Saturday, October 30, 2010

Strange Days

Wednesday was National Census Day. In Argentina that means that all stores are closed and no one has work or school; your obligation as a citizen (or improperly documented student as is my case) is to stay in your house until the doorbell rings and then answer the nice lady's questions (she was nice, and she didn't even mind when the cat started biting her finger). It's been a tumultuous month on a public level around here. Nestor Kirscher (the ex-president and husband of the current president) died, and though all anyone ever did was complain about him, now everyone seems to love him (who knew). Last week a member of a group that was blocking the trains in protest was shot and killed, sparking strikes and general outrage. There were strikes in the music conservatory this month because they´ve been shutting down bars with live music as a reaction to the deaths of two people in a club after a stage fell on top of them. It´s an understandable reaction but it leaves the musicians without work. A bus driver was shot and killed in the suburbs during his regular route, setting off a bus strike. You begin to understand why there isn't a big premium put on punctuality here.

Last week there was also no garbage service for 48 hours; I´m a bit embarrassed to say I didn't even notice, I just remember thinking, man this city is dirty, and then not giving it a second thought. I realize I sound like a jaded ex-pat today, and the truth is that at the end of the day, I'm not from here and I'm not planning on spending the rest of my life here, so my discomfort with the civil situation isn´t all that important compared to that of Argentines.

Sometimes I come home from seeing and hearing some rough stuff in the hospitals or in the street, and all I want to do is crawl under the covers. I crash for a bit and then I get up and make home food. People here think that the only truly American food is McDonalds. I come home wanting to make cinnamon rolls, or tacos with fresh tortillas, or wild rice with cranberries and roasted squash, or my mom's matzoh ball soup. 

I´m not complaining about the census, though, I think it´s great. We´ve had to use data from 2001 for all our studies up until now, which is pretty outdated given all the changes that have happened over the past 10 years here. And I got a day at home, so I made carrot cake to bring to a Colombian dinner later (and then I learned that it is never a good idea to eat a bandeja paisa at 11 pm).

Bandeja paisa is a quintessential Colombian meal-- rice, beans, ground meat, arepa, fried egg, fried sweet plantain, fried sausage, avocado, hogao (tomato-onion sauce) and chicharron (which we is hard to find in Argentina so we didn't have any Wednesday night; I can't say my stomach protested all that much). I wouldn't say the carrot cake afterwards was strictly necessary.  

I do love Colombian food, but it's relatively new in my life. Arepas are great, but we don't have the long-standing relationship that tortillas and I have.  Tortillas-- both flour and corn-- are far up there on the essentials list for me, like the good native Californian that I am, but making them was never high up on my list because of their availability. But, here I am, in the land of pizza and pasta, and though they sell dried-out flour tortillas in the supermarkets, they don't really cut it. Maseca, the lime-treated corn meal used for corn tortillas, is nowhere to be found down here, so my energies have been concentrated on the flour ones. I had a couple of failed attempts making flour tortillas before I really got the texture right. When I was little, my family used to go to Chevy's for dinner occasionally, definitely not the most authentic Mexican (or Californian-Mexican or Tex-Mex or anything really) place, but I think we mainly went there because it was family-friendly and my mom liked the smokey-tasting salsa that came with the chips. I loved it because of the sweet corn pudding (which I later learned is called tomalito and one of these days will make around here) that came with everything and because we liked to watch the tortillas being made. I don't know if all Chevy's have the tortilla-producing conveyer belts, but we were completely fascinated. Sometimes the person in charge of putting fresh dough in would give us a dough ball to play with, and for some reason this made us very happy, though I don't know exactly what we did with it. What I realized when I finally got the tortillas right-- and this should have been a big duh-- is that the texture of the dough was exactly what I remember playing with as a kid in Chevy's. It's kind of like a doughier play-dough, and it kind of has an earlobe-like texture, and unfortunately it seems like the exact quantities to reach this texture change depending on the humidity and the brand of flour, so I think failure the first couple times is pretty likely. But-- but-- after those first few times, your reward are the flour tortillas that ex-pats dream about, the kind that come warm in a basket wrapped up in a cloth along with the searing hot fajitas you ordered. They also make the perfect, perfect breakfast, filled with a scrambled egg and topped with chipotle oil (I always make sure I bring a can of chipotles in adobo with me if I know I'm going to be in a country for awhile that doesn't do spicy. It keeps forever in the fridge if you rejar it and add additional vegetable oil to the jar whenever you take out a chipotle, keeping the chiles covered with a layer of oil so they don't go bad and making you an almost endless supply of chipotle oil).

