Friday, February 27, 2009

In the Argentina of My Mind and Plate

Part of my love for the midwest is the fact that I also love to leave it. This interest in leaving began as early as when my older brother started to bring home exchange students for family dinners. Jan, from Germany, had striking shoes and came dressed for a funeral instead of for meat loaf. Aya Iwata, from Japan, had amazing pencils and pens, which she gave each of us along with band-aids that had English phrases like," toad soda green," and our own exchange student, Charlotte from Southern France, brought a thick sexy accent and a drawer full of condoms. I am pretty sure Charlotte took that drawer-full of condoms back home with her, but the point is, Charlotte's mom gave them to her. In case, as Charlotte told me, "I take zee lover." As if it was something like taking up a new past time like cribbage or shuffle board.

Charlotte's parents even came to visit us. Us in the middle of nowhere and twenty some miles from the nearest ethnic restaurant. There we were, Charlotte in between these well-dressed and scarf darning folk, and my parents nodding and looking at me with my high school French, shaking my head. I had no idea what they were saying, but all I knew was that I loved it. The sounds, the way Charlotte's mom carried herself--up and erect with a sense of not bothering with the fact that she couldn't understand my own mother's direction to the bathroom, and of course, I adored their clothes.

I once had a Australian friend tell me, he could tell a foreigner by their gait, the way they walked. Me, my theory is much more simple, I can tell by their shoes. And Charlotte's mom in the middle of April was wearing heels. Heels in our house, not the sensible clogs or rubber boots, but well-tailored pumps. Perhaps my attraction to her shoes seems oh so expected, like something for a green young girl to be obsessed with. But all I knew, as I sat on the other end of the dinner table with this austere, kind and well-dressed couple, was, I too wanted to be an exchange student. I wanted to sit and sing my words, looking slightly bothered and most importantly, look terribly well turned out.

Like most things that start with a narrow and naive outlook, they usually end with a narrow and naive advancement; however, my interest in traveling with a sense of adventure started at a very young age and I'd like to think it has given me more than just an amazing shoe collection. I do believe that traveling with a sense of earnest naivete is a wonderful characteristic to have. And if I can think of one word to describe myself at 16, it would be earnest naivete. Okay, two words.

Some other two-words I can think of from that time of my life are: get out, leave home, go far, and second language. I was accepted to be a Rotary Exchange student and one of the best parts of being a pre-exchange student is filling out the form of your preferred countries. One page with twenty-eight countries to numerically order. At that time in the early nineties, it was mostly Europe, South America and a Few Asian countries. We eager-to-leavers, were constantly questioning returning exchange students who informed us on the side, that Europe is all cathedrals and sausage and be ready to take their eighth grade math, Brazil is constantly Carnivale and lots other national holidays, so you don't have to go to school and Asia is for people who didn't get any of their first choices. This sounds harsh, but we were calculating and anxious to get what we wanted. There were so many conferences where we'd get to chat with returning exchange students and hear their elevated stories of cultural awareness that sometimes sounded more like pageant speeches, " I feel so aware and want nothing more than to help others." These now overweight blazer-toting returners were ignored, but who we did interrogate were the "real" foreigners. Mostly, I spoke with the Argentines.

I knew so little about Argentina other than there were mountains, Spanish, and beautiful teens who looked like tanned, relaxed Europeans who smiled at all of the conferences. They told me that I could learn Spanish at home, French at school and almost all of the students had beach houses. Okay, seemed simple enough. Now, we were also told by the Rotarians that rarely, if ever does a student get their first choice. "Be prepared, my future ambassadors, you will most likely get your third choice at best." So, I thought I was really smart by putting Argentina third. I remember really struggling with that form more than any other, more than any essay or explanation as to why I would be a fine future diplomat. I've never been a good gambler, and sadly I cannot say I've ever been a diplomat.

So when I was given my first choice, I was secretly disappointed with Australia. Now living down under is a whole book of stories, but I confess, I haven't yet let go of my desire to go to Argentina. I have sat through slide shows of couples returning from their honeymoon in Patagonia, my boss went on a wine trip--showing me photos of carne and kilometers of endless vines and my husband has travelled to ski to this country twice. One of my favorite poems which hangs by my desk is titled, "In the Argentina of my Mind." Yet, my passport doesn't carry any stamps yet to be filled with Baraloche or Buenes Aires. Not yet. For now, I do what most newly married wives do in a recession. They cook to go places. And so, I have found a way to make Chimichurri that I'd like to think even an Argentine would yearn to eat. As with most recipes I deconstruct, it is originally from Bon Appetit, but I changed a key ingredient: mint. Buen Provecho

Chimichurri de las Pampas de Montana

2 tablespoons of olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 bay leaf, fresh and chopped
1/2 cup shallots
1/4 cup or more freshly chopped mint
1/3 cup of Kalamata olives
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar or pomegranate vinegar
2 tablespoons of water
salt and pepper to taste

Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. And garlic, red pepper, a bay leaf. Stir for one minute. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Remove from heat: stir in mint, olives, and vinegar. Add one tablespoon of water. Add more water by teaspoons to thin as needed. Salt and pepper to taste.

This of course is meant to be served over a steak, some sort of carne. I found out that Chimichurri was not actually first made by an Argentine, but an Irishman in Argentina. I think it would be excellent over grilled chicken or even perhaps a whitefish of sorts. Regardless of your choice of meat or fowl, this certainly brightened my grey February and started me thinking of a plan to travel yet again to Argentina. This time not solo.

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