Green Fingers and Fresh Herbs.

la fotoI’d like to be able to say that I lovingly nurtured the pictured greenery from seed, cooing and gurgling at them like Prince Charles until they accelerated the growth of their tendrils in a vain bid to escape. However the truth is I bought a garden. The lemon trees were looking a little lonely on my terrace. The view, though typically urban BA, needed softening.

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And I have to admit I didn’t get the best deal. Yes I bargained a bit, got them to throw in some additional shrubs, but finally I went with the nursery around the corner. After all what could be more intimidating than an Englishman that lives a block away, who is likely to pop in and see you on his morning constitutional and talk loudly and in excruciating detail about plant mortality, specifically his plants, specifically your responsibility. You see where I’m coming from?

Sometimes price isn’t everything. Dying plants look pretty sad. These guys may have made a good sale but are very aware of the long tail of the care chain that it involved. So the plants arrived, big healthy looking specimens, carefully chosen for an exceedingly sunny existence, probably prayed over the night before. Possibly blessed by the Papa?

Plants are all very well of course, they lend a bit of colour, homeliness, encourage bird-life, refresh the atmosphere but you can’t eat them. So level 2 is my wall mounted herb garden. Don’t put your cigarettes out in these chaps! My lower layer is all-comestible. Cuban style urban gardening! Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Mint, Chives, Cherry Tomatoes.  A veritable house party of flavours. And a big pot of Basil to move around in order to dodge the sun.

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So, it all needs a bit of time to settle in, to meander its way down the walls, to get over the shock of moving and accept its first harvest. But Daniella is cultivating a few chillies and some decorative varieties and she is German so you know they will do as they are told!

Hopefully the end result will be fresh herb enhanced food at The 5th Floor. Let me just pop out to hug my lime tree and play it a little Mozart!

And the lemon trees are looking happy with the company!

 

 

 

 

If You Know Where to Look 2 – Ethnic food

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If there is one thing London can provide, it is a panoply of asian and oriental food. New York even more so. Buenos Aires, not at all so some would have you believe. Can this really be true? Of course this may be largely irrelevant to the beef munching tourist. And there are other ways to take a break from the caveman diet. Good Italian (my favourite is Marcelo), Spanish (Tancat), Pizza (Siamo Nel Forno), Armenian (Sarkis) Syrian/ Lebanese (Club Sirio – and the building is spectacular) or more problematically Fish (Damblee or Crizia, both have oyster bars). Further, there are all sorts of traditional “Bodegons” serving the local dishes, such as suckling pig, lentils, puchero or locro. So no, as a tourist here for a few weeks, you won’t have time to get bored.

But what do you do if you live here and have only spent 2 weeks outside the country in the last 4 years (trust me Chile and Uruguay don’t count when we are talking food variety – Peru of course does, but I haven’t made it there yet)? And if you were bought up by  a family with Indian roots (albeit rather colonialist ones) and ate papadums from the age of 6 months sitting on the counter of the local curry restaurant? It is certain that at some point you are going to seriously miss the lack of spice.

Well, first option is Peruvian or Nikkei, the Peruvian Japanese crossbreed. And for that you get yourself down to Osaka or Sipan where you will eat international quality food. What you won’t get is much picante though. For that you have to go to one of the barrio restaurants around Almagro and explain that you are not Argentine and therefore will not die if they put chilli in the ceviche (while we used to go to Mochica, it appears Elvis – the prior owner – has left the house! The last visit was disappointing , you are just going to have to do your own hit and miss research).

You can also go for Korean. However this involves persuading a taxi driver to take you down to Korea town in Bajo Flores, a rather dangerous part of the city (actually we drove and found that the streets were being patrolled by an admirable amount of policeman, so after dinner we still had a vehicle to drive back in – of course this may say something about the quality of La Doctora’s car). There is no doubt this is the real Korean deal. 200 Koreans can’t be wrong! We were the only non-Korean faces in the incredibly crowded place which drew some attention. But once you played with a few babies and chatted with the locals on the heavily armoured smoking terrace, they turn out to be a friendly bunch. And for a very reasonable fixed price they will bring you as much of any dish as you fancy, be it the cheaper meats or soups or the more expensive oysters and prawns. The only drawbacks are that you have to cook it yourself on your tabletop BBQ, and swear on your European passport that you are not Argentine – so please bring the bloody chilli sauce.

But as a Brit, Peru and Korea never really crossed my gastronomic sightline. What I miss is a Ruby (for those who don’t speak the Queen’s cockney rhyming slang, Ruby Murray was a jazz singer and her surname nearly rhymes with Curry, which is why a Londoner goes for a Ruby). There is only one place, Tandoor, which is genuinely good. Luckily it’s round the corner from The 5th Floor but I still feel we have an inadequate curry supply in Capital. What to do?

Asian is the same. Green Bamboo nearly gets it right but while the cocktails are great the food is adapted to the Argentine palate, as in dulled down. Cocina Sunae (a puerta cerrada), seems to have taken the other tack, starting small and educating it’s customers about the food. Much better and the only place we go regularly to eat east asian food.

But things are changing here. Argentines are beginning to crave more than meat, salt and smoke. My bet is in the next ten years gastronomy is going to take off. Their wines are evolving fast, their food tastes are sure to catch up. My plan is to be involved in the next developments and try and de-risk the start-up of some cutting edge new restaurants, be they bacon and sausage sandwich joints, noodle bars, or full on Vietnamese cuisine. Damn, the Mexican food here is so awful that my Mexican Architect can’t recommend anything. And where can you buy decent chocolate? We need to deal with these things as well!

So obviously I was a venture capitalist during the internet era. I “incubated” a load of companies (in partnership with multinationals like Sun Microsystens and Fujitsu), that provided fantastic services that people didn’t know they needed. The incubation part of the plan was brilliant. The failure was that no one actually needed most of the stuff we incubated. My shame is that my voice integrated software for surfing the net, is now forming the base of a lot of the voice responsive interfaces when you ring your bank. And the f@&King thing still doesn’t even recognise my voice!

But here I have a genuine reason to incubate businesses. While I only have to produce breakfast for 14 people, my kitchen is prepared for 50. Why? Because there are a lot of people out there that know how to cook something different, but don’t have the facilities or the experience to do it. The incubation process was meant to be about taking someone with a great concept, facilitating the delivery and adding any business skills they didn’t have. I think I can do that!

