What is an asado? Well, let me tell you what it is not. It is not just grilling or BBQ-ing. It is not a quick get-together just to eat something. An Asado is a way of life. It is why people work their tails off during the week to reward themselves with the sweet aroma of meat and fire. It is how we celebrate a birthday or a graduation. It is in short, a way of life in Argentina.
You really don’t need a life changing event or even a celebratory reason to start the fire. You simply need to know that when you agree to an asado, you are in for the long haul. The idea is to spend quality time with friends and family, and by quality we mean at least 5 hours.
In order to understand this all-important fire ritual, I’m going to break it down in the five main steps:
I’m the fire starter
It all starts very simply, man making a fire. Now in Argentina’s wine country, Mendoza, we use wood (leña) for our asados. No fancy charcoal briquettes or flavoured wood chunks. We simply use leña. Algarrobos or Quebracho to be exact. I am sure a chair or table maybe thrown in the fire in an emergency, but for the most parts those are the two kinds we use.
Algarrobos is from the genus Prosopis, meaning it hails from the same tree family as the Mesquite that is so popular for grilling and smoking in the US. Quebracho is actually a native word for “breaking ax” and refers to wood derived from a variety of trees native to the Chaco region of South America. The idea is that you need a very hard and dense wood to make a fire to cook your asado.
Every asador (person cooking the asado) has his own technique for building a fire. Some use the tepee method, others the log cabin or a combination of the two. The idea is to get a roaring fire with enough leña to eventually be able to cook with the coals or embers that will result from the burning of the wood.
Fire Starting 101:
- Start with base of crumpled up newspaper and pile some kindling on top
- For kindling, we use fruit and vegetable crates that your local veggie vendor is more than happy to give to you
- Next, place some thinker pieces of wood around an inch in diameter and start your fire
- Once the fire has a nice roar to it, pile on some thicker pieces of wood on top. Always being mindful to not smoother the fire or it will die.
- It is better to add more wood than you think is necessary. There is no greater mistake than to run out of embers during the cooking process.
The grill and how to clean it:
For the most part, the grills are nothing more than what is known as Rebar or Reinforced Steel Bars. Sure you can get a pre-made grill from a hardware store or supermarket, but to be a true asado, you really need to have the local blacksmith or welder, make you a grill to your specifications.
Most Parrilla’s are custom made. They are simple structures of brick and mortar. Some maybe fancy with chimney’s, other may be a simple concrete table or if you are asado’ing on the go, a simple piece of asphalt will do.
Let’s digress for a minute. If you and some buddies want to make an asado and no one wants to go home, simply find a sidewalk, park area or safe side of the road and start the madness. Keep in mind that someone in your group of friends has a small grill in his car!
The simplest way of cleaning a grill is with a wad of newspaper. No fancy steel brushes or new-fangled mechanical whirly thingy you purchased from an infomercial.
- First you need to place your grill directly on top of a roaring fire
- Let it sit there for a good 15 minutes or more
- Next, use some folded up newspaper remove the grill from the fire and place on ground
- Using the same newspaper, start to “rub” the grill with the newspaper. Keep rubbing until you deem it clean.
- Return the grill to the fire, in order to heat up whatever part of the grill that did not get clean.
- Repeat until all is good.
Working the embers or coals:
Once your grill is clean, you need to start to move any large pieces of wood that has not burnt down into large pieces of coals to a corner.
These large pieces of burning wood will eventually burn down and be the fuel for continued cooking.
The large pieces of coals that remain need to be tampered down, until they are about one inch in diameter. This is what you will use to cook.
Once you have the coals tampered down to size and you move all reaming burning wood to a corner, you place the grill back in place and you are ready to start cooking. Note: You need to add some more wood to the corner pile of burning leña. There is no greater sin than to run out of coals and the asado comes to a screeching halt!
What to cook and when
The most traditional asado is the one where the food comes out at different stages of cooking. For example, Traditionally, the Chorizo and Morcilla come out first – kind of your appetizer for the day.
Most of the time the Asador will cut the Chorizo and Morcilla into bite size pieces and it would be served on a piece of bread, a la crostini.
Now, what order the rest of the food comes out is up to the asador or the host. It is safe to say that no one complains the order that it comes out, as long as it is good!
The idea of the asado is to celebrate life, like the cave men did way back then, fire and meat…and of course a beverage or two.
By Chef Angelo Gonzalez
Having moved to Mendoza a few years ago after leaving his beloved New York, Angelo Gonzalez has been mastering the art of a good asado since. Trained in Caribbean cooking, Angelo likes to pull together the best of Argentine flavours with a Latin American twist in his own closed door restaurant in Mendoza – Al Pasillo.
Do you want to become a master of the Argentine asado? Try out our cooking experience with Chef Angelo Gonzalez.