Perfect Prawns?

Gambas

Seafood in BA is frankly irritating! It’s not as though Argentina suffers from a lack of ocean frontage, a paucity of territorial waters. It’s just that until recently the Argentines only ate fish of religious duty and with somewhat less fervour than they follow the tradition of eating gnocchi on the 29th of the month. Why go to all the effort of pursuing slippery marine creatures when a decent and affordable dinner was happily chewing the cud not so many metres away? Why not just license out the fishing rights to the Japanese or Spanish or some other fish obsessed culture or if you really must catch it yourself be sure to export it rather than burden the local population with the chores of gutting, scaling and filleting.

The popularity of Sushi, despite its unholy pairing of fish and philadelphia (cheese) is beginning to change things, though there is still an incredible lack of quality and variety, think flabby Chilean farmed salmon or sea bass that should have indulged in a bit of physical activity during its short but greedy life. So other than the thrice weekly deliveries to China Town which provide the most acceptable supplies available, where else can one go to find decent product?

Last week we came across the Pescaderia Mellino, a fish shop in front of the venerable Mercado del Progreso in Caballito that seems to offer a very decent alternative. Here is their website http://www.pescaderiamellino.com. They are a pretty inventive business, offering various “packs” of nice fresh produce, the baseline starting at less (one peso less of course) than 500 pesos for 7 whole kilos of fishy delights. They call this the family pack but I can’t help thinking you will need a pretty big family to get through this lot in short order, so some of the benefits of its freshness will be diluted by the fact that you will have to freeze half of it. However, at around 4 of my Great British Pounds per kilo, delivered to your door anywhere in Capital and given the fact that they sell Norwegian salmon which has got to be better than the Chilean rubbish, it had to be worth giving a go. Not convinced? Well for those of you who are prepared to drag yourselves to Caballito on a Saturday morning there is another treat in store. Because on Saturday they apparently whiz the order that you placed during the week, up from Mar del Plata early in the morning and sell it to you at knock down prices. And as you will then get the opportunity to wander round the excellent Mercado del Progreso first and stock up on other hard to find produce, it has to be worth the effort.

Last Saturday, we went to see. I don’t know why it is so hard to find decent prawns here but it is. Fresh or frozen, they don’t seem to be very robust little creatures. They don’t seem to have much flavour either. So we booked Mellino’s special offer, 2 kilos of decent sized fresh ones for a mere 150 pesos. And they looked good, smelt good, we were hungry, so we rushed home to try them out. Recipe time?

Well, however good they were I knew they weren’t going to be some big robust indian ocean affair with superior musculature that could survive any serious cooking. Recipes that work here are those that heat them until they firm and colour, without any serious calorific challenge. Also, and I have no idea why this is, prawns here definitely need to be cleaned. Don’t even think about cooking them in their shells. And don’t go to a restaurant that does. These chaps have some serious intestines to deal with.

What could be easier than Gambas al Ajillo? Good olive oil, large but fine slices of garlic and chili, warm to infuse, heat up a little (halfway between poaching and frying temperature), in with the prawns and the moment they firm up and show the right colour tip the lot into a cold dish and serve with warm slices of baguette to soak up the sauce. Yes, that’s right, a cold dish. Don’t go with the lovely traditional spanish clay dishes that you cook in and then they retain the heat and keep cooking your prawns, unless you want Argentine prawn mush.

In the evening we had a couple of friends over for an impromptu dinner, and we still had plenty of prawns. Another simple and very tasty dish, which makes a great starter. Finely cube a few inches of a fairly fatty spanish style chorizo and fry until your pan is quite oily. Turn the heat up, bung in halved cherry tomatoes, then a few minutes later, turn the heat down, garlic and chili as above, a bit of white wine and then the prawns and some fine (and obviously recently cooked) pasta. A few fresh herbs and pepper and the flavours are remarkably sophisticated for such little effort.

And of course, having cleaned them, you still have the heads and shells. Fry them up with garlic and fennel and a tomato or two, cover them in some water and bubble for half an hour and you have a tasty stock (and from 2 kilos of prawns quite a lot of it), the perfect base for an asian soup or a French sauce. I used it in this Thai fish coconut noodle soup.

Thai Prawn Soup

So the prawns, quality wise? Pretty good actually. Sweet flesh, good texture, I’d go back.

And reasonably priced fish, delivered to your door in BA. Without cream cheese? You know it makes sense!

 

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.

Battles and Bloody Mary

Yesterday was a special holiday, a one-year-only event to celebrate the glorious victory of General Manuel Belgrano in the Battle of Salta, two hundred years ago. As the from-then-on national flag (the celeste y blanca) flew for the first time, the Spanish colonialists and their Peruvian minions were routed and Argentina’s independence asserted. The only way I know to rout my Spanish flatmate is with cocktail creations that cunningly disguise their alcoholic potency. And given we are celebrating a battle, blood was in order, so the only thing to start the day with would be some kind of Bloody Mary. And then I realised that the holiday fell midweek so few people would be scampering off to the country side and the weather was likely to be awful, so a long, late, lunch was in order. I rang a dozen people and a dozen people said yes. I decided on a Spanish theme, a kind of last meal for the vanquished.

