Sunday, January 29, 2006

Patagonia's Chef Leyes

While in Argentina we traveled down south to El Calafate, in Patagonia, for New Year's and some glacier trekking. We stayed in a beautifully situated, small hotel called La Cantera, just a drive away from some of the coolest glaciers on earth. I really recommend checking out the hotel's new website (there's a link below) to see just how beautiful the place is.

While we were there, the Executive Chef, Juan Pablo Leyes, was kind enough to let me watch him prepare some wild hare for that evening's menu. (I wondered if it might have been the one that our driver massacred on the way to the glaciers that morning, but it showed no real signs of trauma, except for being dead.) Chef Leyes is an incredibly talented young man and I watched as he deftly boned, marinated, stuffed and cooked the hare (liebra) with a mixture of seven herbs, butter, various vegetables and a yummy bottle of rosé. The charming play by play was brilliant and I'll try and figure out how to post the video I took. When you see everything that this guy accomplishes, in such a remote outpost of one of the most untouched southernmost parts of the world, you will never feel justified again while complaining that Whole Foods was out of (fill in the blank.)

I wish Chef Leyes all the luck and success possible; and if any of you happen to venture to his part of the world, make sure you ask him to take you out on the town bar dancing and bar hopping. Just don't plan on coming home until the sun comes up. And if you can't find a taxi, just hitch a ride in the back of the local baker's truck. And try not to sit on the croissants like I did.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Argentine Assado (not for vegetarians)

I don't eat red meat that often at home in the states. Not because I don't like it, but because I find that it's rarely very good. Unless you pay an arm and a leg, you're probably going to get some choice cut (sounds good, but it's far from the best cut available) that is tough and bland and relies way too much on a marinade and/or sauce. However, when I'm traveling in countries like Portugal and Argentina, I eat red meat all the time. It's wonderful there. Rarely marinated and often just sprinkled liberally with salt and cooked over a wood burning fire, steaks, sausages, ribs and chops take on whole new dimensions cooked this way.

In Argentina, it's known as an assado. Often a cow will be butchered specifically for an assado, and every part of the animal will find it's way to the grill. Blood sausage is always there (yes, it's good), numerous cuts of beef including flank, entre cote, loin, short ribs, sausage, kidneys and so on, and many times there's also pork, chicken or goat. At my aunt's house, one of the ranch hands would come over in the afternoon and start a wood fire on the ground. The fire is always started close to the grill, but not under it and is shoveled under the grill or "parilla" as needed. So essentially there are two fires going and this way they can add more heat to the meat as needed. In one instance I saw them use a wheelbarrow on its side to contain the burning wood right behind the grill. Some people have more formal set-ups with large grills built into an outside stone table with cranks to raise and lower the meat. Not once did I see a stainless steel uber grill like we have in the states, not even a Weber.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Apricot Jam, Argentina Style

Here's the first of my posts about my wonderful stay in Argentina. I ate and saw so many delicious things, I'm just going to go in chronological order to present them all.
The day after arriving at my aunt's ranch, a half an hour outside of Argentina's second largest city, Cordoba, I went for a walk to strech my flight cramped legs. I stumbled upon an old orchard of apricot trees growing by a pond. Right now it's summer there, and the apricots were just beginning to ripen. I managed to pick about 2 kilos, enough to make a big pot of jam. Serendipitously, I had brought with me (as airplane reading material) Jeffery Steingarten's book, "The Man Who Ate Everything" (an excellent and highly entertaining read) and one of the recipes in it is for apricot conserves. I didn't use quite as much sugar as the recipe called for, but I really liked the technique of carmelizing the sugar and adding the apricots in two parts, keeping the second addition more intact. I also didn't bother with canning the jam, as there were so many people there we went through it fairly quickly. This is my slightly ammended recipe:

Apricot Jam

4.5 lbs ripe apricots, halved and pitted
3 1/4 c sugar
1/4 c water
2 Tbs lemon juice

Put half the sugar and the water in a large sauté pan over high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar reaches the thread stage (230 F.) Add half the apricots and cook, stirring constantly until the fruit starts to get mushy. Add the rest of the sugar and stir until it dissolves, then add the rest of the apricots and cook until they start to get mushy, but before they begin to break down. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Put in jars (it should yield about 4 1/2 pints) and use it soon, or can it.

Summer's bounty on display at a fruit vendor's cart in downtown Cordoba