A couple months ago, my mom told me that she had offered to cater a party for my grandma as a birthday gift and that I was invited to be her catering partner. The catering “service” would include brainstorming, preparing, plating, and serving a five-course, gourmet menu to eight hungry and self-claimed foodie guests. I was 100% on board.
So as soon as I got back home from my end-of-the-spring-semester activities, my mom and I started to prepare for the event. We worked on developing a few dish ideas by looking through all of our recipes from books, Word documents, online bookmarked pages, and collaged cutouts from magazines. We discussed and debated, and about a zillion ideas later, finally put them together into a cohesive and appetizing menu. A shopping list was written and a few days before D-day we began the incredibly long (and tiring) process that was the cooking.
However much time and energy it might have taken, the final result was well worth the effort that it took to develop the menu and then make it a reality—with a few exceptions of course. The gazpacho and avocado mousse with two Parmesan crisps was a much-enjoyed appetizer, but the tomato and avocado lollipops served alongside it, for example, were more of a failed experiment in molecular gastronomy than anything else. Visually, they were perfect, but their rubbery texture and imbalance between the flavorless avocado and acidic tomato was definitely a turnoff. At least we had the delicious and popular pancetta-wrapped fig skewers (stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with honey) and grilled eggplant dip served with rosemary flat bread to wash it down. Not to mention the paired rosé, whites, and port that my dad served throughout the meal.
Food successes and failures aside, the best part about this catering event was, oddly enough, everything but the taste of the food. I loved watching people decipher the menus we’d printed out when we brought out the mini croque-en-bouches and mixed berry sundaes, or listen to the “oohs” and “ahs” and diplomatic “very interestings” in reaction to tasty or not-so-great dishes. It was a time- and energy-consuming endeavor, and I am so glad that everything turned out well (or almost). But more so than that, it was amazing to experience the meal coming together and to then present and share it with my grandma and her closest friends and relatives.
It might be strawberry season, but I’ve already had more than my fair share of these red berries during the past couple of months, and in efforts to avoid my yearly summer habit of over-consuming a certain type of food and then not being able to ever eat it again, I’m pushing this fruit to the side until the next time they come into season. Last summer my mom went though an apricot-obsession phase, so we were eating some sort of apricot-based dessert every night. While she did get creative, too much is too much. Countless apricot tarts and cobblers later, I’m through with that fruit under its every form. I can still enjoy strawberries, but it won’t be long until I lose them to anther unfortunate case of fruit-aversion. I won’t take the risk.
In my effort to find different summer food options, I encountered Bon Appétit magazine’s buttermilk biscuit recipe (you can find it here) as well as Trader Joe’s big box of organic blueberries. Since then, a happy combination of two great things has been found: blueberry buttermilk biscuits. The combo isn’t anything new, but these little cakes are a satisfying breakfast, snack, or dessert and a versatile base for many other dishes—they can be toasted and topped with butter and jam for breakfast, served with cream, mixed berries, and chopped mint as a light dessert, or eaten by themselves. Seeing as how simple these little treats are to make, there’s no reason not to try some other variations (maybe with chocolate chips? nuts?).
Of course, the addition of strawberries would probably make for a wonderful version of this baked treat, but I’ll be waiting ’till next summer for that one. Until then, blueberries it is.
I’ve been trying to make red wine jelly for quite some time now, and I am happy to say that after three failed attempts, I’ve finally reached success. After several batches of viscous wine syrup that was sometimes filled with crystallized sugar or had a weird, lumpy texture, I’ve made a real, sweet but still acidic red wine jelly that is indeed gelatinous. It feels good to finally be able to enjoy the fruits of that labor and not throw yet another bottle’s worth of ungodly syrup down the drain.
I’m not sure why wine jelly has become such an obsession. Maybe it started when I saw goat cheese toasts topped with a dollop of fig jam? While fig jam is now pretty trendy (and, when you think about, not all that exotic) I hadn’t ever really seen it before, and I loved the idea of serving something sweet with something classically savory. Add on the idea of moving to Mendoza, South America’s “International Wine Capital,” for Spring 2013 study abroad and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged obsession with wine under its unconventional forms.
Now that I’ve tasted the successful version of red wine jelly on top of a blue-cheese toast, I realize that the struggle in making it was all worth the effort. The flavor is pretty subtle, but with a proper cheese-to-jelly ratio, this red wine jelly makes for a delicious and elegant appetizer. And it isn’t that bad spread onto a buttered blueberry or herb biscuit or simple slice of baguette either.