So I put it out on the internet. “Who wants to collaborate? Who wants to take advantage of my facilities? Who wants to make participate in a culinary adventure? I got various replies. A guy from Vietnam, a woman from Pakistan, a German lady who is fascinated by traditional South American cuisine and refines chocolate to 90% purity (another of the apparently undiscoverables here) and who as you might have guessed, is now working with us at The 5th Floor. A friend who does Vegetarian, Vegan and Raw food thinks she might like to do something (and while I’m prejudiced against that stuff, her food is strangely pretty delicious).

Of course, the hardest part of being a Venture Capitalist was the endless hours spent listening politely to enthusiastic entrepreneurs with hopeless business plans containing endless zeros after the £ sign. But here we are talking about food. The worst that I will have to do is spend endless hours eating and if the food is bad I can simply up my wine consumption speed, to ensure that the presentation is at least tolerable.

So I am proud to announce that we have just completed our second round of due diligence / eating a lot, with Thomas the chap from Vietnam, and the investment committee (we will still have to invest time, facilities and marketing skills) has approved moving on to the next stage in the incubation process…namely organising some trial dinners. “Thomas at The 5th Floor”, will shortly be bringing authentic Vietnamese and Thai food to the heart of Alto Palermo!

As always I travel with my lawyer “por las dudas”, as they say here. And La Doctora is establishing a healthy sideline skill in ipad food photography. Unfortunately, at the first tasting her enthusiasm for a bit of spice (while she is Argy, she lived 7 years in Peru where they do know their chilies) somewhat got the better of her and she wolfed down the salmon in coconut curry soup and the chicken satays, before remembering we were serious professionals who needed photographic evidence of our travails. All was not lost though, we salvaged a few shots and this time she behaved like the consummate professional, snapping hastily away before consuming the evidence. So a few shots of dishes that may appear at “Thomas at the 5th Floor”.

A fresh mango prawn salad, sharp, sweet and citric with the saltiness of fish sauce:

imageSeared, marinated beef (calm down my little Argy friends, that’s my portion. We can cook yours until it will be impossible to know there is blood inside a cow), served with sticky rice and a darkly soya/sesame oil/spring onion and spice dipping sauce and a cold lemon grass tea to accompany:

imageFresh summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce:

imageNote fresh pickled chilli and homemade sriracha sauce in the middle:

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Vietnamese spring rolls that you wrap in lettuce with mint and coriander then dip:

imageA delightful chicken broth with wontons and 5 spice pork:

imageA dessert of steamed plantains, tapioca and roasted peanuts:

imageSo by all accounts, another hard day suffered by la Doctora and myself in order to bring a little more diversity to the lives of my Buenos Aires friends and my future guests. And while the latter may not imagine coming to Baires to eat Vietnamese food, by day three they may feel a sudden urge for a meat or pasta free experience. And of course they will get the chance to meet and mingle with all the great people that I know who live here, rather than just speaking to a waiter in a restaurant. So everyone’s a winner, especially me and La Doctora who will have prime asian food, fresh out of our kitchen with little effort other than hosting a great party, once a week!!

Works for me.

Fish Corner

la foto-23It’s winter in Buenos Aires. Except it’s not really. Yes we had three days where the temperature dropped to nearly zero. I used to laugh at the whining Argies in their polar outfits, claiming they were about to die. Now after four years here I have lost all resistance to climatic adversity, so I cry along with them.

Thank god it was only three days though, because this weekend involved a lot of parties and a several of them were held outside. While no Englishman would plan such a thing in the depths of winter, they are a bunch of optimists here. And obviously Papa Francis had got on the hotline and said hey, how can I explain the purgatory thing is only metaphorical if you keep punishing us with this diabolical cold? Basta! Turn the heat back on!! And so it warmed…. delightfully.

So despite Guantanamo style sleep deprivation, we were up again with the larks. Well around 2 pm actually, still in time for a nice shower and a walk to a suitable brunching spot. And it was sunny outside with that crisp cool seaside air that puts you in mind of crisp, cool, white wine and a bit of fish….or maybe a lot of fish? After all we’d danced off a billion calories at least.

As readers may know, my go to place for fish is the estimable Chipper, the only place in Buenos Aires where you can get crunchy battered, moist fish with all the trimmings and order seven desks, ten wardrobes, 7 bedheads and 14 bedside tables, to be delivered within six weeks please with a side order of pickled eggs. Actually, possibly the only place in the world you can do this!

But we walked a little vigorously, overshot the cross street and ended up approaching Chipper from the other side, which meant we had to pass La Pescadorita, situated a mere 50 yards away, on what now may reasonably be described as Fish Corner (Humbolt and Costa Rica). And we saw people eating a range of fishy delights and the corner was still bathed in sun and a chardonnay was definitely going to taste better drunk outside, so while we felt a little guilty communing with the competition, we rapidly rationalised it as entirely supportive market research and bagged ourselves a table.

If I seem a little effusive about encounters with piscine comestibles, it”s because it’s easier to arrange a Mormon marriage with Paraguayan triplets here, than find someone that can source a decent fish and then not destroy it in the cooking process. Other than the aforementioned, only Marcelo’s, Crizia and Damblee have ever tickled my fancy. However, one of my favourite food writers, Dan Perlman ( http://www.saltshaker.net/), had recently given LP a thumbs up for their seafood parrillada. I’m happy to report, strictly in terms of disciplined market research you understand  (I will never go there again unless heavily disguised), that La Pescadorita delivered in spades.

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A light, fresh Rutini Chardonnay, fit the bill. 2012, 9 months in French oak, not overpowering, well priced at 150 pesos. Just what we wanted (and you will notice from the photo that I don’t look too bad for a man that has partied for 30 hours out of the last 50???).

And while Dan had commented on the abundance of the parrillada, he’d eaten alone. We went for a little starter of chipirones, though we were so hungry we forgot to photograph them until they were nearly gone.

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Did I mention it was winter? And 4 pm? And still sunny? Like this…

image-10And so to the parrillada. Highlights were the abundance of juicy prawns, a perfectly cooked salmon fillet blasted with heat from below (crispy skinned, soft juicy flesh), more mini chipirones with tiny crunchy tentacles, a fat octopus tentacle (luscious) and a variety of fish fillets and scallops. More than enough for two for 240 peso and well seasoned with a variety of strongly flavoured sauces. We regretted having the starter as we failed to finish.

