Fresh ginger is one cooking ingredient that we can't seem to do without. Imported to Argentina from Brazil, the root is harvested between July and November. After that, there's none available in the grocery stores here, so I make do with a supply of my own preserved ginger. I use the recipe from Joy of Cooking for Canton Ginger, which involves cooking and soaking the root over a period of 4 days. It's well worth the effort, and a jar of preserved ginger makes an exotic, much-appreciated gift at Christmas time.
While the fresh root is still available, I grate it along with carrots to make a colourful, spicy salad. A handful of golden raisins and a curry-flavoured vinaigrette dressing complete this side-dish, which we like to pair with barbecued chicken. San Rafael has several roadside stands where chicken is cooked on the grill in a flattened style called "pollo rana," as its shape resembles a frog. These take-out chickens are large and provide enough meat for several meals. The price for a whole barbecued chicken with lemon sauce and french fried potatoes is about 20 pesos.
A fruity, full-bodied white wine is required to accompany the grilled chicken and carrot salad. We selected Argento Chardonnay 2008 for this meal. Grapefruit, apple and pear flavours with slight minerality and a crisp finish make this wine one of our favourites for serving with barbecued pollo. Argento wines are exported to Canada and the U.S. and the winery's website features some terrific photos of Argentina.
A bottle of Argento Chardonnay costs 26.65 pesos at Vea supermarket. We have to mention that we also receive a discount on wines when we use our Vea Club Vino card. This free card can be ordered online, and it provides a 15% discount on wines and other monthly specials such as cheese, chocolate, jamon crudo and delicatessen foods.
The eggplant has a history of being a culinary ambassador, having travelled from its native India to almost every country around the world. It arrived in South America in 1650 with the Spanish explorers and ever since, the "apple of love" has been a mainstay in Argentine cuisine.
This adaptable fruit (which we tend to think of as a vegetable) is now being offered back to India with genetic modifications designed to make it more pest-resistant. Monsanto, in collaboration with Cornell University, has created the Bt eggplant with the idea of improving crop yields in Asia and other countries (such as Argentina) where the plant is grown. Recent news articles show that there is opposition to the introduction of the genetically modified eggplant, as little is known about its long-term safety for humans, animals and the environment. The lovely glossy-skinned aubergine that left India on an extended global journey has come full circle, and arrived back home in a sadly altered state. It has become a test case for other genetically engineered foods that are being proposed for human consumption.
I know that the eggplant used for last night's dinner was not the product of a genetically modified seed, (Bt seed is just being introduced this season by Monsanto) but in future, how will I know for sure? The eggplant was sliced in half and baked for 30 minutes in the oven before removing the flesh. Ground beef, saffron rice, oregano, chili pepper and onions went into the filling, along with the diced eggplant. Served in its boat-shaped skin, this dish makes an impressive presentation at the table.
We paired the stuffed eggplant with Colon Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Valle de Tulum in San Juan province. This wine has an agreeable cherry and black pepper flavour, with just a hint of coffee and toast in the finish. It sells for 12.50 pesos at the local autoservicio Casa Martin.
We enjoy dining out once in a while and San Rafael has some fine restaurants offering regional menus with very affordable prices. The Tower Hotel's Sud Restaurante is an excellent place to dine, with daily "Chef's Suggestion" - a 3 course meal priced at 55 pesos, which includes a bottle of wine.
We chose Sopa Verde for the first course, a vegetable soup blended from asparagus, broccoli and green peas. It was served drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, and accompanied by crusty rolls. Delicious!
The entree featured two Filet Mignon served with sherry sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and rounds of butternut squash. We ordered the meat rare, (Argentines tend to grill beef medium to very well-done) and it arrived at the table perfectly cooked.
For dessert we opted for Almendrado, a creamy almond mousse coated with toasted nuts and topped with strawberry coulis. This lovely combination of nuts and fruit ended the meal with just enough sweetness, without being overwhelmingly rich. We enjoyed it with a "chico" - a small cup of espresso coffee.
Umbro Tempranillo 2006 accompanied this menu. The Umbro winery, located in San Rafael, is owned by the same family that owns the Tower hotel, restaurant, spa and casino. The tempranillo we sampled had definite notes of plum and blackberries, with a soft finish and very little astringency.
We have one old fig tree on our property which is still producing wonderful fruit. Fresh figs are a delicious treat whether enjoyed straight from the tree or cooked in foil on the barbecue. Last February, just prior to leaving for Canada to attend my daughter's wedding, I spent an afternoon preserving the abundant harvest in heavy syrup.
As this year's figs are fattening on the ends of the branches, we are down to our last jar of preserves in the cupboard. Today I took a few from the final jar and mashed them with onions, a bit of red pepper and capers to make a fig confit for our grilled salmon. The Greeks used to feed figs to athletes prior to Olympic events, to boost speed and stamina. Since the fig is 50% natural sugar, this would be the equivalent of eating a power bar before a marathon.
We paired the salmon menu with Rama Caida Sidra Demi-Sec as an alternative to wine. Rama Caida cider is made right here in our neighbourhood by the Martinez family, who founded the company in 1949. Their bodega produces a line of non-alcoholic sparkling fruit drinks as well as artesanal wines and cider. The demi-sec is made from local apples and pears and is a bubbly, refreshing, citrusy beverage.
A bottle of Rama Caida cider can be purchased for 4.73 pesos at Vea supermarket.
