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Archive for June, 2009

Coconut Milk

One of the wonderful things about being in Africa is the bounty of tropical fruits available on the side of the road or on the streets of the cities.  Whenever I’m traveling, there is always SOMETHING in season…

On this latest trip to Senegal, it was mango season and I enjoyed eating sweet, silky bright orange mangoes almost every day…these taste almost nothing like the stringy flavorless kind we get in the States.  They are heavenly.

On our way back into town from a field visit, we pulled over for our whole group to buy coconuts…we were all hot and tired and come to find out a few of our group are HUGE fans of coconut milk!  My adorable co-worker Indira apparently loves them – we have to remind her to eat usually, but she handed over the change for THREE of these coconuts!  The guy selling them would lop off the top with his machete and hand it over for you to drink the milk.  If you’ve ever had coconut milk, you know it’s not creamy, but more like a slightly sweet water.  Once people had finished, the coconut guy split the coconut open and cut out the meat.  I was too hot to eat (one of the FEW scenarios when I actually lose my appetite is extreme heat) but greatly enjoyed watching the coconut eating party on the side of the road!

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Indira and the coconut

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Eating Sea Urchins

You must think we’re no longer eating over at our house.  Actually, we’ve been eating really well the past few weeks – trying to use up all our veggies from our CSA box has given me many spurts of creativity!  I just haven’t blogged any of it because I so badly want to get to the Argentina stuff first.  I still have to tell you about the wines and since that was the major part of our trip it’s going to take forever and I just haven’t found the time to write it up.

And it’s not happening this week because I’m in Senegal, with an in-and-out internet connection and not a lot of spare time.  So to tide you over, because I don’t want to lose my faithful {few} readers, here’s a tidbit from today…

I ate a sea urchin.  I was actually making fun of it to my boss, saying how in the world could you eat THAT?!?!  Then he says, they’re good, you should try one!  And he would know because he lived on an island in the South Pacific for years and knows all about fish.  So I thought, why not.

The reason it was so scary was because this thing was still ALL prickles and totally freaky looking!  They had a box of LIVE black sea urchins on the table, and then they would split them open, revealing this orange-ish slime (which is actually the part you eat!) and then douse the slime with some lime and a vinegar-shallot sauce similar to what they put on raw oysters.  Then you use a spoon to scoop the whole thing up and then down the hatch it goes.

Despite looking complely freakish in every possible way, it wasn’t bad.  It tasted like the sea, and I liked the lime and the sauce.  But the texture was weird and the color and consistency of the orange slime was definitely not my favorite, so I’m not sure I’d try it again.  Put that down in the category of Weirdest Things I’ve Ever Eaten!

Here’s a picture I found on flickr so you can get a rough idea…

Sea Urchin

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Argentina – The Meat

It’s really terrible how long it’s taken me to get to these Argentina posts.  I think it’s because it’s just so daunting to sum up such a wonderful trip…especially on the broader topics.  Like, for example, the meat.

We knew from the outset that we’d be eating a lot of good, cheap meat on this trip.  Argentina is well-known for great beef, I guess because it’s such a big country that they have a lot of grazing land?  And of course it’s basically all grass-fed and all that.  And it’s CHEAP!  The first meal we had in Buenos Aires was at a parillo, a classic meat restaurant.  Michael ordered a T-bone and the thing really took up the entire plate – you can see from the picture below.  That is a FULL SIZE dinner plate!  And the steak cost around $12.

Argentina - Meat 1

 I was not yet hungry for steak so I got some chicken and ordered something else that had been recommended to us – a proveleta.  Proveleta is basically a massive piece of deep fried cheese.  I was obviously game to try it, because, who wouldn’t be??  And I’m slightly embarassed to say I finished this whole thing off.  It was too delicious…a lovely golden crust, covered with herbs and olive oil.  There was some bread you could lay the slices on but frankly it was better plain.  YUM.  Proveletas were one of our favorite accompaniments to steak throughout the trip.

Argentina - Meat 2

 And one more picture – this is my filet mignon from our last meal – probably a 14 oz filet (it was HUGE) that cost about $7.  Unbeliveable.  The meat is not quite as tender as expensive aged beef cuts in the US, but the flavor is great and you sure can’t beat that price!

Argentina - Meat 3

 A traditional way to eat meat, if not in a parillo restaurant, is at an asado.  An asado is basically a barbeque, but Argentinians are passionate about their particular kind of asado.  As the host of our first asado said, there are x million people in Argentina, and x million definitions of an asado!

We were lucky to experience this tradition on a wildly windy night at our hostel in the Andes, near Uspallata.  We’d gone on a fabulous horse back ride earlier in the afternoon and were happily tired out.  A violent wind had blown in (starting during our ride – we were finding sand in bizarre places for days) and knocked out the power.  Our hostel owner had invited us and the one other guest to enjoy an asado with him and his friend that night.  Normally he’d have been cooking outside but becuase of the wind and dust, he planned to cook in the fireplace in the kitchen.  We gathered around the table, watching him get the fire to an intense slow heat, drinking wine and listening to classic Argentinan guitar on the ipod by candlelight.  Turns out that our host’s friend was an ardent socialist who had a lot of conspiracy theories to share 🙂 so it was a really entertaining group!  After smelling the meat cooking for a long time, we finally got to dig in to some incredible sausages, ribs and steak.  It was perfectly seasoned, we ate it only with bread.  There was also blood sausage which Michael and I politely tried and then politely declined.  It was a surreally fun night, and a darn good introduction to the tradition of asado.