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Obviously we were feeling pretty content after such an admirable spread, so I popped over to Chipper to invite the guys over to share a little liquid desert of coffee and Amaretto. LD staff remained charming even though the place was officially closed, when we asked for another.

Conclusion? If you are looking for for marine sustenance, pop down to fish corner. All your needs will be catered for there, though when I asked my LD waitress whether she could knock up a bookcase for me, she looked a bit blank. Some people still don’t understand customer service.

Pork and Passion

Those of you that know me are probably aware that my idea of a balanced breakfast diet is a healthy dose of nicotine in one hand and and a forceful kicker of caffeine in the other. The truth is that I am probably in my breakfast nirvana here. I was a traditional porteño before I knew it, though the more solids inclined may add a couple of medialunas (think slightly sweeter small croisants) with some strangely tasteless slices of bendy cheese and a bit of industrial ham or a queso blanco cream that doesn’t tast of cheese but yes of cream with a bit of jam on toast. Kind of a Cornish cream tea without the scones.

However that won’t cut it for my guests at The 5th Floor. The only time I really eat breakfast is on an aeroplane (why I don’t know but flying makes me starving) or in a hotel. And if they offer it in the price, it had better be good. Otherwise I’d prefer they didn’t and I’d just go to the cafe round the corner. If it was warm enough and I could smoke outside! Who ever explained to a chef that scrambled eggs would retain a delightfully creamy texture sweltering in a bain marie or that bacon would benefit from a 3 hour sauna? I go to hotels on holiday. Yes I can wait 15 minutes, while tucking into a bit of fruit and yogurt, for my freshly cooked eggs to arrive!

But breakfast for a Brit, is something to “set you up for the day”. And traditionally a day of hard labour or at the very least of hard tourism. And no British breakfast is complete without pork products. But herein lies the rub. Argentina has no shortage of pork products but they are mainly designed for slow cooking on the parrilla (BBQ), slowly, letting their high fat content flavour and lubricate, while the smoke does its work. Briefly, not what you want for breakfast.

As La Doctora continually points out to me, in Buenos Aires you can find anything if you know where to look and further every problem has a solution. A bit of lateral thinking obviously required! Everyone has additional activities here, its a kind of hedge against disaster or the natural entrepreneurial spirit of those who have decided to live in a country with a bundle of uncertainties . Or simply the reaction of guys that can’t find what they want and decide to make it themselves.

So who is going to sort out my pork problem?

Well obviously, as the guys that are making my furniture run a Fish and Chip shop, I knew I needed an Oil Trader to provide me with Bacon. And Heath makes Baines BEST Bacon, and when you meet him you know Bacon is in his genes. He is the image of the person that you would have 100% confidence in buying bacon from, plus he is a damn good bloke. Put his bacon in the pan, leave for 5 minutes, take it out. It’s the same size. No hormone fed, water injected nonsense here. But what if you want smoked bacon? Well Larry is an engineer from Texas. El Tejano. And our friend Craig makes the most amazing smokers as a hobby. We are talking triple insulated works of art here! So Larry can smoke what you want, when you want and probably feed 500 people from one of his machines. So if you are lucky we will have a choice of Bacon.

Sausages are a bit more complicated. If you want sausages in Buenos Aires you have to look for a a couple of German software engineers. Sure, they make fantastic chorizos here, but that is something you cook slowly on the parilla. Eat them for breakfast and you will be catatonic ’till midday.

Of course if you are actually a German software engineer, you probably lie awake at night wondering why the busses don’t run on time, why people turn up to your parties 2 hours after the invitation time and why you can’t get a decent sausage. Then you decide to show them how its done!

So what do all these people have in common? Why would I prefer to work with them, rather than just pop round to the supermarket? After all they are small producers. This is Argentina. I know that from time to time I am going to have supply problems.

The short answer is passion. All these people are producing a quality product because that is what the want to eat. That is what they want their wives, or friends or party guests to eat!  And they are all nice people.

If you live here you will understand how important that is!

Links:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vingt-Cinq-Baines-Best-Bacon/166492793374992

https://www.facebook.com/ElTejanoBA

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bratwurst-Argentina/341757532612459

“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.

Stuffin’ Chickens

First let me assure those of you that know me, that the title does not refer to some “special interest” group that I have recently found on the internet! Instead it is indicative of the current focus of my Chef’s course, which is all about big knives and getting to grips with dead things. However, if you type the latter into Google (which I just did) you might get an interesting insight into some of the weirdos that inhabit cyberspace. I can certainly conclude that the title Stuffin’ Zombies would have bought more traffic to my humble blog.

Anyway, the equally humble chicken was the focus this week. Having learnt to truss it and portion it, we have moved on to deboning and stuffing it. Sometimes I struggle not to continue thinking like an investment banker. Why, I have caught myself asking myself, would I waste my valuable time on tricky deboning, when my super efficient chicken butcher will helpfully work his way through ten kilos of bird parts in the same time it takes me to get through two? Then I remind myself that I’m no longer an investment banker (I hear few people are these days and most of those prefer to remain in the closet for obvious reasons), and in the time I save myself not cutting chickens up, I generally generate zero revenue. Worse, in the time not engaged in figuring out the intricacies of chicken anatomy, there is a very real chance I will think of some specification upgrade to regale my builders with or a must-have piece of equipment for my little bed and breakfast, thereby diminishing my fast dwindling reserves even faster.

Of course I am a seasoned prevaricator and am able to come up with a number of other reasoned arguments for not cutting up chickens. The first is that I don’t use the breasts much or at least I didn’t in England. Given the choice between horrible, steroid enhanced, water-pumped supermarket fare, or free range, rare breed, sell-your-granny-to-buy-your-dinner priced fowl, I always opted for the legs of the latter which for some strange reason were substantially cheaper (they are the same price per kilo as breast here) and could be slow cooked in a tasty sauce without drying out. However, here the breasts don’t seem to shrink in the same way, even with the farmed variety, though I still think it worth a few pesos more to go for the country guys (pollo de campo).

