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.