The League of Extraordinary Beans

2008.Apr.02 Wednesday · 4 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Drink, Food & Recipes

“Vegetarian has long been used as the human equivalent of herbivore, which — along with carnivore — has traditionally been applied to nonhuman animals, for the good reason that vorare means not simply ‘eat’ but ‘eat like a wild animal’ (hence devour). The ending -arian generally denotes a conscious adherence, in contrast to the genetic programming implied by -vore. But then, who cares about tradition anymore…?

– Cory Lubliner

Buenos Aires – In my post the other day I talked a bit about the back and forth battle between the Argentine government and the ranch/farm owners that’s been going on. It continued yesterday with a major rally of support for Cristina Kirchner held in the Plaza de Mayo… and then it hit me – all the back and forth trading of insults and argument has been, for the most part, not just civil, but reasoned… no, better, measured… calculated. I don’t want to be labeled as a conspiracy theorist, but I’m going to be one for the moment. I’ve nearly convinced myself that this entire thing is a conspiracy. Bear with me… For the last several decades, president after president has declared the Argentine national diet of beef, beef, and more beef to be one of adherence to tradition in opposition to sensible eating – that the diet needs to be improved, to include other meats such as chicken and fish, and far more vegetable and grain products. Without fail, they’ve been resoundingly ignored if not booed. Cristina’s smart. Smarter, I think, than we’ve been giving her credit. Here’s the theory, and you can see it coming… she makes a deal with the ranchers to do a bunch of saber rattling, they get into all sorts of name calling and basically take the populace’s attention away from the fact that there’s no beef to be found in the markets and restaurants – or maybe she just provokes it all one-sided and they’re not in on it…. Everyone is so busy taking sides and arguing that they’re oblivious to the fact that they’re eating chicken, fish, and vegetables (though, I did, with amusement, witness a 70-something year old woman railing against the butcher in one of the local supermarkets, decrying how she and her family were going to starve to death because there was no meat – meanwhile the butcher trying to point out the chicken, fish, etc…. to her response of “that stuff isn’t fit for humans to eat!” – She was convinced he had beef hidden away in the back to help his family and friends survive, and by god, she was going to have some of it…).

It turned out purely coincidental that I’d scheduled this week to celebrate the centennial of the Lliga vegetariana de Catalunya – really, I wasn’t in on the conspiracy and had no idea that beef wouldn’t be around this week, as many of our guests accused me of – not that we serve much beef to begin with. I actually entered into the idea with a bit of trepidation – regular readers know that I’ve not been thrilled with the response to our vegetarian meals – not that people who come don’t enjoy them, but despite the regular e-mails I get asking for more vegetarian meals, the people who write me never actually show up. It was the same case this week – except, lots of other people came – non-vegetarians, voluntarily submitting themselves to an evening of non-meat eating. Shock of shocks – we filled two nights quickly and had enough demand to filll a third!

With only one exception no one seemed to have a problem with an evening of dining on Catalan vegetarian dishes – I did get a near last minute cancellation from a party of four, who had begged for a reservation just a week or so earlier, and then cancelled with “We didn’t read about the menu for your venue next Saturday 29th, but now we realize that is a vegetarian meal and we are so not vegetarians. I’m sorry, but if you could reschedule us will be nice, if not it’s O.k., but unfortunately we are not in the mood for wasting the opportunity of your cuisine with that particular menu”. Maybe I shouldn’t find that offensive, but I do, and guess what, you wasted your opportunity (like we only offer people one shot???) and no, we won’t be rescheduling you – this IS our cuisine. Not to mention they clearly hadn’t checked things out before reserving – despite having assured me in advance that they’d looked at the theme and menu for the evening – we only filled two of their four spots because of the lateness of their cancellation… that pisses me off, you know?

We opened up the evening with a Clover Club cocktail – I think I forgot to mention a few weeks back that we’ve started serving up a little welcome cocktail at the beginning of the evening while people are standing around getting to know each other. Now, why a completely obscure cocktail like this one? First, because I like obscure, you know? Second, I spotted several references to the cocktail experiencing a revival in the “finer bars” of Barcelona recently. Could be just nonsense, but that’s what called my attention to it. It’s a blend of gin with fresh lemon juice, raspberry liqueur (or syrup, but I had liqueur on hand), a dash of bitters, and an egg. Normally, the classic uses just a little bit of egg white, to give it a foamy texture, but then there’s a version called a Royal Clover Club that uses the yolk. I decided to try it with the whole egg – it works really well, making a very rich, creamy cocktail. And remember, I was whipping up a batch for a dozen people, so one whole extra large egg wasn’t overkill…