Flour Tortillas
     adapted from Cheryl and Bill Jamison

2 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. vegetable oil
3/4 c. warm milk

In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together, then mix in the vegetable oil with your fingertips. Add in the warm milk slowly, stirring as you go, until you have a sticky ball. Lightly flour a counter and your hands and then knead the dough for a couple of minutes until you have a consistent dough that feels a bit like an earlobe. Place the dough in a bowl or on a plate and let it to rest covered with a plastic bag or a damp towel for 20 min. 
After the dough has rested, roll the dough into 8 balls, put them on a plate without touching one another and let rest covered with your plastic bag or damp towel for 10 min.
Heat a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Take a ball of dough and pat it into 3-4'' circle, then roll it out with a rolling pin (or wine bottle or whatever) to an 8'' circle. Place in skillet and cook for about a minute, until light brown spots begin to appear, then flip it over with a spatula (I use my fingers) and cook until the second side also gets some light brown spots. It should puff up a bit, though you don't want it to balloon out or the tortilla will lose its soft texture. (You may have to play with the heat on your stove to get it just right.) Repeat with the rest of the dough (you can roll out all the balls first and have them ready, covered, while you cook them one by one; I roll the dough out on the counter next to the burner while keeping an eye on the tortilla cooking in the skillet), stacking the tortillas on top of each other and keeping them covered with a kitchen towel so they stay warm.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Notes From a Sunday

Useful when waking up at 2 in the afternoon hungover (I´m not an alcoholic I'm just a lightweight; I can sometimes feel a glass of wine the next day), fridge empty, chinos (supermarkets run by chinese immigrants) closed: thinly slice 2 potatoes and boil them in salted water until tender but not falling apart. Meanwhile chop up a green onion or two and mix it in a bowl with 4-5 eggs, a good pinch of salt, and a handful of chopped cilantro. Drain the potatoes when tender and add them to the eggs, mixing lightly so they don't cook the eggs in their heat. Preheat the broiler. Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and add in 3 Tbsp. good olive oil. When the oil is hot, swirl the pan to coat the sides, then pour in the egg mixture, flattening the potatoes down. Sprinkle the top with smoked paprika and drizzle with olive oil. Turn the heat down to low and cook for 5 minutes, then stick the skillet under the broiler for another five or until the eggs are set. Water, coffee, oranges. 

I don't generally feel all the connected to the Midwest, but a couple of things in the news made me feel that way today:
-This looks fascinating. I can´t wait to get a hold of the book.
-Eyedea died yesterday. I was 14 when my friends were listening to Rhymesayers, the Minneapolis underground hip-hop record label. That means Eyedea was 18. By the time I went to college, every other kid who considered himself "in the know" about hip-hop in the country was talking about them as a new found hipster-approved discovery. Strange path all of it. 

Though a slightly different situation than the one that's lived here in Argentina (the South Korean economy is considerably more stable than the Argentinean one, well, that and the fact that most Argentines wouldn't be caught dead eating kimchi), this article sounds familiar. Last week tomatoes here were 12 pesos/kilo, up from 3 or 4 the week before. It's no kimchi, but people here do eat an awful lot of tomatoes (as you can imagine when the diet staples are pasta and pizza). 

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Part of the reason I like learning new languages is because it makes you reflect more on your own mother tongue. Someone asked me, why is grapefruit called grape-fruit? What does it have to do with grapes? I had never made the connection and had no answer. Awhile ago I found myself in a verduleria (vegetable store) thinking that naranja de ombligo (belly button orange) was the funniest name I'd ever heard for an orange, when I realized that, duh, we call them navel oranges, I'd just never made the association.

