“You eat with your eyes first!” Not in my Gaff!!! And Catalan Chicken?

I had a little argument with a dear friend on Saturday night. She doesn’t think I should call my “Puerta Cerrada” supper club, “Ugly Food”.

“It will put people off,” she explained.

“Not if they read my manifesto,” I replied. “If they understand what it’s about it should make them keener. If they don’t, I don’t really want them as guests because it wont make them happy.”

“Oh, so what is your manifesto?”

“Ah, I haven’t written it yet, but it’s very clear in my head.”

And that is when I realised I had just spent a fortune on designing my kitchen all-wrong! Admittedly, I have eaten in restaurants with open plan kitchens where you can see the nice guys in their white uniforms, slaving and sweating over their hot pots. And frankly it doesn’t do it for me. And further, given that I am not as technically accomplished as most of the prima donnas that wish to be on display, I personally prefer the window that I have put in, that allows me to see out (standing) but not for my guests to see in (sitting).

So why, as an aspiring Chef, am I not interested in watching my peers hard at it? Because you can’t smell anything; Because the modern kitchen has an extraction system that sucks the slightest fugitive whiff of aroma out into the wild blue yonder; Because the modern view is you might actually affront your clients with smells of your cooking; But let them see, yes of course, they eat with their eyes!

Bugger! I have just punched a massive hole through three floors of my building and have a shiny silver chimney that goes to the moon. Why, because I believed the ventilation specialists, who claimed that I shouldn’t assail my customers’ nasal passages with food odours. Fine if I was intending a MacDaddy hamburger and fries dinner club, using rancid oil; not so clever as an ugly food producer. What shall I do? Open my window? Turn off the extraction?

Why do I spend time thinking about such trivial matters? Because I cook ugly food and despite an extensive search on the internet I can’t identify who came out with the folkloric but generally accepted concept, “you eat with you eyes first”. I suspect it was some fast food chain, trying to add premium value to their sub prime offering, with a bunch of easily manipulated focus groups and sadistic food scientists in their cellar.

That being said, attractive presentation of food is nothing new but the French were probably the first to assure that the food looked as good as it tasted. Most former efforts I suspect, achieved the reverse and unfortunately there still appears to be an inverse relationship in Argentina, where technique is still triumphing over flavour.

It’s not really a surprise. Most great French Chefs still quote their mother as their greatest influence. Did they come into the kitchen to be presented with a medallion of this, with a smear of that, and a dribble of the other, topped with lovingly tweezered microgreens? I doubt it. They came into the kitchen to be assailed by the aroma of a big pot of this, and the baking of that and the reducing of something else. Do you think they ever asked themselves, “I wonder how all that is going to look?”

Similarly, I was lucky enough to have a mother who produced consistently flavoursome food. Do you think I ate her bacon-laden lentil stew or her oxtail soup with my eyes? No, no one could have ever called it pretty, but a blind man could have followed the smell.

There is a reason blind wine tastings are done blind. It’s so you are not influenced by the flash or the marketing, the ancestral heritage or the price. Yes, they still let you look at the colour, swirl it round so the “legs” indicate its alcohol level, but the most important thing is to stick your beak into it, then suck oxygen over it in your mouth, in order to ram it into your nasal passages. Only then are you are allowed to use your taste buds. Try guessing what a food is, say a banana or a mango, with your eyes closed (having obviously recruited an assistant to randomly choose and feed you a random food type). Not that difficult. Peg your nose closed as well; Nigh on impossible.

So my manifesto? Flavour before photographability? Stuff that smells? Enough sauce to flavour each bite, not just a decorative dribble?

The first thing you learn cooking as a “professional”, is not to worry about wastage. Apparently man-hours cost more than ingredients. Which implies that lovingly made stocks and sauces are possibly not a profit centre for most restaurants? It may actually be more profitable to concentrate on presentation as long as you fool more than half of the people, more than half of the time.

