Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Irving

For years and years, until we moved away, my family went to the same Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.  We always had the same waiter, named Lu, and we more or less always ordered the same stuff: hot and sour soup, black mushrooms and tofu, sweet and sour fish (my dad, the only non-vegetarian at the time), mixed vegetables and tofu, and spicy eggplant (my mom).  Lu always had the same series of corny jokes (Would you like a little rice? And then he'd serve you three grains of rice...) and we always laughed, and when we moved away we were sad, but my dad would go back whenever he was in town.  A couple of years we were in San Francisco together and decided to go by the restaurant, which used to be called Beijing on Irving but changed owners and therefore changed names.  Lu, however, was still there.  My dad greeted him warmly but I kind of figured Lu was pretending to remember him (my dad now has a head of white hair, and I mean, how many customers must he have done the little rice bit with?) but when it came time to order my dad said, "well, you know what I'm getting right?" (Cue embarrassed daughter, thinking, there is no way this poor guy remembers us and there is even less of a chance that he remembers what my dad ordered 10 years ago...I used to waitress and I hated when customers put me on the spot like that) Lu looked at him for a second. "Sweet and sour fish!" 

And though the restaurant's name and owner may have changed, the food is somehow exactly the same.  I don't remember what else we ordered (nor do I remember the restaurant's new name) but I'm pretty sure we didn't get the spicy eggplant as it was always more my mom's thing, though we would all eat it too.  Beijing's eggplant was spicy and garlicky and (like many restaurant eggplant dishes) quite oily.  It was also delicious, but I hadn't thought about it in a long time. 

Which is why I have no idea how or why it occurred to me the other day, but I decided I wanted to make a chinese-style eggplant dish (I say that as if "chinese-style" actually meant something more concrete to my brain other than soy sauce), and what came out (at least to my memory) is just like Beijing's though it's quite a bit less oily. I used less garlic and less chile than I would have had I been cooking just for myself or for my family (Colombians are wusses-- though badly researched tv series may think otherwise, many many South Americans--not only Colombians but also Argentineans, Chileans and Uruguayans for starters, neither like nor tolerate spicy food) but it was so good and so fast and so right that I made it again the next night.  I recommend you do the same, and when I say you I mainly mean my mother and/or brother, though everyone else is welcome to as well.

Beijing Eggplant

1 large globe eggplant (or 2 long japanese ones)
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 hot red chile, chopped finely (use less or more, depending on your like of heat)
green part of 4 scallions, chopped (or the green part of one Argentinean green onion)
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
3 Tbsp. white vinegar (I imagine rice vinegar would work nicely, but make sure it´s the unseasoned kind)
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
4 Tbsp. soy sauce
4 Tbsp. water

Slice the eggplant in half vertically, then slice each half in half again as if you were halving a cake in order to fill it (as opposed to quartering the eggplant-- you want the "lengthwise slices shown in the third and fourth pictures here).  Lay the slices out and sprinkle them with salt, letting them rest while you prepare your other ingredients.
Chop the garlic, chile, and scallions.  In a small bowl, mix together the sugars, vinegar, and cornstarch, stirring until the lumps disappear, then add the soy sauce and water.
Blot the eggplant with a paper towel or an absorbent (clean) cloth.  Stack the eggplant layers and cut horizontally into 1/2 inch. strips.  Heat a cast iron or other large heavy skillet (or wok) over high heat and throw in the oil.  When the oil is smoking hot, throw in the eggplants.  Let them sit for a minute, then stir.   Let them cook over high heat for another 5 or so minutes, letting them take on some color and stirring only once or twice.  Throw in the garlic and chile, stir and let cook another minute. Turn off the heat and immediately pour in all the soy sauce mixture, stirring to mix.  It should bubble up and thicken in the heat of the pan.  
Serve with rice.  Sweet rice vinegar cucumber pickles would be really good on the side too. 

