an elementary set of blood tests at the very beginning would have identified her condition and saved her much time, discomfort and disappointment.

If I look further than medical doctors to nutritionists, my horror more than doubles. While most healthy adults would seek advice from this group of professionals to improve their well-being, the more important job of nutritionists is in treating patients with real and serious conditions such as food allergies or guiding young first time mothers in nursing their babies.

I have witnessed a licensed nutritionist feeding butter, fatty cheese (queso cremoso) and yoghurt with more sugar and food colouring than nutrients (those tubs or bags of vanilla flavoured yoghurt on sale here are as artificially coloured and flavoured as the pink and orange ones) to her own 8-month old baby while her older son had already moved on to include chocolate and dulce de leche in the above list of dietary staples.

I can make myself reconcile with her introducing junk to children if only because, as unbelievable as it may sound, the society around us positively embraces such conduct. In addition to breakfast of alfajores (dulce de leche filled biscuit sandwich), I have read a popular local publication for mothers and their babies, Nacer y Crecer, in which another licensed nutritionist gave a pumpkin soufflé recipe intended for teething babies which included a heaped tablespoonful of sugar.

However, my shock and despair could not be contained any longer when the mother of our two year-old niece who has milk allergy recounted to me a licensed nutritionist had advised her that milk allergens exist only in milk but not cream!!?? Thank goodness this mother felt she'd better be extra cautious.

Since doll-like Maria-Paula's allergy has been confirmed, her family has to make radical changes to their meals. Her tired and stressed father conceded that it may be a blessing in disguise to force them rethink and adopt a much healthier lifestyle. At the moment, however, changes are agonising for the little one as she had been fed a typical diet of an Argentine child – very limited variety of food; mostly milk, sweetened and flavoured yoghurt, sweet biscuits, chocolates...and some meat and potato if her appetite had not been completely destroyed by then. The only fruits she had been exposed to, occasionally, were apples and bananas.

In many cultures, milk doesn't feature once babies could chew so it follows that there is no such strong feeling of doom and gloom if milk isn't a significant part of their diet. Naturally, I looked East while digging around for a dulce de leche alternative just in case Maria-Paula suffers withdrawal symptoms in her transition to an improved diet.

Kaya is a culinary symbol of a number of South-east Asian countries, equivalent to that of dulce de leche in South America. In place of cow's milk, its main component is coconut. Strictly speaking, Kaya is coconut curd.

Kaya, adapted from the worldly gourmand, Chubby Hubby

250ml coconut milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
275g caster sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 fresh eggs

Combine the eggs, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Stir (do not beat) with a whisk until the sugar is dissolved.

Put the coconut milk and vanilla extract into a saucepan. Slowly heat it up until it begins to boil. As soon as it reaches the boil, pour it over the egg mixture, stirring it in carefully. When blended, strain the mixture through a sieve into the top part of a double boiler. Gently heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until it just begins to thicken.

Sieve the mix into a heat-proof container. If you use jars, use wider, shorter jars. Cover tightly with foil. Make a few small incisions in the foil so steam can escape.

Place the container (or jars) into a steamer and steam for 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until firmly set. Cool and then keep covered in your fridge. It will keep for a week.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


When I started this blog, never did I imagine it would lead me to some truly exceptional people with whom Guillermo and I have become firm friends. The feeling of meeting my readers is akin to finding warmth and comfort among kindred spirits in a world that can often be unnecessarily mean and chillingly cruel.

I had one such beautiful encounter yesterday with a wonderful couple. To my utter surprise and delight, they brought me a treasure which brings back many fond memories from a land which seems so far away now...

Pernigotti, the famed Italian chocolate maker based in Torino, is best known for their Gianduiotto. The sweet nuttiness of their cioccolatini is one of many reasons why mortals find Italy so easy to love. Another reason would be Italian gelato which is in a class unto itself even when compared to the best ice creams or helados.

Firstly, gelato is served slightly warmer than the other two varietals, which allows it to keep its smooth and supple texture while the higher temperature means it takes less time to melt and release its aroma on the palate and nose.

Then, gelato flavours are often wonderfully intense thanks two factors. First of all, gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream; and fat, by nature, coats our tastebuds and dulls our perception of flavour. More importantly, gelato is made with a much higher proportion of fresh and natural flavouring agents such as ripe fruits or nuts.

