Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Gnocchi alla Romana on Argentinean Gnocchi Day

Gnocchi alla romana - a bit different from the classic gnocchi, even in looks!
 The end of another month is approaching fast... but before we get all philoshophical here and start pondering over  how time flies and where all those nice March days have gone to, take a good look at your calendar. It's almost the 29th of the month and this means... it's Gnocchi Day! Or at least, it's Gnocchi Day in Argentina. 

These small doughy balls known as gnocchi in Italian and as ñoquis in Argentina, are generally made from potato but there are many other varieties that are just as delicious as the traditional potato ones.
To celebrate this special day in our culinary calendar, I invited bloggers Katie, Ana, Rebecca, Meag and Paula  to come up with their special version of the ñoquis for this 29th March. The idea is to share our recipes and have new options for the 29th of the months still to come. We will find out what delicious recipes these ladies have prepared for this special holiday in a moment....

But first, why is the 29th Gnocchi Day in Argentina?

The truth is no one knows for certain and there are a number of theories to explain this tradition, like that it was brought over to the New World by our Italian ancestors who celebrated St. Pantaleon every 29th in Italy by serving gnocchi on this day.

The most likely explanation, though, is that the 29th is the day right before payday and what better food is there to feed your family, that is cheap yet delicious and filling and is easy to make at the same time? The answer is ñoquis, of course!!
Serve them with a simple red or white sauce or just drizzle some olive oil and and put a sprinkle of parmesan on top and it becomes a dish that is rich and will leave you and your loved ones with full bellies and happy hearts. In fact, that is what you say, before eating the ñoquis - but wait! let's explain how it should be done:

First, make your ñoquis and serve them with your favourite sauce. Then place a folded bank note under each plate to attract prosperity to your house and your dear ones. Take your napkin and tie it around your neck (ok, you can skip this one if you promise to mind your manners) and make a toast to a "full belly, happy heart" (in Spanish, "panza llena, corazón contento") and.... dig in!
A friend of mine who is originally from Uruguay (our neighbours from just across the Río de la Plata) told me that in her family, they normally count how many ñoquis each member has been served and later place bets on that number in the lottery! The idea is, do anything and everything you can to bring good luck and prosperity to yourself and your family!

Now, here is my idea for Gnocchi Day tomorrow:

Ñoquis a la Romana: 
Gnocchi alla romana don't have the traditional gnocchi shape.

 This recipe is pretty simple and it can be served as a first course or with some sauté  mushrooms and veggies (leeks or chard stalks and leaves, are my favourite to serve this way) or even some tuna or beef meatballs in a red sauce.
Tomorrow I am going to be serving mine with sauté mushrooms, leek and paksoi. The idea for this combination came from an Argentinean food blogger, Cristina. You can see her recipe here.

They are a bit different from the gnocchi we are used to, they look more like disks than like little dough balls and the texture is different as well. My grandma used to make them when I was a little girl and I remember I used to love cutting the gnocchi in different shapes so that the dish ended up looking a bit strange in the end! Another thing I liked was that if there was any dough left, my grandma used to sprinkle a bit of parmesan and rosemary over the dough, cut it in little sticks and fry them to eat as snacks until the ñoquis (as we called them) were done. 

Ingredients: (serves 4)

45g. unsalted butter, melted
30g Parmesan cheese, grated
3 egg yolks
1l. milk
pinch of nutmeg
200g semolina flour
salt, pepper to taste

For the topping:
40g butter, melted
90ml cream
30g Parmesan cheese, grated


- Have all the ingredients ready beforehand, because the dough needs to be hot when you pace it on the baking sheet to set and cool. 
- Seasoning is important, make sure you taste the dough is not too bland before you put it in the fridge to cool.

Line a shallow bread tin or dish with some greaseproof paper to have it ready when you are done with the mix.
Whisk the butter, Parmesan cheese and the egg yolks and season to taste. Set the mixture aside.

Heat the milk in a big pan. Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. When the milk is just beginning to boil, add the semolina flour in a thin stream, little by little, whisking constantly - and I mean, constantly - you don't want lumps in the dough. Reduce the heat and let the mixture cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring continually, until all the milk has been absorbed and the mixture comes loose from the sides of the pan. The texture has to be thick, but still creamy and moist.