Berenjena a la Beijing

una berenjena grande
2 cucharadas de aceite vegetal
2-4 dientes de ajo, picados chiquitos 
1/2 ají rojo picante, picado chiquito (usa mas o menos, depende si te gusta el picante o no-- uso los ajíes comprados de las verdulerías de los bolivianos, que son picantes y de hecho echo menos de la mitad porque son muy fuertes. Prueba tu ají primero, y si quieres menos picante no eches las semillas.)
la parte verde (las hojas) de una cebolla de verdeo, picada
2 cucharadas de azúcar
1 cucharadas de azúcar rubia (o una cucharada mas de azúcar blanca)
3 cucharadas de vinagre de alcohol
1 cucharada de maizena
4 cucharadas de salsa de soya
4 cucharadas de agua

Parte la berenjena por la mitad verticalmente, después corta cada mitad nuevamente como si estuvieras partiendo una torta para rellenarla (como la cuarta foto aquí). Salpica las tajadas con sal y dejalas reposar mientras preparas los otros ingredientes.
Pica el ajo, el ají, y el verdeo.  En un bol chiquito, mezcla los azucares, el vinagre y la maizena, revolviendo hasta que no queden grumos, después añade la salsa de soya y el agua.
Seca la berenjena con una hoja de papel de cocina.  Haz una pila de las tajadas y cortalas horizontamente en pedazos de 1 cm. Caliente un sarten grande con un fondo pesado (o un wok) sobre fuego muy alto y echa el aceite.  Cuando el aceite este muy caliente, echa la berenjena.  Dejales un minuto sin revolver, revuelveles una vez, y después dejales cocinar sobre fuego muy alto otros 5 minutos, dejandoles broncear un poco, revolviendo un par de veces no mas.  Echa el ajo y el ají, revuelve y dejala cocinar un minuto más. Apaga el fuego e inmediatamente echa todo la mezcla de la salsa allí, revolviendo para mezclarla bien.  Deberá hervir y espesar con el calor del sarten.
Sirvela con arroz.  Pickles agridulces de pepino con vinagre de arroz serían ricos como acompañamiento tambien.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Playing Criolla

I played at being Argentine this week, food-wise at least.  The cat played at trying to give Felipe a heart attack (the kitchen sink being at the bottom right of the photo). 
One of the big traditional foods here (generally referred to as comida criolla, native foods) is locro, traditionally eaten on May 25th, the day celebrated as the beginning of Argentina´s revolution.  Locro is stick-to-your-ribs country food, involving hominy and lots of various meat parts.  It´s not exactly pretty but I'm not sure country stews ever really are.  And it's one of those dishes that everyone's grandmother makes the best version of.  One day at my work I started asking around if anyone knew how to make locro.  The general response was "no...lo como con mi familia pero no lo hago nunca..." (no...I eat it with my family but I never make it...) "My mom makes great locro.  I don't really know how but I can get you the recipe," offered Maria Celia.  De una! (Yay, yes please!)  The week after she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, "Here you go! Let me know how it turns out!"  What it turned out was really good.  I brought some into work to get feedback, as the combination of one American and one Colombian making an Argentine recipe doesn't seem to me to lend itself to much authenticity.  I was given the official Argentine seal of approval, though of course the discussion began: ...in my family we put tomatoes in ours, in my family it's spicier, in my family we put white beans in too... 
I have not generally been a big fan of the sweeter side of traditional Argentine cooking, or at least not as it is represented in the bakeries here.  Tarts and cookies tend to be tooth-achingly sweet, and the concept of only selling things made same day doesn´t seem to exist.  A cake you buy could quite possibly have been on the shelf for at least a week, if not two.  One thing I´ve always liked though is the Tarta de Ricota, or Ricotta Cake, and I´d been meaning to try making it at home for quite awhile but only just got around to it now.  As good as it is a bit stale, it´s way better homemade and fresh.
I found the recipe on an Argentinean food blog which has some amazing looking pasta recipes that I´m planning on trying out.  What I realized is that Tarta de Ricota is basically a cheesecake, but with a crust that´s made with a cookieish dough.  I´ve never had Italian ricotta pies but my super high tech research skills (Google) make me think they are very similar, which would make a whole lot of sense given the huge Italian immigration here over the past century and the fact that variations on Italian dishes make up a huge part of traditional Argentinean cuisine (Argentineans have a special day each month to eat gnocchis, the 29th.  I couldn´t make these things up even if I wanted to.) 

