Solid Choices

 

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The 5th Floor is quiet at the moment but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. The rational for staying at a more intimate establishment such as our own is not just the familial atmosphere but also the access to local knowledge and the planning ability of your hosts. Of course The Faena offers you an Experience Manager and most other hotels a Concierge. Undoubtedly she (at least at the former it normally is a she) will be considerably younger and decidedly prettier than myself but does she spend her spare time trawling through auction catalogues to judge the quality of the respective houses’ pre-sale exhibitions or journeying off to the new spaces and events that the Ministry of Culture has just inaugurated? I doubt it, she is probably saving herself for a good evening’s clubbing.

Does she pore over restaurant reviews, agonising about lack of consistency or a sudden change of chef? Unlikely. She probably doesn’t have the money to eat out often nor the international experience to make her recommendations relevant. If you want to pop a few pills and dance till sun-up, a Faena experience manager may be for you. She will know the Buenos Aires club scene far better than myself. If you are looking for solid food choices to fortify you for your daily cultural program, maybe not.

However providing our “Super-Concierge” service is hard graft. We can’t rely on third-party reviews and pretty photos to enhance our list of recommended restaurants. We have to get out there, literally get our snouts in the trough, ignore the perils of piling on the pounds. After all our credibility is at stake! And sometimes it is disheartening. The BA food scene is developing incredibly quickly, but is still too frequently hit and miss. Sometimes I become despondent, lock myself in the kitchen and just cook what I know I like, for maybe a week. However, having had a few good experiences recently after integrating with a voracious group of foodies on Facebook, we were once again inspired and have put in some Serious Eating, obviously “on behalf of our future clients”, sampling the (relatively) new and venturing out to check quality at a couple of the more established.

CEVICHEDoes Buenos Aires really need another Peruvian fusion restaurant? They seem to be popping up like moles on a croquet lawn. We took advantage of the fixed-menu offer during Buenos Aires Food Week to try Olaya, one of the most recent, and then returned last week to confirm initial impressions (yes we are conscientious). It seems the answer is yes, if the restaurant in question leans firmly towards its Peruvian roots. The BAFW menu was plainly Peru. We couldn’t not try the classic Ceviche with its attendant Leche de Tigre. It was probably the best I’ve had in BA. Fresh and zingy, unusually spicy for here, delicious leche, and very ample. Having been offered an amuse bouche of 3 tasty and well made Nigris we could have (should have) moved straight onto dessert (also good) but we didn’t. We deviated by way of an unnecessary and not very interesting main course. La Doctora, who spent seven years in Lima, said it was authentic. That didn’t mean I wanted to eat it.

Tiradito

But the ceviche ensured I wanted to return and so I did. I won’t bore you with the details of each dish, the moral of the story is just stick with the generously proportioned starters, sushi, ceviches and tiraditos. We tried four which were all delicious, washed down with good pisco sours (the Peruvian pisco, not the Chilean impostor) and again one much duller main course (which was by then unnecessary). These guys definitely excel at the fiddly stuff, the quirky blends of textures and flavours, the amplification of the freshness of high quality fish. If I want a stir fry I’ll lock myself back in the kitchen and do it myself but you won’t find me imitating the complexities of the plate below. After all, there is a point to going out.

TACUNIGIRI

Other than that, the place has onda, light and airy, you can see the chefs working and the service is great. Although not the bargain option, I’ll be going back. And by the way, this is an efficient market. Chira opened at the about the same time as Olaya, serving Peruvian Fusion in a too-cool looking locale, with a too expensive menu and the feeling you would be face checked on the door. A five minute walk from Olaya, we never went in. It didn’t look welcoming. Or fun. It appears to have already gone belly up. Another expensive RIP in BA’s restaurant scene.

(By way of an aside, if you’ve noticed that my food photography has dramatically improved i’ll let you into my new strategy. If you like the place and are going to write about it nicely, just ask them to send you their pro photos over. It saves all the fiddling around and looking like a bloody train spotter. You are probably an eater not an artist. Stick to what you know you can do well! Of course if you don’t like the place and are going to write nasty things, it’s obligatory to use your turn of the century blackberry to ensure the food images come out even grimier than your review.)

