An Argentine Love Affair

Title caught your eye right! That’s the objective, and for the moment I will let you read into it what you will. For the past 17 odd years I’ve had an Argentine love affair, that is I fell in love with the country, the people, the food and of course the wine. I thought that since yesterday was the date we celebrate, World Malbec Day, today I’d write a blog story about my love for all things Argentina — along with a little history of the grape Malbec. Let’s start with Malbec and its path to Argentina. Like the US, Argentina is a country of immigrants, and in honesty, it was the immigrants who created and perfected the Argentine wine industry. As they came to the country in the late 1800’s they brought with them not only their know-how for viticulture, but also their vines.

Malbec was introduced into the country by Miguel Pouget, a French agronomist in 1868. Pouget was tasked by President Domingo Fausto Sarmiento to improve Argentine winemaking. Malbec World Day was created on the day Sarmiento, a visionary, made it his mission to transform the Argentine wine industry. Malbec in France is more traditionally synonymous with the Cahor region, where it is known as Cot, or the black grape of Cahor; and it is also found in Bordeaux. But in this writer’s opinion it found its home in Argentina, where it loves the sun, altitude and dry climate.

It’s now been about a month since I got back from my first trip in the 2 years since Covid shut the world down. And of course my first trip, like my last 2 years ago, was to my “second home” Argentina. I couldn’t wait to go! I have to admit, as a seasoned traveler, this time I was anxious with all the Covid testing and travel regulations. But once I got there, after about 24 hours of travel, I was so relieved. 4 airports, and 2 flights later I landed in Mendoza. The loudspeaker come on and the pilot says we need to wait a few moments until the storm passes. Ok I think to myself, storm, great we are sitting in a tin can on a runway waiting for a storm to pass, what kind of sense is that as I look out the window at the black sky. Finally we deplane and all looks normal at first until I get in the car with my friend and we start driving. A freak hail storm pounded, and I mean pounded the surrounding area. Now hail at this time of the year is normal, but usually in the higher elevations, and rarely in the city. As we started to drive, we saw golf ball sized hail all over the road, along with trees down and water cascading down the streets. Now remember Mendoza is a desert, maybe they get 7 inches of rain a year so this anomaly caused so much rain the streets actually flooded. Now one could say I brought the storm, but I rather think that I brought the sun when I landed. I finally made it to my favorite hotel, the Hyatt with my room overlooking the Andes and a giant AHHHH came over me!

As I said I’ve been going to Argentina for about 17 plus years, and have probably been there close to 40 times now. Each time I go I fall in love with country all over again and this time was no exception. I’ve been lucky to have made a close group of friends so each time I go I never feel like a visitor, it feels like home. I couldn’t wait to see my friends, see their vineyards, eat asado, visit my favorite ice-cream place, drink wine and relax with them before my work trip began. After 2 days in a hotel, I went to my bff’s house and stayed with him and his family. He and I have been friends for the entire time I’ve been going to Argentina. He and his family have become my second family. My room was ready and so was I. Off we went to what would be the first of probably 10 asados – Argentine barbeques. Good friends gathered for this feast of barbeque and wine, agronomists, winemakers we’ve all been friends since the start. This is why I’ve fallen in love with Argentina. We drank new wines, some old vintages and reminisced about when we first met and talked about where we are today. It was awesome!

More friends to visit the next day, more wine to drink and more food to eat. This time my friend proudly served me a wine he made — his special project and we just talked and talked for hours. When I got back to — let’s just call him G, G’s house we were ready to go shopping for Sunday’s traditional family asado. We stopped at the local farm stand to pick up gorgeous veggies to grill and then he took me to the local butcher to pick up the various cuts of meat that would be grilled all day long. We get back to the house and I meet his wife’s mom and sister. Small world we all say that but really it is a small world. As his mother-in-law and I talk, we realize that she grew up partially in NY but not only that, she went to a school 1 town away from my hometown. And on top of that his sister-in-law’s husband, who is an artist, was doing a sculpture at one of the vineyards I was going to the next week as part of my work trip.

