29. Feb, 2016

In praise of Asado

“Men love to barbecue. Men will cook, if danger is involved.” – Rita Rudner.

On Valentine’s Day I fired up my braai with hardwood charcoal and treated my better half to a proper Asado de Tira and a bottle of Argentine Malbec. This brought back fond memories of the “most American city in Europe”: Buenos Aires. Let’s be clear on this – even the most chauvinistic Afrikaner has to admit that Argentinians know a thing or two about braaiing meat!

Asado is a Spanish term for cooking meat over glowing coals, and is mostly used in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. North of the La Plata Estuary, the fire is made with hard wood, while in Argentina charcoal is preferred. In these countries, an asado will involve lots of meat, and often offal. The asado is the most popular social gathering in Argentina and no weekend is truly complete without it. It's a celebration of seared meat and fire, filled with good times and liberally doused with Malbec (great!) and Fernet Branca and Coke (revolting!).

Traditionally the vast grassy plains (la pampa) which extend outwards for hundreds of miles from Buenos Aires have gifted the surrounding communities with an impressive abundance of top quality beef. The cows and horses that thrived on these very plains gave birth to the gaucho culture where the open fire was the only cooking option and meat the only dependable source of food. These days there are still way more cows than people in Argentina, and not only is the beef plentiful, it's absolutely delicious.

What makes Argentine beef so good? Perhaps it's the cattle grazing on the flat pampas – lazy, well-fed cows that have never been near a feedlot are bound to taste great. Or maybe it’s the butchers, who take pride in their mastery of bovine flesh and provide a seemingly endless list of cuts, sausages, and previously dangly bits. Or it might be the secret of spicing (i.e. no spice at all, just lots of coarse barbecue salt).A major factor is undoubtedly the slow cooking which allows the fats to cook through the meat, leaving it leaner and tastier. Here is how a skilled Asador does it:

  • The coals are spread out under the sides of the parilla (grill) in a rectangular shape, with none in the middle, creating a gentle, even heat from all sides.
  • A fire is kept going on the side to ensure that there will be enough coals for at least an hour. This is important, for slow cooking is key. The temperature is right when one hears a gentle but constant sizzling.
  • The meat is cooked bone-side down/fat up, for most of the time, which can be around 45 minutes in total. It should never be cut, and turned only once.

The meats are usually accompanied by red wine, a green salad and provoleta: rounds of provolone cheese with herbs and pepper served in tin foil plates ready for tossing onto grill. Some of the popular meats and cuts one is likely to encounter at an asado (or in an authentic grill house) are:

  • Bife de lomo (beef tenderloin/fillet). This is the most expensive cut as it is tender and juicy. However, the flavour is not particularly thrilling. As the Argentine saying goes: “Bife de lomo is like a beautiful model: nice to look at, but nothing under the surface.”
  • Bife de chorizo (thick-cut beef sirloin) is the iconic steak of Argentina and Uruguay. It is everything a steak should be: big; juicy; with some tasty exterior fat; literally dripping with flavor. Watch out for “specials”, though; cheap cuts of bife de chorizo are usually extremely fatty.
  • Asado de tira (beef short ribs). Watch the locals in a steak house, and you’ll notice how many of them order short ribs. The reason for its popularity is, as my dad likes to say, “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” They have a rich, meaty flavour and are usually deliciously crisp on the outside and medium on the inside. For a combination of taste and value, they are unbeatable.
  •  Entraña (beef skirt steak) is a good option for your third night of carne in a row, when you don’t think you’d be able to get through a full-size asado or bife de chorizo. It is another favourite among Argentineans, and while it is a thin cut of meat, it is packed with flavour.
  • Vacío (beef flank steak) is an interesting cut, and not one that’s often served outside of Argentina and Uruguay. It’s a thin cut of meat from the flank of the animal that’s characterized by a layer of fat on the outside but none on the inside. If cooked properly the exterior fat gets crisp and the inside beautifully tender and juicy.
  • Pollo a la Parilla (barbecued chicken). A good asado will include barbecued chicken, as some people can’t eat red meat for health reasons and others just prefer chicken over red meat. The chicken can be prepared whole, halved or quartered, but the preferred method is to cook the chicken a la rana (spatchcocked).
  • Chivito and Cabrito are both grilled meat from a kid goat eaten as part of an asado. A Chivito differs from a cabrito in that chivito is a slightly older animal with slightly less tender flesh. To be called cabrito, the kid must still be suckling. Chivito is preferred to lamb in the northern and central parts of Argentina. I initially thought I was eating the latter; it has none of the gamey taste and stringy texture of an adult goat. It can be cooked a la parrilla (grilled on a grid) or a la cruz - set vertically on a cross which is nailed to the ground near the fire, giving it a special flavour.
  • Lechoncito (suckling piglet) is a special treat. It is either roasted whole in a large oven, or (my favourite) slowly barbecued a la cruz. Without doubt the best single meat dish I have ever had was a succulent lechoncito I shared with my bosom buddy Chris Marlin at the Tristan Barazza in Mendoza. The crackling was exquisite, and the meat melted in one’s mouth.
  • Morcilla (blood sausage/black pudding). People either love or hate morcilla; which is a blood sausage, similar to what is known as black pudding in the UK. I find the South American version much tastier, and can honestly recommend it to all meat lovers. The besic ingredients are pig’s blood and coarsely-ground pork or offal. Each butcher seems to have a secret recipe, but most contain some of the following: salt, pepper, garlic, onion, paprika, rice, breadcrumbs, and nuts. The mixture is encased in regular sausage casings and pre-cooked before being sold. They are thus not cooked on the parrilla; just heated.
  • Chorizo (spicy pork sausages) are commonly served as entrees – slices are served on toasted mini-baguettes and basted with chimichurri sauce. This treat is known as choripan. 
  • Mollejas (calves’ sweetbreads) are delicious when cooked until crispy on a hot fire with plenty of lemon.

No proper asado is complete without the ubiquitous Argentine condiment: chimichurri, a piquant green sauce used on just about all grilled meat. It is made of finely-chopped parsley, minced garlic, oregano, sunflower oil and white wine vinegar. Some as Adores add chilli flakes for background heat; something I do as well. It can also be used as a marinade for grilled meat. Chimichurri is available bottled or dehydrated. The latter is mixed with oil and water to obtain an instant sauce, which is useful in an emergency but not as tasty as the fresh version. The name of the sauce is derived from a Basque word loosely translated as "a mixture of several things in no particular order".

For those who have never experienced an asado nor eaten at an Argentinean steakhouse it may come as a surprise to see the enormous cuts of meats laid upon the grill. The cuts of meat used are mostly very large, and hardly trimmed of the surrounding fat. Don’t panic: the meats will come out juicy and bursting with flavour. If you like dainty portions, you will struggle – the term “Ladies’ Portion” hasn’t made it to Argentina yet. Their “Small” steaks would easily pass for “Man Sized” in South Africa, and a one Argentine “Man Sized” steak could feed a hungry South African family of four!

Any decent piece of writing in praise of Argentine asado needs to touch on its symbiotic relationship with Argentina’s flagship cultivar wine, Malbec. The best place to experience this magical combination is probably on a wine estate in the Mendoza area. Imagine being out among the vines as the first  meat hitting the grill sends a plume of smoky welcome into the crisp Andean air. When the food is ready, this bold, aromatic and savoury variety comes into its own in tandem with the succulent meat cooked gaucho-style over a fire of vine cuttings.

Malbec is an ancient variety which has been used in Bordeaux blends for centuries, but was never highly regarded in its own right in Europe. It took the terroir of central-western Argentina to unleash its full potential. At more than 1,000 metres high, the vineyards here provide the Malbec grapes with a long growing season with hot days, cold nights and winds from the Andes causing great temperature variation, all contributing to wines with intense aromas. The chalky soil and low rainfall (which allows vintners to control water intake exactly via controlled irrigation) complete the puzzle. The final word belongs to an old waiter who served us in the self-same Mendoza one freezing August night: “Malbec is like pizza or sex – even when it’s not the best it’s still enjoyable.”

“Barbecue may not be the way to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Anthony Bourdain.