On to the food, which as best I can tell, everyone enjoyed thoroughly. We started off the evenings with an escalivada amb romescu (I’m going to use the Catalán names when I know them) – a simple appetizer of roasted vegetables – eggplant, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes – served up with my version of the area’s famed romesco sauce. For that, I char, in the oven, red bell peppers, medium hot poblano peppers, and tomatoes, roughly 2:1 in quantity, then blend those with garlic, toasted almonds, a little bread for thickening it, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and some anise liqueur – I had a bottle of ouzo on hand. Salt and pepper to taste. It’s a great sauce, and better the day or two after you make it, so best to whip it up a day early…

Cigrons amb tomiquet

Next up, I think what turned out to be the majority of people’s favorite dish of the evening. I know we made extra and ate every chickpea that was to be had. The dish, cigrons amb tomiquet, or chickpeas with tomato – deceptively simple sounding, but wow, what flavors! I soaked the biggest chickpeas I could find in water overnight and then simmered them in vegetable stock for about half an hour until just al dente. Meanwhile I made a sofreito, sauteeing finely diced onions until lightly browned, then adding a paste made from several garlic cloves, a handful of parsley leaves, and some toasted hazelnuts. Cooked those together for a minute or two and then added chopped plum tomatoes, a spoonful of sugar, and a bunch of saffron threads. Cooked that all until the liquid had evaporated and it became almost pastelike. When ready to serve, I drained off most, but not all, of the stock from the chickpeas, mixed in the sofreito and the juice of a couple of lemons. Seasoned to taste with just salt. Really, if you like chickpeas, you have to try this one.

On to the soup (except the first night where I served the soup before the chickpeas, but we decided that since the main course had butter beans in it, serving two legume courses back to back felt a bit off), and a sopa de boléts, or Bolete Soup – boletes being a particular class of mushrooms. In particular, Catalunía is famous for its rovellón and pine mushrooms. The pine mushrooms were particularly beautiful, the rovellóns were a bit broken up – so what I did was made a base similar to a panade, since the classic Catalán soup used an onion base and a slice of bread in the bottom of the bowl – I slow cooked the onions, fried the bread in butter, and combined them, but instead of using milk as the soaking liquid, I simmered the rovellóns in water and then blended that right in with the onions and bread. Then I quartered or halved the pine mushrooms, depending on their size, and sauteed them in olive oil with lots of garlic and some saffron. I added those to the soup base, and just added enough water to make sure it wasn’t too thick. It had a great, earthy flavor that really captured our early fall weather…

Farina d’Ordi amb Mongetes

The main course was, once again, deceptively simple, proving that sometimes what looks like a simple dish turns out better than all the complicated maneuvering that one can get wrapped up in. I made some polenta, seasoned with butter, tarragon, salt, and black pepper. I poured that into a baking pan that was lined with buttered parchment paper, smoothed out the polenta to about an inch thick, let it cool, and then refrigerated it for several hours until it was firm. Then I flipped that out onto a cookie sheet, peeled off the parchment paper, cut the polenta into squares and brushed it with some softened butter, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and broiled it – both to reheat and to form a top crust that was lightly crunchy. To serve, I sauteed garlic, red bell pepper, hot yellow lemon peppers, onions, and smoked paprika in plenty of olive oil until lightly golden. Then I added a large amount of fresh spinach leaves and cooked them down until they’d completely wilted, added in a good quantity of butter beans (only canned available here, so rinsed well and drained), covered the pan and let everything cook together for about ten minutes. To finish I added grated manchego (salty sheep’s milk cheese) and sherry vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. I ladled that, liquid and all, over the polenta squares. Interestingly, the smoked paprika, and I used a good amount of it, makes the dish taste almost like it’s got bacon or sausage in it.

We finished off with a crema catalán – more or less a very soft pudding with a broiled sugar top. Ideally, I need to get a small torch and do this more like a creme brulee, keeping the pudding reasonably firm, but I put them under the broiler and they got very soft, almost like a pourable custard – still, we all loved them, and who knows, maybe it’s better this way? For this, I simmered 6 cups of milk with the peel of three lemons for a few minutes, then let it sit for about ten minutes to infuse. Meanwhile, I whipped a dozen egg yolks with a teaspoon of cinnamon, two teaspoons of vanilla bean paste, three tablespoons of cornstarch, and two and a quarter cups of sugar, until it was light and fluffy. I strained the milk and then slowly poured it into the yolk mixture while continuing to beat it in the mixer. Then poured the resulting mix into a saucepan and over low heat, cooked it until it was nice and thick – though keep it just short of a boil or it will get lumpy. I ladled that into ramekins, cooled it, chilled it to set firmly, and then sprinkled with a teaspoon of sugar each, and put them under the broiler until the sugar was lightly browned.

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