Asado is an art, a pleasure and a time to gather with family. The person in charge of the fire, is really proud to be doing the grilling. The fire is wood, and the grill can be as simple as a grate set above; however it’s the art of stoking the fire and the embers that makes an Argentine asado so special. Low and slow the meats, or veggies are grilled, no flames, just white hot embers. There’s no rush in the cooking, the food is ready when it is ready, in stages and that’s how you eat. While the food is cooking, you eat a picada, which most would call antipasti on a charcuterie board. Remember this is a country with immigrant traditions and having a picada is like being in Italy or Spain with loads of dried meats, olives and cheeses set out as an appetizer. The meat’s on the grill, the picada on the table, the wine is flowing and the card game begins . I’ve learned how to play card quickly, maybe like my Spanish, the card game gets easier as the wine gets poured. It was great being part of this Sunday family tradition with my Argentine family.

Playing Cards – Argentine Pendorcho and Truco

Finally the meats are ready and it’s time to dig in. Like any good meal it takes hours to prepare and minutes to finish. We devoured all and then got ready to play cards again. And just when you think you may have digested the barbeque and picada, out comes the sweets. But that’s not all there are sandwich de miga – which are like tea sandwiches, thin slices of white bread spread with butter and ham. How can a sandwich that’s so simple be so good, but more importantly how did I have room to even eat it? But I did and fell into a blissful food coma at some point.

Darkness fell and everyone was set to leave, we said our goodbyes, hugged and I fell even more in love with Argentina. My next week would be filled with more food, friends and wine — promise I will continue next with that portion of the trip. I know how lucky I am. I’m lucky that I get to travel for work. I’m even more lucky that I met and became friends with an amazing group of people because of work. They helped me fall in love with Argentina, a country of strong passionate people, amazing food, and amazing wine — my Argentine love affair.

My Argentine Family!

Daddy Daughter Days

This time of the year always reminds me of the wonderful times I had spent with my dad in the City during the holiday season. I always looked forward to those Daddy-Daughter days when he was mine for a day and we could wander the city, go shopping and of course eat. It was a tradition that he and I would hop on the train to Grand Central and spend the day shopping up and down Madison and Fifth Avenues. We’d start out on Fifth, and stroll up the Avenue mostly window shopping until we’d get to his favorite place in Rockefeller Center — Teuscher Chocolates. This magical chocolate shop, was filled with all kinds of chocolates flown in weekly from Switzerland and wrapped in the most elaborate boxes, one more fantastical than the next. My favorite were the champagne truffles, which made me feel so grown up and sophisticated — oooh, Champagne was inside so it must be the best. Dad would get his dark chocolate covered orange peel and we’d eat them all as we strolled up the avenue. There was another location conveniently located close to one of his favorite wine shops, the original location for Sherry Lehmann, which was on Madison Avenue. So we had options and bribes. I’d bribe him to go up 5th with me and he’d get chocolate; and he’d bribe me to walk into Sherry Lehmann while he spent hours and hours talking about wine — then I’d get chocolates — and clothes.

Patience is not a Kowalsky virtue, I come from a long line of people without patience, from Grandma to Grandpa and Dad, who was basically impatience personified. I’d wait and wait until he was done with his wine shopping. Now that I think back on it, maybe taking me to go clothing shopping and chocolate eating, was his way of getting into the city to check wine shops, talk to his buddies and make me wait endless hours. I don’t really remember how I entertained myself, growing ever more impatient, but I knew that clothing was the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d tolerate the hours we spent looking at bottles and more bottles, and then he’d take me into Saks or Lord and Taylor. Now it was my turn, but again Kowalsky’s don’t have patience, so shopping with him was like speed dating with clothes. I’d say “Hi skirt, how do you do?” “Great we’re a match” so then dad would say something like, “Ok you like it, great, take 2, I don’t want to come back.” Once I figured this out, speed shopping was the best! Though once home, mom wasn’t so happy when she saw that I had the haul of the century!

