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.

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