A historic pizzeria experience in Buenos Aires

Melted cheese, baked dough, cardboard boxes, and the vapors from the espresso machine. Any old, traditional pizzeria in Buenos Aires smells like that.

El Cuartito is one of those pizzerias, founded in 1934. It is a no-frills, paper tablecloth on Formica table kind of place. Years ago, a former boyfriend of mine took me there for dinner and I felt slightly offended. Don’t I deserve linen and a candle on the table? I clearly did not appreciate the cultural value of a historic pizzeria. I do now.

In the background, the bar where people can eat "de parado"
In the background, the bar where people can eat “de parado”

Cut to the present. Since El Cuartito is within walking distance from the Colón Opera House, I decided to treat my nieces and my mother to a different culinary experience before taking the guided visit. We got there fifteen minutes before opening time at 12:30. A group of people was already waiting outside El Cuartito: tourists, office workers, old-timers, a motorcycle courier or two.

The doors opened and we all quickly found a place to sit. Or stand, as the case may be. People can order pizza by the slice or empanadas and eat standing at a special wooden counter. That’s what we call comer de parado. Service is really fast, ideal for people on the go like the motorcycle courier.

We ordered a pizza de musarela (Argentinean Spanish for mozzarella) and a pizza napolitana (with slices of tomato and tons of fresh garlic). The strings of melted cheese stretched for ever, which made it fun to serve and eat each slice. The base was neither too thin nor too thick, the traditional media masa, crispy and chewy at the same time. Our waiter acted in a very professional, brisk and efficient manner. Definitely a career waiter, as opposed to a student holding a summer job.

Our "pizza de musarela'
Our “pizza de musarela’

Old posters and prints cover every inch of the walls, mainly sports memorabilia. Autographed photos of local football teams; posters announcing boxing fights or car races. It reads like a Who’s Who of Argentinean sports history since the 1940s. It goes without saying that only my mum and I knew most of these sporting stars; my nieces, aged 10, 13 and 17, had no clue! However, they enjoyed the experience, as did we.

We felt too full for dessert. This kind of pizzeria serves traditional, old-fashioned desserts like sopa inglesa (vanilla cake, dulce de leche, whipped cream and port), rice pudding, tarantela (crème caramel with apple slices), flan casero mixto (homemade crème caramel topped with whipped cream and dulce de leche.)

I put the leftover napolitana in my spacious handbag. The smell of garlic dogged us for the rest of afternoon but it made for a wonderful dinner snack that night.

Sports
Sports memorabilia very which way.

 

* Address: Talcahuano 937. Open every day from 12:30 to 1 am except Mondays.

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Mazamorra, Argentinean white hominy pudding

¡Mazamorra caliente para las viejas sin dientes!

“Hot mazamorra for toothless ladies” was how freedwomen and  slaves advertised their dessert for sale in the street at the top of their voices. Or, at any rate, this is the romanticized image we had at school of how these women in wide skirts and a white kerchief covering their hair tried to attract customers.

This was part of almost every pageant we did at school to mark Independence Day or any other national holiday.  The scene was more or less the same: a reenactment of the country’s emancipation from Spain in 1810 or that of the declaration of Independence in 1816.

Every social sector was represented: from the rich gentry and merchants to street vendors and soon-to-be-freed slaves. The street vendors were, traditionally, the mazamorra and empanada sellers and chandlers. As a child, mazamorra always intrigued me as we never ate it at home. As children do, I created my own, albeit vague, idea of what it was. I knew it was something sweet and made with white corn and that was that.

My mazamorra, thick and creamy and filling.
My mazamorra, thick and creamy and filling.

Cut to the present. I was recently trying to clean out the pantry before a longish trip when I came across a bag of white hominy, some of which I had used to make locro. There was a recipe on the back: white hominy pudding. It was none other than the mysterious mazamorra of school pageants and history books. I decided to make it so I could finally taste it.

Mazamorra is  quite popular in Latin America and its ingredients vary from one country to the other. In Argentina, we make it with white corn, milk, sugar and maybe a cinnamon stick or lemon rind. A very simple yet somewhat labour-intensive dessert. It is very filling and warming, ideal for a winter’s evening.

Ingredients

1/2 pound dry white corn (hominy)

2 litres milk

Lemon rind

Be patient!
Be patient! It’s worth the effort.

