Asado, the Art of Argentinian Barbecue
The rolling pampas of central Argentina provide cattle with first class conditions to flourish. Miles (well, kilometers to be more accurate) of lush grass, open spaces and enough rainfall create a perfect environment for raising some of the best beef in the world. It follows that the pampas' inhabitants, the gauchos, ate meat almost exclusively, and learned to cook it on open fires, hence the “asado”.
Most Argentinians think they invented the asado. History shows us that this method of cooking has been around for a lot longer than they have, and that many ancient people cooked their meat over an open fire, but they have a point when they claim to make the best barbecue ever.
You cannot have a good asado without good meat. It must be tender enough to withstand the scorching heat of an open fire and flavorful enough to need nothing but a little salt. If your cut is below par, use it to make a stew. Good cuts for asado are usually more expensive, but so worth it. Ribs, of course, steak, t-bone and porter house, filet mignon, and flank are all good choices.
To prepare your cut for asado, take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you start to grill, so it is at room temperature. In some parts of the world you would toss the meat into a marinade at this point, but this is not standard practice in asado land. A light dusting of coarse salt, or splashing it with brine is all you need.
You will need a good fire, if possible made with hard burning wood. Never use starter fluid to start the fire, just paper and kindling. Any fossil fuel or alcohol will transfer its smell to the smoke and so to the meat, and we don't want that to happen. Make sure you have enough wood to cook all your meat, as there are few things more frustrating than running out of embers or hot coals before your cut is done. Once the fire is going nicely, let it be until you have enough white ash coated embers to go under the grill. The embers must be ash coated to prevent flare ups, because when you cook asado, it is the smoke and heat that cook, and not the flames. Grab a pair of tongs to turn the meat over, if you prick it with a fork you will leave all the juices on the grill (messy!) or your plate.
Place the embers under the grill and let it heat up for a moment. Test the grill for heat by holding your hand over it (you should be able to last five seconds or so before you have to remove it) and lay the meat on. Bone side down first for ribs, fat side down first for flank and other cuts. If your cut is very thick, regulate the heat by spreading the embers a little, if it is too hot your meat will be charred on the outside before it can cook on the inside, and you won't get the golden, crunchy skin and pink, juicy middle you are looking for. If your cut is thin, you can use a higher temperature, but keep an eye out for charring and drying up. Allow the meat to cook until it is three quarters done, and only then turn it over with the tongs to finish cooking. Avoid the temptation to flip the cut over and over again, as this will end in an overdone piece of leather.
Barbecued poultry always need less heat and longer cooking time to make sure there is no part left uncooked as there is always danger of salmonella. Pinch the thickest portion with a fork or knife to see if the juices run clear, if not cook a little longer. Just salt and plenty of basting with lemon juice are great on grilled chicken, although sprinkling with oregano and garlic can also be very good.
As you become more of an expert you can try different cuts, sausages, sweet meats, kidneys and even go for a vegetable barbecue, always remembering to respect the cooking times for the different vegetables. Potatoes and sweet potatoes will take longer than squash or zucchini, so sometimes it is best to boil them for a little then baste them with olive oil and your favourite herbs before you grill,
Asado is the epitome of casual entertaining, so have ready a fresh green salad, a loaf of crusty bread and a good bottle of red wine, choose a nice warm day when you can set the table outside and enjoy!