Buenos Aires – Set your “way back machine” to May 28, 1994. Way back there in the 20th Century. I had just left a job as sous chef, churning out good, but simple cajun/creole food at The Sazerac House in New York. It had been a fun gig, but not one in which there was room to be particularly creative, and I was feeling a bit burnt out from the New York kitchen scene – strange mostly because on the New York end, I’d really only put in about four years in the kitchens. It felt like ten. A friend and I had decided to try our hands at catering for awhile, a business that just never took off, and while we got an occasional dinner party here and there, I put in some hours “temping” in a law firm. There I met several folks who have become good friends over the years, one of whom, Frank, you’ve met in these pages during my last New York visit. In order to get my creative juices flowing, as it were, and keep practicing, I started having dinners at my house once or twice a month, trying out recipes I’d been working on, or things I’d read about, or just something that came to me out of the blue. Those dinners settled down, over time, to a once a month event, that eventually got dubbed The Second Sunday Supper Circle, which was normally, though not always, held on the second Sunday of the month, surprise that. Well, it’s been nearly a year since the last one – I miss those dinners, and so for those of you who live here, prepare for something similar, invitations may just start to come your way.
All of which leads us to last night. Friends Tuomas and Alfredo are in town visiting from Finland. I had made a couple of more sauces from the herbs I talked about last weekend, the huacatay and quirquiña, plus still have plenty of salsa llajwa left over. So we invited them over for dinner, and I decided to start in with just a simple two course meal (plus a bought dessert, horror of horrors – no really, it’s hard to justify baking when there’s a patisserie on the corner that makes amazing tarts for 10-12 pesos apiece). So, I started thinking and hit the markets. I’d mentioned that the salsa works beautifully with shrimp, but frozen shrimp at 140 pesos per kilo (just over $21 a pound) were just not going to fit the bill. In fact, no one seemed to have any non-frozen crustacea yesterday, so I finally picked up some small scallops, which were only reasonably priced by comparison at 80 pesos per kilo ($12 a pound), so I picked up a quarter kilo, or just over half a pound. I tossed these with a bit of the salsa llajwa, and put them in a baking dish with some sun-dried tomatoes that had been soaked for a bit in water to plump up, and some sliced tomatillos. The whole thing then went in the oven, covered with foil, until the tomatillos were cooked through and the tomatoes and scallops had stewed together for a bit.
The other day in the grocery store I’d picked up some “empanada skins” and suddenly had an inspiration last night to make them the base for my scallop dish. Actually, my first thought was to make some sort of strange vieira (scallops) a la llajwa empanadas, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, decided against it. So I went for an open version, and first sprinkled the empanada rounds with a bit of fondor, a Brazilian spice mixture that I was introduced to in Uruguay – you could substitute any sort of herb/spice salt substitute, and then quickly pan fried them in a little butter. I don’t know why I thought of it, but somewhere in there it just became clear to me that the whole thing was going to need some caramelized onions – so I chopped up a red onion, a couple of green onions, and a couple of shallots, and cooked them slowly in a covered saucepan with a good sized lump of butter, a splash of vermouth, some balsamic vinegar, a tablespoonful of sugar, some salt and white pepper. When all the liquid was gone and they started to lightly brown, I pulled them off the heat. In the end, the dish was a base of the empanada dough topped with a generous scoop of the caramelized onions. Then I arranged the tomatillos along one edge and the scallop and tomato mixture covering the rest. A bit of tomato powder for garnish, who says I can’t get artsy on occasion?
