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Thursday, July 9, 2009 07:27 pm

Argentina offers more than amor


It’s comforting to know that Illinois has some serious competition in the wacky governor sweepstakes. I feel like the folks my husband, Peter, and I met in last January in Louisiana. Whenever anyone realized we were from Illinois, they’d say something like “We really have to thank you. For years we’ve been embarrassed by Louisiana’s corrupt politics, but y’all have taken the heat off us.”

Of course, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s amorous adventures don’t fall into the category of prosecutable offenses, although skipping the country for Argentina without giving anyone in the state government (or his family) the means to contact him, and misleading them about his whereabouts, surely constitute a dereliction of duty. On the other hand, many Illinoisans would have been all too happy to have Blago take a hike, or at least disappear off of the radar screen.

 Like our late, unlamented governor, Sanford doesn’t seem to know when to shut up, providing endless fodder for late night comedians. As South Carolina Episcopalian priest Phillip Linder said on The Daily Show, “Many of us are praying that he goes into a more silent mode.” Reverend, we in Illinois can truly empathize with you in ways those in other states can’t.

Sanford’s romantic rendezvous and tearful soul-searching probably left him little opportunity to savor Argentine food. That’s a shame, because Argentina is home to a world-class food scene. Argentina is beef country. It has the highest per capita beef consumption in the world — almost double that of the U.S. Although the Andes mountains tower over its western region, the vast majority of Argentina consists of rich grassy lowlands, called pampas, that are perfect for cattle. Argentine grass-fed beef is not just consumed domestically, it is a major export. The pampas are home to vast cattle ranches. Gauchos, Argentine cowboys, still roam the plains. The pampas are said to be similar to the American West of a century ago.

The cuisine of Argentina is a rich amalgam of influences from native Incas, the early Spanish settlers, and a huge wave of immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s — almost a million in the decade between 1880 and 1890 alone. Some were Jewish, German, English, Welsh and more Spanish. But the biggest influx came from Italy; natives of Buenos Aires even speak Spanish with an Italian accent. In fact, Argentine cuisine has been more influenced by Italy’s cuisine than even Spain’s.

My introduction to Argentine food happened in a place almost as incongruous as the Appalachian Trail: Amsterdam. Years ago Peter and I had spent a spring week there, bicycling through the bulb fields, and wandering along the canals. We ate traditional Dutch herring, pizza topped with creamy yellow Gouda, and discovered Indonesian ristaffel, a mound of saffron-tinted rice served with numerous small dishes of spicy meat and vegetable preparations (Indonesia was once a Dutch colony).

One early evening we stumbled into a used record store and were transported from an old European city into 1950s America. The clerk sported a classic flat top haircut; he could have been on the set of Happy Days. The records were classics from the ’50s and ’60s, too, and we spent so long looking through them and talking to the clerk, that we didn’t realize it had grown quite late. We were hungry; could our new friend recommend someplace nearby? Sure, he replied enthusiastically, there was an Argentine restaurant just a few blocks away. Cool, we thought, always enthusiastic about trying something new. We’d never even thought about Argentina having a unique cuisine.

When we got to the restaurant, however, our enthusiasm cooled. The sign on the outside displayed luridly colored pictures of raw meat. It was a steakhouse — we’d thought it would be Hispanic. We thought about moving on, but the lateness of the hour made us decide to stay. How bad could it be?

It was fantastic. The tables each had a small hibachi-type grill — this was a do-it- yourself meal. There were a variety of beef cuts and some sausages. It was interesting to compare the different textures and depth of flavors, but what really made the meal special was the little pot of sauce on the table. Garlicky, herby, it was addictive. Even after we’d eaten our fill of meat, I kept tasting little spoonfuls, trying to fix it in my memory so I could recreate it at home.

Back in Springfield, my first attempts to duplicate the sauce, called chimichurri, were unsuccessful. I eventually tracked down a couple of recipes (this B.I., Before Internet) but they weren’t quite right either. It’s only been a few years since I finally found a version as good as that first one in Amsterdam. Since then, I almost always have a jar in the refrigerator.

 To learn more about Argentine food and grilling techniques, I highly recommend Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallmann. Mallman is the most famous chef in South America. Both USA Today and The London Times have said his restaurants are among the top 10 places to eat in the world. BBQ authority Steven Raichlan calls him “a genius and a true visionary.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Both these recipes demonstrate Argentina’s connection with Italian cuisine. Italian-style cheeses such as provolone are made throughout the country. Chimichurri is a riff on the classic Italian salsa verde. It’s wonderful, not only on grilled beef, but on other grilled meats and poultry as well. It also makes a tasty salad dressing

Recipes by Julianne

  • Aged Provolone, either in whole rounds or cut in half, sliced ½ inch thick
  • Vegetable oil for the grill
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Dried oregano leaves (not ground)

Plan on about 2-4 oz. of cheese per person, depending on what else is served. Preheat either a charcoal or gas grill to high. Brush the slices of cheese lightly on both sides with some of the oil and sprinkle with a little pepper. Just before cooking, oil the grill grates and then put the cheese slices directly on the grate. Cook until the bottoms of the cheese are browned and bubbly, about 2 minutes or a little longer, depending on the heat of your grill. The cheese should not be completely melted. Gently tease the cheese off the grill with prongs and a spatula and turn over. Sprinkle the top of the slices with some of the oregano and continue to grill until the bottom is the same doneness as the top, again about 2 or so minutes. Serve immediately.

The cheese may be served alone, or on top of slices of crusty bread. Either way, it can be served by itself as an appetizer or accompanied by a salad tossed with a simple vinaigrette.

Recipes by Julianne

  • 4 c. loosely packed flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
  • 2 T. coarsely chopped garlic, or more or less to taste
  • 4 small scallions, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, coarsely grated
  • 1/3 c. red or white wine vinegar, plus additional if desired
  • 1 stalk celery, coarsely diced
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed but not seeded, chopped, or substitute hot pepper flakes to taste, optional
  • 6 T. water
  • 1 tsp. Kosher or sea salt, plus additional if needed
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or more or less to taste
  • 1 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of sugar, optional

Place all the ingredients in the container of an electric blender or food processor except the oil and blend until all the ingredients are just combined. Add the oil in a stream, then pulse until the mixture is thoroughly mixed, but stopping before it becomes completely puréed. Season to taste with additional salt, pepper, vinegar and a little sugar if needed. Let stand at least an hour before serving. The Chimichurri will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Makes 2-plus cups. Adapted from a recipe in Barbeque Bible, by Steven Raichlan.

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