     adapted from Maria Celia´s mother

2 c. dry hominy, washed well and soaked overnight
500 g. (18 oz.) skirt steak, cut into 1 in. pieces
100 g. (3.5 oz.) pork skin, cut into 1/2 in. pieces (we used kitchen scissors)
200 g. (7 oz.) fatty tripe, chopped
100 g. (3.5 oz.) smoked pancetta (I forgot what I was supposed to buy at the market and instead of the tripe and pancetta bought 2 chorizos, which worked lovely anyway)
250 g. (8 oz.) winter squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 in. cubes
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. sweet or smoked paprika
4 green onions, chopped

Simmer the soaked hominy and the pork skin in 10 c. water until the hominy is tender, about an hour.  Add in the skirt steak, the tripe and the pancetta (or the chorizos).  When the meat is cooked through, about 20 min., add in the squash and bring to a boil.  In a medium skillet, heat the oil, then throw in the green onions and the paprika.  Saute until soft.  Add to the stew and check to see if the squash is tender. The stew should have thickened.  Taste to see if it needs more salt (as pancetta and chorizo already have salt in them it´s best to wait until the end; mine did need quite a bit of salt for the flavors to come through.) My non-traditional addition was a big drizzle of chipotle oil on top, which added a good dose of spice.  Let's just pretend it's what my grandmother would do.

Tarta de Ricota
     adapted from Todo caserito

For the dough:
6 oz. (1 stick and a half or 170 g.) butter, room temp.
2 c. (10.5 oz. or 300 g.) all-purpose flour (000)
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. (3.5 oz. or 100 g.) sugar
1 egg, beaten

In the bowl of a food processor, or in a big mixing bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.  In the food processor, add in the butter, and process in short bursts until you have a sandy-looking mixture.  If you´re doing it in a mixing bowl (what I used), cut the soft butter into the flour mixture with a knife and fork until it´s sandy-looking.  Add in the egg, either processing or mixing briefly (I use my hands) just until the dough comes together into a ball. Wrap in plastic and leave in the fridge for 30 min. while you make the filling.

For the filling:
17.6 oz. (500 g.) ricotta 
1 c. (8 oz. or 250 ml.) heavy cream
1 c. (7 oz. or 200 g.) sugar
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
zest of one lemon

Process the ricotta in the food processor until smooth, or use a hand blender to get all the lumps out.  One at a time, stirring or processing briefly as you go, add all the rest of the ingredients. Just process enough to mix the ingredients well as you don´t want to incorporate extra air in.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Grease and flour a 10 in. springform pan.  Roll out the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap into a circle with a 14 in. diameter.  Take off the top layer of plastic wrap and use the bottom one to transfer the dough into the pan.  Keeping the plastic wrap on top of the dough, lightly press the dough into the pan and up the walls, leaving an even layer.  Remove the plastic and fill the crust with the filling.  Bake for 1 hr. and then leave the cake in the turned off oven as it cools down.  Run a knife around the edge of the springform pan to make sure nothing is sticking, and unmold the sides to check.  Return the sides, cover with cake plastic wrap and stick in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours before eating.  To serve, remove the sides.  You can serve it with powdered sugar on top, though we didn´t find it necessary.  Keeps well for at least 3-4 days well-covered in the fridge.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

I Forgot

I´ve been ranting lately, but it's not what I had meant to do.  What I had meant to do, what I had wanted to do until I got all cranky, was talk about some great moments in Argentine winter.  These moments would include a couple of Sundays ago, also known as Swiss Day Where You Eat Your Weight In Cheese.  I don't quite understand it, because it's not their independence day (they were never occupied), so I guess it's like Swiss Self-Appreciation Day.  No wars, yay!  They do it by eating cheese.  I am so there.  At a Swiss friend's house, 3 and a half kilos of raclette and I don't know how many bottles of white wine were gobbled up and drank down.  You broil the cheese and then eat it with boiled potatoes and cornichons and pickled onions.  Then you wash it down with white wine.  Then you repeat.   Then you wake up Monday morning maybe not that ready to go to work, but hey, these things happen, and though it was probably not the original intention (the Swiss are, after all, in the middle of their summer), this kind of eating and drinking is exactly what is needed to get through the winter.

