Good news for an old guy like me. If there is one thing an argentine girl will have been subjected to a thousand times before she graduates from her teenage years, it is the ubiquitous BBQ. If you don’t love it you are immediately stripped of your nationality. Harsh, but that’s the rule here.
I once watched a very amusing but very short (and somewhat portly) friend of mine shoulder his way into a group of svelte fashionistas at some London art opening. He was determined to pick up an non longitudinally challenged Eastern European supermodel, who was clearly out of his league. Her companions looked on amused as, staring up at the underside of her breasts he made his pitch. Looking disdainful she politely told him she didn’t date dwarfs. “Sweetie,” he replied unfazed, “I’m 7 foot tall standing on my wallet.” They married and thankfully divorced quite rapidly thereafter. Apparently he got sick of holding her hair after dinner.
“The barbecue is made with the embers,” is the equivalent phrase for us oldies who don’t have a large wallet as a podium. Of course it needs to be delivered with confidence to be successful and herein lies the problem. In the land of meat mythology, how can an Englishman ever be taken seriously as an “Asador” (the royalty of BBQ chefdom)?
The first rule of competition (at least for the inept) is don’t compete! The fact is they don’t know a lot about marinating here. Sauces, unheard of. Gentle pre-cooking of the tougher meat cuts (in a flavoursome liquid), not on the agenda. So, as long as the fire goes on early, the embers glow evenly and you finish everything over their beloved source of smokiness, you can succeed! And if your short-ribs cut like butter you can win!! While they will wonder how you cooked everything so quickly, they will never suspect. That there are other ways to heat meat will never impinge on their imagination.
But this is a food post. It’s about secrets discovered. And yesterday I discovered a new one, a meaty one and not pertaining to the common knowledge of my Buenos Aires compatriots. With a few friends coming for an alfresco dinner I strolled down to seek the advice of my favourite man, my butcher. He is everything a butcher should be, big, burly, bearded, with enormous hands that manhandle wicked hooks with which he slaps down half a cow on the counter, while looking at the gringo (me) menacingly. You can almost hear him asking what “boludez” I’m going to come up with next. Will I ask for a non-existent cut of meat, or demand a bag of bones (caracú) that I roast for the marrow but they give to their dogs?
So I go with the safe option. “What’s best today?” And he tells me the ojo de bife (the eye of the rib) is spectacular. Who am I to argue. Out comes a side of meat and he starts carving away, slicing off a huge hunk of yellow-fat covered meat and the ends of a couple of protruding ribs, to uncover the tender, dark-purple ojos secreted below. And the truth is they do look “espectacular” but I’m already having doubts because I’m imagining the hunk that he looks ready to discard, sitting flesh-down in a bath of red wine before smouldering, fat-down, over the aforementioned embers. “Uuugh, whats that cut called?” I ask hesitantly, hoping it is an actual cut.
“Marucha, we call it the butcher’s cut here, the porteños don’t ask for it so we keep it for ourselves. In Cordoba though it is one of the most sort after.” So I snag it and out of guilt and also because you never know when they might come in handy and because despite the fact that I already have a huge chicken and several kilos of pork, the ojos do look really good, I get a kilo of them as well.
Final result, the cut cooks like I imagined and quite quickly too and the fat goes crispy, smoky, while imbuing it with a a lot of flavour. And you can serve it reasonably rare without it being tough, though you need to use much more salt on the fat side than you would imagine reasonable. Ask for marucha and not only will you upgrade your client status as a meat connoisseur with your butcher, you will also enhance your asador credibility with Argentine friends who have probably never heard of it.
And once the lovely young thing at your table has munched her way through half a kilo of your flavourful carne, you may feel brave enough to compete with her much younger, better looking boyfriend. “Sabes querida, el asado se hace con las brases?”