When I laid eyes on the treasure, generously given to me as a token of appreciation for my random scribbles, I intuitively knew I would combine the top two of an endless list of things I love about Italy...I am going to make chocolate gelato!

This most appreciated gift is a large tin of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder, Cacao di Pernigotti. This Piedmontese chocolate maker removes less fat from its cocoa giving the powder an extra boost of mellow smoothness. This wonderful cocoa is lightly Dutch processed and has a touch of real vanilla. Dutch processed (invented by Dutch chocolate maker, Van Houten) refers to a treatment of adding alkali to neutralise the natural acidity in cocoa. This process results in a cocoa which has an especially rich and dark colour.

For aspiring ice cream and gelato makers at home, there are a few ways to get around the lack of equipment. The biggest concern is the resulting texture. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, The Pie & Pastry Bible and The Bread Bible, suggests 1 1/2 tsp of 80% proof liquor per cup of liquid to lower the freezing point so ice cream won't freeze rock hard.

Or like me, you can find a gelato recipe which doesn't require churning anyway and top it up with a splash of booze.

60g fine-quality bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
4 large egg yolks
pinch salt
splash of vodka (for its neutral flavour)

Coarsely chop chocolate. In a heavy saucepan bring milk, evaporated milk, and about half of sugar just to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved.

Remove pan from heat and add cocoa powder and chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Have ready, on the side, a large bowl of ice and cold water.

In a bowl with an electric mixer beat yolks, remaining sugar and salt until thick and pale. Add hot chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking, and pour into saucepan. Cook custard over moderately low heat, stirring constantly, until a thermometer registers 80C.

Pour custard through a sieve into a metal bowl set in ice and cold water and cool. Add booze and mix well.

Chill custard, covered, until cold. Transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden for several hours.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Costs of Free Education

Guillermo and I were treated to a delightful Sunday lunch single-handedly managed by our friend Miguel. Together with Paula and their girls, we tucked into some delicious butternut squash gratin followed by the retro yumminess of a broccoli soufflé. We then had some of the apricot bavarois I brought over as pudding.

After the girls were sent off to their routine afternoon nap, the four adults enjoyed discussing (in the English sense of the word; there wasn't any argument) a range of topics from nationalism to the girls' education.

Paula is a progressive-minded paediatrician and Miguel is in the field of IT. Unlike most professional parents in Buenos Aires, they made a conscientious decision in sending their girls to a State-run kindergarten. The girls, Gabriela and Carolina, are now 4 and 2.

As I mentioned before, Miguel and Paula have put a lot of thought into their roles as parents and their parenting style is quite different from most other porteños of their generation. They do not engage in "baby talk", instead the girls are treated with respect as persons capable of understanding reasons. The youngsters have a healthy routine of napping in the afternoon and turning in at 7:30 in the evening so they are never cranky with tiredness. Further, they are exposed to a wide variety of nutritious foods and as a consequence the girls enjoy a healthy and balanced diet packed with fruits, vegetables and nuts (the unsalted kind).

Most importantly, Gabriela and Carolina do not watch television at home. In fact, the parents have given away their television so the kids will not grow up in front of mind-numbing and dumbing shows. Instead, both Miguel and Paola spend a lot of time talking and playing with their children; reading is already a big part of their leisure activities so is enjoying music. Gabriela loves Vivaldi which was introduced to her the natural way and not through any Baby Einstein product.

However, our friends are running into increasing frustration with the girls' kindergarten. The State-run institution has limited resources so the kids end up watching television in their classroom a lot of times, especially when it is raining. None of us can imagine what happens during the rainy season, would the kids watch television the entire week?

Some parents request not only lunch but breakfast being given to their children at the kindergarten. To these parents and educators, breakfast means a sugar laden alfajor; once other kids have spotted their friends getting a sugar-high, they scream for a shot too so very often the teachers hand out alfajores to everyone. Then there are the birthday parties, some of which are held at MacDonald's, and other random sugar fests which are all part of a normal day at kinder.

Lunch is also potentially problematic; after a not so nutritious meal, kids are allowed unlimited serves of dessert. In fact, they can skip the main meal altogether and go for a few serves of flan instead; nobody is going to refuse them.

Anyway, these hitches over television and diet pale into insignificance when compared to what the teachers feel are part of the girls' education.

