Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Machas a la parmesana

Machas a la parmesana, (surf clams au gratin) one of the classics of Chilean cuisine, was created 50 years ago in Viña del Mar by an Italian immigrant, Edoardo Melotti Ferrari, at left with his Spaghetti Tutto di Mare.

Don Edoardo says:
Machas a la parmesana don’t exist in Italy, and in Chile there is no reference to them before the 50s! I made other au gratin dishes, and had parmigiano to put on pasta, and from this, one day it occurred to me to try it with machas. I tested it around four times and then added them to the menu.[1]

Felicidades a Don Edorado! Cheese with seafood is a definite no-no in traditional Italian cooking: it overpowers the taste of the seafood; it is not done, “Not in our culture. No. Never.”[2] But expatriates and immigrants are different; we break with tradition, speak (more or less) foreign languages, live where summer is winter, marry exotic Chilenas, and put cheese on our seafood. So Don Edorado’s dish became a Chilean classic: delicious and served everywhere, including his Ristorante San Marco, where 200 kg. of machas a week are served a la parmesana.

Machas (Mesodesma donacium), surf clams, have, of course, been part of Amerindian cuisine forever: Archaeologists refer to the “Machas Phase,” 10,600 to 8,000 BP (years before present) of southern coastal Peru, based their frequency in coastal middens of that period.[3]

They inhabit sandy beaches from northern Peru to Chiloe Island in south-cental Chile, in the surf to depths of about 5 meters. Historically they were harvested by wading “orilleros” (shoreliners) who were limited to depths of 1.5 m (5 feet) or so, but starting in the 1970s “hookah” divers breathing through air lines began to harvest the clam beds working from boats just outside the surf line. By 1989 the Chilean harvest was over 17,000 metric tons, but three years later it had fallen to about 11,000 tons and by 2000 to only 1,250 tons. While over-exploitation by divers is partly responsible, El Niño events—warming of surface waters along the South American Pacific coast—seem to be more significant in the “boom and bust fishery” of machas.[4] (Machas are not threatened [5] and I found no suggestions that we should avoid eating them.)

A good thing, because they are really good, and although I assume that they are much more expensive than in the past, they are currently available in supermarkets and the local ferias at 1500 to 2000 CLP/kg. ($1.30-1.70/lb), or precooked and frozen at about $20 a lb. Fresh is better, and you get the shells (30-35 to the kg.).

So, how does one go from live clams to machas a la parmesana? They should be refrigerated until ready to use, and then opened with a small sturdy knife. Inside is the muscular “tongue” (anatomically the “foot” used to dig through the sand) and the body. All is eatable, but only the tongue is used for this dish, so strip away the rest with your fingers and discard (or save for broth). Wash away any sand, pound the tongue gently with a knife handle to relax the muscle, and squeeze out any black substance at the base.

The result will look like this:

Don Edoardo’s original recipe returned the tongues to the half shell, added a dollop of butter and a spoon of grated parmesan, baked them in a hot oven for a few minutes and served them with wedges of lemon.

Today’s variations include:
  • Adding a little lemon juice or white wine before baking
  • Adding cream
  • Using other cheese—usually Chilean queso mantecoso
  •  Adding a sliver of garlic (un-Chilean, but like Don Edoardo, I’m an immigrant and don’t always follow the rules.)

When cooked, the tongues turn pink--hence “pink clams” as they are sometimes marketed to English speakers.
As good as machas a la parmesana are, machas are versatile and can be prepared like other shellfish. For Spaghetti Tutto di Mare, in the photo with Don Edorado, they are combined with tuna, mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, and locos (Chilean abalone) and a light buttery marinara sauce, served over pasta and, of course, topped with grated parmesan (and cilantro). They are also served in classic Chilean style with salsa verde (onion, parsley, lemon juice and oil) or mayonnaise, in fried empanadas, in soups with milk or beer, with pesto, and even in Bloody Marys.

