Adventures in Dining, Take III: AKA Thanksgiving
On our way home from the pasta store one night, we came across a market with fresh lettuce. Entranced by the prospect of a fresh green salad, something I had not had in weeks, I immediately grabbed a head of greenleaf and some delicious baby radishes to go with it. While I surveyed the flora, Dave gravitated towards the fauna. A scribbled sign in half uppercase half lowercase letters read “Hay corDero PATAgONICO.” “We have Patagonian lamb.” One thing that I have learned is that when a small neighborhood restaurant, cafe, or market has a sign saying “We have ______,” it is generally a good idea to try the _______.
Still skeptical, I came over to the other register after purchasing my veggies from a tired looking middle aged woman. Dave had expressed his desire for the lamb, and was trying to figure out what cut to purchase. We almost ended up with a full rack before we understood that he couldn’t cut it up into smaller pieces. After a little chatting, we settled on what he called the ribs and flank, somehow containing the loin. Whatever the heck it is, it can’t be bad. “This is the tastiest part, I promise,” he assured us. “It’s what my wife likes to have for dinner. It’s got the most flavor.” Well, with those recommendations, I was willing to give it a go.
We put the marbled mass of meat into our fridge and forgot about it for 24 hours. While it defrosted, we called our families for Thanksgiving lamenting the absence of turkey, then planned the next day’s activities: a foray into Palermo Alto and the Museum of Decorative Arts.
After an early morning yoga class and an hour walk, we arrived at the Museo fairly exhausted. What I expected to be a catalogue of furnishings and functional decoration was actually just some rich family’s mansion that had been preserved since the 1940’s. Full of Japanese and french ceramics it was, but a museum it was not. Not much to learn, not much to read about, and opressive guards hovered over us through every room. Come on people, I’m not going to steal a vase, break an urn, or get my greasy fingers on a painting. Give me some space! Dave said that their hyper vigilance was due to my new hot dress, but I remained unconvinced. The female docent skulked about behind me as well.
Tired, hungry, and not a little bit disappointed, we began to pick our way back through smaller streets to avoid the clouds of bus exhaust that shimmer ironically in the afternoon glow, in this city of buenos aires. Then suddenly through the pristine window display I spied racks of the one thing that could counteract disappointment and despair: chocolate truffles.
The purveyor of said delicacies was one Agatha Chocolates, a small enterprise in Alto Palermo. It was the truffles that brought us in, but we left with more than a box of chocolates. Two individually wrapped mousses swayed home in a cardboard pyramid to accompany our Patagonian friend. We chatted with the manager/owner/baker for a while, and D got to practice his Spanish. A week later, she not only recognized us, but asked how the lamb turned out. Ten points for nice people, I say. She even remembered which desserts we had tried, so that we could have new ones on our return visit. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember her name.
Refreshed by the expectation of our upcoming meal, our steps were much more lively on the last leg of our walk home; we waited anxiously for the elevator that would bring us up to our 6th floor mini-kitchen so that we could get started.
I took the lamb out of its wrappings, mystified by layers of marble whiteness. Through the middle of the cut of meat was a cylindrical mass of solid fat that was so thick I assumed it was bone. When my knife went through it, I decided that I had better reevaluate my cleaning strategies. Lamb is a meat that has until now remained outside my culinary repertoire. This is probably due to the fact that it is difficult to obtain good quality meat, and that it’s not exactly mainstream in American culture. Since the Indians and Caribbeans love it so, it must be good.
This lamb was an experimental foray into the world of sheep meat, as well as an impromptu anatomy lesson. One thing that I love about cooking with meat is that it forces you to pay attention to the way that organisms are structured; how they move; where bones and muscle meet; and what part of the body you’re trying to cook. Upon unwrapping the baffling tube of fat, I discovered a kidney. Not quite daring enough to try riñon, I decided that the offal had better remain in in the hands of professionals. Once I navigated the labyrinth of ribs, loin, and flank, we decided that simple was best: salt, pepper, and oil. The only ornaments to our main dish were a couple of garlic cloves stuck in what seemed like appropriate locations and a couple of potatoes thrown in the roasting pan. The whole shebang went into our oven.