Unlike most Argentine parents, our friends did not have their new-born girls suffer the purely cosmetic procedure of ear-piercing. Gabriela is now old enough to realise this physical difference; in addition, she has also begun to notice, unlike mummy, her teachers and some of her 4 yr-old friends are wearing make-up to school. She is beginning to feel she is missing out...

To add fuel to the fire, knowing full well the parents' disapproval, the teachers are more determined to make a Barbie doll out of Gabriela. They have even said so to the parents directly. Together with other parents who have heard about their "unique" parenting style, they are branding Miguel and Paula "strange".

As frustrating as Galileo must have felt when explaining why earth is a globe, bringing up children within this culture presents a set of unique challenges. It is one thing when children are allowed sweets and gender-conditioning toys occasionally but something entirely misguided when those are treated as essential parts of a child's diet and education. What is even more sinister is when some enlightened parents speak up they are labelled "strange" and somewhat ostracised.

The most frustrating, however, is probably the lack of alternatives. As Miguel pointed out, going to a private school would not necessarily provide solution to this particular set of problems. We only have to wander through Recoleta, the affluent barrio of many cameltoed Stepford wives, to sense that private schools are probably just churning out a different set of cosmetically enhanced Barbie dolls.

Until Sunday, I had almost forgotten how wonderful a perfectly risen soufflé could be. It is time to revive this classic recipe.

1 cup milk
1 thick onion slice
a couple of bay leaves
6 whole black peppercorns
5 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
salt, pepper, grated nutmeg
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup grated Gruyère
500g broccoli florets, cooked in boiling water until tender, and puréed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 egg whites
butter and 1 Tablespoon of Parmesan cheese for the soufflé dish

Preheat oven to 200C. Butter a 1-1/2 quart soufflé dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter and sprinkle with Parmesan. Turn to coat the dish.

Make the white sauce: In a saucepan, add the milk, onion, bay leaves and peppercorns and bring it almost to the boiling point. Remove from heat and allow to stand 10 minutes to infuse the flavors.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan and with a flat whisk, stir in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes. Do not allow it to brown. Remove from heat.

Strain the milk into the butter/flour mixture, beating constantly. Return to heat. Continue beating until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens.

Season with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan and cook the broccoli purée until it is dry.

Place the white sauce over low heat and beat in the egg yolks, one by one. Stir constantly until the sauce thickens slightly and remove from heat. Stir in the broccoli purée and the mustard.

Stiffly whip the egg whites. Add about 1/4 of the egg whites to the warm broccoli mixture and stir to combine thoroughly.

Add this mixture back to the remaining egg whites and fold together as lightly as possible. Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish. Run your thumb around the edge of the mixture, making a groove in it, this will allow the center to rise in a high cap. Bake about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Road to Regression?

Education is on the agenda of politicians all over the world because it is an emotive issue. It is certainly one of John Howard's favourite topics. We are easy targets to be stirred because all of us have our own view on whether education should be free and accessible; should it be compulsory up to a certain age; and is the standard of education slipping. And all these questions are just the tip of an iceberg.

In recent years, many governments deplore the current state of education and some have become concerned how their country's education stack up against others in international assessments. It seems the question on many politicians' lips, across nations, is that why are we churning out more university graduates than ever but people in general, seem to be less and less "educated"?

I am in no position to even attempt this question. However, I have received a photo taken at a recent exhibition in Hong Kong. It is a photo of an exhibit – an exam paper of the compulsory primary school completion exam sat by all year 6 students (final year of primary school) in Hong Kong in 1953.

This yearly and compulsory exam was divided into 4 parts – English, Chinese, Mathematics and General Knowledge. Up to around 1980, all primary school students had to pass the exam to graduate from primary school, be it a private, fee paying school or a free public one. Since then, this compulsory exam has become multiple-choice. I sat for the multiple-choice papers in the second year of their existence and I am thankful, especially now that I have read the following exam questions.

So let's see if the standard of education has slipped, ever so slightly since the 1950s (do bear in mind that these questions are meant for an 11 year-old)...

General Knowledge Paper, 1953 (Public Exam for Primary School Completion)

1. Describe differences between Sparta and Athens and their governments.

2. List the causes of the French Revolution.

3. Answer part (A) and (B):
(A) List all monsoon regions, their climate and quantity of rain fall.
(B) Explain how deserts are formed.

4. Describe and compare the methods of agriculture in China and U.S.A

(In the section above, choose 3 out of 4 questions)

5. Describe the structure of the Legislative, Administrative and Executive bodies of the British Hong Kong Government and their authorities.