Anyway, having had a little talk with myself, I reminded me that I was now a person of limited resources (most of which are earmarked to pay for the 5th Floor’s restoration), and that I should start taking my profession of hospitality provider and chef pretty seriously before I go broke. I quickly riposted (to myself of course) that the problem of a chicken is the same as that of a duck. A duck is too much for one but not enough for two. A chicken can just about make 3 people happy, but is a bit meagre for four. My new self argued that I was not making the most of my recent education, and won over the residual investment banker in me, by making the point that whole chickens are substantially cheaper than the prepared cuts I normally demand. In my new life, I need one chicken to feed four, luxuriously! But also economically!! Stuffing is the answer. Cheap but tasty ingredients, things in the fridge you wondered what you were going to do with, the seasonal gluts that lower the price of a particularly wonderful fruit or vegetable. They are all your friends!

So the first thing with a chicken is to cut off the breasts and thighs (go and look on youtube if this is still  mystery). It doesn’t matter if you do this badly, leaving lots of meat on the carcass because you are going to roast that anyway before making stock with it. If you do it really badly, after roasting pick off some of the remaining meat with your fingers to make chicken soup once your stock is ready.

Stuffing? Well it turns out the breasts couldn’t be easier. Get the fat end towards you, stick the knife in nearly to the end (along one side) and make an ark as you pull it out . What you want is small entry wound, big pocket. Stuff with whatever you have to hand (I had a pear that I cooked briefly with a sweet chile in escabeche and then mixed with blue cheese). A couple of toothpicks to seal it but dont brown it as you give it a quick sizzle in a buttered pan, and then poach in your previously made stock.

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The thighs, a bit more complex as you have to remove the femur and then cut the ligaments around the top to move the meat down the bone while retaining the skin, but given the meat is more flavoursome it’s difficult to go too wrong. Classically called Jambonneau (little ham), I stuffed it with some quickly fried red peppers and green olives. If you trying to be a grown up chef you should then sow the thing neatly up with needle and thread, but if you are cooking for friends a few toothpicks and a protective slice of jamon crudo do the trick pretty well. Then roast the little chaps until their skins are nicely browned.

la foto-8

Reduce some white wine and add a bit of cold roux to thicken the poaching stock while the breasts are resting. Mix and reduce some more. That’s your sauce.

Serve with a bit of garlic infused mash, don’t bother peeling the potatoes, the slight bitterness counteracts buttery garlic, and some brussel sprouts roasted with smoked panceta.

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Plate it elegantly(ish), take a photo, and then add lots more sauce because actually people like sauce. It’s food, not a bloody painting!

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Ugly but good and more than adequate for four, with the added advantage of a couple of liters of left over chicken stock for soups and sauces. Well worth the effort.

God’s Country and the Pope’s Potatoes

 

Papas del Papa

Papas del Papa

To pass an autumn like this in Buenos Aires is to truly know that you live in God’s Country. Two months in and we have had four days of rain (albeit torrential and in La Plata lethal), one day of cold and fifty or so of clear, warm, sunny, low humidity days, reminiscent of the best alpine weather without the inconvenient evening temperature drop or the unpleasantness of sliding around on all that white stuff.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise of course. We have lived with Maradona, “The Hand of God” for decades now. Messi is at the very least the illegitimate Son of God. Where else could such talent come from? We have not one but two queens, the glorious Christina whose empathy and oration would be far more appreciated if she stuck to her royal duties rather than trying to run the country and the ravishing Maxima, although she had to decamp to a flat, watery country, to establish her regal position. And now we have Francis, an Argentine Pope and the ultimate recognition that, whatever the Brazilians claim, God himself was probably Argentine.

Anyway, I’m still doing my Chef’s course and we are working our way through all the classics. I’d forgotten the delight of creamy, lightly garlic and thyme infused, Potato Dauphinoise. So when I decided to knock up a bit of pork (marinated in sherry, a pinch or two of curry powder and some nice smoked paprika, browned and then braised in a dark stock) with a few caramelised baby onions, I thought that good old pomme dauphinoise might make a nice accompaniment. But then I thought, what would the Pope eat? Well there is little doubt that he is an archetypal Argentine. Rumour has it that he has already installed a parilla on the papal balcony and is discreetly grilling chorizos while waving at the crowds. So, one meat wouldn’t be enough. At the very least he would want a bit of jamon, possibly a morcilla as well. Then he might like a bit of local Sardo cheese to finish.

I decided to incorporate the above into my Pomme Dauphinoise, rapidly renamed as Papas del Papa. And while the result wasn’t perfectly balanced, I know what changes need to be made, so confidently present the recipe to you. I need to warn you that it’s rich and strongly flavoured, but with flavours that Argentines will recognize and like. It’s also filling so will halve the amount of meat you need to feed these carnivores, without them feeling hard done by.  Best of all, it couldn’t be easier and just telling them you are serving the Pope’s Potatoes will tickle their jingoistic taste buds.

So here goes. This will feed between 6 – 8 as an accompaniment.

Cut a kilo of potatoes in large rounds, as thin as you can. Don’t bother peeling first, the skins add flavour (though discard the sides with lots of skin), and don’t stress about your knife skills. If the slices aren’t paper-thin you just need to cook lower and slower.

To accompany pork, do the same to a couple of apples. If you want a more appley flavour, squeeze a generous amount of lemon juice over them, otherwise stick with 100% spuds.

Cut the small amount of Serrano style or jamon crudo you have lurking in your fridge for a late night sandwich emergency, into thin strands to sprinkle. 20 to 30 grams is quite adequate.

Gut a morcilla, discarding the skin and chop up into crumbly bits.

Heat half a litre of cream on a low heat and bash a couple of cloves of garlic, throw them in, add a couple of sprigs of thyme (not so important) or a clove or a star anise, or nothing if you don’t have the previous. Don’t let it boil. The longer you can keep it slow and low the more flavour infuses. Take the solids out before use.

Butter some suitable ovenproof receptacle. A tip is to run its reverse side under very hot water, before rubbing the butter round it to create an even finish, then let cool.

Layer with partially overlapping slices of potato. It’s vaguely important that the bottom is neatly covered; for the other layers don’t stress. Alternate apple slices every two layers, sprinkle the ham 2 layers up, sprinkle the morcilla another 2 layers up, make sure the last layer is spud, pour over the infused hot cream and then (optionally) a sprinkle of choppedfine Sardo or anything else you have to hand (or nothing other than a good grind of pepper if you don’t). You don’t need much salt between the layers (if any), as the ham and cheese will provide that. The morcilla will provide a subtly feral, visceral dimension as well.

