Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Aspic a la Argentine: Part I

When my friend, Veronica, first sent me an email about cooking for this blog, she suggested that we do something in the spring so that we could use readily available seasonal crops. It only took us a FULL YEAR to solidify a plan. And so on a sunny, Sunday afternoon I finally found myself ringing the bell to her Caroll Gardens apartment that she shares with her husband, Leandro Carbonell.

Veronica, a PhD candidate in religious studies, had just returned from a league soccer game and left soon after I arrived to grab some sundries from the corner store. "I'll be right back! Promise. Leandro, be a good host while I'm gone," she singed and disappeared out the front door.

Leandro, a video editor and native of Buenos Aires, had taken care to be ready for me when I arrived. (Turns out that when Veronica first told me that she would like to cook for me, she really meant her husband. Veronica later indicated, "Leandro shall cook. I'll just lounge around waiting to be served, as God intended.") His dish of choice? That savory, molded jello we know as aspic.

I was dubious, but since the French have been enjoying aspic (also called cabaret, and, when mixed with cream, chaud-froid) for centuries and since they know a thing or two about cooking, I tried to keep an open mind.

Leandro decorked a bottle of wine and said in thickly-accented English, "I called my mother and asked her how to make aspic." His parents, both of whom continue to reside in Argentina, are responsible for Leandro's skills. "There was a party every weekend, my parents would cook and invite people over... They are great cooks. My father even has a first prize [from a local contest] for an asparagus mousse." Once in high school, Leandro often made family meals during the week and spent many of his spare hours experimenting and learning his way around the kitchen. Despite decades of experience, however, he continues to rely on his mom and dad for cooking tips and tricks.

"My mother gave me a lot of guidance for this dish, but really my specialties are roasted meats and stuff like that." He poured me a glass of wine and led me to the living room - dense with knick knacks, decorations, books, and other accumulated, but organized flotsam - where he sat me down in front of his computer to show me pictures of some of the meals that he had previously created. There was documentation of caramelized roasted vegetables, browned sides of meat, and roasts bubbling over with juices. And we were going to eat bread and vegetables preserved in boiled algae? Great.

We headed back into the kitchen to begin the cooking lesson. Leandro explained that he decided to make a vegetarian aspic and, since there would be no boiling of bones (cartilage and bone give meat-based aspic its gelatinous consistency), he had decided to use seaweed-derived agar agar as the congealing agent. He opened the refrigerator and showed me the finished version.

"I had to experiment with the agar agar because I wanted to make sure that it would work, so I just made a little and poured it into the bowl. I don't like that it is not totally transparent, but it will do." Leandro produced a bowl with the jellied stuff and turned it over, unloading its contents into his hand. At this moment Veronica returned. Setting down her bags she exclaimed, "Look at that! It looks like a silicone boob."

Truer words were never spoken.

For part two, click here.

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