Meat. Salt. Fire.
Grilling Argentine-style involves the primal basics
Pork tenderloin with burnt brown sugar, orange confit and lime, prepared on the grill Argentinian-style. (HANDOUT/Excerpted from "Seven Fires" by Francis Mallmann / August 22, 2007)
"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."
"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. There Mallmann stands in open 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 superior merits 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," 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.
Pork tenderloin with burnt brown sugar, orange confit and thyme
Prep: 15 minutes. Cook: 25 minutes Makes: 6 servings
Cooking outdoors doesn't always have to mean grilling food on an open rack. This recipe from Francis Mallmann's "Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way," uses a flat metal griddle called a chapa to cook the pork. A large cast-iron skillet or griddle would work just as well. You also can cook this on the stovetop.
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