And the other day when I was asked about what the word "snickerdoodles" meant, I was pretty much out. Not even wikipedia could help me. Eh. I love linguistics, but I think I´m gonna put that question in the "there are more important things in life" file and go on eating cookies.

Speaking of cookies (and since when do I ever talk about anything else), when my sister and I were first in Argentina together we never got tired of badly pronouncing the national cookie, alfajores, correctly pronounced alfa-HOR-es, the singular being alfa-HOR. We of course in our infinite maturity privately called them alpha-whores. Strike three-hundred and six for American cultural sensitivity! Sweet. 

A word about this recipe: I've tried several snickerdoodle recipes, and though they all produced tasty cookies, none of them tasted exactly snickerdoodle-y, if you know what I mean. I endlessly frustrate my non-American friends here when I try to make something American and it doesn't come out right. But it tastes good! they protest, as in, give it a rest, stop being so difficult and come eat. Sure, I try to explain, but it doesn't taste right. These do.


4 oz. (113 g. or 1 stick) butter, room temperature
3/4 c. white sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp. natural vanilla extract
1 1/3 c. (180 g.) all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

To coat:
3 Tbsp. white sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Beat the butter and sugar together until the mixture has lightened, ideally until you can´t feel the sugar between your fingers anymore. Beat in the egg and then the vanilla, mixing well. In another bowl, mix the flour with the baking powder and salt, then throw the flour into the bowl with the butter. (Alternatively, place a sifter over the bowl with the butter mixture and put the flour, baking powder and salt together in the sifter, sifting directly into the bowl.) Stir together until you get a smooth mixture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plastic bag and put in the fridge for at least an hour or up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. In a small bowl mix the 3 Tbsp. sugar together with the cinnamon. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll balls 1 in. in diameter. Roll each one in the cinnamon-sugar mix, covering it all over. Place the balls on a cookie sheet, leaving 2 in. between each ball for when they spread in the oven. Bake for 8-10 min., rotating the sheet 180º after 5 min. so they bake evenly. The cookies are done when they are golden underneath and at the edges. Remove them with a spatula to a cooling rack and continue with the rest of the dough. Makes around 30 small cookies.

Me pidieron una receta básica de galletas. Si nunca has hecho galletas, esta receta es un buen comienzo. Utiliza la técnica básica de las galletas norteamericanas, no es difícil hacer y son riquisimas.

Snickerdoodles (Galletas de Canela y Azúcar)

113 g. (1/2 de taza) de mantequilla, a la temperatura ambiente
3/4 de taza (150 g.) de azúcar
1 huevo, a la temperatura ambiente
1 cucharita de extracto de vainilla natural
1 1/3 taza (180 g.) de harina de trigo (tipo 000)
1 cucharita de polvo de hornear
1/4 de cucharita de sal

Para espolvorear:
3 cucharadas de azúcar
1 cucharita de canela

Bate la mantequilla con el azúcar hasta que la mezcla se ponga mas blanca. Incorpora el huevo y después la vainilla. En otro bol, mezcla la harina con el polvo de hornear y la sal. Echa la mezcla de harina a la mantequilla y revuelve hasta que tengas una mezcla uniforme y suave.
Tapa el bol con una bolsa de plastico y metelo en la heladera durante 1 hora o hasta 2 dias.
Precalienta el horno a 200ºC. En un bol pequeño, mezcla las 3 cucharadas de azúcar con la cucharita de canela. Saca la masa de la heladera y forma bolitas de 2.5 cm. Pasalas por la mezcla de azúcar y canela hasta que esten cubiertas totalmente. Ponlas en una bandeja, dejando 3 cm. entre las bolitas para dejarles espacio para cuando expanden.
Hornealas entre 8-10 minutos, volteando la bandeja 180º después de 5 minutos para que horneen uniformamente. Sacalas cuando esten doradas abajo. Quita las galletas de la bandeja con una espatula y ponlas en una rejilla a enfriar (o en un plato si no tienes rejilla). Sigue con el resto de la masa en la misma manera. Rinde aprox. 30 galletas chiquitas.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 12

October 12 is a holiday in all of the Americas, down here it's called Día de la Raza, in the states it's generally considered to be Christopher Columbus Day, unless you grow up in San Francisco in which case you are taught that it's Indigenous Peoples' Day and Christopher Columbus was a murderer who cut peoples' wrists off if they didn't bring him their monthly quota of gold.