Red Wine Jelly
1 bottle red wine (I used a Malbec, but I think a Merlot would be good too)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons agar-agar
In a large pot, bring the wine and sugar to a boil. Lower heat and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Five minutes before the jelly is ready, add the agar-agar and stir. Pour into clean jars and close lids tightly. Flip each jar upside down to sterilize, and about 5 minutes later flip them right side up. Allow to cool completely before serving.
Today is officially my last day in Argentina. I’ve said almost all of my good-byes. My bags are packed (somehow I got everything to fit into the exact same bags that I came with; I have no idea how that’s possible, but I’m not going to question it for fear of them bursting right open). My flight leaves in just a few hours, and then tomorrow, after God-knows how many hours of travelling, I’ll land in California, get picked up at the airport by my parents, and start this American life once again. Hello family, old friends, Mexican food, sushi, and English spoken everywhere.
There are a lot of things from home that I’ve missed while abroad, but there’s also so much that I’m sad to leave here. Argentina may be full of economic problems, political corruption, and a frustratingly unreliable bus system (never again will I complain about having to wait eight minutes for the 1 train to arrive at the platform), but it’s also here that I’ve met the nicest, most generous, warm people. I already miss the friends I’ve made here, and I don’t even want to think about how the improvements I’ve made in Spanish are going to plummet into the abyss of invisibility when I stop speaking and hearing the language during most of the day, or how I have no idea when I’ll be having another one of those amazingly flavorful asados. Oh Argentina, what will I do without you?
There are a few things (i.e. food) that I will be able to take along with me. One of my carry-ons, for example, is filled with the different types of cookies that my host mom would serve me for breakfast (no fruit of yogurt here in the morning as you will be called a monkey if you’re caught eating a banana for breakfast). Among those many cookie boxes are six of the Manón brand; they carry my name, so I was basically obligated to take a few with me, right? I’ve also got copies of several of my host mom’s recipes and the address of an Argentine grocery store in NYC. So aside from those asados, I’m basically set.
There are also a few of us in the program who might have decided to be one of those pretentious study abroad return-students who show in the most obvious way possible that they’ve lived outside the country. So if you ever see a few people drinking mate on Low Steps, it might be us.
Mate is one of the greatest Argentine customs, and travelling to Argentina without tasting this famous infusion is like going to Italy without eating pizza or to France without enjoying a croissant. Mate is to Argentina as the hamburgers are to the US, and aside from the horrendous Fernet con Coca (which apparently is an acquired taste, but to me just tastes like something you’d take for a bad cough) it’s basically the national drink and its people’s pride and joy. While many Argentines drink it in the morning as Americans would coffee (mateina has a similar energizing effect as caffeine), mate is generally enjoyed in social settings. The tea is passed around to all participants and everyone sips from the same bombilla (metal straw), all the while respecting the protocol that surrounds this friendship ritual. There are a lot of different claims to the correct way to cure the mate cup, how to prepare the tea, which brand of yerba to use, and more, so five months in Argentina and many mates later, I still feel as though I’ve only acquired a very basic understanding of the complex ritual that surrounds this tea. Evidently, it’s much more than just a simple plant infusion.
The first time that a friend and I were offered to share mate with an Argentine that we’d just met, we were sitting in film class listening to the professor’s lecture and were thus unable to communicate our excitement to each other about having just been initiated into the most Argentine tradition that there could be. We passed notes to each other that read, “make an Argentine friend…CHECK!” and “drink mate in class…CHECK!” and did our best to control our exhilaration. I later found out that by taking just a few sips without finishing the whole cup I had totally butchered the protocol, but oh well… A couple weeks later, a few of us from the program went to the park to drink mate, and if only we hadn’t been taking a ton of pictures of ourselves we would have looked totally local. Good thing we’ve gone back since, complete with snacks and a guitar (and without the camera).
Most of all, I’m going to miss the daily mate and charla (chatting) that I’d enjoy with my host mom after waking up from the siesta. She’d set up a beautiful table of toast, homemade jams, cookies, and cake, and then we’d sit down and talk about whatever was on our minds at that moment: class, politics, friends, the repairs that needed to be made in the apartment upstairs, food, the neighbors, family, or life. Over these past five months in Argentina, I’ve gotten to be pretty close to my host mom—she’s made me feel at home in a foreign country, she’s taken me into her family even though we’d never known each other before my arrival, and she’s taught me so many valuable lessons, whether about the Spanish language, cooking, or life. My host mom is one of the most generous and genuinely good people that I’ve ever met in my life, and she will be the hardest person to say good-bye to when I leave. I’m really going to miss her, as well as our daily mate and charla, when I’m gone.
