Argentine home cooks' approach to the country's food classics tends to reflect something of the national character: fly by the seat of your pants, make do with what you've got, and don't stray too far from what you know. The beauty of Argentine dishes lies in the fact that they deliver simple flavors and rarely demand pricey, obscure ingredients or kitchen gadgets for their successful preparation; however, those with perfectionist tendencies would do well to work up some culinary courage before tackling these recipes, as they're often plagued by a dearth of specific instructions. Here are some of my notes on the challenges of cooking estilo argentino.
1. The Recipes
One of the biggest problems with Argentine recipes is that they often don't exist in the first place. Tucked away in the mind of Daniel's great-aunt Rosa lies an absolute treasure trove of gastronomic knowledge. Without fail, her meals turn out flavorful, succulent, appetizing, [substitute your choice of adjective here]. Does she have any of this vast repository of recipes documented? Sadly, the answer is "no."
Should you be fortunate enough to encounter a written recipe, it's often lacking the most basic details (e.g. exact amounts, temperature, estimated cooking time). It's easy to get lost in the ambiguous directions and inexact measurements—puñados, pizcas and poquitos—doled out in heaping helpings in some of these recipes.
To avoid precision, Argentine cooks also love to list the amounts of key ingredients as "a gusto" (to taste). Salt and pepper to taste? OK, I can handle that. But when virtually every component of the recipe reads "add to taste," the collection of ingredients ceases to be a recipe.
Friends in my chorus actually teased me a bit the other day when I translated a well-written English-language recipe for dulce de leche brownies for them to Spanish. "It's so...detailed!" they exclaimed. Cue sigh.
2. The Measurements
Your average Argentine does not own measuring spoons, measuring cups or any other standardized measuring implements (nor does this fact keep him or her awake at night). I remember the look of wonderment on the faces of Daniel and his mom Hilda when I unpacked my set of gleaming stainless steel measuring cups and spoons and my Pyrex liquid measuring cup.
The other day I was researching recipes for vitel toné, a holiday favorite here in Argentina. One of the recipes I came across (by a noted Argentine chef, no less) called for half of a taza chica (small cup) of vinegar. How small, exactly, is this cup? Now, I recognize that using a "half of a small cup" instead of a standard 1/2-cup measurement won't spell the difference between life and death; however, in recipes requiring more exactitude, for example, baked goods, using sloppy measurements may lead to a less-than-desirable result.
Then, of course, there's the recipe I saw a while back that called for 17 teaspoons of sugar. I don't know about you, but I'll pull out my 1/3-cup measuring cup and call it a day. Hell, I'll even use a 1/3 of a "small cup" rather than count out 17 teaspoons.
True to her Italian roots, Hilda makes tallarines (tagliatelle) from scratch. The first time I watched her make the long strands of pasta, I commented to her that I'd like to jot down the recipe. She replied, "Oh, sure. You just use one egg per person and a handful of flour for every egg." Never mind the fact that my hand is about 50% larger than hers.
3. The Ovens
In the beginning, I used to ponder why hardly any Argentine recipes give an exact cooking temperature. I later discovered that when your oven offers three choices—yellow, orange, and red—achieving anything more precise than "medium heat" becomes a real challenge. I'd like to be able to blame this issue on the fact that my oven dates to the 1960s; however, a quick trip to the local appliance store confirmed that even brand spanking new ovens lack a thermostat/temperature control (unless, of course, you're prepared to shell out about $4,000 pesos [US $1,000] for the one oven in the store with a thermostat, which most people, myself included, are not).
Perhaps I'm a spoiled yanqui, but I really crave more precision than that provided by a needle bobbing between the "yellow zone" and the "red zone." The oven thermometer I purchased has helped me tremendously, but the process of regulating the oven temperature still gives me a headache, given that just a barely perceptible flick of the wrist makes the difference between undercooked blobs of dough and incinerated ones.
Let's get kitchen confidential. Share your culinary trials and tribulations in the comments.