Can you smell it?
It’s time to fire up the grill and, to make this outdoor cooking season one for the record books, revamp your grilling repertoire. In other words, go bold or go back to the kitchen.
Latin America is a vast, often misunderstood culinary bonanza of grilling ideas and inspiration. That means choripán, pinchos and provoleta, anticuchos, pollada and churrascos, guasacaca, pebre, molho a campanha and chimichurri.
“For years people lumped all Latin cooking into one big mix,” says Victor Albisu, chef at Del Campo, a Washington, D.C., restaurant devoted to grilling South America-style. “Things are better now, but it used to be you’d find guacamole alongside a Peruvian fish dish. The greatness of each cuisine is degraded when mixed together. Fusion is confusion.”
Marie Elena Martinez, founding editor of thelatinkitchen.com, agrees. Grilling, she says, is a natural way of cooking in most Latin American countries, but each region has mastered its own distinct style.
Expect more heat in the liberal use of chiles in Mexico, and plenty of garlic and cumin, grilled fruits and fish in the Caribbean. Lamb, goat and chicken are set off with garlic, parsley and oregano in Venezuela, while in Peru and Chile the flavor triumvirate is cilantro and onions and aji (chile). Meanwhile, in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina — home, many say, of the best beef in the world — weekend gatherings are leisurely beef-focused spectacles.
Soul, passion and newfound grilling happiness can be had with a fresh take on ingredients, a kick of heat and an acid-laced finish.
WHAT TO GRILL: It’s all game
“Here people like KC Strip and T-bones,” says local chef Jose Garcia, Venezuelan transplant and owner of El Portón, an Overland Park restaurant that showcases the food of his homeland.
“Latinos,” he continues, “use many cuts of meat, all kinds of parts, and different animals.”
And this radical combination typically happens in one single meal.
Legend has it that for centuries gauchos, the cowboys of Argentina and Brazil, survived on little but beef, and both countries have elevated the art of grilling ever since. In Argentina, an asado (which refers to grilled meat as well as the social occasion itself) features sweetbreads, intestines, multiple kinds of sausages (including morcilla, or blood sausage), kidneys, ribs (cut across the bone, flanken-style), and a variety of steaks. Even udders.
As for all those Brazilian steakhouses that feature troops of waiter-wranglers wielding meat offerings on sharp implements? They, too, are rooted in the old gaucho standard — just meat, skewers and open flames known as the basic churrasco.
It all goes back to the idea that if it can be eaten, it can — and should — be grilled. In Peru, kebab-like anticuchos are made with beef hearts (one of the most underutilized cuts of beef in the United States, Albisu says). Poultry, pigs, goats and lamb, whole or in parts, are roasted or grilled from Mexico to Patagonia; guinea pig and llama can be found in Peru and Bolivia; and a plethora of fish and seafood get the treatment on Latin American islands and coasts. Even queso hits the grill: Thick slices of provolone bring a whole new meaning to grilled cheese in Argentina.
BOTTOM LINE: Anything goes
We’re not implying that you need to go crazy exotic (unless you want to). Just loosen up.
“It´s a different perspective on grilling,” says Albisu, who makes sure everything at his restaurant hits the grill.
He even gives his salmon a two-minute touch of smoke before chopping it up for ceviche. Latin fruits like pineapple, mango and limes have long had a place on the grill, as have vegetales grillados like zucchini, mushrooms and eggplant. And then there are the chiles.
“Getting acquainted with chiles and peppers — poblano, ancho, habanero, jalapeno, scotch bonnets — is a great way to begin to incorporate Latin flavors into traditional backyard barbecues,” recommends Martinez.
She advises throwing whole peppers onto an open flame to bring out complexity: “The longer peppers are grilled, the richer their flavor, the spicier their kick.”
At the Latin grill, embrace the char.
“A cousin of one of our cooks put some tomatoes, jalapeños and onions on the grill and forgot about them until they were completely blackened,” says chef Rick Bayless, whose restaurants Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and XOCO have been bringing Mexican flavor to Chicago for years. “He made a salsa with them anyway, and we do it in all our restaurants now.”
HOW TO GRILL: Simplicity rules
An authentic asado or churrasco means cooking over charcoal or, better yet, wood, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a purist: A gas grill will work. Argentinians, Chileans and Brazilians believe coarse salt is all a piece of beef needs, but elsewhere in Latin America, fish, chicken, pork and even beef are pretreated with some sort of adobo, which refers to either a dry spice mixture featuring oregano, garlic and paprika, or a wet marinade with a chile base.
