Jane and I certainly enjoyed the scenery and outdoor activities during our visit to Argentina, but one of the more lasting impressions was the food that delighted our palates. Of course we read about the Malbec wine and delicious steaks of this South American country, but we were surprised by the variety of other dishes that left a favorable impression on us besides the meat and wine.
As we spent hours waiting for flights on our return trip, we came up with the idea to have an Argentine Christmas dinner. Amy and her boyfriend Joe would be home for Christmas as well as Dan, and we felt it would be fun to share our new discoveries with our kids. The first step was developing a menu, and in no time we pulled one together.
For appetizers we planned paired figs and bite sized ham similar to the tasty toothpick connected treats that were served at Rio Manso Lodge. In addition we planned on some non-Argentine favorites such as pita bread with hummus and peanuts and crackers.
Since Amy is vegetarian we planned our first course to be empanadas, both vegetable and meat, followed by some stuffed pumpkin. The main dinner would then be a small asado with chicken and chorizo and grilled vegetables, and for dessert we envisioned coffee flan. There would also be chimichurri sauce for the meats since we loved the sauce prepared by the kitchen staff at the Rio Manso Lodge.
Now our plan was formulated, and we needed to execute. Several days before Christmas Jane and I made a trip to Lowe’s Mercado, a Mexican supermarket on Coflax Avenue within five miles of our house. We purchased chili powder, plantains, chorizo, empanada discs, sofrito, and fresh produce. In addition we visited King Soopers and bought some of the standard items that we use in our normal food preparation.
A late addition to our Christmas dinner was an ice globe as Jane spotted a kit while we were shopping at City Floral and couldn’t resist buying it. We had the necessary materials to make six ice globes, so we experimented with one a week before Christmas and discovered that success was not a foregone conclusion. We allowed the orb to freeze too long and ended up with a globe-shaped solid chunk of ice. We learned from this experience, however, and created a second successful globe several days before Christmas. All we had to do was prevent our novel Christmas decoration from melting, and we had a unique centerpiece for our Christmas dinner.
On Christmas Eve Jane worked on the flan and made eight cups and placed them in the refrigerator to chill. It was reassuring to have one of our menu items essentially completed before Christmas day. We also scheduled to make the empanada fillings, but the weather in Denver was so warm and balmy that we couldn’t resist doing fun activities outdoors, so we delayed Christmas dinner preparation until Christmas Day.
On Christmas morning we followed our normal routine and opened gifts and enjoyed breakfast burritos. Amazingly this lasted until 1:30 in the afternoon unlike Christmas when the kids were young when presents were ripped open in a matter of two hours or less. By 3PM there was no room for delay so we pulled out all the required ingredients and began food preparation in earnest.
Here is a rundown on our menu for Christmas 2013:
Our second ice globe was more successful than the first as we removed it from the freezer before it froze solid. The outer shell was a nice thick 1/2 inch wall, and we managed to keep it frozen for the day or two between creation and Christmas dinner. The hollow orb with the glowing candle in the center served as an extraordinary centerpiece on our Christmas dining room table.
Empanadas were a big hit and probably represented the most popular menu items. Amy and Dave began the project; but as the recipe moved along, Amy became the mainstay, and Dave gradually converted to grilling while Joe assumed empanada fill and seal duties. The team made eight black bean and plantain pockets using the frozen Goya dough purchased at the Mexican supermarket, but it quickly became apparent that there was not enough dough to finish the shrimp versions. Amy was the hero, however, as she whipped together a dough recipe that enabled eight shrimp empanadas to appear, and then she used up the remaining dough to create improvised empanadas using leftovers from breakfast. Dave had purchased ingredients for a third type of doughy treat that used tofu, a potato, pepper and onion, but he was unable to find the source recipe. At any rate all versions were consumed, and leftovers fueled the family for several additional breakfasts and lunches.
The stuffed pumpkin or squash was also tasty, but it was different from the menu item that Jane and Dave enjoyed during their last lunch at Rio Manso Lodge. The Christmas version involved scooping out the squash flesh and mixing with fresh onion and cilantro and then reintroducing the filling to the hollowed out squash bowl before baking. The version in Argentina had a mix of various vegetables in a thick relish that was placed in the pumpkin without scooping out the pumpkin flesh. As we ate the filling we combined it with the squash.
Dan fired up the charcoal grill and placed the Himalayan salt block along the edge and then gradually shifted it over the fire until it was sizzling hot. The first things to be placed on the grill were the grilled vegetables. Like our Argentine asado, we had zucchini, sweet potatoes, onions, and peppers, but we added beets and carrots. Unfortunately the beets and carrots were stored in our downstairs refrigerator which cannot be adjusted appropriately and freezes contents in the refrigerator side. We sliced the frozen beets and carrots and placed them on the salt block, and these items immediately thawed and then sizzled and crisped. We sequentially added the other vegetables and grilled them as well. The grilled vegetables were quite tasty although the beets absorbed a huge amount of salt due to their mushy state. Joe and Dan loved them although some of the family members felt they were too salty.
The next stage of the asado was to grill the steaks, chicken and chorizo. These items turned out to be quite good, but we overestimated our appetites and had to eat our Christmas dinner in two separate stages. By the time we ate two or three empanadas and a stuffed pumpkin on Christmas, we were too bloated to eat the main course so we decided to grill only the chorizo and save the other meats for a later meal. The chorizo turned out to be the least popular item on the menu. The small sausage links were extremely fatty with a thick casing. They flamed up immediately in the hot fire and turned an unappetizing black color. The casing was too thick to eat, so we peeled it off and ate the meat within which proved to be crumbly and quite salty. Between the beets and the chorizo we probably consumed our weekly quota of salt in one meal.
The last item on the menu was the coffee flan, and this was a big hit. Even though we didn’t have room for meat, we had plenty of room for the sweet coffee flavored flan that melted in one’s mouth. Jane’s flan was every bit as good as the dessert I enjoyed at Rio Manso.
As mentioned earlier we ate empanadas, stuffed pumpkin and flan and snacked on a small portion of grilled vegetables and then saved the rest as leftovers. On Thursday evening we were dinner guests at the home of some friends, so the first opportunity to resume our Argentine feast was Friday night. We fired up the grill again and cooked some additional vegetables and then seared the steaks and chicken. The second asado was very successful as we all enjoyed the second stage of our Argentine feast. For a first attempt at cooking new dishes, I think we fared quite well. Whether this becomes a Christmas tradition is still undetermined, but we now know not to prepare three meals when one will suffice.