Thursday, November 24, 2011

So you're moving to Argentina...

A family friend is planning on doing a semester abroad in Buenos Aires this coming year, and he asked me for some tips. After I wrote a quite long email, I realized that it was not the first time and figured I might as well share the information here. I do want to make clear up front that, particularly with the housing suggestions, these are my personal opinions based on my experience and other people certainly have differing ones.


The biggest challenge for foreigners (and Argentines from outside of Buenos Aires) when looking for housing in Buenos Aires is that most places require a 2-year contract with garantia-- a garantia is a legal agreement where you guarantee your end of the deal by putting up another property in Buenos Aires as collateral-- basically, you (or someone from your family) need to own a property in order to rent a property. This puts many people into what I like to call the Common/Mos Def quandry: Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.? If I had I.D., I wouldn't need I.D.

Your best bet at getting around the garantia requirement is offering to pay as many months as you can up front. You can try to bargain with people on the overall price this way too. Avoid any property handled by imobiliarias (real estate companies) as they tend to charge a lot more, plus they will charge you several months rent as their "fee". Where to look, then? We found our last two apartments on, and the print newspaper Clarin always has listings. A couple more things to keep in mind: if the listing is priced in dollars, you already know it's going to be expensive. And if you're already in Buenos Aires, when you call to find out about the place, get a local friend to call for you (local as in from specifically Buenos Aires; the accent matters). 

There are places offered with foreigners in mind that rent month-to-month and don't require garantia; this is certainly one way to go-- most are furnished as well, making it convenient if you're not planning on staying for longer than a couple of months. Obviously these places are considerably more expensive. 

As far as neighborhoods go, a popular choice for many foreigners is San Telmo, a cool, oldish/bohemian neighborhood that's very close to downtown. Lots of Europeans live there and tourists love it, which makes it obviously more expensive than a lot of other places, but it has beautiful crumbling architecture and there is always a lot of music and cultural stuff going on around there-- tons of galleries and restaurants, too. We lived in Almagro, which I really like, it's a more chill, middle class neighborhood in the geographical center of the city, which makes it convenient for a lot of places, but it depends where you are planning on spending most of your time. Villa Crespo, which is next to Almagro, is really nice too, as is Caballito. Boedo and Once are a bit rougher, but we lived in Once for the last year and though it´s not the prettiest neighborhood, it´s close to the center, and you´re smack dab in the middle of a huge orthodox Jewish community, which makes for an interesting change. 

I personally would probably not live in Palermo because I find it trendy, annoying and unnecessarily expensive, same with Recoleta. I wouldn't recommend Constitucion or Flores because they are dangerous, nor Belgrano because it's quite far from the center. Having said that, Palermo and Recoleta are two neighborhoods that will be the first places Argentines will tell you to live in if you are American or European. It really depends on what you're looking for and what kind of budget you are dealing with.


Subway (subte) and buses are both good options for getting around the city. They are both heavily subsidized by the government, making them quite affordable, and the buses run 24 hrs/day. Many routes are just as likely to be packed at 4am as at 4pm. Taxis are considerably more expensive, and given that the buses run 24hs. a day and are widely used, I at least barely ever used them. At the same time, when I say expensive, I mean in comparison to the other options-- given the current exchange rate, many routes won't cost you more that $5 (assuming that they don't charge you for being foreign, which is not unusual).


You're going to want to pick up a Guia T, which tells you all the bus routes and is sold in all kiosks, and you're going to want to get a subtepass (metro card), too, which if I remember correctly you can just buy at any metro station and put money on as necessary.


The cheapest place to buy your typical groceries is generally the Coto supermarket chain; it's even cheaper than the chinos (Chinese-owned supermarkets). For fruits and vegetables I always went to verdulerias (vegetable stores, often narrow stalls between larger stores) because they are generally less expensive and often offer better quality with a wider selection than the grocery chains. Same thing with cheese-- I normally went to the neighborhood quesería, and the few times I bought meat it was far cheaper to buy it from the local carnicería (all meats) or pollería (just chicken), and they will cut whatever you want up for you, the way you want (as long as you can explain it). Las dieteticas (health food stores) are good for dry beans, whole grains and spices. If you're looking for anything "exotic"- which means marshmallows, hot sauce that's actually hot, Asian ingredients and passion fruit, go down to Barrio Chino. It will likely be far more expensive than you are used to paying, but if exists in Buenos Aires, it's probably there.