The bar at the British Embassy is called La Mano de Dios.  God I love Argentina.

And someone stopped me on the way home from work in Once, in Once, to hand me a 2 peso note that had fallen out of my pocket.  Once is an incredibly hectic and not at all safe neighborhood, which is a commercial district during the day and serves as one of the major transit exits from the city.  Once is packed during rush hour, and it´s an especially good time to get your wallet/purse/laptop stolen.

And then I got on a bus and somehow couldn't find the change I knew I had put in my pocket.  I looked and looked and looked and was going a little crazy when a guy came up from the back, Do you need change? How much are you missing? A stranger offered me monedas (coins, a surprisingly and frustratingly scarce commodity in Buenos Aires).  I was on too much of a roll for it to last.

The other thing I forget about are the cookies I made last week.  I love cardamom and I adore chocolate and man I might never make normal chocolate chip cookies again.  My dad has never tried these, but I'm going to go ahead and predict that these would be favorites of his as well.  He typically eats chocolate chip cookies about 6 at a time, carrying them with him downstairs from the kitchen to work on the computer. On the other hand, I don´t think I´ve ever seen him prolong the lifespan of any food as long as a cardamom halvah brought back by one his Indian students.  That thing lasted forever, not because he didn´t like it but because he carved away with it, sliver by sliver, trying to make it last as long as possible.  Chocolate and cardamom is not something I would have thought of naturally, but my goodness does it work.  Instead of changing chocolate-chip cookies into something familiar with a strange aftertaste, to me it makes them even more like themselves, or how I always wanted them to be without realizing it.       

Chocolate Chip Cardamom Cookies
     adapted from eggbeater
4 1/2 oz. (1 stick + 1 Tbsp. or 128 g.) butter, room temperature
1/2 c. (3.5 oz. or 100 g.) sugar 
2/3 c. (5.5 oz. or 156 g.) dark brown sugar, packed
2 med. eggs, room temperature
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 c. (9 oz. or 255 g.) all-purpose flour (000)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. sea salt
4 oz. (113 g.) dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
3/4 tsp. ground cardamom (Freshly ground is better.  Lacking alternatives, I used a big knife to pulverize the seeds.  It was kind of a pain.  Perhaps you have a kitchen with a mortar and pestle, or even a spice grinder, you lucky person.  These are better options.)

Preheat oven to 350º.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or don´t and accept that the chocolate might burn on the bottom of the cookies).  Cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well in between each addition.  Add in vanilla, beat well, add in cardamom.  Holding a sifter over the bowl, sift the flour, baking soda and salt directly into the bowl.  Stir to combine, fold in the chocolate. 
Refrigerate dough, covered in plastic, for up to 2 days, or use immediately (or bake some now and some tomorrow). Using a 1 Tbsp. measure, portion out cookies on baking sheet, leaving 2 in. between cookies to spread.  Bake for 10 min., rotating the sheet after 5 min. so they bake evenly, until the cookies are golden but not burnt please. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Coffee and Whiskey and Vampires, Oh My