Into a medium oven for an hour or more y listo! If your knife slides easily into it and the top is nice and brown it’s ready. If not, turn the oven up!

It may not feed the five thousand, but it should demonstrate your argyphile reverence and deep respect for la/el papa (your choice) while tasting damn good!

End result;

Papas2

Ugly, but you know you want to eat it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what do you expect for a hundred pesos?

Saturday was a long day. Feeling slightly jaded from the previous night’s Oasis Club 2nd Anniversary celebrations, we went to lunch with the creator of All Things and more specifically the creator of my little hostelry, Jesus, architect extraordinaire. He’d just arrived back in town so we had a lot to discuss, though little that was relevant to the actual project. We just like to talk and we hadn’t seen each other for some time. I suggested fish and chips at the excellent Chipper (Humboldt 1893). It was my second time there so I insisted that both Jesus and Veronica ate exactly the same as I had eaten the first time. Abadejo (cod or as close to it as you can get), chips, tartar sauce and a pint of freshly made ginger lemonade. Everything perfectly cooked, as good as any fish and chips I’ve had in the UK, and the abadejo seems to retain much more of its flavour and moistness encased as it is in a light crispy batter. 71 pesos for this combo meal, including the pleasure of sitting outside in the gentle autumn sun, being waited on by their very amenable staff. That’s value. I have not tried anything else from their menu and have no intention of ever doing so. I don’t really care about the chips even. I am scarred from my many mediocre fish eating experiences in BA, so will be happy to eat this quality-assured treat whenever a piscivorous urge hits me. I would strongly recommend you follow my lead.

I wouldn’t drink a coffee in a fish and chip shop in England and neither would I here; To each his speciality. But Jesus and I had several more hours of important talking to do, so we trotted round the corner in In Boca al Lupo (Bonpland 1965). Strong and short was what we were looking for and what we got along with a little tiramisu to share, just to make a rounded meal of it. Which it did perfectly and if you add the fish and chips and if we had stopped there, we could certainly claim to have eaten magnificently for under 100 pesos. Of course we didn’t stop there. Even though the afternoon was turning chillier, Enrico has added some nuclear powered outside heating to his pretty courtyard and it’s strong enough to banish Siberia’s most brutal chills. So we stripped down to t-shirts and decided to make sure the café served consistent quality by ordering another, along with a sticky amaretto, followed be a little whiskey followed by another little…..followed by a pequeño ultimo…, until it was 8pm and Jesus and I had fully caught up on important world news and the luggage handlers at the airport had decided they were no longer on strike, so he could reclaim his abandoned possessions and we could go home.

Not for long though, because despite the allure of curling up in front of a video for the rest of the evening, Veronica and I had a reservation. And as it was a closed door, invitation only, music event and we had been invited by a friend who was playing double base in the band, and they had made it clear that space was limited, and it was only a few blocks away, and we didn’t want to let the side down, we mini-siesta’d, failed to dress up, and were soon out the door again. Overall, we were glad we did. I understand closed-door restaurants and events used to form the staple of Cuban social life, where setting up legitimate businesses was fraught with problems. Here, it gives people a way to experiment without involving large capital outlays. They range from having the impromptu “onda” of a once a week conversion of someone’s living room, to an atmosphere of more permanence and planning. La Casa de Acevedo was certainly the former; Cuban roots but with a fully stocked bar; No cover charge; Great musicians, even if some of the repertoire wasn’t entirely my cup of tea; A little table for two with our names on. Good, simple, tasty, reasonably priced tapas; 100% Argentine guests (other than yours truly), all friendly and enthusiastic; Mixed drinks with generous pours at just 25 pesos a pop. To sum up, a few hours of solid entertainment, food and drink for slightly less than 100 pesos each (or 8 of your Great British Pounds milord) including tip.

Buenos Aires has two food festivals running simultaneously this week, the idea being to offer affordable introductions to some of the City’s top restaurants. I was charged with organising a lunch venue for myself and a couple of expat friends on Wednesday. Enthused by my prior 100 peso successes, I scoured the participants in the Spanish Ministry of Tourism sponsored festival and alighted on Hernán Gipponi’s eponymous restaurant (Soler 5862). A 99 peso, 3-course lunch being offered at what is reputedly one of BA’s gastronomic pace setters. A result I thought. I might add that while I have never eaten HG’s fabled brunch or idled my way through their 9 course tasting menu, I have attended their famous Friday happy hour, been impressed by the skill and inventiveness of their cocktail barman and eaten some of their excellent tapas, including their fabulous deep fried osso bucco mini-epanadas. That is to say, I was favourably disposed.

So what can I say without banging on like some Michelin inspector with Tourette’s syndrome. HG is a nice venue to go for a leisurely lunch, quiet, relaxed, with a view into the pretty garden. But the key word is leisurely. It’s fine if you have no plans for the rest of the afternoon. Service is unhurried. Linger over your coffee, when you finally get to that stage, for an hour or two if you feel inclined. No one will notice. It is not however, the place to go to eat Fabada Asturiana, which is sadly what I went to eat.

Despite the fact I have never been to Asturias, I probably know more about Fabada than anyone could be reasonably expected to know, unless they were born in Asturias and shared the region’s obsession with the dish. I have almost certainly spent more money perfecting my tutelage of this all-important staple than could reasonably be expected of a self-respecting Brit. I have faced the disconcerted gaze of English postman as they have handed me soggy packages of home made morcilla sausages made from blood, lovingly drained from a family pig, postmarked Gigón, the dish’s capital city.

To explain, I used to have an au pair called Sara. And as I didn’t have any kids she didn’t have much to do other than keep me happy and well fed. And she came from Gigón as did her pig murdering uncle and aunt and her chorizo expert mother. I cooked Sara a Cassoulet de Toulouse once and she got nearly homesick, explaining it was the tomato-ed up, Frenchiefied, version of her hometown’s more pork based delight.

