El asado se hace con las brasas!

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?”

Menu Trial – Argentino Irónico

With 6 months to go before the opening of The 5th Floor, my valiant co-chef Rudie and I are working on some menu ideas for the proposed puerta cerrada restaurant, trying them out on groups of friends of varied nationalities. Every Chef in Buenos Aires will tell you it’s easy to frighten the typical Argy. A mere wave of a chili will have him crying to mummy about the “jodido picante de la re puta madre”, that has left his delicate palate with 3rd degree burns. Many Chefs will also contend that any form of strong flavouring will also have the average punter running for the hills, or at least to the nearest provider of choripans, milanesas, or good honest, un-messed with wood grilled carne. So, what do you do if you don’t want to ostracise the locals from your culinary exploits. Trick them with ingredients that will remind them of their abuela’s cooking, and then bomb them with the strongest flavours you think they can tolerate and see what happens! This is after all the development stage and given a few puerta cerradas like the very excellent Cocina Sunae (http://www.cocinasunae.com) have generated a substantial and loyal local following for the well spiced, if not too spicy, I am keen to do the same. So menu 1, typically argentine produce presented in unusual (at least for Buenos Aires) and hopefully delicious combinations. ImageFirst up, Morcilla, the staple starter of all great argentine asados, only this time on a crunchy base (rosti next time), a slice of caramelised apple, topped with a pickled quails egg, a sprinkle of smoked paprika and a spray of passion fruit vinegar. The presentation was inelegant, the towers too tall and we could have gone madder with the vinegar which added a delicious touch (tested by spraying it directly into some of the guinea pigs’ mouths), but a surprisingly interesting combination. A keeper, albeit with re-engineered architecture.

Second, and luckily no one took a photo of this one, was Caracú. Beautiful roast bone marrow in the classic St. John style (https://www.stjohngroup.uk.com/) with a parsley, caper salad and lemon dressing. Except it wasn’t beautiful. Undercooked! A schoolboy error!!! Yes it looked great and rather archetypically carnivore until we scooped the pink (yes it should have been white) marrow onto the tostados. Would anyone even be brave enough even to try this or should I bin the lot? I kept quiet long enough to see. Surprisingly Tez, an American led the way and pronounced it delicious and after assurances that they were unlikely to die from mad cow disease everyone else tucked in but I was still kicking myself. This was meant to be a dish that was unchallenging for an Argentine (they still eat bits of offal that I haven’t got to grips with) but novel for most of the foreigners. I think the varied opinions were provoked by the unappetising appearance rather than the flavour and it is easy to perfect this dish. It is also economical as your friendly butcher will give you the marrow bones for free. However the decider is that you only get 2 decent pieces of marrow bone from each leg so getting hold of this in bulk is going to be too tricky. OFF the menu and to be reserved for a quick decadent snack with a close friend (normally red and liquid). ImageCourse three, for me the biggest success of the evening, big Sorrentinos (possibly, I can never remember pasta shape names), stuffed with Osso Bucco in a clarified consomme-like reduction of its cooking sauce. Everything cooked according to Gordon Ramsey’s fantastic recipe ( http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785) until the meat was stuffed into the pasta and the sauce clarified into a soup rather than reduced into a syrop. Rudie’s pasta came out light despite the facts he had to use tequila rather than the white wine he was reserving, that I had thrown into my sauce and that the sun was blazing onto his preparation area. This was as good as anything I have managed to produce. ImageThe main course required this, an evil looking meat syringe that my friend Tez has just brought me from the good old USA, land of the BBQ competition.   A glorious 5 rib bife de chorizo marinated inside and out with an asian marinade, sliced thin and served over a spiced noodle salad. Great taste, but plenty of mucking around pan frying the slices for those that don’t like rare meat. While they wont have the same visual impressiveness 2 lomos (fillets) cooked to different levels of “doneness” would make life easier in the kitchen. A MAYBE until the next trial! And while the dressing was lightly picante we forgot to filter it thus causing the immediate death of one of our Argentine guests as he bit into a minuscule slice of chilli.

If he had still been alive I am sure he would have enjoyed the cooling properties of the mango ricotta cheese cake with a mandarin and hesperidina reduction (which I wont put cinnamon into next time). A bit heavy after 4 courses, and actually much more delicious the next day when the flavours had a chance to meld (and the day after, and the day after that). But not a keeper.

Alcoholic Tres Leches Cake next time?

And the added bonus? What do you do with the remaining Osso Bucco and its jelly that has solidified in the fridge. Well if you are in Argentina there is only one option.

Unreliably claimed by my friends to be the best empanadas they have ever eaten.