But before returning home, we’d once again enter the glorious Grand Central Station, to make our pilgrimage to the cathedral of seafood, the one and only Grand Central Oyster Bar. But before I take you through my culinary journey with Dad, I have to brag a bit about an amazing experience I just had last week at the Oyster Bar, which jogged my memories of being there with dad so many years ago. One of my fellow Dames, from Les Dames d’Escoffier, invited me to the Canadian Oyster Festival, held there in celebration of the retirement of the Oyster Bar’s executive chef, famed Sandy Ingber who after 31 years decided to hang up his oyster knife. I helped my friend Michael Ann Rowe, the queen of all things crustacean, with a sparkling wine donation from Bouvet Ladubay. Bubbly and Oysters, a match made in heaven and I was in heaven! What an array of oysters to feast on, so many different ones from Canada all paired with the smooth, and creamy sparkling wines of Bouvet.

As I helped pour, my neighbor, one of the celebrated Canadian oyster shuckers from Raspberry Point, kept giving me oysters! It was a great night for sure, but it did make me think about all the great meals at the counter I had with my dad before we got on the train to go back home. Sitting at the counter was a right of passage, yes there were tables, but no true New Yorker sat at a table. There’s nothing like sitting at the counter, being served by the waiters and waitresses who had been there forever, under the vaulted ceilings designed by Guastavino. We’d start with a dozen clams on the half shell, dad loved them doused with cocktail sauce and lemon. Then we’d each get our favorite chowder — dad Manhattan Clam Chowder and me New England. The battle of the soup was on as we’d argue about which was better. Each soup was accompanied by Oyster Crackers and a bread basket with filled with savory crackers and rolls and hard as a rock butter on ice.

Bellies full, our final food stop was at Zaro’s for a black and white cookie for me, which I still think is the perfect cookie, a cake, a cookie, chocolate, vanilla all in one! We’d then hop on the train back home for the short ride up the Hudson. I loved these Daddy-Daughter days, true New Yorker days. And yes folks the City is New York, no arguments here, for me it’s the only one allowed to be called the City. Food, wine, shopping, NYC and dad that was a perfect day in my books.

Why is this night different?

This is beginning of the question that the youngest asks on Passover. Why is this night different from all other nights.? It is the start of the traditional “Four Questions” the part of the seder that was looked upon with anticipation and sometimes dread by the children at the table. As we enter into our second Pandemic Passover, this phrase, this question is particularly meaningful and relevant. It’s a year since we entered into the Pandemic Phase of our lives and with that has brought about a new way of living, a different way of living.

As many of you know if you have been following my blog, I lost both of my parents – first my dad 16 years ago, and then my mom just 3 years ago. Most of my family lives in Florida, so first off, this night is different because I will not be spending Passover with any family. Many of us who would normally travel or have a large family gathering, will once again be Zooming, HousePartying, GoogleHangingOut or whatever virtual means we chose to try to bring our loved ones into our lives. Things are getting better but still not safe enough for us all to be close. A dear friend of mine who I’ve known since high school came over for a small dinner, as she too has lost both of her parents and her siblings live far away.