October 12 is also my brother's birthday, which is much less politically complicated. Happy birthday Max, may your year be filled with interesting conversation, home-cooked meals, good whiskey and better music. As Ruben Blades says, everyone spends their life looking for something, some people look for problems and some people look for solutions My brother tends to look for questions, which makes him a forever interesting and endlessly frustrating person to talk to. Love you chipmunk.

Max asked me for eggplant recipes the other day. I've always loved eggplant, though I know a lot of people have issues with it. This recipe, from Francis Lam, is one of those people who had eggplant issues, so take that as testimony of its effectiveness. They sell dried eggplant in health food stores here but I still haven't figured out why; I asked once and they told me that it was useful for when eggplant was expensive. The dried stuff was easily 4 times as expensive as the fresh stuff though, so I just sort of nodded my head and moved on with my life. Then I made this pasta, a bunch of times, and you should too.

Eggplant Pasta 
     adapted from Francis Lam

1 lb. eggplant 
1/3 c. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of the knife and peeled
pinch dried thyme or oregano (or a couple of sprigs fresh if you have it)
1 c. water (use vegetable stock if you have it)
1 bay leaf
8 sun dried tomatoes, chopped or snipped into bits with a scissors
small handful basil leaves, snipped with a scissors
freshly ground pepper
1 lb. dry pasta (spaghetti or linguini)

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 in. rounds and salt them. Stack the rounds back up and let them sit for at least 20 min. In a large skillet over low heat, heat the olive oil with the garlic. You want quite low heat really, you don't want the garlic to burn. 
With a paper towel, dry off the eggplant and cut it into chunks.  When you start to smell the garlic, throw in the eggplant and stir it around to coat it in the oil. Throw in your pinch of thyme and turn up the heat to med-high. Stir the eggplant every now and then, and when it's looking translucent add in the cup of water and the bay leaf. Let the mixture come to a boil and then turn the heat down to med-low. Cover your pan, leaving it open a crack and stirring once in awhile to keep it from sticking to the bottom.
While the eggplant mess cooks, bring a big pot of water to boil, salt it well, and cook your pasta.
When the eggplant has absorbed most of the liquid, mash it up with your spoon and remove the bay leaf. If it needs a bit of a lift add salt. Drain your pasta and toss it with the eggplant mush, then toss in the chopped basil and sun dried tomato. 
Dash a bit of olive oil on top. Fresh pepper. Parmesan if you feel like it. Dinner. Yum.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Que Queres Que Te Diga...

I like living in Once. And I swear I wasn´t even trying, these things just happen.

Para Carito

Arroz para sushi

350 g. (1 2/3 tazas) de arroz de sushi
475 ml. (2 tazas) de agua
40 ml. (3 cucharadas) de vinagre de arroz o vinagre de alcohol
38 ml. (2 1/2 cucharadas) de azúcar
1/2 cucharita de sal

En una olla mediana echa el arroz y el agua. Tapala y hazle hervir por 2 minutos. Baja el fuego a medio y deja que hierva 5 minutos mas. Baja el fuego lo mas bajo posible y cocina durante 15 minutos (tapada). Apaga el fuego y pon una toalla entre la olla y la tapa. Vuelve a tapar la olla y dejala allí por 10-15 minutos mas para que absorba la humedad.
Mientras el arroz esté cocinando, disuelve el azúcar y la sal en el vinagre sobre fuego bajo. Quitala del fuego y dejala enfriar.
Saca el arroz a una bandeja y cuando este frio salpica el arroz con la mezcla de vinagre. Mezcla el arroz suavamente para incorporar el vinagre sin dañar la textura del arroz.
Esparce 2-3 cucharadas de arroz en una sabana de nori (alga seca para sushi), dejando 3 cm. en una de las bordes. Coloca el relleno en el centro, creando una linea. Envuelva el relleno con la sabana, haciendo un rollo muy apretado, empezando desde el lado contrario del cual dejaste los 3 cm. libres de arroz. Corta el rollo con un cuchillo afilado en rodajas de 3 cm. Come con salsa de soja y wasabi.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Viva la pressure cooker