Take the pan from the gas and whisk in the egg mixture you had previously set aside. Taste to correct seasoning if necessary.  Spread the dough while still hot (very important, since this will make it easier to spread the dough) on the sheet to a thickness of about 2cm. Spread it as smoothly as you can, using the flat side of a knife or a metal spatula, dipping it first in cold water before touching the dough.
Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to cool for a couple of hours. If you are not going to make the ñoquis right away, you can at this stage the dough overnight or freeze until needed.

To cut the gnocchi I used a cutter with a funny shape. They're ready to go into the oven now!
 Preheat the oven to 180°C and grease a shallow ovenproof dish with some butter. Take the flat dough from the fridge and cut disks of about 4 cm in diameter with a round cookie cutter or a glass previously dipped in cold water. Keep dipping the cutter in cold water to prevent sticking. Arrange the disks or ñoquis slightly overlapping in the greased oven dish.
Grate some Parmesan on top of the gnocchi and take it to the oven...

For the topping, mix the butter and the cream. Pour this mixture onto the ñoquis and sprinkle generously some Parmesan cheese. Put the dish in the oven and bake the ñoquis for about 25-30 minutes until the top layer is golden brown. Once they are ready they should be served right away.

Out of the oven, bubbling away...

* * * * *

Let's now take a look at the other ladies' ñoquis recipes!
(you can go to their recipes by clicking on the link under the photo)

Spinach Gnocchi by Paula de Caro

Arugula Gnocchi by Ana O'Reilly

Butternut Squash Gnocchi - Two Ways by Katie
Roasted Beet Gnocchi by Meag

This should definitely see us through the next six months of full bellies and happy hearts, don't you think? (wink!)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Jesuit legacy in Córdoba (Argentina) - Jesús María

The church of the estancia in Jesús María, Córdoba
Strongly recommended when visiting Córdoba in Argentina, is to take a tour of the Jesuit Block in the city and the Jesuit estancias spread around the province.
The presence of the Order of the Society of Jesus in the Spanish colony during the 17th and 18th centuries marked forever the character and the identity of Córdoba. The Jesuit priests that settled in the Spanish territories in the New World  brought with them not only their religious zeal to spread the Catholic faith among the indigenous people of the land (a practice that may be seen today as objectionable), but they also brought enlightment and progress in the form of the first university they created in the country, and the impulse they gave to the economy of the region through their agricultural and industrial establishments - the estancias.

The Jesuit Block (containing the church of the Society of Jesus, the priests' residence and the Collegium Maximum, later university) together with five of the Jesuit agricultural establishments spread around the province of Córdoba, were declared World Heritage Site in the year 2000 by the UNESCO.

The Jesuit estancias -as the large rural estates are known in Argentina- were mainly agricultural establishments founded by the order to produce the food, the goods and the resources needed to maintain the missions spread throughout the colony as well as the college and university they had founded in the city of Córdoba in 1613.
These estancias today are an excellent example of the fusion of the European and indigeneous cultures and they illustrate an unparalled social, religious and economic experiment that spread over 150 years of Argentinean history and lived on even after the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.

Today we take a look at one of the Jesuit estancias, the one in the town of Jesús María, about 50 km from the city of Córdoba.

In 1618 the order bought land in the region of Guanasacate, as Jesús María was originally known in the language of the sanavirones, the indigenous people living in what is now the province of Córdoba. The bulk of the goods produced in this agricultural and manufacturing establishment went to maintain the Colegio Máximo, the college founded in 1610 in the city and which was later to become the university of Córdoba.

In the estancia of Jesús María, the priests instructed the natives in many manual crafts like candle and soap making, raising cattle and wine production for which they received a salary. There was also a population of approximately 300 slaves bought in the port of Buenos Aires who did most of the heavy work around the estate, leaving the natives to dedicate to the more specialised crafts.

Wine making was the main activity in Jesús María. In 1618 when the order bought the estate in the province of Córdoba, they also acquired 20.000 grapevines and they started their own wine production.
With an average of 600 cans of lagrimilla -as the wine became known- per year, the Jesuit winery of Jesús María was the first and later the largest wine producer in the viceroyship of the Río de la Plata. Their lagrimilla wine was the first wine produced in the colonies to make it to table of the Spanish king.

