Thursday, September 6, 2012

Week 35: A Journey to Argentina

My week of Argentine cuisine enlightened me to the broad scope of dishes represented by this region.  I expected to find numerous examples of meats cooked on asodos (grills) and served with chimichurri.  While I knew that Argentina’s population is primarily of European descent, I had not considered how dishes from their native countries would evolve in such interesting ways.  Most notably, I was fascinated by the Italian influence in Argentine cuisine, which is why many of this week’s menus include them.  

Argentine Pionono
pionono filled with ham,
cheese, roasted red pepper,
hard-boiled egg, & green olives
The pionono originated in Spain as a small, cake roll (similar to the size of a cupcake) soaked in syrups and topped with toasted cream.  From there, this dish and its Spanish influence found new iterations in many other countries.  The Filipino version is a jelly roll cake often filled with sweetened margarine or jelly.  In Puerto Rico, the “cake layer” is actually made with plantains and filled with seasoned beef or sometimes even shrimp and lobster, and each slice is deep fried to make a sandwich.  The pionono is popular in many South American countries, especially in Argentina.  There, the fillings inside the rolled sponge cake vary from sweet dulce de leche to savory meats and cheeses. 

pionono filling before
the roll

Of course, I knew Argentina’s pionono filled with dulce de leche would be a delicious version of one of my favorite desserts, caramel cake.  As much as I wanted to make that dish, I found the idea of yellow sponge cake as the “bread” layer to a sandwich intriguing, and I just had to try it out.  The From Argentina with Love blog includes several ideas for savory fillings and notes that a traditional Argentine filling includes ham, cheese, hard-boiled egg, roasted red peppers, and green olives.  So, I tried it out, and I must say that it was quite delicious.  The only thing I would change in the future is to add a thin layer of mayonnaise to the cake for moisture.  On its own, the cake and filling was a little dry.  I read other examples of fillings which included artichoke dip or ham with a cream cheese and Roquefort spread, which would seem to present a moister roll.  This is a perfect party dish, and I will definitely add it to my hors d’oeuvre repertoire.

Fainà and Argentine-Style Pizza
Fainà is a flatbread made with chickpea flour that is served as an appetizer in Argentina.  Another common way of serving fainà is on top of a pizza slice, referred to as pizza a caballo.  The batter includes chickpea flour, parmesan cheese, salt, freshly grated black pepper, olive oil, and water.  It is poured onto a hot pizza pan covered in olive oil and baked in a thin layer until golden and crispy.  While I enjoyed its peppery flavor, I found it to be very heavy.  I certainly cannot imagine eating large quantities of this as an appetizer before a meal.

Argentine-style pizza
Pizza is one of Argentina’s most popular dishes, and it is a bit different from the traditional Italian or even American versions.  The dough is a thin batter that rises into a thicker crust.  Ingredients can vary from that of a simple cheese and tomato sauce to a more elaborate sardine and hard-boiled egg version.  I made the dough and tomato sauce recipes on the From Argentina with Love blog, and I topped the pizza with mozzarella, homemade ricotta, and fresh basil.  Although I usually prefer a thin crust, I enjoyed the texture and flavor of this dough.  It was very “bready” and reminded me of an “open face calzone” more than a slice of pizza.

pizza a caballo
Of course, I had to try out pizza a caballo.  It still didn’t do it for me. Maybe my fainà was too thick or not crispy enough, but I just could not imagine eating multiple slices of that thick-crusted pizza with the heavy fainà.  It was just too much.

Happy National Gnocchi Day
In Argentina, as well as other Italian-influenced South American countries, the 29th of every month is celebrated as Dia de Ňoquis, National Gnocchi Day.  What a brilliant idea for a monthly holiday!  The holiday’s origin was born of necessity as families reaching the end of the previous month’s paycheck began the tradition of joining together for an inexpensive dish (basically just potatoes and flour) that was so delicious it felt like a royal feast.  Another tradition associated with this holiday is placing a peso under each plate for good luck and prosperity.  I could not resist the idea, so I invited over some girlfriends to celebrate on August 29.
making gnocchi
Having never made gnocchi, I set out to study up on the intricacies of creating light, fluffy, and of course, mouth-wateringly delicious, gnocchi.  After reviewing at least twenty different sets of instructions, I found Lidia Bastianich’s recipe on Epicurious, which includes explicit instructions for adding just enough flour, the necessary time needed to ensure the dough is not overworked, and how to drag the dumplings over the tines of a fork to make the perfect little gnocchi.  (Interestingly, this recipe includes more details that the one posted on her own website.)  While the rest of South Florida hunkered down for Tropical Storm Isaac, I set out to make gnocchi.  I made Lidia Bastianich’s recipe for regular potato gnocchi, and I made Melissa Roberts’ recipe for sweet potato gnocchi (following Lidia’s detailed instructions for making them and Melissa’s ingredient list).  Most recipes offer the option of either boiling or baking the potatoes to cook them.  Because I read that the reason for pressing the cooked potatoes through a ricer and spreading them into a thin layer is as much for cooling as it is to dry out the potatoes, I chose to bake the potatoes to reduce the moisture content.  The entire task of making the two batches of gnocchi took two or three hours, but it was definitely worth the effort.  Even after a big dinner with my friends, we have enough gnocchi in the freezer for at least two more meals.

