We recently attended my brother-in-law’s wedding; a four day affair full of family, friendship, frolics and feasting (I am still trying to recover, but, oh so worth it). The newlyweds wanted it to be low key and of sufficient duration that everyone was able to relax and catch up with each other. As is often the unfortunate consequence of our busy lives many of us had not see each other all together, since well the last wedding, and it dawned on us that we needed to remedy this problem soon as we had just run out of siblings to marry off. That incredible weekend allowed me to explore a new (to me) part of California- Amador County wine country, and sample the goodness of Argentine cooking. I learned:
- dulce de leche, like bacon makes food just taste better
- Argentines can make a mean version of a white sangria (clerico) that goes down entirely too easily
- Argentines are incredible dancers, and they are serious about their yoga too
- Argentines know their way around fire, and their BBQs can make you weak in the knees.
- Chimichurri sauce is my new catcup – that stuff goes good with EVERYTHING!
The bride’s father wanted the last community meal to be a special send off for the bride and groom. He was taking no chances and hired a professional, an asador or parrillero (the cook). Javier Sandes fit the bill, and he has the equivalent of a taco truck selling slow grilled Argentine asado in Emeryville, California (just across the Bay from San Francisco). Let me tell you, it was a great opportunity to watch a master practice his craft. He’s much loved by the local community and has a Twitter following at @VamosPrimos.
Javier started off the evening with Argentine chorizo between two slices of wonderfully crusty Acme sweet bread. At the same time he cooked up the chorizo he also grilled an assortment of green and red peppers, portobello mushrooms and the real treat pineapple which really complimented the chorizo.
For the main course he prepared chicken, tri-tip (beef) and bison. As my four year old niece would say, “Oh la la“! All the meats were served with a delicious chimichurri sauce that seemed to be “meat agnostic”, it didn’t matter what you put it on, it tasted delicious!
For the chicken he simply seasoned it with lemon juice and salt, and it came out amazingly tender. I do not think he applied anything to the beef or bison except salt, and that’s traditional – no marinating and no rubs. Its all about the meat.
More about that Argentine BBQ, the asado
While the focus here is Argentia, asado is also found in Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Southern Brazil. Asado is a South American technique for cooking meat, usually beef (no surprise there) along with other meats on a parrilla (a cast iron grate over hot coals) or other grilling tools, or even an open fire. Asado is the traditional dish of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and southern Brazil, and while I bet they are all delicious, each country has their own twist on asados – the focus here is on the Argentine version.
The first rule of asados are that they cannot be rushed. I estimate Javier took about two hours to get the coals to the required temperature before he even thought about plonking that first piece of meat on the asado. Patience is definitely the primary ingredient in all this cooking, and like that vinegar in the Filipino adobo, you don’t want to make it “angry” – do not poke, prod or turn this meat.
The meats need the time to build up a crust to retain all that delicious juice and flavors. The sugars and the proteins in the meat need to work their magic with the heat and they can only do this undisturbed so that subsequent crunchy crust has all the flavor and texture that is a signature component to this barbecue. Contrary, or perhaps a bit counterintuitive, this crust helps the meat retain its moisture. It may look dry on the outside but trust me, its incredibly tasty and juicy on the inside, but only if the meat is left to its own devises. I saw a timeline for an asado, and with cooking starting at 9:00, the first meal was not served until 2:00 pm.
Tools and techniques of the trade:
parrilla: cast iron grate over hot coals
chapa: a flat piece of cast iron set over a fire. A good substitute would be a cast iron skillet set on a barbecue. According to Francis Mallmann in his wonderful book, The Ways of Fire, chapa translates into a “piece of metal” but also refers to cooking done on a flat cast iron surface.
infiernillo: “small inferno” or “little hell” two fires with a cooking area between them. This technique is commonly used when cooking for larger groups of people.