Adele Rodriguez, who cooks every Saturday at De Sabor Peruano in the Latina y Punto grocery in Overland Park, says the success of la pollada, or grilled chicken, is in the prep. She mixes aji panko (a spicy chile paste sold in Latin markets), cumin, vinegar, salt and pepper, and massages it all into the chicken and lets it marinate overnight.
“Very typical,” she explains.
“Pastes and marinades made out of red chile are when the grill really starts reminding me of Mexico,” says Bayless. “The great thing about red chiles is that in addition to being used to make great sauces, brushed on near the end of grilling, they also make for great marinades — so you’re kind of getting double your money.¨
But what about managing all those different ingredients at the same time on the grill?
“Do what people tell you not to do. Crowd it all together,” says Albisu.
Sausages and short ribs seem to braise when snuggled all together on the grill. And don’t be in a hurry. Make the meal about eating everything as it’s ready. The true South American asado-as-event lasts for hours, with everybody grazing on bites of this and bites of that as different meats are done.
HOW TO FINISH: Fuerte! (That means strong)
If nothing else, perk up your summer by serving whatever comes off the grill with a highly acidic sauce. Every region has its own version, and it would simply be unacceptable to serve anything grilled without it. These are nothing like sticky barbecue sauces, of course, but piquant relishes or salsas made fresh from herbs — parsley, cilantro, oregano — chiles and plenty of vinegar, lemon or lime.
Garcia is a master. He offers up two types of Venezuela’s signature sauce, guasacaca. One is chunky with avocado and the other is more pureed. He also experiments with Argentina’s chimichurri, concocting a red one (with sun-dried tomatoes) for lamb as well as the classic green version for everything else.
“The simpler, the better,” he explains, “just parsley, garlic, oregano, paprika, oil, vinegar, salt and crushed red pepper. No cilantro and no onions. Ever.¨
There are countless versions of these as well as Brazil’s molho a campanha, Mexico’s pico de gallo, Peru’s salsa criolla and Chile’s pebre, so it is hard to go wrong. The beauty is that they are extremely forgiving (adjust heat to taste), and they work on everything. Even, if you must, burgers and hot dogs.
Connie McCabe is a former editor for Saveur magazine. She recently returned to her hometown in Kansas City with her husband and children after living in Chile for several years.
Taking the pulse of a grilling nation
For 25 years Weber-Stevens Products, the granddaddy of grills and grill gadgets, has been tracking what’s hot on the grill in its annual Weber GrillWatch Survey. This year’s tally: 82 percent of us like to grill hamburgers; 72 percent hot dogs; 62 percent steaks.
That’s not quite news. But for the first time ever, Weber also asked the public what emotions and feelings grilling evokes. Turns out that 56 percent feel happy when firing up the grill.
Only 56 percent?
True, 56 percent is the majority of grill owners, but what about the grilling fun factor? We’re talking hot, relatively quick, any-day grilling (not low, slow, special-event barbecuing). We had to chew on this fact for awhile. After all, nothing is better than cooking outside when the weather warms up. It’s vaguely primitive, it draws kids and forsaken neighbors to the backyard, and it’s relatively easy. In fact, many who don´t cook inside will man up for the job outside. Best of all, it consistently results in something that tastes good and, and it smells phenomenal.
Our conclusion? We are boring grillers. Hence the need to go bold, Latin-style.
Connie McCabe, Special to The Star
Peruvian-Style Spicy Grilled Chicken (La Pollada)
La pollada is a chicken dish very typical in Peru. It isn’t an everyday chicken, but one reserved for special occasions and gatherings. We, obviously, are doing it on the grill, but Peruvians fry it as well.
Makes 4 servings
4 heaping tablespoon aji panca (a Peruvian chile paste available at Latina y Punto in Overland Park)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar
1⁄4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chicken, cut into 4 pieces (2 breast/wing pieces and 2 leg/thigh pieces)
Mix aji panca, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, cumin and salt and pepper together in a small bowl.
Rinse chicken and pat dry. Massage aji mixture all over chicken. Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate. (This can be done the night before grilling or the morning before grilling.)
To cook, place chicken pieces on a hot grill. You want to sear the chicken and then finish the cooking on a cooler part of the grill. (If using gas, you will have to reduce the flame.) As the skin crisps, watch chicken closely to avoid flare-ups and burning.
Whole leg and thigh parts should take 16 to 20 minutes to cook. The breast should be cooked about 15 minutes more. (On gas grills with the lid down, times are quicker.)