Soak the corn overnight. Drain and rinse. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Boil until the water starts to evaporate and add the milk, sugar and lemon or cinnamon. Bring to a boil and simmer until the corn is soft and the mixture thickens. If liquid evaporates quickly, add boiling milk. Remove the rind or stick and serve warm.

¡Buen provecho!

 

Aahhh the food – Córdoba series 3

You know when you hear people mention something, say a kind of fruit, that you had no idea existed? That’s what happened to me with cuaresmillos, the Shangri-La of candied fruit for me. I had heard family members praise these little peaches but never seen or eaten them until recently. I was visiting historic buildings in the city of Córdoba by myself. At lunchtime I chose a restaurant that looked inviting and served traditional dishes.

I read the menu and did a double take. They served cuaresmillos for dessert! I ate a delicious empanada and some locro, a hearty white corn, pumpkin, white bean and meats stew. To cap a very tasty lunch off, I had these sweet little candied peaches with quesillo, a traditional homemade cow’s milk cheese, the perfect accompaniment because it cuts the fruit’s sweetness. They were delicious.

I wanted to buy some to bring back with me because they are not available in many places. I had to hunt high and low for a couple of jars. Not many locals knew what they were, which shocked me. I thought they were popular in Córdoba!

Cuaresmillos and quesillo
Cuaresmillos and quesillo. Their name comes from Cuaresma, Spanish for Lent, because this is when they are ready for picking.

A traditional cuisine that is famous in Córdoba, other than traditional Argentinean, is German cuisine. Many German, Swiss and Austrian immigrants settled in the hills and their descendants keep their traditions alive. Villa General Belgrano and La Cumbrecita are two picture-perfect villages where one can eat sauerkraut, wursts, strudel and drink beer to one’s heart’s content all year round. I was there twice, in winter and in summer and I enjoyed both visits very much. The food is generally locally sourced and made on the premises and it’s good. Very good.

An assortment of German-style meats and sauerkraut (called chucrut here)
An assortment of German-style meats and sauerkraut (called chucrut here)

We Argentineans have a sweet tooth, no doubt about it. Córdoba is known for its sweets too. One  delicious treat is the colación, a crispy pastry filled with dulce de leche and topped with lemon glaze. I never leave Córdoba without a box of alfajores. They are similar to sandwich cookies or whoopie pies but the pastry is more firm. They can be filled with dulce de leche or fruit preserves and are covered in glaze. Delicious with a cup of coffee or mate.

Colaciones and mate, a match made in heaven
Colaciones and mate, a match made in heaven

Photo courtesy of Diana. P. Gemelli from Je cuisine donc je suis. Gracias!

 

Read previous posts about Cordoba

Church and convent of San Francisco – Córdoba series 1

Bread-making lesson with my grandmother – Córdoba series 2

Bread-making lesson with my grandmother – Córdoba series 2

I love food. It makes me happy. It brings back cherished memories. It makes new memories as well. Food is comfort and nourishment for the soul and the body. It embodies whole cultures: food is identity. I have countless memories of meals at my grandparents with my extended family: parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, even great-aunts and second cousins. Sharing food, conversation, games, arguments (we red-blooded Latins have strong opinions), in a way, shapes who you are.

I am paella. I am asado. Tiramisú. Pasta made from scratch. Flan with dulce de leche. Pollo al horno. Birthday cakes. Locro. Humita. Milanesas. Facturas.

I am homemade bread – the pan casero con chicharrones my Cordobesa grandmother used to make and was such a treat for us.

Pan casero1

A few years ago I asked her for the recipe. She said she didn’t have one and that the only way she could describe it was to actually make it. So I bought all the ingredients: a cube of fresh yeast, a packet of flour and a kilo of grasa de pella (lard) for the chicharrones, the delicious crispy bits of beef that remain after rendering the lard, and went to her house.

My grandmother rendered the fat first, drained it and let the crispy bits cool down. The yeast sponge came next: she activated the yeast by mixing it with warm water and sugar. Then proceeded to make a crown with the flour on the worktop and slowly added the sponge and warm water, mixing the ingredients with circular movements. Once it was all perfectly mixed, she asked me to knead the dough because the effort was too much for her arthritic hands.

“Now we let it rise in a warm place,” she said as she turned on a small portable heater and placed it on the counter-top. A warm temperature is vital for proofing.

During the bread making process, my grandmother told me bits and pieces of her early life in Córdoba. Although a ghost of her native tonada (the rhythm of intonation with lengthened vowels typical of Córdoba) still lingered after decades of living in Buenos Aires, she still had the strong r sound of her homeland, a particular roll with friction.

