Classical Greek literature is not the first source most North Americans would turn to in making an analogy about grilling, but then how many of them have ever seen Argentine grilling in action? Steven Raichlen has.
"Argentine grilling is the most heroic grilling in the Homerian sense," said the Miami-based grill expert and author. Homer, of course, was a legendary poet, author of ancient Greece's most sweeping war epic, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.
"It's very primal. No adornment. Nothing fancy. No elaborate marinades," Raichlen added. "It's about meat, salt and fire."
And what fire! Take a gander at the back jacket of Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by superstar Argentine chef Francis Mallmann and Peter Kaminsky, a cookbook author and food writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. Mallmann stands in a field, stacks of plates and logs beside him, tending what he calls an "infiernillo," or "little hell," a blazing double-tiered fire topped by a sloping griddle.
"What Francis strives for is carbonization, but not incineration," said Kaminsky. "A French chef would grill a steak rare and blue in the center. The Argentines want a salty crust and otherwise wall-to-wall color. The bigger the piece of meat, the lower the heat to achieve that crust and to get uniform color."
Other distinctive Argentine grilling practices, according to Kaminsky, include moving the meat closer or farther away from the flame along that sloping griddle, depending on the heat required, and the use of black iron skillets and griddles over the coals for much of the cooking. Sometimes there's no grill at all; that sort of setup is called an asado.
"Basically [it's] a campfire with large hunks of meat or whole animals impaled on stakes in front of it," writes Raichlen in his new cookbook, Planet Barbecue! (Workman, $22.95). "The heat is controlled by positioning the stakes closer to or farther away from the fire."
Mallmann charmingly likens getting that technique right to going on a first date.
"It is something that you look forward to with great anticipation and a little anxiety," he writes. "You can never know exactly what the conditions will be: the day can be windy or cold, the wood may be seasoned or green. In a way, every time you cook over wood outdoors, you are starting fresh in a strange kitchen. Once you have done it enough, however, you will always be able to adapt."
Raichlen sides with Mallmann on the superiority of a wood fire for Argentine cooking. A gas grill could get something "approaching" the Argentine taste, he said, if the appliance is "screaming hot" and outfitted with heavy-duty grates, and the meat is seasoned aggressively.
May sound a bit excessive, but if you're going to embark on an Argentine grilling odyssey, it pays to play boldly.
Norberto Zas has a recipe for a great grilling session, Argentine-style: "You need to have a good grill, you need to be near friends, and you need to have a good glass of malbec."
The Argentine-born chef/owner of Piccolo Mondo Restaurant in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood seasons his meat simply with sea salt and grills over a slow charcoal fire.
"You can experience the flavor charcoal gives the meat when it is cooked slow," he said. "You could do it over gas too, but there's a big difference."
Most Argentines cook over wood fires, and it would most likely be beef on the grill. The country consumes an average of 154 pounds of beef per person yearly, compared with 89.8 pounds in the United States, according to Raichlen.
Argentine beef is grass-fed, appropriate given that the country is home to the pampas, 300,000 square miles of grassland. While grass-fed beef is all the rage these days among eco- and health-conscious Americans, Raichlen notes that it will seem "less luscious and less luxurious" than corn-fed beef. At first.
"With time, you come to appreciate its forthright natural flavor, and in particular, the distinctive flavor of each cut of beef," he said.
As for cooking a steak, aim for a crust. "A steak that is seasoned and cooked properly has a salty crust produced by searing," Mallman writes in Seven Fires. The crust, "sublime in its own right," keeps the meat moist by preventing the juices from escaping as the meat cooks. The meat should attain a uniform rosy pink throughout.
"It can be achieved only if you cook the meat at the proper rate," Mallmann insists. "To get that uniform color, you need even lower heat and longer cooking for thicker cuts."
Makes 8 servings
4 boneless rib-eye steaks, 1 1/4- to 1 1/2 inches thick, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
Chimichurri (see recipe)
1. Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Salt the steaks. Grease the grill grate.
2. Grill steaks 5 minutes; rotate the meat 90 degrees to create crosshatch grill marks. Grill 4 minutes; turn the steaks. Grill until cooked medium-rare, about 7 minutes, rotating the steak if necessary.
3. Transfer the steaks to a platter; let rest 3 minutes. Serve with chimichurri sauce.
Per serving: 429 calories, 59 percent of calories from fat, 27 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 204 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 43 g protein, 231 mg sodium, 0 g fiber EndText
Makes 12/3 cups
1 cup water
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, minced
1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 cup fresh oregano leaves, minced
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1. Heat the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the salt, stir until dissolved. Remove from heat; cool.
2. Combine garlic, parsley, oregano, and red pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Whisk in the red wine vinegar; whisk in the olive oil. Whisk in the salted water. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, refrigerate.
Per tablespoon: 43 calories, 88 percent of calories from fat, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 136 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Makes 6 servings
6 pieces (2 inches long) orange confit, plus 2 tablespoons confit oil (see recipe)
2 pork tenderloins, about 1 pound each
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon salt
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1. Tear the orange confit into 1/2-inch pieces; scatter over the meat. Sprinkle with thyme and half the salt; sprinkle the brown sugar on top. Pat it down firmly with your hand. Drizzle with the oil from the orange confit.
2. Prepare a grill for medium heat. Place a large griddle or skillet on the grill; heat until a drop of water sizzles on the surface. Transfer each tenderloin, using a wide spatula and inverting it to place sugar-side down on the hot skillet. Grill without moving the pork until well-browned, 5 minutes. (If the sugar begins to smell burned, adjust the flame or move the skillet away from the burning charcoal.) Turn the pork; grill until done to taste or to 135 degrees for medium, 10-15 minutes.
3. Transfer the meat to a cutting board; let rest, tented loosely with foil, 10 minutes before slicing. Season with remaining salt.
Per serving: 324 calories, 47 percent of calories from fat, 17 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1,380 mg sodium, 1 g fiberEndText
Makes about 2 cupsEndTextStartText
12 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons saltEndTextStartText
1. Cut the oranges in half. Squeeze the juice; reserve it for another use. Put the orange halves in a large saucepan. Add the peppercorns, bay leaves, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the white wine, and salt. Add enough water to completely cover the oranges. Heat to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium. Cook until the orange peel is tender, 25-30 minutes. Let cool in the liquid.
2. Drain the oranges. Tear the peel into rough strips about 1 inch wide. Place skin side down on a work surface; scrape away every bit of the white pith with a sharp knife, leaving only the orange zest. Repeat with the remaining peel.
3. Put the strips of orange zest in a small container; cover completely with remaining olive oil. Tightly cover. (The confit will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks).
Note: Use this confit, cut into small strips, as a garnish with any roasted meats or poultry, or as an addition to salads, soups or stews.