Additional Random Tips

Peanut butter is scarce and expensive. Jalapeños and other chilies can be found with the Bolivians (they will probably warn you that they are "very hot"). If you care about the taste of coffee, make sure you bring your own. Save your change and use it sparingly, because it is a highly-valued commodity. Don't introduce yourself as "americano" unless you want to be told that all South and North Americans are "americanos" (even though they will turn around and introduce you to someone else that way). And more than anything, relax and accept that people think about life differently, things are going to take longer than you are used to, and that with time the things that you find extremely bizarre (hosing down supermarket floors in the middle of the day) will become (bizarrely) normal.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Qué comen los vegetarianos #9

Fennel and carrot soup with black-eyed peas and parsley-fennel fond pistou over rice
Arugula salad with red pepper, cucumber and cilantro

Sopa de hinojo y zanahoria con frijol cabeza negra con pistou de perejil y anise sobre arroz
Ensalada de rúcula con pimentón, pepino y cilantro

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rainy Day

In Rio, when it rains, it continues for a good while, sometimes days, and people stay inside. This weather reminds me of the last time I was at my parents' house in Minneapolis this last April, though 65 and 35 are objectively very different temperatures. The house feels quiet and calm all the same, and I thought I'd share some stuff I've enjoyed lately while I have my oatmeal and coffee. 

-Saw this fascinating documentary this weekend. Dictatorship + awesome male dancers dressed as women makes for some powerful stuff, plus Liza Minelli thrown in for good measure. Did you know that Brazil had a dictatorship in the 70's? I didn't. Major social studies fail.

-Amazing, amazing  peanut butter cookies-- she says to "imagine a Reese's peanut butter cup cookie" and she's absolutely right. All an American living outside of the states could possibly ask for.

-Science tattoos- I love tattoo art, but I would never get one. The ammonite one is my friend Alex's.

-If you really want to feel like an inadequate Anglo dancing, take a look at this video. (The original video is here, and the instructional one here, which certainly doesn't make me feel much better. My butt cannot do that.)

-Last but certainly not least, going back to April in Minneapolis for me means Passover, and Passover in my family for the last couple of years means loads of matzoh brittle. I've seen it referred to as matzoh crack online, and in my family we're talking at least a batch a day, which is rather scary given that each batch contains 2 sticks of butter. What can I say, life is short, Passover feels eternal (for those who stick to the dietary restrictions), and there's nothing like matzoh brittle and sweet potato soup on a chilly April day. And by the by, this works with saltines, too, so even Americans in Brazil can make it in the middle of November-- or so I'm told.

Matzoh Brittle
     adapted from Marcy Goldman and David Lebovitz

4-6 sheets unsalted matzohs
1 c. (8 oz.) unsalted butter
1/2 tsp. natural vanilla extract
1 c. (7.5 oz.) firmly-packed brown sugar
6 oz. (1/2 package) semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c. (3 oz.) pecans or almonds, toasted and chopped (You can slip them in the oven while it's preheating up, just don't forget about them and let them burn. Then chop them while the brittle is baking.)

Preheat the oven to 375F. Line a rimmed baking sheet completely with foil, including up the side of the sheet. Fit the matzohs in one layer, adding smaller pieces to completely cover the sheet. 
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter and brown sugar together. Stir as the butter melts, then let the mixture boil for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir in the vanilla, then immediately pour the mixture over the matzoh, trying to evenly distribute it. Working quickly, use a spatula to spread the mixture so all the maztoh is covered. Bake for 10-15 min., checking after 10 to make sure it hasn't begun to burn in spots. 
Immediately sprinkle the matzoh evenly with chocolate chips. Let them sit for 5 minutes without touching them, then use an off-set spatula (or table knife) to spread the chocolate evenly over the matzoh. Sprinkle the nuts over the chocolate, gently pressing them in, then lightly sprinkle salt over the whole thing. Leave to cool. 
Break into pieces. Devour.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My kind of normal

The first time I had tres leches cake, I was in a Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe called Adelita's, which my boyfriend at the time adored. I remember not being such a big fan of the place, but the tres leches cake was milky and sweet and cold and delicious, and it more than made up for anything that may have been lacking in the way of savory dishes. Now that I think of it, it was probably my first introduction to Latin American sweets. If you had told me at the time that I would end up spending years of my life in South America, I would probably have told you that you were smoking craack-y, as the Brazilians say. 