[1] Fredes, César. Almorzando con el padre de las machas a la parmesana. La Nación Magazine, Jan. 18, 2009. http://www.lanacion.cl/prontus_noticias_v2/site/artic/20090117/pags/20090117192601.htm
[2] Trachtenberg, Robert. Just Grate. Food: The Way We Eat. New York times Magazine, March 30, 2008
[3] Sandweiss, D.H., 2008. Early Fishing Societies in Western South America, Handbook of South American Archaeology, Helaine Silverman and William Isbell, eds. New York: Springer Science. p. 150.
[4] Perez E, Eduardo P Y Chavez V, Javier E. Modelaje Del Comportamiento Dinámico A Corto Plazo De La Pesquería Del Bivalvo Mesodesma Donacium En El Norte De Chile Usando Hipótesis De Capturabilidad Estática Y Dinámica. INCI. [online]. abr. 2004, vol.29, no.4 [citado 12 Junio 2009], p.193-198. on line at <http://www.scielo.org.ve/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0378-18442004000400006&lng=es&nrm=iso>;
Illanes Bücher, Juan Enrique. 2002 Acuicultura Para La Recuperacion Del Recurso Macha Mesodesma Donacium (Lamarck, 1818) En Areas De Manejo De Comunidades Artesanales. on line at http://ri.conicyt.cl/575/article-11007.html; and
Thiel, Martin et al 2007. The Humboldt Current System of Northern And Central Chile Oceanographic Processes, Ecological Interactions and Socioeconomic Feedback in Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review ,2007, 45:195-344 © R. N. Gibson, R. J. A. Atkinson, and J. D. M. Gordon, Editors. Taylor & Francis on line at

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Eating Chilean membrillos (quince)

In late summer, this nondescript bush in my wife’s garden was full of hard yellow fruit with cottony fluff on the outside and a heavenly smell.  “Membrillos” was the answer to my obvious question; “you have to cook them in water before you can eat them.”    
So I did. I washed off the fluff, peeled them with a vegetable peeler, and cut one in half with a heavy French cook’s knife—necessary because they are hard, like winter squash.  Inside was an apple-like core, but my paring knife was inadequate for the task, and for the rest I ended up cutting off the flesh, leaving the square core behind. (Some recipes suggest a sturdy melon baller for coring them.)
I added sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves and a little water—just like apple sauce—and simmered them. 

And they turned red!

The sauce was great; tart and much more flavorful than apple sauce, and although my wife liked it too, she was surprised.  She was expecting light colored sliced fruit in syrup, which is what you get when they are cooked with sugar in a large quantity of water.
As it turns out, what I had done was prepare the first steps in making quince paste, called “dulce de membrillo” here in Chile and “ate” (ah-tay) in Mexico, where I had eaten it before.  To make the final product (see recipe), one must strain or blend  the sauce, add more sugar and cook until very thick, another hour or more, and then bake in a low over for another hour or so to dry and firm even more.  Next year I’ll try it—although the commercial variety is very good, widely available, and not especially expensive here in Chile. And it’s great served with a sharp cheese for desert.

Quinces (Cydonia oblongata or C. vulgaris or sometimes Pyrus cydonia), I learned, are an old world fruit, native to the Caucasis, but cultivated widely from India to New Zealand to the east and throughout Europe and Latin America to the west.[1]  They were popular in the United States in the early 18th century, but fell from favor as apples spread across the continent.  In Latin America, they are wide spread and popular, especially as dulce de membrillo, the paste as a filling for empanadas, as  jelly, and as preserved fruit.  Here in Chile they are cultivated throughout the north and central part of the country, especially in the metropolitan region (Santiago), Region VI (Rancagua) and Region VII (Talca) and are in the markets from February through May where they sell for 200 to 300 CLP per kilo ($.20-.30/lb.) [2]  They are yellow and very fragrant when fully ripe.
Recipes for quinces come from around the world, but especially from the Mediterranean and Middle East and are are widely available on the internet;  Simply Recipes has a dozen or so and Historic Food has some interesting recipes from the 18th century. Or just follow my instructions above, for a simple quince sauce.