Learning a foreign language can be a frustrating and humbling experience. When we first arrived in San Rafael, even a trip to the corner fruitstand was a challenge in communication. How to ask for avocados, for instance?
"Tiene aguacates?" I ventured. I had looked up the word in my Spanish/English dictionary, and was quite confident that this would work, but the grocer gave me a blank stare. Remembering that the "v" is pronounced as a "b" in Spanish, I tried again.
"Tiene abogados?" This time the grocer burst out laughing, and so did the other customers in the store. An abogado is a lawyer, not a fruit.
The correct word for avocado in Argentina is "palta" which bears no resemblance to either its English or Spanish equivalent, but does start with the same letter as "pear". The ones we buy at the fruitstand are exceptionally large and delicious , either served raw in a salad or cooked in a soup. Today we made avocado soup for lunch with four paltas, chicken broth, a carrot, some green onions and parsley. The ingredients were simmered for 10 minutes and then pureed with my hand blender to a creamy smooth consistency. I reserved some of the avocado chunks to add back to the soup, for a more interesting texture.
We paired our recipe for Lawyer Soup with Latitud 33 Chardonnay 2008 from Bodegas Chandon. This is the South American branch of Moet & Chandon, the French champagne makers. In the mid-1950s Robert Jean de Voye decided to explore the possibility of expanding the company to the southern hemisphere, and travelled to Rio Negro, Salta and Mendoza, Argentina. He selected Mendoza province, with its desert climate and volcanic ash soil, as the perfect spot for growing grapes for champagne. In 1959 Chandon produced its first bottles of South American champagne. The Chardonnay has a tropical fruit flavour, with suggestions of banana and pineapple, and a crisp, clean finish. It can be purchased at Vea supermarket for 17.90 pesos.
When we lived in Alberta, Canada, we raised Nubian goats on our hobby farm. This breed of dairy goat produces the richest milk for cheese-making. Our goat girls - Paisley, Heather, Liberty and Magnolia - were intelligent and affectionate pets, and as a result, we find it impossible to eat chivito (goat meat) here in Argentina.
We do still enjoy eating goat cheese, however, and Argentina offers some interesting varieties. For lunch today we sampled Gouda de Cabra and Queso Fresco made by Cabras del Plata from Lavalle, Mendoza, and a semi-hard Queso con Pimienta Verde made by Cabramarca in Santa Maria, Catamarca. A spicy dried country-style salami sausage with the brand name Campo Austral, walnuts in honey and prunes added savoury and sweet flavours to the cheese platter. We served the cheese and meat on unsalted sesame crackers.
A strong, assertive wine is needed to match the tang of goat cheese and the garlic overtones of dried sausage. We paired La Chimiza Amateur Polo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 , another notable Mendoza wine, with the food. This red comes on strong with black cherry, pepper, coffee and herbal notes. There's a touch of nutmeg in there, too.
La Chamiza is named after a breed of polo pony, and the vineyard, located near Tupungato, was established on an estate that was formerly used for the "sport of kings." The long history of polo in Argentina has spawned many top-notch riding schools. Have a look at an estancia that offers polo instruction for novices and more experienced players who want an active, adventurous vacation.
This bottle was purchased at Vea supermarket for 20.85 pesos.
I have been reading a fascinating travel book entitled "Rough Notes taken during some rapid journeys across the Pampas and among the Andes" written by Captain F.B. Head. Working as an engineer for a British mining company, in 1826 he travelled on horseback from Buenos Aires to Mendoza province and into the Andes Mountains. Captain Head became familiar with the Gaucho lifestyle during these long trips, and his observations are full of respect for the tough Argentine cowboy.
"As his constant food is beef and water, his constitution is so strong that he is able to endure great fatigue; and the distances he will ride, and the numbers of hours that he will remain on horseback would hardly be credited. ... It is true that the Gaucho has no luxuries; but the great feature of his character is, that he is a person without wants."
Though the modern Argentine diet has expanded to include items from other food groups, beef is still a staple element and is undoubtedly the most favoured meat. Lean beef from range-fed cattle is available at every butcher store and is served up in large quantities in every household. We are continually amazed at the huge bags of beef that are hauled out of the grocery stores. (Bear in mind that the ultra-conservative Canadian food guide indicates that one meat portion should be about the size of a deck of cards.)
It took a while to become familiar with the Argentine cuts of beef and we're still not sure what all of them are like, but we regularly order filet and ask the butcher to trim off the fat. We like small, thick portions that can be grilled easily in a few minutes on the barbecue - browned well on the exterior, but rare at the center. Water might have been enough to satisfy the no-frills Gaucho, but we prefer to add a green salad and a potato to the menu and drink a glass of red wine. A good Malbec is the best companion for Argentine beef.
We paired Bournett Malbec Numerado 2007 with our steak dinner. This strong, clean wine has definite plum notes with a finishing hint of eucalyptus and cassis. It is the product of a small, well-managed vineyard- 37 hectares near San Rafael- owned by a family of French vintners who settled in Argentina in the early 1900s. Like buying a limited edition hand-pulled print, each bottle is individually numbered in a series of only 7000. The technical notes for this wine describe a traditional technique for fining using egg whites instead of filtration. This is a gentle way of clarifying and stabilizing the wine while removing bitter, astringent tannins, a method some wine-makers claim adds a silky texture. Bournett Numerado exhibits the full fruity command of the Malbec grape, without the addition of oak. This bottle was purchased for 30 pesos at Vinoteca Luciano Segundo at Balloffet 928.