I moved away from Santa Fe, and years of my life passed without another appearance (or, strangely, given how much I liked it, much thought) of tres leches cake. And then the first time I was in Colombia a couple of years ago, I was out to dinner with my friend Carolina and for dessert one of the options was tres leches. ¿La torta? I asked. -¿Como asi?  El postre de tres leches no es torta, es frio y cremoso, de leches... (which shows my pretty low level of Spanish at the time...postre normally refers to a cold, creamy dessert.) I was confused and disappointed, especially because I had a vague but hopeful notion that tres leches cake wasn't a specifically Mexican thing, but pretty common all over Latin America.

Lucky for me, I wasn't completely wrong, I just didn't know it yet. Back in Colombia this past year, a friend's birthday was coming up and I had promised to bring the cake for the party. What kind of cake does she like? I asked her cousin. -Just make her a normal cake, was his answer. Now, if you're like me, you probably never gave much thought to something like what a "normal" birthday cake might mean outside of the states, but I had already been out of the country long enough to know that it's much better to ask (cause you know what happens when you assume...and I've done that plenty) What's a normal birthday cake? -You know, torta genovesa. -Which is...? -You know, it's like, fluffy and wet. That didn't ring any bells, and no one seemed to know how the torta was made, so I made her something else. At the local bakery awhile later, though, a suspiciously tres leches-looking cake caught my eye. What kind of cake is that?  -Genovesa. Ordering a slice confirmed my suspicions. It also reminded me that I find many desserts in Latin America way too sweet, which prompted several reformulations of the recipes I came across (and which also prompts a lot of the posts on this blog). The resulting cake is milky, cold and still quite sweet, but not tooth-achingly so. You won't taste the cocoa powder on top, but it's a traditional touch, in Colombia at least. It's the kind of cake that immediately evokes childhood memories for those who grew up with it, and instantly hooks people who haven't had it before. As far as I'm concerned, that's about as good of a "normal" as I could ask for in a cake, or anything else for that matter.

P.S. Speaking of normal, my sister, in her typical, direct fashion, gchatted (not a verb, I know, ridiculous) me to say that the photo of the cake "looked gross"...and she's kind of right. This cake is not going to win any beauty contests, at least not in sheet-cake form, and in this particular case I was in a rush so not all of the milk got completely absorbed into the cake, making it weep on the sides into the frosting. Thus the grossness. BUT I hope that won't deter anyone from making it, that would be very sad, just, you know, do as I say and not as I do and don't rush this cake. Go for style and substance, I say...or at the very least, try to avoid grossness, because people have to actually want to try the cake in order to experience its wild deliciousness.

UPDATE: way less gross picture here; this round version makes a cake that serves 8-10 people. Halve the ingredients for the cake and milks, and bake the cake a 9-in. cake pan. Unmold the cake before soaking it, and use the same amount of ingredients for the frosting as below (4 egg whites etc.)

Tres Leches Cake

For the cake:
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 3/4 c. sugar
6 eggs, separated
1/2 c. whole milk

For the soaking mixture:
27 oz. (800 ml.) sweetened condensed milk
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) heavy cream
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) whole milk
2 Tbsp. dark rum
half a vanilla bean, scraped

