Friday, October 9, 2009

Asado Lunch

Last weekend, Chad and I ventured to Lujan an hour outside of Buenos Aires to stay at an estancia, which is like a ranch. Many estancias advertise themselves as relaxing, bed and breakfast sorts of getaways, except the focus is on lunch. They typically serve asado, a series of different cuts of meat that have been slowly cooked on a grill or over an open fire. They also usually serve bread, sides, and a dessert, so you have one giant, delicious meal. I'll walk you through ours.

We began with classic South American carne empanadas. Chad and I have eaten a fair number of empanadas in Buenos Aires, so we've become trained in the ways of discerning the best. These empanadas had very good crusts, flaky, with a slightly crisp outer layer, and enough substance to hold the empanada together after being bitten into. The meat filling was pretty good, but it was mostly ground beef and lacked the spicy sauce and potato chunks that many other high quality carne empanadas have. So, satisfactory, but we didn't devote all our stomach space to empanadas.

Our first meat course was chorizo and morcillas. Chorizo is a spicy sausage, although South American chorizo is not as spicy as Spain's. This chorizo was quite tasty and had a lovely grilled crunch to the exterior. Morcillas are blood sausages, which both sound and look gross to me. It's made by cooking blood with some sort of filler, such as ground up pieces of pork and breadcrumbs. Most other countries have a version of morcilla. In Germany it's blutwurst; in the UK it's blood pudding; in Asia it's blood tofu or red tofu. I didn't even try it, but Chad assured me it was gross.

They also brought out salad at the same time. Well, they brought a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes, a bowl of spinach, a bowl of shredded carrots, a bowl of purple cabbage, a bowl of sliced radishes, a bowl of arugala and onions, and a little tray with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and half a lemon. I hadn't even realized how much I'd been craving a good salad. I had four helpings of salad, polishing off the bowls of lettuce, spinach, and carrots. This is a picture of Chad's salad, and you can't even see have the radishes on his plate. The oil/red wine vinegar/lemon combo was excellent - a great way to cut the fatty taste of the meat.

Then they brought what they simply called "asado." I'm not entirely sure which cut of meat this is, but it was de-double 'e'-licious. With the bone in and fatty juices all marinating inside and the crisp layer of charcoaled goodness outside, we definitely ate our fill. I will say it wasn't the most tender cut I've ever had, but, man, it was dripping flavor. Plus, I wouldn't be surprised if they had just plucked the cow right out of their own pasture two days beforehand. I could almost taste the cow's willing sacrifice. (Weird, I don't care.)

For the final course of meat, they brought us what tasted quite similar to the previous course, but there was no bone. Chad and I agreed that this meat didn't have quite the same "bang" as the previous, maybe because of the lack of bone, but it was still tasty. We knew that we would have to preserve the last of our stomach space for desert, though, so we ate of this course sparingly.

Rich custard, a fluffy layer of meringue, drizzles of chocolate, and a bowl of warm dulce de leche with which to smother it all - Dulce de leche is like a heavenly version caramel. Carmel is already wonderful, but imagine caramel dead, purified, and resurrected in heaven. That's dulce de leche. Or if you want to go Platonic, dulce de leche is like the Form and caramel its shadowy image. I realize that doesn't totally work because I'm on earth, so I couldn't have actually participated in heavenly things or Forms, but roll with the metaphor. If you've had "dulce de leche" from a can or plastic container or in a latte, that's not the real deal. The real deal comes from Milena, the genius cook at the estancia.

See? The dulce de leche actually was so good that Chad passed onto the next world. His last words were, "This dulce de leche is so good it's killing me. I'm dead." I brought him back, though, don't worry.

And, that, my friends, is a 2 1/2 hour asado lunch at an estancia in Argentina.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Offbeat Argentine Cuisine

I must admit that adjusting to the Argentine cuisine has been a little more difficult that I had hoped. I'll just go ahead and blame it on the pregnancy, but deep down, I may just be a pickier eater than I pretend. So, first an overview, then I'll show you some of our interesting little discoveries.

Breakfast (roughly 8-10:30 am) is generally a cafe con leche and a pastry. They serve 'medialunas,' which are like croissants, but a little more dense and with a sweet glaze on top. I am definitely a medialuna fan, so breakfast is generally a good meal for me, if I get myself out of bed and ready for the day early enough. Lunch (roughly 12:30-2:30 pm) seems to be usually a sandwich, empanadas, tortas (like quiche), pizza, or Milanese (thin cuts of beef or chicken that's breaded and fried). Their sandwiches are funny because they're often just ham and cheese, or ham and cheese and tomato, or a big slab of Milanase between two pieces of bread. Now, those two pieces of bread could be white bread, with the crusts removed, or pita-like bread, or giant baguettes. So, for instance, the other day I got a Milanese sandwich, which was a huge piece of breaded and fried beef put in between two baguette slices. There were like four inches of meat hanging off either side of the baguette slices. And, of course, there are no condiments or add-on things like lettuce. Meat and bread. Maybe meat, cheese, and bread. Dinner (8:30-10:30) seems to bring on more variety, including steaks.

Perhaps the frustrating part is the general lack of variety. Nearly every restaurant in our posh little neighborhood serves basically sandwiches, empanadas, pizza, and Milanese. Or you can go to a steak-house. Sometimes an American just wants a salad bar or a yummy soup, you know? Or a chicken salad, mmm.

Oh, speaking of salads, most of the 'hip' restaurants that want a foreign sort of edge offer salads, but they're often very offbeat salads. Take this Waldorf salad, for instance, at which I am looking quite skeptically in this picture. Yes, yes, the main ingredients in a Waldorf are apples, grapes, celery, walnuts, and mayo, but this was literally chopped up apple, slathered in mayo, and sprinkled with walnuts and hearts of palm. I don't know. I felt like I basically was just eating mayo-covered apples. It was weird.

And delving even deeper into the weird, we have mate. Chad was brave enough to order this traditional beverage. They bring you a mate cup, filled with dried leaves (same idea as tea), a metal straw, and a thermos of hot water. You pour the hot water over the mate leaves, let it steep, and then drink with the straw. Repeat. The straw has slits that essentially act as a filter. Mate is extremely popular all over South America, and they generally drink it when socializing in groups. They'll often even pass the mate cup around to share. Well, Chad offered to share with me. Let me tell you, mate is gross. I'm sorry to sound so closed-minded or whatever.
I bet, though, that if you steeped alfalfa and hay in hot water and drank the liquid from a straw, you'd basically be drinking mate. Yep, alfalfa and hay. Maybe some plain ole grass mixed in, too. Just take a good, close look at it. Ick. But Chad drank all of it, so maybe it's just me.

Perhaps I spent too much time describing the oddities of Argentine cuisine. We actually had a delicious meal just this weekend at an estancia an hour outside Buenos Aires. I'll post about that next time, so we can balance out the picture of Argentine cuisine.

Addendum: Omg, they make mate soda. Some of you lucky folks just might be getting a six pack of this for Christmas.