The small sprig of rosemary that I planted last year has evolved into a shrub that's starting to take over the herb garden. Shakespeare's Hamlet comes to mind each time I walk past the spiky plant, the line where Ophelia says to Laertes: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray, love, remember..." Funny how memory work from long past school days resides permanently in the brain, though I can't recall where I left my reading glasses last night.
I picked one bunch of rosemary to add to my polenta, and another to add to the brim of my straw hat, as a natural memory aid. The Greeks encouraged students to twine the herb into their hair while studying, to improve learning. The pungent fragrance is enough to clear the head, and the pine oil flavour of rosemary lends grace to a bland staple like cornmeal.
Argentine polenta is made from a sub-tropical variety of corn called "flint" that differs from types grown in North America and Europe. It is harder, but more nutritious, with less starch and more protein content. The sun-dried kernel grinds to a finer grain, which means reduced cooking time, less stirring on the stove and a smoother, creamier end result.
My recipe is a version of the "Barefoot Contessa" Ina Garten's inspired polenta. The cornmeal is cooked on the stove for a few minutes in milk and chicken stock seasoned with rosemary, garlic and red pepper flakes. Off the stove, I stir in freshly grated parmesan cheese and then spread the thick mixture like cake batter into a pan, allow it to cool, and place it in the refrigerator. About two hours later, the chilled polenta is sliced into triangles which are lightly dusted with flour before being pan-fried in a little olive oil and butter until golden. This twice-cooked polenta is a great side dish for meat or seafood, and can be made ahead for the many potluck asados that take place during the summer.
We found a bottle of Finca Natalina Ugni and Chenin Blanc 2007
on a dusty back shelf at the local mercadito. Ugni Blanc, or Trebbiano as it is called in Italy, is a highly productive, very acidic grape grown in France for making brandy. It blends well with the Chenin to create a wine with citrus aromas, clear tropical fruit flavours and a hint of coconut. Bodega Putruele
, located at the foot of the Andes in the Tullum Valley, elaborates the wine and exports it to Russia, China, the U.K, the U.S and Finland. The bodega recently underwent a 1.3 million dollar renovation, with new bottling equipment and stainless steel tanks for fermentation. This bottle was purchased for 8 pesos, and the bag of polenta was 1.57 pesos at Casa Martin in Rama Caida. And before I forget, here's a link to a wonderful poem by Billy Collins entitled "Forgetfulness." The video version is narrated by the poet himself.
"The wise man bridges the gap by laying out the path by means of which he can get from where he is to where he wants to go." - J. P. Morgan
Today is Gnocchi Day, an event celebrated on the 29th of each month in Argentina. The tradition comes from Italian immigrants who were regularly short of money just prior to payday and needed an inexpensive meal to fill their stomachs. The frugal housewife learned to make gnocchi from potatoes, flour and an egg, and could serve up a tasty meatless meal for the entire household even when the larder was looking quite bare. It became customary to place a peso under your plate when you ate gnocchi, with the hope that your coin would multiply in the month ahead.
Making gnocchi is a hands-on process which becomes easier as you get a feel for the right consistency and texture. Russet potatoes are boiled and mashed, then mixed with a small amount of flour and an egg binder to form a dough. Depending on the moistness of the potatoes, I find the dough more workable with the addition of a tablespoon of water. (A scant tablespoon, as too much water will make the gnocchi hard.) The dough is rolled by hand into cylinders on a floured board, and then cut into bite-sized lengths. Each gnocchi is carefully pressed with a thumb against the tines of a fork to create the classic look; a row of parallel indentations on one side and a petal-shaped curvature on the other. Cooking gnocchi is as easy as dropping them into a pot of boiling water and waiting until they float up to the surface to be scooped out with a slotted spoon.
Fresh basil from the garden
Gnocchi can be served with tomato or cream-based sauces, but the best accompaniment for the dumplings is growing right in the front yard, in my herb garden. A bouquet of basil, chopped and blended with garlic, parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil makes a fragrant, green pesto sauce. I add ground almonds as a substitute for the standard pine nuts which are, unfortunately, not available in San Rafael.
We selected a bottle of Bianchi DOC Malbec 2007
to pair with the gnocchi. This wine is produced by the most prominent Italian family in San Rafael, third generation descendants of Don Valentin Bianchi and his wife Elsa, who settled in Rama Caida in 1910. Valentin Bianchi worked in railway administration, started a bus line and founded a timber company before being elected to City Council in San Rafael. He opened his own bodega called El Chiche in 1928, and by the time he died in 1968, the re-named Bodegas Valentin Bianchi
had become one of the most successful wineries in Argentina. Today, the Bianchi wines are exported to Australia, the U.S, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Singapore. The family has also enriched San Rafael's cultural life by creating a foundation for the arts which presents fine art exhibitons, dance performances and musical concerts at the bodega. A bottle of Bianchi DOC Malbec costs 17.85 pesos at Vea supermarket.
The herb garden is greening up with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. When weeding and thinning the plot, the pungent aroma of thyme lingers on the hands and just awhiff is enough to stimulate an appetite for dinner. The Greeks said a person "smelled of thyme" when they displayed an elegant, refined style. Hope some of that finesse rubbed off on me while I worked in the garden!
Sprigs of thyme in our garden
A handful of thyme, a bunch of parsley, a touch of Dijon mustard, some olive oil and balsamic vinegar whirled together with the blade of my hand blender to create a smooth Salsa Verde for our trout dinner. Trout from Patagonia is the most popular variety of fish available in this part of Argentina, and fly-fishing is a major part of the tourist industry. This fish is excellent poached or fried or grilled on the barbecue, but needs delicate cooking to preserve its flavour and moisture. We served our filets on a bed of bulgur wheat and garbanzo beans, accompanied by stir-fried zucchini and mushrooms.
We paired our seafood special with Michel Torino Coleccion Torrontes 2008
from Bodegas La Rosa
in the province of Salta. This wine has a distinctive floral nose, a nice balance of fruit and acidity and a grapefruit finish. It is one of the great value, quality wines of Argentina that is exported to Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. We purchased it for 10.25 pesos at Vea supermarket.
Trucha con Salsa Verde