Also relatively new though with enough history to have overcome any teething problems, is Fukuro Noodle Bar, an altogether braver proposition. Genuine homemade Ramen noodle soup that you eat sitting at a bar. Possibly the smallest menu in the world, 5 items including pudding and not a table in sight. Do they really think this is going to work in BA? They insist it will and it appears they are right though it took me several cups of their very acceptable warm sake to get over the shock. I think it works. Both the dumplings and the steamed buns (the sum total of the starters on offer) are excellent. The sort of thing you could eat all day, given an endless supply of sake. The two soups (porky or veggie) high quality and brightly flavoured, the former possibly lacking a bit of gelatinous depth (I had the suspicion it was a tad too healthy tasting). Good noodles and add-ins. Not designed for a romantic night out but for a more rapid meal, definitely a solid and more unusual choice. And they do have hot sauce to liven up the broth.

The two restaurants above fall into the category of stuff I like to eat but don’t know how to make. I can’t see myself mucking around with the technicalities of sushi, the preparation of the myriad of ingredients that need to be ready and added in precise quantities to add to the flavour blend or indeed being confident in accessing the best quality of fresh fish. And while I suspect I could make a more than acceptable porky soup (maybe I’ll take my own next time, strong deep and gelatinous, and pay corkage?), I have no desire to dedicate myself to the intricacies of noodle making.

The next two fall into the category of stuff I like to eat that is time consuming enough and susceptible enough to the chef’s personal touch that I thoroughly appreciate someone else making it (and sourcing the ingredients) and gladly pay for the convenience of being presented with a menu on which there are lots of things that appeal which I can eat immediately.

Social Paraiso, from outside looks like the kind of restaurant I would set up if I ever decided to take the plunge. Smart enough to know you are in a restaurant, unpretentious enough to feel relaxed and not worry about how you are dressed. One assumes, correctly, that this is about food and not fanfare. Its menu seems to rotate with adequate frequency and seasonality and always has a variety of options I want to try. And this I knew just from walking past. Until a few of days ago I had never been in, for some reason whenever it occurred to me to go I could never remember where it was, got distracted, remembered somewhere else I wanted to experience and filed it into the “another day” category. So I’m glad I finally went.

It’s a restaurant that I don’t want to damn by faint praise. It’s solid, not flashy. The dishes taste pretty much as you hope they will. There’s a decent amount of variety on offer for such a small place. I enjoyed everything I had. While it doesn’t concern itself (and rightly so) with cutting edge techniques, it ensures the right variety of flavours on your plate. Top quality bistro food sums it up. And at Bistro prices, the bill was less pretentious than the place and the wine list a study in being reasonable and offering variety and value. I could cook some of their dishes better than them, some of them worse. It’s probably the restaurant I would end up having if I dared. A proper bistro, reasonably priced. There aren’t many competing for this title in BA so the owners should be proud. I’ll be going back.

Cafe San Juan. Finally, I have to admit it. Despite the fact that we live in politically correct, socially aware, anything goes times, I’m prejudiced. I’m eager to dislike television star, skater-boy, heavily tattooed chefs, who have risen to glory on the strength of their success in one minuscule restaurant where mummy and daddy run the front of house and back office. The “we’re a big family, cuddling spiky haired staff saved from a life a drug addiction” publicity back story, leaves me a bit cold. Plus seen from outside, the restaurant is tiny, packed, and they can’t employ a fat waitress as she wouldn’t fit between the tables. I have long skinny legs and I could hardly squeeze to the bathroom. And it didn’t look cheap! Which is probably why, though I’ve known about it for years, I never bothered going. I knew it would disappoint.

May I publicly apologise to said Chef, Leandro Cristóbal for my narrow minded discriminatory assumptions. If he would accept it, I would happily bestow on him the first winner of “The 5th Floor Ugly Food” restaurant awards. The few that follow my blog understand that Ugly Food is a good thing. The triumph of flavour over presentation; Food you eat with your nose first, not your eyes; Peasant sensibilities over bourgeois bling; Simmer in a casserole over boil in a (sous vide) bag; Don’t be afraid of a brown sauce, flavour is often brown! Those that don’t follow my blog may now have some idea of my kind of food.

So finally I went. Already in ebullient mood from a visit to the recently restored and seriously enhanced Quinquela Martin museum in La Boca (possibly the best collection of figurative Argentine paintings in the city), I was ready to try another classic. First myth to dismiss. San Juan isn’t expensive. You have to divide the prices in half because all the dishes are large enough for two. Second, the “too cool for school” staff are actually very pleasant and efficient (given the place is packed on a Sunday lunchtime), interested and knowledgeable and prevented us making the fatal error of ordering two main courses. My only criticism is that if they had stopped us ordering two starters we could have made it to dessert! And the wine list includes 5 of my favourite lunchtime tipple, Pinot Noir, ranging from reasonable to pricey.