The tajamar or water reservoir made by the Jesuits in their estate in Jesús María to supply water for use in the cloister  as well as for irrigation of their crops and vines.
The architecture of the monastery/factory/residence complex is an example of the typical construction favoured by the Jesuits and is a fusion of European and indigenous colonial style.
A central courtyard is enclosed on two sides by a two-storey arched gallery that housed the cloister, while the third and fourth side were occupied by a storage building and a high wall. The priests' living quarters and communal rooms were located in the back of the construction.
The natives and the slaves lived in precarious huts spread in the outskirts of the estate, but these were in due time replaced by proper living quarters built of bricks, stones and tiles.
An ingenious compound of lavatories was built in the cloister of the estancia, making it the first construction in the country to have indoor toilets with their own waste disposal system.

The style of the single nave church is beautiful despite its simplicity; the only adornment of its central cupola is a relief work thought to have been made by native artisans. No picture taking is allowed inside the church, so unfortunately, I cannot offer you a peak into the interior of this jewel of 17th century religious architecture in Córdoba.

The simple façade of the church in the estancia de Jesús María
After the expulsion of the Jesuits from the colonies in 1767, the estancia of Jesús María (as all the other estates, missions and the university) went into private hands and a long period of decadence and deterioration followed.
During the first half of the 20th century, the national government took charge of the former Jesuit establishments declaring them national monuments and started with the renovation works.  Finally,  the UNESCO gave all the estancias and the Jesuit Block in the city of Córdoba the status of World Heritage Site in 2000.

A local artist describing his work to a couple of tourists.
 The estancia of Jesús María houses today the National Jesuit Museum which aims to preserve an important part of the history of Córdoba and the country by recreating the original purpose of the complex. With eighteen exhibition rooms, the permanent collection of the museum includes archeological finds from the northern and central regions of the country, period furnishings and tools, and a very fine collection of 17th and 18th century religious art among other things. Temporary exhibitions as well as concerts, conferences and other cultural events are also periodically held within the ancient walls of the estancia.

This bird is probably a descendant of one of the old inhabitants of the estancia during the Jesuits' times.
In the 150 years that the Jesuits remained in the country they increased their prestige and their power carrying out an important role in the colonial society mainly as educators and entrepreneurs. In Córdoba they founded the first university in the Río de la Plata and one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America.  It is thanks to the university that the city of Córdoba is known still today as La Docta, meaning "the wise" in Spanish.
The estancias they owned were models of industry and progress from their very origins, and many of the activities and crafts introduced by the Order in the 17th and 18th century -like wine making and agriculture- still form the basis of the economy of the region.

* * *

Monday, 5 March 2012

There is still Nederland beyond Amsterdam

Typical landscape near Blankenham, Overijssel.
 Recently, while reading the blog A Flamingo in Utrecht, or more especifically, the post An Open Letter (of sorts) to Travel Publications, I thought how unfair it was that when tourists come to the Netherlands, they generally seem to think that only Amsterdam is worth visiting. It is indeed unfair to the rest of the country and to themselves, because they are missing out a whole country. What's more, if those tourists then go back home and claim that they've been to the Netherlands and that they now know all about the Dutch, they are practically lying.

Amsterdam is not the same as the Netherlands. It has a culture of its own, rich, varied, cosmopolitan, liberal... it is a great city to explore. I like Amsterdam and I go there quite often myself for a day out, meet with friends, visit museums or take photos. But it is still just a part of the Netherlands.

Alison -author of A Flamingo in Utrecht- explains why tourists normally make the mistake of limiting themselves to exploring Amsterdam while vising the country or of even thinking that if they've seen Amsterdam, then they've seen the Netherlands. Travel publications seem to be intent on creating this impression on tourists. When they want to feature the Netherlands, they report about Amsterdam. I've seen it myself back in Argentina. Distant family members or friends would call me and tell me they've seen a travel show about the Netherlands. I know that if I take the trouble of watching the show myself, I see giddy tv presenters having the time of their lives visiting the Sex Museum or some shop selling a very particular kind of mushrooms. As if that was all that there is to Amsterdam. What's worse, as if that is all there was to the Netherlands.