But I don’t really want to be a restaurant chef. I am a happy home chef, I like to entertain, and most of my guests love three out of four of my courses (or more if you subtract the picante-intimidated argentines). I want to cook seasonal, using the stuff that my Bolivian has fresh. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn all the classic techniques. It does mean that if you say, “this doesn’t look too pretty”, I won’t pay much heed. If you tell me that my food is bland, I guarantee you don’t have to pay! Though your dessert may contain something from my little packet of nuclear chillies that has been sitting in a locked cupboard whose instructions start, “Before opening this packet put on gloves and a face mask….”. Sounds as though they will add a bang to a chocolate volcano!

A long and you may think unnecessary lead-up to a recipe, invented a couple of nights ago that turned out deliciously, and strangely doesn’t seem to have anything like it that can be discovered by a google search of the most obvious terms and ingredients. A further advantage (for my inflation oppressed Argentine friends) is that it provides a hearty portion (mashed potato included) for less than 15 pesos a head. There is however, and for me this justifies a restaurant’s price (any idiot can cut up expensive Foie Gras and stick it on a piece of toast), a hefty investment of time.

It’s winter now in BA, which means it has dropped under 10 degrees C, as in “Summer” for you Brits, as in “estamos muriendo de frio!!!” And both I and La Doctora have been ill. Flu. Obviously, it’s the temperature change, down from 21 degrees three days ago. “Eso te mata, la verdad, te maaaata”. I really hadn’t eaten for a couple of days and was ready for something warming. And strongly flavoured. But I didn’t want to run around looking for ingredients, I was still too weak! So I went to the fridge, to see what was there. Onions. Why is it whenever you go to buy ingredients you never remember whether you still have onions, so you buy more just in case? I was not just suffering from flu after-effects but also from Onion Build Up. Time to rectify both.

The most obvious solution was French Onion Soup, but that lacked protein so the resolution was a sherry, enhanced (Spanish?) chicken dish with a reduced and turbo boosted French onion sauce. Maybe they serve something similar in Perpignan? Let’s call it Catalan Chicken (though if you stop before the chicken and sherry part it’s also French Onion Soup) and here we go;

Drag all your onions out of the fridge, buy some more, slice all roughly, you need several kilos (too many doesn’t exist), then stick them in a big pot with olive oil and go for it over a high heat for at least 20 minutes stirring regularly!…no onion burning required! Garlic and finely chopped ginger will enhance.

Lower the heat, and cook for another 40 minutes, stirring regularly, throwing in a couple of teaspoonful of sugar half way through if they don’t seem sweet enough. Then the secret; For the soup, the onions should have acidity. They don’t have much here, so bung in some apple vinegar. For the sauce don’t be shy, bung in lots. And give it another 10 minutes at least. The truth is, the longer and slower you cook this mountain of onions, the better it will taste. If you want to be El Capo de Capos, you can go up to 5 hours!!

Ok, recipes diverge here. If you are making the classic soup you need beef stock. You remember? The one you made with the bones the Carnicero gave you for your “dog”. Add stock to your browned onions (maybe add one star anise) bubble for a bit, do the crouton and cheese thing, add a swig of sherry and listo…it’s only time invested.

For the chicken dish, use chicken stock, obviously. Three kilos of leg and thigh (pata y muslo) currently cost 39 pesos. Feeds five butchered badly (yes you have to remove the bones and rip the skin off), don’t worry about taking the bones out in a sophisticated manner. The more flesh on the bone, the better the next stock (otherwise you can buy chicken carcases for about 4 pesos a kilo and get your butcher to do the work).

Fry the chicken hot with a bit of soy sauce, cut up when well browned and throw into sauce (maybe with a chilli and another big swig of Sherry) and again, cook slowly (time, time, time). If possible, finish cooking and leave overnight to intensify.

I’m not publishing a photo of the end result, because it looks like so many of the other foods I cook. Brown. My cooking teachers tell me that a bunch of different colours on the plate will make my food more “attractive”.

Would I find my Puligny Montrachet or Mersault de Hospice de Beaunes more attractive if it had some carefully crafted colour layering? Ni en pedo (I bet you can guess what that means)!

But close your eyes and stick your nose into it. Does it smell brown? No it smells like the result of hard labour. Sweetness and acid, meaty sauce soaking into creamy yellow (skin on) mash. Some carrots for taste and ok, they do give a bit of colour.