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There is a selection of Montaditos, tapas mounted on toasty bread. Given the quality of the bread basket and the sheer size of these tapas I felt more bread was unnecessary. However, the couple next to us, looking for a quick bite, shared one tortilla española with big, thick slices of marinated escabeche style aubergine on top (see pic above) and left happy. And for 45 pesos they should have been! We mistakenly had the same, La Doctora’s order, probably fine if you are sticking to the tapas proposition but it didn’t really fit my theory. And I felt the escabeche dominated the omelette and while that might have been smoothed out by the toasty bread I didn’t want to eat more of the bread. But did I mention the excellent bread basket and quality olives arrive FOR NO COVER CHARGE (very unusual in BA), and anyway I had ordered two dishes that I cook a lot myself so wanted to compare.

Rabo de Toro (oxtail, pic above), followed by rabbit. Two dishes that are easy to get right if you pay a lot of attention and even easier to get wrong. In the first the sauce can come out weedy or greasy, or stick and burn. In the second there is always the balance between extracting flavour and tenderness while tee-toeing round the risk of drying out the bunny. Both were perfect, though very different from my own, natural sauces rather than wine enhanced.

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The rabo came au natural, but was at least half a tail. Accompanied by oil-dipped and toasted olive bread (yes I told you you should previously avoid the bread based tapas). Frankly, by itself, the lunch of kings! A generous amount of sauce that could have exhausted your bread basket. At 90 pesos a “light” lunch for two. The rabbit was spot on. Plenty of lovely sauce flavoured with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, crunchy triangles of polenta with ham and herbs (and texture). We made a supreme effort, swigged valiantly at a very tasty (Alberto Roca?) Pinot Noir, and finished it all. But then we were stuffed which was a pity, as the desserts going past looked tempting and ample but we couldn’t stretch further.

We wandered down to Coffee Town in the San Telmo covered market for caffeine recovery.

coffeetown

I have to say it makes me happy to come across a celebrity chef who isn’t a fraud. It seems he promotes the same stuff he cooks. Big flavours that won’t bore you. Presentation wise, well it looks like a nice bowl of food, nothing wrong with that. So while Social Paraiso is damn solid and much more convenient finally the two are equally priced. As long as La Doctora promises to stay sober and drive the car (pobrecita) I’ll be going to San Juan but if she wants a couple of cocktails, I have no problem with SP.

Looks like I’m spoiled for choice now, something I couldn’t have said a few years ago. And as both work out around USD 50 for two, including wine, I only need a few more clients to ensure my happy lifestyle.

Cheers and keeping coming chaps, you get the super-concierge service and I remain well fed and content!

Olaya, Humboldt 1550, Palermo Hollywood, 4843 1751

Fukuro Noodle Bar, Costa Rica 5514, Palermo Hollywood, 15 3290 0912

Social Paraiso,  Honduras 5182, Palermo Soho, 4831 4556

Cafe San Juan, Av San Juan 450, San Telmo, 4300 1112

 

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Chocolate and quite possibly Paradise, Found.

Chocolate 1

As regular readers of my blog will know, I spend a lot of time searching for things in BA, pretty much exclusively foodstuffs of course. Material possession wise I travel light. While some may crave the latest electronic gadget, clothing accessory or automotive experience, I ponder where to get proper bacon (Baines Best), a sausage acceptable at breakfast (Bratwurst Argentina), Norwegian Salmon (Pescaderia Mellino), smoked ribs to have on standby for a lazy feast (El Tejano), Biltong (Biltong in BA) or proper, strong flavoured cheese (I found both a spot-on English cheddar and a rocking, creamy gorgonzola at the food fair in Parque Las Heras on Saturday).

Until Sunday, Dia de La Patria, when any Argentine (including us recent immigrants) can expect the sun to come out and shed a little light into those obscure nooks that have been lacking it, I had not managed to find chocolate or indeed chocolates that ranked any higher than “acceptable”. And I hasten to add, this would not be an “acceptable” in the context of Geneva or Paris but an “acceptable” after 5 years of lowering my expectations and trying the over-sugared, adulterated, artificially flavoured rubbish, that has virtually led to my abandonment of chocolate eating but still admits to the occasional rush of faith on the back of the odd craving.

