I've always enjoyed casual conversation and rarely been averse to chewing on a nice hunk of fat. But the expression "chew the fat" never resonated with me—until some mochileros showed me the phrase's literal meaning.
Mochilero means backpack, and the mochileros are a tribe of Argentine wanderers who camp their way across some of the finer parts of the landscape, banding together around the evening’s fire to drink maté, play guitar and plan the next day's adventures. It was next to one such fire, under a starry night in San Martín, that I understood fat chewing.
A piece of meat had been cooked over wood coals. Red wine was flowing. There was a bowl of salad and a loaf of bread, and we all ate our share. As we lingered in our joyous collective afterglow, I sat there chewing the fat with the mochileros, gnawing on a bone with an attached glob of fatty material. Several times I put my bone back on the grill to heat and re-melt the stuff. The matrix of fat and connective tissue attached to that bone continued to surrender flavor as I chewed.
I imagine language evolved in ancient scenes like this, around the same fires that hardened the spears and cooked the meat of our ancestors, fires that kept the wolves away. They chewed the fat, told stories and planned the next day's adventures.
In addition to stimulating conversation, some anthropologists believe cooking food facilitated human brain development by increasing the efficiency with which calories are extracted from food. Because cooking produces soft, energy-rich foods, fewer calories are spent on digestion, leaving a higher margin of caloric recovery. This supposedly allowed our brains—the most energy-intensive organ we have—to grow.
As we lingered in our joyous collective afterglow, I sat there chewing the fat with the mochileros , gnawing on a bone with an attached glob of fatty material.
Though fire was the original stove, today's cooks have largely left it behind. With the loss of fire, we've also lost touch with its feelings and flavors. But fire remains available and at our service, a genie in a bottle that can be conjured anywhere, anytime. And when we do, the experience of tending hot coals takes us to an archetypal place of smoke and ash—which, by the way, we're now told are carcinogenic.
In his cookbook Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way, Argentine chef Francis Mallmann writes: "I adore dissonance in food—two tastes fighting each other. It wakes up your palate and surprises you. ... The right amount of burning or charring can be delicious and seductive: a burnt tomato, for example, has a dark crust bordering on bitter, while the inside is soft and gentle in texture and taste."
Applying the right amounts of smoke and fire to your food is a delicate act, and it’s easy to overdo. You want these harsh flavors to be team players and not take over.
Some woods burn hot and quick, some have sweet smoke, and some throw a lot of sparks. Hardwoods are generally better for cooking than soft woods. Wood from fruit trees is a safe bet, although chokecherry wood has bitter smoke. Cherry, on the other hand, is one of the best—burning hot without too much flame and producing a sweet smoke. Apple is right up there with cherry. Hickory, alder and mesquite are good, common options. Whichever wood you use, it must be fully dry and cut into manageable chunks.
One common rookie maneuver is to start cooking before the fire completely burns down to coals. This exposes your food to licking flames that can char the food and make the smoke flavors too strong.
Start the wood fire about an hour before you want to cook—any fire pit or charcoal grill will do. Spread the coals evenly under your grill grate and wait for them to develop a layer of white ash.
Your steak should be about an inch and a half thick, at room temperature, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Some meat cooks love their marinades. But I say if you have good meat, you should be able to taste it. If anything, I'll serve my simply cooked meat with a sauce. Lately I've been into chimichurri, an Argentine garlic-and-herb vinaigrette.
Chimichurri is best prepared a day ahead so the flavors can develop. It will continue to age nicely for a few days in the fridge. Applied to fire-cooked meat, the spicy, oily, acidic fragrance of the chimichurri interacts with the lightly charred, crispy, smoky exterior of the meat to create the kind of harmonic dissonance that would make Mallmann cry.
To make chimichurri, dissolve one tablespoon of coarse salt into a cup of water. Chop a head of garlic, a cup of fresh parsley and 1/4 cup fresh or dried oregano (or marjoram), and add it all to a blender. Blend, adding 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and then 1/2 cup olive oil. Finally, blend in the salt water. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and keep it in the refrigerator.
When your coals have burned down and you're ready to cook, make sure the grill grate is clean, and oil it with a piece of fat or an oil-soaked paper towel. You should be able to hold your hand at grill level—a distance of two to four inches from the coals—for about two seconds before the heat forces it away. The meat should sizzle when it hits the metal.
After five minutes, lift the steak and rotate 90 degrees—this prevents over-charring. After four more minutes, turn the steak over and repeat the process, turning 90 degrees after five minutes. Then it's two minutes to medium rare.
And it’s even better than a burned tomato.