050

She learned to make bread at the age of 15 and got up at the crack of dawn every day to make it for her family. She also told me about the deal she made with her sisters: she would make bread daily and sew their dresses if they did the housekeeping, which she didn’t like to do. She talked a little about her hometown, Villa Dolores. “If we were walking down the street and a priest was walking in the opposite direction, we had to step down the curb and let him have the pavement for himself,” she reminisced. I was aghast. She said it was the way things were then.

It was time to punch the dough down to deflate it and knead it some more. Then, we added the chicharrones and made the loaves: some were round, some were braids. I always loved to tear the airy, soft pieces of braid and eat them slowly. The loaves went into the oven until they were golden brown. The lovely smell of freshly baked bread pervaded the house. That is how I remember my grandparents’ home: there was always the most delicious food smells coming out of the kitchen.

The first time I visited my brother in Córdoba, we were driving towards the mountains when we saw a food vendor by the side of the road. He was selling freshly baked homemade bread. We were relatively hungry and bought some. The taste was very similar to the bread of our childhood, the bread my grandmother taught me to make.

 

 Read it in Spanish here.

Los ñoquis del 29: arugula gnocchi

Gnocchi is one of the many contributions of Italian immigrants to Argentinean cuisine. Gnocchi, which morphed into our ñoquis are, quite simply, a small flour and potato dumpling-like kind of pasta.

Local lore has it that many of those early immigrants found it hard to make ends meet and were hard up towards the end of the month before the next paycheque (or whatever means of payment was used then.) So they scrapped up a meal with only the cheapest of ingredients: water, flour, potatoes.

With the passing of time, eating ñoquis on the 29th of every month became a tradition. The superstitious among us put a peso note under their plate to attract good fortune.

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The participants of the international alfajor challenge are back, this time with the international ñoqui challenge in time for the 29th of this month.

Visit their blogs to see what’s cooking. Who knows, you may be inspired to make a delicious meal!

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I borrowed the following recipe for ñoquis de rúcula (arugula or rocket, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are) from Argentinean chef Pablo Massey.

Ingredients (serves 4)

1 egg

1 egg yolk

60 grams grated Parmesan cheese

A pinch of ground nutmeg

100 grams fresh arugula (spinach works well too)

500 grams ricotta cheese

150 grams all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Put the arugula (or spinach) in a bowl and cover with boiling water for about a minute. Drain well (I wring it to remove the liquid. You want it fairly dry), chop it and set aside.

In a bowl, put the ricotta cheese, egg, egg yolk, nutmeg, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and mix well. Add the arugula and mix. Then add the flour, mix and knead into a ball of dough.

Sprinkle some flour on a work surface. Take some dough and roll it with your hands until it looks like a wiener (like you used to do in kindergarten). Cut it into bite-size pieces.

Bring a pot of salt water to the boil. Add the gnocchi. They’ll be ready when they float to the surface (less than 2 minutes)

Then sauté in olive oil until golden.

Sauce (the recipe is my own)

10 roma tomatoes

3 or 4 cloves of garlic

1 tbsp dried sage

Olive oil

1 tbsp sugar

A handful of chopped olives

1 tbsp capers

Peel the tomatoes (make an X shaped incision, cover in boiling water for a minute. The skin comes off easily), chop roughly  and set aside.

Put some olive oil in a saucepan (5 or 6 turns of the pan), heat over medium-low fire. Peel and quarter the garlic cloves and gently caramelize in the oil (about 10 or 15 minutes). Remove the garlic and ad the chopped tomatoes, sugar, salt, pepper, and sage.

Cook on medium-low for about 45 minutes. Mash with a potato masher, add the chopped olives and the capers and finish with a squirt of olive oil.

Serve.

Enjoy.

Don’t forget to put some money under your plate, just in case.

Paula of Bee my Chef: Spinach gnocci

Meag of A Domestic Disturbance: Roasted beet malfatti with creamy Roquefort sauce

Katie of Seashells and Sunflowers: Butternut squash gnocchi with walnut cream sauce

Aledys from From Argentina to the Netherlands for Love: Gnocchi alla Romana on Argentinean Gnocchi Day

Rebecca from From Argentina With Love: Ñoquis del 29; A Family Tradition–Una Tradicion Familiar

Gnocchi