I like anything with beans that have sucked up fat, so this was the basis of a common treaty. Aunty would send her morcillas, a cousin his chorizos, the rest of the family would scour the town for the best of the other ingredients and the poor postman would deliver the fragrant bundle over the course of a week. Then we would have fabada cooking night. Remember, this was before internet and therefore before skype. My occasionally homesick au pair would ring her mum who would relate to me (with Sara translating) in great detail the fabada cooking process: Step by step as if imparting great secrets! Of course, cooking a fabada takes a long time. You can’t hurry the stages.  So Sara would spend a happy few hours on the phone to her mum, with no worry about international call charges, and there was no point in me even writing down the recipe as it had been impressed on me that I would never find a suitable morcilla in London (it’s not available in morcilla-loving BA either), so I was entirely reliant on her family’s goodwill for the perfect product. If I wanted a good fabada, which I frequently did, I had to pay the price in outrageous telephone bills!

I think the above establishes my credentials as a judge of a Fabada Asturiana. So how did today’s measure up? Well, horror of horrors, it was deconstructed. As in, completely not the one-pot dish that it has traditionally been. As in, I think all its separate ingredients were cooked separately. And then served separately. I previously wrote about deconstructed cassoulet (https://the5thfloorba.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/ugly-food/). Deconstructed Fabada is worse. Cassoulet uses a lot of tomatoes in the sauce. Fabada none. Water, sweet paprika and saffron. If your beans haven’t had time to act as little sponges for the flavours of the ham, bacon, chorizo and morcilla, how do you get any flavour into them? The HG solution appeared to be a light vegetable stock, with a bit of the relevant flavourings infused. Cooked the night before, as any self-respecting abuela would do? No chance. Yes it did appear that the morcilla had come from Spain in the diplomatic bag, but it was a one inch slice. The ham was dry and hard and couldn’t be refreshed in the insipid jus.

What annoys me most is the labelling. Why call it a Fabada Asturiana when no one in Asturais would recognize it. You could call it Fabada light, or Fabada diet, or low fat Fabada or Fabada with no bloody flavour. And what is this snobbery that says, we are going to serve what was originally peasant food, a way of padding out the meats with a ton of beans but it will look smarter if it comes on various plates? In Spain it is no longer peasant food. The ingredients are expensive. It’s no longer the remnants of the family pig and the good restaurants cook it 24 hours in advance to give it time to mature. To be honest, there is no way to make it a pretty dish. If that’s what you care about, don’t cook it.

The other big fail on the menu side was the second choice of main course. My friends didn’t like the sound of fabada. Too beany. Fair enough, there was a choice. Sort of, as it was fabes con almejas. Same beans, with a clam and white wine sauce. Also from Asturias. Did I mention it was bean based? My friends certainly did, several times, beans or beans. Not everyone is a fan of beans. They weren’t.

So, disappointing and now despite rave reviews for their daily tasting menus, I’m concerned about going back. Maybe it’s me? Maybe I’m a peasant at heart. Maybe my cigarette and whiskey raddled palate demands strangely un-modern flavours. Does it eschew the light and sophisticated? Am I a dinosaur of reduction and condensation? However, I could still tell that our second bottle of wine was off, which by the way they graciously changed.

I’m tempted to say, well for 100 pesos what do you expect? But then I look back on my week the answer is, actually quite a lot. And I know where to get it.

So if I succumb to boredom this week I’ll take advantage of the BAFICI film festival. 400 films from all over the world, venues all over the city, 10-20 pesos a pop.

That should keep my budget on track!

Paraje Arevalo – Who stole all the Flavours?

I’ve waited a few days to write this review, hoping a sense of balance or at least forgiveness might return. I’ve already bored my girlfriend with plain anger, biting sarcasm or what I consider bitter humour but she probably just considers bitter. Why do I take it so personally? Why do I feel I’ve been defrauded? Yes, it was an expensive evening. But two fifths of the cost was reasonably expensive wine, so hardly the restaurant’s fault. Perhaps it is my age. I thoroughly resent it when someone steals three hours of my precious remaining time, to subject me to an unpleasant ordeal. I moved to Buenos Aires to escape tedium. This restaurant managed to inflict it upon me.

The evening started so well. Cocktails and Osso Bucco Empanadas at the Fierro Hotel. Well made drinks and delicious tapas, even if this newcomer dish may have been stolen from my blog (I know they follow it). If it was, they had improved it. Miniaturised the empanadas, stuffed them really full, and then fried them. Excellent. Crisp, light, tasty and juicy. I should have just stayed and eaten a dozen of them!!!

Then we went to the Livian Guest House, drank a couple of glasses of champagne in their garden while listening to a good singer/guitarist before cramming into their living room to watch a show by a magician/mentalist type chap. I hate magicians. This one was a mentalist. He picked up on my negative body language immediately and recruited me as his assistant. And OK, he was brilliant. So good in fact that, despite the fact I was starving and very much looking forward to the tasting menu at Paraje Arevalo, I rather resented leaving 10 minutes before the end of his show to catch our reservation.

But I went with enthusiasm and the expectation (I’d read a lot of reviews, several by people whose opinions I respect, and the chef apparently worked at the Fat Duck) that I was going to eat an adult, sophisticated, intensely flavoured meal, possibly with some challenging dishes. In fact I’ve been meaning to go to Paraje Arevalo for some months, so missing the opportunity to see said magician get it wrong and pierce his hand on one of the hidden spikes he uses and has his audiences shuffle, was a small sacrifice.

Except it wasn’t.

El Bulli, Noma, The Fat Duck, Molecular Gastronomy, etc. etc. etc.!!! Liberally dispersed in marketing material of whichever hip new restaurant, but what does it all mean? Well I’ve eaten at Heston’s restaurant and was the proud owner of his cookbook. It weighs more than the Bible, Koran, Torah, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead put together and only covers about 10 recipes. And its focus has nothing to do with molecular gastronomy, if by that you mean weird scientific practices for nebulising, quick-freezing, sous-viding and all of the rest of the apparently indispensable armoury of equipment and techniques of the “modern” chef. No, the reason his recipes take a minimum of three-bloody-days to cook is that they all start with classic (though sometimes enhanced) methods of concentrating flavours. All of them. In often very non technical and highly labour intensive manners. A mere mortal like me may look at some of them and say, really? Will anyone notice? I mean, if I haven’t slept for 48 hours to get this perfect stock ready to cook with, I want my friends to be such gourmets that they really care. Heston presumes they will.

