Friday, July 16, 2010

Week #43 Argentinean

Whenever I hear someone say, "I could really go for some Argentinean food," I figure he--and 99% of the time, it IS a he who says this--is jonesing for a serious dose of red meat. After all, the most prevalent and popular of Argentinean restaurants are churrascarias, those meat-on-a-stick places.

But my vegetarian buddy Pat and I opted for something different. We headed for  Lala's in West Hollywood, where the menu was loaded with both meat and plenty of choices to satisfy the more vegetably inclined (yes, I know that's not a word, but sometimes you just have to make one up).
The first thing to hit the table is usually chimichurri, a great sauce for dipping your bread into or for drizzling over a steak or a serving of fish. The main ingredients are garlic, parsley, salt and pepper in olive oil. The choice of spices is at the discretion of the cook. It has a light, clean taste--but never hot--that tames the dense richness of all that steak. It's good over veggies, too.

Since somewhere around 60 percent of Argentina's population has at least a little Italian blood flowing through their veins, that country's influence on this cuisine is understandably pronounced. The Argentinean version of the frittata is the tortilla de papa, a potato cake held together with egg custard. This one is pretty basic, egg with potato and onion and a little chopped parsley over the top.

The provoleta is positively wicked. If not for a sprinkling of salsa, this would just be a skillet full of melted, crusty, chewy provolone, not that I'm complaining, mind you. You just have to focus on the salsa to convince yourself that what you're eating isn't flat out deadly! This is one of the most satisfying and decadent things I've had in a long time. I may have to return soon just for provoleta with a glass of wine--by myself, so I don't have to share (with apologies to Pat, Himself and anyone else who thought they might get to tag along).

Here's my entraña, the obligatory hunk o' beef, flanked by salad and rice. Sorry I'm not finding much to say on the subject, but it pretty much looks and tastes like Sunday lunch at most any restaurant in America--if I'd had it with mashed potatoes, which was an option. It was good, but there's nothing here that screams of a particular international cuisine. If I'd opted for the steak Milanesa, it would have been thinly sliced, breaded and fried, chicken fried steak style. Very familiar. Very American, Southern style.

Since I didn't make room for an appetizer or dessert, I decided to focus on those at home:
Some consider the official sauce of Argentina to be salsa golf, also known as salsa rosada, a combo of mayo and ketchup, plus other ingredients that vary depending on who you listen to.  Like chimichurri, it's a good all-purpose sauce. I know, some of you probably think a dip made of mayo and ketchup is a little on the low-rent side, but "dijonnaise" works and this does, too. It's especially popular in Argentina as a dip for palm hearts. I tried that, along with asparagus spears, carrot sticks and broccoli florets. It was all good.
 I even stirred in some chopped hard boiled egg and a few capers and made a yummy, though slightly pink, egg salad, a nice change from my usual.

Salsa rosada (I like that name better) is essentially one of those concoctions you mix things into until you like what you've got. The basic recipe I found called for twice as much mayo as ketchup, and then a bit of lime juice, Tabasco, salt and pepper. I added the tiniest bit of colatura (or garum or fish sauce, depending on which ethnic market you find it in). That realllly opened it up and enriched the flavor. A splash of caper juice instead of lime juice worked well, too. They sell it premade, in squeeze bottles like mustard, but as quick and easy as it is to whip up, and as easy as it is to make it exactly the way you like it, why settle for the store bought variety?

I've always thought fruit fools were the province of the English, but I keep running across recipes in Argentinean collections for mango fool. So that's what I made for dessert, fresh mango puréed with confectioner's sugar and lime juice, and some whipped heavy cream folded in (no, that tub of whipped topping from the grocery won't do--the cow is more trustworthy than the chemist in the milk fat versus partially-hydrogenated something-or-other debate). I spooned it into a glass with crumbled amaretti and slices of mango and topped it with toasted almonds. It gave me an idea--this purée would be a good replacement for the egg custard in tiramisu if you're making it for someone who can't eat eggs. Of course, there's still all of that heavy cream, so it's not a low-fat alternative, just an egg-free one.

While Pat had plenty of lunch without the meat, I remembered that my vegetarian friend Katie spent a few weeks in Argentina last year, so I gave her a call to find out how easy it was to do without meat in a country that, like the U.S., practically has a steak stitched onto its flag. Katie said the strong Italian influence meant there was plenty of pasta with tomato-based sauces to eat. She noted that Argentines are quite proud of their cheeses, so there was no shortage of protein. While Argentina produces some good wines, the national drink is maté, a type of tea that most people seem quite devoted to, so much so that Katie said the hiking trails were filled with people with a special apparatus strapped to their backs from which they sipped tea as they hiked. Curious!

I come away from this dining experience with the feeling that Argentinean cuisine is very much like our own. While there may be an overlay of other cuisines on our plate, America tends to be a strong meat-and-potatoes kinda place with a few regional variations, just like Argentina.

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