6. Explain the reasons for the British Hong Kong Government in setting up a Chinese Home Affairs department. What purpose does this department serve?

7. Why does government tax people? Is our tax rate arbitrary? Which governmental body approves tax legislations and tax rates? How are disputes in tax assessments resolved?

8. When was United Nations founded? Where is the headquarters? What is the mandate of the United Nations?

(In the section above, choose 3 out of 4 questions)

9. Use diagrams and text to explain high tide and low tide.

10. List all the vitamins and their functions. Describe the food groups in which they are found and the quantity found.

11. Explain the differences between a common mosquito and a Malaria-carrying mosquito. Explain how a Malaria-carrying mosquito spreads Malaria.

(In the section above, choose 2 out of 3 questions)
Makes a great quiz at dinner parties, does it not?

Friday, December 01, 2006

No Milk?

Guillermo and I have just heard that our adorable 2-yr old niece is suspected to have milk allergy, not to be confused with lactose intolerance. The former is a reaction by the body's immune system while lactose intolerance is caused by inadequate amount of lactase enzyme to break down lactose. Allergy to milk is often difficult to detect and many doctors and health specialists recommend going dairy free as an initial test when a food allergy is suspected. Her parents are understandably distressed because she loves her milk and unsurprisingly obtained most of her required nourishments from it.

We were surprised by the prognosis because she is a healthy and active child. While cow's milk does contain over 25 different molecules which have the potential to elicit an allergic reaction, I have urged the parents to seek a second opinion just in case they had run into one of those misguided doctors who among other things, also believe in feeding a spoonful of sugar a day to babies six-month onwards. Meanwhile, we are trying to learn as much as possible about what this allergy entails.

Nowadays few would dispute the benefits of breast feeding; however, it is still contentious among mothers as to when the appropriate time is in weaning their children off their breasts. Surprisingly, many mothers feel it is unseemly to continue breast feeding older babies, especially boys. Just how removed from nature have we, human beings, become?

The World Health Organization recommends that babies are breastfed for the first two years of their lives if possible. Doctors are also recommending babies weaning from breast milk to go onto formula first. Both are helpful measures as up to 85-90% of infants allergic to cow's milk will outgrow the allergy by the age of 3.

Another important issue is added E-Numbers (E-colours) in food. It is well known that many of them act as allergens and such additives are often present in dairy products targeting pre-teen consumers. Most yoghurt and dairy based dessert products currently on sale in Argentina contain additives and preservatives. I was shocked by and had subsequently spoken out about the artificial pastel hues of pouring yoghurt which, unfortunately, is a popular choice among Argentine mothers.

As in all cases of allergies, the most effective treatment is avoidance of the allergen. While it is possible to avoid artificial colouring and preservatives, one still has to beware of "non-dairy" products which may not only contain additives and preservatives but casein, a milk allergen which may be hidden in many processed meats including pepperoni, salami, and hot dog sausages which are popular among children.

Without milk in the diet, the nutritional needs of the body have to be met through other sources. The milk myth has always intrigued and amused me but indoctrinated minds take time to understand little known facts. The recommended daily allowance of calcium depends on the age of the individual; excellent sources of calcium include sesame (as little as 30g contains about 300mg, the equivalent of a full glass of milk), dark green vegetables such as broccoli and kale, fish such as salmon and sardines, and seafood such as oysters and shrimps.

Calcium-rich Salmon and Spinach Baby Pasta
2 tbsp salt
1 tsp white peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 x 200g salmon fillets, skin off
400g risoni, ( or small pasta shapes)
1 cup peas (can use frozen)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
100g baby spinach leaves
¼ cup freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp freshly chopped dill
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp caster sugar

Place the salt, peppercorns and bay leaves in a large, deep frying pan with 1.25l (5 cups) water and bring to the boil.

Cook for 5 minutes then remove from the heat. Add the salmon, cover and leave for 15 minutes. Remove the fish from the stock and flake into pieces.

Cook the risoni in a large saucepan of lightly salted water according to packet instructions or until al dente, adding the peas and lemon zest for the last 2 minutes of the cooking time. Rinse under cold running water and drain well.

Place the risoni and peas, salmon, baby spinach, parsley and dill in a large bowl. Whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil and sugar. Add the dressing to the salad and gently toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.