Hey, I’m not saying you can’t buy pretty chocolates here, you can. There are plenty of artists but they fall into the same trap as most of the molecular gastronomists. Technique over flavour, style over substance. They raise your expectations and then crush you with Cadbury-esque mediocrity. Think Milka with Malba on top.

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However, this sunny Day of the Revolution (I prefer to think of it this way as it was the Spanish that took the brunt not the Brits), I had the good luck to be invited to a celebratory Locrofest, 6 hours of eating, wine and music (but 6 hours of eating too – it was not sequential) and an opportunity to raise a goodly amount for charity (feeding underprivileged kids of course). It was organised by the Buena Morfa Social Club. For non-Lunfardo speakers, Morfar means to Eat or Comer here. And you have all heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, who doesn’t love their music?

Anyway, the members of the former are distinctly fatter than the members of the latter, but proud of it and only slightly less likely to break into song. The hardcore founders are more obsessionally foodie than I, and not above putting in several days of hard work (while cleverly extracting prime ingredients and beverages from every supplier they know) in order to provide a feast for the 55 people that congregated (not including the waiting list), knowing their bellies would be full, as would those of the kids we eventually raised 20,000 pesos for (did I mention it was 6 hours of serious eating, there is a reason that their logo included the Argentine flag, crossed forks and the head of a pig). If you need to know something about eating here or acquiring ingredients I suggest that you subscribe to their Facebook page immediately.

So finally we got to the “mesa de dulces”. A table of desserts showing off the talents of the various members of this hard eating group. And to be fair a delicious spread. But much was made of Diego, which was perfectly reasonable as he had organised the space in the building which made the whole event possible, and his handmade chocolates.

I’d just grabbed a coffee to stimulate my cardiovascular system against extreme, food-excess induced fatigue.

“Would you like me to get you some chocolates?” said the delightful young lady beside me. Well it seemed rude not to after the speech thanking him for being one of the major facilitators of the event. But my expectations were not high! Actually I felt a little depressed. Why? Because I wanted to like this guy, admire him, he’d made a phenomenal effort. It made me uncomfortable to think I was going to have another of those “he’s not even the runner up” moments. She came back with a selection, further adding to my anxiety.

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Until I tasted the first of course and was then un-remorseful that she might have nabbed more than our fair share. Let them eat cake! Or one of the other 20 delicious desserts. I’ve been living in the chocolate purgatory of the vaguely acceptable.

So Diego Armanini Chocolatier (https://www.facebook.com/diego.chocolatier?fref=ts), for my money the best in BA. Fresh taste, fresh high quality ingredients, no cloying aftertaste. Pretty enough to serve to a honeymoon bride, basic enough to satisfy a foodie. He doesn’t have a shop but you can visit him in Palermo Hollywood. He doesn’t seem to have any competition so maybe you should finance his shop! Or a small factory making this stuff? I don’t know the prices yet, but the odd good chocolate is priceless.

Disclosure: I haven’t been paid or in anyway bribed for this review, but hey, Diego, if your Facebook likes suddenly increase and lots of people with a poor grasp of Castellano but a craving for sophisticated sweetness turn up at your door, well, send me round a choccie or two!

Oh, by the way he’s a nice guy and a genuine enthusiast.

 

“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.

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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.

Ugly Food!

The problem with immaculate presentation is it raises expectations that only the finest chefs can fulfil. Further, the trend seems to be that if the ingredient is listed in the dish description, it has to appear separately and identifiably on the plate, or the punters will be up in arms. “I thought this came garnished with Kashmiri crocus stigmas?” they moan, not content that their paella’s rich vapour and distinctive yellow hue is due to the prior infusion of said saffron.

More disturbing is the fashion of “deconstructing” a perfectly good dish into its separate ingredients and hoping a clever sauce will somehow meld the flavours together and imbue it with the resonance that good, slow, one pot cooking would have surely provided. There is a reason that certain dishes have stood the test of centuries and the chef that once provided me with a deconstructed Cassoulet de Toulouse certainly deserved beheading by the very brotherhood of French knights whose sworn duty it is to defend this dish, ( see http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Searching-For-The-Secrets-Of-Cassoulet). The excuse given? Well in these health conscious times the chef was unwilling to inflict on his public’s arteries those delicious beans which act as sponges for the duck and ham fats that make this dish so unctuous. So he served the beans on the side, boiled, with some form of warm garlic and tomato coulis, which just rolled off the beans and clashed acidly with the roast duck breast, shaving of ham hock and garlic sausage rounds. The dish looked pretty though.