Meanwhile, back in the refrigerator, I’d stuck some nice plump chicken breasts in a marinade that I’d whipped up from the remaining quirquiña. It was a simple puree of about a ½ cup of packed leaves with the juice of an orange, a lemon, and two small limes, and then the whole thing seasoned with some five-spice powder, a little extra crushed szechuan peppercorn, and some salt. I also sprinkled the chicken breasts with a reasonably generous amount of coarse salt before marinating – it dissolves into the meat and makes it both juicier and more flavorful. The chicken was very simply “pan-roasted” in the marinade, I didn’t add any extra fat. I’ve never understood the whole term pan-roasted, it’s something we use a lot in the restaurant business, as if one would roast in something besides a pan. Basically, it means starting off in a saute pan, browning one side of the meat that you are cooking, then flipping it and sticking the whole thing into a generally very hot oven (maximum setting on mine), and letting it finish cooking in the oven. If you do it right you end up with both a very juicy piece of meat, but plus, it cooks very rapidly in comparison to either doing the whole thing on top of the stove or completely roasting in the oven. I’m not sure why the combination of the two speeds up the process so much, but it works.
To accompany the chicken, I wanted some nice roasted beets, one of my favorite non-green vegetable preparations. I peeled the beets, cut them in bite sized wedges, and tossed them with a little olive oil, some chopped pancetta, dried thyme, salt, and black pepper. I would have used fresh thyme, but as I mentioned in the last post, the heavy rains earlier this week completely stripped the leaves off my pot of thyme. Doesn’t look like the plants are going to recover either. I put the whole mixture in a baking dish, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven about an hour and a half before dinner (not at maximum, at around 350, I pulled them out of the oven just before turning the heat up high and throwing the chicken in).
Of course, we needed a starch to go with all of this, and I was getting into the whole having fun with a menu thing, and decided to try the potatoes I mentioned a week or so ago. I’m going to call them Potatoes Antonio, after the chef who made them, though they probably have some official French name. If anyone knows what it is, feel free to let me know. It was quite simple to prepare and came out almost as good as his. I ended up mashing the potatoes rather than grating them the way he did, so the texture was a little different, but the flavor was the same. For those who didn’t read about it, or don’t want to click on the link… Peel, quarter, and boil the potatoes until almost done, but still slightly firmer than normal. Grate (or mash) with a fair amount of butter, some salt, and white pepper. Meanwhile, thinly slice a couple of white onions, saute them in olive oil until limp and transluscent. Layer the onions and potato, onions first, potatoes last (picture is midway through the process), in a saute pan. Cook, covered, over a medium flame, until the bottom part browns slightly – this is going to take practice on my part, mine developed a little crust that his didn’t – maybe he actually browns the onions a bit more in advance and then just heats the whole thing in the oven… I’ll have to give that a try. Regardless, it was pretty yummy, and rather pretty looking as well when flipped onto a plate.
And there you have the components of the main course. Some lovely roasted chicken accompanied by roasted beets and Potatoes Antonio. Based on the appreciative noises all around, and my own tastebuds, dinner was an outstanding success, and I’m feeling inspired to spend more time cooking. Which may mean fewer restaurant reviews, but such is life. We’re also working on an idea for a small restaurant, though that’s probably at a minimum several months into the future before it even gets underway – Argentine paperwork and all that being what it is – plus I have to figure out a way that I can still spend a decent amount of time exploring the city and country while doing that… I have some ideas, we shall see how they develop.
The final course was the aforementioned (I get words like aforementioned from those days temping at a law firm) tart from the corner patisserie. In this case a delicous cookie-like crust filled with a dense pastry cream, topped with thinly sliced apples and glazed over with some sort of marmalade. Really, I couldn’t do better myself. I’ve never been good at that kind of pastry work, it’s just not my forté. I’m much better at simple dessert presentations, or strange combinations that somehow work, but don’t always look pretty.
We opened up a bottle of a wine I’ve had in my collection for a few years, the Leyda Pinot Noir “Lot 21” 2002 from the Leyda Valley in Chile. Truly spectacular! I’ve had the wine a few times before and tried it in a couple of vintages. So far, I’d have to say it’s the finest Pinot Noir I’ve tried from South America. A little pricey, but worth every penny, nickel, dime, and quarter…!