A couple of months ago my brother decided to buy a pressure cooker, a frankly very uncharacteristic move, not only for him but also for your average American.  We´re not generally big on pressure cookers. I certainly wasn´t until I lived with Colombians and was ushered into their magical ways-- black beans in 20 minutes! Rice pudding in 10! I´m not sure if it´s due to our general reliance on canned beans or our use of the microwave for speed-cooking, but it´s just not standard equipment in the typical American kitchen. I was sent a pressure cooker from Colombia last year and since then 90% of the cooking that I do is either in there or in a cast-iron skillet (if you don´t use the lid on the pressure cooker it also works great as a stock pot, and as my kitchen is tiny and my brain tending towards the migratory I´m all about multi-use equipment...and really awful rhymes, thank you very much).

Anyway, since this purchase of his he´s been asking me for recipes, and I´ve been playing around a bit to find things that a) don´t involve an inordinate amount of chopping because certain people probably won´t do it; b) are very close to a complete meal by themselves and c) are very fast, even by pressure cooker standards. So for now I give you two: first, red lentils (that turn yellow from the turmeric; also, cooked red lentils without turmeric can look a little vomity) that is very dal-like but thick enough to be eaten as a soup on its own or with rice. The whole thing gets done in 10 minutes and it´s fantastic. The second recipe is a barley risotto. It´s not hard to make and it fills you up and it´s really really flavorful. You can make arborio (short grain rice) risotto in a pressure cooker even faster and that works great as well, but barley fills you up better, is more nutritious, and also happens to taste really good. I had a professor in college who was renowned for the traditional Italian feasts he would invite people to at his home. One time he invited some friends and me over for dinner, and while he finished stirring the risotto he told us, the rule at the end of risotto is add cheese until delicious. Then we had a 5 course meal, and I at least resolved privately to aim to eat that way for the rest of my life. Then I went back to eating lentils. And here we are. As my boss here would say, en fin...

Red Lentils 
     adapted from Deborah Madison

2 c. red lentils, sorted and rinsed (the tiny salmon-colored ones)
1 Tbsp. turmeric
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. butter (1 Tbsp. goes with the lentils, the other with the onions)
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 c. cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 large lemon

Throw the lentils in the pressure cooker along with 4 1/2 cups of water, the turmeric, the salt, and 1 Tbsp. butter. Secure the top and bring it up to pressure. Cook for 8 min, then release the pressure.
Meanwhile in a saute pan over low heat cook the onions with the oil, 1 Tbsp. of butter, the cumin and the mustard seeds for about 10 min. or until the onions are soft.
You can puree the lentils with a blender (especially a hand one) or leave them whole.  Put the pressure cooker back over low heat. Add in the cilantro a cook for a minute or two and then throw in the onions. Add in lemon juice.
Serve with rice, and it's even better if you make it a day ahead.

Barley Risotto

1/2 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
1 med. onion, chopped, or 1/2 onion and 1/2 bulb fennel, chopped
1 tsp. fennel seeds (opt.)
1 c. barley
1/2 c. dry red wine
4 c. water
1 Tbsp. salt
freshly ground pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried thyme
at least 1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese (not the green canister kind, and freshly grated will taste better than the pre-grated kind)

Soak porcinis in 1/4 c. warm water. Heat the butter and olive oil together in the pressure cooker over medium heat. Throw in the onion and fennel seeds and saute until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add in the barley and saute for a couple of minutes, stirring well. Add in the wine and stir until it evaporates. Add in the water, salt, a couple of turns of pepper, the bay leaves, and the thyme. Chop the mushrooms and add them and their liquid to the pot. Put the lid on and bring up to pressure. Cook for 20 min. then depressurize. Take off the lid and let simmer until the barley is cooked through but still toothsome and the mixture is still very wet but not soupy. Turn off the heat and stir in parmesan cheese until delicious.