Believe it or not, sometimes my patience runs out. Wait, what? Because that last post of mine was such a portrait of said patience. Tonight was one of those nights. We ran out of coffee a couple of days ago, and unfortunately it's not one of those situations that can be rectified by going to the store. Argentine coffee, the kind you buy in stores to brew at home, is, um, gross.  Sour, acidic, I'm not sure where they get it from or how they process it, but it's frankly pretty awful. You can sometimes find imported coffee but it's not at all what I could consider reasonably priced. Because we're elitist jerks around here with international connections (but little actual money), we always try to get someone to bring us back coffee from Colombia. But our stash ran out. And there's no international delivery in sight. And Felipe is in the middle of finals and was a bit desperate for coffee, so tonight around 11 we went out to look for some. We needed to find a place that accepted cards because we're both short on cash and the ATM charges you an arm and a leg if your account isn't Argentine. It's almost embarrassing to admit, but we ended up at McDonald's, and it's telling that I actually sometimes choose to go there for coffee because I prefer it to other coffee here. In cafes you can find espresso of varying quality, but it's not cheap and it's a bit of a toss up what you're going to find yourself drinking. I can say without a doubt that I've gone more to McDonald's in the two years I've lived in Argentine than I've gone my whole life in the U.S. I know, I'm a terrible person and a terrible ex-pat. Moving on.

As thrilled as I am that Argentina approved gay marriage last week, and that Prop 8 was overturned this week in California, before going out I completely depressed myself by watching the Prop 8 pro and con ads on youtube. My goodness we like using fear tactics for political manipulation.  Did you know that the gays want to prevent adoption agencies from operating?  Because what they want is to steal all your children and, after molesting them, drink their blood and make coats out of their hides. We need to protect our families from these Cruella Devil vampire menaces to society (haven't you noticed the majority of the vampires in True Blood are gay? Therefore all gays are vampires, duh.)  In some ways I'm shocked that Argentina (where abortion is illegal and the Catholic church exerts a powerful political presence) approved gay marriage before the U.S., but in some ways I'm not that surprised. I forgot that universal rights like health care are only for the commie socialists, like the Argentineans.

Anyway, the lack of coffee and the overabundance of bigotry put me in a foul mood which ended in a long-winded rant also known as preaching to the choir. We need a coffee refill around here. I should also maybe limit my youtube-viewing to stupid pet tricks and auto-tune covers. But also, we need a coffee refill because last week I made a new friend called chocolate-whiskey cake. It is awesome, perfectly awesome, but it really wants to be eaten with coffee. For breakfast. Ok, I'm not actually kidding. As far as I'm concerned it's a perfect breakfast cake because it's not too sweet, and if you make it in a loaf pan it seems much more legit for breakfast. The whiskey's definitely noticeable but not overpowering, though if you're not a big booze in desserts person it might be better to leave it for the evening. Wow, I kind of sound like an alcoholic, which is a huge stretch for someone who has been know to get a hangover from a glass of wine with dinner the night before. I do like to use alcohol as a flavoring a lot though, both in baked stuff and in cooking. And apparently now for breakfast too. That's what we did all last week, and as soon as we get some coffee around here, we're doing it again.

Chocolate-Whiskey Cake
     adapted from Melissa Clark

8 oz. (1 c. or 2 sticks or 227 g.) butter, room temperature (save the wrappers to grease the pans)
1 c. hot double-strength coffee (or 1/4 c. instant espresso powder mixed with 1 c. boiling water)
2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 c. bourbon or other whiskey, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
2 c. all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
5 oz. (142g.) unsweetened chocolate 
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
Confectioners' sugar, for garnish (opt.)

Preheat oven to 325ºF. In the microwave or a double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate. Let cool.
Add the cocoa powder to the hot coffee, mix until it dissolves. Add whiskey and salt. Leave to cool.
Stick the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Use the butter wrappers to grease two 9 in. x 5 in. loaf pans, then flour them lightly, knocking any excess flour out.  Using electric beaters, or a wooden spoon and your own elbow grease, beat the butter in the bowl until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda and melted chocolate, scraping down the sides of the bowl periodically.
Beating slowly, add in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 c. of the flour. Repeat additions, ending with whiskey mixture. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 55 min.-1 hr.  
Transfer cake to a rack. Unmold after 15 minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey. Let cool before serving, garnished with confectioners' sugar if you like.