Asado: a love story (and a recipe)

Here is a fire with purpose, and a simple recipe for delight.

Asado has the confusing honour of being both one of the most transcendentally gratifying ways of cooking beef to perfection while also being the nickname for beef short ribs. The style of cooking and the nickname belong to Argentina, a place I’ve lived in only vicariously, through the chronicles of its sometimes hopeful and sometimes tragically romantic history.

One of the basic tenets of asado, which is technically short for asado a la parrilla (cooking on a grill) is that meat tastes better if there is some smoke involved in the process, and in the resulting flavour. In Argentina this means cooking over wood that has mostly burned to ember. Wood embers burn considerably cooler than the charcoal fuel to which we are accustomed in North America, and although the heat radiates mostly from embers, there is just the right amount of incompletely burned wood to infuse the meat with a balanced, smoky taste.

If you are alone, there is nothing more conducive to quiet reflection than a cooking fire: it is a fire with a purpose, and though I can’t add definitive proof to the claim that the peaceful feeling it creates within us is hardwired, it feels as natural and as necessary as sharing, sleeping and staring at the sky. If you are in the company of friends, asado is a benevolent magnet, gently wrangling us together in talk and expectation.

Asado also means you are cooking slowly, and this has a profound effect on the way your dinner will turn out, and indeed in what you might choose to cook. Big gatherings in Argentina use the cooking fire for the whole span of its life, grilling skirt steak when the fire is hotter and serving it with salads and fresh sauces, saving the cooler stages of the fire for thicker cuts of rib, ribeye and loin.

It is more than fair to call asado a subsect of cuisine, its origins dating back to the development of cattle ranching at the turn of the 16th century. Cooking fires the size of bonfires were lit and burned down to slowly cook whole quarters of beef and other fare, splayed on vertical racks set away from the coals. Modern asado unfolds in fireplaces, back gardens, parking lots, in restaurants, in the field and in the bush. The approach, then and now, is the same. Cook over coals from wood, and take your time.

What follows is my experience with cooking this way, in my case in the Addington Highlands of East Central Ontario, with wood from sugar maple, one of the predominant tree species there.

Some winning results can be had, too, using hardwood charcoal and even better gas-fuelled grills with heavier, high-quality heating plates. I’ve included some adaptations for those here.

Blade-eye steak with kicker skirts grilled sourdough and chimichurri:

Skirt steaks and the makings of chimichurri.

On hand:

  • One blade eye steak (ask your butcher for this), at least 1.5 inches thick
  • One whole inside skirt steak (again, butcher), cut in half crossways
  • One bunch each of fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, and another flavourful herb like oregano or thyme.
  • One big, ripe tomato
  • One teaspoon of chili flakes
  • Decent olive oil
  • One lime, cut in half
  • One big clove of garlic
  • One medium onion
  • Salt
  • One head of decent romaine lettuce
  • Sourdough bread or another crusty, dense loaf
  • Duck fat, lard, bacon fat or olive oil

Now the chimichurri:

This necessarily fresh, raw condiment has many variations, but is in essence raw salsa, harmoniously accompanying the savory unctuousness of grilled beef steak. Grate the whole tomato into a bowl with a box grater. Add the onion and garlic, diced as finely as you can, and squeeze in the juice of one half of the lime, then chopped parsley (including finely sliced, tender stems) and your stronger fresh herbs, chilli pepper flakes, a big pinch of salt and a tablespoon of decent olive oil, and combine.

Then the fire:

If you are using a gas grill, heat a clean grill to 500 degrees F, and leave for 10 minutes with the top down, then turn one side to low. For charcoal cooking, light hardwood charcoal as you normally would and let it settle to about two thirds its peak, then rake coals to one side. For wood, burn down four or five quarters of a medium log with one on reserve, raking embers in a gradient from one side to the other, and set the reserved log on the highest side, furthest away.

Quartered logs. Don’t forget to have a reserve log to put on later.

Then the steaks:

Place the big blade steak on the quiet side of your grill, having salted your meat liberally on all sides 30 minutes beforehand, and lightly coat the side of the steak you’re about to grill with the fat of your choice (duck fat, lard or bacon fat is great, olive oil is ok). Do the same with the skirts, placing them on a somewhat hotter part of the grill, flipping and adjusting their place as often as you like. Place the other half of the lime on that part of the grill, too, cut side down. The skirts will be done long before the blade steak, (about five or six minutes for those skirts) and when they are, let them sit for four minutes then slice them at a bias and serve right on the board with your chimichurri, with the grilled lime incorporated or simply left on the side for your guests’ squeezing pleasure.

Blade-eye steak in the raw, salted and anointed.
Asado: Big steak cooking slow. Little ones cooking faster.
Sliced skirt steak with chimichurri, and a bottle of tasty Spanish red.

As your blade-eye continues to develop its insanely flavourful crust (especially if you’re are cooking over wood—I’ve used mostly sugar maple here, with black cherry as my reserve), flip and adjust the embers or coals, or its place on your gas grill as often as you like. For gas and charcoal, drop in some shards of smoking wood of your choice, soaked first to give them more time to smoke, and put the top down to let them smoulder for two or three minutes.

Blade-eye: Remove when the middle reads 130 F, or less.

As it develops colour and loses weight, place your sourdough slices on a toasty but not scorching part of the grill, adjusting the coals (and reserved log, if necessary) at any time, and check the blade-eye with an incision or an instant-read thermometer, which should read 130 degrees F on average, and slightly less in the meaty middle. An incision should reveal pinky-red meat with most of the fine fibers visible now. There may be a line of rare meat in the middle but that’s ok. Remove the blade-eye and let it rest in loose foil for four to five minutes, and remove the toasted sourdough.

Toasty sourdough.

Slice the blade-eye and serve with a head of romaine in long quarters with more chimichurri and a dab of crème fraîche or nice sour cream, a drizzle of olive oil, and the grilled sourdough bread.

Trim the romaine until it is lovely, then dress with crème fraîche, chimichurri and an extra drizzle of olive oil.
Blade-eye steak, about half the price of prime rib. Grilled slowly, it is devilishly good.

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