A moment, please, for our oven. The poor thing was already in its death throes when we arrived in the apartment, dropping the bottom drawer the first time we walked by it. When we opened the door to heat up a delicious tarta from the bakery, a screw snapped out of its holder and the door handle clanged to the floor. Our landlord rather nonchalantly told us he would fix these things, but I was skeptical. A day or two later, the knob that controls the oven temperature cracked while we were trying to turn the heat down. By the time we were ready to cook the lamb, the oven had three settings: pilot light (press in metal rod with leatherman pliers while waving lighted match over tube pouring out gas), high (metal rod turned 180 degrees to absolute minimum gas output), and inferno (any other setting).
Not having had much experience with the testy oven, I tried out the lamb somewhere between hot-as-hell and inferno, planning to reduce the heat and slow-roast the small piece of meat. Seven minutes later, beckoned into the kitchen by the hissing sound of boiling fat, I tried in vain to cool down the oven, but all that was left of the controls was a metal rod connected by…metal wires…to a metal fucking oven! You don’t have be a superb physicist to remember that all of these objects conduct heat. With two dish towels, the pliers, and every single open window, we managed to save the lamb from what I thought was utter ruin. An undetermined amount of time later, after cooking in undertermined thermal conditions, I trepidaciously removed the still searing pan and set it on the stove to rest.
Meanwhile I prepared the first green salad we’d had in nearly a week, delighting in the cool crispness of the radishes in the sauna that our kitchen became after roasting the lamb. We had no sauce save some apricot jam that we were using for toast, and no time to prepare anything fancier; the trip to the museum pushed our dinner back into Buenos Aires time, so we were starving.
D hastily cleared the table of our bags, notes, and books, lit the candles and we sat our weary, dusty bodies down for dinner at last. I am often amazed at how the simplest dishes can produce the most splendid and complex flavors. The lamb was rich, flavorful and for lack of another word: meaty. It wasn’t overcooked, despite the crispy outside, and the sweetness of the apricots was perfectly complimented with the occasional crunch of a a salt crystal or the sporadic clove of roasted garlic. There was silence for a few moments at the table, accompanied by various mumbles of surprise and pleasure from greasy lips as we savored our lamb and gave thanks to the small fluffy beast in Patagonia who made our meal possible.
When we could eat no more, we refilled our glasses, took a break with a salad, and relaxed for a while in contemplation of the third act: dessert.
The pyramid came out of the refrigerator, and we unfolded its sides to reveal an oval of dark chocolate mousse with brownie crust and a short cylinder of mascarpone crowned with a huge blackberry. It is difficult to describe how incredibly happy it made me to have a dessert worthy of our lamb, for truly thes were divine. Not only were the mousses rich and fluffy, but each had in its center a complementary fruit coulis. Sour raspberry to compete with the dark chocolate, and sweet luscious blackberry to sink into the delicate italian cream.
Satisfied now from our gastronomic exploits, our belated Thanksgiving came to a close. It was truly a providential meal, thrown together from supplies and courses that we stumbled upon, or would never had found if it had not been for someone’s friendly advice. We had many people to thank that day: the gregarious butcher, the designer of the all-purpose-ever-useful leatherman, and the Agatha lady. Indulging in a little tentative self-congratulation, we also thanked ourselves, for daring to pack up our lives and leave ourselves open to the possibility of such a dinner. Not every day of our journey was or will be fantastic. There are times when nothing seems to meet expectations, but those moments tend not to last, or they are destined to be conquered by other more memorable pleasures. In this case, as it often is for me, the meal turned out to be our neighborhood’s way of making up for an unexpectedly disagreeable day. M.F.K. Fisher had it right: “At the end of the day you know fate cannot harm you, for you have dined.”
It was a foreign Thanksgiving, not on the last Thursday of November, but celebrated with the very best spirit of our very American holiday. An appropriate mix of cultures, styles, and flavors for this particular year. The sense of providence that the evening produced reminded me that I truly have much to be thankful for. I am on an adventure, running around the world with someone I love, and the people that I love back home will be there when I get back, so I can’t get too lonely.