About six months ago I spent a few weeks in Argentina eating some of the best beef ever. A recent article in the NYT reminded me of my friend’s large, open, wood-fired parrilla.
Since that trip to Argentina, I’ve learned to love wood as a cooking medium. In the US, wood is too often overlooked, though some have learned to love it. Barbecue pit masters, for example, have learned that a combination of hardwoods and fruitwoods can complement different meats for smoking. Wood alone can contribute a great deal of flavor. Its wonderful taste can nearly saturate the meat in a pulled pork barbecue. But in South America, the subtle smoke taste of open air grilling is preferred.
I still prefer the Argentine (or Uruguayian) method of grilling. Cooking with wood in an open fire feels more primal and natural than gas or charcoal. You never see propane tanks growing in nature, and most charcoal is so full of chemicals that any resemblance to wood has long been removed. The spit and crackle of wood burning, embers glowing, and smoke rising is where the real magic of grilling lies.
The NYT article mentions the celebrated Argentine Chef, Francis Mallmann, a few times. I was fortunate enough to dine at one of this restaurants, 1884, near Mendoza. I can attest that the meals prepared on the parrilla were exceedingly simple in their preparation. Mallmann may have allowed himself to experiment with extravagant preparations in the kitchen, but once in front of the grill, the classic asado methods prevailed.
Most Argentine meats are generally lightly seasoned and served with a chimichurri sauce. The meat is often not even marinated before it is grilled. Argentines know that good quality meat doesn’t need frivolous additions. Salt, pepper, and perhaps a simple, fresh sauce, like the chimichurri, is all that is needed.