So if you eat at Heston’s restaurant you may love some of the dishes, you may hate some of the dishes or you may be able to appreciate why something is interesting despite not being remotely to your tastes. What you will not think is “bugger, this is bland”. You won’t sit there thinking, this guy is wasting my time. You will never say, hmm, where is the discernible flavour? Because, like it or hate it, Heston specialises in concentrating all the discernible flavours into something that you can’t ignore. Only then does he move onto (for me the entirely optional step) of an eccentrically, science laboratory assisted, presentation.

You may notice there are no photos in this review? Why? Because with food I’m beginning to think there is nothing more misleading. A picture may speak a thousand words, but they may all be lies. You can’t photograph an aroma, a flavour, a foretaste or aftertaste. We all wander around now clicking our food, thereby impressing upon chefs that appearance is 90% of the battle. We are forcing them towards the flim-flam of presentation rather than the coalface of traditional technique. At cooking school recently my teacher explained that he spent a lot of time with books of Salvador Dali to improve his plating art. Fantastic, if he’s already got the flavours going on. Otherwise I’d prefer to be served by a big Italian mama with the plating technique of Jackson Pollock.

I love tasting menus. A friend of mine recently raved about the pillow menu in the last hotel he stayed at. The height of luxury he thought. I can’t think of anything worse. There are enough decisions to take in life, why do I even need to think about pillows? Just give me a good one or leave a variety on the bed. A tasting menu is perfect for me. Give me eight dishes that you are confident say something. I’m happy if four are good. I don’t even mind if one is disgusting, Heston’s snail porridge for instance (even though I love snails), or his horrible egg and bacon ice cream. The latter actually made me feel slightly nauseous but at least it didn’t bore me. I’m happy to give up free choice if I am confident that “el commandante” knows what he is doing.

Sadly, I know I have to get down to specifics. Eight tedious courses of specifics. I’ll be brief. If you are going to serve retro potato chips (crisps in English) please dry them on a bit of kitchen towel first rather than letting the oil run into the bottom of the serving receptacle. Put salt on the witty fresh popcorn.

Raw (and probably pre-frozen) scallops don’t taste of much here unless marinated. Cauliflower crème didn’t do anything to enhance. If I hadn’t been wearing my glasses the dish would have been invisible, slivers and smears of white against a white plate.

Then a tasty, mushroomy, pancake was ruined by an incomprehensible sugary candy-floss topping.

The sous-vide poached egg, then bread-crumbed and deep fried, was fine, but an egg without salt?

Something else??? Certainly there wasn’t a crunchy mouth cleansing salad!

Sadly, the famous Palermo restaurant hijackers did not come through the door at this point, relieve us of all our money and put us out of our misery.

Then steak. An original choice in Argentina? Sous vide, purple rare. Actually very well seasoned. Perfect for me, horrible for a couple of my companions. As you were not asked how you liked your steak cooked, they were thoroughly put off by the purple meat and the bloody juices seeping into the mashed potato. Good for me, I was starving still, so ate theirs. Strangely though, I have yet to meet an Argentinian who would contemplate eating meat this rare.

A couple of puddings, something on a big Chinese spoon, no idea what it was. Then a chocolate desert. Not only the epitome of bland but surrounded by a white sauce that they didn’t have enough of. So they served the last person at our table with the same but instead of the flavourless white crème, they dragged some yogurt out of the back of the fridge and told us it was the same. It wasn’t but sadly it wasn’t better. The waiter refused to admit it wasn’t the same. The cook didn’t dare come out of the kitchen to answer the accusation. However, as it actually tasted of something (old yogurt) it was undeniable.

I seem to have forgotten a couple of courses, but I remember that they cannot have been memorable. Or maybe the greasy crisps were a course? Was the bread basket the other? Who knows or cares? Halfway through the meal we’d all lost the will to live or at least remain sober, hence the size of the bill. Swigging had become a necessity.

It still confuses me how the reality of this restaurant diverged from my well-researched expectations. Perhaps the chef owners had been called away by a sudden death in the family? Maybe they were running low on ingredients? Maybe their food is designed with the photographer in mind, not the diner? Certainly it was not a patch on Las Pizarras (Thames 2296), which produces classic, big-flavoured dishes with simple presentation. I should go back and give it another go. Anyone can have a bad night. But then again maybe the owner will read this review. Better not to risk it!

Paraje Arevalo, Arevalo 1502, ( tel: 4775-7759) in case for some obscure reason you are still interested in going.

Burger Joint – Cheap can leave you Cheerful!

The UK press abounds with Shergar munching misery. Cheap food surprisingly appears to be made with cheap ingredients. Who would have thought it? The rare-breed, black face, Angus cow that you believed to be in your ready-made lasagne, turns out to have been an early faller in the 3.30 at Kempton races. Neigh, I don’t believe it, I hear you snort.

Well, your average Tesco rump steak costs £15 per kilo but you can buy frozen burgers at Iceland for £2.20 a kilo.  So what cut of meat is 6 times cheaper than rump steak? As they say in the States “you do the math!” And to save you the headache of nodulating over this inequilateral equation for too long, I’ll give you the answer. It’s called filler, something that is such a disgusting mixture of mechanically recovered gunge, dubious species, chemical flavourings, stabilisers and other atrocities, that no right thinking person would ever inflict a cheap burger on his nearest or dearest.

Actually, the horse meat is the least of your worries. It’s generally a lean, healthy, dark meat, though rather strong tasting and sweet for my tastes. Of course, no civilised person would ever eat it, let alone kill a horse (not an unbiased view, I consider myself a horseman after all). Unless of course it was a mercy killing, though thereinafter you are obliged to dig an unfeasibly large hole and erect a massive marble monument. Well, other than the French obviously, but despite our admiration for the rest of their wonderful cuisine, we still have doubts about their intimate shaving abilities.  Says it all doesn’t it? Horse murderers with hairy armpits!

Much has been made of the dangers of Bute, the equestrian painkiller of choice to relieve the swollen joints of the hardworking equine and its potentially toxic effect in the food chain. Well I had an arthritic friend that swore by it, demanding the vet prescribe it for her perfectly sound horse, so she could anaesthetise her own depleted synovials.  Given the small percentage of horse meat found in most filler, you would have to eat a hundred burgers a day to feel the beneficial effects of the Bute as you go for that yoga stretch. And by that time, the rest of the (totally legitimate, cow based) rubbish will have killed you.