Of course good looks do not preclude impressive flavour. I ate 18 times in a my 24 day stay in Beijing at the amazing Da Dong Duck.Their coffee-table book style menu includes full page photos of every one of the hundreds of dishes which all come out tasting like your best imaginings of the images’ potential if the chef was a complete genius who ruled his 150 kitchen staff with tyrannical precision. Which he was and he did. (Click on “dishes” here – http://www.dadongdadong.com/en – to a get a feeling for what I am talking about. The only reason to go to that godforsaken city!). While I have never eaten (and will sadly now never have the opportunity) at El Bulli, I have visited the Fat Duck where Heston Blumenthal’s dishes are love them or hate them but guaranteed to elicit some flavoursome reaction. And are of course exquisitely presented.

(Aside – If you share my obsession with good chefs and better ducks you may enjoy this video of Heston visiting Beijing so Da Dong can teach him how to make the perfect Peking duck – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jsc_hR47E0)

Anyway, I hope the above is adequate justification for what you are about to see. It’s not pretty I’m afraid. The only thing I do worse than food presentation is photography. However, at the request of a young American friend who is forsaking us to return to Yanquilandia, Friday night called for big, dirty flavoursome food and I was tasked with a classic Osso Bucco and fresh pasta as the main course.

The starter barely seems worth mentioning. A nice sweet honeydew melon liberally garnished with Serrano style ham. I bother however, just to take the opportunity to point out to my Buenos Aires brethren that the Fiambreria San Francisco (corner of Thames and Corrientes) provides top quality produce at half the price of anywhere else! Buy their Brie, leave it in a warm cupboard for 3 days, decline your maids urgent admonitions to cleanse the kitchen of the foul smelling beast and once it can run as fast as you, France comes to you thus saving you the money and inconvenience of the opposite course of action.

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Shiny, winey, marrow rich sauce with melting meat.

For the Osso Bucco I tweaked the classic Gordon Ramsay recipe (http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785). However, you can’t get veal in Argentina or at least not the pale fleshed kind from some poor animal that has spent all its life in a box and never felt the sun’s warmth before meeting an untimely demise. So you have to use the robust, fully fledged, cook for at least 4 hours until tender version. The advantage is that you don’t need to muck around making a veal stock to cook it in, as it makes its own as it goes along. If you have clicked on the recipe you will see the benefit. My strategy is simply to combine all the goodies in the veal stock recipe with all the goodies in the Osso Bucco one, cheat with a bit of chicken stock and as I wanted a generous amount of sauce for my pasta rather than the minimalist reduction Gordon requires, tip in some tomatoes and a bottle of red (for about 3 kilos of meat) after about 2 hours of cooking. The great thing about slow cooking is it allows you to layer flavours while giving them time to meld. So while I wanted to enhance the umami flavour of the mushrooms with some worcester (anchovy) or fish sauce and salt up the dish with some soya sauce, I didn’t want to lose the mushrooms texture by adding them early in the process. Fried up quickly in a pan with the added ingredients, they tasted horrible when ready to be added to the sauce but after an hour’s simmer reinforced its depth and counteracted the wines acidity. A technique that I have recently learnt at chef school is the use of cold roux for thickening sauces. Add equal parts flour to belted butter, cook up for 2 minutes and then cool and put into the fridge. When you come to use it it will be a crumbly, plastic texture and you can break it into the sauce progressively until you achieve the thickness you require. Unlike cornflour, it adds a buttery sheen and avoids the risk of uncooked floury lumps that other methods sometimes provoke.

The result? Artery clotting goodness, but sadly not enough bones to suck the marrow from.

Anglo Argentine Cake

Puddings are something I rarely eat. Other than their magnificent ice cream, Argentine preferences verge on the sickly sweet. But as I have no choice but to study Pastelería as part of my course, I went for a simple sponge and some anglo argentine flavour layering. A filling of fresh peaches, quickly cooked up in a liquid of hesperidina (bitter orange) liquor topped with the classic Eton Mess, whipped cream, strawberries and crumbled meringue.

“Eton Mess” topping

Certainly looked a mess, but managed to be surprisingly light and fruity. Now I have to work out how to deconstruct it to rectify its hideous appearance!!