Per serving: 307 calories (49 percent from fat), 17 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 100 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 33 grams protein, 1,224 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Source: Adela Rodriguez of Latina y Punto
“Lazy” Salsa (Salsa Huevona)
Makes 2 1/2 cups or 6 generous servings
1 1/2 pounds (4 medium-small round) ripe tomatoes
1 medium white onion, cut in half
3 or 4 fresh jalapeños, stemmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled
Light a charcoal fire and let the coals burn until they are covered with gray ash; position the grill grate and let it heat for a couple of minutes. Place the tomatoes, onion halves, jalapeños and garlic directly on the grill. Or to keep small items from falling through, place a perforated grill pan on the grill grates, heat it up, then lay the vegetables on top. Grill the ingredients, turning occasionally, until they are kind of charred but not incinerated — about 10 minutes for the garlic, 15 minutes for the chiles and 20 minutes for the tomatoes and onions. As they are done, remove the ingredients to a rimmed baking sheet. Let cool. If you wish, you can pull the charred skins off the tomatoes.
In a food processor, combine the garlic and chiles. Pulse until coarsely pureed. Add the tomatoes and any juices that have collected on the baking sheet, and pulse until roughly chopped. Chop the charred onion and place in a bowl. Stir into the tomato mixture, along with a little water (usually about 2 tablespoons) to give the salsa an easily spoonable consistency. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon.
Note: This salsa keeps well for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator, covered.
Per serving: 34 calories (5 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 10 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Source: From Rick Bayless, excerpted from his book “Fiesta at Rick’s: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends” (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. 2010)
Argentinian Skirt Steak (Entrana) and Short Ribs (asado de Tira) With chimichurri
Makes 4 to 8 servings
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled, and finely minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup safflower oil or extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Skirt steak and short ribs:
4 pounds skirt steak, trimmed
4 pounds short ribs (ask your butcher for flanken-style short ribs or 3-bone short ribs, which are cut across the bone so each piece has bone)
For the chimichurri: Mix parsley, garlic, oregano, pepper flakes, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl, or combine in a food processor and pulse to a coarse puree.
For the skirt steak and short ribs: When the grill is hot, season the meat liberally with salt. Grill steaks and ribs about 4 inches from the source of heat for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until medium rare. Ribs are done when a probe thermometer inserted into thickest part of steak register 125 degrees. Let steaks and ribs stand for 5 minutes before serving. If you wish, thinly slice the steaks across the grain at an angle before serving.
Serve steak with chimichurri sauce.
Per serving, based on 4: 1,935 calories (74 percent from fat), 157 grams total fat (59 grams saturated), 404 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, 121 grams protein, 965 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Source: María Elena Martinez of thelatinkitchen.com. She prefers Argentinian-style grilling due to its simplicity. This recipe was adapted from one on the website from culinary historian Marisel Priscilla.
Chilean Sausage in Bread (Choripan) With pebre
Makes 8 servings
This is often my favorite part of the Chilean asado. You really can’t have an asado without choripan: “chori” is short for chorizo, or sausage, and “pan” means bread. Keep in mind that sausages throughout South America are typically more mild in terms of seasoning. If you don’t make your own (Albisu insists it is easy … another story) or special order (García orders his Brazilian linguica from a source in Miami), go for a more mild bratwurst. Rocoto is the best chile to use for pebre, but it is hard (if not impossible) to find fresh in the United States. Inca’s Food offers a rocoto paste through Amazon. Any hot chile can be substituted.
1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
2 to 3 scallions, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 rocoto, veins and seeds removed, finely chopped (or 1 spoonful of rocoto paste, or any hot chile)
1 glug olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 long baguette
For the pebre: Mix tomato, scallions and cilantro in a bowl. Add rocoto (taste as you go; if it is too hot, feel free to add another tomato) and olive oil. Just before serving, add salt and lemon.
For the choripan: Cook sausages on a hot grill. (Typically, choripan is served while the rest of the meat is cooking, so get the sausages on early.)
When the sausages are almost done, cut baguette into serving sizes (about 3 inches) and cut in half lengthwise to make 8 little “buns.” Place on a cooler section of the grill to heat through. (Some people remove the inside, fluffy part of the bread to leave just the crusty outside.)
Cut sausages in half, then place each in its own bun. Top with pebre.
Per serving: 430 calories (59 percent from fat), 28 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 39 milligrams cholesterol, 32 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 738 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Connie McCabe