Argentina - Meat 4

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Argentina , you might be surprised to know, is almost as much of a cultural melting pot as the US.  Almost everyone in that country comes from some sort of European heritage, but a large proportion (around 40%) are from Italy!  So as you might think, they do some pretty darn good gelato and coffee in Argentina.  Had we been there in the summer, I think we would have done as we did in Rome as year in 100 degree heat, and eaten gelato twice a day just to keep moving.  However, we were there in what is their late fall, and the weather was somewhere between cool and cold for most of our trip.  So rather than making gelato stops, we drank a LOT of coffee!

Buenos Aires in particular has a European feel to the way the city works…it’s very dense, with lots of tall buildings, and lots of people walking on the streets.  And you definitely get the Euro vibe with the cafes on every corner!  So the minute you think you might like a nice hot cup of coffee, there pops up yet another cozy spot.  They do coffee so well at these little shops…first, you always get a little shot-sized glass of water with the coffee, which I liked, especially since we were doing a lot of walking.  Then, there’s the coffee itself, which is wonderful…lots of great espressos that were flavorful and strong.  The best, though, was the cafe con leche.  When you order a cafe con leche in Argentina, it’s not just coffee with cream or milk, it’s a latte, an espresso-based drink with yummy steamed milk.  Every single one I had was PERFECT.

Last but certainly not least are the treats that come along with the coffee.  Argentinians LOVE their pastries and candies and cookies.  All the places we stopped had case after case of every kind of sweet thing you can imagine.  We’d gotten a recommendation to try the alfajores, which seem to vary widely (I did a lot of market research) but in general are two sweet, crumbly cookies sandwiching some dulce de leche (which like a caramel-y condensed milk).  If you’ve got a big sweet tooth, you will seriously love these cookies!  The best ones I had were very crumbly from the sweet, almost shortbread, cookies and very oozy with the rich dulce de leche.  Alfajores were the perfect companion to our many cafe con leches!

 

Argentina - Coffee 1

 

Argentina - Coffee 2

 

Argentina - Coffee 3

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Gnocchi Azafran

 The best meal that we had in Argentina was at a little restaurant in Mendoza called Azafran (which means Saffron in Spanish).  Michael had a wonderful steak, but I ordered the gnocchi, which had been recommended by someone we met at the wine  bar.  It was an excellent recommendation – I loved every bite of this dish.  It’s very simple but VERY flavorful!  Luckily for us, the chef came out and made the rounds of the tables and I commented on how good this dish was and asked if they grilled the gnocchi (on the menu it was listed as ‘caramelized gnocchi’.  He said that no, what they do is just put the gnocchi down in a hot pan and leave them there til they start to brown, and then they finish it with white wine.  Those were enough clues for me to feel ambitious enough to try this at  home.

So I gave it a whirl on Friday night, and I have to say, it was really not a bad effort!  The dish was clearly not as good as the one we tried in Mendoza, but I think most of that has to do with the quality of the gnocchi.  I tried making gnocchi from scratch once.  Once.  So you can guess how well it went.  This time I just bought one of the nicer looking boxes and then boiled per the directions.  The gnocchi was definitely tougher than in the dish we had, but the flavor was still good.  I think that hitting the dish with the wine at the end, and all the other cooking done on a high heat, lets the gnocchi soak up a lot of flavoring.  Somehow this just seems like a perfect summer dish – quick, full of fresh veggies and light.  It was absolutely delicious and I will be making it again, with all the summer zucchini and tomatoes!  If you don’t have gnocchi, I bet you could do some experimenting with other pasta, like penne or even spaghetti noodles, and see if they ‘crisp’ up a bit in a pan with some oil.  Enjoy!!!

PS: The picture doesn’t make it look too appetizing but I promise it is great!

Gnocchi Azafran

 Approximately 1 lb package of prepared gnocchi

Olive oil

1 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved

1 medium zucchini, julienned (cut into small strips)

1 garlic clove, minced

2 green onions, white and green parts, diced

10 basil leaves, julienned (stack on top of each other, roll up, and chop slices)

½ cup of white wine

½ teaspoon salt

¼ tsp ground black pepper

Parsley to garnish

Thin slices of parmesan cheese to garnish

  1. Boil the gnocchi as directed on the package, and drain.
  2. Drizzle approximately a tablespoon of olive oil into a large sauté pan and heat pan to medium-high.  When the oil is hot, add the cooked gnocchi, tossing to ensure all gnocchi are coated with the oil.  Set the pan down again on the burner and shake to make sure the gnocchi are in one even layer on the bottom of the pan.  Let the gnocchi sit without stirring until they begin to caramelize on the bottom – depending on your heat and the gnocchi, this could take from 5 to 10 minutes.  Just keep checking them, and don’t let them burn.
  3. Once the gnocchi have turned a dark golden brown on the one side, stir and toss to flip gnocchi to the other side to caramelize.  Use tongs to turn over any that aren’t turned in tossing.  Let sit without stirring again until the other side is caramelized.
  4. Add the tomatoes, zucchini, garlic and green onions.  Toss with the gnocchi and reduce heat to medium.  Let the veggies cook for about 3-5 minutes until they just start to soften.
  5. Add the basil, white wine, salt and pepper and stir.  Let the mixture blend for about 2 minutes, then pull of the heat and serve with a sprinkling of chopped parley and slices of parmesan cheese.

Gnocchi Azafran

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