[1] Quince at a Glance, Vegetarians in paradise on line at http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch51.html 
[2] Kania, Erica. 1999. El Cultivo Del Membrillo En Chile on line at http://agronomia.uchile.cl/webcursos/cmd/11999/erikukan/index.htm

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Charquicán, tomaticán and other “—cáns”

Haga click para español

Such tasty charquicán!
With beans and corn
parsley and oregano
tempting to the least sweet toothed.
And at the height of happiness
onion, pickled chili,
and, instead of sociable wine
a bottle of cider.[1]

Not infrequently, these posts start when my wife, “mas chilena que los porotos” (more Chilean than beans), wants a dish from her childhood. This time it was charquicán (char-key-kán). As the household cook (since I’m retired and she has a real job), I hit the cookbooks and the internet, and came up with something pretty close to her family dish: ground beef hash with potatoes, onion, squash, tomatoes, and corn, and an egg on top.

And that, evidently, is pretty much what 21st century charquicán is all about. But, of course, it has history—a long history.

The name comes from two indigenous American languages, the Quecuha "charqui" (“dry meat,” also the origin of the English “jerky”) and from the Mapuche "cancan" (or kaήkan, “roast”). And, since charqui has been adopted into Chilean Spanish, the origin of the name seems to be Chilean, probably Mapuche, from the colonial era.[2]
As in other areas of the Americas (Argentina, Uruguay, California, and the North American south west) cattle introduced by the Spanish in the early colonial period prospered:
…the ten cattle that Don Francisco de Alvarado imported in 1548 multiplied so rapidly that… there were no hacienda owners in the colony who did not have “some six, some eight, some ten and some twelve thousand and more cows.” [3]
Charqui chilenlo

Cattle were so plentiful that:
…in the first years of the eighteenth century they were worth no more that 2 to 4 pesos and very often they were killed to take the tallow and the hide; the rest was thrown out as almost useless, or else they cut the defatted meat in thin strips, and sold the sun dried strips under the name charqui. This entirely indigenous method of conserving meat, characteristic of dry and burning climates, has since spread, developed greatly, and has become one of the most fruitful industries of the country.[4]
Thus, by the eighteenth century, charqui was one of the basics of Chilean diet, along with flour, “beans with salt and ají, or dry chili.”[5]
But when carquicán became popular is unclear. The earliest references I’ve found come from the independence period when in 1817, South American liberator, General José de San Martín supplied a variety of charquicán to his soldiers on their way across the Andes from Argentina to attack the Spanish forces in Santiago:
Needing a nutritious and healthy preserved food which would serve to restore the strength of soldiers and be adequate to the frigid temperatures that they had to endure, it was found in a popular preparation called charquicán, composed of sun-dried meat, toasted and ground, and seasoned with grease and hot chili. When well compacted, a week’s ration can be transported in backpacks or suitcases, and with only the addition of hot water and toasted maize meal, it provides a dish as nutritious as it is pleasant. [6]
Just how pleasant may be a matter of taste, but the home-cooked variety found favor with the Englishwoman Maria Graham (later Lady Maria Callcott), widow of an English Naval officer who found herself in Valparaiso in 1822:
…a large dish of charqui-can was placed before us. It consists of fresh beef very much boiled, with pieces of charqui or dried beef, slices of dried tongue, and pumkin, cabbage, potatoes, and other vegetables, in the same dish. Our hostess immediately began eating from the dish with her fingers, and invited us to do the same; but one of her daughters brought us each a plate and fork, saying she knew that such was our custom. However, the old lady persisted in putting delicate pieces on our plates with her thumb and finger. The dish was good, and well cooked. [7]
By the late 19th century, charquicán had become a national institution, immortalized in popular poetry and song[8].
So… a recipe? The Nuevo Manual de Cocina (New Cook Book) of 1882 provides the following:
Charquicán from fresh meat or jerky: Roast a piece of beef roast or loin and when it is done, pound it and shred it well; boil squash, green beans, peas, potatoes; then fry this [the vegetables] in “color” [fat colored with chili] with onion and corn cut from the cob; add the meat to this and fry for a moment, then add the necessary water and allow go boil. If it is jerky, wash it and toast it, pound it and for the rest, continue as with the meat. [9]
Most of today’s recipies don’t use jerky, finding the flavor too strong, and ground beef is a reasonable alternative to leftover roast, but otherwise the recipe is not too far from mine, compiled from a variety of sources and my wife’s suggestions:
But charquicán is not all: there are other “ –cans
….common among the Quechuas and Mapuches, like tomaticán; corn cut from the cob, chopped tomatoes, fried meat, chopped onion, and chili; charquicán, minced vegetables, kernels of corn, ground or shredded jerky, served with a sprinkle of parsley and accompanied with a beef rib or, if you wish, a pickled onion, luchicán with luche [laver, seaweed] and fried onion; sangricán, blood with potatoes and fried onion; and chercán, based on toasted wheat flour.[10]