Amsterdam has the canals; yes, it does, and they are listed as UNESCO World Heritage, granted. Amsterdam has the tulips. Amsterdam has the Red Light District. Amsterdam has the coffeeshops. Amsterdam has the typical step, neck or spout gabled houses, great old architecture. Amsterdam offers a wide variety of restaurants, museums and attractions. It is all true.

Well, would you be very shocked if I told you that you can find all these things in most of the other Dutch big cities? You will find alll these things and more, for you will also discover what makes those cities different from Amsterdam and worth visiting as well.

There are beautiful city canals in Utrecht, and they are unique, because they are lined with wharf-basement structures that create a two-level street along them. If you are looking for some more idyllic hobbit-like views, then how about Giethoorn in Overijssel or any village in Friesland with their thatch-roofed houses and lovely bridges crossing over canals.

Canal and bikes in Utrecht.
Giethoorn, known as the Venice from the North.

 Flevoland, the youngest province in the country (and also man-made) has the largest bulb area (ergo tulips) in the country and has a special bulb route that will take you along the most magnificent endless tulip fields and along picturesque polder villages as well.

Tulip fields in the Northeast polder in Flevoland.

There are Red Light streets in every city in the Netherlands and yes, they are legal and they are controlled by sanitary authorities and kept safe by the police. There are also coffeeshops with their share of soft drugs in other cities around the country, though as of January of this year, it is illegal for foreigners to smoke in these coffeshops in the three southern provinces of the country. Good news for you if that's what you are after: the Netherlands has 9 other provinces, besides Limburg, Zeeland and Brabant.

"Goodies" displayed in a window of a tattoo shop in a city of Friesland.
 The beautiful architecture typical of the Dutch Golden Age can be admired and photographed till you drop in cities like Delft, The Hague, Middelburg, or even little dear Zwollywood, as I like to call my own city of Zwolle.

A beautiful stepped gable in the city of Bolsward, in Friesland.
The imposing City Hall of Middelburg, in Zeeland.
 The two restaurants in the country that boast three Michelin stars are not in Amsterdam - one is in Sluis, in the province of Zeeland and the other is in .... surprise, surprise, Zwollywood, where De Librije restaurant is, besides, the first Dutch restaurant ever to get a Michelin star in the whole country.
If you are a foody, you may want to explore the zeeuwse cuisine of Zeeland or the bourgoundisch cuisine of Limburg and Brabant.

Apart from the first Dtch restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star in the country, Zwolle offers an extensive variety of excellent restaurants and cafés.

 And what can we say of the landscapes? To admire the typical Dutch landscape and its incomparable natural light, you simply have to get out there.

Windmills somewhere near Alkmaar in North Holland.

Engelse Werk in Zwolle.
Ice skating in Overijssel.
 As for the museums, yes, Amsterdam has wonderful ones that you have to visit if you want to see the great masters. But there are great museums in other Dutch cities as well where you can also see your favourite van Goghs, Vermeers or Rubens. How about the Mauritshuis in The Hague with its large collection of Dutch painters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Steen or Hals ? Or the Kröller Muller museum located in the setting of the beautiful Veluwe National Park and its very important collection of van Goghs, Picassos and Modriaans?

The Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.

Seriously. There is so much more to the Netherlands besides Amsterdam.Take a train to The Hague and go to the beach in Scheveningen or Kijkduin; or to Delft and visit Vermeer's house. Take your car and ride along the Alfsluitdijk, the 32 km long surge barrier that has cut off the Ijsselmeer from the North Sea. Do some reading, ask, surf the net - nowadays it's not that difficult to find the information you need. Move around a little or a lot - but go back home with the satisfaction of having seen the real Netherlands.

With this in mind, I have added a new tab to this blog under the title Visit the Netherlands. There I will be posting links to all the entries I publish related to places to visit or things to do and see around the country. I hope it can be useful to anyone planning to travel to the Netherlands or even to those of us living here and planning to spend a weekend away from home or to take a day trip with family or friends and do something fun.