horo de barro: wood oven These primitive ovens are a common on Argentine estancias, where they are primary used to bake bread, but they are well suited for roasting meat. Pork suckling and sometimes, lamb are served, as they are more unlikely to get dry. Though not technically a grill, it is a very traditional way of cooking that still requires the great skills of an asador. Moreover, the smoky flavor the ovens impart add to their appeal.
rescoldo: cooking food in hot embers and warm ashes. Potatoes can often be cooked this way as with pumpkins, corn cobs (with their husks), bell peppers, even eggs and shell fish. Note that the eggs referenced were ostrich. The thought with this cooking technique is that like other resources a fire should not be wasted and the embers still have value and should be used.
asador: a very dramatic method for cooking whole animals such as pigs, lambs or goats. The animal is butterflied and fastened with wires or hooks to an iron cross.
There is an old Argentine proverb which says: Todo bicho que camina va a paral al asado – Every beast that walks ends up roasting on the iron cross.
caldero: Think caldron, a large iron pot. A Dutch oven would be an acceptable substitute.
Cast iron is king for this cooking because if its superior ability to evenly distribute heat. The other key component for an Argentine barbecue is fuel. Here wood is king.
You may have picked up on the fact that an Argentine asado does not involve one meat – its an entire assortment. You can expect to find some combination of the following on your plate:
chorizo – typically served early as an appetizer, followed by black pudding, chitterlings, and sweetbreads.
Other typical meats, and tasty tidbits you might find include various cuts of beef vacío (flank steak), pork, ribs (asado de tira), chitterlings (chinchulines), sweetbread (mollejas), black pudding (morcillas), other offal (achuras), and a selection of sausages and chicken, baby goat (chivito), and lamb.
In The Ways of Fire book, Frances Mallmann talks of the importance of selecting the right type of meat. He says you can use about any cut, but his preference is rib eye and make sure its well aged and grass fed (mais bien sur) and nicely marbled. He likes that cut for its tenderness and taste.
Along side the grilled meats you can expect to find include:
- Provoleta, a grilled cheese dish
- Lettuce, tomato, onion salad
- Verdurajo (grilled vegetables)
The meat is expected to be served immediately, topped with a chimchurri sauce of vinegar, olive oil, dried herbs and spices.
Salsa criolla (sauce of tomato and onion in vinegar) might also be found but more commonly used on the offal, and not the steaks.
This recipe is from The Seven Fires cookbook by Frances Mallmann The traditional chimichurri sauce uses dried herbs as the gauchos (cowboys) would not have ready access to the fresh herbs.
Makes about 2 cups
For the Salmuera
1 c water
1 T coarse salt
1 head of garlic, separated into clove and peeled
1 c packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 fresh oregano leaves
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
¼ c red wine vinegar
½ c extra virgin olive oil
To make the salmuera, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Mince the garlic very fine, and pour in a medium bowl. Whisk the parsley and oregano and add to the garlic, along with the red pepper flakes. Whisk in the red wine vinegar and then the olive oil. Whisk in the salmuera. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep in the refrigerator. Chimichurri is best prepared at least one day in advance, so that the flavors have a chance to blend. The chimichurri can be kept refrigerated for up to 2 to 3 weeks.
Clerico – Argentine White Sangria
I have no proportions for this recipe, but it’s very simple. I know you will be disappointed, but I think frequent sampling on the part of the cook is required to get this one just right.
The woman making this drink used an un-oaked Chardonnay, but she said its not mandatory that this variety be used. She sweetened it with sugar, but honey, agave syrup or anything other sweetener might be added. Unlike the Spanish style sangria, no spirits (brandy, triple sec) were added, nor were any spices. But I couldn’t help but think some fresh herbs such as mint might be nice (but that would be veering from the traditional). She said the secret was to use the freshest fruits. In our case, the fruit included strawberries, blueberries, and peaches. She mentioned she has also added kiwi and banana, but she did not think pineapple would be a good addition. This is a great recipe to put together a few hours ahead of time as the flavors from the fruits and wine all have to mix. It also leads to much merriment in the kitchen. This, my friends, is the perfect drink for summer picnics.