While I haven’t tried luchicán or cherán, and doubt that I will be called on to make sangricán, I did have a request for tomaticán, below.
While the family tomaticán is made from beef, and is topped with hard boiled egg and parsley, the recipe in the Atlantic Online (Aug. 18, 1999) review of Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez book The Chilean Kitchen, is pretty close to the dish above. Try it.

[1] El Padre Padilla, Feb. 11, 1886, quoted in Palma Alvarado, Daniel. De apititos y cañas, El consumo de alimentos y bebidas en Santiago al fines del siglo XIX. Historia No. 37, Vol II, July-December, 2004: 391-417 in line at http://www.scielo.cl/pdf/historia/v37n2/art05.pdf (all translations are mine)
[2] Etimología de Charquicán, Etimologias de Chile on line at http://etimologias.dechile.net/?charquica.n
[3] Vergara, Luis Correa. 1938 Agricultura Chilena, Vol. II p. 145. Santiago: Imprenta Nascimento on line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0027745
[4] Gay, Claudia 1862 Agricultura Vol 1, p. 20. Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago online at http://www.memoriachilena.cl//temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0002687
[5] Archivo Nacional, Archivo Vidal Gormaz, Vol. 14. Papeles de Felipe
Rauzá, as quoted in Pereira Salas, Eugenio. 1977 (1943) Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena. P. 60. Santiago : Universitaria
[6] Mitre, Bartolomé. 1887. Historia del Libertador José de San Martín y de la Emancipación de América on line at http://www.asociacioncondor.com.ar/sanmartin/elhombre-invenciones.php. (And on the well researched blog La Tinta de Mi Lapis: Charquicán, by Javiera González on line a http://latintademilapiz.blogspot.com/2008/03/charquican.html)
[7] Graham, Maria (later Callcott, Maria, Lady) 1824. Journal of a residence in Chile, during the year 1822. And a voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823. p. 160. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, And Green on line at http://www.archive.org/details/journalofresiden01call
[8] Letras de canciones, Repertorio Del Grupo Chile De Aches, Asociación de Chilenos en España, on line at http://www.geocities.com/cantolindo/grupochile.html (also discovered in the blog La Tinta de Mi Lapis: Charquicán, by Javiera González on line a http://latintademilapiz.blogspot.com/2008/03/charquican.html)
[9] Manual de Cocina. 1882. Valparaiso: Libereria del Mercuruo de Oresrtes L.Tornero. p. 45. on line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl//temas/documento_detalle.asp?id=MC0003181
[10] Plath, Oreste. 1962. Geografía gastronómica de Chile, En viaje / Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado. Santiago : La Empresa, 1933-1973. v., año XXIX, n° 343, (mayo 1962), p. 181–184. On line at http://www.memoriachilena.cl/archivos2/pdfs/MC0023119.pdf