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Wednesday, June 8, 2016 11:01 am

Memorable meals

My dining adventures from around the world

Steak with chimichurri

 

My most memorable dining experiences have ranged from the bizarre to the sublime. When I travel, I try to seek out and immerse myself in the local food and music culture. What makes a meal memorable might be the quality of the dish or the uniqueness of the surroundings.

My wife and I once traveled on a French freighter out of Tahiti through the Marquesas Islands. Though we were booked as tourist passengers, I wanted to delve deeper into the local culture. My fondest memory of the trip was the evening I was invited to party with the Polynesian sailors. I had spent the day helping the sailors unload freight off the boat for the islanders and later picking up bags of dried coconut to take to the coconut processing plant back in Tahiti. That night the sailors were given permission from the ship’s captain to have a party and roast a goat over an open fire on the deck. After downing several Hinano beers, I was encouraged to try poisson cru, which consisted of raw fish marinated in citrus juice and coconut milk and allowed to ferment in the hot Tahitian. The dish had a horrible aroma that smelled like a cross between aging road kill and vomit. Every time I brought the spoon near my mouth I started dry heaving. A sailor gestured for me to pinch my nostrils closed and try a spoonful. The taste was actually quite sweet and pleasant. But my wife requested I keep my distance from her the rest of the night due to my “puke breath.”

While walking along a beach in Jamaica we stumbled upon a little beachfront shack cooking jerk chicken over pimento wood in a rusty old halved oil barrel. The marinade was made from Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, and each bite had me reaching for a bottle of Red Stripe beer. I remember the heat on my lips, the feel of my toes in the sand and the music playing in the background of Ray Price singing “Danny Boy” through speakers wrapped in plastic garbage bags (a rather misguided, but sweet, attempt to reach out to the American tourists).

On a cold, damp February morning in Paris my wife and I headed to the Rue Montorgueil market. Half market, half food lover’s paradise, the Rue Montorgueil tempts the senses with flower stalls, cheese shops, fish mongers, rotisseries and bakers. We were seduced by the aroma of bread baking and traced our way to a stall manned by a Lebanese baker who was making flatbreads the size of large pizzas over a heated metal domed griddle, which looked like a giant overturned wok. The flatbreads were known as saj, which is also the name of the griddle. We tried to ask questions and place an order, but the baker didn’t speak English. An American expatriate came to our rescue and recommended that we order a flatbread flavored with thyme. She placed our order for us. We watched in amazement as the baker pulled off a chunk of dough, widened it with his fingers, and tossed and twirled it around and around, then flipped it onto the hot saj and sprinkled it with wild thyme. The flatbread was then removed from the griddle, folded in quarters, and presented to us wrapped in paper. It was so warm, fragrant, and supple and brought us so much comfort against the cold damp air.

Many of our restaurant discoveries during our travels were a result of spotting an intriguing looking place during our walks through a new neighborhood. Other discoveries were the consequence of meeting an interesting person and asking for a dining recommendation. In Amsterdam we discovered a vintage record shop on the way to visit the profoundly moving Anne Frank house. We had an old Rock-Ola jukebox at home and were always on the lookout for interesting 45 rpm records. It was there we found a copy of “Pennant Fever” by the members of the 1969 Chicago Cubs. The proprietor looked and sounded like a Dutch Elvis Presley and loved everything American and we had an enjoyable time talking to him. He seemed like a cool, eclectic person so we asked him for the name of his favorite restaurant. He wrote down “Gauchos” and drew us a little map. We took off in the direction he pointed and came across a middle-aged man and a small boy carrying a bundle of long 2x4s together. The young boy was struggling with his end of the load and kept having to stop and rest. I approached the pair and offered my help. The father did not speak English but tried to gesture “no.” I persisted and picked up the young boy’s end of the load, which made the youngster extremely happy. After helping carry the load for nearly 45 minutes I realized the father had been trying to tell me that he lived very far from the lumber store.

By the time we reached Gaucho we had walked more than two hours and were famished. We walked into the dark restaurant and discovered we were in an Argentinean steakhouse, which looked like a Dutch version of a Bonanza or Ponderosa. Profoundly disappointed in the bum steer given us by our Dutch Elvis, we resigned ourselves to having a mediocre meal. We ordered the tira de ancho, a “belt” of rib eye. We watched as the strip of unseasoned steak was placed on the grill and heavily salted. When the meat was turned, most of the salt fell off, having seasoned the beef as it slowly cooked on the grill. Towards the end, the steak was brushed with a dark green sauce, which I later learned was chimichurri. My initial disappointment turned into culinary transcendence.

Chimichurri is now my go-to sauce for grilled meats. I finely chop garlic and parsley (sometimes with cilantro, mint or oregano), and add pepper flakes, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I’ve had the opportunity to make chimichurri during my volunteer weekend restaurant apprenticeships at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Urbana (served with smoked pork) and at La Petit Grocery in New Orleans (served with char-grilled octopus). I bring it along on camping trips to serve with steak grilled over a wood fire.

My recipe is an adaptation of Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s chimichurri. You may be tempted to throw the ingredients into a food processor, but I swear that hand chopping the ingredients gives a superior result. You can make it totally with flat-leaf Italian parsley, or mix in fresh oregano, cilantro or mint.

Chimichurri sauce

  • 1 c. water
  • 1 T. salt
  • 1 large head of garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
  • 1 c. packed flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
  • 1 c. fresh oregano leaves (or cilantro, mint, or more parsley)
  • 2 t. crushed red pepper flakes
  • ¼ c. red wine vinegar
  • ½ c. extra-virgin olive oil

Boil the water in a small saucepan. Add the salt and stir until it dissolves. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Finely mince the garlic. Finely mince the parsley and oregano and add to the garlic, along with the red pepper flakes. Whisk in the vinegar, then the olive oil. Whisk in the salted water.

Let stand at least an hour before serving. The chimichurri will keep for at least three weeks in the refrigerator.  
Peter Glatz once tried to make Cajun blackened redfish on an apartment stove without a vent hood. The resulting billows of smoke set off the smoke detectors, brought out the fire department and filled the kitchen with thousands of flies through the opened windows. Needless to say, he overcooked the fish.

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