Argentinian asado is more of a technique than it is a recipe. The ingredients (not including the beef or the smoke, which are the main ones) are pantry staples: salt, oil, and sometimes garlic. There’s no rubbing or brushing, and no marination to speak of. If the barbecue from the American South (which, don’t get me wrong, I adore . . . .) pampers and cossets the meat, then asado is tough love, slabs of naked meat set next to a raging fire. But just the same, that feeling at the first bite is definitely love.
Any dish whose first step requires the cook to weld up a steel armature requires some macho energy. Better get out the axe, because the wood needed to feed the fire will fill a truckbed at least once. The fire will singe your arm hair and the heat will toast your jeans a shade darker and burnish the skin on your shins beneath them ruby-red. If there’s wind that day, watch the lick of fire closely. But I don’t say this to dissuade anyone. I’m a confessed meat-lover, and asado we attempted this Fourth of July made some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten. Top five for sure, and we’re counting childhood memories in that shortlist.
Most of the best barbecued meats add a little sweetness for caramelization, a trick to which I was developing an unhealthy devotion before I tried asado. Southern barbecue uses molasses or honey to bring out the sweetness of the meat and give the edges their inimitable dark crust and crunch. Asian barbecue, too, uses sugar: in the marinade for Korean barbecued beef, in japanese terayaki, Vietnamese grilled pork and most definitely in the lacquered skeins of Chinese char siu, which are as shiny and phony-red as a candied apple.
But this meat didn't count sweetness among its virtues. Hanging high on its metal rod, the meat turned savory from a regular basting with the garlic- and olive-oil laced saline solution, though the constant plumes of smoke did most of the work. The tremendous heat from the fire does something to bring out the lurking tang of beef, making the most of its metallic goodness and luscious fat.
I usually prefer pork to most everything, but in this competition it was a clear upset: the beef outshone the pork.
We strung up half of a baby pig (a 50-pounder, cut in half down the backbone) a few racks of beef short ribs, and a couple of chickens. As the meat cooked and the aromas swelled around the place, and our hungers grew, we kept throwing on meat as insurance against the hungry crowd. By the end we had the aforementioned menagerie plus a couple of rings of blood sausage (which is traditional argentinian) some smoked polish sausage, all the freshly thawed livers and hearts and kidneys from the pig we killed last spring, and a few wieners for the kids.
The wieners sat uneaten on their platter. The beef and the chickens were devoured, torn apart with forks, even by the children. Some people took the time to splash their meat with the chimichurri sauce I so lovingly made, some with the fresh tomato/onion/cilantro salsa that our friend Bruce brought, but most just ripped into it unadorned.
The entire day (and this meal took the full day to prepare) comes courtesy of my friend Chris, whose sister married an Argentinian guy who taught him how to do this. He’s been to asados in Argentina a few times and has been hungry for it ever since. Chris welded the armatures, made the basting saline and brought the mate to sip (as it’s traditional to sip yerba mate from a thin straw poking out of gourd all day long as you stoke and turn and consider the meat.) All I did was procure the meat, make the sides, watch and learn. He’s the one in the photos, the one who toasted himself over the fire all day like a perfectly charred marshmallow. My husband Aaron kept him company and fed the fire--no small task, either.