Mate is something very special, and it is a custom that I will dearly miss when I go back home. More than just a tea, it’s about friendship and the people it’s shared with. While my time in Argentina is now coming to a close, the national traditions I’ve learned about, the people I’ve met, and the people who have taken me into the their hearts will stay with me forever. There are many reasons to come back, so I hope it won’t be too long before the next time I set foot in this country once again. Un beso grande, Argentina.
I wouldn’t generally call myself super gung-ho when it comes to horseback riding—what with suffering from a sore pair of legs and butt after just a few hours of walking, and having generally been assigned temperamental horses on past excursions, the thought of sitting on top of a massive, powerful, moving animal makes me a little nervous—but there’s no turning the opportunity down when it comes to horseback riding in the Argentine Andes. So a few days ago, I went to Potrerillos, a tiny village about one hour away from the city of Mendoza, to ride in the province’s backcountry.
Gaucho day, as they called it, was an incredible experience. We saw the beautifully barren landscape of the Andes mountains, we walked through streams and snow, we enjoyed a relaxing lunch complete with malbec and my host mom’s banana and cacao bizcochuelo (a sponge cake-y banana bread). The weather was beautiful. Condors soared above us and off in the distance. My horse might have been a little temperamental (he bit and kicked a few of his slower friends and constantly tried to eat prickly bushes, which didn’t strike me as the most appetizing of the flora available), but hey, that’s all a part of the experience. After four hours on horseback, we came back to Mendoza happy, tired, sore, and dazed at the incredible landscapes we’d seen.
Before the horseback riding adventure had even begun however, we were welcomed into the estancia with mate and warm sopapillas, fried squares of dough sprinkled with sugar—a most perfect way to begin the day. These pillow-y pastries were served very simply, but my goodness were they delicious. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and only slightly sweet with the sprinkled sugar, it was incredibly difficult to resist taking seconds (and thirds and fourths). Sopapillas are definitely not the healthiest of pre-horseback riding snacks, but hey, anything’s permitted when you’re about to go horseback riding in the Andes.
In case I haven’t mentioned so already, Mendoza’s slogan is “the land of sun and of good wine.” We’ve had so few days of rain or clouds that I can total them up on just one hand, and even though we’re already less than two weeks away from the shortest day of the year and are entering what are supposed to be Argentina’s coldest months (Southern hemisphere here), we’re still hanging out after class in café patios and walking around town wearing nothing more than fall jackets. Either winter isn’t coming, or we’re reaping the benefits of Mendoza’s abnormal microclimate. Whichever it might be, I’m thinking it’s just that Mendoza has perfect weather: moderate temperatures without the annoyance of humidity taking over my hair.
As for the good wine, Mendoza is South America’s biggest wine producer. The province’s most important holiday of the year (featuring fireworks, parades, and more) celebrates the annual grape harvest, and it’s usually less expensive to share a bottle of malbec than to order a glass of mineral water in the average restaurant or café. There are lots of opportunities for free and fancy wine tastings, gourmet dinners with wine pairings, and tours of nearby vineyards. Música y vino en las alturas (Music and wine in the heights), for example, is an open-air concert on the rooftop of a municipal building where a free glass of wine if offered to enjoy while admiring the amazing view of the city in front of the Andes cordillera. A few months ago, there was also the inaugural Semana del vino (Week of wine), which celebrated Mendoza’s recognition as the International wine capital with plein air wine tastings, concerts, and lectures. If you don’t already like wine before coming, you’re pretty much obligated to love it by the time you leave.
So last Friday, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a bodega bici tour (vineyard tour by bike) in nearby Maipú, a popular destination for wannabe samplers of Mendoza’s famous malbec. The bikes had semi-functional breaks (I’m pretty sure I developed a significant amount of hand-muscle by the end of the day after having had to exert so much force to avoid crashing into my friends), but aside from that, riding from bodega to bodega was an awesome way to visit the wineries, even for someone who’s not a huge fan of biking.
We stared the day at Laur Olivícula, a small olive oil production (I know I just said that we went on a wine tour, but olive oil production is a big thing here too). After a guided tour of the grove and of the production center, we were offered to taste the different olive oils and pastes, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Let’s just say that we did a little more than just a sampling of their products—by the time we left, the huge pile of bread that accompanied the tasting had completely disappeared. We ate so many samples that we never got hungry enough to stop for lunch.
