Cooking Off The Land

(First printed in Wine Republic Magazine)

One of the great things about cooking is the chance to experiment with exotic ingredients, integrating new flavors into familiar recipes or sometimes creating something entirely original.  Even in the modern world of globalized shopping, where it seems like you can find just about anything in your local grocery store, there is an amazing diversity of flavor out there that stays local.  Here in Argentina, most travelers will recognize the produce they see at the local market, but there are still a few items that may whet your interest as well as your appetite!

Here are two recipes that you may enjoy– both featuring one distinctive local ingredient– along with a wine pairing suggestion to complete the experience.  If you’re reading this on the plane, don’t despair– while you can’t bring back produce (a big no-no at customs), you can definitely find the wine and reproduce these with domestic substitutes!

Pollo al Horno con Aji y Nectarinas (Roasted Chicken with Chilis and Nectarines)

– 1 medum-sized chicken, whole

– 1 large onion, sliced into half-moons

– 2-3 ripe nectarines, sliced 5mm

– 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 1 bottle of South American aji, chili sauce with vinegar

– 1/4 cup brown sugar, or regular if not available

– 1 Tbs. salt

– 1 Tbs. black pepper, course

– 1/2 tsp. soy sauce (optional)

The Argentineans don’t love their hot chilies the way their Latin American neighbors do, but there is still a place in every home for the bottle of aji— puréed red pepper sauce with vinegar and spices.  You can get a bottle about anywhere for 4-10 pesos, and the heat is moderate so it doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of the chilies themselves.  This is a chicken dish pairing the fresh piquant flavor of the aji with something sweet, a great flavor combination for the grill or oven.

If you’re buying a chicken in Argentina, look for one with pale color and a fresh smell, preferably well-refrigerated.  Chicken is great for this dish because it acts like a canvas for whatever flavors you decide to use, in this case the sweet/spicy duet.  The nectarines carry the “sweet” supporting role because they’re rich and flavorful but not too citrusy.  They should be ripe if you can get them, but if not, don’t despair: you can soften them up by sautéing on low heat with a little oil (see below).

1. Prep the chicken: take the innards bag out of the center cavity and run some hot water through the inside of the chicken to clean out any residuals.  Then, place the chicken in a bag or a deep bowl to marinate with the sauce; if you don’t have time to marinate, skip this step and move on to the oven.

2. Mix the sauce: slice the nectarines thin (5 mm or 1/4 inch) and sautée in a sauce pan on low heat with a little oil until soft– remember, you’re not frying them, just softening to release the flavor and make it easier to mash up.  Spoon the slices into a mixing bowl and add the aji, lemon juice, sugar, raw garlic and olive oil, mixing well.  If you have a blender or food processor, you have the option of blending everything together for a thicker sauce, but I like leaving some of the slices of nectarine intact.  Add the salt and black pepper to taste.  (Be careful with the soy sauce, if you use it; I use a little to add a weighty, smokey base, but too much and it will blunt the vibrant red color of the necatarine-aji combo.)

3. Baste and bake: If you have time, place the chicken in a bag or bowl to marinate with the sauce.  If not, just make sure to spoon sauce over the chicken as it bakes every 10 minutes.  When you’re ready, place the chicken in the center of a baking pan or bowl and cover with the sauce.  It should be thick enough that some of it will coat the top.  Place on the lower shelf of the oven and cook at 375˚ for 30-40 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.  To test for done-ness, pierce the side under the wing and look for clear juice to come out.  If you see pink, give it another 5-10 minutes and test again.

4. Wine Pairing: It’s chicken, right, so that means white?  Not so fast.  While a heavy Malbec or Bornarda typical to Mendoza would probably overpower the lighter essence of the chicken, you still want something that’s going to stand up to the potent sauce you’re making.  Fortunately, Mendoza offers you a wonderful alternative: the Malbec Rose.  Here’s a light wine you can chill– perfect for summer– but that gives you some nice tannins to work with too.  Rather than white wine florals and fruits, a good dry rosé can offer you a bouquet of rose petals, herbs and strawberries or pink grapefruit.  Perfect to pair with the heavier, sweeter flavors of the sauce!  Both Enrique Foster (Luján de Cuyo) and Bodegas Salentein (Valle de Uco) make a nice Rosé Malbec that you can find at good wine shops and that isn’t too hard on the wallet (about $30-40 pesos).  But feel free to experiment!