The only trouble with making a Bloody Mary here in Argentina, is that you can’t buy tomato juice. Pasata, puré, tinned tomatoes and tomato concentrate are all locally produced, juice no. Most bars simply dilute the puré but it doesn’t work. You end up with a claggy, uncooked tasting (but needing to be cooked), strangely textured brew. When I first got here I tried selecting the ripest tomatoes and simply liquidising them. That doesn’t work either. You end up with a foamy, innocuous, light pink solution that starts to separate five minutes after making your drink. I was served this recently at a restaurant with brunch-time pretentions and while I knew where they were coming from, I still had to send in back. So how do you create a fresh, zingy, flavour rich juice that won’t separate into anaemic layers, from the plethora of natural, sun-ripened ingredients available from your Bolivian brothers?

This brought me back to the Spanish theme and given the date, a Monty Pythnesque “What did the Spanish ever do for us?” Answer, they gave us Gazpacho, the fundamental, no cooking involved, dish of peasant Spaniards with too little money and too many tomatoes. And in my experience it can be served thick or thin, textured or smooth, spiced or not…. Thankfully the only point of the Internet is to fulfil ones private fetishes and one man’s porn is another man’s food porn. I spent a happy couple of hours researching Gazpacho.  Naked of course as the humidity was terrible!

After my unsuccessful fresh tomato liquidising experiment, I was looking for something that would guarantee redness, not just of the juice but also of the drink once colourless vodka had been added in copious quantities. And a strong flavour that would dominate the cheap Smirnoff I was going to use! Basically, this was to be a Breakfast Bloody, vitamins aplenty and with a disguised Vodka kick that would assist with the integration of my disparate group of invitees.  I settled on a roast tomato and red pepper recipe to bastardise in my own special way. I write about it because it is spectacularly easy, tasted excellent, takes little time and I doubt that I will ever buy tomato juice again, even if it becomes available. With the addition of garlic, and a bit of white bread it would also be an excellent Gazpacho, to which I would still add a slurp of Sherry at the end.

To the recipe: Buy a kilo of the best (reddest) tomatoes you can find.  Slash a cross in them and squeeze a little to open up. Yes they look a bit anaemic inside, don’t they? Pour a tiny bit of olive oil into the opening and roast on a medium heat until they feel quite hot. Cover and stick in fridge overnight (I have no idea whether this makes any difference, but I was ready for bed. The next day there was lots of delicious juice in the bowl). Char a red pepper or two and peel (the only time consuming thing). Peel a couple of cucumbers and cut up (I peeled because I didn’t want a green tinge). Cut up tomatoes but don’t bother peeling if you are going to whizz this into a juice (you may wish to for a very refined Gazpacho, but you can always stick it through a fine sieve). You will notice that they are strangely much redder inside. Throw everything (probably two batches for the average size blender) into the liquidizer and whizz adding cold water until you get to desired consistency. Salt and lemon to taste. Chill for as long as possible for the flavours to meld. Makes 2 to 3 litres. Serve as a spiked Gazpacho (it can absorb a lot of vodka without the flavour altering – dangerous) with a bit of black pepper and a light sherry float, or just use it for a trad Bloody Mary mix.

As I use my blog as an aide memoir about what people really liked (if they fight for the last piece of something or demand refills until the supply ends I am a happy guy), a couple of other observations. The BM’s went very well with tostados (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and tomato) with some good Serrano Ham, which is surprisingly cheap at San Francisco (Thames and Corrientes).

Also, as it was a Spanish meal, we had to have something fishy, always a problem here. I bought the biggest raw (in reality shocked in boiling water to facilitate the removal of their shells) prawns I could find. Not an outrageous price. Made the simplest of dishes, gambas al ajillo; warmed a lot of great olive oil with a copious amounts of large slices of garlic and chilli until the flavours infused. Heat up, and two minutes cooking. The feedback? One of the best dishes of the day and plenty of dipping in the infused oil was done. The secret? I think that frozen prawns have to be defrosted really slowly to retain their texture and cooked very briefly (and don’t bother with the traditional hot clay dishes, they look great but the prawns will continue cooking and turn to mush), and excellent olive oil, which I bought in an unlabelled bottle from Bodega Amparo (Darwin and Gorriti) from a shelf with a hand written sign saying “Excellent Olive Oil.” I presume they buy it in bulk and transfer it into bottles.

Of course there were a number of other dishes and copious amounts of excellent pinot noir (the unheralded star of the Argentine wine scene) but thank God everyone was stuffed by the time we got to the paella, because the rice was a disaster!! Ah well, back to cooking school in March.