I think this is the holiday that I miss my grandparents the most, especially my paternal grandmother — the one whom I write of often. Passover at her house was always something I looked forward to; it was kind of like a Jewish Thanksgiving Dinner (since she never had a Thanksgiving). The long table was laid out with her finest linens, Passover Plates and flatware, the door was left open so that Elijah could come in — or the cooking fumes could get out, and the table was filled with food. Grandpa would sit at the head and read, and read and read, while grandma would yell — Irving, “genug, enough” and of course he’d ignore her and keep going. We’d dip, we’d sing and we’d “essen fressen” — or eat until we were like a stuffed derma. Speaking of stuffed derma, that was one of the many amazing foods she’d have on the table. This is a Jewish style sausage, no pork of course and stuffed with savory matzo meal and paprika spiced stuffing. We’d congregate in her little kitchen because before the meal started, there would be plates of chopped liver with horseradish that she hand-grated with beets. Sweet and spicy, with the rich chicken livers cooked in schmaltz, (Jewish olive oil) I can still taste it. Organized chaos was really how the meal went, grandma with no patience, grandpa continuously reading, the kids getting stir crazy running in the halls, or getting yelled at to stay away from the windows — “You know could fall out…” We’d be shvitzing as if we were in a Turkish steam bath because of the building’s heat and the fact that grandma was too afraid to open the windows because as I said ” You could fall out.” We’d start off with bowls of steaming chicken soup with matzo balls, and her egg noodles — not the kind you find in the store, but more like ribbons of the thinnest egg crepe you could imagine. Next would be plates of her famous gefilte fish. She’d grind the fish by hand, a combination of “winter carp” pike and whitefish. I have a vague recollection of stories of her keeping the carp in the bathtub though I don’t ever remember seeing it there. I know that this is something that was done, there’s even a children’s story book called “The Carp in the Bathtub”. Can you imagine — you go to the bathroom to do your business and find a fish in a bathtub, Oy Vey! Anyway back to the gefilte fish, she boiled not baked hers and it was always served with a carrot round and loads of more horseradish. Then would come out the platters of meat, usually breast of veal stuffed with schmaltz laden matzo meal stuffing and beef ribs, carrot and prune tzimmes and maybe a boiled potato. Wine is a traditional part of the meal and grandma would only want the sweet stuff — Manischewitz. Once we brought a good bottle of wine and she took one sip, spit it out, said it was sour and asked where the Manischewitz was. This is a traditional Galitizianer, Eastern European style Passover meal.

Flash forward to this year’s Passover and from wine to food, to company, it was different. Before Passover night, I along with Les Dames d’Escoffier, presented a fantastic tasting via Zoom, of the Judean Hills Quartet Wines of Israel. Led by my friend Tali Dalbaha, we tasted four of the most amazing wines along with the winemakers — sorry grandma, this is what Passover Wine should taste like! Different, done by Zoom, not in person, but informative and fantastic.

Next was the actual dinner. So different from what I would normally have eaten, this time I wanted to go Sephardic. Whereas the Ashkenazi are of Eastern European dissent, the Sephardim are mostly from the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African regions. The foods couldn’t be more different! The Eastern European cuisine was based on Polish and German style cooking, heavy, heavy and well nothing light. Sephardic cooking combined the cuisines from the Spanish and the North Africans so it is much more aromatic and spice infused. We didn’t do much else very traditional, no reading from the Haggadah, no Seder plate, no dipping to commemorate the plagues, we just ate. But, to keep some tradition alive, I of course started with a traditional matzo ball soup, because it just wouldn’t be Passover without it! When I make mine, I always start with a whole chicken, carrots, a small amount of parsnip so the broth doesn’t get too sweet, a celery stalk and a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf, then I cover the whole thing in chicken stock and water — 2 parts stock to 1 water. To get a nice clear broth, bring to a boil then reduce to a just barely bubbling simmer and skim. The main was a delish recipe by Joan Nathan, and was layers of eggplant covered in caramelized onions and garlic, topped with pieces of browned, chicken coated in allspice, lime powder and tumeric and finally topped with chopped swiss chard. Instead of the traditional tzimmes (sweet carrots and prunes) I made roasted rainbow carrots coated in harissa paste and honey.

Lastly was dessert. Dessert at grandma’s would have been all kinds of sweets from boxes spread all over the table. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the jellied, sugar coated fruit slices that didn’t taste like fruit. There would be chocolate covered jelly rings, or chocolate covered cherries and chocolate covered matzo — don’t knock it until you try it! She’d have an array of Passover cakes which were usually jelly rolls — see a jelly theme here? Nothing home baked so I decided again to break tradition and bake. I found a fantastic recipe for an Orange, Chocolate Flourless cake by Nigella Lawson. What was so interesting about it and different was that you boil the oranges whole until soft and puree them whole with all the rest of the ingredients and bake. Amazingly fragrant, chocolate-orange goodness, you’d never know it doesn’t have flour. I’m sure she didn’t intend it for Passover but it was the perfect cake to end the meal. Oh yeah, wine, forgot wine. As I said no Manishewitz for me thank you, (sorry grandma)! We enjoyed the leftover wines from the Judean Hills Quartet — Sphera Sauvignon Blanc, Castel Rose, Tzora Shoresh Red and Flam Classico.