For the frosting:
4 Tbsp. water
1 c. sugar
4 egg whites
pinch salt
1 Tbsp. dark rum

cocoa powder for sifting over the top (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Sift the flour and baking powder together. In a separate, large bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form, then gradually add in the sugar, beating until you have stiff, glossy peaks. Whisk the egg yolks together in a small bowl, then fold them just to mix into the egg white-sugar mixture. Fold in a third of the flour mixture, then half the milk, then alternate again with the flour, then the milk, then end with the flour.
Scrape the batter into an ungreased 9 in. x 13 in. pan and smooth the top. Bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, ~45 min. 
Whisk all of the ingredients for the soaking mixture except for the vanilla together. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the mixture and mix well so they don't clump together. 
Prick the cake all over with a fork, then begin to pour the soaking mixture all over the cake, distributing as evenly as possible. When the pan won't hold any more soaking mixture without it spilling over the sides, let the cake rest, covered, for an hour, then pour over the rest of the milk. Chill the cake in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight, well covered.
Once the cake is chilled, make the frosting. Boil the water and sugar together until you have a syrup at the soft ball stage. While the syrups boils, beat the egg whites and salt (on medium speed if using an electric beater) until you have soft peaks that droop when you pull the beaters out of the bowl. Continue to beat the egg whites while you add in the hot syrup, beating until the mixture has cooled and is fluffy and glossy. Stir in the rum. Spread evenly over the chilled cake. Sift a bit of cocoa powder over the top, if you like. Serve cold. Makes 16-20 servings.

En vez de la cobertura de merengue, también se puede hace una cobertura de crema chantilly. Para hacer una torta redonda más pequeña (que sirve 8-10 personas), haz la mitad de la receta para la torta y leches. Saca la torta del molde a un plato antes de echarle las leches. Para la cobertura, utiliza las mismas cantidades detalladas abajo (4 claras etc.)

Torta Genovesa (Torta de Tres Leches)

Para la masa:
2 tazas de harina (tipo 000) 
1.75 tazas de azúcar blanca
6 huevos, claras y yemas separados
2 cucharita de polvo de hornear
1/2 taza de leche entera
1/2 cucharita de sal

Para las leches:
27 oz. (800 ml.) leche condensada
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) crema de leche
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) leche entera
la mitad de una vaina de vainilla 
2 cucharadas de rón

Para la cobertura:
4 cucharadas de agua
1 taza de azúcar
4 claras de huevo
pizca de sal
1 cucharada de rón

cacao en polvo para salpicar encima (opcional)

Precalienta el horno a 160ºC. Tamiza la harina y polvo de hornear juntos. En otro bol grande, bate las claras con la sal hasta que empiece dar punto de nieve, después ve agregando el azúcar, batiendo hasta que tengas picos brillantes. Bate las yemas en un bol pequeño, después incorporarlas a la mezcla de claras y azúcar. Incorpora un tercio de la mezcla de harina, después la mitad de la leche, alterna otra vez con la harina, después la leche y termina con la harina, revolviendo suavemente para incorporar cada adición.
Echa la masa a un molde de 23 x 33 cm. y nivela la superficie. Hornea hasta que un cuchillo metido en el centro salga limpio, ~45 min. 
Revuelve todos los ingredientes para las leches menos la vainilla juntos. Raspa las semillas de la vaina de vainilla y echales a la mezcla, batiendo bien para que no se queden en grumos.
Con un tenedor, perfora la torta por todos lados y echale la mezcla de leches, distribuyendola lo más uniformemente posible. Cuando el molde no retenga más leche sin que se riege, deja la torta reposar una hora, tapada, después echale el resto de la leche. Mete la torta a la nevera a enfriar, tapada, por unas horas o por toda la noche. 
Cuando la torta esté fria, haz la cubierta. Hierve el agua con el azúcar hasta que tengas un almibar a punto de bola floja. Mientras el almibar hierve, bate las claras y sal hasta casi punto de nieve. Sigue batiendo las claras mientras vas agregando el almibar caliente, batiendo hasta que la mezcla se haya enfriado y esté brillante. Incorpora el rón. Unta el merengue sobre la torta. Tamiza un poco de cacao en polvo encima, si quieres. Sirve fria. Rinde 16-20 porciones.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Qué comen los vegetarianos out the fridge

Bulgur with mint and cilantro, roasted beets and hard-boiled egg, roasted eggplant and peanut dip (fake baba ganoush) with cucumber spears, braised red cabbage with apples, sweet plantain

Bulgur con menta y cilantro, remolacha asada con huevo duro, dip de berenjena asada con maní (baba ganoush trucha) con pepino, repollo morado salteado con manzana, platano maduro