Bringing Home the Mighty Asado
No meal is more interwoven into the South American way of life than the grill fest known as the asado.
It is the start of the weekend in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, South America’s three leading wine-producing countries, and this means one thing from a culinary perspective: it’s time to start preparing the asado, code for an hours-long bacchanal headlined by myriad grilled meats and aided by the likes of clay-oven baked empanadas, bowls full of salads, fresh local vegetables and countless bottles of wine.
Having had the opportunity to visit South America on many occasions to report on this part of the world’s wine industry, I can attest to the fact that the asado, which is based on the Spanish word asador (cooking of a whole animal; also the person who does the roasting), is a big part of life itself there. On any given Sunday families and friends gather in parks, backyards and pretty much any place they can build a fire and set up a grill to partake in the divine blend of gluttony and human interaction that is the asado. Let it be said that the asado is no dietetic exercise, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend getting your cholesterol tested the morning after. But there’s no denying the satisfaction that comes from indulging in huge amounts of perfectly grilled grass-fed steaks, sizzling sausages, succulent ribs or maybe even a spit-roasted whole baby lamb or goat accompanied by side dishes and local wines ranging from white varieties like Sauvignon Blanc or Torrontés to reds including Pinot Noir, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Call it South America’s version of the picnic, or even a down-home barbecue, but under no circumstances should one ever call it a light and simple meal. For in South America, the asado is paramount, and the volume of what goes down the hatch is potentially mind-boggling.
The home asado
In asado-addicted countries like Argentina and Chile, many homes, public parks and wineries are equipped with clay ovens (hornos de barra) for baking empanadas, casseroles and vegetables, while open fire pits called fogóns are also ubiquitous. In the United States we don’t have the same ingrained outdoor cooking mentality, nor the accessories, fire pits and readily available hardwoods that fuel the asado. But that doesn’t mean one can’t replicate the South American asado by using one’s kitchen and a makeshift fire pit or large grill.
To get your asado going, a trip the butcher or meat department of your local supermarket is stop one. In South America, an asado will usually be based around the grilling and serving of sausages, some chicken parts, and several cuts of beef, ranging from the skirt steak (called entraña) to the ribs to some prime cuts, highlighted by the rib eye (ojo de bife), for which cooking instructions follow. Generally speaking, asado attendees start nibbling slowly before hitting the prime cuts with gusto. Meanwhile, the cooking is always spread over several hours to allow everyone to imbibe, chat and relax.
Accompanying the meats are numerous salads and vegetable dishes. Most often, dessert is limited to some fresh fruits such as grapes, apples, pears, melons and berries. To get proper guidance on how to do your own South American styled asado, we turned to Seven Fires, an excellent new book by world-renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who owns restaurants in Buenos Aires and Mendoza, Argentina, as well as in Punta del Este,Uruguay. Following are recipes for the perfect rib eye steak, chimichurri, which Argentines use to dress their meats, sausages, potatoes and empanadas, and a pair of hardy vegetable dishes.
Granted, you may not be cooking for four generations of family, and this being the United States and not South America you may not be seeking to feed an army. But by adhering to Mallmann’s recipes you should be able to build the foundation for a truly delicious and authentic asado. And to that we raise a glass of Argentinean Malbec and say, salud y buen provecho!
The following recipe s were excerpted (and slightly adapted) from Seven Fires by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books). Copyright 2009.
The Perfect Steak
(preferably a grass-fed, aged rib eye)
About an hour (or maybe a little more) before you plan to serve the meat, start a wood fire off to the side of the grill. A hardwood such as oak, maple, hickory or birch will work best, while a wide grate that allows for the coals to drop down is ideal. Charcoal briquettes are also a viable option, though not as authentic or flavor-imparting as natural hardwood coals.
As your coals are in the works, allow your steak to warm to room temperature, then liberally salt the exterior to taste. When you have a nice two-inch-thick bed of coals, place the grill roughly four inches above the coals, and when you have a layer of white ash covering the coals you are ready to begin cooking. But first check the temperature of your fire by placing your hands at the level that the meat will cook. You should only be able to hold your hands above the coals for about two to three seconds, which indicates that you have a hot bed of coals that are ready. Keep a spray bottle filled with water handy to douse any flare ups.
Before placing the steak on the grill, grease the grill using a piece of meat fat or a paper towel moistened with olive oil. Next place the meat on the grill and listen for a nice sizzle. Then do not touch or move the steak for five minutes, at which point you should gently lift an edge with tongs to check for sear marks. Then rotate the meat 90 degrees to create a crosshatch pattern and to prevent burning. After four more minutes, turn the steak over and cook for another seven minutes, or until it’s medium-rare. As before, check after five minutes and rotate to prevent burning. Transfer to a platter and let rest for three minutes. Slice or serve whole, with chimichurri.
Chimichurri, a classic Argentine dressing for meats, chicken and sausages, changes from town to town and chef to chef, but it’s traditionally based on a combination of olive oil, parsley, oregano and spices.
1 cup water
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 cup fresh oregano leaves
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Start by making a salmuera by bringing the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow the salmuera to cool.