My Passover night was different from other nights, like my year was different from other years. But isn’t that how it should be? Every day is different, every year is different. We ask ourselves, “Why is this night different from all others?” and the answer is well, because it should be. We need to embrace the new, and not be afraid of the different. Try something new, out of your norm, out of the comfort zone. This past year has taught us that we need to find new ways to forge ahead, to embrace change and not be afraid of following a different path. So Chag Sameach, a Zissen Pesach, Happy Passover embrace your traditions but also don’t be afraid to try something new.

A Holiday Season Unlike Any Other!

2020 is about to end and I know that I can’t wait! I hear that collective sigh of relief from you all, as you wait with anticipation for the ball to drop — figuratively and literally, on what has been a pretty crazy, stressful and sometimes downright awful year. Through it all I drew my strength from my friends and family, but mostly from my friends who are my family. When I began to feel safe enough to start seeing my friends in person instead of virtually, it was such a great relief. I’ll never forget getting a call from my friend who said she was coming over. Now on a normal day that would seem well, normal; but in these crazy times I actually thought she was joking. Off to the store I went, probably in search of toilet paper, when I got a call from her saying “Where are you? Sammy’s in the window, now where’s the wine? I’m in the parking circle and you’re not home.” So I told her where the key was and where the wine was and that I’d be home in 5. What a joyous day! My first visitor in 3 months or so! We maintained our distance, sat at the table outside and just enjoyed being together after so many stressful months. My house became a bit like Noah’s Arc, they all came in 2’s, with an occasional 3rd, but no more than that! Food, cooking, eating and wine have always been an important bond with me and my friends, but never more so than during Covid. During Covid they escaped the city and came up to my suburban paradise (never thought I’d say that!) and for a moment all felt right. Of course we wore masks, sat apart and kept outside but we were together and it was amazing.

That takes me to today. We are now 9 months into this craziness and the holidays are here. Just when you thought it was getting better, we even had no more trouble getting toilet paper, it started getting worse. Warnings went up about social gatherings for the holidays and we were told to limit our personal interactions. 2020 just kept getting worse and well I just kept cooking, that was my therapy. The holidays was the time we could all depend on to get together. This year however, as we all know, is different. I decided that I would at least try to keep some of the traditions, even on a small scale, that I had enjoyed about the holidays. And for me that of course meant food. My family was not a very sentimental bunch but there were certain foods that were traditional for the holidays. I wanted to share some of them with you all, as well as some of the traditional foods that meant so much to some of my closest friends.

I decided after a lot of trepidation to go to my best friend’s house for Thanksgiving. It was only her immediate family and me. It was also her birthday and I really wanted to be there to celebrate. I decided that I’d bake a cake, but I wanted it to be meaningful so I searched through my mom’s recipes. Mom in my opinion made the best cheesecake ever. She used to say it was so rich and dense it would sink to the bottom of your toes! With it being Thanksgiving, I wanted something that spoke of the holiday and I found in her box of index cards, a recipe for a pumpkin cheese cake, woo hoo! Perfect I thought, and I took the recipe and made a few minor changes like adding bourbon, and made my own version — like a variation on a theme; the picture is below. BUT here is the recipe card for her ORIGINAL cheesecake; I can still see dad in the kitchen, mixing the cream cheese by hand. Check out her introduction to the recipe where she says “who can resist a cheesecake”. I love those little intros she wrote on her favorite recipes. I wanted to share her original one because that’s the one I remember her always making.