sweet potato gnocchi
with fried sage
and chestnuts
For the sweet potato gnocchi, I made Melissa Roberts’ recipe for Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Fried Sage and Shaved Chestnuts, and yes….it was as good as it sounds.  Before I cooked the gnocchi, I fried fresh sage leaves and roasted chestnut slivers in some olive oil.  When the gnocchi finished cooking, I simply added it to melted butter, stirred in the sage leaves and chestnuts, and topped it with fresh Pecorino Romano cheese and freshly ground black pepper.  It made a stunningly beautiful platter!

gnocchi with tomato,
basil, and olives
For the regular gnocchi, I chose a tomato, basil, and olive sauce from Lidia Bastianich.  I couldn’t believe the complex flavors of such a simple set of ingredients:  butter, green olives, tomato sauce, Pecorino Romano cheese, and fresh basil.  The preparation of the olives is the key element to creating such a boldly flavored sauce.  The olives are cooked in the butter for a few minutes before the tomato sauce is added, and with that quick sauté, the olive flavor permeates the butter and sauce in the most interesting way.  After the sauce simmers, the cheese, fresh basil, salt, and freshly ground pepper are added.  Amazing!  I loved this sauce, and with so many basic, pantry ingredients, I think it will become a new standard for nights that I really don’t feel like going to great efforts to cook a delicious meal.  I’m thinking it would be really nice with orecchiette. 

pasta frola
For dessert, I turned again to the From Argentina with Love blog for the author’s Argentinean mother-in-law’s recipe for Pasta Frola, a pastry with dough similar to shortbread and jam filling.   I used the traditional filling of quince jam, and I was so surprised that such a simple dessert could be so delightful.  It reminded me of the best, freshest homemade Fig Newton imaginable.  (As a matter of fact, if the dish was made with fig jam, it would taste identical to one.)  The subtle floral quality of the quince added an interesting flavor to the dessert, and I liked that it was not overly sweet.  Another wonderful Italian-influenced dish.

Skirt Steak with Chimichurri & Burnt Carrots served with Fresh Greens, Goat Cheese, and Garlic Chips
skirt steak with chimichurri
I would be remiss if I didn’t grill a steak at least one night during a week of Argentine cuisine.  We set up our backyard asodo and set out to create an Argentine-themed dinner from the grill.  For the steak, we simply seasoned it with salt and pepper, grilled it to medium rare, and served it with a homemade chimichurri.  I found so many recipes for chimichurris that choosing one was a bit daunting.  All similar, but with slight nuances.  Some prefer vinegars, and other think it should never be included.  Adding chiles can make the “perfect” sauce, but it can also be a disgrace.  Who knows?  I opened up my copy of Michelle Bernstein’s Cuisine à Latina and made her recipe for Traditional Chimichurri Sauce, which included fresh parsley, red wine vinegar, garlic, fresh oregano, crushed red pepper, salt, pepper, and extra virgin olive oil.  It was the best chimichurri I’ve ever tasted…fresh, piquant, spicy.  A perfect accompaniment to our steak. 

burnt carrots with fresh greens
I wanted to find an interesting side dish in the spirit of Argentine grill masters, which is why I was so excited to find Francis Mallmann’s recipe for Burnt Carrots with Goat Cheese, Parsley, Arugula, and Crispy Garlic Chips from his Seven Fires:  Grilling the Argentine Way in one of my “Best of Food and Wine” compilation cookbooks.  I didn’t make it exactly as he directed, but I certainly followed his instructions for the star of the dish, the burnt carrots.  Basically, you just coat carrots in olive oil, fresh thyme, salt and pepper, and then you grill them on both sides until they are charred and cooked through.  I served the carrots over fresh mixed greens and parsley tossed in vinaigrette, and I topped the salad with fresh goat cheese and fried garlic slivers.  (Mallmann provides instructions for “frying” the goat cheese, but when I tried it, I made a huge mess.  That’s why my version simply includes fresh goat cheese.)  My favorite thing about this side item is that it felt like we were actually eating a healthy meal, and I loved the fact that we incorporated the smoky flavors from the grill into both dishes. 

My week of Argentine cuisine surpassed my expectations.  I didn’t have any idea how many delicious, Italian-inspired dishes existed in Argentina, and I loved experiencing the Argentine versions of familiar recipes.  As an added bonus, this week offered me an opportunity to make homemade gnocchi for the first time, and I am thrilled to discover that I can make it well!  I am confident that we will celebrate Dia de Ňoquis more often.  All in all, another week of great dishes!

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