Eyes Gently Shut

With Spring in the air, pleasant clients out and about and all good with the world, we went for an early afternoon walk. Which soon led to hunger which soon led us to Palermo Hollywood. And while heading to Chipper for fish and chips, we passed another favourite that was offering an excellently priced set menu and we sadly got diverted. And while more of this in another post (once the management has had a chance to respond to my note to them), after settling down with two excellent pisco sours, we realised that everything that didn’t come out of a bottle had gone to shit. Yes I am afraid there is no more accurate (or polite) way to describe it and please bare in mind that even your granny would say “se fue a la mierda” here.

To say we were disgruntled is an understatement. We were actually sad and angry. To lose a favourite is like a bereavement. And it also entails more work and expenditure to find a replacement recommendation for our guests. Of course it could just have been a bad day, chef absent due to death in family sort of thing but I kind of suspect it is more serious. The atmosphere had changed. It’s a restaurant based on expensive primary ingredients. Inflation at 35% is probably killing them. They may have been scrimping over the set menu but they will kill their trade like that. Their staff will soon leg it back to Peru.

So how to recover the beauty of the day? I’m not rich anymore so we can’t afford to go out wining and dining twice in a day. I summoned up the email that the Ministry of Culture sends me every Friday, telling me how to spend the following week. What ideas did they have for me? Quite a few as it seemed but I’d already seen the DUDANDOT project at the Sivori Gallery. Fun but not twice, though there is also an amazing ceramic sculpture exhibition that is worth a look.

The huge itinerant exhibition (1500 pieces/450 artists) of masters of Ibero American art (I’m not even sure what that means but it seems to be modern artenesal), has apparently just arrived in BA but is spread out over 2 museums and I’d already walked for a couple of hours. Better to leave that for another day or two or three and anyway it’s on for a few months. A couple of things didn’t start till midweek. A couple of other things seemed too complex artistically for my simple mind. Fusions of film, music, history and performance that risked simply confusing me. And then I hit on the perfect suggestion. A solo performance by the renowned Austrian violinist Édua Zádory, playing everything from Bach to some more modern Austrian/Hungarian composers topped up with some recent Argentine works. In the lovely concert hall at the Usina del Arte that only holds 250 people and is acoustically designed for un-amplified performances. It sounded simple. One woman, one violin and some music that I would be entirely ignorant of. For a grand cost of nothing to go and see, other than making the effort to drive down to La Boca. So we did.

To say it was exceptional might be a case of a MacDonalds habitue suddenly being confronted by Heston Blumental’s food. I’m really not qualified to judge. Was she an amazing violinist? It seemed so to me. She seemed to be able to move across the centuries with verve and precision but then I’ve never been to a solo violin concert before. Frankly I didn’t even know how many sounds one violin could make…many of them simultaneously! But La Doctora is a bit more educated than me. After all, free concerts in Buenos Aires are nothing new. She’s been popping into the Teatro Colon for their free afternoon offering for years and she said it was impressive and who I am I to disagree. And so while we spent the afternoon walking back from the cheap but awful meal, bemoaning the plague of inconsistency of Argentine restaurants, we then spent the drive back from La Boca elated by the fact that we could risk seeing something that we had no idea about, because the city was happy to educate us. We had a world class experience that quite frankly we probably wouldn’t have risked if it had come at world class prices.

My strongest impression? I spent most of the concert with my eyes gently shut. After all it was one woman, one violin, dim lighting. Not much to see. But I did wonder afterwards, when was the last time I was out in a public space surrounded by a couple of hundred people with my eyes shut, only really using one of my senses? Life seems to have become multi-media. What, they just listen? What do they do with their eyes? They’re going to get bored! Don’t they need something to take photos of? No, why don’t we do a wine tasting with carefully chosen electronic music that goes with each grape type? And no I’m not making that up, I got the invitation. It’s a pleasure, a relaxation, to give yourself over to one sense. I can imagine my granny with her first decent record player. Obviously you don’t stop thinking but the thoughts sort of drift over. I was obviously still thinking about food and my normal bugbear, food presentation. I was thinking about dinner blindfolded. Obviously taste is both oral and nasal but the blindfold would get you back to fundamentals. Apparently there is a place in Almagro that does this. I’m going to go. What happens to all these modern cooking techniques if you can’t see them? is a sphere or a foam diminished or intensified? More surprising or less? 

So God bless Buenos Aires. They make it pretty difficult to have a bad day here. It’s tricky not to stumble across something that inspires you if you make half an effort. Sometimes if you really want to relax you just have to opt out. “Hacer fiaca” is the official name for deliberately not doing anything. It’s perfectly acceptable as an excuse in a city where “i’m broke” doesn’t cut the ice. But hell, I’m English. I’m genetically programmed to get out of the house and do something the moment the weather is vaguely nice. I have a terror of the next 44 days when it wont be. Will I exhaust the possibilities that the city offers me? Well I’ve been here five years and it still seems fresh. I’m not a long term guy but you won’t see me budging for the next five!

I apologise for the lack of soundtrack while reading my blog. A bit of Pampa Trash would have been nice. And the visuals, pathetic, no photos, not even a cute cat! If you didn’t understand it because it wasn’t divided into a list of the “5 Unmissable Things in BA”, mea culpa. I’m not very modern. But if you want to appreciate the exhaustive and exhausting cultural and social life of BA, come and stay with us. It’s an old fashioned city with old fashioned values, even applied to the modern. Last week’s Cigar, Chocolate and Wine tasting did work. 

Not all multimedia is bad.

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“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.