Happily I live in Buenos Aires. The best meat at my not-inexpensive butcher costs about 52 pesos per kilo (£4.72 on the “blue” market). I want to make burgers? 70% rump (cuadril) fat left on, with 30% rib eye (ojo be bife). Passed through the mincer twice. While I watch! Like a bloody hawk!! My target is about 20% fat, which will keep the burger nice and moist as it cooks. If the meat is a bit older and has gone that browny-purple colour, so much the better. A kilo will do 8 decent burgers and guess what, it’s top quality steak. You can cook it rare.

There are a lot of theories about making and cooking a “proper” burger. They all have their merits. Some even use filler, but only nice things, breadcrumbs, onions, herbs, garlic, and eggs to bind? Whatever takes your fancy?……… Thin or thick is a reasonable debating point. Thin is about getting that tasty crust on the outside while leaving the inside moist and tender. It’s focussed on the Maillard reaction (nonenzymatic browning) that imparts the flavours that the burger chains try and replicate with their various additives. Done well it’s good, if a little crunchier. Thick is more about the meat’s inherent taste and texture. It’s more complicated to cook. You can squash a thin burger and it seems to “rise” during the cooking process, its texture loosening. Squash a fat one together (perhaps using that abomination, the hamburger press) and the heat penetrates unevenly, leaving you with a solid mass, overcooked on the outside with a cold blue interior.

Heston (Blumenthal) is a cook with an obsessive/compulsive disorder that a Buenos Aires psychiatrist could make their life’s work. It might take you three days just to prepare breakfast according to his strictures. However when he says a burger should be light and airy, I believe him. After all, if you want a steak, then buy a steak. The problem with a light, airy burger, is how do you get it to stick together? There are two things he recommends; one, add quite a lot of salt before you mix the meat (it breaks down certain enzymes and acts like a light glue and appears to render out with the fat) and two, align the fibres as they come out of the mincer, roll them in cling-film, chill, then cut in rounds. I’m sorry, the first I can handle but my butcher already thinks I’m weird (and overly demanding). If I ask him to match up the fibres, he’s going to slip Black Beauty’s nether regions into the mix, just for fun. Though maybe when I have my own mincing machine….?

So my burgers I want quite rare. Thick and loose! And with the full benefit of the Maillard reaction. What’s the plan? Well I mix the above-described mince with salt, very finely cut garlic, a dollop of oyster sauce (and optionally finely minced onions). I kind of throw them lightly between my hands, minimum pressure, hoping the salt has made them a bit sticky. And then I take Gordon Ramsey’s steak cooking advice, which can be summed up as, turn the heat up to inferno temperature and keep the buggers moving. As with a steak you will gradually achieve the lovely brown exterior, but if you flip every 30 seconds, the inside will be evenly done; none of the graduations from grey to blue. And remember, you have just bought quality meat. You could eat it as tartare!

As a side note, English public health fanatics are trying to ban the occurrence of the rare burger, I kid you not;

(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/9731808/Is-this-the-end-of-the-rare-burger.html )

Hopefully, they may now have something more important to worry about? Neigh?

Anyway, to the point of this ramble; The girlfriend and I went off on one of those long directionless walks and we passed a hamburger joint, called the “Hamburger Joint “ that a Chef friend of mine had recently written up. http://nolachef.net/2013/02/27/ba-faves-burger-joint-palermo/

I don’t always follow Lisa’s recommendations. She’s a yank. I’m not. And while she is a great cook, there is a fast-food cultural difference. She wants better quality fast-food (http://nolachef.net/2013/02/13/burger-bliss/). I don’t care!!! However, this place had a different “Onda” and we were peckish. Surely worth giving a shot?

To be fair, I’m spending a lot of time studying the food scene here. I for one remember how badly you could eat in London 15 years ago. Or how badly you can eat in Sheffield now? I suspect that in ten years Buenos Aires will be the new gourmet venue and I really want to be a part of it. If I ever serve you horse, it will have a family tree back to Nijinsky, and be charged accordingly. And maybe smoked over the tobacco of pure Cuban cigars?

Other than Lisa’s recommendation, the other thing that encouraged me to try the Burger Joint was a complaint on another review site. “It took them 20 minutes to cook my burger,” moaned Mr Never Cooked.  Well of course it does if they have a successful business, people waiting, and cook everything from fresh. What do you want, a pre-cooked horse patty that comes out in 3 minutes?

The place? Scruffy chic, kind of Rock and Roll, who cares? The burger, biggish, a bit more of the flattened ilk, quality meat, looks like beef, tastes like beef, they ask you how you want it cooked but it all comes out medium-well done. Chips that actually taste of potatoes. Nice fresh guacamole, red onions and salad. Big squeezy bottles of different sauces including a picante that is actually picante.

The fact is, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, I went to Wendy’s recently. I heard a lot of ex-pats squealing joyfully about this addition to BA’s cultural continuum. And while I’d tried Mickey D and Burger King in extremis, this sounded different. I don’t think we have them in England. The American dream or at least the genuine diner experience? Turns out it’s the same dross but with a rectangular burger, so it protrudes enticingly from the round bun. Disgusting all the same! And the interesting thing is, is that their equivalent, hyper processed, artificially enhanced, hamburger interloper combo (fries and a drink), is MORE expensive than the same at Hamburger Joint, a place where the potatoes taste shockingly of potatoes.

Hamburger Joint annoys me. It’s a business I’ve given a lot of thought to. Six months ago it wouldn’t have been difficult to compete in a market where it was virtually impossible to find an edible burger. Now, looking at how busy they are for their 55 peso Mexican combo’s, (with real potatoes and drink) maybe I should just ask for a franchise?

And by the way, the people were nice, enthusiastic, no problem changing the mistaken diet coke for the full fat version. I hope they stay that way as success leads to their commercial roll out! I hope they keep the 5 different homemade squeezy bottles of sauce, including a proper picante. More than anything, I hope they have got their numbers right and will stick around.

If so, count me in for the next 5 franchises boys!!!!!

And yes I know I repeated myself about the picante, but it has taken me years to train a couple of Chinese restaurants to up the spice levels to something detectable by the non-porteño human palate. Finding it in a Hamburger Joint, well how rare it that?

(No pictures with this review but you can click through to Lisa’s above; she takes better photos than me).