Meanwhile, mince garlic as finely as possible and place in a medium bowl. Mince parsley and oregano leaves and add to the garlic along with red pepper flakes. Whisk in the red wine vinegar and then the olive oil. Whisk in the salmuera before transferring to a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Refrigerate. (The best chimichurri is prepared at least a day in advance so that the flavors can blend; chimichurri can last up to 3 weeks if properly sealed and refrigerated.) Makes about 2 cups.
Burnt Carrots with Goat Cheese, Parsley, Arugula and Crispy Garlic Chips
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1⁄2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
8 medium carrots, peeled
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
2 bunches arugula, trimmed, washed and dried
6 ounces goat cheese, sliced into 1⁄2 -inch thick rounds
For garlic chips:
8 large garlic cloves
11⁄2 to 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
To make garlic chips: Use a small slicer or mandoline to cut the garlic into very thin chips. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet over mediumhigh heat until very hot; meanwhile, line a plate with paper towels. To test the oil temperature, add a slice of garlic. If it sizzles, add the remaining garlic slices and cook until crisp and lightly golden brown, a matter of only a few seconds. Use a flat, slotted skimmer or spatula to keep the slices from sticking together as they cook and transfer garlic to paper towels to drain. You can do this all at once if your pan is large enough, or in batches.
To make vinaigrette and carrots: Pour red wine vinegar into a small bowl and whisk in 5 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season to taste with salt and fresh black pepper. Set aside.
Cut the carrots crosswise in half, then cut the halves into thick, rough sticks. Toss in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, thyme and salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat and, working in batches if necessary, add the carrots in a single layer and cook, without turning, until they are charred on the bottom and almost burnt, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn with a spatula and cook on the other side for 2 to 3 minutes more, adjusting the heat as necessary, until the carrots are crunchy on the outside but tender within. Transfer carrots to a tray.
Meanwhile, on a large platter combine the parsley and arugula, and toss lightly with half the vinaigrette. Place the carrots on top. Reheat the skillet to high heat and coat with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Immediately add the goat cheese slices— be careful, as the oil may spatter. As soon as the cheese rounds blacken on the bottom, remove with a thin spatula and invert onto carrots. Toss the garlic chips over the carrots and greens, then drizzle with any remaining vinaigrette. Serves 8.
Caramelized Endives with Vinegar
1 cup red wine vinegar
8 medium endives, cleaned and trimmed
2⁄3 cup sugar
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, pour the vinegar into a shallow bowl. Cut the endives lengthwise
in half, then dip the cut sides in the vinegar to coat. Reserve the vinegar.
Sprinkle sugar evenly over the surface of the hot pan, and when the sugar begins to melt place the endive halves cut side down on the hot surface and do not move for 5 minutes. The sugar will bubble and caramelize, but if it begins to burn lower the heat immediately. When the endive halves are nicely caramelized on the cut side, turn them over and pour the remaining vinegar around them (but not over them) and cook for about 3 more minutes, until they are tender and glazed. Note: after removing endives and any liquid to a bowl or platter for serving, douse the still-hot pan with hot water and scrape to prevent the sugar from hardening. This will make cleaning much easier. Serves 8.
Grilled meat in almost every form is the basis of the South American asado, but even the most carnivorous of feasts needs a starting point—for example, empanadas, maybe some smoked salmon and a few salads, either entirely fresh or with mayonnaise or another dressing. To begin your bacchanal, we suggest cracking open a chilled bottle or two of crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, ideally something from a coastal region such as Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio or Limarí. San Pe d ro ’s 2009 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda is pungent and serious (90 points; $ 19), while Bodega Renacer’s ’09 Punto Final Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca is fruity, lively and a Best Buy at 88 points and $12. An Argentine Torrontés such as the always nice Colomé from Salta (about $15) is another option.
Moving on to the sausages, chicken and cooked vegetable dishes, you might want to try a Pinot Noir for its lighter frame and zesty fruit flavors. There aren’t that many fine South American Pinots on the marke t , but two we like are Bodega Chacra’s 2008 Bard ( 89 points; $22) from Argentina’s Río Negro region (Patagonia) and the Montes 2009 Limited Edition from Casablanca in Chile (89 points; $ 20). Both wines deftly blend wellapplied oak, spice and floral fruit aromas and flavors.
Finally we suggest honoring the gauchos, chefs and asadors of Argentina by drinking Malbec with your steak. Viña Alicia’s 2007 Paso de Piedra Malbec (89 points; $ 19) hails from the heart of traditional Mendoza, itself the heart of Argentina’s winemaking industry. It’s a bold, rich type of Malbec with rubbery smokiness that will match up perfectly to your beef. Up the ladder in quality and price is Viña Alicia’s 2006 Brote Negro (91 points; $ 86), a wine that can take you late into the night, while those who prefer a bit more structure and tannins in their main-course red should consider Bodega Goulart’s 2007 The Marshall (88 points; $ 25), an approachable but full-bodied Malbec. And should you want to pay homage to Uruguay, a country often overshadowed by Argentina and Chile but which has a thriving cattle and asado culture of its own, we recommend the Gimenez Mendez 2008 Identity Cabernet Sauvignon from the Canelones region (87 points; $15) for its clean fruit and smoky spice notes.