Batatas Con Aceite Y Romero (Sweet Potatoes with Oil and Rosemary)

– 3-4 medum-sized batatas, peeled and sliced into discs

– 1 large onion, sliced into half-moons

– 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped

– 1/2- 1 Tbs. coarse sea salt

– 1 Tbs. black pepper, course

– 1 Tbs. rosemary

– 2-3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

Batata is the Spanish word for sweet potato, and the word comes from the language of the indigenous Taíno people who used it as a staple in their cooking.  The Argentine version is very similar to the ones you might buy in your local supermarket, but with a slightly different color (white-gray versus orange) and a more starchy, less-sweet flavor.  The key to preparing this dish is again, to complement the natural sweetness of the batatas with something interesting and distinctive.  In this case, we’ll use rosemary (romero) and olive oil, which together with the salt give you a sharp herbal flavor up front, followed by the creamy sweetness of the potato itself.

1. Prep the batatas: remember that just like potatoes, batatas require a bit more time to cook, so the thinner you slice them the easier it is.  About 1/4 inch thick should be fine.  It’s up to you whether to peel the potatoes; the skin has some nice vitamins but can also hold on to some residual dirt.  If you keep the skins, give them a good scrub with the rough side of a sponge.  As you slice them, put them in a bowl of cold water: they won’t taste any different, but they’ll look nicer if you keep them from oxidizing.

2. Fry on medium heat: Add the olive oil to the pan and when it’s hot enough to slide around rapidly, add the potatoes, onions and garlic.  It will help to use a wok or a non-stick saucepan so you can have the space to stir.  Use enough oil to coat the slices and keep them from burning, but not more.  Cover the pan to seal in the moisture, and when the batatas are about halfway cooked (about 5 min), add the rosemary too.  You can actually add the rosemary earlier, just be careful not to have any burn as it will change the flavor.

3. Serve and Enjoy: When the potatoes are cooked through and have a nice roasted glaze, add some of the rough sea salt and pepper.  Go easy at first: salt is a great invention but you want to just bring out the rosemary flavor, not more.

4. Wine Pairing: What to pair with a starchy vegetable dish?  Well, you can easily use a Chardonnay or Viognier– the rosemary pairs nicely with the crisp acids– or you can reach for a heavier red to work with the sweet potato side.  Certainly a lighter Malbec would do fine, but also look into a Bornarda or a Tempranillo– varietals that are becoming increasingly popular in Mendoza as winemakers experiment with the combination of land and grapes and sun.  For whites, the Lagarde Viognier 2008 is one great choice: a fantastic floral embrace that really shows how the Argentine tierra (land) can change the expression of a well-known varietal.  Mendoza of course has all sorts of great Chardonnays– but if one had to narrow it down, a bottle of Luigi Bosca’s Finca La Linda Unoaked Chardonnay 2009 would do great, a fresh and unoaked wine with notes of lemon and green apples.  For reds, the Durigutti Bonarda 2007 is a great expression of the varietal with a heavenly nose of raspberries, herbs, and spice.  Or, you could opt for the now famous Punto Final Malbec 2008 from Renacer, a hefty but not overwhelming Malbec that has become a standardbearer for the region.  All of these can be found in local specialized wine shops (don’t bother looking at the supermarket), and are very reasonable for the price point (typically between $30 and $45 pesos).  Any way you go, you’ll enjoy the experience of new flavors both for the food and the wine!

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One comment on “Cooking Off The Land

  1. Marc Maxson says:

    Cecilia you need to come to my party. See chewychunks.wordpress.com for details or email me. I don’t have your address.

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