Next up is Chanukah, which of course as a kid meant presents, but it also meant latkes! FYI we ate latkes all year, large sized or small, but during Chanukah they tasted even better. Who amongst us can resist potatoes perfectly shredded with onions and fried in oil? In fact check out below on mom’s index card where she says they are “the closest thing to heaven”…Dad used to say grandma had stock in Planters Peanut Oil, the only thing she’d use to fry her latkes and all she’d have to do was tap the pan and they’d slide out on their own. We were traditional, no sweet potato, no beet, no way. Topped with sour cream only and it had to be potato, the starchier the better. Too wet, or too little starch and it will fall apart and no one wants that! We’d sit in the boiling hot kitchen as grandma would hand grate the onions and potatoes, and meticulously drain the liquid reserving the potato starch. Then she’d fry them to golden perfection. Later mom would do the same, in fact below is her original recipe card. On the first night of Chanukah this year, I had to have them so I made a little batch for myself. Really I think one of the best smells in the world, is the smell of onions frying and the house was filled with that scent. The next night the fry fest continued and I decided to make a batch of jelly doughnuts — my favorite food in the world! Yes I could have bought them but I really wanted to try my hand at making them as I had seen them on the Great British Bake Off. Paul Hollywood to the rescue, his recipe is perfect! 2 of my friends got wind of my making both latkes and jelly doughnuts and decided to come for a visit a few days later so I had to make them all again. Here we were in the kitchen at the table, where we belonged — socially distant and with the kitchen door wide open.

All for the love of pizzelle, is my next yummy holiday tradition. Ok well not my tradition because I never made them, but we were always gifted them during Christmas. My first introduction to this delicious Italian waffle cookie, was as a kid from the mom of a student of my dad’s. She would make us a huge plate of them and traditional Italian cookies. Delicate, beautiful and imprinted with her initials from the iron she had brought from Italy, these cookies lasted maybe a day before they were all gone. Now my friend’s dad makes them and always has a batch for me! His are laced with limoncello and are sweet and fresh and perfect with a cup of coffee. I invited them over for dinner the other night but only if he brought me pizzelle! As he sat at the table and watched me cook, I was forewarned that if he didn’t like the food I’d know it, he was not shy! I felt like I was cooking for my dad and started to get nervous, but after I put the plate of fish bathed in a lovely orange and olive sauce in front of him, I got the ultimate compliment when he had a second serving! I baked a holiday cake too, but true to his word, he didn’t like some of the cake and let me know it. He liked the cake but not the frosting, wanted another piece but told me to scrape off the frosting. He worked in many of the finest Italian restaurants in NYC and I loved sitting around the table and sharing food stories with him. Here’s a picture of his pizzelle with a coffee, and the fish dish and cake I made for him.

Next up is Christmas and my best friend (for whom I had to make the latkes and doughnuts, so you know I must love her) wanted us to carry on a tradition she used to do with her dad — Chrusciki. More frying for me! I started to think I might have a new career working as a fry cook, and I felt like I was working one of those fried dough stands at the state fair, but no I was hard at work in a kitchen in suburbia. All kidding aside, we had a great time. Once the dough was made and shaped, it was my turn to fry them to perfection and add the powdered sugar. We got into a rhythm and turned out what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands of these little fried sweets. Ok I exaggerate because we ate as many as we fried, so who knows how many were actually made! More sugar her mom would say and we’d make it snow all over them with powdered sugar. We were in the kitchen together cooking and laughing it was a perfect day. Her cousin who is an essential worker, a doctor who is now overwhelmed by the pandemic, was supposed to be there to help us but obviously couldn’t. I don’t live far so I made a special delivery for her, left it by her door, and after her shift she ate the entire batch in one sitting!

This holiday season is downright weird. Don’t tell me it’s the new normal, it may be new but it’s not normal, as I’ve said before. We might not be able to have large friends and family gatherings. Many of us will have to connect via Zoom. Food may not be as plentiful as before. And some won’t be able to gather at all for various reasons. This is a tough year, and I know that I am lucky, I have my health, friends and family and am so grateful for all of that. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how you are able to enjoy what you have. For me cooking, being in my kitchen and sharing whatever I have with my friends brings me joy. It’s not about fancy ingredients, it’s about the love you put into it and the memories you make in the process. However you are celebrating this holiday season I wish you all health and happiness. And here’s to 2021!