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 We´ve had to use data from 2001 for all our studies up until now, which is pretty outdated given all the changes that have happened over the past 10 years here.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).
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.