Our first guest writer is an old colleague and friend of mine, Hector Vila, one of the most creative and deep thinkers on a whole range of topics including cultural studies, education, politics, and social justice. He’s also one of the finest teachers I have ever seen in action: in the classroom, in casual conversation, in his scholarship and on his blog, The Uncanny, a treasure trove of ideas, opinions, stories, musings and great sense.
This post was originally published on his blog last year–photos and text–he has kindly allowed us to re-post it here (and he’s promised us another piece later in the summer!) Buon Appetito!
The Uncanny Parrilla: Cooking Outdoors the Argentinean Way
I finally committed to constructing a parrilla (open grill) — the traditional barbecue of Argentina. It’s really not accurate to call it a barbecue since “to barbecue” is rather sinful in Argentina. For the Argentinean, the barbecue is way too fast, way too production oriented — the fast food of outdoor grilling. On a parrilla, we Argentinians cook an asado — a slow, carefully orchestrated, wood fired cooking of all sorts of meats. In the US, we’re not accustomed to cooking the entire cow; Argentinians waste not and cook everything, including the ear, which I tried once.
I built this parrilla to coincide with a rock wall that runs along the back of my house. I picked up on this model parrilla when I was in Mendoza with my family a few years back. We stayed in an estancia in the Andes. After our return from horseback riding, the estancia owner had prepared an asado for us. The parrilla was made of stone and a large circle; the grill itself, the parrilla proper, sat in the middle. I made a mental note of it. This is perfect for the country.
My sisters-in-law complained mildly that it takes too long. But this is the point — slow food. The wood is burned to create coal; then you order the coal about so that you have different cooking heat levels across the parrilla. In the above picture, one can see buns, burgers and swordfish all cooking at the same time. It’s only possible
when heat is distributed. The other fine result is that the food tastes great. This is always immediately noticed — usually the first or second comment. It’s because of the wood, in this case coming from my land. In fact, the only non-local item in this asado is the swordfish, brought to us from Harbor Fish by my sister-in-law who lives in Maine (it’s local to her).
I made my parrilla following the advice of my family, emailing me directions from Buenos Aires. They sent me some links and I followed some design options from Casa Original. My parrilla is approximately 7″ high, 32″ long and about 18″ wide. It’s also a double decker, meaning that the deck on top is half the size and is also removable. This allows for the moving of very slow cooking food to another level. The parrilla was welded together, following my design, by Brown’s Welding, Bristol, Vermont.
Creating the fire is intuitive — all great makers of asados will tell you that. You have to know something about how certain woods burn and taste. You have to know something about adding or moving logs to create the energy wanted. But the cooking is something else altogether. Meat cooking is special. At our house, the bible is Seven Fires, Grilling the Argentine Way by Francis Mallmann, probably the premier “asado chef” in the world. The book is to die for and I’m thankful Ginny, my wife’s first cousin’s wife — and Argentinean — gave it to me as a present.. Since we have our own cow and we’re trying to work with everything locally, right from our small farm, another gospel of meat, given to us by our large animal vet, Al, who, with his wife, Diane, produce the incredible and famed Animal Farm Butter, is The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The parrilla and the subsequent asado blends two cultures — Vermont’s America and Argentine; it also is a great way to spend time with the family around the fire watching the meat cook slowly. We’re looking forward to breads and vegetables, appetizers and even desserts.