Next up we visited two small boutique wineries, Familia Di Tommaso, and Tempus Alba. The guided tasting of four different wines (white, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and a sweet desert wine) at Familia Di Tommaso was a perfect introduction to the proper method of wine degustation: first examine the color, then analyze the viscosity of the liquid and smell its aromas, and finally taste the wine, looking for the particular flavors that it might have. We then set out for Tempus Alba where we enjoyed an unaccompanied tasting of six different wines: rosé, merlot, tempranillo, syrah, malbec, and cabernet sauvignon. Having the six varieties available to taste at our leisure was incredibly helpful in learning to differentiate between each type, and our impromptu blind tasting proved that even as novice wine-connoisseurs we were beginning to get a feel for particularities between each variety. To accompany the tasting we ordered a delicious apple and chocolate tart with a malbec coulis and a beautiful, layered chocolate and candied orange peel cookie, jelly, and ganache cake—a perfect indulgence before saddling up for the last leg of the trip.
At Productores y Sabores, an artisanal liquor, jam, and olive-product producer, we tasted a few chocolate and spiced liquors, an olive and bell pepper spread, a hot pepper paste, and malbec jam. I was particularly intrigued by the malbec jam, because after many of my own failed attempts at making red wine jelly, I had the experience the successful version of what I’d been hoping to make. I bought a jar from Productores y Sabores and am now anxiously awaiting to enjoy it drizzled onto broiled goat cheese or Brie croustades as a sweet-and-savory appetizer. Delicious.
While the Maipú bike tour had to come to an end, there are still plenty of opportunities for wine tastings in Mendoza, including something I am incredibly excited about: a two-hour long wine tasting class where I’ll be sampling 5 different wines from within the Mendoza region and learning more precisely the proper way to taste and enjoy them. Looks like I’m going to have to find a way to keep up this wine rhythm when I get back to New York.
My Spanish teacher Ángel is the most entertaining teacher I have abroad. He always comes to class wearing one of his many Yves Saint Laurent sweaters with appropriately paired slacks and leather loafers. Most of the class time is spent talking about what we did over the weekend or what we have planned for the one coming up, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, he has us sing Shakira. More often than not, he finds himself on a tangent talking about Argentine politics or some amazing food we must absolutely try before going back home, so to tell you the truth, we spend very little time doing actual class work.
I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how many times he’s mentioned it, but we’ve spent a significant portion of class talking about the havannets from the Havanna coffee shop downtown: a rich and sweet cone-shaped dessert covered in chocolate and filled with a shortbread-esque cookie and the ultra popular milk-jam called dulce de leche. When I finally went to try it upon Ángel’s persistent recommendation, I realized that they are actually his elegant excuse to feast on a bunch of dulce de leche. Since they mostly consist of the rich, caramel-tasting filling, dessert doesn’t get much better than this indulgence for someone with a sweet tooth.
I’ve since taken a rather dangerous liking for the more popular and quintessentially Argentine alfajor, which has the same components as the havannets but with a far less scandalous proportion of dulce de leche to cookie: they are basically a chocolate-covered sandwich made with the same cookie and dulce de leche as the havannets. Countless variations are possible by altering the fillings (coffee, walnut, jam, etc.), cookie types, and exterior coating (white or dark chocolate, meringue, etc.). While the Havanna alfajores are sold exclusively in that café, there are many other brands that sell similar versions. So while they might not always be as good as the original, the temptation at kiosks and grocery check out lines is sometimes too much to master…
Alfajores are the most wonderful snack, and just thinking of the fact that my time to enjoy them is limited to the remaining length of my stay in Mendoza makes me nostalgic for the study abroad experience I still haven’t left from. The immigration office better not have a problem accepting them into the States, because I am so packing a half-dozen boxes to extend the wonder of the Havanna alfajor into my life back home (and of course to share them with friends and family, don’t worry).
Empanadas are by far the best thing that’s happened to me since arriving in Mendoza. Actually, scratch that: empanadas are one of the many awesome things that I’ve gotten to experience in Argentina. I’ve been known to exaggerate, but my enthusiasm and enamor for this most delicious, stuffed finger food is more than sincere. Whether picking them up from a cheap eatery in town to enjoy in one of the city’s plazas, heating up my host mom’s in our kitchen’s little toaster oven when she isn’t home to prepare lunch, or coming home from a long day of classes to see my host mom (she’s the best) stuffing and pinching their edges closed, I’m a happy girl when it’s empanadas on the menu.