Un exito! If your friends don’t like this just get new friends. After all, it has taken you hours.

5 thoughts on ““You eat with your eyes first!” Not in my Gaff!!! And Catalan Chicken?

  1. 5th floor bed and breakfast. Sounds very interesting. When do you expect to finally open. I am coming to BA in February 2014 with a few friends and am trying to figure out where to stay. Will you be open by then. Do you have any promotional material ready yet so we can get a better idea of what you are going to look like. What will be your room rates etc etc etc. We are keen to find something with character and reading your blog suggest that you could be the one. Please get back to me. Thanks

    • Hi Gerry. We expect to open at the beginning of September, so everything should be running smoothly by February. While I hesitate to use the much overused term “unique”, it can be fairly applied to the property, which was built at the end of the 1930’s which was a time of great wealth in Argentina. I am currently completing a year long project to restore it to it’s former Art Deco glory and having fun running round the antiques markets and working with local artisans to provide appropriate furnishing. I’d define the difference between the 5th floor and other boutique hotels as being the difference between sitting with your host in a proper living room or sitting near the receptionist in a hotel lobby.

      It should be ideal for a group of you as there are only 7 rooms so you should feel very at home. We can also arrange additional activities such as wine tastings, asados (BBQ) on the terrace, tango lessons etc. Buenos Aires is normally lovely in Feb as you still have the heat but with less humidity. The beginning of Feb is also fun as the city government lays on scores of outdoor concerts of all types of music plus a host of other activities. That being said there is always plenty to do here anyway.

      We are located in the most accessible part of Palermo, with a subway stop 2 minutes walk away and lots of bus routes a block away. A block the other way takes you to a big square and pedestrian boulevard with plenty of cafes and restaurants. Let me know if you have any special interests and I can give you some suggestions. Myself and my partners know the city and its social and cultural scene very well.

      I’m afraid I don’t have any promotional material yet as we are waiting to complete before getting the photos for the website done. However I can tell you that all rooms are ensuite and range from USD 90 for the smallest, to USD 160 for the largest (these are our opening promotional rates). Three rooms have their own terraces, plus the bar and dining room have terraces for relaxing and open air eating and drinking. Prices include a proper breakfast (cooked to order) and a glass of wine or a cocktail in the evening. We will also have an honesty bar system.

      I hope this sounds like your kind of thing. Let me know if we can assist in the planning of the city part of your Argentine holiday. Regards. Miles

      • Miles
        Sounds exactly our thing.
        My wife and myself are interior designers and our travelling companions run their own boutique bed and bed and breakfast an hours drive out of Sydney. From your description this is just what we are looking for. I should have some firm dates to give you in next couple of days and hope there will be rooms available. Minimum rooms required will be 2 and maximum ( depending on whether some other friends join us) would be 4 rooms. How are your booking so far for February.
        Will be back in touch with you soon.
        Best Rgds

      • Hi Miles ,My partner and i will be joining Gerry and Diana for a long overdue holiday in Buenos Aires as its my partners 60 th birthday celebration . We are both mad opera/Classical music fans and wondered if there was anything worth while going to ….i believe we just miss the Dudamel concert at the theatre Colon.I am a Maria Callas devotee particularly ,while not expecting you to organise a resurrection it would be devine to actually see the theatre she made her own . Any ideas ? Regarding dates …we think we arrive on tues 14 Jan and leave for Antarctica on 19 …..back with Diana and Gerry 0n the 31 jan and we may be staying until the 5 FEB .
        PLEASE let us know if there is something interesting to see .cheers zenga !

      • Hi Zenga, I replied to you by mail, hope that’s OK. The Colon program for 2014 doesn’t seem to be available yet, though tours are every day. There is always plenty of music available here so I am sure we will find something to suit your tastes.Have a look at this link for the amazing new cultural centre they have recently opened in La Boca ( http://usinadelarte.org/ ), which will give you some ideas. Or perhaps the Golden Room at the Casa de Cultura ( http://www.buenosaires.gob.ar/areas/cultura/casa_cultura/actividades_salon_dorado.php?menu_id=24003) . Most of this is free or heavily subsidised. Cheers, Miles

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