ARGENTINA, AT LAST
Nearly a year into I Cook the World and I am still on the letter A. My gastronomic experience is about to change. Has changed. Demands on my time have made it so difficult to make the time to research, shop, cook, photograph, and write about food from every country on Earth. So, in my desire to continue this project, Randy (the husband) and I have decided to sample as many of the world’s foods in restaurants. Southern California has an extraordinary array of cuisines including regional specialties I might never be able to master. I could spend a month sampling regional cuisines of Mexico, alone. What we can’t find in a restaurant, we might attempt at home. The experience brings together two elements of life I love, food and travel. I’m looking forward to learning even more about Southern California as we travel to restaurants we find in research or from suggestions from friends and food lovers. I would love to hear from you about some of your favorites.
Eating the food of the world from A to Z in restaurants isn’t a new idea to me. I’m sure it has occurred to many food lovers in Southern California. We are the world’s most ethnically rich dining region. This is a real opportunity for me. We do cook and eat at home a great deal. However, our food preferences are very simple and can be loosely categorized as a California - Mediterranean Diet . We make easy dishes using fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, cheese, and pastas. We love using fresh herbs from our garden and the very finest spices. There are times when a tomato from our garden with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and Maldon’s sea salt is lunch or dinner. We love fresh bread and tortillas.
I found the most fantastic writing on the food of Argentina on the blog Idle Words. The writer’s name is Maciej Ceglowski. I love his entry Argentina on Two Steaks a Day. I’m not completely in agreement with him about dulce de leche. He doesn’t like it. I like it, in moderation. A couple of weeks ago I was looking through my cupboards and found a jar of chestnuts from last Christmas. I decided to mix the chestnuts with 1/2 cup of dulce de leche, which I purchased at Surfas recently. Placed both in a small saucepan, warmed on a gentle flame while stirring, then placed in a ceramic container in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Hit each individual serving with a little sea salt. Very tasty. I think a sprig of English mint would be fantastic with this little dessert. Dulce de leche is the centerpiece of one of Argentina’s most beloved desserts, Alfajores. The recipe is from a site I like very much, Baking Bites.
As an Italian-America, I’m very interested in the massive influx of Italians into Argentina and Italian influence on the country’s cuisine. The Unification of the Italian states, subsequent high taxes, cholera outbreaks, World War I and World War II are some of the reasons Italians left their homeland to live in other countries. Unification brought political turmoil and a cruel levels of taxes that nearly killed small business and agriculture in Southern Italy. Wikipedia has a decent entry on Italian Argentina. Italians began immigrating to Argentina in the mid-19th century. At that time most of the Italians coming to Argentina were from northern Italy. Later, southern Italians followed to work in factories and farms. I found many pasta recipes listed on sites for Argentinean cuisine and Italian dishes on the menus of Argentinean restaurants.
MALBEC ARGENTINEAN BISTRO
TOLUCA LAKE, CALIFORNIA
After doing research on Argentinean restaurants, I settled on Malbec. I read the menu online and there were a number of dishes I felt I would really like. I also believed Randy would be very happy with the wine list. I was right. Malbec is in Toluca Lake on Riverside Drive, which means street parking available on most days. We snagged a movie star parking space right outside the restaurant, with no meter. Lovely. The interior of Malbec is a sleek, modern design and the music is cool jazz. The place is popular. Two parties of 8 had reservations for lunch and a party of 8 guys, from a nearby company, dropped in without reservations as we were ordering. A few two-tops were occupied throughout Malbec, as well. Despite the busy lunch, the service was spot on. Drinks were refilled and our waitress checked on us frequently, taking the time to answer many of our questions about the food and wine.
We settled on traditional choices: 1 beef empanada, 1 ham and cheese empanada, chicken grilled with herbs and garlic, and skirt steak. A restaurant named for the grape most closely associated with the wines of Argentina should have a great wine list. Malbec does. The majority of wines (about 50) on the list are from Argentina with a dozen available by the glass. Randy ordered a glass of El Portillo Malbec Rose. You can read all about Randy’s wine experience at Malbec on the Now and Zin site. He refers to me as Mrs. Now and Zin. Oy.
I say this in all honesty, the empanadas at Malbec are the best I have tasted in many years. The dough is very light, not greasy, with just a whisper of sweetness. Malbec uses excellent quality meat in its empanada. The beef is moist with a rich, piquant flavor. The ham and cheese empanada is a familiar mix of warmth and comfort. I can imagine being cheered by this little treat on a cold, gray day. Again, the use of quality ingredients makes these empanadas shine. The empanadas are served with a small salad and are definitely enough food for a lunch. However, we didn’t stop there.
For an entree, I had Pechuga con Limon y Hierbas, a pounded double chicken breast flavored with lemon marinade, rosemary, garlic, parsley and prepared on a woodfire grill. The combination of the rosemary and wood on this chicken is exquisite. Simple. Perfect. Mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables accompany the meal. Randy ordered the Entrana al Chimichurri, grilled skirt steak marinated in light chimichurri sauce. An organic mixed green salad accompanies. The meat used at Malbec is the very quality and you can taste it. Clean, moist, rich, satisfying. Randy ordered it medium and the kitchen turned it out perfectly.
Malbec makes a wonderful chimichurri, the sauce which is probably Argentina’s most addictive export. At every other Argentinean restaurant in Southern California I slather chimichurri on my chicken, beef, and empanadas. I didn’t feel remotely tempted to do this at Malbec and now I realize I was supporting and/or masking the taste of low quality ingredients at other restaurants. I managed to dip a few pieces of bread in the sauce before the empanadas, though. Malbec also makes their own red pepper sauce. Very nice. Some heat but not overpowering.
Wow. Quite a lunch. We had no room for dessert but will return for the dulce de leche crepes, which we hear are crazy wonderful.