The picadillo (filling), dough, and baking procedures are numerous and vary according to region. Nevertheless, here’s the basic idea: the filling is made from a mixture of meat (beef or chicken), onions, and spices, then stuffed into a wheat-based dough, and then either oven-baked or fried. The type of meat (ground or cubed), proportion of meat to onions, combination of spices, addition of extra ingredients (hard-boiled eggs, raisins, olives, etc.) and the way the empanada dough is sealed, all depends on the region in which they are prepared (and, of course, on the cook’s personal taste). There are even empanadas de choclo that are filled with corn and cheese, and empanadas de atún, filled with tuna or another type of fish. My host mom’s atún version even has a bit of sugar dusted onto the outside of the dough, which is super delicious because the sugar caramelizes a little while baking.
As you might imagine, my host mom makes the best empanadas in Argentina. Her empanadas de carne are adapted from the classic mendocinian version: 1 part ground beef to 2 parts chopped onion cooked with chili, cumin, salt and pepper, and a bit of white wine (that last ingredient isn’t a classic one, but it sure is a good addition). When filling the dough, she adds either green olive or hard-boiled egg slices. Eaten fresh out of the oven, these empanadas are juicy and flavorful. The acidity of the olives complements the sweetness of the filling, and the egg whites and yolks add texture. Overall the best argentine comfort food to rid away any morsel of homesickness.
My biggest concern before arriving in Argentina was how I’d get along with my host family and the type of food I’d be eating with them. I’d heard a lot about the argentine love affair with beef (as we all have) and a bit about its rich Italian influence. What’s more, my trusty guidebook warned about the lack of vegetables, which it said the argentines consider a simple garnish. In my mind this translated to an extreme, protein-and-starch diet for the duration of my stay here, so during my last week in the States, I prepared to say good-bye to fresh greens, savoring every last salad or raw vegetable I could get my hands on.
Once in Argentina, I quickly realized that the food here is nothing to worry about. There are salads abound, the fruits are ripe and the vegetables fresh. And as for the beef, and especially for the abundance of Italian food, the Italian immigrants have done justice to their European heritage. My apprehension was clearly misplaced.
In fact, a few days ago I awoke to find my host mom making ñoquis caseros (home-made gnocchi). I was quite impressed: she was boiling and mashing the potatoes, adding in an egg, spices, and (best of all) chopped parsley. Before beginning to knead the gnocchi dough into flour and shaping them into the classic gnocchi shell shape, she even set a pan of tomato puree to simmer and reduce with onion, bell pepper, left-over chorizo, and more spices. It was going to be a fabulous lunch.
And indeed it was. I’d never really appreciated gnocchi before this meal because I had always found them heavy and tasteless. These, however, were something else: because they were made with very little flour, they were much lighter than expected. And paired with the reduced tomato sauce, the combination was more than perfect. Argentina has outdone itself once again.
These first weeks in Argentina have provided confirmation of two things: the Argentines like their sweets sweet, and they love their famous dulce de leche. Essentially a milk jam, dulce de leche is made by heating sweetened milk until it caramelizes and turns a brown color. The result is a soft, caramel-like spread that is incredibly rich and sweet, and it is so popular here that any excuse to serve or incorporate it into a dish is reason enough to eat it: it’ll be served on toast for breakfast, in a cookie-sandwich for an afternoon snack, within a chocolate mousse or cake, as a flan or ice cream flavor, as candy, etc. The list goes on…
I was thus anxious to try this famed national treat upon arrival in Buenos Aires, and on a hot sunny day (sorry New Yorkers, it’s summer here!), ice cream made for a perfect afternoon snack. I opted for the Volta heladería (ice cream shop). Its beautiful, zen-like terrace with bamboo-lined walls, pale wooden floors, and cast-iron patio furniture lent itself perfectly to a peaceful escape from the busy streets outside. The dulce de leche ice cream itself was served as elegantly as the establishment’s decor: two scoops in a waffle cup cone. There’s no better summer snack than that.
For those with a sweet tooth, dulce de leche ice cream is just about the most perfect summer snack or dessert. Volta’s in particular was smooth, creamy, and also had a rich, sharp caramel flavor. This combination balanced out the extreme sweetness of the caramel taste which would have otherwise been overwhelming. As my first initiation into the culinary world of Argentina, this dulce de leche helado proved itself a most excellent beginning.