“What is a country without rabbits and partridges? They are among the most simple and indigenous animal products; ancient and venerable families known to antiquity as to modern times; of the very hue and substance of Nature, nearest allied to leaves and to the ground- and to one another; it is either winged or it is legged. It is hardly as if you had seen a wild creature when a rabbit or a partridge bursts away, only a natural one, as much to be expected as rustling leaves. The partridge and the rabbit are still sure to thrive, like true natives of the soil, whatever revolutions occur.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Friday night a group of Brazilian bankers joined us for dinner, all of them work here in Buenos Aires. During the conversation over the evening, one of them asked me if, after seven years here, I understand the “Argentine character”. I had to admit that, much of the time, I simply don’t. Now, that’s not a criticism, it’s simply that our cultures and values are often so different that though I have glimpses, and can see the actions, and often even follow the logic of how things happen, the underlying motivation or impetus is so at odds with what my homeland culture is that it seems inexplicable. These are the things that fuel posts and emails and tweets and such among members of the various expat communities here. Now, the gentleman who posed the question was talking about new banking laws and dollar exchange and other political and economic issues, and those are topics for someone else’s blog, but it brought to mind my experience this weekend in obtaining one of the dinner menu’s key ingredients.
I have a regular supplier of meat for our dinners, particularly when I need something a bit different. And I’d decided on a quail dish for one of the courses. Unfortunately he didn’t have enough to cover us for the weekend, though I kept him in mind for a portion of if I could source the balance. Over the last few months I’ve been receiving regular emails from another supplier asking for a chance to show his wares and perhaps become a regular supplier, so I called him up and, he had just enough quails to cover the three dinners, and at a lower price than my usual supplier – score! We setup all the account and delivery information and I ordered them for the next day. Eighteen fresh quail, to be delivered between 9 a.m. and noon, guaranteed. The next morning, confirming the order was headed our way, he mentioned that because I was paying cash, he was charging me 5% extra for the order. What? Usually there’s a discount for cash, and also putting his price higher than my regular supplier would have been had he had them. Black mark one, and too late for me to try to find them elsewhere, so I was stuck with it. But this would have to be worked out down the line if I were to use him again.
As the morning wore on and no quail arrived, and I was in mid-preparation for the various courses, I gave him a quick ring to ascertain the delivery. He told me that traffic was particularly bad, they had lots of orders, and he could no longer guarantee a by noon delivery, but it would be between 12:30 and 1:00. I continued working and then noted that 1:00 had come and gone. I called again, he repeated the same excuse and told me that the quail would be delivered sometime in the afternoon, but he couldn’t say when, perhaps within an hour or two. I told him that I might have to reconsider, but at least being fresh quail I should have time to still prepare them. He responded that in the end, he hadn’t had any fresh ones, so he’d sent frozen ones. At that point, I told him I’d get back to him in a few minutes and made a quick call to a local butcher whom I’ve used in last minute situations. He had no quail, but he had partridge (a hazy distinction of two very closely related birds, often confused, but the latter are generally a bit bigger, plumper, and actually tastier), also frozen, and he’s only a five minute walk from my house. He had twenty of them, and, his price was only a couple of pesos more per bird than the supplier’s quail.
I had him pull them out of the freezer, headed over, bought them, and headed back home. I called the supplier, whose response was basically, “it’s no problem, I don’t really need your business, there are other more important accounts out there than you, just call me the next time you need something because I can provide better price, service and quality than your other supplier.” Really? Price? You’re charging more for cash… “that’s the way things are done here in Argentina, you just don’t understand.” Service? “You never delivered them to me… “that’s the way things are some days here, you just need to accept it.” Quality? “You substituted frozen in place of fresh and didn’t even tell me until I brought it up… “that’s what worked for me to send you, what’s the difference?” Top that all off with you’re telling me I’m an unimportant account. Let’s just say, there won’t be a next time for this one. A restaurant purveyor like this in New York wouldn’t last a month. Here, it’s quite common for someone you interact with, or politicians, or whomever, to seem to have no memory of their past actions, even if they occurred only moments before – they just plunge ahead with “what’s next?” as if not only should there be no consequences from their actions, but that those actions are irrelevant or never happened in the first place. It’s not universal, but it is “normal” here. It really is.
When I recently made my little ratatouille galettes, one of the problems was that the polenta and parmesan crust didn’t stay crisp once the cheese and vegetables were on to and it was stuck under the broiler to finish. So I’ve been playing with it and now have a pastry crust flavored with parmesan and smoked paprika that I think works even better, and stays crisp. I might try adding in just a little polenta to it for the flavor. To be experimented with. A hit all three nights.
My version of ciuppin, a traditional northwestern Italian seafood soup. Semi-pureed with three different kinds of fish – pomfret, pollack and sea bass – plus calamari. Flavors of oregano, parsley, tomato and chili. A definite winter warmer as they might say.
The aforementioned partridge make their appearance “en sguazet”, an Istrian preparation that I learned from Lidia Bastianich many moons ago. First you brown some onions and bacon along with chicken livers (and the partridge livers tossed in since they were there), along with rosemary, bay and clove. Then pushing that all to the side, the partridge are browned on both sides, then the whole thing mixed up with some white wine and chicken stock and cooked until the birds are just finished, remove them to a warm oven, reduce the sauce. Traditionally it’s then strained and served spooned over the birds and polenta (I cooked it with milk and then finished it with mascarpone for richness), and that’s how I served them the first night. But I hate tossing all that wonderful liver and onions, so the following two nights I just removed the bay leaves and rosemary stem and then crushed up the sauce a bit and spooned that over, odd bits and all.
Pan-seared spice-crusted pork loin, topped with creamed chard that has parmesan and prosciutto mixed in. Served with a roasted beet glazed with rose-hip jam and stewed lentils. In the past when I’ve made this dish I flavored the lentils with bacon and tomato, but this time, inspired by the lentils in a salad that Floyd Cardoz does at North End Grill (ideas from vacation are going to pop up here and there, you know?), I cooked them in vegetable stock and then finished them with stoneground mustard, chopped anchovies, and, since I couldn’t find any fresh watercress, I used the local green, radichetta, which also has a nice peppery bite to it. Added another dimension to the whole dish – last night one guest even asked for an entire second portion of this plate!
A Piemontese inspiration – a budin freddo gianduia, essentially a dark chocolate zabaglione folded together with chopped hazelnuts and butter cookies and then set in the refrigerator, and sliced. Traditionally served with whipped cream, I decided to ramp it up a bit and served it with a scoop of limoncello mousse. Nice finish to the meal!